Sunday, October 26, 2008

A short blog update before my trip into the greater areas of Japan.

This is the week where I venture out of the relative safety and comfort of Kawagoe and Tokyo for the area of Japan known as ‘Kansai.’ Hence the name of my school trip – the Kansai trip. I’ll be visiting Hiroshima, Kyoto, Nara from Tuesday to Saturday. And during my trip I get to visit the depressing Hiroshima peace memorial (which is about America and our decision to bomb the crap out of Japan), a giant golden Buddha, pet deer, and hopefully catch a glimpse of a real geisha. Which feels kind of weird to say – like I’m trying to see some kind of rare bird, but is exactly how the guidebooks in my room phrase the experience. I didn’t realize until today that past exchange students left guides in my room. One of them was a Lonely Planet guide to Japan and a total score. I love lonely planet. Using the guide I found out that my hotel will be located near downtown Kyoto and the geisha district – which is really exciting. I am totally psyched for my trip now and will of course post details and pictures upon my return. I don’t know who will want them outside of my parents but they will be here.
My last weekend was pretty uneventful since I am desperately trying to cut down and save money in preparation for my trip. I did go out to Ueno, which is increasingly becoming one of my favorite areas in Tokyo, and attempted to visit the Tokyo Metro Art museum. Unfortunately my friends weren’t particularly interested in Vermeer and he was the only distinguishable exhibit we saw. The Tokyo met was had a really confusing display and gallery arrangement which we couldn’t really figure out. Instead we mostly just wandered around watching the huge gathering of street performers that had gathered for no discernable reason we could figure out. But we saw a dancer/painter, a clown, a crazy mime, stilt people, rope performers and a Japanese person playing the bag pipes. We also saw what is called ‘the Ueno pond’ which you can’t really see since its overgrown with giant ferns. It was pretty if overcast and I came home for dinner. I brought my family some omiyage (presents) from Disneyland –just some nicely packaged cookies- which I think they enjoyed. My host-mom insisted on taking pictures of me and my host sister with the cookies. I spend a lot of time in Japan posing for pictures and that really only underlines my inability to pose attractively for photos. One of these days I will master the ability to tilt my head attractively! It may require a lot of practice, though, and it’s really hard to justify time spent practicing head tilting.
Anyway, I will post another obnoxiously long post next week.
Lots of love from tomorrow to everybody. I’m sure everyone is amp-ed up about the election, which for me is just easier not to think about. I love being in Japan but I am really sad that I miss out of my first election where I can actually vote. You all should enjoy it for me.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

A crazy week

This week was bomb. Expensive, exhausting emotionally and physically, but bomb. There’s a quote I kind of enjoy that may or may not come from a web comic and it goes something like ‘events are really shy- they only travel in packs.’ That is how I feel about this week and the coming week. My schedule for this week was on Tuesday I went to a elementary school with all of the JSP’s, on Wednesday I went to my hero Hiyao Miyazaki’s crazy museum, on Thursday I went to Disneyland, and on Friday I’m going out to dinner and then maybe to a Halloween party. Next week I am going on my school ‘Kansai’ trip – which means visiting Kyoto, Hiroshima, and maybe Nara. In five days. So while everything is fun and exciting, pretty much all of my gift shopping is happening in this week and next, plus all of my expensive traveling. Thank god for scholarships.
Now a breakdown of the week.
So all of the JSP Japanese classes went on a school field trip on Tuesday to visit a local elementary school. We did the usual file in and say our names and home-towns and such in Japanese. Which I inevitably screwed up- because my ability to speak understandable Japanese decreases rapidly as I get more flustered or nervous. Since I have always found kids kind of intimidating (I find a lot of people intimidating) I got pretty flustered. After the meet and greet the whole school sang us a song and then we were split up into groups of three and sent off to individual classes. I went to a fourth grade class with two JSP kids in much more advanced Japanese classes. My listening comprehension with strangers is kind of terrible so whenever the teacher would tell me to do something (because they had us participate in the kanji lesson) I felt myself go bright red and didn’t understand anything. I kind of tried to figure it out but who knows how I actually did. When Japanese people tell me I am speaking well I am sure they are lying out of kindness. Because I do the same thing when any Japanese person tries to speak English.

But the class was pretty adorable, all the kids made us signs with our names on them. After all the kids introduced themselves in English saying things like “My name is Ayako. I like soccer. Nice to meet you” they broke out the recorders and played us a song. And then all the kids took out these totally bizarre piano/flute instruments (which is really obscure in America) and played us another song. Then me and Emily (my friend who is really good at Japanese) played clapping games and thumb-wrestling with the kids for a bit. The whole thing was finished off with the rather humiliating Japanese lesson.

My love for Miyazaki at this point should be notorious, and so ever since I heard there was a Museum made by Miyazaki’s company I have wanted to go. Which was about four years ago. Getting in is actually kind of tricky because you have to buy tickets at a convini in advance and that is the only way, and then you have to go at your specified ticket time. All of us JSP’s got tickets for noon but the groups kind of split off upon arrival. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures inside the museum, which was sad, but I did get a picture of the giant cat bus room from My Neighbor Totoro. And you could take pictures of the outside building and the rooftop. The whole thing was exactly as I thought it would be –like walking into a weird overlap of all of Miyazaki’s movies combined. The outside is covered in grasses and plants because Miyazaki “looks forward to the time when grass covers the earth again.” Inside looks like the train station from spirited away. A lot of high ceilings , spiral staircases, wood, earth tones and stained glass. There were three floors but two staircases (one an enclosed iron spiral) and an elevator. The museum has a traveling exhibit and a new exclusive Studio Ghibli short you can watch, which makes returns to the museum understandable. A girl in our group had been three times already. The traveling exhibit this time was called ‘le petit Louvre’ which was a bunch of classic Louvre pieces much smaller than their originals. Since I love small things and art history I enjoyed the exhibit. The short was about a bunch of preschool kids whose block fishing boat they had made turns into a real boat, and they try and catch a whale but he ends up saving the kids and returning them to school. It was pretty adorable. I bought a lot of things and got to take a picture with the robot from Castle in the Sky, so the day was definitely a success. We headed home from that kind of early because we still had to go to Disneyland.
Today’s adventure- and a total blast. I haven’t been to Disneyland since I was seven, but the last time I went to Disney world I was twelve. So it has been a while since my last Disney adventure and I have never been with a group of kids my age without parents. Unlike Euro-Disney Japanese people love Disney land. There were a lot of girls there decked out in full Disney regalia and a lot of them wore Disney specialty hats at least. There were a lot of tiny girls in princess outfits – which I took pictures of. Tokyo Disney had the same rides as Disney Land but a lot of them had been updated to new Disney creations. For example the Pirates of the Caribbean ride now features an animatronics Jack Sparrow and movie treasure, and the Haunted Mansion ride is now centered on Nightmare before Christmas. For Disney land October is Halloween month and Tokyo Disney does a lot with the Halloween theme – parades, pumpkins, specialty rides. I feel like there is kind of some overlap between the ideas behind Christmas and Halloween in Japan and Nightmare Before Christmas did not help things. Both of these holidays in Japan feature novelty lighting, Styrofoam decorations, and parties. Space and thunder mountain were still the same old rides and a lot of fun – despite the fact that it started to rain at three and didn’t stop for the rest of the night. I like Disney Land, and I like being able to take a train there and a train home and not have to mess with driving a car at all. I also loved the Japanese boy’s sparkly novelty hats that they wore unabashed.

On a side note – the line between masculine and feminine for the Japanese male is almost nonexistent. Outside of not wearing skirts (just long kimono) boys pretty much follow all the same trends as Japanese girls. Tight stylish pants, boots, man-purses, layered clothing, scarves. Also Japanese guys are much more touchy-feely with their male friends. I don’t really know why that is. But I enjoy it.
Also, I think the woman who placed us JSP kids with our host families is a genius. I just found out the other day that my host mom went to an arts high school and then she majored in Japanese art in college. She told me she might take me out to do some traditional art hopefully in November. Which would be awesome. But now I am worn out and must sleep.
Love you all, as usual.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Kawagoe Matsuri

This weekend has been chock full of traditional Japanese experiences. And why, you might ask, is that? I have two words – Kowagoe Matsuri: a giant festival that Kowagoe (the prefecture I am living in) is famous for. And what it involves is every neighborhood making these huge floats, called Dashi, on which people play drums and traditional folk characters dance, and which are on wheels that everyone from the neighborhood pulls. What this sounds like is a sort of Fourth of July feeling, and the last parade with floats I went to was horribly boring and I kind of hated it. America needs to take lessons on how to make parades awesome. Turn them into festivals. Dashi are way more bad ass than any cheap American float because some of them were made a hundred years ago, out of wood and lacquer and silk. The youngest one was about two years old, made entirely out of wood and metal.
On Saturday I went with Jen pretty early to the festival, which took up most of the streets in Kawagoe and the streets were filled with food vendors and people selling various cheap plastic items. And around the various neighborhoods the Dashi are pulled and sometimes the floats meet up and they ‘fight’ which means they have a dance off between one floats character dancer vs. the other floats dancer. The dancers are put into costumes based on Japanese folk characters and the movements are the classic movements of the character. There was a drunk, a fox, the most beautiful lady, the stupid man, a pig and a bear. So on Sat Jen and I passed through the shops and then got some crepes on a side street. Where a random Japanese man took our picture and then had his daughter stand with us for a photo. Which was yet another weird Gaijin moment. And more specifically a weird blonde gaijin moment – which I generally have whenever I hang out alone with Jen. We happened upon some other JSP’s and some Dashi and I took pictures. Unfortunately on Saturday my camera ran out of batteries. But we had some beer and yakisoba and then spent an expensive couple hours singing karaoke. All in all a fun night.

But the true cultural experiences happened on Sunday because on Sunday I got to be part of the JSP group that actually helped pull a Dashi. We had to wear Jackets and we kind of helped pull for an hour and then everyone took a million pictures of us. I had a great time though – any excuse to dress up and take a million pictures of the awesomeness that is the Dashi is fine by me. The coordinator for the event was this adorable Japanese man who kept trying to explain what was going on and he wore a red coat and was very earnest.
After the float thing I got lunch consisting of okanomiake – which is a cabbage, egg, mayonnaise, soy sauce pancake. And delicious. As well as eating some fried chicken. The thing about the Kawagoe Matsuri was that there were booths for food everywhere. And not a lot of different kinds of food but a ton of booths selling pretty much five of the same things: chocolate covered bananas, okanomiake, octopus and squid, takoyaki(which is balls of okinomiake with octopus in then), and yakitori chicken. And a bizarre version of gyros. The thing to do was buy delicious food and wander around watching different Dashi get pulled around and catching the odd Dashi fight. And occasionally playing rigged Japanese fair games where you could win cheap plastic crap or goldfish. And the odd tiny turtle. I went home after lunch to do some homework but came back at night to get night photographs of the Dashi because at night they break out the lanterns. We sort of wandered around for a while and I ate a snow-cone, yakisoba, octopus legs, and eventually cotton candy. Because I love cotton candy and it at least came in a neat plastic bag. But the group kind of split apart due to one of the JSP’s gorgeous host sister – her presence enough to distract anyone with any testosterone. And because the Dashi were being somewhat elusive. At the very end of the night though I got to see a three way fight between three floats and it was awesome. I took videos and a thousand pictures because between the people in gorgeous traditional costumes, giant wood carts iced with gold and paintings and people, and the musicians and dancers the festival was a visual feast. So of course my flickr page will have a lot more pictures to check out.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A day in the gaming world

I am embarking on a new adventure in my blog= in-blog photographs. I have known for a while that this will make my blog at once less boring and more understandable, but the project has so far seemed a little daunting. Still, for all of you that read this I shall make an effort.

My weekend was not as fun filled as usual since I am saving money for the next two weeks, during which I will be participating in a lot of expensive events. Also the money from my scholarship took two weeks longer for me to get than I expected. Which made me broke and sad. Today I got moneys, though, and so everything is bright and shiny again. Except for maybe that the absentee ballot remains a worrisome challenge. I spent Friday night with JSP kids and some Japanese students bowling. Which it turns out is pretty damn similar to bowling in the US except it was maybe dirtier and cheaper. I was also one of the worst bowlers – as per usual. One of the weirdest aspect in Japan is the ability to buy liquor at convenience stores and then take them to karaoke places or bowling alleys. I think that was my first bowling experience where I drank as well as player. Which did not make me suck at bowling any less.

On Saturday I just kind of chilled in my house with my o-ka-san (host mother) and did some homework, went on a short voyage looking for boots with my friend Jen, and then came home for dinner. I think Saturday was the first day I ate all my meals in at my house. I mean I’ve spent the whole day with my host sister and mother before, but we usually eat lunch somewhere else. So that was actually a fairly relaxing change.

Sunday was my big adventure for the week because I went to Tokyo Game-show 2008. Which is a huge game convention in which all the major game companies in Japan show their new games for the year. The Game-show goes from Saturday to Sunday maybe 8-5pm. Getting to the Game-show proved a challenge since my cell phone has decided it hates me and won’t let me send text messages. Which is the main form of communication in Japan. And like the idiot that I am, I turned my phone off the night before the show and missed all of the text messages telling me that everyone was meeting much earlier than I expected. I also chose Sunday to be the first time I am not ridiculously early for a scheduled meeting. Because that is how I roll.
So I showed up at the train-station exactly at 8:30 and turned my phone on in time to realize that everyone else had left earlier. And that I had to wait for a half hour for my train, and then make the two hour voyage by myself. Which pretty much made for a terribly planned and timed morning, but once I got to the game-show everything got a lot better.

I don’t actually like playing games all that much. They are long and tiring and I get bored of them really easily. Mostly I just think about all the time I could be spending watching movies, reading or drawing. But I do like to know what is happening in the gaming world because then I can participate in a lot more of my friends conversations, and the art in games is often pretty awesome. Video games, comics, anime – they all sort of fall into one general category, so gaming knowledge is kind of useful to have. And very very rarely I happen on a game I actually like playing.
I also really enjoy conventions and Tokyo Game-show is the equivilent of E3 in America. It’s a convention filled with exclusive insider knowledge and free things about future games. And thus awesome. I don’t know how many people went to the Show but it had to number somewhere in the plus ten thousands. I got to there around 11pm and stayed till closing and the crush of people rarely thinned.

There were three giant warehouses filled with major game-companies displays, stages, and areas that allowed you to play the new games. The lines to play the games had wait times around an hour for most places and for the really popular games sometimes two hours. Occasionally after playing a game you got neat free things –like canvas bags or promo items, but not always. But you could also pick up free catalogues of each companies new games from women working called ‘booth babes.’ I think that’s actually they’re official title, except for at the x-box booth where they are called ‘official booth attendants’ and all these girls dress up in company outfits of varying degrees of slutty-ness and hand out the companies promo items. And a lot of people take pictures of them, and by people I mean men or the random gaijin tourist (i.e. me and my friend Emily).

That must be the weirdest job to have, where your job description has you dress in provocative costumes and let strange and often creepy men take lots of strange and creepy photos of you. But maybe that is just me looking at things from a very American feminist perspective. It would be kind of awesome to be pretty enough to get paid for having people take picture of you making a peace sign. There were more gaijin tourists there than I have seen in one place so far. I didn’t play too many games (the wait was forever for most of them and final fantasy required elusive tickets) but I did play this game called Little Big Planet, which was adorable.

You are a tiny burlap character that you can decorate and you run around moving objects and solving puzzles in this 2-D/ 3-D world. A booth attendant guy played with us and spent a lot of time telling me to ‘jump jump jump’ because I am not a good gamer. It was fun though. I also played Street Fighter 4 which is apparently not released in the US and a big deal to people into gaming. Or so my JSP friend majoring in gaming seems to find it really interesting. As does the boy who worked at Game-stop for a long period of time. I got my ass handed to me in that game, but my cute friend Emily had her boy help her with her character and she kicked his ass.

But Emily majors in computer science and plays games a lot. I refuse to feel badly about this. Also, Cosplayers came out in force for this event and I saw more elaborate costumes than I ever had before. I’ve been to anime conventions – but I don’t remember seeing anything to the elaborate level of skill that the Game-show cosplayers were on.
All in all a thoroughly fun and exhausting day, and here is all the swag that I picked up.

And a picture of my awesome Pokemon plushie.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


Things that I have learned about my host mom and host sister (I still haven’t spoken with the father):
1. My host mother hates the ocean.
2. She used to have an aquarium but about a month before I came she got rid of it because it was a pain to clean.
3. In said aquarium she used to have water grass, shrimps, and angel fish
4. She doesn’t like Angel Fish because they are scary and would bite her when she cleaned the tank. Also they ate their children.
5. My host sister has never been swimming in the ocean.
I had an interesting conversation with my host mom and she did a terrific impression of a crab. In a strange way it makes sense that someone living on an island would hate the ocean, and I love it. I never do get tired of spending the day on a beach – any beach. Rocky, cold, hot- I love the ocean.
Last weekend my literary teach dragged all of us out to Yokohama, which has a famous art museum and also a famous china town. Apparently Yokohama used to be a big port city and a lot of Chinese people settled there. My literature class read a little bit from ‘The tales of Genji’ for class and the art museum was doing a retrospective of all the art that has been influenced by that novel. Genji was one of the first fiction novels written ever, in the whole world. And it was written by a woman, a concubine, for the emperor who later became his wife. So a lot of paper screens and scrolls have been made depicting scenes from the book – and there were a lot of hand made copies of the novel throughout the years. The copies that survived are not the original surviving text. So in theory the story may have changed.
Regardless, I had to wake up ungodly early on Saturday to catch an early train to Tokyo, where me and about five other students met up with the teacher to continue on to Yokohama. It took about two hours- which isn’t too bad considering it’s on the southern side of Tokyo. The museum was full of more amazing Japanese woodblocks with really old Japanese clothes. The women had long free flowing hair and just tons of giant robes. I just wandered around drawing things and I had an old Japanese woman just start talking to me. She was very nice but was wearing a huge visor that completely blocked her face and so it was hard to understand her. Plus I am terrible at small talk. She asked me what I was interested in in particular with Japanese art, but I didn’t have a good answer. I am interested in all of Japanese art. My favorite thing she said was ‘I can understand your fascination.’ And then we both kind of wandered off.
I do love Japanese art…
A-to-de (which means after) we went out to lunch in the big china town. Which took a little work finding, so we were all kind of starving when we got there. I had some rice with shrimp served in a hot iron pot and some soup and rice pudding. Which was actually pretty delicious. And our lit teacher bought us a bottle of rice wine. Our teacher is one of those guys who is really nice but a terrible teacher. Our classes are three hours long and he fills that by having us read out-loud the assigned reading for the week. Which we are already supposed to have read. Plus, he doesn’t believe in literary theory which means analyzing the text is pretty much out. So he’ll read something like ‘the girl looked strange with her un-plucked eyebrows and non-blackened teeth’ and tell us ‘now in those times women would normally pluck their eyebrows and blacken their teeth.’
So that is infuriating. But he was pretty nice taking us to the art museum and buying us wine. He also wandered around china town with us and bought his wife some o-mi-ya-ge (which is presents). I didn’t buy much but I took a lot of pictures. Especially of the Confucian temple.
My friend Jen came on the trip with me and Jen and I look a lot alike, I might have mentioned already. We are both blonde and blue eyed, and unfortunately on that day we both decided to wear the same color blue shirt. I’m pretty sure to a Japanese person we look identical- since even our American friends say we look alike. So after Yokohama Jen and I split off to do some shopping and to wander through a Tokyo station. We got lost, inevitably, and while we were looking for ‘Sunshine mall’ a random Japanese guy came up to us and asked if we spoke Japanese. He looked fairly normal, actually, and was dressed in clothes from an American Eagle catalogue. So apart from the fact that he approached American girls, he seemed okay. Unfortunately he started the conversation by telling Jen she was pretty and I decided to use him for directions. He told me I had blonde hair and took us to the mall, and when I said thank you he just left. It was very weird. Clearly Jen and I cannot wander around Tokyo alone dressed alike. Although, if we only get approached by nice guys who show us around, it probably won’t be that bad.
I’ve had a pretty calm weekend since then, since I’m waiting for my scholarship money to come through. And I heard another depressing This American Life about the economy. Which I recommend although I felt sad a lot while I listened to it. I don’t want to go back to America where everything is falling apart. At least in Japan I don’t understand the problems they are having. Although I do know that Asia’s economy is having just as many problems. And I’ve been at least two trains that were delayed by an ‘accident,’ which is code for someone stepping in front of a train. It’s kind of freaky how everyone is so used to people jumping in front of trains.
That’s pretty much everything. Good nigh and good luck.
Lots of love from overseas.

more pictures at

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Hey all

A short update –
I have had a nice few days and things are looking up on the meeting Japanese people front. I will supposedly meet with people from the school art club tomorrow and there was an (expensive) dance club event last Tuesday. Today I hung out with the host mom and sister. We went to a giant dollar store that had the coolest stuff. You seriously wouldn’t know it was 100 yen. So whatever gifts I give out I am absolutely not telling you the price of them.
My host sister took me on a bike ride to a buy/rent dvd/ cd/ manga/book store and we got an old but popular Japanese movie. It was about a Japanese otaku boy saving a girl on the train from a Ji-kan (drunk groping man) and how he makes an Internet forum where people give him advice about how to date the girl. And how everyone’s lives are changed in the process. It was adorable. And I’m sure there is a subtitled version in the US if anyone wants to see it. It’s call ‘Train man’ or something. I did have to watch it in Japanese only because there weren’t subtitles. The fact that I can halfway understand the dialogue was pretty cool. But the long sections of dialogue went totally over my head.
Oh, I also recommend this week’s ‘This American Life.’ It was a really good show this week.
As usual, lots of love from across the ocean!