Energy impressions of Japan

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11400379099533.jpg’, ‘Photo by Sonia Vogl’, ‘At 333 meters, Tokyo Tower is 13 meters taller than its model, the Eiffel Tower of Paris, and the world's tallest self-supporting steel tower. It was completed in 1958 as a symbol for Japan's rebirth as a major economic power, and serves as a television and radio broadcast antenna and tourist attraction. (Text courtesy of’);

A former student requested our presence at her wedding. As a result, we spent last week in Japan.

We took a nonstop flight from Chicago to Tokyo. The sky was clear, so we enjoyed the view of the landscape below including hundreds of miles of snow-capped mountains of Alberta, British Columbia and Alaska. It was reassuring to view a broad expanse of landscape free of human intrusions.

After we landed, the groom met and escorted us on a bus trip to our hotel. Eventually, we became part of Japan’s famous bumper-to-bumper traffic jams crawling along multilane, two-and three-tiered expressways. We had tickets for an international hydrogen expo in Tokyo, but arrived too late to attend.

Aware that Japan is twice as energy efficient as the U.S., we gathered our own energy impressions of Japan. We noticed few office buildings had lights on in the evening. Randomly scattered lights helped call attention to each building’s presence. Solar panels were visible on a small portion of a large roof.

We took a one-day guided tour of Tokyo. From the Tokyo Tower, we saw south-facing architectural features designed to accept solar heat, a few solar hot water systems and scattered solar electric installations. But overall, no spectacular solar application downtown caught our eye.

A subsequent two-day tour took us to Mt. Fuji and Kyoto. About two dozen solar hot water systems were mounted on roofs of homes along the route. We also saw a half dozen small solar electric systems. One surprise was a pole-mounted blade wind generator on the roof of a concrete building. The blades were turning, but we have no knowledge of the generator’s performance or its impact on the roof.

U.S. wind energy experts do not recommend such applications, claiming they would produce horrendous noise levels within the building and eventually weaken the roof.

We had two evening rides on bullet trains, which reach speeds approaching 180 mph, between Kyoto and Tokyo. They are clean, the seats large and comfortable, and the ride is smooth with no sensation of high-speed travel. Again, most buildings’ lights were off and street lights appeared far more subdued than in an American city.

Reports suggest similar trains traveling up to 300-mile routes between major cities such as Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis would be a cost-effective, popular, extremely efficient mode of transportation to replace inefficient short-distance air travel.

While two of the hotels in which we stayed were spacious and well lit, another had low ceilings, low narrow doorways and small rooms designed to accommodate Japanese guests. The room was lit by two separate 20-watt ceiling-mounted bulbs. To turn on a room lamp and electrical service for a small bathroom, the door entry card was slipped into a receptacle that served as a light switch. When the card was removed, electrical service was shut off. When guests left the room with their entry card, only the two 20-watt bulbs remained lit.

We spent a few hours in Matsumoto, a city surrounded by mountains and the family home of the bride. The home was cold and did not appear to be centrally heated despite an outdoor temperature of about 40 degrees F. A small portable electrical heater warmed the room as we sat enjoying tea and a view of the bride’s doll collection. The bathroom was heated as well, but we were unsure whether this was customary or because we were present.

Our hosts took us to a traditional Japanese restaurant in which an electric space heater and kerosene heater minimized the chill in our eating room. We were struck by the diversity of servings and the small size of each: a small glass of wine, a small bowl of soup, a small serving of appetizers,

and a main dish with rice. The food was served in a sequence to allow diners to experience the unique flavor and texture of each item. At the end of the meal, we felt satisfied but not overstuffed.

Whether the origin of this eating tradition was economics or health driven, we could see the obvious healthy implications stemming from the many trim people filling the country. With average life spans of 75 years for men and 78 years for women, the diet has some obvious health advantages. Given the energy intensity of our food system and our tendency to eat in excess, there are many opportunities in American culture to save energy through eating less and eating lower off the food chain.

As we left the restaurant, the sky was filled with the largest snowflakes we have ever seen. They melted as they landed on roofs and grounds.

From the Feb. 15-21, 2006, issue

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