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On parties, karaoke, drunks, high schoolers, the inauguration, and Facebook

Where have I been? It seems like I haven’t updated anything for a while. Well, not much has been going on. This weekend I stayed home. Friday night we had a 新年会 (shinnenkai), which is a new year party. Basically, it is the opportunity to go get plastered with your Japanese colleagues. I sort of dread them but then I always have a good time and of course always drink too much. In Japan, restaurants are geared for large social gatherings because people rarely go to houses for social events. Lots of times people will eat at an 居酒屋 (izakaya), because the ambience is very social. Lots of little dishes shared by the table, and a real variety of food. We had about 20 people at the dinner.

 

Karaoke

Saturday was a fun day spent working on my Japanese taxes. Lucky me! Or maybe it was Sunday, I don’t know. Saturday night I met some colleagues for dinner at our favorite Okinawan restaurant, Nanpu, It is the kind of place where the chef knows your name (especially when you are a white guy). But the big story was a night out at gothically styled Joy Joy karaoke club. Finally, karaoke in a private karaoke room. It is rare that I can sing Radiohead, Elvis Costello, Cabaret, Hairspray, Les Miserables, and Spandau Ballet (among others) all in the same night. I had a GREAT time. My vocal range was somewhat limited by a cold, but it made Radiohead sound better and I was able to take the songs down a step. The English song selection was a little lacking so maybe the next club will be better.

We saw a very scary drunk though – as a group was leaving this kid basically passed out in the entryway. Stone cold, scary swallow your tongue kind of passed out. His friends got him outside (where it was really cold). Before I knew it, there was a madman on the loose outside, running into to traffic, hitting his friends who tried to stop him, totally out of control. That lasted for a while, then he’d pass out, get energy again, pass out. They tried to get him in a cab, but after a while the cab driver kicked them out. We decided that he needed a hospital, so during one of the quiet moments I told his friends that they should take him to the hospital. How very American of me … but at least I said it in Japanese. I hope I said it in Japanese. Hospital and beauty salon are VERY close in Japanese – byoin (びょういん) versus biyoin (びよういん). Maybe they thought I said he should get his hair styled. Whatever I said, they acknowledged with an affirmation.

 

High Schoolers

Sunday I wanted to eat at my favorite ramen shop, which happens to be in Nagoya Station. As I was going to Nagoya Station, I couldn’t help noticing all the high school students. The ramen shops were filled with them too. How did I know they were students? Most of them were wearing their school uniform. As a matter of fact, students are typically obliged to wear their uniform even when they aren’t in school. I knew something was up. I put two and two together and figured it was college entrance exam day. The test is known as the 入学試験 (nyuugakushiken) which translates to school entrance examination. Clever, huh? This was probably the 入学者選抜大学センター試験 (nyuugakusha senbatsu nyuushi senta- shaken), University Candidate Selection University Admissions Center Test. It is a standard test for most the public universities in Japan and is held over a weekend in mid-January. There is a TON of pressure on this test. Those that don’t do well but want to attend a prestigious public university instead of a costly but easier to enter private university (there are of course, exceptions to private university entry requirements and indeed many are very competitive) typically take a year off to re-take the exam. In this year the students are called 浪人 (ronin), from the term that means “masterless samurai.” I have many friends that did ronin, and a few that did it TWICE!

The links are pretty interesting – check them out.

Here’s a picture I took in Nara years ago that shows Japanese high school students in their 学ラン (gakuran).

Typical high schoolers

 

Inauguration

I felt very removed from the excitement of Obama’s inauguration. As a matter of fact, I watched his speech almost 18 hours after the fact. I still found it very inspirational. I’m very hopeful that we can do a lot of things right in the next 8 years.

 

Facebook

I’m convinced Facebook is a drug. I wonder how many hours I spent tonight popping from person to person? Did I really need to see a picture of me in my junior high school band? I wasn’t even looking for it.

I want to forecast the weather too!

I used to use www.wunderground.com extensively back in the States. They were pretty reliable. If you take a look at the forecast from wunderground below, you would think I was living in a snow belt! That’s for the Nagoya Airport.

Snow day soon?

 

If you look at Nagoya City, it is a bit different story.

It is only rain ...

 

What’s the difference? The airport is a little bit away from the city but on the coast – so certainly not at higher elevation. Both of these forecasts are “Nagoya.”

Which do I choose?

 

If you go to Yahoo! Japan, it looks like pretty nice weather coming up.

Just a few clouds

 

Finally, if you look at the official Japanese government weather forecast, it looks a lot like the Yahoo! forecast.

Statistically speaking ...

 

I think the Weather Underground forecaster just wants to see some snow, kind of like a little kid wishfully thinking that tomorrow will be a snow day. In the end, I believe all the meteorological information is from the same government source, and the difference is only how the icons are applied. At what percentage chance of participation do you change from a sun to a precipitation icon? What temperature leads you to a cloud dropping snow or dropping rain?

I don’t know why I thought this would be interesting. I guess since the time I’ve been here I’ve been amused by the variety of forecasts that I can find on the internet. In the end, I guess they are all the same.

Killing time in Tokyo – musings on mixed use developments

I’m sitting in a Starbucks in Akasaka in Tokyo, and have been for a while, killing time while Tomo guides Chaka Khan’s band members through a flea market, Ometesando, and Harajaku. This wasn’t really part of the weekend plan but I knew it could be a possibility. I have a good book to read, Michael Chabon’s, “Gentlemen of the Road.” It has been a very long time since I’ve had to actually use a dictionary to look up words while reading, but this is one of those books. I find it refreshing actually, to relearn words. For example, one page contains the words ostler, caravansary, mezair, caprioles. All words I don’t know off the top of my head. Good thing for online dictionaries when you are sitting in a Starbucks armed only with a BlackBerry (I still am not happy carrying a “BlechBerry” but it does serve a purpose at times).

It is a little strange to be sitting in this particular Starbucks, because I spent many Sunday mornings here when I’ve been in Tokyo on business trips as this is the location of the preferred hotel of my colleague who was in charge of the trip. I stayed in a business hotel just down the street last night and discovered more areas and developments that I had not seen in all the previous times I had been here.

I definitely feel much more at home in Tokyo compared to Nagoya. I can’t decide though whether I love or hate the multiple mixed-use developments of Tokyo. There’s Roppongi Hills (hate), Tokyo Midtown, Ark Hills, Izumi Garden, and Shiroyama Garden to name a few all in this general area. You can move from one to the other, and they have shops, restaurants, offices, apartments, hotels, everything. Is that good? Is that bad? I really don’t know. But it feels like Tokyo to me.

Well, Tomo called and he’s ditching the band so it is time to meet.

Tsunami advisory

I happened to turn on the TV this morning to see if there was anything interesting on the tube (although I shouldn’t use “the tube” anymore because there are no tubes in modern TVs). I guess I’m just kind of stalling / denying that I have to work tomorrow. I’m in total chill mode. I rarely watch TV in Japan because, well, I don’t understand it. I know that watching TV is a good way to learn a language but I feel like a Peanuts character listening to an adult.

When I turned on the TV I noticed a map of Japan with yellow highlights on the south facing coast line. I knew there was an earthquake in Indonesia, so I wondered if it was a tsunami warning. My prefecture is on the coast, but I am nowhere near the coast. However, I was curious. I went to the Japan Meteorological Agency website and sure enough, there was a tsunami advisory.

Tsunami advisory

I’m not trying to make a tsunami sound exciting. It isn’t like a snow storm or something. As a matter of fact, I got a very stressing text message in 2004 from a good friend who was on Phi Phi island in Thailand when the tsunami hit (by the way, my friend started a charity as a response to the disaster). However, part of this blog is to report what is going on here.

Since the time I’ve discovered this tsunami advisory and started this entry, the tsunami has already arrived. It appears to have been between 10 to 20 centimeters.

Oops, I didn’t mean to do that

I got to go to Tokyo today. The astute reader of this blog knows that I was just IN Tokyo. So why did I go again today? Last night I was bouncing down the tracks in the shinkansen (if airplanes were as rough as the train everybody would freak out), looking forward to being in my apartment and my bed. I had cleaned it going to Tokyo, had fresh sheets waiting for me on my own bed, and I was arriving late enough that maybe I’d have just enough time to update my blog just before going to sleep.

For some reason, about 30 minutes outside of Nagoya, I thought to check my pocket for my apartment key. Of course, I knew it wasn’t there, because why else would I check? I was right, it wasn’t there. Oh sh*t. I knew exactly where it was, it was sitting on a bookshelf at Kevin and Sei’s beautiful condo in Tokyo. I gave Kevin a confirmation call and indeed he confirmed it was there.

Now what? It is a holiday weekend, I’m keyless, and my Japanese sucks. I called the “emergency” line for my relocation service. It turns out the “emergency” line is the president’s line and he was in New Zealand. I’m not sure what time it was there, but in retrospect I think it was a pretty inconvenient time to call. By this time it was around 11:00 pm in Nagoya. He thought my chances were slim that I’d be able to get in that night. He called one of his employees to check things out.

In the meantime there were no more reasonable trains back to Tokyo, no colleagues in town, and no key. What could I do? I figured I had to stay in a hotel. It was also becoming apparent that the emergency number wasn’t really going to be effective. I resigned myself to spending the night in a hotel and then taking the train BACK to Tokyo this morning to pick up my key and then BACK to Nagoya to finally be home.

I was mad at myself, and bummed about the cost hit for my boneheaded move. Since I spent so much time at the Marriott earlier this year, I am Platinum Elite and have gobs of points so I thought I’d just take the elevator from the train station to the lobby and check in. Hopefully.

When I got to the front desk I tried to explain the situation. I looked pretty scraggly actually, I hadn’t shaved that morning and now it was 11:00 pm or later. The front desk woman said, “Oh, you can’t just walk in and use points. You have to call to make a reservation.” I said, “Are you going to make me play this game?” I gave them my Platinum Elite card (by the way, to my knowledge, there is no next higher level at Marriott) and her colleague started punching it in. I asked, “What is the normal rate?” “22,000 yen [about $240].” Then they saw who I worked for. She promptly said, “With your corporate discount you can get the room for 15,000 yen [about $165].” In the meantime, her colleague’s eyes got a little big. I think he saw how many days I had stayed there this year (60) and also realized that my company has spent an ungodly sum of money at the hotel this year. I would hate to guess how much. I said, “Look [by the way, if I ever start a sentence with ‘look’ – watch out], I’m either staying here for free or I’m going to a cheap business hotel. I don’t need to pay $150 for one night when I locked myself out of my apartment.” Her colleague said, “Just a moment” and they had a group huddle over in the corner with a manager-type. It was determined at that point that I COULD stay there on points and I was most welcome. I waited a little while longer for a miracle to happen. Unfortunately, no miracle so I checked in. Actually, I’m glad to save the miracles for something for deserving.

I was pretty wound up at that point. Also, the relocation service person who got the call to help me noted that tickets would be really hard to get in the morning. Great. I said, “Well I can always go Green Car (first class) if necessary.” Then I looked at my wallet – I had only 23,000 yen – and determined that, no, I didn’t have enough money to go green car. Sigh.

I went online (turns out internet is free now at the hotel), and checked the train schedule. I could take the 6:50 am train to Shinagawa, arriving at 8:19 am. Kevin agreed to meet me at the station and hand over my key. I could then run to Starbucks, get something to eat, and catch the 8:37 am train back to Nagoya and be back by 10:13 am with most of my day ahead of me.

I got up at 6:00 am, rolled into some clothes, brushed my teeth, managed my bedhead and scrambled to the train station. I got tickets no problem but only aisle seats were available on the train to Tokyo. That meant it was pretty full. After I bought my ticket I watched the monitors showing ticket availability approaching sold out. Wow.

There’s not much more to report. I sat on a train, met Kevin as planned, got a scone and hot chocolate at Starbucks in Shinagawa, got on the train, and headed back to Nagoya. Mt. Fuji was beautiful. That’s about it. My iTouch battery, while low, survived the trip. When I got back to Nagoya, I checked the monitors for Tokyo tickets. Every train on the monitor was sold out (all classes). I’m glad I got up early.

Sorry, no photos to accompany this little tale. I’m just glad I was able to successfully get in my apartment with only a little inconvenience and expenditure.

Bonehead.

Tokyo Nobody, well Almost Nobody

They say you have to suffer for your art. And while it is pretentious to call my photos art, I did have an idea for some photos today (today being January 1st when this was written, not the day it was actually posted). I wanted to photograph usually very busy Tokyo spaces without people. Since it is a big holiday and all the shops are closed (I thought) today was the day to do it. It isn’t an original idea, it’s been done before with great success in the book “Tokyo Nobody.” I had planned on getting up around 6:00 am or so to catch a 6:30 am shuttle bus from where I was staying to Shinagawa Station. But, you know, I was up late last night and decided to set my alarm for 7:30 am. I ended up catching the 8:30 am shuttle bus.

By regular standards, Tokyo was incredibly empty. But I had to time it well to minimize the number of people in the frame. I went to Shinagawa, Shibuya, and Shinjuku. If you know Tokyo, you’ll recognize that these places are quite empty. If you don’t know Tokyo, well, maybe the pictures are interesting.

Here’s Shinagawa Station, quiet for a Thursday morning.

Isetan side of Shinagawa Station, January 1, 2009

Main Passageway, Shinagawa Station, January 1, 2009

 

At the Hachiko exit of Shibuya Station, there were few people. Most were drunk and boisterous, likely out clubbing all night.

Looking Towards Shibuya Station Hachiko Exit, January 1, 2009

 

Around the statue of Hachiko is a very famous meeting spot. At 9:00 am on New Year’s Day, it wasn’t so crowded.

Hachiko Sculpture, Shibuya Station, January 1, 2009

 

And the scramble, the crazy free-for-all crosswalk, was remarkably manageable.

Orderly Crossing at Shibuya, January 1, 2009

 

More than 1 million people usually pass through Shinjuku Station on a single day. Not on the 1st.

Easy Walking at Shinjuku Station, January 1, 2009

 

The corridor, at 9:30 am, is clear.

Empty Corridor at 9:30 am, Shinjuku Station, January 1, 2009

 

Even the streets around Shinjuku, usually bumper-to-bumper when the streets are out, were free flowing. If, that is, there was something to flow.

Empty Street Shinjuku, January 1, 2009

 

I often was one of many people waiting at Studio Alta under the giant screen to meet someone. I’ve never seen the screen turned off, or so few people meeting.

Meeting Spot, Shinjuku, January 1, 2009

 

 

 

One thing that surprised me was to see people lining up at Yodobashi Camera in Shinjuku. And then I saw people lined up at Bic Camera. I think they were lined up for “grab bags” of some type. It seemed you knew the basic contents but didn’t know the details. As Kevin and I decided, it seems like a great way for stores to get rid of junk. It is called fukubukuro.

Lining up at Yodobashi.

Shinjuku Yodobashi Camera, January 1, 2009

Shinjuku Yodobashi Camera, January 1, 2009

 

 

The same thing happening at Bic Camera.

Shinjuku Bic Camera, January 1, 2009

Shinjuku Bic Camera, January 1, 2009