January 3, 2008

Osechi Ryori

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 4, 2007

The 2007 Japanese New Word / Buzzword / Hot Phrase Prize

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

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

And the winners are...



どげんかせんといかん

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

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

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

ハニカミ王子


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

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

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

(消えた)年金


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


そんなの関係ねぇ


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

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


どんだけぇ〜


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

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

鈍感力


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

食品偽装


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


ネットカフェ難民


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


大食い


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



猛暑日


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


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


Bad Omens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 30, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's worth checking out!

September 15, 2007

On the outside looking in

A quick post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 2, 2007

(Unexpected) Jiyugaoka Portable Shrine Festival

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

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

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

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

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

August 31, 2007

A Visit to the Japanese National Archives

Last 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

Fireworks Festivals

On Thursday some friends from work and I went to the Jinguu Fireworks Festival. This is a large fireworks festival that takes place in the middle of Tokyo, near Yoyogi Park and Jinguu Temple. They put up about 10,000 fireworks. The four of us left work and walked over from a nearby train stop, parking ourselves in a big parking lot with a few thousand other people.

Of course, like all festivals in Japan, or in fact, just any old time in Japan, we've got to have beer. There are no problems with public drinking in Japan; vending machines that sell beer are common. I was once surprised when on the subway, at about six o'clock, a salary man returning home from work popped open a beer while on the subway. We also picked up some snacks on the walk to the park at some of the stands set up conveniently to sell this kind of thing.

I enjoy fireworks, but there is definitely a different aesthetic when it comes to Japanese and American fireworks festivals. It isn't exactly true to say that Americans like things big, fast, and furious while the Japanese prefer to take things more slowly, sending up the fireworks one at a time for individual appreciation, but it isn't too far from that either. I also think that Japanese fireworks shows go on for a long time, usually about an hour long. I have a hard time sitting on the ground for that long, but that's just me perhaps.

After the fireworks, we stopped by a Yakitori place and had a great dinner. (None of this is helping me lose weight at all.)


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 2

On 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, Neil Tennant who provides main vocals, keyboards and very occasionally guitar, and Chris 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 it. 


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 Thoughts

I 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

(日本語版 )

Summer Sonic is a two-day summer music festival held in Chiba's Makuhari Messe and nearby Marine Stadium.  It is a huge event, with probably around 80 bands playing over two days, and unofficial concerts on the side as well.  This was my first time every going:  I really wanted to go last year since We Are Scientists were playing, but I had a conference to attend and was back in America at the time.  This year, I didn't have as much of a connection to the bands, but there were some great acts, and it is a real value for your money compared to the standard Japanese live show fare, which is about $45 for a ticket to see one band (maybe two if you are lucky.)  The two-day Summer Sonic Pass was about $275, and you can see about sixteen shows if you are tough enough...

I had to wake up at about 7am to get to Makuhari.  It takes about an hour if you hit the right trains, or an hour and a half if you get the local ones, taking Oiimachi line to Oiimachi, transferring to the Rinkai line to Shin-Kiba, then taking Keiyou line to Maihama Makuhari.  At the station there were crazy numbers of people, and they were making announcements about how it is crowded, buy your return ticket in advance, etc.  Exiting the station there were lots of people with hand-made signs asking to buy tickets and so on.  Also, there were lots of older guys (almost positively Yakuza) doing ticket scalping trying to sell tickets.  They were also buying extra tickets.  I have no idea what the markup on this kind of thing is, but those guys were around for the whole festival.  I don't think they could have made that much money because I never saw anyone buy from them, but who knows.

It was a pretty long walk from the station to Makuhari Messe (the convention center), where I exchanged my ticket for a two-day wristband pass.  I wandered around for a bit and then headed over to the Marine Stadium since the bands I wanted to check out in the morning started on that stage.  It was crazy hot, probably about 36 degrees celsius very humid, not a cloud in the sky with a fierce sun beating down.  I had put on lots of sunblock since I'm whiter than a scared ghost, but I was still worried about getting sunburned.  Over at the stadium I walked around for a while, bought a Pokari Sweat and kept wandering around.  Completely by coincidence I ran into Lisa and Kana, who I knew were coming, but didn't expect to easily be able to find in the massive crowds.  We had more than an hour before the first act, so we headed over to the Beach Stage (literally on the beach!) where Lisa said I should be able to get a small towel from the Tower Records stand (to help with protection from the sun!)

"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 Museum

A friend of mine, Mie, who I met at the wonderful Saraba 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 that

On the way home from Jiyugaoka one fine Saturday afternoon, I stopped by the Boulangerie 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!

The other day while in a convenience store, I came across some unusual flavors of KitKat bars. Maybe I should back up a bit here. First, the Japanese really love the four seasons. You can have a very long and involved conversation about what your favorite season is, and none of them get short shrift really. There is a long tradition of poetry that extols the virtues of a given season. So, following that, there is a tradition of having foods and drinks that are exclusive to each season. Unlike poetry, Summer seems to get the lion's share of goods here - although in Winter our vending machine at work sports more hot coffees and hot chocolate, which turns cold in the summer. Anyway, there are lots of things that only show up at certain times.

For some reason, 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 Gyoza

Last Sunday I headed out to Yokohama with my friend after a relaxing weekend. About a year ago, a researcher I met while at Columbia University who grew up in Yokohama took me to a Gyoza shop in Sakuragicho, Yokohama that he said has some of the best Gyoza in Japan. For reference, that is a little place called Sanyou, 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)

On Sunday, I headed out to Asakusa with a friend to see the tail end of the Asakusa Sanjya Festival. Sanjya (alternatively, Sanja) means "Three Shrines", and if you've been reading along you know that Matsuri (祭り) are religious festivals, but really more akin to block parties.

Asakusa is home to one of the oldest temples in Tokyo, Senso-ji, and is the site of the Sanjya Matsuri, which Wikipedia reports as being the largest and most popular festival in Tokyo. Since Tokyo is a pretty big place, that must mean that there are a lot of people there, and wouldn't you know it, the place was absolutely packed.

I've taken a bunch of pictures of the actual portable shrines, which on Sunday were the three main ones for the temple (supposedly!) and a few short videos, which I put up on YouTube. YouTube didn't like the first three though, so right now only one video is up there. I'll try to work on that. The videos are nice because not only are there Mikoshi (神輿), the portable shrines, there are wooden festival cars (山車, literally "mountain car") that people pull around with musicians that play really great music to go along with the people jostling the portable shrines about. There is lots of energy and activity, the place is amazingly crowded, and of course, there are little shops selling food, beer, and carnival-style games. It was lots of fun, but very tiring.

These periodic festivals in Japan area really great, and definitely something that I suggest you do if you ever have the chance.

May 2, 2007

My feeling about Japanese comedy

I 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 Gun

A 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.

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April 7, 2007

Fumie Hiratai's closing party / Viola performance

A 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 Town

On Wednesday, I had a day off from work on Wednesday, so I met up with Risa and we went to Namja 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.
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