Sunday, July 30, 2006

I'm alive

Flew for 15 hours, slept for 16 hours, and now I'm back in North Carolina. The AC broke down in the top floor of our house, so it's 90 degrees in my room now. I could think of better ways of easing the transition from Japan to home, but I'll take this.

Top priorities now: sleeping, unpacking, getting stuff together to move in to the apartment, updating, catching up on various things I need to do, delivering gifts, keeping up with the World Series of Poker, etc. etc. etc. Update tomorrow, probably.

Friday, July 28, 2006

So long, farewell, Auf Weidersehen, goodbye...

Edit, 4:57 PM Japan Time: Hooray, this almost looks like it should now! Good thing, too, because I just paid $4.50 to edit this.

[This entry written at 12:30 last night. Apologies in advance. Also, for Susannah: I'll be in and out of Chapel Hill next week, on vacation the week after that, and then back for good.]


Told her that there was a place like Heaven,
Across the water on a 747:
Yeah, we're living in a modern world...

Well, let me tell you--if you're feeling alone,
'Stead of whinin' and moanin',
Just get on the phone, tell her you're coming home;
If you need her, you should be there,
Go home...

So here's to the nights we felt alive,
Here's to the tears you knew you'd cry;
Here's to goodbye--tomorrow's gonna come too soon...

But I'm coming home,
Made up my mind, that's what I'm gonna do.
Can't love nobody on a telephone,
I'm coming home to you...

(As through the dark the sun must rise,
Say sayonara to sad goodbyes...
See the dark light up your somber skies,
Say sayonara to sad goodbyes...

So here's to the nights we felt alive,
Here's to the tears you knew you'd cry;
Here's to goodbye--tomorrow's gonna come too soon...

Too soon...


So here's to the nights we felt alive,
(You're only an ocean away...)
So here's to the nights we felt alive,
(I watch the patchwork farms, slow fade
into the ocean's arms...
Here's to the nights, here's to the nights, here's to the--

I became friendly with Ruy Lopez,
the author of Works on Chess:
"Ruy", I said, "you're incorrect-"
He cut me off and acted mad.
He won't even talk to me now, but I don't care,
'Cause I'm sick of that guy and I need to
Rest awhile, rest awhile,

Rest awhile, rest awhile!

I'm taking off in about ten hours. I'll be keeping this updated on a fairly consistent basis for the forseeable future, but especially make sure to stick around for the next week or so. I'll try to make a few wrapup posts and get some pictures I never a found a space for put in. Thanks for reading, in any case, and I'll see y'all Saturday.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Simple enough

Had ten pages (literally) of homework dumped upon us today in addition to our test tomorrow, so this post will be a bit short again.

The Vend Of The World: Vending Machines In Japanese Society (11 MB, Powerpoint)

That is all. (Sorry for the weird download site.)

EDIT: Meh, I guess I can add more filler. ESPN: "Paul Lets Go Of Duke Rivalry On National Team":
Now the bitterness is gone. As new Houston Rocket and former Duke forward Shane Battier said, "We've all checked agendas and grudges at the door. This is way bigger than Duke-Carolina, Duke-Wake Forest. This isn't the time or place for that."
Two fun notes to take from this sentence:
1) Duke's rivalry with Carolina takes top billing in an article about a guy from Wake Forest;
2) It's a player on the Duke side of the rivalry making the quote.

Gotta love Chris Paul, though. He's already passed Stuart Scott to become the 2nd Most Famous Person From Forsyth County and is rapidly coming up on Ben Folds.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

What Mitch Hedberg calls 'filler'

Test was okay. Didn't have enough time to finish the post I was working on. I'll try to get that up early tomorrow morning.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Highway's divided; the city's in view

(This post, like a few others of mine, is pretty picture-intensive. So I can know how often I can get away with this, who are the dialup users out there who're attempting to e-strangle me right now for these things?)

We're coming into the home stretch now. Tuesday is the day of my final exam for my language class. Wednesday I have to co-give a 5-10 minute presentation to my pop culture class (on vending machines--insert your own 'pop' culture joke here). And Thursday I have some sort of amorphous 'oral exam' for same pop culture class, in addition to a final chapter test for my language class. Go figure.

The long and short of it is that this Friday and Saturday were going to be the last time I would have to myself until the 30th or so, so I was darn well going to make the most of it. I started with the walk around Makuhari I had been putting off for so long; I went through the park, a few arcades and down some side streets I hadn't seen before. There was a light drizzle, which is about the best weather you can consistently ask of Tokyo during the summer.

About the most useless device I found the entire time I was here: a sundial during rainy season.

Then came Chiba City, about fifteen minutes east by train. The "safe, suburbian lifestyle" didn't come too much into play in the two-block radius from the station that I saw, but I had a fun time looking at the vending machines and filling out the forms in the downtown there. I also came across this fun street band who called themselves 'Dream Rainbow' in a shopping center below the tracks. I wanted to stay, but had to get a move on, alas. I went back and got some sleep,


primarily because Saturday was going to be the day in which I got everything done. I had a list a page long of 'Things I Want To Do In Tokyo Before I Leave', and doggone it if I wasn't going to cross as many of them off that day as possible. After going to my second Hippo language meeting and doing some laundry, I got off to a late start--but hey, that just made the challenge more fun.

I arrived at Akihabara, my first stop, around 3:30 in the afternoon. I bought some gifts, convinced myself not to buy myself some more gifts, and moved on.

Next was the Imperial Palace, which I had tried to see earlier in the month and failed utterly at. Miraculously, though, it wasn't pouring rain this time. The palace proper was closed (it usually is, save for guided tours), but I did get a good shot of Nihombashi Bridge and the very outer part of the palace itself. From there I walked through Hibiya to Ginza, the famous shopping district. I only stayed for a minute, though; it was expensive to the point I probably should have been paying to breathe the air. Besides, I had a train to catch.

A monorail ride took me out to Odaiba, one of Tokyo's new reclaimed-land developments and a burgeoning beachside attraction. I walked around, took a picture of a 50-foot-tall Statue of Liberty, dipped my hand in the Pacific Ocean, &c. &c.

After that was Harajuku. I ate a crepe and performed some somewhat more secret activities there. Oh, I bought a beach towel with the subway sign for Akihabara on it. I guess I can mention that. It would have been worth it just to go for the crepe, though.

Two stations away was Shinjuku, where I was hoping to go see the Park Hyatt hotel of Lost in Translation fame. After reconsulting with my Frommer's guide, though, I found out that it was about a 20-minute walk away. Not having that much time, I promptly turned right back around and got on the train.

From there, I headed to Shibuya, the business district of Tokyo. I snapped some photos of a really large vending machine for my project (at the Excel Hotel) and went to Tower Records.

After that was the Tokyo Tower. Somehow inconvenient to every subway station despite being smack in the center of town, this was a hike in itself but ultimately worth it. I got in about fifteen minutes before it closed, so I couldn't go to the 850-foot observatory at the top, but I did get a look from about 450 feet up, which was a good enough moment for me to close the day on.

From there, I took the subway and then the JR Line back home. Still, I managed to check off one more item on my list--eating at Becker's. In virtually every train station in Tokyo, there's either a Beck's Coffee or Becker's Burgers and Sandwiches. As far as I can tell, there's no relation between the two, but their ubiquity and inane Americaness meant I simply had to go to one before I left. I got a ham sandwich and an apple pie; they were okay.

So for review, here's a list of the stations I went through that day. This is transfers only, of course; if I included the stations we passed through that I didn't actually set foot in, this would be a novel. Anyway:

Kita-kashiwa -> Kashiwa -> Ueno -> Akihabara -> Ochanomizu -> Otemachi -> Nijubashimae -(walk to)> Ginza -> Shimbashi -> Daiba -> Shimbashi -> Harajuku -> Shinjuku -> Shibuya -> Nagatacho -(walk to)> Akasaka-mitsuke -> Kasumigaseki -> Kamiyacho -> Kita-senju -> Kashiwa -> Kita-kashiwa

Wasn't that interesting? Sunday I slept and studied. Because of that final exam, I won't make any guarantees about the length or quality of any of my posts until I get back to America. I'll still be doing my best to make it once a weekday, though, so keep stopping by.

Vending Machine Special: Newspaper

Seen in Chiba station, this is so totally going in my report. I think half of the newspapers are today's and half are yesterday's, but don't quote me on that.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Warning: tangents ahead

They kicked us out of the IES Center early today; they were setting up a farewell party for the IES students who've been here since January. So no pictures for now, though I may be able to sneak some in come Monday.

Anyway, last Thursday our class engaged in the final part of our three-part Go To Places It's Impossibly Hard To Get Tickets For Series: the
Ghibli Museum. This museum, in the middle of a park on the far side of Tokyo, was the brainchild of Hayao Miyazaki. The legendary director of films such as Princess Mononoke, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Spirited Away, Miyazaki is (very oversimplistically) more or less the Walt Disney of Japan. He differs, among other ways, in his production style: instead of a warehouse with hundreds of animators, Miyazaki uses a small group of talented artists, each focusing on a different character. This ups the production time tremendously, of course, but brings a certain quality and intangible spirit to Miyazaki's work. (I wouldn't know; I seem to be the only person in the entire group who never saw a one of his movies before we came here.)

The Ghibli Museum seemed to exhibit these same qualities. Definitely on the small side (which is probably why there's a three-month waiting list for tickets) and intricately designed, this is one of the few buildings I've been in that actually managed to have a surprise around every corner. Certainly a fantastic museum for kids, which got me to thinking.

Thirty-odd years ago, the big focus in culture--American culture, at least, that being the only one I know much anything about--was on science fiction. Flash Gordon inspired George Lucas to make Star Wars, which brought the expansive vistas of Issac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke to life, which brought imagination to the practical science that America was shoving down its kids' throats in the wake of Sputnik. I've lost count of how many scientists/academics/programmers I've read about who first became interested in their field after reading I, Robot, or going to Disneyland's Tomorrowland, or even watching Star Trek for the first time. Some would have found these icons on their own, of course, but if the genre hadn't been given such a spotlight in its time countless others would have been lost.

Of course, absolutely none of that is true now. We won the Cold War, and if our new struggle requires an educational focus at all, it'll either be in military intelligence or linguistics. The former wouldn't gain much--it's popular enough as it is--and good luck constructing a culture on the latter. Sci-fi novels, while still decent-selling, no longer have any household names to their credit, and I'm pretty sure there hasn't been a popular original science fiction movie released in the last ten years.

So, where has all this cultural steam been piped to? Science fiction's fraternal twin, fantasy. I could expound on this for a few paragraphs, but I'm getting tired, so I'll just throw a bunch of names out to make my point: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, World of Warcraft, Pixar, The Da Vinci Code (kidding), Pokemon, Narnia, Lost (not kidding). And don't forget Princess Mononoke, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Spirited Away.

The causes of this change would probably be interesting to research sometime, but I'll just take it as it is for now. The issue, then, is the effect that such a change may ultimately have on American culture as a whole. Forgive my brutal overgeneralizations again, but because of its prominent role, science fiction definitely contributed to the technophilia of the 1980s and 1990s, probably helped develop the concept of rationality in the public mindset, and may have even promoted a general efficiency in the processes of America as a whole.

Whither fantasy, then? You would think, at first glance, that such a genre catching the nation's eye would bring about nothing positive; it would have none of the pragmatic benefits of science fiction. That's exactly the point. The settings of fantasy, whether they be sprawling worlds of nature or ever-so-subtle tweaks of where we live today, require the reader to extend their imagination, keep an open mind and remember that anything is possible. Although science fiction does do this, it seems to do it in a much more limited sense. "You can build anything you want to, with enough hard work" is a breathtaking premise, but compare it to "you can do anything you want to, with enough hard work." Combine this optimism with a developed concern for the world around you (both in the environmental sense and in the care-for-our-fellow-man sense), and you begin to see a trend. The scientists of yesterday just may become the activists of tomorrow. And who knows; maybe it's time for a change. What do y'all think?

Anyway, the deer thing. I'm sure a lot of you have seen the picture of me surrounded by a bunch of deer by now. If you haven't, it'll be up first thing next week. Anyway, the last part of our trip to Nara last weekend (see below) was a visit to Nara Park, which has something upwards of 1,000 sacred deer roaming the grounds. Because these grounds also have several temples and a bunch of restaurants, these deer have become ridiculously tame, and are more than willing to approach random humans in search of something edible.

Especially when you just bought 150 yen worth of deer food and are holding it above your head. Now you know.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Overheard in Tokyo

On the structure of our Japanese curriculum:
"They teach us how to say 'lecherous person', but they don't teach us how to say 'perfect'."
On loud gaijin in Japan:
"Remember, we're the scariest thing here right now. Maybe the yakuza, and then us."
-some friend of Mitchell's
On why Nintendo named their new console the 'Nintendo Wii':
"Well, they did it for the furor."
"...They did it for the Fuhrer?!"
-Catherine and Mitchell
Longer post tomorrow, including a quick detour back to Nara to explain my new Facebook picture.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

On wanting to grab onto something and hold on tightly

"So", I know you're all wondering, "what is this town that you go through every morning to get to school like?" Actually, this is completely untrue--if you are wondering that, I sure as heck don't know it--but I'm going to talk about it some anyway. Besides, there's no way I'm going to talk about that chapter test today.

Makuhari New City was first conceived of in the early 1980s. Chiba, the Newark to Tokyo's New York (but with less crime and toxic waste), was attempting to reinvent itself as both a safe suburb and a thriving business center in its own right. One of the centerpieces for this movement focused on a patch of land that was, at the time, being reclaimed from Tokyo Bay and made fit for settlement. The planned city would become a high-tech haven for businesses, a residential complex convenient to Tokyo, Narita International Airport, and Chiba City, and a seaside center for conventions and entertainment. With the completion of the gigantic Makuhari Messe convention center in October 1989, Makuhari New City was declared 'open'.

The view from my classroom. Weather is par for the course.

Pretty much every decent space within fifty miles of the Imperial Palace has been developed for quite some time, but Makuhari still stands out above the density surrounding it. There's about two dozen buildings taller than thirty stories within a few square miles, including the headquarters of Seiko, Canon, BMW Japan, and various hotels.

Even more interesting, though, is what doesn't stand out. Unlike virtually all of downtown Tokyo, Makuhari was designed with an elaborate system of parks and greenbelts. Some snake across the entire city, with benches, fountains, and all sorts of greenery. Another larger park, next to the station, is wider and has a manmade beach at its end. Sidewalks, bridges, and other such infrastructure is very common, making Makuhari ideal for its 20,000 pedestrian residents and 100,000 commuting students and 'salarymen'.

Makuhari is divided up into several loose districts: the residential zone, corporate zone, education zone, and entertainment zone. The latter, which gets most of the beach space, is home to Chiba Marine Stadium, Makuhari Messe, and some pretty large shopping centers and movie theaters.

Anyway, I haven't had time to go see about two-thirds of this--but it's certainly nice to know it's there. If you ever go to Tokyo, it may not necessarily be worth your while to travel the forever out to Kaihin-Makuhari Station, but there are certainly worse ideas.

Vending Machine Special: Super H2O

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's... another generic energy drink!

You may have noticed by now that there aren't too many different drink manufacturers in these pictures. Pretty much 95% of the drink machines I've seen in Japan are run by one of three companies: Asahi, Suntory, and Pokka. Interestingly, Asahi and Suntory are primarily known for their beer and other alcoholic drinks. (Yes, that's the Suntory of "For relaxing times... make it Suntory time" fame.)

[A few more pictures later this week.]

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Kyoto: the official anagram of Tokyo

This weekend started with yet another 8 AM alarm and a trip to somewhere I desperately didn't want to be (i.e. anywhere but my bed). We started off our adventure with a Shinkansen ride to Kyoto, which actually was pretty fun. From the inside, it was eerily similar to an airplane that rocked a bit every few minutes--and with better scenery. I managed to stay awake the entire two-hour, 175-mph ride down, but didn't see too much of note.

We spent Saturday, Sunday and Monday morning in Kyoto, the capital of Japan from about 1200 to 1700 AD. (Interestingly, it's still considered a 'capital' by some Japanese even today, though it has no official designation as such.) The rest of Monday was spent in Nara, some 20 miles away and the capital of Japan during the 8th century AD. The overwhelming majority of our time was spent visiting assorted temples and shrines, so I'll try and give a quick rundown of each of those:


Sanjusangendo Hall: Contains 1,001 life-size replications of the Kannon Buddha, as well as one pretty big replication. Something like eight hundred years old.

Nijo Castle: The home of the shogun when Kyoto was the capital of Japan. This series of palaces has, among other security systems, boards that "squeak like nightingales" when you step on them. Also has one heck of a moat, and an innermost palace we didn't even have time to see.

Kikakuji Temple: The "Golden Temple"; definitely the #1 destination on this trip for the "Ooh..." Factor. Burned down by a crazed monk in the 1960s, then rebuilt with what must have been a ridiculously expensive amount of gold leaf. Lots of vending machines here.

Ginkakuji Temple: The "Silver Temple", though the silver was never actually put on. Probably the most aesthetically pleasing grounds of any temple I've seen so far. Makes sense; it's a Zen Buddhist temple. All of this, however, pales in comparison to this sign:

Kiyomizudera Temple: One of Kyoto's most famous temples, it's built onto a hillside that overlooks the entire sprawling city. Folks used to jump 40 feet from the main hall veranda to the ground to make wishes come true, and many survived. Now, it's just full of American tourists that you wish would give it a try.

Zenkyoan: We practiced Zen meditation here. We had to keep our eyes exactly half-open, so I was too busy concentrating on that to really get much else out of it. Folks could volunteer to get whacked on the back with sticks if they wanted to.


Horyuji Temple: The location of possibly the oldest wooden structures in the world; the main hall here dates back to about 800 AD. There's also a small museum with various artifacts dating back to the 7th century.

Kasugataisha: Home to a 1000-year-old tree and more lanterns than... I don't know, actually. Come up with a good ending to that sentence and win a prize. (No, seriously.)

Todaiji Temple: The location of the largest Buddha in Japan that I mentioned way back, though it only beats my Daibutsu by a few meters. The size of the hall enclosing it is quite impressive.

I barely got to see Kyoto at all, but it seemed like a very interesting and unique city. It's certainly more steeped in tradition than Tokyo, at least architecturally speaking. Unfortunately, it's also the most gaijin-ridden place I've seen so far in Japan. I realize this is at least a little bit of the pot calling the kettle black, but the fact is that most Americans who visit Japan seem to fall into one of three categories:

1) The Weekender. In the top 1% of their tax bracket, and attempting to keep from going any higher. Have already been to Paris, Acapulco, and Rome, and want to try something 'exotic' for a change. One mother and one child age 5-15 required; father and other siblings optional, but not necessary. Probably wonders why everyone around them talks about Ohio every morning.

2) The Animaniac. Making the pilgrimage to the Mecca of Tech. Fairly uncommon, and overwhelmingly found in Akihabara. More broad-minded Animaniacs may be seen elsewhere, though, trying to find better deals or (*gasp!*) actually experiencing local culture.

3) The Histo-Hipster. Coming to Japan to actually experience the local culture, and investigate first-hand the rich history they've been reading so much about between Fiery Furnaces concerts. Falls squarely into the "Some graduate school, no degree" education category you see on application forms. Generally good people, often better Japanese speakers than me, but occasionally a touch too proud about it.

(Note: If you're reading this blog and you know me, none of these apply to you. Besides, I'm a bit too much #2 to actually *criticize* most anybody.)

We managed to avoid the biggest conglomerations long enough to sing karaoke, partake in the Gion-Matsuri Festival, and stay at another ryokan. The latter was nice, just a bit... smaller than the one in Narita. They gave us a Western-style breakfast the last morning, though (replete with hash browns and egg sandwiches), which made up for everything. No cereal, alas. The first meal I'm having when I go back to the States is a bowl of Cracklin' Oat Bran.

The festival was also fun and also had a lot to do with eating. It was a touch crowded,

I am not actually this tall.

but I was able to find my way around with my group. I got a frozen banana and a blue-raspberry candied apple.

Tomorrow we have our second chapter test, then a few days off (crisis-wise), and then it's the uncontrolled spiral into finals and departure. I'll still be posting as much as possible, but wish me luck anyway.

Vending Machine Special: Blendy

Another example of putting-things-in-English gone wrong. The drink itself is okay for coffee, but I still prefer milk tea.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Wherein the author finally learns to condense his posts

Wednesday up and anon, and to the Edo-Tokyo museum, which I had visited some four weeks previous. Being as how I wasn't gawking at everything I passed by this time, I was able to stop staring at everything and look around some. Ryogoku, the station the museum was next to, is Tokyo's center for sumo; although there are only tournaments three times a year, there are still posters and ads up even now. I looked through the parts I didn't catch on the first go-round, spent a few minutes in the gift shop, and went with Derek on my merry way.

Next stop (almost literally, subway-wise): Akihabara. And finally, I bought Mother 3. (For 2,500 yen, to boot; everywhere else had it for at least 4,000.) I found it at one of the hundreds of shops in the block immediately surrounding Akihabara Station. After talking with the shopkeeper to make sure that it was, in fact, a new copy, I handed him the (empty) box. Two minutes and a whirlwind of sleight-of-hand transactions later, I found myself down 2500 yen and up one copy of a video game I've been waiting for for ten years. I also bought Mother 1+2 (Mother 2 was known in America as EarthBound, but M1 was never released here) and some guidebooks. All in all, I spent about 7500 yen ($70 US) in one afternoon, but given that I've been fairly frugal up to now I'd say it's worth it.

Where it all went down.

Thursday our group went to a Maid Cafe, again in Akihabara. Maid Cafes are apparently the Next Big Thing in Japan; girls in maid uniforms come to your table, take your orders for ridiculously overpriced snacks and drinks, and act in a somewhat servantlike fashion. I found the whole experience rather underwhelming, but that was probably a good thing for my comfort level.

"Indies Major Label"?

Then Derek and I (again) decided, after much deliberation, to jaunt off to Asakusa, one of the most historic regions in the city. Most of it's been taken over by small shops and vendors, but we still found Sensoji Temple, perhaps the most famous temple in the city. Of course, it had closed just before we got there and it was raining. I've learned to take this sort of thing in stride by now.

The grounds were still open, so we walked past the main temple, the main shopping street, the Five-Storied Pagoda, and a memorial to the great haiku poet, Basho. I'll probably try and go back at least once more before I leave, but given that we're leaving a mere two weeks for now, "before I live" is becoming an astonishingly smaller and smaller time. Today I called the Tokyo Police Museum for an in-class language project and listened to a fairly interesting speech on tradition and modernity in Japan, though it was two hours long. (Short version: just because you have tradition and modernity doesn't mean one has to take over the other. At least in Japan.)


This weekend we're off for Kyoto until Monday night (my time); I really doubt I'll be able to update again before this, but you never know.

Vending Machine Special: Mountain Dew

My hero.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Fell asleep waiting for the computer to get free. I'll just make a big post Friday.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Language stuff, and some random pictures

Monday I got up early, learned about polite verbs for three hours, and played pente. Pente is a distant relative of Go, where the objective is to get five of your pieces on the board in a row. But I doubt that you're here to read about Pente tactics; I learned it from a fellow Tar Heel, so there's not even the foreign aspect to make it interesting. So I'll take some time, if you don't mind, to touch on the basic language of Japan.

One of the benefits of being an isolationist island nation is that your way of writing can be as absolutely insane as you wish. Whereas most languages use one character system, and the crazy ones may use two, Japanese goes all-out with three almost completely different character sets:

1) Hiragana. The most common, probably the oldest. Composed of 46 characters, plus 23 more you can create by adding diacritical marks. (Fun fact for armchair linguists: These diacritical marks almost always turn an unvoiced consonant into a voiced! e.g. 'ta' (た)-> 'da' (だ)) Could theoretically be used to write every word native to the Japanese language, though some get a bit long. (Ex: 'yuubinkyoku' -> "ゆうびんきょうく" -> 'post office')

2) Katakana. The same number of characters--diacritical marks and all--but written completely differently. Used for writing words of foreign origin in the Japanese language. This includes English loanwords ('konpyuutaa' -> "コンピューター" -> computer') and English names ("rasu baraisu" -> "ラス バライス" -> 'your faithful author'). We're not the only source of origin, though; one of the primary examples of this is 'arubaito' ("アルバイト"), or 'part-time job', which comes from German, I think. Katakana is fun because once you learn the characters, you can read about 90% of the words you'll ever see written in it.

3) Kanji. Lifted more or less whole-cloth from the Chinese somewhere around the year 0, kanji are ideograms used in place of hiragana to construct various words. This starts to get tricky when kanji can be substituted for multiple sets of hiragana. For example, the "学" kanji, most commonly found in 'daigaku' -> "大学" -> 'college', 'gakusei' -> "学生" -> 'student', and the like, you'll also see it used in 'manabu' -> "学ぶ" -> 'to study' and who knows what else. The fact that a skilled Japanese speaker knows something upwards of the middle thousands of kanji makes this even more fun. Still, kanji are good for separating homophones. In speech, 'otera' (temple) and 'oterai' (bathroom) are one slurred vowel different, but in writing they show their stuff: "お寺" "御寺意".

There's also romanji, which is all three of the above languages phonetically spelled out in the Roman alphabet, but that doesn't really count. I'll probably be making some more points about how the Japanese language is a few Zigs short of a full base as I have time, so there's your quick crash course.

So there really aren't many chances to put pictures in there, so here's a few to compensate:

The front door of Ishigawa Elementary

Cool hotel sign in Shinjuku

Vending Machine Special #11: Amino Value

This looks like it should be on the store of a GNC somewhere, between the creatine and the Whizzinator, but it was in a vending machine so I drank it. Disappointingly, it was pretty much just another energy drink.

Posting is going to be scattered for the next few days, I'm afraid. I'll have short, pictureless updates Wednesday and Thursday, a full update Friday, and then nothing else until Tuesday. Read through the archives if you haven't done that yet, though. Trust me, there's plenty to go round.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Another long weekend post

The Seses, on the whole, are a family that's pretty interested in learning English. Takehiro, the oldest son, is almost fluent, and my host father is big on watching DVDs with Japanese subtitles, and pausing to translate every single line. My host mother probably knows the least English of any of them, but seems the most interested in learning. As one example, she attends a weekly language club called Hippo, which she talked me into attending last Saturday.

She thoughtfully gave me some English literature to look through the night before we went, and to tell you the truth I was sort of frightened. Some of their basic linguistic principles gave me shivers; they stated, for instance, that any adult person can learn a language as well as a baby does (which I'm 95% certain is wrong, but Julie can back me up/correct me here), and that it's harder to speak two languages than three (which... just doesn't make sense). Worst of all, they talked about anecdotal evidence in an academic tone--you know, the "this happened to this guy, and this happened to that guy, which proves this really broad principle" type of writing. Needless to say, I didn't have incredibly high hopes.

The meeting itself, however, was surprisingly interesting. Sese-san was the local group's head, so I went in early (and I do mean early) with her to help set up the room and draw a somewhat not-to-scale map of the East Coast on the whiteboard.

My apologies to all residents of Maryland.

As people started coming in, I briefly introduced myself. Of course, right as I finished my minute-long speech, someone else would come in, resulting in me repeating my little spiel upwards of ten times. Eventually, though, everyone filed in, and everybody else got a chance to introduce themselves. Naturally, I introduced myself once more. We kicked off with a few games, chiefly 'London Bridge' and 'jan-ken-pon', or Japanese rock-paper-scissors. After that we put on some Korean music and tried to repeat each line as it was sung. Repeating random words and phrases from other languages is very big in Hippo, as it is apparently supposed to turn you into a native speaker almost overnight. Yeah.

In the end, though, it seemed pretty harmless; it's not as if people were losing knowledge or anything by singing along with random songs. Some people seemed to actually be decent at speaking in, say, Italian (something they conscripted me into at one point), and everyone definitely had a good time. Myself included, mind. We ended up with me giving a brief speech about myself, North Carolina, and UNC (in English this time, thank heavens), and breaking for lunch. This being essentially my first free weekend since I came here, I went home and studiously did nothing for the rest of the day.

Oh, here's a picture of my room. POV is me sitting on my futon on the opposite wall.

Sunday I met up with Derek with the intent of staging a random Day In The City. Since such a Day requires pretty extensive knowledge of Tokyo's mass transit systems, I suppose this is as good a time as any other to talk some about that.

The best way to get around Tokyo is definitely through the JR (Japan Rail) Lines. Running literally from one end of Japan to the other, the JR light rail system is also convenient for getting from the suburbs (where I live) to, say, Harajuku, Akihabara, or Kaihin Makuhari. Buy your ticket, go through the gate, and get off at the right stop. Most trains and stations have enough English to keep you from totally getting lost, though some of the rural stations are entirely in Japanese. The chief downsides are the speed and cost. It takes about an hour to get across, for example, Tokyo in a local train, though you can take a rapid if you're blessed enough to go to a stop it services.

The price is the other big issue. To get from my Kita-Kashiwa to Tokyo Station, it costs about 600 yen ($5.40). This is much better than, say, taking a taxi, but I could drive 100 miles in my car in America on that money. Fortunately, you can buy a commuter pass between any two stations, which can cut your costs by up to 70%. Another interesting JR quirk is that when you ride on it, you put your ticket in the turnstile at both your starting and destination stations. Let's say, then, that you lived in Tokyo, but wanted to meet a friend in Osaka some hundreds of miles away. Theoretically, then, you could buy the cheapest ticket possible and then ride to Osaka. There, you could meet aforementioned friend inside Osaka Station, have dinner or go shopping (yes, inside the station), then ride back to the station you bought your ticket for and exit. Congratulations, you just traveled halfway across the country on 300 yen.

Great moments in photographic history.

The main problem with that scenario is that the Shinkansen and other fast trains require individual seating tickets, so have fun chugging across Japan at 60 miles an hour. It's probably not something I'll try soon.

Notice earlier that I said that JR is the best way to get *around* Tokyo. If you want to hit up, say, the Imperial Palace in the dead center of the city, you'll want to take the Tokyo Metro subway system. It's pretty much the exact same thing as JR, except you can't use tickets for one system on the other (which gets really annoying) and the Metro drivers seem to get paid based on how many riders they can knock down per ride. My station is on both JR and Tokyo Metro lines, though, so I just use whichever's cheaper.

Anyway, Derek and I met up Sunday and walked around Kashiwa for an hour or so. Not much to say here; it's a large city with some interesting shopping. Got some nice pictures, though.

This sort of sight isn't uncommon here.

Our next destination was Otemachi Station, where I wanted to find a Citibank, maybe look at the Imperial Palace, and walk to Tokyo Station to go to Akihabara. We got to the station and proceeded to spend the next hour and a half looking for said Citibank and asking random Japanese, who had no clue. Then it started raining, which pretty much took the last two parts of the plan out of commission. Finally, after going back into the station to find a map, we came out of an exit and immediately:

Thanks, Dad!

The ironic part, of course, was that I needed to go to the Citibank to get money to spend at Akihabara, but by that point it was going to be too late and rainy to do or see much of anything. I'm going to buy Mother 3 this Wednesday, I swear. So we went to Shinjuku, wandered around some, and got dinner at a completely random place up a flight of stairs. Interestingly, I have had neither sushi nor American-style teriyaki chicken even once since I've got here. Last Friday was the halfway point, though, so I still have three more weeks.

Oh, and I got to talk to Hadley on the phone for the first time since June. That's definitely noteworthy.

Vending Machine Special #11: Calpis

I finally managed to find a bottle of this beauty at a subway convenience store (or 'konbini', or 'コンビニ' not too long ago. Not too much to say here, except that it definitely tastes worse than Pocari Sweat. It's milky-white, has a sort of powdery flavor, and I'm not really sure what the point of it is anyway. But hey, this is Japan. Just because it's the most efficient nation on Earth doesn't mean it has to always make sense.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Catch-up packet

Actually, I lied about last Wednesday.

Japanese trains are notoriously punctual, so when my 8:00 connector to Kaihin Makuhari was two, then five minutes late, I was sort of surprised. Ultimately, my train just never came; I took the next one and made some extra connections, putting me (and three other kids in my class, mind) about ten minutes late for class. One of our teachers later hypothesized that someone had killed himself by jumping in front of our train, something apparently un-unheard of here. That's about all I've got.

Thursday we went to a tea ceremony, which we were hideously unprepared for. A Japanese tea ceremony, being a tradition stretching back over eight hundred years, is ridiculously steeped in ritual. Not only are there proper greetings and seating arrangements, but the bowl must be held in such a position, must be drank from after the proper movements, and must even be inspected in a particular manner after the tea is long gone. We had watched a brief video (in Japanese, naturally) the day before, but definitely did a lot of learning on the fly.

That aside, though, it was pretty interesting. I was fascinated by the paradox at hand: how, in an event with the purpose of fostering deliberation and meditation, was one also expected to actively remember each proper step and manner? To the severe consternation of my dad, the mental freedom of repetitive physical work is something I've experienced only rarely. Maybe I just need to mow the lawn more often.

Friday was another activity day: kabuki!
Kabuki (かぶき, or 歌舞伎 for the overachievers among us) is a form of Japanese theatre, with a heavy focus on characters rather than plot and a fair, but not heavy, amount of dancing. Since most actual kabuki plays last upwards of six hours (yes, no typo), our class went to a shorter, two-hour condensed showing of one of the hundred or so conventional plays. This made the plot make even less sense than it already did--but then again, that isn't the important part anyway. It involved a swordfighter from Kyushu who agreed to throw a match to a complete stranger so that the latter could help his mother, and then came home to find an old lady who wanted to move in with him, and then his fiancee who he's never met comes in disguised as a priest... and I hope you start to get my point by now.

(Incidentally, all of these places had really drab exteriors and interiors with 'No Photography' signs. Sorry about the lack of exciting pictures. However, I did come across a couple of gems on the way back from the tea ceremony.)

First, some bonsai trees from a garden went to afterwards:

And a picture that needs no explanation (location--downtown Meguro):

I also just remembered that there's so much basic stuff I haven't had the chance to go over so far. I'm thinking subways, Makuhari New City, even the money system--I'm sure half of what I'm talking about here doesn't make half as much sense without it. I'll try to get to that ASAP, which I hope means tomorrow.

Vending Machine Special #10: Mets!

I have no idea why there's a drink in Japan with the logo of the New York Mets on it, but it's available in the IES Center and it's fairly tasty. Another grapefruit concoction. If anybody knows any more about this or is bored enough to go on a Googlehunt, inform me.

Thursday, July 06, 2006


I'm going to try and have the pictures from the last post up by 4 or 5 in the morning (ET), and my next post up by, say, 10 AM. I'll update this post as applicable.

Oh! I know; in the meanwhile, my stat counter says that only 66% of you are using Firefox as your web browser right now. Unless you're on a Mac, I very, very highly suggest you go over to the "Get Firefox" link on the right and check it out.

[EDIT: Pictures should either be uploading or uploaded (have uploaded just fine, but apparently refuse to do so on anything but my honest-to-God laptop. I'll mess with it some more tomorrow); due to today's Kabuki play running longer than expected, I'll make another long post Saturday afternoon (early Saturday morning). Heck, I have Internet access on weekends now. I may even make two.]

[EDIT TWO: For some reason, I can't get any pictures on this computer to upload onto Blogger. I'll just put them up Monday. Update later tonight.]

More technical fun

I've been out for the entire day today, so I figured I would write a quick entry from the Sese's computer and upload any necessary shots tomorrow. Naturally, this turned out to be the only time this week that everyone decided to use the computer until who-knows-when. I'm about to fall asleep here (and still have 2 hours of homework), so I'm just putting this up as an explanation. More to come tomorrow.

In the meanwhile,
a link for those of you who haven't seen it yet. Meh.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


[I forgot to bring my camera cable to school, so only one picture today. I'll try to upload the other ones ASAP.]

We had a unit test on Monday. In and of itself, it was alright (I haven't had a multiple choice language test since high school), but what really mattered is that I'm now one-third of the way through my Road To Tokyo trip. It truly does seem that only yesterday I was stumbling through Narita Airport and wondering why there are so darn many vending machines around here. Time flies and all that, I know, but I think the real reason I feel this way is because I've been scheduled to the gills and probably will be until August. I generally don't get home until 7 in the evening, and between class, work, sleep, and the mandatory incidental trips I have maybe 2 hours of free time a day. One, of course, I usually spend writing this. Now you know why my writing style is atrocious the way it is.

My homestay situation is continuing to develop. It's definitely a step up: the Seses not only treat me kindly and feed me well, but involve me in their daily stuff (like watching TV) and gave me a (somewhat) air-conditioned room. Additionally, the best English speaker in the house (Take-san) doesn't get home until late, so I'm really polishing up on my Japanese skills here. I'm still getting to know them, it's forever away from Makuhari, and the aforementioned room's pretty tiny, but I think I'll live. I even had a fun conversation with my host mother about New York yesterday evening. Now to see if I can find out about doing laundry and using their computer...

Tuesday we spent at Ishikawa Elementary School, visiting class and eventually teaching our own. The educational system in Japan, generally, isn't stunningly different from America's--there's just a lot more of it. They also have a swimming pool.

After a quick tour, we split up into pairs to visit math, calligraphy, and Japanese classes. Yes, the first-graders can speak better than me. But I can read katakana. Ha! Anyway, next came lunch; we got our food (ham and corn on toast, chicken stew, and peaches in a thin yogurt) and then were assigned to individual classes and shipped off. I'm 6'5", all legs, with a wingspan that's actually even wider. Even now, I have no idea why I didn't get someone to take a picture of me sitting at a Japanese first-grader's desk, drinking my milk and eating my peaches.

Next was cleanup, which I have some fun pictures of, and then the featured presentation: Brice teaching a bunch of kids how to play 7-Up! I was atrocious, and I mean atrocious, with getting the point across entirely in Japanese and hand-gestures. They kept on peeking, and I kept on trying to say not to look, and they kept on peeking anyway, and yeah. Once we got the hang of it, though, they seemed to enjoy it. Then I went to another room and teamed up with Derek to teach Simon Says, which was infinitely easier.

Nothing of importance happened today.

Vending Machine Special #9:

What'd you do last night?
"Oh, not much. I got Crunky."

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

To Anacreon in Heaven:

O say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner: O, long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O thus be it ever when free-men shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation;
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the heav'n-rescued land
Praise the Pow'r that hath made and preserved us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust!”
And the star-spangled banner forever shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Happy 4th, y'all. Next update tomorrow.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Oh, "Black Cat" Shipping... it all makes sense now...

Whoever said 'you make your own luck' never dealt with Kuroneko Shipping.

So I'm told by Kudo-san that the shipping company (that's taking my bags to my new host family) is going to be at the house I'm living in at 10:00 on Saturday, and that I'll have to fill out some forms and stuff so I should be ready. Figuring this won't take long, I make plans with Mitchell to do some shopping at Akihabara around 2 in the afternoon.
Standing in front of the doorway at Takeda-san's house. Insert your own joke here.

Oh, I said "figuring this won't take long". Begorrah; I've given myself away again, haven't I? I wake up at 8:30, have breakfast, lug everything downstairs and start waiting at about 9:20. Some time passes. A bit more passes. 10:00 passes. I consider calling Kudo-san, then discover I've lost my cell phone. Around 12:15, I decide that the odds of the shipping company coming are pretty low, so I walk the block and a half to Takeda-san's house to see if she knows anything or, at the least, can call Kudo-san for me.

It turns out that Kudo-san called her earlier that morning, saying the shipping company would be stopping by Takeda-san's house instead of mine. They didn't show there either, though. Takeda-san called Kudo-san, who didn't answer, though I at least found out from Anthony that my cell phone was at the IES Center. Since it was about 1 by this point--about 15 minutes later than I wanted to leave for Akihabara--I decided to go to Kaihin Makuhari. If the IES Center was open, I would be able to pick it up and call Mitchell, explaining why I was late; there was also a post office open on weekends nearby, and I needed some money.

The IES Center was closed; the post office closed at 12:30 on Saturdays. I called Mitchell from a public telephone and made it to Akihabara at about 3:15. Total losses: four hours of time, my umbrella (no idea how; I'll buy another one).

This is where I used to live.

Takeda-san's house, which I never realized looks just like mine.

Sunday would hopefully be an upturn, however, as I was finally moving in with my new host family. I was, I realized, going to miss biking to school, watching the fireworks in the distance whenever the Chiba Lotte Marines won a home game, and having pretty much every evening after 7 PM free to myself. I wasn't going to miss not wearing a helmet when biking, only being able to take a shower in the kitchen between 7 and 8 AM, and having curry rice three dinners a week. So yeah, I'd call it a draw.

This entire entry, up to this point, was written Sunday morning, therefore the 'hopefully'. "I know exactly what's happening today, I'm all packed, I'm prepared--nothing can go wrong, right?" I thought. Naturally, catastrophe struck. I won't put you through yet another "what can happen to Brice in Japan?" rant, but let's just say I survived in one piece and move on.

Takeshi, the oldest son, met me at the station and walked me back to their house. He explained on the way that he had wanted to pick me up in his car, but the battery had died. So I barely had time to move my luggage upstairs before we were off to get it recharged. The mechanic said the car would need to be driven for about 40 minutes, so Takeshi decided to drive to
Yokohama. Although this technically was on the other side of Tokyo and another city altogether, it was only about a three-hour round trip, including an hour stuck in traffic.

Given that I was entering my mild oh-great-an-entirely-new-situation shock I've referenced a few times before, it was really nice to just drive through the city, talk in English/Japanese about various landmarks, and just chill. It was night by the time we came back through Tokyo, and we drove across the
Rainbow Bridge to Norah Jones, with the entire harbor lit up and the boats in the bay and it was easy to see how Japan was the best city in the world at night...

...then the Backstreet Boys CD came on and ruined it. Oh well. I'll try and get y'all pictures of my new house and all ASAP.

Vending Machine Special #8: Bubble Man... II!

With a can like this, I just had to find out what's inside. It's some sort of green soda, with a vaguely bubble-gummish flavor. If this is what Bubble Man II tastes like, I'm not sure if I want to know much of Bubble Man I.

Vending Machine- Special Edition

Since I'm sure this is the only reason half of you are still reading me:

Vending Machine Special #5: 23% Cocoa

In my two-plus-weeks here in Japan, if memory serves me right, I have not seen a single glass of milk anywhere. It's not nonexistent or illegal--I've seen one or two ads--it's just very, very rare. Perhaps it's because Japanese farmland is at a premium, Japanese cows are much more profitable as beef than milk, and it's harder to import milk than beef? Anyway, the point is that milk is pretty rare in Japan, and you can tell it in this drink; it tastes fine, but it just lacks that base that all non-skim milks provide. Still, it's close enough that I've gone back for seconds.

Something more common in Japan is the display of how much cocoa is in the can. About half of the candy bars I've seen over here are labeled with nothing but "98% Cocoa", "73% Cacao", etc.

Vending Machine Special #6: Fanta Melon Cream Soda

Quick, name the three most popular American soft drinks in Japan! Coca-Cola... Coca-Cola with lemon... and Fanta? No, I don't know why either. The big three seem to be Grape, Apple, and Melon Cream Soda, none of which I had had in years before I came here. Drinks like Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and Dr. Pepper are findable here, but they're few and far between.

Vending Machine Special #7: Grapefruit Juice

The variety of juices available in Japan is lengthy enough to be another post altogether, but this one deserves at least a brief special mention. I hated grapefruit juice when I was a kid--it was too bitter and sour, and it's supposed to come from a fruit? No way.

Then I accidentally got it at a karaoke bar, wanting grape juice. To my surprise, it was surprisingly less bitter than I remembered and unlike most other fruit juices you'll find. Now I'm a fan. See, Japan *has* broadened my horizons!