July 4, 2008

Japanese Chocolate

As I mentioned in a previous post, I've been seeing a lot of Salty Chocolate lately. I picked up the Morinaga Salty Chocolate candy the other day. I opened the box, expecting a standard candy bar, but instead I got about eight individually wrapped really small chocolate wafers. They are pretty good, with a bit of salty flavor that isn't overpowering.

As always, I also picked up a new flavor of KitKat when I came across it this evening. Triple Berry. It is one of the better strange KitKat flavors.

It is great that Japan has so many seasonal changes in their coffee and chocolate and other snacks and drinks. It gives me an excuse to keep buying them.

June 15, 2008

The NHK Man pays a visit

Friday evening I came home from work to a hot apartment: it was raining all day so I had left the windows closed. When I do that my apartment warms up pretty quickly, mostly due to the refrigerator and computer I suppose.

I put some rice on for dinner and opened up the windows but it was still pretty hot. Since I absolutely never have any visitors, I stripped down to my shorts and tried to cool off using the fan.

Sometime around 8pm or so, the doorbell rings. This is very unusual. Nobody ever comes to my place unless I'm expecting a friend or a delivery. Since neither were on the schedule, I assumed it was just some sort of salesperson. I probably should have thrown on a T-shirt and pants, but I figured I could get rid of him fairly quickly, and if he wants to bother me right before dinner he can put up with a shirtless foreigner for the time it takes for me to get rid of him.

When I opened the door, I was surprised that the person there was a NHK representative. I had previously had one visit from the NHK guys. NHK is the Japanese national broadcasting service, like the BBC. They are supported by the government and officially people who have TVs are supposed to pay a licensing fee. I don't have a TV, but I do have a computer monitor that has an internal analog TV tuner, and since I was watching NHK News at the time, I felt like I should pay up. I didn't pay last year when the guy came around, but since then I've been watching a lot of NHK news in the morning and evening (it is good practice) so I really felt like I should pay. So I did. It was about $30 for two months worth of the broadcast fee.

I'm planning to move at the end of next month, so I don't think I'll be paying further licensing fees, but I'm glad I did pay at least once.

Also, some foreigners on the expat blog community have warned of scams where someone pretends to be the NHK guy for collecting licenses so some foreigners are wary of paying. This guy was the real deal though, and I've got some nice official paperwork backing things up.

Still, I wonder what the NHK guy was thinking the whole time, talking to a foreigner in his shorts the whole time. I wonder if I just started some other strange stereotype about Americans for him. :)

June 14, 2008

Saturday morning alarm

I was looking forward to getting a bit of extra sleep on Saturday night, but at about 8:45am this morning, there was a pretty big earthquake north of Tokyo (centered on Iwate, a low level 6 on the Japanese scale) which caused shaking down near Tokyo. It was very minor, not strong enough to move anything off my shelves or bookcases, but enough to convince me to get out of bed.

Everything is fine for me, although it was pretty strong farther up north, so I'm watching TV (NHK, I'll have a post about that shortly) to see if there were any injuries or damage caused near the center of the earthquake.

June 11, 2008

Notes from Marriage Week

As always I am a bit behind posting news to my blog. Sorry about that. If you couldn't tell from my previous entries, I married my girlfriend L. three weeks ago. We didn't have a wedding ceremony, but plan to have one next year in May. My family came to Japan to meet with L.'s family, which was totally great. If you are interested, I've written up the events of the week.    read more (3260 words)

May 25, 2008

One picture - Traditional Japanese Kimono and Hakama

I don't really have much time, because I have to pack still, and then get on a plane to go to Morocco for a conference, but I wanted to make a quick note of things.

Yesterday I married L., and for the past week my family has been in Japan. We went out to an amazing Kaiseki Japanese feast (11 courses!) and for the occasion - the first time that both families met - Alana, Jana, Grandma Bessie, myself, and L. were in traditional Japanese Kimono (or for me, the Hakama.)

The only pictures I have are blurry (dad doesn't know much about cameras!) but here is one with Alana, L., Jana, and I.

May 15, 2008

Licensed to drive: Making Japanese streets more dangerous

About two months ago I started the process to convert my Texas Driver's License into a Japanese Driver's License. I expected it to take a long time, but actually things went more quickly than I expected.

Preparing the documents took a while. You need to have

  • A valid Driver's License from a reputable country
  • A translation of the Driver's License
  • At least for me, I needed a certified copy of my driving record from the Texas DMV because the driver's license does not have a date of issue field on it. I also needed a translation of that.
  • Your passport
I think that is everything. It took me a while to collect everything, and to get the translation of your driver's license you have to trek out to the Japan Automobile Federation, but at least it only takes about half an hour and $20. I was able to get a copy of my driving record over the internet, and then I translated it myself (which seemed to work fine -- suckers!) and headed out to the Samezu Driver's License Testing Center and spent about two or three hours applying for the paperwork to take the road test.

If you are a citizen of France, Australia, Canada, and a few other countries you don't need to take a test. You just show them your license, and they give you a Japanese license. That is pretty nice. In my case I had to take a written test - absolutely ridiculously easy - one of the questions was "Is it ok to drive after drinking alcohol if you only have a little bit?" The other nine questions, of which you have to get seven correct (I think), were similar. There is also an eye and hearing test. The eye test is pretty simple: no alphabet, just a bunch of circles with a hole in the top, bottom, left, or right. It isn't really too hard to pick that out. You have a 25% chance of being correct, which is much easier than say, 1/26 like you would have in an American Driver's Test.

Anyway, if you pass those pretty low requirements, you then get to apply to take the driving test. I had to wait about a week or two I think. Another problem I had was that since my passport is my second passport, the people there said that there wasn't proof that I was in the US when the license was issued. Unless I brought in my old passport, I would have to put a "New Driver" sticker on my car for the first year or two. I eventually was able to get that, so it wasn't a big deal, but I was really surprised. Did they honestly think that even though I have a driving record that says I've had a Texas Driver's License for twelve years, I somehow wasn't in the US for that time and didn't do any driving?

In Japan people drive on the left-hand side of the road. I'm not used to that. The day of the driving test they explain the 1600 meter course to you, and you sit in the back seat as someone else drives the course. Then you move to the front seat. Since they drive on the left-hand side of the road, the car's steering wheel is on the right-hand side of the car. That also means that the turn signal is on the right-hand side of the steering column.

When I took my turn to drive, on the very first turn, I hit the wipers. Ha ha. I did it on the next turn too. And the next. The driving instructor was clearly getting annoyed, making unhappy noises at my clearly foreigner mistakes. It made me nervous.

Even worse, my left eye is weaker than my right eye. It is lazy. I don't use my left eye very well. Since I'm driving on the left-hand side of the street, I have to track the curb with my left eye, and that wasn't working well at all. On a straight road, I bumped into the curb and the instructor exploded: "That's dangerous! Aren't you even looking! What's wrong with you!" He called off the rest of the test and I didn't even get to try the S-turn and 90 degree angle turn "crank" portions of the test.

That really unnerved me because not only did I have to get used to driving on the other side of the road, I really felt like I needed to practice using my left eye for monitoring distance. I'm really bad at judging distance because of my eyes: I don't have good depth perception. This is really tough for me. I was positive that I would window-wiper and curb-bump my way to ten more failures.

So I checked around and the local Tokyu Driving School will let you ride around their practice area in one of their cars for 15 minutes for free. So I went and did that, and then signed up for a 50 minute practice lesson. The practice lesson is 50 minutes in the car for only 4,600 yen. That is a steal: normal driving school in Japan costs around $3000 or so. During the free trial I hit the window wiper a few times, but not as often as before. The practice session was scheduled for a week later, two days before the driving test.

The practice session really helped a lot. I used the same trick that I use in America to judge where I need to be in the road: determine empirically where the lines on the road need to disappear into the hood in order for your car to be centered in the lane. I only used the window wiper once. I never hit the curb, except for once on the S-turn course. Since I ran through the S-turns and crank turns about 10 times each, I think that was pretty good. I was feeling pretty good about the driving test.

Two days later I had the real driving test. Things went beautifully. No trouble.

The problem is that once you pass, you have to wait around for them to issue the license (and also get some papers stamped and wait in some lines, and get a photo taken, etc.) That all takes about five hours. Luckily, that gave me a chance to eat at their fine dining establishment. For the bargain price of 850 yen I had a curry rice and a coke. (This is, by the way, probably 2-3x the price that it should be.) You've got all sorts of choices at the cafeteria: curry rice or ramen. Or curry rice and ramen. There are five kinds of ramen, but still. Thinking about it though, I guess there are probably lots of places in America that serve only pizza or hamburgers (but five different types of pizza.)

I am proud to announce though, completely in opposition to what I would think is common sense, the Japanese government has licensed me to drive on their roads.

I think this is a problem for a few reasons. First, I am seriously not used to driving on the left-hand side of the road. I think it won't take too long for me to get used to it, but I really should have a Beginning Driver mark on my car. Second, this test is really simple. You only make maybe three right-hand turns. You don't have to go on the hill portion of the course, or cross the rail-road tracks. You don't have any crazy multi-lane turning tests. One thing that surprised me is that if you are turning right from a two-lane road onto a two-lane road, you turn into the far lane, not the near lane. That means you have to cross two lanes of traffic instead of just one. That seems strange to me.

Anyway, I'm really surprised at how much I have changed since when I first got my license. At 16 (or was it 17?) I was ready to drive anywhere. I was excited, and wanted to hop into a car and go. Now, after living in New York City for eight years, I am worried about driving in Tokyo. I don't want to drive if I can avoid it. When I do go driving, I'm going to drive slowly, I'm sure. At least until I'm out of this city and into some less congested roads.

That said, I'm kind of looking forward to going for a drive sometime with L. :) I'm not sure how insurance works here though, so I'll have to look into that.

May 11, 2008

Updates around Jiyugaoka

I've been neglecting my blog lately. Work has been busy, I'm getting married, family is coming to visit, etc. etc.. These things happen all the time, and it is no reason to ignore your beloved blog. I spent a bit of time today and fixed two things that had been bugging me: the admin control panel now links to the post for posts with new comments (bBlog isn't under active development anymore, but it is a very clean and easy to understand system. It is lots of fun to play with.) The other thing I fixed is that I moved the avatar images to be flush with the blue comment boundary. I would like to work a bit more on the template so it looks a bit more unified, but I'm not really a graphics guy.

So, over the past two months a few interesting things happened in and around Jiyugaoka. First up, my friend Henry told me that there is a New York Doughnut Plant in Jiyugaoka. I love New York! I love Jiyugaoka! I love Doughnuts! (But not enough to wait in line for Krispy Kreme at the two Krispy Kreme shops I know about.) The New York Doughnut Plant sounds like a great place because they spell Doughnut correctly, and maybe they are good Doughnuts, not like some of the other unlikely food combinations that I've come across before. (Although, on that note I did have a Spicy Wiener Doughnut this morning. It sounds like it wouldn't be very good, but it actually was quite nice. The hot dog was great, and a bit spicy, with the same kind of sweet fried exterior that you would find on the misleading Curry Bread that pretend to be sweet jelly-filled doughnuts, but totally are not.)

Back on topic with the New York Doughnut Plant, I was really excited to check it out but it is closed! They are remodeling and will be until sometime in September! I'll have moved away from my beloved Jiyugaoka by then! Oh noes! No doughnuts for me.

Next up on the docket are the new express trains on the Oimachi line. I often take the Oimachi line from Oyamadai (my beloved small town where I live) to Jiyugaoka (the nearby "big" station) where I can transfer to the more respectable Toyoko line. I take it every day to go to work. The Oimachi line is pretty small, only 10km from end to end. If the weather is nice, I'll just walk. I live very close to the tracks, basically separated only by a narrow road, so I hear the trains go by all the time. One thing that really surprised me is that these new express trains are much less noisy than the local trains. They look pretty cool too.

I'm going to miss the noise of trains going by every ten minutes or so. After about two years, it is strange how comforting the noise has become. I know that if I haven't heard trains go by in a while, I really need to get to bed. And they give you a good incentive to wake up when you really should be awake.

Finally, one shot of the Cherry Blossoms in Jiyugaoka. I made it through the whole cherry blossom season without posting any photos (I do have a bunch that I could upload, but it seems very clichéd.) I kind of like the cherry blossom trees that line the Jiyugaoka shopping street.

May 9, 2008

More earthquakes in Japan

So I'm a bit late on this -- I meant to write something last night, but never got around to it -- but there was a medium-sized earthquake two nights ago (Wednesday night.) Actually, it was early Thursday morning, at about 1:45am. I was in bed, somewhat asleep, when my dreams started to become strange and wave-like. The entire bed was swaying. There have been a few small earthquakes in the two years that I've been in Tokyo, but this was one of the bigger ones. In my strange dream-like logic, I thought "Should I wake up and run outside?" I convinced myself that the rocking, wavelike motion was kind of pleasant, and somehow thought that I was a on a nice boat.

I feel back deep asleep again shortly.

It was apparently a fairly big earthquake - showing up on the the local blogs.

Checking some of the earthquake report sites it looks like it was a 6.8 on the US scale, and a 4 or 5 on the Japanese scale.

Anyway, things were fine in my place. I think a pen rolled off one of my tables, but that was about it. I'm up on the 4th floor of a 4-story concrete "mansion", and that thing really gets swaying!

I'm a little worried now thinking about "the big one". Benkei is convinced that the big one is coming and will hit Tokyo soon. A friend of mine at work said the same thing. I'm not so sure: I don't really know much about how earthquakes work. Since I'm in the process of buying a place here though, I've decided that the big one is not coming, and our new place will be built to withstand it even if it does hit.

Unbridled optimism is a great power if only you can harness it correctly!

April 23, 2008

The Balanced Corpus of Contemporary Written Japanese and Japanese Blog Data

Today I went to a brief introduction talk about the plans to release a corpus of Japanese blog data for research use. The presentation was at the National Institute of Informatics, with a panel of Professor Toukura and Professor Oyama from NII, MAEKAWA Kikuo from The National Institute for Japanese Language, and a representative from Yahoo! Japan's blog division (I didn't catch his name, sorry.)

There were a lot of people there, about 30 or so all told. The purpose of the presentation was to introduce the plans to make a corpus of Japanese blog data available for research use. The presentation wasn't too detailed about what exactly will be released, but the current plan is to make the data available to researchers in July of 2008. The data consists of post entries from the Yahoo! Blog service where the users have agreed to allow their data to be collected and used in such a manner. The post comments are not included in the data, and the corpus will possibly have things like proper nouns anonymized and other things done to protect the privacy of the people in the data. It is really nice to see people thinking about putting together this kind of data for research use. I haven't found a URL for the project or I would post that - the contact section of the handout says to email Professors Toukura, Professor Oyama, or Mr. Maekawa, but I suspect there will be information on the main NII homepage about the data release when the time comes.

In addition, Mr. MAEKAWA spoke a bit about the Balanced Corpus of Contemporary Written Japanese, which looks very interesting. The project to build the corpus runs from 2006 to 2010, so they are only about two years into the project right now, but it is looking to be something like a Brown corpus for Japanese. It contains three sub-corpora, published material from 2001~2005 (magazines, newspapers, and books) and material from 1986 - 2005 from library sources (books mostly it looks like), and a mixed domain sub-corpus with web data, white papers, text books, records from Diet meetings, best seller novels, and so on.

This post isn't really all that content bearing, but there was only very useful resource that Mr. MAEKAWA mentioned in his talk: the demo of the KOTONOHA Corpus of Modern Japanese Search system (actual entrance is on a button click from the description page.) This is exactly what Alex was asking about in one of his posts: a Japanese KWIC (Key Word In Context) search.

I don't know how long that demo will be available, but it is totally great for language learners or generally people who don't know colloquial usage. I tried poking around at it a bit, putting in a few terms but didn't come up with anything too interesting. I liked めんど as a search term because there were lots of hits, some showing it used more as めんどう and others the shorter めんど, often with a くさい not too far behind...

Anyway, that demo search could be a useful tool for non-native Japanese speakers. I'll add it to my toolkit of places to check when I'm mystified.

Now if only someone would make a Geinojin info site that would tell me *why* that person is famous and should be a guest on some panel, that would be great. (I currently use Wikipedia for that, but I would be happier with something that just says X: comedian, Y: famous lawyer, etc.)

February 17, 2008

Kafka by the Sea Part 1: Japanese Vocabulary in half a modern fiction novel

This is a post that I've been waiting to make for a long time. Every weekend, I spend about one or two hours reading Murakami Haruki's "Kafka by the Sea" (村上春樹「海辺のカフカ」). I have been doing this for the past year, and finally today I finished the first book. Japanese books are often sold in two parts, so now I'll move onto the second and final part of this book. I expect it will still take another year for me to finish, unless I start trying to read it a bit on weekdays as well, but to be honest it is a bit difficult to read because I need to sit down somewhere with enough room to take notes in a notebook, and look words up in a dictionary.

This is the second novel that I've read in Japanese, and much more interesting than the first one, Keritai Senaka, by Risa Wataya, in which nothing much happened. I'm not going to write a review of Kafka by the Sea right now, since I'm only halfway through, but I enjoy it a lot so far. It has elements of fantasy and wonder that I usually really enjoy in Murakami's work. I've started reading a bit faster as time goes on, mostly because the story is getting interesting (and perhaps I'm remembering more words.)

What I would like to write about is the vocabulary with which I had trouble. I sat and wrote the words I didn't know in a little notebook, and then entered them into a simple text file when I finished each reading session. I also added little notes summarizing what when on (I didn't start doing that until later though, so it isn't a complete description of the first book.) These words aren't the only ones that I didn't know, just the ones that I wrote down - there are probably 10 words or so that I just skipped entirely because I was reading on the subway and didn't want to drag out my notebook, or something like that.

There were a total of 877 words that I wrote down in my notebook. Out of a 486 page book, that means there are about two words per page that I don't know on average, but the distribution is really not nearly that even. Of those 877 words, 103 of them showed up more than once. That means that of those 877 words, I couldn't remember about 11 percent of them. One of them in particular is embarrassing: I didn't know the word for "sentence", which makes no sense because I use that word all the time. I attribute it to the word showing up in a context that I am not expecting (literature instead of computer science stuff.)

There were two words that I wrote down four times, nine words that I wrote down three times, 79 words that I wrote down twice, and the rest occurred only once. The good news there is that at least I did seem to learn most words after writing them down twice: very few words occurred three or four times. Also, there are a lot of words here that I really don't need to know. Murakami likes to use strange words, and he will use less-common characters for them also. I don't think I need to know 咀嚼, soshyaku, to bite. Don't normal people just use 噛む, kamu (to bite / chew)?

On the off chance anyone else is interested in reading this novel, I'll put up my vocab list.

January 29, 2008

The Asian Olympic Handball Controversy (and Doctor Who)

For the past few weeks when I check out the news I've been hearing about the Handball Controversy.

First off, I didn't know that handball was an olympic sport. I know there are lots of olympic sports that I don't know much about, but I have never seen anything about handball in the US.

That is one interesting thing about Japanese TV: I see all sorts of topics that just are not on the radar at all for American Media. In general, I think American Media is just awful, reporting on unimportant things and ignoring interesting topics, completely dominated by large corporations and advertising to consumers. I like NPR, and that probably gives you a pretty good idea of what I'm about.

Anyway, I can't say that Japan is all that different, but the NHK news here does touch on a lot more international topics than news in America.

I've seen a few stories on the handball thing, and didn't really pay much attention but it seemed like there was some officiating controversy at the handball playoffs that decide who will go to the Beijing Olympics to represent Asia. I didn't get much more out of it than that - they played some clips, but I don't know the first thing about handball, so I didn't know what was going on.

This morning I saw that Japan and Korea will be re-playing a tournament. Japan and Korea. That sounds like it could be explosive. These countries have a long history of competing, and it can get serious.

Since I didn't know what was going on though, I did a search of the English web. Wow! Based on this afp news story and this story on China Daily it is even crazier than I thought! I basically thought that Japan and Korea had some problem with the officiating (and they do!) between the games they played. It turns out that they are accusing that the Kuwaiti team benefited from a late switch of officials (Germans to Jordinians) and cheated their way into an Olympic berth.

Korea and Japan appealed to the International Handball Federation who ruled that the tournament be re-played. The president of the Asian Handball Federation, Kuwaiti prince Sheikh Ahmed Al-Fahad Al-Sabah (who also serves as the head of the Olympic Council of Asia) does not sanction the replays and has threatened action against any other nations that play in them.

So in the end only Korea and Japan are playing in the IHF re-plays. The women play tonight, and the men play tomorrow.

I just wonder what will happen with the results? I mean, two teams can't make up an entire tournament, can they?

Since I saw that the game is actually going on live, I thought I would take a peek at the seven channels I get on my TV to see if it was on. It wasn't, but completely randomly I came across Doctor Who (dubbed in Japanese!) on NHK! It was great to hear Rose and the Doctor in Japanese. Rose doesn't seem as strong and independent in Japanese, but she's still cool. The doctor doesn't sound as funny and irrelevant either, but I only caught the last 10 minutes of the first part of the two-parter "The Impossible Planet" (Episode 22). The second part airs on Feb 5th at 7pm. I'll have to leave home early to make sure I catch it. :)

And now I'm watching "Sanma Palace", which is a show with a comedian that takes to a bunch of other "talent". I don't get it.

Also, they broke the talent into two teams, the "complete idiots" and the smart team. But when you look at the text they use to title the segment, it is the "not intelli(gent)" (ノットインテリ) against the "intelli(gent)" (インテリ). I think - I'm just guessing, and usually that means I've completely and horribly misunderstood the Japanese. I liked when they introduced the baka team with a segment "this is when you realized that you're stupid".

January 26, 2008

I lost my watermelon

I sometimes have conversations that go like this:
D: It's really cold tonight, so after dinner why don't we take the train home instead of walking?

R: Yeah, it's really cold today. That's a good idea. Oh but wait, hey hey, I lost my watermelon!

D: You lost your watermelon?

R: Yeah, I had it yesterday, then I went to my friend's house, and now I can't find it! It's really inconvenient!

D: It's inconvenient that you lost your watermelon? In the winter?

Of course, things became clear shortly thereafter: she was talking about her JR RFID-style card, the "Suica", which is a homonym for watermelon. I was so confused.

January 3, 2008

Happy Bags

Every new year in Japan, retailers put together bags, call them Lucky Bags, Happy Bags, Grab Bags, what-have-you, but essentially they are a collection of goodies for a good price.  I bought the 2008 Muji Happy Bag, and here are pictures of what was inside.

This idea of "Lucky Bags" (essentially grab bags) is new to me.  I heard about it just the other day, and it was explained to me like this:
Do you know fukubukuro? (福袋 - literally good fortune bag) It is a bag at a store.  It costs maybe 1000 yen, but has 3000 yen of stuff inside!
Now, I'm no business major or economist, but that sounds like a bad deal for the retailer.  Thinking about it though, it is a really interesting idea.  I'm sure that the retailers don't take a loss on these things - the margins are probably very low on them - but the idea is somewhat similar to the Black Friday sales you see the day after Thanksgiving in America.  So the day after Thanksgiving, stores sell stuff at ridiculously outrageous prices, certainly taking a hit on some of the deals as "loss leaders" just trying to get people into the store.  These are probably operating on the same, or at least similar, model.  Get people into the store, and they will pick up some other stuff along with your Happy Bag (I kind of like that as the translation instead of Lucky Bag.) 

The way these bags work is that you generally have a bag for some set price, say 3000 yen, and unknown contents inside.  Generally you can't see into the bag so you don't know what is in there.  It's a gamble.  (Given the Japanese peoples incomprehensible love of Pachinko  it comes to no surprise to me that they like the idea of a random gamble on a bag of unknown stuff.)  This strikes me as an interesting propsition on two grounds: it is good for the merchant because you can use the happy bag as not just a loss leader, a way to draw people into the store, but also as a way to manage inventory: you need to get rid of the 2007 models and make room for the new, trendy 2008 models.  I don't follow Japanese fashion magazines, but this place is dominated by magazines that set trends (see Neojapanisme, clast, or jeansnow.net for more about that) and last year's stuff just won't do.  Since you are selling this bag of stuff, you can throw in things that didn't sell well or that you are overstocked on, drop the price a bit, and people are happy because they are getting a good deal.  That's a win-win situation.  It also has the advantages of a video game system bundling deal: you can put in a few stinkers with the winners and hopefully people will overlook that fact. 

Having the Happy Bags be opaque is very interesting because now the merchant is faced with a problem: dump a lot of crap that isn't worth much into the bag and make some money, or put really good stuff in there, possible take a loss, but possible gain customer loyalty in the process?  It is a tough call.  Personally, I wouldn't want to a get, for example, a Don Quixote happy bag, but I'm pretty sure I would be interested in a Muji or Uniqulo happy bag.  Anyway, I have more confidence that Japanese companies would take the long-term view and generally try to put good stuff in their bags.  I'm not sure that I would trust American companies to do that same thing.  I think the closest thing, the Black Friday sales in America, are similar but have some bad sides to them as well: for example, generally the best deals are limited to a certain number per store, and now have resulted in not-infrequent tramplings and mad rushes at the stores.  I don't think that happens as much in Japan, but then again I didn't line up for any 初売り (first shopping!) trips either. 

Anyway, the short of it is that I went and bought the Muji Happy Bag this year.  It is the first year I had ever heard about them, and I was thinking of stopping by Muji and picking up some socks and a hat.  Thinking about the bag, maybe there would be socks and a hat in there.  Muji seems unusual in that their Happy Bag is see-through.  I like Muji a lot.  I haven't written about it, but I think that the idea of a brand that is personified by the lack of branding, is really interesting.  Japan is more or less brand obsessed, and a brand that is unbranded is still somehow a brand (you can tell by color schemes, design scheme, style, function, and so on.)  Anyway, they expect that they can sell more bags when people know their contents as opposed to not.  I think that is because Muji is an honest and reliable store.  And I like their socks. 

So here is a breakdown of what was in their bag:

  1. A large wool Jacket
  2. Two pair of boxer shorts
  3. One India Linen bag (?)
  4. Three pair of short socks
  5. One pair of long socks
  6. One short scarf

I have to say that the bag was worth it if for the Jacket alone.  It is a really nice large wool Jacket.  Of course, I got the large bag - the bag also comes in small I suppose - so the jacket actually fits pretty well.  I'm really pleased with just the jacket, but wait, there's more!  You also get two pair of boxer shorts (can't go wrong with those), three pairs of short socks (I was hoping for some socks!), one pair of long socks (they look warm), one short scarf, and one Indian Linen bag.  Now, I'm a little confused about the linen bag, since I'm not really sure what it is supposed to be for.  A dirty laundry bag?  Something that stands up is more useful for that task.  A shopping bag?  There are no convenient handles.  Really, I'm kind of at a loss here.  It is totally in line with Muji's style, but just not something that I have a use for.  I am currently using it as a tablecloth on a small table.  It is doing a good job, but I feel like I should put something inside it.  (But what?)

Anyway, I like this idea of Happy Bags.  I have a lot of blogs written by foreigners in Japan, and over on Tokyo Manga Lisa writes about the women's Muji vs. Uniqlo Happy Bags

The Seven Gods of Happiness New Year Temple Tour

The Tokai Seven: like Ocean's Eleven, but much older.  And less criminal.  They are both pretty lucky though.

The Seven Gods of Happiness represent different types of good fortune, and for some reason in Shinagawa there are seven temples, each devoted to one of the Gods.  One of the traditions of the New Year is the 初詣, the first visit to a temple of the new year, and while often this occurs at midnight, it isn't unusual for the first visit to be done anytime in the first few days after the new year.  The most busy time of the year is probably the First, and the most busy temple is probably Meiji Jingu.  I'm not going to brave those crowds, but since I was staying in Shinagawa, Lisa and I decided to make the rounds and visit all seven temples. 

At your first stop, you can buy a poster-board with a spot for each temple.  As you go to each temple, you can collect a stamp for that temple.  Collect all seven!  You can also buy a boat, and buy little figurines that go in the boat at each temple.  The suggested order for visiting the temples is:

  1. Shinagawa (Shinto) Temple, for Daikokuten God of Wealth 品川神社 (大黒天)5 minutes to
  2. Yougan Temple, for Hoteizen God of Good Fortune 養願寺(布袋尊) 1 minute to
  3. Isshin Temple, for Jyuroujin God of Long Life 一心寺(寿老人) 5 minutes to
  4. Ebara Temple, for Ebisu God of Wealth 荏原神社(恵比須) 15 minutes to
  5. Shingawa (Buddhist) Temple, for Bishyamonten Buddhist Guardian God 品川寺(毘沙門天,金生七福神) 20 minutes to
  6. Tenso / Suwa Temple, for Fukurokujyu the God of Happiness, Wealth, and Longevity 天祖・諏訪神社(福禄寿) 25 minutes to
  7. Iwai Temple, for Benzaiten the God of Music, Wealth, Eloquence, and water 磐井神社(弁財天)

I didn't know much about the different Gods when I was visiting the temples, but I did do a little bit of research when I got back home.  A "little bit" means that I looked them up on Wikipedia, and noticed that there was an English page as well as the Japanese page.  So now you know about as much about them as I do.  It took a long time to visit all of the temples.  I don't remember the order that we did it (although possibly you can reconstruct the order from the pictures on Flickr) but it took us two days.  We visited five on the first day, ending with Shinagawa.  Shinagawa temple was probably the largest of the lot, and had police managing the crowds.  We waited for about forty minutes or more to make our offering there.  I also picked up an Omikuji (お神籤), which is a written fortune.  I was lucky and got "The very best of luck" (大吉) so I'm hopeful that this will be a good year.  So far, so good anyway.  After the long wait, and previous hour or so of walking around going to the other four temples, we decided to go back to Lisa's parent's place. 

The next day we went to the last two temples, Iwai Temple and Tenso / Suwa temple.  I've never seen a temple with two names in it like that before, and I wonder what that is all about.  I'm sure I could figure it out if I did some searching on the Japanese web, but I'm not too interested in doing that right now.  The Japanese web makes my head hurt when I stare at it for too long.  Iwait temple houses Benzaiten, which I think is my favorite of the Gods because I've always been a fan of Benten Records, a record label that focuses on female Japanese bands.  In all honesty though, I think you would be best off with Fukurokujyu, since that God seems to be a general jack-of-all-trades Gods.  Also, unless I'm really bad at looking these things up, it looks like there are two Gods of Wealth (Can't have too many of those I guess) and some other overlap also, but nobody ever said that your pantheon had to be orthogonal.  If I was to build my own pantheon though, I would probably try to select both orthogonal and complementary Gods, but that's just me. 

I really enjoyed this trip around to various different temples, and now that I've looked into it, there are lots of these things.  http://park1.wakwak.com/~hisamaro/tokyo2photo.htm lists many different temple tours, and has a convenient list of temples and gods for the Tokai Seven.  So I'm sure there are lots of other temple courses I can try out - but to be honest, it is a lot of trouble, and probably not something I'll repeat. 

Note: while writing my post, I relied on http://www.evam.ne.jp/tokai7/index.html as a general site on the Tokai Seven Gods of Happiness.  But I didn't rely on it too much because it is part of the Japanese web.  

Osechi Ryori

I feel obliged to say that the next few posts on my blog will be about the New Year in Japan.  None of them will really have interesting observations that haven't been made before, many times, by foreigners in Japan.  That is one kind of interesting thing about being a foreigner in Japan: you go through phases.  I'll have to write about that at some time, but we all go through a "I'm a funny guy and will comment on these crazy Japanese" as well as a "wow, look at all the cool cultural things they have here" phase.  You can probably find any number of similar posts on the blogs listed at the Japan Blog List.

I have been in Japan for about one year and nine months now.  Last year, I spent the new year on my own, and visited a local temple.  I didn't know what was going on really, but I enjoyed it.  This year, I had the chance to spend New Year's Eve with a Japanese family.  I was looking forward to the chance, because the New Year's holiday is one of the biggest holidays in Japan, very similar to a mix of Christmas and Thanksgiving in the United States, where families gather together  and eat food while celebrating the New Year and reflecting on the year gone past.  (Although in practice it reduces down to over-eating and watching people sing on TV.  I'll write more about that in a later post.) 

The main thing to which I was looking forward was Osechi Food (おせち料理), which is the kinds of food that families each over the New Year's Holiday.  I never really had a good idea about the food consisted of, and now after having experienced it, I'm pretty sure that there are not any real set dishes aside from a few common things, and that anything can be Osechi Food.  It is just a time for the family to gather, sit around the table, eat, and enjoy. 

On New Year's Eve it is traditional to eat a special kind of Soba called Toshikoshi Soba.  I didn't know the origins of this custom, and found two interesting sties with more information on it.  One is at jpn-miyabi.com and the other is at urban.ne.jp.  It seems like soba (buckwheat noodles) are traditionally thought to symbolize long life and good fortune.  The custom dates back to the Edo period, perhaps around 1700 or so, perhaps earlier.  More interesting is this post over on justhungry.com where they have a nice recipe for Toshikoshi Soba.  The Soba that we had was nice, although grandma humbly complained that it has weak flavor, and tasty.  It had some great wild mushrooms in there, and some chicken.  I hope it passed on to me the attributes of long life and wealth, but I'm afraid all it did for me was to fill me up before the main course: Sukiyaki.

Sukiyaki is a food that it seems like is a traditional Japanese "comfort food".  Lots of people associate it with happy times with the family, sitting around the table and talking happily.  I have had Sukiyaki a few times, and I think it is really great.  Absolutely delicious.  I was told that the Kansai (Kyoto / Osaka area) version of Sukiyaki uses a sweet sugar base with Mirin, while the Tokyo version uses a salt-based sauce.  This version was the sugar-based one, and I thought it was great.  What happens is you put food - vegetables, meat, and so on - into the Sukiyaki bowl, and pull it out as it cooks.  If you like, you can take a raw egg and crack it open into a bowl, which you then dip things into.  I am not crazy about the raw-egg-on-things custom that the Japanese harbor, but I don't dislike it.  (Other places where you can find this include Yoshinoya, where you can get a raw egg to put on your beef bowl, and many of the "o-don" dishes where the raw egg cooks, essentially, over the hot rice.)  Incidentally, you can buy eggs at the supermarket that are specifically meant to be eaten raw for this kind of purpose.  I suppose they have some sort of higher quality standard for safety or whatever, but I'm not really sure. 

Along with the Sukiyaki meal there were other small dishes, such as mochi (rice cake) both cold and hot with soy sauce on it, and of course alcohol.  The New Year's Eve meal was accompanied by sake and beer.  And not a small amount: every time I checked, my cup had been re-filled.  I also made sure to do my duty and keep the cups of those around me full.  After dinner, we all gathered around the TV to watch the special sets of shows that are specific to New Year's Eve, and pass the time until midnight.  I won't go into detail about that here, but shortly after midnight we went to bed.  I slept on a Japanese futon, the first time in quite a while, and woke up with a sore back. 

The next morning at 9:00am we gathered for breakfast, which is the proper Osechi Food.  There were two main components to the meal: the Ocean Foods, and the Mountain Foods.  The Ocean foods consisted of things from the Ocean and peculiarly a sweetened mashed-like Potato dish that I really enjoyed.  I liked the Ocean Foods a lot because they are colorful and made a very pretty arrangement on the plate.  The traditional colors of the New Year are Red and White, and some delicious seafood cakes took on those colors.  Sadly, I don't know what everything on the plate is, but it was all quite nice.  The Mountain Foods are fresh vegetables and things like that, including mushrooms and other things that I don't know.  As with many of the foods, some were round and in a ball-form since that symbolizes good luck.  There are some beans that are traditional as well, but I don't know the story behind that.  Interestingly, you can see in the lower-left of the photo that I took that there is a bottle of Sake and three bowls for drinking, each smaller and with a good-luck character written on them.  Before breakfast everyone at the table had a saucer of the sake before the saucers ended up with their rightful owners (in this case, the head of the household, his daughter, and myself.)  I enjoyed having sake for breakfast, although it isn't something that I want to do every day.  The final part of the meal was the Mochi (rice cake) soup.  I'm not sure what all was in it, but it was quite nice.  As with the previous night's dinner, mochi (rice cakes) were present and I was given a rice cake roasted with soy sauce and then wrapped up in nori (seaweed.)  It was nice, but those rice cakes can fill you up really fast.  They are heavy, sticky, and sink to you stomach.  I'm pretty sure I added a layer of fat composed entirely of rice cake over this three day period.

After breakfast Lisa and I headed out for our first temple visits of the year, which I'll document in a later post.  We returned after a few hours, and snacked on tea and some cakes, before dinner at 6:30pm.  I didn't get any pictures of the tea that we had, but I had a very, very large amount of tea over those three days. 

Dinner was Western Style (on my account?) consisting of Roast Beef that Lisa and her grandmother cooked previously, some salad, and leftovers from the previous day's food.  Of course, the Sake tradition continued, but this time we also had two bottles of Red Wine to go with the meat.  The roast beef was quite nice, but curiously served cold.  Actually, that isn't all that surprising; Japanese often eat meals (Bento boxes in particular) which are cold, and I've had roast before here before that was served cold.  It was still quite nice.  To accompany the beef there were two sorts of sauces: one was standard Wasabi like you would get with Sushi, and the other was a type of salt, called "Yuzu Salt", that was very nice.  Yuzu is a Japanese Citrus, and this salt was made with Yuzu in some way.  I've equated it with Garlic Salt in my mind, and will try to pick some up next time I'm at a shop that might have some. 

After dinner, I went back home so that I could sleep in my own bed, but I was asked to come back for breakfast the next morning at 9:30am.  Breakfast consisted of the same foods seen previously, and more Breakfast Sake.  To tell the truth, I was still absolutely stuffed from all the food over the past two days, but I think the point of the New Year Holiday is to save up energy and fat for the coming busy times when everyone goes back to work and does their standard twelve hours days subsisting on only ramen.  After breakfast the family watched some more TV, then Lisa and I went out to hit the last two temples on our temple card.  More on the Temple Visits and crazy Japanese New Year's TV at a later date.

December 4, 2007

The 2007 Japanese New Word / Buzzword / Hot Phrase Prize

I woke up this morning and was surprised to see on the news that there is a yearly Japanese new word / hot phrase prize awarded.  It looks like this prize is sponsored by a publishing company, and has been awarded annually since 1984.  You can check their yearly archive to see who won the prizes in the past.

I'm sure there are many bloggers in the Japan ex-pat sphere that are much more on top of these things than I am, but I thought it would be amusing to take a look through this year's list and see what I can figure out.  In general, it seems like an odd pastiche of catchphrases, nicknames, and social phenomena. 

And the winners are...



どげんかせんといかん

(Dogenkasen to ikan) This is a regional dialect from Miyazaki-ken.  The person who popularized this saying is 東国原英夫 (Higashikokubaru Hideo), currently the prefectural governor of Miyazaki-ken recently elected in January of 2007. Before that he was one of Japan's many "Talent", basically a TV personality of some kind.

This phrase is indecipherable to me, so I did a bit of searching on the interweb.  I know that いかん is basically Kansai-ben for "bad", so I can make some guesses based on that, but what I came up with, from this blog posting, is that it means "We have to do something (about this)."  I also know that the ~せん suffix is used in some dialects as a negative, so I can guess now that どぐ might be something like する (to do.)  These are all conjectures though. 

It seems like the story of this guy is that he was recently elected to the prefectural government of Miyazaki, which hasn't been viewed in the best of lights recently.  He's know as the "Miyazaki Salesman" because he shows up on TV shows and other things to extol the virtues of Miyazaki.  Popularizing some of the local dialect spoken in Miyazaki has been one of the points on his agenda apparently.  Anyway, it is interesting to learn, and I wish I knew more about this particular dialect, but in practice if you live in Tokyo you will only hear standard Japanese, and some Kansai-ben if you watch TV and comedians, along with whatever your friends speak.  It seems like most of my friends speak French or Senegalese these days, so Miyazaki-ben is completely out of the running for me. 

ハニカミ王子


(Hanikami Prince) This is the nickname for Ishikawa Ryu, a freshman high school student amateur golfer that has been popular lately.  The nickname was given to him by his godparent, who was announcing the Munsingwear Open KBS Cup at the time that Ryu won it.  I don't understand what the nickname means at all, but a quick look at his wikipedia entry did not clear anything up at all.  It says that the nickname was born at the time of his interview after winning the event, but doesn't say where it came from.  It says that was previously called "The Sunvisor Prince" because he wore a sunvisor, but that didn't stick, and Hanikami Prince did because of his characteristics.

And a slap to the forehead time: はにかみ屋 is in the edict as "a very shy person".  So I'm guessing this is more properly called "The Shy Prince" and now it all makes sense. 

I also think this is about as cool as everyone fawning over "The Handkerchief Prince" from last year, who was a baseball player (pitcher) for Waseda who wiped his brow with a handkerchief all the time.  People went nuts over him too.  I'm not as interested in fashionable nicknames.

(消えた)年金


(Kieta Nenkin)  This is a reference to the recent trouble about missing pension money.  This year, over $450,000 in pension money went "missing".  (This is nothing compared to how much money has gone missing in Iraq for the US!)  舛添要一 (Masuzoe Youichi) is a politician, and also ex-Talent, who has been involved with the missing pension money.  He's the part of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan, the Minister of Health, Labor, and Welfare, and a well-known political scientist (not that I know of him!)  Anyway, he has been speaking out about lack of accountability and other problems with the social insurance agency.  The "Disappearing pension money" is one of his catch-phrases.


そんなの関係ねぇ


(Sonnano Kankei nee) This is an annoying catch-phrase that is apparently the height of Japanese humor, but just strikes me as completely idiotic and scraping the bottom of the barrel of humor.  (Of course, my friends would call me a hypocrite to be calling any humor stupid, but that's for another day.)  Anyway, そんなの関係ねぇ means "that has nothing to do with it!" or something along those lines.  It is a catchphrase that this comedian, 小島よしお (Kojima Yoshio) uses.  He comes out wearing just a swimsuit (Speedo-style, why?) and repeatedly says this in a good rhythm to cheer himself up.   Man, this stuff is not funny.  Of course, in his "interview" he answered every question with "that has nothing to do with it!"

I'm going to start using this at work and see if people laugh.  They probably will.  How depressing.  My amazingly funny, complex puns based on subtle translation errors just get blank stares, or worse, elicit outright anger.  You know what I tell myself though: そんなの関係ねぇ!


どんだけぇ〜


(Don dakeh~)  This is another annoying catch-phrase joke that you hear way too often.  It basically means something like "how much (or far) [has that gone?] - [it can't be as much as your are saying]".  It comes from どれだけ and is often used with a sarcastic intent.  So if someone says "I ate two donuts" you can say "How many?" with the implication being "you couldn't have eaten two donuts!" (it must be many more because you are fat) or something like that.  Then people will laugh. 

Also, the person that was nominated for this is Ikko, a makeup artist and Talent who is a cross-dresser.  He said that this isn't really his gag, it is one that is popular in the gay bars down in Shinjuku 2-chome.  Japanese people seem to really like cross-dressers and think they are very funny.  I guess they're kind of like the British that way. 

鈍感力


(donkanryoku) Thick-skinned (well, that's my translation anyway.)  More literally it is something like "the power to be stolid".  This is by author Watanabe Jyunichi, who wrote a book of the same name.  The meaning is basically "don't worry so much about the little things" which is a good message I think.  But I'm pretty sure I don't really get all the significance of the word, since I don't really know what that means within the Japanese culture context.  What is "little stuff" to me probably has no bearing on what is "little stuff" to the Japanese, and vice-versa for the big stuff. 

食品偽装


(Shyokuhin Gisou) This one is kind of interesting.  It means "fake food" and is a reference to a company here in Japan called "Meat Hope" which labeled some of its meat products as ground beef when in actuality the products included pork or rabbit or other things like that.  There were other similar sorts of food-based incidents, like a company that was selling fresh-made tofu treats (for years and years) but was actually labeling them as made on the day they were thawed out after being frozen, and other things like that. 


ネットカフェ難民


(ネットカフェ なんみん) This is a social phenomena expression.  It refers to people that, for whatever reason, sleep in internet cafés.  Some of the people are homeless and use the cheap net cafes (some with 1000 yen overnight packages) to grab a shower and sleep in big recliner chairs. The translation is pretty clear, literally: net cafe refugees. 


大食い


(おおぐい) I think the reading is right.  Anyway, this word I guess refers to the gradual super-sizing of foods in Japan.  Just like in America, portions are getting bigger, and food is getting less healthy (depending on where you eat anyway.)  The recipient for this prize was ギャル曽根 (Gal Isone, maybe loosely translatable as Stomach Girl).  She is Talent, and appears on eating competition shows.  She can eat a lot, I've seen some of the shows that she's been on.  She must exercise a lot with the amount that she eats.



猛暑日


(もうしょび) The day of fierce heat.  It was awarded to the president of the Kumamoto-city shop-owners association (or something like that.)  This summer, temperatures reached 40.9 degrees Celsius (105.6 F)  in Kumamoto.  That's crazy hot.


Well, that does it for this year's top 10  buzzwords / hot phrases prize.  I thought that one of them was pretty interesting, and three of them were completely worthless.  The others are somewhere in between.  It was kind of fun looking some of this stuff up though. 


Bad Omens

Today started off with a bad omen: I slept in for an entire hour. Usually I'm very good about getting up on time, but I was up a bit late last night. Even though I went home early (home by about 7:45pm) I logged on to some machines at work, and (slowly, while watching House) did some work-related stuff. I ended up going to bed at about 1am, instead of my usual 11pm, with a 7am alarm.

I almost never use the snooze function on my alarm (which is actually my cell phone) but this morning it was so cold that I just couldn't stand it. I turned on the heater, and then somehow an hour passed before it was warm enough to get out of bed.

Now, this isn't really a big problem since I don't have strict hours that I need to be at work (I just need to get my work done.) The problem comes in with the commute: they way things are now, a slight delay on my part changes my commute from annoying to unbearably crowded, hot, and sweaty.

If I wake at 7am, wash my face, and then hop on the train I generally will be able to sit on the second leg of my trip (~20 minutes) and can sit after the second station on the third leg of the trip (~20 minutes.) If I can't sit, at least I can stand and can hold a hand-strap, and generally I have some space and am not too crowded.

If I am delayed by twenty minutes or more, I skip the first train leg of my trip entirely (only 2 stops, maybe 5 minutes on the train) and walk the 15 minutes to the start of the second leg because that fifteen minute delay means that the train is so packed that when the doors open, you just see a wall of people. To get on the train you turn around with your back facing the people, and then press your way in. If you can get some leverage on the train door side that helps. Usually, somehow, miraculously, there is enough space to squeeze in. Your face will pressed up against the glass, which is slick with condensation from the hot breath of the people jammed into the train, making cattle cars seem roomy by comparison. If you are unlucky, more people will be getting on after you, and you will find yourself bent into improbably shapes as bags and briefcases force your lower body and legs one way, while other pressures force your upper body another way. If you can reach a strap that helps a lot, otherwise it is a crazy balancing act in which unusual muscles start to ache from holding odd positions. It doesn't matter much in the end though because you are packed in so tight it isn't possible to fall over, only lean more awkwardly onto the people around you.

So generally I'll just skip that mess entirely and walk the 15 minutes to Jiyugaoka. It is a nice walk anyway, and I can do with the exercise.

At Jiyugaoka things are slightly better because I can choose to take the local train, which isn't nearly as bad as the express, or god forbid, the commuter express, which is just comically packed. Typically though, even the local train is unbearably hot and humid from all the people. Also, don't think that there is the up-side of at least sometimes being pressed up against cute women: the rush is worst from 7:20am until about 9:30am, which probably 70% of the ridership is male. The women are smarter and try to avoid the typical salary-man hours.

Of course, on the express and commuter express train there are "women-only" cars so maybe more of them crowd in there. I don't know; I always take the local because it is only about five minutes longer from where I'm at and substantially less crowded (which isn't saying much.) The women only cars are supposed to address the problem of men groping women, which I might talk about at some point, but in reality I don't know much about it: I don't do it, and I don't know that I've ever seen it happen. I'm not sure I would know if it was happening though, so I generally just try not to think about it too much.

Anyway, today with my delay of one hour, I was in the packed train at Shibuya. It is usually pretty back until you hit Naka-meguro where lots of people get out (yay!) but then you are only two stops away from Shibuya, so it isn't really much of a win.

I transfer at Shibuya to the Hanzomon line. Today things were strange: I got down to the ticket gates, and there was a crowd of people backed up to the escalator. The place was jam packed. A few of the signs had information on the problem: due to a "personal accident" (人間事故, literally human or personal accident) the trains were severely delayed. A personal accident is a euphemism for suicide. They happen sometimes here in Japan, someone decides that the commute is unbearable, and in a sarcastic lash back at the commuting system they jump in front of a train. This has happened a few times in the approximately two years that I've been here, maybe four or five times. Usually the trains are running within twenty minutes to an hour.

This time, the accident happened at 6:15am and they were not letting people into the gates. I don't really know what happened, but I decided I wasn't getting anywhere fast, and I went for a cup of hot chocolate at the Starbucks in front of Shibuya Crossing.

I really need to remember this, but I hate that Starbucks.

Every few months I go there, and I hate it. Then, a few months later, I decide I want some hot chocolate or something, and I go back. And I hate it. The problem is that the place is always packed. You always have to wait for a place to sit. Even once you do sit, it is unbearably hot. The building is facing East (I think I don't know these things), and gets the full brunt of the sun as it comes up. It has a large glass face, and it is always unbearably hot. The tables are small and always crowded. One of my favorite things to do is to read a book and have a drink at the coffee shop, but in this place I can't spread out much which is a major problem: when I read, I need space for my book, my electric dictionary (ancient, so huge by modern-day standards) and a notebook that I write down unknown Japanese words (writing is still the best way to remember things.)

So while I'm drinking my hot chocolate, in a cramped counter seat in front of a huge glass window with the full force of the sun beating down on me in an over-heated coffee shop, I'm sweating like mad. Finally, the last thing about this place is that it is always packed with foreigners. Now, I'm a foreigner and I'm not one of those people that feels like other foreigners around me are invading my own special private Japan where I'm the only unique guy. But I don't like when I hear a bunch of people talking English loudly about things that annoy me. And you tend to get a lot of guys in this Starbucks talking about picking up Japanese women or other things like that which can be annoying. Or people doing impromptu English lessons - which is common in coffee shops, but this one is just so crazy crowded that it makes no sense to do one there.

Anyway, I eventually finished my hot chocolate, and headed back to the subway. They were finally letting people back on the trains, and I picked up my little ticket that said the trains were delayed for an hour (they pass them out so people can prove to their bosses that they weren't, in fact, just hanging out at a coffee shop making disapproving body language at strange foreigners) and finished the commute -- still crowded because of the delay -- to work.

I'm usually here at about 8:30am, today I didn't get in until 10:30am. Already two hours behind schedule!

And I love my schedules. Ah well. At least I get to rant about it on my blog. :)

September 30, 2007

One week with Papa and Daughter (パパとムスメの七日間)

On Saturday I was working at the computer with the TV on, and came across a re-broadcast of the first two episodes of パパとムスメの七日間, a Japanese weekend drama that was on a while back. I usually don't watch Japanese TV since it consists of essentially talentless タレント芸の人 (celebrities) on quiz shows, or possibly cooking shows, or quite possibly celebrity cooking quiz travel shows. Actually, you can draw any keywords from the set (cooking, celebrity, quiz, game, challenge survival course, travel, food) and come up with a plausible Japanese TV show. I have to admit that I enjoy some of the survival course shows, but generally I don't watch too much Japanese TV.

Every once in a while I'll watch a drama, but because they are always broadcast on some sort of schedule and I don't generally work regular hours I find it really hard to watch something broadcast on a schedule.

This drama, A week with Papa and Daughter, is only seven shows long. It was broadcast on the weekend, and has a kind of short run (usually they are 12 episodes or so I would guess?) That is a short enough run that I can get into it, and since I just "watched" two episodes I headed over to d-addicts.com and downloaded the rest of the series.

I really recommend it for intermediate and advanced level Japanese speakers. It is a funny series, and fairly easy to understand. A very brief description of the series:

A daughter, Koume, and her father (papa) don't get along very well. Returning from Grandma's house one day, they eat a magical peach that switches their bodies around, and hilarity ensues. The father works at a famous beauty supplies company, and is in charge of a new product launch: the perfume Beautiful Dream that they are aiming at high school girls up to office ladies.

The daughter, Koume, is a high school student with a crush on a student on the soccer team. You can imagine how a high school girl trying to be the boss of a project at work could be difficult (and also how a high school student could be useful for directing the product direction.) Of course, her father isn't going to have any easy time with the midterm tests or Koume's high school crush...

I found the entire series over on d-addicts in Japanese, and it looks like they also have English and Chinese subtitles for it.

It's worth checking out!

September 15, 2007

On the outside looking in

A quick post.

Today has been a peaceful Saturday, where I woke up early, did some housework, cleaned up around the place, and caught up on casual website reading. I also enjoyed my traditional hour or two at the local coffee shop reading my Japanese book - I will eventually finish this thing, but it might take me another six months.

I went home and started to read a few academic research papers related to some work stuff.

At about five thirty I decided to head to the local supermarket to buy some orange juice and start some rice for dinner. Once outside my door, I heard some shouting and drums, and realized that I was about to run into another festival of some kind. I vaguely remembered seeing signs advertising for recruits to help carry the portable shrines for a festival coming up in mid September, which is about now.

Walking half a block to the East shopping street, I caught sight of a small portable shrine being carried by some kids down the road, and right at the parking lot on the corner a more unusual scene. (For an American, seeing something more unusual than a portable shrine carried by kids who are chanting and walking in unison looks odd even to me.)

This all happened quite quickly, but here is what I saw:

A well-dressed Japanese man in his mid to late thirties, prostrating himself in the traditional Japanese fashion (土下座.) The open door and vacant driver's seat of a black luxury SUV in the middle of the road seemed oddly out of place; you don't usually see those things with the door open and engine running, vacant. Standing in front of the man was an older, slightly pudgy Japanese man in traditional dress - the kind that you commonly see at festivals worn by the people participating or working there, perhaps a happi (半被), all in black. He was yelling at the other man, and it was scary. He had a rough edge to his voice, reminding me of what the Yakuza in the movies sound like. This was all quite quick, and I didn't know what was going on, but I heard things like "What were you thinking" and "why'd ya do that?" -- or things to that general meaning.

Then the older man kicked the kneeling man, in the face. His wooden sandals flew off. I kind of spaced out momentarily, but then noticed that he kicked the guy with his other foot. His other sandal flew off. He went and retrieved them, berated the guy some more, and I froze.

I was thinking "This is not right!" I wanted to go over to see if the man who had been kicked was ok, but suddenly was absolutely convinced that the man in black was Yakuza, and that this was a dangerous situation.

The most dangerous situation that I've been in since I moved to Japan a year and a half ago. It was dangerous in an unusual way; I knew that if I just turned my head slightly, and watched the portable shrine procession go by, nothing would happen to me. In fact, there were many people in the exact same situation that I was in: the traffic conductors for the procession, who were not policemen, but were some sort of official with power over directing traffic, a few people who came to watch the processing, the local shopkeepers. It only made me more worried when I saw that the shopkeepers were looking at the man getting kicked and then intentionally looking away.

The reason this is scary is because the Yakuza are a fact of life in Japan. In general it isn't something that you notice or are supposed to notice, but it is clear that they exist. As an outsider, I have trouble knowing exactly what is going on often, but in this case it was clear that the people around me were afraid of acting against this guy, which scared me even more.

Of course, it could also be that in general Japanese people are not likely to get involved in business that isn't their own, but for that same reason anytime you see someone that is blatantly breaking the social rules in Japan, that guy is probably in a position of power.

(Or alternatively, has little power at all. Another case entirely is a recent fight that I saw on the street. A business-suited man who had clearly been drinking a lot was arguing with another guy that looked pretty much the same as him. He lunged at the guy and started swinging. The friends of the two, also business men who had drank plenty, pulled the two guys apart, did some yelling at each other and themselves, then walked off in separate directions. That is somehow entirely compliant with the Japanese sense of social behavior.)

About by the time I had processed this and consciously decided to not get involved, the Yakuza-like man turned around, and walked away slowly, as if now everything was fine. The character on the back of his jacket was not legible for me, but was not one of the local groups involved in the festival (to the degree that it wasn't repeated on any of the hundred or so jackets that I saw afterwards.) The character itself looked somehow scary to me; I saw (or imagined?) the radical for sword (刀) in there.

People ignored the man who had been kicked, who continued to prostrate himself, while his glasses had flown off somewhere to his right. Luckily I didn't see any blood on the man -- unlike a particularly scary incident I saw once in Roppongi many years ago, where a man's glasses were punched into his eyeball and there was an unsettling amount of blood spurting out. I turned to head towards the main street, following the Yakuza-man, who somehow disappeared quite completely even though I was watching him. Only about one hundred meters ahead of me, turned a corner, and completely disappeared.

Walking up the road the people involved with the procession (the traffic people) were talking about the incident and didn't seem to know much more than I did. Behind us one of the shopkeepers went to talk to the kicked man. We got to the main road, and they alerted the police, who didn't seem too happy to hear about it. I watched some more of the portable shrine procession, and a few minutes later noticed an ambulance headed down towards where I live, and presumably the kicked man.

Afterwards I did my shopping, and walked home. At the corner where things took place -- perhaps two hundred meters from my apartment building -- the kicked man was still there, kneeling now, but not with his head to the ground as before. He was not talking the the policeman, who was questioning him. There was no sign of the ambulance. The people that remained in the area were talking in hushed voices, clearly not interested in getting involved.

While I suppose I could have gone and spoke with either the man or the policeman, as a complete outsider in a situation where the Japanese themselves were also outsiders, I thought it was best to leave this alone. I went home. A few steps later, I passed the same luxury SUV, this time pulled back slightly away from the road.

I have no idea what happened. I have a feeling that it was some kind of near traffic accident, but I really don't know. I honestly do not understand why the man was so passive, or just willing to take the abuse from the Yakuza. I can guess, and I'm sure that it is fairly tightly tied to the Japanese culture, but I don't know if that guy is involved with the nefarious underworld, or just an unlucky regular guy to cross paths with the scary Japanese underbelly. In any case, the Police didn't seem to have much to do with it either from the point of view of prevention, investigation, or follow-up care.

Times like this (this is, of course, the most poignant one that I've had) really make me feel like a complete outsider in this country.

September 2, 2007

(Unexpected) Jiyugaoka Portable Shrine Festival

One of the things that I have really come to look forward to is a weekend routine that I've fallen into over the past few months. I've posted previously about reading Japanese novels, and have continued to try to struggle through another book. The current book, Murakami Haruki's Kafka by the Sea is significantly harder to read.

Anyway, on the weekends I usually go to get lunch at Excelsior, a local coffee shop in Jiyugaoka. I like the café in front of the station, which has a large seating area on the second floor with a wide window that gives a nice view of the plaza. I also look forward to their "Four Cheese and Mushroom" sandwich along with a hot chocolate. I usually spend about an hour reading, maybe an hour and half if I am interested in the story, and then I wander around Jiyugaoka (usually hit the arcade for a game of Street Fighter II) and bike back home.

This particular Sunday, I was a little surprised because there was a nice wooden stage built up in the center of the plaza, which usually happens when a festival is being held. Not too much longer, and a whole bunch of shouting and chanting people round the corner carrying a portable shrine (Mikoshi, 神輿). I've blogged about other festivals with portable shrines before as well, most notably the Asakusa Sanjya Matsuri, but this one was interesting to me because it is a local festival. These portable shrines all came from somewhere nearby, a temple that I can go visit. Nice.

I spent about an hour and a half eating lunch, reading, and watching the festival. It worked out very well because I finished a complete chapter in one sitting. I think it was just a short chapter though. At the pace I'm currently reading at, I should be finished in another six months.

There are lots of things that I like about Japan (and a number of things that I do not!) These random, everyday occurrences brighten up my days.


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