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.

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