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Josiah's Japan Travelogue
Part 3: October 2007
Part 2: September 2007
Wednesday (3rd): At the Bank

This Wednesday was kinda interesting. For one, I was sent to one of my preschools early to play with the kids. The kids had a sorta game/song/exercise time for a while and then some free time after that, most of which they seemed to spend jumping all over me. It was kind of fun, although I find it rather annoying that, despite how much the various teachers I know say my Japanese has improved, I didn't know half the words being used by a bunch of three year olds.
Later in the day, I went with someone from Joytalk (the company that hired me as an English teacher) to get a bank account set up. Would have been easier if they'd just use my US bank account since it has a a handful of Japanese branches. Heck, I wouldn't mind if they paid me in cash considering that (with how little I'm being paid) I'm probably going to have to spend pretty much my entire salary (if not a little more) each month. Anyone, for some reason Joytalk likes all their employees to have an account with a local bank. And I mean local, not just Japanese. I was talking with one of the other ALTs and she had an account with one of the major Japanese banks but Joytalk still made her open one with a local bank. Anyway, since I finally had my residence card and my hanko (more on that later) it was time to get my bank account. Fortunately, the previously mentioned Joytalk employee was there to handle the Japanese (I may have improved a bit since I got here but opening an account in a small local bank with no English would probably be way beyond me). Weirdly enough, after entering we had to go to a machine and take a number even though there was no one else there and the woman behind the counter was just sitting there watching us. Waste of paper really... Anyway, the Joytalk guy did the talking, I showed the lady my residence card and filled out a form. Not too hard, right? Not exactly. See, I wrote my name on the form as Josiah Lebowitz but the residence card has my full name, Josiah Trever Lebowitz. Now in the US that's normal since lots of people hardly ever use their middle name. But the woman insisted I redo the entire form and add it. Plus, while I was at it, I needed to change the order I wrote my name in since on the card is said Lebowitz Josiah Trever and she insisted that I had to write my name exactly the same way it was on the card. So I did that and gave the lady the form...and was promptly asked to fill out the exact same form again since they wanted me to write my name in "bigger letters". I thought I had written plenty big already but I went ahead and wrote my name nice and big (keep in mind it wasn't just my name that I had to do, I had to refill the entire form each time). And then I was told to fill out the same form again! See, turns out when they asked for bigger letters they didn't want me to write larger, they wanted me to write all in capitals. But only for my name. They had no problem we me writing my address in lower case English letters. Why? I have no idea. So I filled out the entire form for a fourth time and they finally accepted it. I got the account but it was a real pain. Had it been up to me (instead of Joytalk) I think I would have walked out halfway through and found a bank that was a bit less asinine.

Random Japan Comment: Hanko
Hanko are cylindrical objects a little thicker than a normal pen and about half as long. On one end is a little rubber stamp. If you're Japanese, the stamp will have your last name in kanji. If you're not Japanese it might have your name in katakana (if you've got a really short name) or just your initials in English (like mine does). In Japan, hanko are frequently used in place of signatures, even on important documents like bank forms. You just carry around a little ink pad, press the hanko into it, and stamp it onto whatever. Now, in my opinion, this seems like a really stupid way to do things. I mean, think about it this way. A person's signature is very difficult to forge and even really good forgeries can usually be detected by experts. Seems like a fairly secure way of doing things. here, on the other hand, you could walk into any store that sells hanko (even the nearby 100 yen store) and buy ones for all the common Japanese names which would be identical to the hanko owned by most of the people with those names. Talk about easy to forge...

Friday (5th): Time, Dates, and Royalty

Random Japan Comment: Time and Dates
In Japan you can tell time using 12 hours along with AM (gozen) and PM (gogo) just like in the US. However, time in Japan is frequently measured using the 24 hour system (1 PM is 13, 2 PM is 14, etc). There's no real consistency here so one shop might have its hours listed in 12 hour format while the one next door will be 24 hour format. They're both pretty common but over all I 'd have to say that the 24 hour format seems to be slightly more popular. Not that this is a big deal, just something to keep in mind if you're ever in Japan.
Although Japan originally had its own calender, it switched to the Gregorian calender a long time ago so dates are just the same as they are in most of the world (although the names for months are different than in the US, with the Japanese names translating to 1st Month, 2nd Month, etc). However, Japan has another way of measuring years. They still use the standard system (it's 2007 here just like everywhere else) but they also measure years in relation to the Emperor's reign. It may be 2007 but it's also Heisei 19. Basically, every new Emperor chooses some nice sounding name that he wants to represent his rule (Heisei means peace everywhere) and that name is used for all years starting then until the end of year he dies (which is also year 1 of the new Emperor's reign). So it's currently the 19th year of the Heisei era which is the rule of Emperor Akihito. While normal Gregorian dates are used most of the time, if you plan on doing business in Japan you should probably do a little research online and figure out what your birth year is in the Japanese Emperor system since some official forms (like that bank account form I had to keep filling out) require you to write your birth year that way instead of normally (why, I don't know since it seems like it'd be easier if everything was consistent but that's how its done).

Random Japan Comment: The Emperor:
Japan is the only country in the world that still has an Emperor on a throne. The current Emperor is Akihito although Japanese typically call the Emperor by generic titles that translate to things like 'His Majesty the Emperor' or 'His Current Majesty'. According to the current law, when they die, Emperors are succeeded by their oldest son. There were some female Emperors in the past but current laws prohibit a daughter from taking the throne (although there was some debate about that when it was feared that a male heir would not be born). The Imperial Palace is currently located in the center of Tokyo although for most of Japan's history the Emperor resided in Kyoto (which was also the capital of Japan back then).
Throughout history the role and power of the Emperor has varied considerably (ranging from pretty much total control of the government and army to virtually no control at all). Currently the Emperor, much like England's royal family, has little to no real political power and basically serves as a figurehead for the government and the people.

Sunday (8th): Lake Chuzenji
I got a three day weekend this week thanks to Health and Sports day, another Japanese holiday. Actually though, it's on Wednesday. I guess my school just figured that people would rather have a three day weekend. But, as it turns out, the Board of Education and the preschools I teach at on Wednesday decided to just take Wednesday off so I don't have to work than either. So I'm getting two days off for the price of one. Might as well enjoy them while I can. Doesn't look like I'll be getting many holidays in the coming months (not counting winter break anyway). Monday I just hung out and relaxed. Partly because it was supposed to rain most of the day, partly because a lot of museums and stuff are closed on Mondays, and partly because I was kinda sore from the previous day. Which brings us to Sunday...

On my last trip to the Nikko area I saw all the famous shrines and temples. But I wanted to go back and do some hiking a bit further up in the mountains. So I returned to Nikko and took a bus up the mountain, heading for nearby Lake Chuzenji. Since it was a weekend, there were a decent amount of people there and it quickly became clear that in Japan there's no rule about everyone in busses needing to have a seat belt (or even a seat for that matter) so I got to stand in the aisle on the ride up. Anyway, instead of riding all the way up I got off at Akechidaira and took the ropeway (the pic is looking down from the top after the ride). The ropeway itself wasn't anything special (short and not a whole lot of a view) but there was a nice view from the top. Anyway, instead of taking the ropeway back down and continuing my bus ride, I decided to hike from the top of the ropeway to Chuzenji. Looks like I was just about the only one (only saw three other people over the course of the 2 hour 40 minute hike). The hike itself was through forested and very mountainous terrain so I spent quite a lot of time walking up and down steep paths. Wasn't a bad hike. Wasn't amazing either but the plants and terrain were certainly different than the hikes I usually go on back home. Made me wish I'd taken the time to eat a proper breakfast though (I was in a rush that morning to get an early train and then catch the bus in Nikko so I didn't have time to eat much).
The town itself was a small place with a long touristy street full of souvenir shops and restaurants running along the side of the lake. I looked around for a bit then decided to grab lunch. One interesting thing I noticed is that a lot of the souvenir shops doubled as cafes or restaurants. First time I'd seen that... Also of note was the fact that, like in Nikko, there were a lot of shops specializing in hand carved wood and lacquer stuff. Really nice, although very expensive at times. The fish, presumably from the lake, was supposed to be good up there so I got a fairly traditional Japanese lunch set which had rice, trout, some various vegetable dishes, and yuba (a type of tofu skin that Chuzenji is famous for). After lunch I went to see Chuzenji's most famous attraction (aside from the lake itself), Kegon Falls. It's the best waterfall I've seen in a long time and, if I remember right, is around 90 meters tall. You can get a good look at it from the top for free or, for a few hundred yen, you can take an elevator to the bottom and get an even better view from down there.
Moving on, I walked around the town and lake a bit more and eventually came to Futarasan Shrine. The shrine itself wasn't very impressive (at least not after the ones I've seen in Nikko and Kamakura) but it had a treasure museum with some cool stuff like this gigantic sacred sword (just the blade, not counting the tang (the thinner part on the end that fits into the hilt) must have been at least 6 feet long). The shrine also marked the start of the hike up Mt Nantai. Which, since you're hiking pretty much straight up a mountain, is very steep and all up hill. It seemed to be a pretty popular hike and I met a lot of people coming down. The summit turned out to be a ways further than I originally thought and since it was starting to get late (and I had a long trip back to Koga) I stopped at what was probably somewhere between a third and half of the way up. Still got a good view.
The bus ride down was pretty slow (combination of traffic and all the switchbacks on the road) and once again the bus was packed. And, like before, you had people in the isles. This time though, they (myself included) didn't have to stand, there were actually little chairs that folded out of the isle side seats for the people in the isles to sit in. Great for cramming extra people into a bus, not so great if people in the back want to get out since that involves everyone in the isle getting up, folding back their seats, and trying to flatten themselves to one side while the people from the back try to slip past them to the door. Anyway, back in Nikko I got some good yakitori (grilled chicken on a skewer) at a small restaurant then headed back home.

Wednesday (10th): Browsing Lots of Shops

I thought about doing a big trip today but figured that since I had already done one big trip this week I'd wait till the weekend for my next big one. So instead I decided to do an relaxed day trip into Tokyo. I'd been wanting to go back Nakano and spend more time looking at all the cool stores and take another stroll through the shopping arcade in Asakusa so that's what I did. I've already talked about both places so I'll keep things brief.
While it's certainly not Akihabara, Nakano Broadway (a mall right by Nakano Station) is still a place that any anime/manga fans visiting Japan should try to visit, especially if they want to buy figurines. The selection and prices vary considerably since a lot of the shops consist mainly of display cases that people can rent out and fill with stuff that they want to sell. As such, the selection is often totally random and the prices range from rather cheap to ridiculously overpriced. There's lots of anime and manga figurines (including newer ones and rare out of print ones) but that's not all. There's also a few nice music stores, a couple pretty decent game stores, a shop selling anime cells, and a couple stores selling cosplay costumes. Also, if you're into old toys (particularly Japanese ones) or not so old watches there's a lot of them around too. Helpful tip: if something seems expensive you might want to shop around a bit before buying. Things that cost a mint at one store could very well be on clearance at another.
Asakusa has a nice shopping arcade right near the Asakusa Station and next to its big shrine. It's definitely the place to go in Tokyo if you want to do some serious souvenir shopping. Some of the stuff there is kinda cheesy but there's some pretty nice things too. Once again, shop around a bit before you buy, there's a decent amount of overlap between some of the stores and prices do vary.

General Status Update
So how have I been? I've been fine. Certainly keeping busy (with 9 hour workdays and then running around touring on most of my off days that's kinda a given). Most of my down time between classes at work is divided between studying Japanese and writing. Speaking of writing, I've been getting back into the swing of things in that regard. Don't have my old speed back yet but I'm nearly done with a new chapter in my current book and it looks like I might (finally) be able to finish said book by the end of the year or so. Other than that I'm doing my usual online stuff, working on this site (of course), and trying to fit in some video games when I can (just finished Ouendan 2 on the DS (portable games are great for long train rides, especially ones you repeat a lot and have already seen the scenery) and am currently working on Sly Cooper 3 and getting my Dervish through Guild Wars Nightfall. And yeah, that's about all there is to say.

Oh, before I go I'd like to apologize to all of my friends that I haven't e-mailed yet since coming to Japan. I've written to some people already (and have nice back and forth conversations going with some of them) and I'll get more letters done soon. It's just that there's usually so much to do after I get home from work that I just don't get around to writing new e-mails. So yeah, if you haven't heard from me yet, you should before too long. Although, if you don't want to wait you can go ahead and e-mail me yourselves. See, replying to my current e-mail always takes priority over writing new ones so if you write me you'll hear from me a lot sooner than if you don't. Don't get me wrong, I like talking to you guys, it's just that writing e-mails that aren't replies is something that kinda gets pushed to the bottom of my to-do list fairly frequently when I have other things to work on. For the people that I'm already e-mailing back and forth with, thanks a lot! It's great to be able to keep up with you even though I'm halfway across the planet.

Friday (12th): Misconceptions & Weapons

Random Japan Comment: Seasons
Japan has four seasons, winter, spring, summer, and fall (ok, they've got different names in Japanese but it's still the same thing). Now chances are you find that statement totally unremarkable. Nothing special about having 4 seasons, right? Well, the interesting thing is that a lot of Japanese people think that Japan is the only country in the world that has 4 seasons. Seriously. And a lot of those people are rather shocked and/or disappointed to hear that places like the US also have the same 4 seasons.

Random Japan Comment: Japanese Misconceptions About the US
Unlike in many places where blaming all the world's problems on the US is something of a national pastime (*cough Europe*), your average Japanese citizen isn't going to launch into a rant about how all these problems that have nothing to do with the US are really its fault. In general, Japanese people like the US, or at least US stuff. Although most of them really don't know much about the country itself which can lead to come weird misconceptions.
Unfortunately, for your average Japanese person, most of what they know about the US was learned from watching American movies and TV shows that got brought over here. What's so bad about that? Imagine taking someone who knows nothing about the US and sitting him down in front of CSI or some generic sitcom for a few hours. Sure those things might be fun to watch but they don't exactly give an accurate portrayal of normal life in the US.
Here's some common misconceptions. And it's not just Americans either, most of these apply to foreigners in general.
Misconception 1: Foreigners are loud, rude, and not very neat (at least compared to Japanese people). I don't think this one is as common as it used to be (I haven't encountered any obvious signs of it) but from what I've heard a lot of landlords still won't rent apartments to foreigners because of this belief.
Misconception 2: Foreigners are more likely to commit crimes. Considering some of the US TV shows and movies that make it over here, I can see where this comes from. Once again, I haven't encountered any obvious signs of this but it's not unheard of for policemen to randomly stop people who don't look Japanese and ask to see their passport or resident card (happened to me once so far). And, since nearly everyone who lives in Japan is Japanese (with the only significant minorities being Korean and Chinese), it's pretty easy for them to pick out the foreigners.
Misconception 3: In America everyone walks around carrying a gun. I think this is actually the most common one. Now if you think it's ridiculous that anyone would believe that, think about a lot of the big US action movies and TV shows like 24 (which is pretty popular here, BTW). In stuff like that, just about everyone is carrying a gun or three. It's like how if all you watch is Jackie Chan movies you might think everyone is Asia is a martial arts expect. Plus, from what I heard from one of the teachers at my school, the Japanese press is partially to blame for this as well. A while back a Japanese college student went to the US and accidently trespassed on some guy's property. Unfortunately, said guy was a bit of a nutcase and shot him and the whole thing got blown way out of proportion in the Japan press. In addition, in the US our biggest news stories (and the ones that are most likely to get reported in other countries) as usually the worst since, as is unfortunately the case, bad news sells a whole lot better than good news. In reality, of course, the vast majority of people in the US don't own guns and hardly anyone who does goes walking around with one all the time (barring law enforcement and military).

Random Comment: Weapons in Modern Day Japan
In Japan ordinary citizens aren't allowed to own guns. You can buy some pretty realistic looking airsoft guns but you're not gonna see any stores selling real fire arms. So your average Japanese person isn't going to own a gun. But from what I've heard criminals can still get plenty of guns illegally so it's not like they don't exist outside of the military. Speaking of which, your average policemen around here don't carry guns, at least none of the ones I've seen do. Although since most of the ones I've seen seem to spend most of their time helping people find their way around (all the little police boxes usually have super detailed local maps on hand) they probably don't need them.
I know Japan did have a ban on carrying swords although I'm not sure if its still in effect or exactly what the details are (there's plenty of swords for sale in stores (although most of them are probably not sharp) and there are still some schools of sword fighting scattered throughout. Most likely though you can't just walk around in the middle of town with a katana on your belt.
Knives are easy enough to get. Not sure what the policy is on carrying them around though. I'd assume that it's ok within reason although I don't think Swiss Army Knives, Leathermans, and the like are all that popular here (at least I haven't seen a lot of them for sale).

Sunday (14th): Around Tokyo
It was kinda a last minute thing but one of the people at services on Saturday told me about a multicultural festival being held in a part of Tokyo I'd never been to before. In the end, I decided I might as well check it out. It was called Mishop World and hosted by a place called Mishop, which provides support for foreigners living in that area. There were a whole lot of little booths for tons of different countries (although about half of them looked to be run by Japanese people...) and there was a stage for performances (believe it or not, most of the people in this picture are Japanese). Not long after I got there I was pulled into an area for Japanese people who wanted to talk with foreigners (and vice versa I suppose) and spent most of my time at the festival talking to various Japanese people in a mix of Japanese and English. It was good practice.
I left a bit after lunch and decided to track down a store I'd seen in my guide book. It's called the Oriental Bazaar and it's in Harajuku. Nice place if you're looking for Japanese souvenirs in all sorts of price ranges. Anyway, I looked around a bit then, since I was already in Harajuku, decided to walk down some of the teen fashion streets again. They're really crowded on weekends (really really crowded) but if you hang out a little while you'll see goths, lolitas, and people sporting all the other crazy Japanese teen fashion trends, at least if you can spot them through the crowds.
After that, I took a quick trip to Akihabara and explored some stores I hadn't been in yet. And, if Yodobashi Camera wasn't awesome enough already, my visit to the food court on the next to highest floor made it even more so. It's got 24 restaurants (all moderately sized too) covering pretty much every main type of Japanese food and some foreign ones. Great place to eat.
Headed back home after that. I didn't stay too late because I had to prepare for Monday.

Monday (15th): Disneysea
Since the school festival is on Saturday, there was no school this Monday. Nogi Elementary definitely isn't fond of working more than 5 days a week. Which, considering how cheap the Nogi Board of Education is (remind me to mention our Halloween party budget sometime), could very well be because the staff would only get paid for 5 days even if they worked 6 (not sure that's true but it totally wouldn't surprise me).
So I headed out to the other Disney park, Tokyo Disneysea. I'm not sure if Disneysea is a bit less popular than Disneyland or if the doom and gloom weather forecast (which, luckily, didn't come to pass) scared people away but, while busy, Disneysea wasn't as crowded as Disneyland. There was a ton of people and there were lines but the lines were all totally reasonable. I don't think I ever had to wait more than 45 minutes for anything (usually less) so I actually got to go on everything I wanted to with a bit of time left over to reride a couple of my favorites. BTW: Disneysea is one of the newest (maybe the newest) Disney park and the designers went all out, each of the areas look fantastic.
Anyway, Disneysea is divided into seven themed "Ports of Call". And, since it's supposed to be like individual ports or islands, there's a large river running through the whole park and you can take boats between the various ports, or you could just walk. The first area when you enter is Mediterranean Harbor. It's themed after a Mediterranean port city from a couple hundred years back with a bit of Venice thrown in for good measure. There were lots of shops and restaurants and a cool Renaissance style fortress you could explore. There was also a fancy resort hotel (yep, a hotel right in the park) and you could even take a gondola ride nearby.
Next up I went to the Mysterious Island. Kinda a small area but probably my favorite since it had two great rides, Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and the general look made me feel like I'd walked into a place out of the Myst games, which I always really liked (well, I loved Myst, Riven, and Myst 3; Myst 4 wasn't bad but had some ridiculously frustrating parts, while 5 and Uru I wasn't so fond of).
Following the tunnels from the Mysterious Island, I ended up in Mermaid's Lagoon. This was a mostly indoor area (made up to look like it's underwater) based on The Little Mermaid. Most of the stuff there was designed with little kids in mind but there was a neat Little Mermaid show that featured live actors floating around on wires and reenacting a few scenes from the movie.
Next stop was the Arabian Coast, which was based on Aladdin. There were a couple rides (fun but not thrill rides), a 3D show (neat cause it mixed in live actors), and a Indian restaurant, which is where I got lunch.
Moving on, I came to the Lost River Delta, which had a South American jungle theme going. It had a fun but short roller coaster, a pretty cool Indiana Jones ride, and the only Mexican restaurant I've seen since arriving in Japan. Anyway, I liked all the plants and the fake Aztec and Mayan ruins that were scattered around. While I was there, I also came across a booth selling sea salt ice cream. Being a huge fan of Kingdom Hearts 2 (in which sea salt ice cream was repeatedly mentioned), I was pleasantly surprised to see that it actually exists and had to give it a try. It wasn't bad, kinda like a salty vanilla.
Anyway, before going to the next area I headed back to the Mediterranean Harbor to watch the Mythica show which had lots of fancy boats, dancing Disney characters, and guys zipping around on wave runners. Then it was on to Port Discovery. It's the futuristic theme area and has a big motion simulator ride and some boats and stuff.
The final port is the American Waterfront, which is divided into the colonial section and the old New York City section. There were a lot of stores and restaurants and one of the parks' several live performance stages (I showed up in the middle of a show and hung around to watch) but the big attraction was the new Tower of Terror. Like the one in Disney World's MGM Studios, it's a free falling elevator ride. But, while MGM's had a Twilight Zone theme to it, this one does it completely differently (including a late 19th century explorer and a cursed tiki statue). Personally, I liked the Twilight Zone theme better although I think the tiki is creepier. Not that it really matters, the fall is a lot of fun either way.
And that was the entire park. After getting dinner in the Mediterranean Harbor I still had time to do a couple of rides again and catch the fireworks and BraviSEAmo performance (a cool show with water and fire set to music) before heading home. Oh yeah, since I finally figured out how to take good low light shots with my camera (provided I can find a nice unmoving surface to set it on), here's one of the park at night.
So overall I had a lot of fun (like I always seem to at Disney parks). I think I actually like Disneysea a little better than Tokyo Disneyland, although they're both pretty cool. But my favorite Disney park has still gotta be Epcot back at Disney World.

Friday (19th): Talking About Ice Cream
Random Japan Comment: Ice Cream
Hey, I did say random. Anyway, though not a traditional Japanese desert by any means, ice cream has become quite popular. But, like most things, it's not quite the same as what you'd find in places like the US or Europe.
Ice Cream in Grocery Stores: Since grocery stores in Japan tend to be a lot smaller than a typical US grocery store they've got less of a selection of most stuff, ice cream included. Haagen Dazs is pretty popular but it's the only US brand of ice cream I've seen in grocery stores and it seems to cost nearly twice as much as it does in the US. The most interesting things about ice cream in grocery stores are the flavors and the size. I'll get to the flavors a bit later, for now sizes. In a US store most ice cream comes in pints with a smaller selection of larger containers and smaller containers. In Japan you're only gonna find a handful of pints and usually only in a couple of flavors (vanilla generally being one of them). Instead, you'll come across a whole lot of little single containers that hold somewhere between 1/4 - 1/3 pints. These come in a lot of different flavors. I've yet to see any ice cream container in Japan larger than a pint so if you can't live without galleon packs of ice cream you probably shouldn't visit Japan (you should also seriously consider changing your diet).
Ice Cream Stands & Parlors: I've seen a lot more ice cream stands and shops in Japan than in the US. Although, that could be because of the places I've visited. Anyway, occasionally you'll see some US chains. For example, there's a Baskin Robins right near my apartment and I know I saw a Cold Stone in one of the places I went sightseeing. Those type of places seem to be pretty similar to their US versions, though with a few flavors you won't see in the States. US chains aside, you'll see a lot of booths and small cafes that have ice cream. Said ice cream is always soft serve (so eat it quick cause it melts fast), always comes in a small cone, is always the same size, and almost always costs 300 yen (around $2.50 or so). Depending on the place there can be anywhere from 1 (vanilla) to about 15 different flavors with the average being around 4.
Ice Cream Flavors: Vanilla is the big one, just like in the US I suppose. If there's a place selling ice cream in Japan you can be sure that vanilla will be one of the flavors. Various types of chocolate are also popular as are the typical berry flavors (especially strawberry). However, they really aren't the most popular. As I said, vanilla is everywhere but some of the most common after vanilla are matcha, azuki, and melon. Mango is also fairly popular. Sounds normal enough but I don't recall seeing a lot of mango flavored ice cream back home. Anyway, matcha is green tea and you may have seen this occasionally back in the states in an Asian restaurant or oriental restaurant. It's not as sweet as some flavors but it's pretty good. Azuki are a type of sweet red bean that are used in a lot of Japanese sweets, particularly anpan (bread filled with azuki paste) and, some types of rice balls, and various other little bun, ball, and pastry type things. Um... They taste like a sweet bean. They're not bad but certainly not one of my favorite sweeteners (or ice cream flavors). While you can get several types of melon in Japan, if someone just says melon (as opposed to say watermelon) you can be pretty certain that they're talking about musk melon. Musk melon is a type of melon that seems to be impossible to find in the US (couldn't even get it at the giant Asian supermarket in Phoenix). The outside is green and has a similar texture to a canteloupe. Tastes like a mix of a honeydew and a canteloupe. It's really good fresh but like most fruit in Japan, ridiculously expensive. As much as I like the actual melon, I don't think it makes a particularly awesome ice cream flavor. But that's probably just me, I love fresh melons but I've never really liked melon flavored stuff a whole lot... Anyway, those three (matcha, azuki, and melon) are the most popular after vanilla and even American brands like Haagen Dazs and Baskin Robins have them here. There's also some other weird ones you may run across at the better stocked soft serve ice cream stands. The one that sticks out is black sesame. It's a shiny black (never seen any other ice cream with a similar color) and has the flavor of salted roasted sesame seeds. Actually, it's not bad. At least if you like stuff like peanut butter ice cream. Now you may be wondering why it's black sesame. Frankly I have no idea. I never saw black sesame seeds before coming to Japan, they're all white back home. For that matter, they've got white poppy seeds over here too. Weird...

Saturday (22nd): Nogi Elementary School Festival
I caught a small cold over the weekend. Fortunately, it was pretty minor (I rarely get really sick) and I'm mostly over it by now. Kinda caught me by surprise though since I don't get sick much. But some of the students at teachers at school had colds and the weather here has been getting a lot cooler. Taking those things into account, I think I was a bit careless. Anyway, cause of that I spent Sunday resting in my apartment. But, what you probably want to hear about is that school festival so let's move onto that. Oh yeah, just a little addition to my previous news post, one of the other teachers mentioned the existence of wasabi flavored ice cream. Now I really can't imagine wasabi making for a very good ice cream flavor (except maybe if you feel like playing a practical joke on someone) but now I'm curious so I'm gonna have to keep an eye out for it.

While Junior High and up have culture festivals which involve the students making food stands, carnival type games, and the like, elementary school festivals vary considerably by school (at least that's what I've been told). Nogi Elementary's started out with the opening ceremony, which was also pretty much the main event. All the grades did some sort or little show or presentation. 1st and 2nd grades did a couple of songs in English, which I helped with. Would have liked to get a video of it but I didn't have time to explain to the teacher I handed my camera to how the video mode works. 3rd and 4th grades did... Well to be perfectly honest, I'm not really sure what they did. There was some talking and big signs but it was all in Japanese and I couldn't understand enough to figure it out. Finally, 5th and 6th grades played some music, and did a very good job of it. Once the presentations were done, all the students got up and sang a song in Japanese (well, mostly in Japanese, there were a couple of English words in there too) and then broke into groups and played a game which involved several students hiding a small ball behind their backs and passing it back and forth while a couple other students tried to guess who had it. After that the principle gave a little closing speech and that was the end of the first part. At this point quite a lot of the parents headed home although some hung around for part 2.
For the next part, the students broke into groups again and went to different parts of the school where a variety of crafts (mostly traditional Japanese type stuff) were set up. I was stationed in the gym to help with the ones there, although since the students mostly knew what to do, and it took me a while to figure out exactly how each of the crafts was done (I couldn't understand all the instructions so I had to learn by watching), I did a lot more observing than I did actual helping. Anyway, the kids in the gym were making toys out of bamboo. There were pencil holders and a little air/water gun type of thing, those were the easy ones. The more advanced ones were those little propellers on a stick (the kind you spin in your hands and let fly) and a disc in the center of a twisted string that you can keep spinning by pulling in and out on the string at the right time. Kinda hard to describe in words but I've seen both of those things in the US (although not made out of bamboo) and you'd probably recognize them if you saw them. Not really sure how traditional the toys themselves were but they were being made out of bamboo with old fashioned hand tools, no electricity required. I was kind of surprised that they were letting little kids use things like saws and carving knives with very minimal adult supervision. A couple did cut themselves, although not badly, but were quickly patched up by one of the teachers and everything was fine. In the US it seems like something like that would be a lawsuit waiting to happen...
After the crafts it was time for lunch break and, after that, the students and the handful of parents who were still around gathered in the school for a small closing ceremony. When that was finished the rest of the parents went home, although the kids had to hang around for another couple of hours and do some studying to make up for the lost day of classes.
Awhile later, which ended up being pretty close to the time I usually finish up work and go home for the day, the rest of the teachers and I headed off to get ready for the party. From what I gather, they like to have parties after big events like the festival to celebrate said event's success. These also double as welcoming parties for new staff members, which in this case was me (there are some other new members but they were at the Sports Day party and I wasn't), so I had to give a short speech at one point. I'll go more in depth about the structure of Japanese parties some other time (probably in a Random Japan Comment). Right now, I'll just give a quick overview of this one. We all headed to a traditional Japanese restaurant a couple towns away (fortunately I was able to get a ride from one of the other teachers, it wasn't too long of a drive but it was way too far for me to bike in any reasonable amount of time). We had a room rented out and, following the traditional Japanese style, the room had a tatami floor (woven straw mats) with low tables (you sit on cushions on the floor). Periodically a waitress would come in bringing some new dish. There were probably 8-10 different things over all. Food was very traditional and included things like miso soup, sashimi (chunks of raw fish), tempura, and various other dishes, mostly vegetable and seafood based. Fortunately, Suzuki-sensei (sensei is a suffix that means teacher and is added to the end of a name (more on that in a future Random Japan Comment) was sitting next to me and helped me figure out what everything was, which was very nice since I wouldn't have had a clue about half the things. Although I should probably note that eating was typically a second or third priority after drinking (beer or, for those who didn't want alcohol, tea) and socializing. Here's a group picture I got near the end of the party. That's all the main school staff members (the non main staff would be the cooking staff who do the school lunches and the school counselor who comes in a couple times a month), which means all the teachers, the principle, vice principle, secretaries, school nurse, and a couple of people whose job descriptions I still haven't totally figured out but who are around all day and must be doing something important.
After the party wrapped up, it was time for the second party (in Japan, parties typically come in pairs). For the second party we headed to a nearby karaoke (correct pronunciation is kah-rah-oh-keh, not carry-oki) parlor. Karaoke is very popular in Japan (well, they were the ones who invented it) and karaoke parlors are pretty common. I should probably do a Random Japan Comment on them some time too... Anyway, we rented a room and spent probably an hour and a half or so doing karaoke. You all know what karaoke is, right? It's where you've got a mike and you sing along with the music to a song while the lyrics are displayed on a TV screen. If you've only played karaoke video games then imagine them without the pitch gauge and scoring and with no singer in the background, it's just the music and the lyrics (and some sort of video playing behind the lyrics). There was tons of Japanese music to choose from that spanned pretty much everything (J-Pop, anime themes, old Japanese classics, themes for TV dramas, etc, etc, etc) and a surprisingly large selection of English music too (sorta a biggest hits of the 60's - now). Everyone sang at one point or another but some people a lot more than others. Surprisingly, everyone could sing pretty well (or maybe I just don't know enough to tell the difference with Japanese music, but they all sounded pretty good). Not sure if it was because I was the new guy or because I was the only one who could do English songs well but I'm pretty sure I ended up doing the most singing. If you're wondering, no I didn't sing any Japanese songs. I thought about it but my knowledge of Japanese music is limited mostly to video game and anime soundtracks and, although I probably still could have found some stuff I know, I don't have the lyrics memorized, which would have been a problem since the onscreen lyrics display was bound to include plenty of kanji (symbols used in Japanese writing) that I haven't learned how to read yet. After the second party was over we all headed home (fortunately I was able to get another ride).
So, overall it was a very interesting day. I got to talk to some of the teachers I don't usually spend much time with, learned a lot, and had some fun.

Wednesday (24th): Names & Parties

Random Japan Comment: Japanese Names
Japanese people have a first name and a last name (family name). There's no middle names. Last names are written first and if you're saying someone's full name you'll say the last name and then the first name (opposite the way most places do it). However, most Japanese know that foreigners typically do it the opposite way so they might switch things around when talking to you, or they might not, which can make it difficult to tell which name is which sometimes.
Unlike in the US, and many parts of the world for that matter, people in Japan mostly call each other by their last names or, if there's a need for further distinction, their full names. This applies when talking to the person directly and when talking about the person. First names are typically only used by family members and close friends and only in casual settings (this rule is not applied quite as strictly in regards to little kids).
But you don't just say the name itself (at least not most of the time). In Japan there are a large variety of suffixes that are attached to the end of names. The most common one is san, which can be thought of as something like Mr. or Ms. If you don't know what suffix to use, use this one (i.e. Yamanaka-san). Other common ones include: sama (like san but denotes a much higher level of respect, you might use it with the name of a superior (like your boss), royalty, a deity, etc (i.e. kami-sama)), kun (for boys, used by friends and superiors, sometimes used between adult friends as well (i.e. Hiro-kun)), chan (for girls, used by friends, superiors, and admirers (i.e. Rina-chan)), and sensei (means teacher or instructor, although is occasionally used for people of other professions as well (i.e. Suzuki-sensei)).
Using a name without a suffix is rare. Possible situations when this might occur would be close friends in a casual situation or when a superior person (higher up in a company, a teacher, etc) is speaking to people below them and wants to be rude. However, knowing that foreigners do things differently, some Japanese people will allow them to use their names normally in casual situations.

Random Japan Comment: Japanese Parties
Ok, my experience with these is pretty limited since I've only been to one so far but it pretty much matched up with everything I'd read and heard about them so this should be at least mostly correct. Also, keep in mind that I'm talking about somewhat formal parties such as business parties. Things like birthday parties and the like are often done differently.
Parties are a very important part of the Japanese business culture and are supposed to help employees relax, bond, etc. They can be for holidays, to celebrate events or milestones, or sometimes just for the sake of having a party. Typically parties come in twos. The first party is the more formal of the two and usually takes places at a restaurant, often (but not necessarily) of the traditional Japanese type. A private room is usually rented for the group. Drinking (mostly sake and/or beer but also tea for people who don't drink) is a big part of Japanese parties and can help break down the many social barriers between different levels of employees (at least for a little while). In case you ever go to one, you should know that whatever you're drinking, never fill your own glass. Instead fill the glasses of the people near you and they'll do the same for you (if you don't want your glass being constantly refilled, or don't want to drink at all, just sip a tiny bit and then let your glass sit, making sure it's fairly full).
After the first party there's the second party. Second parties are marked by a move to a new location. They're less formal so they're likely to move somewhere like a karaoke parlor, bar, etc. They typically involve snacking, more drinking, and whatever sort of activity is available at wherever the party is taking place (like karaoke). Aside from offering a less formal get together, second parties also offer the chance to head home early since it's acceptable to quietly slip away enroute to the second party.

Friday (26th): A Few Lists

Instead of doing more Random Japan Comments today I'm going to list a few different things related to my time so far in Japan.

People I Want to Thank:
This list is for people I'd like to formally thank for helping me out with the whole moving to and living in Japan thing. There's been a whole lot of different people who offered advice and encouragement so this list is just gonna focus on the most important ones.
1. My dad for coming with me to Japan and helping me get settled. It was lots of fun to tour with him and he was a huge help while he was here. Not to mention that it was nice having someone familiar around while I was making such a big transition.
2. My uncle Charles for all the advice and info he gave me. Having lived in Japan for a while himself, he was a big help when I was trying to figure out what I should bring and what I'd need to do when I arrived.
3. Grant at Joytalk (the company that hired me) for answering all the questions I kept asking.
4. My dad's friend Yehoshua Jo in Tokyo for all the help when my dad and I first arrived and since then as well.
5. The teachers at Nogi Elementary (especially Suzuki-sensei, who speaks decent English) for being very friendly and helpful.
6. My friends from back home who have been e-mailing, writing, etc, it's great to keep in touch with you guys!

Things I'll Really Miss When I Leave Japan:
Keep in mind that for this and the next list I'm talking stuff in general, I'm not gonna get into friends, family, my karate dojo, and all that kind of stuff, although I certainly could list a bunch of those if I wanted to.
1. Akihabara, I don't know if I could ever get tired of hanging out and shopping there.
2. The constant Japanese practice. Well, I'll kinda miss that since it'll make it harder to retain and improve my language skills but, on the other hand, it'll also be really nice to be back in a place where I can read and understand everything.
3. Teaching the kids. It's been fun so far although I do miss game design so it'll be nice to get back into that (either with a job or going back to school for my Masters).
4. The game and anime stores. There's just so much awesome stuff to buy and most of it (DVDs being the main exception) is pretty reasonably priced.
5. Kaiten zushi restaurants, which someone should seriously start a chain of in the US, they'd totally catch on. The whole conveyer belt thing would be a real novelty in the states and hey, it's good cheap sushi. I suppose I'll miss Japanese restaurants in general but kaiten zushi is my favorite of the Japanese type restaurants that I won't be able to find back home.
6. General touring and exploring, it's a lot of fun although not exactly cheap. Not that I can't tour in the US but in Japan there are a seemingly endless amount of places you can go in a couple hours or less on the trains and/or subways.

Things I Really Miss From the US:
1. English. Ok so I still use English quite a lot every day (teaching English, using the internet, etc) but I certainly miss being able to understand everything that's said and written.
2. Full sized apartments. While my apartment is ok, the lack of things like a full kitchen, chairs, a desk (ok, I could buy chairs and a desk but there really isn't anywhere to put them), and just open space in general is a huge change from my house and old apartments.
3. English book, DVD, and game stores, especially books. Although if my Japanese improves enough this will become much less of an issue.
4. Pizza! You can find affordable pizza in Japan (Pizza Hut is extremely overpriced but not all pizza restaurants are) but Japanese pizza can't hold a candle to a good pizza in the US (although I have to say that the toppings in Japan can get pretty creative).
5. American food and restaurants in general. This would be less of an issue if my apartment had things like an oven and room to store some ingredients cause then I could do more cooking. As far as food goes, fruit and many vegetables are really expensive here and some stuff that's common back home (like peanut butter) is a really difficult if not impossible to find. For restaurants, there isn't as wide a variety as in the US (I like the ones that are here but it's nearly all Japanese food, good foreign restaurants range from uncommon to nearly nonexistent depending on what area you're in and what kind of food you're looking for).

Sunday (28th): Yokohama Sea Paradise
I've seen quite a lot of fish since coming to Japan but most of them have been in sushi or some other kind of food so I decided to go look at live fish for a change. Last time I was in Yokohama I heard about a big aquarium there so that's where I headed. Yokohama Sea Paradise is a small island (or maybe it's not really an island, close enough though) on the far end of Yokohama (at least if you're coming from the Tokyo direction. Sea Paradise is home to several attractions including the Aqua Museum aquarium and related attractions, a small amusement park, a shopping area, a hotel, etc.
The weather was surprisingly good, and it was actually clear enough to see Mt. Fuji in the distance (this was the first time I've actually gotten a look at it). Now being from Colorado I'm used to views of mountains although in Colorado they usually come in groups so it was kinda different to see one standing there all by itself.
For those of you who keeping wanting me to post more Engrish, this is your lucky day (if you don't know, Engrish is humorous misuse of English by Japanese people). See, there's lots of bad English in Japan (especially when it comes to grammar) but not all bad English is funny (it's often just bad), which is why I'm not posting photos of every mangled sentence I see. Anyway, I've got a few amusing Engrish things for today. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a photo of the first one but on the train ride to Sea Paradise the guy sitting across from me was wearing a shirt that said "What would a rambler do?". So, what would a rambler do? Probably talk on and on and on about pointless stuff, and I kinda doubt that was what the guy wearing the shirt had in mind. Not sure what they got that mixed up with. Maybe it was supposed to be gambler or rebel or something? Or maybe the person who designed the shirt speaks perfect English and just thought it'd be funny to have unknowing people walking around wearing that.
Anyway, since I came to see the fish, my first stop was the Aqua Museum. It's supposed to be one of Japan's largest aquariums. It was a nice aquarium, probably not the best I've been too (I seem to remember the Chicago aquarium being pretty amazing) although it's been so many years since I've been to any aquarium that I'm probably not in a position to make comparisons. But back to the point, it was nice and there was lots of cool stuff to see. Unfortunately, there was no flash photography and since my camera does pretty poorly in low light areas without a flash (unless I can find something to set it on so I can take a long exposure shot without anything shaking the camera), I couldn't get photos of a lot of stuff I would have liked to such as the rock fish, jelly fish, tiny little eels poking out of the ground like plants, and enormous crabs (as in, bigger than a small dog). But I did get some decent pics. Here's some penguins. Oddly, one of the species listed on the sign was called the Jackass Penguin. Kinda curious about where they got that name, I mean do they go around pushing other penguins off ledges or something? Moving on, here's a fish pretending to be coral, some rays, and a sea turtle. I also found some more Engrish when I took a look at some of "The Worlds Flogs" (sorry the pic is so blurry). See, Japanese doesn't have an l sound but their r sound is sorta half way between an r and an l so those two letters can often be used interchangeable when writing romanji (English translit of Japanese), even though technically it should always be r. This leads to Japanese people mix them up fairly often. To be fair, on all the other signs for that exhibit they spelled frogs correctly, although they all had "worlds" instead of the proper "world's".
The aquarium also had a show with trained dolphins, sea lions, and some kind of small white whale. What I thought was really neat was some of the things the trainers themselves did with the animals. For example, riding and surfing on the dolphins and whales. They even had the dolphins jump from underneath the trainers, sending the trainers flying pretty high into the air.
Right outside of the Aqua Museum I ran into more Engrish at The Booze Cafe, not exactly the best name for a little family restaurant. Moving on, nearby was Dolphin Fantasy where you could walk through an underwater tube with dolphins and fish swimming around you. It was pretty small but neat.
On my way to the last stop on my combo ticket, I passed a place selling a ton of different ice cream flavors (over 100, complete with plastic models for all of them). They had tons of fairly normal ones and plenty of weird ones. A few of the stranger ones included pepper, seaweed, and shrimp. They also had wasabi flavor and I gave it a try out of curiosity. Turns out I was right about wasabi, it makes a lousy ice cream flavor but would be great for a practical joke if you can get some unknowing person to take a big bite (tell them it's green tea, melon, pistachio, or some other more normal green colored ice cream).  When you first taste it there's a fraction of a second where you get that whole smooth cold ice cream taste, but that disappears almost immediately and leaves you feeling like you just ate a spoonful of wasabi. And, while the ice cream isn't as potent as a spoonful of regular wasabi, it's still pretty hot. Now I like wasabi but I don't go around eating large spoonfuls of it and I couldn't manage to eat a whole cone of the stuff (maybe if I'd had some sushi to go with it...). So, final verdict on wasabi ice cream: interesting to taste but probably not something you're gonna want again after that taste.
My last big stop at Sea Paradise was Furrea Lagoon (might be spelling that wrong). It's a small outdoor aquarium designed to get you as close to the animals as possible. Some, like these seals, you can only look at but you were allowed to touch and pet many of the animals, provided that they actually came close enough to the edge of their tank for you to reach (so you may be waiting for a while). I got to pet a sealion, dolphin, and a small whale. There was also a fake tide pool where you could wade in and pick up sea cucumbers, starfish, and the like (really popular with the kids) but I didn't want to get my feet wet plus I've already picked up tons of those things on the beach in FL.
At that point I was pretty much done in Sea Paradise. Could have gone on some rides but they were pretty expensive so I left a little earlier than I'd planned and decided to stop in downtown Yokohama to get supper. I remembered seeing a Sizzler last time I was there and buffet restaurants are pretty rare in Japan (at least from what I've seen) so I decided to go there. Now, to give you a couple examples of how my eating habits have changed since coming to Japan... Back in the US getting sushi was a big deal. I'd make my own every now and then but when it came to actually going to a restaurant and getting sushi, I'd be lucky if I went once every couple of months. Now though, getting sushi out is no big deal. There's a good kaiten zushi place a few minutes from my apartment so I have sushi fairly often (usually about once a week). Moving on to the next example (and one that has more to do with the Sizzler), when I went to a salad bar back home I'd usually get a bit of salad then go look at the hot stuff they have on the bar and maybe order a hamburger or something. All the entrees were great but salad was no big deal. This time, on the other hand, I was like, "Wow, look at all the salad!" and proceeded to eat a lot more salad than anything else. I think that's actually the first real salad I've had since coming to Japan (I blame the combination of expensive produce, my tiny fridge, and the nearby grocery store's lack of any type of none Japanese salad dressing). Oh yeah, you know how I've mentioned how rare Mexican food is in Japan? Well, as if to prove my point, Sizzler had a big sign at the buffet explaining how to eat corn chips. Then again, they also had a sign about how to eat soup so maybe they just don't think their customers are all that smart...
After that I just walked around in Yokohama for a little while, browsed in a couple stores, then headed home. And that was what I did on Sunday. Coming next Sunday...even more exploring in Tokyo.

Part 2: September 2007

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