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Christmas in Tokyo, Part 2.

Posted by Shaun

Now we'll get to the moment you've all been waiting for, the actual Christmas day.

As I mentioned in the previous post, we'd made plans to get together with Kali, but due to Navy scheduling awkwardness, that all fell apart at like 1am, and we decided to do our gift exchange on the 26th instead. So we made plans for late afternoon and evening with my friend Lynne and had to come up with something to fill our morning.
Shannon and I exchanged presents and read Christmas cards from the family, and it was really delightful. Then we decided to head out. We missed out on a lot of the things in Tokyo that Shannon wanted to see because it simply takes too long to do things here, especially when you sleep till noon and you live an hour out of the city. But the one thing we couldn't miss was Tokyo Tower.

If you're sick of seeing Tokyo Tower on my blog or my Facebook, just take a deep breath and scroll down. I always tell myself I'm done photographing it, but it's so surreal and impressive-looking that I can't stop. And, like Sam said when we ran into him on the train home, it does look sorta like a giant Santa hat, anyway.

We had joked about spending the whole day wearing Santa hats to solidify our sense of Christmas cheer, and we decided to make that plan a reality. It was a lot harder than we'd anticipated. All the 100-yen stores we checked, as well as Don Quioxte, were fresh out of Santa hats, so we had to go a little out of our way and stop by Tokyu Hands, which has a pretty healthy costume selection and therefore seemed unlikely to be sold out.

Santa hats: get!
 We found our Santa hats (I went for classic and Shannon went for bizarre, fluffy Santa bonnet) and promptly donned our gay apparel in front of the store where we bought it. Then we headed back to the subway that would take us close to Tokyo Tower.
If you want to get to Tokyo Tower from Ikebukuro, where the train line we take from my neighborhood ends and where we'd gone to buy the hats, you take the Marunouchi subway line to Otemachi, and then you transfer to the Toei Mita line and take that to Onarimon station, the closest station to Tokyo Tower. Apparently, we found out the hard way, the distance between the Marunouchi line at Otemachi station and the Mita line is absurdly far. I can't remember exactly how many meters, but it took us forever to get from one subway line to the other. It was convenient on the way back because we took the Tozai line from Otemachi to Takadanobaba, where we met Lynne for karaoke, but we were definitely late for our designated meeting time.

But it was totally worth it to get cute pictures with Tokyo Tower in our Santa hats! We also took a video, which Shannon is supposed to upload on her Youtube account, so I'll link it here if she does.
Shannon and Tokyo Tower

We found someone to take our picture!
Next on our Christmas schedule was to meet up with Lynne and do some Christmas carol karaoke. She knew a place that was actually inexpensive, so we went there and got unlimited soft drinks and two hours of karaoke time. The drink bar included hot chocolate, which was absolutely lovely and very seasonally appropriate.
Hot chocolate and "jingle bells" in the form of a tambourine

Me, Lynne, and Mister Potato Head, who joined us for Lynne's photo blog

There were a surprising amount of Christmas carols, but some of them were kinda weird. Like this version of "Rudolph" that went on forever and got a little strange at the end.
Nothing says Christmas spirit like melon soda and a red sweater. And the cute necklace my host family gave me for Christmas!
 A word about my sweater. When we went to the department store to buy Shannon's suitcase, we got distracted by a bunch of funny English sweatshirts. Mine was a version of the frequently parodied Keep Calm and Carry On, which made me laugh because, for whatever reason, the text was completely different from the original. Then I realized how... uncomfortably religious... the message was on Christmas. It's a fun sweater though.
A better view of Shannon's hat and incredible enthusiasm
Of course, we didn't just sing Christmas carols for two hours. We brought out the pop music and anime songs, and then I made the discovery that this karaoke place had a lot of the songs from Yu Yu Hakusho, an anime series that's really nostalgic for Shannon and me. We discovered that even though we hadn't really listened to the songs in a while, we somehow still knew all the lyrics. It was pretty hilarious. I also found out just how dumb some of these lyrics are. These were extra songs sung by the voice actors, made to sound like the characters were singing them, and at least one of the songs mentioned the characters' attacks and the Spirit World and stuff. Sometimes it's cooler when you can't understand, I guess.

Next on our agenda was an all-you-can-eat okonomiyaki place, back in Ikebukuro. Okonomiyaki basically translates to "grilled as you like it." It's sometimes called a Japanese "pancake" or "pizza," but it's nothing like these things except that it's round and relatively flat.

Our first round of okonomiyaki cooking on the grill
I was so into eating that I only took a picture while we were cooking the first batch, but I think I blogged about okonomiyaki before when Missus took me out for lunch? You sit at a table with a grill, and depending on the restaurant, either you make it yourself or they bring you the fully cooked okonomiyaki and you eat it off the grill so it's especially hot and fresh. The basic ingredient is a kind of batter that has some red pickled ginger in it and cabbage to hold it all together. Then you pick your fillings. In this picture, we have triple pork (buta-buta-buta, literally pork-pork-pork) and mochi-cheese. We also tried pork-kimchi and a mix flavor that had seafood in it. Mochi-cheese is my all-time favorite okonomiyaki, but the pork-kimichi one was good too. I don't think I liked kimchi before I came here, but I'd only ever had the kind on the Knox salad bar.

At this place, you ordered your okonomiyaki and then they brought you a bowl of all the ingredients, which you mixed up and then poured on your grill. The hardest part was knowing when to flip the okonomiyaki and then flipping it successfully, but even if it wasn't pretty, it tasted delicious.

After the okonomiyaki is grilled, you cover it with delicious okonomi-sauce and Japanese mayonaise, then top it with ao-nori (a type of seaweed, in little flakes, like a green version of the paprika at a pizza place) and katsuobushi (thin dried fish flakes). And then you eat it and it's amazing.

I think us three girls at 6 okonomiyaki, plus the 5 sides they gave us (the ones we chose were edamame, kimchi, a small salad, and two different kinds of absolutely delicious meat that we cooked on our grill), plus the one drink that was included.

I have never bought a more satisfying dinner in Japan.

Lynne and me after sitting down at the restaurant
Shannon on the other side of the table
 Our next quest was to take a purikura picture to remember the evening by. Purikura (an abbreviation of purinto kurabu - "print club") is a photo booth where you can take pictures and then customize them with writing and little pictures. Then it prints them out as a sticker sheet. There are all kinds of purikura machines that claim to make your eyes bigger, adjust your makeup, make your legs look longer and thinner, and generally turn you into a photoshopped diva princess. You can find purikura at most game centers (arcades), but the ones that really want to attract women will have whole purikura floors with lots of machines to choose from. While smoking is generally fair game in the areas with the slot machines, pachinko machines, and video games, it's prohibited in the areas where they want to attract women, aka the purikura and the crane machines. Some places also have "cosplay purikura," where they have an array of costumes that women can borrow for their photograph. Men are prohibited from wearing the costumes, which I'm thankful for, but it also seems like gender discrimination. I've also seen signs saying that it's okay for a man and a woman to go into the purikura section, but not more than one man together. I'm guessing this is one of Japan's confusing ways of trying to create a safe space for women, but once again, that's gender discrimination, isn't it? Probably a little bit of homophobia too.

Anyway, we found out the hard way that girls and their dates will wait in line for their preferred purikura machine. The purikura floor of the Sega center near the okonomiyaki restaurant was full of people waiting in line. At first we thought the lines were just to do purikura at all, but we found a machine with no line, so we went for it. Turns out it was a pretty bad machine. The time limits were really short and you couldn't take full body pictures. We should have planned our poses before we put our money in. I also don't have a good digital copy of these photos. I can't download them on my phone anymore because I had to get rid of my smart phone, but I stuck the stickers in my journal. Then I photographed my journal. So enjoy the blurry result.

All in all, it was a really fun and satisfying Christmas away from home. It was nice to use the day to just do whatever fun stuff we wanted and not worry about if it was silly or how much it would cost.

The day after Christmas, Missus and Arisa took Shannon and I out to lunch at a really fancy restaurant at the top of Sunshine 60 in Ikebukuro. We had this crazy view of the city (you could actually see Takadanobaba from there!) and lots of fancy food.
View from the 59th floor of Sunshine 60

First course

Second course, and my favorite. Pumpkin soup!

Third course

Dessert - apple tiramisu

And coffee. I just love tea-cups.
On the way back from Sunshine 60, we ran into Rilakkuma! It was so cute, because he bows to thank you for taking a picture with him and with his stubby little arms and legs its adorable~!
 Then Shannon and I met up with Kali and finally got to exchange presents with her. Before she got to Tokyo, Shannon and I went to check out Meiji Jingu, the shrine to the Meiji emperor. I didn't take any pictures, but even though it's right near Harajuku, it's in a forest and so it was another nice escape from the city. We also bought and wrote ema, little wooden tablets where you write your wish and then hang them up at the shrine. The priests at the shrine pray for the wishes and there's something about writing something you want and hanging up for all to see that makes it real and permanent in a really nice way. I should have taken some pictures at the shrine.

We took Kali to our favorite parfait place in Ikebukuro, good ol' Milky Way. I don't have any pictures of her here for some reason. Probably because she was photographing her food while I wanted to take her picture and then she gobbled the whole thing up super fast.
Shannon and her parfait

Today's flavor: sweet potato.

Christmas in Tokyo, Part 1.

Posted by Shaun

Christmas isn't nearly as big of a holiday in Japan as it is in the US. Christmas is very commercialized here, just like in the US. You can buy all kinds of Christmas decorations and Christmas-themed presents, and TV shows have Christmas specials, but I didn't see much of the "Christmas is about family" theme we have back home. I'm not sure if famous Christmas specials like Miracle on 34th Street have been translated into Japanese or if Japan has any of it's own Christmas movies. I'd be a little surprised if it did.  Christmas is viewed mostly as a date holiday, a bit like Valentine's Day. This showed in the fact that the most crowded place we went was the purikura floor of a game center. I'll come back to that later.

The thing that I missed most in Japan was the sense of a Christmas season. Knox has a really long winter break, six weeks from Thanksgiving to New Years, so I'm used to being home, with no particular work to do, helping my mom bake cookies and, if I don't help decorate much myself, getting to sit around and look at the decorations while I'm home. Since I had class until the 22nd, I didn't get that feeling of Christmas preparation. Plus my host family didn't really do anything Christmasy before the 24th. There were some lights up at the college near my house, but I completely forgot to go anywhere else to see the spectacular illuminations people kept telling me about. By the time it got dark I just wanted to be home. Our resident director did let us bake some Christmas cookies at his apartment, and we did a program Secret Santa. Both of those things were a lot of fun.

My original plan for Christmas was to spend it with my sister and our friend who's in the Navy, stationed in Japan. Make it a little hometown reunion thing, and exchange some presents. Then one of my Japan Study friends, Lynne, told me how much she was missing her family during the holidays, and I invited her along to join us for whatever it was we ended up doing. Plans changed frequently over the two days or so before Christmas, but let's start at the beginning.

My sister came to stay with my host family the day after I got done with classes. Our first order of business was getting all of her stuff from Tokyo Station to my house in Saitama on various trains. I shouldn't make fun, because I'll probably need to buy an additional suitcase by the end of the year, or ship a lot of stuff back. It's just natural. People study abroad, and they buy stuff. It happens. But our third order of business was finding my sister an extra suitcase.

You may have noticed I skipped "second." Our second order of business, on the 23rd, was to head to Yokohama to meet our Navy friend, Kali.

I went into this blog with the full intention of protecting people's identities, but I've been really inconsistent about that. I've tried not to talk about where my host family lives and that's why I haven't done a blog post about Japanese houses, for example, but I'm pretty sure my personal info is all over the place. This blog is scarily easy to find on Google, and everyone knows that there's no such thing as anonymity anymore in the internet age.  Most of my readers are people who know me already anyway, and it would just look silly and cumbersome if I called everyone "Navy-friend" and "My Sister" and "Japan Study Friend #5" or whatever. So I guess my official position is that I'm just going to use names. Let me know if you're mentioned on this blog and you have an issue with that.

After that brief interlude, we return to your regularly scheduled blog entry.
So where were we? Yokohama, right? My sister, Shannon, really wanted to see Yokohama China Town, mostly so she could buy a particular cup with pandas on it. You can ask her about that. So we met Kali at Yokohama station and then headed over to Motomachi-Chuukagai station on the Minato-Mirai line. Like most of our best-laid plans, we didn't really do a whole lot except shop at souvenir stores. I had thought we would stick around for a while and have a nice sit-down Chinese dinner, but somehow we ended up at a Jonathon's restaurant in Ikebukuro instead. It was probably for the best, as much as I still do really want an egg roll. None of us know Chinese food very well. I know Shannon and I need to read the descriptions on the menu to even order American Chinese food. And it's incredibly hard to order Chinese food in Japanese, since the food names tend to be in, well, Chinese kanji characters.

So we bought enormous niku-man (buns filled with meat) from a street vendor instead.
The niku-man in Yokohama China Town are way better than the ones I occasionally have for breakfast. It was amazing. I also ate a momo-man (peach bun) which had peach filling and it was quite yummy.

Then for some reason we decided to go all the way back to Ikebukuro, which was closer to home for Shannon and I, but probably twice as far for Kali. We were, once again, lured there by the promise of shopping. We wanted to see Otome Road (Maiden Road), which is supposed to be the more female-centered version of Akihabara, the center of Japan's (and possibly the world's) anime nerd culture. Since most of the anime nerds are men, this tends to mean you stumble across a lot of animated boobs attached to animated women when you go to Akihabara. Otome Road is known for lots of doujinshi (fan-made comic) shops catering more towards women's interests than men's, but we didn't end up going into any of them. That was probably for the best. Instead we headed for the 7-story Animate store and looked at anime character goods. I'm so glad my interest in anime for anime's sake started to wane before I came to Japan and I haven't caught up with any of the recent series'. While I feel sorta confused and left out whenever I look at anime merchandise, I also save a lot of money.
Another thing Otome Road is known for is butler cafes, as an answer to Akihabara's maid cafes. I haven't done a whole lot of research into this yet, but being served food and called "ojou-sama" (milady) by well-dressed men is definitely on my list of things to do while I'm in this country. Especially since I've started watching Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de,  a drama that stars an heiress working as a detective and her sassy, silly, mystery-solving butler. I can write more about this show later if anyone's interested. Heck, I'm sorta obsessed with it, so I'll probably end up talking about it whether you like it or not, once I catch up on all the episodes I've missed.

Okay, Shaun, focus. That's two tangents now. I think you're over your limit.
After eating at a family restaurant we headed back for the night. The next day was Christmas Eve.
My host family had a Christmas party with our extended family (my friend Sam's host family), but that wasn't until the evening, so Shannon and I decided to see Asakusa and Ueno. We only really got to see Asakusa before we ran out of time, but it was nice, for me at least, to see the temple and eat all kinds of snacks and pretend I wasn't in the city for a while.

In front of the big Christmas tree at Ueno station, on our way to Asakusa

In front of Sensou-ji, the temple at Asakusa. Yes, I know, my eyes are closed.
We stopped at a lot of different food stands and ate age-manjuu (age - ah-gay, not the English word "age," means "fried"), amazake, dorayaki, and more age-manjuu. Manjuu is a bread with filling, so age-manjuu is a fried, filled cake thing. When you get them at a stand, they're hot and fresh and so delicious. And they come in all kinds of flavors. Last time I was at Asakusa I just had plain flavor (red bean paste), but this time I tried sesame (with red bean paste) and sakura (cherry), which was amazing. I love the taste of real cherries, instead of cherry flavor, and oh man, it was delicious. Amazake is literally sweet sake, and it was also yum. Served hot, gentle fruity flavor, with barely any alcohol taste. It was the perfect thing to drink outside out of a tiny paper cup on a cold Christmas Eve. I feel like I've already talked about dorayaki, but it's basically a pancake with red bean paste in it and I think sweet potato too? This one was way better than the convenience store dorayaki I bought after listening to my J-pop professor talk about how much Doraemon likes to eat dorayaki.

The Tokyo Sky Tree, to be finished in Spring 2011, and Sensou-ji, first built in 645 and then rebuilt after WWII
When we were leaving Asakusa because we realized it was almost time for the Christmas party, we ran into a bunch of people dressed as Santa and handing out snacks to kids. We played our Dorky Foreigner cards and took a picture with them. How could we not?

Don't look at my hat. I don't know why it looks so huge in this picture. Look at the reindeer on the left instead.
The Christmas party was a lot of fun. Shannon got to meet Sam and his host family, and we ate yummy food Missus cooked and Christmas cake. I was surprised the whole party fit in our little living room, but it did. I finally figured out when I was talking to Shannon why I like Tamaki-san, Sam's host mom and my host aunt, so much (she originally told me to call her okaasan, but everyone in my house calls her by her name, Tamaki-san, so it's confusing. I'm talking about the same person I was calling okaasan earlier, though). Anyway, Tamaki-san reminds me of my grandma. She's loud, she's friendly, and she's politically incorrect, and it's a lot of fun. For example, she brought Sam, Shannon, me, and Sam's friend Stephanie small Christmas presents, announcing "Today it's just the gaijin!" Gaijin is a shortening of the word gaikokujin, meaning person from a foreign country, and it's frequently used derisively. When you take out the "koku," the "country" part, the word basically just turns into "outside person" - "outsider." I mean, both words mean "foreigner," but one feels even more "other-ing" than the other. So, Tamaki-san tells everyone at the party that today she only has presents for the gaijin, and then Mister mutters a correction of "gaikokujin." Of course, no one was going to take offense to Tamaki-san, but it was pretty funny. I really enjoyed myself at the Christmas party.

I'm going to divide this post into two to make it easier to read, so part two will be Christmas day, with a lot more pictures.


Posted by Shaun

From Molly:
Lovely photos! I have to say, that giant gold dolphin is one of the coolest things! And it's so wild that you saw a MO license plate in Japan! But other than that that restaurant experience sounds so bad :(((

What's a Romance Car train? 

Yeah, I'm telling myself to swear off eating in Shibuya for the time being. That's the second time I've gotten really tiny, not that delicious food there. We were a huge party, too. Twenty people. So some of us never got their food. And it was really hard to order because the music was too loud and we were way too close to the other tables for the waitress to walk around the table. Grr.

As for Romance Cars, I had to read up on this on Wikipedia. Apparently the name originated from the two person "love-seat style" seats, as opposed to one person seats.
Since this one goes from Tokyo to Hakone, which is really scenic, with a nice view of Mt. Fuji, and close enough to do a day trip, a lot of people probably use it for dates. Plus getting to take a train through the nice scenery is kinda romantic in the "romantic period" sense, isn't it?

Nagoya and Hakone

Posted by Shaun

My winter break has finally begun, so hopefully I can catch up on this blog again. I get two weeks for Christmas and New Years, and then I'm back to finish the semester. Then I have spring break for February and March. I'm not sure I understand this school system.

I've been on two trips outside of Tokyo recently. The first was going to Nagoya to see my sister, and the second was to Hakone to go to a hot springs resort with Japan Study. There will also be some other stuff interspersed throughout. I'm afraid there isn't going to be a coherent narrative this time, because I really just don't want to get anymore behind, but hopefully it will still be interesting.

We'll start with Harajuku, where I went (again) with one of my friends to do some shopping the day before Nagoya. Harajuku was made famous in the US by Gwen Stefani's Harajuku Girls song and American anime fan's fascination with Japanese street fashion trends. Harajuku is an area of Tokyo really popular with young people. Apparently it used to be a big place where people would gather to show off their outlandish outfits on Sundays, but I've heard that a lot of that has moved to nearby Yoyogi Park or something because police found it to be a nuisance? Anyway, it's not the freak circus it's made out to be by a lot of street fashion and anime fans who have never been there. Sure, you occasionally see people in gothic lolita fashion or something, but it's mostly just teenagers. You see more school uniforms than anything, even on Sundays. Of course, not every woman/girl dressed in a school uniform in Japan is necessarily school-aged or wearing their school's uniform, but that's a story for another day.
The reason why I keep finding myself in Harajuku is because it's one place you can get cheap clothes and accessories. I took a picture of these bathroom signs at an all-you-can-eat dessert restaurant called Sweets Paradise. All I did was stop in to use the bathroom, since it was attached to the food court where I ate.

If I'm a dude and a cutie, which bathroom do I use? What if I'm a girl who plays electric guitar?

And onward to Nagoya.

I took the shinkansen (新幹線 - new main line), commonly called the bullet train in English. I rode it several times when I was in Japan before with Japan Term. It's expensive, but it's like everything good about flying with all the bad parts taken out. It's fast, it's quiet, no one really disturbs you, you've got leg room, there's no TSA, and if you take the slowest one, like I did, there's a coupon that comes with a free drink voucher. 
There's even a Starbucks in the waiting room. It was so hard to not buy coffee. But I managed.

I bought these instead. Japan likes to make bizarre variations on snacks that were just fine the way they are, like these Lemon Ice flavor mini Oreos. They... did taste like lemon ice, but that's not really what I want out of my Oreos.

Mt. Fuji as seen from the window of the shinkansen, surrounded by these nice pink clouds.
I arrived at Nagoya station, and my sister's host family surprised me by picking me up from their station and taking me out to eat the Nagoya version of unagi, grilled eel, as I mentioned earlier. It's really interesting because there are these three ways to eat it, and the way it's cooked is slightly different, so it tastes more grilled/charcoal-ish? I liked it. :D

This is the view walking towards the closest train station from my sister's host family's house. There's. No. People. Oh. My. Goodness. Nagoya actually seems livable compared to Tokyo. Look at those mountains and that beautiful sunshine.

This is a sign next to Nagoya castle. It says that this road is closed to traffic in the event of a major earthquake. That blue and yellow character is Namazu, the catfish that lives under the earth and causes earthquakes when he thrashes about, according to Japanese mythology.

 Nagoya Castle.
 Apparently much of the castle's palace was destroyed during WWII and they're just now reconstructing it. Here's me and my hard hat in the reconstruction area. It was really cool to look at the progress photos. Apparently things have changed a lot since my sister was first here.

 Closer to Nagoya Castle.

 Me and my sister posing on a "kin-shachi," the golden dolphins that are on top of Nagoya Castle. Personally, I don't think shachi look like dolphins at all, but the popular translation seems to be "dolphin," so we'll stick with that. When we asked the people behind us in line to take our picture, one of them took one with their camera too. I can't really figure out why. Like, what story are they going to tell with that? "I saw twin foreigners at Nagoya Castle today, hey look!" I don't really get the logic behind Japan's shutterbugs.
I'm a little big proud of this picture. It's in Oasis 21 in Sakae, the young people's hang out in Nagoya. The way the green tower reflects on the water is really interesting.
We ate another famous Nagoya food, miso katsu! It was really delicious. But you can't really go wrong with fried pork or miso, so.
After this, I had a really great time doing karaoke, talking with my sister's host mother, and getting to meet up with one of my Japan Term friends, who is back in Japan to teach English. It was a really good trip. It made me realize again my difficulties in living in and around Tokyo, though, so it was sort of depressing to go back. It was good to see my host family when I returned, though.

Now for something completely different. I mentioned that Tokyo was hard to live with.
 This is Shibuya on a Saturday evening. I don't know if you can tell, but that black mass filling the bottom of the frame is people. People, people, people, people. We were going out to Mexican food to celebrate some birthdays, and that turned out to be a mistake. Advice for the future: don't eat dinner in Shibuya. You'll get tiny, expensive, disappointing food. This isn't the first time we've made this mistake, but it was certainly the most spectacular. I got the "quatros tacos," four different flavors of tacos served together, for about 900 yen. Sounds good, right? Four tacos for more than 10 dollars has got to get you some big food, right?
The tortillas were the size of silver dollar pancakes.
The only one of us who didn't want to cry after getting their food was the one who had the foresight to order fajitas. Those were normal size, for whatever reason.

The only good thing about this restaurant was this:

 Yep, that's a Missouri license plate on the wall. Nicely done, Zest Cantina Shibuya. Way to stick something on your wall that has nothing to do with Mexican food. But I was pleased to see that familiar white and teal nonetheless. It took me half the dinner to notice it, though. Probably because I'm not used to Missouri license plates being an unusual thing.

Next, the trip to Hakone. We went to Yu no Sato onsen for a relaxing day trip. It was nice to soak in a hot spring, gaze at the surrounding mountains, and forget about homework for a while. I can describe the onsen experience in more detail if you all need the description or are interested, but I'm guessing many of you already read my sister's blog entry on the subject back in August. Let me know if you have questions though.

 Mt. Fuji, as seen from the Romance Car train.

My lunch from the onsen resort. It was great to be able to eat sashimi on the program's tab, and this was pretty and everything, but I was still pretty hungry when I finished it. Pretty, insubstatial food is the bane of my existence. 
 I admit to photographing this banner at the onsen only because it was Knox colors.

 And here's the sign on the way into the resort.

And to end with something completely different, the gingko trees at Waseda. Even though they smell (though my sense of smell is so horrible I hardly notice), I really like gingko trees for their bright yellow leaves. Seeing them all over the place at Waseda and in the Yoyogi area last time I was here was one of the things that inspired me to come back.

 This is the way I walk from the train station onto campus. The signboards are advertising different events and clubs on campus. I can't really read them.

 Here's the statue of Okuma Shigenobu, the founder of Waseda. He was also a pretty important figure in the Meiji Restoration, and he served as prime minister.

This must have been a Monday morning, hence campus' total emptiness and the general lack of sunlight. The grey thing on the left is building 14, where my Monday Japanese class is. It was probably about 8:30-8:45 am, which is about when I get to school when I have first period class. I get up at 6:15 so I can catch the 7:36 local train that starts from my station so that I can sit down and play video games and therefore pretend the train is not grotesquely crowded. It doesn't need to take me this long to get to school, but I don't want to be sandwiched into a crowded, sweaty train if I can avoid it. So I get up like an hour earlier than I have to.

Breaking The Silence Spell

Posted by Shaun

You know what I almost forgot about? Today’s Pearl Harbor Day. There was actually a brief mention of it on the Japanese news today that reminded me. It was so brief that I couldn’t tell how they were framing the issue.
Anyway, onto the real topic for today.
The hardest thing about Japanese for me has been talking. Not speaking the language, per se, but talking. It’s a bizarre problem to have, considering that in English it can be difficult to get me to shut up, but I suffer from it none the less.

In much the same way that I suffer from the fact that every H&M commercial I’ve seen in the past 3 months has had the same song in it, albeit in a different remix or with different images. Perhaps I shouldn’t watch TV while I blog.

In any case, from the moment I moved in with my host family, I’ve been under a sort of spell that’s made it hard to get the words out. It started with a combination of bad  habits and bad timing. During my high school Japanese classes, I was a level below most of my friends, so when we would have class parties and speak Japanese, I would come along, but I would mostly just listen because the conversations were hard for me to follow. Of course, listening is part of learning a language. If you can understand everything, you probably aren’t learning. But, like everything, it can be taken to extremes. The same thing happens when I talk to my major advisor, which caused him to tell me that Japanese host families would like me because I’m quiet. Then I moved in, completely exhausted and overwhelmed, and apparently, I found out later, Missus had a hell week at work and couldn’t be around for me right at the beginning, so we didn’t exactly have time to sit and chat and get to know each other.  Things started to get better, but then I had a bad time in Japanese class where no one could understand me, and it made me feel like giving up, causing me to lose all the progress I made. That’s when it really began to feel like I was under a spell, instead of just in a new situation I wasn’t used to yet. It’s just been over the last few weeks that I’ve been beginning to figure out how to break that spell.

My advice is this, if you happen to find yourself trapped in your own spell of study abroad silence: talk about it. See if you can figure out the reasons and let your host family know why you’re having trouble talking to them. I had to do this after I overheard Missus asking Mister if I talked to him. He was home for two days and I hardly said five words to him. Partly this is because I was busy, but it’s partly because of the silence spell. I thought I had nothing interesting to say and I thought that no one would understand it anyway, so I should only try to say anything unless I absolutely had to. Obviously, this is a terrible state of mind to be in when you’re trying to learn a foreign language. I also wanted everyone to like me, so I didn’t want to do anything that seemed to get in the way, like ask for things I wanted. But, if you don’t show any personality at all, that’s not giving people much to like, is it?

Erina still doesn’t talk to me unless she’s telling me how to eat something when we’re having dinner at the same time, and Ryunosuke still asks me weird questions in his difficult-to-understand voice when he happens to be at home. I can’t really change those things. But I’ve been working on my friendship with Missus and Arisa, and at least I let Mister know where I was coming from right before he left for the month.

After I overheard the conversation between Mister and Missus, I felt terrible. I was feeling terrible anyway because I didn’t know what was up with my communication skills, but at that point I realized that I was probably not only frustrating myself but making my host family uncomfortable as well.  So I wrote myself a speech. Or perhaps a letter, if I lost my will to say it out loud. I wrote, in Japanese, about the professor who told me it was good to be quiet, and about how my English-speaking friend couldn’t even understand my Japanese in class. About how I had given up without really realizing it, and that I definitely want to be good at Japanese and speak to the family but my confidence had just disappeared. At breakfast the next morning, I recited the speech. I didn’t even need the paper because I ended up memorizing my own words while I was writing. And I broke down crying in the end. Other than one moment of homesickness during the first week, it was the only time I’d cried in front of my host family. But it turned out to be a good thing. If I was going to feel like an actual host family member, I needed to show them some emotional vulnerability. I needed to lean on them a little bit. Missus told me that she had the same problem when she was studying abroad in England. There was another person she knew who would just say all these things and she couldn’t figure out why he was so fluent and she wasn’t. Then she realized his grammar wasn’t very good. He was just saying whatever he wanted to say, practicing and practicing, without worrying if his sentences came out right. She encouraged me again to say anything I felt like. And I promised myself I would take her advice to heart this time. Mister told me that it was okay that I was crying because they were がんばる涙, “doing your best tears,” so it meant that I really wasn’t going to give up.

I felt so much closer to Mister and Missus after that moment. Although after that I had to go help prepare for our Japan Study Thanksgiving Party and Mister had to leave while I was gone, I could definitely tell I’d gotten closer to Missus when we reunited at the party. My focus had changed, from trying not to be a burden to trying to learn how to be myself, so we had better conversations. 

The next steps were these: talk to Missus in front of Erina, even if you’re a little afraid of her. Talk about the things you’re happy about. Get overcharged at karaoke, try to get over it, but come home angry anyway and talk about it. Then calm down and talk about England. Do your homework in front of the TV, since it’s warmer there anyway and it makes you more accessible. Stay up a little bit later and you can watch TV with Missus when she’s done with teaching for the night. It’s been a lot of fun. I like how she makes a face and a “bleh” sound whenever a singer she doesn’t like comes on TV, like Koda Kumi or AKB48. How she talks about being “macho” and “not typical Japanese” and likes to watch women’s sports, and she comments whenever something on a TV program is overpriced. How she explains to me Erina and Ryu’s personalities so that they seem less frightening and mysterious to me and so I’m not afraid to say that they intimidate or confuse me, and she lets me know when they’re not on their best behavior. The other day when Ryu had just left, she asked me if I could understand him, because his voice is notoriously difficult for foreign students, and I told her that I just didn’t get him at all. She was like 「ショーンは男の人が苦手ね」(literally “Men are your weak point, right?”) and instead of being embarrassed at how obvious it was that I’m no good at interacting with dudes, I was really pleased that she understood that about me. I feel like we’re finally getting to understand each other’s personalities. I feel like I’m finally making progress. Let’s home I keep up the good work.


Posted by Shaun

I have stuff to write about, and hopefully I'll be able to get around to writing some more soon.
As a sort of place-holder, I'm going to share the playlist of music I made myself the other day when I was thinking about my study abroad struggles. It's a mix of Japanese and English music that's a bit about loneliness but I think it has an optimistic side too. (I promise I'm not lonely all the time! Really!) These last two weeks, and the last few days in particular, I think I've made a lot of progress with my Japanese and my speaking confidence, and this is the sort of music that's spurred me on. None of these translations are mine, and I don't totally agree with all of them, but I'm too lazy and unskilled to do my own, so there you go. やっぱりアニメ歌ばっかり。。。ちょっとかっこうよくないね。。。(They're pretty much all anime songs... that's a little uncool, isn't it?) Also my formatting is embarrassing. Never show this to my digital media teachers from high school.

あたしの街、明日の街 by 高橋瞳
Atashi no Machi, Ashita no Machi (My Town, Tomorrow's Town) by Takahashi Hitomi

yuraganai to kimeta no
sukoshi dake kowai kedo
mou maketari wa shinai yo

I've decided without wavering
It's a little scary, but
I won't be defeated anymore

sutete shimae  kirai na atashi
sunao ni naritai dake
sono saki de  aitai
mita koto no nai  atashi

I'll throw it away, the me I hate
I only want to become honest
I want to meet my future self
A me I've never seen

sayonara  daisuki na machi
zutto issho datta keredo
kitto mata aeru yo ne

Good bye, my beloved town
We've always been so close, but
We'll surely meet again
Full lyrics

Lost My Music by 平野綾
Hirano Aya

daisuki na hito ga tooi
toosugite nakitaku naru no
ashita me ga sametara
hora kibou ga umareru kamo Good night!

The person I love is far away,
So far that I'm almost crying.
When I open my eyes and wake up tomorrow,
A new hope will perhaps be born, Good night!
Full Lyrics

上を向いて歩こう by 坂本九
Sukiyaki (Ue o Muite Arukou - I Will Walk While Looking Up) by Sakamoto Kyu

Ue o muite arukou
Namida ga kobore nai you ni
Nakinagara aruku
Hitoribotchi no yoru
I look up as I walk
So that the tears won't fall
Though the tears well up as I walk
For tonight I'm all alone
Full Lyrics

Big Strong Girl by Deb Talan
I can't find a YouTube video for this song for some reason.

it's not now or never
it's not black & it's not white
anything worth anything
takes more than a few days
& a long, long night

don't push so hard against the world
you can't do it all alone
& if you could, would you really want to?
even though you're a big strong girl,
come on, come on, lay it down
the best made plans
come on, come on, lay it down
are your open hands

Full Lyrics

A Little Pain by OLIVIA
Tsuyoku naru tame
Wasureta egao
Kitto futari nara torimodosu

* Kizuite
I'm here waiting for you
Ima to wa chigau mirai ga atte mo
I'm here waiting for you
Sakebi tsuzukete
Kitto kokoro wa
Tsunagu ito wo tagutteru
Ano koro no watashi
Me wo samasu you ni
No need to cry

In order to become strong
I have to remember how to smile
If we're together, I can do it

* Realize that...
I'm here waiting for you
Even if the future is different from now
I'm here waiting for you
I keep on shouting
I'm sure all I have to do
Is pull in the thread that connects our hearts
So the person I was back then
Would open her eyes
No need to cry
Full lyrics

Hey My Friend by Tommy Heavenly6

Hey my friend
naze darou anata no koe ga kikoeru
Hello my self
michibikareru you ni mieta mirai ga aru no
dakedo fumihazusu michi ga chikaku ni aru nara
nee my friend
anata ga kidzuita toki ni wa oshiete
Hey my friend
I wonder why I can hear your voice
Hello my self
In order to be guided, there's a future that's visible
But, if a stray path is close by,
hey my friend
tell me when you realize it
Full Lyric


mou dou nattatte ii  kakkou warukutatte ii
shinimonogurui de mirai o kaete yaru
dou shitatte  kaerenai unmei da to iwarete mo
mada ore wa kawareru  jibun de kaete miseru
I don't care how things turn out, and I don't care if I'll look uncool,
I will desperately try to change my future.
Even If I'm told that my destiny is immutable no matter what I do,
I myself can still change, and I will prove to you that I can change myself.
kore ga  sou "PURAIDO" sorezore no basho de...
This is, that's right, "pride", each in its own place...
madamada kieruna  kokoro no hi o
mada wasuretakunai  mune no atsusa o
madamada kieruna  kokoro no hi o
madamada ikeru zo  ikeru zo

Don't perish yet, the fire in my heart.
I don't want to forget yet, the heat in my chest.
Don't perish yet, the fire in my heart.
I can still keep going, so here I go!
Full Lyrics

Nekobukuro and Namco Namjatown

Posted by Shaun

Last Saturday, my J-pop class took a field trip to a cat cafe.
I was disappointed, because there's no actual food at a cat cafe, or at least not at this cat cafe. You go and pet cats, and that's it. It was cute, sure, but I couldn't really get myself psyched about it. Something about the air in there, and all the sleeping cats, made me just want to fall asleep. Maybe it was because I was hungry. So I stayed for a little bit, but it wasn't long before I really wanted to leave. Although I did a lot of stuff last Saturday, it wasn't exactly my most with-it day. I came home and fell asleep right after dinner, and then proceeded to sleep until 10:30am, so I guess I was actually really exhausted.

But anyway, the cat cafe. It was called Nekobukuro, because "neko" is cat, and "bukuro," which actually means "bag," is the end of "Ikebukuro," the neighborhood where it was located ("Ikebukuro" is actually "pond bag," who knows why). You seem to be able to make a lot of cute words out of "Ikebukuro," for whatever reason. There's a statue of an owl outside one exit of the station called "Ikefukurou," because "fukurou" means owl, and there's a new restaurant that opened in one of the department stores on Friday that I've seen advertised all over the Ikebukuro train station. It's called "Tabe-bukuro," because "Taberu" means "to eat," and the mascot is a little owl wearing oven mitts and a chef hat. It's adorable.

Prof. Freedman pets a kitty

After staring at and attempting to pet cute cats for a while, I left with a couple of my classmates to go to Sunshine City, the big (impossibly big) shopping mall in Ikebukuro, that happened to be right next to Nekobukuro.
I say Sunshine City is impossibly big because there's no way you can see it in one day. There's a bajillion stores, an aquarium, and event hall, and a whole indoor theme park.
The indoor theme park ended up being our destination. It's called Namjatown, and it was created by the arcade game company Namco. There are some indoor rides and some really confusing activities, but our destination was the food theme parks.

Yes, I said food theme parks.

Our first stop was Gyoza Stadium. I didn't take any pictures, but it's a bunch of gyoza stands. Supposedly you get a certificate if you try every flavor. Unfortunately you have to pay 300 yen admission to Namjatown and then you have to pay for everything you eat while you're there, which can get steep if you don't control yourself.
Gyoza Stadium, while exciting, wasn't our real destination. I just needed to eat something of substance before heading to the next stop, Ice Cream City.

Ice Cream City has a bunch of ice cream stands where they can make you really cute sundaes shaped like teddy bears and things, but for me the real highlight was the cup ice museum. It's a room full of freezers of little cups of ice cream, with all sorts of flavors to try. Once again, you have to buy every flavor you try, so at a few hundred yen a pop, I had to choose wisely. I quickly settled on unagi, since it's one of my favorite Japanese foods. It's often described as barbequed eel over rice. The sauce is sort of sweet so, I mean, turning that into an ice cream? What could go wrong, right?

Unagi ice cream

With the lid off and the topping added

The flavor was so-so. I don't like my ice cream to be very salty, so the slight salt aftertaste at the end was a little too much. I could sorta see how it tasted like unagi, but not really. Some of the other flavors I will never try with my own money were miso ramen and Indian curry. Flavors I might try with my own money were different kinds of sake, wasabi, milk from Hokkaido, tofu, mikan, melon, wait I can't afford all this ice cream.