Saturday, April 30, 2011

Progress Report

Some obscure quirk of the scheduling system has left me with no class on Friday, which leaves me, in turn, with time to spend on other matters.

Classes so far seem as if they'll be manageable--  the formidable Japanese placement exam I took last week placed me in the highest pre-advanced level available, meaning that I've officially moved out of the "conversational" phase of my Japanese training, and into the phase in which I am made to interpret official-looking bar graphs and prepare class discussions on the world's compulsory education systems. (Yes, really.) I suppose that this should be a flattering development-- after all, after years of hard study, I'm finally being asked to engage with "authentic" materials in my second language. On the other hand, as I reflected in the midst of Thursday's discussion on "how to read a pie chart", the exalted level to which I've advanced is in fact nothing more than a repeat of Ms. Bowers' 3rd grade social studies class-- only this time, instead of daydreaming my way to a "Exceeds all Expectations", I'm struggling to remember the words for "increasing ratio" and "change over time" and taking notes like I'm trying to burn a hole in the table. At least my handwriting is slightly better in Japanese (graceless) than English (indecipherable schizoid petroglyphs). Too bad they don't grade on Penmanship here.

My other classes, regrettably (or fortunately- I haven't quite decided) are taught in English, part of AIU's reputedly brutal international curriculum. I've nabbed a slot in the coveted Ikebana class, as well as a few others-- two 400-level seminars on the Japanese Constitution and International Law.

Here I'll throw another bone to the armchair national-character theorists: I was surprised to note that  all of the English-language classes require students to power through topic-oriented written material roughly as advanced as you'd expect for an American class on the same topics. I'm reading, for example, a Latinate jargon-intensive law-school intro book for International Law and a collection of history and law essays on the Constitution of Japan. However, the classroom sessions focus, not on the advanced content they're allegedly covering, but on the mechanical aspects of how to critically examine an author's tone for bias, formulate theses, and carry out basic classroom debates-- all of which, is, of course, hair-pullingly frustrating if you've already got these skills down and keep being called on to find the topic sentence in a paragraph when you'd rather be talking about content germane to the course.

One is, of course, tempted to use this evidence to attribute the deathly silence that I've had to sit through in both classes' "discussions" so far to that "cultural emphasis on harmony over debate and on factual knowledge over creativity" that gets trotted out in defense of American Exceptionalism every time Japanese 8th graders turn out to be able to add, subtract, and read at grade level 40% better than the USA. Certainly my professors seem to think this way-- the Law and Constitution prof personally thanked me after class for serving as a "model for the other students to follow in how to have a class discussion".

Perhaps there's something to it-- but since, on the other hand, some of my new Japanese acquaintances have already shown themselves more than eager to engage with me on, among other things, nuclear power and the Okinawa question during lunchroom chat sessions (in Japanese), I've got to say that I'm not buying the whole "culture of consensus" thing. I will, however, own that it's considerably harder to say:

"Given lingering tensions leftover from the Second World War, the Self-Defense Forces should probably not be reorganized as an independent army as such; however the Futenma base should be either moved from Okinawa or transferred to the control of Japan..."


"I'll have the fried eggplant, please".

no matter which language you're speaking.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Canned Coffee, reconsidered

I mentioned several posts ago that my initial flirtations with that uniquely Japanese beverage, canned coffee, had left me feeling less than satisfied-- at the time, I believe that I referred to it as "recognizably coffee-based, but not delicious by any reasonable standard". It's either oversweet (even the "no sugar" stuff) or left in a state of raw blackness that reminds one that you are, in fact, drinking coffee that was brewed weeks ago-- like going to a 7-Eleven at closing time and chugging the leftovers in the bottom of the day's carafe.

Somewhat frighteningly, I've begun to notice a shift in my attitude towards the stuff over the past few days, as driven in part by a need to acquire laundry change, and in part by a recently developed nagging urge for hot beverages around the darkest and coldest part of the rainy afternoons, I've now drunk many cans of the stuff, dispensed hot or cold (your choice!) from the school's alarmingly large stock of vending machines.

This, I think, is my favorite variety:

This is just one of the fine flavors in the Suntory Beverage Products BOSS Coffee family, the astonishingly OK-tasting Rainbow Mountain Blend-- apparently made of the finest Guatemalan beans, and several other ingredients which I'm just as happy not to be able to read. All of them, of course, are represented by the titular pipe-smoking boss dude, who manages to look at once like some generic representative of patriarchal authority (a pipe-smoking, virile father figure, as Freudians would note-- but why would you buy his coffee when you what you really want to do is defeat him and get with Mom?) and weirdly familiar. I thought first of good old Sigmund first, followed by General Montgomery, and then, in quick succession, Josef Stalin, Richard Francis Burton, Lord Kitchener,  and Orwell's description of Big Brother, which is probably why he kind of creeps me out the more I look at him, even in profile on his rainbowy can.

If one offers oblations to the Google, however, one learns quickly that, to the good folks at Suntory, Boss Guy looks considerably like Tommy Lee Jones-- but, as always with Japan, a twist:


The Men in Black movies are still earning Jones some bank, it seems. As the alien face of Boss Coffee, Jones seems to have made dozens of commercials for Suntory. Some are straightforward bits with "aliens come to earth, fall in love with canned coffee" (except for the poor alien in this one who apparently went deep cover in Akihabara for 7 years, and came out damaged goods, poor thing):

Other, weirder ones mix up the gag with hilariously specific parodies of stereotypical Japanese scenes from movies and TV:
In any case, Alien Tommy Lee Jones aside, the more I drink of the stuff, the more I like it. Is this what they call going native?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Just Passing Through

With nothing to do on the last day before the start of class, I took a walk yesterday afternoon down to the prefectural sports center, across the street from AIU. Of apparent 70's vintage, the park turned out to be huge-- given an athlete's village, they could have hosted most of an Olympic Games in the place. I passed dozens of tennis courts, a huge indoor stadium, two baseball diamonds, a track-field, an archery range, a javelin and field-events practice area, and passed up the velodrome, the rugby field, and the playground.

As it stood, I made about a 1.5 mile circuit, passing on my way the sites of half a dozen youth sports events, apparently all scheduled for Easter. In the indoor arena, I paused to watch a soccer tourney for 5th-grade boys, all of whom seemed to have been coached and trained on the semi-pro level (laser-aimed passes and sneaky strategic plays were the order of the day; even their 3rd-grade little sisters, presumably on after the guys' team game, were juggling balls on the sidelines with practiced ease). Further down the path, a raucous group of high-schoolers were in the midst of a doubles soft-tennis tournament, (a spinnier, sneakier game, the Japanese alternate-universe version of tennis, played with a longer racquet and a rubber ball of variable liveliness to allow for more squash-like play.) 

Past the basketball arena, I was waylaid by a crew of middle-schoolers, who interrupted their lunch to try their English on me.

Kid 1: "HELLO!"

Me: "Hey!" 

Peanut Gallery: <--Shut up, doofus, you're supposed to say "HOW ARE YOU?"!>

Me: <It's OK, guys, I speak some Japanese...>

Peanut Gallery: <Whoa, he's good! Where are you from?>

Me: <You know Virginia, in America?>

Kid 2: <Not really... is that on the East Coast?>

Me: <Yep, towards the middle of the east side.>

Kid 3: <Do you have a girlfriend?>

Me: <Well, uh, I'm single right now. How about y'all?>

Kid 4: <Nah, but he's sweet on one of the girls on the basketball team. That's why we're all out here.>

Kid 5: <Shut up!>


Peanut Gallery: <He already answered that one, dude!>

I crossed the frisbee-golf course in order to take the nature trail back to the University, a mossy path whose sylvan atmosphere was marred only slightly by a sign warning that suzume-bachi, Japanese giant sparrow-hornets, might be in the area ("If you find a nest, please, under no circumstances approach it. Back away slowly and quietly").

AKA yak-killer hornets. The example picture is about life-size.
Apparently the sign was present only out of abundance of care-- I saw nothing beyond flowers on my way back home to make ready for the first day of classes.


I've often heard (and seen repeated in Japanese grammar books), that, more than in other cultures, blithely content-free conversations about the weather are a linchpin of social interaction in Japanese society, forming a convenient bridge to other, more personally meaningful topics without the risk attendant in, say, jumping straight to complaining about the latest Diet elections before ascertaining the appropriate attitude to take. Like most supposed conventional wisdom about Japanese society, as far as I can tell, this is around 60% nonsense-- at least here in Akita, where the weather really is something to talk about.

The resources I'd read about Akita before leaving made clear that, deep as it is in the northern "Snow Country", the prefecture experienced an annual snowfall measured in the meters. Warm, moist air off the sea of Japan runs into the Siberian jetstream and dumps moisture on the mountainsides of Honshu year round, and when the the temperature rises above freezing around the end of March, the Akitan weather switches modes with the coming of spring from "Twice the Snow of Toronto" to "Seattle on Crack". Somehow, of course, I managed to learn this fact without really processing its implications-- these being of course, that since my arrival, it has probably rained 40cm. There have been no sunny days here so far-- only bright (sometimes even slightly sunny) interludes between soggy drizzle-fests. It's not even the nice kind of warm rain that feels like a kiss on the cheek-- it's a vile, chilly spray mixed with extra-large, freezing drips the size of buckshot.

Hope you packed a good slicker.

All of which is to say that my mood has been a little weird of late, an unaccountable rumble of-- if not obviously depression or culture shock-- then something, only present when I'm by myself, and staring at the clouds.

Fortunately, I have better things to do than look up at the sky and feel confused and sorry for myself around here, among them trips to Akita City's local shopping district, which is for the foreign visitor a heady mix of familiar and unexpected images of Japan.

As the largest city in miles, Akita naturally features a colossal mall, Aeon, named presumably for the fact that it would take a short lifetime to explore it in detail. While no match in sheer floorspace to the Mall of America, Aeon makes up for horizontal sprawl in vertical extent and labyrinthine complexity-- the complex has probably 8 floors in total, with narrow halls, a nearly indecipherable (at least to this poor foreigner) floorplan, and, at present, a troglodytic lighting scheme, a nod to the ongoing "Save Tohoku" power-saving campaign. It does, however, have around 25 restaurants, (including 4 adjacent, competing noodle-shops), the expected multitude of fashion shops, and, best of all, an outpost of Mujirushi Ryouhin, the anti-brand life-goods store empire that may yet be the last outpost of "good design" in the old "affordable, well-thought-out goods for the masses will sell themselves" sense. That they seem to be one of the only retail concerns to take this blessed idea seriously and survive for any length of time is perhaps due to the fact that the Muji shopping experience is defined not only by the  weirdly cleansing, neo-Bauhaus aesthetic of the goods on sale, but also by the pleasingly attentive yet unobtrusive attentions of a store staff trained visibly to a superhuman peak of obsequity. I bought a bath towel, a pencil eraser, and a ballpoint pen, and left feeling weirdly consummated by the experience, my goods packed in brown paper envelopes of faintly indecent smoothness. It was all very Tokyo. 

A more typical retail experience for Akita would seem to be the nearby AMANO Supercenter, a short walk away from Aeon, and, down to the scent of fertilizer, lacquer-thinner, vinyl, and fishbait, every inch the equivalent of your average Tractor Supply, down to a fabulously blingy custom truck in the parking lot.

Gonna pick up chicks in my log truck. Not shown: the antimacassars on the seats, and the huge in-dash TV.

I've signed up to take part in a few AIU-organized clean-up trips to quake-stricken areas, and so I came looking for a boiler suit and waterproof gloves. I was not disappointed, although it was a job trying to find work-clothes that weren't either too small, or emblazoned with ridiculously mangled 'English' words and phrases. Best of all were the baseball caps. I leave you with the best of the bunch:

Friday, April 22, 2011


Well, it's official now: I really am enrolled at AIU. Orientation ended this morning with the Matriculation Ceremony, an event of no small consequence, judging by the dress code (formal but for the majority of the international students, who apparently missed the repeated memos, and so showed up, for the most part, in jeans and sneakers), the event's coverage on local and regional TV, and the protracted speechifying in English and Japanese that made up the majority of the ceremony itself. 

 Flanked on either side by bleachers loaded with camera-toting parents, I, along with the entire entering class, was ushered into the auditorium to be ritually role-called individually by the university President and the Dean, each student being expected to rise from their place, and bowing, respond with a "Yes!"-- in English of course, this being an international university, and all. This done, we were subjected to a series of speeches, most, fortunately, in Japanese, from no less than university President, the Vice-governor of the prefecture, and the speaker of the prefectural assembly, through which we patiently sat before being released to do what we were actually at the ceremony for-- to take pictures of each other.

*The giant green Akita-inu, should you care,  is named <Wan>, a pun on the sound dogs make in Japanese, as well as a butchered rendition of "one", I guess for "one world". Punny names are common for mascot characters-- the local basketball team has a purple frog whose name is also a local dialect word meaning "loud". 

I can't remember how many group photos I took over the next hour. Certainly I can't recall all the names of the folks I took them with, which is going to get very embarrassing in short order. My concerted efforts to meet as many new students as possible around here has long since overwhelmed my already weak capacity for remembering names. Eventually I'm going to make some enemies if I keep having cordial chats with people and then asking them their names at the end of the conversation.

It may interest you to know that none of the kids I've met so far actually know why they make v-for-victory signs when cameras appear.

This guy, at least, I remember. This is Kazuma, my roommate, about whom more later, I suspect.

At some point, we were ushered back into the cafeteria for the New Student Reception, an event that, in a burst of international flair that may or may not have been entirely deliberate, featured for lunch a bill of fare that included at once the local delicacy kirtampo-nabe (a roasted mochi rice-dumpling floating in a cilantro-y chicken soup with cress), sponge cake, fried chicken, chocolate fondue, gyoza, takoyaki, and pizza. All the while, to my surprise, the speeches continued, from various members of the class, before I, too, was called up to say a few words on behalf of the new exchange students.

Given, as I was, only an occasion and the instructions to "mix in some Japanese because it sounds cool", I was pretty satisfied with the result of my modest oration-- I got solid attention and applause, and am so far still fielding compliments on its content.

皆さん、こんにちは、ランジーニ・デビドと申します。<Hello everyone, I'm David Ranzini.>
On behalf of the rest of the new foreign exchange students, I'd like to say how truly glad we all are to be here at Akita International University-- a happiness that, for all of us, is tempered with regret that not all of us who were planning to be here are with us today, and with the thought of others, elsewhere in Japan, who today are facing great hardship, even as we here begin this exciting journey together.
We're all from different countries, and different backgrounds, and we all have different reasons for coming here-- but all of us, I think, fundamentally intend to do some of the same things: to make friends, to learn about other cultures, about each other, and about ourselves. All of these are, of course, the kind of life-long goals that one never really can call “finished”, but in the brief time we've had together, I can already see how far we've come. We've grown from a collection of individuals brought here from a dozen countries to a community of friends from around the world. We've already learned so much about each other's countries, cultures and languages. And we're well on the way to making more important discoveries still.
I think there's something very true in the saying that it is in the faces of others that we see ourselves most clearly, and I hope that each and every one of us will be able to have such an experience here at AIU-- a meeting with students from outside our own nations or cultures that help us all to develop in our own right as true 国際人ーーcitizens of the world.
I hope that, with that spirit in mind, we can all work together towards a fun and productive semester here at AIU. 皆一緒にがんばりましょう!よろしくお願いします。<Let's work hard together! I hope that we'll all get along!>


The semester kicks in in earnest on the 25th. I suppose then we'll see how exciting that "journey" really is going to be. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011


I'll start this post off with another lame institution of the blog: apologizing for not posting more frequently. The last 3 days have had no shortage of interesting events, about all of which I intend, in short order, to tell you-- only they've come as bursts of free time in between various events in the New Student Orientation process, which consists of long stretches of receiving and signing papers, listening to long, admonishing speeches on sex ed (in which I learned the kanji for a variety of unpleasant sexually transmitted diseases), fire-prevention, culture shock, and earthquake evacuation, the last of these accompanied by a terrifying video on Great Japanese Disasters Through History being overcome by Careful Planning and Community Involvement, with bonus harrowing footage of emergency surgery being done on the floors of gymnasium evacuation centers, and pajama-clad civilians forming amateur bucket brigades and hose teams to battle blazes in the aftermath of the Kobe Earthquake. I was mildly amazed to see my Japanese seatmates dozing off through the scenes of disaster--  I was riveted. Along the way I also discovered firsthand that school fire safety training in Japan involves live-fire exercises involving real extinguishers and pools of gasoline. I'm not a keepsakey person, but since I was woken the other night by my first earthquake, a magnitude 3.0 that felt like light chop on the ocean, but accompanied by an ominous, subliminal rumble, I figure that keeping the discharge safety pin from "my" extinguisher might not be bad for luck.

A last reason for my silence, at least today-- I've been asked, as one of the better-looking and better-spoken (yes really) exchange students by the administration to give a brief speech after tomorrow's New Student Entrance Ceremony. I'm to keep the English relatively simple, and mix in some Japanese,  "since it'll be cooler that way". (Bonus fun: The office staff who watched me attempt to politely prevaricate before giving in to doing the thing said that I tried to worm my way out of the unpleasant request just as if I had been Japanese. A compliment to my cultural competency or something, I guess...?)

If the speech ends up in a fit state for reading, I'll post it when it's done. In the meantime, here is one of my classmates going berserk on a puddle of gas-- no one was there with a camera for when it was my turn, unfortunately.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Unfamiliar Ceilings, part 3

Before my bottle of "Let's Vitamin!" was half finished, I looked up to see a sign-carrying functionary from Akita University had already arrived at the other end of the Arrivals area, and was already being approached by a group of excited-looking Japanese students, mostly female.

Perhaps I hadn't gotten the memo quite right, or I'd been too focused on reflecting on the taste of Let's Vitamin!, which turned out to be somewhere in the vicinity of lemon-grapefruit-flavored Mountain Dew, and not at all disagreeable, as these things go. I walked towards the group, trying to look far less nervous than I felt. I introduced myself in Japanese to the functionary, and took stock, feeling the conversation around me grow quiet, and eyes turn in my direction.

An interval of near silence followed--an awkward moment that over the next few days I came to know well, as everyone tried to decide whether, and in what language to address me.  My briefing material on AIU had said that most of the students had come to the school to learn and practice English on live foreigners. I hadn't exactly come prepared for silence. There was nothing for it but to try a flustered jikoshoukai.

The jikoshoukai, literally "self introduction", a brief, slightly formalized speech giving, at minimum, one's name bracketed by pro forma expressions of best wishes for the future of the new acquaintances' relationship, is the first task most American students of Japanese are taught, and for good reason.

My textbooks had pointed out that the practice of self-introduction was culturally institutionalized to such an extent that a competent speaker always has the set speech memorized in several different versions, incorporating more or less content as the situation demands. Most famously, this includes one's job title and corporate affiliation in business contexts, rendered in a form that when translated literally into English tends to imply that one is the property of one's organization-- a piece of cultural trivia about the Japanese that armchair anthropologists love to dissect for dubious insight into the Oriental mind. As a sometime viewer of Japanese TV, I was also aware that a frequently repeated scene in dramas involves the practice of bringing newly transferred students to the front of their homeroom classes to run through their spiel, with comic or dramatic variations, a favorite being Teacher's inability to correctly spell the elaborate, obscure name characters of a new student from old money (or space, as the case might be). "Introducing oneself in this way", the books had learnedly intoned, "allows the listener to determine the speaker's social position and begin to get an idea of how to approach him or her without threat of embarrassment through mistaking social roles", and as I was quickly discovering the hard way, it's therefore a decent icebreaker when people you don't know are trying to figure how much longer they can stare before they have to open their mouths.

The only problem, I quickly found, comes when the conversation never gets beyond this safe and familiar ground. I can't remember the first few conversations I had with my new classmates, but the following summary is, sadly, a pretty good equivalent. In the best tradition of bad science fiction writing, all Japanese lines are <enclosed in greater/less than marks>,  while I'll just put the English in quotation marks.

Me:  <Hi! Nice to meet you, I'm David Ranzini! I hope we'll get along!>

Japanese Student:  "Umm... Where... are you from? "

Me: <I'm from America. Do you know the state of Virginia?>

Japanese Student:  <Whoa, you're good at Japanese! How long did you study?>

Me: <Oh, you needn't say that! I've only studied about 3 1/2 years and all>

Japanese Student:<Wow! Only 3 years! You're really good.>

Me: <Really, I'm sure that's not true. After all, you studied English for years, didn't you?>  "I mean, we could chat in English too, right?"

Japanese Student <I understand a little. Wow, you're good at Japanese!>

Me: <...>

Flailing around for something to stoke the fires, I quickly found myself doing all the talking, never really getting beyond the surface level on my partners, while running me into the ground. If I didn't do something soon, any international exchange as happened would end up stuck in one direction!

The bus pulled away from the airport as I struggled valiantly to pry personal details out of the other passengers, and made its way down from the sliced-off airport mountain to flatter land below. I noticed, as we rolled past hills covered with a conifer whose name I didn't know, that we were riding on an expressway-sized road, complete with off-ramps, that seemed hilariously outsized for the job. On either side, the occasional house swept by-- larger than the houses I'd seen in Tokyo, most two-storied, with pitched roofs of shiny black tile, and most all surrounded by the Tohoku rice fields I'd been promised. The effect was hard to place, somewhere around a mashup of Canada and the colder US states, the drained, flat paddies looking a bit Saskatchewan-y, but hemmed in with steep hills and brooded over by the huge, snow-capped mountains I'd seen from the plane.

The bus took a right turn suddenly, and pulled up in front of a complex of low grey buildings. We'd arrived, apparently, but I still had to find out where the new "here" was.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Unfamiliar Ceilings, part 2

The flight north was short, quiet, and unexpectedly scenic, the plane making a a slow turn around the verge of Tokyo before winging northwards. My high-school aged seatmate, trying hard to be too cool to talk to me, plugged in her headphones while we were still at the gate, and spent the flight pointedly browsing the in-flight magazine, lingering over the cosmetics adverts.

From my window, the landscape seemed to change with astonishing abruptness from the low-lying Kanto plain to a sudden landscape of snow-capped peaks, part of the mountainous spine of Japan. As we headed northwest, the view grew more rugged still. In 1902, I recalled reading, all but 11 of a party of 210 Japanese soldiers froze to death in the mountains only a little further north of here, trapped in a blizzard during a training exercise.

A seat behind me, an elderly couple tried to guess at which famous peaks were sliding past below, speaking an unfamiliar dialect I couldn't place, let alone easily understand. They would not have been out of place in a remake of Tokyo Story-- I wished I could have asked if they had a widowed daughter-in-law named Noriko. Several rows ahead of me, a group of Japanese Red Cross volunteers, most of them empty-nesters in their 50's dressed in red and grey boiler suits sat, on their way to the stricken eastern coast by way of the northernmost undamaged airport. Almost all were trying to sleep, with the exception of a man in an aisle seat, who leafed through the Tohoku section of a road atlas, looking up the layouts of coastal towns and sucking air through his teeth nervously.

As the mountains gave way once again to foothills, wooded with what looked from the air like Canadian pine forest, I reflected on how little I've actually been able to read about Akita, my destination. One of the northern-most prefectures (at least south of Hokkaido, the large northern island), Akita, part of the larger north Japan region collectively called "Tohoku", was the untamed frontier in the 6th and 7th century, home to various indigenous peoples, whose language and culture are said to have left a lasting mark on the Japanese who drove them from their land. The area has long been underdeveloped and rural, the people making their living from planting rice, (renowned as some of Japan's best), hunting bears and fur-bearing animals in the mountains with the help of Akita-inu hunting dogs, and giving birth to creamy-skinned beauties known as Akita-bijin ("beautiful women of Akita").

Describe a region in terms of its agricultural products and beautiful daughters, and one naturally wants to close the tag-line with "... and the children are all above average.", Garrison Keillor's old line about the tiny town of Lake Wobegone, Minnesota. But there are few tourists in Lake Wobegone, and since I didn't want to feel like a tourist on this trip, this was precisely the point.

During the Second World War, US war planners seem not to have felt there was much excitement in northern Japan-- or rather, not much worth bombing-- Akita City was so far down the list of priority target cities that American war planners waited to schedule a B-29 firebomb raid until August 15, 1945, only hours before the official announcement of the surrender. They still skipped most of the smaller cities in the region, and Tohoku is consequently still well known for its well-preserved traditional architecture and village-community atmosphere, along with the whole natural beauty, agriculture, and cute girls thing.

Or, in many cases, was; my guidebook was effusive with praise for the coastal city of Sendai, now, as I knew, completely destroyed.

Akita Airport turned out to be an unprepossessing one-runway deal of grimy 1960's vintage, set on top of a flattened space on top of a small mountain. As we taxied past the only other plane parked at the terminal building, I noticed that there seemed to be an alarmingly large variety of snow-removal machines arrayed in readiness-- huge mining forklifts, and military 6-wheel drive trucks with plows. Evidence that they had recently been used was stacked in the form of piles of snow here and there that were large enough to hide a small house, despite a temperature in the 60s.

The Arrivals area shared its space with the ticket windows, only a few steps from the gate. More for the experience than anything else, I asked the woman at the small airport information desk when the shuttlebus to Akita International University was expected to arrive. With 15 minutes to kill, I bought myself some kind of enriched mystery soda labeled "Let's Vitamin!" and sat down to absorb vitamins and scope out my surroundings.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Unfamiliar Ceilings, part 1

It's been a busy 24 hours over here, made longer by how early I started the day. This will probably be a long two-parter multi part post.

I rolled out of an uneasy sleep at two in the morning local time at the promptings of The Jet Lag Demons. The much-publicized electricity-saving measures in the Tokyo area don't seem to have had much effect on the cyberpunk skyglow of the city. From my window, the sky over the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Staring at the sides of the room got boring, so I tried the TV.  Foreign commentators love Japanese late-night television, which must be responsible for half of Youtube's "Weird Japanese TV" themed videos. Well past the hour when practically anyone other than jet-lagged foreigners, insomniacs, and obsessive anime fanboys can be expected to be watching TV, it's a weird blend of low-budget reruns, shopping TV and stuff that's considered too non-family friendly to show when kids are awake. I scrolled past half a dozen shopping infomercials and several 'zany' celebrity talk-variety shows before finding myself watching the premiere episode of a new anime series which, as far as I could determine, concerned the adventures of an  student as he packed up his backpack with his textbooks, lunchbox,  gun and butterfly knife on the way to his first day at what surely must have been the world's premiere private high school for young secret agents. Secret agents apparently still have to bike to school, which has some disadvantages when an unknown organization attempts to kidnap or kill you using (no lie) remote-controlled robot Segways with Uzis attached to their handlebars. (If only he had chosen a mode of transport capable of going faster than 12 miles an hour.)

TV did the trick for sleepiness, in the end. By the time our hero was rescued by one of his sharp-tongued, quick-drawing classmates, whose ability in wielding concealed handguns was matched by her equally astonishing inability to sit in a skirt without revealing her underwear, I had grown tired enough to finally doze off. 

I woke again to find the NHK equivalent of the Today show running wall-to-wall coverage of the earthquake aftermath, including coverage of official shelter visits from the Crown Prince, the announcement of an official government compensation plan for victims, a worried update on the level of radiation in the water trapped in the Fukushima reactors, and an unbelievably depressing profile piece on a 8th-grader from Miyagi Prefecture whose courageous attempt to be happy in order to fulfill her father's last New Year's wish was literally heartbreaking. More dark news came in the form of a studio interview with a seismologist who enumerated the hundreds of continuing aftershocks Japan-wide before predicting more earthquakes in the next few days. 

Coming down for breakfast (rice, miso soup, cold potato salad, pickled lotus roots with sesame seeds, astringent preserved ume plums and coffee) was a relief. Outside the breakfast bar, uniform-clad middle-schoolers trundled off to school in groups of twos and threes, and salarymen stopped at the canned coffee machines to get their morning cups of joe. I wandered off after breakfast to walk around the district, following signs to the Haneda Library into a residential neighborhood of quiet, close-spaced houses, before walking back to the main road, where by chance I found myself in front of the SEGA video-game company's headquarters.  It was only once I was on the airport shuttle-bus that I realized I'd forgotten my camera. 
 Looking for the option that contained the least (identifiable) meat, I bought a bento lunchbox that billed itself as a "30 Item Balance Lunch", (deciding to take as a good sign that I couldn't read the names of at least 24 of its ingredients) and a bottle of a surprisingly excellent sports drink called Pocari Sweat in the airport, and sat down to wait with a bargain-bin copy of Carl Sagan's Cosmos. 

By the time the plane arrived, Sagan was rattling on about the wonders of Mars, and I was wondering what species of small bird had laid the delicate hard-boiled egg I'd just popped in my mouth, feeling excited and nervous and sleepy at the same time. 

Thursday, April 14, 2011


The less that's said about international plane travel, the better, as far as I'm concerned. It's got to be the most expensive, least-fun activity ever devised. I'll spare you the usual rant about baggage fees, the long lines and senseless martinetism of the security process, and the mysterious processes by which airline food is converted into a substance about which the best that can be said is that, like iodine-131, it is  largely non-poisonous as long as one's dosage is kept to a minimum. Nor will I unwind on the way in which the mind becomes progressively unwound as the body jets from time-zone to time-zone.  Instead, I will share with you a thought that sprang unbidden to my mind as I attempted to make myself comfortable against the shuttered Lexan porthole as we hung in midair somewhere over Kamchatka:

If there is a Hell, it is probably only accessible by a 13-hour plane ride.

So, of course, when I got off the plane to find myself in Narita Airport instead of Hades, my day could only get better, and I was pleasantly surprised when, to a large extent, it did.

I feel I'm now in the position to make four remarks:

First-- Japan does make an immediate impression. Everything really is as on time as everyone says, and the politeness with which all business transactions are conducted comes as a faintly surreal relief after the unmitigated psychic violence of long-distance air travel. Boarding a shuttlebus that not only arrives on time, but is bowed in and out of its parking space by white-gloved attendants feels unbelievably right after hours of stale food and recycled air.

Second: These other current stereotypes of Japan are at least partially true: Some of the toilets are robotic. (Google "washlet".) Hotel rooms are small. (This is the view from the door of mine.)

Convenience stores are everywhere. Food in convenience stores is surprisingly edible. There are a surprisingly large number of canned coffee options. Narita Airport's elevators announce floors in a chirpy, girlish lilt.  Its escalators do the same. Most everyone seems surprised and pleased if you are able to do business in Japanese, as I was for the most part.

Third: Canned coffee is recognizably coffee-based, but is not, by any equitable standard, particularly delicious. Garbage cans are strangely scarce. Those people not employed by service industries are polite and helpful, but, (as one would expect), not falling over themselves to chat with haggard-looking foreigners.

Fourth: Small signs of the quake are everywhere-- half of the silver-tongued elevators in Narita are closed to save energy in a post-quake voluntary rationing policy, and my hotel has no hot water before 6.  Many of the conversations I overheard concerned themselves in one way or another with the earthquake and its aftermath.

More later; I need to attend to my circadian rhythm.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

First Page

Greetings, readers. This is me: 

And what you see before you is to be my travel blog, this being the awkward first post that no one reads, the one where the blogger self-consciously tries to sell you on the project of reading about someone else's life for its prospective entertainment or educational value. Here's my pitch:

If you're not reading this blog because I'm related to you, (don't wave-- it's embarrassing, Mom!) then you should know that I'm a college student, majoring in East Asian Studies, and, as of the writing of this post, about 24 hours away from landing in Japan for a 3-month term at an international university in the northern prefecture of Akita, where I'll be doing the usual abroad-student activities: making friends, learning the language, and in my case, finally experiencing life in a country that I still know only secondhand. 

I've already traveled enough to know that this will almost certainly involve a vertigo-inducing loss of illusions as I fumble my way towards actually living in a place I've just spent around ten years dreaming of and three years writing essays about. I'm still waiting to find out how much I recognize and how much will be new.

 An added complication in all this is, of course, not where I'm going, but when. My first experiences in Japan will come only shortly after an immense earthquake and tsunami that, at present has ended the lives of 27,000, laid waste to dozens of towns on the north-east coast, and triggered a ongoing nuclear crisis at Fukushima. Even though I'm far enough away from both the stricken coastline and the damaged nuclear power plant to be safe (and not to interfere with rescue efforts), I'll be headed into the immediate aftermath of what will probably be a defining moment in the century-- one of those nodal points after which everything changes. To say I don't know what I'll find is probably an understatement. Here goes nothing.