Lesser known expressions…

Temporal Provincials
People who are ignorant of the past, of history, and proud of it (though most likely won’t admit it). Doomed to repeat past mistakes and suffer lagging conversations for the rest of their natural lives.
Source: Michael Crichton, Timeline

Japan Probe really does its homework. Check out this latest post regarding some of the best Japanese commercials. I finally know the source of Tommy Lee Jones’ appearance in this world of ours.

Apparently if your account belongs to one of the major Japanese banks, you can withdraw cash from any convenience store ATM (even with an ATM card, not just a credit card). This will prove especially convenient to someone in Tokyo with a Hiroshima Bank account.

Here’s a decent luggage transport service between Japan and the rest of the world – Japan Luggage Express Ltd.

I’ll be leaving Japan this Saturday to return home for a week. Just enough time in Tokyo to view Tokyo station, the Ginza electronic district, and the Imperial Palace East Gardens. As a result, I won’t be updating the blog for two weeks. Be patient. Go running.

The Emperor’s Birthday is also this Saturday, December 23rd. I’ll be stopping by the Imperial Palace to join in the people’s viewing before I head to Narita Airport. Details here

My article regarding Christmas in Japan has been published on The Foreigner. Still working on getting something into CommonTies

I cannot see her tonight.
I have to give her up
So I will eat fugu.

Yosa Buson (1716–1783)

Just like Mt. Fuji, many westerners try fugu for the experience. The risk that you may be poisoned. In all honesty, I found it to be somewhat less thrilling than gambling (and this is coming from an adrenaline junkie), with the threat of death tossed in. Even with the knowledge that Shimonoseki chefs haven’t caused a fugu-related death in sixty years, I have to admit I felt a little nervous. Just a little. For those who aren’t aware, fugu (河豚), also known as takifugu, is the Japanese blowfish, a fish whose liver and internal organs contain deadly amounts of the poison tetrodotoxin. There is no known antidote. If the diner somehow injests poisoned fugu, he can only be supported as far as passive medical treatment – respiratory and circulatory assistance.

If you are traveling to the small coastal town of Shimonoseki (下関市) in Japan, it is definitely a worthwhile experience. The Shin-Shimonoseki station is connected to the local JR lines, so travel is convenient. The area surrounding the Shimonoseki station is colorful and rife with shopping. To top it off, Shimonoseki is home to a key international ferry between Japan and Pusan, Korea.

Despite Lonely Planet’s recommendations, I’d suggest staying somewhere close to the JR area. The Hinoyama Youth Hostel is cheap (about ¥3000), but you really should take a bus or taxi from Shimonoseki Station to get there. There are already plenty of moderately priced hotels in the station area, like the Via Inn (ホテルヴィアイン). Plus, all the attractions and shopping are close. True, if you want to climb Hinoyama to get a better view of the straight between Honshu and Kyushu (the two islands of Japan), or if you want to be a little closer to the Shimonoseki Kaikyohan (aquarium), by all means travel east.

The aquarium in Shimonoseki costs ¥1800, features a dolphin and otter show, viewings of all the different types of fugu, and some amazing trilobite-like creatures.

The Kaikyo Yume Tower offers a great view of Kyushu and the Shimonseki area, including the Kanmon Kaikyo Bridge between Honshu and Kyushu.

If you are only in Shimonseki for a few hours, there’s a good plan for you – the tower, the aquarium, and head back to the station for some fugu dinner and souvenirs. The station souvenir shop has everything from fugu-shaped chocolate to dried fugu, to fugu cookies.

If you are in the mood to “risk your life” (I really don’t believe you are doing so, but might as well scare you a little), there are two options for you:

1. If you have time, are with a large group, and not concerned about money, by all means ask the information officer at the station a recommendation for a good fugu restaurant. The experience at a good izakaya is always a plus, and if you throw fugu into the mix… excellent. However, fugu sashimi can be incredibly pricey, running up to ¥20,000/plate, so be careful with your money.

2. If you’re in town for a short time and just want to taste fugu for the experience, there’s also an excellent restaurant in Shimonoseki Station. I believe it’s the only one, but they should have the fugu dinner set on display outside for you to confirm. For less than ¥3000 you can sample all the different kinds of fugu.

– The fugu sashimi is quite exquisite – it is eaten with sauce and not wasabi, but rather some red paste similar to wasabi. Maybe the fugu equivalent.

– The fried fugu tastes exactly like fried chicken. If you’re in the mood for that, there’s a KFC next to the station.

– The miso is served with boiled fugu inside the soup.

– The hot pot contains a few pieces of boiled fugu, which is also very similar to chicken, both in taste and consistency.

– However, the real kicker is the sake. Japanese sake is of course very potent, but I found the one served with fugu to be very strong. Served hot. A fugu tail fin is dropped inside for extra flavor. Then, the sake is lit on fire and covered to hold in the taste. Very strong, very unique, quite delicious.

Five different types of fugu in one meal – savor it, and tell your friends you’re still alive. Also noteworthy – fugu is better known as fuku in Shimonoseki. The city itself hosted the Treaty of Shinomoseki, which effectively ended the first Sino-Japanese War.

With all the traveling I’ve been doing and my plans for Hokkaido in February, my eikaiwa budget is pretty much drained. It’s plenty of money to live on in luxury if you never leave your town – you can buy all the clothes, food, and hostess bar drinks you want. But, if you’re planning on doing any exploration of Japan, budget everything wisely. Sayonara.

Here’s a good story about teaching in Japan.

Will report with details on the fugu experience when I return. If I return. Otsu kare.

Lesser known vocabulary…

Any flight or journey to a more desirable or congenial place.
(e.g. my hejiras across Japan)

Recent news – I don’t really believe this to be true, but Japan Times published an article about a growing trend: Japanese people favoring studying languages besides English. Read it here. English will always be the language of international business, and Mandarin is on the rise.

For such a culture that prices itself on acceptance and humility, I found this to be a little disturbing. Maybe it’s racist, maybe not. In the work environment, I’m often told my style can be insensitive and harsh by Japanese standards. Apparently it’s not a huge cultural difference if Japanese TV considers this a hit.

I knew it

This weekend I will be exploring the small coastal town of Shimonoseki as my final trip in the 18th year of Heisei. Two reasons. One, just the experience. Two, to try the exquisite Fugu (河豚). Shimonoseki is renowned for its Fugu, the Japanese blowfish. If prepared incorrectly, you could be poisoned. Hence, all chefs have to have a special license to be allowed to prepare Fugu, which require them to eat the fugu they prepare. Only 30% of these cooks pass the necessary test. The rest are either poisoned, or make some small mistake in the preparation.

Technically, and I doubt most people know this, all fugu eaten contains trace amounts of poison. In fact, the poison is what gives it some of the flavor. You just have to be careful with which parts of the fish you’d like to consume. The fugu sashimi, raw fish, which is favored more by the natives, is very expensive. Cooked fugu is also common but considered less tasty.

I’ll have a full report on Shimonoseki and fugu… assuming I survive. Wish me well.

Information about fugu

Making one last trip to Miyajima to get a good picture of a deer, the sun, and the famous torii. Should be a good Christmas present. Also searching for a Fugu shaped Christmas ornament by request. This is me telling you… don’t hold grudges. My eidetic memory can be a terrible curse at times – I remember everything that’s happened to me: every wrong, every injustice, every harsh sentence. I never let things go. But… as corny as it might sound, I want to be a better person. Moving forward, using my humanity. Good night (おやすみなさい).

Invoking the Muse

Sing to me of a man, Muse, the man, who having wandered the lengths of the land, driven away by time and fate, saw and learned the minds of the people around him, and told his story for others to follow. Can there be such ability in gaijin minds?

…might not make sense if you haven’t read the Odyssey or the Aeneid. Just the first paragraphs will suffice. I did have somewhat of an adventure in my small little mountain town. As is the case with all of Japan, there are mountains ready, willing, and able to be climbed at any given moment. This was my opportunity. Whether you’re in Hiroshima, Aomori, or Matsue, everyone should climb at least one of the mountains surrounding the area; it gives you a good opportunity to meet local adventurers, take aerial photos, and get some exercise.

If you are in the Higashi-Hiroshima area, there’s a campground with trails to two decent peaks not far from the train station. Everyone at Hiroshima University (広島大学) knows one peak as the broadcast mountain, as all the TV broadcasting equipment is stuffed onto one mountaintop.


When I first arrived in the land of the rising sun, I was a little taken aback. Of course, I hadn’t bought into the Hollywood stereotype of Samurai and Karate on every corner, but I didn’t know exactly what to expect. This is long overdue – here were some of my first visual impressions of Japan:

1. The women here are inherently smaller. This makes it incredibly difficult to discern someone’s age, especially if you can’t see her face.

2. You really don’t notice a huge difference in height between foreigners and Japanese people. For the most part, the Japanese are shorter, but there are plenty towering over me (181 cm).

3. Groups of wandering school children are quite common, with or without a teacher. They move in herds, are known to shout and laugh, and will always reach out to your typical foreigner. Crickey, look at them move.

4. School uniforms are everywhere. On or off the clock, chances are anyone under 18 is supporting a uniform. They often commute by train, so you’ll see the same white shirt, blue jacket, and knee-high socks.

5. MacDonald’s is common, but 7-11 even more so. Seattle’s Best and Starbucks are around. So is Subway, in certain cities. Coca-Cola is in every vending machine, but I wouldn’t expect too many food brand names.

6. Train stations can be especially daunting your first time traveling. Determining the differences between the Shinkansen and local trains, local and limited express – each varies slightly with their timetables. What can I tell you? It takes time. If you happen to be living in a small town with nothing but a platform for a train station (e.g. Kinmeiji 欽明路), you’ll still have to deal with JR to get around.

7. Bowing. Two businessman meeting in front of a train station. JR staff traveling between cars (they bow before they leave the car). Even in Fuji Grand, a cashier bowing before she heads back to restock the shelves. I’m sure there are other common situations, but I’ve noticed – leaving an area with other people, and a professional meeting. Sometimes when you make a purchase at a store you can expect to receive a bow. I have had this happen maybe 40% of the time; perhaps they just don’t think foreigners will respond to it.

8. Everyday food. I love Japanese food of course, but I’m still a foreigner – rice and fish just aren’t in my blood… that would be rather disgusting. Sandwiches, at least the kind I’m used to, aren’t very common in Japan. Lawson, 7-11, and other convenience stores sell prepackaged ones, of course, but they’re usually made of cheap white bread, terrible meat, and covered in mayonnaise. I still can’t stomach them, so I make my own “American-style” sandwiches for lunch if I’m not settling on a bento

9. You’ll occasionally see the elderly hunchback. A woman who stands upright at about 5’1″, but is literally bent like an L-pipe to stand at about 4’0″. Don’t stare. I imagine they’d feel insulted if you offered to help them climb the stairs. They may be “disabled”, but they’re perfectly independent. What this is a result of, I’m not entirely sure.

Of course there are many more… for a later time. Wish me luck booking a flight for Sapporo. Otsu kare.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Know your Kanji sizes

大 Big, tai, dai
中 Middle, chuu
小 Small, sho

After planning the best possible route from Hiroshima to Sapporo, I came across some interesting facts. Apparently there is a ferry from a town on the northern coast of Honshu, Maizuru (舞鶴) to Otaru (小樽, 30 minutes to Sapporo by JR), and it is relatively inexpensive, but it takes twenty hours. The Shinkansen doesn’t even run to Hokkaido; evidently, once you get about three hours north of Tokyo, you’re stuck with local and limited express routes. The only train that can take you from Honshu to Hokkaido runs underground for more than 60 km on the Seikan Tunnel: the longest train tunnel in the world. They say everything is bigger in Texas… well, Japan isn’t a slouch, either.

The timing of the Sapporo Snow Festival (Feb 6-12) couldn’t be more perfect for those seeking omiyage or presents for Valentine’s Day. Granted, in Japan women traditionally give presents on Valentine’s Day, and have the favor returned the next month on White Day. Sapporo offers Shiroi Koibito (白い恋人), “a chocolate slice sandwiched in two wafers of sweet biscuit, individually wrapped and available boxed in a range of different quantities.” Japan wins out again in variety of desserts.

Gaikokujin columnists for the Japan Times:
Amy Chavez
Thomas Dillon

The Seishun Juhachi Kippu is now on sale at all JR ticket offices – be sure to take advantage of this, traveling everywhere on the local trains for ¥2300/day.

If you are booking one of the night trains with the Seishun Juhachi Kippu, I should mention I had a little trouble booking the Moonlight Nagara route from Tokyo to Ogaki. Apparently you need to be very, very specific when making this reservation; in other words, you need to know the stops. You have to book three different tickets for this route: Tokyo (東京) to Odawara (小田原), Odawara to Nagoya (名古屋), and Nagoya to Ogaki (大垣). It may vary from station to station, but the staff didn’t understand me when I said I wanted to go “Tokyo kara Ogaki made” (from Tokyo to Ogaki). Eventually it was sorted out. The fact that the day changes when you’re on board the train doesn’t help either; if you’re using the Seishun Juhachi Kippu, pay about ¥500 for the first leg (the last few minutes of the previous day), then use your Seishun Juhachi Kippu for the next day. This site has good information about the seating options.

Looking for winter travel plans? I’m checking into the Sapporo Snow Festival (Sapporo Yuki Matsuri さっぽろ雪まつり), running February 6th-12th. This is one of the largest festivals in Japan, the biggest in Sapporo, and besides… who doesn’t love snow? Come for the ice sculptures, stay for the 3 AM Ramen. It’s a good life. You might want to book quickly – air and hotel reservations start opening up two months prior.

You might find these links useful:

Official Website
Backpackers Hostel
Sapporo International Youth Hostel
Japan Guide Forum
Domestic Travel in Japan
Good pictures
Toyoko-Inn (The only place I found with any rooms available for Saturday night)

If you are making domestic travel plans, you might want to avoid using HIS Travel. Japan Probe had an interesting article about them regarding fare hikes for foreigners. Read it here

“sono koto wa arimasen”
The correct response for praise or when presenting a gift. Literally “not at all”.

This was my submission to the writing blog Common Ties

“What did you do this weekend?”
“Oh… eito… I go to my hometown to visit my family.”
“Ah, nice. What did you do there?”
“Oh, I see old friends, and my mother friend died… there was uh… uh… how do you say?”
“Funeral? The death ceremony? Do you know that word?”

I’m speaking to a scientist capable of teaching a university-level physics class. His IQ is higher than I can count in Japanese. He clearly has a sense of humor, and is well spoken. The problem? Right now, I am the senpai (mentor) and he the kohai (pupil). He may be a genius in his own country, but the language barrier between us has reduced him to the appearance of a stumbling simpleton.

There’s one quote from a popular cartoon that particularly sticks out in my mind; the main character and two deckhands are on a fishing boat, dumping the daily catch onto the wooden deck. Upon being “rewarded” with a fresh bag of Doritos in lieu of a bonus, he tells his friend in his native language: “In Portugal, I was a cardiologist.”

Who am I? I’m that cardiologist hauling smelly fish for my “superior”. Just one of the thousands of people who chose to live a portion of their lives abroad: teaching English, experiencing a different culture, seeing a new perspective. I have a degree in aerospace engineering. I can recite Shakespeare from memory. I have no problem singing Phantom of the Opera to make a lady friend swoon.

And yet… in this land, I am the simpleton, the outsider. I am the one pointing to pictures in restaurants to order to survive. I’m the one who needs assistance when dealing with any bureaucratic matters, or something unexpected that requires a native speaker. I may be a student of Japanese, but it takes time. I’m an illiterate, poorly spoken fool in the land of the rising sun.

It really makes one think about just how much we take for granted; in my hometown, I know every restaurant, every bank branch, every movie theatre. I can read the language. I can talk to random people if I so choose. In Japan, I am starting from scratch. My education? Gone; I can’t even tell others what I studied. My cultural references? Irrelevant; “24” may be big in Japan, but I prefer political satire. My sense of humor… it isn’t even understood, let alone appreciated; how can I use dry humor and sarcasm in an unknown language, assuming it even exists in the same form?

My transition into this cultural world was… rough, to say the least. Even considering that I was dealing with one of the safest and friendliest countries on the face of the Earth, I had certain expectations of myself. I didn’t want to be a gaijin (outsider), but rather my highest goal would have been to obtain the status of a henna gaijin (outsider who doesn’t behave like an outsider).

I can hardly blame the people I come into contact with to refer to me as “gaijin”. Even after living here for many months, I know what I sound like: “I’ll take this… this one, please… where is the toilet…. do you speak English… I speak a little Japanese.”

It just goes to show I’m in a very tolerant country, with very tolerant people. If I were a native French speaker in America and tried to survive in the same manner in which I’m living in Japan, I guarantee there would be yelling: “Learn the language! Go back home! What? What? Speak English!” But this country is very English-friendly, both a blessing and a curse; without the ridicule and uncomfortable silence associated with dealing with a true gaikokujin, there’s little motivation; I can point to my food, I can speak the names of the destinations on the train, and no one gives me a hard time for my poor pronunciation and grammar.

I’m finding myself feeling much more empathetic to the few Spanish speakers I had encountered during my time in Texas. As a people, as part of humanity, instead of being superficial, we might bother to consider the people behind the language travesty, this illusion we put up in our minds. Where do these travelers come from? They’re obviously here for a reason, and maybe they’re trying to learn the local language. They could be doctors, lawyers, teachers, and office workers, people perfectly capable of being eloquent. But what do we associate with them? Lack of intelligence. “You can’t speak properly, so I must be smarter than you”: an assumption so far from the truth it’s ridiculous.

This feeling can be stifling at times. Even when you’re not talking to random people in your own country, they leave a mark on you, consciously or not. You know you can talk to them for emergencies; even that small window gives you comfort amongst a sea of people. It’s something I don’t have here. I want to express myself. I want to be the one with Japanese friends seeing me for who I truly am, instead of merely a token foreigner who “speaks a little Japanese.” In the end, everything comes down to words: the feeling behind them, the power of others listening to or reading them, and the personality of the writer shining through them.

It is I. Can you see me…? Can you hear me? Do you know what kind of person I am? You’re one step ahead of the 125 million people around me. Let’s all keep trying.

This day in history – Pearl Harbor Day.

Let’s face it – travel is incredibly simple in Japan. The Shinkansen can take you across the country in a single day. Japanese airports are staging points for almost all traffic from the western world. It’s no surprise you see some wealthy Japanese businessmen finishing off their breakfasts of rice and Miso in Osaka, and enjoying lunch in Peking. One morning you’re surrounded by giggling Japanese schoolgirls yelling “bye bye”, in the comfort of the conformity of your world; when the afternoon rolls around you could be strolling the streets of Shanghai, walking along the reconstructed Great Wall, getting your organs transplanted…?

Kenichiro Hokamura made international news in March 2006 as one of many among the Japanese elite to receive a kidney transplant in Shanghai. Although a man on dialysis finally receiving a much-needed organ isn’t exactly headline news, Hokamura’s case brought two major issues into the spotlight.

One, Japan has a very poor organ donation program, at least compared to the US and Europe – less than fifty Japanese people nationwide have donated their organs since 1997. Fifty to distribute amongst thousands of those on dialysis, with failing livers, suffering from genetic heart conditions…

Children in the land of the rising sun are ineligible to donate any organs whatsoever. Even with parental consent (or, regrettably, in the event of death), life-saving vessels cannot be legally removed from a Japanese child under the age of 15.

So what are the options? Living donors, for one. Adults are perfectly entitled to donate their liver or kidneys freely to a family member or friend in need, even a child if size isn’t an issue.

But more than likely, you have Japanese citizens focusing their sights overseas, to treatment in the US, the European Union, or China. The United States’ system may have its flaws in terms of advantaged individuals (e.g. the “John Q” scenario), but clearly, more donors are available, including children.

This was the only option available to Hokamura other than continued dialysis and eventual failure of his kidneys. But where to go?

Choosing treatment in the United States would have required Hokamura to wait on the official organ donation list. A list, sadly, that may have a waiting time up to a year.

Buying a kidney? Donations in the United States are given freely and without monetary compensation, despite tremendous demand. Doctors cannot legally transport an organ that was knowingly purchased on the black market. This policy, and the supply coming up far short of the needed demand (approximately 100,000 people in the US alone) have produced drastic measures; there are a few good Samaritans (donors who volunteer to give to strangers without any expectation of compensation), but others decided to test the limits of the system. In 1999, a man tried to sell his kidney over eBay (source).

Clearly the United States was not the best option for Hokamura, in immediate need of a suitable transplant. He settled upon China, after consulting with a Japanese organ broker. The 62-year-old businessman was told his new kidney was coming from a “young executed prisoner.”

Second issue: the Chinese donation system. China is no stranger to executions, putting nearly ten thousand, perhaps more, people to death every year. Ten years ago, with the silence surrounding the exact number of executions, it wouldn’t have been surprising to have discovered a huge black market organ trade, “illegally” removing eyes, kidneys, hearts, tissue from prisoners.

In Kenichiro Hokamura’s case… voluntary or forcibly removed from the corpse of an executed felon, legal or not, his new kidney was successfully implanted without any complications within two months. The price? ¥6,800,000. Misappropriated or not, he considered the transaction “cheap” and wiped his hands clean.

Responding to international attention from situations like Hokamura’s, the Chinese government has made assurances of cleaning up its organ donation market, eliminating sales altogether. What this will do for the country, as nearly two million people need transplants, is uncertain.

The main problem with this issue? Just like any other, it’s all black and white, no room for grey. A system that rejects a kidney from an organ harvester who may have acquired it from someone he murdered is the same one that rejects a kidney from a sane, healthy individual in need of some extra money. You only need one to live, so why not profit a little? If China adopts a policy similar to the US, some lives might be saved, but others would be lost. There’s never an easy solution.

Adding to the trouble is the shared belief of both the Japanese and Chinese that removal and implantation somehow make the body impure, as if you’re no longer truly yourself. Reasonable or not, we shouldn’t expect to see any rise in the number of donors in Japan anytime soon. With the questionable Chinese market available to any Japanese person with some extra Yen, we may start to see Chinese prisoners being removed from their cages and taken piece-by-piece to the land of the rising sun to live once more. Ask yourself – what would you want inside you? Could you let the ends justify the means?


Here’s a nice travel itinerary for you: Shinkansen from Hiroshima to Hakata, party it up in Hakata Saturday night, enjoy some pre-dawn Ramen in the warmth and friendly conversation of the yatai, and catch the first limited express to Nagasaki.

Of course, if you happen to meet someone friendly in Fukuoka… well, Nagasaki might be put on hold. In any case, once you’re in Fukuoka, it’s a fairly good staging point to travel across the rest of Kyushu – limited express trains to Nagasaki run every half hour or so for about ¥5000. However, after visiting Nagasaki, I’d really recommend sticking around Fukuoka for the day instead; it’s a much better city in terms of attractions, atmosphere, people, and nightlife.

Not that Nagasaki doesn’t have its perks. Trains run in one direction as the city is located on a pennisula in Kyushu, but the trams do a good job taking you the many kilometers of the city. Of course you have the international attractions like the 2nd Peace Park to honor those fallen during the atomic bombing on August 9th, 1945 (11:02 AM); not quite as large as Hiroshima’s, but equipped with more art, creating a more introspective environment than you might see with the A-Bomb dome.

In addition, Mount Inasa offers an excellent view of the city at night, the skyline a mere twinkling of lights from the height of the observation tower. The ropeway runs until 9 PM, and a roundtrip ticket will cost you ¥1200. Of course, you can climb the mountain, but I wouldn’t recommend it for a vacation plan.

But perhaps the most impressive aspect of Nagasaki is its rich diverse history, practically unprecedented when you consider the rest of Japan. A few hundred years ago, when all of Japan’s harbors were closed to trading, Nagasaki’s was the only one that remained alive and well. As such, the city developed a large foreigner presence, particularly among Chinese and Dutch traders. To this day you can see the Dutch-style houses in an area of the city called Dejima and the Holland Slope. Nagasaki supports its own Chinatown district and supports two excellent Chinese shrines, Sofukuji and Kofukuji.

The best food? They have champon, a local noodle specialty, but I preferred the kasutera (カステラ) – a simple pound cake available in spades anywhere in the city. You can also pick them up in Hakata Station – look for a store with the Batman logo, I kid not. If you want some imported foods, there’s a shop in the station shopping area similar to Jupiter Imports.

Pictures of Nagasaki are up.

I’ve been in Nagasaki over the weekend, but I’ll have a new posting soon. Also, I’ve accepted a position as a writer with the Ground Report.