Tag Archives: Japan

The Japan Trip, Part 3

Friday, our first day completely on our own. Admittedly, I was a little worried about navigating the Tokyo subway system before I came to Japan. It’s complexity and the number of people that move through it are legendary. That said, with it being Japanese, it is incredibly well documented. I’ve lived in Washington DC, New York City, and spend a good deal of time in Boston, so I’m used to dealing with public transit systems. Granted, the Tokyo Metro was nothing to sneeze at, but as I mentioned before, it was INCREDIBLY well documented. Did I mention that the signs were in English as well as Japanese? As I can read a map, it wasn’t too much trouble for me. Also worth noting is the surprise the production staff expressed later when I told them I navigated the subway on my own. Needless to say, I was the navigator for our group.

We went all over Tokyo that day. We went to Ueno shrine, back to Akihabara, Shibuya, Shinjuku. Took a lot of pictures, ate ramen, went to bookstores, manga/anime shops. In Akihabara we went to this shop called Mandarake. I thank God that I didn’t have more money when I went there otherwise I would have spent all of it. I actually didn’t buy too much while I was out there, was on a bit of a budget at the time. However, the next time I make it back it will not be pretty. Believe that.

Mandarake was cool because it was essentially an otaku shop. I don’t know if that’s what they call them over there, but that’s what I’m gonna say about it. They had everything an anime and video game nerd like myself could want. Manga, video games, anime, figures. Lots of figures. There were a couple things I wanted to buy, would have bought had I the money, but it’s probably better I didn’t. Also got to play a test cabinet for Ultra Street Fighter IV. Just talking about it makes me miss it.

That night we went out to Roppongi. My biggest regret on my trip to Japan is that I didn’t go out there sooner. Roppongi has a bit of a reputation as the place where a lot of foreigners in Japan gather, and that is well deserved. Roppongi also has a reputation for other things as well, none of which I’ll repeat here. Look it up. Roppongi was cool though, it was nice to be able to talk in English for a bit, and I met a bunch of cool people. Going back I’m definitely going to have to hit up Ginza. I wanted to this trip, but I got a little nervous because I wasn’t supremely confident in my Japanese. So I stuck to Roppongi my remaining two nights.

Saturday, I spent on my own. Looking back I kind of regret this decision. Joey and Antonio(the German and Italian guys) were really cool dudes and it would have been nice to spend that last day with them. The past couple of weeks had been an incredible emotional whirlwind for me. My grandfather had just passed, and then immediately after that I find out I’m going to Japan. A thing that I have wanted to do for the greater part of a decade. I suppose on that last day I just wanted to be alone with my thoughts and kind of process everything that had happened to me and how that would impact my future from there. So I suppose I needed it, but I still feel bad for spurning Joey a bit.

Needless to say I spent most of the day in Akihabara, and the night in Roppongi. I did stop by the Meiji-jingumae, a temple not too far from my hotel. (One of the shrine maidens was nice enough to let me take her picture!) There is this weird fusion of old and new in Japan. In Tokyo at the least. You would be walking through this developed metropolitan area, multi-story building, multi-lane street, and -BAM! Temple right in the middle of it. It’s almost jarring. What’s even more jarring is that it’s not the temple that is out of place, but the buildings. I mean, the temple was there first, right? I really like that aspect of Tokyo, though. That there were this places that were set apart. That even inside this metropolitan behemoth, there were spaces that still held some semblance of…being set apart. Nice economy of space they’ve got going over there.

Sunday was breakfast and then on to the airport. One of the television station staff picked me up from the hotel and took me to the airport. We got there early so we chatted a bit before my flight. Throughout the trip they felt a bit more like handlers, which I suppose they were. However, they were really nice. When I think about it, everyone was. I suppose that’s a difficult thing about Japanese culture. Since there is so much work put into the appearance and maintaining the proper order of things, it’s is hard to tell what a Japanese person is really thinking. At least for me anyway.

Looking back, the trip was over as quickly as it began. Six days was not enough for me to be out there. However I am extremely grateful to TBS, my meetup group, the production staff, Okamura-san, my fellow “tourists”, my family, my friends, and everyone else who facilitated/supported my trip to Japan. It was an amazing, life defining experience for which I am truly grateful. I used to be angry at myself for not having gone to Japan sooner, but how that trip played out was the perfect experience for my first trip to Japan and could not have imagined a better experience.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

The Japan Trip, Part 2

Breakfast behind us, we headed back to the car and Okamura-san drove us toward our next destination. Before entering the car, the producers instructed me to ask Okamura-san about a couple of…colorful subjects on the ride over for laughs. (Apparently, it was going to be a late-night show.) I will say judging by the laughs from the staff in the van in front of us, they went over quite well. As this is not a late-night blog, I’ll leave the actual subject matter to those that actually manage to view the program. Again, good luck.

I’m not exactly sure what district of Tokyo we went to next, but by our proximity to the Tokyo Skytree, I assume it was in or near Asakusa. Again, as soon as we headed toward our destination, another group of children followed us. This time, the production assistants did a better job of keeping them back. So no flag-swatting from Okamura-san this time. We stopped at this nice shop, where inside we did calligraphy on large pieces of paper that we made into lanterns. The old school Japanese calligraphy, with the brush and ink. This was actually my first time using a brush to write Japanese characters, but I think I did okay.

Next was the most surprising leg of the trip(more than the still-breathing fish). Okamura-san then took us to a sentou, or bath-house. A Japanese public bath. This was a bit much for me, but again I had resolved myself early that day to roll with whatever came my way. So on I rolled. We later found out that this was the part of the day that the staff was most worried about. There was concern that we wouldn’t go through with it. Actually one of us didn’t. (I think he was a little shy.) The German guy(Joey) and myself decided to forge ahead. In spite of the shock value, looking back the entire experience was rather cool. At the time, I was so simultaneous blown away and embarrassed I was shooting daggers at the camera and director the entire time. I was not pleased.

So we removed our shoes and then our clothes, and put on towels. I had to politely request another towel as the one they had provided was a bit small. As much as these type places are built on ambiance and atmosphere, I have to admit that a little was lost with a dozen people(camera crew, director, translator, assistants, etc…) in there with our nearly-naked selves. They way a sentou works is that there are about a dozen or so floor level faucets in the front of the room. And the actual hot water bath in the back. (And that water is HOT…but more on that later.)  You take some of the hot water from the bath, rinse yourself off, and then enter the bathtub for a moment. You then exit the bathtub sit on these small stools in front of the floor faucets, and wash yourself off properly with soap and water, and rinse. Once clean, you then get into the bath and soak. A bit much for the uninitiated.

So we rinse, and then sit down to wash, the 3 of us in a line. Myself, Joey, and Okamura-san. Between the look on my face, and the general absurdity of the situation, most everyone is fighting back giggles and snickers. I can understand a couple of jokes being thrown around, then the suggestion is made that we should wash each others backs. So we all turn to the right, and I wash Joey’s back, then we all turn to the left and Joey washes my back. Apparently this was the funniest thing ever.

Now that we’re all good and washed, we get into the actual bath. A thing to note about Japanese baths, that water is freaking hot. Like super hot. I think they have perfected the temperature just below scalding human flesh. Immediately when I step into the bath, the hotness of the water is impressed upon me. So of course I start cursing profusely.  “S***! This water is hot!” Repeat about 6 times. The production crew got a pretty good kick out of that one as well. So after I normalize somewhat, I have to admit that the experience was pretty cool. Also, my body felt fantastic after. Our translator remarked that he had never been to a sentou. Actually, looking back on the experiences of that day, I am extremely grateful. A lot of those experiences would have been difficult to do on my own and to do all of that in one day was an amazing experience.

A trope which just about anyone who’s watched a decent amount of anime is familiar with, is what happens after characters(usually women) go to a bath or a hot spring. After exiting the bath area, we return to the changing area, where Okamura-san points out a small refrigerator with various juices and fruity milk drinks. So with our towels still on, we choose a drink(Joey and I both opted for the strawberry milk), place one hand on our hip, and with the other down the drink in (almost) one gulp. I’ve seen a similar scene in about 3 animes I can think of off the top of my head, so even I was laughing at this point. Dried off and on to the next(and last) locale.

The last place we went was a small traditional restaurant, where we made okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a Japanese dish that I would describe as a cross between a pancake and an omelet. At some restaurants, the ingredients are provided and you cook it yourself, which is how the restaurant we visited worked. It is also at this establishment that the relative smallness of locales in Tokyo was again impressed upon me. I banged my head pretty hard on the entryway, which I’m pretty sure they caught on camera. (Ouch.) My pride thoroughly shattered, we entered the restaurant. It was cramped to say the least, but still very nice.

They brought the ingredients for the okonomiyaki(and beer), and Okamura-san proceeded to teach us how to prepare the meal. The tables we sat at had a heated plate(flat griddle, I guess?) in the middle, so all we had to do was mix the ingredients together well and pour it on the plate. Not terribly complicated, but it was still pretty cool. There was a definite charm to it. Of all the things I ate in Japan(admittedly most of it was konbini food), this was definitely my favorite. Okamura-san was still ribbing us through the meal, making sure to give Antonio(the Italian guy) grief for not going into the bath. Comments were made about the speed at which I was drinking the beer. I was pretty thirsty, in my defense.

Once we finished the meal, we were informed that there was one more thing Okamura-san wanted to show us. However, due to it being rainy and overcast in Tokyo that day, we wouldn’t be able to see it. Apparently, there is this phenomenon in Tokyo that only happens in Tokyo twice a year. When the sun sets, it looks like it is going directly into Mount Fuji.  He was visibly distraught at this, but he was kind enough to bring along a picture of it. It was at this point that we presented Okamura-san with souvenirs from our home countries that we had been asked to bring. I gave him a miniature trolley car, because of my proximity to San Francisco, wrapped in the paper I had requested the day before.

We wrapped up the show by giving remarks on our thoughts of the day. It was absolutely a positive experience, through they threw quite a few curveballs at us. As I said before, as the day went on, even with all the jokes I really had to appreciate the opportunities and the experiences from that day.  It would have taken a lot off effort(and money) to replicate the day on my own, so I was(and still am) extremely grateful for the opportunity.

Shooting finished early, so we had a decent amount of time left. We(the four of us foreigners) immediately persuaded our translator to guide us to Akihabara. Akihabara is the anime/manga/video game/tech district in Tokyo. Those that know me know that such a place, for me, might as well be holy ground.  The four of us were all into anime and video games in some regard, and Akihabara was number one on all of our destination lists. At the first opportunity we were going there, and that opportunity had just presented itself.

Akihabara was amazing, a sensory overload. Very cramped as well, but at this point I really didn’t care. Shops with all sorts of miniature models and games, multi-floor game centers, it was all cooler than I had imagined. I’m a real big fan of video game arcades, but you see them less and less in the US these days. I suppose the culture has shifted. However, they are still very much active in Japan, and some of the best are in Akihabara. It goes without saying that every remaining day I spent in Japan I went to Akihabara for some part of the day.

That evening was pretty pedestrian, the four of us ended up walking around Akasaka a bit, but as it turns out there weren’t too many places open at night that district. As I found out later, the place to go late night in Japan is either Ginza or Roppongi, but again, more on that later. The Italian girl was flying out the next day as she had to be be back for school stuff, so we all decided to hang out that night. The remaining three of us were sticking around until Sunday.

The Japan Trip, Part 1

2014-01-29 20.40.17Ok, so this is kinda related, right? Japan is high-techy.

So for those of you that aren’t aware, I recently had the opportunity to travel to Tokyo, Japan. As I keep getting asked, “How was it?” I figured that I might as well blog about it in the hopes that it might save me one or two retellings. (It probably won’t)

So the reason for my trip to Japan was to appear on a Japanese television show, “Okamura Japanese Tourist.” The show was hosted by Takashi Okamura, a very famous Japanese comedian. I didn’t realize how famous until I got to Japan. I don’t want to spend to much time on the how and why of it, but essentially I was forwarded an email by a friend regarding an opportunity to appear on this program last December. I submitted myself for it, along with a questionnaire and a short video. About 4 weeks ago, I was contacted and informed that I had been selected to go to Japan. About 10 days notice, I think.

We’ll also skip all the hoops I had to jump through to facilitate my exit from this country…on Tuesday, January 28th at about 11:00PM I arrived in Japan at Haneda airport. A couple of representatives from the television agency were there to pick me up, and promptly carried me to my hotel. I was given ample time to practice my Japanese on the taxi ride over, as I think my Japanese was better than their English.

2014-01-29 00.30.36After checking in to my hotel in Tokyo, I finally got the key to my closet room. Seriously, this room was small. It doesn’t help that I’m 6’6″ either. My immediate though when entering was, “Where is the rest of it?” A bit of a shock, honestly. Though this was my first visit to Japan, I’d like to think I am not unfamiliar with Japanese culture. As I found out many times during this trip, there is a big difference between reading about a place and actually being there. Also, I don’t think there is another city in the world like Tokyo, so I had to keep that in mind as well.

One more bit about the hotel room. the toilet was freaking awesome. Heated seat, water that shot up(at 3 different settings!) and…well you get the idea. If you don’t, go google Japanese toilets. It was awesome. probably the thing I miss most about the country. Seriously, when I make my first million, I’m getting one of those suckers imported. The shower was pretty cool as well, other than the fact that I had to squat a bit in the shower because I was taller than the spigot. Heck, sometimes I have to do that here in America! So, I wasn’t really upset about that. The room was small but the toilet more than made up for it.

I pretty much slept till about 1 the next day(Wednesday). I did wake up for breakfast(and go immediately back to sleep after). Nothing too out of the ordinary, at least by Japanese standards I think. Scrambled eggs, rice, sausages, miso soup, fish, croissants. Meeting with the TV producers at 5, so I figured I’d take a little walk. My hotel was in a district of Tokyo called Akasaka. From what I could tell, it looked like a good mix of business and residential. I don’t have much to say about the walk. Saw my first konbini. For the unschooled, konbini are Japanese convenience stores. Somewhat similar to what we have here, though konbini are quite a bit more expansive. They sell food, and that food is cheap and GOOD! I primarily ate at konbini while in Japan. I was on a tight budget, but I do not regret the decision. If you should go to Japan, and find yourself in a konbini, get the chicken. You will not be dissapointed!

We met with the producers at 5, inside of the broadcasting station headquarters that was literally right across the street from my hotel. I say “we” because I was not the only person selected for the show. There was an Italian young woman and man, a German guy, and my American self. Ages spanned from early to late 20’s, four of us total. A funny thing I’ve come to notice is that I always feel more American when I travel outside of the country.  Maybe It’s that national pride kicking in or something.

I think the entire experience didn’t become real to me until we entered that TV station. The TV station was grand, very large lobby. As cramped as everything else in Tokyo was, I noticed that the office buildings were impressively spacious. Maybe some cultural aspect there I don’t fully understand. The last thing of note about the lobby was the reception desk, where about 6 Japanese female receptionists sat. All very pretty of course. I don’t know why that struck me so, I suppose it seemed so stereotypically Japanese it hurt. The perfect immaculate facade presented. I knew enough about Japanese culture to expect it, but I suppose it actual practice you expect there to be a little deviation from the supposed ideal. In Japan this is not the case. It appeared to me that presentation is of the utmost importance, a theme I saw repeated during my trip.

The meeting with the producers was interesting. After passing through that lobby, signing in, getting out visitor badges, I finally started to get nervous. “I’m actually in Japan. This is a real thing that’s happening. Holy s***!”  The staff was awesome though. The meeting was pretty much an check-in and overview. They had asked us to bring a couple of things, Tokyo travel guide, souvenir for Okamura-san, a couple of other things. Earlier I had asked for wrapping paper for my souvenir, as I remembered that wrapping of presents was pretty important in Japanese culture, and I wanted to be mindful of that as best I could. In retrospect I don’t think it mattered that much, but I got wrapping paper and a set of scissors out of the deal. The producer also asked questions about us, why we were interested in Japanese, how long we had been studying, what we liked about Japanese culture, and so on. At this point please note, unless I’ve said otherwise these conversations are happening in Japanese, so that adds another layer of stress to the exchange. Granted, we had an interpreter, but he let us try our own hand as best we could. My Japanese still has a ways to go, but I did okay.

After the meeting, they bought us dinner. I believe this was to make us sleepy so we wouldn’t go out that night and possibly be tired for shooting the next day. I impressed them with my beer-quaffing skills, but that’s a story for another time… After the dinner the four of us foreigners walked around Akasaka for a bit, but it was pretty much dead after 9. I later found out that Roppongi or Ginza was the place to be late at night, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself…

2014-01-30 07.14.42Thursday, the day of filming. They herded us into a van at about 6 in the morning and carted us off to an undisclosed location. All of the film crew was pretty mum about what we were going to do that day, as they wanted to preserve the surprise for us. We stayed in the van for awhile, about 30-45 minutes or so. It took us about 20 minutes to look out the window and realize we were at the base of Tokyo Tower. *facepalm* A little after sunrise, we got were mic-ed up and hung out in front of the tower to await Okamura-san. We, of course decided to pass the time taking ridiculous pictures. Please note, anything I describe after this point was most likely caught on film, as they filmed EVERYTHING.

Okamura-san comes up with a little bit of fanfare, introduces himself, and then has us introduce ourselves and do the embarrassing thing we did for our submittal video. For the sake of my pride, I will not share what I did for mine, so if you want to know, you’ll have to find the show in Japanese. Good luck. After introductions were out of the way, we then hopped into a car(complete with video cameras) that Okamura-san drove to our next destination. The production car drove in front of us, giving Okamura-san cues and directing some of the banter on the way to our destination.

2014-01-30 08.48.55The first stop was at some sort of market. Honestly, I still don’t know where we were. I should probably research that. As we made our way through this market, I began to realize how famous Okamura-san was. I could hear people saying(translated from Japanese obviously), “Wow is that Okamura-san?” “That’s Okamura-san, wow!” Stuff like that. And then there were the schoolchildren. Once one kid saw him, told his bud, next thing we know we have 50 Japanese kids following us. I think that it is a custom with shows like this for the host to carry a small flag with the name of the program on it. One kid got a little too close and Okamura-san swatted at him with the flag. Hilarious.

2014-01-30 09.09.12As this was a market, there were all sorts of food about. I had made up my mind as this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I was going to roll with whatever they threw as best I could. So yes, I ate a lot of weird things. Most, I don’t even know what they were, and I think that’s for the better. Umeboshi, dried squid, some type of scrambled egg thing, raw oyster, I went along with at best I could. Most to the chagrin of my tummy. Finally we reached our destination! A restaurant, that served sushi among other things, from what I could tell.

2014-01-30 09.32.41 So the first thing I noticed about this restaurant that there were two very large fish tanks behind the counter. We were seated, then Okamura-san said something I didn’t understand to the person behind the counter. What happened next was the first of many shocks of the day. Said individual then proceeds to grab a net, pull a fish out, gut it, slice him up, and put him on a plate. All directly in our view. So now I have a fish in front of me, that less than 2 minutes ago was swimming minding his business. A little too fresh for me. Mind you, this fish was so fresh that his severed head was still breathing. At this point I lost it. I am freaking out. I was told I squealed. I don’t think so, but if I did, I’m sure it will make the final cut of the show.

2014-01-30 09.35.43I actually did eat the fish, and truthfully it wasn’t that bad. That said, I don’t think I’ll be ordering it on subsequent trips to Japan. Compared to the lead-off, the rest of the meal was pretty pedestrian. A few pieces of sushi and some natto. Natto, for the unschooled, is made from fermented soybeans, and are quite popular with some Japanese. It also smells horrible. Natto was one of those things that I wanted to eat once just to try it and experience it. I will not be eating it again.