Friday, November 24, 2006


After a month of waiting, I finally assembled a kotatsu today. A kotatsu, these days, is usually a table with a small heater built into the top of a frame, covered with a blanket and then topped with a tabletop. A couple of pictures might help you sort that all out:

(NB: my legs are supposed to be under the blanket)

It's a very elegant way of saving energy while increasing the pleasure of warmth in cold weather. I'm excited, not only about the kotatsu, but also about getting rid of the stupid desk I had before—it seemed very out of place in my Japanese-style room. Now, for perhaps the first time in my life, I really love my room. It's comfortable, and it just seems to fit somehow.

There's no real need now for the heater, though I've been using it today just to try it out. But I don't think even global warming can completely destroy the notoriously cold winters here, and I imagine I'll have a chance to use it as more than just a curiosity piece.

I was able to get a particularly good deal on this setup, something that just adds to my enjoyment. A reasonable kotatsu—not cheap but presentable as a table in winter and summer—usually costs 15,000-20,000, an amount I just can't afford at the moment. I frequent the thrift stores around here—and Adachi appears to really be one of the best places in Tokyo for them—but I wasn't able to find one that fit my plans, a rectangular affair that would still fit well in my room. I'd found many square ones, and a couple rectangular ones that just seemed too big, but in the end I managed to find a kotatsu table, a frame with space for the heater and the table-top, for 1000 yen. I think it was new, though I scratched it a bit carrying it home (an hour long ordeal). It fits perfectly in my room. I did some measurements and found I could easily put in a heater, and today I headed over to Akihabara (the electronics district; I could have easily gone somewhere here in Adachi, but decided to head there since I hadn't been for a while), picked one up for 4000 yen, and now I'm set. I got exactly what I wanted for a third the cost of a new one, and for a price comparable to the cheaper, older setups I had seen at the thrift stores. Very happy.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


I've been off the air for some time now: a roommate moved out and we changed the internet over to my name, so we were without for a few weeks.

During that time, a few things have happened: I climbed Mt. Takao, the closest significant mountain to Tokyo; I got a new bike; and, last week, we had an okonomiyaki party at my closest school.

Mt. Takao is nice enough, but they were doing construction at the time I was there, I assume in order to prepare for the crowds that will head up the mountain to view the autumn changing of the leaves. Cars passed me on the paved road to the top, reminding me everytime as they whined and smoked by how much I hate the things, how they are so integral to our current world, and how many people have died in order to perpetuate their existence. But I gritted my teeth, imagined the rants I'd write here, and turned my head to look at the small streams and giant trees that lined the crappy paved road.

Overall, it is a nice mountain, though I can't say I'd recommend it as such. It is more like an amusement park for viewing the changing leaves, and I'd say take the train to Mt. Mitake instead. But I got some good pictures of the tengu (bird-gods from Buddhist mythology) that apparently aren't doing a very good job of protecting the mountain.

I got paid a week ago, and after saving for three months now, I was happily able to buy a new bike: this one with gears! It's not the bike I'd hoped to get, one about 40,000 yen more with 21 gears and more suited to touring, but I didn't want to wait until it got colder before I began to exercise again. This way I was able to get a some nice accessories as well.

Yes, it's a folding bike. For a long time I really looked down upon the things: very often they have those tiny 20" wheels, and I just thought they were toys. But there are some very serious bikes made this size, and one bike craftsman, Alex Moulton, builds his bikes with the belief that the smaller size is superior to the regular bike configuration we see on Tour de France and most other races. In any case, it makes the most sense for me: I can take it in a suitcase when I go back to the US, and I can easily carry it on trains here and easily increase my touring range.

It is a good bike--it only has 8 gears and squeaks and makes other odd sounds, but the gear changes are crisp and it is fairly light. It will get me through the winter, and I hope to save enough money to get a more substantial bike for touring next spring or summer.

Then, last Saturday we had a party in Kita Senju, with many of the teachers and students of the school. It was a lot of fun--I see many of these people quite often, so have a pretty good relationship with them.

We had okonomiyaki--they give you the ingredients and you make it yourself on the grill at the middle of the table. It was delicious.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Sea change

I was once very disappointed to hear that Keith Olbermann had left ESPN for MSNBC. Sounded like he would go from entertaining one-liners about the rookie goalkeepers in the NHL to tired obscurity on a wannabe news network. I am heartened to find that he is now one of the more eloquent voices of dissent against the criminal in the White House.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Lost and found

This is why I love Japan:

Four days ago, on a holiday, I went to watch the Sumo matches with friends. The sumo "stadium" is in Ryogoku, near where I stayed last year for a couple of months. It was a sort of homecoming, one I'd put off for too long.

Needless to say, we had a great time, and Asashoryu, the current champion, was even more amazing in person than on TV, even if I was seeing him from the upper seats. I will go into sumo a bit at a later date if I get a chance.

But far more important was what happened later. Some time during that day I lost a very valuable item--my palm pilot, a pda I've used for a long time as my ipod as well as a Japanese-English dictionary. It's the best dictionary I've found because I can write kanji in directly, something usually not available with the dedicated electronic dictionaries. I had it by my side everytime I sat down with Murakami's Kafka by the Shore, a book I've been working on for well over two years now. Whenever I heard or saw a word in Japanese I didn't understand (all too often), I used my beautiful Palm.

But on that day, I lost that Palm. I don't know where. When I realized my misfortune, I really thought fate was against me.

But, instead of despairing, as I might have in the US, I remembered that Japanese people actually leave things alone; when a wallet is left lying on a train station seat, very often that wallet will sit there until the station-keepers clean up after the last train has passed.

So I called as many stations on my line as I could. Again, I'm trained by experience in the US, and though I hoped for the best, my heart told me there was no chance it had been left behind. I wanted to believe, but I couldn't. After 4 stations and two train lines, I thought it was over. But I still didn't give up.

Today, I thought of one last option: visit the Ryogoku local koban: the "police box" where police sit and watch over the neighborhood, giving directions and, well, sitting. They were extremely polite, of course, and though they didn't have much hope, they told me that after a month all items go to a collecting point in Iidabashi. I despaired again, though I still hoped that in a month I might try again. But then I told them it had only been a few days, and they tried the local police station, and, somewhat excited, told me there might be something there. They mentioned "hanko", or a handstamp that is used where Americans would use a signature. That threw me for a loop, and I thought I'd reached another dead-end. But they convinced me to head to the other station, even though I was running late for work (I would end up late for work, though some unknown person's kindness saved me from docked pay).

Can you guess the ending? I imagine you can, but please, read on.

I hope you understand that this Palm was quite meaningful to me: it was indispensible to my studies at SFSU and has been a constant companion here in Japan. Especially because now I am trying to save my money, it would be really difficult to replace. I know it's not very Buddhist to be so attached to material possessions; but I'm attached to a lot of things, and I'm not Buddhist.

So I was absolutely overjoyed when I saw the black case that held my prized possession in the hands of the policewoman at the lost and found desk: something so familiar, something that had not disappeared even despite my mistakes. I felt a rush of joy that is rare for me, and I wanted to kiss everyone there (also rare).

Over the years I've become quite pessimistic: though it maybe be hard to believe, I am still very much an optimist, though more long term. But I quickly become discouraged about the short term, and I really never expected to get my Palm Pilot back. Who can blame me? Would there really be much chance that I would ever see it again if I were in San Francisco? I'd go so far as to say that even in Lawrence I wouldn't have ever seen it again. But here, in Tokyo, in a metropolis of more than 20 million people, my $200 Palm reappeared, despite my pessimism. Lost near the Sumida River, it was transported (along with a couple of hanko that were somehow found in the same spot) four or five blocks to the station, and the finder requested no reward (the policewoman told me this, though I didn't really understand the full impact until I thought about it later). I won't go into what this says about Japanese and Western society; all I will say for the moment is that I have had my faith restored in the possiblities for human society.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Dancing and earthquakes

I've settled in at school for the most part, so I have a bit more time to do some things I want. I do mean for the most part; every day is something new, and I certainly have my troubles and disappointments. But I have my victories too—particularly with the kids. My favorite story so far is of the young girl who cried uncontrollably the first two times I taught her, but now appears to be genuinely excited to see me, and races to get her shoes off before class. It makes me feel that, while I may not be the most polished or effective teacher, at least I have something in me that she finds safe and, well, fun. It's not a trait I thought I had, and it makes me happy in a way I haven't known before.

Got an email from my friend Maya from San Francisco State, who is living in Tokyo with her boyfriend Eric, also a classmate at SFSU. We met up at Ben's Cafe in Takadanobaba (where they serve some fine coffee, a rarity in Tokyo, as anywhere else), then met Eric later and went to a Hawaiian burger restaurant in Harajuku.

The real highlight lately, though, was last week's Awa odori festival in Kouenji, west of Shinjuku. It's a festival that originated on the island of Shikoku, and the biggest celebration is still held there, in Tokushima (once called Awa). But it is popular all over Japan, and there were several processions in Tokyo itself.

According to the Japan National Tourism Organisation, the "Dance of Fools" started in Tokushima in 1587 when the townspeople danced like fools because they were drunk from the sake given to them by their feudal lord. Over the years it has been tamed and reduced to representative steps, but all the same it is a pleasure to witness and, even more I'm sure, a joy to participate in.

The instruments play an important part in all Japanese festivals, and are the real backbone of the entertainment in the Awa odori.

The kids joined in on the fun, of course.

Finally, yesterday we had quite a shock: while I was waiting for students to show up in the Shinjuku school, the building suddenly started shaking; though I've been in several earthquakes in San Francisco and Tokyo, this was sudden and more frightening. If it had lasted for any length of time I imagine it would have caused some damage.

The next day, yesterday, was the anniversary of the last huge earthquake in Tokyo, the great Kanto earthquake of 1923. I'm sure there's no relationship.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Mt. Mitake and terror

Last week I tried something I've never done before—backpacking. I've camped a bunch of times, yes, but I've never hiked to the site and then set up. Alright, so taking a train to a place, hiking to the site, and then setting up isn't quite the same, but I have to get there somehow.

My plan was to camp in an area west of Tokyo called Okutama—Tama is the name of a river and a region in the area, and oku means "deep", thus it is the deep reaches of the Tama area. In particular, I planned to hike Mitake, a celebrated and fairly accessible mountain, then head to Otake, a larger mountain further south, on my way to the campsite.

I have had a great deal of difficulty sleeping recently, and the night before my trip I didn't get to sleep until about four or five in the morning, so I didn't get up until 11, and didn't actually get started until much later. I think I reached Mitake at 2 in the afternoon.

It is a beautiful place. I was surprised: my experience of Japan to this point has been entirely of cities and farms; I wasn't sure there actually were uninhabited places. Even uninhabited places, I was worried, would have huge, straight staircases carved into them, like Tai-yan in China.

But this had beautifully simple trails the envy of any on Mt. Tamalpais in California (there is an area near the mountaintop shrine that is paved, though). The path I took was strenuous, and I was sweating like crazy (though, in my defense, I was carrying an extra 30-40 pounds on my back), but it was beautiful.

After a while I noticed I was way behind the hour and five minutes my guidebook claimed the first stretch should take; I hadn't reached the first guidepost mountain and it had been two and a half hours. I still think they are crazy; you'd have to run to get up the mountain that quickly.

I arrived at the peak about an hour later (yes, something that "should" have taken an hour took three). I found a sign at the Mitake shrine that gave more reasonable estimates for the time it should take; the point I was at before, it said, should take two and a half hours. And according to that map, my campsite was still three and half hours away or so. I was looking at a walk in the dark for two hours of that, and I had no idea if I would be able to camp when I got there.

At first I considered staying on Mitake after that and, when people woke me up roughly the next morning, I'd just explain I had no idea you couldn't camp in an undesignated area in a national forest in Japan. There was a wonderful area opening onto what must, under the early-morning sun, be spectacular. It was completely unmanned and with a little covered area where I could have slept even without a tent. But I just couldn't make myself do it. It probably was a good choice, but I wish I had a bit more fortitude.

I made a bad choice after that, to try to get to a different site nearer a train station (if the other campsite I mentioned was full I would have been screwed because there was no train or bus nearby). This involved me going down a path in the dark, by myself, with nothing but my bike light. I was afraid to use the bike light on full-time beam because I was worried the batteries might die and then I'd really be screwed, so I put it on flash instead. This saves battery by flashing on and off, but it can be disorienting. In the pitch dark, worried that there might be some wild animal ready to attack, the effect of that flashing light was like being in a horror movie. Every time a leaf hung over into the path of the flash, the shadow it cast looked like a small, black animal heading towards me--an animal unafraid of me and thus dangerous. After about a half hour of trying to use my keys as a bell to scare off any predator that might attack me if surprised along the path in the dark, I hit upon the idea of using my cell phone speaker to play some music that might scare them off. The only mp3's I had on it at the time were a voice recording of In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, something I didn't think would interest scary forest animals very much, so I tried the various ring tones on the cell phone instead. The first ring-tone sounded like the soundtrack to a horror movie, so I quickly changed it. The next song was a bit more soothing; I walked along and, after a while, I calmed a bit and became absorbed in getting back to the station—of course by this time I'd given up camping and just wanted to go home. It was difficult judging my path (remember, I'm going down a mountain) with the small, flashing light, and I fell down at least four times, nearly sprained my ankle, and ripped a hole in the knee of my pants, where I still have a nice purple bruise. I promised several times on the trail not to take nature so lightly.

I managed to make it for the last possible train that would get me through to home that night. In that way I was lucky. Exhausted, my legs barely carrying me at that point, I got home around 1 am.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Shinjuku and Saitama

To celebrate the vacation that began last Friday, my friends from training and I got together at an Australian bar in Shinjuku last Saturday. Officially it was the planning party for a trip to Mt. Fuji, but it ended up being an all-night bash.

As some may remember, I mentioned last year that the trains in Tokyo shut down relatively early—this results in a mad dash for the last train (or trains) at around 11:30 to midnight. For people like me who live on the other side of town, it usually means the earlier the better.

Very often, though, people don't make it home—purposefully or no. We all decided to stick it out and run around until the first train, around 5:30.

Some fall asleep on benches, others hang out in bars; we did karaoke. Amazingly, for ¥3500 apiece (about $30), we could drink as much as we wanted until 5 am. We had a great time, I scared everybody with my off-key enka, and somehow we managed to pay on time (I don't remember a 2-3 hour space). It wasn't at all as difficult as I first thought. I wouldn't want to get in the habit, but it makes the prospect of missing that last train less scary.

And instead of a cramped train ride, I got to ride on the first Hibiya line train of the day. You'll never see it even close to this empty at regular times. In fact, the Hibiya is one of trains that gets so crowded that women have their own cars during peak hours so that they can avoid men...ruining their day.

The next day, I slept until 3, which I hated. I spent the day relaxing, then today I went for a bike ride.

This time I rode up fairly far into Saitama, the prefecture to the north of Tokyo prefecture. It was odd, because I suddenly felt I was in the country. It was pleasant.

Then I looked to my left and almost fell off my bike:

I had no idea you could see Mt. Fuji so clearly from here. I'd seen pictures, but I thought they had used a telephoto effect or something. My picture doesn't really tell you how monstrously big the mountain looks; it stands out like a watchtower. I kept looking over my shoulder to make sure it wasn't getting closer, trying to jump me.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Shinsuke and dreams

I met my friend from Hiroshima, Shinsuke, today. He comes to Tokyo once a month, so I'll get a chance to see him quite a bit. We were only able to meet for a couple of hours, but it was a great time, as usual. We met in Shibuya, the site of the huge crosswalk seen in "Lost in Translation", though neither of us knows it much—I was working there today, so it was the best place to meet. We went to an izakuya—a Japanese pub and my favorite kind of drinking establishment—and talked about friends and "old times." I felt close to Shinsuke from the time I first met him, and everytime we meet that closeness is renewed. The meeting was a good start for my two week vacation.

I decided to jump off the last train home at Kitasenju to walk home and try to get a feel for the city nearest my house. Unfortunately, though, Kitasenju shuts its doors after 1 am, and all that is left are some sketchy characters. Nothing dangerous, but certainly nothing I wanted to be a part of. I had hoped to maybe stop in at a jazz club I'd seen before, but everything near the bar was closed and I felt uncomfortable going as far as the club.

I decided to go home and, while crossing the bridge over the Arakawa, I grasped a feeling that has been sort of haunting me since I got here—I sometimes have a hard time believing in Japan. It is difficult to explain the feeling if you haven't experienced it, but I catch myself sometimes wondering "is this for real? Do people actually live like this?" It was sparked, in this case, by the rather eye-catching semi-trucks crossing the bridge. They look so fake, tiny trucks with neon and flashing lights that matched the traffic cones that blink in the night, that I can't help thinking "those aren't real." But, then, of course, a Japanese person must look at semis in the US and think "god, those things are so ridiculously huge—they can't possibly be real."

I think in the back of my mind some part of me reserves the right to not believe any of this is real, that somehow this has been a big show and one day a Japanese Alan Funt will slap me on the back and tell me it was a vast Truman Show-like joke. I wonder if this is a common feeling among expats. I admit I've felt this way, on a much smaller scale, in Georgia, in San Francisco, and in other places I've visited. It might be called alienation, but that's a bit stronger than I'd like to present it as. For one, it is far more humorous than that, and it makes it easier for me to not feel alienated, because I am able to keep the oddity at a comfortably humorous distance. But it also has a tendency to render Japan "quaint," a designation that is not true of any society in the world, certainly not Japan, and that keeps any foreigner (including myself) from truly participating in that culture.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Summer: yukata and fireworks

Now is the time for yukata. Even for me.

You see, in the summer, in Japan it is common for Japanese to enjoy festivities in yukata, a lighter version of kimono. They are quite cool, but it is a little embarrassing for us non-Japanese without slight builds. I actually taught for a day last week in the too-small yukata pictured here.

It is also time for fireworks. It seems like almost everyday there is a huge fireworks display somewhere in Tokyo. On Thursday my part of Tokyo had its own festival, shooting off over 16,000 individual fireworks, but I was working on the other side of the city and couldn't go. Instead, I went to the Sumida fireworks festival, something I have been looking forward to since last year. It has been around since the 1730's or something, and there is a woodblock print I am quite fond of that shows the fireworks. Today's version doesn't have the elegant majesty of the woodblock print, but it makes up for that in sheer spectacle. The show lasts for an hour and 20 minutes; over 20,000 fireworks are fired; and there must be a million people or more in attendance, half of them in yukata. It is an event; it is something that will be remembered when life changes in the next 10-20 years.

I managed to find my friends from training even with the madness. Well, 2 out of 5 ain't bad. This is Steph and Bjorn, from (opposing sides) of Australia.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Cell phone

My new cell phone, after almost a month of waiting. I had to sign up for two years but I got the phone free.

I have to go to work pretty soon, and am pretty anxious (three kids classes in a row), but I'm also planning my getaway into the mountains when we have our summer break in a couple of weeks. This guy gets around Japan, and he's got a good eye:

On Gaien Higashi Dori (Hiking)

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Hallelujah! I have survived!

My first day. After a grand total of 4 hours of sleep, I went through a rather hurried training for so-called "A1" classes—more intensive classes that have year-round schedules—before rushing to a town to the west of Shinjuku I'd never seen before. I meant to do a little preparation before being thrown to the wolves (in this case, rather harmless-looking 6-9 year-olds, but wolves nonetheless, I tell you). A half-hour's prep time is not enough, and so I flubbed through as best I could. Kids give you the benefit of the doubt, at least until they turn nine or ten, so I was able to make do. My greatest pleasure in the kids department was a little girl who began to cry at the prospect of being left alone with me but who smiled and later yelled and laughed a little after I had her jumping around and turning in a circle with the other kids. I remember being the "sensitive" kid when I was young and I have a special place in my heart for the ones that, for some reason, start crying at the drop of a hat. Many people think they want attention or "are cry-babies," ie just lost causes—I know neither is the case, and my heart always goes out to them.

The next group of kids, a bit older, were also good kids, but I can tell I'll have to wow them next time or they may turn on me. I can honestly say I completely failed this lesson, though it didn't feel that way because they were, as I said, willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. Next time (two weeks from now, because of a fluke in the schedule) I will be better prepared, and deserving of that benefit(?).

The rest of the day was spent working with adults in more structured classes. This was more comfortable and I had been prepared by my training—once you learn a formula, you should be able to teach any lesson in the books they give us. I say "should" because I did a pretty poor job in training, but having real students making real mistakes is actually much easier to handle than the artificial setup required in training. I made mistakes, but they were far more manageable than the kids' lessons.

I'd better get some sleep—I've got more of the same tomorrow, as well as the longer, more intensive A1 lesson I wrote about earlier. I'll say, though, that I enjoyed today, I enjoyed overcoming the first hurdle, and after weeks of "I wonder if I can do this" alternating with "There is no way I can ever do this," I enjoy feeling that it might be possible.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Sad fireflies

Yesterday I made a rather long trip on my bicycle around the city. I first went to Akihabara, the electronics district, to window-shop for cell phones—I can't get one until my foreign registration card, showing I have an address in Japan, comes through, so I just took a look at the deals and continued to be patient. From there, I rode about 20 kilometers (I'm using the metric system as much as I can these days, but that's about 12 miles(?)) to see a "firefly viewing." I got there about 7:30, but like many events in Tokyo, you get a ticket with a number on it and have to wait until that number is called before you go in.
So I went over to the corner store and bought some nuts and a bottle of tea and waited. It was a nice night and, as might be expected at a firefly viewing, there were many families with their children at the event. I was alone, so I just watched: across the street a family was enjoying sparklers with their young son, boys and girls were chasing each other, others were running races one after the other. It was pleasant, though I would have liked to have been a participant rather than observer. It reminded me of my childhood: not any particular memory, but of excitement, magic, and anticipation. I saw a young girl jump into a car after seeing the fireflies, and it reminded me of so many rides home as a child, riding home after a movie, after a trip to Grandma and Grandpa's, maybe even after going to see fireflies. I remember a satisfied tiredness, a peace with the world and a belief in miracles. That was a long time ago.

I was allowed in at 8:45. The fireflies were a disappointment, in the end. I mean, they were fireflies, like any other, but they were enclosed in a tiny room, they mostly stayed in one place, and really there were more humans than fireflies, walking in a line, talking, constantly moving. Only a month ago I was sitting on my mom's back porch watching fireflies zigging and zagging through the sky, cutting little lines with their green lamps, thousands at a time so bright that they could be seen even under the street lights.

We reached the end and one of the kids said "is it over already?" There was a hint of derision in his voice. I wondered why the fireflies weren't let loose in the nearby park. A Canadian Japanese working at the event explained that they had developed a way of sustaining fireflies in an aquarium. I thought "is that what it's come to?" I said it was a good thing.

Tokyo is a wonderful city, a real marvel. If one is interested in the dynamics of humans, in literature, in religion, in technology, in Japanese history, in almost any human endeavor, it is a great place to be. There are even several ecological organizations located here. But there is no escaping it is a city, a monstrous city, largely dead and concrete.

I was really disturbed when I saw those fireflies. Fireflies are beautiful and magical; but the magic, for me, is tied up in their freedom, their flight through the night sky over head. I think of my childhood and it saddens me to think that children line up to see the caged fireflies, as if it were a Disney land ride, quickly over. After all the trouble, I can imagine the kids would rather stay home and watch TV. How can we save the earth if this is their view of "nature"? I know I'm not the first person to say this, and I don't have any solutions myself, but every time I see this sort of thing it seems counterproductive.

Tomorrow is my first day of teaching on my own. I alternate between abject fear and an occasional and unreliable conviction that I will make it through the day, making mistakes but hopefully able to learn some things that will make the next day less frightening.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Lanterns at Yasukuni

Today was a day off from training, so some fellow trainees and I went to the opening of the mitama festival at Yasukuni. It seems to be sort of like a Japanese Memorial Day. Yasukuni is a controversial shrine, however, as it houses the remains of war criminals from World War II.

Still, the shrine is quite beautiful, as are the lanterns that are a prominent part of the festival.

We had a good time, sampled a bit of okonomiyaki,

and found this, a haunted house.

Japan can be very strange sometimes. Imagine a haunted house on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery on Veteran's day. Then imagine a burlesque show next door to the haunted house, at the same cemetery. Then see if you agree with the above statement.

Monday, July 10, 2006

An odd situation

I'm in an odd situation—my life is about as good as I could expect, outside of work. It may be a bit inconvenient to get into the city from my apartment, but it is still near the city; the compensation is being near the Arakawa with its bike path. An initial chill of depression and cold feet has cleared up, and now I love just walking around the city when I get a chance. My apartment is excellent, I really like my room, and my roommate is better than I could ask for: funny, intelligent, and willing to do his share of the housework. I see us getting along well, no matter what happens. I don't think I've felt this comfortable straight off the bat with a roommate since college.

But this job scares me. I have never been so out of my element. I can't use the one skill I came here for, my Japanese, but instead must fight 31 years of self-consciousness and reserve, a general feeling of inadequacy, and difficulty getting a good night's rest, to try to do something I didn't really want to do in the first place. Honestly, I'm pretty excited about some of the classes I'll be doing, of interacting with the students who are engaged and interested—despite my reserve, I love learning about people and interacting with them. But kids. Kids, now. I just can't see myself jumping up and down and getting them to follow along. I'll say it again: I've never felt so out of my element. I'm not convinced two weeks of training can change a man. Or rather, I'm quite sure that, short of a miracle, it can't. I hate feeling guilty that I am not the person that can make that shift, but I do. As if something is wrong with me.

Well, the point of this was more to count my blessings than harp on my fears; I guess I also want to list my fears so that if I ever overcome them I'll have a record. But I don't think I've ever been so well placed, as I've said, and I am very thankful for that.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

My new toy

I finally couldn't take it any more and bought myself a bike (sorry for the blurred photo, but you get the idea). Not the high-speed tourer I'd like to get—with any luck, if I really budget myself I'll be able to buy one of those in a year or so—but a "mamachari" (from "Momma Chariot", I guess): it'll get me around town, and I can get a little bit of exercise and let off steam after (more likely before) work. And it was only ¥15,000, a little under $150.

Having a bike makes me feel more independent, more able to spend hours searching around the city without wasting money on the trains and without getting blisters. Not so great on the knees, though.

Another nifty result is I had my first contact with people in the neighborhood. The bike shop where I bought the bike is a tiny little place just south of Gotanno station. I talked the owners up a little bit in Japanese, and we parted bowing and smiling—of course, they had sold me something, but that's not the point. I now have a relationship with them, will be able to smile and say good morning when I bicycle by, and will go to them any time I need anything fixed. It's one the steps to widening my circle of relationships. It is important to me to do this to avoid the feeling of alienation I would feel if, two or three months on, I had no familiar faces in the neighborhood.

I rode along the Arakawa river for about 20 miles! I was a little surprised I went that far, and with only one gear.

A final note: one of the nifty things about these mamacharis is they have a light that uses friction against the wheel to generate electricity. It slows the bike down, goes out when the bike stops, and eventually rubs through the wheel, but it's still pretty cool. I haven't used it yet.

Friday, July 07, 2006

No news is good news

I haven't written much lately, but that's mainly because I've been consumed in training. I'll be brief and say training is not exactly enjoyable. You choose six people, tell them very little about what is going to happen to them, give them no help when they get here, then act condescending and unsympathetic when you are training them, and you are going to have breakdowns and, possibly, people leave. I have neither broken down nor do I plan to leave, though I very often question whether I will do the job up to their standards. I do know people who are about to crack, and I think it is extremely unfortunate. Sure living in another country can be difficult and employers are unsympathetic, but a similar lack of sympathy is not an appropriate way to prepare people who have come to work for you.

I've said my piece, and I shouldn't say more. I hope working with actual students will be more rewarding than training. Having said that, I enjoy the company of my fellow trainees very much. I certainly hope they aren't driven away by these early difficulties.

I, though, am glad I'm here. I walked around yesterday, something I haven't done much since I've been here because of an initial depression followed by this intense training. Honestly, I love to people-watch, and there is no place better than the largest concentration of people on earth. I feel alive walking through the streets of Shinjuku, the neighborhood atmosphere changing every kilometer or so, just as alive—though in a different way—as I do visiting a beautiful shrine or park, or watching a moving film. Uplifted, to put it in one word. No matter what the conditions of my life, the political situation in the world, or the troubles I have with work, walking through a crowd of people talking excitedly, passing by an open-air cafe—one a European style coffeehouse, another serving Korean barbecue—or watching joggers running in Yoyogi park on a path in front of a group of theater students practicing a play, I feel that life and humanity are vibrant and daily pressures and uncertainties are worth the struggle.

Just a quick note about Yoyogi park—which isn't, by the way, in Shinjuku, as I may have made it appear above; I just needed another example;) . This is a great place to shake off homesickness a bit. The other parks, including the sublime Meiji Jingu next door, are very often "too Japanese": they don't let you walk on the grass, you are very confined, and there isn't much incentive to linger. Yoyogi is like the parks I am more familiar with in the US: you can walk, and sit, on the grass, you can run around, you can ride your bike or go for a jog, and it is littered with benches if you just want to listen to an odd mix of the ubiquitous crows and someone practicing their saxophone. Unlike much of the rest of Tokyo, it is a place to be publicly selfish, if that makes any sense: do what you want, as loud as you want; nobody will notice, because they are doing their own thing. Certainly a break from the constant pressure to conform.

Quick note: I just walked to convenience store, and on the way I saw a hair salon called k u, which reminded me I saw a typically inane game show where one of the celebrity guests (as I've noted before, guests on almost all game shows in Japan are celebrities) was wearing a KU shirt (the one with the eyes and beak making up the entirety of the front). I wasn't sure what to make of it, but I thought it was humorous. Also, an alley leading off the same street as the k u salon had a US-style street sign that said "Marilyn Monroe St." Again, humorous, and it fits the Kansas theme as Norma Jean was originally from Kansas.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

First day

I feel pretty good about things after my first day. I had a good time, and it was helpful to be around people in a similar situation. I'm pretty tired, though—I got home at 10 pm and it is now 12, and I'd gotten into a schedule of going to sleep at 10 the past few nights. I've tried really hard over the past 10 years to get into such a schedule for work, but now it appears I'll have to immediately switch back to one I'm more accustomed to, as my classes will primarily be 3–9pm.

Anyway, tired.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Organic stores 有機販売

When I came here the last time, it was enough for me to visit the parks and historical places of Tokyo; I didn't worry much about eating well or taking care of the environment. This time, I am starting out very differently; I have seen the sights, I know a great deal about the city, and it is more important to me to find the niches that satisfy my interests.

Over the years, I have added to my love of literature and Asian culture a concern for the environment and health. In line with this concern, one thing I don't like to compromise on in any country is the quality of the food I eat and the methods used to raise, harvest, and preserve it.

Japan, well-known for its long-lived citizens and the homeplace of the diet that influenced Macrobiotics, is unfortunately not leading the way in organic foods; they are quite a bit behind many other developed countries.

So I was very excited to find one of the few organic markets in Tokyo is not far from my house, about a 15-minute walk, near Gotanno station. It is called Haru-na, and while it is a tiny place, their produce selection is good, they have household products (I got a huge bottle of biodegradeable detergent for a fair price), and they even have a tiny selection of meats. They even have a delivery service (I'm not sure how far they go, and I won't bother anyway, since it is so close). I'll be visiting there quite often.

There is another organic market nearby, again tiny, in Kitasenju. They have a slightly larger shop and thus a little better selection; however, this no Rainbow Market in SF (god how I miss it!). It was called Tsubakiya 2 (not sure where the other Tsubakiya is) and is just a couple of minutes from the Kitasenju station, though it is difficult to find. I want to go here again, as their selection is different from the one in my area, and when I visited it I forgot there was a restaurant on the second floor—I would have liked to see the menu.

I have to consider myself very lucky to have these unexpected resources available.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Got a bed

My bed, a thin but deceivingly comfortable piece of foam, came in yesterday, and I feel much less bruised today. It fits well in a corner of my room.

I decided to explore the walking/biking path along the Arakawa river near my house yesterday. Like all of Tokyo, it is intense, with one baseball diamond after another and numbers of young (but extremely talented) baseball players cheered on from the edges of the path. As a biking/walking path, it is not good for high-speed cycling at the point I visited, but I imagine it gets better further along. There were quite a few high-perfomance bikes on the trail, and I could taste the envy I felt for their owners. I could really use a good 20-mile ride right now (though I might die in the heat and humidity).

I followed a 3 mile portion of the path, first on the far side, and then on the near. The near side has the disadvantage of being right next to a highway, but might be better for it, as there are fewer pedestrians. Depends on what you want, and, of course, on what is further along.

It seems the Arakawa river was once a wetland/swamp area, and there are some stretches where the native(?) plants are allowed to run wild. I found a couple of kittens tucked away in some of the grasses, following with their tiny eyes the pigeons nearby. Unfortunately, I took too long to get my camera out, and they hid behind their mother. I took a picture anyway, to show what the area looks like. Back where the mother is looking, there are piles of trash, presumeably from well-meaning passersby who feed the cats.

One cool thing I have not seen elsewhere was this obstacle track for wheelchair users. I was tempted to give it a try myself, and one day I might—I think it would be a great way to exercise the upper arms.

Tomorrow is the big day—my first day of training. I'll be honest, I feel absolutely unqualified, and wouldn't be surprised if they told me to hit the door after a few hours. My attitude may change if the atmosphere is supportive.

For today, I'm just going to take it easy and run over to Kitasenju and pick up a Japanese fish cookbook. I know a little about cooking Japanese cuisine, but Japanese fish is pretty unique and I think trail and error could lead to quite a few unappetizing dishes. But I love fish, and I think it is cheaper than meat anyway. After that I'll just sit in my room and sweat.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Some pictures

Just a few pictures to get some idea of what my new life is like.

My room. You can see that, at the moment, I have no bed. When I noticed this, I was worried I had misunderstood and would have to buy my own futon, but there was a mix-up, and I should be getting a new mattress today or tomorrow.

The room itself is pleasant, with a balcony, tatami floor, and a pretty wood ceiling that looks as if it might be made of bamboo.

Another view of the room, showing the Japanese-style doors. The left door leads to the kitchen, while the right two open on a closet. In the foreground is a "floor-chair," you might call it--more suited to the traditional Japanese custom of sitting on the floor.

You can sit on the floor because they aren't as dirty as Western floors can be, due to the well-known habit of leaving your shoes at the door, in the genkan shown here. The door at the far end of the hall leads to my room. In between is the kitchen.

The kitchen table, with the assorted foods I used to make breakfast, a healthy portion of miso soup with shiitake mushrooms, green onions, and tofu.

A couple of miscellaneous photos:

Apparently, Adachi is where Basho started his trip to the north of Japan, recorded in his most famous work, The Narrow Road to Interior. Perhaps I'll follow him some day, though more likely by bike than foot.

A nice custom—sure, it's not compressed air, but, then again, you don't have to pay for it, either. The can holding the pump says "Please feel free to use this."

I am missing my bike very much. A good ride would, I think, really help with this jet-lag. The bike path nearby really is a stroke of luck, and I look forward to riding it one of these days.