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.

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