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 5th

A 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 crime

I 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.

February 15, 2007

Happy Cheap Chocolate Day!!

Today is one of my favorite days of the year. The day after Valentine's Day. Cheap Chocolate Day. When I stopped into 7-eleven this morning for my morning yogurt and bottle of lemon water, they were running 50% off of their Valentine's Day Chocolate.

Valentine's Day is pretty big here in Japan, even more so than in the US I would say. In the States, it is really a lover's holiday, and probably there are lots of sales of diamonds and necklaces. Here in Japan, it doesn't seem promoted as much as a lover's holiday, but the chocolate companies really know what they are doing. They have somehow introduced the idea of giri-choco (義理チョコ), or "obligatory gift chocolate". I'm not really sure if that was something that the chocolate companies came up with, or in some roundabout way happened because in Japan Valentine's Day is for women to give chocolate to the men that they like. I could imagine that in high school or much before, shy girls would be too shy to give only chocolate to the one boy they liked, and instead gave chocolates to every boy, kind of like how in elementary school everyone in class exchanged valentine's day (cute little playful) cards with everyone else so nobody felt left out. Then that somehow continued on up into the workplace, where it is normal for the women to give their bosses and co-workers chocolate. I have heard though that if you are the real sweetie, then you get hand-made chocolates, while everyone else gets store-bought chocolates, so maybe that is how the secrete message is actually communicated along.

It very well could be the chocolate companies though, since they also came up with White Day, a holiday on March 14th (one month after Valentine's Day) where men give chocolate to the women that they like. I haven't heard about giri-choco for White Day as much though.

Actually, yesterday in my office I bunk with a couple of foreigners. They are in the Honiden Lab research group, and the two secretaries for the lab gave them all chocolates. (None for me though!) That is giri-choco at work: at least one of the secretaries (probably both though) are married!

So anyway, Valentine's Day in Japan is interesting. It sounds very expensive if you are a female secretary with lots of male members in your group.

As for myself, I did find some chocolates on my desk this morning, and combined with the half-off cheap chocolates I got myself, I had two valentines! Yay!

I wonder how long the 50% off sale is going to last on chocolate around here. Man, I love the day after Valentine's.

February 4, 2007

Best little bar in Jiyugaoka

I just wanted to drop a link to my friend Ahmadu's (spelling is almost positively incorrect) bar, Saraba. It is a bar and art gallery in between Jiyugaoka and Kuhombutsu, so it is right on the way home for me. I've been stopping in there lately for a nightly glass of wine. The bar is full of Senegalese books and African-related movies that Ahmadu has collected. The second floor is a art gallery with rotating shows. If you are in the Jiyugaoka area, it is definitely worth checking out! The Senegalese food and snacks are great too.

January 31, 2007

Interesting post on Japanese marriage statistics

I read a few Japan-oriented blogs every once a while, things like what japan thinks, and they came across an interesting post over on mutant frog about Japanese marriage statistics. I'm surprised that more Japanese men marry foreigners than Japanese women, that was exactly the opposite of what I had always assumed to be the case. It is also (sadly) unsurprising to see zainichi counted as foreign.

January 23, 2007

Let's pound rice together (not a euphemism)

Last weekend, on Sunday I left my apartment to get something for lunch and ran into the local rice pounding festival. I guess these festivals are common during the New Year, since they are basically about making that delicious Japanese pounded rice treat Mochi. Mochi is used for a lot of things, but generally is like a sticky semi-sweet taffy, but from rice. It can be used in all sorts of ways, but for the festival that I went to (completely by accident, but since I live close by I trotted out my camera) they sold the final product in a little plastic box and put on some sweetener. There were three kinds, two of which I didn't know, and one I did, Anko, Japanese Azuki bean, which is what I ended up buying. It was pretty good.

The more interesting part for me though was the actual rice pounding. There were lots and lots of kids and parents there, so it seems like a thing you do as a family. I waited my turn in line, and was a bit worried about horning in on the kids' fun, but it turns out that everything was ok. They need to have a few reasonably good pounds (maybe thirty or forty?) on the rice before it is really done. They had a shop in the back that would bring out some of the rice that had been pounded to start with, but wasn't completely done. Then they would as for an adult (always a father) to pound on it for a while, or the older man in the green would do it if nobody volunteered. After a good number of vigorous whacks with the big hammer, they would bring out the small hammer and let kids (sometimes helped out by their parents) pound the rice for a while. So when a new batch came out I gave it a go, and after some brief explanation I banged away at the rice for a while. It was very satisfying.

Afterwards, I waited about half an hour in a line to buy the resulting snack. No discount even though I helped out. I took lots of pictures of all the kids having fun. They really had great big smiles and looked like they really enjoyed it.

January 21, 2007

First drive in Japan

(日本語版はこちら) Yesterday I went on my first drive in Japan with a friend. We weren't too sure where to go at first, but in the end decided on Chiba. One of the really cool things about cars here in Japan is that many of them have these in-car navigation systems that can plot out a course from where you are to where you want to go. They usually use a DVD and have the entire country recorded on it. I know these systems are available in the US also, but they are not very common yet. I wonder if all of the US would be able to fit onto one DVD, because these things are totally cool.

Anyway, going to Chiba from Tokyo took us through the Tokyo Bay Aqualine. I had never heard of the Aqualine before, but it is pretty cool. It is a tunnel and bridge system that goes across the Tokyo Bay. As an example of engineering it is really cool: it is basically a tunnel that goes three quarters of the way across the bay, then pops up and complets the trip across the bay as a bridge. They built an artificial island where the tunnel pops up, in the middle of the bay, and put a restaurant, parking garage, and gift shop there. It was all quite impressive really, but I really thought that Japan is one of the only places that would think "hey! three-quarters of the way through this bay tunnel, we need to construct an artificial island, and put a gift shop there!" According to my friend, not enough people take the Aqualine (it is expensive - about $25 one way!) and it is losing money. I can't believe it took 31 years to complete the thing!

We checked out some Chiba-ken tourist information at Umi Hotaru (the sea firefly - that artificial island) and decided to go to the Kamogawa Seaworld. It was a nice trip, taking some small narrow twisty roads through the countryside hills. We saw some performances by the Beluga whales, the Killer Whales, and Sea Lions - similar to other things that I've seen before. I was glad that I've been to a bunch of similar things because I was able to understand what everyone was saying - all that neat beluga echolocation stuff and so on.

On the way out you have to exit through the gift shop. I thought it was really funny that they were selling sea-food related items though. I don't think you would see that in America. But then again, while looking at some of the different fish, my friend also made comments like "that one is delicious!" so there you go. The giant crabs looked particularly yummy to me...

Also, the Mola Mola were amazingly strange and crazy. They are just hilarious.

January 1, 2007

First First Temple Visit

Happy New Year!

This was my first ever New Year's Eve in Japan. Last year, I was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia celebrating the New Year with my friend Gyn Ian Yap, and back in the States the year before that. I've been looking forward to my first New Year's in Japan because it is a big holiday here. While Christmas is not really deeply culturally connected to Japan, the New Year's holiday really is. Most companies have three to five days off to celebrate the holiday, and one of the big parts of the New Year's celebration is the 初詣 (Hatsu Moude, literally "first" "temple visit"), the first visit to a temple of the New Year. Many people go to the temple at midnight to (literally) ring-in the New Year. I've been looking forward to my first first temple visit (初初詣?) since I came here. One of the most popular temples for the Hatsu Moude, the Meiji Shrine, can see as many as ten thousand people go through the first day. I've heard that there are two or three hour waits just to get into the temple. In fact, New Year's Eve is the only night in Japan where the trains run past 1am so people can go and visit temples.

Because I'm not too excited about multi-hour waits, in fact I've done that a few times when I went to Times Square in New York, I decided to go to a local temple. Luckily, I have a great temple about a five minute walk away from where I live, called Kuhombutsu. I headed out at about 11:20pm, and ended up waiting at the gates for a little while. The main gates were closed until 11:30pm, and I waited with about twenty other people for the gates to open. We went in and walked around the temple grounds. The main building is lit up nicely and they open it up so you can see the large golden Buddha statues inside. At about ten minutes before midnight two priests started to chant near the large temple bell, and people started to line up near the main building to wait for the New Year. At midnight the priests start ringing the bell, and people start donating to the Shrine and wishing for a Happy New Year. I was quite surprised because while there were few people at 11:30pm, by ten past midnight maybe two hundred people had lined up.

I stayed until about 12:45am, and even when I left people were still coming in. I think they kept on coming for quite a while, but as for myself, I was tired so I headed home. On the way home, I bought a lucky arrow that is supposed to bring good luck. I'm not sure about that, and actually I think it would be more useful if I had a bow to go with the arrow. That way, if something bad happens, like a burglar tries to break into my apartment, I could shoot them with an arrow which would possibly be good luck. I also bought a yaki-moe (hot potato) on the way home and ate that. I don't know if they are traditional foods for New Year's, but it sure did help keep my hands warm. There are traditional foods, but since I was on my own, I didn't know what they were.

Anyway, I hope you all have a great 2007 and a Happy New Year!

December 29, 2006

Followup to "More Becky on Japanese TV"

This is a follow up to a previous post of mine about a Japanese drama I've been watching.

I finished watching "Anna-san no Omame" the other day, and in general thought it was ok. The show has a very exaggerated comedic style, and can't really be taken very seriously, but is fun for what it is. I didn't like the ending much; an absurd setup to keep Lilly living with Kyousuke and Anna.

There were some memorable episodes. The "lighting strike switches Lilly and Kyosuke's bodies" was memorable, if horribly cliched. There was another episode where Lilly faced down some Yakuza people, saving Kyosuke from them, of course in a situation that she forced him (inadvertently) into in the first place. The final wedding episode was sort of annoying. I was working while I had it playing in the background, but overall it seems like the entire thing was a charade set up by Lilly's father to see if Kyousuke would come to try to stop the wedding. Ridiculous and not even in a funny way.

Still, Lilly's catchphrases and mannerisms are amusing, and I enjoyed that, despite going into things thinking they would just wear on me. Eventually you really start to wonder how she will mis-interpret things, and look forward to that. Strange.

Next up on my J-drama list is "Sailor-fuku to Kikanjyuu" or "The school girl and the Machine Gun" - a kind of comedy (I think?) about a school girl that becomes the head of her families Yakuza clan.

By the way, if you don't know about it already, d-addicts.com is an excellent place to go for your Japanese (or Korean or Chinese) Television downloading needs. I usually grab the Japanese language releases, which are up the day after airing and then watch a complete run after they have all aired. Often, the fans there will subtitle series that they like. It is a very useful site for people interested in learning, or at least listening to, Japanese.

December 26, 2006

Christmas Colonel Sanders / The Japanese concept of a traditional Christmas

In Japan for Christmas, it is "traditional" to have Kentucky Fried Chicken on Christmas Eve. I was out in front of a store a day or two before Christmas. As I was waiting for the bus KFC started to smell better and better. I went in to see if I could get something to snack on, but it turns out that after 1:30pm on the 23rd they weren't serving customers anymore: they were only giving out take-home orders to people who had made reservations in advance!

Ever since I tried to get some Kentucky Fried Chicken, I've really been jonesing for some of the Christmas-y food. I'm going to try and go get some soon. It is very strange to me, but the "traditional" concept of Christmas in Japan comes from a commercially successful marketing campaign. I don't know the history behind this - shockingly, neither does Wikipedia, but from what I've learned from talking to Japanese people here, Kentucky Fried Chicken has always been the traditional food for Christmas. I believe that this is attributable to a great marketing campaign on the part of KFC, and the Japanese peoples' readiness to accept that Americans love fried food. At my friend's Christmas party just a few days ago, people were very surprised when I said that almost nobody had KFC on Christmas or Christmas Eve. Over at What Japan Thinks there is an article about foods that Japanese people most want to eat at a Christmas party. Fried Chicken tops the list.

Even more amusing is the prevalent belief that Christmas Cake is ubiquitous in America. Sure, some people have Fruit Cakes, but they are generally not well liked, and certainly not something that people go out of their way to order and get for Christmas Eve. At my friend's Christmas Party there was Christmas Cake as well, a nice light cream cake with white frosting and some strawberries. The cakes in general are light with strawberries and some cream. You also have to generally order these things in advance, from all the posters that I saw. There are probably places that will sell the without orders as well, but I saw a lot of posters for ordering Christmas Cake during the month of December.

Christmas overall is quite interesting here, since the population is only about 1% Christian in Japan, most people don't know that Christmas is a religious holiday. The lights, the big fat man in a red suit, and traditional food (fried chicken and cake) all make for a great holiday. It is a nice time to go shopping, always fun to do, and to have parties before the end of the year parties and new year parties. Parties are always a good thing. Mostly though, it is interesting to see the Japanese idea of the Western holiday. Oddly enough, as time goes on, I think the American concept of Christmas becomes more and more like the hyper-commercialized version seen in Japan. There are big differences though. In Japan, Christmas Eve is the main event, and it is a couples event. While I have read that presents are usually exchanged, I believe it to be primarily only between lovers who are the main focus of Christmas Eve. None of my friends exchanged any gifts. Christmas itself is not really observed, in fact, I had a meeting on Christmas and most places were open for business as usual. So the Japanese have imported what they think of as the important parts of Christmas, going out with a significant other, buying things (mostly for yourself than for others) and eating cake. They happily ignore, or more correctly, do not recognize, the other aspects which are from our point of view more important. It is a very interesting lens through which to look at our own culture.

Also, I really like Fried Chicken and Cake. So I think I'm staying here for a while. Small Christmas lists also help out the wallet too.

December 23, 2006

No force on Earth can stop one hundred Santas!!

Today, Saturday Dec. 23rd, there was a Santarchy gathering in Shibuya. Since it is close by, I decided to stop by and check it out. I've got plans already - I'm heading to my friend Watanabe's place this afternoon for a Christmas party, so I couldn't join in on the Shibuya Santa fun, but I did think it would be worth it to snap a few pictures.

Maybe next year I'll try to join in.

Since I went all the way to Shibuya, I stopped by the Shibuya Game Kaikan for a few games of SF2. There was someone playing Hyper SF2 Anniversary Edition, so I joined in with my Zangief. I took the first game against his Ken, then two more matches against his Ryu. He beat me, and then I tried again with Zangief, but he put the machine on speed 1. Speed 1. I haven't played this game so slowly for ages. It was impossible. Well, I had two more 50 yen pieces, so I switched into Ryu mode. We played soooo slowly. It was close. It could go either way, but I lost. One more game with Ryu, one more close loss. It was soooo slooooow. We were pretty evenly matched, although he probably plays many more characters than I do. I only play Zangief well, along with some reasonable Ryu and THawk impersonations. Still, it was pretty fun. Overall I think I won about as many as I lost, so not too bad.

Also, I saw all the Santas.

December 19, 2006

More Becky on Japanese TV

It has been a long time since I've posted (is anyone even watching?) because work has been just killer lately. This past month I spent a crazy amount of time working on a system to do automatic opinion analysis for the NTCIR Opinion Analysis Pilot Task. I submitted my results yesterday, and I can probably drop back down to regular work week hours now.

So today, for the first time in ages, I came home before 10 and started watching some TV that I've been downloading. First up is a Japanese show that I was interested in. The main reason is because of the actress Becky, about whom I have written before. She's the main actress in the show Anna-san's Omame, which has a bit of a suggestive title. While it can mean "Anna's bean", it can also mean clitoris.

Anyway, the story is about Anna, a nice normal woman dating a nice normal guy, and Anna's friend, Riri, who misunderstands almost everything. She is convinced that Anna's boyfriend is in love with her, and hilarity ensues. Or, in this case, not so much hilarity.

I do like that they don't make a big deal about Becky's being half cauacasian, but maybe that is something particular to Becky. Most of the caucasian or foreign acting talent in Japan are treated as a special case of having this particular unusual ability - being able to speak Japanese. I think with Becky, the Japanese are happy to use her in a role where they explicitly do not bring attention to her being half in a kind of intentional blindness. She still does get some crazy roles though, such as this one where she always makes outrageous misunderstandings. Her catchphrases in this show (so far I'm up to episode two) are annoying, especially ending everything with みたい〜なぁぁ〜, but it is very easy to understand, so I'll probably leave it on while I check email and do light work. I can't always do that with Japanese TV (especially the news!) because I have to concentrate.

I've downloaded one or two other current series as well, so I'll comment on them later if I ever get through this drama.

December 3, 2006

Sightseeing in Kyoto

December is a tremendously busy month for me, so I'm glad that I got to spend a few hours relaxing in Kyoto while I was there for a conference. I spent a few hours on Wednesday night to go to see Kiyomizudera (or try the official Kiyomizudera site), my favorite temple. Because of the Kouyou (紅葉, the short time in fall when the trees sport red leaves, or other colors too as the case may be) the temple was lit up at night for special viewing. This special night-service was ending in a few days, so when I went (with Yukawa Aya, a nice librarian I met at the International Conference on Asian Digital Libraries) it was very crowded, but still quite nice. The views were just spectacular. I tried taking a few pictures, but my simple point-and-click camera doesn't deal very well in low light conditions. Using nearby railings and things for some stability, I took a few long-exposure shots that turned out fairly nicely I think. You can see them (and many other pictures) from the Temples in Tokyo and Kyoto photo set on Flickr.com. After walking around Kiyomizudera, we walked to Gion and I had a nice eel dinner -- beats my cooking any day easy.

Before coming home on Thursday I also made some time to visit two major sites: Kinkakuji and Nijyou Castle. I have been to Kinkakuji numerous times, but have never taken any good pictures, so this time I went to buy some gifts for family, and to take pictures. I am absolutely positive that every single picture I took has been taken better a million times before, but now I have my own pictures, and I can use them as I wish without worrying about copyright issues. Isn't it strange that we have to worry about copyright issues for pictures of places that are thousands of years old?

My trip to Kinkakuji was relatively uneventful, except I started to notice the throngs of school kids running around town. Every year schools take field trips to places in Japan, and Kyoto is a very popular destination because they teachers can give students some sort of questions or workbooks to fill out on temples, helping them to learn history. I'm sure that it does the students good as well, but they probably just enjoy being away from home for the first time for a few nights and spending time with friends. I ran into many groups of school kids (usually middle school aged or younger, maybe early high school, I have a tough time telling) and first started to notice them at Kinkauji. Previous to that, it was either dark, or I was at a conference all day.

Nijyou Castle was quite nice. I had never been there before, and thought it would be fun to look around. They have a large garden that is very nice, and have a tour of the castle interior. It is a very different kind of castle than the European stereotypical castle. In a way, I could see how it was very impressive - large, and with a very nice landscaped view - but you could see how a common person (or noble at least) could aspire to and achieve a similar sort of residence. When walking around barefoot through the place, I noticed how the floor squeeked as you walked around. Of course, some of that is due to age, but I also recall hearing (who knows from where) that castles and such were intentionally squeeky so it is hard for assassins (Ninjas!) to sneak around. That's probably a (dis) urban legend though.

The last thing I did in Kyoto was visit the newly-opened Kyoto International Manga Museum. That was a very different sort of Kyoto activity, and if you are interested in Manga, I highly recommend it. If you don't know Japanese though, expect to spend a lot of time not reading things.

December 1, 2006

Kyoto International Manga Museum Opens

I happened to be in Kyoto this November from the 27th until the 30th to attend the 2006 International Conference on Asian Digital Libraries. One of the presentations was a brief introduction to the recently opened Kyoto International Manga Museum, which I decided to visit in a few hours I had prior to returning to Tokyo. I've put together a few notes on the museum that might be of interest to foreigners who might like to visit. I myself have a bit of an interest in Manga, and it was recommended by Maureen Donovan, who manages Ohio State's Manga Collection.

read more (2355 words)

October 25, 2006

Whale cutlets in the Cafeteria?!?

Today for lunch in the office cafeteria one of the set lunches was a fried cutlet thing. Usually (almost always) this is a pork fried cutlet option that comes with rice, some miso soup, a small salad, and some tofu. I assumed that is what it was today, but when I looked at the card, it said that it was whale cutlets. Whale? I was surprised. I'm pretty sure that, for the most part, whale hunting is outlawed. I know that of all the countries that do engage in whaling, Japan is one of the more prolific countries, but I was still quite surprised to see whale show up on a standard cafeteria lunch menu.

I just assumed that you could get whale in Japan, but that it was more of a specialty item, not something that shows up in cafeterias. It would be like a standard US cafeteria serving foie gras or something. Sure, you can get foie gras at specialty places, but you wouldn't expect it to show up somewhere completely regular.

Of course, I had to try it. Sadly, it was disappointing. I would have much preferred pork cutlets, and somehow the idea of eating whale just didn't sit well with me.

It did make a nice addition to a week in which I had already eaten something strange. Over the weekend, there was the 19th Annual Oyamadai Festival, a standard Japanese street fair kind of thing, with little stalls on the street side and so on. One of the places was for the local horse sashimi place. They had grilled horse on a stick for 100 yen, so I tried a piece. It actually tasted pretty good, but again I had a hard time with the concept of eating horse, so I don't really think it is something I will eat again. I'm certainly not ready to try raw horse, even though one of my French co-workers says it is just delicious. If I ever feel the need though, I do have a place within a three minute walk of my house that serves it.

Oh Japan, you are such a convenient country! You think of everything!

October 10, 2006

Gallery Hopping in Tokyo

On Saturday I met up with my friend Fumie Hiratai and we went gallery hopping with another friend of hers. Fumie is a very good guide to the art scene in Tokyo. We met when she was working at NII, but she is an artist and was able to give up her job at NII to focus on art full time. She's been working on large paintings that end up in hotel lobbies and large corporations lately, I think.

We met up in Ginza, a very nice area of Tokyo that reminds me a lot of SoHo in more ways than one. Ginza is rife with art galleries, but similar to New York, the real avant-garde artists are pushed farther out as the rents go up, and like to retailate by moving to more and more inaccessible parts of the city. Fumie wanted to go to some more modern and independent galleries, so the first place we headed was the Inoue building in Kayabacho.

The Inoue building is very interesting. It is an older building situated on the Kamejima river. (The link to the map is courtesy of the Masataka Hayakawa Gallery, which I do not think that we entered. The building has these interesting "井" grillwork signatures on the exterior. The majority of the building is devoted to galleries, with at least three or four of them, and a very interesting bookstore that just opened the week we went there. The proprieter was a very congenial fellow that we spoke with at length.

We went to the Taguchi Fine Art Gallery for the Kim Taek-sang exhibition Hue of Time. In general, I liked the concept, but I didn't really think that it was great art, or anything that I would want to spend large amounts of money on to put up in my house. I do think I could do a fairly decent impression though if I took some time to find some nice ceramic tiles and some paints that I liked. It is an idea anyway.

After the Inoue gallery, we took a long walk over to a very interesting building over near the Sumida river. It was a converted factory space, butted up against an in-use factory of some kind. Floors 2 and 3 were devoted to some strange engineering offices. Floors 5, 6, and 7 are art spaces. There are a bunch of interesting galleries there, such as the Zenshi Gallery, the Shugo Arts Gallery, and the Tomio Koyama Gallery. For the most part, I wasn't inpired by the art that we saw, although I did in general like Ikemura Leiko's Pacific exhibition.

"Hello Kitty is an icon that doesn't stand for anything at all. Hello Kitty never has been, and never will be, anything. She's pure license; you can even get a Hello Kitty car! The branding thing is completely out of control, but it started as nothing and maintains its nothingness. It's not about the ego, and in that way it's very Japanese." (Tom Sachs, artist)
from QuotationReference.com
There was one piece that really struck me though. It was a work in the Tomio Koyama Gallery (which I found to be the most interesting) by Tom Sachs entitled Promental shit backwash psychosis (I think this is it - but the inscription that I remember does not show up.) The shocking, and thought-provoking, part of the piece was the inscription over the Burberry pattern and Hello Kitty (look Andy, I know how to use Wikipedia too!) image. I do not recall exactly, but it went something along the lines of
Chill out Japan, or you'll get nuked again.

It gave me pause and it is very interesting to think about the Hello Kitty brand (and concept!) shone against the light of the incredible popularity of Burberry and other brand goods here in Tokyo. In what ways have brand goods become an end-goal in themselves for some segment of the hyper-consumer population of Japan?

I did a lot of walking on Saturday, but it was very interesting to hit these smaller art galleries. I look forward to doing it again sometime.

September 22, 2006

Sumo Wrestling In Tokyo

On Thursday, Andy and I went to the Sumo Tournament in Tokyo at the Kokugikaikan. We had box seats for two, and got there pretty early. While we watched the early matches of unranked (and lower-level ranked) Sumo wrestlers, there weren't too many other spectators around. We did get a great boxed lunch though, that came with five commemerative tea cups with Sumo wrestler names on them. Also, hot tea brought to our box.

It is absolutely crazy, but it turns out that Sharon Stone also was there when we were. I think I saw her; the blond down in the very expensive seats, I imagine.

I really enjoyed watching the Sumo matches. The last two matches of the day were Kotooshuu, a Bulgarian Sumo Wrestler who is quite popular, and Asashoryu, a Yokozuna wrestler who I've also heard of before. Asashoryu did the Bow Dance at the end of the day, since he won his match. I was a little sad that he won his match, because I was totally looking forward to throwing my zabuton. Usually if there is a big upset that people are unhappy with, they will throw their zabuton up in the air. We didn't get that chance though.

The Sumo experience was really great. We ended up spending just about all day there, which was a bit tough because of the seating arrangements, but I'm glad that we saw the younger Sumo wrestlers also. I think I also now have a better grasp of Sumo. I'll try to catch it on TV if it is on some time. The people sitting next to us were quite nice too, and Andy also got a great picture of himself with some Sumo wrestlers.

Just for completeness sake, you might want to surf over to GoneLiving.com and check out Andy's entry on our Sumo Funtime Adventure.

September 17, 2006

Tokyo Disney Sea

My friend Mayumi invited me to Tokyo Disney Sea a few weeks back. Monday the 18th is a national holiday in Japan (the respect the day of the elders holiday) so for the long weekend she was planning to go with a friend of hers to Disney Sea. I had never been to any of the Disney lands in Japan, or amusement parks for that matter, so I thought it would be fun to go. I invited a friend of mine, Taka, to round out the group.

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September 9, 2006

Kuhonbutsu Taiko pulling festival

On Saturday afternoon, I went to my local temple, Kuhonbutsu, and they had an interesting festival going on. They hooked up a large Taiko drum to a huge set of ropes, and pulled it through town. Kids from all over the place helped pull the drum (although it was mostly the large man in front doing all of the pulling!) and nice music was being played in the truck at the front of the procession. It was really interesting!

August 25, 2006

Awa-Odori in Kouenji

I'm finally getting around to posting about the Awa-Odori festival that I went to a while back. I'll post-date it so the date is correct though.

The Awa-Odori is a kind of dancing festival that is from a part of Japan called Awa. I don't know where that is. This particular Awa-Odori (Odori means dancing) festival took place in Kouenji, in Tokyo. I went with some friends from work, and really had a great time.

I've posted some pictures up to Flickr, so take a look!


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