Sunday, April 30, 2006

Cell Phone GET!

Hi Everybody,

Boy, you sure don`t appreciate technology until it is gone. That being said, I just purchased my cell phone the other day (it is a NTT DoCoMo) - it is super neat. I can read emails on it, and do video conferencing, and send text messages, and even grate my own daikon radish.

My cell number is 090-3268-7024.

There`s also an email address for my phone for when I am on the run.

Mom and I are having problems right now with calling my cell number from the United States though.

I have pictures and stories for a new update, but recently I lost my magical wireless network I was pirating off of. I am hoping the family just went on vacation for Golden Week. Right now I am using my host family`s computer, but it is SLOW AS SNAILS!

I hope to update soon, but this week is a national holiday and the Stanford Center is closed.


Wednesday, April 26, 2006


...muridatta. Translation: How I took the Ikkyu Test and learned what little Japanese I actually know. As expected, the test was far too difficult for my Japanese level. It seemed that you basically had to be billingual in order to pass the test (which makes sense if the test is a clearance for working fulltime in Japan). Not only was there tons of stuff that I didn't know, I dont even know how you could get to the level where you could pass a test like that. I think even if you lived in Japan for a couple of years, unless you made a concerted effort to learn vocab and grammar, the test would still be too difficult. I bet even Japanese students would have to think a lot while taking the test. This is because the kanji knowledge and vocab skills needed are through the roof. Yamaoka Sensei said that both of us were at the Nikkyu level or second tier. Nikkyu is merely Neosporin and a Band-Aid for your lack of language proficiency boo boo. I left feeling dejected and binged that night on deluxe Decoure Pocky.

On a lighter note, during my bike ride home yesterday someone asked me where one could get pot in Kyoto. He was a white guy. I think he might have been a cop because when he first started to talk to me he sounded really American but all the sudden he switched and began talking in a deep Scottish accent. He told me he was from Scotland and started to ask me if I had any pot, or if I knew where to get any pot, or if I could give him some pot right now - as if I can manifest pot out of thin air. I didn't tell him that I had never smoked pot before. I told him he should ask the college kids at Kyoto University and pretended that I knew all about pot; he said he was just in town for a couple days and wasn't going to bother. Maybe he worked for Interpol - that's my bet.

Things are going well with my host family, though I still don't see my host siblings a lot. Both cats - Kouji and Kouta - have warmed up to me now. I finally got my Gaikokujin Touroku or foriegner registration (boy was that a hassle), so I'm gonna go with my host brother today to get a cell phone plan. Because Misako is more comfortable around me now, she has started working in a bit more English into her Japanese and asking me to help her with pronunciation. I am happy to do so, because she does the same for me in Japanese all of the time.

Golden Week is next week. GW is a random week long national holiday in Japan where traditionally people travel a lot and the whole country basically shuts down. There's talk of some of us kids going to Osaka for a while. I can tell that my host family is wondering what to do and where to go - because they said they usually don't do much for GW. We might go to Takarazuka to see some musicals and hang out - or we might use the time to lock ourselves in our rooms and avoid each other as much as possible (the favorite Murata Family past-time).

I bike to school each day which is pretty much salsa dancing with the devil. Japanese people bike like they drive and they drive like they are in a hurry to meet their maker. It's like a John Woo film as I hop up on curbs, swerve around pedestrians and come to hairpin stops before colliding with uncoming taxi cabs. When you see pictures on the blog of me in a body cast you can rest assured that I went out with style - flying over the handlebars of my bike as little Japanese kids in beanies looked on in awe.

Some friends and I went to Kyoto University the other day to check it out. I will be auditing a class or so there later this quarter (that should be c). I can sahallenging - but in a very good way). By the way, Kyoto University could win the award for dullest campus in the world. Our mission was to find the gakusei kaikan or student union but we came up empty handed. Some Japanese students directed us to the gaijin office, which was an ugly building with a staff that looked at us suspiciously.

Try as we might, we found no signs of life at Kyoto Daigaku (Kyodai for short). There is a very famous clock tower and entrance gate with a big tree. This is the token picture they show on all the Kyoto Daigaku promotional materials. We couldn't find it though - maybe we just weren't in the right part. I know people have friends and do stuff with each other in Japan, but at times it really feels like everybody is operating within kojinteki na sekai or their own little worlds.

I'll write more soon - and hopefully post some pictures - maybe of the dogs? And the Stanford Center? And my girlfriend? - I'm till sworking on that.



I went to the Kyoto Community Center today during lunch (it is only like five minutes from the center). There's a nifty bulletin board where all sorts of Japanese people put up flyers for making friends and doing language exchange. I'm going to try to contact some and hopefully make some Japanese friends.

There are three to four Japanese students that audit each of the content courses available at the Stanford Center (so they are in both my Poli-Sci and Japanese Religion class). They are all from Kyoto Daigaku I believe. So far, I have been very impressed by their English ability and the amount of content that they understand and comment on during lectures. I try to talk to them in Japanese, because most of the Stanford kids don't pay them no never mind.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Enter...The Muratas

*This one will be a bit long because I have to get you all up to speed*

As you can undoubtedly tell from the recent pictures, I have assimilated into the Murata Family of Kyoto, Japan. Misako (my host mom) came to pick me up around two this past Saturday – she looked hip in her smart black work coat and shades – kind of like a movie producer or an agent.

We got in her small car and drove to her house named “La Primivera” (in English) I lucked out in that my home is only a 25 minute walk or 15 minute bike ride from the Stanford Center. Other kids have to commute for over an hour on crowded trains and busses to get to class.

On the ride we talked. Generally, the recurring theme of the “aisatsu” or initial meeting period was that of expressing surprise and happiness that I was not nearly as fat as I seemed in my picture. The center gave each family a picture and profile to go off us. I can already hear the TV voice over now; “For just 3 dollars a day you can bring the little gaijin Benjamin into your home.” Apparantly Misako thought I was going to be very fat. When I asked if she thought I was going to be much taller too, she said no, just fat. The picture had been blown up so that my face took up the entire space, as though my face was too fat for the camera lens.

All the way to the house she remarked about how she thought I must be well fed and wondered if furniture and the like would hold my massive girth (I’m not kidding). She also took pot shots at how many heavy bags I had. We spoke the entire time in Japanese (this is great practice for me). I know Misako can speak pretty darn good English cause she’s been to America several times and has American friends, but around me she doesn’t speak anything but Japanese.

We arrived at La Primavera. Misako is a piano and singing teacher and in her spare time she teaches elementary Japanese at the local community center. The house is two floors and big by Japanese standards. I live in the room abandoned by the older son Tsuyoshi (who is studying abroad in Las Vegas for a year). The only problem is that the walls and ceiling are all concrete and not only is it cold at night, but when they turn off every light in the house (which they do often) it creates the feeling that you are living in a mausoleum. Misako has an adjacent studio space with a grand piano where she teaches lessons.

Upon arriving home I briefly (and by this I mean VERY briefly) met my host siblings; Daisuke – a 21 year old college student and Nami – a 28 year old employee of an auto insurance company. Nami literally said “konnichwa” and then stepped out of the house to leave with her friends for a weekend in Osaka at Universal Studios (I wouldn’t see her again until Monday evening when she would come downstairs for dinner squinting and making the same face you would make if you were kidnapped in the middle of the night and woke up in a detainment cell). Daisuke also said “konnichiwa” and then retreated to his room to be with his girlfriend – a high school student. He would remain in her company the entire weekend and make brief trips into the kitchen to say “Hi Ben” and eat the Sapporo ramen packs I brought the family as a gift – I think he’s at three now. Yuko was right when she said that all Japanese guys love ramen.

We all exchanged nervous bows and both kids remarked at how thin I was. I can only imagine how long the Muratas sat around the dinner table worrying about the 300 pound American mammoth that would soon invade their fragile home. Soon, both host siblings were gone. Misako and I sat and talked over tea for two hours. She explained to me that she is home a lot because her kids don’t get home regularly until around 8 or 9 (including her husband). She cooks for one and eats while watching the TV in the kitchen. Her kids, while friendly, don’t seem to care about not spending time with the family – I was a little underwhelmed by their welcoming me into their home.

I met Daisuke’s girlfriend by chance. She shook my hand American style with her left hand – I didn’t have the heart to correct her. She has niceness going for her as well as cuteness. She liked that we were the same height – and that I wasn’t fat. She still has braces which doesn’t help one not notice the age difference thing between her and her lover. She has a small dog that she brought with her to the house (I don’t know if she is trying to imitate Paris Hilton or just enjoys the whole dogs as fashion accessories thing).

She didn’t need to bring a dog because the Murata household is practically a zoo by Japanese standards. There are two friendly cats named Kouta and Kouji (both are affectionately called ko-chan, so it is often hard to differentiate between the two). There are also three dogs. They look like big collies – so I believe they are Shetland Sheepdogs (according to the AKC). They are named Jikku, Stella, and Brad Pitt. Brad Pitt is blind. They live outside and bark all the time.

Misako and I went to take her dogs on “inu no sanpo” or the dog walk. This is not so much a walk as it is organized chaos. Misako takes her three dogs out front and puts them in crates. They hate the crates so they start barking. She then shoves them into the back her white doggie mobile. I get in the front – the van reeks (as you can imagine) of dog shit and piss. The dogs are freaked because A) I’m a new person, and B) they don’t like being caged, so they start howling.

Misako then proceeds to drive at 45 miles per hour down the crowded, narrow Kyoto streets (being in the front seat is SO frightening as she darts around bikes and plays chicken with oncoming cars). Our van goes rip-roaring up hills and peeling around corners as the three captive dogs slide around in their crates and bang into the walls of the vehicle. This only serves to make them howl louder.

Finally we stop. Whew. Darn, we’re at her brother’s house to pick up one more dog. That’s right…one more dog. This one, a miniature of the same breed named Ami rides on my lap and stares at me with big doggie eyes that say we’re not coming home in one piece (I can’t reassure her).

We got to the dog park where Misako has a lot of friends (both human and canine) for “inu no sanpo.” I walked Ami. Misako walked her three guardian beasts. They growled and stared at me but eventually cooled down and let me pet them.

“Inu no sanpo” wasn’t as much a walk as it was a mountain hike. I bet dogs in Japan live till 85 just like their human counterparts. I was really surprised that the dogs (6, 7, and 8 y/o) could climb up the steep grades.

Coming home was the same thing described in reverse. By the time we arrived back at La Primavera, I couldn’t hear anything but my own ears ringing. Thus concluded my first “inu no sanpo.” Misako does two “inu no sanpos” a day, everyday, rain or shine. God bless the woman. These dogs are her kids.

The Muratas operate independently. I would love to post some pictures as soon as all of us are in a room together. This should be sometime next month.

Misako and I ate dishes with the featured ingredient bamboo for dinner. Just the two of us. Eventually Kazuhiko, my host dad, came home. He is very nice. He is, as Misako describes, a normal worker at a normal factory. I don’t know which factory but I suspect Asahi Beer. He doesn’t speak any English. He was surprised that I could, “actually speak Japanese,” in his words. He was also surprised that I wasn’t fat.

Misako and Kazuhiko sleep in separate bedrooms in separate wings of the house. This seems kind of weird by American standards but it is commonplace in Japan.

I handed out my gifts after dinner. I gave Misako some Seattle souvenirs from Boeing and the Mariners. I gave my host dad Jack Daniels. I gave Daisuke an Ichiro t-shirt. I haven’t had an opportunity to give Nami her Bed Bath and Beyond stuff yet – maybe sometime in June when I next see her.

I’ll be back soon.


Here is a picture of the digital piano recently moved in my room. You have NO idea how good it felt to play again after being in Japan for over three weeks without any opportunity.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Here is a picture of my room in the Murata Household. The room is really spacious and nice isn't it? There will soon be an electric piano where all my luggage is. I'll take another picture when that happens.

Here is the front of Nanzenji Temple with all of us Stanford students climbing up the stairs.

Here is a view from the top of Nanzenji Temple.

Here is another view from the top of Nanzenji Temple.

Here is the 'yane' or roof of Nanzenji Temple that we visited on Saturday before being picked up by our host families.

This is my 'kinen' or commemorative picture of the one semi-still-in-bloom sakura I could found at Tenryuji. If you multiply this by 8 million then you'll have some idea of the majesty I missed by just two weeks - according to my host mother.

Here is a nice nature view of the famous garden at Tenryuji Temple. My host mother kept telling me how much more beautiful it would have been with all the cherry blossoms had I came a few weeks sooner. Alas, I was living it up in Hokkaido.

Here is a very neat looking bamboo forest in the Tenryuji grounds.

Here is a vending boat that pulls up next to your boat in the water so you can buy beer and grilled squid. A little boy on board pestered his mother into buying him two cans of Pocari Sweat, chips, sweet rice balls and grilled squid. He kept screaming for a mikans (the mandarin oranges you see on the left), but his mother finally developed a back bone and said no.

Here are the types of boats we rode to get to the concert. You had to take off your shoes once inside.

Here is the guy steering our boat through the water with his big bamboo pole.

Here is the Dixie Land Jazz Band on their floating stage in Arashiyama.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Orientation Time!!!

Today I woke up feeling really crummy. I had been sneezing and coughing all night so I didn't get a good night's sleep. I'm feeling better now, though my nose is still running. I had my coffee and maple bun for breakfast and went downstairs.

We walked to the Stanford Japan Center which is about 20 minutes away. The center itself is very boring and very white. There is a library, a computer room, and lots of classroom space. All in all the center is pretty average and boring. The computers are all running Japanese OS, but there are ethernet connections for laptops and we have wireless in the center, so I should remain with internet access.

I have a mailbox in the center (check my first posts for my mailing address) - feel free to mail me anything you'd like. There's also a copy machine which only takes copy cards and a phone which takes only calling cards. Yippee.

On the plus side, I was able to score two out of my five text books for free from the used book shelf. I also picked up a brand new sealed $40 Japanese grammar book that somebody left. Ca-CHING!!!

We took a tour of the center and got our meal mullah. I get 800 Yen per lunch for the entire quarter. I can't wait to feast on McDonalds. They gave us lunch at the center today: onigiri sushi and Pizza Hut (a very weird combo).

I had a shizen kaiwa (peaceful chat) with Uemiya Sensei who teaches the third year Japanese class. She said that I could speak Japanese with fluency, so I should concentrate on making lots of vocab lists and try out all the new grammar patterns and stuff I learn. Basically, to not be afraid to make mistakes.

They are going to create a 5th year according to Uemiya (but I think she meant 4th year) Japanese class for my classmate Kevin and I that will meet three hours a week. We'll get lots of speaking and reading practice since it will be only us two.

After my shizen kaiwa, Kevin and I went to talk to Yamaoka Sensei (the head Japanese language instructor at the center) who said that he wants us to audit courses at Kyoto University (finally). However, this means that bright and early at 9AM this Monday morning I have to take the three hour Ikkyu-Nihongo Doryouku Shiken or First Level Japanese Proficiency Examination. This test is the benchmark for foreign students of Japanese. The highest level of the test, they say at least 1000 hours of formal Japanese language training is needed to pass. This exam tests all 2000 kanji required to read a Japanese newspaper as well as listening, grammar, and writing. If you pass, you are considered eligible to live in Japanese society, attend university classes, marry Japanese, and grind your own wasabi. If you fail, you are doomed to a life of scrubbing the dirty ball tubs at your local pachinko parlor.

I don't know if I can pass the exam (I'm certainly going to visit a Jinjya shrine before I take it), but I will give it my all. IKUZO!!!!

After that, I had to sit through an academic advising session where they talked about the classes they are going to offer this quarter. This was over two hours long in the sweltering hear of the center's jacked up heater. I was SO close to passing out. I had to listen to Mr. Concrete rattle on and on about his stupid construction class - I was about to puke.

When this was done we got into groups and went on a scavenger hunt around the city. This was fun because I got to know some other kids well (most of the four girls on our program were in my group). I forgot my camera. By the end of the hunt I wanted to chop off my arm because my shoulder hurt so damn much. I don't like scavenger hunts because you don't get to appreciate the things you take pictures of - you just rush off to the next thing.

We went out to dinner with Japanese college students. We went to a weird Japanese food place that had all sorts of things from okonomiyaki to fish sticks to sushi to spaghetti. Once again, the beer never fails me in Japan. The main room was too crowded so me and two other Stanford guys and three Japanese students went into a smaller room.

The first girl was shy, her name was Aiko (like the Japanese princess) and she is a Kyoto University sophomore majoring in Pharmacy. The next was a masters student from Doshisha in literature named Yuko. Finally there was a guy named Daisuke who failed his entrance exams twice but just recently got into med school.

Yuko spoke super great English. She had spent a year of high school in Boston and visited Stanford for two weeks (she stayed in FloMo). Her English was really superb. Her and I talked a lot, the first thing she told me was "There's a stereotype about Japanese girls being shy - I'm not shy." I said, "I can see that." True to her words, Yuko was super outgoing and very forceful. She'd yell across to the other room or make fun of you. One Stanford guy at my table was a vegetarian and only ordered miso soup; she wouldn't let him forget that for the whole night - she kept saying "how do you like your soup?" as she laughed.

Yuko said she could become a vegetarian, but when I asked about fish, she realized it would be impossible. Yuko had great pronounciation, but somehow, when she said interjections like "I see" or "perhaps that is the case," it always sounded like she was making fun of you. Daisuke told her that I was really good at speaking Japanese, cause the two of us had talked on the walk over, and she said, "Yes...(long pause) seems like it," as she sucked on her chopsticks to remove every last bit of fish flavor. I know it's just a difference in pronunciation, but it felt like a put down. It is interesting to think about how the difference in intonation affects the meaning of a phrase.

Aiko warmed up and talked more. She was very nice and spoke good English, she looked to me ocassionally to tell her what the other Stanford guys were talking about because Yuko refused to speak Japanese except to scream at the waitress about her tardiness or ocassionally express her disappointment about the food. The food was actually really yummy - though Yuko would say the sashimi was too small. The six of us shared a bunch of dishes and it was really fun. When at Stanford, Yuko ate at Miyake Sushi on University Ave - she said it was "so terrible." I have to agree with her.

Daisuke got more and more 'strong' as the night went on (that's one way to put it). He doesn't drink, so I wonder what brought about the change - maybe he felt more comfortable around the company. We all had these cupons for free drinks they gave us when we came in, but Yuko forgot to give them to the waitress she had been screaming at during the bill time. Soon after, Aiko, Yuko, and Daisuke were rattling back and forth about how to get the 60 dollars in drinks we paid for back with our vouchers. Daisuke took the handfull of tickets and stood up, thrusting them at the invisible waitress, "Take these, we want our money back," he demonstrated to Aiko who was shaking her head. "You have to do it forcefully like this," he'd say.

It was of course decided that I should be the one to yell at the poor waitress and demand our money back. Why was this decided? Well, someone had to take one for the team and it might as well be the gaijin. Daisuke was very happy that I was going to do this. However, Yuko the ring leader stepped in during my moment, took the tickets from me, mumbled something about "wanting to win," and disappeared. After we were out of the restaurant for 15 minutes, she emerged with a plastic bag filled with 100 yen coins. "300 yen payback" she screamed. It wouldn't surprise me if the waitress was lying dead in the storage closet as Yuko gleefully handed out the shiny coins.

After that Yuko and many others went to a bar. Aiko, Daisuke, myself and others went to Impulse Coffee. We had shizen kaiwa for a couple of hours. They were both very nice people. Yuko too. I thought she was great! She handed out her meishi (business / name card) which features her in a kimono in front of blooming cherry blossom trees. Daisuke remarked that she looked like a prostitute and she hit him. I couldn't help but laugh. I really like these non-traditional brash Japanese girls that buck the stereotype.

I'm back in the hotel now and it is time for bed. I have to check out tomorrow morning and head over to the center. We have a little bit more orientation before meeting our host families around 2 PM and moving into our new homes.

I hope to talk to you all soon - and post some pics! Sorry about the lack these last few days.


Thursday, April 20, 2006

Arrival in Kyoto (京都の到着)

Just a quick post to let you all know that I arrived safe and sound in Kyoto this afternoon. I took a two hour shinkansen ride from Shingawa in Tokyo. The train ride was fine - I sat next to a man who slept the whole way and they cranked up the heat in the train cars as usual. I watched my final fantasy movie on my PSP and enjoyed it.

I took a taxi to the Sun Hotel Kyoto. The taxi driver spoke such thick gutteral Japanese that I could barely understand him when I made conversation about there being a lot of my fellow students coming to Kyoto today. He said foreign people come here for jobs and then leave (I think). I have a single room the size of a broom closet but it least it has a fridge and TV. They give everybody nifty button up yukatas. The other kids on the program are nice - mostly men, only four girls. A lot of them know each other from class and similar friend groups. I know a couple of people going in. This afternoon Kevin and Jean and I (I had I-Hum section with Jean) walked around down town Kyoto and by the river.

Kumi Kato and Lisa Honda came to get us at the hotel. Lisa (the social coordinator) is American so she speaks perfect English - I'd say she's in her late 20's. Kumi (the internship coordinator) is in her early 30's and is loud and direct - everything you wouldn't expect from a Japanese woman. I think she's great.

We walked a few blocks for our dinner of Japanese food - A small sushi appetizer, udon bowl, tempura, and beer (they billed this as a light dinner). The food was pretty crummy. The sushi cuts were rough and grisly and the tempura got cold way too fast. At least Asahi never lets me down. There were a few speeches made by Terry MacDougal (the head of the Stanford Japan Center) and Prof. Bob Tatum (Mr. Concrete) and his wife Dale (Mrs. Concrete).

A few kids have cell phones but only a few cell phones they have actually work, because they were in such a hurry to get one that they falsefied papers and didn't get the subscription set up right. They were trying to do the pay cards at the convinence stores. I'm gonna wait for my host family's help.

I was impressed by how well the kids ate. I know all the stuff already, but I forget that some people have never seen daikon tsukemono before. I find an intense urge to speak Japanese that is not being fulfilled. While there's nothing wrong with the Stanford kids (I made some friends over dinner I think), we speak in English all the time, and they operate entirely in English. I've been in Japan for two weeks now already, so I'm well into operating in Japanese mode. Only my friend Kevin from 4th year understands and wants to be fluent like me. The rest of the kids are just so thrilled to be in Japan. I started talking to Kumi and Lisa in Japanese, but they preferred to bantor back and forth to each other about all the logistics for tomorrow.

I like Professor MacDougal - he's very nice and knowledgable (though he took SO damn slow). He might be a little intimidated by me cause I know a lot of stuff. When the beer wasn't coming, he tried to signal Kumi in English while I just asked the waitress as she walked by.

I like Kyoto so far. Downtown is nice, but nowhere as overstimulating or crowded as Tokyo or Sapporo. I think the girls in Kyoto are way better looking so far than the other places of Japan I've been. Sapporo comes in second and Tokyo third. I also see quite a number of white people (my guess is they're students with various programs). Also, a lot of people ride mopeds and the architecture is of course much older looking.

I still have a cold and started to feel sick during dinner, so I returned to my room for some R&R. Some other kids wanted to go drink and do karaoke, but I'll pass for now. It'll be more fun when I can breathe.

I stopped at a store to get some stuff for breakfast as always. Tomorrow at 8:45 we go to the center. I'll update you all tomorrow evening on my orientation.


Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Bon Jovi

We saw Bon Jovi and his band today at the New Chitose Airport in Sapporo. Here's the story: We were sitting at our terminal waiting to board the plane to Tokyo; my mom was playing electronic sudoku and I was watching the Final Fantasy movie on my PSP.

All of a sudden a long train of white people started to come by. There were a large number of western gaijin in the airport already so I didn't really make much of it at first. We had also seen a white guy with a guitar walk by about 10 minutes earlier.

My mom commented that it must be a rock band. As the group started to pass, this guy walked by with sun glasses and a leather jacket. My mom and I looked up and made eye contact with the guy. He turned his head and looked at us for a second and then kept walking. I heard him comment about there being a lot of stairs in the airport to the guy next to him.

After they left my mom said, "I know them from somewhere." I said that the guy with glasses looked like Bon Jovi. My mom didn't believe me and kept denying the likeness until two Japanese girls walked towards the end of the parade with Bon Jovi shirts on.

Afterwards I couldn't help but laugh that my mom and I are the worst Americans in the world! Here was Bon Jovi just feet away, looking towards us, the only white people in the area, for some classic rock star-sighting reaction, only to get the cold shoulder. My mom and I literally looked up, made eye contact with Bon Jovi, and then went back to our entertainment as if nothing special had happened.

Maybe I should have charged after him and had him sign my PSP - or my chest.


Also, we arrived in Shingawa for our last night before I leave for Kyoto. Shingawa should be called Gaijin Land. Now I know where all Hokkaido's gaijin went. All you have to do is walk down the streets here to see tons of white people. Also, the convience store right by our hotel is a total rip off because it caters to foreigners. Our hotel, while being western, is also a total gaijin breeding ground; they're all over the place and even part of the hotel staff here is white.

Have a nice day!


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Otaru (小樽)

For our final full day in Sapporo we travelled to the small fishing city of Otaru. Otaru is about 40 minutes north of Sapporo, right on the coast of the Sea of Japan. The train ride to Otaru was really neat because for a portion, the train rides right along the Sea of Japan and you can't see the train tracks. The waves, which were especially big today because of the snow and wind, come crashing up, almost touching the train car.

We didn't spend much time in Otaru due to the weather. There also wasn't much to take pictures of. Otaru is famous for the crafts of glass blowing and music boxes - we saw both. The music boxes were pretty neat, but I couldn't think of what we'd do with one if we bought it. There was also a covered mall that we stopped in for a minute.

The weather was crummy in Otaru today. It was cold enough to snow a lot and you had to walk a long way from the station to get to the tourist area.

Otaru also supposedly has the best and freshest sushi in the world. We ate sushi in Otaru of course. It was very delicious. I can't say that it was the best sushi I have ever tasted, but it was very good and fresh. The chef put a bit too much wasabi on some pieces and didn't put all the garnishes on my nigiri like in the picture, but it was still superb.

We returned early to Sapporo. The train was supper crowded with salary men and kids coming home from school. We had to stand for the entire 30 minute ride, crammed in with people. I started to feel really car sick or rather train sick.

We had dinner at Sapporo Ramen. Sapporo, and Hokkaido in general, is famous for having the best ramen in all of Japan. The ramen I had, prepared in a miso base, was really delicious. I haven't had a lot of ramen aside from the cheap instant stuff you buy in store, but this fresh ramen was SO good! If you're ever in Sapporo, I highly recommend Sapporo Ramen in Odori Park!

Tomorrow we fly back to Tokyo, more precisely Shingawa, for a one night stay. Thursday mom leaves for Seattle and I leave for Kyoto to start orientation for my homestay and classes. I hope to update soon and let you know about meeting my host family and starting life in Kyoto.

Till then...


Here is a sign for Otaru brand beer I saw in the train station. I snapped a picture of it because of the Jewish star. I'm not sure if Otaru Beer is a Jewish brand - I highly doubt it. More likely, the Star of David is used as a purely aesthetic symbol free from any religious meaning.

The streets of Otaru. It was snowing really hard at this point. I wanted to take a picture of the snow storm, but instead I got this lame picture of cars waiting at a traffic light. I doubt you can see the snow.

A nifty glass building outside JR Sapporo Station. This is the entrance to the subway system - I thought the building looked really neat so I snapped a quick picture.

A statue of naked people outside the JR Sapporo Station.

Sapporo (札幌)

We took a two hour free bus ride from the Dai-Ichi Takimotokan in Noboribetsu to our hotel in Sapporo. I must say, it is great to be back in a big city. Sapporo is like a mini Tokyo; all the lights and shops but with 1/4 of the people. The main drag of downtown reminds me a lot of downtown Seattle.

I like that Sapporo seems a bit more casual than Tokyo. Even during the week days you don't see so many "crows." This is my mom's nickname for all the businessmen dressed in black suits. The streets aren't as crowded and you see more colors in general in Sapporo.

Sapporo is still in the winter and it is pretty darn cold. We've had a few snow storms while we were here. The hotel is part of the chain called Novotel; it is very nice. I like western hotels better than ryokan, and it is nice to sleep on a bed again. The hotel is European themed so the elevator plays all sorts of funny accordian music that sounds like it should be from the movie Amelie.

All the people in the hotel are very nice and overly gracious. There's one man who serves the breakfast buffet who bows so low to the ground and scurries around like a rodant. He is very nice, but I wish he wouldn't run everywhere like there's a bomb strapped to his heels if he doesn't hail a cab for that business man. It is amazing how seriously workers in Japan take their jobs.

We went to the Sapporo Beer Factory and museum and I got to sample all the different beer products. The museum was a bit lacking but the beer was solid. I was going to buy a shirt but they looked pretty cheap. See the pics below for the Sapporo Museum. I thought the outside of the building was the coolest part. The building and smoke stack looked really retro.

We finished our day by going to Susukino or the red light district (where Mamie's from). This area had pimps roaming the streets and prostitutes walking all over. We didn't join in the fun. There's actually a free shuttle bus from the hotel that we ride at least four times a day - it goes to the JR Station. We got off the shuttle bus at the Susukino stop to eat dinner.

There was a restaurant that said shabu shabu and sukiyaki on the sign so we went there. The place offered neither of those dishes, only hunks of meat that you had to gril yourself. This is like my least favorite possible meal - my mom liked it.

Our waitress was totally freaked out due to the gaijin factor. I asked her questions in Japanese but she refused to make eye contact and pretended that she couldn't understand me. We ordered a platter of raw meat parts. Most of it was edible once grilled. I couldn't stomach the fatty chicken skin globs.

We returned to the hotel on the shuttle bus. We are the shuttle bus's most valuable customers. I wonder if the bus drivers are getting tired of us riding the bus?

The famous Sapporo Beer smoke stack.

Here is a view of the front of the Sapporo Beer Factory and museum in, where else, the city of Sapporo.

Me as a can of Sapporo Beer - Do I look crisp and refreshing?

Old wooden sign advertisement for Sapporo Beer on display in the museum.

Here is a big vat where they brew Sapporo Beer. Sorry, the lighting in the area was crummy.

Here is my birthday beer bottle from 1984 (the middle one). Doesn't look too different from the bottles they use these days.

Here is the three beer sampler set I had at the Sapporo Beer Museum - complete with beer crackers and cheese. The beer on the left was the normal Sapporo Black Label Draft you can buy in stores. The middle was a really dark Sapporo beer (think Guinness). The one on the right was Yebisu Draft (a local brand owned by Sapporo) . After these I tried Sapporo Select, a special draft beer only sold in Hokkaido. They were all good. I had a nice buzz going by the end.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Noboribetsu (登別)

Well, the train ride to Noboribetsu was interesting. I was enjoying listening to music on my PSP when the guy in the aisle across from me spilled his huge can of beer and got my shoes all soaked. Luckily I saved the pack before it got sopped in beer. The guy then tried to mop up the wet train car floor with his Asahi Shimbun newspaper. After he was pleased with his efforts, even though the floor was still wet, he ordered another beer to celebrate a job well done.

We arrived in Noboribetsu and took a bus to the Noboribetsu Onsen area. Onsen is the Japanese word for hot springs, and this area of Noboribetsu is the most famous for hot springs in all of Japan. Similar to Hakodate, there were no western foreigners - there were however foreigners from other Asian countries in large numbers.

We stayed at the Dai-Ichi Takimotokan, the most famous Onsen in all of Japan (or at least that's how it bills itself). We were greeted by a friendly parking office attendant who asked "Excuse me, where are you from?" My mom said Seattle, WA but he didn't get it. I said it in Japanese and he got it. He commented about The Seattle Mariners. Later, when we were walking to Hell's Valley the same guy came up to us and said "Excuse me, where are you from?" I said, "Didn't we already do this?" He remembered and laughed.

We went to Hell's Valley which was right near our hotel (See the pics below). It was very pretty and easily photographed in all its majesty. I didn't have the heart to walk all the way down the trail and get up close and personal with the sulfer smell - I can do that from my dorm room window in Kimball when they water the plants.

Dai-Ichi Takimotokan is billed as the best Onsen because it is not just one onsen, it is an amusement park of onsens. The Daifukuba or Grand Bath has over ten different baths. There were boiling hot demon baths and all sorts of baths that were supposed to cure illnesses and give you beautiful skin. I still have asthma, but my skin does look a bit clearer.

Bath house style bathing in Japan (for those who don't know) involves sitting in a communal room on a little wooden stool and washing yourself in front of a mirror. All the other men (most older) are naked with you. Just about all baths are separated by the sexes now but some are still an awkward gender free for all. The idea behind Japanese bathing is to clean yourself before you enter the bath tubs themselves and thus not contaminate the water. I started by splashing myself with bucketfuls of water, and then I used squid ink-black hair shampoo and concrete gray body lotion. It was not uncommon to see the Japanese people spending a half hour cleaning themselves before entering any of the tubs.

In terms of tubs there were all types (this is the distinguishing feature of the Dai-Ichi Hotel). There was a cold jacuzzi, a boiling hot wooden box, a small hot tub with a swim up bar attached, three outdoor baths in the snow, and body massaging water jets. My personal favorites for all around weirdness were the water race course, where you tromped through ankle high lukewarm water in a giant circle, and the terrifying fog room. The fog room is a giant glass box filled with boiling hot white fog. You can't see anything at all (it didn't help that I didn't have my glasses). My heart rate started to race and I got disoriented. It felt like being dead and what I imagine going to heaven would feel like - minus the panic.

The next day we went to Higuma Bokujoh or The Brown Bear Habitat. After logistical confusion, we had to climb about 18 million stairs (Japanese people love stairs) to get to the tramway to take us to the bear habitat. We found out later that the tramway to take us up to the tramway was broken, which is why we did the stairs.

When they said a tramway into the mountains boy they weren't kidding. The ride was beautiful! We literally ascended the entire mountain and there was snow and everything - the rest of Noboribetsu disappeared away as we climbed higher and higher towards the mountain-top location of the habitat.

The park was a bit shocking / confusing / interesting. There was supposed to be a traditional Japanese village we could visit but it was closed due to the snow. There was also supposed to be a show where you could watch the trained brown bears ride around on tricycles but it was also not in operation.

The park is basically an opportunity to buy 100 Yen biscuit packs and feed the bears (see the pictures below). You can throw the biscuits to your favorite bear or put them in little shoots and fire them blowgun style at a bear's mouth. You can't help but feel sorry for the bears and their life of trained performance for tourists. I guess it is no different from Sea World or San Diego Zoo when you think about it, but something feels different. I'm not sure if there's a PETA or WWF in Japan - there's certainly not one for aquatic life - but the whole park felt like a giant game, not like a wildlife habitat.

When we got back down the mountain we saw a caged bear that was being sent down the mountain on a tram car when we arrived in the park. The caged bear was now on ground level. Maybe they were taking her to the vet? There were news crews there filming the bear - only in Japan.

More bathing that night and some yummy food in the buffet. Mom started to get really sick with a cold. She's feeling a bit better now but it was pretty bad for a while. We even had to buy one of those sickly old woman face masks for her so she didn't spread germs on everybody.

Next up Sapporo and BEER! Stay tuned.


Here was my favorite bear of the entire habitat. He reminded me of my cat Simon. He wasn't a show off for biscuits or anything. He's the kind of bear you could relax and share a Sapporo Beer with - at least that was my impression.

Here's Mr. Prisoner Bear - he's doing time for assaulting another bear near the back scratching log and stealing her 100 Yen biscuit packs.

Here's a big Buddha bear. He seeks 100 yen biscuit packs to reach enlightenment.

Here is another gentle bear. He has been trained to pray to the god of 100 Yen biscuit packs. I was happy to be his messiah.

Here's another cute bear. He opens his mouth and puts his paw on his lip to indicate "Please feed me tasty 100 Yen biscuit packs." He played very well to the crowd and got lots of biscuits - He was a favorite with the Japanese visitors (everybody but my mom and I) who kept saying "ningen mitai" or "he seems human."

Here's a cute bear. He's begging for some of the tasty round biscuits that came in a bag for 1oo Yen. His pose is neat - they're all trained to do stuff for biscuits.

This is a view of the frozen Bear Lake at the brown bear habitat. Northern Japan has such a different feeling from Honshu and Tokyo.

Here are the duck races at the brown bear habitat. I felt bad for the ducks. The man grabs them, shoves them in a wooden box, and hits the box with a stick. He screams "SAN, NI, ICHI!!!" and upon opening the trap door all the ducks are trained to race 10 feet to the finish line. I forget which duck won - it wasn't my duck - it was this little Japanese kid's duck. The kid got a prize for picking the right duck.

Here is the traditional Japanese village we wanted to visit as part of the brown bear habitat but as you can see it was closed and covered with snow.

Here is Hell's Valley right near our onsen hotel in Noboribetsu. I like this picture a lot, it could almost be a postcard.

This is the natural volcanic sulfer steam rising from Hell's Valley. This steam and minieral water is what powers all the Onsen (hot springs) in the area.

This is one of the must-see attractions in Noboribetsu. This electronic priest looks a lot like Iron Chef Chinese Chen Kenichi. When it's show time he yells something at you in Japanese and then turns into a red faced demon. You can see why Tokyo Disneyland is so popular.

Me as an oni. Oooooh, I'm scary!!!

Here is a different blue oni-san in Noboribetsu.

Here's the welcome Oni-san (demon) at Noboribetsu Station. Noboribetsu's mascot is the oni, so you can buy all sorts of oni products around town. For my friends and sensei from Bungo class - he has a big magical club just like in "Issun Boushi."

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Hakodate (函館)

Well, we flew on a JAL flight from Tokyo’s Haneda airport to Hakodate in Hokkaido Japan (the northernmost island) for our two night stay. The flight was only an hour. It is still winter here in Hokkaido so there is a fair amount of slush around and it hovers around freezing on most days. In fact when we left Noboribetsu today bus-bound for Sapporo it was snowing hard.

Northern Japan has such a different feel from Honshu and especially Tokyo – it really is hard to convey in words (look at the pics – especially of the real dock area). The weather is more real and you are closer to Mother Nature in Hokkaido. Hakodate’s downtown was very “small town USA” feel – there were no skyscrapers and it was nowhere near the level of people of Tokyo.

We stayed in Hotel Banso Ryokan. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn where you sleep on the floor on futon and bathe in a public bath house. There is also a traditional tatami (woven bamboo floor) room and you remove your shoes before entering the tatami room as well as switch shoes in order to go into the bathroom. The meals are also delivered to your room by a female hostess and you eat in your room. Ryokan and Onsen (the latter to be discussed in the Noboribetsu post) are very popular vacation destinations for Japanese tourists, as well as tourists from the nearby Asian countries. We saw no western foreigners aside from ourselves in Hakodate. Since arriving in Hokkaido, we have only seen two other white people.

Speaking as a white male, it is very interesting to be in the complete minority here in Hokkaido (I guess all of Japan – but it really hits home up here). In Hokkaido I find that people stare at you blatantly and talk about you behind your back. I never heard any bad things being discussed, more often, people were confirming in Japanese that we were speaking English and making comments about the English language or America in general. While most people were very nice, I had a few people prefer not to speak to me in Japanese or pretend that they couldn’t understand my Japanese. I’m convinced that one man purposefully slammed the elevator doors close on me as I was going out and hurt my arms. The tourist materials mark Hakodate as a great tourist attraction and perhaps it is for Asian visitors. I didn’t feel very welcomed. Whether in the bath or at the traditional Japanese breakfast buffet, I felt that people were staring at me and didn’t really want me there.

It was a bit of a shock to move from the four-star Dai-Ichi Tokyo Hotel to the one-star Hotel Banso. While not bad, our room was stained and the furniture heavily used. The food delivered to our room was quite delicious. The main public bath was closed so we had to use the smaller second-grade public bath (more on bathing to come in the Noboribetsu post). Nobody talked to me in the bath, but my mom said that the Japanese women kept talking to her even though she couldn’t understand.

Our first day we took the street car around to the tourist dock area where there are tons of souvenir shops. We ate lunch at the Hakodate Beer Hall Restaurant. We also bought some yummy squid jerky and senbei (rice crackers). The dock area of Hakodate (the real dock that we went to first my mistake, not the tourist one) reminded me so much of my trip to Juneau, Alaska to visit my friend Lia. The weather was similar and the mountains even looked the same. I was very nostalgic for Juneau.

Hakodate was one of the first areas the European sailors came to and added their western influence. Because of this, Hakodate’s tourist dock area is a bit like the fictional "America Town" restaurant seen when The Simpsons visit Japan. There was lots of English and you can see examples of some of the westernized signs in the pictures below. Also, the stores blasted western music like TLC and Alanis Morissette – but nobody cared to speak English of course (except the people at Snaffle’s Pastry). The products were mostly all traditional Hakodate / Hokkaido fare, but every now and then you'd see classic Americana items like prints of old U.S. ads.

We also toured the main downtown drag and I got to go into a Yamaha store. I got to play the piano for all of three minutes and banged out a poor man’s version of the title song from My Neighbor Totoro, which I grabbed the sheet music to upon entering the store. I was expecting a back rub from the female clerk for serenading them with their favorite Miyazaki tune, but I got nothing, not even a courtesy smile. The Yamaha building was seven floors of and was actually a music school for kids and adults. I thought of a brilliant idea – combined English and piano lessons. I figure all Japanese mothers want their kids to learn how to play the piano and speak English right? If I offer cheap enough combined lessons this summer in Tokyo, I can make a fortune. In all seriousness, I really miss playing the piano both by myself and with SImps.

The next day we hung out around the hotel and went on the Mt. Hakodate tramway ride and bus tour in the evening (see the pic below). Our bus tour guide had the most pleasing voice in the world. She also never took a breath - Her voice was a constant stream of smooth, effortless Japanese. She was the female Japanese version of C3PO. She also had way to much makeup on. Her face was almost geisha white while the rest of her was regular Japanese skin tone. We sent our baggage forward to Noboribetsu Onsen and departed on a JR commuter train for the hot springs, the trip would take two hours, and I would not arrive dry.

See you in Noboribetsu! TO BE CONTINUED...


Another piece of Engrish from the streets of Hakodate. We really wanted to stop and see the art style of GLAY, but we just didn't have the time.

-*-Update-*- A user educated me that GLAY was a Hokkaido-based band from the early 90s, so this really isn't technically Engrish. However, it is still a funny name for a Band. Speaking of which, don't even get me started on the English used in band names or song lyrics here in Japan - that could fill another whole blog. I just heard a song with the lyrics "Let's Start, Let's Start The Shining On."

Here's some Hakodate Engrish - Snaffle's Pastry. The sign says, "I Snaffle Therefore I Am." The people that worked there were actually really nice - they gave me a cheese cake sample. When my mom and I joked about the name Snaffle's in Japanese, the sample guys worked with us to correct their pronunciation of the word.

A rock garden in our hotel. I'm sure that I will visit and document much better ones once in Kyoto. This is just to demonstrate that I don't only visit porn shops and do in fact care about Japanese culture. Did it work?

Here was my lunch at the Hakodate Beer Hall Restaurant in the tourist dock area. It is ikura donburi. Donburi refers to any number of things sprinkled over rice - ikura is the orange salmon eggs. Hokkaido is famous in general for seafood. Hakodate is famous in particular for ikura and ika (squid). I just had to sample the ikura while I was there. The waitress bought me this big vat of fish eggs and I got to scoop as many scoops as I wanted myself on top of my rice (they charged per scoop of ikura). This bowl represents two scoops! I could have gone for more, but I didn't want to seem like a glutton. I also had the two beers seen here. The red one is the brewery's famous "red brick beer" and the lighter pilsner is a secret recepie from the Meiji era. The Meiji beer was better.

The number one tourist attraction in Hakodate is a tram ride to the top of Mt. Hakodate at night. Here you can view and take generally blurry pictures of the entire area lit up while the icy cold rain pelts you relentlessly. This was the best of the 15-some odd pictures I took using every mode imaginable on my digital camera. They say that on a clear night, you can see all the way to Aomori (the city at very tip of Honshu).

Here's a westernized clown sign for a drive-in burger place from the same area. He looks possessed - I think it is the star in only one eye that does it. I'm not sure that I'd want him to give me a burger.

Here's one of the western signs to be seen in the tourist docks area of Hakodate.

I'm sure most viewers are aware of this, but just in case, this is a traditional Japanese toilet. The homes I've been in have all had western-style Toto washlets (I'll take some pics of these later). These Japanese-style toilets are still everywhere in public. I've used them - it's not that bad.

This is a Japanese garbage bin I took a picture of on the streets. I thought it looked like a chicken coop which is why I took the picture.

This is an example of a Japanese house on the streets of Hakodate. I saw not a single foreigner besides my mother and I in Hakodate and there was no written English.

This is the docks with the mountains in the backgrounds. For you Lia (if you ever see this) this is what reminded me so much of Juneau - especially the mountain with the tramway.