Sunday, April 29, 2007

Saturday Stroll

We decided to take a long stroll from Takadanobaba to Harajuku. It took about 2 hours since we stopped several places along the way.

Left: me with a Shinkansen (bullet train) wheel. I think it came off one of the first Shinkansen cars or something.

For lunch, we found a lovely Thai restaurant in Harajuku. Tasty!

Mt. Takao

Here we are after climbing up Mt. Takao. Mt Fuji is in the background, but very very faint.
We thought that the day was going to be easy, as two 70-year-olds were going with us. HAHAHHAH. Definitely not the case. Although paved, the path up the mountain is probably 30 degrees incline or more. Surprisingly, the old folks were leading the pack, and asking us (sarcastically) if we were okay! Old folks in Japan are maybe a little too genki (元気) for me. :P

My friends outside the monastery (?) in Mt. Takao. We think the monks live there.

I do not remember if it was Shinto (shrine) or Buddhist (temple)... so pardon me if I name things incorrectly. Our hosts didn't know either, and made one of us ask to save their embarrassment!

There were several shrines along the way, this was a really pretty one!

Not sure what the purpose of this thing was, some sort of mini-shrine.

Below: At the incense burning area.

Left: another picture of the pretty red building, it has incredible carvings on it!

Below: more omikuji (おみくじ fortunes).

This is a long wall of plaques with the names of donors. We joked about donating money just to see a plaque in Romaji (English alphabet)!

Below: the rope with white paper things signifies that a spirit/god is believed to live in the object. Several old trees along the path were marked.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The topic of "dame"

First things first: dah- MEH

Indispensable in conversation, can't be found in Japanese textbooks; the word means "bad", "prohibited"... and a whole bunch of other things.

It seems everything in Japan is "dame". Talking loudly is dame. Pointing your feet at someone on the train is dame. Yawning in public is dame. Using cell phone on the train is dame. Laughing too loudly is dame. Pointing is dame. Sticking chopsticks upright (in a bowl of rice or something) is dame. Blowing your nose in public (god forgive you if you did it in a restuarant!!!) is dame. Accidentally foregoing a "desu" or "masu" (polite add-ons) is dame...

I am very quickly finding out that there are a lot of unsaid "rules" here... and breaking them is very painful. And by painful I mean, I get chastised. "Tami-san, dame desu yo. DAME DAME DAME!!" Followed by a fast and furious explanation of sorts (which is usually not understandable), with a final summary flourish of "dame yo".

I cannot imagine Americans living by so many rules.

Otera in Asakusa

So I went to Asakusa again with my friends this weekend. We had fun being gaijin together! Otera means temple, specifically for Buddhists. Again, the "o" is placed in front as an honorific.

(Jinja means "shrine" or temple for the Shinto religion)

We tried to get the monk to ring his bell... but he was kinda mean to us.... that or we didn't give him enough money? Who knows!

Left: the top of the temple, so pretty!
Below: the 5-story Pagoda.

This is the street leading to the temple (you can see it in the background). Very crowded! There are tons of souvineer shops on this street, and a lot of gaijin to go with it. Consequently, the vendors were trying to advertise their wares by yelling in Engrish...

This is a cute pottery shop we saw! I find a strange delight in an array of similar objects, in an array of colors... kinda like those fancy marker sets from childhood. Space is so limited here that everything is packed into a small space.

Surprising to see a 700$ purse crammed into a small space, whereas in the states, such an item would get a considerable amount of shelf space to itself.


This is at the big temple ("tera") in Asakusa. I don't know what the white lantern things are for.
I went there with my buddies, and we had fun with o-Mikuji (fortunes) there. The "o" is placed in front of the noun "mikuji" as an honorific.

Here's the set up: a stand with 100 numbered drawers (see the picture). There is a slot for your money (100 yen, labeled 100円). The tall hexagonal metal box (labeled おみくじ) has a small hole at one side, and contains -theoretically- 100 numbered sticks that correspond to the drawers.

My friend demonstrates...

STEP 1: pay the money (the gods are watching :P)
STEP 2: shake the metal box (noisily)
STEP 3: invert box up-side down and read the stick that comes out.

STEP 4: find the corresponding drawer
STEP 5: pull out the fortune (written on a small paper)
STEP 6: read. (duh)

Oh no! She got "Bad Fortune No 79" (it is seriously called that)
It is bad luck to take a bad fortune paper with you away from the temple, so...

There is a convenient rack for such things!
STEP 7: Fold your bad fortune, and tie it on the rack.
Yokatta! ("yay")

Friday, April 20, 2007

Japanese University System

I think it would be helpful to write a bit more about the University system here, as I see it of course. The following comments do not apply to my intensive 9 hour Japanese class... which kicks my butt (but I am learning a lot).

Talking with the other students (international and Japanese), the story goes: Japanese students study like mad during middle school and high school. They work hard to get into a good college, and then poof, all the work is over. University acceptance is like a ticket to party for 4-7 years (or however long it takes to finish your degree). Especially at my school- I hear we are known for our parties.

Most Japanese/Tokyoite college students still live with their parents, and commute up to 2 hrs each way. I might guess that this is why they have money to spend on nomikai (drinking party).

From the couple Japanese professors I have, there are some distinct differences from American professors, and the "system" as a whole. Attendance is (basically) everything: it accounts for up to 30-50% of your total grade! Missing more than 1/3 of class sessions (supposedly) fails you from the class, and teachers are REQUIRED to take attendance every class (which is a pain I will tell you).

Japanese students are really talented at sleeping while sitting, without moving or anything. I think it is due to the required attendance policy! Also, many people perfect the art of sleeping in public on the trains. One teacher even told us "Sleeping is okay, but talking is not" (during her class).

Surprisingly, every single class this week started late. My professors are consistently tardy. The really dumb prof didn't get started until 25 minutes into the 90 minute period! He didn't even have slides... really sad to pay so much for an unprepared and tardy teacher.

Most of my classes have no textbooks, and required readings are rare/sparse. Apparently reading 20 pages per class is surprising to Japanese students- the Japanese profs do not seem to give reading assignments (which is surprising).

So far I am not impressed. Previously, I had thought Japanese schools were difficult, challenging, and prestigious. Now my opinion of degrees from Japanese universities is tarnished. I suppose it is okay to not learn much from my ordinary classes... I am learning a lot from talking with my host family and Japanese friends, the Japanese class, and from surviving in Tokyo!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

My Professor is Stupid

As the title says, my professor is stupid. Additionally, his English is terrible. I think he uses Babelfish (online) to translate everything for his slides, as they never make sense.

One of our assignments was this:

"Let's study more on the balance-of-payment problems of the U.S.. How? Better use internet. Open the HP of the U.S. government (.....). Question. Consider what is the implication of teh content of the HP above. What will happen if unusual situation took place on a certain day? Write your solution to reduce such risk, in 200 words."

Could he be any more vague? I couldn't find anyone who knew what he wanted, so I just made things up. I've heard that the teachers give good grades to anything written with big words that sounds fancy... So this is what I turned in:

"To reduce risk of an unusual situation on certain day, we must carefully watch the balance of payments through managing our competitiveness in the market by continuously strengthening our activities. We should be omniscient of the current account, financial account, and capital account, while mitigating fiduciary risk in a ubiquitously available environment. Exportation and importation are obviously necessary, although madricrulous corpolitus (borrowed from Greek etymology) may occur when countries import more than they export, which can have implications for the corpratocracy. As you can imagine, there are multiple interrogations of such concept, and it is important to study with severity such issues. The fecundity of such institutions is present and observable by spectoral images and telepathy. "

Yes, I did make up some words. And yes, it makes absolutely no sense. But it sounds fancy.
^^ The sad part is I think I will get away with it!!!

Depato デパート

I love depato (department store)! In Japan, depato are multiple stories tall (7-12), and feature a supa スーパ (supermarket) in the basement. These are called depachika (literally under the depato) are they are AWESOME!

Uncountable numbers of glass counters with any kind of food imaginable. Pictured is of a panya ("bread store") and a traditional japanese sweet (wagashi 和がし)counter which sells things like mochi and daifuku (made from glutinous rice).

Depachika are really convenient because they are on most everyone's commuting path as they go home. Most Japanese do their grocery shopping daily at such locations, carrying the day's groceries on the train. This makes the depachika really crowded between the hours of 5-7pm, and merchants discount items after 7pm (a good time to pick up cheap sushi or strawberries!).

Connected to the supa (supermarket) area, there is usually a section selling bento (lunch boxes). You can buy just about anything in a take out box: sandwiches, quiche, bread, sushi, donburi, tempura (not recommended, fried foods are gross when they have sat out for a while), yakiniku (grilled meats), and katsudon (a certain kind of breading on meat), just to name a few.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


Nomikai (飲み会) literally means drink-association. Basically, it is a drinking party. In the states, such a party would occur in a home or dorm room, but living areas are so small in Japan that there is a whole industry devoted to providing such party rooms.

The rooms are of varying sizes, and feature long tables that are about a foot off the ground. You remove your shoes (and stick them in the provided plastic bag) before entering the room, much like in a tatami room, but there is no tatami here!

For $15-25 a person, it is basically an all-you-can-eat-or-drink buffet. The food is pretty crappy, and the owner brings crates of opened beer bottles every 30 minutes or so to replenish the supply.

My hypothesis is that the Japanese culture in general is formal (i.e. several levels of polite language called keigo 敬語), and people need an outlet in which to be crazy/silly/boisterous. Nomikai is the perfect place for such "impolite behavior".

It seems every club on campus has a nomikai weekly or even more often. I do not know how the Japanese students can afford to spend such money on drinking. Drinking is much more accepted here, maybe a "national pastime". A couple students introduced
themselves to the class and professor by saying their hobby is drinking/nomikai.

Drinking in public is even allowed, and nomikai in the park under the cherry blossoms is a popular Japanese tradition (see pictures left and below from Ueno Park).

People set up tarps early in the afternoon to reserve drinking party spots under the trees! You can hear the drunkards late into the night during the cherry blossom season.

Above: Weekend afternoon in Ueno park, during cherry blossom season.

(DISCLAIMER: I had less than 8 oz of beer, with plenty of food and water, and I am legal to drink in Japan as the drinking age is 20)

Tokyo Tower

The Tokyo Tower was built in the likeness of the Eiffel tower, but is probably uglier because it is painted orange and white (due to "rules"). It is 333 meters tall, which is apparently taller than the Eiffel Tower.

Left: The tower from below!
Below: Inside the observation deck.

Left: Me on the observation deck.
Right: The miniature model of the Tower, inside the souvenir area.
Below: View of Tokyo from the observation deck.


This is a really big and lovely park. We saw some incredible jugglers there- they balanced and spun bowls of water on sticks perched on a reed in their mouth (as you can see in the picture).

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Ghibli Museum

This is the big robot sculpture from the animated movie "Castle in the Sky". It is on top of the Ghibli Museum.
Photography is prohibited inside the museum (sorry!)

Located in Mitaka, the museum showcases several Japanese animated films ("Spirited Away", "tonari no Totoro" and others) as well as "Wallace and Grommit". Props, clay molds, and figurines are displayed-- I got to see the monster bunny contraption (from the "WereRabbit" movie). Really a spectacular museum-- wish you all could see it!

Really excellent weather today-- sunny and about 80 degrees! (that's 27 C!)

Left: Me and my friend from the group by the sculpture.
Below: All of us on the excursion, outside the museum. (Green jacket = me of course)

Friday, April 13, 2007

Roppongi and other Adventures!

On Thursday, I don't have class until the late afternoon, so my host father and I ventured out to Roppongi! On the way, we saw a political demonstration. I don't really know what they were demonstrating, but it was quite fascinating. They had huge loudspeakers on each of the several cars in the procession, and we were blasted with monologue.

This is "Tokyo Midtown". It is a HUGE shopping area (think Pioneer Place, but way bigger). I believe it opened just recently. It is the closest to a Utopia I have ever seen. Completely clean and perfect and nearly fake-ishy happy/yuppie. (I tried explaining "yuppie" in Japanese... it didn't go so well!)

Like Pioneer Place, it has tons of public sculpture! This one is really neat and it has a huge lawn in front of it. The lawn has carefully placed signs and a mini-fence (about 5 inches high) to keep you off of the grass!

Here's (what I think) is a cool shot of one side of the Tokyo Midtown buildings.

Another cool sculpture. At first I didn't see the faces, but it is pretty clear in this picture. From every angle, you can see a face, and it is mirror-like, so you also see your reflection. You can see the previous sculpture in the background, and my host father marveling at it. It is nice going sight-seeing with him b/c we both stop and stare at the art!


These are the totally awesome stairs in my host family's house. My host father designed them (as well as the bookcases... etc.). Really easy to climb and takes up about as much space as a ladder propped up.

I got to see his design works today- quite fantastic! I will have to write more about that later!

Starbucks: Funny to see such a Western thing in such an Asian place!

It is fascinating how the gas stations work. The gas comes from above to save precious floor space!

(Forgive me if I already posted this pic. )

FRIENDS! These are my exchange student buddies!