weill in japan: day 04
I think I might be getting used to this whole Japan thing.
Without any school obligations today, I was free to do as I pleased. A
couple of new adventures and several thousand yen later, I'm back at home.
It's good to be back.
meet my family
I don't know how I've gone through three updates
July 4, and
July 5) without introducing my host family
and describing my accomodations. My host family consists of two parents and
four children, although two of the children are away. One of my brothers is
working in Kyoto, while the youngest child -- Rei, a 19-year-old college
student -- is spending her summer abroad in America. As I've mentioned before,
I don't see too much of my other two siblings due to their late-skewing
schedules. This evening I got to sit down for dinner with Toshi and his
girlfriend, but I've still only seen Kei once as he popped his head into the
My homestay is set in a small but comfortable house in Suginami-ku. The
first floor has an almost-impossibly-small garage, the genkan (entry
room where shoes are stored), the "piano room" holding a grand (!) and upright piano, the kitchen which also contains the clothes washer and dryer, my host
father's office, and a full bathroom. On the second floor is a sink, toilet,
my bedroom, the tatami room, and bedrooms for my parents and brothers.
Everything is small, but I don't feel claustrophobic about any of it. The
hardest part is getting around Nene, our golden retriever, who sits guarding
the genkan at all times.
Because space and energy are expensive in Japan, everything is designed to
take up as little of both as possible in the home. For example, my host
family has two Sony Trinitron TVs that would be considered luxury items in the
U.S., but their relatively low cost and small size make them preferable for
Japanese homes. Many refrigerators, including the American-made GE fridge in
our kitchen, have a cutout in the door to access beverages and other small
items without swinging the whole side open and wasting cold air. Air
conditioners are about half as tall as their American counterparts and run
much quieter. PCs are much smaller, from so-called "slimtop" home computers
down to miniscule laptops like the Sony VAIO U series and the Toshiba Libretto.
Cars are built smaller to use less gasoline (about $2.50-$3.00 a gallon here)
but that doesn't stop families from buying the occasional minivan or luxury
My host family has been tolerant of my Japanese so far, and I've offered
to help out with their English where possible. Sometimes, mistakes completely
alter the intent of a sentence. When explaining that I was full after dinner,
I offered "Zenbu taberareru mono o tabemashita," for what I thought
was "I have eaten everything that I can eat." However, that second "I" isn't
implicit like I thought it was, so it came out as "I have eaten everything that
is edible." The word "I" is almost never explicit in Japanese, so these
sorts of slipups are possible.
My host mother is best described as "multitalented." In addition to raising
four children, she also runs a baking class, prepares meals, and teaches
children at a nearby juku (cram school) once a week.
Odd moment tonight: after dinner, we were watching a baseball game on TV.
All of a sudden, my host mother reaches into a bag and starts asking me if I
like toumorokoshi. Not knowing what that word means, I ask if she knows
the English translation. "Kon" she says, with a long 'o', which sounds
like "cone." Cone? Koan? Kona? It's "corn," as she pulls an ear out of the
bag. I pronounce it the English way and have a nice laugh as everyone in the
room tries to mimic my exaggerated 'r' sound. The corn was fine, although
(1) we ate it about an hour after dinner, and (2) my host mother has the
unusual habit of manually pulling the kernels off the cob and eating them or
distributing them, while my host father eats corn like I've seen most Americans
do -- straight off the cob. Was it dessert? I don't think so, but it was
more japanese fun
Today I finally got to Akihabara, Tokyo's "Electric Town," and I was not
disappointed by what I saw. I did forget my passport, forfeiting my
tax refund on purchases of more than 10,000 yen, but that didn't sour my trip
too much. The first department store is accessible from the station platform,
and so I was able to browse shelves of toys, games, and other fun things even
before reaching street level. Leaving the station at ground level, bright
neon colors burst from everywhere, brightly advertising what is on each floor
of department stores that stretch eight or more levels up. Many of the large
stores have escalators up, but only stairs and slow-moving elevators down,
to seemingly discourage people from leaving right away. In addition to the
department stores, where I got a few small things to send out, there are also
countless stalls along the streets: some legit, some not. Most of the stores
are open to negotiation, but I didn't feel like negotiating over anything
today. There were some prices that were just silly, like a posted price of
¥10,000 ($83.33) for a bootleg 40-in-one Game Boy Advance cartridge. I
remember my friends in elementary school and middle school had similar carts
for the NES, which they
got from similar stalls in Flushing, a neighborhood in Queens, N.Y. Only
stupid tourists would pay more than $80 to get several semi- to non-working
games hacked into a cartridge that could potentially damage a game console.
The trip wasn't a total bust: in addition to some postcards and a World Cup
pin (all World Cup goods are discounted now), I picked up an electronic dictionary on the street for ¥10,000. It was on sale from ¥14,800, and
also features handwriting recognition. It's not as advanced as some of the
other dictionaries I saw, which ranged in price from ¥5000 ($41.67) to
well over ¥40,000 ($333.33), but it should help me get through this summer.
I plan to sell it to someone on campus in the fall since I won't be taking any
more Japanese language courses.
If you've ever played the game "Shenmue" or been in an American
supermarket, you've seen capsule vending machines. For ¥100 (in Shenmue;
about 20 cents by the 1986 exchange rate) or 25 to 50 cents in the U.S today,
you get a little toy in a plastic bubble. The toys don't do anything and are
typically cheap plastic trinkets, but might calm down a crying young child.
Akihabara features rows after rows of capsule toy machines that charge
¥200 ($1.67) or even ¥500 ($4.17) and dispense very large capsules
containing toys to assemble. The machines aren't confined to Akihabara, but
are still pretty impressive.
I'm still debating whether to invest some money in a mobile phone while
here. The throwaway $20 models on sale at department stores have as many
features as a top-of-the-line model from most American providers, but are
cheap because fickle Japanese consumers have tossed them aside in favor of
the latest and greatest. Thousands if not millions of Japanese consumers
are getting phones with color displays and digital cameras built in, to
communicate using multimedia on a network becoming increasingly capable of
3G speeds (144 kbps). One of the stores I visited had a clamshell e-mail
device for ¥1800 ($15.00) that, if it can access any IMAP server, could
be a great bargain. I'll have to investigate.
I've been looking forward to schoolchildren randomly coming up to me and
trying their English out. Today I got my first chance, but didn't realize it.
After exiting Ogikubo station, a team of elementary school soccer players were
getting on a bus. One of them looked at me and said "harao." Not
understanding him, I said nothing. The child said it again. "Harao!
Harao!" Only after he had gotten on the bus did I realize what he was
trying to say. "Hello." Maybe he was learning English from someone with a
strong Australian accent.
There are thousands of 7-Eleven stores in Japan, but they do not have
Slurpees or any of the other items that an American might associate with them.
They do have PlayStation games, lunch boxes, and a variety of snacks and
Japan has embraced baseball to the extent where it is displacing sumo as
the national sport. Some say that it already has, with stylish baseball
players commanding millions in endorsement deals and hoping to make it big in
America. "Ichiro" has become a colloquial adjective for something really cool,
from the name of Seattle Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki who played for nine years
in Japan with great success and is still doing very well in the U.S. There
are many things about Japanese baseball that differ from the U.S. version.
Fences surround the stands even in the outfield. When a foul ball heads
towards the fans, an alarm horn is sounded. The foul ball is expected to be
returned by the fan who catches it, even if it's from the fan's favorite team.
The one thing that got me, though, is the home run prize. Any player who hits
a home run is rewarded with a prize when he touches home plate. In the case
of the Yomiuri Giants, each player gets a large plush toy of the team's mascot
after each home run. That's one toy per player per home run. After
the game, the players who hit home runs come out of the dugout -- with prizes
in hand -- for interviews. I thought that the prizes only apply to home teams,
but my host father noted that prizes are given out by every team in every
game, home and away. Of all the things that could have caused Japan's
long-running economic depression, don't consider low discretionary spending.
Sunday will probably be spent working on this one job application test that
I have, and possibly some Internet connection time. I will likely only be
able to check mail while on campus, and I won't have my laptop on me to push
front page updates. We'll see how things work out over the next few weeks.