Sunday, June 28, 2009

Back from Kyoto/Nara MISTI intern trip

Not blogging tonight, because I am tired.

However, the trip was amazing. Much awkwardness and cultural experiences ensued.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Chapter the Third in Sharon/Sherry's Big Adventure: New Houses, Plum Wine, and Multicolored Grids

I'm nearing the end of my third week of work. This weekend I'm going to Kyoto with the other MISTI Japan interns to absorb as much traditional Japanese culture and history as we can in two days, after which I expect to have more than enough to blog about -- hence why I need to get this entry done before then. This entry is somewhat non-linear, since first I talk about last week's and this week's work, then the weekend in between.

Section 1: The boring stuff -- work & my mutterings about the future

So I generally have no idea what's going on in the life of the other five people working in the office. (More than five people work in the office, but usually on any given day three or so are somewhere else mysterious. Like at home. In bed. I actually don't know about this either.) I have been helping with one large project, the daylight simulation for an apartment complex, and a few other smaller and less rewarding things. I am somewhat amused in retrospect that I had hoped to finish the daylight simulations by the end of last week; it's Friday today and I still probably have another week of work ahead of me. The apartment complex has 26 units, each one at least two levels, with a courtyard in the middle and a patio attached to every apartment. Some of the units are partially on the basement floor, which is why my boss wanted to look at the daylight in these particular rooms. It looks approximately as if someone built a structure by fitting together three-dimensional Tetris blocks -- pretty cool, in my opinion, but currently the project is stalled, so it probably won't be built for a little while. Editing the model to produce decent presentation pictures takes more time than the actual simulations. This week I picked a very stupid method for my first attempt, i.e. screenshot in Ecotect --> Photoshop --> Illustrator. The axonometric of the apartment with the daylight autonomy grid ended up scruffy and hard to read; next I'm going to try correcting the model and re-drawing the daylight autonomy grid in Autocad and then taking it into Illustrator. I'll see if I can post some screenshots of what I'm doing later. Honestly, I spent most of the second week just adapting the previously existing 3DS Max model so that I could use it for daylight simulation. Exporting from 3DS produced lots of extra triangles that make the model look more complicated and harder to deal with. I also needed to separate each apartment into its own layer which could be turned on and off; if I tried to put the model as-is into Radiance, the daylighting software, it would most likely stop deader than a possum on the interstate. So now each apartment has a detailed version and a block version, each on its own layer.

If this sounds interesting -- that's because you didn't spend approximately 12 hours too long working on it. On Friday night I hurtled out of the office at perhaps an indecorously high speed. My coworkers, of course, worked late, even on Friday night. I am frankly appalled, but I am an intern, and as such, I have no opinions.

Yesterday I finally produced some results for one apartment, which my boss and Satomi-san (see below) looked at glumly and basically asked, "That's all?" I compared two schemes, theirs and another one proposed by the owner, I think, and while their scheme was a little better lit, it wasn't very dramatic. It was kind of strange; I've been working on research long enough that the results looked pretty noticeably different to me, but I guess not in a selling-a-design kind of way. I will admit I was a little disappointed; I thought they would actually use my results to maybe tweak their design some. Maybe later.

The other people in the office are either working on the smokers' space competition, as Ana (who is Portuguese and fluent in English) is, or construction documents for an unknown project, as I think Ichikawa-san and Shika-san are. I really don't know about the last two though -- they don't so much talk to me, since neither is particularly fluent in English, and I feel that the young-not-particularly-confident-woman vs. slightly-older-slightly-cockier-man subtext is one of the most awkward contexts in which to practice my not particularly great language skills. I also have no idea what the other partner in the firm, Jun Vera, is doing, other than occasionally offering advice on what everyone else is doing. Bris, who is French and who has been in Japan for four years already, usually comes in only for a couple hours at most a day, and often he doesn't come in at all, instead working from home using the office network. Two other guys have shown up, both Japanese, neither of whose names I know. One is very friendly and said he had done an exchange in Rock Rapids, Iowa, when in high school (small world :D) and gave me a tasty Japanese sweet cake. The other I just showed up this last Wednesday, has glasses and facial hair, and wore these truly awesome shoes: Satomi-san (whose last name I have learned twice and forgotten both times) is in charge of the project for which I am doing my simulations. She is also pretty young, and has been the most patient with my attempts in Japanese. Yesterday we had a brief conversation where I managed to say (I think) that I didn't have very many architectural projects, so I wanted to add lots of my artwork and posters to my portfolio. I will now also remember the distinction between "nugu" and "kesu," which my dictionary made sound similar -- "nugu" is to take off, as Satomi-san demonstrated patiently with her shawl, while "kesu" is to remove or erase, as with the extra lines in my model. Another guy from Okinawa (I think) whose name I have also stupidly forgotten has been very nice, partly because I think he really wants to practice his English and so is willing to help me practice my Japanese. Today I managed to ask him why some houses in Tokyo have a whole row of clear plastic water bottles lined up at the base of the exterior wall. He said that people want to deter cats from getting in their gardens and digging up things and crushing plants, and people think that the reflected light off the water bottles scares off cats. I am frankly skeptical about the method but delighted that he understood my question. I also discovered a new word -- "kamu," to bite. Taitei neko ga watasi o kamimasu. . . usually cats bite me. Otherwise the language practice has been going slowly. I can never quite decide if the non-English speakers I work with think I'm a total moron or just are too busy and shy to say anything to me.

I really love observing the clothes people wear to the office, for their total illogic (in my eyes) if not for their snazziness. Ichikawa-san has a spectacularly ripped pair of jeans that hang somewhere below his butt that he is particularly fond of, while Ana usually wears these sort of harem-pant-like things like sweats where the waist is at the natural waist, but the inseam (going for delicate terms here) hangs somewhere around the knees. She also has tall wrestling shoes and several sundresses. Satomi-san always wears a layered sort of thing with a t-shirt and a dress with stripes or flowers and boots -- today they're white cowboy boots. Okinawa man (? he is a bringer of delicious pineapple -- I will find out his name) -san generally wears purple shoes. I usually wear a skirt to work, not for formality, but because it's really freaking hot and humid every day, and my shorts are veeery casual and limited in number.

Some other things popped up -- I'm at some point going to continue working on the class syllabus, which includes compiling a list of links for extra information and explanations about the history of Tokyo. Be still, my heart (not sarcasm -- really looking forward to this).

On Wednesday or Thursday of last week I was officially introduced to a Korean filmmaker. She and my boss are co-producing (they hope, if they get funding) a documentary about "green entrepreneurs." She was. . . well. . . terrifying. Bleach-blonde hair, extended cat-eye eyeliner, and no real eyebrows -- they had been drawn on with pencil. In the first ten minutes of our acquaintance she managed to fit in the conversation that she had lived in Germany for several years (with this charming segue: "Oh. . . is your name German? I lived in Germany. . . "), she was very "cosmopolitan," and that she spoke seven languages ("so please forgive me if I forget an English word or two." paraphrase.) I have no idea how old she is, but her mode of dress is. . . sparkly. . . and her purse is very large and probably designer (or knock-off). She described the project to me very excitedly, saying they had dubbed the production team "greenQuest" and tentatively the film "One" ("because we are all one with the earth, you know?") and asked me to write an introduction for a company that might be interested in sponsoring it. The people they want to interview do sound kind of cool. My boss would be one of them; his idea is to replace gravestones (which usually costs at least $5000 USD in Japan -- for reference my grandma paid about $600 for my grandpa's gravestone in 2001) with and small stones and small windmills.

She asked if I was okay with helping her, which I cautiously said I was, given that my boss didn't need me for other things, and then asked if I was okay with working weekends if needed later in the summer, to which I stupidly said, sure. I did the introduction -- hey, I can write, that's okay -- and gave it to her on Friday afternoon. On Monday she called me and said she had gotten together with a friend and re-written the whole thing. I hope she has forgotten who I am and why she wanted my help by next week.


I have been continuing my profligate ways, so I generally still go to bed shortly after I get home at eight. This has been making it difficult to pursue very many personal projects, but I have started researching graduate schools in the U.S. and abroad. Unfortunately, most other countries seem to use a different architect accreditation system than the U.S., making it seemingly a lot easier for foreigners to enter the U.S. system than for Americans to enter the British or European systems. I was really sure at the beginning of the year that I didn't want to be an architect after all, but now I'm less and less sure about what exactly I'd like to do. I know that I want to work before graduate school if it's at all possible (which, given the current economic climate, it might not be), and I know that I at least want to work with architects, because they're generally pretty cool people with interesting ideas and nice clothes.

I'd like to do another, longer MISTI internship before grad school in Japan, but it's hard to know what pitch the economy will be throwing this fall and next spring. I've started trying to re-vamp my portfolio, which I started in during a class last fall. Unfortunately my review for the class was disgustingly verging on catastrophically bad, so I'm not really willing to keep anything from that version of the layout. Lots of work to do. :P I also have a couple different ideas for trips I would like to take next year after graduating, meaning I have been rustling around with all of the following on the internet: a) language sites b) travel/accommodation sites c) writing sites, with hopes of actually being able to pay for such a trip independently. We'll see.

Most of my "adventures" during the week have occurred coming to or going from work, and many have involved trying to find Japanese equivalents of certain products, such as laundry detergent and contact solution. The latter item took me three tries before I could find a combination I could work with; I can read the katakana on the package ("sohuto kontakuto") but have a hard time figuring out which are supposed to be used by themselves and which should be used with saline solution, meaning that I ended up with burning eyes two days in a row (luckily I had saved a little of my old solution and could rectify this problem.) I finally rectified the problem by finding a bottle of "saarin sorusyan" and using the other stuff as cleaner last night. The other product for which I have had difficulty filling the proper specifications I will not mention here for the sake of my father's sensibilities, but rest assured that I located a where they live in the convenience store and am much more at peace with the world. Other Japanese product adventures have involved investigating the ingredients for cookies; luckily "flour" is written on the bag in both katakana and kanji; unluckily, it's about $3 for 2-lbs-ish. Butter prices are pretty stiff too, at about $3.50 for two sticks. Not sure if my coworkers will be getting any homemade baked goods out of me after all.

Another. . . adventure. . . occurred this Monday night when I met with Bianca to purchase our night bus tickets for tonight to go to Kyoto. We foolishly thought that we could meet right in Shinjuku Station next to the west exit, buy the tickets at the JR midori no madoguchi, eat some food, go home. Foolish, foolish mortals! I have since found out that Shinjuku is the busiest train station in the WORLD, with about 3 million people passing through every day. We meant to meet at 8; we finally found each other by way of heavenly mercy a 8:45, purchased the tickets, and ate at "Mos Burger," which is kind of like classy Japanese McDonalds.

Tokyo is incredibly dense with people, objects, animals, and buildings, so every time I walk the same route I find something new. The street my office is on is probably a half mile or three-quarters long, and I would bet there are fifty stores or more on it, none particularly big, selling a huge variety of clothes (including rain boots with heels and dresses for dogs), food (mainly Japanese, but there is a Mexican restaurant, an Italian cafe, and a bakery that specializes in sweet made of vegetables), health products, groceries, real estate, hair care, dry cleaning, antiques, fruit, and photography. The walk home is mainly through residential neighborhoods, but I walk by the most interesting things, like a shrine under construction and a Buddhist cemetery (which I wouldn't have noticed at all had I not peeked through the fence.) I blame my mother and aunt Barb for this, but I also keep noticing that the plants are similar but completely different from home. Sometimes it's obvious -- plenty of houses grow bamboo outside -- and sometimes it's not; for instance, hydrangeas are everywhere, but they're all the blue-purpley kind, not the lame white-green ones I'm used to at home. People hang their laundry outside and on their balconies; this morning I saw a woman airing her futon (which look an awful lot like comforters to me) on the bushes in front of her apartment building. I've tried to take as many pictures as possible, but I'm still kind of nervous to take pictures of people, so I've missed some really great pictures -- a little boy walking to school under his umbrella, an old man working on a construction project down the street, the guy walking four miniature dachshunds.

I will work on this.

Section 2: Return to TNM

Saturday morning got munched up in talking to my parents and friends at home, which was okay. Then, Saturday afternoon, I decided to go on my very own independent adventure, back to Ueno Park and Tokyo National Museum! Okay, I wasn't that inventive, but I really wanted to see the exhibits I had missed the weekend before. It was delightfully sunny. I took the Yamanote line around Tokyo, which to my surprise took over 30 minutes. I successfully found my way into the park and stopped at the pagoda which had been closed before; there was an elderly man there taking care of the counter with little charms and other things for sale. I think I was confused -- I thought the pagoda was a Buddhist (rather than Shinto, like the shrines) thing, so I wouldn't have to purify my hands before entering, but there was a basin and dipper next to the entryway, the same as a shrine. I think I may have come off an insensitive clod to the old man. We talked for a minute or two in Japanese -- I tried to ask if it was a Buddhist temple (otera), as opposed to a Shinto shrine (jinja), but I left out the second part, so I don't know if he said yes because it was Buddhist temple or because he thought I was a dumb foreigner who didn't know there was a difference. He told me the Japanese word for crow (karasu); the park is filled with enormous, scarily brave ones. My boss told me the word for Buddha, butsu, so now I can ask, sort of, what the statue inside is of.

I stopped to watch a bizarre street performance that consisted of a man inside a bouncy yellow balloon-ball that had been inflated and a woman in tall striped socks and a yellow windbreaker bouncing off of him. There was a large audience of deeply amused children for this.

The museum accepted my MIT student ID (wheee) so admission was only 400 yen (~$4). It was, if possible, even more awesome this time. The upper floor, which we had rushed through before, is basically the "highlights of Japanese art" -- so essentially Cliffs Notes on every awesome thing that Japan has produced in the last 1500 years. I looked at kimono, woodblock prints, and Jomon period clay figures, some of which are 3000 years old. They are. . . not very dignified looking. Actually they're kind of cute. I was delighted to find plushies of them in the museum shop; apparently I'm not the only one who finds them cuddly rather than awe-inspiring. I saw two prints that are part of the "Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji" series, of which the print "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa" (here at wikipedia:, the first one) is probably the most famous picture to ever be produced by Japan. I saw two less famous ones, "Waterwheel at Onden" and "Nihonbashi Bridge in Edo." Then it was off to the archaeology museum next to the primary museum, which had only one floor but a lot of stuff. They had a special exhibit of three enormous maps of the world made in Japan in the 1500s, as well as lots more clay figures, swords that had been buried and worn away, and tack for horses. My favorite were the handsome ridge-end (i.e. end of the roof) tiles from different parts of Japan.

The museum shop was still fun but alas, still expensive. Silk scarves were $50, as were furoshiki (sp?), or Japanese wrapping cloths. I will find souvenirs, but I just haven't found them yet. I have also not yet sent my postcards. . . sigh. This blog makes somewhat redundant anything I might say.

I headed home a bit early, for I had a DATE with the other MISTI interns. I couldn't resist stopping in something called the "Tokyu Food Show" at Shibuya Station. . . Oh. My. Not a food court, as I had originally thought. It is a GOURMET FOOD EMPORIUM with something like 20 bakeries crammed in together. I bought a baguette, which I am still conflicted about, because it had asiago cheese on it and I don't like asiago cheese, except the baguette was tasty, and some sugar cookies, which I was not conflicted about at all (they were delicious).

Section 3: Night on the town (sorta)

The interns had all planned to meet at the Hachikou statue at Shibuya at 8 o'clock on Saturday night. Hachikou was an Akita belonging to a professor in Tokyo in the 1930s who accompanied his master every day to the train station when he went to work and met him every day when he came home, also at the train station. The professor died one day of a stroke a work and so didn't return, but Hachikou kept returning to the train station at the same time every night for many years. In any case, what we didn't realize is that Hachikou statue is the most popular meeting spot in Shibuya for young Tokyoites -- i.e. not as crowded as Shinjuku but still pretty impossible for a short person to locate a small group of MIT students in a sea of other young men and women. I finally found Bianca (of course), then the group, and we set out for Coins Bar, where we had a reservation. We stopped in 109 on the way, a ridiculous collection of designer, edge-of-reason clothes for women (the boys were not really happy or comfy). Coins Bar was delightful; it was small, with an enormous table in the middle that we each paid $25 to reserve, which reservation included a host of appetizers (all American) and as much as we cared to drink. Pirates of the Caribbean was playing in the background with Japanese subtitles and the music was too loud but fun. I ordered a glass of umeshuu mizu ari, or plum wine diluted with water. I HAVE FOUND MY ALCOHOL. It was delicious. So delicious that I didn't get another glass.

It was fun to hear how the other interns were doing. Jess, who is working at Rikken, actually ended up translating a lot for her boss, who has been in Japan for seven years without learning much of the language. Thu, who is working at an architecture firm too, is speaking entirely in Japanese every day and somehow got put on the model-making end of things even though she is a civil engineer and wanted to work in fluids. Jackie, who is working at Secom (sp?), a securities company, has to deal with incredibly strict rules: She had to re-dye her hair black (it had a streak of green), replace her green contacts with natural color ones, wear heels to work every day, wear no earrings larger than seed pearls, and wear no glasses that have other than gray or black frames. At least she's not a boy and does not have to live in her company dorms, which are far away, crowded, and have no internet. Bianca, who I talk with every couple days, keeps finishing all the work her boss gives her, so she spends a lot of time sitting at her computer, surfing.

Another intern apparently had drunk enough alcohol that freestyle rapping seemed like a good idea, so he got up and requested the DJ to play him a beat. He also remarkably enough had not had enough to make him unintelligible or uncoordinated; he actually did a really good job. It was bizarre.

The rest of them headed out to karaoke with the intention of staying out all night, and I headed home, with the intention of going to a church near Harajuku the next morning.

Section 4: Church stuff

When I woke up Sunday morning, it was pouring. This did not bode well. I meant to go to the 8:30 service at Tokyo Union Church, but I didn't manage to get out the door until 8:10 -- not good news for a journey that I knew would involve 5 minutes of walking + three stops on the subway + train change + one stop on Yamanote line + at least 10 more minutes of walking. It was indeed not good news for being there at 8:30; I got out at Harajuku Station at approximately 8:30 with a vague idea of which direction I was going in and shoes that were getting wetter by the minute. I had a raincoat but not my umbrella (running late) and had forgotten to eat breakfast (really, really late.) I found the church on a list of English-speaking religious institutions on the American embassy website. It's nondenominational, which I like, and had a reasonable-sounding statement of purpose. I've come across two local churches, one by my house and one on my walk to work, but I'm a little uncertain about how much I would get out of a service entirely in Japanese. Apparently only 1% of Tokyo is Christian, so thank goodness for the internet's search capabilities.

So I've been to Harajuku Station three times now, but that was the first time I had gotten out and walked around. I knew Harajuku meant shopping for the most part, but what I didn't know is it means HIGH-END INTERNATIONALLY KNOWN BRAND-NAME SHOPPING. As in, I passed by my second Chanel store in Tokyo, a Christian Loboutin boutique (I think), a Dior store, and maybe a Gucci on the way to the church. I had to stop at a police box with a cool map outside of it; it had potential locations listed at the bottom with buttons that you could push, which then made a dot and a helpful arrow light up on the map. It was still pouring, of course. The church building was between an Armani and a Louis Vuitton. Not kidding.

I walked in, thinking glumly about how it would look that I was twenty minutes late. The first guy I saw apologized and said that during the summer the only service was at 10:00 AM. I was super relieved and promptly switched to worrying about whether I would be able to meet my boss on time at noon to go to an architectural open house, a plan we had made on Friday.

The minister's wife spotted me instantly as new as I searched out the subway line that was closer than the Yamanote line on one of my Tokyo maps and rather forcefully but kindly introduced me to another girl who was supposed to give me more information about their Bible study groups. She ended up lending me her large, beautiful umbrella so I could run to a bakery down the street for breakfast.

The sermon was nice, mainly remarkable for the fact that the minister incorporated a reference to Field of Dreams. At this church, apparently newcomers get up every service and introduce themselves, because the English-speaking population of Tokyo changes so fast.

I headed out pretty quickly without stopping for coffee to the Ometosando stop, which connects to the Ginza and Hanzomon lines. I barely made it home by 12:05, but, as I keep forgetting, my boss was meeting me at noon (with three small children) and noon (with three small children) actually equals about 12:20.

Section 5: Awkward shakes hands with fun

My boss picked me up in his station wagon (which is disguised to not look like a station wagon), his three daughters, and his wife. I had met Reika and Tamao the previous weekend, but not Ayaka (who is three months old) or Mika (his wife). His wife is very pretty, very fine-boned, taller than me, and speaks a little but not a lot of English. I felt a wave of awkward come over me when I got in the car which never totally left; I sat in the front passenger seat while his wife sat in the seat behind us with Ayaka in a baby seat. I said the usual ("Hello, pleased to meet you, my name is Sharon, I'm so sorry but my Japanese is poor") and after talking with my boss for ten minutes, lapsed into silence for the rest of the 1.5 hour drive. We were going to Kamakura, south of Tokyo, famous for having a daibutsu, or big Buddha, that is 30 feet tall and weigh 93 tons (made out of bronze.) It was built in 1250 or so and has not been disturbed by much of anything; the temple around it was washed away in a tsunami in ~1450, and the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 that totally annihilated Tokyo moved it a foot or two, but it's still pretty much okay. We couldn't stop and see it, but I fully plan to go back. We were headed toward an architectural open house for a house designed by George Kunihiro, who, like my boss, went to Harvard's GSD (General School of Design).

The house was nice. It would have been nicer if hadn't been so foul outside, and if it wasn't a weekend house for a Swedish-American couple who spend maybe a couple days there a year. I roved the premises with Tamao and Reika, who I totally underimpressed with my language abilities. I did learn that "kutsu" is shoe, as Tamao required an explanation for the yellow marks my Birkenstocks left on my feet during the rain. I think I told her my other shoes drew on my feet. The awkwardness continued, as I somewhat unsuccessfully tried to have a conversation with Mika-san on the basis that a friend-of-family has a baby about Ayaka's age (hi, Joanna), and was mistaken by Kunihiro-san as my boss's wife (um wha?) My boss bought us all manjuu, or buns filled with red bean paste. I ate half and then discretely hid the rest in my bag. At least I hope it was discrete.

We then drove to an art gallery where Mika-san used to work. The art was. . . modern. It consisted mainly of splotches of paint and bent wires. The two women who worked there, however, were quite charming. Neither spoke English, so I got to say a couple things in Japanese (more awkwardness, when I confused the question of "where are you living?" for "what are you working on?" Also because my boss's wife was totally comfortable breast-feeding Ayaka in front of the rest of us.) One lady was somewhat elderly; she talked animatedly about, among other things, the characters used to spell Ayaka's name and a variety of people I obviously didn't know. They provided us with cookies and tea; I don't think anyone was counting besides me, but Tamao ate at least three pieces of candy and four cookies. At this point Reika started feeling sick again (they hadn't gone the day before because she had a fever), so she laid down on the couch.

We left there at about five. Tamao wanted to go the beach, so we drove around the harbor to the Hayama side ("much cleaner.") Final bit of awkwardness: We stayed ten minutes then meant to go home so they could drop me off and put Reika in bed, but Tamao threw an almighty tantrum. . .which led to another twenty minutes at the beach. When they came back, Tamao gave me some seashells she had found. I don't know if things would have gone differently if I hadn't been there.

I was quiet for the whole drive back.

It was fun. But awkward.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

quick note

I'm not sure why the links in the last post won't work. I would suggest going through my picasa album on your lonesome. . . hopefully it is pretty readily apparent b/t captions and my descriptions which is which.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Chapter the Second in "Sherry/Sharon's Big Adventure:" The First Week

Section 1. Tokyo zoom out.

So I've been here a week! It seems kind of weird. Strangely, I'm not sure if the major culture shock for me is so much being in Japan as being in a truly enormous city. According to Wikipedia (sometimes dubious), the greater Tokyo area is about 5,200 sq miles, with 35 million people, 12 million of which reside within the city limits.

Holy crap.

Tokyo is largely set up to make life easy for English-speaking visitors. Although there are at least 5 different independent companies running the trains and subways, they have standardized signage and layouts in all stations. Almost every sign has the station name in English, hiragana (the Japanese syllabary for Japanese words) and kanji (Chinese symbols adapted for use in Japanese writing sometime around the beginning of the last millenia, 0-500 AD.) Perhaps the most bizarre of all, all the trains run precisely on time -- they arrive two minutes before the digital sign overhead proclaims the next departure, then pull out again at exactly the aforementioned minute. Coming from the Boston subway system, where there is effectively no schedule, and one descends into the station with only a vague hope that the train will show up in the next 15 minutes but is not terribly surprised if it takes 20 or 30 --- it's brilliant. On the larger lines, such as the Yamanote Line (山手線) that circles the inner core of Tokyo, they run EVERY FOUR MINUTES. It's remarkable.

What is difficult about the train stations is their immense size and the complexity of levels required to coordinate sometimes four lines crossing in the same station. To get to work on the train, I walk to Komazawa Daigaku station, which is on the Tokyu Den-en-Toshi subway line; I then take that subway (chikatetsu, 地下鉄)three stops away to the Shibuya stop. I then leave the subway, walk to the main floor (bypassing the JR lines and the Ginza Line), and take the escalator up to an overhead track, which is the Tokyu Toyoko line. I then take this line to two stops away to Nakameguro Station, from which my office is a 5-10-minute walk.

Or I can walk; it's about 2.5 miles. I've done it three times now (two times going, one time coming), and provided I have the right shoes, it's pretty nice; I can either take a main road with nice wide (and well-lit, for you mothers out there) sidewalks, or, if it's not dark yet, there's a neat pedestrian-only "green street" where a river used to be that winds around a little bit and is bordered on both sides by bushes and hydrangeas. Hydrangeas, by the way, dominate Tokyo, particularly the purple kind.

The pedestrian path goes by this little shrine.

More later! Must go now.

Back. . .

Section 2. Sakura House/How I exist.

So. The 7/11 is far away.

Instead, my breakfast and dinner tends to come from "Family Mart," a convenience store immediately to the right of where the street that connects my residential street to the main street (which has an enormous overpass/freeway thingy running over the entire length of it) comes out. From there, I have taken to buying the following for breakfast: a) egg-and-rice onigiri (rice patty) b) diet coke c) orange juice and d) デニシュブレド、or "danish bread," which is three slices of delicious soft butter bread. Not healthy, but oooooh so tasty.

I then come back to my room and call my parents using Skype, which is an awesome free service that allows face-to-face chatting over the interwebs. My room is only a little smaller than the single I had in Burton-Conner my sophomore year, and a lot more cheerful given the large window, out which I can see this garden.

Section 3. Work and its many surprises.

Work is, as aforementioned, about 2.5 miles away in a neat neighborhood called Nakameguro. This is the street it's on; I have yet to succeed in taking a good picture of it. I really, really appreciate the blending of commercial and residential zones in Tokyo; while this street has lots of little shops, boutiques, and restaurants along its length, there are houses right behind and apartments above, so I get to see lots of mothers pushing strollers with kids or riding bikes -- a lot with a child seat in the rear and another in the front. One thing among many that really surprised me is how many pet dogs are in Tokyo. Shiba Inu, miniature Schnauzer, long-haired dachshunds, miniature poodles of all colors, beagles, chihuahuas -- I see probably twenty different dogs every day. Admittedly, most of them are very small dogs. The only big dogs I have seen are golden retrievers, like this one that lays out in front of its owner's shop right next to the office for a large part of the day. I have been told that part of the reason dogs are so popular is because many people can't afford to have a child, but they can afford to have a pet -- this probably also explains the preponderance of doggie coats and shirts that one sees.

The first day I went to work, Tuesday, I showed up at 8 AM. My boss had told me, "Oh, just show up sometime," which I took to mean, "Show up on time (whenever that time is) or we will JUDGE YOU!" That. . .turned out not to be the case. I sat around for two hours, during which time I took a brief trip to a look at a temple marked on the map a couple blocks away. When I came back I realized I had been standing by the wrong building all that time, which terrified me -- except that my boss calmly assured me that they usually start each day at around 10 in the morning. This partially derives from two of the employees in the office; apparently it was so difficult for them to find housing in Tokyo that they are just living in the office. This sort of makes me glad that I'm a foreigner and can take advantage of Sakura House.

About ten people work in the office; seven native Japanese-speakers, two of which are fluent in English and all of which know some English, one girl who speaks Portuguese and English but no Japanese; and one French guy who speaks English, Japanese, and (presumably) French.

I was also surprised to find that we invariably listen to an American radio station, an “eclectic station” out of a community college in California. This probably also describes the dress code pretty well. The first day, I had dressed up in slacks and a nice shirt and was pretty nervous that I was not going to make a good impression. When I got there, I found one of the employees in jeans, one in something remarkably similar to pajama pants, and one wearing. . . sweats (I think). So I was worried for nothing. However, my boss generally comes dressed in a suit (sometimes a tie), or sometimes, like today, he's also in jeans. The other principle architect, however, is terrifyingly fashionable. He has an array of little (by which I mean close-fitting, not perched on the top of his head like Donald Duck) hats that he wears every day, as well as perfectly tailored sports jackets – one of these is blue-and-white seersucker. He is half Venezuelan and very handsome, but I don't think he's ever addressed me directly and he's only in the office for four hours or so a day (and no one in the office seems to know what he does during the rest of his time), so, “Meh.”

The first day was even more of a surprise, because at about seven, my boss brought beer and another guy brought sushi and chips and we had sort of a party, only some of which I could understand. I tried to drink some beer to be a good sport and realized at nine I had gotten through less than a fifth of the can. Oh well.

In the back of the office is a little kitchenette, from which much espresso is produced. I can drink espresso. Sort of. With a packet of sugar and a bottle of water handy. I prefer the green tea that is also sometimes made.

We eat out every day for lunch, which is somewhat expensive but not obnoxiously so. Usually we eat at the 500-yen place (what is its real name? I do not know.) This translates into a little more than $5 (Google says $5.18 right now), so I don't feel too guilty. So far I have gotten “oyakodon” almost every time. This tasty, tasty dish translates to “mother and child” -- i.e. chicken on rice with an egg on top. The egg looks kind of raw but isn't actually – I think they put it on when the rice is still super hot, so it gets pretty much cooked. This restaurant is really tiny, about twelve seats. 500 yen also buys you as much orange juice as you can drink and a tasty little salad. I approve. Other places we have eaten include a “Chinese” restaurant, which seemed to have a suspiciously large amount of Japanese food served. I very stupidly chose the “age no tori (? something like that) teishoku,” forgetting what we learned in Japanese 2 – teishoku is the “fixed meal,” and it comes with salad and miso soup, which I didn't really want. (Sorry, “age no tori” is fried chicken.) Doh. We also have eaten at the Meguro Ward Office Tea Room, which was cheap, tasty, and not particularly healthy, because I got delicious tempura. At this cafeteria, you scrutinize the wax models of the available food outside (this is a pretty common practice in Japan), then make your selection and payment from a machine next to the models that prints you a ticket. You then hand this to the food service people behind the counter and get your food; this time I got the tempura teishoku knowingly and enjoyed it. My co-workers made fun of me for not liking miso (it's apparently made out of soybeans and salt. . . sigh) and putting soy sauce on my rice (apparently that's a Chinese rather than a Japanese thing to do.)

What I'm actually doing in the office is something that so far has changed almost on a daily basis. The first thing I was asked to assist with was finding pictures of “event spaces” in the books and magazines around the office for a class one of the principles (the one who's not my advisor) is teaching. I worked in the English-language books, while some of the other employees worked on Japanese-language magazines. (This whole little project was kind of unfortunate. I successfully managed to ask if I could remove and throw away the little paper markers for the pages after I scanned them and received an affirmative. This inadvertently caused the two guys living in the office to get no sleep the next night, as they had to search through all the books and re-find every entry, all of which work was then discarded when the principle changed his mind about what he wanted to teach.) After this, I was supposed to help working on the layouts for a presentation poster for a “smoker/nonsmoker” competition focusing on how these two groups can share the same space without a glass wall in between. I produced several pages of sketches which were. . . also discarded (? sort of). I re-worded a few small things for the company's website and a magazine (yay for being useful for my talents as a native English speaker.) Then my boss asked me to assemble some thoughts and a draft of a syllabus for a class he's teaching in the fall on life and architecture in modern Tokyo. For this, he gave me a booklet with excerpts of different books on the history, architecture, and social culture of the city. I read the whole thing and found it utterly fascinating but hole-y. It started with Tokyo(originally Edo)'s city planning under Ieyasu Tokugawa, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that controlled Japan from 1600-odd to 1868-about and went to a discussion of youth culture in Harajuku today (I was unsuccessful in photographing some Lolita Harajuku girls last Saturday morning, but I promise I will, and then you will see why this is an interesting topic.) At some point that project will continue; for now, I have moved on to a lighting simulation project for a group of apartments, some of which are partially underground, which I hope to have mostly done by the end of the week (yay for blind optimism!)

Sometime in July the office is taking a group trip to a house they have worked on (I think) in Nagano. I am excited.

I have frankly had limited language success so far. . . the first week I spoke very little Japanese beyond “Sumimasen” (“I'm sorry, excuse me”), “Arigatou gozaimasu” (thank you), and maybe “Ii desu ka?” (Is it okay?) I can unfortunately still count the number of exchanges I've had in Japanese very comfortably on both hands. I still pick up a smattering of new words each day, from either eavesdropping (“dandan” = gradually), contribution of friends (“tonniku” = pork; “gyuuniku” = beef), or in my scrambling to be able to say something relevant about my life/start a conversation (“sumu” = reside; “kawakasu” = dry out; “mitsukeru” = connect a phone line. I don't know if the last one can be used for internet or not; need to find out at some point.) The MIT Japanese Wives Group sent out an email asking if anyone interning this summer wanted a host family/language partner, and I emailed back my interest, so with any luck I'll have someone else to practice on soon.

Right is apparently the rainy season, until the end of June. . . which I discovered unfortunately yesterday about a mile into my walk home, meaning that I got totally soaked and was lucky none of my electronics were damaged. I also discovered yesterday that at 9:00 PM in Maruetsu, a Japanese grocery store close to my house, a box of sushi made at 2:00 PM (said so on the box) and an apple cost the same, about $1.60. They mark down sushi and deli food at the end of the day to get it off the shelves.

Section 4. Various adventures.

So I have had a fair amount of adventures in the last week and a half, some less intentional than others. I think Thursday or Friday of last week was the first day I didn't get lost at least once (not counting Monday, because I slept inside all day.) Tuesday night I accidentally got on the express train (which there was no excuse for! We even learned that character! and now I know why) and had to double back to get to Komazawa Daigaku. On Monday morning I tried to walk to work and found myself hopelessly lost and (I think) somewhere around Shibuya. I was saved by the fact that the characters for the neighborhood I work in are all ones I learned in class – Nakameguro, 中目黒 – with their most common reading. I don't know if it's a meaningful spelling or not; if so, it means something like “in the middle of the black eye.” On the way back to the street the station is on, I passed an American Apparel store, the Danish Embassy, and the Tokyo Baptist Church. When I got to work at 10:30, my boss wasn't there yet and one of the guys was still asleep. Non sequitur.

That night I met Bianca at Harajuku Station and we went out to eat. Bianca (hi, Bianca, if you should happen to read this) lived with me in Fenway House last summer and is another MISTI Japan intern, working for Hakuhodo, a marketing and advertising company. She is in fact pretty cool. We went to “Cappucino,” I think, a place in Harajuku, and got Italian food – spaghetti Bolognese and spaghetti (insert correct phrase here) with crumbled meat sauce. Tasty tasty. The very nice waitress asked us very anxiously if the Japanese on the menu was okay, which seemed a little weird since it has English subtitling. Harajuku is a small-ish neighborhood that is generally packed with clubbers (I think) and American tourists; Tokyo teenagers go there to show off how weirdly and awesomely they can dress up. Then I visited Bianca's house (also run by Sakura House company); it's on a hill and in a very pretty neighborhood. We sat and talked for a long time, and I grabbed what I think may have the been the last train back to Komazawa Daigaku (it was packed enough, oy.) On the way home, switching from the Toyoko line to the Den-en-toshi line was my first encounter with shamisen guy. The shamisen is a traditional Japanese instrument, kind of like a 3-stringed guitar. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera, because that time he was accompanying a hip-hop tap dancer. They were both mad cool.

The week finished out in the normal way. On Saturday I woke up at six (AM) and got into some shorts and a t-shirt; my boss had invited me to go along to an event for his children's nursery school. Apparently this school, which he described as “kind of a hippie school,” owns a small rice paddy, some chickens, a garden plot, a bunny (not for eating, I don't think), and even a beehive to help introduce the children to agriculture throughout the year. This last Saturday was planting time for the rice paddy, something my boss described as “very Japanese” (no kidding.) The word for this is “taue” (田植), which I assure you we did not learn in Japanese class.

This discussion is much aided by the pictures found here. (I've already used almost half my allotment on Picasa, so I will soon be opening a Flickr account as well.) There was concrete slab, much like a boat dock, that dipped down into the field, which was flooded to a little lower than knee height (or higher, depending on where you stepped.) All the parents (except those, like my boss, who apparently couldn't fit any of the pairs provided) put on the boots provided. One thing that made me rather delighted was that most of the boots had separate compartments for the big toe and for the rest of the toes, like tabi, Japanese socks. I guess it probably allows for greater mobility/stability in the water.. My feet were a big large, though, so I got a normal pair of boots.

What essentially happened is that all the parents planted the field and the kids, who ranged in age from about 9 months to 5 years, played extravagantly in the ample quantities of mud available. A few kids felt benevolent and planted a couple of seedlings or carried bunches of seedlings to parents who'd run out.

You can see in the pictures approximately how this worked. . . two people on the edges of the field held poles with a long cord stretched between them with white beads every so often – maybe every foot or so. They each had a 6-ft piece of bamboo laying on the ground parallel to the edge of the field with colored markers. The guy on my left would shout out what marker he was moving his upright pole to and the guy (girl?) on my right would follow that instruction. We then planted one or two seedlings behind each white bead; this way the rows ended up quite straight. This is apparently the traditional way of planting an entire field of a crop where you can't just make furrows; nowadays there is a mechanized process which I still need to locate and read about.

After this, they stripped the little kids down and washed them in tubs next to the drainage way on the edge of the street. We all washed our legs and arms (I remarkably did not completely cover my clothes in mud.) Then was lunch, so I ate rice balls, one kind with miso paste spread on the exterior and another with little purple bits of herb which I still can't identify, with my boss and his kids. Then he drove me home. Japan, by the way, drives on the left. This wouldn't be such a disaster-in-waiting for me (after all, I don't drive) if they didn't also WALK on the left on sidewalks, hallways, etc. Oy. I think all of Japan's freeways are toll roads; my boss stuck a credit card into a little slot on his dashboard, and it beeped when he drove through the toll gate. Oy again.

Overall, it was fairly awesome.

Then home. . . and a three hour nap.

When I woke up, I felt kind of guilty for having 'wasted' an entire Saturday afternoon in Tokyo. I contact Bianca again (yay g-chat!) and we met up shortly thereafter to investigate the many wiles, guiles, and overall general hugeness of Shinjuku, one of the premiere shopping neighborhoods in Tokyo.

We met at Harajuku again, since the Shinjuku station actually has 11 lines crossing in a limited space, making it kind of a monster to navigate. I know there are least six exits but there are probably several I don't know about. We then went back to Shinjuku on the Yamanote line (expensive but direct). First we went into Uniqlo, a now-international clothing store with a fairly large range of clothes. I was surprised to find shirts that even fit me there, and ended up wasting $20 on a ruffled t-shirt. :) In the basement I discovered the yukata display (yukata are cotton kimono) and oggled delightedly. They were $50 apiece, however, so I shall be price-shopping a bit. At this point I was figuratively dying of hunger, so we went to eat in a restaurant in the subway (not only are the subway stations clean, they tend to be attached to shopping malls). I got oyakodon again, and Bianca returned to the love of her life, barbecued unagi (eel).

At this point it was a little late to go in any more department stores (pud), so we planned to meet up again the next day and have more adventures. Bianca had already been in Tokyo for two weeks before I arrived, so she had investigated the wonders of Ueno Park and the Tokyo National Museum the weekend before and come back with a high opinion of their merits.

So the next day at a the crack of 2 PM we met up. I had sort of rolled the idea of going to the Tokyo Baptist Church that morning around before discarding it in favor of sleeping in. (Didn't help that their website made them look kind of weird. I don't know.) I have high hopes for an “international interdenominational” church close to Yoyogi Park this coming Sunday, though. Services at 10:30, I think. There's actually a small church really close to where I live, but I think the services are probably all in Japanese. It would be fascinating, and maybe toward the end of the summer I will work up the nerve to go there and listen to a service. Maybe.

In any case, we rode the subway over to Ueno. There are probably more pictures than anyone is interested in looking at here. The park itself is really beautiful, and there are far fewer homeless people wandering around or draped over random objects than in the Boston Common or Copley Square. This is also the first place in Tokyo I saw actual pigeons instead of the ubiquitous CROWS. I suspect the crows hold purges at night so that no pigeons survive. We visited two Shinto temples inside of the park and looked at a Buddhist pagoda from outside of its gate (Bianca said it's open on some days); unfortunately none had significant English signage, so I was a bit mystified as to what kami (gods, spirits, things to be venerated) the shrines were dedicated to. First we purified our hands and our persons (I think) by rinsing our hands with the ceremonial water provided outside the temple; we were taught how to do this by a Shinto priest who came to MIT to give a presentation to MISTI Japan. (Pick up the dipper in your right hand, pour it over your left hand, take dipper in your left hand, pour it over your right hand, tip dipper up and let the remaining water run down the handle. I think maybe you're supposed to rinse your mouth too, but I forgot.) Pictures weren't allowed of the actual shrines inside, which is really unfortunate, because the layers of space and ornamentation are so complicated, interlaced, and numerous that they are quite difficult to describe. I remember particularly the gold hangings from the ceiling (which could have been gold or brass, I don't know), designs punched in them; the carved wooden divisions to the sides; the bowl of fruit directly in front of the kami's shrine as an offering. At the front are tables selling charms and a slotted wooden box where I think most people put in a contribution of 5-yen or thereabouts in respect to the kami enshrined there, as well as scented candles burning.

Shinto is not exactly a religion as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or even Buddhism is a religion, although in the Meiji Era it was declared the state religion of Japan. It is a practice of belief unique to Japan, and has coexisted with Buddhism for about 1500 years there, and many of the venerated kami were also Buddhist priests. While I don't totally understand it myself, the closest explanation I can give is that Shinto is the practice of venerating objects, places, or people that inspire awe. When you pass one of these places, you go in, pay your respects, and go on your merry way. It doesn't really come with a package of expected behaviors the way Christianity or Judaism does. In any case, Shinto temples (jinja) make up an important component of Japanese traditional architecture.

Ueno Park also has some interesting street performers; while we were there, there was a girl jumping rope on a unicycle, as well as a random group of young people who dress up like 1950s American greasers and dance around madly to Japanese pop music. They're fairly entertaining.

The gallery of Asian art is closed for the summer (sad face poop), so we straight to the gallery of ancient art. The museum closes at 5, so we had just about two hours to look around. I was delighted to find grammatical and what seemed like nearly complete English signage. A lot of early Japanese art is focused on Buddhism, so there are a large number of 1000+-year-old Buddha statues in the museum. (Obviously, you can take pictures of manyof the objects; if you can't for whatever reason, there is a little sign with a line drawn through the camera.) It's kind of strange, but the image of Buddha is the U.S. seems mainly focused on a fat little bald man with a big smile. Most of these Buddhas, however, are tall, graceful, and serene, their eyes barely open. They convey a supreme elegance that seems to be missing in most American interpretations. Most statues of demons or generals have large, wide eyes to show anger and fierceness. There were also a lot of beautiful Japanese ceramics, lacquerware boxes, and SWORDS. Oh my the swords. The remarkable thing is that many of these swords are between 800-1000 years old – meaning a) some of them are probably taller than the people who would have wielded them (the last one I took a picture of was nearly 4 feet long) and b) they are in spectacularly good shape. European swords seem to have been buried with the wearer to rust into oblivion, whereas these swords must have been passed down through families to the present day. There were also many articles from daily life (my favorite: snow shoes), kimono, and brush paintings. We ran out of time to look around more, so we rushed downstairs so I could buy postcards.

IF YOU WANT A POSTCARD, you MUST EMAIL ME to remind me! (Erk. . .when going to the post office to buy postcard stamps, I accidentally got overcharged, according to my coworkers. . . they are supposed to cost 50 yen, and they gave me 70 yen stamps. Postage is EXPENSIVE.)

We actually had pizza for dinner. :)

Bianca was really tired at this point and ended up going home, so I went on alone to Shinjuku, intending to search in the Keio and Odakyu department stores for the traditional clothing department. I regretted this decision shortly thereafter when I got lost. Weirdly enough, most of the major train lines in Tokyo (Keio and Odakyu run subway/overheard lines) have a ritzy department store at whichever station is their hub. I then continued to Shibuya, which is a (slightly) smaller station, where the Tokyu line has their store in a more obvious location. The traditional clothing department is on the 8th floor in this case, so I proceeded to glut my eyeballs on beautiful silk and cotton prints in kimono (robes) and obi (belts), as well as hair combs, obi cords, and geta (sandals.) I felt a little dumb because I was the only non-Japanese person on that floor, dressed in a t-shirt and jean shorts, but it was still really fascinating and really, really beautiful. The clerks were of course very polite, but I think they were a little puzzled by my appearance. I really can't believe that they don't get tourists up there somewhat frequently, though – if you're a tourist, you want to see what is “quintessentially Japanese,” and what is more classically Japanese than kimono?

Again, if I want a kimono, I will be price-shopping. In this store, obi were about $200; cotton kimono were $200-$400; and silk kimono were $800-$1000.

I also learned two new characters: 絹, (kime) for silk, and 綿、, (wata) for cotton. These are interestingly similar to a character we learned in Japanese I, 紙 (kami), for paper. I'm guessing this is because paper and cloth have at different times been made of the same materials in Japan.

Section 5: Coming up next

So, adventures in planning. . . this Saturday I am meeting up with a group of other MISTI Japan interns located in Tokyo for dinner and who-knows-what-else afterwards. I am frankly not all that enthusiastic about the idea of clubbing in Tokyo, but karaoke (one time) could be fun. My boss might be taking me with his family to an open house for a new “architectural” house in Tokyo on Saturday as well. On Sunday, there is church (possibly) followed by a visit to Yoyogi Park (I hope) and maybe the Tokyo National Museum again.

Next weekend is the planned Kyoto trip, which all the interns in both the Kanto (Tokyo) and Kansai (Osaka/Kyoto) areas go on together, to see some of Japan's oldest architecture. Kyoto was not bombed during World War II, so many more buildings survive there than in Tokyo, which was totally flattened. Also, Kyoto was the capital of Japan for 1000 years before Tokyo became the de facto capital in 1600. I am pretty excited about this.

The office's trip to Nagano is on July 10, 11, and 12. My office is also participating in the Nakameguro neighborhood's Awa Odori dancing festival in early August, with lessons throughout July. I am also fairly excited about this.

Last Saturday, when I brought up that I had purchased a 14-day rail pass and asked for advice on where to go, my boss informed me that two weekend trips was a little hurried, so I should take a week off to use my pass. YES! I am not sure exactly when I am going to use this, but I would like to go to Kanazawa, on the west coast of Japan, and maybe Kyoto again – or maybe Hokkaido or Hiroshima. I'm not sure yet; right now I'm just looking for cheap places to stay in these cities.

Lest it sound like I am having too much fun, know that so far I have generally rolled into bed about half an hour after getting home at 9 PM and gotten up at 6 AM. Adventures are great, but sleep is even more awesome.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

"Sherry/Sharon's Big Adventure chapter the first.5:" what I found when I got here

Section 1: My first 12 hour plane ride

As aforementioned, I flew out of Salt Lake City, into Narita Airport next to (alas, not in, as I discovered) Tokyo. The plane flew up over Idaho, over Vancouver, over the Aleutian Island, and down over northern Japan (sort of), making a big arc over the north Pacific. I don't know why one would do this, as it would seem that flying in a straight line would go faster; but what do I know? In any case, it was a TWELVE HOUR FLIGHT. This was also on the largest plane I've ever flown on -- 40-odd rows, with a business class *and* and a first class, as well a coach class for the rest of us schmoes. Coach class had eight seats across -- two, aisle, four, aisle, two. Bizarrely enough, since I assumed that such an expensive flight would need to be filled up to the brim, no one was sitting next to me, so I could stretch out (ha! sort of) and take a 2-hour nap. I then proceeded to while away about eight of the twelve hours most unproductively, by listening to music, zoning out, and watching a silly romantic comedy ("New in Town.") They provided us with two meals *and* an ice cream bar, free of charge. (I picked off the chocolate cookies on the outside of my bar and was fine.) I was frankly surprised. The movie was all right, except that it was about Miami executive lady moving from the big city to a small town in Minnesota, so it kind of made me homesick. Things have changed; now they have little "entertainment centers" on the backs of the seats, with games and about ten movies to pick from. I think about four hours got eaten by the tile game.

The plane was kept essentially dark for the whole ride, as most people tried to sleep or watch movies. Every so often I would crack my window, then close it as I was blinded by the onslaught of sun. (Glare results from excess contrast. . . ) As we were coming into Japan, I opened it again to look out, and had the somewhat fateful thought: "Oh, it doesn't look that different from home. . . "

Getting out of the airport went fine; to deal with the swine flu scare, we had to fill out a single-sheet questionnaire asking if we felt ill or not. We then walked through a room labeled "Quarantine" and were handed a yellow sheet saying, "You have been quarantined." The international terminal was weirdly empty; there were only about two other flights coming in at the same time ours was. (Bad economy? Swine flu? who knows.)

I had two enormous bags and a backpack totaling about 70 lbs (guck), so I had no intention of taking the subway. There is instead the "airport limousine bus," located directly outside the exit. I bought my 3000 yen ticket (~$30-$35), they loaded my luggage, and I climbed on board. After noting somewhat anxiously that in Japan one drives on the left side of the road and delightedly identifying rice fields (come on, there are no rice fields in Iowa), I promptly fell asleep. This was somewhat unfortunate, since upon the bus's arrival at Shinjuku station two hours later (Narita International Airport being unexpectedly FORTY MILES away from the center of Tokyo) I was groggy and disoriented.

Section 2: The search for the yellow house

I should probably start by saying that I was TOTALLY OVERWHELMED. The feeling of scrambling around in the area around the Shinjuku train station was approximately the same as how I felt when dumped off by the bus in Times Square last summer -- i.e. PEOPLE PEOPLE LIGHTS COLORS HOLY CRAP. Except it was compounded by the panicked thought of a variety of language usage disaster scenarios -- not being understood in English, using Japanese to someone who understood English perfectly well, misunderstanding a simple phrase in Japanese, using the word for "kitchen" when I meant "subway". . .

However, most nerve-wracking was the fact that I needed to find the central office for my housing agency before 7:30 to get the paperwork I needed filled out, or else I would have to stay in a hotel that night and then find the office the next morning. I had a map to the office with pictures of landmarks, but the map was meant for someone coming off the subway, not for someone coming off the bus. I took three ten minute detours before finally locating the right street but did get there on time. I was given a bundle of papers to sign, a cup of very green, very bitter tea, and some jelly-bean-like candies in a bag that a flavor and texture I had not previously encountered. I was amused that taking off one's shoes "to maintain the flooring" was mentioned in the lease.

Then. . . began the search for my house. I was a little worried when two of the housing employees warned me that the place is hard to find, and the one laughed kind of nervously and said he still gets lost sometimes after two or three visits. The subway station closest to where I am living is ~7 stops away from Shinjuku. I will tell you that wending your way through dense crowds of trendy and/or weirdly dressed Japanese youth hauling three heavy bags is not an experience to be envied. I don't think anyone actually noticed me, but I kept expecting laughter to start at any minute.

With some help from passersby, I managed to get to Shibuya by myself, the stop my subway line branches out from on the circular Yamanote line that goes around central Tokyo. At this point another passerby, an older Japanese man who spoke fluent English, helped me change to the correct subway line and get to the correct stop. At this point it was totally dark outside, and I still had at least a ten minute walk to my house through a truly labyrinthine residential neighborhood consisting primarily of two-story houses with only tiny gardens and one-car streets in between. A few more detours later I found my house on a street that isn't even wide enough for one car.

I brought my stuff in and flipped on the air conditioner (yay! I have one!) Because I wasn't sure if I would be able to get into my house last night or not, I had told my employer I would be coming in one Tuesday, so I knew I didn't have to wake up early. I set up my internet connection (which is lovely and fast!), talked to my parents for 30 minutes on Skype, then fell asleep without unpacking anything.

Section 3: My safety hidey hole

This morning I woke up of my own accord at 7 AM after about 9 hours of sleep. Unpacking took about an hour. My room is certainly not enormous, but it is comfortably sized, about 8' x 8', not including the closet space on one side of the room. I have been in smaller singles at MIT. I also have a big window, nearly as wide as my bed is long, that looks out into the neighbor's garden. A desk, chair, bookcase, chest of drawers, hangers, bedding, cup, plate, dish, fork, knife, and spoon are provided (one word: score!) Everything I brought fits easily in the storage space provided. There is a communal bathroom and kitchen with a two-burner stove, a microwave, two refrigerators, a toaster oven, and a tiny coin-operated washer and dryer. Doing one small load of laundry costs over $4 (400 yen). Holy crappola!

I was a little unenthusiastic about going out again after how spectacularly busy it had seemed the night before, but I hadn't eaten since 4:00 PM the previous afternoon and was getting a little hungry (but not a lot, thank you large and fortuitously timed airplane meal.)

Tokyo has a lot of vending machines just standing out in the middle of nowhere, or, in my case, in the middle of a residential neighborhood. From one of these about a block away I was able to acquire a bottle of "Power H20" for 150 yen as I searched for a 7/11. 7/11 is apparently everywhere in Tokyo, which is fortunate for me, because they have cheap food and international ATMs. I passed a number of small beautiful garden, including one with an orange tree :), before I got out to the main street that goes past the subway station. I passed four or five restaurants selling noodles and sukiyaki, but I didn't quite feel up to more interactions that would show off what a tourist dunderhead I am. I also passed a "Family Mart" that I will be returning to fairly shortly in search of shampoo and toothpaste, as well as a greengrocer's selling fruit and veggies. The 7/11 was about a 20-minute jaunt, but I was rewarded with a small sandwich, a rice patty flavored with a little soy sauce, and a package of noodles -- breakfast and lunch for 330 yen, or about $4. The sandwich turned out to be the weirdest thing I picked up, so I threw out the fried patty in the center of it of unidentified animal origin. Then I headed back toward home, with a guilty stop by another vending machine to get a diet Coke. (Comfort drink.)

I think shortly I will go looking for my office and a place to buy toiletries, but right now I'm feeling a nap coming on. Adventure is tiring. :/

Chapter the First in "Sherry/Sharon's Big Adventure:" Background Info and Prattling

Section 1: Background Info

In my search for arts, culture, and adventure, it is probably inevitable that I would eventually want to go abroad. That desire "eventually" came around age 12 or so, but the means didn't come until this school year, in the form of the MISTI (MIT International Science and Technology Initiative) program, which pays for MIT students to do international internships, in France, Spain, Mexico, Israel, India, China, Germany, and, most important to me, Japan. These internships can be for a summer, as mine is, a semester, or a year. While there are a lot of other study abroad options at MIT, this is the first option that has been truly feasible, because the MISTI program pays not only for my housing, food, and commute in Japan, they also pay for the plane ticket and a weekend cultural excursion for all the MISTI Japan interns to Kyoto.

Japan is probably not the first place I craved to go (England/Scotland/Ireland, home of most of my ancestors, has that distinction), but Japanese is the first language that I genuinely wanted to learn. My mother's parents hosted a Japanese foreign exchange student while my mother was in high school, and my grandmother has stayed in contact with the group of Japanese students who lived in and around their farming community since then. The children's books on Grandma Dyer's shelves were a mix of Little House on the Prairie, selected Doctor Seuss, a battered, illustrated version of the "Wizard of Oz"-- and Japanese folk tales, reading from right to left, written mainly in hiragana, illustrated with delicate watercolors. I took Spanish in high school because that was what was offered, but I was delighted to find that amongst MIT's slim language pickings are six consecutive semesters of Japanese.

Interns are required to take at least the first four semesters of a language to participate in the MISTI program, and I have successfully (?) fumbled my way through that much. Japanese kicks me in the pants regularly in two different ways: I either find putting in the necessary hour-a-day commitment is impossible (sometimes for legitimate reasons, sometimes not), or I am so befuddled by alien grammar that I end up slapping together sentences with the approximate structural integrity of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. I am certainly not the gifted language student I had hoped to be. I have developed a pronounced stammer in Japanese that is directly resultant from a terror of being humiliated. ものすごくはずらしくなります!

After several false starts, I was placed in a small architecture firm in the Nakameguro area of Tokyo, Issho Architects. There are two partners and four other employees. I am the only MISTI intern at this firm, but several friends and acquaintances from my language class are interning nearby in Tokyo. I am staying in a "Sakura House," run by a company that caters to foreigners who will only be in the country for three months to a year and don't wish to wrangle with the difficult process of renting an apartment in Japan (an undertaking that requires guarantors and a "gift" of a month's rent to the landlord.) I have my own room and share a kitchen and bathroom with about six other people -- virtually identical to the arrangement I have been living in for the last three years of college, so I see no problem. :) I have free internet and a webcam, so I will be using Skype, a free program, to call friends and family at home. At this point I'm not really sure where I'll be buying food each day, but we have been told that it's actually cheaper in Tokyo to buy prepared food than buy groceries and cook your own. I guess I'll find out. 7/11 is actually big in Tokyo, and they have international ATMs, so I expect for the first week at least most of my supplies will be coming from there.

Section 2: Prattling

My flight left at 8:30 this morning (the morning I'm typing this; I have no idea what time I'll be posting it.) I am currently sitting in the Salt Lake City airport terminal; at 1:35 we will leave on a 12-hour flight over the Pacific, culminating in Narita Airport, Tokyo. I feel pretty good about this. I have my laptop, which tells me it has about 3.5 hours worth of battery, my iPod, which is good for another 2-3 hours, and three books I haven't read before. I have been flying from Omaha to Boston about four times a year for the last three, usually leaving for at least three months before I knew I would be home again. I really don't mind traveling at all; this is a nice airport. I can see the Rocky Mounains out the two windows, something completely new for me.

What is upsetting verging on nauseating is the night before leaving. This time I was all packed two days before except for a host of myriad small items (nail clippers, tweezers, a random shirt or two, Kleenex, maps to my house and office, travel size shampoo. . . ). I got to be home for two and a half weeks this time. The transition from being safe, protected (paid for), and unconditionally loved back into the "real world," which often seems to consist primarily of me flying by the seat of my pants from one near-disastrous almost-missed deadline to another and from one mildly awkward and clumsy interaction with one human bean to another, is always, but always, mildly traumatic.

I know that I chose my college, a three-hour plane ride from southwestern Iowa, and I chose to make my first time abroad a three-month internship in a country that is quite literally on the other side of the planet. It would be a lot easier to try to find some kind of job in Omaha for the summer -- it might even be an architecture internship -- live at home, commute, and not subject myself (or the people I love (a lot)) to a separation which is, frankly, painful. As I'm sitting here now, I'm quite, quite sure I am doing what is right for me. Anyone who has ever experienced the before-the-security-checkpoint-hug knows that is isn't really even in the same class as a "hug." It is too tight and held for too long and it says something that words can't say. I held that hug this morning, and then I turned and began the frenzied process of shuffling all my crap through the metal scanners (carryon suitcase on table, whip off the shoes and coat and ring and throw the wallet and phone and iPod out of my pockets in a shower into one of those gray plastic tubs, whip out my laptop and hurl it into another tub, put my backpack on the table, inch along the shiny metal surface to the rollers before the x-ray like a weird baggage inchworm). I called the moment I was through security -- I always do -- and sitting at my gate (not a long delay there; Eppley International Airport has eight gates in one terminal and eight gates in the other.)

I feel like a sheet on a clothesline; it flaps insanely, flips upside-down and inside-out, maybe even catches a few small arthropods by accident every so often, but it is firmly tethered to that line, and it's not going anywhere. That clothesline is located somewhere in Iowa, I would guess, or several somewheres in Iowa (and maybe even tacked down in a few places, now, in the northeast), but the sheet is billowing out over the whole world. I am pretty sure I would rather go through a thousand painful separations from people I love than to get to the end of my life with regrets that I didn't chase it out far enough, didn't go to the edge of the map, didn't make absolutely sure that the world is round, didn't see that I won't tip off the edge. I hope to participate in the MISTI program again next summer (barring further economic crises), and I intend to work abroad in other countries after graduate school.

I desperately don't want to miss anything.

What I do miss I want to be because I only get eighty years or so to work with, not because I was afraid or cynical or because I settled for something less than what I really truly wanted.