Tuesday, December 14, 2010


And so ends an era in my life. It's hard to believe it's over. I knew the dream would have to end eventually, but it's a hard pill to swallow. I had become quite comfortable in Tokyo...to the point where it felt like it had been 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 many things that I’ve connected very deeply with…certain elements that I will never forget and always long to be reunited with. But through it all, I know that I must return to reality, and let this fantasy world become just another part of my life, even though the further I get away from it, I'm sure it will feel more and more like a fantasy...or perhaps just some story I read about or some movie I watched. Though it only took up slightly less than 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 have given me and shown me, I know for certain that I'm a much older and understanding man than when I left the States.

America vs. Japan: What Missed.

And now for my second list...Elements of Japan that will not be missed:

-Endless coins/change in your pocket because Japan (and even Tokyo) is a cash-based society...very little chance to use cards either.

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

-HUGE crowds.

-Smoking everywhere. It's not the end of the world, just something completely different than America.

-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 with Japanese people/bikes.

-Lack of ketchup.

-The yen's miserable conversion rate relationship with the US dollar (at this time).

-A TV only equipped with Japanese channels.

-Dogs fully dressed and in baby carriages. WHAT.

-Japanese music. Awful.

-UFO Arcade games. Addictive, never win, lose lots of money.

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

-Japanese street performers. From cross-dressers to howlers banging on garbage cans under bridges.


-Employees yelling outside for people to enter their shop.

-Low doorways.

-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.

-The occasional foreigner-hater (but I guess every country does that too).

-Tricky extra charges on bills.

American vs. Japan: What Will Be Missed

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, I've decided to gather up some lists of what I'll certainly miss when I have to fly back to the States...and what I'll be happy to be rid of.

Without further ado:

Things I Will Miss:

-Unagi. Friends 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 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.

-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.

-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.

-No Tipping.

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

-Everyone being Japanese. I mean, it's kind of cool, in a way.

-Public Drunkenness. The hilarity of it, as well as the surprisingly 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, it's good.

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

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

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

-Konbini/Convenience Stores at every corner and with high-quality/high-speed service

-Traditional Garb. It's really cool whenever you see a kimono or wooden clogs.

-Takeshita Street. Pure schoolgirl insanity in Harujuku. Crazy fashion that would've made Marie Antoinette volunteer at slipping her head in the guillotine.

-Mustaches. Generally the best most Japanese men are capable of...everything from creepy little Hitler mustaches to railroad villain type ones.

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

-People of all ages and professions playing handheld video game systems with each other on trains.

-Gyoza. Onigiri. Kiragi...etc. etc. etc. Japanese food that isn't EVERYWHERE in America.

These Ain't No Regular Puppets: BUNRAKU

I figured it was time to get a bit of the arts a try, and knowing that 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, which are 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. Finally, the third, Bunraku, is a dramatic show, which employs the use of puppets. I managed to catch a Bunraku show at The National Theater of Japan, and you can rest assured; this was no 12th birthday party puppet show.

I was fortunate enough to snag an English earpiece to help translate the show I went to because otherwise I would’ve had to do a whole lot of guessing. 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 roughly 200.

The stage was massive, and a beautiful curtain was spread across it blocking out everything. A bit to the side sat another stage was eventually seated two musical performers, who would switch out with two new performers by way of a rotating wall: 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 had a 30 minute intermission, and which I happened to be completely unprepared for. I managed to snag a coffee and go to the bathroom during it, but I didn’t realize that most people gorged themselves over dinner during this period, because during the last 30 minutes of the performance I struggled to stifle my pangs of hunger. Luckily, the show was well worth the pains.

Each puppet is carried about the stage by a puppet master completely adorned in a full black ensemble appearing as how a Japanese executioner might look 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 ordeal is truly spectacular, and if ever given the chance to check out a Bunraku show, please be sure to do so…it’s truly remarkable, the magic these puppeteers employ because at times you do forget that they are puppets and not actual people acting upon the stage.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Harajuku- fa-fa-fa-fashion

If any older Japanese still clinging to pre-war Japan, the world void of most cultural western influence, were to stroll down Takeshita Street in Harajuku, you could bet seppuku would cross their mind. 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 succumbed to. You can find sock stores with strange, hypersexual imagery right next to t-shirt shops with purposely-butchered “Engrish” strewn across stereotypically American images like McDonald’s golden arches and Corn Flake’s rooster.

Right around 3 P.M., the seas of schoolgirls come rolling out of the woodwork, and the alley becomes a 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 never make good on. And thanks to Gwen Stefani, an American pop-star of sorts who wrote a popular album in 2003 with strong influences from the Takeshita 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).

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 road blocking 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 aged Japanese lamenting its existence.

Baseball (or yakyu ‘field ball’) was first introduced to Japan in 1878 by Hiroshi Hiraoka, who had become a huge fan of the Red Stockings (the Boston Red Sox later adopted their name from them) while he was studying in Boston for several years. 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. Some believe baseball has evolved into a modern-day vehicle for the samurai code of Bushido, because when it first started out it was viewed less as a leisure activity and more of a moral discipline. 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 whom generally worry more about personal stats and salary than the deference to one’s team.

The specific game that I attended was between the Yokohama Bay Stars and the Hanshin Tigers in the middle of October. As was to be expected, the Tigers crushed the Bay Stars 9-3. I’ve been a lifelong fan and player of baseball, and I generally make an effort to see at least 2-3 professional games in person 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, however, it still remains a serious affair to most devout fans. Conversely, Japanese yakyu seems to force a family friendly atmosphere, with an almost American Triple-A baseball feel, considering the excessive breaks of dancing mascots and t-shirt-shooting bazookas in between innings. However, in yakyu’s defense, I have a feeling that it may be more of a Bay Star’s tradition because Tiger Nation appeared to represent an entirely different beast.
The Bay Star fans to the right 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 the game. Hanshin Tiger Nation represents a fervent, frothing, and certainly fanatic army of sorts, in such a way that if the Empire of Japan had a baseball unit in their military…Tiger Nation would be it. To put it into 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 the Royals or Indians, teams that haven’t seen glory days in decades and whose teams have all but given up.

I certainly 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…teams that are known in America for a reason.

Note the insanity of Tiger Nation and a Japanese call to the bullpen below:

video video

Nikko: Hellooooooooo Nurse.

There's a little place called Nikko 2 hours (by train) north of Tokyo, 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 naturally beautiful offerings. Nikko’s National Park contains many well known sites such as the Shinkyō (God Bridge), the Tōshō-gū, Rinnō-ji, and the Taiyū-in Mausoleum, which is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu. The 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 may set foot on it. The Three Wise Monkeys (sanzaru) are carvings decorating the hallowed stable on the grounds of the Taiyū-in Mausoleum, and they represent the maxim of ‘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 is remarkable. 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.

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.