Nuclear Power….and Earth!

For thousands of years, humanity has been using different resources for food, energy, and all that it needs from Earth. The brain of humans has been developing over long periods of time, trying to find better resources for their increasing, unstoppable needs as their populations kept increasing. In the last two centuries, the consumption of the energy resources was incredible, exceeding the Earth’s ability to renew these resources.

Several advanced countries use the magnificently powerful, recently found nuclear energy generators to produce some of their populations’ needs of energy. Many scientists and researchers consider nuclear power to be a good substitute to the other shrinking energy resources like black gold and charcoal.
Claiming to be working safely and efficiently, the Japanese government had over fifty functioning nuclear reactors at one point, producing less than 20% of the energy use in Japan. Nonetheless, the Fukushima accident in 2011 required more caution and rethinking about nuclear energy production in Japan. As a result of that accident, more than 95% of nuclear generators in Japan have been shut.

On the other hand, some voices have been trying to reach light in this continually developing world, asking governments to stop generating nuclear energy. Dr. Hiroaki Koide, a research associate at the Research Reactor Institute of Kyoto University, is one of some Japanese scientists who work on raising awareness regarding the inevitable hazards of nuclear energy. In 1970, Dr. Koide realized that the severe threats associated with generating nuclear energy cannot be contained. During a special meeting with him, he explained to us that no method to efficiently dispose nuclear waste has been found yet even in the most technologically advanced countries. For example, digging a very deep hall in the South Pole or in land to hide nuclear waste does not prevent it from affecting the Earth and causing damage to the environment. This being the case, the future of humanity, the future of our planet, is endangered.

His talk reminded me a lot of the information presented in the movie “HOME,” which emphasizes the unique equilibrium between our planet and the multitude of organisms that dwell on it, including us, humans. This outstanding movie is made available and free onYoutube to raise awareness and increase knowledge among people to respect and appreciate this home, the Earth.
I strongly recommend watching the movie, which is available in more than one language.

 

Sustainable Home

 

On January 9th, we visited Mr. Takayuki Mori at his house in Kyoto.  Mr Mori is a extraordinary ecologist. He had a vision for sustainable living in the modern society, and he demonstrated this vision through his self-designed home. At the first glance, his house appeared to be simple, but every parts of the house were meticulously thought out and designed to serve a different purpose. For example, the entrance to the house is through the basement, which applied geothermal well principle to the design allowing the house to maintain constant temperature all year round.

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A trail in Mr. Mori garden

The most noticeable part of his house was his garden. His garden had more than 200 species of plants. Even the garden was well thought out and implemented. At the front of the garden, there were a variety of vegetables that can be harvested and consume. One the trail around the garden, there were small stepping stones intentionally placed in the stone staircase that would come in handy in the future when taking big steps might be a challenge for Mr. Mori.

I admired Mr. Mori’s effort in pursuing his dream of creating a sustainable home. From visiting Mr. Mori’s house, I gained great appreciation for the environment. I hope to incorporate what I have from Mr. Mori in my future career to promote sustainable living lifestyle.

 

Of Personal Bubbles and Pruned Bushes

A few days before I left, my brother warned me to leave behind my personal bubble, because I wouldn’t need it in Japan.  Little did I know how right he was.

Japan is cramped.  Between people being compacted into trains during rush hour to the capsule hotels to the narrow streets, it is very tight, and you don’t always have elbow room.  When we traveled out towards Kyoto, I realized that there were fields being preserved for farmland, explaining why the people in less urban areas didn’t spread out more.

However, what really surprised me was how efficiently every single space was used.  Some restaurants split their business between two floors, with one floor being the dining room, and the other floor being the kitchen, register, and waiting area.  One of the restaurants that we went to even placed their cooking area in the middle of the room, surrounded by counters where the customers sat.  And, honestly, after sharing a small room with Sasha, we realized we didn’t really need that much space to begin with.

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Because we were in many urban areas, we didn’t get much opportunity to see any parks.  The greenery that we saw was mainly confined to areas like Kinkaku-Ji.  From what we saw when we were out there, people would visit simply to enjoy the nature.  However, at the same time, this was very manufactured nature. People ensured that the trees were perfectly trimmed that no flowers were out of place on the bushes.  The nature that we experienced was very much like a garden.  Beautiful, but planned.

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Aightowa-An Inspiration in Living Sustainably

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Welcome to Aightowa

            Our first full day in Kyoto we took a trip to visit Professor Armstrong’s host parents from her time as a student in the city.  The visit to Aightowa (the name of their property) turned out to be my favorite event of our tour of Japan.  Morisan Sensei has spent over fifty years creating a sustainable lifestyle that I found truly inspiring, and has further developed theories to apply his philosophies to communities and businesses.  His wife is a master doll artist and not only sells some of the finest dolls in Japan, but runs classes and doll making groups.  Between the incredible stories this couple had to share, the beautiful property they lived on, and the stunning landscape surrounding us, I would venture so far as to say this day changed my life.

I love being in the mountains. A lot.

I love being in the mountains. A lot.

            I was first struck by the beauty of where we were on the walk from the train station to Aightowa.  Getting off the train was the first time I felt like we were actually in the mountains, and immediately I felt at home. Ahead, the earth sprawled majestically skyward, while behind us the valley revealed terraces of rooftops extending toward more mountains in the hazy distance.  The neighborhood we were passing through was a bit more suburban then the densely packed concrete and neon jungles we had previously spent much our time in, and I found myself highly appreciative of the more traditional architecture and more frequent appearances of nature. Along the way, we ventured through a small bamboo forest, and I found myself completely shocked at how tall the stalks grew!

I love being in forests. A lot.  I now know that bamboo forests are no exception

I love being in forests. A lot. I now know that bamboo forests are no exception.

            When we arrived at Aightowa I instantly felt like this was somewhere I belonged.  The seamless integration of nature with the living space was exactly what I had envisioned when I thought about sustainability in Japan and was inspired to apply for this trip.  As Morisan Sensei described to us his vision and how his property reflected that vision, I was constantly reminded of the life my Mom created for my sisters and I at home and became increasingly convinced that this was the lifestyle I wanted to return to.  The general idea is that one produces as much as possible to meet his or her own needs.  Morisan Sensei was the first Japanese citizen to purchase solar panels for his own personal use nineteen years ago (an act that first brought him into the spotlight as a pioneer of sustainability).  A moderately sized, self-tended garden provides a significant amount of the food consumed at Aightowa, some of the plants are used to shelter the car port, and other deciduous trees are used to provide shade in the summer and sunlight in the winter.  Dead or trimmed logs are used in the fungal garden or as seats, multiple compost piles allow for disposal of all wastes effectively.  Everything has a purpose.  The woodstove provides heat for the house as well as cooking, although it does not live up to Mother’s six stove top woodstove.  I wish I could list all the incredible innovations Morisan Sensei had come up with to create and reuse as many of his own resources as possible, but it would take hours (our own tour took nearly two hours, and that was with visual aids)!

A portion of the vegetables grown at Aightowa.

A portion of the vegetables grown at Aightowa.

            What I can do is relay some of the philosophy Morisan Sensei shared with us as we gathered in the house.  The key to sustainable living, he claimed, is combining older modes of living as generalists and in strong communities with modern technology.  I have always envisioned Japan as the epicenter of such blending of ancient tradition with modernization, hence my interest in traveling there, so I was taken aback to learn that Morisan Sensei is unique among the Japanese for having such views.  To demonstrate how his style of sustainable living makes sense, Morisan Sensei divided human history into three ages: Primitive, Agricultural, and Industrial.  He had a lot to say about each of these ages, but the takeaway point was that in the industrial age we had developed the technology for mass production, but no longer held regard for the finite resources provided to us by the earth that we had in earlier ages.  He posited that if we re-attained an appreciation for and cognizance of these limited resources, we could combine that with modern technology to enter a fourth age, which he dubbed the Age of Awareness.

The Shinto religion worships the myriad Gods that exist throughout the natural world

The Shinto religion worships the myriad Gods that exist throughout the natural world

            The way Morisan Sensei proposed this society shift should take place is what really changed my outlook on life.  Simply put, he suggested that if we began to draw our happiness from what we create, rather than what we consume, we can reach the age of awareness.  This seemingly simple idea seemed to sum up a philosophy I have been trying to form for years, but was unable to put into words; our standard of living has far exceeded what we need to be comfortable and happy, but we remain dissatisfied because of our need to consume more.  Of course, such a shift in perception in impeded by layers of media portrayals and corporate motivations plastered on so thick it is hard to see the other side, but I believe it can be done.  I can look up to my mom, and the happiness she draws from her small farm, even when it requires five hours of her attention after a nine hour workday.  I can take ideas and inspiration from Morisan Sensei and his wife, who use profits from selling dolls (some of which go for upward of $10,000!) to become more sustainable, because it is artistry and self-reliance that make them happy. I can make changes to my own life and share it with others and start making these societal changes.

Some Beuatiful dolls wave hello or farewell as you enter or leave Aightowa

Some Beuatiful dolls wave hello or farewell as you enter or leave Aightowa

            Ok, so maybe I am being a bit idyllic, but these ideas really gel with my life philosophies, and have helped me to solidify some of my beliefs, and I really do intend to start living by some of them.  I have already reached out to my friends Tara and Craig about their work with eating healthier and more sustainably (you can go read their awesome blog The College Greens).  I probably won’t go vegan as they have, but I can certainly start finding foods grown locally and by companies not driven by profit to the cost of the future (Craig and Tara, hold me to this).  Anyway, I wish I could convey everything I learned in my five or so hours at Aightowa, but I hope I was able to convey how cool this lifestyle is and how it has influenced me in this (somewhat) short space!

Looking down the mountain from Aightowa provides a host of stunning views!

Looking down the mountain from Aightowa provides a host of stunning views!

“Americans” in Japan

 

On Thursday we visited Lake Biwa in the Shiga Prefecture – an ancient lake that is estimated 1 million years old that is also the largest lake in all of Japan.  We were fortunate enough to have Dr. Katsuki Nakal, a research biologist and curator as a guide thru the tour.

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Lake Biwa is home to around 1700 species of plants and animals.  Around 50% of the animals in Lake Biwa and its surrounding tributaries are endemic species – meaning that they are unique to this region.  Endemic species are greatly important in terms of biodiversity because they are often not found anywhere else in the world.

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Unfortunately 83% of the endemic species in Lake Biwa are endangered.  This is in large part due to invasive species. Invasive species are species that are naturally found in an ecosystem that have a survival benefit over native species (usually due to lack of natural predators).  Two such species that are wreaking havoc in Lake Biwa are largemouth bass and bluegill sunfish – both hailing from America. In the 1980s there was a large increase in largemouth bass populations and a subsequent decrease in littoral (close to shore) fish populations.  The 1990’s saw a decrease in largemouth bass populations but an increase in bluegill sunfish populations.

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The introduction of these foreign species is disrupting the natural ecosystem of Lake Biwa and in turn threatening the existence of endemic species of the area.  Government agencies from both the national and prefectural level have implemented programs and laws to protect and preserve the threatened species of Lake Biwa.  One program encourages both commercial and recreational anglers to catch and NOT release any largemouth bass or bluegill sunfish, offering a bounty for capture.  While this program seems to be helping and is a good short-term response, it is not a sustainable solution.  The bounty is directly paid for by taxpayers and is not feasible as a long-term program.  Hopefully the financial incentive will bring the invasive species populations to a manageable level and the program can eventually be phased out saving both money and endemic species!

Sustainability

Does ability to fluently speak a language mean that you will not have any troubles and misunderstandings communicating with people from a culture where this language is native? Neither of us can really speak Japanese yet, but even without knowing Japanese perfectly, we clearly understand now that the answer is no.

Cultural Sustainability

I have heard about specifics in Japanese culture several times, but never had a clear idea of how exactly all this looks like. It is hard to say what is more important in this country – to know the language on an appropriate level, so that you can say what you want to say and understand what people tell you, or to be aware of cultural peculiarities, social norms, and unspoken rules. Such peculiarities are very important in every culture, but I believe that in Japanese culture they have their own, special place, and people of all ages value them a lot. We, foreigners, can be forgiven for not knowing and thus unconsciously violating them from time to time. However, the impression that we make in such situations is not the best one. But Japanese people are really delicate and tactful, so they may never tell you that you are doing something wrong. Japanese people themselves, on the other hand, can never be forgiven for violating the rules and norms that they are all supposed to know.

All this may sound too complicated and completely unnecessary, and yet it is not so at all. I personally see some kind of charm and specialty in this subtlety of communication. This shows that Japanese people have brought their own traditions and customs through ages without being completely influenced by other cultures. They have not lost their mentality, which I find worthy of great respect.

Cultural Sustainability

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Language Sustainability

But mentality is not the only thing that Japanese people have been keeping for ages. I find Japanese language magnificent as well. There is no surprise that it is difficult to learn for non-native speakers, but I am certain that it is worth learning. Though kanji characters may sometimes seem complicated, if you look at them closer, they all make perfect sense. Besides, the characters are not meant to be written in a hurry, and that is why each of them carry special atmosphere of calmness and concentration in every stroke. Exceptions are common in Japanese language, the amount of characters is enormous, but all this is an essential part of the whole Japanese culture, and it cannot be replaced by any other type of language.

We talked to a lot of people during our trip, and most of them did not know English, which is known as an international language. It may be seen as an inconvenience in communication, but for me it is clear evidence that Japanese people value their language very much and do not want to change it for any other, even if it could open lots of new opportunities to them. It is an illustration of self-sufficiency, rather than estrangement.

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Environmental Sustainability

The self-sufficiency which I mentioned above can also be seen in a way how environmental resources are used in Japan. Land of the Rising Sun is small, especially considering such big population, and the situation with resources can be tough. But our visit to Takayuki Mori’s environmental friendly house left a deep impression on me – not only because it was very cold in it (which is not surprising, as Mori-san does not waste the energy when it is not necessary), but mostly because it showed that people in Japan know how to efficiently use what they have and how to live in harmony with the environment that surrounds them. Using solar panels, reusing, recycling, and consuming only the amount of energy that they need without wasting it for nothing – everything mentioned is clear evidence of wise usage of resources that Japan has got.

A lot of places that we visited, both in big cities and in the countryside, were surrounded by strong green trees, crystal clear water of lakes and rivers, and were full of fresh air. On the other hand, everything is made for people’s lives to be convenient. The recycling system is greatly developed, and no garbage can be seen on the streets. Even when me took a local train (which I cannot call a subway train as it is not underground), we could see beautiful mountains most of the time, which fascinated me a lot. People and nature are neighbors in Japan. They are friends, not a consumer and a prey, and not rivals.

Golden Temple

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Nuclear Sustainability

Another thing that I found surprising was a lecture on nuclear sustainability in Japan given to us by Professor Hiroaki Koide. I am strong in neither biology nor chemistry, so there were things that I did not completely understand, but I got the main point from the very beginning: most of what I had thought about nuclear power is not true at all.

First of all, nuclear power is not as sustainable as it is believed to be. It uses uranium, and we do not have a large amount of it left, so soon enough people will run out of it. Second, nuclear power does not prevent global warming; rather, it makes it worse by heating the oceans and the whole atmosphere. So this is just another myth about the benefits of nuclear energy, which is not actually true. Also, the harm caused by radioactive waste produced by nuclear power plants is enormous. And the worst thing about it is, there is no safe way to dispose it.
All this, along with most people’s unawareness of what the nuclear power plants really are, is not just a problem that needs solution. It is a disaster that can by no means be ignored, but yet it often is. And this is really frightening.
I, however, believe that the way out of this situation can and will be found soon. During these eight days, I saw myself that Japanese people care a lot about environment of their country, and nowadays they tend to use more and more environmentally friendly resources and products, which shows their deep concern in what is happening in their country. This not only gives me hope, but also assures me that the solution will be found soon.

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In conclusion, I can tell one thing: after visiting Japan myself I realized that I had had no idea what this country is. And this is normal, I guess, as I barely can imagine the whole country with its people, nature, and language by only reading my textbook and searching information on the Internet. After all, it is better to see something once than to hear about it hundred times, right?
But actually, there is one more thing that I know for sure: I will definitely visit Japan again, when I have an opportunity to do it. Eight days are enough to have some adventures and to form an idea about the culture and current state of Japan, but it is definitely not enough to explore this fascinating country.

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More Nuclear Energy Problems – January 11, 2013

In the shinkansen, a news banner at the front of the train car said that a crack was found in the nuclear reactor of one the 54 nuclear energy facilities in Japan. Fortunately, this reactor had already been shut down as of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, but was one of the facilities that officials were considering to reopen. Had it been reopened, the results could have been really bad.

Usually a mishap in some sort of non-nuclear power plant results efficiency loss or complete loss of power generation, not devastation of the surrounding area for generations to come. The Fukushima disaster will negatively affect many people for generations, whether it is medically, economically, or mentally.

Radiation has played a negative role in modern Japanese history for far too long. We need to do all that is within our control to reduce unnatural radiation risk and exposure; getting rid of the nuclear facilities will accomplish this.

A sign seen in the Fukushima train station. The sign reads that your visit to Fukushima is helping the prefecture regain its status. The cute bunny is thanking us.

A sign seen in the Fukushima train station. The sign reads that your visit to Fukushima is helping the prefecture regain its status. The cute bunny is thanking us.

I Like Turtles – January 7, 2013

Today at the temple, there were peaceful pools of water filled with koi and carp-like fish. It was serene and beautiful. But then, I saw a turtle. Back at school, I do research on turtle locomotion and turtle shell mechanical properties, so I naturally I am a freak for anything related to turtles. I noticed something peculiar about this turtle, though. It had red markings on its head. In fact, it was a red-eared slider.

Red-eared sliders, an invasive species of turtle. Spot all three turtles in the picture for a prize!

Red-eared sliders, an invasive species of turtle. Spot all three turtles in the picture for a prize!

Red-eared sliders are not native to Japan, and I figured out later that they were an invasive species in many parts of the world, Japan included. After I saw one, I saw another, and another… Maybe this peaceful garden was not as ecologically peaceful as one may think.

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Turtle species native to Japan, seen in the Lake Biwa aquarium. They are being bums and sitting by the heat lamp.