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Monday, February 27, 2006

Japanese parents mobilize against crime

防犯ボランティアが急増

There have been a number of horrifying crimes against children over the past few years in Japan, the latest taking place in Nara only a week ago when a mother killed two of her own children's classmates.

Here is an article (translated by JapanVistor) from today's Yomiuri Online about the nationwide response to this worrying trend.

"Protecting children from crime: the rapid increase of crime prevention volunteers.

Local anti-crime activities are presently being carried out by 19, 515 ‘Crime Prevention Volunteer Groups’ throughout Japan, the Police Department announced today as the result of a survey – an increase of 2.4 times last year’s number.

Since the survey began two years ago, the number has increased 6.4 times, due in part to the succession of brutal crimes targeting children. There is also a trend towards an increase in the number of days the groups are active, and independent crime prevention initiatives by citizens are spreading rapidly.

There were 3,056 such groups in 2003, 8,079 in 2004 – a rate of increase that more than doubles every year. 10,366 of the groups, or 53% of them, are made up of local neighborhood groups and local neighborhood councils.

2,762, or 14%, of the groups are made up of children’s parents and guardians: an increase of 4.2 times over last year’s figure of 651. It is apparent that parents and guardians are very actively taking part in these activities in response to the danger they feel their children are in.

The total number of persons taking part in these activities now numbers 1,194,011, a 2.3 times increase over last year.

The average number of days each group was active two years ago was “one day a month”: the figure given by 34% of the groups, whereas 6% replied ‘every day’. However, last year, groups that answered ‘3 or 4 days a month’ and ’20 to 29 days month’ made up the largest proportion with 20% each, with those replying‘every day’at 9%。

81% of the groups carry out their crime prevention patrolling on foot, and 66% carry out their activities for the protection and guidance of children on streets children commute to school on."

(http://www.yomiuri.co.jp/national/news/20060227i111.htm)

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Gay Tokyo Hip-Hop

東京 ヒップホップ

A friend of mine's sister is a dancer. She was dancing at a club in Shibuya last night. I had been invited a couple of times in the past to go and see her, but had never been able to make it. So I really made a point of getting there last night.

Kenji and I met up about 11pm last night and went to an Italian-style place in Shinjuku called Fungo Dining - just across from west side of Shinjuku Central Park. It was excellent food and very friendly service. His sister's act started at 3.15am, so we had a couple of hours to fill in. We headed to Advocates, and then Arty Farty, in Shinjuku Ni-chome for a few drinks. The streets of Tokyo seemed a bit empty today so we weren't expecting things to be that busy indoors. However, Arty Farty was packed and jumping. We were both a bit stuffed though, so just lounged on the sofas at the back of the club and took it easy. There were a bunch of South American guys right in front of us. They know how to party! So we were happy just to watch and absorb the vibes.

We left about 2.30am, got a taxi to Shibuya, and entered the club. I think it was called Ruido. It definitely had a 'Rui' in there somewhere. It, too, was packed, but with problem adolescents: lots of swagger and ultra cool and not much hair being let down at all. We had to watch a couple of clowns pretend to 'rap'. It was the ultimate in cheesy pop rap - 'street' it was not. They jerkily jumped around, adjusting their collars, and yelling utter nonsense that not even Kenji could get the hang of. It was relieved a little by a rapper from Kobe who came on, and he definitely had something of a rap presence.

At last the rap session was declared over, and the dance session began. Kenji's sister and her dance partner came on. They were superb: sexy, engaging, had rhythm, and beautifully synchronized. Some very naughty moves too. 10 out of 10.

The rest of the dancers (the dance session went on and on - and on) were synchronized and generally technically good, but were too shy or self-obsessed, or both, to really make any real contact with the audience. It was as if they hadn't really overcome the technicalities to get on with the job of really entertaining. In other words, it wasn't by any means gripping.

The crowd was asked to vote on who had been the best. The only people who bothered to clap and cheer were actual friends of the dancers. Everyone else just stared dumbly. Therefore, with only Kenji and I and one or two other of his sister's friends, we couldn't really create a big enought commotion between us to register much of a vote. It was a perfect case of quantity over quality.

We left about 5am, hugs all round for the sister and her friend. Kenji caught a cab home (he has to work today!) and I got the Yamanote line to Shinjuku and walked home from there.

Japanese Goods - GoodsFromJapan.com

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

At the Post Office: interest rates in Japan

金利

Inside Shinjuku Central Post Office, Tokyo.I was at the post office to pay a slightly overdue tax bill. I took a number from the ticket dispenser and waited for about twenty minutes for my number to be called up. While I sat there waiting, a Post Office Savings Bank promotional screen further down the counter caught my eye. It was advertising the interest rates on offer for those with a bit of money to invest in Post Office time deposits.

Have a look at the photos below. Yes, nothing above 1%! The green screen is advertising savings for the purpose of buying a house. If you have a loan from the post office the amazing rates in the left-hand column apply. If you don’t you have to make do with the rates on the right. The black screen is advertising fixed time deposits, the most generous being 0.4% for between 2 and 3 years. I mean who do they think they are? The Salvation Army? World Vision?

House-building savings rates.
Time deposit interest rates.



I've been reading a book by one of Japan’s most prominent socio-economic commentators, the incredibly prolific Kenichi Ohmae, called ‘The Impact of the Rising Lower-Middle Class in Japan’ in which, among a host of other things, he points out the out-of-touch thinking of Japan’s financial institutions as part of the reason for Japan’s current decline.

Part of the reason why interest rates are low is the classic economic textbook reason that there is too much money around. The reason that there is too much money around is that the government is pumping money into the economy to battle what it calls 'deflation'. What the government doesn't realize, says Ohmae, is that what is happening is not so much simple deflation as a radical transformation of the Japanese economy. This transformation consists of a minority of rich people getting richer, and a majority of ordinary people getting slightly poorer, creating a new class that Ohmae labels the 'lower middle class' which, not having as much money as before, is not spending as freely. The same thing happened, he says, in the United States 30 years ago, and that wave is very belatedly now hitting Japan.

But in addition to this classic economic mechanism, he says the banks (read cartels) want to remain awash in, and in control of, vast amounts of money saved by the populace without properly paying for the privilege, and do so in cahoots with Japan's bureaucrats. Here’s what he says (my translation):

Kenichi Ohmae.“The banks survive by using the people’s tax money, labeled ‘public funds’. Moreover, they are still protected by the government’s ultra-low interest rate policy. They don’t pay the saver any of the interest that they ought to pay, yet on the other hand are most exacting in taking the interest they charge on loans. And they don’t stop there, squeezing money out of the populace by involving themselves in even the ‘lifestyle loan’ business. That’s how they award themselves their high salaries, making excessive profits in cahoots with the bureaucrats in what amounts to loansharking.

Sitting fat thanks to this kind of business, how can they be expected to develop international-level competitiveness? The banking business is said to have made a recovery, but take away the patronage of the government and I can see them instantly approaching crisis point, swallowed up in the wave of borderlessness."

-"The Impact of the Rising Lower-Middle Class Population in Japan", by Kenichi Ohmae.

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Monday, February 20, 2006

Mr Kawaguchi

70歳でホームレス

As I was coming down the slope from Nakano-sakaue station to where I live. It was almost 7pm, the sky was gray, and there was still a bit of damp in the air from today's steady rain. I was greeted by a dishevelled but merry-looking old guy - in English. 'Good evening!' with a smile and a real spark in his eye. I stopped and chatted for a bit. He was old, a little stooped, knit cap, a full gray beard (with a few old bits of food in it!), really dirty old clothes, and a bag full of junk.

He knew more than just the greetings in English. He was a more than tolerable English-speaker and once he found out that I came from New Zealand he said he'd had a few connections with New Zealand in his old career as a librarian at the Japan Foundation. He had retired ten years ago at age sixty, he said. I was surprised when he said that because I can only hope I am as spry as he is at 70 (if I even make it that far). Other than that there was nothing particularly enviable about his situation. He had retired at 60, but last year - for reasons he didn't disclose - he had been made homeless and now wanders the streets of Tokyo looking for whatever he can find. He asked me if I was a Christian, to which I said no, and he explained that he was.

I gave him something to help him out. He asked if I had a namecard. I didn't have one on me, but gave him a post office Yu-Pack receipt with my name and address on it and told him to call around if he was ever in need. He introduced himself: Kawaguchi-san. I would have liked to ask him more, but it wasn't the time or place. He took the grubby old woollen glove off his hand and we shook. I wished him luck. Perhaps I'll be seeing him round.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Falsifying Accounts--Livedoor Scandal

粉飾

Takafumi Horie, the founder and former President of Internet colossus Livedoor, was arrested last month and is now spending his days in a three-tatami mat police cell without internet access. He has been accused of attempting to use false information to artificially increase the stock price of one of his subsidiary companies--i.e., of violating securities law.

Despised by the Tokyo business establishment for his win-at-all costs approach to business, Horie, 33, is now being smeared by all as “money obsessed.” (This is rich considering the source of all the pious pontificating: Japan's business and media elite - neither of which in any way sullies itself with concerns about money!) Among his most egregious sins was his attempted takeover of Fuji Television, one of the largest media groups in Japan and an establishment player that does not appreciate anyone, least of all an outsider, meddling in its affairs.

The headquarters of Livedoor are located in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo’s premier office space. Horie himself went to work in designer jeans and t-shirts, and was often seen escorting models around Tokyo.

horie-email image - The Daily Yomiuri, 19 Feb 2006His case is made all the more intriguing because of his deep ties to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), for which he ran - and lost - last fall for a seat in Parliament.
He was one of Prime Minister Koizumi's "assassins" who were dispatched to take out the old guard that opposed the PM. A recently discovered email shows just how cozy things were. According to Hisayasu Nagata, a member of the Democratic Party of Japan, an employee of Nagata received the following mail last August with instructions to make a bank transfer to the son of LDP Secretary General Tsutomu Takebe.

Dear (blacked out):

For Your Eyes Only. Urgent. Deal with this by the 31st at the latest. Better if taken care of by the morning of the 29th. Wire 30 million yen to (blacked out; the red spot in the email) X. Use the same account as before.


Take care of it under the heading “Election Consulting Fee.”

(Blacked out.) Heed the advice of Miyauchi (former Livedoor CFO; currently under arrest). I will tell (blacked out) Y, so you don’t have to worry about it.

Horie

Horie has denied making any such payment. Since his arrest, Livedoor’s stock price has plummeted 90% to 61 yen a share. If found guilty, Horie could face up to five years in prison or - if he's lucky - a fine of five million yen ($42,000).

"Email was bogus", admits Nagata

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Friday, February 17, 2006

Kobe Airport

神戸空港

Kobe Airport, named "Marine Air", opened yesterday on a reclaimed island just south of Port Island, Kobe.

Kobe Airport, Hyogo


The new airport presently has 54 flights a day to and from several cities: Kagoshima, Kumamoto, Naha (Okinawa), Nagasaki, Niigata, Sapporo, Sendai and Tokyo (Haneda).
The flights are operated by JAL, ANA and Skymark. Flights run between 7am and 9pm.

The airport can be reached by PortLiner automated train from Sannomiya (320 yen; 16 minutes), bus, car or speed boat (30 minutes) from Kansai International Airport (service to open later in 2006). Car parking fees are presently free for 1 day and 1,000 yen per day thereafter.

The massively expensive project is financed by Kobe City and was opposed by 370,000 people who signed a petition opposing the plan due to the high construction costs.

Marine Air Information

Tel: 078 304 7775
www.kairport.co.jp

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

My new camera

カメラの買い替え

View of West Shinjuku from the Kanda River.I bought a new camera yesterday. There was nothing wrong with my old one mechanically, but on vacation in Europe with my friend last month I lusted after the pure natural colors his camera produced as opposed to the rather lurid, opaque ones of mine.

So, after a bit of humming and ha-ing, I went to the local Yodobashi Camera via the ATM, spoke to a half-knowledgable shop assistant and went for a Canon PowerShotS80: ugly as sin, but packed with dazzling functions and super specs - without breaking the bank.

There are so many options that it's taken me till this evening to pluck up the courage to point it at something and click, but - there - I did it: above, the view of West Shinjuku from my balcony - an overcast evening as you can see, and, below, the physics campus of Tokyo University out at Kashiwa where I teach every Thursday.

Tokyo University Physics Dept., Kashiwa City.The Tokyo University physics campus was designed by Tadao Ando, the famous Osaka-based architect. Apparently it used to be a Japanese air force base before WW2, became an American base after the war, before being turned into the physics research campus it now is.

Anyway, I'm going to keep myself busy for the next two weeks, poring over the camera manual and trying everything out, and most of all trying to remember what everything does. Stay tuned and expect some photographic masterpieces, er, very soon.

Monday, February 13, 2006

'Black' gay night at Ageha, Tokyo.

アゲハでの「ブラック」のゲイ・ナイト
Gay night 'Black' at Ageha, Tokyo.
Friday night was the 'Black' gay night at Tokyo's biggest dedicated club venue, Ageha, AKA Studio Coast: a complex with a capacity in the thousands.

'Black' was an SM-themed night, and muscled, scantily leathered boys strutted the foyer with riding crops taking turns at leisurely lounging in chairs while being administered to with various restraints by their comrades. Risque window dressing was as far as the SM went, though. The crowd was young, sporting megawatts of muscle; but the true leather crowd was nowhere to be seen. However, if the SM was only window dressing, the risque-ness was not. Among the half dozen theme rooms was a toilet that had been transformed into a dark room, complete with a DJ spinning deep down dirty tracks, and entry with shirts off only.

Gay night 'Black' at Ageha, Tokyo. The main dancefloor conjured up the feel of New York's Roxy: more a dance plain than a mere dance floor, with islands of stages, dominated by epic space-age lighting machinery - incorporating a planet-sized mirrorball, that flashed, rotated and gently but grandly rose and lowered at intervals. The tribal-based beats were like aural fire leaping from no less than 30 stocky speaker modules positioned all around and above the floor. One module alone, incorporating three giant speakers, would be enough to quake an entire neighborhood. There was also a hard, fast and funky house room full of hot bodies jerking to the rhythm, a DJ in the upstairs champagne lounge weaving soulful disco sounds to the glam set throwing shade, a tent outside thronged with guys drinking and eating food from a few stalls that were set up there, and another, bigger tent - a marquee - playing trashy gay club house (the air, incidentally, marked by whiffs of a very distinctive kind of smoke!).

The drinks weren't cheap, but generous. The crowd was fired up and friendly. The night reached its peak after 1am and pounded, funked, grooved and wailed till beautiful blood-red sunrise. Outside I got in trouble with security for walking over to where the boundaries of the club meet the sea and, drunkenly refusing to budge, was forcibly moved - i.e. firmly but gently picked up by two stocky young men - to where I was supposed to be: a very tactile denouement to a very sensual night. Then I scored a phone number going home in the train!

Read more about gay Japan here.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Hirugami Onsen Nagano

昼神温泉、長野県

Hirugami Onsen I traveled to Hirugami Onsen in Nagano Prefecture to spend Friday night at Hirugaminomori - one of the many ryokan in the village that has grown up on the banks of the Achigawa river that runs through the hot spring resort.

From Nagoya, the journey is a pleasant 2 hour and thirty minute drive on Route 153 through Toyota City with a slight short cut on Route 39 through Korankei (香嵐渓) - an area famous for its autumn leaves in the Nagoya area.

Hirugami Onsen is also very near the Sonohara (園原) exit of the main Chuo Expressway between Nagoya and Tokyo and the trip from Nagoya should take no more than 90 minutes, though cost about 4,500 yen in tolls.

Hirugaminomori ryokan is a pleasant enough place to stay with fine views of the snow-covered valley and Southern Alps beyond, good locally-sourced food and a pleasant rotemburo (outside bath).

There is also a swimming pool which is handy for the kids but we didn't know you have to ask to turn the the water slide on, so the slide became an Alpine warfare assault course as we had to edge our way through the freezing twisting tubes for about 10 minutes dressed only in swimming trunks until we could clamber out at the other end. Nightmare.

Hirugami Onsen, Nagano Prefecture The other guests were the usual collection of young couples with loud children, retired couples taking the waters and the obligatory nutty, Engrish-speaking, ojisan (old man, literally 'uncle')/pest.

Still it was great to be sipping sake, taking in the impressive quiet - cock and balls dangling pleasantly free in a yukata - rather than hunched over a keyboard in the office.

Travel notes

Hirugami Onsen is a 30-minute drive from the historic castle town of Iida from where it is possible to shoot the rapids on traditional boats on the Tenryu River through the scenic gorge. Get on the boat at Benten Pier near Inayawata Station.

Arima Onsen




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Saturday, February 11, 2006

National Foundation Day

建国記念の日

February 11 Kenkoku kinenbi - National Foundation Day

Myths and Legends of Japan - Buy this book from AmazonAccording to the ancient myths of Japan, on this date in 660 B.C. the Japanese nation was founded by Emperor Jimmu. February 11th is also the date that the Meiji Constitution of 1889 was proclaimed.

Because of these connections to the Emperor worship system, the Occupation administration after World War II cancelled the Foundation Day, but the Japanese government reinstated it in 1966. In most cities, various groups take to the streets and demonstrate against the revival of the Imperial system.

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Friday, February 10, 2006

The Steele Collection

カラーでよみがえる日本60年前:米軍人が撮った戦後

1945-1952 Steele Collection I went to the photo exhibition on at the headquarters of the Shinsei Bank in Shinbashi: the "1945-1952 Steele Collection". It's a collection of photos from directly after World War II, discovered in an old US soldier's - Mr Steele's - Washington attic by a Japanese guy in 1980.

They are not professional photographs, but are a selection of random shots of immediate post-war life in Japan by a number of different American servicemen. They are, however, good photos. They show the familiar faces of Japan in the unfamiliar setting of poverty.

I was struck by how upbeat and completely together everyone seemed for having just lost a war: in hindsight an attitude that must have guaranteed that they'd have few regrets a generation later.

The photos are in full color - a rarity for the 1940s, and one of the main reasons for exhibiting them. They certainly convey a lot more than if they were in black and white. There are 120 on display (from a full complement of 10,000, says the blurb), so there's plenty to keep the viewer occupied and interested for the best part of an hour.

The only downside things were the sometimes haphazard - and often plain absent - English translations of the captions, and the awful BGM: shite on a short loop.

It's on until this Sunday (14 February) at the very smart glassy headquarters of the Shinsei Bank in the Marunouchi district. Get out at either Uchisaiwaicho on the Mita subway line (exit A7) or Kasumigaseki on the Chiyoda subway line (exit C4).

Find Bars, Restaurants and Clubs in Tokyo Here
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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Okonomiyaki

お好み焼き

Okonomiyaki at Ichizyuu, NagoyaOkonomiyaki, that eclectic crossbreed between pizza and pancake, may not be the most well-known or highly-regarded of Japanese dishes overseas, but it can go down well on a cold winter's night like yesterday.

The name roughly translates as "as you like it..fried (or griddled)". The pancake-like base is made of a mix of shredded cabbage, flour, water and eggs.

Depending on "as you like it", seafood (usually cuttle fish and prawns), meat, mushrooms and other ingredients can be added to the mix, which is then fried like a pancake on a hot-plate (鉄板 tenpan) - usually at your table.

After turning it with some wallpaper scraper-like implements, the finished article is somewhat reminiscent of a pizza with its different "toppings". Usually shaved tuna (鰹節 katsuobushi), green laver (青海苔 aonori), mayonnaise and a sweetish brown okonomiyaki sauce are then added on top for flavor.

The wallpaper scrapers are then used to divide the dish between the diners. Okonomiyaki is filling and certainly warming with the heat of the hot plate adding to the winter feel - though okonomiyaki is popular year-round.

Okonomiyaki at Ichizyuu, Nagoya Hiroshima is famed for its version of okonomiyaki which is eaten on top of a bed of yakisoba.

Though making no pretence to haute-cuisine, okonomiyaki restaurants tend to be lively, friendly places, good for a few beers, where the "Do It Yourself" nature of the food adds to the fun.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Demon Masks

節分 - 鬼の仮面

On Friday night all over Japan all the oni (demons) came out! In the cities they mostly appear at Setsubun celebrations in well known shrines and temples - Setsubun being the last day of winter in the traditional Japanese lunar calender, and on which day a bean-scattering ceremony takes place to drive out the oni and attract good fortune.

The first 2 photos show oni that appeared at the famous Yasaka Shrine in Gion, Kyoto. If I was a little kid viewing the oni from the safety of the crowd, I would not be too frightened: more entertained. They are hardly terrifying masks - in fact they look quite jolly.

Setsubun oni (devil) mask.
Setsubun oni (devil) mask.















The photo below shows one of our local oni. This is a bit scarier, and in the villages the oni prowl around in a group visiting houses that have kids. Having a group of these really scary demons try and enter your house does provoke genuine terror in the younger kids.

Setsubun oni (devil) mask In Japanese cities, so many of the traditions and rituals have become mere entertainment, having lost their meaning. I know its a cliche, but in the remoter parts of Japan traditions and customs are still lived as they have been for ages, and still evoke the emotions that spawned them.

"Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!"
("Devils out! Good luck in!")

Original Japanese Devil Masks from GoodsFromJapan

Omote Kagura Museum in Oda Village

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Setsubun

節分

Setsubun Roasted BeansOn a freezing snowy Kyoto midwinter night, we celebrated the arrival of the first day of spring. According to the traditional Japanese lunar calendar, February 3rd or 4th is the first day of spring.

In keeping with that, the custom in rural Japan--which is now followed in cities as well--was and is to hold rituals to keep evil devils at bay at such a propitious time of year. Highly superstitious Japanese of years past feared that evil spirits would curse the spring planting.

In the past, people would cut off the head of a sardine and hang it--in all of its smelly, rotting glory--above the door to the house. According to my father-in-law, this was still done when he was a child in Kyoto. In addition, the sight of holly boughs was also common; both of these were thought to scare off evil.

Maki SushiAt dinner, we all faced in a southerly direction and silently munched on giant maki-sushi. After downing these jumbo sushi rolls, conversation resumed. The sardines were duly burnt--and barely touched. And, oh the sins of modernity, we went through several bottles of French wine.

After dinner, we performed the final ritual: tossing roasted beans out all of the windows of the house, chanting "oni wa soto" (out with devil!); and then, turning around, tossing more beans inside the house and yelling "fuku wa uchi" (good luck/prosperity inside!). Then, following that--and slamming the windows to shut out the snow and cold--we all picked up beans off of the tatami mats and ate the same number of beans as our age. (Though, full disclosure, aside from my seven-year-old daughter, we all just took the number of beans as the second number of our respective ages: my 73-year-old father-in-law ate three whole beans.)

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Friday, February 03, 2006

Japanese skyscapes

空に電線

For an unbroken view of Japan's beautiful blue skies stand not in the suburbs, nor in the paddy fields, nor in the forests even.

The only place you'll get such a view is in the CBDs of Tokyo. Anywhere else - in the suburbs of Tokyo, in provincial towns and cities, and even remote country villages and their environs - to raise your eyes heavenward is to have them caught in a thick inky tangle of powerlines.

Between the shining towers of Tokyo's business centers the sky stretches upwards, unbroken. Why is it that where people actually live the wires are stretched overhead so thickly that it's tantamount to being cooped in chicken wire?

The nation's 'roads to nowhere' are legendary, as are the profligate sums of public money spent on building them.

Why some of it cannot go towards burying power lines as most other governments of economically advanced countries do is a mystery.

Not only does the high voltage cobweb look unsightly, in the countryside what is being strung overhead between red and white pylons is more often than not of voltage levels that you wouldn't want to live in proximity of. Hundreds of thousands of homes do though.

These three photos are random examples of what I am talking about in my immediate neighborhood of Nakano Ward in Tokyo. If you have something to beat this for density, please post in Comments!