weill in japan: day 14

Typhoon 7 blew through Tokyo without much effect, professors are turning up the homework heat, and the cost of this trip continues to rise.

where'd the rain go?

Today was supposed to be a very stressful day, weather-wise. Typhoon 7 was predicted to hit Tokyo in the mid-morning, dumping lots of rain and producing dangerous wind gusts. These facts were discussed at length yesterday and last week, when Typhoon 6 struck while most students were asleep.

At around 9:00 AM local time, the rain suddenly began to fall from pitch-dark clouds. It lasted no more than three minutes, after which it became eerily dark and calm. Normally, at that hour, the sky is about as bright as it gets. I thought that the three minutes of downpours was just the first wave, but eventually the skies lightened up without any further rain. Tokyo was spared from nearly all of the typhoon's destruction, with northern and western areas getting far more rain.

Typhoon 7 was a non-event for me, which is fine. The trains and buses in the area were not disrupted at all. The situation is crowded enough at full operating capacity, and I don't really want to think about what would happen if the same number of travelers had to smash into fewer vehicles.

Typhoon 9 is the next one on radar, with Typhoon 8 already gone before getting near Japan. Typhoon 9 is not expected to hit Tokyo, but meteorologists have not ruled out the possibility of more typhoons hitting soon. The reason? El Ni&ntlide;o. I'm not kidding.

train talk

As I heard in a lecture on Japanese non-verbal communication today, the rail system in Japan is something of an oddity when it comes to communication strategies. Often, people are so tightly packed into cars that they must literally push passengers into the train. At the same time, verbal communication between strangers is considered unacceptable behavior. Even the expectedly polite Japanese people will not apologize for pushing others around on trains. All of this physical contact has made some female passengers uneasy, and special women-only cars are sometimes used in Tokyo and Osaka.

As in New York and just about any other major city, the Tokyo trains are riddled with people using mobile phones. Phones in Japan are outstandingly advanced; all but the most outdated phones have color screens. Some have cameras for videophone capabilities, some can record short video clips to send over a high-speed 144 kbps network, and some have lightweight Java Virtual Machines for playing on-line games. However, the most common usage of phones on trains is not any of these advanced features, or even talking; instead, people use them for e-mail and web browsing right on that tiny color screen. Untold thousands of web pages are available in lightweight mode for view on phones, and the compact structure of the Japanese language enables more information to fit in fewer character cells than most Western languages. The high-resolution screens can render Kanji characters legibly, and the built-in translation software translates keyed-in readings to characters in much the same way as full-scale computers do. By remaining silent but still being able to communicate on the Internet, the railways demonstrate a fascinating mix of traditional values with bleeding-edge technology.

Speaking of mobile phones, many phones have ditched the common beep-like ring tones that irritate much of the Western world and have lightweight MIDI synthesizers to play full multi-channel songs. This doesn't surprise me too much, as musical chimes accompany things like doorbells, oncoming train notifications, and "walk" signs at street crossings. Instead of the mundane beeps and other simple sounds that I'm used to in the U.S., distinct melodies accompany many prompts and notifications here. It's very pleasant-sounding, although most people here don't notice it anyway.

quakes galore

Earthquakes are a fairly common occurrence in Japan, but I had no idea how common they were until I came here and felt one for myself. When a low-magnitude earthquake rumbled through Tokyo on Saturday evening, I expected the radio to break into a special news bulletin as if it were an important news event. Nothing of the sort happened. In the past few days, I've seen earthquakes mentioned on the news, but not by newscasters. When an earthquake happens, as one did in Kyoto at 8:10 PM this evening, a brief announcement to that effect appears briefly at the top of the TV screen, accompanied by a musical chime. Regular programming is not interrupted. Similar treatment occurs for typhoons, where the screen is shrunken slightly to allow for a larger ticker of location-specific information and rain forecasts.

incoming people

Tomorrow, my older brother Nori returns from working in Kyoto to spend at least a little time at home. My parents want me to speak English with him so that his English doesn't become rusty. I'll do my best.

I may actually have plans for much of this weekend. On Friday, one of the other Carnegie Mellon students at ICU tells me that we can meet up with the Carnegie Mellon students over at IES, a different summer study abroad program which is also located in Tokyo. I'm inclined to accept. On Saturday, the national holiday Umi no Hi (Ocean Day), I plan on touring a few more areas in and around Tokyo with at least a couple of fellow students. One of my classmates is planning to stay up all night on Thursday partying in Tokyo's club neighborhood of Roppongi, but I don't think I'll be able to function the next day on zero sleep. The amount of homework has been growing, but I don't intend to let it interfere with my fun.

class matters

My bullshit detector is going off the charts.

Lately, we've been doing an awful lot of busy work in class: repetitively reciting script after script, pointlessly asking the same questions to expect the same answers. Much like at Carnegie Mellon, the students here at ICU don't take well to such activities, quickly becoming distracted in their independent groups. Conversation quickly turns from the pre-selected topic to things of personal interest, often in languages other than Japanese. When the professor comes by, we pretend to be carrying on a Japanese-language conversation to humor her, but I'm pretty sure she knows what's up.

Our most recent homework assignment: copy an entire passage onto a separate piece of paper and answer some questions about how Japanese is handwritten onto grid paper. That's it. It's just two hours of terrible, terrible busy work. Did I do it? You better believe it.

land of the seventeen-dollar plum

You'd think that with the dollar falling to about ¥116, people would be watching what they buy a little more closely.

Right now, Japan is in the middle of the chuugen mid-year gift season, when people give each other gifts that nearly always consist of food and drinks. Fruits are very popular, even though they can be extremely expensive and are not purchased with the hope that the recipient will want to eat them. Instead of buying oranges, for example, one might give a gift of imported Valencia oranges that cost substantially more and are presented in an attractive case. Beverage makers repackage their products in decorative bottles and fancy tins, increasing the price accordingly. Plenty of folks have seen pictures of those cube-shaped watermelons, grown in plastic containers and engineered to fit in Japanese refrigerators. These watermelons cost ¥10,000 ($86) each and are not even edible, according to one fellow student. From what I've been able to tell, they don't revert to normal shape once picked up, as "The Simpsons" would have us believe.

Regular fruits are fairly expensive, but those that are in season are delicious. However, sometimes there are special varieties that sell for particularly high prices. One student told us about how he saw a special white variety of plum being sold in packages of two for ¥4000 ($34.50). He bought a pack, thinking that they must be the best plums in the world for that price. He got hosed. Big-time. Two crappy-tasting gift plums later, he learned a lesson the hard way. Around gift-giving time, more expensive does not necessarily mean that something is better quality.


Annoyance: Since I presumably won't understand the advertisements on the package, the people handing out free packets of tissues at train stations often do not offer them to foreign-looking people. I've all but snatched the tissues from these presumptuous drones. I will not be denied free stuff.

Game notes: Super Mario Sunshine is on display at many stores. I haven't waited long enough to get to play it yet, but it looks like a much more expansive edition of the fantastic Super Mario 64. It comes out on July 19 in Japan.

More game notes: Soul Calibur II is in the arcades. As with many other fighting games, two-player combat is done by players sitting at opposite machines. I didn't realize this before putting my ¥100 into the Soul Calibur II machine for the first time. I ended up challenging the player across me, interrupting his game in progress. He did not appreciate this. I got whipped. HARD. When I got up in defeat, I noticed that this gentleman had a crowd gathering around him. D'oh.

I'm still staying up late and getting up later. This will cause a big problem sometime soon.

My first C5-level quizzes are on Thursday. I didn't realize this until late Tuesday evening. Problem.

And on we go...