Saturday, September 30, 2006

Week 8: Kamakura (The Week After the Week After, part 2)

Cats In Japan

Tea Party

Asking for directions

Pretty Flowers

The Tunnel

Counting Fish

Far Altar

Forest Ocean Vista

Mountain Pass

Lilly and Ladybug

One of the Three Beauties of the World

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Week 8: The Week After the Week After, part 1

I should have stayed in bed! It seemed that I was over the cold in a couple days, but I kept pushing my body to keep up with studies and extracurricular activites. I would get better, then relapse.

First Haircut in Japan!

I had my hair cut in California just before getting on the plane to Japan. By now it feels like I'm growing a mop. Japan has barber shops and hair salons just like America, but in Japan a haircut usually comes with a shampoo and a massage. It sounds wonderful, but it can costs anywhere from 4,000 yen, about $40 US, to over 10,000 yen, depending on the options. Most all barber shops and many of the salons are easy to locate because of the traditional barber pole out front. Sometimes they have three or four.

I found a shop with SEVEN barber poles that advertised a katto dake (cut only) for 1,300 yen. Having moved so many times in the past I have learned the terminology to request a specific haircut from nearly any barber. HOWEVER, this only works in America. (^-^);

The barber ended up bringing out some laminated flash cards with pictures of various hair styles. The pictures are numbered, so you just ask for a "S107b." All the styles were for people with "Asian hair" (as my senpai describes it), so I asked for a combination of two so I could keep my part. Once I explained that, the barber was willing to do the kombo katto dake. Still, they tried to give me a shampoo, and once you use a product or service in Japan you are morally obligated to pay for it (a slight hyperbole, but the exceptions are so uncommon as to make little difference).

It would end up being on my "Top 5 List of Worst Haircuts," but I shouldn't complain. The staff was friendly and they spent a reasonable amount of time. It was hot in Tokyo and my hair was short again.

NOTE: The katto dake is a relatively new phenomenon here, possibly in response to the decade-long recession and/or the unwillingness of foreigners to pay for such extravagant services. QBcut is a chain that specializes in the katto dake and will have you in-and-out in 10 minutes at the incredibly low price of 1,000 yen. Options are extra...

New Eikai Student!

Imaizumi Yukie joined my eikai (English conversation) class. Technically, I have 6 students, but work sometimes keeps them from attending. Nikko Chemical is an intternational company and strongly encourages English language ability for employees, so aside from work itself or family, the conversation classes are priorities. An average class is two or three people. If you teach English in Japan you should expect this, even if they are highschool or college age, as most all Japanese work very hard at education and the extracurricular activites that dovetail into their educational and employment goals.

Cosplay Café!

Japan is the birthplace of manga, an artform that is the modern antecedent of ukio-e. Traditional wood block painting has a legacy in Japan that reaches back many centuries. Ukio-e started in the mid-18th century when one artist started putting individual e in chronologically sequential order, a bit like a slide show, to show people working or walking along a river or other aspects of everyday life. Manga was heavily influenced by the art of Walt Disney, which came to Japan during the occupation after the war. Japan has reversed that trend and for the past few years manga has been the fastest growing medium on the planet. FYI, anime, short for "animation, "also known as "Japanimation," is the movie analog to manga.

Fans of various manga and anime characters carry their hobby to a new level. They dress up as their favorite character. Cosplay, short for "costume-play", is very popular within some segments of Japanese society. One entrepreneurial expression of this is the cosplay café, a coffee or sandwich shop where the wait staff dresses up. European-style maids are probably the most common theme, but cat-girls, magic girls (think of Sabrina in the old TV series Bewitched!), bunny girls, and nurses are all represented. It's probably obvious, but the cosplay café typically caters to a male clientele. Food and drinks are typically twice as expensive as a non-themed café.

Here I am outside a small bento-ya near my classroom run by a Waseda student organization where the store clerks dress up as maids, or meedo-san as they are called in Japan. The food isn't especially great, but the staff is *cute* and occasionally it is a welcome change from rice and noodles.

My professor of Entrepreneurship recommended I keep an eye out for potential business opportunities, but the cosplay café would be difficult to import as-is because of the cultural context.

Interesting Things!

It's amazing how different a street can look one day to the next. I am constantly discovering new things even in the neighborhod where I live.

Here is a shrine of sorts that I discovered in a stairwell next to an apartment building in Takadanobaba. The design on the flags mark it as being Buddhist, rather than Shinto. The spiral design is often mistaken as a swastika by westerners, but the swastica rotates in the opposite direction. You can think of it as a reverse-swastika, but I think the Buddhist usage may predate even the germanic tribe from whom Hitler appropriated his notorious logo.

Temples are convenient landmarks and every map I have seen has them marked with the spiral design. Shrines are marked with a gate sign that looks a bit like an H with a bar on top.

Owning a car in Japan is quite expensive, especially if you live in a big city. Taxes favor newer and more energy-efficient models and the law requires everyone to have a parking space. Rent on a parking space is very expensive. Flat parking lots are so rare that I am surprized when I see one. I was also surprized to see this: a self service parking ticket payment machine. Apparently, while owning a car is expensive, many of the associated fines are quite low in comparison to those in American cities.

The honor system is evident in many aspects of Japanese society. As a convenience to citizens the municipal authority has conveniently placed these boxes next to the curb where you can take the parking ticket from your car, insert your ticket and pay your fine. They may have them, but I don't think I've ever seen a parking meter.


This is a picture of Darishe, Noah and Cortney (L to R). Darishe is from India and is in the same language classes as I. He is allways laughing and smiling. Noah is from Papua New Guinea. He is a talented acoustic guitarist and is in a more advanced language class than Darishe and I. Cortney is a classmate from USC and is also in a more advanced language class. During our mid-morning break or at the end of the day classmates or country-mates often gather in front of our classroom building (#22) to talk. Random people walking by may know one or two of the people you are with, so you often get the chance to meet new people.

Anahachimichu Shrine!

I was walking home after class on Friday and found a large sign-type local map with pictures and short descriptions of historical landmarks. I discovered that I had already seen all of them except for Anahachimichu Shrine and Ryochoin Temple. Both were just a few blocks north from where I stood, so it seemed like a Good Idea to cross them off my list.

I was just about to leave on my mini-adventure when a kind Japanese salaryman walking by saw me looking at the map. He stopped and - with great effort - asked if I needed any help. I was touched by his sicere effort, so I asked if he could show me on the map where I was and how to get to the shrine. I really was grateful for his willingness to help. I hope he is encouraged to speak with more foreigners in the future.

NOTE: If you are obviously a foreigner and not Asian or Black people often assume you speak English. I am sure it is at least mildly annoying to Europeans who often, but not always, speak English anyway. I was once asked (in Japanese) to correct a lady on the train for having her baby carriage in the aisle. "Eigo ga dekimasuka?" "Nein, Doitsu jin desu." "Saaa..." (-.-)

Sign Language: Don't leave home without it.

Even with the salaryman's directions I nearly walked by the shrine without noticing because it was on the top of a small hill surrounded by weathered stone walls. The entrance was set back from the road and I had reading the neighborhood/block/building marker on the doorpost and looking around for likely landmarks for a minute or two before I realized that what I was looking for was right in front of me.

Flanking either side of the steps to the shrine itself were two sets of ancient-seeming guardians. One was this stone gentleman who seemed to epitomize stoic endurance.

We often have certain mental "icons" we use to represent things. This is a heart-shape, it means "love." "Meow" is the sound a cat makes. It is very interesting to discover someone else's "heart" or "meow" or, in this case, "lion-dog."

I'm sure that in the eye of the long ago (?) sculptor the lion-dogs that guard Anahachimichu Shrine are both noble and ferocious. I, with my rather western upbringing see a panting Boston Terrier with dreadlocks.

Japan has in many respects become a very cosmopolitan culture. It is with these artifacts that predate modern western influences that we can catch a glimpse of a very different way of seeing the world.

I was taking pictures of this little dragon fountain while the gardener was working nearby. He stopped what he was doing and came over to turn on the faucet so I could take pictures with water in the basin. Doumo arigatou gozaimashita!

This, I believe, is one of those purification fountains where one symbolically rinses their hands and mouth before praying.

Ryochoin Temple!

In comparison to Anahachimichu Shrine, Ryochoin Temple seems quite plain.

Surrounding the temple are hundreds and hundreds of stone markers for the deceased. Some are large, some are small, some are new and well-tended, others are ancient and nearly-illegible from moss and weather. Recently cut flowers and burnt incense are here and there.

The bell tower which forms the main gate for the temple is the most striking and elaborate structure around. I'm fairly certain they ring the bell periodically, but I have yet to see it. I wonder what it sounds like, you know, close up. (((*o*)))

As seen in the pictures it has started raining.

I was a bit concerned that walking home in the rain might bring back the flu, but I was completely "all better now." Some of it was owing to a classmate who gave me some of his American-strength cold medicine. Some of it was because I slept instead of staying up late studying Japanese. "If you don't have your health..."

Japanese Maple Sunlight!

It is Saturday morning, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, it is a beautiful day. With the rain gone everything seems especially bright and fresh.

On my way to meet up with some friends to go on a day trip I took this shot of morining sunlight filtering through the leaves of a Japanese maple. It's kind of a visual metaphor for having confidence that good times will overtake the bad.

Kamakura! (To Be Continued...)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Week 7: The Week After

This week, what I unaffectionately refer to as "The Week After," I came down with the flu. For details, please refer to the blog entry about Japanese Health Care. I attended all my classes in hope that even ten percent would seep in past the congestion and pills. In hindsight, I should have stayed in bed for two or three days.

On Thursday I made my first trip from Shinjuku to Narita Airport. I was surprised to find it was so expensive or would take so long. I did my best to research the fastest schedule at the cheapest price, but the route I chose changed at the time of day I actually went.

The stationmaster directed me to take two transfers I had not planned in order to make it to the airport. The first transfer put me on a "local" train, one that makes every stop on the line. The second transfer was to a "limited express," which skips a third to half of the local stops. An "express," on the other hand, only stops at major terminals. The trip took about three hours longer than planned.

The short of the story is I got stuck in Narita after the trains stopped for the day and had to stay the night in an overpriced hotel. In Japan, ATM machines close earlier than the train stations. I ran out of money about 2/3 the way home. The picture of the bronze gentleman with a top hat is from Nippori, the town where I wandered around until I found an open ATM machine with English instructions.

Notice how the samurai on horseback has a yumi, a katana and a musket. I may have mentioned that historically speaking, samurai trained in both yumi and katana. There is a similar statue near Waseda eki where the man on horseback looks like a pony express rider except he has a katana and yumi in place of the six-shooter. The musket makes me think the person is from the late 16th, 17th, or early 18th century. Firearms were in use prior to 1570, but Oda Nobunga was the first to heavily equip his army with such. Cap and ball and cartridge weapons would not be available until the Meiji restoration reopened Japan to foreign trade.

Friday after lunch I discovered the small park next to the cafeteria. As you can see, it is very popular with students. Some couples were obviously on lunch dates. (^3^)

There is also a very large bell pagoda, similar to what I have found at Buddhist temples. Most that I have seen are very plain, relying on architectural elements of the construction and occasional wood engravings for ornamentation. A few are painted, which might indicate its significance or perhaps the wealth of the supporters.

By the way, the Japanese word for temple is o-te-ra and the Japanese word for bathroom (toilet) is o-te-a-ra-i. Don't mix them up!

Aside from the spacious and well kept lawn there were numerous walking paths through the trees and beside a rather extensive koi pond. Try as I might, I could never figure out what the white one (probably a girl) was trying to say.

On my way home I took a detour and explored a neighborhood behind the shops that line busy Shin Mejiro Douri by the university. As soon as I crossed a small bridge it was like I stepped through a magic door to a different time and place. I'm sure there was some kind of acoustic trick to it, but the sounds of a very busy modern Tokyo dissapeared. Instead there were birds, wind, and the casual chatter of people at open store fronts. It was like some small rural town one might find 30 years ago.

At one end of the neighborhood I found a fox shrine. I call it that, but the foxes were guarding the shrine, much like the lion-dogs do at temples. The shrine was decorated in banners and flags, so I imagine there was an upcomming special event of some kind.

Most neighborhoods have a local shrine or ten. I am not exaggerating! Some are obvious, but others fill a small corner or a dark nook. The minor ones stay hidden until the lighting and perspective is just right. The bustle of city life carrys you past without noticing most of the time.

Most Japanese gardens have a stone pillar shaped like a mushroom with four little windows under the cap. I have always heard it called a lantern, but I think they are more of an incense burner, if used at all. The ones at this shrine showed signs of incense and each held a small fox fetish.

If anyone spends any amount of time in and around Tokyo I an sure they will notice how significantly the character of a neighborhood can change in just a few blocks. Tokyo may be a mega-city, but often it seems to be a honeycomb collection of small towns.

While at the fox shrine I was reminded of a Bible passage that mentions principalities and authorities. I wonder if there is a correlation between the distinct personalites of different neighborhoods and the spiritual nature of the shrines and other places of worship.

We had a birthday party at the Kyuudou circle nomikai. This one was a bit different from previous otanjoubi paati in that we smuggled in a Pooh that could play back a voice recording. Here we are in our impromptu recording studio - the entry landing of the izakaya (Japanese-stype tavern).

And this is just after unwrapping Pooh.

One thing I really enjoy about this group is how everyone works so hard to be a part of each other. I just recently noticed that the dynamics are very similar to some of the home groups I have experienced in the past.

Natsukashii yo! (^-^)

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Week 6: Golden Week, Part 2c

Blogger is still a bit, er, finicky with pictures. It took a while to get these loaded. You'll have to invent your own story to go along with the pictures until I can enter the text. (^-^)

Breakfast on our last day in Sendagaya was another sparsely attended affair. We were served rice, fish, miso soup and omuretsu - Japanese omlette, which is just plain scrambled eggs folded over and over until it resembles a fluffy yellow pastry. It's sweet, too.

There are lots of rules about footwear in Japan. The reasons for this are based on historical and cultural factors. Some of the rules continue out of tradition, like taking off your shoes as the genkan the raised step found at many entryways. Ryokans, being an artifact of traditional Japanese culture, provide house slippers for guests. Even if they don't fit, you still have to wear them.

At the otearai, also known as a toire or WC, you will find another set of slippers, usually in a contrasting color or obviously marked as belonging to the room with toilets. As I demonstrate in the picture, you have to change once again, even if they don't fit. Walking on tip-toes becomes easier with practice.

Today is the day of the big shiai, which is translated as a game or match, but everyone says "game" instead of "match" and I have a strong impression that to everyone it is just that, a game, somthing they do because it's fun.

After the traditional opening prayer ceremony the first group of kyūdōka line up and in unison yu to the mato, the target, and advance with three gliding steps to the shooting position.

A yu is a short bow of about 5°, while the rei is a normal bow, which is usually about 15°, but can be as deep as 45°.

The kyūdōka on the far right starts by selecting an arrow, inspecting it in the process of knocking it and assuming a resting position with the yumi in front and the right hand akimbo on the right hip. The others follow, one after the other in a wave-like motion.

The first kyūdōka starts the hassetsu and after the first ya is released everyone goes at their own pace. They have four ya each. Observers will often call out a kyudokas name and "ippon" just before the hanare as a way of cheering each other. With each target strike a sharp pop is heard, echoed by a loud "JOUSH!" from everyone watching.

After everyone's ya are spent the designated field judges for that turn call out the number of hits per mato, or zannen, "too bad," if there were no hits.

A new line of kyūdōkas yu to the mato and the process continues.

This is an interesting picture because it is the only one where I was able to catch the ya in flight. Notice that Sakai-san is wearing a headband.

NOTE: Headbands in Japan are usually a sign of determination or devotion to completing a task. They often have slogans like "Victory" or "Definitely will pass (this exam)!"

There are always people to cheer their friends as people rotate through shooting and service positions.

Or pose for pictures.

After several hours everyone has shot and there is a mad scramble for the scores. It's almost a dog pile as everyone tries to look over everyone elses shoulder as the scores are tallied and the finalists decided.

The finalists follow a slightly different protocol. All line up to shoot, but each takes one shot and returns to a seiza (formal sitting) postion as the others continue to shoot.

If everyone hits the target then the process is repeated, but if one misses then they are out of the competition. The game continues until there is only one left.

I was genuinely surprised at the good will evident among players. Everyone was cheering each other on.

The finalists themselves were having fun, even when one "hit" and one "missed."

Typical for this group, the awards ceremony is a formal affair with senior members presenting awards on the top of matos to the best two, three or four players in each category.

Winners were required to unwrap the prize in front of everyone. People would call out "kawaii!" (cute), or the Japanese equivalent to "user" or "keeper" when they saw what was inside.

Some of the prizes were very nice. Others were hilarious gags. It was one of these gag prizes that set the stage for The Incident, as I like to call it.


During the final round of awards, a masked finalist (the mask was a gag gift from a previous round of awards) claims his prize. He opens his prize and finds a large toy mallet.

He looks at his sempai and everyone waits expectantly, if unbelivingly, at what will happen next.

After a very pregnant moment he decides not to hit his sempai with the mallet and walks back to the audience.

Then... He stops.

The battle behind the mask is visible to everyone.

Suddenly! He strikes!

Below the himo (belt)!

It was several minutes before everyone could stop rolling on the floor and laughing hilariously.

Eventually, sanity returned and we started cleaning up the dojo in preparation for our departure.

The used matos were gathered up and the old target paper removed. One group cleaned the target rims of scrap paper and another prepared sheets of newspaper to recover the rims. Two layers of newspaper were glued to the rims with what looked like the flour-based goop used with papier mâchè. The target paper itself was the last item glued to the rim.

Those that were sweeping the dojo and shuttering the main doors took a break and entertained us with a brief "historical drama.

NOTE: Historical dramas in Japan almost always feature samurai, to the point that the two are synonymous of the genre.

With everything done, people left in twos and threes for the walk back to the ryokan. Here we see a highly illegal form of riding double. If you notice in the background, there is another pair with the passenger actually standing on the rear package tray of the bicycle. (^-^);


In a reverse of the first day protocols we thank our hostess for taking care of us.

I don't follow all what is said (try nothing), but I imagine we are thanking her for the good food and warm beds, and apologizing for being such inconsiderate guests. The hostess in turn apologizes for the poor conditions of the ryokan and thanks us for being such gracious, considerate guests.

I just bow and say doumo arigatou gozaimashita along with everyone else. (^-^)

We have at least a half hour before the train comes, so some go for ice cream or a cold drink while others find shade and a conversation.

After what seems like forever we take turns buying our tickets and passing through the turnstile. The station is so rural that they don't have ticket vending machines or electronic ticket gates. We buy our ticket at the window and hand it to a gentleman who stamps it by hand and lets us step through the dooway.

We gather again on the far platform to catch the train back to Tokyo. Why didn't we just go to the platform at first? No vending machines. It is almost torture to wait for a train without the refreshing convenience of an array of cold beverages on demand. Even if you're not thirsty, you start to worry "but what if..."

Our train eventually arrives. To me it seems a well-restored antique, it seems to reek of nostalgia and maintenance. In a way it is actually beautiful in comparison to newer cars seen in more metropolitan areas.

I had mentioned previously about Boy's Day and Koinobori. I was only able to get one picture of the huge colorful fish-like wind socks on our return, and a very bad one at that.

In this picture you can see over the rooftops the tip of the flagpole in the center of the town. It is hung with koinobori from top to almost touching the ground. I'm very sorry, as it was an amazingly beautiful sight to see schools of gilded fish the color of the rainbow leaping and diving in the strong afternoon wind.

There isn't much left to tell of Golden Week. Everyone slept on the way back. We woke up in time to make a transfer, and once we got to Narita we were already saying goodbye to people heading in other directions. I was so tired, I think I sleepwalked home from Shin Ookubo eki.

This is a multipurbose blog: It is meant as a guide to future program candidates and a way to share this experience with a number of people from all over. It is part documentary, part journal. Feel free to ask questions, make suggestions, or, if you happen to be mentioned in one of my posts, to make corrections (gomen!).