Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Best Time Ever.

Tokyo Tower

...And so ends an era in my life. It's hard to believe it's over. I knew I'd have to wake from the dream eventually, but that does little to relieve the sting. I'd become quite comfortable in Tokyo...to the point where it felt like all I'd ever known. Will I ever be back? I hope so. I now feel such a strong bond with Japan, and there are certain elements I'll never forget.

Studio Ghibli Museum



Tokyo Disney w/ Jae

But through it all, I know I must return to reality, and let this fantasy world become just another part of my life. What breaks my heart most is that the further I get away from it, I'm sure it will feel more and more like a dream...or perhaps just some story I read about or some movie I watched. Though it only took up 4 months, I can safely say it has been the most important experience of my 20 years thus far. Living on my own in a foreign land allowed me to do significant soul-searching, and helped me realize what it is exactly that I want and need in life. It also gave me more self-confidence in all manner of things from surviving unknown regions to dealing with potentially nightmarish public transportation. Thank you, Tokyo, for all that you've given me and shown me, I know for certain that I'm a much older and understanding man than when I left the States.

Journey's End. Back Home.

America vs. Japan: What I Won't Miss

- Endless coins/change jangling & sitting heavy in your pocket because Japan is a cash-based society...very little chance to use cards either.

- Not being able to communicate with most people, especially if someone needs help or I simply want to strike up a conversation.

- HUGE crowds.

- Smoking everywhere. Sometimes it can be a bit overwhelming.

- Being mistaken for a 30-year-old often due to a bit of facial hair.

- Failing to understand most signs.

- Failing to walk successfully on sidewalks.

- Lack of ketchup.

- Miserable conversion rate of yen with US dollar (at this time).

- TV only equipped with Japanese channels.

- Fully-dressed dogs in baby carriages.

- Japanese pop & rock music.

- UFO Arcade games. Addictive, lost lots of money.

- Automatic doors that are roughly 100x slower than their American counterparts.

- Japanese street performers. Especially howling ones banging on garbage cans under bridges.

- Earthquakes.

- Employees yelling outside for people to enter their shop.

- Low doorways.

- Way too many different kinds of pickles.

- Lack of napkins. The Japanese shouldn't expect foreigners to be as clean as they are.

- Technically not being allowed to your blow nose in public.

- Creepy mustaches.

- Guys with pillows for girlfriends.

- Stray cats without tails.

- Large trucks barreling down alleyways barely large enough for pedestrian traffic.

- Ridiculous haircuts.

- A high sense of fashion that I cannot comprehend or afford.

-  Occasional xenophobia (but it's not like the rest of the world doesn't suffer from this too).

- Tricky extra charges on bills.

- Japanese businessmen in full black suits, standing unbothered in direct sunlight, casually smoking cigarettes during the dog days of summer...while I whimpered, in gym clothes, sweating profusely, in minimal shade --- waiting for trains.

America vs. Japan: What I'll Miss

Well, I figured it was time to chalk up a bit of a comparative list...considering it's more or less the 11th hour at this point, and I've nearly garnered a solid 4 month stint in Tokyo under my belt.

Here's what I'll certainly miss when I have to fly back to the States -- I'll post another list shortly of what I'll be happy to be rid of....

Without further ado:

- Unagi. Friends TV show jokes aside, I'll miss true Japanese eel most when it comes to food, and the fact that it's so easily accessible and fairly cheap will only further fuel my longing for it once I'm back in America.

- C.C. Lemon. The finest Vitamin C-charged beverage this side of the Pacific Ocean. Cures everything from hangovers to death. Shocked it hasn't made the journey stateside. (UPDATE: IT HAS)

- Nomehoudai. 'All-You-Can-Drink'. A truly beautiful idea. One that will certainly never see the light of day in the West.

- UDON. Delicious, thick noodles that will never be matched as well (or as cheap) in America.

- McDonald's being a delicious, respectable eatery, and a place of employment where one isn't sometimes regarded as a failure.

- Super Potato. A retro paradise situated in Akihabara. Where my childhood heart will forever remain.

BOSS billboard

- Takadanobaba Circle. A place where I've seen more amazing, unbelievable sights than I ever will again. Not to mention the gigantic billboard ad of Tommy Lee Jones' face and the word 'BOSS' right above it.

- Respect (politeness/manners). Honestly, show me a place where people will bow to you after you buy a pack of gum from them, and I'll show you fifty places where they'll give you a blackeye and boot out the door for just showing your face.

- Arcades. They unfortunately all but died in the 90's out West.

- No Tipping.

- Vending Machines. I mean, the overabundance of them. So wonderful.

- Everyone being Japanese. I mean, it's really wild being used to the American melting pot.

- Public Drunkenness. The hilarity of it, as well as the surprising acceptance of it by society and police.

- Roppongi. The sin city of Tokyo where foreigners crawl the streets seeking sustenance.

- Karaoke. Honestly, you have no idea how great it can be until you try it in Tokyo.

- Freshness Burger. No idea what they use to make their meat since it's most likely not beef...but, oh boy, is it good.

- Japanese Children. Not trying to sound creepy, but they're adorable and all so well-behaved (unlike me).

- Having a beard and automatically being a western celebrity/30 years old.

- Ken Watanabe & Darth Vader sharing advertisements for a cell phone company.

- Konbini (convenience stores) at every corner with high-quality/high-speed service.

- Traditional Garb. It's like falling through time whenever you see a kimono or wooden clogs.

- Takeshita Street. Pure schoolgirl insanity in Harajuku. Fashion so absurd that it would've made Marie Antoinette volunteer her head for the guillotine.

- Mustaches. Tend to be the best Japanese men are capable of...everything from creepy little Hitler 'staches to railroad-villain ones.

- Onsen. Outdoor public baths, mineral water, stone massages. etc.

- People of all ages and professions playing handheld video game systems together on trains.

- Gyoza. Onigiri. Kiragi...etc. etc. etc. Japanese food that isn't EVERYWHERE (and cheap) in America.

Bunraku: These Ain't No Regular Puppets

I figured it was time to get a bit of the arts a try, and knowing Japan had three well-known forms, I decided I’d be a fool to at least not attend one. The three famous forms of theater in Japan are Noh, Kabuki, and Bunraku. Noh plays are traditionally dramatic musicals, known for their intricate masks which distinguish certain characters, as well as denote change in form for certain roles. Kabuki is the dance-drama arm of Japanese theater, and is well-known for its highly-respected costumes and make-up adorning the actors. Lastly, Bunraku, is a dramatic show employing the use of puppets. I managed to catch a Bunraku show at The National Theater of Japan, and you can rest assured, this was not some kid's birthday party puppet show.

As I entered, I was fortunate enough to snag an English earpiece to help translate the show. Otherwise, I would’ve had to do a whole lot of guessing (plus, it's a 4-hour show). I mean, there’s plenty going on in terms of action, and enough for one to draw their own conclusions without understanding the dialogue, but it just wouldn’t be as enjoyable without a clear hold of what events are unfolding. Once I paid a 1,000-yen deposit on the earpiece (roughly $12), I was led into the main theater, and realized that I was the only non-Japanese person in attendance, out of 200 or so.

The stage was massive, and a beautiful curtain was spread across it blocking out everything. A little to the side sat another stage, seating two musical performers, who would switch out with two new performers by way of a rotating wall as the show progressed. One would sing the dialogue of every puppet, while the other would strum away on a shamisen (more or less a Japanese banjo). Each musician is introduced before each scene in the play, and it is customary for the audience to applaud after each one is named and bows accordingly.

The performance I happened to see was 4 hours long, which also had a 30-minute intermission. I was completely unprepared for the length. I managed to snag a coffee and go to the bathroom during intermission, but I didn’t realize that most people gorged themselves over dinner during this period until it was too late. As the show progressed, I struggled to stifle my pangs of hunger. Regardless, the show was well worth the suffering.

Each standard puppet is carried about the stage by a puppet master completely adorned in a full black ensemble, similar to how I'd imagine a Japanese executioner might dress for their job. The three primary roles in the performance are tremendously complex puppets and require three puppeteers working at all times. The jobs split three ways tend to end up with one maintaining the legs, one controlling an arm and the head/face, and the last one manipulating the other arm and the puppet’s torso. The entire operation is truly awe-inspiring, and if ever given the chance to check out a Bunraku show, please be sure to do so…it’s remarkable - there must be a form of magic these puppeteers employ because at times you honestly forget you are watching puppets on the stage.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Harajuku Fa-Fa-Fa-Fashion

If any older Japanese still clinging to pre-war Japan, the world devoid of most western-culture influence, were to stroll down Takeshita Street in Harajuku, you could bet seppuku would cross their minds. This thin road, overpopulated by fashion shops complete with all things bizarre and wholly unnecessary, symbolizes the decline that many elder Japanese believe the youth has embraced. You can find sock stores with strange, hypersexual imagery right next to t-shirt shops with purposely-butchered “Engrish” etched across stereotypically American images like McDonald’s golden arches or the Kellogg's Corn Flakes rooster.

Schoolgirl Stampede.

Around 3 P.M. the seas of schoolgirls come skirting out of the woodwork, and the alley becomes a sudden game of fording a river full of high socks and short skirts. What makes matters worse (and only further adds to the insanity) is the fact that photographers roam about seeking out the best-dressed for “future modeling jobs”, which they will likely never make good on. And thanks to the American pop star Gwen Stefani's 2003 album with strong influences from Takeshita's culture, you can find tons of bumbling gaijin idiots shuffling about taking as many pictures as possible (certainly not excluding my big, dumb, American self).

White women are all the rage.

The rest of Harajuku tends to have sidewalks flooding with higher fashion and shops which require you to pawn off a limb in order to purchase anything. However, this doesn’t stop the Japanese youth from roadblocking in any way they can -- dusting off their very best threads in the meantime. Harajuku certainly is a “cool” place, however it can also be blamed for the trend in Japanese youth consumerism to spend as much as possible on superficial garbage. So, in a way, you can’t completely disagree with the elder Japanese lamenting its existence.

Go ask Alice.

Yakyu: Japanese Baseball

Baseball (yakyu or ‘field ball’ in Japan) was first introduced to Japan in 1878 by Hiroshi Hiraoka, who had become a huge fan of the Boston Red Stockings (the Boston Red Sox later adopted their name from this original Boston baseball team) while studying in Boston. Since it’s inception, it has grown into a rather dominant force, becoming an influential part of the Japanese sports world, and in many ways a strong cultural component shared with the West.

Casually enjoying some yakyu.

Some believe baseball has evolved into a modern-day vehicle for the samurai code of Bushido to survive, likely due to its original form as a moral discipline and less as a leisure activity. These old school fans view each act by a player as an indicator of their loyalty to their team, and the depth of their sacrifice to it. On the other hand, America tends to have a slew of celebrity players generally worrying more about personal stats and salary than deference to one’s team.

Unlike their American counterparts, most servers are cute Japanese girls.

I attended a game between The Yokohama Bay Stars and The Hanshin Tigers in the middle of October. The Tigers bested the Bay Stars 9-3. I’ve been a lifelong fan and player of baseball, and I try to see at least 2-3 MLB games a year. Watching Japanese baseball in the heart of the Bay Star’s stadium was certainly an unusual experience. American baseball pushes a family-friendly appeal, though, still remains a serious affair to most devout fans. Conversely, Japanese yakyu seems to dial up the family-friendly atmosphere further, with an almost American Triple-A baseball feel, considering the excessive breaks of dancing mascots and t-shirt bazookas between innings. However, in yakyu’s defense, I have a feeling it may be more of a Bay Star tradition because Hanshin Tiger Nation represented an entirely different beast.

The Bay Star fans (seemed to fill roughly the whole grandstand section and right side of the stadium) seemed to symbolize the average, steady fan; one who will applaud their team for solid play, but is more or less there to enjoy a casual baseball game. Hanshin Tiger Nation represented a fervent, frothing, and fanatic army. Had WW2-era's Empire of Japan had a baseball unit in their military…Tiger Nation would be it.


 To attempt an American baseball parallel, Hanshin Tiger fans would fit right in with the Yankees and Red Sox nations, whereas the Bay Stars would be more in line with any AA or AAA baseball team, where there's competitive play, but the crowd isn't holding their breaths on every pitch. Or any, for that matter.

I hope to attend another yakyu game in the future, however, I think I’d very much prefer for it to be a Hanshin Tigers or Yomiuri Giants game…team names that are known in America for a reason.

A ridiculous (sports-car-included) Japanese call-to-the-bullpen below:


Nikko: Hellooooooooo Nurse!

A two-hour train ride north from Tokyo will get you to a little place called Nikko. It's situated in the beautiful, idyllic landscapes of Tochigi, and is a common travel spot for tourists and native Japanese alike due to its many religious and astounding natural offerings. Nikko’s National Park contains many notable sites such as the Shinkyō (God Bridge), the Tōshō-gū (most-famous Shinto shrine containing spirit of Tokugawa Ieyasu),  Rinnō-ji (gorgeous Buddhist temple complex), and the Taiyū-in Mausoleum, which is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu's remains.

Shinkyō (God Bridge)
The Shinkyō (God Bridge) is truly a magnificent landmark; its vibrant, red color shines in the picturesque nature surrounding it. It was once only accessible by Japanese royalty, however, now for a meager few hundred yen, even stupid American tourists (myself included) may set foot on it.

Sanzaru (Three Wise Monkeys)

The Three Wise Monkeys (Sanzaru) are carvings decorating the hallowed stable on the grounds of the Taiyū-in Mausoleum, and they represent the maxim "see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil". They were unfortunately much smaller than I believed they would be, but nonetheless, the condition the stable remains in was more than enough to reverse my initial let-down.

The Sleeping Cat (Nemuri-neko) is another famous carving in the Tōshō-gū Shrine, which is supposed to symbolize Nikko as the nourishment of body, mind, and spirit. It happened to be even smaller than the monkeys, and I never would’ve even seen the little carving had it not been for the thousands of photographers crawling around it.

Tokugawa Ieyasu was the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which reigned in Japan from 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and his burial shrine is everything you would expect. It sleeps, hidden at the top of scores of steps in the heart of a massive forest. The silence is deafening. Napoleon and all other grand, one-time dictators would certainly be jealous of its grandeur.

Aside from the shrine searching, I also managed to check out Lake Chūzenji and Kegon Falls, which sit at the top of Mt. Nantai. My eyes have never seen anything quite as beautiful as a sunset on Chūzenji. Had I been struck blind immediately after, I think I’d be able to understand it as some form of punishment for the Gods allowing me to briefly glimpse Heaven while on earth. Just standing on that shore sparked a deep, deep desire to retire near it…a feeling I have never before experienced in my slight twenty years of life. Kegon Falls did not disappoint either, and the many eateries situated at the summit surrounding it further proved why I love Japanese cuisine. Flame-broiled squid on a skewer with an ear of grilled corn combined the pleasures of the eyes with the pleasures of the stomach. However, even within all of Kegon’s beauty, there’s a definite sadness inherent in the crashing water because it remains one of Japan’s most popular suicide spots and once housed the fateful suicide note carved into a tree by Misao Fujimura before his own unfortunate jump.

Lake Chuzenji
Kegon Falls

Nikko proved to be an interesting foil to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. Upon leaving Nikko Station for the first time, the slower pace and friendlier atmosphere was already present. We puttered about a bit, in search of our hostel, and several different people approached us, elderly Japanese with warm faces and kind eyes, trying to get us to where we needed to go…after understanding a bit about us first, of course. The residents of Nikko seemed to have a much stronger human element; what mattered to them was the happiness of each day, one at a time, and that we had the best experience during our short visit to their homeland. We understood that their survival depended on our tourism; however, it was clearer to us that they cared more about who we were as people and where we were from than what sat in our fat, foreigner wallets. We were recommended fantastic eateries; one such izakaya treated us like kings when we told them which one of their friends had sent us. A round of Kirin on the house, and that was enough to relax our bodies and let the spending spree commence.

I plan on making it back to Japan, possibly to teach English for a few years if I can’t capture a solid enough writing job in New York City after graduation. Nikko is at the top of my list for a place to revisit, and if I ever have a family someday, I plan on scraping together every last nickel and dime together so that they too may experience the sun setting over Lake Chūzenji.