Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Category: Japan (page 1 of 3)

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Fellow translators of Japanese know that personal names are all but impossible to translate with certainty unless you can ask the person who owns the name how they prefer to have it romanized. When I’m translating a scientific paper (as I am now), the problem is acute, since there is usually a bibliography packed with Japanese names, but these names can often be tracked down, as the authors occasionally have their own web pages, or have been published before in English. So I spend a lot of time googling for their papers and their names.

One citation in my current job has eight names to track down. Ouch. I googled all the surnames together in the hopes that I’d find some bilingual reference with their names. I did not, but I did find a long listing of papers that included the one I’m looking at. Google helpfully offered to translate the page for me. The results for the names in question are interesting and amusing:

汐 promontory positive, increase mountain reason, Kazuhiro Yamamoto, Hiroshi Kondo 也, Doi 玲 child, Ono Megumi child and Ken under village, Ogasawara Masafumi

Japan Trip 2004

I’m posting my writeup of the Tokyo trip as a series of entries back-dated to the days they refer to. I’m not sure if this is a good idea or not, but there’s so much here that Movable Type chokes if I try to post the whole thing as one monolithic entry. For best results, start at May 20 and work your way forward. I’ll eventually be posting some observations from the trip as well, as part of the regular flow.

I’m using Japanese text for place names and wherever else I feel like it: hover over the text to get the English. This trick may not work in Internet Explorer. Sorry (actually, I’m more sorry if you’re using IE than that this doesn’t work in it).

Photos are online: Log in as adamguest/adamguest if need be.

Reader’s Digest version: We had a great time. We walked an incredible amount–Gwen estimates about 10 miles a day–and our legs protested at the end of every day. Because of the somewhat constraining conditions where we were staying, I felt ready to be getting home when we left, but if we’d had a little more slack, I would have been happy to stay for a solid month. I want to visit again, soon.

Coming home

Hung out. Had pastries. Went to airport. Found a Lawson Station from which we procured more nigiri. Found our gate, and on a lark, I decided to see whether there was a free wifi node. There was, though I suspect this was through oversight, not intention. Got on plane. Baby cries for 6 hours, but eventually settles down. Arrive in San Jose. Claim checked bags and passed through an alarmingly casual customs interview:

Inspector: What’s in the box?

Me: Um, two pair of shoes and some paper products. [forgetting, in my jet-lagged fog, to mention some kitchenware, a really big sharp knife, and a candy bar]

Inspector: [waves us on]

We then had to immediately pass through another security inspection. Now, at no point had we left a secured area. The implication here is that they don’t trust Japan’s security inspection–in which case, they really should have just turned back the plane.

Recheck our box of goodies, find our gate (for-fee wifi there), and wait. Get on the nerd-bird back to Austin. Catch cab home, and try to sleep.

Returning to Austin from Japan is always weird. We left Tokyo at 5:15 PM Saturday local time, and landed in Austin at 5:30 PM Saturday local time. The human body doesn’t know what to do with this.

The dead

Our last full day in Tokyo.

We had acquired enough trinkets and tchotchkes to bring back to friends to fill a decent-sized box. I was planning on mailing this, and today would be our last chance to, but Gwen suggested we be parsimonious for a change and bring it home as checked luggage. Despite my deep aversion to baggage carousels, I assented.

Graveyards. Gwen has a thing for them, seeing signs of how people live in the way they bury their dead. We made our way to a shrine in Brian’s neighborhood, 代々木八幡宮, walked around the grounds (which, interestingly, included a reconstruction of a stone-age thatched hut that apparently stood in the area in 4000 BC or something), took in the cemetary there.

I suggested we go to the 都庁, the city hall. Saying “city hall” makes it sound kind of quaint, and not at all like a tourism destination. Wrong. Tokyo’s population is in the same ballpark as Australia’s, and the Tocho is two 48-story towers plus a surrounding complex, done in an intimidating style by 丹下健三 that Joseph Stalin would have approved of. It’s very much a product of the bubble economy, trumpeting Tokyo as a world financial capital, and although Japan’s economy has been in the shitter ever since it was built, it seems to have been the harbinger of many more audacious mega-construction projects that have followed, including Minato Mirai, Roppongi Hills, the underground expressway, and so on. Apparently 10 more projects on the order of Roppongi Hills are in the works for the next 20 years.

Anyhow. The cool information displays that were once installed on the second level were gone and replaced by shops. We hit the observation deck. Gwen observed “no wonder we’ve been doing so much walking!” The city goes on forever in every direction.

Back in the funereal mode, we made our way to the granddaddy of cemetaries, 青山墓地. Extensive enough to have numbered lanes and picturesque enough that for one day a year, it’s Tokyo’s favorite picnic spot (with people having pizzas delivered graveside), there also seem to be a lot of interesting people buried there, judging by the headstones. We noticed a couple of unkempt graves (upkeep is the responsibility of family members) that had signs posted by the management saying, basically “use it or lose it.”

We noticed some really enormous monuments, standing 20 feet tall or so. One in particular caught Gwen’s eye, and there were three guys in front of it discussing something, two in suits and one in some kind of maintenance uniform. This monument was especially huge, and had an explanatory plaque telling a few facts about the interred: apparently he had been a major military muckety-muck in the early days of modern Japan, having been an admiral in the Russo-Japanese war. There were several graves that were perfect stone hemispheres, which reminded me of stupas somehow.

Aoyama Bochi is near to Julia’s office, so we stopped by there to visit for a bit. Stopped at the nearby 時代屋 restaurant, which was having a 釜めし定食 for lunch. It looked pretty good, so we went in. Quirky place. In the basement, with a waist-high door you need to crouch to pass through. The interior is filled with antiques (hence the name of the place), many of which have little explanatory cards hanging from them. After lunch we did some more wandering around Roppongi, which is never seen in its best light by day. Eventually we made it back to the apartment, and had dinner at another quirky place, アホアホ, which specializes in dishes made with chili pepper and garlic: each item had a garlickiness and spiciness score. Although we enjoyed the garlic bulb deep-fried whole, we found the spiciness ratings to all be inflated. The owners apparently have a Jackson 5 fetish: they had an apparently original concert poster from a Jackson 5 gig in 1971 and Jackson 5 figurines over the bar. The music was strictly Motown, and there was a breakdancing video running on the TV.

You can never go back

I had a morning meeting with a client I had done some work for recently. Gwen accompanied me into Shinjuku, where the office is, and went off on her merry way. My meeting went OK, I suppose, but I felt awkward. Three Japanese women speaking in a level of 敬語 that I found both embarrassing (I’m nobody special, and not deserving of that level of speech) and impossible to match. My own Japanese tends inevitably towards the casual, and it’s always a last-minute catch for me to tack on a not-too-casual verb ending in these situations. On top of that, I was particularly tongue-tied, refusing to drop into English but having a hard time even living up to my usually modest ability to express myself in Japanese.

After the meeting, which lasted about an hour, I reconnected with Gwen at Alta. She had discovered 世界堂, an excellent art-supply shop, and Okadaya, a hobby-supply store with a narrower but deeper selection than Tokyu Hands, focusing particularly on textiles.

Bryan had suggested we go to lunch at a place he likes, 文琳, which has a cheap-ish lunch special he descibes as “kaiseki Chinese.” Indeed, it was quite good, with little bijoux tidbits of this and that, just enough to enjoy the taste of each thing.

After that, I told Gwen that I wanted to walk along Yamate-dori back to my old neighborhood, 東中野. It was going to be a long, ugly walk, and kudos to her for putting up with it. When I was living in Tokyo in 88-90, the city was in the beginning stages of a project to widen Yamate-dori and build an underground expressway beneath it. Because Japan apparently has weak eminent-domain laws, the city began buying up properties all along the street as they became available, tearing them down, and barricading the spaces where they had been–I’d seen evidence of this on previous trips. Well, it seems that they’ve acquired all the extra margin they need, because Yamate-dori has been widened, and the center is completely occupied by construction equipment doing the prep work to install the underground expressway. I wanted to see for myself how much things had changed, and how much was under construction. So we walked. And walked. And walked, and then walked some more. With only brief interruptions, that center construction strip covered Yamate-dori as far as the eye could see. Cranes rising into the air every hundred feet or so. Mind-boggling.

We came across a new train station that would have taken us directly to my old train station; Gwen was getting pretty tired of all this walking, but said she could hold out if we’d be there in another 15 minutes. Which, I estimated, we would. So we walked on. And pretty soon, sure enough, we found ourselves at 中野坂上駅, not the station I had planned on going to, but one I had used every weekday for about a year. It’s at a major intersection, of 山手通り and 青梅街道. I didn’t recognize anything. Nothing at all was familiar. The shock was physical. The area had been spruced up, with new buildings, a terraced grassy 待ち合わせ spot. We continued along a bit, working our way into the back streets of the neighborhood. Some buildings I recognized, some were clearly new. Gwen asked me if I wanted to place a bet on whether my old building still stood. I didn’t, but it did (though its address had changed, because the house next door, occupied by a crazy geriatric couple, had been torn down and replaced by two houses).

We wandered around the old ‘hood a little more, taking in the 商店街. We came across what had once been an improvised sort of restaurant operated out of a yurt with a few stools outdoors. The restaurant was still there, but it now occupied the lower two floors of a 9-story building. Pao. We decided to eat there. It wasn’t in a yurt, and in fact the interior was quite nice, but it retained some of its old yurty funkiness. Most of the seating was low, carpeted platforms, with pillows and knee-high tables. We took one. Gwen decided that she wanted our next dining room to be just like it. The menu was Afghan oriented, but about half the dishes we wound up getting seemed more Italian. It was all good, though. Gwen had a cocktail of Cassis and Oolong tea, which was actually pretty good, and we split a mango tart for dessert, which was excellent. When we got up to pay, I mentioned to the woman at the register (who had probably been there all along) that I lived in the neighborhood 15 years ago, and remember when the place was a yurt. She said with a smile ‘things have changed.’

Nikko

日光. This was our other getaway destination, and I decided we should make a day-trip of it. Headed out early, and took to the 特急 from Asakusa. Had a little time before boarding, so we stopped in a nearby coffee shop, where the waitress was visibly shocked that I could speak and read Japanese–that was kind of fun. The area gets so many tourists that the ratio of Japanese-speaking white people to all white people must be much lower than in other parts of town. Anyhow, the trip out was uneventful, and once there, we walked up the main drag to the shrine area. Nikko’s three shrines and temples are probably what the town is best known for (along with its national park, and its monkeys), and that’s what we were there for. It’s hard to do justice, in words or pictures, to these places. Unlike most of Japan’s religious buildings, these are covered in ornament. As a f’rinstance: part of 東照宮 is surrounded by a wall in 87 sections. Each section contains three panels. Each panel contains an elaborately carved and colorfully painted scene showing birds: the top, birds in the air, the middle, birds on the ground, and the bottom, bids in the water. Each panel different. It’s like that everywhere you look: no opportunity to decorate, illustrate, illuminate, exalt, inspire, or awe is overlooked. As one of our guidebooks put it, Nikko is “17th-century Disneyland.”

After about 5 hours of this, my eyeballs hurt. We started heading back, stopping for a bite on the way down to the station.

Back to Harajuku

We headed back to Omotesando for a little unfinished business. Went down to the antique mall below the Hanae Mori building, which is kind of a trip. Stopped by the ridiculous Oriental Bazaar and the sublime Kiddyland, which wound up being a rather lengthy diversion. The plethora–nay, cornucopia–of diverse キッティちゃん products was endlessly entertaining. Dolls of Hello Kitty wearing an eggplant costume. Dolls of Helly Kitty wearing a cat costume. Think about that.

Stopped at 平禄 (which used to be 元禄–not sure why the name changed), a conveyor-belt sushi place. This turned out to be the only occasion we ate sushi on the whole trip, and a 回り寿司 place inevitably isn’t going to be the best, but it wasn’t bad, and it’s a fun experience. It’s also kind of amazing how quickly you can mow through a dozen or so plates of sushi when you can continuously grab them as they roll by.

Next, to the 太田記念年美術館. But before we could get there, we stopped at a miniscule shop around the corner from it. Gwen had been interested in picking up a new handbag that was cool, funky, and unobtainable in the USA, and here she found what she was looking for: a long, skinny purse made of lenticular plastic that blinks obverse and reverse sides of 平仮名 flashcards, all themed around 鉄腕アトム.

Then on to the museum, where they were having a special 北斎 exhibit. The Ota Museum is a sort of oasis of stereotypical Japanese-ness. You take your shoes off when you walk in; you crouch on tatami to view some of the artwork. The place is dimly lit, silent, refined, sedate; it has a rock garden indoors. The fact that it is tucked away in the midst of Japan’s poppiest pop-culture is part of the fun.

Roppongi Hills

Tantalized by the view of Roppongi Hills the other day, Gwen and I resolved to go back and explore it a little. We got there bright and early, before most of the stores had opened. We didn’t cover the whole complex, but we did wander through much of the four-floor shopping mall (tenanted mostly by international luxury brands that you could find in any city where there’s wealth). The space had a random feeling, with nooks and crannies, catwalks and alcoves, breaking it up into weird little bits. A glass roof, also broken up into little bits, with an incredibly complex system of mechanized gondolas riding on tracks to carry window-washers across it. Among other things, Gwen’s office designs signage for places like this, and so we took an interest in the very elaborate bilingual infographics for the place, with information maps showing exploded isomorphic views of the four levels, wayfinding graphics embedded in the floors, etc.

A drum-shaped glass-covered tower lead up to an art museum and gift shop. We bypassed the museum and scoped out the gift shop, which sold an extensive line of relentlessly designy Roppongi Hills-branded items (one of which I actually wound up buying as a souvenir for a friend), a lot of art books, and various other designy accessories.

There’s a piazza that’s apparently used as a performance space next to the drum, and meticoulous garden and pond next to that; a mama duck with ducklings completed the picture. As beautiful as the garden is, it can’t help but have a very contrived feeling, snuggled in among all that obvious artifice. Japanese gardens have always been exercises in concealed artifice, though, so perhaps it’s not so objectionable.

Having had our fill of Roppongi Hills, we headed over to the 明治屋 grocery in Hiroooo, where we mostly ogled but wound up buying a couple of carrots to eat as a snack. Fat, perfectly conical carrots of a type never seen in the USA. We took these to the nearby 有栖川公園, a small oasis of green crisscrossed with little trails, clearings, benches, etc. A major hangout for ravens–sometimes you feel like you’re in a Hitchcock movie there. I don’t call ’em crows, even though everyone else does. “Crow” suggests a farcical trashpicking bird. These birds are bigger (they could make off with a poodle) and seem distinctly malevolent–and signs in the park warn to be on guard against them attacking.

After a nice stroll through this park, a sit-down and a snack, we decided to make our way over to Julia’s to say Hi. I knew exactly where her office was, and tried to take a shortcut to get there. Mistake. I was going down a street that went through Roppongi Hills: it had existed before, but apparently had been diverted, as it took us to a completely different neighborhood. When I found myself at a train station that I had never heard of, the intersection of two subway lines that hadn’t even existed when I lived in Tokyo, I felt very weirded out.

That wound up being an enjoyable enough diversion–we laughed at a store that sells nothing but canine apparel, and stopped in nifty bookshop. Made our way to Julia’s, visited for a bit, and headed on. That night we took Bryan and his wife out to dinner at one of Bryan’s favorite local joints, 笹吟, known for its extensive selection of sake and good food. I’ve never been much of a sake drinker, but the good stuff is, well, good. I sampled widely and enjoyed it.

Yoyogi Park

Somehow, we wound up back in Harajuku

We stopped at a Lawson Station and fortified ourselves with nigiri. Hung out and watched the world go by some more.

We started working our way back home, and paused to check out the コスプレー族. Quite a scene–probably about 40 kids in various anime/lolita/EGL/EGA (they all sort of run together) outfits, many of their own creation, and probably as many tourists taking pictures of them. They all seemed quite happy to be the center of attention and to pose for pictures. I noticed a couple of white kids among their ranks.

代々木公園. That’s the place to be in Tokyo on a Sunday, and that’s where we went next. The park is sort of like Barton Springs on a good weekend: a bunch of people hanging out, clustered in little groups, doing their own thing. Except it’s about 20 times as big, it’s free, and there’s no swimming. Despite a large, sternly worded sign at one entrance to the park forbidding any kind of musical performance whatsoever (probably dating back to the Battle of the World’s Worst Bands days), I saw a knot of bluegrass musicians (including a guy who had dragged his upright bass to the park), one of martial artists doing their thing, a couple guitarists sitting under a tree trading licks, and so on. I happened on not one but two separate groups of poi spinners (the second of which had a damn good DJ with a huge table set up). I said Hi to both groups and wanted to rush back to the apartment to grab my own poi and rejoin them. We wound up continuing to take a leisurely walk through the park, though, going past a large homeless encampment–one of several in the park. Gwen observed that some of the dwellings would pass for regular homes in Mexico, and indeed we saw one that seemed to be made of 1×2 sticks, carefully measured and nailed together square with a peaked roof, with blue plastic tarp stretched taut and neatly over the whole thing. We saw a guy sweeping clear the packed dirt in front of his tent. All the camps in the park were about as orderly as you can imagine a homeless camp being (this is Japan), and Bryan likened them to the Hoovervilles of the 30s, an apt comparison in a lot of ways.

We made our way back to the apartment, I grabbed my poi, and headed back to one group of twirlers, hanging out with them for a little bit, and then going back to the other group I had introduced myself, and hung out with them for a little while. Found out that one of them has a friend in common, Vance.

Hanging out in the park made me regret not having spent more time there when I lived there, it was so much fun. When I lived in Japan, I had a somewhat pessimistic view of the quality of life enjoyed by the average person in Tokyo; being in the park, surrounded by so many people doing their own thing, gave me a much more optimistic view.

For better or worse, I had to take my leave at about 6:00 PM and head back, because Bryan and I had a dinner with a prospective client that night. The dinner was at an interesting basement izakaya, with narrow twisty-windy corridors that led to a private room for us. Bryan had a friend in the company, who was present at the meeting but said almost nothing. Instead it was a marketing guy (who had attended Stanford and spoke very good English) and the CTO (who was certainly competent in English when discussing his subject). It was a bit odd that the whole thing went off in English–I’m not sure how that happened, but since everyone at the table (except Gwen) was to some extent J/E bilingual, I guess the choice of language becomes somewhat arbitrary. Although my own Japanese speaking ability is bad enough that it does nothing to promote my image as a capable translator, I still would have felt more comfortable somehow if things had been a little more in Japanese. We briefly discussed the nitty-gritty of the company’s key product, a computer technology that genuinely is interesting, and perhaps I was able to convince them that I know my stuff by asking intelligent questions and understanding their answers.

People-watching in Harajuku

Saturday is a people-watching day around 原宿 and 表参道, so that’s where we spent most of it. We started off at Spiral Gallery, which always has something interesting on display, but more than that, is just an interesting place to be. The building itself has always been the main attraction to me. The exhibition on display when we were there was clothing by a Turkish designer, which Gwen was very interested in. Then we went to the museum shop upstairs. Calling it a museum shop is kind of an understatement, since it is sort of a super-sleek lifestyle-supply boutique. Various skin-care potions, tableware bits and household accessories, stationery, etc. I bought some postcards that are too nice to send, and will be framed instead. Given sufficient funds, I think Gwen would have cleaned those guys out. Instead, she contented herself with some paper.

We stopped by the nearby Anderson bakery, bought various airy goodies, and perched ourselves on the rails along Omotesando to snack and watch the world go by. We then headed into La Foret, which is the department store of the young, alternative, and well-heeled. Many small boutiques, each catering to a specific look. Several EGL shops, one cyberwear shop called Fötus, many retro-70s shops, etc.

The people-watching was excellent. Gwen mostly remarked on the shoes that women were wearing: mostly painful-looking high heels, especially mules: many women had toes that looked like they were on the verge of being pinched off, were wobbling on the heels, or were generally having trouble walking. The platforms that were so plentiful a few years ago had become scarce, although we did see a few shops (one in La Foret, one on the outskirts of Shibuya) that still specialized in them. Gwen stopped in one on 竹下通り where she picked out a pair of platform sandals (when we asked for a business card, we were given something that had been run off on cheap paper stock on a cheap inkjet printer). Lots of other goofiness on that street, which is home to much trendsetting in Tokyo. We found a store up a flight of stairs, with the sign Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling Federation, housing various punk and goth accessories. We were most taken with a line of gruesome teddy bears that all had bloody fangs. We also stopped in the completely outrageous Takenoko, a shop tucked off to the side that goes on and on with rooms full of sparkly costumes. Some of these are the sort of thing that ビジャルー系 band members wear, others are sort of like fantasy stripper outfits, though perhaps a bit more discreet. (Pictures of the shop: 1, 2, 3). This place has been there as long as I can remember, but somehow I had never been inside. I was surprised to discover that, as elaborate as many of the costumes looked, they were pretty cheap. Despite that, neither Gwen nor I bought anything there, though Gwen was tempted by a sheer green top.

On towards evening, we moved on to Shibuya. Gwen had heard of Tokyu Hands before, and was interested in checking it out, so we did. It’s a department store specifically for hobbyists of all stripes; it also has housewares, some sporting goods, office supplies, etc. Gwen was intrigued by the sofa section, because all the couches were low enough that she could sit on them comfortably with her feet flat on the floor. She was also generally impressed by the assortment of stuff throughout the store, which is divided into something like 18 levels, each with a different focus.

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