風になりたい! Kaze ni naritai! 

A look at life in Japan through big, round, gaijin eyes. Relfections on life in Japan, America, from the faceless streets of Tokyo. Let's blogging!

Friday, March 31, 2006

Hanami 2006


Hanami 2006
Originally uploaded by bonitsky.
Iyo-iyo hajimatta!

Windy Weather

[Photo taken 3/17]

Tokyo Sunset on a Windy Day
Originally uploaded by bonitsky.


Spring is here, and the wind has been blowing. Normally once the temperature rises in the Kanto plain, the cloud of smog and haze that lingers over Tokyo makes Fuji impossible to see except in the early morning. But this year the wind blowing out toward Tokyo bay has been so strong, I've been getting a good view of Fuji out my office window almost every day. (Interesting aside - the farther you stand from the window, the bigger Fujisan looks due to paralax--like the full moon on the horizon.)
Up in Yoshida, the spring winds would howl around my school and danchi, but sheltered in my Kasumigaseki high rise, you barely notice until you step outside and are nearly blown away.
No word on how the strong winds will affect the length of the Sakura viewing season (already almost at full bloom). It's killing spring ultimate...
Could it prevent this year's Sakura photo extravaganza? Stay tuned...

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Reunion


Reunion
Originally uploaded by bonitsky.
Yesterday I met up with Saito-sensei, the teacher with whom I team-taught for 2-and-a-half years at Fujimidai JHS back in Yamanashi. He was in the tokyo area for an invitational basketball tournament. Some of his students were playing for the Yamanashi team. Saito-sensei introduced me to one of his favorite German restaurants in Yurakucho, where we enjoyed fine import brews and racked up a bill well over 10,000yen. (We spent about $100US for the two of us.) Of course, with each beer going for about 1,000yen, it didn't take much.


Le Guillotine
Originally uploaded by bonitsky.
Not only were we able to catch up after not seeing each other since last summer, but 2 of the 3 types of beer I tried were mighty tasty. The third, this beligian strong ale called 'le guillotine' was at least mighty alcoholic-weighing in at 9.0%, according to the label. It is made by the same brewer that makes the considerably more appealing delerium tremens


Wiezen
Originally uploaded by bonitsky.
Of course, it being Tuesday and all, the good times couldn't last forever. Saito-sensei went home to Yamanashi, but hopefully I'll see him again soon, maybe even in mid-April. Of course, as chance would have it, I had an invitation to another gathering in Yukarucho, and took my considerderable buzz over there to meet up with Pat at the Foreign Correspondent's Club of Japan where I tried to pass myself off as a respected journalist for over 30 seconds before deciding I would be much better off playing the role of fun drunk guy.

I was on time to work on Wednesday.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

"A Shinagawa Monkey"

Haruki Murakami is my favorite Japanese author. From his famous works of fiction like Norwegian Wood and The Windup Bird Chronicle to his short stories and essays, I almost never fail to be profoundly affected by his work.

Certain thematic elements crop up again and again in Murakami's body of work: loss, or more specifically, the disappearance of something important (often of a woman); memory; underground places (especially wells); music; the subconscious (loosely some sort of alternative to the normal conscious ego that deals with reality). The narrative voice is often the first person voice of the male main character--who may deceptively seem to be a representation of the author himself. Animals appear figuratively or literally--usually cats. Even in the straightest of Murakami's stories, there are often fantastical elements which are not explained, and elements of the plot (even the main elements) which are not resolved. Of course, there are exceptions to these rules, just as his own disregard for the rules he has established in a specific piece is almost a standard, unifying feature of Murakami's writing.

"A Shinagawa Monkey" was printed in The New Yorker in February. It was part of a collection of five short stories he published last year that I have yet to read. It is the story of a young woman who has lost her name. Unfortunately, like most of his works that The New Yorker has featured, at first read it didn't do much for me. I'm not sure if I had read it in Japanese if I would have gotten a different impression, but I really am not even inclined to give it another read. However, since he is my favorite Japanese author, and because the titular monkey inhabits the sewers directly below the part of Tokyo in which I'm living now, I would be amiss not to post a link here

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Grand Opening


Grand Opening
Originally uploaded by bonitsky.
In Japan, kaika, or the opening of the cherry blossoms does not officially happen until a certain designated tree comes into bloom. So even if all the other trees have blossomed, they are considered still closed. So this tree is not in bloom. Don't try to say it is. Liar.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Classic Victory


Today Japan won the World Baseball Classic, meaning that the names Ichiro, Matsuzaka, Nishioka, Satozaki, Uehara, and all the rest will head straight to the Japanese sports pantheon hot on the heels of Olympic Figure Skating gold-medalist Shizuka Arakawa. Tomorrow the lead story on the front page of every Japanese newspaper will run a picture of the team tossing legendary manager Sadaharu Oh into the air.

Just a month ago, Japan was suffering from a huge national sense of embarrassment as one elite Japanese athlete after another flopped on the Olympic stage. Now, following Arakawa's victory in the Olympics most glamorous event, Japan can claim that they are world champions of baseball.

At least in Japan, the WBC was a huge success. Depsite not selling out the Tokyo Dome (tickets were more expensive for the first round games there than they were for the final in San Diego), the WBC captured the imagination of the entire country. Looking at images of the partisan crowds for all the Asian and Latin American nations at the games held in the States, I would venture that baseball is only going to get more popular in those countries as a result of this event. But here, over the last few years since the 2002 World Cup, baseball and soccer have been vying for the hearts of the Japanese fans, and this victory, barring an unexpected run deep into this summer's WC, means that baseball is once again going to be the most popular sport. (It also means that over the next few years, major league announcers will have to learn how to say names like Kousuke Fukudome or Tomoya Satozaki, as well as learn the difference between Matsuzaka and Matsunaka.)

Clearly the American public wasn't as captivated by the WBC, and while the timing of pitting it against March Madness (which this year I can watch live, for free, thanks to CBS Sportsline--which is fantastic) can be held partly to blame, to me this seems to signify two things about America. First, baseball may still be called our national passtime, but it is clearly no longer as popular as football, which I think in a certain way is a shame. I love football. I nearly lost my job staying up to watch the Steelers' playoff run on live satellite broadcasts. But there is a poetry, a certain magic to baseball that can't be captured by any of the other "major sports." Even in March, on the first day of spring, watching baseball, it feels like summer, or maybe even--for a game of today's significance--it feels like the first crisp days of autumn. That most American sports fans seemed to miss out on that special feeling is a shame, because here that sense of magic and national pride transcended the typical sports' section crowd.

Which brings me to my second point: the fact that not all of our best players bought into the WBC was also a shame, and no doubt it contributed to the lack of interest on the part of the American public. By playing his heart out for his country, Ichiro, who although wildly popular was considered to be too egocentric and disengaged to be truly loved in Japan, has risen to the pinnacle of the public's esteem. Respected for his on the diamond achievements, the love he showed playing for team Japan has truly won him the hearts of the people here. On the other hand, Hideki Matsui and Tadahito Iguchi, two Japanese stars who were more well-liked in the realm of public opinion, have fallen far in the eyes of many. There is a perception of Matsui now that he cares more about himself than his Japanese identity, which here is a big no-no. But what of the American identity? Granted, as a country of immigrants, it doesn't mean exactly the same thing to be American as it does to be Japanese. But where were the scathing critcisms of our players who refused invitations or dropped out? Where were the tears cried for Roger Clemens(even though I always hated him) or Al Leiter, who have probably pitched for the last time on the grand stage and will go home losers. Where is the pride of cheering America on to victory?

Maybe that national pride in sports has been eroded by too much winning over the years. Though Japan's victory in the WBC was a hoped for but unexpected, and therefore unforgettable moment in Japanese sports history, for the US it would have been just another championship. Maybe it is hard to be too proud of our country when our goverment is run by a man that over 60% of Americans have no confidence in, and when people in America can't agree on the rights of their neighbors to love whom they want to or believe what they want to believe without strife and possibly violence.

The Japanese team approached the WBC the right way, training together since January, and I'm proud of them for winning. I'm happy for my friends here who feel more national pride to be Japanese today than they did yesterday. I'm sorry that most of America doesn't get to see that magical effect.

I just hope that my TV doesn't get too tired of showing replays and interviews of the players over the next few months. Maybe if I'm lucky they'll finally stop showing Arakawa's long program, or having special reports that feature children and animals emulating her signature back bend move. Now on deck, "Cats that Look Like Ichiro," the three hour special...

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Okinawa (Part 2) -- Sea and Wind

[December 2-3, 2005]
Having spent an exciting night in Naha, we were anxious to see some of the Okinawan countryside. So we rented a car and headed north, away from the creeping cityscape of the Southern tip of the main island of Okinawa. Despite the slight chill in the air, we were hoping for waves, sand, and sunshine.
Our first stop turned out to be Katsuren Castle, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, about an hour and a half northeast of Naha. The "gusuku" castle ruins site dated back to the 1300s, and had been the seat of power for the last opponent to the Ryukyuu kings. During World War II, the spaces beneath the old foundations most likely became shelters for terrified Okinawan citizens, who had been told by the Japanese that the invading Americans intended to slaughter the inhabitants of the island to a man. The government of Okinawa plans to keep rebuilding the castle sites, so that they all will one day be as restored to their former glory, like Shuri-jo.

From Katsuren, we continued along the eastern side of Okinawa, across a huge causeway to some small islands where (after passing quite a few of them padlocked up for the winter) we found our "private beach." It's amazing what a little sun and surf can do to calm the soul.The water was warm, but the air was chilly. Not bad for December, but not exactly Hawaii. Cape Cod in May. I want to go back sometime when I can melt on the hot sand.


It was getting later on in the afternoon, so it was time to start looking for somewhere to stay. We had absolutely nothing planned out in advance (since I had organized things), but we had a few numbers we could try. Eventually, on the recommedation of a friend, we sought out lodging for the night at a hostel called 海と風の宿(The House of Sea and Wind). It was dark by the time we arrived, and dinner was waiting for us when we arrived. One of the younger guys there had prepared the feast. Though he was bashful of his cooking abilities, after a long day, the tasty food was (almost) enough to overcome Juri's doubts about the comfortable but shabby looking hostel.
The House of Sea and Wind is run by a kindly old former hippy in a wheelchair name Narita. Narita has done several stints on the peace boat, and he is firmly convinced that the key to world peace is a smile, a handshake, a warm meal, a little music, and a roof overhead. That's how he got into the hostelling business. Also staying at the hostel were a group of 6 or 7 men and a woman who had been there "indefinitely." They worked around the hostel on a rotating schedule of chores, fishing, doing organic farming, and just helping to keep the place from falling down. They ranged in age from high school dropouts to senior citizens. There was one other guest staying as well--a soul-searcher nicknamed "Ten-chan" (I never got his full name-I'm just guessing from the nickname that it might have been Amano...) from Yokohama who had dropped city life and taken off in his pickup with the hope of finding a job in the Okinawan countryside. He had drifted to 海と風の宿because the hostel was frequented by shanshin experts and teacher. Ten-chan was hoping to master the 3-stringed instrument, and he was happy to give Juri and I lessons on the basics. Before long, we were strumming away, albeit frustratedly, since every other not was wrong.

Narita and I stayed up talking well into the night. There was a strange magnetism to the old man's words. I found it hard to meet his gaze- there was a light in his eyes that was hard to look at. Time and again I found my eyes straying to his ruined foot that had put him in the wheelchair. I know that I wasn't discreet, but he never once mentioned it. "There are things you can do that I can't do, my friend." He told me, grasping my arm. "Right now, you have the world ahead of you, but I have a dream. If you were to open an inn like this, you'd find that the whole world comes to your doorstep, just like you came here. It doesn't take much, just a roof and some good people. You open a place like this, and happiness comes to your door. And if the whole world is in one place, and happy, there's peace." And he added with a laugh, "With just a few more people like us, sitting around, talking, dreaming, we could make world peace together, you and I!"

In the morning, a rooster crowed me awake with the dawn, and even with Juri's warm body next to mine I couldn't get back to sleep in the chill air. Finally she awoke, and was rather upset to find that a few ants had managed to get into the room during the night. "This place isn't so bad," she said, "but it needs a woman's touch. I'm glad we're only staying one night." By the time we were ready to go, Narita-san had gone somewhere. But Ten-chan and some of the other guys serenaded us off with their san-shin. Ten-chan was also moving on, so he gave us directions to another hostel he was staying at, further up the west coast of the island.
"Not so bad, I guess," Juri repeated, as we pulled out.

From The House of Sea and Wind, we headed westward across the narrow island to the city of Nago, where we did one of the things I had been dying to do ever since we landed at the airport--we went to A&W for a late breakfast/early lunch. It must have something to do with the American occupation of Okinawa after the War, but for some reason, there are A&W restaurants all over Okinawa. There are definitely nowhere else in Japan, nor do you really see them in the Northeast back home. At 10am, I was down for a rootbeer float and a burger. They even had curly fries, which Juri had never seen before. Although she wasn't impressed by the cuisine ("This is why Americans are all fat!"), and I don't think she likes rootbeer very much at all, I was a pretty happy camper. Needless to say, I rolled home from Okinawa.
Our big destination for the slightly overcast day was the Churaumi Aquarium, one of the greatest in the world, according to my Fujiyoshida senpai, Captain Chris. And sure enough (they don't call him Captain for nothin'!) despite iffy weather, Churaumi didn't dissapoint.
From tiny seahorses to the largest fish on earth, the absolutely enormous whale sharks, the exhibitions at Churaumi were mind-blowing. I get down on Japan a lot for what it has done to its environment, but this aquarium somehow managed to capture the beauty of the ocean while celebrating and honoring it as well. I would definitely list it as a must see for anyone travelling to Okinawa.
Even the dolphin shows (which I have been seeing and even participating in since I was a toddler) taught me something new. I never knew (nor wanted to know) how you could tell a male dolphin from a female one besides going generally by size before (btw, Juri took this picture...).

[To be continued...]

Friday, March 10, 2006

HP+250


HP+250
Originally uploaded by bonitsky.
To promote the upcoming game Final Fantasy XII, Square-Enix released a limited edition "potion" health drink at convenience stores throughout Japan. For the novelty alone, I picked one up while I was buying lunch today. There are 6 different collectable bottles, and though I'm sure an unopened box would fetch a nice lump of gil on ebay, I just had to know how a potion tastes.


POWER-UP
Originally uploaded by bonitsky.
The potion itself is pale blue liquid extraction (made by Suntory, apparently) of royal jelly, elder, camomile, sage, thyme, hyssop, fennel, majoram, and other herbs. It tasted like cough syrup, but I definitely felt my HP getting totally powered up. What I didn't expect was the boost to my magic points! I quickly ran over to the International Support and Cooperation Division in my office and cast thundara and blizzaga in rapid succesion on the section chief. Once he was down, I was able to take out almost the entire the department without any problems, until some folks in the Exchange and Information Section drove me back across the office to my own Guidance and Counseling Division. What they don't know is that later on this afternoon I'm gonna head back down to the AMPM in the building next door so I can finish them off...

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Consumerism on the March


Consumerism on the March
Originally uploaded by bonitsky.
The new Omotesando Hills shopping center has to be seen to believed. Tokyo's newest monument to the consumer is a newer, posher (if possible), more chic sibling to Roppongi Hills. Designed by the same controversial building firm, Mori Building, it is truly a marvelous symbol of what it means to be Japanese in Tokyo. Of course, the place is packed.

Not quite of the proper social stratum to frequent boutiques of the quality that fill this place, as expected I have never heard of any of the stores.


Omotesando Hills - Inside
Originally uploaded by bonitsky.
Omotesando is the name of the street that leads up to the famous Meijijingu Shrine. Omotesando starts in Aoyama, and ends in Harajuku, two of the most fashionable districts in Tokyo. It is a rare, tree-lined street in this concrete jungle, and is famous for its outdoor cafes and world-class boutiques. Accross the street from Omotesando Hills are stores like Burbury's, Louis Vitton, and TOD's. As for the new complex, from the outside it cuts a stark, clean silhouette--very modern, yet with some interesting angles and lighting effects that soften and make it more visually appealing than I expected from a building of that style. Inside, the entire building coils on itself around a central open atrium in a giant spiral. To accomplish this, all the walkways are sloped, so you are always walking uphill or downhill. All the shops are on the outside walls, meaning you can walk from the bottom floor (BF3) to the top (3F) in one direction and never have to backtrack to hit a single store.


More Omotesando Hills
Originally uploaded by bonitsky.
To me, Mori's designs are coming to capture the way I feel about Tokyo. According to the website:
The independent, style-conscious urbanites who gravitate to Omotesando will find in Omotesando Hills a new benchmark in creativity: the place to go for insights into the latest trends and the most up-to-date lifestyles. Omotesando Hills will bring additional refinement to tradition, authenticity, and quality by reinterpreting and revitalizing fashion, art, artisanship, and the traditional Japanese aesthetic of wa. The creative space formed through this approach will stand for the first expression of a new era in style
. But the question demands to be asked, who wants additional refinement to tradition and authenticity? As the Mori Building description of the project says, "The spiral connecting slope will allow visitors to enjoy indoors the sensation of strolling outdoors. Those entering the building will be greeted by the surprising sight of another Omotesando, nested within the original." But why just not walk outside along the famous street? Who needs another Omotesando?

To build Omotesando Hills, a historic block of apartments built in 1927 had to be destroyed. Granted the brick-front apartments with ivy-covered walls needed renovation, but they were regarded as a refreshing throwback to simpler times in the trendy Omotesando/Harajuku area. The new complex does have a residential component that hopes to cash in on that tradition--and I'm sure it's beautiful, though I hear frent for a modest one bedroom apartment starts at $7,000 a month. Still, given the way that a month after the grand-opening crowds are still flocking to the new complex, it definitely cannot be viewed as anything but a resounding success so far. Though I wonder whether the hype can last. A few years ago, Roppongi Hills was similarly flooded with people just there for the "unique" experience. While that Mori project maintains its relevance in the Tokyo scene, it is nowhere near as popular as it was when it first opened.

Juri says that Tokyo is floating in it's own little world, with no connection to the real Japan. It is a city that constantly seeks to reinvent itself, without ever stopping to enjoy what it has created. As such, it never creates a unified identity--and not just because each district has a different flavor. No matter where you are in Tokyo, the one unifying factor is that something is changing--which in a sense somehow erases the feeling that anything ever changes at all.

The word "trendy", in Tokyo, carries the weight of millions. (If you want to be rich, find an idea that will appeal to women in Tokyo for two weeks. That's all you need, and you will make enough money to last you a lifetime--after all, the rest of Japan will pick up on it shortly thereafter anyway.) Many Tokyo-ites are fashionable and wealthy, and they seem more devoted to style than comfort. In a city where the average person lives in a tiny apartment and commutes hours to work each way, every day--then works long hours to boot, it seems that most Tokyo-ites need to escape to places like Omotesando Hills to justify their lifestyles. Call it a monument to the unique culture of comsumerism that grips young people here. Coming to a place like Omotesando reaffirms that Tokyo is the center of the universe, or at least should be.

I don't want to sound too critical of Tokyo and it's people. After all, slowly but surely I am being romanced by this city, even if the ratty jeans I wore today were purchased in high school. All the values I love about Japan, as well as all that I can't stand are still here. It's just that they, like the neighborhoods and streets themselves are being reinterpreted and redesigned--so that it takes a while to recognize what I'm looking at.

Friday, March 03, 2006

GAME OVER. Japan 18 - China 2


WBC-CHINESE FANS
Originally uploaded by bonitsky.
Despite the support of the Chinese fans in attendence, who were clearly out-numbered but raucously supported their team--especially when they amazingly tied up the game at 2-- four costly errors and no relief pitching send China spiraling down to a huge deficit.

WBC-ICHIRO
Originally uploaded by bonitsky.
Clearly the big draw of the night is Ichiro, even moreso since other stars who have gone over to the majors like Matsui and Iguchi are conspicuously absent. The left field bleachers are the only part of the stadium that are completely full. The game was strangely quiet, espeically for a Japanese baseball game. "Ichiro! Ichiro! Ichiro!" was the only chant that ever gained any steam. Normally with all the set cheers, even in a blowout, a Japanese game is never that quiet. Ichiro responded to the pressure of playing in front of his home-country fans for the first time in years by going 1-5 with an rbi groundout. He also reached on an error, though his infield single sure looked like a gift call from the ump from my angle.


GAME OVER. Japan 18 - China 2
Originally uploaded by bonitsky.
All in all, the game was fun despite the HUGE difference in the talent level of the two teams. Still, with all the empty seats, I wonder if the WBC will succeed after all--I guess it will depend on how the games go in North America. Plus Japan vs. Korea will probably draw in a lot more fans, I would imagine, as they are clearly the teams to beat in the Asian bracket (though a tough Taiwan squad fought hard in a 2-0 loss to Korea in the first game). Still, I had a blast, and I kind of hope that the WBC does well so that 4 years from now or whenever, more of the top players sign up.

FOUL BALL!


FOUL BALL!
Originally uploaded by bonitsky.
Top of the first, the first foul ball up over the screen bounces off the stairs behind us and is carooming right back into our outstretched hands--when it lands in the plastic box from which the bento girl is hawking her bento boxed dinners 3 rows above us in the aisle. The ball bounced over her head and into the large plastic crate she was holding in front of her. Think of the beer man or popcorn guy accidentally intercepting a foul ball--and being completely terrified. Fortunately there were vendors near by for the second foul ball!

World Baseball Classic - Play ball!


World Baseball Classic
Originally uploaded by bonitsky.
First batter, Ichiro Steps in. It's the second game of the entire tournament, and I got free tickets in the press section, 20 rows behind homeplate, on account of a favor I did for a friend of a friend. Somewhere up above, one of my other coworkers is peering down at the action from the upper deck, in the seats he paid for. Tickets to the games in Japan are more expensive than the tickets to the final in America, later this month, which is maybe why half of the Tokyo Dome is empty. Ichiro gives the 2nd pitch a ride into the outfield bleachers--just foul--to the fans' delight. Then he grounds out--but I'm impressed at how fast he gets out of the batter's box. Can't take any credit for infield hits away from a guy who hustles like Ichiro.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

寒稽古2006

On Saturday, I went back to Yamanashi to participate in my second 寒稽古, or cold weather training. My shihan explained:
In sports you practice where it's warm during the winter, so you don't get injured. In the summer, you practice where it's cool, so you can have your best performance. You are training to become the strongest in your event--the best player. But in budo, you are training to make your heart stronger. Your mind. You are training not so that you will be the strongest player, but so that you can learn how to make the people around you stronger--and in doing so have it reflect upon yourself. That is why in budo- karate-do, kendo, aikido, kyuudo, etc., we find the coldest day of the year, and go to the coldest place to train. On the hottest day of the year, we go to the hottest place. And the confidence you gain by training in that way is something you can take to the rest of your life.
This year I was asked to train half naked under a running waterfall with snow all around me. Out of over a hundred participants, shihan asked only myself, one other brown belt, my 3rd-degree black-belt sensei, and my 2nd-degree senpai who I think will be promoted to sensei soon. Three guests visiting from Holland (all 3rd-degree BB or above) for the sake of training in Japan also volunteered to try.

In retrospect, it one of the coolest things I've ever done, and a memory that I will keep and take inspiration from my entire life. I have to admit though, at the time my focus was more, "Holy crap!~It's cold!" and "What did Shihan say he wanted me to do? I can't hear over all this water!" than the 無心-zenlike empty mind of the warrior. That's not what I'm gonna tell my grandkids though.

NOTE: Nirasaki-dojo in Yamanashi, put my picture up at the top of their homepage(but I can't seem to steal it).