Wednesday, May 30, 2007

National Diet Building 国会議事度

I went to the Japanese National Diet building today! It is basically the legislature, formally called the "House of Councilors". My host parents were surprised to hear I was allowed inside!

You have to go through a metal detector and write your name, the guards were shocked that I wrote in kanji and katakana! It is pretty fun shocking people with the fact that I can do Japanese!

I took a free tour with 3 other Japanese tourists, which was pretty cool. Surprisingly I understood quite a bit of what the tour guide said:
  • The carpet costs 30000Y a square meter.
  • Under the carpet, the marble floor turns to concrete!
  • They hold (or used to hold) parties in the upper floors of the tower thing (pictured- thanks to Wikipedia).
  • There are a couple doors to the Emperor's room, the door with marble columns is for the Emperor only.
  • The "Central Staircase" is only used when the Emperor comes
  • Pairs of stenographers switch off every 5 minutes at the sound of a bell
  • Mail chutes installed in the 1930s (?) are still used now
  • In the area for reporters, there are pneumatic tubes (like the drive-through-bank-teller-windows) that were/are used to send notes and current information to the newspaper companies

I took some pictures on my cell phone (forgot my camera again!). After I buy a "micro-SD" card I can post them!

Point Cards, among other details

Japan seems to love "point cards". They come in all colors, but basically the same deal, buy enough of our stuff and get a small reward. I see them EVERYWHERE, including:
  • Haggen Daaz
  • Bars (TGI Fridays, The Cantina, etc.)
  • Tokyu Department Stores (the rip-off places run by the Tokyu Corporation)
  • Electronics Stores
  • Tokyu Hands (the crafty/everything Fred Meyer look-alike)
  • Santoku (a grocery store)
  • Pharmacy/Drug stores
And the list goes on. It is quite curious how ubiquitous they are...

Tam's Tokyo Tips:
If you need to use the restroom, DON'T LEAVE THE STATION! There are almost always bathrooms inside train stations, and you can't use them once you pass through the ticket gate. And using a bathroom outside the station is going to cost you at least the price of a coffee, unless you find a department store or a fancy hotel you can pretend to patronize.

Use the phrase, "waru-in des kehdo" 「わるいんですけど。。。」. It means "sorry to bother you but..." and makes people way more responsive in helping you. Especially if you can pull a sad-lost-gaijin look while saying it. I usually pair it after "summimasen" (excuse me), and then continue with my question.

When going somewhere, know the Japanese pronunciation and writing of the place. For example, if you are going to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, no one will know where that is. Instead, ask for the "To-cho", which is what Japanese people call it. Also, you will want to know it when you see it, and usually the kanji are printed on buildings/signs, so if you take a piece of paper with 東京都庁舎 written on it, you can reference when you get lost.

Traveling on a budget- buy breakfast at a convenience store (juice, yogurt, etc) or a bread store パン屋 and bring it back to your hotel to eat. The convenience store can also give you a mini-spoon.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Fabric Stores!

If you know me, the two stores that get me excited are hardware stores and fabric stores! My friend M knows all sorts of places for fabric (she also sews) and took me to Nippori, where they have a whole street of fabric stores! I was DELIGHTED!!!

They even had stores that sold 100yen per meter fabric, which is a bargain for even America. I saw lots of leather scraps (left), and tons of Japanese prints... I will be coming back to make purses! Today my main goal was acquiring the "ingredients" for making a fancy 1950's era hat, which I easily achieved with M's help.

There were so many exciting textures and patterns... I could make so many purses here! So much more variety, especially in purse-making supplies (i.e. pre-made leather handles, the metal snap frames I have to buy from a catalog in the States).

On the way to the fabric stores, we spotted a CHEAP clothing store, where I bought a very nice cotton blouse for 299yen! I couldn't believe it! In Tokyo, things are too expensive or too cheap... and you only get the cheap stuff if you know were to go. This holds for: clothing, food, restaurants, fabric, office supplies, paper, kimono...

Before our grand fabric adventure, we ate at an Okonomiyake restaurant where you fry your own food at your table. We had both okonomiyake (Japanese style pancake with veggies in it, very tasty) and yakisoba (stir fried noodles). See picture at left.

Later today, we went to TGI Friday's!! I was amazed to see one in Japan, American/Southern/Spicy food tasted soooo good. I will have to go back... I have had a strange craving for all things made with flour lately...

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Tocho 都庁

Tocho 都庁 is short for Tokyo-To-Chosha 東京都庁舎, or the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.

Located not too far from the Shinjuku Station, it offers spectacular views from the top (for FREE!) and a nice tourist office that has plenty of Tokyo maps and brochures.

At 799 feet, the Tocho used to be the tallest building in Tokyo, but now the Midtown Tower in Roppongi is taller. (thanks Wikipedia!)

LEFT: one of the three buildings of the Tocho. Pretty nifty, eh?

I think this is one of the other buildings of it... there are three in total.

View from below. 48 stories tall!!

The courtyard at the base of the Tocho. See the neat orange arc sculpture? It continues on the other side! There is also a pretty long skywalk on the 2nd or 3rd floor.

View from the observatory. Yay for being free! (Scoffing at Tokyo Tower, the Eiffel Tower lookalike that is around 800 yen!)

From the top, it seems that Tokyo goes on forever, you can't really see an end to buildings and civilization, which is a little scary!

Shinjuku 新宿

I realized last week that I had never *actually* been in Shinjuku in the 1.5 months here, despite riding through the station daily. So, I took a diversion and took a look around!

Shinjuku is probably the largest train station in all of Tokyo with dozens of platforms-- we joke about playing "Find the Gaijin" because it is just so huge!

LEFT: on the skywalk outside Odakyu shopping mall, right outside Shinjuku Station. Nice weather!!

This is a bit of the "skyscraper district" in Shinjuku. Actually reminds me a bit of Portland, as there are lots of trees/green, and a lot of energy!

Shibuya 渋谷

Another location for the school project... Shibuya! Actually one of my favorite places in Tokyo: close to my house, lots of food (!), and high energy. Did I mention they have a Starbucks?

Shibuya is known for it's huge cross walk outside the station. You take Hachiko Exit from the station. Once the lights change in favor of the pedestrians, people walk in three directions at once-- all motor traffic is stopped! There are mobs of people in a near-constant flow, which I like to watch from the 2nd floor of the Starbucks!

There are also a lot of signs/advertisements on the walls of the buildings. Several huge television screens blare music and light unto the intersection.

Harajuku 原宿

I am working on a school assignment to create a sugoroku すごろく (Japanese old-school board game) with Tokyo 名所 ("meisho" meaning "name-places" or more colloquially, famous places). In the name of school-assignment, I am therefore being the obvious tourist and taking pictures everywhere!

This is Takeshita Street, which is pretty popular with young folk (若者), and has a lot of cheap clothes. I really like the sign on this street! As you can see, it is pretty crowded!

LEFT and BELOW: waiting for the train at the Harajuku Station (原宿駅). The neat thing about Harajuku is that there are tons of fashion billboards!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Visitor with a Briefcase

So the doorbell (but really the gate bell as it is not by the door, but rather at the gate) rings, and I go to see what it is, usually a package or delivery or something. The dude is very surprised to see a gaijin, and I notice he does not have a package- he's wearing a tie and carrying a briefcase... so then I think, perhaps a legal notice?

He asks if I speak Japanese and I say a little. He asks where I come from, then decides I must speak English and reaches into the briefcase and pulls out a pamphlet, at which point I am realizing what I got myself into.

He pages to the English version and I see the words "Saviour", "Jehova", and "Christ" and I realize I have met my first Japanese Jehova's Witness!!!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Cantina

Mexican food メキシコ料理 is difficult to find in Japan... but we found a Cantina (Mexican Bar) nearby school! They have a happy hour from 11am-7:30pm and everything is half-price, including the fancy ice cream drinks and Pina Coladas. Not very many people seem to know about it, so it isn't too crowded usually. They even have nachos, quesidillas (which is explained as メキシコ・サンド or Mexican Sandwich)!!


We went to Karaoke, which was really fun! I had never don it before, but it is best with a little bit of alcohol! I sang to an Ella Fitzgerald song, and realized it has been a LONG time since I last practiced voice.

TIPS FOR KARAOKE: bring a list of songs you want to sing. No use using expensive time in the room picking songs!

Here are the guys going at it! Thanks to my friend for the pictures!

Odaiba お台場

So I met up with my friend that I made on the train (when the train stopped) today! After eating delicious pizza at my favorite Italian restaurant, we went to Odaiba. I believe it is a man-made island, and it's somewhere in Tokyo Bay, close to the Rainbow Bridge. The views were stunning and it is always nice to be close to the water, no matter how dirty people tell me it is!

We went to a really fancy art show, called "Ashes and Snow" by a Canadian, Gregory Colbert. Not only are the photographs & films incredible, the whole thing is housed in a "nomadic museum" made of 152 steel cargo containers, fabric and paper, so it feels both transient and natural. The whole thing was very moving, as the photos/films show humans interacting with animals (particularly elephants), set to beautiful music. Please see more about the Ashes and Snow Exhibit here!

After the show, we visited a neat shopping center called Venus-Fort, which is painted and constructed to look like Italy! They even have a fountain and the ceiling is painted with clouds. I am sorry to say I forgot my camera today, and all my pictures are on my cell phone... and I don't have the proper card to transfer the pics to my computer yet...

There are several more things I want to see there, like the crazy Fuji TV building. Surprisingly, Wikipedia has some great pictures of Odaiba

Nagoya kara Kimashita 名古屋から来ました

My college friend who is teaching in Nagoya came to visit this past weekend! I showed her around as much of Tokyo as I could!

LEFT: Ueno Park on a perfect day!

LEFT: My friend by the taiyaki (baked bread/cake filled with red-beans "anko) machine. This machine made panda-shaped taiyaki!!!

We went to the Museum of Western Art in Ueno, which was fabulous! I saw works by Van Goh, Picasso, Monet, Manet, and many others. The museum also had several bronze sculptures by Ronin (?) and tons of religious works, which were interesting because I took a class on "Art and the Bible" at St. Olaf.

LEFT: outside the Mueseum, me by a replica of a bronze work called "The Gates of Hell" if I remember correctly. It is a big doorway with people trying to get out. Notice my new black sandals!!

After Ueno, I made pizza, salad and blondie-brownies for my friends and had a party at the house! Pizza is really expensive and (in my opinion) usually strange with fish and mayonnaise and dried shrimp... so my homemade version was a treat!

I explained how "bar cookies" are a mostly-Midwestern phenomenon, and my host parents thought they were a little too sweet despite the fact that I used 3/4 of the sugar!

LEFT: My friend J, me and M (the 5 language speaking one) by the bookshelves that my host father designed. J is holding a "Corporate Identification Manual" that shows the logo that my host father designed.



So riding the train one day, I see this guy. Please note the length of the shorts--his butt was hanging out the bottom! I could not believe it so I had to take a picture, and then he noticed the flash and I had to run several cars down!

I later heard from my friends who rode in the same car as this guy that as kids would board the train, they'd gawk as his butt was right at eye-level for them. It apparently took the moms a few minutes to notice, at which point they scooted their children away!

LEFT: "Condomania" store in Harajuku (?). Another thing I was surprised to see!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Thank God for Measles!

Now you are probably wondering, why is measles a *good* thing? Two simple facts explain this phenomenon:

1. A measles outbreak is enough to cancel school for a week.
2. I am already immune to this disease

They call it "hashika", and we got the news today at lunch that the school is shut down completely until next Wednesday! We aren't even allowed on campus!

Now the second lingering question is, why is a developed city like Tokyo having a measles outbreak? Unlike the US, Japan loosened its regulations on vaccinations about the time that my generation was getting the second round of MMR (measles, mumps and rubella). And now, viola! Things are getting crazy.

So now my friends and I are trying to plan something to do for our mega-vacation...

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Out of the Ordinary

So I was riding the train to meet my friend for lunch today... and the line I normally ride was STOPPED! I couldn't believe it because that line basically *never* stops, so this was particularly rare. Another line had an accident, and that somehow made my line stop as well. However, in the middle of the mayhem, I managed to make another friend! She is maybe 35, has two kids (but doesn't look it) and apparently works as a magazine model. We are going to have lunch together next week!

One of my American friends showed me all the cheap grocery stores today. All the stores around my house are crazy-expensive... i.e. the same price as convenience stores こんびに. I hear that my area is "desirable" and that drives food prices up...

Saturday, May 12, 2007

"Eating by Hand"

On Saturday, I ate authentic Nepalize food at my friend M's apartment. She has friends from all over the world, and one of them is from Nepal! We had chicken curry, and this soupy stuff that you pour and mix into rice. And in traditional Nepalize fashion, we ate with our hands! (no forks or chopsticks!) I'm sorry I don't have any pictures on my camera, I will try to snag some pics from M.

I had so much fun (like usual with M) since we decided we are both "old souls". We have similar opinions on things, and surprisingly, she has done a fashion show (or two?), paints amazingly... reminds me of me! She is fluent in over 5 languages and has traveled all over the world. She is also an excellent cook, she is trained as a pastry chef!

Wednesday, May 9, 2007


Outside a popular department store (and many other places in Tokyo) there are these horrible screaching high pitch noises, higher than the whine that the television emits when it's on. However, none of the Japanese can hear it, even my teenage friends. Only my American friends can hear it. Somebody told me the stores use the hypersonic sound to deter birds/pigeons...

Another strange sound-occurrence in Tokyo: Ald Lang Signe. You know it, they play it at New Years. (I might have mispelled it) Well here, they play it at closing time. You'll be shopping and hear Ald Lang Signe really loud and wonder, "what's going on?" and continue, until realizing that the employees are ushering customers out and they are locking the front doors.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007


Left: Construction: this is down the street from me, on the way to the train station. There used to be this nasty vacant house and a bunch of bamboo on that corner, and they are almost finished breaking up its foundations. Strangely enough, it kinda smells bad there- like mold or must.

Starbucks: Went to Starbucks today in Shibuya. They only offer decaf coffee black, all the fancy frappacinos are regular. Also, the man warned me it would take 5 minutes to brew the decaf, since they don't have it already made.

EARTHQUAKE: We had an earthquake yesterday. I was sitting watching baseball (やきゅう) with my host father, and he's like, "oh it's an earthquake" as if nothing special were happening. I was told that it was a "small one", and the TV called it a Level 3...

Left: Bike Parking: there are these two old guys that arrange the bikes in the mornings. That's how all those bikes are crammed in such a small space.

Book Covers: a lot of people read on the train, and probably %90 of them cover the book so you can't tell what they are reading. I haven't decided if they are reading something raunchy, or if they just don't want someone asking them about the book...

Left: I saw this van somewhere... it says "Living Saloon EX" which is a really strange name for a car.

Little Kids: there are tons of little kids, maybe age 5 and 6, that ride the trains alone during the day! Kinda crazy to see such young ones all alone, wearing their goofy school uniforms (which includes matching yellow or white hats).

This was inside one of the temple areas in Nikko, it asks you to "please refrain from SMOKIG"! HAhahahhhahhah

Saturday, May 5, 2007


After Costco, my friends and I went to the beach. It was probably over 80 degrees and gorgeous!

We made drawings in the sand...


I went to Costco in Japan! It was wonderful- it even smelled like Costco. They had most of the normal stuff from the States, and a few Japanese-style things (like miso soup, daifuku powder, sushi, raw tuna...).

I bought black beans (for my lunches!), a big box of granola bars, red tea (instead of green or black tea that my family drinks at night which keeps me awake), and MUFFINS!!!

I am hoping to have a muffin party on Monday, everyone is missing American food.

Nikko: Toshogu Shrine

This shrine was built by Tokugawa Iemitsu for his grandfather Tokugawa Ieyasu (the first shogun of Japan). My guidebook says it took two years and 15000 artisans.

Left: some fancy buildings.

Below: the five story pagoda just outside the Toshogu shrine. It was apparently donated by a daimyo (fuedal lords, just one notch below the Shogun) in 1650, and rebuilt in 1818 after a fire. The guidebook says each story represents an element: earth, water, fire, wind and heaven, in ascending order.

A fancy building in the complex, you can see the Tokugawa family crest on the finials.

Nikko: Toshogu Details

Left: waterfountains outside the shrine gates.

Below: the famous three monkey carvings; "hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil"

Left: another famous carving, this one is the "sleeping cat". It was carved by a man with only one arm.

Left: some pretty carvings in the eve of a building in the Toshogu Shrine area.

Below: The roof and finnials of a gate- pretty impressive carving and painting!

Left: a closer look at the little lion/dragon guys on the building above.

Left: another colorful eve

Below: cool doors in the shrine complex.