Monthly Archives: September 2012

Who digs giant robots?

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Recently in class I learned about something called ‘Orientalism.’ It’s one of those terms academics give to issues that most people don’t notice or particularly care about. The gist of it is that western writers, particularly travel writers, tend to over simplify the eastern countries and make them appear more exotic than they really are. I’m not going to get into why this is or isn’t an issue, since this isn’t really the place and most of you likely fall into the ‘don’t particularly care’ category. But it is true; travel writers like myself don’t spend much time talking about how similar our cultures are. It’s always about how weird the other country is. With this in mind I’ve spent the past week wracking my brain trying to find something to talk about that didn’t fall into these cliched pitfalls. Then I ran into a giant robot selling beam chopsticks.

Thanks to a missed deadline for a school-trip sign up, I found myself with more money than budgeted. So I decided to take my windfall and do the fiscally responsible thing and immediately spend it. This week’s fund-drainer came in the form of a day trip to Odaiba, an artificial island in Tokyo Bay. Now if what video games had taught me about artificial islands was true then this island would be elevated several stories in the air and would inevitably collapse into the sea at some point during my visit. Turns out video games are a terrible source of information, as Odaiba looks like a normal island and at no point decided to pull a big-budgeted remake of Atlantes. It also turns out getting there is a pain. Google maps says there’s a JR line from Osaki (a stop conveniently on my commuter pass) that leads to Odaiba. Google maps lies. There’s only two ways onto the island: by car or by private rail. Since I don’t own a car in Japan and taxis require a level of Japanese beyond “watashi wa baka gaijin desu” the train was my only option. Now, I can’t really describe the train without risking my job here due to profanity, but I will say whoever designed the cars had a burning, seething hatred for people who stand on trains, since the seats are nice and big but take up far too much space.

Luckily the route is padded with stops less than a block away from each other and a loop, so there’s plenty of time to enjoy the elbow in your gut.

Odaiba is mostly shopping malls, western style shopping malls, or at least trying to be western style shopping malls. One of them was actually two malls fused together like Frankenstein’s monster, connected by bridges that criss-crossed like architectural stitches. One of the Franken-malls definitely stood out from the rest of the pack. The upper levels were all restaurants with a running theme of a cruse ship while the lower levels seemed to exist in the same dimension that TGI Fridays get their decorations. In other words it looked like the aftermath of a flea-market that got hit by a truck carrying movie props. Strange nicknack shops interspersed with nonsensical displays and props. Honestly it reminded me of a farmer’s market in PA, complete with the candy store selling candies no commercial chain would bother with, gimicky stores that sell cheap novelties, and a place dedicated to geodes.

Oh, and they had a Statue of Liberty.

Oh you know, everyone’s got one of these just lying around somewhere.

Overall Odaiba wasn’t terribly interesting. Mostly shops. Fairly nice shops with a wide selection of products, but shops none the less. At least that’s what I was thinking about the place until I rounded the corner at the end of the island.

‘Sup, I’m a giant robot

And suddenly I was reminded what country I was in. For those who aren’t familiar with Japanese pop culture; that’s a Gundam, a giant fighting machine from a cartoon series that’s been running in one iteration or another since the 80s. I’d heard that someone built a life-sized model of the original Gundam, but I’d also heard it was damaged and had to be taken down after the earthquake last year. Apparently they put it back up in front of a shopping center. That or built another one. I’m not sure which is crazier. Turns out the crazier option was option C, build another Gundam made of flowers.

Gentlemen, it is as we feared; the hippies have giant robots.

From what I could gather the incomplete Flower Gundam was part of city wide flower festival. Now at the time of writing the festival hasn’t started yet, but if the signs are right they plan on having a fully armed and operational Flower Gundam by the start of the festival. And the Gundam madness doesn’t stop there. Directly behind the robot is a Gundam Cafe, selling Gundam chopsticks, Gundam mugs, Gundam bean paste buns, Gundam brand coffee, and other merchandise. Though the strange robot cake goes to the 7-11 which carries, you guessed it, 7-11 Gundam models.

I’m not kidding, this is a thing.

At the time I couldn’t stop giggling at how goofy the whole thing was. There it was, a giant model that someone put a considerable amount of time, effort, and money into the bring to life. Sure it’s the icon of a company that’s built on merchandising, and the statue was probably the result of some marketing scheme. But somewhere in that company there had of have been some madman with a dream, a dream to bring a giant robot to life in Japan. Though in retrospect it kinda makes me sad. Not because it’s unabashed consumerism built around a corporate logo, I’m okay with that (especially since we do it too).  No the part that gets me down in a small was is how stereotypical it is. It’s like the Japanese know we think they’re weird and are now just daring us to write about them.

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Nezu- A Slice of Old Tokyo

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This past week, we had a couple of days off from school.  My housemate and I decided we wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of big city Tokyo for a little while, so we searched through our guidebook for a quiet place we could go.  We happened upon the perfect location, a little section of Tokyo called Nezu, also known as a slice of old Tokyo.  Nezu is a quiet section of the city that is popular for the Nezu Jinja, or shrine, and for having one of the oldest and largest cemeteries in Tokyo.  We took the train there, which let us off near a section of Tokyo University.  It was much quieter than other parts of Tokyo that we have visited, with mostly small artisan shops and a lot of greenery.

After wandering a bit, we discovered the Nezu Jinja, which was our first destination.  The entrance was marked by a huge gate with lanterns hanging from the top beam.  We passed through the gate and down a small stretch of road lined with trees, at the end of which we reached a large opening with a bridge, a few ponds, and the shrine.  There were several other visitors there, mostly Japanese, and many of them were couples or elderly people.  It was a little cloudy that day, so it wasn’t too hot.  Actually it was the perfect temperature to go strolling about.  Everyone was having a leisurely time and it was very peaceful.

We spent the first part of our visit observing the pond, which had many large and impressive koi swimming around, as well as a handful of red-earred slider turtles, and a few box turtles, all with shells covered in moss.  They were basking casually, some stacked on top of each other.  Then we found a somewhat hidden pathway, which led to a long stretch of brightly colored orange shrine gates about the size of doorways.  They sheltered the path one after another, creating a sort of orange gate tunnel.  It looked like there were hundreds of them.  We walked through the tunnel, which led us to some smaller shrines before reaching the end, which was gaurded by stone statues of dogs that had been well-worn by time.  After that we observed an elderly Japanese man ride up to the pond on his bicycle and feed slices of bread to the turtles.  It seemed like it was his daily ritual.

Feeling hungry, we wandered side streets for a cafe or bakery.  We found a very cute one and ate pastries with coffee and tea.  I was happy to find the bakers were very kind to us, even with our poor Japanese.  Sometimes I worry that Japanese people will be offended by my poor language skills, but that hasn’t happened yet.  They always respond patiently and politely.

After that, it took us a while to find the big cemetery.  It was a bit of a walk away.  On the way there, we fond a small art gallery that had been converted from a 300 year old bathhouse.  It happened to be showing a Japanese aritst I really admired, named Tadanoori Yooko.  I was happy to find an art gallery because I’ve been wanting to go to some.  Eventually we found the cemetery, where we spent a lot of time just meandering through the gravesites.  There were a lot of cats there, of all different types and sizes, all looking pretty rough around the edges.  We found the burial site of the last shogun there, as well.  It was very impressive.  On the edge of the cemetery, we fond another little shrine.  This one had large meadows of healthy looking, green grass, and well-tended shrubs, as well as a giant copper statue of a buddha.  We spent some time relaxing there, watching a groundskeeper tend to some water lilies.  A tiny old woman came to sit on the bench next to us, and spoke to us in Japanese for a while.  Maybe it was half to us, half to herself.  She seemed to be completely oblivious to the fact that we were foreigners, which for us was a really nice change.  We left when it started to get dark and just took the train home.

I’d say it was a very zen type of day, a different type of Tokyo and Japan than what I’ve experienced so far.  If you visit Tokyo, it’s important to see all the different sides of it.  There’s the big city and the crazy nightlife, as well as the peaceful, old neighborhoods.  Next I think I would like to travel outside of Tokyo, to somewhere more rural, and see how the lifestyle is there.

The gate to the Nezu Jinja

Bathing at the Onsen

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Last weekend I had the special treat of visiting a traditional onsen with my host family.  Onsen is the term used for hot springs in the Japanese language, but it can also refer to public bathing facilities.  I went to the latter.  There are countless onsens throughout Japan, and using free time for a family outing to the onsen is not uncommon.  My family said they like to go together whenever everyone is available at the same time, which is somewhat rare.  But, last Saturday after dinner, such a time occured and we headed for the onsen around 9:30 pm.

I had heard a lot about onsen and seen them in animes, so I was very excited to go!  I was also nervous because I wasn’t educated in all the proper etiquette of bathing at the onsen.  My host mom (okaasan) told us that many of her past host students had been a little nervous to go to an onsen because they were shy about being naked in front of other people.  But I decided being a little uncomfortable was worth the unique experience, and after some time of being in the onsen, you hardly notice that you’re naked!  Luckily for my house mate and I, our family took care of buying our ticket to the onsen and giving us towels. After putting our shoes in some lockers at the entrance, we entered and walked through many hallways and stairs to get to the bathing area.  To my surpise, there were many other features of the public bath house that I never would have thought would be there.  There was even a restaurant!   The whole place had a very pleasant, relaxed, and elegant atmosphere. We headed straight for the baths, since that was what we came for.

Our host father (Otoosan) went to the men’s section, and Okaasan took me, my housemate, and our host sisters to the women’s side.  We entered another locker/changing room, and put all of our clothes in lockers.  You have to keep your key on a little bracelet around your wrist while you bathe.  Then we grabbed our towels and headed to the shower area.  The shower area is very different from any showers you might see in America.  I was already kind of used to them because we have a similar set up at our homestay house.  Basically, there are many little stools in front of detachable shower heads, and you just sit down and bathe yourself.  There are no walls between stations, and each one comes with a bowl for rinsing, and has soap and shampoo nearby.  You have to make sure to clean yourself really well and not leave any traces of soap on your body.  If you enter the baths without being fully clean, it is socially unacceptable.

After bathing, you have a lot of options to choose from to customize your onsen experience.  There are several different large baths outdoors, as well as a wet sauna, a dry sauna, and indoor baths with jets.  There is also a freezing cold bath that you can jump into after being in the sauna and it makes you all tingly.  Outdoors, there are rockbeds with warm water that you can sleep on, and it is theraputic for your back.  Onsens are said to have healing powers because of the minerals in the water.  I spent most of my time in an outdoor bath and it was the most relaxing experience I’ve had in Japan!  Afterwards, I felt super clean, and my skin felt really healthy, too.  If you visit Japan, I think an onsen is a MUST DO!  And don’t worry about being nude in front of other people.  It is quite normal.

Betrice and I getting ready to head into the baths

Choo Choo- A New Life on the Rails

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It’s been a few weeks now since I arrived in Japan, during which I’ve done everything I expected I would do; Be a massive nerd, get lost, fight demons, get found, panic, and hide in my room for days on end, all the while taking special care to shirk all of my responsibilities. The good news is the panic did not last for long and excursions into the concrete wilderness have been frequent and rewarding. Equally frequent are my uses of these strange creatures common in this great island nation. These long beasts of metal and glass were introduced to the environment by foreign traders in the late 1800s. Free from the natural predators of their native lands these gentle giants reproduced quickly, spreading across the country at an alarming rate. Now they are fully domesticated and can be found in every town and city, diligently ferrying people across the land. The locals call them “denshya.” Loosely translated I believed that means “train.”

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As seen in their natural environment… presumably mating.

Now this was by no means my first encounter with the rail-bound kind. I had in the States, on rare occasion, interactions with trains. Though unlike their Japanese counterparts the American species had a unique aroma I can’t describe here (at least not without risk of being fired). Also, very true to American form, the western trains were frenetic creatures, arriving and departing at their whim, beholden to no agenda of man. In addition to being more prolific, the eastern sub-species is far more obedient, bending to mankind’s will and arriving at stations in predictable, precise patterns.

However these creatures are not without their risks. The train is a very territorial animal and will viciously attack anyone it finds on it’s tracks. To counter this threat the Japanese have developed advanced early warning systems in the form of giant red buttons. A single push will stop the beasts cold, giving would-be victims precious time to flee. The Japanese spell out the use of such devices with amusing, child-friendly (yet surprisingly morbid) cartoons that play on the trains themselves.

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Alternatively these buttons can be used to summon a host of shouty Japanese men. Warning; they will chase you and are remarkably persistent.

In order to move around this sprawling city I’ve been forced to form an uneasy bond with these beasts. This was an uneasy transition for me, partially because I’m an American suburbanite, but mostly because I’m fat (more on that in a moment). America is very much a car culture. Car ownership, or at least access and working knowledge of cars, is assumed, especially for suburbanites. Being bound to a set route after years of vehicular freedom is a strange challenge, especially when the route requites changing trains (sadly done via stairs and immobile platforms and not, as I had imagined, dramatic leaps from moving cabs).

The other issue is space. Now Japanese trains have four general states; ’empty’, ‘full’, ‘packed’, and ‘the human body was not designed for this much pressure.’ This is a problem for me since I have the fat. Also being a suburbanite I grew up with the concept of ‘personal space’ and generally find being touched by strangers to be uncomfortable. Allow me to point out a key fact here; Japanese business men do not care about personal space. When a train is at ‘packed’ or above it’s understandable since there isn’t really room to move (or breath in some cases). However even in ‘full’ states where more room can be created by shifting slightly or sliding legs together, the typical business man will not, possibly due to paralysis by apathy. Now I’ve noticed Japanese women will try their hardest to respect my personal space, though I suspect that’s either due to fear of the hairy gaijin man, or disgust of the sweaty gaijin man.

ImageNow I learned this last bit the hard way, so here’s a quick warning to anyone thinking about coming to Japan. Trains here are empty for approximately .02 of a second. The last trains at midnight are usually full of drunks and/or teenagers who spent too much time in arcades, while the first trains in the morning tend to be full of drunks and/or teenagers who spent too much time in arcades and missed the last train. At best you’re sharing the train with about a dozen other people, at worst you’ll be part of a massive human press, think a fruitcake but slightly more appealing. If you find yourself on an empty train do not panic, you’re actually on a ghost disguising itself as a train. Calmly get up and leave at the next stop. Best case scenario it’ll let you go, but more often you’ll end up in a spiritual realm. Stay calm, generally they’re just trying to teach you a life lesson. But in case things go sour remember aim for the shins, a swift kick will usually give you enough time to make a get away.

Sanrio Puroland- A Hello Kitty Lover’s Paradise

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Hello Kitty’s husband, Daniel, in one of the shows

Last week was my birthday, and to celebrate, my youngest host sister took my American housemate, Betrice, and me to Sanrio Puroland.  Our host mom, Okaasan, knew how much I love pink, Hello Kitty, and the general Sanrio conglomeration, so she told me about this theme park that was close to our house.  She also said that if we went there during the month of my birthday, I would get a discount and some special treatment.  So as a present, she bought Betrice and me tickets to go last Sunday!

Sanrio, if you are unfamiliar, is the brand that Hello Kitty is part of.  There are many other characters under the brand also, such as Cinnamoroll, My Melody,  and PomPomPurin.  They are all extremely kawaii (cute), and are a large part of kawaii culture in Japan.  Since Hello Kitty and these other characters are so popular, they built a theme park that people, mostly young girls, can go visit.  At this park, there aren’t any roller coasters or other huge rides, as you may imagine would be at a theme park.  Instead, they hold several spectacular shows a day that each feature different Sanrio characters, as well as human performers.  There is also a short boat ride much like the “It’s a Small World” boat ride in Disneyland/world.  The costumes for the characters are adorable, and the costumes for the humans are all very kawaii and colorful, as well.  The performances are mostly musical, involving a lot of dancing and singing.  There are also talented acrobats in many of the shows.  Some shows are interactive, asking the audience to dance, sing, or clap along.  The kids love it.  (And me, too.)

Our 10 year-old host sister was our guide through this magical land.  She was very eager and kept exclaiming “Kawaii!” at almost everything we saw.  We arrived at the park early in the morning so that we could get in line to get in.  There were a ton of people waiting to get into the park, mostly families with little girls, but other types of people as well, including a few young people like Betrice and I.  We spent the hour waiting studying the park maps and guides, deciding which shows to go to at what time, figuring out the most efficient way to utilize our time at Sanrio Puroland, and subsequently practicing our Japanese a little.  We were so excited to do everything, and I thought it was really funny when I realized Betrice and I had the same level of excitement towards Hello Kitty as a 10-year-old Japanese girl.

Once we got into the park, we never stopped running around, trying to get good seats at shows and taking pictures with all the costumed characters.  The shopping was also amazing (for people like like us, anyway).  There was so much exclusive Hello Kitty merchandise; I just couldn’t get enough of it!  Luckily the shops never ended.  We all brought back a considerable amount of souvenirs, including folders, stickers, bags- anything with a Sanrio character on it.  I’d say it was a birthday celebration well spent.  Maybe it isn’t what a typical American would do on their 21st birthday, but I’m proud to say my 10-year-old host sister took me to Hello Kitty World!

Betrice, our sis, and I with Sanrio character Badtzmaru