Adam Rice

My life and the world around me

Category: Japan (page 2 of 3)


Another epic day of schlepping. We started off in 浅草, home of the famous 浅草寺 and the perhaps more famous 仲店通り. The area is sprucing itself up just a smidge, and I was surprised to see a couple of rickshaw drivers (runners? what do you call these guys?) in traditional garb soliciting business from tourists. On Nakamise-dori, I bought the smallest 招き猫 imaginable for Jenny, as per her request. The crush surrounding the temple was, as always, pretty amazing. Many schoolgroups, tour groups, etc. This sort of thing becomes completely self-perpetuating: I think the real reason everybody goes there is because everybody goes there. This is the counterpoint to Yogi Berra’s old saying. We wound up getting a little off the beaten path, wandering down some of the dowdier 商店街 in the area, where Gwen picked up a pair of clogs for her niece. We made our way over to a supermarket, and picked up a few おにぎり. We plopped down near the temple to have our snack. I showed Gwen the ingenious way nigiri are packaged, so the nori doesn’t get soggy from contact with the rice, and the correct way to unwrap them. She was instantly hooked.

I checked a map, and saw we were walking distance from かっぱ橋, the commercial kitchen supply district, so we wandered over there. Gwen was keen on seeing the plastic food, but really, the overwhelming volume and selection of everything in Kappabashi is what makes the place fun. Where else can you find a store with ten different kinds of ramen strainers? We stopped in several knife stores, and eventually Gwen found a big carbon-steel chef’s knife to get as a gift for Heather, the friend who had made our wedding cake.

Next stop, 銀座. We went to 鳩居堂, the pricey but super-deluxe paper store. Again, quite a crush of people. Gwen spent a lot of time scoping out possible gifts to send home, and we wound up dropping a good chunk of change on exquisite paper products there. Examined the calligraphy supplies upstairs. Smelled the incense that pervades the store.

Then it was time to get along to 六本木, where another client, Julia (well, former client, as she hasn’t had any work for me in years, but she’s still a friend–but I digress), has her offices. This is very near the new Roppongi Hills development, of which I had read, but had not seen. We didn’t have time to explore it right then, but were sufficiently impressed by its sprawling bigness: the tower is, well, pretty darned tall, and the complex covers several city blocks.

We made our way to Julia’s, made introductions, hooked up with another friend of Julia’s, and made our way to Baggio, a little Italian place nearby where Julia’s a regular. Very tasty meal–a sort of Japanese take on Italian food.

Hakone, Day 2

Breakfast the next day came a little earlier than we were ready for, and was almost as lavish as dinner. Nine courses. Usually I’m not so keen on Japanese breakfasts, but I enjoyed this anyhow. After that, I went down to the rotenburo, and then (after the switch) Gwen did too. And then it was time to check out (they had some kind of crazy 10:00 AM check-out rule).

We toddled back to the train station and again put our packs in a coin locker. Since Hakone is a touristy town, we were tourists, and it seemed the touristy thing to do, we took the 早雲山ケーブルカー to its terminus, where Gwen wanted to transfer to the even more touristy ropeway. That turned out to be quite spendy–it would have been about ¥4600 for the two of us to take the round trip, and we were low on cash with no ATMs in sight. So I nixed that, and we climbed 早雲山 on foot instead. It was a very challenging trail: steep, muddy, and not very well cleared. And we weren’t exactly in our hiking boots and lederhosen. There was actually a network of trails up in the mountain, with one segment closed due to volcanic gas emissions (which looked like big campfires from down below). We hiked about an hour up to the first checkpoint, where we met some middle-aged women (who did have proper hiking boots and lederhosen) having coffee. We chatted briefly, considered our options, and decided that we were tired enough to head back. It was a little disappointing that nowhere along the trail did we get to a clearing: there must have been very dramatic views from up there. So we made our way down, meeting a Japanese guy who had lived in Houston for four years on the way, and took the funicular back to the rinky-dink switchback three-car train, back to the Odakyu line back to Tokyo.

One thing that really impresses me about Japan, apart from the extensiveness of its public-transportation network, is its integration. Tokyo is served by three different networks (JR東, 都営, and the former 営団, recently rechristened メトロ ). Along with at least a half-dozen private rail lines that feed the outlying areas. These all interconnect, and you can buy tickets that connect through multiple networks. This is no joke: one could buy one ticket that would take you on the ropeway, transfer to the funicular, transfer to the Hakone-tozan line, and transfer to the Odakyu line.

Once back, we hung out in 渋谷, the neighborhood that inspired Blade Runner. Gwen got sucked into Copo, a crowded little shop selling wacky hosiery. Japan is way out ahead of the curve in terms of hosiery configurations. Here in the USA, women are bogged down with the antiquated notion that either something covers your foot or it doesn’t. Not the young women of Japan: there, you can have a sock that covers just your toes, with a sling around the heel. Or covers the bottom of your foot, but not the top, except for a little wraparound to hold it on. Or covers the instep but not the toe or heel. Or is like a stirrup. Gwen wound up getting examples of several of these variations. We also looked around in Three Minute Happiness, a ¥100 shop full of fun stuff. I discovered that another one of my favorite restaurants, Negishi, had opened a branch in Shibuya, and although the beef-oriented menu didn’t have a lot to offer Gwen, she humored me and we ate there.

Hakone, Day 1

Gwen wanted to get outside of Tokyo a little, and one of the destinations she really had in mind was 箱根, a popular tourist area with lots of hot springs. Bright and early we headed out. Got on the 小田急線, taking the 急行 as far as 小田原, then changing to a 各停 to 湯本, then changing to the tiny three-car 箱根登山 train that took us to its terminus, 強羅, by way of several switchbacks along its steep route (first time I’ve ever been on a train that made switchbacks).

At Gora, we stowed our packs in a coin locker at the station and walked our way back to the 彫刻の森. This was a lot of fun. A lot of the sculpture frankly left me cold, but plenty of it was wonderful. There was an extensive Picasso pavilion, but my reaction to most of the pieces in it was ‘this is the work of a man who knows he has the world by the balls.’ In other words, not his best work.

We hiked back up to Gora (not far) and started looking for lodgings. We had my preferred Japan guidebook, Gateway to Japan, which recommended a couple of lodgings. One, we couldn’t find. I was sure we were looking in the roughly right place, but it just wasn’t there. The second was 箱根太陽山荘, part of a government operated network of 国民宿舎. We found that place, and it looked quite nice, but there was some excavation going on and nobody seemed to be around. Eventually the little old lady who ran the place saw Gwen and me standing around looking confused; she came out and told us they were closed for just that day because of construction. I asked if she could recommend anything else in the area in our price range. She went inside and made some calls, and recommended a place called さつき園, not far away. She gave me a little map showing all the inns in the area, and we made our way there quickly enough. Satsuki-en was located up a very steep hill, and when we got there, the little old couple that ran the place seemed surprised to see us, surprised that we wanted to stay there, and surprised that I could manage Japanese. But we checked in, had some tea, and got oriented to the place’s somewhat Byzantine bathing schedules. I then trotted back to the station to retrieve our bags. On the way, I walked by a construction site–or what would be, if anything were actually being constructed there. An extensive building had been torn down, and the construction-information signboard indicated that construction was to begin in…1994. I checked the address, and it turned out to be the place we had been looking for. No wonder.

After getting settled in at the hotel, Gwen and I both went down to the baths. This place has a confusing system: they have two “regular” baths, one each for men and women. Which one is which depends on the time of day: they hang signs by each indicating who should enter (and not a simple 男/女 that someone with limited kanji ability could figure out–no, they use 殿方/婦人). They also have a much nicer 露天風呂, which is reserved for men during certain hours, women during other hours.

After bathing, it was about time for dinner. They brought up this lavish 12-course meal. We both ate at least a little of everything. Pickles, sukiyaki, tofu, roasted fish, sashimi, shumai, etc. I later talked with Bryan about this, and he had been puzzled by the outlandish ryokan spread when he first encountered it too. His wife had explained that the thinking behind it is that certainly you’ll like something in all of that (actually, we liked pretty much all of it). I suspect there’s also an intention to create a sense of excess and luxury.


Tokyo is very much a city of special-purpose neighborhoods. We decided to make this day the day of paper. Gwen’s got a bit of a paper fetish. I vaguely recalled that 日本橋 was the paper neighorhood, and so we hopped on the train and went there.

Well, strike one for my memory. I should have checked more carefully beforehand (now I’m not sure which neighborhood I was looking for, but I know I’d been there before). We did find a small shop that specialized in 書道 supplies; I asked one of the clerks if there were other shops in the neighborhood that sold paper, and she gave me directions that seemed clear enough, but didn’t lead me anywhere I recognized.

So we gave up on that and headed for 神保町, the book neighborhood. We spent hours exploring the mind-blowing used-bookstore mall, 神保町古書センター, eight stories of used booksellers, many specializing one one thing or another (children’s books, new-age books, ephemera, girlie books, etc).

We stopped 大屋書房 in an antique bookstore that I had somehow never visited and found some amazing books, including many that seemed to be basically clip-art books over a century old. Some of these were in color, and clearly beyond anything we could afford. But Gwen found one in black and white going for ¥8000 that sorely tempted her. She put it back and decided to think about it while we went to 三省堂, the huge bookstore for new books, just around the corner. She picked up a Japanese phrase book by that denizen of the Tokyo demimonde, Boye de Menthe. We left, went to a nearby Starbucks (hey, Starbucks is probably the only place in Japan that is no-smoking), and Gwen though some more on that antique book. We went back the store, and after some internal debate, she bought it. While she was at the register, I found a boxed volume in the shape of a brick. It was an ancient Japanese-English dictionary. Again, much too expensive to contemplate, and apparently even older than the first edition of the Green Goddess (which probably wasn’t even green back then). I marvelled briefly and carefully put it away.

Somehow from here we made our way to 人形町, where Gwen appropriately ate a 人形焼き, and from there, we somehow made it back to Nihonbashi, and ran across the very paper store that the woman at the calligraphy store was directing me to. 小津和紙. Quite a store. Gwen spent a lot of time marvelling at the 千代紙, and picked out quite a few samples to get as gifts for the folks back home.

As long as we were out and about and near a station that could get us there easily, I suggested we go to 秋葉原, the mecca for electronics. We hit some Mac specialty shops, and while I was tickled at the used-Mac market (especially for cubes, which have a notoriously dedicated following in Japan), I was kind of disappointed that we didn’t see more wacky peripherals such as I’ve seen mentioned on the various gadget-tracking blogs. There was very little for sale there that couldn’t be found at Fry’s, I figured. The rabbit’s-warren of specialty parts stalls right by the station is still there, and still a zoo. Each merchant has his own schtick. One guy sells potentiometers, the next guy sells knobs for potentiometers, and the guy across the alley sells miniature security cameras. There’s probably someone in there hawking NOS Soviet vacuum tubes. If an electronics geek wanted to build his own NORAD replica, this would be a good place to start.

At this point, we were seriously beat, and we headed towards Shibuya and home, taking the 山手線 from exactly halfway across the loop. I decided we deserved a treat, and so I steered us a little off our trajectory to one of my favorite places in Tokyo, Raj Mahal, an Indian restaurant overlooking the teardrop 交番. Raj Mahal always has Bollywood song-and-dance numbers going on two TVs, the decor is gaudy, and the food is good. On this visit, I had the impression they’d put up their prices somewhat, but I didn’t mind: we ate well and plentifully, and enjoyed just relaxing there.

A day of something resembling work

One of Bryan’s requirements (really, just about the only one) for us staying in his office was that we be out of the office during working hours. So we had to clear out by 9:00 AM every day, and this was the first day to do so. Gwen headed out with me

Another one of my clients, Aki of Digitized Information, has its offices very close to Bryan’s. I had been there before, but not in a long time, and I was unsure of the way there. But I had (I thought) the address, and should have been able to figure it out from that.

Well, no. As it turns out, I had his address slightly wrong. I navigated to where my mistaken address should have been–between the Brazilian and Bulgarian embassies–and discovered it wasn’t there. On a lark, I opened up the laptop I had borrowed from Drew, and discovered there were two open wifi nodes. I hit the diginfo web page, got the correct address, found a neighborhood map, and navigated to the office. I spent the rest of the day working on a job I had brought with me.

After stopping by the office and meeting the people there, Gwen made her way to 清水観音堂 in 上野. That evening, we all got together at a nearby 居酒屋 called 亘. For the 二次会, Aki dragged us to some microscopic カラオケ pub in 下北沢. This joint could maybe accommodate 12 people, and the six of us in our party were crammed into one corner. Aki, it turns out, is quite a good singer, at least with all the reverb and effects that the karaoke machines lay on. Gwen and I declined to sing, but were fascinated by the enormous selection of songs available (four pages of Beatles selections), the little wireless pad that song requests are punched into, and the porn-flick production values in the karaoke videos. We escaped around 11:30 and made our way home. Didn’t manage to get back to Shimokita (as it’s known to its friends) for the rest of the trip, which I kind of regret, as I enjoy that neighborhood.

IJET-15, Day 2

I somehow managed not to sit in on any of sessions during the first round on Sunday, chatting with fellow translators instead. 木村博子, the sole representative from Norway, gave me a small packet of sweet Norwegian smoked goat cheese. To think she schlepped all those little cheese packets all the way from Norway…As a traveller, I’m resolutely opposed to any check-in luggage, and fripperies like gift cheese would never make it anywhere near my packing list. Still, I appreciated the gift of the cheese, which was unusual and tasty.

I (along with a lot of my peers) was very keen on attending a discussion of the recently completed fifth edition of the Green Goddess, the J-E dictionary that is a standard reference for many translators. This included a retrospective look at the earlier editions, including the first edition, which apparently resembled a brick, with thousands of relatively small pages. This was evidently the first edition where a lot of Japanese-competent native English speakers were involved, and they helped cull out many of the goofier glosses that had apparently survived since very early editions (the spotting of which is a minor sport for translators).

Had lunch with a gaggle of JAT doers, Pai Hwong and Paul Flynn among them. Wound up sitting with Paul and discussing the JAT website–he wants to do there some of the same things that I want to do with the Honyaku website.

After lunch, I sat in briefly on another talk about TM, specifically Trados and Wordfast, but since neither really works on the Mac, it was of limited practical use to me. One of these days, I can imagine TM really being useful to me.

Also of little immediate use–but pretty darned interesting anyhow–was the last session I attended on Japanese regional dialects. The presenter really seemed to know his stuff, pointing out that certain phonetic changes are common features in Japanese, but appear in different situations in different dialects. The talk was mostly oriented towards interpreters who might need to cope with unexpected regionalisms from time to time, but would be interesting to anyone curious about the language.

After the last session, things just kind of ended unceremoniously with everyone drifting away. Not that I’m big on ceremony, but it would have been nice if there were a more organized way to say goodbye to everyone. I’m sure there must have been some kind of 二次会, but I wasn’t in the right place at the right time to get in on it.

Gwen stayed in Tokyo for the day, exploring the neighborhood. I headed back that way and we had a low-key evening. I discovered that someone in Bryan’s building had an intermittently available open wifi node, and so I was able to get my e-mail. I also was able to check on something that someone had mentioned to me the day before: that my site was down. Sheesh. This wound up being an ongoing irritatation for the next two weeks, not to mention a bit of an embarrassment: I have a bit of a reputation (deserved or otherwise) as being technically competent with this whole Intarweb thing. Being at a conference with colleagues, handing out business cards with my URL, having my Honyaku page being chatted about, and having my website go offline right then really made me wince.

IJET-15, Day 1

Saturday and Sunday were the days of the conference. It was starting at 9:00 AM, so we had to be out the door and heading towards the 東横線 by about 8:00. Not that this was hard to manage: aside from our circadian rhythms being almost perfectly out of phase with the local time, Tokyo is in the wrong time zone: the sun was up at 4:30 AM, and Bryan’s office gets plenty of light. So we were awake pretty early.

Once at the station, I vaguely recalled that 桜木町 was the stop for the Pacifico, but to my consternation, the Toyoko-sen didn’t stop there anymore–instead it had a stop at みなとみらい. Which also sounded like the right area, based on my memory, but not what I expected. Off we went. Turns out that the Toyoko-sen’s route had in fact been diverted recently, and my guess was correct. As Tom explained over lunch (at a wacky little Chinese place), 東急 had built backwards from the new station, which is underground, up to the point where the new segment would intersect the old, and in one night after the trains stopped running, ripped up the section of old rail over the juncture, relaid it to connect to the new segment, made a couple of test runs, and continued with service as usual the next morning. Quite an audacious feat of engineering–something that was a recurring observation through this trip.

Gwen was not in on the conference, but would be attending the schmoozefest that night, so she came in to Yokohama with me and lit out on her own. She managed to find her way around well enough.

Sessions attended that day: the opening plenary “state of the industry” session, and on a new publishing venture launched by some of my fellow translators. I checked in on one about translation memory, but wound up leaving that to catch up with friends. Richard Sadowsky observed that when we had first gotten to know each other at a much earlier IJET–perhaps IJET-3 in 富士吉田(?), he had commented that he and I seemed to be the youngest translators there, but that was no longer true. He’s right: Richard has aged quite a bit since then.

Gwen made her way back to the conference site, and everyone shuffled downstairs to the dinner, a really lavish buffet with free beer and wine. Gwen and I were still kind of looped from jet lag, and made a relatively early departure.

Harajuku-Shinjuku meandering

Friday the weather had mercifully cleared (in fact, we didn’t really get rained on at all for the rest of the trip), and we relocated to Bryan’s office, which would be our base of operations for the rest of the trip.

There were some last-minute details about the conference that I had been meaning to check online–I wanted to refresh my memory of which train station to exit, for example. Though I had set up an account with a local ISP, GOL, I was unable to log on for some reason. Very infuriating.

I took Gwen to Harajuku. It’s my favorite part of town. We wandered around aimlessly. I was a bit disoriented by the changes in the neighborhood: where there had once been a couple of sidewalk cafes on 表参道 there were now gleaming retail showrooms. And the Aoyama Apartments, the first Western-style apartment building in Tokyo, were demolished. This wasn’t a surprise–the death knell had sounded on them a long time ago, but it was still a shame that a bit of Tokyo history was gone. For the most part, the backstreets (though they had no doubt seen many small businesses come and go) looked about the same. We walked past Jenny’s old apartment, and it still stood, though there was a little novelty shop wedged in front of it now. Nearby was an excellent stationery store that I remembered, with an incredible selection of postcards and desk-stuff on the ground floor, and a lot of art books downstairs.

We kind of wandered via a route that I’d never be able to reproduce through 千駄ヶ谷 up to 新宿. We wandered around there some more, taking in both the busy-but-civilized part and the sleazy 歌舞伎町 Quite a lot of walking that day.

Japan trip: depature

I hadn’t been to Japan since 2000; Gwen had never been. But this year’s IJET conference was going to be in Yokohama, it was coming shortly after our marriage, so the trip would serve as a honeymoon, and, well, Lost in Translation just made me really nostalgic for Tokyo. And although the trip would be expensive, I really felt that I needed to try to drum up some business in Japan, since that’s where most of the J-E translation demand is. So we decided quite some time ago that we’d go. Gwen negotiated a lengthy vacation from her job. We got tickets at a pretty good rate through JTB (though flying on AA instead of JAL–a bit of a letdown).

We left on Wednesday the 19th and arrived in the evening of the 20th after an uneventful flight. A typhoon was in the area, and Tokyo was getting heavy rain. After a bit of misdirection, getting very wet in the process, we made our way to the 多摩旅館, an inn in 高田馬場 run by a fellow translator who I vaguely knew from my days in Japan; although we would be crashing at a friend’s place for most of the trip, we needed a place where we could sleep in to get over the initial shock of jet lag. That was pleasant, and there was an Indian restaurant I had never tried, Malabar, just a few doors away. It has been my ongoing project to eat at all the Indian restaurants in Tokyo, so after we checked in and got settled a bit, we had dinner there and ate quite well. I learned that Takadanobaba has become a haven for Burmese refugees, and there are a lot of hole-in-the-wall Burmese restaurants there where the menus are available only in Burmese–no Japanese, no English.

NYT on Katakana

Pretty good article in the Times today on how katakana is used. It mentions that foreigners of Japanese descent, like Alberto Fujimori and Kazuo Ishiguro get the katakana treatment on their names; what it doesn’t mention is that Fujimori, who pronounces his name Spanish-style, gets his name transliterated into kana as フヒモリ (fuhimori).

But the article overstates the standoffishness of katakana for foreign names. Katakana is used for loanwords in general, and for emphasis, and in that respect, it is very similar in function to italics in English. The fact that foreign names get swept up in katakana styling is not that big a deal.

The story reminds me of an anecdote that a friend told by back in Japan. This friend is of Japanese background, has a Japanese last name, and had been living in Japan for some time. She applied for, and got, a JCB credit card, apparently one of the first foreigners to do so. Now, credit cards in Japan always give the holder’s name in katakana; there would be no way of indicating on the card “we’re putting her name in katakana because it really belongs that way, not because of technical limitations.” So they left her last name off entirely, rather than risk having her be confused for a real Japanese.

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