2010-12-21

Iroiro

Even at home, if I find myself without a notebook and I need to write things down, I do it in a text message on my cell phone and save it as a draft.  Here are just a few from these two weeks in Japan:

  1. Discussing the old style toilets we occasionally run into.  The positions you must be in when using them are Tai Chi moves.  You know, Fair Maiden Pulls the Weeds...Snake Creeps Down.
  2. Anthony: "...a chip off the ole polyglot, eh."
  3. Best toilet paper brand seen at the market: Silltty Roman.  Spelled just like that.
  4. Favorite Japanese phrase: Shouganai (it can't be helped).
  5. Sweet Japanese businessman who offered to take our picture for us.  "Ooookaaay.  threeee.  twoooo.  oonne.  zeellllooo!" *click*

I want to elaborate on the toilet thing.  My initial encounter with the toire in our room left me puzzling over the English translations posted on the wall, instructions for how to properly use this thing.

When you sit on the seat, automatically
the cold water flow.  Wait for "off"
the lamp to wash.

(it's like an alternative haiku if you read it right)

When you sit on the seat, "STAND BY" lamp
starts flashing, if you press [button that looks like water] upon seating,
you may have cold water spray.

There's also knobs and buttons and optional settings, such as "bide" written in katakana (pronounced bee-day), and "oshiri" in hiragana, which means butt.  It wasn't until I finally got the hang of things and started feeling spoiled by these genius toilets (most seats are heated!!  do you know what it feels like to be wandering through a foresty temple area with a full bladder in the middle of winter, find a small shack of a bathroom that looks straight out of the Meiji Era, and stumble inside the poorly lit walls, only to find yourself sitting on a futuristic, fully heated toilet seat!?!!  I was peeing left and right in those woods!!) when I encountered what Anthony had been saying he couldn't wait for one of us to encounter: the handlebars.  These are the old-style Japanese toilets that, for whatever reason, some building owners nostalgically choose to hold onto (hold on to, I said).  I call them by this name because there is literally a handlebar in the bathroom, and it's there so you can hold onto it.  Picture yourself riding a bicycle.  Only rather than each leg going up in turns, both legs are bent up at once.  Only instead of being on a bicycle, you're standing on the floor like this.  But the handlebars remain.

Arimasu

It does exist.




















There were souvenirs to be purchased, themed candy to drool over, and decorated store windows to stare at.  I got two keychain souvenirs--one of Baltan and one of Urutoraman.  My favorite thing about Soshigaya-Okura, though, was that even the street signs and banners, posted and displayed all up and down the cozy, narrow shopping streets, had images from the show and of the characters.  Or maybe it was the lamp posts, which were designed in a way so that rather than being straight and vertical and, you know, lamp-posty, they curved way over at the top into what looked like giant hooks looming over the street sides.  It only took me a second of staring to notice how the two oval light bulbs at the top of each post, lined up to the left and right of the hook, created Ultraman's head.

...I'm gonna say it again.  The lamp posts on the streets in this neighborhood were designed with Ultraman in mind.  Somewhere, during some moment in the past, a group of professionals were huddled over blueprints, deciding how they could make these functional and necessary poles of metal and large light bulbs resemble a cheesy 60's superhero head.  SSsssswatch!




















There was also a medium-sized flying Ultraman above one of the street entrances, and a large Ultraman statue with glowing eyes right outside of the station.  You're damn right I posed in front of the big one!

Even after all of this paradise, when I bought my ticket to head home and stood on the platform waiting for the train, I just didn't feel completely satisfied.  Anthony and I started talking about where we wanted to go for dinner when it happened: an instrumental, 8-bit version of the theme song began playing, and ended just in time for us to hop on our train and head back to the Science Patrol Building.  Another day saved.

Watashitachi wa nichiyoubi ni baka no eiga wo mimasu.

Sunday was my last night with Takuji and Sachi.

We met in Shimokitazawa--the area Takuji grew up in.  Part of a town within Tokyo, it is "famous for the rock bands."  He took us to his favorite restaurant, a small and cozy place called Hiroki.  Popular and easily packed, we stood in line outside for our chance to sit down, meanwhile taking advantage of the wonderful waiting period to talk and let our hunger stir.  We talked about everything from our trip thus far and our plans for these next two full days, to the business of Lomography, to the traditional Japanese "American Christmas" holiday and the KFC fried chicken dinner that is its centerpiece.  Sachi said McDonald's is now trying to steal away the business by expanding from chicken nuggets to the inclusion of drumsticks and such on their menu.  We all laughed at what gets lost in translation.  They said Christmas is a romantic holiday, similar to our Valentine's Day.  It is apparently very important to have a date on Christmas Eve here.

At one point during our wait to be seated, there was room for two of us to step into the inside waiting area and out of the cold, so Takuji and Anthony remained outside and had man-time while us ladies moved in and continued chatting about education and friends and traveling to places such as India and Italy.  We were brought menus while waiting in line, and Takuji once again took on the responsibility of ordering for all of us while accommodating superbly to my vegetarian needs.  This restaurant is known for okonomiyaki, or what Sachi tried to compare to a pancake, only with meat and Japanese vegetables in them (I'm told the ones we ate were Hiroshima style).  Takuji has been eating at this restaurant since he was ten years old, and he knows the menu in every direction.  He ordered for us the best okonomiyaki they have.  There was a sauce on top kiiiiind of like teriyaki and also slightly sweet, but much tastier.  The dishes were tall and fat.  While waiting for these main courses, we had Takuji's favorite appetizer: beer, and a small dish that contained deliciously flavored mushrooms along with some scallops and baby tomatoes.  The food could not have been better.  It felt very necessary that we consume all of this before returning to our homes in America.

After dinner, we wandered around the small and colorful streets of Shimokitazawa, lit up and foggy and bustling during this Sunday night.  We went into a hilarious shop filled with all kinds of oddities, souvenirs, funny items...kind of like a lot of stores I've seen in Ashland, only all in the same building (and there was even a toy camera/Lomo section).  We picked up things and tried on things and made jokes about things and stood in awe at things.  Then, Takuji led us to Cafe Ordinaire, an adorable and hidden cafe (hidden = no line to wait in!) that had vintage posters adorning its walls and old, faded looking Japanese books lining its shelves and counters (and you are welcome to browse the books while you're there).  We came here for dessert and drinks.  I had a slice of banana cream cake, with almond flavoring and chocolate chips and a small pile of homemade whipped cream with a mint leaf beautifully resting on top of it.  I've never eaten cake like this: modest in sweetness in order to activate taste buds which my American tongue was not previously aware of.  The slices were small and perfect, and we ate them with tiny forks that made everything feel just right.  We had talked about getting coffee and sweets, but we all kinda knew we could go for another beer.  Anthony and I compromised and had kahlua on the rocks, and our mouths and bodies couldn't have been happier.
We talked about the stupid movies we love and Takuji and Sachi's honeymoon and our favorite beers and death.  We constructed the ties that all strong and sincere friendships are based on.  It was only my third night seeing these two people who, until these last two weeks, I had only known through the internet and mail.  Yet something about this friendship, and the four of us sitting at the same table in a neighborhood within Tokyo, made so much sense.  Takuji and I met through Lomography and our shared interest in analogue photography, and soon after we were mailing film to each other from 5,000 miles apart and shooting double exposures over each others pictures.  Now, on this Sunday evening in Tokyo, we were sitting a foot apart, sharing food and drinks and stories.  It has been a very personal and genuine friendship from the start, and the fact that my once in a lifetime, first-time-out-of-the-country trip led me to him and his wife's company is proof of that.

When the night was over, we walked back to the train station and said goodbye to these two amazing people, vowing to someday again spend time together, be it in Tokyo, along the West Coast or in Rome.  I felt sad as I shook their hands one last time, but I knew it was more of a see you later than anything else.  I'm thinking now about all of the hands I've come in contact with on this trip, and the similarities between here and home in how we use them: for introductions, body language, and aid when ordering things at a restaurant (I love when menus have photos...kore, onegaishimasu); for locating, exchanging, and typing love letters to people far away; for respect, for spirituality, and for extending a bit of love to someone in a temporary goodbye.

And of course, for camera holding.

2010-12-18

Watashi wa Amerikajin desu ne

I'm self-conscious in a very humbling way on this trip.  Or rather, that's what I'm hoping I'll remember once I'm home.  What I'm doing here is causing embarrassment to myself and my fellow traveler on numerous daily occasions.  Whether or not I am trying to represent or feel attached to a certain culture, I can just imagine the eyes on me at points throughout the day: ...sigh. ...stupid American.

Let me explain this way: There's been construction going on outside our hotel all week.  Some days, our entering and exiting causes the men to have to stop what they're doing, lay down a wooden board for us to walk across, and kindly lead us out to the street with their arm gestures and nodding heads.*

Yesterday, upon leaving our hotel, a little old Japanese construction worker was sweeping something near the front of the building.  Noticing this, I consciously chose to hop over the area he was working on as I sped by.  Once past him, I felt his head turn toward me.  I looked back and nodded, held back an arigatou gozaimasu, and continued on my way.  Anthony was behind me, and we walked a couple hundred feet in the direction of the station.  Then,

Anthony: You know you just stepped in wet cement, right?

Apparently that was why the man was looking at me.  He had looked down at the footprint and was then putting a face to the horror.  *Sigh*...baka na Amerikajin.  At least I hadn't thanked him.

*On a side note, there is really something to be said about this: along with how seriously the Japanese appear to take their jobs, there seems to be a job here for everything: when construction of any kind is going on in an area of land, one or two men are always standing guard at the front of the site, waving their hands and letting people know that it's still OK to continue along the sidewalk.  Or at parking garage exits, not only are there lights that flash when a car is about to pull out, but two men with glow sticks are kindly asking people to chotto matte, kudasai while then proceeding to guide the car out and onto the street safely and efficiently.  Sometimes I don't even notice a reason why people are stretching out their arms in the direction I am already going, but I'm reassured nonetheless.  It feels as if we encounter someone every few hundred feet who is getting paid simply to remind us that we can continue on our way, providing it is safe to do so.

***

I have been craving a big, filling meal for the past 3 days.  Don't get me wrong, the food here is amazing.  The perfect combination of taste and health.  But being a vegetarian, there's only so much goodness I can partake in, and when it comes to the fried and oily foods, I have to settle for watching Anthony do his thing.  I don't usually crave greasy food.  In fact, when I do get a craving for something, and it's not in the sugar family, it's often something comparable to the food served here, which I've had daily access to since arriving.  Despite this, I have never so badly wanted to give someone money in exchange for bringing a box of pizza to my front door.  It's funny how you can go into a situation already "knowing" what to expect from it or how much fun you'll have, or possibly expecting too much or too little, and be completely surprised by the outcome.

Yesterday we rode a new line from Yokohama to Shin Yokohama, where we paid 300 yen a piece to enter the Ramen Museum.















The price was cheap, and we'd been talking about going since first planning this trip.  But I think our reasoning was more for the sake of being able to say, Yup, I've been to the Ramen Museum.  I had no idea it would be one of the coolest things we'd do while in Japan.  The top floor was sooort of like what I imagined (although in my head, it was a long, skinny aisle with fancy tapestry that you walked along, viewing on your left and right glass cases with replica ramen dishes of all shapes and varieties).  There was a fair amount of information on the history of this dish, and the transformation that took place in 1958 when instant noodles were invented and Japan was "transformed...into a nation of ramen connoisseurs" (taken directly from brochure).  There were interesting souvenirs, kitchen utensils and dishes for cooking and eating ramen at home, and possibly the most badass digital photobooth.  Ever.
























The little caption above our heads in the one picture says something along the lines of, If we don't hurry up and get home, Mom's gonna scold us!  Notice Anthony's pumped fists.

When we went downstairs to the lower level, however, it was like stepping into another world.




















A "1:1 replica of a section of Tokyo in the year Showa 33" greeted us so realistically that I wondered if we'd accidentally skipped out on paying some extra fee just to be down there.





























































































There were old looking shops, decorations, signs, stations...everything.  There were also about 10 different old style restaurants that you could eat at, which served...ramen.  Of course.  (I got a dirty look from the woman working at the restaurant we stopped at because I ordered nori (seaweed), gohan (rice), and bean sprouts; I've just had my fill of noodles and soup).  I also bought, for 150 yen, a fat piece of agepan at a little bakery that sold 4 flavors of it--I got cinnamon--along with a bunch of old looking sodas.  The little alleys that you could walk through on this floor of the museum were amazing, and occasionally it felt like a haunted house.  The sound effects and the music on top of the decor completely put us in the time period it was mimicking.  We were also able to briefly catch story time in the center of the floor, where a woman dressed in traditional clothing enthusiastically told a children's story on this old, stand-up board where she swapped out pictures as the plot progressed.  Anthony took a shot at an old game booth for 50 yen where he loaded a rifle with what looked like a tiny cork and tried to shoot a prize off of a shelf.  I put a 100 yen coin into a box and pulled out a fortune that I'm still trying to decipher along with Anthony's help.

Shin Yokohama was just a beautiful area in general, and we had so much fun that we ended up arriving late to the Lomography Gallery Store Tokyo grand opening party.  On our way there, I finally got to experience this:

Not my photo, but this looks like the same line we took.

















It was Friday night, and apparently we'd gone back to the hotel early last week, because we had yet to see the trains get so full.  There was no need to hold onto any railings inside; the people around you held you in place.  The trains would approach, and what you'd see from the platform would be faces and limbs pressed up against the foggy windows.  It was hilarious and exciting and awful.  I think we both were secretly happy to have "experienced" it, but there's nothing more anxiety inducing than being stuffed in the back of the train and trying to work your way out when your stop is up and you're the only one needing to get off.

The Lomo opening party was spectacular.  The cute and cozy new shop was packed to the brim, especially the upper floor where free food, beer and wine were being handed out generously.  All of my friends from the night at the izakaya were there, along with a ton of Lomographers and people interested in learning about this photographic philosophy.  The products beautifully lined the shelves.  People were talking and snapping photos and taking videos all night.  I spoke with a variety of people.  Sometimes I didn't even find out names.  There was some kind of instant connection, being in a room with people wearing their Dianas and Diana Minis and walking around with Colorsplash flashes attached to their LC-As.  We all routinely stuck our hands up over our heads and took shots of the mingling crowd.  Occasionally I'd see a Horizon pop out above me.  I smiled and took photos.  What was your first camera? and So how did you get involved with Lomo? were the questions of the night.  A man in a business suit asked me a question in Japanese.  I said, Mouichido (one more time).  He asked me again; he wanted to know if I was a Lomographer.  I responded with a firm Hai and then used a phrase I'd been wanting to say to someone this entire trip: Nihongo ga chotto dake wakarimasu (Japanese) (a little) (only) (understand).  He nodded and spoke to me in broken English.  I didn't need to know anybody's name; I already knew them all.  I had photos taken with people.  There was a giant LC-A cake that my friend Takuji along with Shintaro, the store manager, ceremoniously cut into as we all aimed our lenses and cheered.

I thought I was going to drink a lot that night.  Takuji was determined to begin getting drunk around 9.  Anthony had a headache and left early to cope by playing games down the street at the Taito arcade station.  I'd already had two beers, and in the midst of the crowd and the heat, I started zoning out on the language being spoken around me.  I occasionally heard some German.  I was in a room full of people I didn't know, but I knew completely.  I started feeling homesick and hungry.  I needed two more beers or I needed to walk off what I'd already had.  I'd never before felt so caught in the middle of equal places.  I wanted to be more buzzed or less buzzed.  I wanted to transport myself home to my bed and my cats.  But I wanted to transport my bed and my cats to this place.  I felt really lonely, especially with my partner in crime being down the street, but I felt completely surrounded by this room full of friendly people taking photos.  My friends Takuji, Katharina and Nao all looked charming and finely dressed for the occasion, and they walked around greeting everybody and taking photos of their own, representing the new store with grace and confidence.  I wanted to stay out all night with these friends who I may not see again for a very long time, our homes being in three different countries.  I wanted to catch up with Anthony at the Taito station, but by the time I had that though, I figured he was on a train headed back to the hotel.

It was Friday night in Shibuya and everyone was drunk and merry.  It was Friday night at the Lomo Tokyo store opening and I became a part of their history.  The weeks before leaving for Japan reeled through my head, while I simultaneously envisioned my world once I'm home again, living my American life, most likely dreaming about being exactly where I was currently at.  In a moment of impulse, I grabbed my backpack, stuffed my camera into it, and began the long walk down the street to the Taito station.  Anthony was still there, playing Pop'n'Music, exactly where I hoped he would be.  I walked up to him and smiled.  There was a Sbarro pizza place next door.  I'm gonna go see if it's still open, I said.  And they were.  And I ordered pizza and Coke, and got wonderfully, sickly full.

2010-12-16

day eight--kono mama

I can't get enough of Japanese TV.

Last night I was watching this show that I assumed at first was some sort of dating, match-making thing.  There was one main girl dressed up really nice.  There were people sort of in charge of things.  It seemed like a reality based show.  But then I saw that the table of guys--who I thought maybe she had to choose from--were all wearing chef hats and coats.  And then I saw this little dish that looked like a fancy dessert, kind of decorated in the spirit of Christmas.  At this point I thought maybe they were cooking for her and trying to win her over, but when the "judging" started happening, it was the chefs holding up score cards.  I couldn't figure out what they were judging, especially because I assumed that they were the ones making the food.  As if assuming that the American viewers would be confused up until now, the creators of the show kindly put the judging categories in English (but nothing else).  These were the categories:
  • Safety
  • Heat
  • Impact
  • Name
  • Color
  • Oishii (delicious)
The show ended without me ever figuring out who or what was being scored.  I do appreciate, however, that while forming opinions of the thing (or person) at hand, the judges (chefs?) had to keep in mind not just the tastiness and quality of color, but whether or not any danger was at hand.  I'm also extremely curious what was meant by impact: emotional impact?  the overall punch that the product (person?) gave to the viewer (taster)?  The influence that the dessert (the girl?) will have over the consciences of these men?  The physical impact such a thing (or female) may have on the body?  Or perhaps the Japanese run their game shows in a different way than us, and rather than the girl having to score these men (or their food??) after only just meeting them, they were actually scoring themselves for her.  "Watashi wa "atatakai" toiu hito ka "iroiro" toiuno janai kedo, tashikani shinchouna hito desu yo!"

***

On a related note, I had an epiphany while watching TV in bed a few nights ago: The Japanese lived through the 70's and 80's, too!  And not all that differently than America.

video

This was from the most amazing and engaging show I've watched yet in our hotel.  Some kind of old music countdown, with a small audience that would watch music videos and then discuss each one and reminisce about them.  And maybe one or two of the people themselves were singers from the past.  And then they started bringing these old singers out on a stage to once again perform their hit songs, and everyone was freaking out and screaming and like "oh my god I loved Whoever-San!!!"  And then each performer would mingle with the audience members when their song was over, only to be equally surprised when the next old singer was brought out, because of course he or she had been one of his or her idols growing up.  I realized, after a long time of watching in amazement, that my legs and hips had been moving for a while.

video

Seriously, you don't need to know what they're saying.  It's all there.  And notice the little box in the upper right corner showing various audience members singing along.

video

 Who needs the internet when you could be dancing like that?

***

Today we went back to Harajuku and ate near the downtown shopping area.  Then, we went a few stops further and ended up back in Shinjuku, the skyscraper district.  We walked to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office Building, where you can ride the elevator to the 45th floor and walk around the observation deck--for free; the view is said to be even better than what you pay to see at the Tokyo Tower.  Of course, the way they getcha is with all the little souvenir stands in the middle of the floor.  I'm already a sucker for souvenirs and quarter machines (plus my cats love to play with the little plastic containers!), and the things you can find here so far have been much more impressive than anything I'm used to seeing at Food 4 Less or Winco.  This was part of my daily contribution to the Japanese economy:







A soramame--I'm assuming a relative of the edamame family--that pops out one of its beans when you squeeze it.  See how it's crying?!  It's homesick and misses it's lover-bean.  Coincidentally, I ate these for the first time last night when we had dinner at a restaurant near our hotel.  They're significantly bigger than edamame, and slightly more textured.  They had a sharp flavor, maybe a little pungent but in a good way.  Like little protein pills that you can chew!
The other thing is a miniature sign from the train stations, specifically from a stop along the Yamanote line, which we have been relying on for at least 1/3 of this trip.  From our hotel, we can take the Sobu line to Asakusa, where we transfer to Yamanote and can access from there the main Tokyo station, Shibuya, Harajuku, or a million other little stops along the way.  This sign is of the Nishi-Nippori stop, something I remember passing on our way to Kichijoji, where the Cat Cafe was located.

Tonight, though, we're going only one stop away from Asakusabashi to Akihabara--the "Electric Town."  Known as a mecca for electronics, all the buildings are gloriously lit up at night.  Mata ne!

2010-12-15

day six--kutsu wo nuide kudasai

Kyo wa kayoubi desu.

I think the Japanese deal with earthquakes so well because of the constant movement and transportation they encounter in their daily lives.  We have gone on so many trains and escalators and moving things that I sometimes feel the bathroom sliding.  When I lie down to sleep at night, my body always slightly wants to continue moving forward.  Even right now, I can feel myself leaning in the direction of needing to go somewhere.  For a culture often equated with slooowness, there is an awful lot of moving people.  I may have experienced something like 12 earthquakes since arriving, and I'm not even phased by it.

So many little things are conflicting with what I expected to find here.  This dichotomy between slow and hurry.  Americans have fast food drive-thrus, but in Tokyo they have these little food stands that I keep seeing at most of the train stations.  They are stands in the sense of being a standing building, but it also refers to how the customer eats: while standing.  If anybody was going to place importance on the act of sitting down for a meal, I just would've assumed it would be the Japanese.
But today we decided to stand with the rest of them.  We walked up to the building and put money into a sort of vending machine.  Then we selected what we wanted to order based on little pictures and flashing lights for where to push the button, and corresponding tickets shot out along with our change.  After that, we walked around to the doors and slid them open, walked inside, and had just enough room to be able to stand at the counter, and maybe turn around if I took my backpack off.  The woman that I handed my ticket to--the only person behind the counter--then proceeded to make my kitsune udon in approooooximately 15 seconds.  I stood there and watched the whole thing and I still can't explain how she did it.  It's an udon soup with fat noodles, huge spiraling slices of green onion, and this thick piece of what I'm gonna call a tofu curd, but it's sweet and tastes a lot like inari and just soaks up all the broth so that when you bite into it, it literally bursts in your mouth.  It's delicious.  When you're all done eating, you slide the bowl a little toward her, nod your head, and hop onto the train that is surely waiting outside for you, or else will be there within the next 3 minutes.

***

Yesterday I went to my first Lomo store.

Lomo wall supreme!!















My friend Takuji was busy busy busy working and running around the town, but Nao had a moment to come down from her office and welcome us to the shop.  She apologized for the heavy rain that day, as if she would have single-handedly postponed it for us if she could have (I believe this 100% percent).  The rain in the city felt really good though, and it was nice to finally feel appropriately dressed and bust out the gloves I'd bought for the trip.  After Anthony and I bought our own umbrellas (sharing was just ridiculously hard, even for a few blocks) we happily wandered through Harajuku and took on the mission of locating the Lomo store in the first place.  It kinda reminded me of Seattle, only minus all of the automatic cliche stuff filling your head when you read that.  The only way I can try to explain is through some sort of double negative: it's like, the rain so completely did NOT matter and did NOT have any sort of negative affect on our day, that it's existence felt completely appropriate and right.  It couldn't have been any other way.

The Lomo store was wonderful, and I'm looking forward to the grand opening party of the new location this Friday night =) and in the meantime, I finally fixed my broken LC-A strap!

Also, I smiled at a black man on the train today.  It was really, really nice.

2010-12-14

Neko no kissaten

I am missing my kittens sooooo terribly bad, and today I coped with it by going here:












































































































































I am so very happy today.

Izakaya no bangohan

Sunday night I met my friend Takuji in person for the first time.

We'd become friends through the online community of Lomography, and often over the past couple years I would forget that we hadn't ever seen each other in person; the same goes for the small handful of close friends I've made through this community, all situated in a variety of areas around the country and world, and all sharing my reckless enthusiasm for film.

Takuji is the boss of all things Lomo in Japan.  Literally.  ("So you're the boss of the store?..." "No, all of Japan!").  I knew he worked for the Tokyo Lomo store, but I had no idea he had moved up so high on the ladder.  He's not much older than me, and he has lived in Tokyo for almost his whole life (he's visited a few places in America: Eugene, Boston, and Arcata, California; in regards to that last one, when I asked him "Why?" he responded "Yeah, I know.  Why." and explained to the other guests at our dinner table that it is a place "known for the weed.")

We met him Sunday night at 6 p.m. in Shibuya, in front of the train station and famous huge intersection.  Being the gaijin that I am, I was nervous about whether or not we would recognize him, and I knew that the hundreds of people constantly flooding this crosswalk weren't going to be working in our favor.

But we spotted him right away (and of course we weren't too hard to pick out); being able to shake his hand and introduce ourselves to each other was amazing.  It was him, his absolutely lovely wife Sachi, one of his co-workers and friends, Nao, and a girl named Katharina who works for the Lomo store in Austria and is here for two weeks--her first time in Japan, just like us--helping to build the new Lomography shop (the grand opening of which is December 17th, meaning we will be attending the party!  Me: "what usually happens at the opening parties?" Takuji: "Free beer!")  I cannot begin to describe how nice all of these people were.

Takuji then led us to an izakaya--a type of traditional Japanese restaurant that I'd heard Anthony talk about since before we'd even left America.  Walking in, the entire place was heated like a mild sauna.  I swear, heat emanates from EVERYWHERE in this city: inside stores, from toilets...I swear I felt my seat on the train today giving off heat, and Anthony is certain the sidewalks have heaters in them.  It's actually kind of genius.

We were led to a seating area for the six of us, and because it was so warm we took off our sweatshirts and jackets and hung them on the wooden coat hangers surrounding our little space.  Takuji took care of all the ordering, and Nao, sitting across from me, helped me decide on a drink.  I had a glass of plum wine.  Then I had some really good cold sake.  Different plates of different sizes kept routinely being brought to our table.  Being a vegetarian, I couldn't try everything, but I promise I was just as ecstatic about the courses as everyone else at the table: a dish of tamago that came with a small pile of pickled radish, and you placed the radish on top of the egg with each bite; a tofu salad that puts any American salad from my past to shame; some kind of marinated bean sprout dish that I could live off of for days.  The plates kept coming.  There was a burner in the center of the table and after a while a large plate of all kinds of stuff was placed on it, and the young girl waiting on us kept coming over and stirring the food, adding spices, and cooked it until it was ready.  Everyone passed their small dishes around and enjoyed.

We learned about Takuji and his wife, about how Nao and Katharina got into Lomography and what each person does for the company.  In return, they learned about us--where we are from, our schooling, our journey through Japan thus far--and between the atmosphere and the drinks and the warmth and the great conversation, the evening passed so wonderfully.  I made four very good friends in that izakaya, and in a way that I don't recall ever making friends before; something about the sincerity of our interaction makes me so, so grateful to have experienced it, and makes me feel that even if I were to never see any of them again, I have still gained so much from that one meeting.

When our glasses and cups were empty and our stomachs were full (but not sickly full...I have yet to experience that even once on this trip, even considering how often I'm eating!) we gathered our outer layers and walked outside.  Our friends kindly offered to walk us back to the train station, but Anthony and I were feeling so good that we wondered around Shibuya and extended our night a bit longer.  The lights outside were so beautiful.

2010-12-12

day four--nanyoubi desu ka?

It's one thing to not know what date it is; I do that often, writing the 12th on a piece of homework when it's actually the 14th.  But it's a really strange feeling not knowing what day of the week it is, and it makes for this constant stuck in time feeling, as if not being able to label the day is enough to make time pass at a different rate for me.

The weather here is also quite surprising, but in a very pleasant way.  I still see people walking around in jackets and scarves and hats...but then again layers seem to be a big part of the Japanese dress code.  But if this were the current weather situation at home, people would be wearing shorts and forgetting their sweatshirts in their cars.  It's still cold, especially when you get closer to the water and that heavy island breeze comes in.  But it's bright and sunny and I go back and forth between taking my sweatshirt and scarf off, stuffing them in my backpack, and then occasionally needing one or both of them back on, though usually just for a short period of time.  Anyway, the better solution I've found for temporary chills is the hand-warmers located on almost every corner in the form of hot bottled vending-machine coffee.

Not only did I not plan on needing lower ISO's, but I packed my clothing based on comfort and warmth versus looks.  Had I known this would be the temperature, I'd have brought slip-on shoes rather than tennis shoes, skirts and tights instead of only pants, and at least one shirt with sleeves shorter than 3/4 length.  I'd do anything for a light over-shirt right now instead of my one thick SOU hooded sweatshirt (what was I thinking...?).  Especially when I'm already feeling out of place due to how nicely everyone dresses here, and how obviously important clothing and fashion and trends are.  Don't get me wrong, I've often been the least-girly girl in a room before at home, where appearance and superficiality is of course ridiculously important.  But the difference here is that I somehow care about that (and perhaps here it seems to be more of a reflection of character versus the empty American vanity I'm used to, and how looks are often completely unrelated to the person you are).  And the irony in all of this is how people are (apparently) not looking at me or judging me here, while at home I feel like I can count on strangers around me making opinions.  You'd think I'd care less here, but something about that dichotomy between the "American" form and the "Japanese" form creates in me more concern in my presence here.

You don't see people sporting the "lazy college student" look.  If I've seen a pair of sweatpants, they've been designer ones with matching accessories and still probably cost more than my jeans.  Maybe that's why I haven't noticed any homeless people...besides the lack of begging, they're all wearing clothes just as nice or nicer than mine.  It's amazing.  (And I've read somewhere that one reason for homelessness here--especially for elderly people--is more of a rebellion from the trendy and forward Tokyo society, a desire to go back to the older ways and be outside of the commotion, versus the idea of homeless people having "failed" and/or "lost everything").  I can't get over how outwardly collected everyone seems.  Men look competent and well dressed.  People give the appearance of maturity and extreme friendliness, without even cracking a smile or saying hello.

On this note, I read a quote in one of Anthony's Tokyo travel books: "The Japanese have perfected good manners and made them indistinguishable from rudeness."  (It's actually a really depressing book that brings up Tokyo's ugliness and all of the terrible outlets Japanese people find in order to escape from the docile society they've so adamantly created for themselves, while desperately needing to vent their repressed feelings and expressions...I fell asleep last night feeling discouraged and homesick after some late-night reading :P).  But my point is, this quote couldn't be more accurate according to my four day old opinion of Japan.

I'm feeling like I need the country-side.  I hear that away from the city is where you really come across Japan's reputable hospitality and "violent" friendliness, as I once heard it put.  I think we need to take the shinkansen outside of Tokyo and try to find old Japan.

***

That being said, we're grabbing our things and on our way to Harujuku: the fashion capital known for being a place where you can people-watch the youth of Japan as they wander around in outrageous clothing and costumes.

2010-12-10

p.s. to that last post...

As far as the sightseeing goes, I'm trying to think of the differences between Tokyo and any other big city.  The demeanor of the people here is different, but the actual "busy-ness" of this town is what I'm thinking about.  What does the typical American big city contain?  Ads, Billboards, lots of activity.  All kinds of places to spend money.  People on the run, even people who forget to slow down.  I'm only noticing these things here because they're here, covered in characters, with slogans written in hiragana, and even foreign words I must attempt to sound out in katakana.  I think there's more little shops and tents and vendors than I've seen before, and again, the way the people run and work at them is very different.  The bustle makes me feel like I should keep an eye on my back, especially at night, or not walk around with my wallet exposed.  But my instinct here is that I don't need to worry about anything, that the crime rate is so low because people who steal your purse are so busy thanking you and apologizing for it that they don't actually get away.  Also, everyone here is speaking Japanese.  At home, it's such a novelty to hear something in that language; here, I am constantly surprised when I overhear conversations or have waiters greet me in Japanese.  There are muscles in my ears that feel so good to finally be getting used regularly.  I feel completely sensitive to language right now.  And the intimidation of that constant aural surprise combined with the BIG-CITY-LOTS-GOING-ON atmosphere and being two of the very few white people here (at least according to our attention span) all make me feel like I will never again be nervous giving a speech in front of a class of 20 or so English majors who, when it comes down to it, look and talk just like me.  Language can create intimidation.  Language can create difference.  It feels good to be noticing this, even if the side effect means that I find myself regularly in situations where I could be using a phrase or greeting that I know--sumimasen or gomen nasai or something along those polite lines--and instead only get these mumbled, half-human noises out and end up appearing as if I may not even know English.

I'm playing devil's advocate with myself: why is this place so great? what made me wanna come here so badly?  I'm hoping to put it in words before the two weeks are over.

Also, the crows sound oddly like people here, cats say nyaa nyaa and dogs go wan wan; I've only been able to confirm the first one so far.

day two--mimasu. soshite, mimasen.

Kyo wa Shibuya ni ikimashita















People don't really look each other in the eye the way you do in the U.S., like walking down the street and nodding or saying hello to someone you don't know.  In fact, it seems to be considered ridiculous or rude to do so when you're not interacting with someone.  I guess it's about respect.  It makes me simultaneously feel cut off and comforted.  It seems like an extreme form of not judging others--I feel in a bubble on the train, for example, even when packed in with a ton of other people, and I feel so far away from them because there's no eye contact, and so there's no one possibly thinking about what I look like or what I'm doing.  But at the same time, the restrain has got to have some inherent tension in it; isn't it normal to look around you?  Doesn't it feel nice to say hi to someone just because they're there?  So it's as if people here must go out of their way to refrain from doing this normal act, because otherwise they would be judging each other.  Like, there's no pretending to not form opinions about others, so they avoid this by avoiding looking in the first place.  It's weird and slightly uncomfortable, and makes me feel extremely aware of how easily people make opinions about each other, but also makes me feel like I can be dumb and wear whatever I want and not have to worry about attention.  Maybe it seems like people would have to go to extremes to grab attention here.  Maybe that's why I think of cities here where kids walk around dressed like anime characters, or wearing all of the extremes of the fashion world, just in their everyday life.  That's what they do to stand out.

There's a feeling of people being really focused here, of things being systematic.  People have jobs and families to go to and errands to run, and the trains are on time to the second in order to get those people to those places, and the greetings exchanged when you enter and exit a store are regular no matter where you go.  Those people that you do interact with--in stores and restaurants--are definitely very friendly with their greetings.  And everyone seems to take their job so seriously.  Anybody in a store not helping someone is cleaning, wiping windows, picking up lint off the carpet.  The people handing out ads and samples on the street or directing traffic around a construction site or working at the train stations all work their jobs so hard and determinedly.


















For a city where people keep their heads down, there's a LOT to see.  Ads, lights, buildings.  People handing things out on the street.  I got some kind of hand lotion sample that says "creamy up" on the box, and a stick of Stride gum with an attached sheet of monkey stickers.  And the people handing these things out seem happy and...I wanna say proud, but not the American kind of pride: outward and superficial, rather than inward and earned.  These people just seemed content.  I think of that Ghandi quote: whatever you do may be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.  Or something like that.  These people made me feel like it was very important that they hand me gum and lotion, and very important that I take it from them.  And I thanked all of them for it.  And they thanked me graciously in return.

But there are two things today that we did that gave me that fuzzy feeling of "omg I'm in Japan," and made me smile like a tourist.
First, I put a 100 yen coin in a vending machine and pushed the button for a little bottled latte drink.  And when I reached in to grab it, it was hot.
Then, we stumbled upon a little temple area very close to our hotel, right smack in the middle of a business district.   A man and woman were dressed like they were ready to go to work, suit and nice jacket and boots and all.  They each walked up to the front of one of the temple buildings, where a giant rope with a tassel at its end hung, and took turns--first the man, then the woman--praying.

I also saw a sign for hot coffee color...oishii




















I also saw a cat-snatching van, a black baby doll dressed like santa clause taking a piss at one of the train stops (I knew they had a funny take on our holiday), and a good old 7 & iHoldings















Kyo wa hare ga tsuyoi desu.  It couldn't have been better.

2010-12-09

first day--okaerinasai

I can't really make any initial judgments on this part of the world yet--especially after being in airplanes for about 13 hours of my day, flying forward in time just enough to skip bedtime and now finding myself nodding off when it's barely even 9 o'clock here.  We haven't had real Japanese food yet.  We got overwhelmed with American "sunakku" food and meals on the plane--one run from the flight attendants left us with a bag of Sunchips, a mini kit-kat, and a pouch containing two oreo cookies--and after not quite getting lost but rather just not trusting every step of the way we took from Narita Int'l airport to the sub-area-prefecture-ward-however-they-break-it-up called Taito-ku (and our home for the next 2 weeks), we were ready to not leave our small, cozy, extremely Japanese room for anything until the sun came up again.  We didn't really get to see the city of Tokyo; there's only so much experienced while spending time in airports, traveling in trains, and wandering underground to find which line we need to take to get to what station.  The few blocks we walked to get to our hotel were exhilarating, but it was dark out, and we were too busy wanting to unload our stuff and sit down in a non-moving space to take much in.  During the hunt to find our hotel, we passed little food and drink stands, magazine and comic stands; we passed an internet cafe a block away from our hotel; we peeked down alleys during our short trip through Taito-ku on foot to find Hotel Yanagibashi and saw carts and tents set up with all kinds of souvenir-looking items and snacks shaped like bear faces, and I saw lots of colorful and cute clothing.  There's definitely a "high fashion standards" vibe.  There were lots of men in suits on the last, smaller train we took right before arriving in Asakusabashi.

While our hotel room is not a capsule, it clearly was designed based on saving space.  The bathroom is tiny, with a huge fat deep bathtub and a toilet that I'm not sure how to use.  Many things are written at least partially in hiragana, but I realize now just how long it takes me to sound out each character.  While many of the main signs at the airport, at stations and on trains contain basic English words and phrases, there's also lots and lots of kanji that I can't even begin to do anything with.  People wear those doctor's office masks, and I think it's more of just a comfort thing, or almost a trend; I'm seeing it everywhere.

It's hard to feel like we're in Japan.  I feel like I'm not home..so far away from home that I'm clinging to the internet like it's a blanket from my childhood, along with the one book of poetry I brought (Sawako Nakayasu's hurry home honey).  I'm overwhelmed, and there's really weird things on the small "terebi" in our room, and there's huge kimono-type sleeping garments laying on the bed for us, and a little hot water station where we can make ocha.  I feel a slightly greater amount of sympathy for the people I hear about who move to Japan and live within their mini American lifestyles, who never even learn the language; actually, I just feel slightly less indignant toward them.  I feel like a gaijin.  I feel like I must smell like butter.  I feel like tomorrow will be a completely different experience, and I probably just need a good night of sleep.  I also feel like I'm going to wake up in the morning and realize I was just sleeping in Japan.

But the things that really felt good:

1.  First spotting the islands through the airplane window, then

2.  getting close enough to see cars driving on the opposite side of the road, and then

3.  noticing a semi-truck with a Japanese advertisement written on its long side; finally,

4.  "radies and gentlemen, welcome to Tokyo" over the intercom on the plane.

...pretty much everything after that was stress.  I'd insert a Japanese emoticon here if I knew any, to show that I'm really not trying to sound as negative as I think I must.  Spoiled American in Japan I suppose.

***

Ashita Shibuya ni ikimasu.  Soshite, ko-hi- wo nomimasu.  Nihonjin wo mimasu, yo.

2010-12-07

In 2 Days...

I can't even begin to say.
















I am waiting for Christ to climb down his bare tree and shout ikimasuyo!

2010-12-01

Soshigaya-Okura

You know that episode of Seinfeld where George uses a fake picture of his late fiancee, Susan, to get into that club where all those amazingly beautiful women hang out?  The picture he takes is of a woman from a magazine ad--a fashion or make-up model of course--and the ladies at the club feel so sorry for him for having lost such a beautiful wife that they accept him into their secret hangout.  By the end of the show, he takes the disbelieving Jerry down to the building, which is nothing more than a meat packing warehouse.  George, standing amidst hanging carcasses, doesn't know what to think.  Only the viewers get to spot, at the very last second, the magazine photo lying on the ground.

This always reminds me of that episode; for some reason I feel hesitant to count on its existence.
















That being said, bring on the beautiful women.