the dam bursts

weill in japan: day 24

The halfway point of my trip to Japan has come and gone. There's just three weeks left. There's still a lot to see and do in this country, and I certainly won't be able to see it all in such a short time. That said, after a light workload through most of this week in class, the professor officially gave us the assignment I personally had been dreading. (I was originally going to write that she "dropped the bomb," but I have to be sensitive about that here.)

Over the past few days, we've been studying surveys. Either Japanese newspapers put a lot of faith in surveys, or Japanese professors just love to study them. Both here and back in Pittsburgh, we have used surveys repeatedly both as reading passages and as projects. Today, we were instructed to construct brief surveys, compile them into one large survey, and -- here's the kicker -- conduct the survey this weekend. At first I thought she wanted us to interview 50 people this weekend, but I later learned that the class as a whole should interview that many. People in the dorms either have to ask each other, ask random people on the street in Tokyo, or just make up the data. I plan on asking the four people in my homestay family, regardless of how useful their answers may be. (The survey is supposedly targeted towards college students; my parents and older brothers are all college graduates.)

That wasn't the most humiliating part of today. During the first hour, we reviewed facts that we learned from talking to local residents yesterday. We were instructed to write three interesting facts or places down on colored paper. Today, we took those papers, cut them up, decorated them with colored pencils and markers, and taped them to a large oak tag sheet.

I know I shouldn't even be asking these sorts of questions any more, but why the fuck are college students doing this? This is the sort of activity that I did in elementary school without protest, in middle school with disdain, and in high school with scorn. In college, it's widely understood that these busy-work exercises teach students nothing about the material, and nothing about art. They exist in primary and secondary schools to make pretty visual aids to show off the class. Parents in particular like to see these sorts of displays. My parents are 7,000 miles away, and they could care less about some oak tag poster. Just because I thought nobody would believe that we really did such a pointless exercise, I took a couple of photographs of the experience. Pure idiocy.

We also got our guide to the midterm today right as class was ending. Scheduled for next Thursday, the test is evil. It runs for three hours from 8:30 AM to 11:30 AM, covers the three chapters we've done so far in their entirety, includes two interview-style conversations based exclusively on the content we've studied (no original thought permitted), and will likely be no more lenient than the strictly-graded hour-long "quizzes" that we've taken so far. I guess that I'll need to study. In an unusual twist, the day after the midterm will be used to go on a field trip to Harajuku as a class. Every class will take a day-long field trip after their midterm.

deliver me from class

Fortunately, it is still Friday. I couldn't sort out plans for tonight, so I went to a local restaurant with my father and older brothers. The restaurant is nondescript except for the large beer tanks in the front, and featured a huge menu with just about every kind of Japanese food available. I'm pretty sure that one of the appetizers that I tried was nankotsu, deep-fried chicken breast cartilage. This proves that I will eat most anything if it is breaded and deep-fried beyond recognition. Nankotsu tastes vaguely like chicken but is very tough. I can't say that I'd like to eat it agin.

The skies are lighting up: Tokyo's fireworks season got underway last night. There's a huge hanabi no matsuri (fireworks festival) tomorrow near historic Asakusa, and I hope to go if I can sort out plans with my friends.

I love how many take-out places are so specialized here. Near Mitaka station, I passed by a fried pork shop, a spaghetti shop, and a noodle shop before settling for a lunch box of fried tempura. I made the mistake of ordering from the take-out window and then coming inside to eat, confusing the wait staff who confusedly brought me a tray on which to place my styrofoam take-out container. If tipping at restaurants were acceptable in Japan, I'd have left them a couple hundred yen for their trouble.


Sighting: Pornography vending machines. I had heard much of them before coming, but I went 3 1/2 weeks without seeing one. They're only available at night, and are covered up during the day. Each machine sells a few books and videos for ¥2000 (about $17) each. It's the most expensive machine that I've seen in Japan, just beating out a soccer ball machine which costs ¥1800 ($15.40) for one deflated ball. I haven't bought anything from these machines yet, nor do I plan to. It's just nice to know that porn vending machines exist for the consumer who would rather not deal with humans or credit cards when purchasing their special-interest viewing materials.

ICU has a cheerleading squad, consisting of about 12 halfway decent-looking gals who look like they're barely old enough to be in high school. They're not very coordinated, from what I've seen of them, but they at least provide something to look at while I wait for the bus. Go Angels!

If you'd rather spend money on something more fulfilling, unagi (broiled eel) is at its best. I've enjoyed it a couple of times while here; a good-sized portion over rice costs around ¥1000 ($8.50).

Although I've put my trust in soy sauce and Tabasco pretty much anywhere, Japan offers dozens of other spices, sauces, and other condiments at the table. Among the weirdest: many coffee drinkers forego powdered sugar in favor of a very thick clear sugar syrup. The syrup is sweet enough to make me forget about all the poisonous chemicals it contains.

That little USB memory device I bought is worth its weight in gold. Today in the computer lab, I was able to compile three groups' worth of documents by merely inserting the cigarette lighter-sized device into the computer lab Macs' keyboards. Very cool. According to one of my classmates, a local convenience store sells similar devices with a lesser capacity.

Toy: At a local camera shop, I tried out a Sony device which accepts a memory stick and prints business card-size photos. The device is barely larger than the camera itself: only the small paper tray protrudes while the printer is in use. It's really cool, but the price is a turn-off. I can't afford to drop another ¥22,000 ($188) on a device I won't use much, especially since many companies make 4- by 6-inch prints of digital photos for 30 to 50 cents each plus a small shipping charge. That's about the same price as it would cost to print photos at home using special glossy paper and ink. The Sony printer's ink and paper aren't cheap either, and I doubt that I can buy them in the U.S.

There's a busy weekend of studying and busy-work ahead, to be followed by a week that will start out boring, become insane, and end with relaxation. We'll see how things pan out.