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.

read more (5405 words)

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.
read more (597 words)

April 1, 2007

Cherry Blossoms in Shinjuku Gyoen

On Sunday, April 1st, the weather suddenly became beautiful, despite earlier predictions of rain. My friend Risa and I decided on the spur-of-the-moment to head over to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Park (新宿御苑) for some Cherry Blossom Viewing. It is hard to think of anything more traditionally Japanese than a good old-fashioned Hanami, and we certainly weren't the only people with that idea. The weather was just beautiful, the day started out a comfortable and sunny 23 degrees Celsius, but after a while sitting in the park started to get a bit warm. We picked up some Bento lunches near Shinjuku station, and then some drinks (of course, Nihonshyu is a required drink) before going to the park.

After about ten minutes waiting to buy tickets to get into the park (only 200 yen for adults!) we headed in and looked for a place to sit. It was pretty crowded, but we got there at about 11:30am, and was much less crowded than when we left at about three or so. We found a reasonable place to sit, sat down and enjoyed our picnic lunch and some loverly beer and sake. With the cherry blossoms falling around us and beautiful weather, it was a great little lunch.

Predictably, I got too much sun and now the top of my head, where I used to have hair yet now have none, is slightly red (to match my beard I guess.)

Happy Hana-mi everyone! 皆様、お花見は楽しみましたか?

March 31, 2007

Sakura on the walk home

The other day, while walking home from Jiyugaoka, I was struck by how pretty the Sakura were on the main shopping street. I snapped a few pictures, and of course since the weather was nice there were lots of people lined up for Crepes at the cute little crepe stand. There were also some nice Sakura out by the Kuhombutsu temple main walk. It is really amazing that these Cherry blossoms only last for about a week. You're pretty lucky when the weather is nice and they are in full bloom.

March 24, 2007

Ishiyama-dera

After the Japanese Natural Language Processing Conference, I had a few hours before returning to Tokyo, so I went to the nearby Ishiyama temple, which is said to be where the Japanese author Murasaki began writing the Tale of Genji. It is a really beautiful temple, with very large grounds and nice areas in which you can walk around.

On the way back I walked past the Seta Karahashi bridge (also shows up in some old folding screens and some other nice pictures) before getting on the JR line to Ishiyama and catching the Shinkansen from Kyoto to Tokyo.

March 10, 2007

Review of Wataya Risa's "Keritai Senaka" / 綿矢リサの「蹴りたい背中」

A few weeks ago, I finished reading Wataya Risa's second novel, 『蹴りたい背中』 ("The back I wanna kick"). For me, it was a minor milestone: it was the first Japanese novel that I have read in Japanese. I've studied the language for about seven years on and off, but since I'm a compute scientist by trade Japanese isn't something that I've focused on. Now that I'm living in Japan, a lot of what I do at work is in Japanese, and I thought it was important to try to improve my proficiency with Japanese. On Benkei's suggestion, I started to read his copy of Keritai Senaka. It took me a long time, but I finally finished it.

Now I want to give a review of the book. In all honesty, I was quite surprised because I was not impressed with the book. It won the 2003 Akutagawa Prize for literature, so I was expecting great things. I've since heard a lot of talk about the prize being engineered by publishers as a public relations move. In 2003 the winners were both very young, 18 and 19 I believe, and cute young women, which publishers felt would interest youth in reading. I believe that they did get some positive effect from that move, but I was still disappointed with the book.

Warning: plot spoilers follow!  read more (395 words)

March 6, 2007

Maid Cafés in Japan

January 15th 社会研究調査

As part of a societal cultural research learning field trip, Benkei and I went with a friend of his to the Pinafore Maid Cafe. We went on a Wednesday evening, in the rain. This actually turned out to be pretty important, but more on that later.

I went to and wrote about Maid Cafés in Japan once before, but that was an individual trip, I went on my own, alone. This time, I was going in prepared, with comrades and advanced information: According to Benkei's friend K, we were going to one of the most representative Maid Cafés in Akihabara. The place was actually pretty small, and quite busy so we had about a half hour wait before we were seated. The Maids were all very cute (a prerequisite for working there?) and very polite, to the point that I might need to study more honorific Japanese to understand the conversations completely.

The food was slightly more expensive than what you would find in a regular café, but not unreasonably expensive. The menu was quite heavy on the desserts, but the meal section was a bit sparse, with perhaps five major items. The most popular item (I presume) is the "Loving Omelette Rice", which is regular Omelette Rice where the Maid writes something on the Omelette in ketchup for you. Of course, you are allowed to choose what the maid will write, but the picture in the menu is "LOVE", with cute hearts around the side of the plate. A very cute dish.

I think the idea of writing on your food, giving it a semantic meaning and clearly-defined role, is a great one. I asked that the Maid write "栄養" (nutrition, nourishment) on my rice. She seemed a bit daunted (she was actually a Maid-in-training) but wanted to give it the old college try, and decided to write the Kanji characters. Unfortunately, she was a bit off and wrote something that looked more like "労良" (not a Japanese word, but maybe "work, labor, good"). Honestly, I probably wouldn't have noticed the difference, but Benkei's got a keen eye, and picked up on it immediately. K asked for the Maid to write her name, and the Maid, somewhat shaken by her earlier missed attempt, used incorrect characters for the name as well, but Benkei didn't say anything until after the Maid left. Still, I was impressed: I always thought that the line on Japanese youth today is that they can't write Kanji at all, and what I asked for is a fairly difficult word.

One of the interesting things about the place was, of course, the clientèle. There were a lot of people that seemed to be the classic Otaku, loners who looked a bit shy and lonely, and who positively lit up when the Maids talked to them. I can understand how targeting that demographic could be lucrative, as they might develop a fancy for a favorite maid and become regular customers. Surprisingly though, there were also some groups of very normal looking people, a salary-man or two, and a few women in the café. I'm beginning to think that Maid Cafés in Japan are just a kind of mini theme park, or some sort of Las Vegas theme microcosm.

As we checked out, we were told about the point system. They have a point card that accumulates points based on how much you spend. There are various multipliers that can increase the number of points that you get. We hit two multipliers on this trip: it was raining outside (x2 multiplier) and there was a female in our party (x2 multiplier, which is a very revealing one!) Because of this, my card filled up to about 20 points. At 15 points you get a laminated card with a Maid character (anime style) on it, and at 30 points you get another card and you can take a picture with a maid. I didn't mention it, but all of these places have very strict prohibitions against photography. They use the promise of photographs as a reward for return visits! Another avenue towards profitability.

Since Benkei was going back to America, and K didn't seem too excited about going back to the café I got the point card by default.

March 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.

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