Friday, October 31, 2008

Week one in Tokyo, off to Vietnam

A week into my stay in Tokyo, I'm finding my way around and enjoying sightseeing in Tokyo while Itsumi is at work. Tokyo has helpful maps, usually in English as well as Japanese, posted near all of the train stations and around the city, and that helps a lot. Below is a map that was less helpful to me! While shopping at the grocery store, I was able to find everything on my list except butter. I walked through every aisle twice but found nothing that looked like butter. I thought maybe butter is packaged differently in Japan, and of course I can't read any of the packages. I found some small tubs with pictures of cows on them, a clue that this is a dairy product. A Japanese woman was looking at them too, so I picked one up, pointed at the bread in my basket, said "butter" and mimed spreading butter on bread. The woman shook her head and mimed eating the product with a spoon. She smiled and took me to the opposite end of the store where she showed me the butter. I'm sure she is laughing about the incident still, as I am!

Although Japan is known for being expensive, I spent less than $200 during my first week in Tokyo. This is because of the generosity of Itsumi, my host, who not only gives me a place to stay but also teaches me how to get the discount subway tickets and how to make cheap lunches to take with me while I'm sightseeing. My typical lunch consists of rice balls, fruit and rice crackers. To make rice balls, we cook rice in the rice cooker. Then we mix it with a flavoring packet of seaweed and salmon flakes. We shape it into balls and sprinkle sesame seeds on top. Pop these in a tupperware and we have a delicious lunch for later. Coupled with my guide book, "Tokyo for Free", this helps me enjoy Tokyo while spending very little money.

Japan has delicious fruit, all very fresh. Below are parsimmons and an Asian pear. Parsimmons are like a delicious mix of mango and cantaloupe, and the pear is much bigger than Western pears.
Few people in Tokyo can have pets due to space and expense, but that doesn't mean they can't play with pets. A department store near Itsumi's apartment has a section called "the cats' house." For US $6, you can go in and pet the many cats that live there!
I like to visit shrines and temples in Tokyo, because they are free, the buildings are beautiful, and they are usually surrounded by beautiful gardens or forest where I can get a bit of nature in the midst of this huge city. Shrines are Shinto, Japan's home grown religion, and temples are Buddhist, imported from India via China. Here, at the Meiji Shrine, two boys celebrate their birthdays. At the Meiji Shrine I met two really nice women who spoke to me in English, asked me all about politics and the election in the U.S. (and were probably better informed than I am), and invited me to tea at a nearby restaurant. Japanese students study a minimum of six years of English, but most don't have much of an opportunity to practice. These two women, however, spoke beautiful English and we had fun talking over tea. There are quite a few signs in English, and many of them are funny or cute. For example: "Smoking here and there without considering the places and occasions, such as smoking and walking at the same time can be a nuisance to some people." The sign went on to explain that one should stand in one place and smoke.

I visited a part of Tokyo that is frequented by teens who engage in "cosplay" or costume play. I like the girl on the right, in her goth style kimono. Since I started this topic last week (and Itsumi thinks I'm funny for taking so many pictures of toilets) I might as well continue with this week's favorite toilet scene. Japanese women feel embarrassed when other people can hear them peeing in a public bathroom, so some people flush the toilet while they are peeing in order to cover up the peeing sound. This, of course, wastes water so now public bathrooms often have a "flushing sound effect" device. Push the button and a flushing sound will be played. Check out the video if you don't believe me!

I visited Itsumi's workplace, the Digital Human Research Center, where she works in injury prevention. Here is a robot that is being developed in the Center!
Itsumi's workplace is on one of several artificial islands off the coast of Tokyo, where there is a really modern monorail and many amazing buildings and a statue of liberty that was a gift to Japan from France!

We continue to enjoy delicious Japanese food and sushi!

Next week, Itsumi and I will be going to Hanoi, Vietnam. Itsumi will be speaking at a conference there, and I'm going to tag along to see Vietnam. I will stay there for three weeks and then return to Japan on Nov. 25. While I'm in Vietnam, I'll check my email from cyber cafes from time to time, but I won't be on Skype. I'll of course be anxiously awaiting the election results. I voted by absentee ballot before leaving the U.S.

Hugs to you all!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

First few days in Tokyo

Itsumi has been showing me a wonderful time in Japan, and making me very comfortable in her apartment in central Tokyo as well as teaching me how to navigate this city, where I am illiterate and unable to understand the language. Not a small task!

We have been eating delicious meals, at home and at restaurants. Yesterday we went to a revolving sushi bar! You sit at a bar, and in front of you is a conveyor belt lined with plates of sushi that revolve around the bar, and you can pick up whichever ones you want. The cooks keep adding fresh plates, and at the end they charge you by the number of empty plates in front of you. We ate quite a lot, and our total came to $5 each. Yum, I could eat sushi all day!

I have been studying basic Japanese through a Pimsleur course that my mom bought for me, and this along with some hand signals helps me get by. Today will be a bigger test as it is the first day that Itsumi is going to work since I arrived.

It's funny to be completely illiterate. Itsumi's clothes washing and drying machine (yes, it's really just one machine with one compartment where the clothes are both washed and dried, in one cycle if you choose) operates with a digital screen with writing that I of course can't read. So Itsumi has taped English instructions onto the wall.

Yesterday I learned my first two kanji, or Chinese characters! Toilets here have two different levels of flushing, depending on whether you are flushing pee or poop. This is a great water saving feature, but confusing if you can't read the kanji for pee and poop. So Itsumi explained that the character that looks like a person with outstretched arms means "big" and the other character means "small." Based on these first two characters, I learned about ten more while walking around yesterday.

The grocery stores here are not like Asian stores in the US, where the products contain English writing. If I'm not with Itsumi, I have to choose based on the pictures on the packages! I am going to try to shop for and cook dinner today, and we may well get an unexpected surprise!

Japan has many beautiful and painstakingly pruned trees and plants! Above are cabbage flowers (they are not for eating) and a bush pruned to an amazing shape!

In Tokyo, it's common to see people walking around wearing surgical masks. I thought they must have asthma and be protecting themselves from pollution, but Itsumi explained that there isn't an air pollution problem in Tokyo, and that the people with masks have colds and are trying not to spread their germs to other people! When Itsumi was studying for her PhD in Colorado, she was shocked that sick people don't wear masks in the U.S.!

Speaking of politeness in Japan, we visited the busiest subway station in the world and I was amazed that everyone was polite and orderly. Nobody budged or pushed or tried to get ahead of anyone else. On the escalators, everyone politely stands on the left side so that those who want to walk up the escalator can do so on the right side. Of course, coming from the U.S. where we drive on the right side of the road I am always tending to stand on the wrong side. I also have to be careful when crossing the street, remembering that the traffic is coming from the direction opposite of what I'm expecting!

Yesterday we visited a famous temple and were lucky to catch it on a big opening day when there were people everywhere, and traditional dancing and music performances! The picture above is of a dance in which a man is trying to catch slippery eel.

Growing up with a Japanese name in the U.S., I have never met anyone else named Kimi, and I have never seen my name on any key ring or other such thing. But that's not the case in Japan! Yesterday I got some stickers and a little decorative fob that say Kimi, in Japanese kanji! What fun!

I'm really enjoying Japan so far, and am lucky to have my good friend Itsumi as a guide. I've included a few pictures here, and the rest of them are at

Thanks for reading, and sayoonara!