August 31, 2007
A Visit to the Japanese National ArchivesLast week, I took a trip to the National Archives of Japan, arranged by Visiting U.C. Berkely Professor Fred Gey. I didn't realize this, but the National Archives are a short five minute walk from where I work in Jinbouchou, right next to the Japanese National Museum of Modern Art.
The mission statement of the National Archives is to preserve important cultural documents from Japan's history. The documents in the archive range from the 1600s up until about the end of World War II. They have some extensive, high resolution scans of maps, pictures, documents, scrolls, and so on available on the web. I was very surprised that they are using JPEG2000, which I really haven't seen in use anywhere but generally am in favor of. They have some really great maps of Japan from times ranging back in the 1700s to just after World War II. I am going to try to find where I live on one of these olds maps one of these days - but I'll have to do that on my windows machine since I don't have JPG2000 support on my Mac.
There is a really cute flash-based GUI with a man walking over a timeline that lets you click on a year, and then browse through documents from that year. Unfortunately, I can't get Flash to display Japanese characters to me correctly.
The National Archive is also somehow related to the Japan Center for Asian Historical Records, which has an interesting online retrospective on the US-Japan War Talks based on documents from the time. Based on the talk with the engineers there, it sounds like they have helped spread their technical know-how on archive architecture and document search to a few other institutions.
Anyway, there is a wealth of information there to look through. I don't see how anyone can get through any reasonable amount of it in a lifetime. The maps are really great though.
August 26, 2007
The Unexpected Dance of the Dead
On Saturday I went to Roppongi Hills to see the movie "Ratatouie". In Japanese, this movie is called "Remi's delicious restraurant" which I actually think is a much better title. I had no idea what the movie was about when I saw the title "Ratatouie", but have a bit of an idea when I see the thing about Remi having a good restaurant. Anyway, I moved to Japan about a year and a half ago, and in that time this is the third movie that I've seen. Back in New York, I used to see about three movies a month usually. That's a pretty big difference. A lot of it has to do with costs: movies here are about $16 a ticket, which is expensive even when comapred to New York's outrageous $10 ticket. It also just isn't something that people do often here, so back in the US when you are trying to think of something to do, a group movie is a pretty normal option. It just isn't usually an option here.
Anyway, we headed out to Roppongi Hills (there is a nice theater there) to see the movie. It's a Pixar movie, and they've put out some great stuff in the past. In general, I like that they are making CG movies, but I'm even more impressed because they really focus on the story and make movies that are appreciated by both kids and adults alike. So I'll generally try to see a movie just based on the Pixar name. This movie was no exception; I thought it was really good, and quite funny. It kind of creeped me out a bit to think about a rat in the kitchen, but once I got over that, it was an easy movie to enjoy. You should check it out if you have a chance.
What really surprised me though is what came after the movie. Roppongi Hills is a very new, very upscale area. It is kind of like a large Trump tower residence merged with a very upscale shopping mall and wall street business tower all rolled into one. And after we left the theater, down in the public space at the base of the tower, a festival was going on.
This wasn't just any old festival either, it was a Obon Dance, a kind of festival that is similar to the Mexican "Day of the Dead". Of course, like a lot of things in my life in Japan, I don't really know the details about this, and am just judging it based on some information gleaned from a Japanese history class a few years back and whatever other random information I've picked up from numerous dubious sources over the years. I really should do some sort of research on the subject, but I kind of like living my life in Tokyo in a kind of haze of not-quite-understood cultural events and misinterpretations.
In my imagination this festival is about respecting your deceased relatives and showing them they way to a kind of heaven. According to the story that runs in my head, we build a big bonfire and there are specific dances around this bonfire that help the spirits of the dead find us, their remaining relatives on the Earth, and through these dances they find the way to a kind of personal place of rest. That sounds really nice to me. In fact, I was just talking to a good friend about this recently, who told me that "Japan is a good place to mourn."
I think that is an insightful saying. Japan has been around a long time, and they have institutions and customs prepared for many events. When you look at this in a wider way, I am reminded of how at work there is a seeminging infinite variety of paperwork, each needing your personal stamp for processing, to cover any conceivable situation. Japanese people like to have a set formulae, a pattern, for ways to deal with expected or unexpected circumstances, and this extends to ceremonies.
It is timely because about a month ago, for the first time in my life, someone close to me passed away. My grandfather on my father's side passed away. It was very sudden, quite soon after he went to the hospital, and I was thinking about going back to attend the funeral, but there just wasn't time. That doesn't mean that I can't mourn, and I thought that going to an Obon Dance would be a good way to do that.
I'm not really sure how typically the Roppongi Hills Obon Dance was as far as these things go. It would be like trying to evaluate American block parties based on one that you once saw in Beverly Hills: almost certainly not the norm. Still, I really enjoyed it, and while I didn't really see how this connected with the spirits of dead ancestors, it was a fun and interesting festival.
I'm going to try to go to another one in a more normal town next year. The season of Obon has already ended, but I'm glad that I got to see this one, and I think Grandpa is having a great time where-ever he is, telling jokes and funny stories.
August 18, 2007
I bought a Japanese Jinbei
Foodstands on the way
Crowds by the river
Two days later, on Saturday night I planned to go to the Setagaya Fireworks Festival. To tell the truth, I wasn't looking forward to another fireworks festival, especially because this time I would be going alone. There were two main reasons that prompted me to go: first, I had just purchased a Jinbei, (甚平) a kind of traditional Japanese casual outfit, and I don't think I'll have many chances to wear it. Sure, that's a minor reason, but it is a reason. The major reason is that I live in Setagaya, and pay resident taxes in Setagaya, and they are expensive. Really expensive. So if my county is putting on a show, fireworks or otherwise, I'm totally going to go and see my tax dollars at work. So I went! This fireworks show is only about seven minutes away from where I live by train, or about a forty minute walk at a slow pace. I take the train up to Futagotamagawa, which I consider a fairly small, uncrowded station. It was jam packed. One of the great things about festivals and fireworks shows is that you see lots of people wearing traditional Yukata and so on. That is always fun. On the walk down to the river there were lots of little stands set up selling foods and stuff. I picked up some meats on a stick -- Japanese people love all sorts of foods on sticks, I'll write about that sometime -- and bought way too much. This one place was selling pork, chicken, and beef on a stick, with either salt or sauce flavoring. I bought one of each, and in the end only was able to eat three of them. Man, my eyes were too big for my stomach then. I walked about a third of the way home from the starting point, sat down, and watched the fireworks. I must admit that they did a good job. They had some funny smiley-face fireworks and also a few cute cat ones. The cat ones were pretty hard to make out, but they had a hint of whiskers, and little pink triangle ears, so if the angle was right on the explosion they looked like cats. After the fireworks ended, I decided to walk the rest of the way home, and got to Baskin Robbins in time for an ice cream - the first in about a month. I've got to be careful, this could become habit-forming.
August 12, 2007
Summer Sonic 2007 Music Festival: Day 2On the second day I woke up a big later since I didn't have to go through the wrist-band exchange shuffle. An uneventful trip back to the Chiba area.
"Blue Man Group"The first "group" I wanted to see was the Blue Man Group. They were up on the Mountain Stage, the largest of the indoor stages. Blue Man Group have been around in New York for a long time, and I've always wanted to to see them. The stage had two large screens to the left or right onto which they projected the action, so you could really get a great view from just about anywhere in there. The show was surprisingly well suited to this kind of music festival: the drumming and stuff is great, the humor is universal, and they had a bit where they played famous songs (Devo's Whip-it, etc.) with little gags at the end. They also had a kind of demonstration of useful moves that you can use while watching a show: head shake, hand pump, etc. I really enjoyed the show, and it really set the mood for the rest of the day.
"Tilly and the Wall"The first real act of the day was Tilly and the Wall. I haven't heard any of their stuff, but I've heard lots of good things about them on the podcasts that I listen to - mostly Shifted Sound and NPR's All Songs Considered. Also a few people over on the Bishop Allen forums like them, so I was interested. They are also from the surprisingly active Omaha scene, and are connected to Bright Eyes in some way.
The most interesting thing about them is that they do not have a drummer. They have a dedicated tap-dancer, and each of the ladies (there are three of them) had special little wooden stages set up which were wired for drum-like sounds. It was really impressive. They also seemed to be very happy to be in Japan, the lead guitars guy said that it had been a dream of theirs to play Japan, and he really sounded like he meant it. Anyway, these guys are on my radar now, and if I get a chance I'm going to pick up one of their albums.
"Hadouken!"Next up was Hadouken! They are an interesting-looking group out of England which caught my eye on the schedule because of their name for obvious reasons. Risa bought their album a while back and really likes them so she rushed way up front. I hung back a bit, and then as they got going (and were much more heavy / rap / metal than I expected) it started to get pretty wild. I stuck around for a while, but left early so I could catch another group that I've heard about from NPR that looked very interesting to me.
"The Polyphonic Spree"The Polyphonic Spree is a large orchestral rock fusion band, with about 20 people on stage, a small chorus, horns, woodwinds and strings, and even a harp. They have been accused of being too happy, but I don't think that is a problem. I really liked their song, and seeing them live was pretty amazing. They were a real high energy act. They are definitely on my list of albums to get. Actually, along with Modest Mouse, this was my favorite act of Summer Sonic. Highly recommended. I didn't really know much about them going in, but that wasn't a big problem: the orchestral format, with such a wide variety of instruments, was really interesting to listen to and watch.
Most surprising, one of their final songs was a cover of Nirvana's Lithium. It was a really good cover, and I really got into it. Completely unexpected!
Update: I just bought the Polyphonic Spree's latest album, The Fragile Army, and the Japanese version has three extra bonus tracks (good thing, since albums are so expensive here. This one was a reasonable 2,200 yen though) one of which was that excellent Lithium cover. I'm really glad I picked this album up.
"Bright Eyes / Karaoke Sonic"Next up was Bright Eyes, with Connor Oberst, one of the guys that really set up the Omaha music scene explosion. I also do not know Bright Eyes' music well, but have heard a lot of their stuff on the podcasts that I listen to. I was looking forward to seeing them a lot, but after all the standing around I had already done I was getting pretty tired, so I took a break. Right next to the Sonic stage, where I've been spending most of my time, was a little break area with some benches and a secondary "Side Stage" area that was doing all sorts of strange things during the festival. One of them was some sort of group of people that put on stare contents, Staremaster, in fact I think I saw a battle between Tsukika and Araki Tomoe, but I am not positive about that. I distinctly remember avoiding watching a contest that had Love Sexy Otawaya vs. someone else.
Anyway, I should backtrack a bit to earlier in the morning. I took a break before Modest Mouse and at the same sidestage they had a Karaoke Sonic setup. I wandered by the registration desk, and one of the women there asked me if I wanted to sign up since there were still a few spots left. I was really, really tempted: I enjoy Karaoke, and there are a few Japanese songs that I like to sing. It would probably go over well. At the time though, I had two misgivings: first, there were a bunch of bands that I wanted to see, and this would probably take some time. Second, the only song that came to mind immediately was Dragon Ash's "Grateful Days", which is a great song, but I haven't been going to Karaoke at all lately. I knew that on the final third of the song I would stumble since it is a fairly fast-paced rap and that wouldn't be so cool. So I declined in the end, but it was a close call.
Well, later in the afternoon when I went back for a break I sat down and started to watch the Karaoke Sonic thing. The big surprise came when they introduced the guest panel of judges, and included in the group was Razon Ramon of "Hard Gay" fame! I know I've touched on it briefly before in this blog, but I don't really get Japanese humor that is on the television. It just doesn't really seem funny to me. I think there are cultural differences, and probably I just don't have enough background to understand a lot of the humor, but in general I am not impressed with Japanese comedians. Hard Gay is another story though: I do think he is funny. I mean, the main gag, that he is a totally gay guy doing completely inappropriate things in inappropriate situations, is fairly easy to understand. I actually like that a lot of his schtick is trying to teach kids and do other good acts for people, all while being a complete gay stereotype that I don't really even think exists in Japan. At least in New York, I know where I can go if I want to bump into leather-clad S&M gay men, but in Japan I think that stuff is confined only to for-pay sex clubs and does not surface in everyday society.
I also kind of like how the character brings up some discussion of homosexuality in Japan, where it is just usually not spoken about. I don't think people here are homophobic, they just in general don't think about things that outside the mainstream "group" dynamic. So it is a bit interesting from an investigation of common social norms sort of theme.
Anyway, I was really, really disappointed now that I had not signed up for Karaoke Sonic. Even if I botched my song completely - and a few minutes after sitting down I realized I could also sing Sorimachi's "Poison", the theme song to the GTO drama from many years back - I would still get a chance to meet with and talk to Hard Gay. Also, compared to the morning, this afternoon session was packed: there were maybe a hundred people watching. That would be kind of fun, to get up in front of all those people and sing. Even worse, I decided to stick around to listen to the banter and see how well the competitors sang, and I am positive that at worst I would have come in second place. There were only about six people (some of those were actually two people in pairs, but six competitors) and I would have gone a long way on "white guy singing in Japanese" alone.
There was one foreigner from New Zealand, but he was pretty strange: he was asian, and kind of bad pronunciation on his song, a My Chemical Romance ballad about parades or something. It was a pretty bad song to choose because it was slow, very repetitive, and boring: the beat wasn't fast, and it was really sappy. Those are the worst songs to Karaoke (easy to do though.) There was a Japanese guy who sang a British song from a group that was playing Summer Sonic, and he was good, but not great. Two other girls sang a song from the 80s and went over well, and two more women - officially foreign ers from China, but they lived in Japan for quite a while - that went over well also. The other memorable competitor was the winner, a Japanese woman who sang The Spice Girl's "Wannabe" with extreme vigor and vim. She won, and I doubt that I would have done better than her, but I could have at least come in second, and I'm sure I would have had an interesting conversation with Hard Gay. Man, I'm really kicking myself over that.
Next time there is some sort of public Karaoke Competition I don't care what sort of objections I come up with, I'm going to enter.
"Cyndi Lauper"I wasn't sure what I should go see in this slot, but in the end Cyndi Lauper won out for the nostalgia factor. I can't really say that I was ever a huge fan, but I heard a lot of her stuff on the radio when I was younger, and I wanted to see how she was doing now. I was really surprised because the place was packed for her show. I guess there are a lot of Japanese Cyndi Lauper fans out there. I had never seen her live so I had no idea what to expect, but she was very energetic and chatty. While living in New York she often went to some sushi bar where the guys there taught her some Japanese, and so she was using all the words that she could remember, just simple things like "genki" and "daijyoubu" and so on. It was pretty cool though.
She was running all over the stage, and in between songs would segue off into strange stories that I'm sure nobody really understood. Even as a native speaker, understanding was an issue because these were really tangential and non-sequitur type things to say. I guess she is in her 50s now, but she wore a short skirt, and playfully flashed her hot-pink panties at the crowd a few times. It seems strange to think of someone at her age acting like that, but she was really having a good time, and so was the crowd.
Her final song was "Girl's Just Want to Have Fun", and she went back behind stage and pulled on about twenty people from other bands and so on to dance with her. It was really wild, the crowd was really into it and everyone was having a great time. Her show was, surprisingly to me, a really good one.
"Cornelius Group"Cornelius Group is another group that I've heard very good things about, but don't know much about myself. They are a kind of downtempo, relaxed, media band that sets their music to experimental type movies and such when they play. They had a pretty intricate set-up on stage with a big screen for projected video behind them. It was very nice, but this kind of music and "experience" is something that I would rather be able to take in while seated, relaxing, and maybe with a drink or two. The music that they play is something I wouldn't mind having on in the background, but not something to which I would want to devote my full attention.
"Pet Shop Boys"
The final band of the night, and the entire festival, was Pet Shop Boys.
I've always been a fan of the Pet Shop Boys, but not a rabid one. The
first CD that I ever bought was Pet Shop Boys' Actually, and in Japan at that
(when my dad brought me here for like a week when I was 14.) They also
had a very intricate stage setup for video projection. It was just the
two Pet Shop Boys themselves,
Tennant who provides main
and very occasionally
Lowe on keyboards. They also then had two dancers, all they did was
dance, and two more backup singers, who also did a lot of dancing, and a total
Diva female singer. The others were, as you might guess, completely hot
men who often went shirtless. I'm sure the women in the crowd loved
They put on a really good show with very intricate choreographed dance moves,
and three costume changes. Very impressive. It was apparently the
last night of their World Tour, and they really put a lot of energy out
there. They also sang that interesting U2 mashup cover of "Where the
Streets Have No Name".
Final ThoughtsI was surprised that there were so many good covers. I guess the groups that I picked to see also have some sort of connection to the music that I remember fondly, so it shouldn't be too much of a surprise, but it was really great to hear the Cure's "Just like Heaven", Nirvana's "Lithium", and the U2 mashup cover of "Where the Streets Have no Name".
After the entire weekend, I was just exhausted. It was lots of fun, but really tiring. If there are some bands that I like going next year, I'll try to go again. It is for sure a good deal for the money compared to most live shows in Japan. One other thing that I think is important is to start to familiarize yourself with the bands that you plan on seeing a month or two in advance. I would have had a lot more fun had I been more familiar with some of the bands that I went to see. Still, a really fun experience.
Summer Sonic 2007 Tokyo Music Festival: Day 1
Welcome to Summer Sonic!
Walking to Summer Sonic
Marine Stage Crowd
"Onsoku Line (Speed of Sound Line)"While at the beach stage we saw the opening act Onsoku Line, a three man group of rap-style music. They were pretty good, and certainly were fitting for the beach stage. It was lots of fun even though I hadn't heard of them before. We headed over to the Marine Stage and got a spot very close to the stage - maybe like 6 rows of people back. It was crazy hot. I had my towel wrapped around my head and under my hat so my neck wouldn't get burned. Almost everyone else did too. Did I mention that it was hot? Before the shows really started to get going, some dude came out to warm us up. I didn't know who he was, but he was maybe half or something because his English was quite good, although the whole thing was mostly in Japanese. After he did his thing (MC in charge) Nishioka Sumiko (you can see some of the other characters she has played, as well as a bit as her current SM Mistress character in this youtube video) came out and did a kind of routine. It was kind of funny, but like most Japanese comedians the comedy comes from just shouting at people something vaguely inappropriate (you guys are all pig bastards!) She has a kind of leather-wearing Mistress like domination schtick.
"The Pipettes"Next up was The Pipettes, a female singer trio from England. They had a backing band who wore cute monogrammed sweaters, but the act is just the three women, who are singers. They are like a blast from the 1950s, wore cute polka-dot outfits, and had completely choreographed dances with intricate hand movements for each of their songs. The really funny thing is that their song lyrics were mostly completely at odds with their poppy happy sound. They reminded me of Lily Allen in a way because of that. I really thought they put on a great live show, although I'm not really interested in buying their album because musically I just wasn't grooving that 50s sound too much. It isn't bad, it is just at the price of albums out here, I've got a lot of other things to spend my money on before I head after these girls. I really did enjoy the show though. Lots of fun.
"OK Go"Next up was OK Go. I knew of them because of their Youtube Video for Here it Goes Again, which is really great. I didn't know much else about these guys, but they put on a good show, had some pretty heavy rock sound, and weren't bad at all. I like their style.
"The Editors"I first found out about The Editors when they toured through Japan with We Are Scientists. I really liked them then, they reminded me a bit of Joy Division. Actually, when I was chatting with Keith from the Scientists he introduced me to the guitarist and the bassist of the band. They seemed like nice guys. This time the guitarist was wearing a kind of Power-Rangers type shirt that really went over well in Japan I think. The Editors put on a really great show, and the lead singer was crazy nuts with his strange arm movements and stuff. He was twisting his arms around behind his back, moving around strangely, all that stuff. It was pretty cool. They really rocked it hard, and if you don't have their album "The Back Room" I recommend you pick it up. After the Editors, I was exhausted from hours of standing in the hot sun, so we all headed back to the indoors Makuhari Messe area for a break and lunch. I really wanted to check out Puffy AmiYumi, but instead I had lunch and took a bit of a break. If I had really killed myself and ran around like crazy I probably could have seen a few more bands, but that makes things seem more like work. It was more fun to relax and see the bans that I really wanted to see and not worry too much about scheduling, just try to have a good time. Lunch also involved waiting in lines and just took too long. I did have a nice lunch though: Fried Yaizu don, which was a fried maguro fish on rice. It was really good too. While the convention center was air conditioned, it was so hot and there were so many people that it wasn't really all that cool. Still, after about an hour, I had finally cooled down a bit and quite sweating. That wouldn't last for long though, since next up was
"Interpol"Interpol was playing on the Sonic stage, a medium sized indoor stage. I've always like Interpol since their first album "Turn on the bright lights" (still their best, IMHO) and since they are also a New York band I have a special place in my heart for them. Their show was really good. I was up front so had a really nice view, and they played lots of songs that I knew so it was really great. I really think that Editors and Interpol make a pretty nice pairing.
"Dinosaur Jr."After Interpol I stayed at the Sonic stage for Dinosaur Jr. I used to listen to these guys way back in high school, I would remember Eric and I in the car driving back from track practice after school with these guys on the radio. They broke up a while ago, but recently the band has been re-formed with new members apparently. I should have known this, since it is their style, but the distortion and feedback was just crazy. The volume wasn't any louder than any of the other bands, but with all of the feedback the high pitched sounds were just unbearable. I really needed some earplugs for this one. I closed my ears and listened to the first two songs - including a surprising cover of the Cure's "Just Like Heaven" - and then went next door to relax and sit down for a while.
"Modest Mouse"Probably the band that I was most looking forward to was (or second most, hard to tell) was Modest Mouse. I really love their new album "We were dead before the boat even sank". I was really amazed that Johnny Marr, the famous guitarist from The Smiths, was playing with them, and right up there on stage in front of me. I never thought that I would have the chance to see Johnny Marr live, but there you are. They played a lot of songs that I knew and just put on a great show. One funny (or sad?) thing that happened is that the lead singer Isaac Brock went down into the crowd once, and when he came back up to the stage someone had taken his hat. In between every song break he was talking about his hat. First it was "Hey man, give me back my hat" and then it progressively got more aggressive like "Man, do you know how hard it is to find a hat that you like?" and "You can't just go taking people's hats for nothing!", "This isn't the Isaac gives away his hat 2007 tour!" and "Man, I don't care if you say you can just comp these things, it doesn't matter if it costs $20 or $1, you can't just go taking people's stuff" and finally "Fuck you in the face, motherfucker!". I'm with him on that sentiment: that's just shitty to take some guy's stuff just because you want it. It really sucks that fans act like assholes sometimes. The show itself was really great though. They put on a hard-rocking show, and sang a lot of good stuff, and oh my god, Johnny Marr! It was great. They were my favorite act of the day, and probably of the two day festival.
"Travis"I finished things out with Travis I don't really know Travis well; I've heard them on the radio and various podcasts that I listen to, but I don't have any of their albums. They really sounded great with a nice sound and very good harmony. I am interested in picking up one of their albums, but I don't know where to start really. After Travis, I headed home on the super crowded trains. It took about an hour and a half, and of course the train was super packed. By the time I got to the Rinkai line though I was able to sit down. There is at least one good thing to be said about taking a super expensive line that normally people don't ride: you can sit down. I collapsed into bed, hoping to rest up these old feet for another day of the same punishment tomorrow...
August 5, 2007
A quick trip to the Setagaya Art MuseumSaraba bar in Jiyugaoka, works at the Setagaya Art Museum. The other day she told Lisa that they were having a fun exhibit at the museum. A guy who writes children's books would do a reading, and then there would be a mini-parade complete with musicians walking down to the nearby Okusawa Temple. It sounded like a lot of fun, so Lisa, Kana, and I decided to check it out. I had never been to the Setagaya Art Museum before, but have been meaning to go since I'm sure that my tax money supports the place. It is located in the middle of Kinuta Park, about twenty minutes worth of train and bus rides from where I live. I could probably get there in about the same time on a bike, if I had a nice comfortable big bike instead of the little small short-trip fold-able bike that I have now. Anyway, we all headed down there. We probably would have enjoyed the walk through the park more if it wasn't swelteringly hot and humid. August is a pretty tough month in Japan because just walking outside is enough to get you sweating like a demon. The museum is very nice; much larger than I anticipated, yet still small enough to have a local feel to it. When we headed in, we couldn't find any information about the parade thing, which was slated to begin shortly. Actually, we thought about it for a bit, and figured that walking from here back to Okusawa would take like an hour, and in this crippling weather probably wouldn't even be safe for the age group that was targeted. The lack of information about the event only confirmed our fears: we were at the wrong museum. Going up to the information desk, we asked about it and indeed, we were in the wrong place. Mie told us that the thing was going on at "her museum" but did not make it clear that she meant the (perhaps ten minute walk from my home) Miyamoto Saburo Museum Annex. I've seen this place before: it is like someone's regular house was taken over by a museum. It is also another place that I'm interested in going, but haven't had the time or motivation to visit yet. Since we came all this way for some culture, we decided to check out the Aoyama Jiro exhibit. Aoyama Jiro (any relation to the Aoyama Iichome subway stop?) was born in 1901 and pioneered collection of Chinese and Korean ceramics. It was interesting for me because my younger sister is a ceramicist herself, and also Jiro designed book covers, which were totally fascinating. One thing that really threw me off about the book covers is that the characters were written from right-to-left. At first, I thought I just couldn't read Japanese for some reason, then I thought "Oh, these are the masters and they are printed mirror-like for some sort of printing reasons", but then a closer investigation revealed that the characters were not flipped, just written from right-to-left. I was really confused! I never knew that Japanese was written from right-to-left before exposure to the West. Based on the dates of the magazine covers and such, that form of writing was still going on as late at the 1950's, although my friends all tell me that no, that only happened before the 30s or so. I don't know; I checked the dates on the covers, and there were some there from the 60s even. I suspect it is just an art thing though, and that for the most part the country switched over to a left-to-right writing system earlier. Of course, it never shows up in computer text (man that would cause us computational linguists some trouble!) because computer systems originally were all imported from the West, didn't handle Kanji originally, and by then people had probably switched over. The exhibition was nice, I really enjoyed it. I'm planning to go back to the museum sometime. Also, we poked a lot of fun at Mie for not being more clear next time we ran into her at Saraba!
July 5, 2007
Unlikely food combinations: What are you thinking, Japan!?This is a post that started from a Mixi post I made about unusual donuts (in Japanese) and then purely by coincidence the next day I stumbled upon some other unusual foodstuffs. First, on with the donuts.
Don't make donuts out of thatBoulangerie Asanoya, a bakery in the newish Trainchi Shopping Center in Jiyugaoka. It is a nice bakery - there are actually a bunch of nice bakeries in the Jiyugaoka area, but this one is on the way home. I was really hankering for a nice doughnut, but I instead came across some unusual doughnuts. This isn't uncommon in Japan, but for whatever reason (mostly the Ham and Cheese) I decided to take a picture of it this time. In this case they are calling one of their creations a ham and cheese doughut. While that sounds like a perfectly reasonable food, take some ham and cheese, stuff it in dough, and fry the whole thing, I just don't think it should be called a doughnut. I like my doughnuts to be sweet. I don't know if these had sugar on them or not, since I didn't want to try it particularly, but I don't think they should be called doughnuts. Next to those were the green tea and Azuki (red bean paste sweetened with sugar) doughnuts. The Azuki doughnuts are very common. I'm sure everyone who visits and gets a doughnut expecting a nice creme-filled center is surprised with the slightly thick, somewhat unusual taste of the Azuki bean paste. They are very common. They are pretty good too. This is the first time that I've seen Maccha doughnuts though. Maccha is a green tea flavor, and I suspect the taste would be bitter, but again, I didn't venture a taste myself. I went with the quite delicious, and exactly what I wanted, jelly-filled berliner.
Give me a break!KitKat bars seem to be pretty popular here in Japan, and there is even a strange breaktown.com web site with KitKat themed games and stuff. They normally have regular KitKat bars, a Maccha green tea variety, and Strawberry KitKat bars (which are quite good.) The other day I stumbled upon three more mutant flavors: Orange, Kiwifruit, and Pineapple. Orange isn't too bad. It is very similar in flavor to the regular chocolate KitKat bar, but has a really overwhelming Orange scent. I think they just added orange perfume to a regular KitKat and called it a day. Kiwifruit is pretty bad though. It has a really strange aftertaste. Pineapple is somewhere in between. If I get around to it, I'll try to track down the other unusual (to me) KitKat bar flavors. According to the website, I should at least be able to find Exotic Tokyo II White Chocolate flavor (white chocolate and gooseberries with mixed American cherries), Exotic Tokyo Chocolate flavor (with mixed fruit!), Exotic Hokkaidou 2 (with Red Wine and Strawberries), Exotic Hokkaidou (white chocolate with creme cheese and matched sour berries to express Hokkaidou's oneness with nature), Exotic Kansai (with lemons and ginger), and Exotic Kyuushyuu (with Mango and Orange Caramel and black pepper). On second thought, perhaps I'll pass on trying to track those down (although, the lazy can order them from the web via the links.) I also vaguely recall seeing other strange flavors like Sakura (cherry/blossom) at some point. I'll keep my eyes open at the local convenience stores. Crazy country.
June 12, 2007
A trip to faraway Yokohama for GyozaSanyou, which is always busy, but did have great Gyoza. One of the reviews for that place said they didn't like the place because they want you to order quickly, and he didn't know what to get. They gave him a beer and told him to get out. This time instead we went to Ban-Li another ramen-gyouza shop nearby. We ordered some gyouza, both fried and steamed, and they were great. A while back I went to Namco Namjya Town's Gyoza Battle Stadium, where there were lots of different types of Gyoza to try out. That was fun too, but I was glad that this place was a normal restaurant with just your normal choices. One of the annoying things about the Chinatown in Yokohama is that it has been created and marketed as a kind of "China Land" within Japan, and is almost more theme park than neighborhood. Everything there is really expensive, and more for show than anything else. Ban-Li is not for show: it's the kind of hole-in-the-wall Chinese place that you would find at New York's Chinatown. Along with the gyoza, we got beer and mabu-tofu, which was also great. On the way out we went and checked on Sanyou, and it was packed. Lots of people waiting outside to get in. It is a place that I would like to try again sometime. After dinner, we headed over to Landmark Tower, which has the tallest observation deck in Japan. They are very proud of their elevator, which is the fastest in Japan. It was very fast. I think it reached speeds of 470 km/h, but it was impressively smooth. I generally don't like elevators and easily get motion sick on them, but this elevator was ok. (I really think they should replace the elevator in Disney's the Tower of Terror with the one in Landmark Tower - I got totally sick on that one, but this one was fine.) On the way we also checked out the Yokohama Ferris Wheel, which puts on a really nice show when it isn't doing its impersonation of a giant clock.
May 29, 2007
Tokyo Giants vs. ORIX Buffaloes
On Sunday night, I got a call out of the blue from my friend Tomoki, who invited me to the Tokyo Giants baseball game on Monday night. They were playing the ORIX Buffaloes.
Approximately a year ago, I took Tomoki to a Giants game when my friend Tai gave me a pair of tickets since he couldn't use them. He's a lawyer and their firm represents the Giants sometimes, so they get tickets every once in a while. Now, I'm not much of a baseball fan, I wouldn't really watch it on TV, but when I do go to a game with friends, I always have a great time. It is fun to watch live, and especially fun when you've got friends around and people are into it.
This game was no exception. I don't know much about the Giants, but Tomoki told me that Ogasawara is one of their best players, so we bought some Ogasawara shirts and headed to the stands. And boy, he did not disappoint. He had a homer in the first inning, and then later hit another with two men on base, and finished up the night with a final third homer. That was the first time that he has hit three homers in his career. Amazing game to see if you only see one game a year. The Giants won 8-2, even though they lost to the same team the night before! I really don't understand much about baseball, but what a swing!
Tokyo Giants: also recommended. Interestingly, it is only about a fifteen minute walk from where I work (NII) to the Tokyo Dome.
May 21, 2007
Asakusa Sanjya Matsuri (三社祭)
Short videos up on YouTube.com
Women carrying the shrine
May 2, 2007
My feeling about Japanese comedyI saw a great post over at the (sadly) now defunct Japanmanship blog about Japanese comedy teams. It explains how I feel about Japanese comedy almost completely, along with some nice diagrams. A funny read and worth checking out.
April 8, 2007
A School Uniform and a Machine GunA while ago I downloaded the Japanese drama セーラー服と機関銃 (A School Uniform and a Machine Gun) and I've finally gotten around to watching the first episode. Sometimes Japanese dramas can be really hit and miss, but this one looks kind of interesting. I've decided to write a brief summary of the episodes as I watch them. The opening sequence is pretty interesting, they do some filming in front of the Asakusa Kaminarimon temple, one of the most famous temples in Tokyo. I've summarized each episode in the series below. read more (5405 words)
April 7, 2007
Fumie Hiratai's closing party / Viola performanceA friend of mine, Fumie Hiratai (平体文枝), is an artist and recently had a show at a very interesting book shop, the Morioka Bookstore. It is a cute little book store in an art building (the Inoue Building in Kayabacho) that has a bunch of old photo books and other random art focused books. There is interesting architecture stuff, strange magazines, and so on. If you browse the Morioka Book store site about Fumie's exhibition you can see some of the paintings, which are quite nice. The closing show was about an hour long, and featured Satou Keiko (佐藤佳子) on the Viola, as well as sporadic accompaniment on some form of drums in the back. It was quite nice. I would have gone out with Fumie and her friends afterwards, but I had to get back home to continue work revising a paper that I need to submit on Monday so I skipped out after the performance. It looks like they are planning to hold some sort of exhibition performance in the Morioka bookstore each month, which is kind of nice. It is a small setting, has nice acoustics, and promises to be eclectic. Also, the price is right: this show was only 500 yen, future shows might be in the 500 yen to 1000 yen range.
April 4, 2007
Namja TownNamja Town. Namja Town is a strange place in Ikebukuro, Tokyo that is essentially a food-based theme park for kids and older kids. It seems like a completely strange place to me, because it was constructed by Namco, a video game company, in conjunction with Bandai Namco group, which is I guess a toy company but I'm not really sure. I'll give you a brief run-down of the things that we did at Namja town, and let you decide for yourself what kind of place this Namja town is. First up was a trip to Gyoza Stadium, a themed area with a whole bunch of Gyoza shops. There are about 13 shops in the area, all but one (Big Man) specializing in Gyoza. In the middle of the "stadium" there is a seating area, so we went around to three shops and grabbed three types of Gyoza, and some of the crazy Namco-branded Beer. We actually went later and got two more types of Gyoza later on. We then went over to the Amazon Mosquito Shoot-out, which has the story of some crazy large mosquitos that came to invade Japan from Brazil, so we have to shoot the mosquitos down. It is a tracked ride where you get on these pig things, you know like they have here for burning anti-bug incense with the large mouths, and shoot at mosquitos. The guns shoot light and there are sensors on the mosquitos that track if you hit or not, just like Lazer Tag back in the day. It was actually pretty tough, but kind of fun. After that, we decided to run the scavenger hunt / town clue hunt type thing. You get these little cats that have RFID chip or something in them, and when you are near a clue the cats meow. You set the cat down on the receptacle for them and then see a clue of some sort. Some of them are just a recorded message, others are some sort of video type thing, or something like that. After running around to the eight or nine stations you go back to the "police station" and then take a little quiz. Now this was really tough for me because the quiz (well, everything really) was all in Japanese. You have to answer each question in five seconds. That is just about enough time for me to read the question, so even with a multiple choice setup I didn't really have much of a chance. Even worse, the questions are hard. For example, at one of the "clues" you ring a doorbell, and then look in through the peep-hole at a scene inside a bar. Ok, putting aside the issue of optics and how looking through a reverse fish-eye peephole would not give you such a clear image, it was a long scene about a woman talking to someone offscreen about losing her husband, and how she is now perhaps ready to move on, and a bunch of details about her life. The question in the quiz about this clue was "What was the color of the table in the bar?" Had I known that question, I could easily answer the question, but of course if you go to ten stations first, not knowing what will be asked, it is impossible to remember all these details. That is probably the plan: you can buy a card of some sort to track your progress and run the course over and over, so it is a way to encourage people (kids) to come back over and over.
read more (597 words)
April 1, 2007
Cherry Blossoms in Shinjuku Gyoenthe Shinjuku Gyoen National Park (新宿御苑) for some Cherry Blossom Viewing. It is hard to think of anything more traditionally Japanese than a good old-fashioned Hanami, and we certainly weren't the only people with that idea. The weather was just beautiful, the day started out a comfortable and sunny 23 degrees Celsius, but after a while sitting in the park started to get a bit warm. We picked up some Bento lunches near Shinjuku station, and then some drinks (of course, Nihonshyu is a required drink) before going to the park. After about ten minutes waiting to buy tickets to get into the park (only 200 yen for adults!) we headed in and looked for a place to sit. It was pretty crowded, but we got there at about 11:30am, and was much less crowded than when we left at about three or so. We found a reasonable place to sit, sat down and enjoyed our picnic lunch and some loverly beer and sake. With the cherry blossoms falling around us and beautiful weather, it was a great little lunch. Predictably, I got too much sun and now the top of my head, where I used to have hair yet now have none, is slightly red (to match my beard I guess.) Happy Hana-mi everyone! 皆様、お花見は楽しみましたか？
March 31, 2007
Sakura on the walk home
March 24, 2007
Ishiyama-deraIshiyama temple, which is said to be where the Japanese author Murasaki began writing the Tale of Genji. It is a really beautiful temple, with very large grounds and nice areas in which you can walk around. On the way back I walked past the Seta Karahashi bridge (also shows up in some old folding screens and some other nice pictures) before getting on the JR line to Ishiyama and catching the Shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo.
March 10, 2007
Review of Wataya Risa's "Keritai Senaka" / 綿矢リサの「蹴りたい背中」Benkei's suggestion, I started to read his copy of Keritai Senaka. It took me a long time, but I finally finished it. Now I want to give a review of the book. In all honesty, I was quite surprised because I was not impressed with the book. It won the 2003 Akutagawa Prize for literature, so I was expecting great things. I've since heard a lot of talk about the prize being engineered by publishers as a public relations move. In 2003 the winners were both very young, 18 and 19 I believe, and cute young women, which publishers felt would interest youth in reading. I believe that they did get some positive effect from that move, but I was still disappointed with the book. Warning: plot spoilers follow! read more (395 words)
March 6, 2007
Maid Cafés in Japan
January 15th 社会研究調査As part of a societal cultural research learning field trip, Benkei and I went with a friend of his to the Pinafore Maid Cafe. We went on a Wednesday evening, in the rain. This actually turned out to be pretty important, but more on that later. I went to and wrote about Maid Cafés in Japan once before, but that was an individual trip, I went on my own, alone. This time, I was going in prepared, with comrades and advanced information: According to Benkei's friend K, we were going to one of the most representative Maid Cafés in Akihabara. The place was actually pretty small, and quite busy so we had about a half hour wait before we were seated. The Maids were all very cute (a prerequisite for working there?) and very polite, to the point that I might need to study more honorific Japanese to understand the conversations completely. The food was slightly more expensive than what you would find in a regular café, but not unreasonably expensive. The menu was quite heavy on the desserts, but the meal section was a bit sparse, with perhaps five major items. The most popular item (I presume) is the "Loving Omelette Rice", which is regular Omelette Rice where the Maid writes something on the Omelette in ketchup for you. Of course, you are allowed to choose what the maid will write, but the picture in the menu is "LOVE", with cute hearts around the side of the plate. A very cute dish. I think the idea of writing on your food, giving it a semantic meaning and clearly-defined role, is a great one. I asked that the Maid write "栄養" (nutrition, nourishment) on my rice. She seemed a bit daunted (she was actually a Maid-in-training) but wanted to give it the old college try, and decided to write the Kanji characters. Unfortunately, she was a bit off and wrote something that looked more like "労良" (not a Japanese word, but maybe "work, labor, good"). Honestly, I probably wouldn't have noticed the difference, but Benkei's got a keen eye, and picked up on it immediately. K asked for the Maid to write her name, and the Maid, somewhat shaken by her earlier missed attempt, used incorrect characters for the name as well, but Benkei didn't say anything until after the Maid left. Still, I was impressed: I always thought that the line on Japanese youth today is that they can't write Kanji at all, and what I asked for is a fairly difficult word. One of the interesting things about the place was, of course, the clientèle. There were a lot of people that seemed to be the classic Otaku, loners who looked a bit shy and lonely, and who positively lit up when the Maids talked to them. I can understand how targeting that demographic could be lucrative, as they might develop a fancy for a favorite maid and become regular customers. Surprisingly though, there were also some groups of very normal looking people, a salary-man or two, and a few women in the café. I'm beginning to think that Maid Cafés in Japan are just a kind of mini theme park, or some sort of Las Vegas theme microcosm. As we checked out, we were told about the point system. They have a point card that accumulates points based on how much you spend. There are various multipliers that can increase the number of points that you get. We hit two multipliers on this trip: it was raining outside (x2 multiplier) and there was a female in our party (x2 multiplier, which is a very revealing one!) Because of this, my card filled up to about 20 points. At 15 points you get a laminated card with a Maid character (anime style) on it, and at 30 points you get another card and you can take a picture with a maid. I didn't mention it, but all of these places have very strict prohibitions against photography. They use the promise of photographs as a reward for return visits! Another avenue towards profitability. Since Benkei was going back to America, and K didn't seem too excited about going back to the café I got the point card by default.
March 5thA friend of mine from the US, Panos, went to Hiroshima to give an invited talk for a conference and then came to Tokyo for three days for a visit. Since we both went to Columbia together, he called me up and we decided to get together for dinner on Monday night. Panos has come to Japan a few times previously so wasn't interested in the usual tourist options, but when he said that he was staying close to Akihabara, I knew I had to take him to the unusual Maid side of Tokyo. I took him back to Pinafore, and we had dinner. This time I also got a 4x point multiplier (2x because it was raining again, and 2x because it was a weekday and we finished our stay within 60 minutes) so I collected another laminated maid card and a card for a picture with a maid if I ever go back. I thought it would be nice to get a drink after dinner, so I did some searching to find interesting places in Akihabara. I had heard about a bar where you go and can play games of chance with the Maids (yep, another Maid themed place) like paper-rock-scissors to get a possible half-off the drink price, but it seems like that placed closed down. Too many customers getting drinks for half-price? People really love paper-rock-scissors here, so it is possible. A quick search turned up a crazy number of maid-themed places. There are even maid cafes in Roppongi and Ginza now: they are spreading out beyond Akihabara. There was a place that looked very interesting though: the witch bar unattico-sttrega. We went there and had a few drinks. It was a fairly nice bar that was like any other bar, except all the bartenders were cute women dressed up like witches. Which is somewhat surreal, but that is Akihabara for you. There were only six customers, two Japanese men at the bar, the two of us, and then later on two women came in and sat at a table. There was a 600 yen charge for sitting at the bar, and 300 yen to sit at a table, and then the drinks which were a bit expensive. We had some sake, and then since each Witch has a special cocktail, we each had one of the cocktails. One of the witches was complaining that she hadn't made her special cocktail in a while, and had forgotten what it was! They both turned out quite nice though. After that Panos and I parted ways, since he had to catch a plane back to New York the next day, and was dead tired. Sadly, he will probably be about adjusted to the time difference tomorrow, when he leaves, and then will have a crappy week back in the US as he tries to re-adjust to US time. One week is just too short of a trip to get used to the time difference well. I think Panos had a good time, we certainly had a lot to talk about, but now I feel a little bad about introducing odd aspects of Japan to tourists. I always worry that the Western media only picks up the strange and unusual stories from Japan, ignoring the many similarities there are here with normal city life. Still, those few unusual stories are quite interesting. I'm not sure when or if I'll go back to a maid café, but I feel like I should at least go back once to use up my picture card.
February 20, 2007
Nationalism / Isolationalism in Japan and perception of foreign crimeI read a few blogs, and an interesting post over on What Japan Thinks about a survey on crime in Japan (and how foreigners are a large contributing factor) pointed me to another very interesting post over on Debito.org on a Japanese magazine about foreigner crime. It is definitely worth taking a look at both posts.
Arudou Debito's site, Debito.org is quite interesting, but not generally something that I read often. He's a guy who has lived in Japan for quite a while, gotten citizenship here, and often posts about issues relating to foreigner discrimination in Japan. I'm not particularly interested in that: I know that there is discrimination here, but for the most part I accept it, and I think that mostly it isn't done with malice. It is just that Japan is a fairly homogeneous country, and many people are not used to foreigners. It is natural to be wary of what you don't know, so I try not to worry about it too much, and when the foreigner effect goes against me, I try to laugh it off.
The recent post about a magazine that is basically about crime in Japan by foreigners is a bit disappointing though. I also don't put too much weight into it, because sensationalism sells, and it only takes one or two people with a bad idea to actually get something published. How close did the OJ Simpson confession book come to being published in the US? That's clearly a bad idea. So I think in this case you probably have a book that not many people are buying, or at least taking seriously, that is getting a lot of attention because it is so offensive to foreigners, but I would hope that most people wouldn't outright agree that foreigners are ruining this country.
Of course, the post over on What Japan Thinks says that maybe that isn't the case so much.
Would a similar poll in the US about crime point the finger at largely foreign groups? I don't think so. But I bet you there would be controversy over groups of people with low economic income or race. Is that similar though? Certainly I think crime is more likely to be committed by people who are desperate, and being poor is a good way to get desperate quick. You can argue that Americans have an institutionalized system in place to keep the poor poor and all sorts of things from there, but it somehow feels a bit different from the blame that foreigners get in Japan for crime here.
Now I'm interested in seeing what the statistics are on actual crime committed in Japan: do foreigners commit most of the crimes? Well, I don't really know where I would go to look those numbers up, so I'll just have to continue on hoping that this here is nothing more than a storm in a teapot.
Still, interesting reading. Since Debito's original blog post in early February, after about a week or complaints to Family Mart (one of the stores in which the magazine was sold) sales of the magazine were halted. You can also read a translation of the publisher's response to criticism about the magazine.
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