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July 24th, 2007

catch up

Posted on 2007.07.24 at 11:14
Tags: , , , , , , ,
It has been such a long time since I have written that I will have to cover events now in the order that they occur to me as I am writing.

I’ll start with dinner at the Okonomayaki place in Hiyoshi with Yuki’s music circle. It is a tradition for the music circles to play all day every Sunday and then to follow the playing with a late dinner/drinking party in a large room at the favorite local restaurant. Okonomayaki is like a Japanese pancake with cabbage, sweet black sauce, mayonnaise (to taste, thankfully), and one or some of an extensive list of possible fillings. The time I went, I think we had bacon ones at our table. The tables have grills at the center, and everyone sits on the raised floor around one of these tables and orders numerous drinks from the 2-hour all-you-can-drink menu. A couple of students at each table set their beers down to mix bowls full of Okonomayaki ingredients before dumping them on the grill. The resulting pancakes sputter and send steam swirling, and the students laugh and shout through the continually thickening and warming air. By the time things really get going, the guy giving a toast at one end of the room is barely distinguishable to the people at the opposite end of the room (not more than 7 meters away), and everyone is perspiring to various degrees. As ashamed as I am to admit it, I can’t sit on the floor for more than an hour comfortably, so I was thankful that Yuki began moving me around to talk to people that he insisted wanted to meet me. I believed him, though most everyone seemed rather shy when I joined their table. I attribute this to their feeling obligated to cease whatever conversation they had been carrying on in Japanese and attempt to strike up a new one in English. People would get pretty happy and excited again, though, given a little time, and the conversation would begin to flare once more in a jolting mix between short periods of fast Japanese and longer ones of slow English; Yuki would then call me over and tell me I ought to go talk to such and such over there who was curious to get to know me. Some students get extremely plastered and make their way after dinner to hang out on the floor in the covered plaza outside the subway station. Most of this bunch eventually make it home, but a few inevitably get stranded after their last train has left, and they are forced to spend the night on a bench or something. The days when work starts at 7am, I can pout and feel sorry for myself all I want as I ride the train and then trudge up the hill with Thom Yorke’s “Black Swan” in my earphones, but when I pass kids on concrete benches outside the music building and smell the alcohol on the drizzle, my lower lip retracts and I swallow my self pity.

I spent a day visiting Ethan at his laboratory in a Tokyo University grad student research campus. We toured his student room and the clean room, which I would rather call The Intergalactic Command Center. I’ve seen clean rooms before, but this one was huge and very elaborate. There were several rooms of MBE’s making the pair my lab group owns look rather clunky and obsolete in comparison. The floors were metal grates. The air was still and scentless. The lighting was fluorescent in some rooms, but others were filled with a dreamy yellow light that made me second-guess what color everything was. Before entering the Intergalactic Command Center and after Ethan signed me in and ran his daily fingerprint scan, we had to suit up in the uniforms that the astronaut jerks wear in E.T. This takes about 10 minutes for Ethan, who is used to all the complex Velcro and belt loops and hardly has to fidget to make everything stay on without pinching or poking. After suiting up, we walked through a pair a hissing Darth Vader doors and into an air jet closet. The doors closed behind us and we were blasted with a series of air jets from all sides. R2D2 beeped his approval, and the doors on the opposite side of the closet hissed open to reveal complex 12-lane power cord super highways winding around the walls and ceiling. Humming machines with tiny blinking LED lights lined the floors, and similarly suited scientists strolled importantly down the pristine hallways. It was truly breathtaking and very fun, and I imagined that, had I been assigned to work in this lab, all these fancy machines combined with the aura of formality, order, and complete meticulousness would give me a sense of motivating importance. This idea faded away in the yellow light, though, and after 30 minutes I was ready to de-suit and go hug a tree or something. We kicked a soccer ball around after lunch, and Ethan taught me some outrageous moves that I doubt I personally will ever be able to pull of during a real game.

My program sent me to Kyoto for a weekend, and my boss gave me the following week off. I used the extra time to hit up Osaka and Hiroshima. I’ll cover each place in order. The program packed my Kyoto stay full of cultural events, which I thoroughly enjoyed. There is some kind of big Japanese culture company called IORI that owns traditional style hotels; hosts and teaches tea ceremony; and demonstrates and provides lessons in waraku, Noh, Kyogen. These were the activities that we sampled and watched, although IORI also deals in traditional dance, flower arrangement, zen meditation, and ceramics. We stayed in an ancient merchant house ( http://www.kyoto-machiya.com/www_english/weekly/machiya/nishioshi.html ), which was beautiful. It was interesting how the engineers found ways to wire electricity and stash air conditioning units. Light switches were in very odd places, like in the corner on the ceiling above the stairwell or directly above a doorframe. The company does a very thorough job explaining everything that they do or have us do: we had a tour of the house when we got there, and during the cultural events, a gentle though burly white guy with a goatee talked us through each activity.
These explanations were great, as I felt that, at the end of the day, I not only had a sense for what these traditions are like to attend but also where they came from and how they have continued to develop. Examples include the different schools of tea ceremony (a practice dating, in Japan, from the 16th centruy) and the new age and handicapped spin-offs (chairs and tables, left-handed people, modern attire, etc); the origin of the dramatic and archetypal display of emotions in theater and the integration of such themes into modern anime and television shows (gushing tears and wide-mouthed howls whenever anyone is remotely sad); and the branching off of Japanese martial arts into various meditative and recreational non-violent practices (television aerobics, morning calisthenics, yoga-hybrids, etc). Members of the lab group I work with in Tokyo are interested in several of the activities that we participated in, and I think I will be able to grow closer to these people and learn more about their backgrounds and perspectives as a result of all this. We were also in Kyoto during July seventh (this year was 2007, too!), a holiday called Tanabata (http://www.rumela.com/events/tanabata_index.htm), during which two stars (lovers) come into view of each other. People celebrate the lover stars by writing wishes on paper and hanging them on evergreen trees. We did this, too. The only thing that seems a little strange to me about the Kyoto trip, in retrospect, is that some of the scholars had to pay a lot of money and travel quite far to reach Kyoto, and to stay for only two days before heading directly back seemed like quite a splurge. I was lucky to have a week off.

In addition, in Kyoto, I had a great time wandering the streets. When I was lost, which happened rather frequently, I would either stop, or, more commonly still, be stopped by a little old woman in a shawl or a middle-aged man with an unbuttoned over-shirt, and I would be thoroughly debriefed on or even personally guided to my desired destination. Seeing the other scholars again (it had been since our arrival in Japan) and hearing all their stories was also very interesting. I thought that the group meeting was productive. I brought up the stark differences between some of our internships, and I suggested that the program might assist those of us who are stuck all day every day with less dynamic and more detached research teams. I assumed that other students wanted to take Japanese lessons, visit homes and museums and cultural events, meet other research teams, and perhaps travel on the weekends. I was surprised when the other students turned my ideas down, remarking that the program shouldn’t force research groups to turn into “crazy party labs”. Though I feel very lucky that my lab is so dynamic, international, and plugged in, I feel ashamed that I’ve made it come across as an unproductive Japanese version of a fraternity, which it most certainly is not. I was reminded recently that I am in a science program, and that the type of students who participate in these programs are generally not keen on their being any kind of social opportunities, much less obligations. I know I’m sacrificing work that could be accomplished in lab every time I do something else instead. I suppose I’m trying to work out a balance that maximizes my overall gain.

Back to the hiking, though. In Kyoto, after passing under enough tori to make me dizzy, I went on a particularly memorable romp with Andrew, and the two of us ducked under some rope and climbed a small mountain on an old, overgrown trail. The trail was not so much overgrown with weeds as it was infested with giant spiders. We noticed, as we walked, that our shirts were adopting a certain tendency to glisten when the rays of light that penetrated the canopy chanced upon them. We then felt our faces collide with webs. We joked about this until we noticed the spiders. They were not quite tarantula size, but they were a good inch and a half to two inches in diameter, and they weren’t just legs. After this rather sobering realization, I began to carry our Kyoto street map (almost a foot long when folded) held at arm’s length in front of me. I would move it up and down and back and forth as we walked, like I was conducting some magical elf symphony to protect me from harm. At one point, I let my guard down, as I hadn’t swatted any webs with my map in a while. I was looked down at my feet to avoid some slippery mud when I almost ran into a huge web. At the last second, I noticed it out of the corner of my eye and barely managed to duck under it. I laughingly warned Andrew over my shoulder, and then I ran right into another big web. I fell over onto my back, I was so startled. The spider, and I kid you not, scampered right over my glasses before I swatted it off with my flailing arms. I tried to act very tough the rest of the day.

A word of caution about JR passes. As was recommended to those of us in the program interested in traveling, I purchased a JR pass voucher at STA travel office in the Rice Village back in Houston before coming to Japan. I attempted, on Friday the 6th in Tokyo, to exchange this voucher for an actual working JR pass to use to get me to Kyoto. Though almost everyone I talked to knew what a JR pass was, almost no one had heard of vouchers or knew where or how to exchange them. Yiming and I went to 7 offices in 6 different stations before we were able to successfully exchange our vouchers. Turns out, you can buy JR passes directly from Tokyo station for the same price we paid in Houston, minus the hassle of making a voucher exchange. I would recommend that next-year’s NanoJapan Tokyo dwellers do the same.

There are a lot of great places to hike in Kyoto, and Nijo castle is fantastic. I would recommend the park of 1000 tori (Japanese wall-less gates) for hiking, and I would definitely recommend the castle. Finally, Osaka, an amazing city, is only 30 minutes and Y330 or so away from Kyoto. Osaka castle is breathtaking, and many parts of it still date back to 1583, when Hideyoshi first had it constructed. There are really amazing original tapestries describing battle scenes and the decorations of heroes. The castle is tall enough to provide a great view of the city, as well. If Tokyo were New York, Osaka would be Houston. It is more spread out, and there are fewer pedestrians. This also means, however, that Osaka is not a very good city to explore on foot. Andrew and I, in search of Osaka’s renowned Okanomayaki (topped with sweet sauce! .. and nasty mayonnaise, too, if that’s your thing you nasty mayonnaise eater, you), decided to walk from Osaka station. We didn’t find our little hole in the wall until almost 4 hours later, and we only succeeded because a biker dude walked us the last 30 minutes. It was delicious, however, and don’t let anyone dissuade you from ever ordering cheese-topped Okanomayaki on the grounds that it is non-traditional. Years from now, when it is the most popular food in the world on account of its utter deliciousness, it will have become a proud tradition, and that same hypocrite will munch it along with everyone else. Yummmm…

We got ripped off in a little darts bar. We saw a sign: “All drinks Y300, darts Y100”, and so we entered. It turned out that drinks were regular price except for women on Wednesdays between certain hours. It also turned out that darts were Y400 and that there was a cover charge to enter the bar. We spent $30 the two of us on a drink each and two darts games! I thought I knew how to travel and deal with this kind of thing. I’m ashamed. Japan let my guard down. I stayed in a cheap capsule hotel for my two nights in Osaka, which was a very interesting, culturally distinctive, and cheap option: completely shoeless interior, nice public sauna, lockers to safeguard literally and enforcedly all your belongings when you change into the pajamas they provide, and comfortable little cubbies with televisions and reading lights to sleep in. I think students in my program next year who have an extra day ought to go to Osaka, and I would recommend capsule hotels in general to any traveling males (women are prohibited).

The city of Kyoto was spared in WWII from the Americans’ atomic bombs because it was decided the place was a cultural heritage. War is always proven ridiculous when those involved in it make efforts to show they are still civilized.

What’s arguably even more heart-wrenching is that Hiroshima was selected to be the target because the skies were clear over the city on the morning of the 6th of August. I went to Hiroshima after Osaka, and the major event in Hiroshima, besides meeting up with friend for life and former band member Brad Colquitt, was the atomic bomb museum. It was not full of vengeful slogans, but was instead clearly fully devoted to presenting war in general as an atrocity that must be stopped. I think because I am sympathetic to this, I was particularly moved and was unable to detach myself per usual from the gruesome and violent displays. The history of the atomic bomb was presented in a way that I had never heard before. I got the impression from the museum that the bomb was dropped even though there was still a strong possibility to diplomatically end the war, and that the true reason was simply that the weapon the Americans had been constructing had too many people invested in its development for it not to be used without sacrificing some serious domestic diplomacy. I don’t remember these kind of details from my history textbooks growing up in America, but I’m certainly under the impression now that America did a lousy job warning Japan. Look at it in this light: Japan could have been presented with a straight forward threat, “We have this bomb. Here’s what it can do. You cannot prevent us from using it on you unless you surrender”. Sounds very logical. Now I’m reminded of the thousands of Americans who called for revenge on Japanese civilians for Pearl Harbor. That kind of revenge doesn’t seem very logical, even if the two countries were in the midst of a war, so perhaps the Japanese were in a similarly illogical rut, unable to simply surrender without first making some kind of huge sacrifice. What is there in life more important than life? Pride, it would seem. Nationalism. That museum gave me chills.

Deer Island. Brad and I took a ferry to an Island and got rained on by a huge, powerful tropical rain storm. I felt like I was in Houston again, except that it was woodsy, and there were deer everywhere. Seriously, we got off the ferry onto the island, and the first thing we saw were two deer standing by a woman in the station. We thought that the deer were hers, and I assumed she was going to offer to take our picture with them for some not so small fee, but then I noticed that there were deer everywhere. It was like the Galapagos. They just kind of strolled around and ate sheets of paper out of trashcans. Brad squatted to put his backpack in a locker at the station (these coin lockers are so handy!), and he turned at a nudge to his shoulder to find a skinny deer staring him down. It did not react at all when we tried to pet it, but it did take a bite of my shirt. The chunk never tore off, though, so the shirt’s still in tact. We saw a famous “floating” tori constructed below the tide line. At high tide it rises from the water. We also climbed a mountain part ways in the pouring Houston rain. Then we left to find coffee and warm up. Hiroshima was beautiful.

more catchup

Posted on 2007.07.24 at 11:19
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Another recent development in lab has been the spontaneous fainting of presenters or audience members during early morning group meetings. I call this a recent development, but I seemed to be the only one in whom serious alarm was invoked as a result of witnessing the fainting, so perhaps the activity is actually fairly routine and I had yet to witness it until recently. So, this one kid was giving his early morning presentation. He had obviously stayed up all night the night before. I had too, but I wasn’t so out of it that I couldn’t tell that he was on par with me. Anyway, he made it through the presentation and did a fairly good job, but when someone asked him a question afterwards, he paused, nodded, and then keeled over onto the floor behind his podium. His feet came swinging up, carried by the momentum of his fall, and then they, too, thudded to the floor. A nurse with a wheelchair came rolling in a few minutes later, and the poor guy admitted ashamedly that he’d only had 30 minutes of sleep unintentionally when he fell asleep on his keyboard. That put an end to his presentation.

Likewise, during the next presentation, one of the audience members got up and headed for the door, but slumped against the wall on the way and fainted on the floor. Again, the nurse with the wheel chair sped her off to the infirmery. These two students fianted because they were sleep deprived from overworking. I think I made some good insights during my previous speculations about lab life here with my group at Keio, but perhaps I was a little naïve in tying such a neat little bow and dusting my hands. There’s a lot that I still don’t understand, including what I suspect is a strong social pressure for students to hide their problems, discomforts, and personal needs for the sake of maintaining the crisp appearance of general order and cheerfulness. I’m not saying that everyone is starving and tortured and hasn’t slept in months, but if any are somewhere partially down this path, they refrain from showing it until they can’t help otherwise.

I saw the new Harry Potter movie with Yoko. I don’t know when it comes to the theaters anywhere in the world except in Japan, but in Japan seeing it a full six days in advance was quite a hip thing. For once, I was in the know about something trendy, and not only that: I was ahead of the wave. The movie’s out now for real in Japan (as of July 20th), so I missed my chance to talk criptically about the ending to crowds of googly eyed girls, but perhaps I can still inspire googly eyes elsewhere in the world. Ogwats-hay akithover-tay! That ute-cay one is a rator-tray! Don’t rust-tray er-tay! Entaurs-say are adass-bay!

I need to compare karaoke in Japan with karaoke in China. Doing so can, with all due respect and necessary precaution, be expounded to comparing Japan’s understanding of Americans and American culture with China’s. This is not at all to say that karaoke is American culture, though I wish I didn’t have to drive for 20+ miles when at home in Houston just to find a neighborhood with a machine in the bar. No, karaoke is not American culture. It is, however, popular in Korea, China, Japan, and hopefully some other countries that I plan on visiting more later. At Big Echo, for instance, a friendly place found in many areas of Tokyo and probably other parts of Japan, interested singers can find songs by Bob Dylan, The Talking Heads, Willie Nelson, Harum Scarum, the Misfits, and even Anthrax. In China, at least they have a couple Michael Jackson hits, like “thriller” or “Billie Jean”. I was overwhelmed by the gerth of American songs in the giant catalogue they gave us. Karaoke in Japan is, like most anything else, much more expensive than in China. While I haven’t had the opportunity yet in Japan to attend karaoke with a bunch of middle-aged natives like I havei n China, I can still say that karaoke is, for this particular American, and much funner experience in Japan than in China. Sipping Suntory whisky and shouting along to “blowin in the wind” as drunk business men shout Japanese in the hallway and as pre-recorded welcoming greetings play automaticly with the opening of the Seven Eleven’s sliding doors outside the window is a great feeling. “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind! The answer is blowin’ in the winnnnnd!”


Posted on 2007.07.24 at 11:20
Tags: , , , , , , ,
Odaiba, the manmade Island east of Tokyo (considered part of it), is home to several theme parks and monstrous shopping malls. The subway line that runs there winds its way up and over Tokyo harbor, and all the glorious skyscrapers and flashing, neon restaurant boats drift by like the low rolling fog that surrounds them in the rainy season. I went with Yoko. We ate Italian food for lunch, which, though presented as gourmet and charged accordingly, looked, smelled, and tasted exactly like Chef Boyarde. This last sentence reads like a diss, but the only thing I meant to protest was the price. We both paid a little extra so that we could get free refills from the juice bar, and, so that we felt wholly like we got our money’s worth, we each downed about four tall glasses of this bright neon green syrupy melon soda that was so sweet it invoked involuntary chill spasms. After this, we hit up the cat store: a store shaped like a giant cat that sold everything cat related except for actual cats. Here we bounced off the walls and burped neon green gas and bought Miki some cat stuff for her birthday.

Small interlude: Miki likes cats. Yoko likes pigs. Yuki likes Mickey Mouse. In Japan, many of the friends I have made have some kind of favorite animal or cartoon character, and they become ecstatic whenever anything relating to this animal or character is presented to them. Yoko flips whenever a cartoon pig dances across an advertisement on a screen in the subway, and Miki likes cats. Easy to shop for, these girls.

We then entered the giant, round, sliding doors of JoyPolis, Tokyo’s largest indoor amusement park. The first thing we did was buy a day pass (around $35), which enabled us to go on any ride we wanted until 22:00. We got there at about 14:00, so you can imagine how many rides we went on. Actually, we didn’t stay all the way until ten, as our ride lottery tickets could not be exchanged for prizes after 20:00. Each time we went on a ride, we got our card stamped, and various additional numbers of stamps corresponded to various additional lottery credits. The more attractions ridden before exchanging the tickets, the greater the additional amount of credits awarded per ride. We ended up winning free ice cream and a bunch of coupons and two chocolate pirate coins. The virtual reality rides were dizzying: they strap you into a little convertible and then scoot the thing forwards 10 meters or so into a dark room with a big screen and about one million amperes worth of audio speakers. The screen lights up to depict a space battle or jungle jeep ride or something like that, and the convertible jostles around and sprays the riders with hot air and steam, when appropriate. Tilting the convertible forward and introducing cold wind in our faces in reality when the jeep falls of a cliff and plummets toward white water rapids in virtual reality is surprisingly convincing. Yoko screamed and laughed and punched me. Then she said her stomach hurt. We rode several of these virtual reality roller coasters.

The haunted house was, thankfully, narrated in Japanese, and so I did not understand specific motivations of the characters. When torn out hearts and ghoulish zombie children came rolling and stumbling out of the dark, though, I think I understood as well as anyone what was going on and what was expected of me. The premise, as I think I understand it, was that a deranged old witch mother with a dead little daughter takes the corpse to a haunted shrine and uses the counterfeit souls of the daughter’s old doll toys to trick an evil spirit into accepting them in exchange for reanimating the daughter. We are first debriefed by a uniformed worker, who talks slowly and deliberately with wide eyes. This frightful woman then escorts us into a dark hallway and abandons us after telling us we are not allowed to exit through the entrance. The hallway is decked out like the interior of a traditional Shinto temple, only there are occasional quick flashes of candle light from very convincing electric candles (or were they tv screens?) up and down along the way. This, and shadows dart back and forth emitting faint, whispery voices in the split seconds during which the hallway is slightly illuminated. Yoko made me go first, and she clung to my back and screamed in my ear until we finally found our way in to a wooden room with a lot of little dolls lined up along the walls. We sat at a table and were again debriefed by another costumed JoyPolis personnel (again, a great actor), who this time explained that a little talisman which he placed on the table would protect us from any harm. We were made to wear headphones, and the actor departed suddenly. The next 5 minutes were very scary, and I mean it really, even though I didn’t understand most of the Japanese I heard. The room was full of hidden screens and humanoid robots, and the stereo panning on the headphones accompanied the action perfectly. There was suspense and surprise release, over and over, until I think the old which got killed by her daughter before the lucky talisman blew her up along with her evil doll minions. Hot air spewed from hidden vents in the table when the old witch got gutted. I honestly thought I’d been splattered with blood! Similarly when the talisman blew up. The coolest part, though, was when the old witch was gathering ingredients for her evil stew, and the stereo panning followed her scissors as she snipped hair from above our ears. I wanted to raise my hands to my ears, but I didn’t dare. Scratch that; the coolest part was when Yoko got too scared and screamed and then jumped on me and punched me in the chest.

We also went dragon-egg hunting in an Eragon (that new live action fantasy movie) “course”, in which we were guided by enthusiastic actors dressed like elves from Tolkein’s Rivendell. We had to all touch one of the guide’s swords together and shout something that I have now forgotten to get the sword to light up and blow down the doors to the dungeon. We got chased away by an evil ogre monster (another convincing actor in an awesome costume; man I wish I was a little kid again so I could get a costume like that and trick or treat). Additionally, we rode a giant mechanized skateboard up the sides of an enormous half pipe. During this ride, if the players both tap their feet on corresponding points of the skateboard at the precise moment in which the board is at the bottom center of the half pipe, the board begins spinning as it swings up the ramp. Continue tapping successfully, and your board racks up points on a giant display monitor. Whoever has the most points at the end wins. I tried hard the first time and we sucked. The next three or four times, though, I lifted up my feet and let Yoko control the whole board. We got second place out of the whole day’s worth of riders. I congratulated Yoko, and she responded as usual: “of course”. Finally, my favorite “ride”: House of the Dead Number 4. The abrupt and slightly robotic voice at the beginning says “Grace has lost contact with her partner, Jude, and is forced to wander aimlessly”. This is the only background we get of this terribly gruesome shooter video game, in which both players hold realistic semi-automatic guns and shoot body parts off of attacking mutant zombies on a large and rounded television screen. When grenades are thrown or when a zombie barfs on your character, hot air is blown and the platform jostles accordingly. Yoko got a top score for headshots, and she’d slap me whenever I’d let an easy zombie bite my face. Sometimes, friendly non-zombie characters would warn us to “turn left quickly!”, and the entire platform on which we stood would swerve suddenly to the left to face a new screen, and some grizzly rotting monsters would be waiting to attack. We made it halfway through level two. I think we played 6 or 7 times. It was completely awesome.

That’s it for rollercoasters. We played air hockey, but Yoko destroyed me 9 to 2 in a little under a minute, so we had to move on to darts and whack-a-mole. I won some prizes, here, and restored my faltering pride. I got us two inflatable swords which we fought with for the rest of the evening, and I also got an inflatable squid backpack with “rather bad smell of squid” written on it in large kanji. By the time we got back to Naka-Meguro, we were both peko-peko (famished), and so we hit up Art Café for some shrimp toast. Some drunk guys poked fun at my backpack, and Yoko and I teased me and the backpack and them until we were all friends. We left before they bought us any alcohol. We then watched a Casino Royale at my place. A wonderful day of total indulgence. That’s kablamo.

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