Monday, June 26, 2006


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'.)


At 8:26 AM, Anonymous Hads said...

Have you seen a vending machine that sells vending machines?! It's gonna be really big...

(I actually haven't read all this yet---I'll catch up during my break between classes! :-) )

At 9:50 AM, Anonymous tami said...

so Hads is really Mitch Hedberg!!!!
love these blogs!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
love you more


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