Thursday, August 31, 2006

Lost in Translation & Cultural Differences



"I just don't know what I'm supposed to be."
"You'll figure that out. The more you know who you are, and what you want, the less you let things upset you."



This is more of a serious matter, but one which warrants concern, both inside and outside of Japan. I admit, I do quite a bit of analysis on this blog, examining cultural differences between the Japanese and American worlds, patterns of behavior, and undermining certain misconceptions. However, I'm not advocating any type of racial hatred, stereotyping, or trying to attack anyone personally. I'm an eikaiwa teacher in Japan, and I'm not Japanese. There are certain situations that come up, that have come up before with other teachers, that I believe it's important for others to understand. That's why I created this blog - as an outlet, to be true, but also to inform others of the ways of the world.

Also worthy of note - my opinions are not set in stone, nor do I want you to take them at face value all the time; if you haven't noticed, I frequent programs like The Colbert Report to use as an example for satire. Sometimes I'm making a very satirical, very comedic statement. And it's not designed to make anyone feel bad, it's just poking fun at other cultures - it's funny, sometimes.

I'm 24. I just graduated from college last year. I worked independently before coming to Japan. This is my first experience in the corporate world, in the teaching world, and in the Japanese world. Be that as it may, these are my opinions about Japan, and that's all they are - opinions. You are free to disagree with them, be insulted by them, admire them, or write me and counter them. Nevertheless, I feel the need to tell people about certain situations that come up, to learn from my experiences, both good and bad to teach them about what life is like over here in general. It may be completely different in other parts of the country, in other schools, with other people, but the fact remains that some of these cultural differences are universal - there are always going to be differences between the Japanese and American mindset, and I want to tell you about some of them.

Regarding my Japanese readers (and I know there are a lot of you, either as eikaiwa teachers or natives) - there is an expression we use called "lost in translation". This is not insulting your knowledge of English - I personally believe that you could study English for years and still have something lost in translation. Nor is this confined to Japanese people - English speakers studying Latin, Greek, other languages all lose something in the translation. Why? Because regardless of how much studying we do, how many expressions we know, we're still not native speakers, and privy to the original intent of the message. You can study pronunciation, intonation, emotion, and still might be off by miles (or kilometers). Nor does "lost in translation" apply specifically to people speaking a different language - think of how you studied famous writings, books, poems in school; did you understood the full meaning of the author's words, even though they were written in your language? Maybe so, maybe not - but regardless of how skilled a writer he was, or how observant a person you are, some feelings, the mood of the piece, may never be truly understood.


Am I happy living in Japan? Yes.

Am I happy living in a mountain town? Yes, but sometimes there are disadvantages, which I talk about.

Do I enjoy teaching English? Yes, but I don't believe it's my destiny or "true calling" - it's a job, plain and simple.

Do I like my co-workers? Of course. Without them, I never could have learned Japanese, become familiar with this town, gotten into my apartment safely, set up a bank account, gotten my gaijin card, etc. My eikaiwa does a lot for you when moving to Japan.

Do I enjoy the office environment? No, not at all. But this is NOT implying I hate my co-workers or that they hate me. Sometimes I just get certain impressions that are lost in translation, ones that I comment about on this blog.


And I believe that has happened quite a few times with people reading my stories. I've even tried to be careful about stating my newness in Japan, that these are my observations, and mine alone, and I'm entitled to my opinion. You don't have to like it, but you do have to respect that I'm allowed to express it. Let me give you an example: I have mentioned a few times that I'm uncertain of just what my co-workers think of me... do they respect me, think I'm stupid, down the middle, or what? Well, guess what? That isn't exclusively Japanese, and I'm not saying they do think that, I'm just pointing out certain impressions I feel, certain cultural differences that make me feel this way. They may be true or not, but the fact that I'm feeling that way means nothing except to me, and me alone. Lost in translation.

And sometimes I feel like things are a little hypocritical on this end. What do many Japanese blue-collar workers do at the end of the day? Go home to their families, have dinner, go to izakayas, travel...? I've known many to go to izakayas, have a few drinks with some food, and just rant about the events of the day. What's the difference between that and what I'm doing? The fact that you heroes can see my words? It's a technological age - the subject of blogs in the workplace is still under speculation.

Issues with Blogging in the Workplace

French Blog
Blogger
Nova
EFF
CNN
SFGate
Business Week

In my humble opinion, I hope to promote discussion about these differences and issues, nothing more. But people who have such a one-dimensional mindset, see these things at face value, and aren't willing to accept this explanation, probably shouldn't be reading my blog. This is to analyze, not criticize. I don't want to scare away people by thinking I'm going to be apologizing every day (although, as a foreigner in Japan, I do that quite often in the real world); my opinions will continue, with the same attitude. Read the truthiness, and speak softly and clearly. Enjoy my world, and I will certainly appreciate the advice of you heroes.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Running like a Japanese Kenyan: Iwakuni Area



Slowly I turned... step by step... inch by inch...

Take note - the temperature has finally taken a turn in the Hiroshima area. Yesterday, August 30th, was the first blast of cold air I've experienced in Japan. And yet... the rain continues... ugh.

On to more pressing matters, which is exactly why you heroes read me. Iwakuni is not exactly the best locale to begin a long distance run. Nevertheless, it is a remarkable small town to visit, for both the Kintai-kyo bridge and the surrounding area. If you've arrived at Iwakuni Station, take the first bus to Kintai-kyo; it's much less urban in that area, more fresh air, more space.

This time, I can't take credit for the running trail - there was a detailed billboard at the foot of the mountain detailing the way to go, the calories burned, and the visual highlights; I've actually seen one of these signs before, in Hiroshima. Any other sightings? If these runner caricatures are scattered all across the country, I'd love to know.



Map of Kintai-kyo running path

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Kintai-kyo and Iwakuni



Learning From Your Fellow Gaikokujin

Pablum
Trite, naive, or simplistic ideas or writings. The opposite of this blog.


Iwakuni (岩国市) - not exactly one of the most frequented touristy cities in Japan, but it has a certain traditional appeal. I set out for this city as one of my regular weekend trips inside of Japan and found it to be quite remarkable. From Hiroshima, you can be there in less than an hour by local train heading west. Iwakuni station is nothing to brag about, but it is the focal point for all travel into the Yamaguchi area. From here you can take buses to Sanzoku (it's a lot cheaper to just take the train and walk), Kintai-kyo, and everywhere inbetween. If you're just passing through, I must say there is a plethora of shopping areas within walking distance including You Me Town, Fukuya, and Fuji Grand. And enjoy looking at the scale model of the Kintai-kyo bridge.

This bridge is the main attraction for tourists into Iwakuni for it's unique, ahead-of-its-time architecture, dating back to the 17th century. Although the original bridge was destroyed by the typhoon Kezia in 1950, it was remade in 1953 with the exact specifications of its predecessor- all wood, no nails, five arches.



If you do choose to travel to the bridge from Iwakuni Station do so by bus; the Gantoku line west will take you reasonably close for ¥180, leaving you to walk about one kilometer to the bridge, but it isn't a very busy line; trains leave about every 45-60 minutes. Whereas the bus will take you right to the entrance for ¥240. The bus stop is just to the left as you exit the station.



I can't tell you the best time to visit the bridge. During the summer, local merchants offer snowcones, ice cream, and yakitori right at the foot of the bridge. But during the spring, the bridge is definitely rife with photographers because of its proximity to some good cherry blossoms. In any case, look for a table set up to the left of the bridge if you arrive in the middle of the day - ordinarily, you have to pay a fixed price to cross the bridge, ride the tram to Iwakuni Castle, and enter the castle. At the foot of the Kintai-kyo, there should be a nice woman offering you a ticket to all three at a reduced price, ¥930.



Once you do take your time crossing over the bridge, you'll find yourself in a shopping area full with people, ice cream, and bridge-shaped cookies. Spend some time in this area - you can see a traditional Japanese garden, some nice statues, and the white snakes that are indigenous to the area.



In additional, the park just beyond the shopping district is an excellent place to cool down with a dip in one of several fountains:




Once you move north of these, there isn't much else to see except for the tram leading to Iwakuni Castle, straight up the mountain. You can walk there with relative ease (at least, from my perspective), but if you're in a hurry, or don't feel like a hike, the tram is probably a good idea. Remember - it closes at 5:00. The top of the mountain offers an excellent viewpoint of the Iwakuni area and if you travel a little to the south, you can see the Shinkansen coming in to the west. Travel a little further south and there should be an observation tower for better pictures.



If you head north after exiting the tram, it's a five minute walk to Iwakuni Castle. Like most castles in Japan, Iwakuni is merely a recreation, a shell of its former self, which was demonished in the 17th century by orders of the Shogun. However, the castle today is filled with many fine Japanese blades, which still maintain their luster and sharpness after hundreds of years. I can definitely understand the respect for Japanese steel, if it is capable of lasting so long. Black Mamba chose wisely.



Throughout this trip, and during my other adventures, I've been trying like mad to dispel the notion that all foreigners are only capable of speaking English. I've said it before - even though Japan is probably one of the most tolerant countries to foreigners incapable of speaking the native language, there's no reason we should further inconvenience the people when we are perfectly willing to learn. Fukuoka Now talks about this with some detail - foreigners who do nothing but speak English do nothing but diminish the respect of others who speak Japanese. It's perfectly understandable if you're new to Japan and are trying to become fluent, but we should all try harder. Think of how well this would go over in your native country. Fukuoka Now's opinion on this definitely earned my respect.

Studying Japanese, teaching English, running through the mountains, getting lost on the trains, eating yakitori, spending money, fighting around the world, and signing off with you tonight.... the foreigner bids you good day. I said good day!

Monday, August 28, 2006

How to get to Sanzoku if You're Incredibly Stupid



In the middle of the journey of my life, I found myself astray in a dark wood, where the straight road had been lost...

Dante was a man far ahead of his time. Who would have thought he had a machine that could look into the future and catch me walking down an obscure highway in Japan looking for a restaurant in the mountains? I mean, that's amazing. I wonder what he did with the machine? And can we sell tickets, or at least see who to make fun of in ten years?

I'll come back to my story about transportation options, but for the moment, let's look at the target of my adventure: Irori Sanzoku (いろり山賊). In addition to being a prominent feature on the internet when doing searches for Iwakuni, I have had this restaurant recommended to me by many Japanese people. What is Sanzoku? Far from a tourist trap, it is a restaurant set aside from Iwakuni in its own little village filled with shops, waterfalls, and dining in the mountains.



Technically, there are several restaurants, the most popular being Irori Sanzoku. Irori Sanzoku boasts indoor and outdoor seating, and is most famous for it's Sanzoku-yaki: chicken on a stick, grilled in fire pits.



Let me tell you something - this chicken is delicious. It's far better than any yakitori I've had from both touristy locations and decent restaurants. Something about the seasoning, coupled with the cooked-in flavor from the grill, makes this an essential food to consume slowly before you leave Sanzoku. Order two, not one (about ¥500 each), and help yourself to the Sanzoku-yaki necklaces at the tourist shop before you leave.

In addition to its chicken, Sanzoku is well-known for its unique omusubi (おむすび, also similar to onigiri お握り): rice balls stuffed with different flavors including salmon, seaweed, and plums. I devoured the whole thing in less than a minute, but I was starving from my previous excursion into the unknown. The seaweed skin to Sanzoku-omusubi is rather thick and leathery when compared to normal onigiri, but still perfectly edible. They are served hot, not cold.

But perhaps the other most noteworthy food at this fine establishment is its udon, Sanzoku-udon. Udon is noodles, Japanese style. Very thick, very slipperly, sometimes served in okonomiyaki (if you like that style). And the udon at Sanzoku is hand made with special ingredients, and served in miso with beef for flavor. Absolutely delicious.

Got that? Udon, Sanzoku-yaki, and omusubi. If nothing else, get those three dishes. Even if you're there by chance, there's still traditional rice, meats, pasta, soups, etc. But why order them? Also, if you've never been there before, it can be a little disorienting. Like I mentioned, the "village" is a group of several restaurants and shops, even if Irori Sanzoku does stand out the most.



When you first arrive, find the ordering window as seen in the picture above. Chances are no matter how few people are there, there should still be a small line, and a table set up with the menu. You order first (incidentally, the prices are very reasonable - I had a very full meal for about ¥2000), and are given a small tablet containing your order and instructions for the chefs. I have heard that Sanzoku offers an English menu, but didn't see any sign of it when I approached; if in doubt, just pick up one of the ordering papers and tell the cashier what you want in Japanese. Then, depending on what areas are available, you move to either indoor or outdoor seating, and hand that tablet to the nearest waitstaff or kitchen. The restaurant is so large and spread out, they need several fire pits. Once you have decided upon a table, you can pick up water, green tea, chopsticks, and a wet towel from the closest kitchen.

My only real complaint was the wait - it took nearly an hour from my ordering time to receive dinner, and it wasn't really packed that night. Still, if I had had someone with me to make conversation, the wait probably would have been more tolerable. If only I could write about how incredibly hungry I was (read below and you'll understand) - never in my whole life had my body, every cell, craved protein, carbs, and sugar. I wanted to absorb any food I could in an instant; that kind of pain reminded me of the Boston Marathon: not so much for the food craving, but rather the hour wait I had to endure to get to the bathroom before the race... ugh. Try telling that to a marathon runner who needs to hydrate. I take it back, Boston was worse.


THE CORRECT WAY TO GET TO SANZOKU

Train
From Iwakuni Station, take the Gantoku line west until you reach Kinmeiji. Walk north for a few minutes until you hit the highway, then take a left (west) to the first intersection. Sanzoku is up the hill on the right, past the hospital. You can't miss it (unless you're me).

From Kintai-kyo, go across the bridge and take the first street west/southwest until you hit the largest intersection. The train station should be on the right (west) just a few minutes by foot. I shouldn't say "train station" - trains along the Gantokusen line are loaded only from platforms as seen below. Take this station to Kinmeiji.

Map from Kinmeiji Station




Now... for the dramatic conclusion, which ironically is a longer story than the mention of the restaurant. I departed from Iwakuni and the Kintai-kyo area at about 4:00, leaving me plenty of time to run to Sanzoku, have a relaxed dinner, and catch an early train back to Saijo. Fate, it seems, has a cruel way of playing jokes on me. Fate, on the other hand, is smarter than I am. Of course I had researched the location and means to travel to Sanzoku, but the names in the local area were a little obscure to me this time. I talked to one of the tour guides at the Kintai-kyo bus stop to confirm the general location of Sanzoku. I knew, for example, that if you took the Gantokusen line from Iwakuni Station west you would end up there. But I couldn't find any information about traveling from the Kintai-kyo. I wasn't sure if I was close, or ten miles away. Thus idiocy is ensured.

Still, I probably would have played it a little safer if not for the tour guide. When I asked her to show me where Sanzoku was on the map (no language miscommunication, I assure you), she pointed to the mountains just west of Iwakuni, a mere walking distance from where I was. Oh you foul temptress, you screwed me over worse than I did myself. I set off across the bridge, aiming west for the restaurant. Now, I must admit, once I saw that I was walking away from the city and into the mountains, I was a little freaked out. I knew Sanzoku was in the mountains, however, and decided to push forward. I doubled back and asked for directions at a 7-11 once I saw I had to walk through tunnels.



I guess I'm not as stupid as the impression I'm giving off - I knew that I'd be walking an absurd distance, but I wanted to be sure I'd find Sanzoku, and I thought the station just west of Iwakuni was Kinmeiji, as it was along Kinmeiji-dori. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a few stations shy of my goal. At that point I just decided this would be another Japanese adventure and would continue no matter what - I understood enough Japanese from the 7-11 employee to know I had to walk through three tunnels, and then turn right at the hospital.

First tunnel - the sight of Iwakuni has left my eyes, and I am immersed in the Japanese countryside. No problems as of yet, because the first tunnel was barely one kilometer from Iwakuni, so I'm assuming at this point the third one can't be too far. I take it back again; I am stupid. Second tunnel - I passed through with no problems, and found a small store on the other side about a kilometer away. I stopped inside to enjoy the air conditioning and confirm my location. Using my Japanese, the store owner agreed with my 7-11 informant: travel through one more tunnel, up ahead on the right. I asked him how long it would take:

"Nijuppun?" (twenty minutes?)

"Nijuppun... ie... juppun." (twenty minutes... no... ten minutes)

I think he was assuming I had traveled there by car (though I don't see how, since I was carrying a backpack, looking sweaty, and was obviously a foreigner). Still, the directions corresponded to those I had received in Iwakuni, so onward and upward...

Ok, here's the point where I really, really regretted my "Japanese adventure" - the third tunnel. Once I entered, I saw the markers indicating that this last tunnel was over one kilometer long. Filled with cars screeching by, filthy air, and the occasional mud splatter, I was on my way to truly being a stupid foreigner.

So where's the upside, besides the delicious toy surprise at the bottom of the box? Well, I had worked up an appetite after walking for eleven kilometers. I had explored a side of Japan most foreigners rarely see - though, with good reason. I know where Sanzoku is now. And... I learned to appreciate the true kindness, the hospitality of the Japanese people. You see, after I emerged from the third tunnel, a car drove by and honked at me, going the opposite direction. It was the store owner at the small shop I had passed by. He had gotten his wife to get his car and had gone looking for me (probably after realizing I was walking all the way there). They drove me right up to the entrance, which was only about another kilometer away.

You can say what you want about the cultural differences - genkiness, honne, drunken behavior, or a certain distrust of gaikokujin. I don't know about every single person in this country. All I know is, I met a man in a shop, talked to him for two minutes without any casual conversation or connection. And he took time away from his business, his means of survival, to go looking for me in the dark, believing I might be in trouble. I'll leave you with that to ponder.


My adventure

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Go to an Izakaya if you Hate Hitler



The izakaya: a cornerstone of Japanese culture. The place where co-workers can relax after a hard day's work, slip off their shoes, and do nothing but eat, drink, and rant about their managers. Emphasis on drinking; drinking in Japanese is an integral part of the culture. I know I'm one of the minority in America, but I really don't drink too often. When someone accuses you of drinking the night before in America, it might imply that you're a drunk, a bad worker, socially lacking, or you have no respect for yourself. Yet if you are asked if you will go drinking one night in Japan, it's a very casual question. I don't know if there are alcoholics in Japan, but drinking to the point of drunkenness is very widespread. More than widespread: it's not looked down upon, but merely a part of the culture in which you are expected to participate. How often you go out drinking might even be revered to a point; it proves you have friends, are socially active, and not afraid to have fun. Whereas a flat refusal to go out for drinks after work would be considered anti-social and rude (of course there are reasonable excuses among friends).

Enter the izakaya (居酒屋). Imagine if you will: it's Saturday night. You've finished with work for the weekend. You're comfortably tired, hungry, and thirsty. A co-worker suggests going out to dinner to celebrate a new employee, an employee leaving, a friend visiting, etc. Accept the offer, no matter how much it costs - the full dining experience of a nice izakaya is something you should definitely experience at least once while in Japan.


Photo courtesy of wikipedia

So how do you find one, if you're new to town? Not all, but most izakaya have a latern hanging outside with the Kanji symbols for "izakaya" (good ones to memorize). Although the building itself is technically a bar, it is a special kind of bar, offering many dishes of food served in the traditional Japanese style - sitting on cushions or tatami mats over a low table. I suppose you could call that Roman style as well, if you choose to recline while you eat.

What to do, what to do...? Any izakaya that's worth it's weight will have you remove your shoes at the entrance. Then you and your friends (don't go to an izakaya alone) will be escorted to the low tables. If you have enough people, you might be given your own set of tables to dine upon. However, if you are a small group (two or three people), you could be seated with other patrons at the same table. This is very common, and you don't have to talk to them if you feel awkward. However, if you're a foreigner enjoying the pleasures of the izakaya with a friend, you probably should be prepared for some casual conversation.

First step - what do you want? Izakayas are famous for offering both nomihodai (all you can drink), tabehodai (all you can eat) and nomitabehodai (both); this gives you the option of eating and drinking as much as you want over a given period of time for a fixed price (very useful). Choose nomitabehodai, trust me. Then order drinks. This is common as many people come to izakayas for celebrations of every kind. Wait for all of them to arrive, and begin the kampai (cheers). Before any main dishes arrive, you usually receive some kind of appetizer like sugar peas or salad, both to be eaten with chopsticks.

Lightning crashes, and the main event begins. Prepare yourself, whet your appetite, and share with everyone. All food at izakayas are served family style - the waitstaff will give you a large plate with many servings; use your chopsticks to move those servings onto your personal plate. So what food can you expect first from an izakaya, the best place to dine in all of Japan? The epitome of the Japanese cultural experience? Ok, too much hype, here it is: sashimi.


Photo courtesy of http://www.tosa-te.ne.jp/

Sashimi (刺身) is fish. A variety of fish, be it salmon, bream (鯛), tuna, squid, anything. Although this is essentially the focal point of any Japanese meal, being the most desired and tasty food, it is served at the beginning so your palate will not be dilluted by the other less-flavorful dishes. Let me clarify: sashimi is raw fish, sliced into several small portions that you can pick up with your chopsticks and steadily devour. For extra flavor (if you like your raw fish taste with a little seasoning), sashimi usually comes with a dipping sauce and wasabi. Wasabi looks completely harmess - just a small green paste next to the fish. However, it is incredibly potent, and amazingly spicy. Japanese customers usually just add a few droplets to the fish for flavor, and even that small amount gets you to burn. After you eat it, there's a slight cooling affect on the back of your throat; wait one second, and then the spiciness comes forth and stings you. Still, I think it's delicious.

On to the main course. Honestly, this just depends on what you want in an izakaya. Although most are traditionally Japanese, I have heard that some foreigner-friendly izakayas offer hamburgers and other foreign food (although, as I mentioned in another blog entry, this seems beside the point). There are so many varieties of food to choose from - raw chicken (apparently, you can't get salmonella, or I'll know pretty soon if I don't wake up in the morning), cold tofu, salmon and cheese wrapped in a spring roll.



Another popular choice is chawanmushi, a Japanese dish that looks like pudding. Unfortunately it tastes nothing like pudding. The taste is remarkably bland, but slightly more bitter than sweet, from a food containing shrimp and eggs.

Typically these cold dishes are served first, to be followed by the hot, cooked entrees. Agedofu (揚豆腐), which actally tastes really nice in addition to being healthy, is fried tofu in a flavorful sauce: they look like little brown cubes. At this point any hot foods are ok: tonkatsu (breaded pork), fried or baked fish, seasoned pork, rice, cooked eggs, Japanese radishes...

However, more important than the food in the izakaya (unless you're really, really hungry), is the behavior. What you have to realize is that although the Japanese people might be considered "uptight" in the workplace and public, they really know how to abandon their tatamae when the time is right for relaxing. As such, the izakaya is a very relaxed, open-minded environment. Take off your shoes, drink 'til you pass out, yell "sumimasen" (attention for the waitstaff) at the top of your lungs. Laugh loudly at a joke, leave your seat so you can talk to your friends on the other end of the table, order more food and drinks even though you're finished.

Everyone has their own experience in izakayas - my first time there I was a little nervous (first day in Higashi-Hiroshima) and didn't really take the time to appreciate everything. I can only offer this "advice" (I say in quotation marks because who am I to tell you how to enjoy this great country?): go with friends, research what food you want, order nomitabehodai, and don't be concerned with price. Follow these simple rules, and you too will be on your way to being fully Japanized. I'm heading into Iwakuni tomorrow to see the Kintai-kyo bridge and Iwakuni Castle. I also got several recommendations to stop at a restaurant called Sanzoku for dinner - will let everyone know how that goes. Any comments, concerns, questions about Japan or the blog? Send them my way. Always have time for the heroes. Mata ne.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Reaching for the Heavens: Mt. Fuji



Get ready to make a difference. How, you ask? By spending your time reading my blog... And yet today I will not be talking about running, but climbing.

Mt. Fuji plans are in the works. Fuji is the largest mountain in Japan, and it's more often seen as a touristy mountain than a climber's challenge - clear cut path, and no real "climbing" per se. Fuji is more popular as "I'm in Japan, I should climb Mt. Fuji once just to say I did it." Ironically, this is the mindset of the typical Japanese citizen as well. That's not to say many people don't climb Fuji more than once - they do - but usually it's a once-in-a-lifetime event, for both Japanese and foreigner alike.

Map of Mt. Fuji

And more often than not, Fuji is an excellent hang-out. People come from all over the world to cllimb, and the trails are a source of international conversation the world has never seen before. Now, I know there are infinite sources of information online for climbing Fuji, but there isn't too much about climbing in the off-season.

The official climbing season for Fuji is from July to August, although many people climb in June and September as well. The problem with September and the winter months is two-fold: one, after August, you risk the peak being covered with ice or snow, as the temperature decreases rapidly; two, the "stations" along the trails are usually closed, and the buses leading from the major train stations are either shut down or on severely reduced service.

I'm planning to climb September 23rd-25th, a holiday weekend in Japan (and the only feasible option unless I want to do it on a two day weekend... less stressful this way). Eikaiwa teachers take note of that date - you should all have holidays. When is the best time to climb? Probably in July before the major crowds settle in. It is incredibly hot at the bottom, but you lose forty degrees when you reach the summit, so no worries about temperature. During Obon holiday in mid-August the trails are insanely crowded, with a non-stop line to the peak of Fuji. DO NOT TRAVEL TO FUJI DURING OBON UNLESS YOU WANT IT TO TAKE ALL DAY.

Off-season information

Plan your travel - maybe take the Shinkansen into Tokyo for the night (depending on how far you're traveling, it may be cheaper to take a roundtrip to Tokyo instead of directly to Fuji station - special prices for distances over 600 km). You need the Shinkansen to get into the general vicinity of Fuji. A bus to take to the 5th station area of Fuji - the stations are arranged from 5-10 on Mt. Fuji, the 5th being the base station and the 10th being the summit. A ryokan or some place to sleep once you're finished - you will be tired, I don't care how experienced a climber you are.

Well, I'm giving too much travel advice here. I was very interested to see that Hiroshima was offering screenings of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada in one of its theaters recently. This movie was a low-budget independent film that was in limited release in the United States. And yet somehow it made it's way to Hiroshima within a few months. Impressive. Maybe more indie films will crop up around here. Superman is also in theaters.

One useful theater to visit if you don't want to go all the way into Hiroshima is inside Diamond City, a shopping center just east of Hiroshima - take the Sanyo line, first stop after Hiroshima. Features a full movie theater and shopping.

One thing that has occurred to me about food in Japan is the lack of variety in smaller towns. I was used to a very broad palate, but now I'm limited to fish or meat with rice, and the occasional pizza. It just doesn't satisfy. I need Mexican, Italian, French, steak, complete sandwiches (although 7-11 is nicer, a 7-11 sandwich is still a 7-11 sandwich)... I'm sure people would not have a problem with this in larger cities like Hiroshima, Osaka, especially Tokyo, but there are so many small towns in Japan, and I don't think they offer much variety.

Over the course of the next several months I'll be looking at other job options for those foreigners who want to stay in Japan. First of all, I recommend you do sign up with one of the major eikaiwa (AEON, GEOS, ECC, NOVA) if you don't have any connections in Japan. They arrange everything for you, and it makes your transition time so much easier. But after a year if you've decided the eikaiwa route is not for you, I'll be telling you about other options:

- Voice acting
- Modeling
- TV or film extra work
- Translator
- Travel agent
- Ski instructor
- Sales (again, back to the business route)

How shall I end it tonight? In that book that is my memory, on the first page of the chapter that is the day when I first met you, appear the words: here begins a new life... Stand tall.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Hiroshima Prefecture

First of all I should point out that in addition to this blog, I am regularly posting photos of Japan on Flickr here.

Can every day in Japan be a holiday? All depends on how you look at it. Right now, in Hiroshima Prefecture, I have access to over a dozen small towns in Hiroshima and Yamaguchi prefecture for less than ¥2000 one-way, and about one hour traveling time. This is the more traditional side of Japan, and I plan on exploring it thoroughly. First stop this weekend will be Iwakuni - not exactly the focus point for any tourist, but it's still definitely worth seeing if you're living in Japan. Iwakuni contains the famous "Samurai Bridge", aptly named by gaijin tourists, and an impressive castle in the mountains. The "Samurai Bridge" is actually the Kintai Bridge, which is really only fifty years old, but a recreation of the original bridge from the 17th century. More often than not, this is the case for many famous Japanese landmarks - being reconstructions or complete recreations. Hiroshima Tower is one such example. Not many original castles exist in Japan anymore.

To be considered literate in Japan you should know Katakana, Hiragana, and the first two thousand Kanji characters. There's a certain amount of spectulation about just how well you need to write Kanji right now - computers and phones have made it easier to type Kanji than write, which has lead to a decrease in Kanji literacy across Japan. Hey, that's how I feel about my handwriting too. I learned to type in kindergarden, and since maybe... 1996, I believe typing overtook writing as the dominant form of written communication.

Speaking of language, I would really enjoy a chance to speak with an educated linguist. I've made a few observations about Japanese using my knowledge of Latin and English and found many patterns I hadn't expected to find - I assumed that all eastern languages were cut off from the western world, separate in meaning and syntax. And yet there are a few similarities here and there: "neko", which is the Japanese for cat, reminds me of necromancer (a conjurer of the dead, don't ask), coming from the prefix necro-. What's the connection? In Egyptian culture, cats were considered to be the guardians of the underworld, the gatekeepers to the souls of the dead. Coinicidence? Perhaps. And yet there is also "omiyage", meaning a traditional gift in Japanese. Doesn't that sound similar to "homage", respectful deference? Presenting someone with a gift is certainly respectful. Again, if I had but world enough, and time, my lady...


Here it is, your moment of V:
"People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people."


Sayonara.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Going Through the Motions, Walking Through the Part...


Hakozaki Shrine in Hakata

Your daily dose of truthiness
"I think we can all agree with Mr. Henninger's flawless logic: if a woman in India marries a snake, gay people in America should have to justify it."


Learning from your fellow foreigner
The symbol for the medical community is called a Caduceus.




Read once again with me, our strange duet - my power over you grows strong again... I hope. I'd like to think I'm offering quality information about the land of the rising sun, so this entry has been long in the thinking process. Take note, future eikaiwa teachers: it's been approximately two months since I arrived in this fair country, and I believe I've gotten somewhat comfortable with my surroundings. Here are some Japanese habits, customs, unusual behavior (from a foreign standpoint, of course), random facts, and the truth of all matters.

Never, never, walk outside a nightlife district in the early hours of the morning. I'm not just referring to seeing so many people do the "walk of shame" from love hotels. Rather, early Sunday morning is when all these businesses toss out the worst, foulest-smelling garbage on the streets. That's the case in Hiroshima, anyway. Avoid Nagarekawa at 7 AM on Sunday.

Public sleeping is very common. I've tried it myself and felt perfectly safe. Many people are caught outside from a lack of travel plans going through, and have to sleep at the train station or nearby areas. They simply just don't choose to pay for a hotel, believe it's not necessary. Just find a park bench, pull a few clothes out of a small bag to use for a pillow, and you're all set. I even see people sleeping in the park next to my apartment, and this is a small town park pretty far away from the train station. It's really Forrest Gump mentality: "When I got tired, I slept. When I got hungry, I ate. When I had to go, you know, I went." Another runner who understands.



Point cards, like rebate cards, are very common, no matter how small the store. It works the same way as in other countries, just more commonly. If you shop at major supermarkets regularly you can get one, and I believe you can get a ¥1000-2000 return for every ¥50,000 spent. At chain restaurants like Subway it's easier to get a faster return - buy eight sandwiches, get ¥200 off your next purchase.

Here's something I've been struggling with a while - exactly how do you feel talking to someone when you don't know the language? Now, if I'm out in public, or with a large group, it's a given: I am the outsider, there is something wrong with me. But when I'm talking to a Japanese person one-on-one, it's hard to know exactly who is experiencing the difficulty. This happened as I was riding to Fukuoka - I sat next to a beautiful girl and she engaged me in some conversation, probably under the assumption that I spoke Japanese. Once she realized I wasn't fluent, we both struggled a little to understand each other, but the key word is: one-on-one. Who is to say that I'm supposed to be speaking her language, or her mine? it's just a matter of perspective, and it will only feel as awkward as you let it.



Green tea is available from every liquid-dispensing vending machine you can see. A common snack is a rice ball, typically seen more often than chocolate or granola bars. Called Onigiri, these rice snacks are sold at almost every store for about one hundred Yen. As a snack, they consist of rice with an outer layer of seaweed, and can be filled with almost anything, from mayonaise, to fish, or something with flavor.

In Hakata Station, there are so many places to shop it is beyond belief - it's an excellent place to pick up gifts if you don't want to go to Tenjin. Underground there are many restaurants to choose from - I found an excellent one offering good eel (unagi and unaju), yakitori, and tonkatsu. It's called Sengoku. If you're looking to get away from the chain restaurants, McDonald's, and pizza places, their sign is written in both Romanji and Kanji. There should be a curtain in the threshold.



Unlike America, which prides itself on its small towns with character along the highways, Japan isn't designed that way. I just spent four hours traveling from Hiroshima to Fukuoka through the more traditional side of Japan, and there was hardly anything to be seen but nature on the side of the road (not to complain about the sights, which were excellent). Japan isn't built around the drivers, around the highways, it's built around the rails, the Shinkansen, the local trains. Usually if you want to get gas along a major highway, you have to go into the town proper instead of merely visiting an access road gas station. I don't think they exist. Whereas there is activity even around the smallest train stations - Saijo Station has many restaurants and its nightlife district is built not fifty meters away from the entrance.


Pictures of my adventures are now up at Flickr, if you want to see more than the blog has to offer:

Pictures

Friday, August 18, 2006

Chopsticks = Stupidity

There is one question every foreigner should dread upon coming to Japan. Not really because it's annoying, or a cultural difference. Rather it implies that you, as a human being, are stupid and incompetent. And many, many Japanese people, upon learning more about you, will ask this question. It is inevitable, and just as racially controversial as the use of "gaijin".

"Can you use chopsticks?"

Ummmm... yes, I can. Can you use a knife and fork? Foreigners everywhere have their intelligence challenged by this question. At first glance, this might merely be a language difficulty:

"Which do you prefer, chopsticks or silverware?"
"Do you like to use chopsticks?"

And while the intent behind it isn't usually racially charged or malevolent, it does produce such a response in some foreigners. My first night with my new co-workers I was escorted to a nice restaurant nearby and they ordered for me. After some casual questions about where I was from, what do I like, have I enjoyed Japan so far, they just blurted out:

"Tana sensei - can you use chopsticks?"

I must admit I was taken aback, and didn't really realize the full-scale implication of what they had just asked. Part of me just wanted to glare back and state - "If a child in Japan can use chopsticks, chances are I can too. Do you think I'm not as smart as an average child? Is there something wrong with my hands that would stop me from picking up two sticks???"

And yet this really is what most Japanese people think - foreigners cannot use chopsticks, are incapable of doing so. If you're around a Japanese person long enough and it's your first time eating with them, this question will arise eventually. Now, it's worth pointing out they don't realize what they are saying, they don't believe they are insulting your intelligence: that this is merely a cultural difference, one which you may not be able to understand. Still, I have to admit I find it a little demeaning.

This is hardly the first time I have had my intelligence called into question in Japan. I still consider myself a newcomer, and have yet to experience many things in Japan, both personally and professionally. I don't believe ignorance is the same as incompetence or idiocy.

Again, it goes back to what I was saying before I even arrived in Japan: the language barrier will strip you of your intelligence. It works on both fronts - a native English speaker conversing in Japanese and a Japanese person learning English. I have an engineering degree. I understand the arts, the great books, music, current affairs, humor.... so what??? I can never be eloquent in a foreign language without years of practice. I can only stumble through my day, using the Japanese I need to survive. Forget college, forget high school, forget your old life. You can't express it, you can't convey your true personality. What's left is a shell - a mumbling, poorly spoken, shell. I can understand how I must look like to other Japanese people. I can even appreciate their feelings, as I talk with native Japanese speakers in English every day. It's still frustrating.

One quick observation I have made - avoid saying "wakarimasen" or "nihongo ga hanasemasen" ("I don't understand" and "I don't speak Japanese"). Although tourists probably wouldn't have a problem with this, if you're a gaijin in Japan, it sounds like you're giving up on the conversation, that you are not even willing to try Japanese. I know, I know, it's tempting - this is one of the reasons it's very difficult to motivate yourself to learn Japanese while in Japan - there's really no reason. English is everywhere! Train stations, special English telephone lines, books, in restaurants, in gyms, native speakers... And if you truly do get in trouble, most Japanese people have at least a rudimentary knowledge of English. Why learn Japanese if it isn't crucial to survival? I still want to, to stave off this impression of a stupid foreigner I seem to emit. But I understand why some would not.

Useful Japanese

Kore wa do hatsuon shimas ka?
How do you pronounce this?

Motto yukkuri hanashite kuremasen ka?
Could you please speak more slowly?

Watashi wa Nihongo ga naraimas.
I am learning Japanese.

Watashi wa (Hiroshima) de sumimas.
I live in (Hiroshima).

Watashi wa gaikokujin(noyoni) hanasemas.
I speak (like) a foreigner.

Watashi wa nijuyonsai des. Hai, nijuyonsai dake.
I am 24 years old. Yes, only 24.


Note: Japanese people will always assume you're at least five years older than you actually are. Here's how this conversation goes every single time:

"So, how old are you?"

"How old do you think I am? Guess."

"Umm... 28?"

"No."

"26?"

"Lower."

"24."

"Yes."

"Eeeeeeeeeee. Honto? (really?)"

"Honto. (really)"


The remnants of a typhoon are passing through Hiroshima as we speak, so don't plan any visits. I still love it here, but I wish I had more time to practice conversational Japanese in Saijo - I had more practice in Hakata that I have had since I arrived. Still, part of that is me being lazy I'm sure (i.e. writing in my blog instead of going out). But my readers need information too. The new layout is still under construction, and I will have some t-shirts within the next month or so - trust me, if you're in Japan, or around people who can read Japanese, you will love these. Until then, explore. Dream. Discover. Thank you MT.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Japan: Shift From Pacifism to a Military Power?



Bringing you live, 24/7 coverage from the mind of a less-than-humble foreigner in Japan. Our top discussion this week: how best to respect the dead. As all Japanese citizens celebrated the holiday of Obon this week by spending time with family, honoring their ancestors with visits to their graves, and enjoying their lives together, so did Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi honor the fallen during World War II at the Yasukuni war shrine.

August 6th, 1945 - The first atomic bomb falls on Hiroshima
August 9th, 1945 - The second nuclear payload is released upon Nagasaki
August 15th, 1945 - Japan's official surrender to the Allied Powers, ending the war on the eastern front

Although Japan made a formal constitution and commitment to cease being a military power shortly after their surrender, there still remained the controversial issue of how to respect the fallen soldiers. Certainly when we honor those brave men and women who gave their lives for their country in the United States on Veterans' Day, we do not intend for it to be a slap in the face to a former enemy, to disrespect the loss of life that occurred across the entire world.

And yet that seems to be the case in Japan. PM Koizumi made national headlines this week for visiting the war memorial on the historic anniversary of the Japanese surrender. And while some might see this as a dutiful and necessary respect for the past, Korea, China, and many Japanese citizens have taken an issue with these visits. Koizumi is well-known for his frequent visits to Yasukuni over the years.

Many consider his visits as a sign that Japan has not fully atoned for the mistakes of its past, while others side with Koizumi, and believe honoring those who lost their lives, who gave up everything they had for their country, deserve some recognition on August 15th of all days. Although these actions, taken by themselves, might be harmless, Koizumi has been a very radical PM given Japan's history. His decision to send the self-defense force to Iraq sparked immediate controversy about whether Japan was slowly edging its feet towards the door of becoming a military power once more.

The Foreign Voice

Regardless of how much international attention Koizumi has brought upon Japan's military involvement in recent months, he will be leaving office next month. The entirety of the self-defense force is now safely back within Japanese territory, and Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni, whether appropriate or not for a man in his position, cannot change international policy within his last month of office.




And this has not been the best week for Japan to shy away from military action. Just this Wednesday a Japanese fisherman was shot and killed north of Hokkaido in disputed waters between Japan and Russia. After the Russian border patrol had made the shot, the boat was then seized and confisicated by the Russian government. Both countries have a claim to this territory. The Japanese refer to the islands north of Hokkaido as the Northern Territories, whereas Russia prefers the name Southern Kuriles. In any case, disputes over this island chain has been one of the longstanding reasons why there has been no peace treaty between Japan and Russia since WWII.


Send me your thoughts, your dreams, your wishes.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Miyajima

This time, I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.









Nightlife in Fukuoka - Second Club to the Right, Straight on Until Morning



Fukuoka is probably the most foreigner-friendly place in Japan next to Tokyo. I noticed a difference immediately after getting off the train; whereas I might receive a 4-5 second stare in Saijo or Hiroshima, there were only slight glances this time from Hakata citizens, as if announcing "oh, another foreigner... I've seen them before." Well, it may not sound impressive, but it was more relaxing. Also had my fair share of giggling schoolgirls in this city, even in the touristy sections. Once, after I was finishing my run from Ohori Park, I walked past about a dozen girls in blue uniforms. They couldn't have been older than sixteen, and it was obvious they'd had limited contact with outsiders. So the first thing I hear behind my back is "hello! hello!" I responded with a little Japanese - "Nihongo ga hanasemas" (I can speak Japanese) - and they just giggled and stared, completely amazed. After I veered off into a Lawson convenience store to ask for directions, I could see them through the glass, and they were considering waiting for me to come out again so they could practice more English. Japan is funny like that; at least those are the positive reactions. I know there are racists out there, I just haven't seen them.

If you're new to Fukuoka, there are three major nightlife spots. Nakasu, which is on the east side of the river, closer to Hakata Station, is not the best place for foreigners. There are a few spots I'm sure, but mostly it's filled with hostess clubs and Japanese businessmen. Speaking of which, foreigners generally aren't allowed inside hostess clubs, unless you can speak fluent Japanese or one of the girls can speak English. I've heard they are kind of like strip clubs, but mainly they exist for men to have a relaxing conversation with beautiful women; the women listen to their problems and console them; apparently, their wives won't do this.

The next areas are Nishi-Dori and Oyafuko-Dori. Technically they are the same area, the same street, separated by Meiji-Dori in the middle of Tenjin. Incidentially, there is a bus route running from Hakata Station to Tenjin for only ¥100 - easy to find (the buses have a picture of a 100 coin on the front), and only takes like 15 minutes. This nightlife area is filled with restaurants, yatai for ramen (ラ-メン) and yakitori, pachinko parlors, bars, clubs, internet cafes, etc. Since it's so close to Tenjin, there are a lot of high-quality shopping areas just to the east. Tenjin is nothing but stores, expensive stores, and more stores.


Map of Nishi-Dori and Oyafuko-Dori.


Once you are in the clubbing scene about 12-1 AM, there are a few good foreign-friendly clubs:

The Happy Cock
My highest recommendation. While other clubs might be dead or paralyzed from 10-1, this place is always alive with an equal mix of foreigners and Japanese. The bar staff include some very pretty girls, and some fun guys to talk to. Nomihodai (all you can drink) starts at ¥3000 for men, ¥2000 for women, unless it's a special event or Thursday, in which case ¥1000 for either. Or standard cover (entrance and two drinks) runs around ¥1500. When you think about it, that's a pretty good deal for nomihodai. During special events they also have an open buffet, tabehodai (all you can eat). Every time I went in here it was always packed - there's a special DJ night on Thursday. On Saturday there were too many people to be comfortable hanging around. Still, out of all the places in Hakata this is definitely the best in terms of deals, foreign presence, girls, music, dance area (they have a balcony view) and atmosphere. A+

Website


Incidentially, I don't know what it is about Fukuoka, but the women here are amazingly beautiful. I've never seen anything like it. I thought I just stumbled into a bunch of models walking around the Shinkansen station, but almost all the women here are like that. Come to Hakata in the summer, and enjoy the beaches, heh.


Sam & Dave
Another foreign-friendly bar in Hakata. I wouldn't say this place was as lively as the Happy Cock, but if you catch it on a good night, it can be just as beneficial. Not as cheap, though.


Fu Bar
This place was dead when I went there, so I can't really offer any constructive criticism. Not dead, dead-dead. No people. Not one.


Love Hotels
I only mention this because this hotel stood out to me above others I've walked by in Hiroshima. I can only imagine what the situation is like in Tokyo. If your night has gone particularly well with one particular girl, love hotels are places to get away for a few hours. Most of the time, I see these hotels in dark corners of dark streets, with unlit signs. However, the one below was right next to Canal City, in bright neon lights, and advertising its rates with a very luminescent sign.






Yatai
Yatai are street stalls scattered all over the city. Most of them are along Watanabe-Dori, Nishi-Dori, and the river. Stop at these places. They are open practically 24/7, and have delicious, fresh, cheap food. Ramen from Hakata yatai is what this city is most famous for; ramen is of course Chinese in origin, but the Japanese have taken it, adapted it, and I believe made it ten times more appetizing. After a hard night of clubbing and watching the sunrise, a light ramen meal will fill you up before you sleep. In fact, more people probably eat at yatai in the early morning hours than for lunch or dinner. So which one should you go to? Well, there are hundreds. I found an incredible one and conveniently marked it on the map for you. It's on the corner of one of the bridges leading to Tenjin, and is the first in one row of yatai. ¥700 ramen - check it out. Also, these yatai serve the Hakata style yakitori - grilled chicken on a stick, served with either seasoned salt or a kind of BBQ sauce. Incredible and delicious. You won't want to leave. In fact, many yatai merchants will try to guide you to a seat - it's good business to have a foreign presence at a restaurant: makes you look international. The people enjoying ramen with you are good company and in the same mood - hungry.

One of the best ramen yatai in Fukuoka

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Running from Authority and Through Japan: Ohori Park



Ohori Park is definitely easy to find if you're in Hakata for a weekend. Located just about one kilometer from Tenjin and a few kilometers west of Hakata Station - a station which is a focal point for all Shinkansen, local train, city bus, subway, and long distance buses - it stands out as an area with more space than seems possible in Japan. Hence, I like it a lot.



To get there - I wouldn't suggest running from any major train station. Just like in most other major cities, Japanese people frown upon running in major urban areas. In addition, it's really annoying to put up with all the stop lights and foot traffic between any train station and Ohori Park. My suggestion - take the subway Kuko Line to Ohori Park station and proceed south. You can't miss the park; just like that aerial photo above shows, it's the "central park" of Fukuoka. It's certainly the greenest place I've seen in an urban area since I've been here.





Local attractions include the US Consulate, which is located on the northwest corner of the park. The remains of Fukuoka Castle are also within its grounds, but they're hardly worth seeing - you can't even get a sense of scale or magnificence of its former glory days. As far as running goes, there are many smaller trails leading out of the park if you want to stick under the cover of trees or don't prefer the lake view. There is a even a track right next to the lake if you feel like a speed workout.



As for the lake itself, it's definitely worth it. The entire trail is precisely two kilometers long, marked every 100 meters. It's well maintained and features a restaurant, vending machines, and a chance to converse with fellow international runners on the two-way path. If you want to extend the loop slightly, you can choose to veer off into the path that separates the lake - it's just as easy, but not as well paved.



As always, here's a map of Ohori Park and the surrounding area. Don't do what I did, which was get lost on the way back to my hotel and end up near the zoo. Trust me, I didn't even know that was possible. Take the subway there and back. The buses run there as well, but if you're only in the area for a short while, it's probably not worth the trouble to figure out the schedule.

I've just finished a 10K run down a path which will be covered in cherry blossoms in March, and for the first time since I arrived, I feel comfortable in Japan. Granted, I've been traveling around so much these past few days I've felt like Phineas Fogg, but coming back to my apartment to relax after a vacation gives you some perspective, makes it feel like home. Many more blog entries are in the works - be on the lookout, heroes.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Capsule Hotels (カプセルホテル)- Uniquely Japan, Truly Worthwhile



Ahhh... yes... the capsule hotel. You thought you could just go through japan, spending time in your ryokan or five star hotel and not succumb to the cheapness of the capsule? Well, if you have money, I wouldn't worry about it. After spending time in one of these, you might be tempted to shout out "Do it to Julia! Not me, Julia!" But let me lay out the virtues of this unique Japanese lodging.

I stayed at the Greenland Espa in Hakata. Greenland is a chain of capsules all around Fukuoka. No matter which one you might choose to stay in, it's worth doing some research beforehand. For example, if you book a capsule over the internet, it's ¥3150/night; over the phone, ¥3450/night, or ¥3990/night if you show up in person. Depending on the demand and quality, some cities might not have those special rates. Luckily for me, the Espa was located right next to Hakata Station.

First observations - TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES. At some hotels it should be very obvious, but at others, do it anyway just to be safe. It's also considered rude if you spend five minutes unlashing shoelaces or struggling. Bring something easy to slip off, and store them in the provided lockers. Take the key from that locker to the counter and you are ready.

Internet no yoyaku ga arimas
"I have an internet reservation."

sanpaku
"For three days."

If you're a foreigner, they will ask you for a copy of your passport or gaikokujin registration card and proceed to explain the features of the hotel floor-by-floor. Most capsule hotels have places to relax - lounge area with TV's, a restaurant, massage area. This particular one had a sauna - excellent. You are usually given a choice if you're staying more than one night - either pay everything up front or pay day-by-day. Once you have paid for at least one night and the capsules are available, you can hand over your passport and valuables to the attendant to put in your own security box.

If you do go for a massage as soon as you check in, it's an interesting experience. The price is about the same as you'd expect anywhere else, but you get a little more attention, as you always do in Japan. I didn't really feel like a foreigner in there. First of all, change into the robe and shorts provided by the hotel - all capsule hotels should do this; you are rarely expected to wear street clothes while inside the hotel.

The massage is truly pampering. First lie face up, and you are asked if you want an ear scrub and scented eye drops (they sting a bit). Naturally, if your Japanese is a little weak it would be hard to explain exactly what kind of treatment you want. When in doubt, just reply "omakase shimas" (please decide for me). On the other hand, it might benefit you to know the words for neck, back, legs, pain, harder, softer, etc. Regardless, once she is finished, you are escorted to a lounge area and given a free drink, included with the massage.

Your key in a capsule opens your "room" if it has a lock, and your locker - there is no space to store anything next to your bed. Keep in mind that the lockers are designed for businessmen who might be staying on a spur of the moment decision and are only carrying one change of clothes. It's tight, but manageable. In addition, laundry services should be offered.

And what about the sauna and baths? Ahh, that takes me back. 2000 years to be precise. The layout and procedure of these baths remind me a lot of what I read about the Roman baths being a center for relaxation, but also conversation.


Dum loquimur invida aetas fugerit
While we talk, hostile time flies away

- Horace


Remove all your clothes before you enter, and rinse yourself off in a shower provided, either sitting or standing. Then proceed to the larger baths - these are not for washing; you should not have any soap. Rather, just for soaking and relaxing. I know there's an order to be followed - hot, warm, cold or cold, warm, hot - but I'm not sure which way you're supposed to go. Also, I saw many Japanese people only go in the hot bath and neither of the others. Regardless, when it's crowded or even sparse late at night, this is a time for men to relax and talk; after a long day of walking around and muttering "tsukareta" (tired) to myself, they engaged me in a little conversation.





As for the capsule itself, no big surprises. You may be given the choice between top or bottom; both have the same privacy screen. All the "rooms" should have a television, alarm, radio, light, and mirror. Sleep well, and don't be claustrophobic.

If you need to check out one day, just hand over your key and say:

ima shuppatsu shimas
"I'm leaving now."

taihen kutsurogemashta
"I had a great stay."

They will give you your shoe key and your valuables, and you are off. I should point out most of these hotels are for men. There are many that provide for women, but I don't believe any are co-ed. As you can see I'm working to improve the visual aspects of this site as best I can. I am so tsukareta right now. All the desserts I brought back as gifts will be eaten soon.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Humbleness... in Hiroshima



The Hiroshima lantern ceremony was held yesterday at 8:00 PM in Hiroshima city near the A-Bomb Dome. Imagine if you will...

A quiet summer evening in Japan. The sun has retired for the day, and the moon lies alone in a sea of clouds, waiting for the hour when it too will be enveloped. One foreigner makes his way from Hiroshima Station: a lonely, lost soul, uncertain of the what lies in wait for him at the Peace Park. He lets his feet carry him most of the way, receiving the occasional glances from Japanese passersby; but on this day, he believes those glances imply guilt, not curiosity. It has been sixty one years to the day since the Enola Gay dropped Little Boy, the first weapon of mass destruction, on top of this thriving metropolis.

How can he unburden himself from the mistakes of his ancestors? It's impossible to not feel a little reluctance heading into the heart of a city to honor individuals his grandfather helped kill. But guilty or not, he continues onward towards ground zero.

The underground passages are deserted. The stairways empty. But topside, the crowds become denser. The dome is inundated with foreigners, with Japanese, with eikaiwa teachers, with businessmen, with children... so many children. The ones who live in a world so completely different from the one we created in 1945. If they can learn from the mistakes of our past, if they never forget the souls and memories of those lost, then we will all strive towards a future without these weapons, without needless deaths, without so-called "necessary evils".



A child of seven, maybe eight years, watches as the flickers of light, representing the flames of so many lost souls, are carried away into the darkness, down where the river carries them. There they are extinguished, put at peace once again. But we do not recall them on this day to disturb them, but to never forget, never forget...



Never forget the child who believed that by folding paper cranes, she would escape the pain and death of the disease that struck her as a result of this tragedy. The Japanese pray to her, and indeed to all children lost on that day, at their memorial.

I will write peace on your wings and you will fly all over the world
- Sadako Sasaki



Let all souls here rest in peace,
for we shall not repeat the evil

- Peace Park Cenotaph

To remember the past is to commit oneself to the future
- Pope John Paul II