Thursday, August 02, 2007

So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish

Well this is it folks, my last post from Japan. I'm leaving for the airport in a few hours to head to Hong Kong. This will be the end of Tokyo Tales! I hope you all have enjoyed reading about my experiences in Tokyo. I'll definitely start a new blog in Hong Kong, yet to be named and created, and I'm looking forward to starting a record of my next adventure. So to Japan, I say my favorite line from 'The Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy'....

So Long, So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish.


Thursday, July 26, 2007

One Week To Go!

Well it's official! I am now legally able to live and work in Hong Kong and soon will be a new resident of China. My visa came in the mail a few days ago, so the time has come for me to hightail my tail over to the place that will be... yet again... my 'new home'. I've got exactly one week left in Japan.

You know, all this traveling may be getting a bit excessive! I've realized that when I get to Hong Kong, I would have lived in 5 countries in 5 years! I was in Canada in 2002 at school, then back to Trinidad from 2002-2005, then to Turkey in 2005, then Japan in 2006, and now Hong Kong for 2007. This is ridiculous! Fun... but a bit ridiculous!

I am so glad my new company is taking such good care of me, even putting me up in a nice hotel for two weeks while we find an apartment. In the meantime, whenever Seiji has a day or two off in Hong Kong, he has gone to check out some new places and sent me the pictures to see.

We are most likely going to end up living in a place on Lantau Island called Discovery Bay, which is both close to the airport (for Seiji's job) and a 25-minute ferry ride to Central Hong Kong Island (for my job). This place is apparently expat heaven, with apartments that are huge compared to downtown, and at good prices. It's even got a private beach, not that I would swim in that water! Hard to believe that in the space of three months I could go from living in a shoebox in Tokyo to a 3-bedroom apartment with a seaview in Hong Kong! Amazing how things can change so fast.

And, lest we Trinidadians forget, today is also July 27th 1990, the day of the infamous Coup Attempt by the Jamaat al Muslimeen. I still remember it very clearly... I was downstairs at home, maybe 9 years old, watching TV (TTT!), when suddenly on the news these bearded men came onto the news sets with machine guns, saying they were taking over the country, with the news announcers sitting there in shock and fear. I ran upstairs to my grandmother's place where my family was relaxing and drinking, and told them, come quick! you have to see! there are men with guns on TV! But did anyone believe me? Nooo. Just ignore the poor child. Yes yes Emily, they said, that's nice. Sheesh!

Anyways, if anyone has any requests about goods, gifts or presents that they desperately want from Japan, now is the time to make requests before I ride out. What do you want? Kimono? Sword? Used Japanese Schoolgirl Panties? Send your orders now!!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Nikko World Heritage Site - July 2007

Last weekend my friend Kyoko and I jumped on a train and headed out of the city to Nikko, a very famous town about two and a half hours north of Tokyo. Nikko is famous for a variety of reasons - mostly for its stunningly ornate temples and shrines, some of which are over 1,200 years old; it is the resting place of one of Japan's first shogun; and it has a world famous wooden carving of the well known 'See no Evil, Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil'. It is also an incredibly beautiful area, with lush mountain peaks, clean rivers, hot springs, waterfalls and lakes. And monkeys! But more on the monkeys later.

The Shinkyo (Sacred) Bridge. Before there were roads connecting the town, the Sacred Bridge was the only way to cross the river to visit the temples built deep in the forest.

We stayed in a small, old fashioned ryokan which is like a bed and breakfast. The room was very lovely, with tatami mats, yukata robes for guests to wear, and an indoor onsen to soak your bones in the hot springs. The ryokan was also a stone's throw away from the temple area, and a very convenient location to explore the town.

A dragon fountain around the corner from the ryokan.

A typhoon had been hitting Japan for many days now, bringing with it an endless supply of rain and heavy clouds. And Nikko, being up in the mountains, was shrouded in a fine cloak of mist, adding to its mystical atmosphere.

The first afternoon was a bit of a bomb -- it was so misty and cloudy, we couldn't see anything! We took a bus to Lake Chuzenji and to try to visit the waterfalls, but it was so misty we could HEAR the waterfall, but see nothing. Disappointing. But while we were on the bus ride back, the funniest thing happened. I was looking out the window, and saw an old lady walking with a bag of groceries in her left hand. Just then, I saw a large, brown animal walking behind her. For a second I thought it was perhaps her dog trailing behind. But suddenly, the animal broke into a sprint, galloped up to the old lady, and snatched the bag of groceries out of her tiny hands, and with a flying leap, disappeared back into the forests. It was a wild monkey! Apparently the monkeys have become a nuisance in Nikko, even stealing food from the souvenier shops.

Anyways. Enough about the monkeys.

That evening we returned to the ryokan tired and hungry, and took a nice, long soak in the hot springs before enjoying dinner.

Above, clockwise from left, you see cold buckwheat soba noodles, some vegetable tempura, a meat stew (covered), grilled fish, yuba made from skimmed soy milk, a seaweed dish, and some pickled vegetables. I love ryokan food. You get a taste of everything.

After dinner and a few beers, we slept for nine hours, and awoke the next day ready to take a close look at the temples and shrines.

Walking towards the temple area.

What amazed me the most about Nikko was the level of detail and handiwork that was put into every aspect of the shrines and temples. It was mind blowing to see the fine wooden carvings, the metal decorations, the patterns and styles, the latticework, and of course, that distinctly Japanese way of creating balance and symmetry. In fact, I realized I spent so much time studying the details of the architecture, I barely took full frontal shots of the buildings!

Nikko has three main sights - the Rinnoji Temple, Futarasan Shrine, and the jewel in Nikko's crown is Toshogu Shrine. We spent about two hours looking at Toshogu alone because it was so detailed.

This is myself and Kyoko outside Rinnoji Temple, with the main building called Sanbutsudo - 'san' meaning '3' and 'butsu' meaning 'Buddha statue'. We were not allowed to take pictures of the phantasmagoric statues inside of the three giant gold Buddhas.

A metal design on a nearby bell, of a man seemingly talking to some fish. I believe this man may be Seiji's descendant.

After visiting Sanbutsudo, the next stop was Toshogu Shrine, which as I mentioned simply blew us both away. First of all it had quite strange colors, a lot of black, white and gold, which is unusual in Japan.

A distant view of Toshogu Shrine, framed by a stone torii (gate).

Say cheese! Posing in front of Toshogu.

One of the famous sights are the 'Three Monkeys' that represent the maxim 'Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil, See no Evil'.

But there are actually eight carved wooden panels here, that show the cycle of life. It starts with the baby monkey clinging to the mother monkey. As the baby grows up, it must learn the ways of the world of how to live an honorable life - how to avoid evil. During adolescence, the monkey looks into the future, unsure of its direction. It gets older, grows up, and looks for a wife. In the 7th panel, the monkey wins the love of the girl monkey, and the last panel shows the girl monkey pregnant, thus continuing the cycle of life.

Toshogu Shrine has carvings and decorations of over 26 different animals, many of them fantasy creatures. Travellers had returned to Japan, describing the strange animals they had seen overseas, such as elephants and giraffes. The artists back in Japan had never seen such things, so many of the animals they carved seem to be combinations of creatures.

The nemuri neko is also a famous animal, and as famous as the 3 Monkeys. It was surprisingly small, and hidden away atop a doorway. If the tour guide hadn't pointed it out, I doubt we would have found it on our own.

The final sight was Futarasan Shrine, built in 782 by the Buddhist monk who introduced Buddhism to Nikko. It is dedicated to the kami or mountain gods.

Visiting this shrine was quite surreal, as it is tucked away deep into the dense forest, with nothing but the sound of birds and running water in the background. Very few tourists were here, making it seem even more quiet and serene.

A god of the mountains protects the temple

Unfortunately we didn't have much more time, and we had to catch the 3 pm train back to Tokyo to make it home in the early evening. I was quite sad to leave Nikko, it was so peaceful and relaxing being there. The air smelt so fresh and clean, the sound of water was everywhere, and the world was bathed in green. I'm certainly glad I got the chance to go before I left Japan.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Good memories

Last night Seiji and I went to a Turkish restaurant in Ikebukuro called 'Antep', after a region in Turkey. I've been dying to introduce Seiji to the joys of Turkish cuisine but haven't had the chance until now. It was fantastic to eat Turkish food again after such a long time... stuffed green peppers... spicy tomato ezme... Turkish ekmek (bread)... and lahmacun, that cripsy thin baked pita break with minced lamb. It was simply divine. And it was great fun to talk what little Turkish I remember to the highly amused waitress and cooks as we drank a cold Efes beer.

As we sat there, surrounded by Turkish kilims that are the speciality of the town I used to live in, Sivas, with nargile water pipes on the shelves and the blue and yellow evil eyes hanging on the wall, I was flooded with all these memories of those strange six months I spent in the mountains of Central Anatolia. The song of the call to prayer echoing through the cold streets... people walking down the road with steaming lahmacun fresh from the baker wrapped up in newspaper... sipping tiny cups of cay (tea) after a wonderfully cheap and satisfying meal... the smell of doner wafting from the kebap shops, and of course, the emotional quality of Turkish music that makes you want to dance while also envoking tears. Sitting there in the restaurant I was really taken back to my time in Sivas, and I sincerely hope that one day soon I will return to Turkey again.

Just as we were rubbing our bellies in post-meal satisfaction, we couldn't help but to observe the silently dramatic episode that was taking place at the table next to us. The tension hovering over that table was so thick you could cut it with a knife. I'm sure even the waitress was aware of it.

A young Turkish man was sitting with his pretty Japanese girlfriend, and across the table were the boy's parents. They had that look in their eyes of being completely out of their element - strangers in a strange land, probably right out of a small traditional town like Sivas, visiting their son living in the weird world that is Tokyo. The dad was a typical looking Turkish dude, white beard, waistcoat, small pot belly, black cap on his head, cigarette in hand. And his mom was definitely the typical Turkish lady, in a loose fitting dress and a flowery head scarf draped over her head, her wrinkly face unable to hide the worry she was obviously experiencing.

Sure, interracial relationships can be stressful, especially if religion is a major issue, but we couldn't figure out exactly why it was so tense. It was obvious to us that he was introducing his Japanese girlfriend to his parents for the very first time, which must be a strange experience for all of them... but still, it seemed unnecessarily tense at the table. The son stood up and took his father to the nearby bathroom, leaving the Japanese girl to sit nervously with the traditional Turkish mom, neither making eye contact, and both probably unable to communicate two words. We felt really bad for the Japanese girl.

It was only when the son and father returned to the table and they all stood to leave the restaurant that we realized the real reason for the high level of tension... as the Japanese girl stood up and turned to the side to pick up her handbag, we saw the delicate curve of a little pregnant belly under her loose black blouse. No wonder they were all under such stress. The boy's parents are probably thinking what a disaster it is that their precious boy child has knocked up a Japanese girl, a woman from half way across the world who doesn't speak the language or understand the culture or religion. They were probably counting on him returning to Turkey in the future. And who knows what would happen now?

Perhaps the boy are girl are deeply in love, or maybe it was just an accident. Maybe he is marrying this girl. Maybe he will return to Turkey with his parents and never return to Tokyo. Or maybe he'll defy tradition and stay in Tokyo with his girlfriend, and raise a very cute half-Turk half-Jap kid. We watched the family leave the restaurant and walk down the street below, the Japanese girl looking sadly uncomfortable, the parents looking around bug-eyed at the neon city, and we were left there to wonder what would happen to all of them later that night.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

In the bag

Japanese people are apparently not big fans of condoms, but they have this strange and annoying habit of putting absolutely everything in plastic bags. This is definitely one of my pet peeves about life in Tokyo!

Imagine you go to the bakery, and want four sausage rolls. The checking lady will automatically put EACH and EVERY one of those sausage rolls into four separate plastic bags, and then put those four individual bags into another bigger bag, and seal that bag shut with a piece of tape. It drives me absolutely insane! Why do they have to be in separate bags? They're all the bloody same! What an incredible waste of plastic! And how unnecessary! Does every single cookie need to be in its own hermetically sealed bag and then put into another bag? Does every rice cracker need to be individually wrapped? What is up with Japanese people and their packaging obsession?

According to my friend, the Japanese package everything to keep food products impenetrable and clean. This is especially handy when it comes to sharing, because instead of having a bunch of dirty fingers poking in a bag for a cookie, everyone gets their own packaged cookie. As I've mentioned before, people are insanely clean here, except for the strange and revolting city-wide habit that grown men seem to have of digging their noses in great depth on the train. It's quite horrendous!

Anyways! Nose picking aside... back to my bag gripe.

When I go shopping I always try to take bags with me so that I don't end up with a bag FULL of other bags. Yesterday I went to the bakery to buy some bread or some buns, and I went to the cashier and asked her to please put all of them into one bag. I swear to you this chick looks at me like I am freakin insane. Issho ni, onegaishimasu! I say to her with a polite smile. Issho ni? she replies in astonishment. Yes! All together please! Everything together! IN... ONE... BAG! What a revolutionary concept! The cashier reluctantly put them into one bag and handed it to me, and I went on my way. I put my bag of buns into my other grocery bag.

Then, I went downstairs and put all my grocery bags into the basket of my bicycle and unlocked my bike. As I did so, my bag of bread toppled right over, out of the bigger grocery bag, and my poor little buns fell onto the dirty, wet street. The little old ladies walking past me all shook their heads and made that 'tsk tsk' sound, as in, 'stupid gaijin... why didn't she have them in proper bags?'

The moral of the story? When in Rome... do as the Romans, and don't question their customs!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

New beginnings

Tomorrow is the big day -- the day that I officially become part of Tokyo's corporate world. Starting from tomorrow I will become one of 'The Suits', the nameless, faceless, black-suited mass of worker bees that run like hell through the train station as though their life depends on it. I'm excited but also nervous! Rush hour in this city can be overwhelming, and the stories about 'chikan' or 'perverts' on the train grabbing your bamsee during the morning commute are world famous. That's why in the morning, they have the Women Only train compartments. I know which compartment I'll be lining up for tomorrow!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Kanji of the Day

Now that it has been decided that I am definitely staying in Tokyo for at least another year (if things go well with the new job), I have really got to buckle down and get my rear in gear with this whole language learning business. To live and succeed here, I simply must learn, speak, and read more Japanese.

When I first arrived in Japan I studied quite a lot. The first thing I learned how to do was to read hiragana and katakana. These are the Japanese phonetic alphabet, which means that one 'letter' corresponds to one 'sound' and follows an order and style, such as 'ka ki ku ke ko', then 'sa shi su se so', and so forth.

Here's hiragana -

And katakana -

The funny thing about these alphabets is that hiragana is only used for Japanese words, while katakana is used for foreign words. This means that, for example, the word 'samurai' is written in hiragana, but 'Coca Cola' is written in katakana. This can sometimes make reading a sentence easier, but sometimes it makes it worse because the foreign word is written phonetically in Japanese pronunciation. For example, on the train, you might see this word:


which says 'ba-re-bo-ru'. Even though it may be a word you know, you may stand there scratching your head, thinking, 'what the heck is ba-re-bo-ru?' (volleyball). So when it comes to katakana, you have to start thinking in the Japanese accent!

The toughest part about learning Japanese - but the most crucial part - is learning kanji. Kanji are the Chinese symbols that that Japanese stole and incorporated into their own language ages ago. They are complex and number in the thousands. I see my students practicing writing these complex symbols over and over and over again. It's been said that you need to read over 1000 kanji just to understand a newspaper. So, I've got a looooong way to go.

Even though learning kanji is so daunting and at times seems almost impossible to get a grip of, I have made a pact with myself that every day I will try to learn two kanji symbols, because I doubt that it is possible to remember a bigger group and I would rather not put too much on my plate. Baby steps.

I can read a few kanji already... such as the days of the week... (yes, I am a dirty internet thief, I apologize).

These symbols are meant to represent the elements of the earth.

Sunday - nichiyobi - SUN
Monday - getsuyobi - MOON
Tuesday - kayobi - FIRE
Wednesday - suiyobi - WATER
Thursday - mokuyobi - WOOD
Friday - kinyobi - GOLD
Saturday - doyobi - EARTH

And I know the basics of numbers...

So today's Two Kanji of the Day is to further my knowledge of numbers by including the following:

千 = 1000

万 = 10,000

Like I said, baby steps!

But it is not hopeless. Recently I met a guy who told me that for his entire first year here, he never studied, and couldn't even read the phonetic alphabets, and could barely speak. During this second year in Japan he started studying, and now he is entirely fluent. So, maybe within a year I'll have the hang of this language after all.