Saturday, October 15, 2005

Snap Crackle Pop

Go the leaves underfoot, for lo! autumn has finally come to Japan!

And it's about bloody time. The weather this past week or so has been perfect: after a rainy spell that lasted a few days, the sun returned, but the blazing temperatures of summer did not, making for perfect weather in which to walk about.

And that is a good thing, because I have done quite a bit of walking in the past few days! 21,000 steps on Wednesday and 24,500 on Thursday! And how do I know this, you may ask? The answer is simple: the step count data comes from Ota's digital step counter, purchased for 100 yen (Update 1: Ota has corrected this figure by pointing out that the step counter set him back a hefty ¥200--a little less than $2.00 US) at a Kansai (the region of Japan surrounding Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara) hyaku-en shop (hyaku-en, or 百円, being, of course, 100 yen, or roughly $1.00 US).

"Who or what is Ota?" you may now ask. "And how did his / its step counter find its way to Yokohama?"

All in good time, gentle reader, all in good time.

Fate, apparently, has a soft spot in Her heart for William and Mary alumni, based on the fact that roughly two days after I had accepted the job offer from Amazon, my college roommate, one Mr. Robert Ota Dieterich, Esquire--whom any of you familiar with my college career will know simply as Ota--was happy to accept a job offer from a Japanese video game developer named iNiS. The company's offices are in Naka-Meguro--which is the last stop before Shibuya on the Tokyu-Toyoku Line, for those of you at home keeping score--which means that Ota will need to relocate from his current residence in Kashiba City (a tiny place in Nara Prefecture, down Kansai way), as the six-hour round-trip commute each day from Kashiba City would be untenable to say the least.

So apartment hunting was the matter that caused Ota to make the pilgrimage north to the Tokyo Area (called Kanto in Japanese) to our humble apartment, which, at free, was much more economic than even a business hotel. He stayed for three nights, Tuesday through Thursday, and we had a blast! He got here Tuesday night, after a meeting with iNiS that ended at 18:00. I met him at Yokohama Station at the gates of the Tokyu-Toyoku Line, and from there we headed to meet Lyani at a little restaurant in Kannai for some katsudon (a delicious Japanese dish involving pork cutlets--deep-fried, of course--laid lovingly on a bed of rice and doused in an egg-onion-something-else-really-good sauce). After that, we went back to our apartment, where Ota and I watched an episode of "Rescue Me". Lyani, unfortunately, had to study; a situation that is not unusual for her, inasmuch as she has anywhere from three to five hours of homework every day!

On Wednesday, we met a colleague of Ota's from iNiS, one Matsumoto-san (who reminded me somehow of Parappa the Rapper), at a train station two stops from Shibuya on the Tokyo Den-en-toshi Line with the inexplicably bad-ass name of Sangen-jaya. Matsumoto-san, who lives in the area, took us to a gaijin-friendly realtor, where Ota looked through books of available apartments until he found a handful that matched his specifications. Matsumoto-san then took his leave, and the realtor (whose name was, believe it or not, Kanazawa-san--Kanazawa, being, for those of you who are not in the know, the place where I lived when I was previously in Japan, where I met my wife, etc.) drove us around to see each apartment. Ota selected two of the apartments as leading candidates and phoned Matsumoto-san at iNiS to tell him so. Matsumoto-san set up a meeting for the next day at the realtor's with Hamada-shacho (Update 2: Ota's boss is Harada; my hearing is just not what it used to be!), the CEO of iNiS, who was going to be Ota's guarantor.

A guarantor is a must for foreigners seeking apartments in Japan; he or she must be a native Japanese with a stable financial background who is willing to co-sign the rental contract to provide security for us untrustworthy gaijin. There are companies willing to guarantee foreigners for a fee--usually a month or two's rent--but even then, many landlords are reluctant to deal with gaijin. Japan, you see, has a culture so defined by formal, rigid social intercourse that Japanese people seem to be deathly afraid of gaijin, who (as the thinking goes) have no idea how to interact in Japanese society. In fact, this is a reason that has been put to me for why the yakuza (Japanese organised crime, remember?) leaves foreigners alone--they just have no idea how we will react if harassed, and that scares the living daylights out of them.

So anyway, Ota was very fortunate in that the CEO of his company was willing to act as his guarantor, and that his company was so accommodating in helping him find, er, accommodations. This made a potentially very painful process essentially pain-less.

After finishing up at the realtor's, Ota and I went next door to a lunch counter to eat something. It was an interesting place, and new to me: you ordered your food by putting money in a vending machine, punching the button corresponding to the dish you wanted, and then, after receiving the ticket that the machine printed out, presenting said ticket to the employee behind the counter. This employee would presently bring your meal out. According to Ota, this was a chain diner, and the ticket machine approach was not terribly unusual. Still, I found it novel, being a simple country bumpkin from Ishikawa Prefecture.

Our Tokyo apartment-hunting mission for the day completed, we caught a succession of trains back to Yokohama, where we attempted to find one Tokyo-Area Immigration Bureau, which was said to exist somewhere in Yamashita-cho (which is the area around Yamashita-koen and the Osanbashi Pier that I described in the first part of my blog entry on karaoke). We stopped in at the Yokohama City Hall, hoping that they could direct us to the Immigration Bureau, since all we had was an address, and I have told you before that addresses in Japan are notoriously unreliable ways to actually find a place. It turned out that not only could they direct us, they could do so in English, thanks to a Westerner that they had working in the City Hall. We were not sure of his origin, but I thought he was German or Northern European, so over the course of the next few days, he actually became The Terminator (Arnold, not that Agent Doggett wuss-ass "hey, I've got knives for hands" T-1000 wanker) in our mythology.

So The Terminator told us that the droids we were looking for were located right next to the Marine Tower and the Yokohama Doll Museum. I knew where these places were, so we set off for them on foot. Along the way, I showed Ota the glory of Yamashita-koen (he agreed with me that the "Lonely Planet" chaps were absolutely out of their minds in describing it as "dumpy"). We found the Immigration Bureau, but also found that it closed at 16:00 (I am convinced that Japanese government offices and businesses are engaged in unending competition to see who can have the most inconvenient hours for the working public).

Undaunted, we made our way back to Kannai for a little arcade action (namely "House of the Dead 3" and "Taiko no Tatsujin" (太鼓の達人): "Taiko Master" in English, a rhythm game where you actually have to play the taiko, the traditional Japanese drum pictured at left), then went to the grocery store to pick up the fixings for tonkatsu (pork cutlets, breaded and fried), which Ota had recently learned how to cook. We returned home and prepared quite the feast: in addition to Ota's skillfully done tonkatsu, I shredded some cabbage and cut up a few tomatoes as a garnish. We had a special sauce for the cabbage--soy sauce with a little lemon juice--which I think is called ponku (Update 3: Ota points out that this magical sauce is called ponzu), but I forgot what Ota said (care to help me out in the comments, Ota?). The meal was delicious, and there was even enough left over for Lyanka to make herself an obento, or boxed lunch, for school the next day.

Osu! Tatakae! Ooendan!After supper, the exhausted Ota collapsed on his futon whilst I tried my hand at "Osu! Tatakae! Ooendan!", a sweet rhythm game for the Nintendo DS, developed by Ota's new employer, iNiS. It is hard to explain the gameplay, so check out this Flash movie of one of the songs being played or this Windows Media (WMV) commercial for the game. If you like rhythm games and own a DS, you may want to import this game! Email me if you want me to pick it up in a used game store for you.

Thursday was more of the same. We met Hamada Harada-shacho at the realtor's office in Sangen-jaya at 10:30 and looked at five more apartments (actually, one was a replay from Wednesday). Ota selected one and filled out the application, then the two of us returned to Yokohama. We rode the Tokyuu-Toyoku Line all the way to its eastern terminus, the Yamashita-koen / Motomachi stop on the Minato Mirai Line. From there, it was a two minute walk to the immigration bureau, where Ota got some information on the visa application procedure. Then, with time to kill and no set plans, we walked up through Yamashita-koen, went out on the Osanbashi Pier, and walked from there past the Red Brick Warehouses to World Porters. We made a quick stop at the international grocery store, where I had to purchase some yellow mustard (tragically, they did not have French's, but maybe that was for the best, as 100 grams of French's costs 800 yen, and this bottle of no-name stuff was a mere 280). Next came a visit to the soft pretzel stand in the food court, where I purchased a soft pretzel, and with no sense of irony, asked for mustard (I had forgotten that I had my very own bottle in my backpack!). Ota made sure to point out what an idiot I was, for which I remain eternally grateful.

We walked over the old railroad bridges (built in 1907 by the American Bridge Company of Brooklyn--Ian, you should ask Doug if he is familiar with that company) back to Minato Mirai, the jewel in Yokohama's tourism crown. We walked first along the waterline in front of the Landmark Tower, Queen's Tower, and Pacifico Yokohama, to the seaside Rinko-koen, then back to Pacifico to see Lyani's school. We then took the walkway back to Sakuragi-cho Station, through Queen's Mall and Landmark Plaza (I mentioned all of this stuff in a much earlier blog entry, and plan to write a full entry on Minato Mirai at some point in the (hopefully) near future). We walked back to Kannai for another arcade session, the highlight of which was passing "Linda Linda" on "Taiko no Tatsujin". Afterwards, we met Lyanka at Mos Burger (a sort of Japanese version of McDonald's) for supper, then returned home for a "Rescue Me" marathon. We watched the last four episodes of the second season, which were pretty intense indeed. I will say no more, for all reader of this blog may not have seen them, and I do not want to spoil anyone's fun.

The next morning, Ota went into Naka-Meguro to meet with iNiS before heading back to Kansai to hoist a few with the Japanese schoolteachers that he met during his stint in the JET Programme, whereby native speakers of English get to go to Japan for one, two, or three years to become teaching assistants to elementary and middle-school English teachers.

Shinsengumi keitai strapI am happy to say that Ota did not fail to live up to his obligations as dictated by the Japanese custom of omiyage (お土産, traditional gift-giving). The way it works is when you visit someone, you are supposed to bring a little present to give to your host, usually something that is indigenous to your hometown. When you take a trip, you are supposed to get omiyage for your colleagues at work from the place where you went. Anyway, Ota was nice enough to bring me a Shinsengumi keitai strap (pictured at left; click on the picture for some full-size action) and a killer Shinsengumi keychain, though neither Ota nor I could imagine anyone actually using it as such. The keychain is a fully functional katana (刀, Japanese sword) and scabbard, a good 23 centimetres (nine inches) in length. The katana actually slides out of the scabbard! It is quite dull, of course, but will function quite nicely as a letter-opener. The scabbard is emblazoned with the characters: 誠 新選組 (makoto Shinsengumi); Shinsengumi being the name of the organisation, and makoto meaning "devotion", which was Shinsengumi's motto.

Shinsengumi keychainIn case you cannot remember exactly what the Shinsengumi is (and thus cannot really fathom why I would be so chuffed at this particular omiyage), here is a quick overview. The arrival of Commodore Perry to Japan in 1853 and subsequent opening of Japan's ports to the West brought existing tensions between the traditional, anti-Western Tokugawa Shogunate and some young, radical, pro-modernisation samurai, mostly from the large and powerful domains of Choushu (present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture) and Satsuma (present-day Kagoshima Prefecture), to a head. The period between the arrival of Perry's "Black Ships" in 1853 and the fall of the Tokogawa Shogunate in 1868 is known as the Bakumatsu (幕末), or end (baku) of the Tokogawa Shogunate (bakufu, in Japanese). In general, this was a conflict of young versus old, with the old defending the status quo and the young fighting to Westernise and modernise. The exception to the rule was the Shinsengumi, a group of fiery young ne'er-do-wells recruited by the Edo (modern-day Tokyo) police in 1862 to root out anti-Shogunate samurai. The Shinsengumi basically fulfilled the same role as Hitler's brown-shirts, terrorising innocent and guilty alike for "the greater good".

As a relentlessly anti-Shogunate fellow myself, you may wonder why I like the Shinsengumi, who fought on the wrong side of the conflict during the Bakumatsu. The answer is pretty simple: because they were cool. They were a colourful bunch of violent, unruly roughnecks, but they sure looked good doing it, in their white and blue tunics.


Ota said...

Hey, Josh, sorry for my commenting delay. I opted to spend much of my weekend recovering from the Total Ruling of my visit by staying away from the computer except to watch stuff.

By the way, the step counter is actually 200 yen. You know, 'cause it's like all deluxe and stuff. Because it's being sold at the 100-yen shop, it is clearly labled as being more expensive and the people at the counter will actually ask you to verify that you realize it's more than 100 yen. Also, I checked it out, my new boss's name is Harada and she's very cool. Well, I checked the name, I was pretty sure she was cool from before. Finally, the lemon and soy sauce stuff is called ponzu.

And, I have to say, when you tell me you posted on your blog, you seriously POST!

Josh Glover said...

Well, mustn't I post, in terms of ruling you?

Yeah, I love the routine at Daiso when something is not hyaku-en. I am surprised they do not ask you to hanko something so that they have it on the record that you are really aware that you are being charged more than ¥100!

I will make the requisite updates to the blentry.

Chris said...

Aw, I love Masako Harada!

It's not often that one's guarantor for an apartment wrote the lyrics to "Flyin' To Your Heart."


Kamilla said...

You guys live really really close to me. Me = Ota's friend also from William n' Mary, but a youngun at that studying abroad for a year at Keio. But yeah - I'm at the Hiyoshi stop on the Mirato Mirai Sen. And I have like, 3 friends. So it would be nice to hang out with you guys sometime.
keitai info might'n be good.