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Josiah's Japan Travelogue
Part 8: March 2008
Part 7: February 2008
Sunday (2nd): Sendai and Surroundings
Although it's a fairly expensive trip from where I am, I decided to go back to Sendai to see some of the stuff I didn't get to the first time around (back in January with my brother). My original plan had me trying to fit a good day and half or more of stuff in one day. Unsurprisingly, I didn't quite manage to pull that off. Didn't help that I got on the wrong train for a little while at one point (right line, right platform, and right direction, but the line forks about halfway to where I wanted to go and, since I was in a hurry to catch the train, I failed to notice that it was for the wrong fork) and got slightly lost trying to find a couple of places (the Japanese address system + simplified maps (as in, missing a bunch of roads and stuff) + overly vague directions = getting lost). Sometimes I have to wonder if the people who wrote my Fodor's tour book thought people could actually find stuff based on the directions they put in. Admittedly, sometimes they're ok. Others, they border on impossible. For example, I was trying to get between two spots in Sendai. The book said that the place I was going was a 20 minute walk SW from my current location. Well, it took me forty and I never would have found it without my Sendai tourist map (and even that wasn't easy). See, the book doesn't mention anything at all about the myriad of roads, intersections, buildings, etc between the two locations, complete with absolutely no signs or anything else to point you in the right direction. If you just start walking SW for 20 minutes you'll almost certainly end up completely lost. Still, that's better than some of the sights in the book, which give you no directions at all. But anyway, enough ranting, time to talk about the stuff I saw...
There really isn't all that much great stuff to see in Sendai and my brother and I saw a lot of it last time around so my original plan involved two side trips from Sendai and three sights in the city itself. In the end I managed to do one side trip and see two of the three sights. My side trip was to Matsushima, which is about 20-30 minutes from Sendai by train. Matsushima is famous for its bay, namely the fact that said bay contains tons (over 100 I think) of little oddly shaped pine tree covered islands. It makes for really nice views from some spots. The islands range from moderately sized (as in, you could fit a very small town on them) to extremely tiny (like the one in the middle in this photo). After a bit of a walk from the train station, I started out at Godaido, a small shrine on its own little island right by the shore. Then I walked over a long bridge to Fukurajima Island. It's one of the larger islands and it's a park of sorts. There's a nice walking trail that goes in a big loop around it and offers some good views of the bay. There's also boat tours and and some nearby mountains (or maybe just really big hills) that are supposed to get you really great views but I didn't have the time to take a tour or climb a mountain.
There's some other shrines and stuff nearby so after lunch I headed towards the main one, Zuiganji, but took a couple of small detours on the way. Speaking of lunch, the area's specialties are clams (or maybe oysters...some type of shell thing anyway, I don't know the names for all of them in Japanese) and beef tongue. Since I can't eat shellfish, I tried the tongue. Not my favorite part of a cow but it was ok. Anyway, my first stop was all the caves right outside Zuiganji. Originally natural little caves, they were further hollowed out and filled with carvings by the priests and monks over the centuries. I also took a quick look at Entsuin, a small shrine that had a nice little garden and rock garden. Zuiganji itself is more museum than shrine now. You can walk through the main building and look in the rooms, which are lined with paintings done on gold leafed sliding doors. Really neat stuff, but there was a sign that said no photos inside. Well, I didn't take any photos inside but there were some little windows of sorts and my new camera has a 10x zoom so... Not that I could get very good pictures from outside (the windows were way too narrow). But at least you can get a little peak at one of the doors. Now imagine about eight rooms, between ten and thirty square feet in size, completely lined with those things. Some of the paintings were fairly simple, others were pretty complex. There was also a treasure house nearby that had a bunch of old artifacts from the area.
By the time I got back to Sendai, it was too late to do the second side trip I'd had planned so headed for the first of my Sendai sights, Sendai Rinnoji (there's also a Rinnoji in Nikko and a couple other places too if I remember right). I think the tour book oversold it a bit, but it did have a nice little Japanese garden with a pagoda. I knew I only had time for one more stop after that and, of the two left, one was within walking distance (though a lot harder to walk to than the tour book had led me to believe) and the other was kinda out there and would have required tracking down a taxi (which I wasn't in a good area for) to reach in a decent amount of time. So I decided to walk to Osaki Hachiman Jinja. They appeared to be doing some new landscaping on the hillside leading up to the shrine. Lots of plants and the typical shrine type statues...except for this one. Definitely not the type of person/being they usually honor at shrines. I'm guessing it was a bit of a joke by the landscaper or whoever owns that part of the hill, unless he's the guy your supposed to pray to when you get attacked by giant monsters (or giant guys in rubber suits anyway)... The shrine itself was fairly neat, mainly because the entire building had been done in black lacquer, which is something you don't see very often, but there wasn't really anything to do there besides look at it.
And that was it. When I'd finished there, it was time to head back towards Sendai station, grab some supper, and find a train.

Friday (7th): All About Mindsets
Random Japan Comment: The Group vs. the Individual - Japanese Mindset vs. Western Mindset
I can't comment on Europe, but in the US our mindset tends to focus on the individual. People's primary concern tends to be what's best for them. We'll go out of our way to try and get the best end of a deal, base many of our decisions on what we think is best for us and/or our closest family and friends, and stand up for ourselves if we feel like we've been cheated or wronged. Not that we ignore the needs or feelings of others, many times we go far out of our way to accommodate others, but in the end, it's our own needs, wants, and concerns that tend to take preference, as long as they're not seriously hurting or negatively impacting some one else (for most people anyway, some really couldn't care less).
In Japan, on the other hand, the mindset is all about the group, obligations to the group, and preserving peace and harmony in the group (even if doing so goes against your own best interests, or even the best interests of the group itself). A Japanese person is a member of many groups. The largest group is the country itself, the group of all Japanese people. Narrowing it down, there's the town where that person lives, coworkers (particularly ones in the same department), friends, and family. Friends, family, and coworkers (and the business/company as a whole) are the most important groups. Japanese people tend to be extremely friendly and polite, especially to socially superior people in their own in groups (higher ranking and more experienced coworkers (experience being determined by their amount of time with the company), older family members, etc). Most are also extremely friendly and polite to strangers, both because promoting peace and harmony is an important part of their mindset, and because they don't know how they rank against a stranger socially and don't want to accidently act inappropriately to a a superior or cause problems should they have to deal with that person again at a later time. On the other hand, a very small number of Japanese people see interacting with strangers as the one time they can be truly rude without consequence, as they'll likely never encounter the person again.
The Japanese mindset also focuses heavily on obligations. Basically at every stage in someone's life (though particularly from the time they finish school and get their first serious job until retirement) they have obligations that everyone is "required" to fulfill to maintain a productive and harmonious society. There's actually a special word for those obligations (though I can't remember it at the moment). A student's obligations include attending school every day, following all school rules, studying hard, following all rules and regulations of whatever club they join, etc. However, students are more easily forgiven when they fail to uphold their obligations as it's considered "youthful indiscretion". A working man (or woman), on the other hand, is "obligated" to put aside their own needs and desires and devote themselves to their business/company even if that leaves very little time for family, friends, hobbies, relaxation, etc (which is why many Japanese people work themselves half to death without complaint, they feel it's their obligation to do so).
Now that the basics are out of the way, I'm going to do some more direct comparisons between the two mindsets.
If a stranger asks someone for directions the majority of people in both the US and Japan would help (though I suspect the percentage of helpful people in Japan would be a decent bit higher). Some Japanese people will even take this a step further and lead you there (even if it's out of their way). But what if the person asked doesn't know where x location is? Naturally some people would try to look it up or ask others but there are times when they simply can't answer. Now, an American person will just come right out and tell you that they don't know (and maybe offer some advice on the general area or where to go to find out more). For the Japanese, that would be equivalent to saying that they can't help you, which would be rude since they're obligated to help when asked (within reason). I've had Japanese people spend five or ten minutes looking around and checking maps trying to figure out how to get to the place I'm looking for and one who wondered around with me for a little while until we stumbled across the correct spot. Some, on the other hand, will just take a guess about where it is and end up giving you the wrong directions. One interesting thing to note, since Japanese people are more or less obligated to be helpful when asked, a lot of them won't offer to help unless asked, so they don't get stuck helping every person they see with a problem. If they don't acknowledge someone and that person doesn't obviously acknowledge them, they can safely ignore each other.
In the US, if someone has a problem with their neighbor, coworker, etc, there's a good chance they'll confront the problem person directly. For example, if my neighbor's dog kept tearing up my yard I'd talk to said neighbor, and if my coworker Bob kept taking pens off my desk I'd go tell him to stop. Admittedly, not everyone favors direct confrontation (depends on both the person doing the confronting and the one being confronted), some would prefer to ignore problems and hope they go away or maybe talk to a superior (boss, apartment manager, etc) who will then confront the person if they deem it necessary. In Japan however, direct confrontation is almost nonexistent. In order to preserve peace and harmony in the group, Japanese people won't go up to the person they have the problem with. Let's use the example of Bob taking my pens again. I wouldn't go to Bob directly, because then Bob would know I was upset with him and he'd be upset with me for getting on him and that would disrupt the group harmony. Instead I'd continue to be nice and friendly to Bob but hint to a different coworker that there was a chance that Bob might be accidently taking my pens. That coworker would tell another coworker who would tell another until it eventually made it to someone higher up, who would likely pass it on to someone even higher up, and so on and so forth until one of those higher ups (whichever one felt it his place to do so) would go to Bob and tell him that there was a chance that someone was slightly worried that he might be accidently taking other people's pens. Yes, it's often that vague. The goal is that the problem person doesn't know who is upset with him (although if I'm the only one Bob is taking pens from, he'll probably figure it out pretty quickly) and even if there's really much of a problem in the first place. Does this preserve peace and harmony? For Japanese people maybe. All the foreigners I know who have been involved in this process of vague circular talk find it extremely annoying when they have to go through the whole thing to solve a problem, and quite insulting when they realize that someone who was being perfectly friendly to them went behind their back to complain about something instead of just telling them. It's not just for more serious problems either. For example, if one of the teachers in my school decided she didn't like the songs I was using in class, instead of telling me she might tell another teacher who would tell the principle who would tell the board of education who would tell the company that hired me who would in turn tell me (not that I've had any trouble with things like that, but that's how the process works).
As you can probably guess from the preceding examples, just because a Japanese person acts very friendly towards someone on the outside, doesn't necessarily mean they feel that way on the inside. If you don't like a coworker, you don't want them to know it, you just go through the whole process of passing the story around until it comes back to them and they hopefully never know you were the one who complained. Of course, many people in the US will pretend to like someone as well (especially if that person is important and/or could cause serious problems for them if upset (say a teacher or boss)). But a lot of people in the US will also be quite obvious with their dislike, something you don't see much in Japan.
Keeping harmony in the group also means going along with the group's decisions. In the US, if you think that your boss or the group as a whole is making a poor choice, depending on the situation and people involved, you might just come right out and say it's bad or you may simply phrase your opinion as a small concern or alternative measure. In Japan, disagreeing with your boss or the group would disturb the harmony so it's best to just keep silent and pretend to the support the decision, even if it will lead to problems for you and/or the group as a whole. Better to preserve the harmony than try and prevent a mistake (often even a big costly mistake).
Similarly, a Japanese person may be less likely to stick up for themselves if they're cheated or taken advantage of because doing so could cause a lot of trouble and disrupt harmony. The opposite extreme would be some Americans who will throw a fit over what they perceive as even the slightest infraction (though most of us are somewhere closer to the middle).
Another interesting thing is that, for a Japanese person, it's considered extremely rude to say no to just about anything. Japanese people will often go to a whole lot of trouble to avoid answering any question with a straight up no, or anything like a straight up no for that matter. Of course, some Americans will do that too although usually only in certain situations to either spare someone's feelings ("Sunday? I'd love to go with you but I've got a dentist appointment.") or avoid angering someone important (boss, teacher, etc) ("Of course Mr. Smith, you're not doing anything wrong, that software must be faulty."). Still, there's many times when we just say no. Japanese, on the other hand, have about a million ways to get the meaning of no across even while saying something entirely different (which can be quite confusing if you're not familiar with the nuances). They often won't even say "no" to a simple question such as whether or not their store has an item in stock.
One common way to avoid no is a simple excuse, like my dentist appointment example above. But in Japanese the reason for the excuse is often left unstated. For example, instead of saying I have a dentist appointment Sunday, I'd probably say something that literally translates as, "Excuse me, Sunday is a little...". Notice that I don't even say Sunday is bad, just that it's a little of something (though what that something is, I don't say). Similarly, if I went to a store and asked for udon noodles but they were all out or didn't carry them, the clerk might say something that translates to, "Excuse me it's a little..." Another popular way to say no can be potentially confusing for people with limited Japanese, at least if they haven't learned about it before hand. For example, say I suggested to someone that we go see a movie. Instead of saying no they might say one of a couple different things that translate to stuff like, "Yes, but..." or "That's a good idea, but...". So, though the person is technically saying yes, that hanging "but" means no. Once again, the reason is often left unstated.
Overall, I think both the Japanese and Western mindsets have their pros and cons. The Japanese mindset certain does promote friendly, harmonious, and helpful interaction with other people (even if it's faked at times), but it also creates a rather strict social hierarchy in business and (to some extent) school, needlessly complicates some matters, can lead to the stifling of new or better ideas in the name of going with the group, and makes it easier for people to be taken advantage of by their "superiors". The American mindset lacks many of those problems but has others of its own instead. So, whichever you prefer, just keep in mind that both are far from perfect.

Saturday - Monday (8-10): Tokyo and Disney

I knew that the Beatles club I've been to a couple times before was having another get together Saturday night and I knew I'd be invited again. It was pretty similar to the previous times though there was some new groups this time around, some of which were really good. But anyway, since I knew I was gonna be in Tokyo kinda late that night and was planning to go back into Tokyo on Sunday, I decided to save myself the train rides and try out a capsule hotel...which leads to the following RJC.

Random Japan Comment: Capsule Hotels
Capsules hotels are a special kind of hotel you can find in big cities in Japan, particularly near major train stations like Ueno. Their primary customers seem to be commuting businessmen who either worked way too late into the night or are too drunk from the after hours socializing (see my RJC on sarariman) to get home. But they can also be useful for anyone who's stuck in the city late at night or needs a really cheap place to stay (my stay only cost me about $10 more than what I would have had to pay for the two train tickets I would have had to buy to get to my apartment for the night and then back to Tokyo the next day). But, while a cheap hotel in the US usually means plain rooms, uncomfortable beds, and lousy TV stations, capsule hotels are a very different kind of hotel. First off, there's large group bathrooms on each floor for toilets, sinks, etc, and often a Japanese style group bath (which is like a much less ambient onsen with a big hot tub / bathtub type thing instead of a hot spring). Second, you don't actually get a room but a capsule. As you can see in the first pic, there's halls and halls of those things stacked on top of each other. A capsule is basically a small rectangular space about the size of a single person bed. And that's what it is, a bed. There's a screen you can pull over the entrance when you're inside and there will be a light and usually an alarm clock and radio. Nicer ones also have a TV (although the TV in mine only had one channel). While the capsules are roomy enough, I definitely wouldn't recommend a capsule hotel to anyone with claustrophobia. They're moderately comfortable. Not great, but enough that you shouldn't have trouble sleeping. They have pretty thin walls though so you'd better hope no one in a nearby capsule snores or sets their alarm clock to go off super early (the radio and TV, however, have built in headphones).
Since they cater mainly to businessmen who weren't planning to spend the night, capsule hotels tend to sell everything you need for an overnight stay (combs, razors, soap, toothbrushes, etc). They also may sell some business shirts and ties and have a large assortment of vending machines. The one I stayed at even had a massage parlor.
Now you're probably wondering where people keep their stuff, since there doesn't seem to be much room in the capsules. Well, when you check in you get a shoe locker for your shoes and a regular locker where you can put your clothes and small bags. It also contains a yukata (Japanese robe) for you to wear in the hotel and some towels for the bath. If you've got something too large to fit in the locker, there'll be a room or some other place to stash it.
So, if you've traveling light and cheap, capsule hotels can make an ok, if weird, place to spend the night in Japan's cities. One last thing to note though, since businessmen are the primary cliental and privacy is rather limited, most capsule hotels are for men only.

So that was my capsule hotel experience. Don't think I'd do it again unless I was saving a lot of time or money, but it wasn't too bad. On Sunday I went to the Okeibajo flea market again and picked up a few more bargain priced items then made what will probably be my final trip to Nakano Broadway, where I spent an enjoyable afternoon browsing the CDs and figurines. I'm really gonna miss the shopping in Tokyo when I leave...
Oh, speaking of Nakano, if you ever want to meet Jesus he apparently owns a trading card and used video game shop there on a little side street in the shopping arcade leading up to Nakano Broadway. Unfortunately, Jesus himself didn't seem to be in that day but it was a nice store. Had a really good selection of Yu-Gi-Oh cards. I suppose he must be a big fan. :-P

Finally, I had taken Monday as another personal day so, despite the iffy weather, I decided to take a second trip to Tokyo Disneyland. It rained most of the morning (but cleared up later) but that didn't deter the crowds. Did slow them down a bit though so I was able to hit most of the rides I missed last time around without any horribly long wait times and check out some of the shows too (along with the special Cinderella event they were having). I took a surprising amount of pictures considering the fact that I'd already been there, mainly cause I was still playing with my new camera. Got some pretty nice shots too. But, since I already posted a bunch from last time (and I really need to hurry up and finish typing this so I can go get dinner and do some grocery shopping) I'm not gonna post any here. Except for one, just to show my camera's nifty fireworks mode, which worked a whole lot better than I thought it would.

Wednesday (12th): Stuff Around School
Since the 6th graders in my school will soon be graduating from elementary and moving on to junior high, there's been a lot of special stuff going on at school. They had lunch with a different grade and various teachers every day last week. The other grades threw a little party for them (each grade had a short performance or activity of some sort). Got to try out the video mode on my new camera then. It takes much nicer videos than my old one but, like my old camera, has no video compression what-so-ever so full quality fills up even my 2GB memory card at a rather ridiculous rate. I mean, 640x480 video really shouldn't need over 100megs per minute. I can always take care of that once the files are transferred to my computer but still...
The 6th graders had a little thank you party for the teachers as well. Keep in mind that kids often have the same homeroom teacher (and in elementary, homeroom teachers teach just about everything themselves) for their entire time at any given school (with the teachers moving up in grades along with their students) so they get to know each other pretty well and, since it's a small school, they get to know most of the other teachers and staff as well. It was a nice little event and as a "special guest" one of the boys dressed up like some singer (a girl singer, complete with frilly shirt and skirt) and did a little performance.

Friday (14th): More Things at School
Although there's still a little over a week of school left (last day for me and the students is the 24th, last day for the rest of the teachers and staff is the end of the month (they really don't get much of a break)), my final classes with most of the grades are taking place this week. Since it's the final lesson, we mostly just play some games and have fun. It also makes a good photo op so here's the ones I've got so far (photos of the rest of my classes will come next week). First off, Wednesday was my last day of preschool classes so here's: my three year old class, four year old class, and five year old class (posted pics of some of them last week but this time I got a group shot). Also, here's a shot of some of the special needs kids (though they seem pretty normal to me) I also spend some time with on Wednesdays. There's a couple girls too but they're not always there so I wasn't able to get them in the picture. And, even though I posted some pics of them around Christmas, here's my 4th grade class, 6th grade class, and 3rd grade class.
In a more or less unrelated note, some of the 5th graders asked me to help them out in their home ec class yesterday. Not exactly sure why they asked me, but it was kinda fun. We made kinako, a little Japanese sweet (well, it's not all that sweet by itself, but the topping is a little sweet) that's made from soybean flour (I think) and is a bit like mochi in taste and consistency.

Sunday (17th): Highschool Baseball
One of my coworkers, the one who invited me to her house last year, invited me to come see her son's baseball game (he's left fielder on his highschool team). I didn't have anything big planned so I figured I might as well go. Her son's team played two games that day (against two different teams) and won both...I think. See, there wasn't a working scoreboard at the field and I kinda lost track of the runs. Anyway, highschool baseball is still highschool baseball in Japan, with a couple extra formalities at the beginning and end of the game. The one major difference I noticed was that the Japanese teams love to sacrifice bunt (compared to the highschool baseball I've seen in the US). There was at least one sacrifice bunt (or at least an attempt) in most innings and they'd often do two sacrifice bunts in a row just to get a runner from second to third (and which point someone would usually strike out or hit an easily catchable pop fly before said runner could make it home. I was thinking it might have something to do with the whole Japanese mindset (see my RJC on the Japanese mindset) of teamwork and helping the group (team) instead of yourself. I thought back to an interview I read with the creator of the famous Japanese basketball manga Slam Dunk, and he said that Japanese basketball players tended to pass a lot more than American players instead of trying to go for a big shot since it promoted teamwork and also meant that the individual players didn't have to worry about being held responsible if they screwed up said big shot, since they'd just never take it. He didn't think that was the best way to play the game and I have to agree. But anyway, I'm getting off track.
I'm not a big baseball fan but it wasn't that bad of a way to spend the day and I got to practice my Japanese a bit with some of the parents. I also talked to the coach for a minute. I was introduced to him specifically because he was also the highschool's English teacher...but he spoke to me entirely in Japanese (so I followed suit and used Japanese as well). From what I've heard, most Japanese English teachers can't speak English very well (though many are completely unaware of that fact). Anyway, I also got invited to dinner after the games so I got to try a make your own okonomiyaki restaurant (you got a bowl with the ingredients and the table had a built in grill where you cook them). There's actually a lot of different types of restaurants in Japan with the whole grill in the table thing. Wish I had a table like that back home...

Wednesday (19th): A Few More Class Pictures
As promised, here's pics of my 5th grade class, 1st grade class, and 2nd grade class. If you think that the 1st and 2nd graders look a bit somber compared to the other grades, this wasn't just a casual photo after class, this was a whole little class photo mini event for them and their teachers were really herding them around trying to get them all in just the right spots for the pictures so the kids ended up being rather subdued. Speaking of school, I've only got two days (Friday and Monday, since Thursday is a holiday) and one class (2nd graders on Friday) left. The final classes have been fun, lots of games mainly. I've been giving the kids English Yu-Gi-Oh cards as a little farewell present, which most of them seem to like. Also been giving out my e-mail and snail mail address. It'll be interesting to see who, if anyone, writes. I'm gonna miss the kids.  The 4th graders even gave me a nice group card and the 1st graders all made little cards and origami things for me. Finally, today was the graduation ceremony for the 6th graders (who are moving onto Junior High) so I'll have some pics of that ready for Friday.

Wednesday (21st): 6th Grade Graduation
Like I mentioned before, Wednesday was the graduation ceremony for the 6th grade class at Nogi Elementary. Not really sure why it was on a weekday or why it takes place a couple days before school ends for the rest of the grades. Like quite a lot of things in Japan, it was a bit more formal than what you'd find in the US, especially for elementary school. The entire school staff was there as were all the students, the usual collection of relatives (though not too many fathers, probably because of work), the entire PTA, the head of the Nogi Board of Education, and higher ups from assorted other schools in the area (many of whom gave little speeches). The kids were really well behaved (which seems pretty typical for Japan) and had obviously been drilled on how to act. Not only did they know where to sit and what route to take from their chairs to the podium and back when getting their diplomas, they all walked, pivoted, turned, etc the same way. The whole thing was more organized and choreographed than my college graduation ceremony... Other than the speeches and diplomas, the 6th graders did a little group speech and a song and the other grades had a group speech as well.
The one thing I found most interesting about the ceremony was how serious and somber everyone was (especially in regards to the parents). Everyone clapped when the 6th graders were entering and when they were leaving but other than that there was no applause and all the people just sat there. No cheering, no waving, no crying, I don't think anyone even smiled. They seemed to loosen up a bit after the ceremony but still... I'd heard that Japanese people tend to suppress outward displays of emotion but I never really noticed it much in public or even in my work place before this.
Here's a picture from during the ceremony and a couple from afterwards. Notice that the kids are all dressed up. I think they're wearing their new junior high uniforms.

Thursday was a holiday, the one for the spring equinox. It's one of those days that a lot of people get off work but hardly anyone really celebrates. I had planned to go into Tokyo but it was raining most of the day so I decided to stay home and get some things done around the apartment (getting ready for my mom's arrival and stuff) and save Tokyo for Sunday.

Sunday (24th): Nearing the End

Well, this is it. Today was my last day of work. Time sure has flown... Tomorrow my mom comes, I leave my apartment at the end of the month and I leave Japan on April 13. It'll be nice to get back but I'm a little sad to leave too. I've been teaching seven months (and will have been in Japan for around eight by the time I get home). Wouldn't have minded staying for a full year (I replaced an ALT who had to leave unexpectedly after the first term of the school year, so my contract was a bit shorter than the norm) but more than that, I don't know. I do miss game design and plenty of things from home. Plus, if I stayed too much longer I'd really want a better apartment (at very least, improved heating and a full kitchen) and a higher salary (I love my school and the area isn't bad but Nogi pays its ALTs very poorly (as in, lowest ALT salary I've ever heard of)) so that would complicate things a bit. But, to commemorate, here's a new list of what I'll miss most from Japan and what I'm looking forward to getting back to in the US.

Top 5 Things I'll Miss From Japan (in no particular order)
1. Nogi Elementary. The kids especially. While I could take or leave the job (being an ALT isn't bad, but I'm not in love with it), the kids are great and lots of fun to be around. My coworkers have all been awesome as well.
2. My friends in Tokyo. I go in every Saturday for services. It's a great group of people and I'm gonna miss them.
3. The constant Japanese practice. While my Japanese isn't where I'd like it to be yet, I think I've improved quite a lot in only seven months.
4. Akihabara & Nakano Broadway. I never get tired of browsing all the awesome anime, game, figurine, etc, etc, etc shops. There's so much cool stuff and it seems like I'm always stumbling across some great new store or item I never saw before. The US really doesn't have anything that even comes close.
5. The food. Kaiten zushi in particular. Some one really needs to open a chain of them in the US... But yeah, the sushi is awesome, there's some really neat breads, and good Japanese curry isn't all that easy to find back in the US either.

Top 5 Things I'm Looking Forward to Getting Back To (in no particular order)
1. Family, friends, etc. This is a pretty obvious one. Japan is quite a long way from home (and a pretty expensive plane ride too).
2. Having a bigger place to live and a car, oven, dryer, etc. My apartment in Japan is tiny and my salary is low so I'm missing lots of useful stuff that I'm used to having around.
3. English. Sure the Japanese practice is great, but there's also something to be said for understanding everything that's said around you, being able to read all the signs, etc.
4. Stores. I really love shopping in Tokyo but books, DVDs, and games are all in Japanese. You can find imports occasionally but usually with a big mark up. Of course, after another year or two here my Japanese would probably improve to the point where that wouldn't be so much of an issue (except for DVDs, since Japanese DVDs are just way too expensive).
5. The food. You can get great Japanese food in Japan, great Indian food, and occasionally great Chinese food but that's about it. Authentic American food and Italian food are extremely rare and other types of food (like Mexican) are nearly nonexistent. It'll be nice to have more of a variety again (not to mention a good pizza).

Anyway, since it's my last day I gave a little speech to the students and staff, gathered up all my stuff, and the like. I also got cards from all the grades that hadn't already given me one and a present from the faculty. It was all really nice and I'm gonna miss everyone here.  Though I'm not at all fond of my apartment, I really only have good memories of Nogi Elementary. Really glad I ended up working at such a great place. And now, I suppose I should mention what I did Sunday.

Sunday (24th): Last Hurrah
I spent the day in Tokyo since this was really my last chance to just hang out there and do what I want (not my last time in Tokyo, but on future visits I'll be showing my mom around). First off, since it was open again, I decided I might as well go see the Museum of Western Art (I was going to go earlier this year but it was closed for maintenance). It's in the middle of Ueno Park so I walked through the park on the way and got my first good look at sakura (Japanese cherry) blossoms. Though the exact season varies a bit by location, weather, and the trees themselves, they usually start to bloom in mid to late March and last until early to mid April. It's still a bit early in the season now so, while there were occasional trees in full bloom (like in that picture above) a lot of them were still mostly buds. There's a whole path lined with sakura trees in Ueno Park. It was very nice as is and I'm sure it's really spectacular when they're all in bloom. Since I'm probably going to end up posting quite a lot of pictures of sakura blossoms before returning to the US, I don't want to put up too many right now. But, here's a nice close up and here's some people out for a day of sakura viewing. It's a common pastime during sakura season which involves staking out a spot (sometimes far in advance) and spending the day sitting there with friends, family, or coworkers, and looking at the sakura blossoms. There's often a lot of drinking involved as well.
The Museum of Western Art was nice. Their main collection wasn't huge but they had things by some pretty famous artists, including a whole lot of casts of Rodin's works. They were also having a special exhibit of all sorts of art depicting the goddess Venus (or Aphrodite if, like me, you prefer the original Greek names to the Roman). There was some pretty neat stuff, including some Greek vases that were over 2000 years old.
After I'd finished looking around the museum, I decided to walk around Ameyayokochou (the big collection of shopping streets in Ueno) since I haven't done that for a while. A while ago I mentioned that I wanted to get a picture of one of those kebab stands with the big pillars of meat, well, here it is. While I was there I also tried sakura flavored ice cream. It had a very mild taste but was pretty good.
I spent the rest of the day in Akihabara. I gave pachinko one last try while I was there (didn't win anything) but I mainly browsed the shops. Although I often run into Akihabara when I'm in Tokyo, I'm usually just there long enough to stop in a favorite store or two. I think this was really only my third big explore and browse day. So, aside from going through all my favorite stores, I ended up coming across lots of really cool ones that I'd never seen before. For example, I found the largest figurine store I've ever seen by far and lots of stores with great selections of game and anime soundtracks (including some pretty rare stuff). I'd always figured Akihabara should have more good soundtrack stores than I knew about... Turns out most of them are in an area that I hadn't really thoroughly explored yet.

Wednesday (26th): Tokyo With My Mom
Monday was my last day of work. Tuesday I picked up my mom at the airport and that was about it, aside from a short stop in Akihabara before hand to grab one thing and get lunch. The touring started today so I'll move right on to that.

Today was the first of a few Tokyo days. We started out in Ueno Park. Since I was there Sunday, most of the cherry blossom trees have gone into full bloom so here's a few pictures. Here's my Mom, here's a nice shot of the trees along the path, and here's me. And, just because they turned out really well, here's a couple of close ups of some other types of flowers in the park. Aside from looking at the flowers, we also walked through the Tokyo National Museum. I already talked all about it in a previous post and, aside from some rotating displays, it was pretty much the same as before. Definitely one of the better museums I've been to here.
After that we walked around Ameya (the short name for the big shopping street area in Ueno) and then Ginza for a while. Once again, I've already said about everything I have to say about them so if you don't remember you can read my old posts.
When my mom had finished browsing the shops in Ginza we made our way to the nearby kabuki theater. Kabuki is one of the ancient Japanese preforming arts. It's plays but, unlike Western theater, which tends to focus on the characters and/or the story, kabuki is mainly about the actors. You don't go for a great plot, you go to see the main actor(s) put on a great performance. As such, it's very different than plays from back home. Movements are flowing, exaggerated, and very dance like, stories are simple, and little effort is made to conceal the methods behind special effects and the like from the audience. Another thing worth mentioning is that all roles (women included) are played by men. Naturally, dress is old traditional Japanese style and there's live music and singing throughout, all with traditional instruments like the shamisan.
The theater in Ginza changes shows every month and has a block of several shows from late morning through mid afternoon and one from late afternoon through late evening. You get buy tickets for an entire block in advance or, if you get there early enough, you can wait in line and get a cheap ticket that'll get you in for a single show (about 25-45 minutes depending on the play, while a block of shows with intermissions and all can span several hours). Keep in mind though, if you get a single show ticket you'll be sitting really far back. The theater itself is pretty nice and has lots of food and souvenir stands you can visit during the intermissions between shows. Even better, for a small fee you can rent a little radio thing that will explain the play in English as you watch. Instead of just giving a straight up translation of what everyone is saying, it will go so far as to explain the setting, meaning of the words, word plays that non-Japanese speakers won't understand, etc. It'll also talk a bit about the history and details of kabuki itself during intermissions. So yeah, I'd definitely recommending renting one if you ever go. Speaking of which, I was surprised to see how much word play was in the shows we saw. While any serious anime fan can tell you how much Japanese people love puns and word games, I didn't realize that type of humor dated so far back.
Unfortunately photos and videos of the plays weren't allowed, but I do have a picture of me standing in front of the theater.

Thursday (27th): Nikko With My Mom
Since I consider Nikko an absolute must see spot for anyone visiting this part of Japan, I took my Mom there. We started out seeing the area with all the famous shrines, which I've already spent plenty of time talking about before (seeing as this is my third trip and all). But, while I don't feel like retyping the whole thing (read my old posts for details), that's no reason not to post a few new pictures. For example, I never did post one that shows just how tall the trees there are. And, even though I've already said how awesome some of the carvings are, I can take much nicer photos of them now that I've got a 10x zoom. So we saw the shrines and then walked around the town for a while, including an area way off to the side that I hadn't been through before.

Friday (28th): Back to Tokyo
This was our second Tokyo day. First stop, Asakusa, home of lots of neat souvenir shops, and a place I've also talked about before (sorry, I'll be visiting new places starting Tuesday so there'll be lots more to talk about after that). We walked around there for a while (here I am beneath one of Asakusa shrine's big paper lanterns) and got lunch then headed to Tokyo Tower. Yet again, if you want full details on the tower you should look at my previous posts. But here's a shot of Zenkoji shrine that I took from the top. See all the cherry blossoms?
Last stop was Akihabara because, even if you aren't real into electronics, anime, manga, or games (like my mom) it's still kinda neat to walk around for a few minutes. Plus Yodobashi Camera has that awesome food court and all... Tried the shabushabu restaurant there this time (shabushabu, aka hot pot, is where you cook meat and vegetables in a big pot full of hot water or broth at your table). The real interesting thing about this restaurant (at least if you're enough accustomed to Japanese food to think shabushabu is normal) is that, first off, how much you pay is determined by your age and gender and then it's all you can eat shabushabu (meat, veggies, and noddles), rice, and desert for 90 minutes. Go over that time and you get charged extra. For a little more you could get unlimited drinks too. Don't think I've ever seen a timed system like that before.

Saturday (29th): Night Out in Tokyo
Like every Saturday, I went to services in Tokyo. Naturally, my mom came along this time as did a Japanese woman who is a friend of a friend back in Colorado. Anyway, Yukie (that friend of a friend) hung out with us for a while Saturday night after services were over. We went to a karaoke parlor (I did a few Japanese songs again to show off) and then got kaiten zushi, so that was fun. Here's a picture that actually has Yukie in it.

Sunday (30th): Okeibajo, Odaiba, Onsen, and Some Stuff That Doesn't Begin With O

This was the last of our big Tokyo touring days. First off, I took my mom to the weekend flea market at the Okeibajo race track. I've talked all about it before (gee I'm getting tired of saying that) but just to recap, it's a huge flea market held in the parking lot of the Okeibajo horse racing track nearly every weekend. You can find some great deals there on just about anything. I highly recommend it to anyone who is going to be in Tokyo over a weekend.
Next stop Odaiba (which I covered pretty thoroughly in a couple of past posts), but we didn't go alone. Yehoshua, the guy who leads the group I go to in Tokyo every week, likes to show people around Odaiba so we met up with him and his wife. Here's a picture of them and me in front of Odaiba's mini Statue of Liberty. He led the way for a while but, as I was more familiar with some parts of Odaiba than he was, I ended up leading a bit too. So we walked around all the big malls (Decks, Seaside Mall, and Venus Fort) for a while and watched a lady play the accordion.
We eventually ended up at Odaiba's onsen (hot springs) theme park, Edo Onsen Montigiri. One again, details on the park itself can be found in a previous post. It was pretty much the same as the last time I was there (though perhaps a bit more crowded) although, because of the season, they had put up a lot of fake cherry blossoms. The performer they had that evening was really good too. He did a lot of stuff but most of it involved tuba playing (such as playing the tuba while roller skating). Anyway, Edo Onsen Montigiri a pretty neat place and great if you want to get the onsen experience without heading to some mountain resort. Here's a picture from after dinner, here's me in a yukata (does it make me look fat?), and my mom and Yehoshua's wife (whose name I'm not really sure how to spell) in the foot bath.
Overall it was a fun day and my mom really liked Edo Onsen Montigiri.

Monday (31st): Goodbye to Koga & Nogi
Monday doesn't really need much of a write up since we didn't go anywhere. I originally had something planned but since we got back pretty late Sunday night and I still hadn't been told when the guy was coming to pick up my apartment key, we decided to sleep in and spend the day finishing the packing and stuff. Wasn't until about mid morning when I finally got a call about the apartments. Turns out the guy who was supposed to let me know forgot and no one realized it until then. Annoying, but it all worked out in the end. I also got to meet the new ALT who will be replacing me at Nogi Elementary, since he was being moved in right after I moved out. He seems like a nice guy (which is good, since I'd feel bad if my departure left my students and coworkers with a lousy ALT) and I was able to pass on the stuff I'm not bringing back to the US (kitchen stuff, bike, heater, etc), which I was afraid I'd have to either throw out or give to Joytalk. My mom and I are spending the night at a hotel in Koga (which has surprisingly large rooms, although you need to buy prepaid time cards to watch TV) and then tomorrow morning it's off to Nagoya, where we'll be staying until Sunday. So I'll have plenty of new stuff to talk about come Wednesday.

Part 7: February 2008

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