Thursday, September 29, 2005

Mama Cooked a Breakfast with No Hog

Have you ever had one of those days where nothing went right, where you could not buy a lucky break? Well today was nothing like that!

Lyani woke me up around 08:30, in time to have breakfast with her before she had to leave for school. We ate apples and yogurt: a Japanese brand called Meiji Bulgaria (Japanese people know two things about Bulgarians, they eat lots of yogurt and they are good at gymnastics)! After Lyani left, I checked my email, read the news (which is mostly a euphamism for reading my daily blogs: Gaweeka, I am a Japanese School Teacher / Kancho Assassin, Naked Suit, Politics Schmolitics, and Rude Boy, Rude Girl; and my daily comics: Alpha-Shade, Ctrl+Alt+Del, Dilbert (of course), FoxTrot, Mega Tokyo, Penny Arcade, and User Friendly. I do read the actual news as well (Yahoo! News and the superlative Google News, just not as thoroughly!

I started a load of laundry--boy it is nice to finally have a laundry machine in our apartment (actually, ours is on our rear balcony)--then sat down to play a little UN Squadron on ZSNES an Open Source Super Nintendo emulator. Ian, I know you remember many happy hours spent with UN Squadron on your SNES!

My thrist for retro gaming (yes, I am a contributor to this book--look for it in stores by mid-October) sated, I headed into the kitchen to rustle up some grub; in this case, a grilled cheese sandwich and some potato chips served quite nicely. After finishing lunch, I set out for Yokohama Station, and the all-important Citibank ATM located just outside of the West Entrance. Until Lyani's scholarship arrives, we have been paying the Citibank ATM regular visits, as it can be quite expensive to live in Japan. Luckily, Citibank ATMs charge almost nothing for international withdrawls--in fact, I think it is just the standard $1 charge, plus your bank's $1 charge--and they deliver the precious Fukuzawas (the ichi man yen satsu--10,000 yen bill--is graced by the face of Fukuzawa Yukichi, who was an important Meiji-era educator).

The weather was wonderful for walking (23 degrees and sunny), so I first walked past Yokohama Station (pictured at left; click on it to see a slideshow of pictures from around Yokohama) to the Naka Ward Office, to peruse their brochures and maps. From there, I walked to Kannai Station and boarded a train for Yokohama. After taking care of my business at the Citibank ATM, I caught a train from Yokohama Station to Yamate Station, which is one stop east of our station, Ishikawa-cho. From there, I attempted to head south-east to the Naka Ward Public Library, but managed to get pretty lost in the maze-like hills of Yamate. Luckily, I managed to take some pretty decent pictures and had a lovely walk anyway. The highlight of said walk had to be in Honmoku, when I was walking down the street behind three shougaku-sei (elementary school) boys. They were just chatting, but all of a sudden, they started, in unison, to hum the "Imperial Death March" from "Star Wars". You know, Darth Vader's theme? They continued to do this for three blocks or so, and they went through the song. They did not just repeat the main theme. And this was a theme from a trilogy of movies that was made a good ten years before they were even born! Amazing! I should have joined in, but I chickened out.

I did eventually find the library, and obtained a library card in order to check out six books (the maximum). From there, I took a bus (my first this time in Japan) back to our neighbourhood, and got home just a few minutes before Lyani returned from school. I checked the mail, to find a letter from my grandmother, and then Lyani came home with some more good news: her scholarship had arrived! This means that we can now afford to live here!

To celebrate the money, Lyani and I went out to supper at Saizeria, a chain restaurant that offers a Japanese take on Italian food. We used to frequent one back in Kanazawa, so besides the good food, we shared in some good memories.

So today was a good day.

By way of a parting note, allow me to explain the titles of my blog entries. They are all allusions, whether literary, musical, film, or otherwise. Anyone who groks the reference should post what it comes from in the comments. The first person to answer correctly will receive a cookie!

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Train to Skaville

This morning, I decided to take the train out to Chiba (an eastern suburb of Tokyo) to see what the commute would be like were I to take a job with, one of the companies I am interviewing with. I left our apartment at about 10:30 (oh, it is so nice being unemployed; rolling out of bed at 09:30, taking a long hot shower, checking my email and reading the morning "news") and walked to the nearby Ishikawa-cho train station. There, I bought a ticket for Yokohama Station for 150 yen and inserted it in the automatic turnstile, which spit it out on the other side, with a hole punched in one side of the ticket. (For all of you who live in the vicinity of Washington, DC--and I am including all Virginians in this description--this is very much like riding the Metro, except it costs less.) I then turned left and took the escalator up to platform number 1, where I waited for the 10:38 local train to Yokohama-eki (station).

There are two stops--Kannai and Sakuragi-cho--before Yokohama on the local train. Once I reached Yokohama, I walked down the stairs from platform 4 and then walked back up a different set of stairs to platform 8. There, I waited for the tokkyuu--Special Express--to Tokyo-eki on the JR (Japan Railway) Toukaidou Line. The train came at 10:50, and from there it was a 20 minute ride to Tokyo-eki, which is probably the world's largest train station. Maybe someone familiar with Paddington Station in London can relate?

This particular express was a little unusual in that it actually had Amtrack-style seats: two on each side with an aisle down the middle. Japanese short-haul trains usually have only benches along the walls, with the majority of the car being standing room. My first mistake, when faced with this novelty, was to get on the last car of the train and sit down. Shortly after the train got underway, and announcement came on over the speakers that cars 1 and 2 were for passengers with reserved seats only. Cars 3, 4, 5, and 6 were "general admission". Of course, I was currently in car 1, so I had to move down. Unfortunately, I was in the window seat, and an ancient obaasan (grandmother) had seated herself in the seat next to me. Not wanting to make her get up to let me by, I had to wait until the ticket taker came to our row and directed the obaasan to move on to car 3 or higher. I followed her down, and when she came to the door that separated cars 1 and 2, I was actually able to be of service. She was tugging at the door handle, but it would not open. I noticed a button to the left of the door which had the kanji (Chinese character) for mousu--push--on it, so I said, "Sumimasen. Kono baten wo ousu to, doaa ga aku deshou...," which means, "Excuse me. If you push this button, it appears that the door will probably open." So she did, it did, and she said, "A, sou desuka. Sumimasen," meaning, "Oh, so it does. Thank you / I'm sorry."

After finding a legal seat in car 3, I settled in for the trip. The train had two stops before Tokyo: Shinagawa and Shinbashi. Before long, the ticket taker came by again, and asked me where I was going. I handed him my ticket from Ishikawa-cho to Yokohama, and told him that I was going to Tokyo. Apparently, this was a mistake, as he charged me a staggering 890 yen ($8.25 or so). I think I should not have given him the Ishikawa-cho ticket, because on the receipt he gave me, it listed the cost of the train from Yokohama to Tokyo at 500 yen, then showed another 390 yen for Ishikawa-cho to Tokyo. This after I had already paid my fare from Ishikawa-cho to Yokohama. Oh well, live and learn, they say.

Once I arrived at Tokyo-eki, I had a 500 metre walk to the platforms for the Keiyou Line, which I needed to take to the Amazon Distribution Centre in Chiba. Luckily, there were moving sidewalks and escalators, so the walk only took about five minutes. Once I got to the platforms, I located the ticket machines, and then looked around for the map that told me how much fare I needed to put on my ticket to ride to Ichikawa-Shiohama Station. Upon not finding such a map, I asked the chap at the ticket window, who referred me to a sign that said, "Please Pay Fare at Destination" (yes, it was translated into English for me--the Japanese are pretty good at providing English-language signage at train stations, at least in the big cities). I made the mistake (apparently) of believing this sign, and headed down to the platform to catch the next train.

The next train, it turned out, was a local, but it did not look like there was an express coming soon, so I went ahead and boarded it. This was a conventional short-haul train, and it was already full enough that I could not get a seat. This is the normal state of affairs, however, so I did not care. In fact, when I do manage to get a seat, that is a cause for celebration! The local, stopping as it did at every station between Tokyo and Ichikawa-Shiohama, took about 20 minutes to reach my destination. Once it did, I got off and headed down the stairs to the exit (Ichikawa-Shiohama is small enough that it has only one exit; several of the stations in Tokyo, by comparison, have 20 or so). I approached the ticket window and told the chap within that I had come from Tokyo. I expected him to just tell me the fare to pay, since the sign had indicated that this was how it worked on this line, but the attendant just looked at me blankly. I explained that I did not have a ticket, that they had told me at the ticket window in Tokyo to pay here. He scowled at me, and said, "Kippu ga nai to dame desu yo!" meaning, "If you don't have a ticket, it is impossible [to ride the train] [you idiot foreigner]!" I was a bit taken aback, so I tried to explain again that there was not a fare map, and that the ticket window attendant had told me to pay at my destination. The guy repeated that I should have bought a ticket or not gotten on the train at all, at which point I rolled my eyes and asked, "Ikura desu ka?"--"How much [is it] [to ride the train from Tokyo to here] [you insensitive clod]?"--which was certainly a bit rude of me, but I was getting no love from this belligerent chap. Scowling disapprovingly, he told me it was 290 yen, which I paid. I left quickly, but not before he had a chance to repeat again that in Japan you always bought the ticket before getting on the train (which is, for the curious, not true at all).

Having braved all of the hazards of rail travel in Japan, I was faced with a new difficulty: how to find the Amazon building from the train station. The chaps who interviewed me had told me that:
  1. the Amazon facility was a three-minute walk from the station, and
  2. you cannot miss it, as it is the largest building visible from the station, and has AMAZON.CO.JP written on it in large letters
Of course, none of this turned out to be true, at least according to Newtonian physics. So I walked around for about an hour in the vicinity of the station, but still could not find the building. At this point, you may be asking, "Come on! How hard is it to find a building?" In Japan, the answer is: ranging from pretty hard to damn near impossible! You understand the concept of street names, right? Whereby looking at the signs at intersections, the driver or pedestrian can ascertain which street he is currently on, and furthermore, the name of the street that is perpendicular to it. Street names, therefore, turn out to be quite convenient for directions, because you can say things like: "From the station, turn right onto Cherry Avenue. At the second traffic light, turn left onto Orchard Street. When you see the big Crazy Ivan's Vodka Empire sign on your left, turn left just beyond it onto Chekhov Boulevard. Our building is 123 Chekhov Boulevard, which will be on your left, and it has a big yellow Foo Bar Corporation logo emblazoned on it."

Not bad, right? Well, in Japan, most streets do not have names. And furthermore, while some buildings might have numbers, there is no guarantee that 123 is located anywhere near 121, 122, 124, or 125, as you might suspect. In fact, in Japan, you might find 123 next to 1028 and 772, and 124 three kilometres down the road, in a random direction of your choosing. So directions in Japan usually sound more like this: "From the station, turn right. There should be a 7-11 on your right, and a Tokyo-Mitsubishi Bank ATM across the street on your left. Walk down the road, past the Family Mart, until you get to an intersection with a Esso gas station on the right. There should be a traffic light here. Turn left, crossing the street towards the Yes! Yes! Yes! pachinko parlour. When you see the big Kureji Ibanzu Boduka Inpaya sign on your left, turn left at the next street. Our building is about 200 metres from the intersection, just past the Circle K with the porn vending machine outside. It has a big yellow Foo Bar Corporation logo emblazoned on it."

What usually happens is you follow the directions as best you can, stopping frequently at convenience stores and asking them if they know where your destination is. Using this method, you can usually home in on your target, and hopefully even find it at some point.

Of course, I had no directions, and no-one in the industrial zone of Chiba had any idea where Yet Another warehouse was, so I just wandered aimlessly. At least I was able to take a picture of the city across the bay (left). Luckily, there is a shuttle bus from the station to the Amazon Distribution Centre, so I can take it the first couple of days until I know how to walk there, if I get the job.

Defeated for today, I returned to Yokohama via rail by buying a ticket for 290 yen at Ichikawa-Shiohama Station (enough to get me to Tokyo), transferring to the Toukaidou Line to get back to Yokohama Station, and then transferring to the JR Yokohama Line to get to Kannai Station. At Kannai, I got off the train and used the fare adjustment machine right in front of the ticket turnstiles. You put your original ticket in (my ticket from Ichikawa-Shiohama) and sometimes tell the machine which line you took, and it tells you how much you owe, in addition to the amount on your original ticket. In this case, I owed 490 yen, so I put in a 500 yen coin (yes, there is a coin worth roughly $5 in Japan!) and received an adjusted ticket and a 10 yen coin for my troubles.

I left the station and proceeded directly to Moss Burger (I did not pass Go, nor did I collect $200, if you were waiting for that joke), a "Fine Japanese Coffee and Burger" joint. I ordered the Moss Burger Set, which consists of a Moss Burger (which is a quarter pound burger, topped with chili, onions, and tomato), a drink, and a combination french fry / onion ring box. At 630 yen, it is a bit more pricey than McDonald's, but much more tasty. This particular Moss Burger has a counter at which you can sit and look out the front window at the sidewalk, which I did, as this is the same sidewalk that Lyani uses to walk home from school, and it was almost time. I did not see Lyani while I was eating, but I did see Tyler, a colleague of hers who happens to live next door to us at Toriumi Haimu. I left Moss Burger and waited at the corner for the light at the crosswalk to turn green.

That was when I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turning around, whom to my wondering eyes did appear but Lyani. We walked home together, at which point she took a nap and I wrote this blog entry. The end.

Friday, September 23, 2005

I've Got Pictures to Prove It, Part I

Lyani in the kitchen I uploaded some pictures of our apartment to Kodak's EasyShare Gallery, so you guys can finally see them. This link should take you there! Note that you do not need to sign in, just click on the picture.

I will share more photos as I have time to put them up, and future blog entries will have pictures linked right into the text.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Sound of My Heart Breaking

So it turns out that there is a dark side to the otherwise convenient tendency of everything running on time in Japan. I flipped on the TV after supper tonight, hoping against hope to find a baseball game to watch while Lyani studied. Jackpot! The Yomiuri Giants were playing the Yakult Swallows, in Tokyo, and the game was tied 2-2 in the bottom of the eighth, no outs, no-one on. I watched the Giants bat (they stranded a runner on second), then Lyani and I ran downstairs to the Lawson Station (convenience store) for some emergency supplies: ice cream for Lyani, popcorn and a can of Kirin Ichiban for me. We got back just in time for the first batter of the bottom of the ninth (I subscribe to the Ted Glover school of watching baseball, which dictates that you only really need to watch your team bat, with the exception, of course, of Red Sox-Yankees games).

The pitcher, a four-eyed chap named Yoshikawa who seemed to need a new prescription, walked the first batter on four successive pitches (and not on purpose; this guy could not find the strike zone even if he was issued a map). The next batter bunted, as expected--that is part of Japanese baseball, you get a runner on with one out or less, you almost always bunt--moving the runner over to second. This brought up none other than Etoh, who has 374 homers in his career, and looked like he wanted 375 pretty badly. Yoshikawa missed the strike zone with the first two pitches, then he finally gave Etoh something hittable. Which, of course, was a mistake. Etoh blasted it out towards the left field wall, prompting me to shout, "it's gone!", prompting Lyani in turn to shoot me The Look (I am supposed to be less exhuberent when watching sports). Tragically for me, and for Giants fans everywhere, the ball did not quite carry over the wall, and the left fielder gloved it for the second out. The next batter grounded out, meaning we were headed for extra innings.

"All right!" I told Lyani, "Extra innings! Now I can watch a little more baseball!" I poured a little more beer in my glass in preparation while the TV showed the Major League Baseball hightlights, which in Japan consist of reports on Ichiro, Matsui (too bad the poor guy picked such a crappy team to join), and Iguchi. And for some reason, this time they showed a couple of highlights from the Red Sox-Devil Rays game, namely Big Dave Ortiz smacking a pair of homers out of the park, and Manny Ram and Trotsky hitting one apiece! "Mmm-mmm, baseball!" I thought to myself.

After the MLB update, there was a brief commercial break, then the action returned to Tokyo, where the Swallows decided to bring in a new pitcher, a left-handed white guy. He threw a few warm-up pitches before being pre-empted by another commercial break. I took this opportunity to flip through the channels, looking for something interesting to watch after the game. But upon flipping back, something terrible happened: the news came on. "Must be just an overview," I thought, "I'm sure they will be back to the game in a minute."


Because it was 21:00, television coverage of an exciting baseball game which was heading into extra innings, and featuring the most popular team in Japan, just ceased! Because the next show, some ridiculous tabloid piece of junk, was scheduled to start, and it could not be delayed!

If that happened in America, the network that pulled that stunt would be bankrupt the next day.

So I find myself finishing my beer while writing this blog entry, instead of basking in the warm glow of my television, soaking up Japanese culture (because that is how I justify watching baseball instead of studying kanji).

We Hates the SPAM Precious, Hates It!

I have gotten a few SPAM comments so far, so I have decided to turn on the Word Verification. Basically what this means is when you post a comment, you will see an image which has some wavy-looking text. Type that in before submitting your comment. Sorry for turning this on, but it is important to me that people can post comments without needing a Blogger account, and I cannot think of a better way to get rid of the SPAM comments.

If you have trouble posting comments, check out Blogger's help page for the Word Verification feature.

Oh My Goodness, Now What Have I Done?

I've been drinking again and having too much fun.

Imagine, if you will, karaoke. Now abandon all of the preconceptions that just came to mind; if you have not been to Japan, or at least done karaoke with some Asian friends, you don't know no karaoke!

The word karaoke itself was coined in Japan. It consists of the character for "empty", plus oke, in the katakana script used for foreign loan words. "Loan words?", you say, "From what language was oke borrowed?" Why, English of course: it is short for okerasutera ("orchestra").

Of course, the word "karaoke" has been adopted into English, but here is where the similarities end. Western-style karaoke tends to be sung in slightly melancholy bars by drunk or embarassed people, to an audience that is indifferent at best, or laughing at them at worst. Japanese-style (maybe I should say East Asian-style, since Koreans take their karaoke the same way; I am not sure about the Chinese--maybe Ryan can answer this one in the comments?) karaoke takes place in a private room, with you and your friends, or co-workers. And the Japanese take karaoke very seriously. No-one would dare laugh at someone else's rendition of "My Way", no matter how off-key.

Of course, Japanese karaoke resembles Western karaoke in that large quantities of "liquid courage" are usually required. If you visit Japan and want to do some karaoke, the main word to learn is nomihoudai, which means "all you can drink".

The private room in which you and your friends will be singing is usually pretty comfortable. It will contain a couch or two, several tables, and the karaoke rig itself, which consists of a large television set, a powerful stereo with several microphones (on our last outing, these mics were even wireless!), and a remote control for entering the songs that you want to sing. These songs are selected from one of two big-city phonebook-sized catalogues of songs, one for Japanese songs, one for foreign songs (meaning Western, Korean, and Chinese, basically). These catalogues are arranged both by artist and by song title, so you can usually find what you want, even after a few too many pints.

Now that you have some idea of what karaoke entails in Japan, I can tell you about Saturday night. Of course, me being me, I will start the story on Saturday afternoon, as Lyani and I are walking around the Yokohama harbour.

It was a great day for walking, sunny but not too hot, so we decided to walk north from our house to the harbour. The "Lonely Planet" map of Yokohama showed a couple of piers, linked by the Yamashita-koen, a park that it described as "decidedly dowdy", but with a harbourfront view. So we set out from home, passed Yokohama Stadium (home to the Baystars baseball team--for which one Ichiro Sasaki played, before heading off to America--and the Yokohama F. Marinos football (soccer) club), walked through the slightly upscale Yamashita-cho shopping / banking district, and arrived at the Osanbashi Pier. Which, in addition to being a functional place for passenger ships to dock (there was a largish ferry from Tokyo tied up when we were there), was apparently designed by an architect. The wood planking on which you walk swoops to and fro, looking rather like the hull of a ship. In the middle of the pier is a big concert hall, which looks for all the world like a modern hobbit-hole. It is built into a wooden "hill", and the entrance is actually below the surface of the pier. On the sides of this wooden hill, the planking gives way to grass, of all things. I had never seen grass lawns on a pier before, but I know Japan too well to be surprised at such aesthetic touches. The top of the hill affords great views of the Minato Mirai 21 development (where Lyani's school is) on one side, and the Yokohama Bay Bridge on the other, gleaming white in the sun. Pictures would express this scene far better than words, and I do have some. I will link them from this entry as soon as I find a decent free photo-hosting service.

After the pier, we stopped by a little cafe to have a bite of lunch, and then headed over to the Yamashita-koen (park). The park is basically a five-block long grassy lawn, with paved paths, lots of benches, and dotted with Japanese pine trees. All in all, a very pleasant place to have a walk, or sit and look out into the harbour. I guess the Lonely Planet writer was having a bad day when he visited, otherwise he would not have been so dismissive of the park's charms.

So as we are strolling through the park, my keitai (mobile phone) rang, and who was on the other end but Chris Kohler, one of our friends from Kanazawa. He and my university roommate, Ota, were in Tokyo for the Tokyo Game Show, a big video game-related exposition. Kohler and Ota are both fortunate enough to be professionally involved in the video game industry: Kohler as a journalist and sometime academic (his first book, Power Up, offers an interesting look at how Japan imbued video games with storylines and cinematic flavour); Ota as a game designer and programmer. The two met through me, and hit it off well. They ended up both being in the Kansai region (Kyoto / Osaka / Nara) for a year, and became good friends.

So anyway, Kohler suggested that the four of us get together that night for some karaoke (a regular outing back in the Kanazawa days). Lyani and I were game, so we headed home, by way of the fascinating Motomachi shopping street, ate some supper, and then jumped on the train to Shibuya. We met Kohler and Ota by Hachiko, which is a statue of a little dog, waiting for its master, and the most popular place to meet your friends in the Shibuya area. We crossed that famous intersection that you always see in photos of Tokyo, you know, the one where hundreds of people are crossing at a time? We found a reasonably priced karaoke place less than ten minutes from the station, and booked a room for a few hours. This was at about 20:00, and Lyani and I were planning to catch the last express back to Yokohama at 23:30.

So we pile into the private room, pick up the phone and order the first round of drinks and some food, and start flipping through the song catalogues, looking for a good ice-breaker. That ice-breaker turned out to be the Bobby Darin version of "Mack the Knife", which Kohler and I had traditionally done back in Kanazawa. A song or two later, Kohler did a Beatles tune, during which I made disparaging comments about the Beatles, and then I followed that with The Rolling Stones's "Time is on My Side", to prove once and for all that the Stones out-rock their limey cousins. Kohler and Ota did a memorable version of "Mayahee Mayahoo" AKA "Noma Noma YAY!", which is the Japanese version of a dance tune called " Dragostea Din Tei", by the Romanian band O-Zone. The reason that there is a Japanese version is that a lot of the Romanian lyrics to the song sound like Japanese, especially the chorus, "noma noma yay", which means "drink drink YAY!" in Japanese. So some Japanese guy put together a hilarious Flash video (it helps the "funny" if you can read Japanese, but the drunk cartoon kittens might be worth it anyway) of the song, with animated drinking cats.

Other highlights of the evening included Kohler's "Rocket Man", Lyani and I singing a few Spitz songs (Spitz is a Japanese band that Lyani likes a lot), Ota and Kohler doing several video game and anime themes, Kohler's "Scatman" and "Informer" (you know, that dancehall tune from 1992 from Snow?), Kohler and I hooking up on the hip-hop tip for "Rapper's Delight" and the n-Trance remix of "Stayin' Alive". I did a couple of U2 songs, accompanied by Lyani (she is The Edge), Lyani and I did a passable version of "Scrubs", and a heart-rending take on "Kasa ga nai" ("I Have No Umbrella"), a sad Japanese ballad from the 80s, and of course the whole group did "Country Roads". That is a karaoke standard.

At some point during all of this fun, 11:30 came and went. Lyani and I decided to just crash on someone's hotel floor until the morning trains started running. So we finished our karaoke at around 01:30 (I think) and grabbed a taxi back to Shinjuku, where both Kohler's and Ota's hotels were. At some point, Ota had to get out of the cab for some fresh air, and I joined him without really thinking (I had had quite a bit to drink by this point, remember). Lyani and Kohler were left in the cab, wondering what to do. After a minute, Lyani asked Kohler what to do, to which he responded, "I think you should get out, in a hurry!" Which Lyani did, and Kohler sped off into the night, desparately needing to get a few hours of sleep before the Tokyo Game Show the next morning.

So Ota, Lyani and I walked from wherever we were to Ota's hotel, where Lyani went to sleep on the bed while Ota and I talked until 06:30 in the morning. At this point, Lyani and I headed back to the Shinjuku Station, as trains were running again, leaving Ota to (hopefully) get some sleep. I am not quite sure how we got back to Yokohama, as I was asleep during most of the trip, but we must have gotten back somehow.

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is how karaoke is done!

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

If You Can't Stand the Heat...

Let's get one thing straight: it is hot in Japan in the summer. Like fires of Hell hot. For example, my thermometer currently reads 29.6 degrees (that is Celsius, of course; approximately 85 on the Fahrenheit scale), 74% relative humidity. Of course, by Williamsburg, Virginia standards, this would be a cool summer day. Too bad I was in Columbus, Ohio long enough to grow acclimated to the slightly more reasonable summer weather!

We do have an air-conditioning unit (ku-ra- in Japanese), but it is only for emergencies, like when heat stroke claims one of the two of us. Said air conditioner, like all Japanese models, has a remote control.

I mentioned in a previous entry that central air is not something that the Japanese seem to be in any hurry to implement. I think this is because the Japanese enjoy being miserable. Anyone familiar with Japanese literature or film has probably already come to this conclusion. Fortunately, one area where central air is in heavy use is in department stores. In fact, department stores really crank the air conditioning, to the point where a 10 square-metre area of sidewalk in front of the main doors is approximately 10 degrees cooler than the surrounding air. This is A Good Thing!

"So," you may be wondering, "other than the lack of climate control in Japanese homes, what other things strike you as different about Japan?" If you are not, in fact, wondering this, now would be a good time to stop reading.

In Japan, cars drive on the left (i.e., wrong) side of the road. Other than the obvious risk to life and limb imposed when the unsuspecting American or continental European looks to the left first when crossing the street, this seemingly innocuous fact has deep cultural impact. People tend to walk on the left side of sidewalks. The escalator going in the direction you want is almost always on the left. Same deal with stairs. This basically means that Lyani and I spent our first week or so here running into people, before we were able to reprogram the part of our brains that controls walking.

A lot of people probably know this, but Japan is a very service-oriented country. This means that when you walk into any store, you will immediately be treated to a hearty chorus of "irashaimase!" (welcome). Contrast this to American stores, where you are lucky if a clerk so much as looks in your direction (and does not heave a world-weary sigh at your "imposition"). This also means that clerks in say, department stores, never come up and ask you if "you need help finding anything" (translation: "are you going to buy something, or what?"). But if you should actually need help, a clerk materialises with uncanny speed (I am fairly sure they drop, ninja-style, from the ceiling).

Furthermore, you can ask store personnel any question that you would like answered, whether it relates to their enterprise or not, and they will discover the answer. For example: Lyani had purchased an international phone card, but could not figure out what string of digits she had to dial to instruct the phone that she was trying to make an international call (no, this was not printed on or near the public phone). So we pop into a random Circle K (one of the big convenience store chains in Japan; the others are Family Mart, Lawson Station, Sankus, and (of course) 7-11) and ask the cashier how to dial out. She has no clue, but summons the other employee to the counter. This employee has the answer, which she gives to us, and then both clerks thank us for stopping by to ask them a question. Note that we did not spend any money in this store at all.

An even better example: I was walking to Yokohama Station the other day. I had a vague idea of how to get there, and when I thought I was in the neighbourhood, I stopped by a Family Mart to make sure I was on the right track. I told the clerk at the counter where I was trying to go, at which point he actually dashed out from behind the counter and out the front door of the convenience store, to better illustrate the route. He stood outside the store for about a minute, explaining the directions to me in typical Japanese detail (the way to reach the station from where I was was basically to go straight for a kilometre; but he gave me no less than five landmarks that I would encounter along the way). At the end of this exchange, I thanked him, to which he replied, "sumimasen"--literally, "I am sorry"--presumably for not walking me to the station personally.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Nihon Sweet Home

Now that you are privy to all of the tedious details of our excrutiating trip here, let me fill you in on our apartment. We live on the fifth floor of an apartment building called "Toriumi Haimu" (this has no meaning, it is just a name), in a neighbourhood that Lyani's Inter-University Center literature describes kindly as, "an older urban neighbourhood, a bit run down". Heh. "A bit run down" is a slight understatement. This is basically the ghetto. with a capital G.

Of course, being Japan, the worst, seediest, gangster-infested neighbourhood (read: ours) is about as safe as say, the Hamptons. There is an old saying in Japan that you can send your 12-year old daughter out at midnight, clothed in nothing but ichi-man (10,000 yen) bills, and she will return safe as a sparrow. Really. There is crime in Japan, but you don't ever see it, and it sure as hell never happens to you.

But our neighbourhood does feature crazy old men, some houses of (slightly) ill repute, and Yakuza. Yakuza, for those of you who are not into Japanese culture, are gangsters. They are sometimes referred to as "the Japanese mafia", but this is not a very fitting comparison. No horses' heads in beds with the Yakuza, and no restaurant shootings. The Yakuza are a deeply ingrained part of Japanese society, and they have a tacit, unspoken agreement with The powers That Be: as long as they do not overstep their bounds, they will be tolerated, ignored. Yet another application of the old Japanese proverb, "the nail that sticks up will
be pounded down", the converse, of course, being that if you do not cause problems for others, you can do pretty much whatever you please.

So the Yakuza are not your ordinary thugs and murderers. No, they are businessmen--at least on the corporate level--investing in hospitals and schools in addition to the more standard organised crime pursuits such as the protection racket, gambling, prostitution, etc. And the greatest thing about them is: if you keep your nose clean, you have absolutely nothing to fear from them. You will hardly know they exist, unless you notice a gentlemen who seems to be missing a fingertip or two. (The Yakuza, who actually place a lot of creedence in honour and duty and chivalry and all that, will cut off their own finger at the joint when they fail to live up to obligations.)

Of course, there is another type of Yakuza, and he can be found in our neighbourhood. He is known as the Yakuza Puker, for his propensity to vomit loudly after (presumably) consuming enough alcohol to fell an ox in the prime of his life (though one assumes that oxen have a rather low tolerence, being mostly tea-totallers), at early hours of the morning. We average three to five of these chaps per night.

Despite our immediate surroundings, our location is pretty much ideal. We live in the Naka-ku ward of Yokohama--"naka" means centre--and everything that is worth seeing or doing in Yokohama is clustered around us. Lyani's school is about a 35 minute walk from our apartment, probably three kilometres or so. It is housed in the Pacifico Yokohama complex, which derives its name from the fact that is right on the harbour--traditionally Japan's most important Pacific harbour. The Pacifico Yokohama complex consists of an exhibition hall, a convention centre, the New Grand Hotel, and the International Hall, where the
Inter-University Center is, along with a United Nations office and other such things.

Pacifico faces the famous Yokohama ferris wheel, which was the largest in the world as of the 1998 publishing of my "Lonely Planet Guide to Japan". And since the centre of the ferris wheel is a giant clock, it might count as the world's largest clock, as well. Pacifico is but a part of a larger development, however: Minato Mirai 21 (the 21 is for the 21st Century, obviously). MM21 was planned as "the future of urban development", and it pretty much lives up to its name. It features a covered, elevated passage from the Sakuragi-cho train station, with escalators and moving sidewalks, leading into the Landmark Tower, an 80-odd storey-tall building that was the tallest in Japan (again, as of 1998, so it may have been surpassed by now). The walkway continues through the second floor of the Landmark Tower, down an escalator, under an improbable stainless steel sculpture (pictures will be forthcoming, once I find a free photo hosting service--tell me if you know of one), and into the Queens Tower Mall.

The Queens Tower building is one of the most interesting buildings that I have ever had the privilege of visiting. It has a roof of glass, held together in multiple layers by rounded beams. The whole thing reminds me of wind chimes, and the architect must have been going for that, because the building actually chimes! They pipe ambient sounds of tubular bells in throughout the building. The experience of walking through is so organic that you do not feel like you are in the middle of a huge commercial building in Japan's second largest city, you feel like you are strolling about a crystal tower in a fairy tale. At the end of the building, there is a spacious lobby with massive wood benches, flanked by bamboo. This is one of my favourite places to sit and study kanji (Chinese characters--one of the three parts of the Japanese writing system).

The walkway (that is what I was talking about, remember?) then continues over a major thouroughfare to the Pacifico Yokohama complex, affording breath-taking views of the harbour one one side and the Minato Mirai 21 development on the other. The experience of simply walking Lyani to school is too wonderful to be descibed; I hope that each and every one of you can visit so you can see what I am gushing about.

So this is where we live. But let me get back to the apartment itself, since that was the original motivation for this blog entry.

The apartment is on the fifth--top--floor of the building, which is a typical blocky concrete affair. The floor plan is 2DK in the Japanese real estate parlance, which means that it has two six-jyo rooms, plus a dining room / kitchen area. A six-jyo room gets its name from the fact that it contains six tatami mats, tatami being the traditional Japanese flooring material: woven rice straw. Each mat is roughly three by six feet in size, making the room about twelve by nine, or 108 square feet, if my math holds. Our tatami mats are actually covered by synthetic hardwood, which is actually A Good Thing, since tatami is quite hard to care for and clean.

One of the six-jyo rooms is the bedroom, and the other is a study. The two rooms are divided by sliding screens of shoji, or Japanese rice paper, which can be configured in various ways to open or close passages between the two rooms. Japanese-style rooms are general-purpose, so all of the furniture is mobile. We have a rolling desk and desk chair, two chairs that sit directly on the floor (i.e. they have no legs), and a rolling table. It is a pretty neat way to live, being able to re-configure your space in many ways, and this allows you to live comfortably in a lot less space than would be possible in a Western-style house.

In addition to the two six-jyo rooms and the dining room / kitchen, we have a toilet and a shower. These are two separate rooms. I am a big fan of this.

Another typical feature of Japanese houses that our apartment has is the genkan, or entrance. Most of you probably know that you do not wear shoes in Japanese houses. The genkan is what facilitates this custom. The floor of the apartment is actually elevated about 10 centimetres above the floor of the genkan, which is plain, unadorned concrete. When you enter the apartment, you pause in the genkan, remove your shoes, and literally step up into the living area. Hence the Japanese expression for "come in", which is "agattekudasai", meaning "please come up".

We also have a balcony, which can be reached by sliding glass doors from either of the six-jyo rooms. On this balcony is the washing machine, and two bamboo poles, suspended from the ceiling, for drying clothes. The balcony also affords a nice view of the neighbourhood, especially the Baptist Church right across the road. This church is one of only two Christian churches in Yokohama that I know of, and what it is doing in the Realm of the Yakuza Pukers is quite beyond me. But it is an interesting building, looking quite Western and quite Japanese at the same time.

All the appliances in our house are gas-powered. This includes not one but two separate hot-water heaters, for the concept of central heating is one that is arriving in Japan slowly. We have no hot water out of the tap; we must turn on a small hot-water heater instead. Both the kitchen sink and the shower are equipped thusly. The shower is the more interesting of the two, because you actually have to turn on the gas and ignite the pilot light before turning on the heater itself. The kitchen sink model is boring by comparison--you just push a button and you have your hot water. Meh. Where's the challenge in that?

So that pretty much covers how and where we live. Tune in next time for some witty observations on how daily life in Japan differs from that in the West.

Monday, September 12, 2005


I have a spate of interviews this week. The first one is today (Monday the 12th) for a Unix Systems Administrator position at Amazon. I should also have a phone interview for the same position tomorrow, and a second in-person interview in Shibuya sometime on Wednesday.

I have an interview on Wednesday for a Software Engineer position at ubit, which is a keitai (mobile phone) software company.

Wish me luck!

Friday, September 09, 2005

Travelling is for Paul Oakenfold

It is Sunday, September 04, 2005, and we are finally here in Japan, after a travelling experience that can only be described as "epic". Let me start nearly at the beginning: rewind, if you will, to Tuesday, August 30. It is 17:30 or so, and I have just come home from work. I look around the house, and realise, despite Lyani's best efforts, we still have to pack up, give away, or dispose of a large quantity of stuff. So we put our noses to the grindstone, and work in the house like crazy for a few hours, break for a quick supper and an episode of "The X-Files" (I have managed to turn Lyani into a fan--though I half-suspect that she watches just because of Agent Mulder), and continue packing / tossing / arranging until about 01:00. We had to wake up early in the morning to be at the Post Office when it opened at 08:00 in order to mail two boxes to Japan and one to my parents in Staunton.

This was a point of no return of sorts: from this moment on, everything would have to either go with us to Japan in our luggage, be given away, or thrown away. In a way, this allowed us to be more ruthless than we had ever had to be before. Anything that we really did not need, had to be discarded! My co-workers benefited from this take-no-prisoners approach, as I took several large boxes to work with me and sent out an email announcing that I had Free Stuff, and copious amounts of it. The vultures descended rapidly, and most of the trinkets were picked clean by mid-day.

I headed home at about 14:30 after finishing up everything at work. Lyani had re-enacted the Labours of Hercules, but the apartment still needed work. I prepared some furniture for a colleague who was picking it up at 15:00, then took down curtains, towel hooks, and everything else we had affixed to the walls in our two years in the apartment. After my colleague picked up the furniture, I ran to the bank to deposit all the spoils of our last minute furniture and CD fire sale, and then back to work to turn in my keys, ID badge, etc. Then it was back to the apartment for more work, mostly carrying bags and boxes to the dumpster for me. Lyani and I got everything out of the apartment by about 17:30, then turned in our keys to the rental office and left Fox and Hounds Apartments behind us for good (thank goodness!).

We drove to a friend of Lyani's house to drop off a few things that we had promised her, then headed to the airport to check-in to the hotel where we would stay the night. But if you thought that our long day was now at an end, you would be quite mistaken. You see, we still had to sell our car! So after unloading our luggage, it was off to Immke Honda on the other side of town, where the used car department took our Civic off our hands in record time. I was quite sad to part with the car, as it had treated me quite well for the two years I had owned it. Chris White (a co-worker of mine) and his wife Michelle picked us up from the dealer and gave us a ride back to the airport. After a bit of packing, we had a bite of supper and then went to sleep at around midnight.

But not for long, since we had to wake up at 04:20 in time to shower and get to the airport by 05:00, an hour and fifteen minutes before our flight. We took off from Port Columbus at 06:15 in a tiny little Air Canada Jazz turboprop, and touched down in Toronto about an hour and a half later. We had a five hour wait before our flight to Tokyo, so we grabbed some breakfast--a savory scrambled egg platter for me involving bacon, sausage, and toast in addition to the eponymous eggs (despite all the slander I have heaped on the Canucks over the years, let it never be said that they do not know what a good breakfast is!). After breakfast, I read the paper while Lyani napped for a few hours, then we headed over to the international departures terminal to board Air Canada flight number 1 to Tokyo.

Let me tell you, if you have ever complained that a trans-Atlantic flight to Europe is long, you flat-out did not know what a long flight is! Ours took 13 and a half grueling hours, and after about 10 of those, we were both considering jumping out and swimming the rest of the way--at least it would not be boring and uncomfortable. And there would always be a chance to get eaten by sharks, a huge bonus in my book! At least there was in-flight entertainment. They showed three movies, one of which we had already seen. The other two were "That Thing You Do", an entertaining movie about a one-hit wonder band from the Sixties, and "Ms. Congeniality 2", which you should never see. If I had a choice between drilling through my skull with a concrete bit and watching "Ms. Congeniality 2", I would take the drilling--it would be far less painful. Of course, given the choice between drooling into my lap midway through a thirteen hour flight and watching the movie, you all know what I chose. Hey, I am not proud of myself! Luckily, after "MC2", as I will call it from now on, they showed the Nova about the Mars rovers, and then an episode of Star Trek (the original series). It is the one where Team Flower Power takes over the Enterprise and flies it into Romulan space, looking for the mysterious planet, Eden.

After Star Trek ended, it was almost time to land. We touched down at Narita International Airport at 15:30, Japanese Standard Time, to clear, sunny weather. For any of you who have not flown to Tokyo via Narita (which I have to assume is most of you), Narita was built about 60 kilometres from Tokyo. So even though you have landed at the Tokyo airport, you still have an hour-long train ride before you are in Tokyo. Well, since we had two suitcases and two shoulder bags apiece, we decided to take the bus, instead of the train, because there was a bus that went directly to Yokohama (which is where our new apartment is) and would take our luggage under the bus so we would not have to worry about it. Lyani called the landlady to tell her that we were on our way, then we boarded the bus for the Yokohama City Air Terminal.

During the bus ride through the Japanese countryside, all these things that I loved about Japan during my last stay came flooding back. How clean the bus was, the fact that it arrived promptly one minute before the departure time and left just as promptly a minute later, the smoothly paved roads beneath us (something that we had completely forgotten about as Ohio residents, where the roads were apparently last paved when Nixon was still insisting that he was not, in fact, a crook). The Japanese architecture: thick, sturdy, functional, with beautifully clean lines. The lush, semi-tropical vegetation whizzing by on both sides of the road.

Of course, at some point during this appreciation of my surroundings, I fell fast asleep, and when I woke up, we were entering Yokohama, and I had more scenery to enjoy, albeit of a more man-made variety. If you have ever been to Los Angeles, you have seen the elevated highways coming together in huge, knotted interchanges. In Japan, this same phenomenon is a thing of beauty. The huge, white concrete bridges twist and turn, diving under each other like Oriental dragons in a New Years parade. It was getting onto 19:00 by this time, and starting to get dusky. This made the appearance of the Yokohama ferris wheel all the more impressive. You see, there is a giant, 10-storey ferris wheel on the southern shore of the Port of Yokohama, put there, no doubt, to warn sailors of impending landfall. And at night, the whole thing is lighted up in quite spectacular fashion.

So we drew closer and closer to the giant ferris wheel, until we finally arrived at the Yokohama City Air Terminal, which, contrary to its name, is not an airfield of any sort. It is just the bus station that offers service to the Narita International Airport. After getting off the bus and re-claiming our luggage, I stood guard over our things while Lyani went inside the bus station to find the luggage lockers. She emerged a few minutes later, victorious, so we locked two of our bags in lockers and went out to the taxi stand on the other side of the bus station. Lyani gave the taxi driver the address of our apartment (which he did not recognise completely--he knew how to get to the neighbourhood, just not the apartment itself), and we set off. Needless to say, it required a good 15 minutes of circling about in our immediate neighbourhood before locating the apartment.

Lyani met the landlady while I stood guard over our luggage (a common theme of this trip) and learned that our apartment was on the fifth floor. So I carted the luggage up five flights of stairs (what, you thought there would be an elevator?) while the landlady showed Lyani how to work all of the various appliances (more on this in a later entry). The landlady departed at about 20:00, and our trip was finally over! We collapsed into bed, too tired to even consider supper, and fell promptly asleep.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Big in Japan

Lyani and I arrived safely in Yokohama on Friday, after a long and tiring travel experience (which shall be documented in a subsequent blog entry--stay tuned). We ended up sleeping for most of the week-end, as 13-hour time differences can be quite hard on the body. Lyani had to start school on Monday, but luckily she had yesterday and today off, so we have been running about, dotting 'i's and crossing 't's, as it were.

I am writing this entry from an Internet cafe, so I will keep it short and succinct. Tragically for the reader, future entries will not be as pithy, since I have the luxury of composing them on my laptop in the comfort of my own home! I have actually already written two entries, and will post them one at a time when I can hook up my laptop to the Internet at Lyani's school. Which should be in the next couple of days, so stay tuned.