Friday, June 30, 2006

See, wasn't this shorter?

If it's Thursday, it must be Go Somewhere Random In Tokyo Day! Today's destination was Roppongi Hills, a three-year-old behemoth of an apartment and shopping complex erected in southwest Japan. After my first actual ride on the Tokyo subway system (as opposed to the ubiquitous light rail), we made it to Roppongi Station, where the first thing we saw after we stepped out of the door was this:


Apparently the popular opinion on Roppongi Hills is rather split, with half too awed by its sheer size to make many complaints, and the other half calling it a blight on the face of Tokyo (a la early criticism of the former World Trade Center). I could try and make some opinions of my own, but what would be the point?--as someone famous once said (and someone else paraphrased, it's not for me. We did walk around a bit, though, where among ridiculously upscale boutiques and somewhat exotic restaurants, we came across another gem:

After that, we stopped by the Mori Art Museum, up on the 53rd floor, and were whisked through an exhibition of contemporary African art. Most modern art exhibits I go to tend to grow on me, it seems. At first, I walk around, stymied by most everything, wondering what the deuce could be the appeal. Then, without fail, either the art starts to make sense or I start to go insane. Either way I begin to enjoy myself. At one point, we walked through the music room, where, of all songs, they were playing "Douba- Taru Salaam" by Youssou N'Dour. I had the great opportunity to see him live at UNC's Memorial Hall last fall, so this had the fun result of African music making me nostalgic for North Carolina.

Next on the list was Tokyo City View, in the same building. Not much to say here, but I did get some nice pictures.

The group split up here, but Derek, Larissa, Laurel, J.K., Scott and I decided to stop by Harajuku, since it was only about 20 minutes away. Though I was ridiculously tired, hungry, and ergo cranky (4 hours of sleep the night before) by this point, the place I got Korean barbecue at managed to help at least the last two. Harajuku, also, seems to be the World Center of Crepes; we passed about four stops in our ten-minute walk. We also walked by this place, which I thought was somewhat amusing to see in the fashion capital of Japan:

Eventually, I made it home, did my homework, and immediately (and somewhat unwillingly) fell asleep. This, incidentally, is why there are no Vending Machine Specials--I didn't have time to take the pictures when I woke up. I really am going to have to make a post with nothing but them sometime next week, I suppose.

Today hasn't been much to talk about; I ate at McDonald's again (at Derek's request, thank you very much) and had a calligraphy lesson with the rest of the group. This actually went better than you would think, coming from the self-admittedly-illegible author here. But when it came time to make our final design, the assistant didn't give me enough ink, which pretty much screwed the entire thing up. So it goes.

Anyway, I won't have wireless access again until Monday (late Sunday night/early Monday morning), so check back then for more updates. Have a good weekend!

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


[Okay, pictures, text, links and everything for the last three posts are complete. Thank heavens.]

Wednesday was a day of two events of fair significance. First, my presentation. I didn't blow it, but I looked at my script many more times than I would have liked, which will dock my grade some. Conversely, everybody else was doing that; I suppose we were all a bit nervous in front of the five native Japanese speakers we were also presenting to. I cracked a joke in Japanese, though, which was my own personal success. (When describing the picture, I mentioned,
- "めがねをかけるのが私です。" - "Megane o kakeru noga watashi desu" - "I'm the one in the glasses.")

We finished our presentations around 10:30; since we had no new work to cover (everything was due Thursday), we just marked time and did busy work for the next two hours. Extremely irritating, considering how valuable my time is to me here, but what can you do? From there we got lunch and then headed to the IES Center to do homework.

That evening, some of us went to see our first Japanese baseball game! The Chiba Lotte Marines play within a ten-minute walk of Kaihin-Makuhari station, so me, Larissa, Amber, and J.K. all decided to go to the 6:10 game. Due to some communication screwups, I didn't find them until right before the game started, so I had the 'pleasure' of buying my own ticket myself. I must say that living here really is helping my Japanese communication skills tremendously, but that's a story for another day.

Cheesy Chiba-Marine-Stadium-in-the-sunset picture

The Marines are the team that won the Japanese major league championship last year; they're coached by Bobby Valentine, formerly of the Mets, who also brought along middling player Benny Agbayani, who exploded once he set foot in Chiba. Both have almost cult-like status over here. Although Benny started us off with a two-run homer in the bottom of the first, and Chiba made some great defensive plays, the pitchers just kept letting the team down. We lost to the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, 8-2.


The game had some interesting sideshows, though. Substitute players came out onto the field in Volvos, beer girls clad in red and neon green walked through the sections, vending en masse, and perhaps my favorite part. In the top of the seventh, the fans around the stadium suddenly started taking these really long, Marine-colored balloons and inflating them. We had no idea what was going on until, in the middle of the seventh, everyone began singing the official Chiba Lotte Marines song. At the end, the PA counted down "3... 2... 1... GO!" and everybody let their balloons straight up into the air at once, in a cavalcade of whistling and crazy white things flying through the sky.

We're going back again.

Then I came back, finished my homework, got up at 6 to make my blog posts, finished at the cost of almost missing breakfast, and here I am. Hallelujah.

Oh, blast. Vending Machine Special #5. Um, two tomorrow.

Almost done with the absurdly long updates

Monday and Tuesday I can't really remember much happening. We had a big presentation due in class that Wednesday; we had to memorize a five-minute speech talking about ourselves and some sort of item that we were to bring in. In Japanese, of course. By the way, this was my item:

I also talked with Kudo-san, and decided that this Sunday would be the best time to move in with my new family. I found out a lot more information about them, both officially from IES (the Seses, live about 40 minutes away, have two sons, one my age and one already working), and unofficially from Matt, another IES Spring student (not the one in my house) who had lived with them earlier in the year. Nothing too out of the ordinary; they're very nice and have had many homestays before; additionally, they are not 80 years old. Looks like a good situation.
Tuesday, we had a professor and architect come and talk to us about the history and current state of architecture in Japan, in advance of this Thursday's trip to the Roppongi Hills complex. I have some choice quotes of his: let me see if I can pull them up...

"You pretend... it's like shoji screens and you can hear everything... but you don't hear anything and it's like haiku or Zen or something and you pretend."- George Kunihiro, on the density of underground developments

"On the surface, they're polite."- Kunihiro, on Japanese taxi drivers and property owners

Really was a fascinating speaker, though; I've always had a passing interest in architecture. I'll have to check out some of the many, many buildings he listed and report to y'all.

That night, while trying desperately to memorize my presentation, we had a small earthquake. I completely forgot to mention the big one we had last week, now that I think of it. Clocking in at about 4.8 on the Richter scale, it lasted about ten seconds and happened right as I was trying to wake up. You can bet that was an interesting situation. This one was a good bit weaker, though.

Vending Machine Special #4: Royal Milk Tea

I am proud to report to Hadley that after two weeks of living here now, I still cannot stand Eastern-style tea. It's passable, but it's just too weak and I do not like hot beverages. This concoction is interesting, though; a bit of stronger tea mixed around with milk and chilled. It's probably the equivalent of drinking one of those double-caramel-mocha-cream-frappucinos and calling it 'coffee', but it has a very unusual and appealing taste.

Kamakura, or Wherein The Author Takes Way Too Many Pictures

Saturday our group went on the first of the program's two outside-of-Tokyo trips: a day in Kamakura, a fair-sized city and 13th-century capital. (The other trip is a weekend in Kyoto, which will be around the second week of July.) Since it was about ninety minutes there and back by train, we all piled into Tokyo Station bright and early at 8:30 that Saturday morning. For the record, this makes it about the 13th straight day that I haven't gotten a good night of sleep.

Kamakura and the surrounding areas have, combined, something along the lines of 40 temples and shrines, and I believe our objective was to visit as many of them as we possibly could within a single day. Our first stop was the Engakuji Temple, which had few standout buildings but gracefully crept its way along the hillside it was built on. Like most everything else we visited today, it was created in the late 1100s when the dominant
shogunate reigned in Kamakura, making it the de facto capital. Supposedly the Buddha's tooth is housed in one of the more remote buildings, but we weren't allowed close enough to get a good look. (Most of the temples and shrines we'll be visiting today will be Buddhist in nature, as well.)

Tokyo in one thousand words.

This is, quite possibly, my favorite picture I have ever taken.

From there, we got back on the train and rode into town proper. After making our way through the main shopping road, Komachi Dori, we headed on to the Tsuroka Hachimangu Shrine. One of the more interesting sights of my entire stay to date--or at least from afar.


...or not so much.

It was under renovation! This was actually a pretty common theme for the day; Engakuji Temple had one of its main structures being worked on, loud construction workers and all, while our next stop wasn't completely accessible due to who-knows-what. There was more than enough to learn about otherwise here, though. We also happened to come across a traditional Shinto wedding, which is a fairly rare occurence. Unfortunately, I didn't get many good pictures; they all processed into the main building too quickly and I didn't exactly want to stand near the doorway and go full-out gaijin.

Komachi Dori

After a lunch with Kate and one of our Kanda assistants, we walked back along the tree-lined Wakamiya Oji to the train station, which for some inexplicable reason was positively overflowing. Therefore, we decided to take an equally crowded bus to our next destination: Daibutsu.

Rickshaw on Wakamiyo Oji

Now on the two trips we're going on here, everybody in our group was assigned a certain location to research and give a five-minute presentation on. Two had already been done for the previous temples and shrines, but Daibutsu was all mine. This was interesting because I had found out about this maybe three days before; to compound it, I had burned my tongue on some ramen in Shinjuku the other night and it was still bothering me. (As I said, my mouth and hot liquids really do not mix.) After some minor stumbles, though, I managed to essentially get the gist across. Besides, it was worth it; personally speaking, Daibutsu was

(Incidentally, the Daibutsu has a fairly interesting history. Originally built on money that came from a mendicant priest, the first wooden Daibutsu was destroyed in a storm before being recast in bronze about 1252 AD. However, it was placed in a wooden hall; this got destroyed twice more before they just gave up and let it stand against the elements. It's over 40 feet (13.5 m) tall and is hollow; you can even go inside.) While at the Daibutsu, we got a close-up look of someone we had passed by earlier on the bus:

I'm looking at the guy in red here.

Our final stop for Kamakura was the Hasedera Temple. A multi-level affair whose top terrace overlooks the entire city, the Hasedera Temple was easily the most impressive of the temples and shrines we had seen that day. Unfortunately, by this point in the day pretty much everybody was tired out of their gourd. We mostly sat around, took pictures of flowers and things, and waited to leave. I also took a picture of a plethora of tiny statues which turned out to be memorials for miscarried or stillborn children. Um, my apologies.
"The Enoden Line: A wonderful small train..."- Beth Reiber, Frommer's Guide To Tokyo
At least she got half of it right.

Eventually, though, we got back to Kamakura Station and from there, to Tokyo. While we were in town, some of us decided to try and stop by Akihabara, the predominant electronics district of Japan. We only were able to hit up one store--but it was eight stories tall, so I don't regret much. (It may irritate certain of this blog's readers to know that I am now price-shopping for
Mother 3.)

Right out of the station.

After grabbing dinner at a totally random Italian place (Denny's being much too expensive and much too health-friendly), we all went our separate ways again and passed out in our collective beds.

Vending Machine Special #3: Thorpedo!

I have no idea why an energy drink named after (Australian? English?) swimmer Ian Thorpe would be marketed in Japan and not here, but the advertising for it in Tokyo is crazy and I didn't see a bit of it before I left America. It's not that bad, though I'm not going to be writing home about... oh. Never mind.


Blast. I just realized I left all my information on Kamakura back in my room. Without all of that, blogging my trip up would eventually devolve into "and then we went to this temple... and then we went to this shrine... and then we went to this other temple...". Literally.

I'll post three times tomorrow (probably before midnight, to boot, because I'll have to post from the computer lab during class breaks. We're going to be gone all afternoon) and get caught up just in time to move in with my new host family this weekend. To compensate, here's some More Various Pictures.

Random Shinjuku picture.

Hey, look, it's a Cingular ad!

Uh... it's Kamakura...

I can't even do a Vending Machine Special, because all my new pictures are stuck on my camera right now. I'll make up for those, too. So pretty much be ready Wednesday evening/Thursday morning for yet another torrent of... well, amphigory.

Also, if you're sort of ignoring most of what I write right now because it's just too much random junk at once, start checking back next week. I'll be posting at a more reasonable pace then.


I said I would make two posts today, but I'm not going to have enough time to make two really long ones like I need so. So I'm going to cheat and make a links post! Here you are, proof that I'm still spending too much time online even in Japan:

Daily Tar Heel: 'New ticket plan unveiled'

As Darth Vader once said: No.

GQ: 'The Real Maverick'
I haven't even looked at this yet, but the fact that GQ did an article on Russ Feingold is just fantastic. Fabulous, maybe even.

UNC Student Congress Finance Committee: 2006-07
I seriously doubt anybody else but me will care in the slightest, but I just found out that Student Congress archives all of UNC's organizations' annual finance requests. Marvel at how Campus Crusade for Christ requested $42,000 and got less than a quarter of that, or take a look at how I completely managed to botch Carolina Academic Team's budget presentation.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Dispatches from the Keiyo Line

[Only one update today, folks, sorry. Had some extra homework moved up a day on me. I'll update twice Wednesday (late Tuesday night) and be all set to go starting Thursday (late Wednesday night).]

Alright, so Thursday. Aside from the usual two or three hours of homework, the extra hour devoted specifically to kanji studying, and the five-minute speech I had to mock up sometime between now and Saturday, this was a pretty light day, schedule-wise. Wait. I just remembered we're going to spend the entire afternoon (and possibly evening) on our first Tokyo field trip. That just might put a wrench in things, mightn't it?

Seriously, though, I did manage to find some time today alone with my thoughts, most of which I used pondering my host family situation. I seemed to have three options here: stay where I am now, move to the newly spare room in Takeda-san's house, or switch families altogether. (No, Mom and Hadley, giving up and taking the next flight home is not an option.) I won't bore you with all the details--the room in Takeda-san's house looked nicer, but it didn't seem as if she wanted me to move into it, and there would be no chance of wireless Internet; a host family could be great, but would also be a total crapshoot, and wouldn't be nearly as close to campus as I am now--but they more or less balanced out. I essentially concluded that I had no personal pressing need to choose any option above the other, something I would bring up with Kudo-san at the next opportunity.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Aratake-sensei informed me that Kudo-san had found me a new host family and I would be moving in as soon as this weekend. (Meta-note: This was a 36-hour turnaround time.) Though the majority of this trip to date has been awesome, I seem to be caught in the middle of a continuing trend: whenever I find myself growing accustomed to one place, my world is immediately shifted by 180 degrees, and I'm just no longer on Merton's playing fields at all. I'm the type of person who needs a certain amount of order in his life--not a complete routine, mind, just a semblance of habit somewhere. Therefore, this has been an interesting continuous sensation. At least it builds character.

Anyway, I was informed about all this on the Tokyo subway system, on which, actually, I would be going into Tokyo proper for the first time this entire trip. Our group's destination was the Mingeikan Folk Crafts Museum, on the other side of town. About halfway through the (hour-long) trip, we had to switch lines at Tokyo Station. For those of you who've been inside a major subway system before, I suppose the sight wouldn't be too much. Still, the multi-leveled, labyrinthine, store-splattered panorama I was whisked through for about ten minutes was pretty exhilarating. Japanese 'salarymen' mingled with teenage girls in somewhat unusual fashions mixed with teenagers wearing archetypal Engrish shirts standing around bakeries and squid shops--and, of course, the axiomatically tantalizing concept of the Japanese bookstore. All that literature, and absolutely none of it for me whatsoever.
One of the lighter crowds of the day.

Far more important, however, is what I saw while waiting for the Tokyo-Shibuya train. Some of you may remember a link I had up a while back, from a blog with a description of a downright silly ad for Japanese beer. I think my title was 'Japanese pronunciation for imbeciles' or something like that. Anyway, you can guess where this is going.

Incidentally, I'm going to try and get some more pictures of the various crazy shirts, signs, etc. around here that I know you're all clamoring for. Engrish does abound in Tokyo--trust me on this one--but I've just recently started getting up the courage to go around photographing the backs of various Japanese. Pity about that, though; there was a six-year-old I saw recently wearing a T-shirt saying "Girlfriends are fun. Men friends are funner" that was about as Engrish as one can possibly get.

I'm actually also interested in exploring the social constructs behind crazy English like this. Supposedly, most Japanese under the age of, say, 40, are reasonably literate in English but just don't speak it. However, the commonality of signs like "No taking of the photography act is requested here" seem to more or less lay waste to that postulate. Like many, many, many other things I've just begun to touch on, this merits further research.

Anyway, Mingeikan was fairly nifty. I can usually develop an interest in the sorts of crafts like the pottery and fabrics that made up most of the museum's collection; from the right angle, anything is interesting. Unfortunately, the fact that I had been standing nonstop for about the last three hours (I couldn't get a seat on the subway) sort of dulled my interest.

The entire collection was the brainchild of one Yanagi-san, a famous contemporary Japanese philosopher who posited that through repetitive work, one can achieve enlightenment. Therefore, most of his selected works were made en masse, by anonymous craftsmen, in the tradition of previous art, etc. An interesting concept, certainly; I'd say I'll go back and find out more, but I know in my heart it's never going to happen. We also were given a tour of Yanagi's former residence across the street, which was apparently a rare honor and very cool.

After we did the boring, official half of our field trip, it was time for Part 2: shopping in Shinjuku! Shinjuku is one of the more up-and-coming districts of Tokyo, famous for its nightlife and, to a lesser extent, its shopping. Aratake-sensei and most of us were out searching for a decent, cheap electronic Japanese-English dictionary to buy; we found a great store but decided we needed to do more price-matching. So we split up, after which half of us found a noodle place and then another karaoke bar. This place was a bit more expensive than the one in Narita--1200 yen for an hour--but we definitely enjoyed ourselves once again.

By the time our hour was up, it was about 8:30. This is extremely early by my standards, but the trains stop running as early as 11 in virtually all of Tokyo. Since it takes about an hour to get from Shinjuku back to Narashino, we decided this was the time to meander back our own separate ways. I manuevered through the city fairly successfully, making it back to Shin-Narashino Station at about 10. For the heck of it, I counted how many vending machines there were on my fifteen-minute walk through the suburbs; I came up with nine. One I didn't count because it was in the station, but I'm using it as my Vending Machine Special #2 anyway:

Run! It's water!

Friday not much happened. We had a guest speaker on the state of anime and the possible influences of America on it. I could say I won't discuss it because I know at least two of you openly hate anime with a passion, but frankly I'm bland on the subject myself. The guy was a great speaker and all, especially when he was talking about how he single-handedly started the Pokemon trading card boom in America, but about 90% of the names he was dropping went completely over my head.

Also, that day or Thursday marked another great milestone of my trip to Japan, the foreign and exotic land of sushi, samurai and sudoku. Yeah, I went to McDonald's. It's actually more different than you would expect; the restaurant is cleaner, the service is infinitely better and the food is actually good. I got a surprisingly delicious teriyaki burger (pretty much what it sounds like), though I still can't stand their fries.

That's J.K. with the last of my teriyaki sauce.

I also talked with Kudo-san, in which we determined that I would move in the following Wednesday at the earliest. I studied and slept for the rest of the day or something; I don't remember.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The second part of my two-part Monday entry

[Since you probably won't see 'Orientating' before this post, I suggest you scroll down and read my thrilling descriptions of orientation sessions and my gustatory preferences. While I'm making meta-notes, I'll also add that I'm really going to try to keep the entries shorter eventually, but bear with me for now. Also, feel free to ask me any questions and I'll try and get to them.]

So I got up at 7 the next day; I tried to persuade my body to accept it by noting that it was actually 6 in the evening in North Carolina, but there was nothing going. We had breakfast at 8:15, and hadn't left by 8:40, at which point I was starting to get a bit antsy; after all, if Makuhari was that close, they wouldn't have put a train stop there. "Can we really get there in 20 minutes?" I asked. "Sure," Anthony said. "I've made it in 5 before." I was still a bit trepidant until we pulled up to the back gate of Kanda at 8:52; I made it to class on time.

Basically, the way that my school schedule works is that I have my intermediate Japanese class with 8 other students from my program. Every day. From 9 to12:30. Then we have lunch, and on Wednesdays and Thursdays we have our Contemporary Japanese Pop Culture class with Aratake-sensei (our Japanese teacher from UNC) from 1:30-4. Thursdays are set aside for field trips to various places in Japan, though, so those don't really count.

So we had class (which was entirely in Japanese), then ate at Kanda's La Paz cafeteria. Despite the name, its main fare is mostly Japanese dishes; I got something involving chicken and tofu which wasn't terrible. After that we had another orientation session, after which we were free to go.

Kanda University is actually a pretty neat place. Officially called KUIS, or the Kanda University for International Studies, it's a fairly small campus that focuses almost entirely on language-based majors (that is, English, Chinese, French, linguistics, etc.) and has a somewhat international constituency. One of the highlights is the SALC, a resource center where you can rent videos, books, etc. in various languages, or even watch them there--but you have to speak in a language different from your primary one to do anything. The directors noted that many of the students there were chomping at the bit to get their hands on some native English speakers, an opportunity I plan to explore sometime soon. I'll also try and get some Kanda pictures in the near future.

Anyway, we hung around there for a while before going back, getting dinner, and starting on homework. To give an idea of how fast we're going: in Japanese 101 and 102, we spent an average time of a week and a half to two weeks on a given chapter. Here, we're doing one every two and a half days. They certainly weren't kidding when they said this wasn't going to be a light summer program.

That evening I also talked to Takeda-san about her Internet connection. When I turned wireless radio on on my laptop, I detected an unencrypted connection named 'Takeda', but couldn't get it to connect. (Japan Paradox #2: How is it possible in the most technologically advanced nation in the world to only pick up one wireless network in the suburbs of Tokyo?) It turns out that they would have to bring somebody out to manually assign an IP or something equally inane, which would cost about 3000 yen. Apparently, another student would be coming in July 1st, and I could split the cost with them at that time. Until then, though, I was stranded at home without a Net.

This is way too much text at once. So here's a picture of my room.

(I believe that was also the day I made my TELEGRAM VIA BLOG post and recorded a few videos in which I sounded a touch glum. Mostly I was tired and cranky, and just coming down from the height of my culture-shock. I was trying to access wireless Internet in the SALC and couldn't get my computer to work, and the lady at the front desk was obviously looking at me in a chiding way for using my primary language, and I was completly thinking "I just want to talk to Hadley; I very strongly suggest you don't make me mad"; I ended up getting transferred to a help desk that nobody was attending to. I went home and slept. I'm a lot better now. Japan was still great anyway. :D)

Tuesday was just as hectic. Class was nothing new, though this time we ate at a cafeteria mostly trading in noodles--udon, ramen, soba, and the like. I grabbed a dish that looked like chicken but was actually tofu (you may sense the beginnings of a trend here), and listened to certain people in my group discuss certain topics that I'll refrain from repeating for the sake of everybody involved. Suffice it to say that we all got up from the table... somewhat amused.

More big blocks of text. Ergo, the train station we get off at to go to Kanda and the IES Center.

Later that day, at the IES Center, we all had individual mandatory meetings with Kudo-san to discuss the situations with our host families. Mine was alright, I supposed, but I was still a bit wary about the whole situation. Since I was one of the last people assigned a host family, I wasn't sure how much the decision to take me was Takeda-san's and how much it was IES's, I wasn't too comfortable with making an 80-year-old cater to my whims in the first place, and I felt like I was in general missing out on the 'host family' experience most of the rest of my group was experiencing.

I voiced these concerns (save the first one, naturally) to Kudo-san, and because she had mentioned Saturday that a host family switch might be possible, I told her I might like to begin exploring that avenue. She said it would probably take one or two weeks to find one, to which I replied, "Oh, take three if you need to. I'd like a couple of weeks anyway, just to see if I grow accustomed to this situation." After all, Takeda-san was very nice, quite permissive regarding curfews and all that, and a good English speaker, though her accent was, at times, indecipherable.

That evening, I finally met Matt, the other IES student. Anthony and I, for some reason, never really seemed to hit it off. Matt was completely different, however; it may have been that we were both just novices in Japanese, but for some reason we immediately clicked. As a 26-year-old physics major at the University of South Carolina, he had a rather unique perspective on the education system in general, and we talked at length about that, his experiences in Japan, and the various information about the homestay I had hoped to learn from somebody or another. By the end of the evening, I was feeling much more confident about the situation in general; not completely so, but not clawing-at-the-walls to get out, either. I planned to discuss this with Kudo-san the next chance I got, which would likely be Friday.

Anyway, Wednesday was the first day I finally started getting into a routine. Hopefully, this means it'll be the first day I get to tell you more about Japan proper--I'll be more descriptive soon, honest to Abraham. Bike to school, try not to fail the kanji quiz, eat at a nearby convenience store (a fairly popular option), walk to the IES Center for Aratake's class. Generally, we're going to have a lecture and a short essay due, but since this was the first week we mostly talked about our homestays and figured out how to use the subway system for our upcoming field trip. We got out early and I spent approximately forever on the Internet, a habit I'm really going to have to kick if I want to get more sleep. And given the coherency of my more recent posts, I imagine all of us can agree that more sleep is a good thing.

Two more things to mention quickly, though. Firstly, one of the things that's really caught my attention since I've been here is the Small-World Syndrome in action. You really can't believe how you can find connections with people no matter how far away you go until you actually... get out and go there. At the soccer game, for instance, one of the girls from Tuscaloosa was going to apply to UNC. Takeda-san herself had been there back in 1981. At IES, one of the Kanda University students working there had just finished a course in linguistics, something I'm sure we would have talked about for who-knows-how-long if I hadn't had to get going. Another student, Yuji, is a huge fan of the Chiba Lotte Marines, managed by Bobby Valentine, former manager of my quasi-cherished Mets. (I used to be a fan, then sort of stopped paying attention to baseball. Now they're leading the NL East and I can't start liking them again because then I'm a fair-weather fan. So it goes.) The stadium is about 500 yards from the IES Center, actually (in fact), another opportunity I plan to exploit utilize very soon. It's pretty fascinating, I suppose is all I'm saying.

Secondly, I've decided I'm going to have a Vending Machine Special of the Day conclusion to every post. There must be hundreds of various drinks in popular distribution; I'm going to try and drink a different one each time I buy one unless I fall in love with one or actually buy everything in sight. So, Special #1:

Pocari Sweat! Possibly one of the two most famous badly-named soft drinks of Japan (along with 'Calpis'), Sweat (Pocari? PS?) is actually one of my more favorite beverages so far. It's essentially a clear, watered-down version of Gatorade. While some prefer it for this reason--it's less sugary-sweet, doesn't pack as much of a punch, etc.--I'm not totally convinced. I'm still going to see if I can bring a bottle back with me, though.


When we last left our intrepid protagonist, he was sitting in the only American chair in his room at the Wakamatsu Honten, collecting himself and trying to figure out how to open the minibar so he could pay 300 yen (approx. $2.70) for a glass of grape juice. So anyway, he's hanging out when in walk his other two roommates for the rest of the week.

Derek I already know. He's a friend of mine from Japanese 102 and has the infinite patience necessary to help me with my speaking skills in there. Scott, however, is one of the two people not from UNC in our program; he's a rising junior at NYU. (Incidentally, I met the other Tarless Heel--Larissa, from William and Mary--on the flight to Narita and didn't find out she was in our group until about 5 minutes after we sat down.) We all got acquainted as I quickly realised I'm the third-best Japanese speaker in the room.

Derek and a really bad picture of our room.

Soon we were off to the dinner prepared by the ryokan, where I made yet another discovery: Japanese food, in general, is about as opposed to my general preferences as any genre of food could likely be. Most of it is quite tasty, of course; over the next few days, the ryokan served us seaweed (which is a surprisingly good snack when flattened and dried), miso soup, beef, potatoes, and corn on a miniature skillet at our seat, and a variety of vegetables and sauces which I can't even begin to describe. And, of course, all the rice you can eat. Rice is very big in Japan.

Unfortunately, a lot of it tends to fall into a few categories, gustatorially speaking. Most Japanese food is salty, or neutral at best, often piping hot (especially tea), and composed largely of vegetables and seafood, with a fair bit of pork and tofu and a little bit of beef. I, however, am a veritable, fruit-loving sweet tooth, with a mouth that blisters at the sight of hot drinks and a meat diet composed about 90% of chicken. As you can imagine, I learned to enjoy some new foods pretty quickly. After dinner, we had the rest of the evening to ourselves, so some of us decided to take a walk.

Now Japan is a country modern and urban to the point that, if you took a picture in some places and ignored the weird writing, you could almost mistake it for America. If you live here, though, there's no way getting around the differences you see with every step you take. One of the first, and one I'll come back to several times, are the vending machines.

That sort of sight is not at all uncommon. Vending machines, for some reason I swear I will find out before I leave, are insanely popular here. The one on the right sells ice cream, and further up the road there was a sight I don't think I've seen in years:

Holy smokes!

Cigarettes! I haven't found anything too unusual in a vending machine yet, though, but when I do you'll be the first to know. A drink costs about 100-150 yen ($.90-$1.35 US), which isn't a bad deal even if the containers are a bit smaller. Actually, I haven't found many things to be a lot more expensive here than they are in the US. Obviously I find myself grumbling at a price now and then, but it's definitely no worse than, say, New York City.

Eventually, we made it back to the hotel. Though a few people decided to go back out later that night, I took my public bath (there was nobody else in there, thank heavens) and crashed early. The rest of the week pretty much went up from there.

Friday I got up, had breakfast, and sat through some orientation sessions that were, in the immortal words of Norbert Beaver, "almost interesting." I did sort of find it amusing that they had the lecture on how to use Tokyo mass transit about 18 too hours late to help me, but so it goes. After that was lunch, wherein half of us (there's 16 people in our group, if I didn't mention that yet) wandered around before pretty much crashing a noodle place. I had udon, which is essentially thick noodles, green beans, scallions, and other such things in a hot broth. There was also a fried prawn floating in there.
My first meal somewhere I felt comfortable taking pictures!

If you can actually see the people in here, from left to right: Catherine, Sally-Beth, Amber, J.K., Derek, Larissa, Laurel.

Our ryokan was across the street from a famous temple, so we toured that next. I could tell you all about the various buildings, rituals, and rites, and so on, but I have a feeling I'll be able to do that for one of the twenty or so temples and shrines I'll be visiting in the next six weeks. We did get to experience the goma ritual, however, which was pretty neat. Then we had yet another orientation session and dinner; I slipped out to an Internet cafe and became possibly the first person in Narita to ask for fantasy baseball advice online, but I forget when that happened.

Hi, Ed!

Don't panic. *rimshot*

Somebody had seen a karaoke bar earlier in the day, so that night some of us went out in a quest for bad singing and overpriced alcohol. (Incidentally, the drinking age in Japan is 20, and theoretically there's virtually never carding of foreigners. Not like I'd drink anyway.) After a few failed attempts and at least two ascents of sketchy staircases at late hours, we finally stumbled upon the Whitehouse Bar, which was small, virtually empty, and ready to be karaoke'd up. I belted out the Blues Brothers' "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love"--to everyone's regret, I assure you--but we all had a great time anyway. We made it back to the hotel and I quickly fell asleep.

The next day (Saturday the 17th, for those of you keeping track at home) we checked out of our ryokan and took the train to Makuhari New City, where we had yet another orientation: this time on Kanda University, where our classes would be, and the IES Center, where our study abroad group operated out of. That afternoon, we were all to meet with our host families at the Center, but Kudo-san, the housing coordinator, pulled me aside about half an hour before their arrival and brought up two minor points of discussion. Firstly, Takeda-san wouldn't be able to make it today, so Kudo-san herself would take me to her house later. Given that I didn't anticipate having many problems making my one-stop subway ride, that was alright with me, if slightly disappointing. Secondly, she said, I would be living with another IES student, one who had been there since spring. Would that be fine? Sure, I said; I mean, what's the problem with having someone around who can point out all the perils and pitfalls to you?

When we got to Takeda-san's house, a few things became clear. Firstly, Takeda-san was unable to make it that afternoon because of the weekly English club she ran, though I later found out she also has problems going out in the sun because of a skin condition. Secondly, she currently had one IES student in her house--and another IES student and four Japanese students in a house of hers about a block away, across a nice little park. Normally I would have gotten the spare room in Takeda-san's house proper, but because she was hosting Karen, a high school senior from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for a few days, it wouldn't be open until Monday and I was taken to the other house. Before I could ask myself whether I was in a homestay or a hostel, I was dropped off in my room and left to my own devices until dinner.

The house itself was nice; it had a well-decorated commons room downstairs and decent facilities. My room wasn't air-conditioned and was on the floor with the Japanese students, but it was bigger than I expected and didn't have any roommates. The food was also good, though I ate only with Takeda-san for the first evening. Anthony was in Yokohama for the day, Matt was in Okinawa until Monday night, and the Japanese students ate by themselves. The situation was a bit unusual, of course, but I chalked up much of my emotions to culture shock and felt considerably better after a good night's sleep.

Sunday I was planning on unpacking and doing some final studying before class started Monday, but after breakfast Takeda-san decided that I would spend the morning with Karen at some sports event in Narashino, the city my homestay's house is in. It's also the sister city to Tuscaloosa, which explained why Karen and about a dozen other Tuscaloosan high schoolers had spent the last few weeks in and around the city. The event itself, I have to say, was pretty fun; we played soccer and some weird dodgeball variant with Narashinoans of all ages, and then had a multicultural lunch. I knew more Japanese than pretty much everybody from Alabama (chaperones included), which made me a bit more comfortable.

Soccer, I think. Karen's #8.

After that, some friends of Takeda-san's came to pick us up. But we didn't go home--no, of course not, that would be much too easy. Instead we went to Tsudanuma station, and from there to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, right outside the Tokyo city limits. It basically covered the history of Tokyo, from its pre-capital days in the 16th century to the 1962 Olympics. Pretty cool--I'll have to go back again, since I just didn't have enough time--but probably not as cool to describe. Ditto for the dozen or so pictures I took of random scale models, though I can put those up if y'all want me to.

Anyway, we got back in the early evening and had dinner, where I met Anthony. He seemed alright enough, though he was just getting over a cold, so his edge was taken off. Since the general consensus among IES, Takeda-san, and Anthony was that biking is infinitely preferable to taking the subway, he told me he would show me the route Monday, when I had to get up bright and early for my 9:00 class.

In another notable event that night, I had my first stunted conversation with someone entirely in Japanese! I ran into one of the Japanese students in the hallway, where we discussed our names, our reasons for being in the Tokyo area, and the availability of wireless Internet in the house. Not knowing the Japanese for 'wireless encryption key', however, talks soon came to an impasse and I finished with an "私はあしたたけだーさんと話します。" (Watashi wa ashita Takeda-san to hanashimasu, or 'I will talk with Ms. Takeda tomorrow'.)

Friday, June 23, 2006

Sporadic updating schedule

Alright. The basic situation:

As of right now, I have Internet access from about 2-4 PM every Monday, Tuesday, and Friday. Given that I'm trying to check all of my emails, &c. in this time period, it's sort of hard for me to maintain the schedule I'd ideally like to. I've taken to writing blog entries at home and then uploading them when I get access, but this first week has been so time-consuming I've had to cut into sleep (as in, after midnight) to make any headway at all. And I know there are people out there, myself included, who don't much care for that.

So anyway, how it's going to go from now on: I'm going to be without access for the rest of the weekend, compounded by the fact that I'm going to be spending half of it in lovely Kamakura. Ergo, I'm going to make two updates late Sunday night (Monday afternoon Tokyo time), and follow it up with two more Monday night. By then, I should be at the point where what I'm blogging is actually what happened to me since the previous post. In short, don't worry about checking this website until then--but please do make sure to after that.

To compensate, here's a random picture of Narita I don't think I'll be able to fit in anywhere else.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Problems and bigger ones

So, yeah, I'm in Japan.

It's been about a week (as in, one-sixth of my program) since I arrived, but this is only my first real post. The horrendous lack of updating, which I'm sure has held many of you in unbearable suspense, is due primarily to a lack of steady Internet, and secondarily to the fact that I'm so darn busy. I hope the reasons for both will become clear as I try to catch up to date on here.

However, if you had asked me the day after I landed in Tokyo why I hadn't updated, my answer would be along the lines of "every single force of man and nature conspiring against me to make me look like a fool." I started my first-ever solo flight by holding up the Raleigh-Durham security gate for three minutes while I emptied my pockets. For those of you who don't know me well, let's do a brief run-through of what I typically carry in a pair of cargo pants/shorts:

Right top pocket:
- 2-3 pens
- 1-2 pencils
- Burt's Bees chapstick/lipbalm/whatever
- Car keys
- Spare change
Left top pocket:
- Cell phone
- Mints
- Assorted items, if present (wrappers, receipts, etc.)
Right bottom pocket:
- Trade paperback book
- Moleskine
- Scrap paper/maps
Left bottom pocket:
- iPod w/headphones
- Digital camera
- Glasses

Add my Point-It Dictionary, my passport, and who knows what else to the mix, and you begin to see the botch of an unsatisfactory situation I was in.

Surprisingly, the connecting flight to Dallas was relatively painless. To compensate, naturally, I managed to be the only person (out of 10) from our program's group flight to catch the first inter-terminal shuttle, almost getting my head caught in the sliding doors in the process. Got my ear nicked a bit, but nothing but my pride fatally damaged.

Somehow, I managed to also get through the Dallas-Narita flight in one piece. Since I spent most of my time reading a book, watching Casablanca twice, and taking some great pictures of the Canadian Rockies, I suppose there wasn't much trouble I could get into. I also only got about 5 minutes of sleep, which may help explain a lot of the following.

This is why you don't wake me up at 5:30 in the morning.

Ooh... ahh...

So we got into Narita (45 minutes early!), shuffled through customs, and met the representatives from IES in the terminal, where we were immediately told that we needed to pack two nights' worth of stuff for our program orientation, while the rest would be directly sent to our host family. Unsurprisingly, this was a mild shock to... everybody, as was the experience of converting our money into yen and immediately using it to pay for shipping our baggage. My first direct confrontation with a non-English-speaking Japanese here--the cashier--... did not go astonishingly well.

While half of the group was off getting Japan-usable cellphones (Japan Paradox #1: How is the most technologically advanced nation in the world unwilling/unable to adapt to a mobile phone protocol virtually every other country has already adopted?), the Kanda University student in charge of us for the next 90 minutes decided to go ahead and take the other half of us to the orientation site. The Wakamatsu Honten, a ryokan (りょかん, or Japanese-style inn) in Narita, promised to be highly interesting and a 15-minute train and bus ride away.

Although your faithful protagonist made it through most of the ride intact, if rather bemused, he did stumble upon a problem when he discovered you needed your train ticket to get both in and out of the station. Though I didn't lose it--that would have been much too cliche--I did spend an amount of time reminiscent of Raleigh-Durham before I finally found it and disposed of it in the machine. We arrived at the ryokan a few minutes later, where, of course, I was the first person from my room to show up. Though this sent me into a tizzy for a few more minutes, it did, at least, give me a few minutes to collect myself before we moved on to the orientation proper.

If I recall correctly, Catherine (far right) said she would decapitate me for taking this picture. Hopefully I'll be far away by the time she sees this.

Soko wa Wakamatsu Honten desu.

More updates coming late Wednesday or Thursday America time. Don't worry, it gets a bit worse and then a lot better.

Monday, June 19, 2006







Tuesday, June 13, 2006

It appears to be a link, sir

My last set of random links until Japan. Consequently, this is also probably going to be my last update until Saturday morning (US time), so my political Manifesto Lite will have to wait until another day. I'll see if I can hook up in DFW or something, though.

Here's a veritable slew of stuff to make up for it:

ESPN: "Ex-Duke star Redick arrested for DWI"
As someone on the UNC LJ group said: "I wonder if he'll write a poem about it."

Time: "Are Left-Leaning Bloggers Ready for Their Close-up?"
So this last weekend Daily Kos, the largest left-of-center blog on the Internet, held its first annual conference in Las Vegas (the marginally-wittily-named Yearly Kos). Though the 1,000+ attendance may not be groundshattering, the roll call of attendees and speakers--Mark Warner, Harry Reid, Wesley Clark, Tom Vilsack, and NC-13's own Brad Miller, among others--demonstrates that many politicians think that these people mean business.

I have a slightly love-hate relationship with Daily Kos. Too many of their second-tier bloggers, in my view, spend too much time on invective and not enough time putting ideology above party lines. Nevertheless, as the vanguard of a grassroots movement with a real motivation for political reformation (as in removing corruption and bureaucracy, not yanking everything as far left as they can), they're doing a good job. Anyway, the above is a moderate-length, faintly-praising report on the convention in general, though it's sort of cheating since the author is former blog hyper-celebrity Wonkette.

MSNBC: Meet The Press, June 11 Transcript
This also features Daily Kos (namely, founder Markos Moulitsas) and its convention, but does a decent job of covering the entire blog-based movement and brings in some figures from across the political spectrum. Unfortunately, this means it's also pretty darn long. An edited version of the broadcast is available here; I found this interesting primarily because Markos somehow manages to go the entire interview without moving a muscle below his neck. Not a bad speaker, though.

AlphaDictionary: "A Glossary of Quaint Southernisms"
I stumbled across this and found it sort of interesting, but after about fifteen minutes on the Internet you learn to be leery of any linguistic information you find online. So I did a bit of research--and came across an astonishing fact. AlphaDictionary was founded by Dr. Robert Beard--the only product that I've ever heard of of the UNC Linguistics program! Astonishing! (Note: If you're some advisor or who-knows-what reading this blog five years from now when deciding whether to hire me to teach linguistics, have pity on me. I'm just a simple little undergrad.)

Granted, nobody says 90% of the words on the list anymore, but I definitely enjoy letting loose a 'might could' every once in a while.

2006 WebCartoonists' Choice Awards- Final Nominations
This is one of those awards lists that reads like the superlatives page in the Minor Podunk High School yearbook: you keep on seeing the same five people on the list over and over again. I can understand if they somehow think there are only ten comics out there worthy of recognition, and they are good choices and all, but do they have to emphasize it by creating awards for every conceivable category? "Outstanding Science Fiction Comic"--that makes sense, the best comic out there in exemplifying science fiction. But "Outstanding Short Form Comic"?

Like I said, though, it's not as if they're picking terrible comics or anything, so check that topic out if you're looking for something new to read (or if you don't read webcomics at all, tsk tsk). There's more or less something for everyone out there.
Thanks to LiarXAgerate for bringing this to my attention. This isn't really a noteworthy site by any stretch of the word, but it did remind me of what was far and away my favorite show when I was 10 years old. Interestingly, absolutely nobody from this group went on to any reasonable acting success--except for one Jewel Staite (Catalina), who apparently had a big role in Firefly/Serenity. Devil if I'd know.

Anyway, see y'all in a few days.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Technical fun

The fun part about Blogger is that although there's a plethora of basic templates to choose from when deciding how your site should look, every single one except for the most plug-ugly gives you very little actual space to write your posts. The result of this is lines that are maybe ten or so words long apiece; to read a sentence of any fair length (like this one), you have to jump back and forth across the page like one of those sidebar stories on the front page of the newspaper. For example, my 'host family' post, which I considered reasonably short, took up a screen and a half on my laptop. Heaven knows what would happen if I tried to post an opinion piece. The current layout also makes it a bit harder to upload decent-sized pictures.

Unfortunately, with the way the template's set up, the only way to make it wider is to manually go in and edit about a dozen images while still keeping their transparency. I may try this sometime in the future--pretty much everyone visiting here so far is on a resolution bigger than 800x600--but for now I'll have to make do with more stopgap solutions. I'm toying a bit with the font size and margins, so I can fit more in a decent space without cramming everything together. If you're reading this, you're seeing my new changes, so let me know if this is better, worse, or what. (If you can't tell a difference, try refreshing the page.)

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Link rundown

Random news and web gems:

Yahoo News: "iPods more popular than beer"
Running a survey where you ask which things are 'in' is perhaps the most unscientific way of determing popularity among college students--why not just use a modified Q score?--but the implications this has on collegiate iPod usage are pretty interesting. Ditto for Facebook, which merely 'tied' with beer in the study.

Washington Post: "Specter Offers Compromise on NSA Surveillance"
I'm typically on the center side of the left (more to come on that soon), but does it strike anybody else as odd that this 'compromise' essentially says: "Presidential wiretapping without oversight isn't illegal. But just in case it is, we're going to change the law so it isn't, and pardon anybody who broke the law while it was illegal"? I would seriously appreciate an alternate perspective on this.

'Weird Al' Yankovic- You're Pitiful (direct link to mp3)
From his upcoming new album, verified by his site. Mom, I know you're reading this. Click on that link now.

the tall blond guy goes to Japan
Not a new link by any means. In fact, it's aged almost to the point of uselessness, but the fact remains that this was probably my first big encounter with Japanese culture when I found it back in 2000 or so. It's still pretty funny anyway.

Also, to 'anonymous' who asked for a postcard in the comments: ...what?


Yesterday evening, I finally got my email from IES about my Japanese host family. I immediately pounced onto the attached file--virtually everyone else in the program had gotten their letter before me--toyed with the zoom until I could actually read the page, and found out that I would be spending the first six weeks of my life outside of North America with... 80-year-old retired schoolteacher.

Although my mother immediately, to euphemize, became worried about the situation, I'm actually excited and a bit comforted. I was worried that I would be moving into a cramped Tokyo apartment with a nuclear family, like many of the other students. Of course, that would be extremely interesting and enrichening; however, I would hate to, for example, unknowingly be given one of the kids' bedrooms (which is apparently fairly common) or otherwise be an irreparable intrusion.

In her short introduction, Takeda-san (my homestay) mentioned that she had been on the hosting and visiting ends of homestays several times, and IES added that she was "an energetic lady who takes a leading role in the community". I was also worried that I might be put with a family that speaks little to no English, which could kill me before it made my (pitiful) Japanese stronger; that doesn't seem to be an issue here. Takeda-san, of course, seems like a nice person, and given the life she's lived I imagine she has a plethora of stories to tell.

I'm also in the fun situation of being only about two and a half miles from the IES Center, where our classes and other events are being held. Although I could bike there, there's the appealing prospect of ten minutes of walking plus a 4-minute, 150-yen ($1.30) subway ride. (By contrast, my friend Derek, who's also in the program, is about 40 minutes away by train.) I'm also about half a mile away from a post office, the predominant source of international ATMs in greater Tokyo. Finally, the Keiyo line that my local station on is pretty convenient for downtown Tokyo in general. All in all, a pretty psych-inducing situation.

Where I get on the subway (Warning for dialup users: Google Maps hates severely dislikes you)
Where I get off the subway

So today and Monday I get to finish my language review--mostly kanji, though I still have some advanced vocabulary and basic counters I should try and stuff into my head--and Wednesday I'm off! Don't expect to see me around much for a while. I've found out my mailing address, which I'll send to anybody who asks here or emails me, but try not to send anything too big--apparently the customs fees are brutal. I'll try and get postcards to everyone who asked, though.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


Welcome to Amphigory!

Although most of the people who're reading this already know me, I suppose I should put up some quick information for posterity. I'm currently a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I'm majoring in linguistics and minoring in astronomy.

No, I don't really know how you could combine the two. I'm sure there's a way, somehow.

I'm interested in too many things for my own good, but a short list would include sports, trivia, poker, reading, politics, pop sociology, networks, webcomics, theology and professional Scrabble. I'm prone to random bursts of obscure humor, I like long walks on the beach, and I'm a Virgo.

I've been considering creating this blog for a while. What finally gave me the impetus to just go ahead and do it, I guess, was my upcoming summer school program in Japan; I've told so many people I would keep them updated that it's probably easiest to just send out all my random stories and pictures in one fell swoop here. Once that's over with, though, I'll continue to update with interesting links, thoughts, and other bloggish things. (So many of them were just ending up in my AIM away messages that I got tired of deleting them every few hours.)

That's about it for now; I'll try to make my thoughts more connected and my style less pedantic as I go along. Let me know if you find any bugs or errors.