30 June, 2008

food life in japan

On Saturday we toured the Meiji Jingu shrine (happened to see a beautiful and solemn traditional Shinto wedding procession there), Harajuku and all of its fashionable madness, Asakusa and the temple and souvenir shops, and Odaiba's packed skyline and peaceful bay. It was an exhausting day, but enlightening; I felt like I got closer to the pulse of the city than I ever have before. I'm still not sure what to make of it, but maybe that's the secret of Tokyo's draw: it forces one to suspend all judgments because even if you try to make them, you'll be thwarted by the sheer dynamism of this place.

Even though it was fascinating to see all of these different parts of the area, I think my favorite part of the day was sitting on the rocks by the bay with Diane, taking off our shoes and listening to the lapping water, squinting to make the skyline look prettier. (*A side note: Tokyo is, by any respects, not a strikingly beautiful place. There is no gorgeous skyline or breathtaking landscape. However, the attraction of Tokyo lies in finding those pockets of beauty scattered throughout the city. I have found them on occasion and they are so refreshing because they are almost always startling. "What! Something beautiful in Tokyo!") We sat there for a while, just resting and talking of many things. We even got to witness two high school boys jump ship from one of the dinner boats, swim to an island of rocks, and proceed to strip down to their boxers, cheering and waving the whole time. This place is never dull, that's for sure.

An excessive amount of photographs from this day tour have been posted to Flickr. Enjoy them at your leisure.

One more aspect of Japanese life that I am really drawn to is hara-hachi-bu: the principle of eating until one is 80 percent satiated. When I asked about it, my host father confirmed that this was a very important aspect of Japanese food life. Basically it means, don't gorge yourself on food; eat proper portions and waste nothing. Compared to American food, Japanese portions seems horribly miniscule--but I think this is a purely psychological reaction, since we Americans have been trained to expect truckloads of food every where we go.

At first, I too thought all of the servings looked tiny, and I was sure I'd still be hungry afterwards, but I've found this is really not the case. Now that I'm accustomed to smaller Japanese portions, I find that they are just right. This is one of the contributing factors, I'm sure, as to why the Japanese are almost all very trim. (I've only seen a few fat people here, and one of them was a sumo on the train, so that doesn't even count.) And why nearly 65 percent of Americans look like blimps. Plus! By using chopsticks, one is not tempted to shovel food in one's mouth, as one does with a fork or a spoon. Chopsticks are brilliant. I would eat with them every day back home if it wouldn't look so Asian-pretentious...

So. Anyhow. I plan on working harder to adopt this philosophy of eating into my daily life when I come home. Who knows? I might even write a book: Japanese Women Don't Get Fat...

26 June, 2008

sleeping on the train

Japanese commuters have this absolutely uncanny ability to fall dead asleep on the train, and then sit up, completely awake, the instant the train reaches their stop. It's the kind of limp, lifeless sleep of babies in the car: the head heavy with sleep that lolls over to one side, only to jerk back up as if being pulled by a marionette's string. They look absolutely lost in sleep. I wish I could take pictures of these people, because it happens without fail every time I ride the train, but I feel like that's something a creeper would do, and it's probably quite socially unacceptable.

But, regardless, it's this fascinating thing to me. Because riding the train is this bizarre in-between time where you are moving from point A to point B and you have to fill it somehow. Most Japanese commuters choose to sleep. The ones who aren't tend to either read or text on their cellphones. But never talk. No one talks.

The sleepers I like the best though. I wish I could draw like Grace, because I'm sure I'd spend my "in between" time on the trains sketching their faces. Whether it's the old man with the heavy cheeks that tremble slightly as the train lurches down the tracks, or the high school girl in her uniform bent almost in half, or the young man with the wild hair who fans his face subconsciously, they are all immensely interesting. Perfect characters. It is definitely the confession of a creeper, but watching strangers sleep on a train is one of the most interesting things to do.

Physical contact with others is something very absent in Japanese daily life. You don't shake hands (you bow, of course) and you never hug. Couples might hold hands, but even that is not quite socially okay. But the train is yet again this strange in-between place, because it's the one spot each day that you are pressed up against dozens of people and there's nothing you can do about it. Even when you're sitting down, your legs and arms are usually right up on top of your neighbor.

I'm one of those annoying people who likes to touch people when I talk to them--like a brief touch on the arm to make a point or a hug or a handshake--and so it's been a bit hard, actually, living in this culture where you touch no one. I can't remember the last person I hugged; I certainly haven't hugged anyone here. And aside from the strange Japanese man in Ueno Park who wanted to shake my hand, I haven't really even touched anyone since coming here. So being on the train is curious--it's like I have to remember what another human being feels like and it's shocking to me.

This morning, I sat beside a sarari-man ("salaryman"--term for a Japanese businessman) who was dead asleep. As with everyone else on the train, his legs and arms were pressed right up against mine. He was nearly bent in half with sleep and as the train swayed, he leaned back and forth until, at one point, his head was actually resting on my shoulder. I'm sure he wasn't even aware of this, because as soon as we reached his stop, he, with this uncanny knack, snapped awake and moved away from me, as if he were embarrassed to be caught asleep. He straightened his jacket and walked off the train and I almost laughed, trying to lasso my thoughts around this strange space of the morning train.

23 June, 2008


Quick story, and then back to answering emails and posting photos:

Every morning as I ride my bicycle to the train station, I take the same route as all of the neighborhood kids who are walking to school. Unlike Japanese adults, Japanese kids--as kids anywhere would do in the same situation--stare openly at me in wonderment; I'm the only white person in the neighborhood. Usually they do nothing more than stare, and so I'll smile and wave, and they smile and wave back slowly, with slightly shocked faces.

But this morning was a little different. I passed a pack of nine- or ten-year-old boys who, when they saw me, shouted, "Gaijin! Gaijin!" and began to chase after me, laughing. ("Gaijin" is a term for a white foreigner.) The group, which initially was only three or four, quickly caught on and soon I was being chased by nearly a dozen little Japanese boys, running as fast as their legs could carry them. Once the last one finally tired out, I slowed down, turned around and waved, calling out, "Ohayo gozaimasu!" brightly ("Good morning"). Their faces fell open in amazement--this ignorant gaijin girl could actually speak a bit of Japanese!--and then they broke out in giggles, leaning on each other in congratulation of a good gaijin chase.

It was a funny way to begin the morning and it made me laugh.

In other news, classes keep me too busy for anything but studying. But I have seen lots of good museums and gotten sufficiently lost in downtown Ueno, so you'll have to see the photographs for the rest of the story...

18 June, 2008


From what I have noticed, Japan is very much a culture of routine. Once a daily routine is established, it is followed religiously, almost without exception. For example, every morning at 8:30, I pass a tiny old woman who sells huge vegetables next to the futuristic playground. And every morning at 8:30, she is visited by another tiny old woman and her Shiba Inu (the national dog of Japan; they look like adorable little foxes) with the red harness. And every evening at 5:20, as I bike back home from the station, I pass the kid in his karate uniform speeding home, the old man on the bench who takes off his prosthetic leg for a moment, and the circle of women who bring out their dogs to play. Rain or shine, these things happen every day. Dinner at my house here also happens at nearly the same time every night and if it happens to be earlier or later, Keiko apologizes profusely as if it were a grave misdemeanor. You always take off your shoes when you enter the house or a grade school. You always use an umbrella, never a rain jacket, because if you used a jacket, when you get on the train, you may get other people wet. You always use the same set phrases when you leave home, come home, eat dinner, finish dinner, wake up, go to bed (there is no variation in the phrases and if you try to forge one, no one understands what you are saying). You take your baths at night, after dinner.

Speaking of baths! The Japanese style of bathing is amazing. I really wish I could bring it back to America with me, but we'd have to completely refashion our bathrooms. The bath room in Japan is probably the only room in the house that is bigger than it absolutely has to be, probably because it's such an important part of the day. The room at my house here contains a very deep bathtub, a plastic tiled floor, a sink with a long mirror, a detachable shower head, and a number of shelves for shampoo and such. It's about the size of my walk-in closet at home, I'd say. And this is how the bath routine works: first, you rinse your body with the little showerhead and soap up, using as little water as possible (always turning it off in between stages). After you've cleaned all the soap off, you get into the very hot bathwater and soak for awhile--the most glorious feeling at the end of a long day! You have to be certain not to get any soap residue in the bathwater, because it's used by the whole family for rest of the night. Once you have melted away all the stresses of the day, you're done. It's so great; it's probably my favorite part of the evening, right after my post-dinner conversations with Keiko, which I love.

Tonight I am going to a karaoke bar for the first time (really quite apprehensive about that, but it's the thing to do here, so we'll see how that goes) and on Friday we are going to be visiting the Edo Museum in Tokyo. Really looking forward to that. Since arriving here, my interest in Japanese history has peaked and I am eager to learn whatever I can that will shed some light on this curious little island that is so dear to me.

And: Got to talk to Guion on Skype today! Highlight of the afternoon.

15 June, 2008

the sound of silence

There is a stillness here that hangs between the branches of the little trees and blankets the narrow gravel walkways. Even during the busy morning commute, there is a silence on the streets. It lingers on the faces of the people packed on the morning train, pressed up against each other with stoic, expressionless faces. No one speaks. They have a quietness around their mouths that makes me wonder, What is life in Japan? And where does it abide? I seem unable to read their faces, unable to decipher their silence.

Silence is more valued here than it is in America, from what I can discern. It occurs much more in conversation and daily life than I am accustomed to. Living here makes me realize how terribly noisy Americans tend to be. (I am especially conscious of this when we go on tours of the city with my UNC classmates.) Respecting others' needs, even if they are unspoken, is a top priority for the Japanese. I think this is part of the reason why silence is so precious here. I wish I understood so much more than I do.

The Japanese conception of space is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, too. It is a small island (about the size of Montana) with a limited amount of space for the millions of people who live here. So everything is fashioned accordingly--nothing is given more space than it absolutely needs. The rooms, streets, houses, cars, appliances, even books and school supplies are compact, narrow, "tiny," to American eyes. No amount of space is ever wasted. It makes me want to live more in this way when I return to the States.

As I write this, I am sitting at my desk in my room and the windows are open (the Japanese try not to use A/C). The good (and bad?) thing about living in Japanese neighborhood is that all of the houses are pressed up against one another and so you always know what your neighbors are doing. There is a newborn baby a few houses down and I can hear it wail every evening around 8. A young pianist practices scales every morning before I leave to catch the train, sometimes in conjunction with the kid with the trumpet. Right now, I am listening to a father tell stories to his young son. The boy laughs after almost everything his father says. I can't make out most of it, but I know it's something about going to school and losing your obento (boxed lunch) on the train.

This morning I participated in neighborhood trash day. Every June, the whole neighborhood comes out with trash bags and identical white gloves to clean the streets--which, to my eyes, already looked perfectly clean. So everyone picked up leaves and bits of dead grass for an hour. I wasn't very good at discerning which leaves were ignored and which were picked up. I put some photos of trash day on Flickr, if you're interested.

New photos up!

Composed June 15

11 June, 2008


Greetings from beautiful, exciting Japan! I don't have a lot of time to update, because I have a TON of homework to do (classes here are keeping me incredibly busy), but I wanted to write a quick note to say that I am here, loving it, overwhelmed but delighted every day.

Right now I am sitting in the language lab at Kanda University, where I am taking classes. Diane is sitting beside me and we're discussing (griping is perhaps the more accurate word) our homework load. "Humongous, mumbo-jumbo reading," she says. Yep.

My host family is absolutely fantastic. The children are just precious and and I love spending time with them; Nana-chan (the 3-yr.old) and I have already become fast friends. As soon as I come home, she climbs all over me and chatters in Japanese, most of which I do not understand. Risa-chan (6 yr. old) understands that I don't understand, and looks at me with open, sensitive eyes. She is very perceptive and sweet. Keiko-san (my host mom) is amazing; probably the best cook I've ever met, and so thoughtful. She speaks great English but always tries to speak to me in Japanese. I love living with them and feel so very grateful.

I don't have time to write more, but I wanted to write this little bit to say I'm alive, I'm loving it. I wish I could write better sentences and describe things with language that matches my feelings... but too busy! All the time.

It's thrilling to be surrounded by the Japanese every day; I love listening to Japanese all day long and there are so many things here that I am intrigued by. I want to know the meanings behind certain customs, certain ways of speaking, etc. But every time I am tempted to regard every behavior, sight, and custom as something "so unusual" or "so un-Western," I am reminded of this: that children are the same everywhere. Japanese children, like American children, laugh and misbehave and fight and dance. Also, dogs and birds are the same everywhere. And so is the moon.

New photos posted! No time to tag many of them, but I'm sure you can figure out what's going on... will try to describe them in detail later.

Sayonara, for now!

02 June, 2008

onwards, tokyo!

By way of an update, I suppose it's worth mentioning that this will likely be my last entry from the States. J.Hecht is coming to fetch me and take me to Raleigh and we'll leave here Wednesday afternoon. Catherine is graciously taking me to the airport on Thursday morning, where I will fly to New York City. From there, I will catch a 14 hour flight to Narita Airport, Tokyo, arriving June 6.

It's been a quiet afternoon. Grace, of course, is still adventuring in the deep jungles of Peru (we haven't heard from her in a number of days and Mom and Dad are convinced she's dead; I, on the other hand, merely think she's been kept too busy by the indigenous Quechuan cult she joined). Kelsey is at CTOPS (orientation for UNC) today and tomorrow with her roommate, registering for classes and being inundated with all of the sparkly rah-rah Carolina goodness. So it's just me and Sam. The two of us finished watching two episodes of "30 Rock" and now he's off to hockey. I will miss easy, comfortable home life. But I am excited about adjusting to different, exciting home life in Chiba.

Dad has been digging in this pit next to the house all day long; he just came in, spotted with sweat and streaked with red dirt. My parents have this ridiculous notion that they are going to put a fish pond there. Cute idea, but I'm not so sure it's going to work. We are not the best of fish-keepers and somehow the idea of creating a pool of water right against your house seems unwise. But I guess Father knows best? I'm forever entertained by their many projects. The most recent one before this being "the nursery" that he's been outfitting. It's a room (previously the attic) just off of our bedroom that was going to be Grace's art studio (oh, the privileges of being the favorite) but is now being called "the nursery" because my father is crazy and wants grandchildren. As soon as possible. He had all of us girls together a few weeks ago and asked us, in his characteristic yet confusing mix of facetious sincerity, "Don't you think it's a wonderful idea to have babies? Like right now? Don't even worry about getting married! I just would like some more kids!" Mother has, apparently, already refused to contribute on this one, and so he has turned to us. We reminded him that he has Ally and Kate right next door, but he said two is not enough. Sorry to disappoint, Dad. Not for some years yet.

Been thinking a lot about prayer lately (thanks to conversations with Mr. Pratt and Megan) and realized how much my prayer life needs to grow. I feel like it has during these past few weeks, with everyone I love scattered all around the globe, and my need for some connection with God has been heightened. I know I'll need that line to be as strong as ever in Japan.

With that acknowledgement, I'm off.

Love and the Pacific Rim!