Sunday, September 06, 2015

Danes and Swedes, Drinking and Cycling

Copenhagen cyclists stop for lights
I spent a few days working in Copenhagen (Denmark) this last week and had the opportunity to get a slightly better grip on the Danes and their differences with the Swedes.  I asked a few Danes what they thought the main differences were and the number one answer I got was that the Swedes like to find consensus on everything while the Danes aren't that focused on getting everyone to agree on everything all the time.  Still, the Danes, like the Swedes, aren't into hierarchy that much either.  One lady I spoke with said that decision-making in organizations comes from the bottom up and that supervisors are there basically to function as mentors.

Upon arrival in Copenhagen the first thing I noticed again is how many people are bicycling around the city.  The second thing I noticed was that most of them obeyed the traffic regulations, stopping for red lights, etc.  In Stockholm very few cyclists give a hoot about red lights and other traffic regulations.  I'd be curious to know why the big difference?

Shop hours in Copenhagen are no more generous than in Stockholm.  Most stores close at 5 or 6 pm and about the only thing to do at night is eat or drink.  And drink the Danes do.  On Friday at 5 pm large numbers of Danes were already on the street drinking and a number were noticeably drunk. A look at the OECD stats show that Danes rank 11th in the world for alcohol consumption (10.6 liters per capita), far ahead of Americans at 22nd (8.6 liters) and the Swedes at 26th (7.4 liters).  But if we look at WHO data on death rate per 100,000 we see that the Danes rank 6th right behind Russia and Ukraine.  The Swedes are way back at 30th and the United States at 39th.

It should be noted however that alcohol sales in Sweden are a monopoly of the state, heavily taxed and with limited sales hours.  In contrast, alcohol is sold in grocery stores in Denmark.  Leaving soused Copenhagen behind we traveled the five hours back to relatively sober Stockholm by rail in the rain, glad to be headed home.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Back in Copenhagen

It was great to be back in Copenhagen last weekend after around 15 years.  The last time I was here I brought a governor on a trade mission.  Walking around the city this time I stumbled upon familiar sights that I hadn't thought about in those years.  One place we did visit that I had thought about was Tivoli Gardens - the world's oldest amusement park - right in the center of the city.  I returned to Tivoli at just the right time, dusk, when all the lights are turned on but the sky is still dark blue.  This time the park was decorated for Halloween and pumpkins were everywhere. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Literary Perspective

When I travel I like to take along an old book about the places I'm passing through. This 1930 book by Harry Franck, the quintessential American vagabond, is proving to be one of my favorites. Comparing his account of the Scandinavia of 85 years ago to what I'm seeing now from my train window gives me a perspective I couldn't otherwise enjoy.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Hold the Handrails

I like almost everything about Japan but one aspect that drives me crazy is the pervasive minding of everyone's safety and the many unnecessary rules. Here you see a small contingent of the ten Roppongi Hills staff deployed today to remind everyone to hold the handrails on the escalator. What you don't hear in the photo are the shrill shouted directions to hold the handrails. Earlier in the day I had been asked to take my little backpack off and carry it in a museum, put my hat in a locker least it blow off my head while on a scenic viewpoint, and put my camera in my backpack least I fail to resist the temptation to take a photo of some art. And then there are the nonstop announcements in the subways to mind the doors, stand behind the yellow line, turn your phone off, etc etc. Honestly, the Japanese go overboard in this respect.

Monday, November 11, 2013

A day trip 350 meters into the sky

Since today is Veterans' Day in the US it was a holiday for me.  I thought all the Japanese would be working and so it would be a great day to go to Skytree Tower in Tokyo, one of the busiest tourist attractions in Japan.  Apparently, all Japanese (and quite a few Chinese) get Veterans' Day off too because they were ALL at Tokyo Tower.  We went to where we thought tickets were sold but they gave us a piece of paper that said we now had the right to come back two hours later to get in line to purchase a ticket.

Rather than spend time in the shopping hell of Tobu's Skytree complex we walked to Kameido Tenjin (Shrine) to see the Drum Bridge - an arched wooden bridge very famous in Japanese paintings.  On Friday I had bought a woodblock print of this very bridge and wanted to see it for myself.  While the bridge pictured in my woodblock print was burned up in the bombings of 1945 the reconstruction is nearly the same - except with steps.  I'd like to come back to this shrine when the wisteria bloom.

Back at Skytree we got in line for the 30-minute wait to buy $20 tickets for the 350 meter level and then waited another 20 minutes for the perfunctory security check and the elevators.  Finally at the top we were disappointed to realize it turned into a hazy (or polluted) day with barely enough clarity to see downtown Tokyo much less Mt. Fuji.  Nevertheless, we made the most of it and enjoyed the views for about 40 minutes before heading down and into the Hanzomon Line subway for the trip back to Akasaka.  Was it worth $20 per person and 4 hours?  Not really - but if it's on your bucket list, like it was mine, you gotta do it.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Sombrero Galaxy and my iPod

Perspective - On all of my computers and mobile devices I keep photos of galaxies as the screensavers.  This is so I can try to keep little bothers and even big problems in perspective.  This comes in particularly handy when dealing with the myriad computer problems that modern life entails.  When I'm puzzling over why my iTunes won't connect with my iPod this time it helps to take a look at the Sombrero Galaxy photo on my desktop to remind myself that in the big scheme of things - this really isn't a big deal.

Monday, April 08, 2013



I've always experienced intense connections to things and places.  I assume everyone feels these connections or attachments.  A rock, a plant, a place, a view - I'm not sure why but certain things, not all, evoke an emotion that I never could quite put my finger on.  In each city I have lived in there were certain sweet spots I stumbled upon that left me with a deep sense of satisfaction - a feeling that would soak into my mind without my being particularly aware of it.  But when I found those spots there was no mistaking it.  These were My Spots.  It's the same with certain rocks I will come across on a beach or a mountain or in a river.  As soon as I see it I recognize it as the rock.  I have a collection of them from all over the world.  It wasn't until recently that I discovered that the Japanese have a word, or words, for the feelings I experienced.  They call it mono no aware.

Mono no aware (mono-no-a-whar-ee) literally means
  • things (mono)
  • of (no)
  • emotion (aware)
 Mono no aware is sometimes translated as "sensibility" and the awareness of and responsiveness toward something.  To the Japanese it often means acceptance of the inherent sadness of life or the feelings generated by ephemeral beauty.  Westerners may describe this as wistfulness.  I think of it as being connected to nature and all things. The cherry blossoms are the perfect symbol of mono no aware.  After a long winter they burst into radiant beauty for a short life followed by a quick demise.  Isn't all beauty transitory?  Even our sun will burn out in a few billion years!  But isn't it beautiful?

After discovering the concept of mono no aware I picked up a novel by Todd Shimoda called "Oh!: A mystery of mono no aware".  By means of an entertaining and thought-provoking novel Shimoda, a Japanese-American tells the story of a young Japanese-American's discovery of the concept while living in Japan for a few months.  It's a beautifully produced book with art by Linda Shimoda, Todd's wife.

Most Japanese today don't know what mono no aware is.  The idea was introduced in literary circles in the 17th century but has largely disappeared in modern Japan.  Today's Japanese are subjected to non-stop stimuli from commercial messages, media, games and mobile phones.  They are profoundly desensitized.  Most walk around staring at smart phone screens, ignoring the people around them, completely absorbed by text messages, games or anime.   But I know what it is and will be exploring it more deeply.