Thursday, July 31, 2008

Stalled Trains

Japan prides itself on its punctuality, establishing timelines that don't allow for any variations in normal operations. That's why when something goes wrong, it goes wrong in a big way.

To give you an idea of what I mean, I'll start out by describing my return home from the Japanese Language Center in Shinjuku 1 week ago, when everything went right, and then go into the events on the exact same path last night.

Shinjuku is about 12 miles away from Nakanoshima, and requires a transfer of train lines at Noborito. There are 3 kinds of trains that run between Noborito and Shinjuku: local, which stops at all 12 or so stations; semi-express, which stops at 4 of the stations, and rapid express, which stops at 3 of the stations. The local takes about 45 minutes to go from Shinjuku to Noborito; the semi-express takes about 20 minutes.

The school is in Shinjuku Gyoenmae, about 1 mile northeast of Shinjuku station. The Marunouchi train line has a stop right in front of the school, but the subway costs 160 yen to ride, and it's almost as fast to walk the 1 mile as it is to wait for, and then ride the subway. So, 1 week ago, I leave the school at about 8:45 PM, walk the one mile to Shinjuku station, walk the additional 1/2 mile under the station to get to the Odakyu train line and arrive at the platform at around 9:10. Around 9:15, the train arrives, people pile out, and I get in. There are almost no people on the train at this point, so I decide to stand next to the door because it gives me something to lean against during the ride. The train sits at the station for 10 minutes, and then suddenly people flood in from other connected rides. Now, I'm on a sardine train, packed up shoulder to shoulder and unable to move or to read my manga. The semi-express train departs Shinjuku, making 4 stops on the way to Noborito, where people pile off and pile back on. I get to Noborito around 10:00 PM, exit the Odakyu section of the station, walk the 100 yards to the Nambu section, buy my 130 yen ticket, and walk to the Nambu platform. 5 minutes later, the Nambu train arrives. 1 minute later it leaves, and five minutes after that, I get to Nakanoshima, 1 stop (1 mile) northwest of Noborito at around 10:15.

Ok, that's what happens if everything goes right. Last night, I left the school just after 8:30 PM, walk to Shinjuku, and get to the Odakyu platform right around 9:00 PM. I get there just as a semi-express train is pulling out of the station. So, I wait for the next train, which arrives at 9:15. It's supposed to depart at 9:24, but at 9:26 it's not moving. An announcement comes over the PA system, but I'm not sure what is being said. At a minimum, there's a delay, but we'll be leaving soon. From that point on, there are regular announcements apologizing for the delay, and promises that we'll be leaving any minute now. The most I can make out is that some train is stuck at the station in Yoyogi-Uehara and we need it to leave before we can move. There's another train on the next platform over from me, and it's not moving either. People cram on the train, then wander off looking for alternative routes home. This time, I'm standing at the far end of the car to avoid the people. Initially, there weren't that many people when the original departure time came, so I wouldn't have been so cramped this time, if things had gone right.

1 hour goes by. Finally, we're given the go-ahead to depart. People jump into the train at the last minute, making it more crowded than it had been 1 week ago. It's another sardine can. Several hundred people remain standing on the platform, patiently waiting for all the other trains at the station to leave so they can get on an empty one that'll arrive after we pull out (this accounts for probably a total of 12 trains - locals and semi-expresses). We're no longer following a schedule, so the conductor has to stop occasionally to let other trains pass us. 40-50 people per car try to get off and on at each platform, making us stay at each stop longer than the normal 1 minute. When the train goes into a turn, the people behind me jam up against my back, causing a really nice sharp pain to form in my lower back and legs. I get to Noborito and it's after 11:00 PM. People flood off the train and stampede to the Nambu gate. I walk over to get my ticket and when I get to the platform, there's a train already there, it's doors closing, and people jammed in shoulder-to-shoulder again. The next train isn't for another 15 minutes, so all I can do is read manga and wait. The train arrives and almost no one is on it - I got lucky, not being able to get on the earlier train. 5 minutes later, I'm in Nakanoshima. It's now 11:45. I'd had a light early meal of soba at 5:30, and now I'm starving, but all of the restaurants had closed 45 minutes earlier. Fortunately, there's some left over curry waiting for me in the apartment.

At the apartment complex, 2 people get on the elevator with me, which normally never happens. They're talking about the mess in Shinjuku, and I finally find out what the problem was - the train ahead of us, in Yoyogi Uehara, had a mechanical malfunction. One of it's doors wouldn't close, and it couldn't move until the door was fixed. No idea how many people were messed up by the delay, or how much it threw off the schedules of the other trains. Back when I was first in Japan, in the 1990's, this kind of thing would have made it into the news. This time, not a single mention in the paper.

Just one of those little hitches that you can expect in a crowded city.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Food in Japan, Part 2

A continuing description of the Japanese take on what constitutes food:

Croquette: I don't think there's anything equivalent in the U.S. to a Japanese croquette. This is a mashed potato patty that is breaded and fried. It's crunchy on the outside but mushy on the inside. It's a very popular comfort food here.

Curry Rice: Curry originated from India, but the Japanese version is nothing like the original. It's a softer, less spicy hot sauce that is almost like a gravy, often sweetened using apple juice. The curry includes various vegetables, and the meat is usually either chicken or beef. It's a poor-man's fast food. Back in the mid-90's, several curry shops used to price by the ounce, with the menu going up to over 16 ounces of rice. This makes for a great deal if you're trying to save money, but 1 pound of rice in one serving is a lot of empty calories...

Mochi: Take cooked rice and pound it with a hammer until it takes on the consistency of silly putty. Then dry it out and cut it up into 2-inch little squares. That's the mochi that you can buy in stores. Generally, mochi squares are used in cooking, either being grilled, or stirred into okonomiyaki or soba. However, mochi can be left in its soft state and turned into a dish on it's own (see below).

Odango: The word odango just translates to "ball", and it refers to the shape you get when you roll up soft mochi. Mochi by itself has no favor, so it is either grilled, painted with teriyaki sauce, and served hot; or served cold with some kind of sweet paste on top (such as a smooth sweet red bean paste). The above photo doesn't show it well, but Odango is sold 3 balls to a skewer, using short wooden skewers. Most of the packs above contain 2 skewers. In the anime "Sailor Moon", the main character, Usagi, is refered to as "odango atama" (odango head) because of the way her hair is balled up at the base of her ponytails.

Taiyaki: I love these things. Take a waffle batter and pour it into a griddle with either hockey puck- or fish-shaped holes. Add custard, red bean paste or chocolate in the center, top off with more batter and fry both sides until golden brown. The shop shown here then sprinkles powdered sugar on top. At this shop, you can get these by themselves, or stuck into a bowl of ice cream. The hockey puck taiyaki are great in the winter because you can put them in your pockets and use them as hand warmers.

Whale: This is a controversial topic in the west, where there's an emotional connection with whales as sentient creatures. Especially since Japan worked hard to overturn the ban against whaling in the face of western opposition. However, there's a belief on the part of western reporters living in Japan that the fight against the ban was conducted simply to recover the pride of a handful of Japanese politicians who were originally against the ban. The majority of Japanese have no interest in eating whale meat because of its gamy flavor and strong smell. I was joking with my Japanese teacher last week when she put a picture of a whale on the table as part of the vocabulary lesson, and I asked her if she eats whale. She seemed surprised to hear that Japan has resumed whaling and that whale meat can be found in the local grocery stores. She told me outright that she would never eat whale. This seems to be a common sentiment across the country.

Below are a few drinks found in vending machines that I consider interesting for one reason or another.

Purin Sheiku: Pudding in a can. Take a caramel flan, add a little milk, and stir up up enough to break it into chunks.

American Coffee: America has a reputation for horribly watering down hot coffee. In Japan, ordering a "hot" will get you a strong hot coffee. Ordering "American" will get you a weaker cup. However, for the above product, we have a cold sweetened milk coffee, with a slight candy taste (from the corn sweetener used). It's a generic-tasting cold coffee. The only notable thing about it is the use of lots of American icons on the can (a different can had a near-naked blond in front of the flag).

Pocket Juicer Stand: (Howaito Natadekoko = White and Natadekoko): White refers to the color and flavor of the drink. It's kind of like a sweetened watery milk drink with a fruit flavor. The Natadekoko are little bits of a stiff, chewy flavorless fruit that are added to the drink to give it bulk (kind of like adding pulp). There's nothing special about the drink itself. I just find the name interesting.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

An assessment of TV anime and radio so far

Well, I've been here for 2 weeks now. My initial intent was to recover from jet lag (check), get an MP3 player/FM receiver (check), start listening to every anime program on the radio I can find (partial check), keep studying the language (check), look for a job (uncheck), read manga (check), and see if there's any TV anime I want to watch (uncheck). This entry is a status report of my progress.

Manga reading:
Ok, so this is an unwinnable challenge. There are thousands of titles on the market, with new volumes coming out all the time. But, I'd rather read manga in the original language; buying manga here is cheaper than getting the translated versions of the books in the U.S., and the U.S. lags Japan in releasing a specific volume by months if not by years. Assuming of course that one of the U.S. publishers carries the titles I want (they don't. I really like Cross Game, Western and Geobreeders, which aren't available in the U.S.) Plus, my wife also has a small collection of manga that she's purchased, and those books are free for me to read.
Books read include:
Kuro no Rihyou, vol. 1-3 (pretty-boy trickster demon falls in love with a beautiful human girl that keeps dying and getting reincarnated. Well-drawn shojo manga with lots of humor and drama. Recommended to people that like pretty-boy historical magic-using shojo.)
Geobreeders、vol. 12-14 (continuing adventures of the phantom cat hunters, Kagura. In volume 14 we finally learn about Kagura's origins and more about the Black Cat organization. Highly recommended to anyone that likes Hong Kong flicks)
Peacemaker, vol. 1 (by Ryouji Minagawa, not the same Peacemaker as put out in the U.S. by Tokyopop. Peacemaker chronicles the adventures of the son of a famed trick shot gunslinger in a fictional wild west. Artwork's a little choppy and the bad guy character designs are silly, but the characterizations are good as are the gunfight scenes, and I'm looking forward to the release of the next volume. Recommended.)
Cross Game (as chapters are printed in Shonen Sunday. Latest baseball manga by Adachi. I enjoy Adachi's stories and I really like his action work. Cross Game is nearing the koshien tournament and the story may be wrapping up soon. Recommended to anyone that likes Japanese high school baseball.)
Bleach (as chapters are printed in Shonen Jump. Bleach is the only Shonen Jump title I like. One Piece bores me, and Naruto's behavior just drives me up the wall. I like the clean artwork in Bleach, the characters and the unfolding drama between the good and bad sides. However, right now we're just in the middle of another really long battle with nothing interesting to look forward to. Recommended to fans of Dragonball.)

I wrote in a previous blog entry that while there are a large number of anime and voice actor programs on FM radio in Japan, that there are only 2 that I can pick up in Kawasaki. And, that both of them are only on late Sunday evening. I finally had a chance to check out both of them and I'm not impressed. I may try listening to them again in the future to see if they get better, but I'm not holding my breath.
Trouble Maker: The entire half-hour program consisted of some goofball announcer speaking in a silly voice and reading listener mail praising the show. No idea how this relates to anime, but it was pretty boring.
Voice Crew: Show host interviewing a female guest. I never did catch the name of the guest, so I don't know if she was a voice actress or just a pop singer. Occasionally they'd play a song. Most of the half hour consisted of the host teasing the guest about foods that she likes or dislikes. The guest sounded cute, so that may have been the primary attraction of the show, but it was pretty much content-free.

TV anime:
I'm not going to make excuses here - I haven't been watching TV anime because I've been busy with everything else. However, I finally sat down on Monday and copied out the full anime lineup from the Japan Times newspaper. I'd written in a previous post that there are only 5 broadcast channels, with maybe 3 or 4 anime shows on per day in Tokyo. I exaggerated a bit. There are 9 channels, but only 4 of them have anime at any given time. There's between 10 and 15 shows on per day, but over 75% of those are re-runs or older titles. One show runs at 6:30 AM, and between 2 and 7 shows run between midnight and 4:00 AM, depending on the night. I don't have a DVD recorder yet so I don't know what all those early morning/late night shows are yet; some are feature length movies, and others are more adult titles. Thing is, the newspaper often just lists the show as "cartoon", so the only way to find out what the title of the show is, is to watch it.
Reruns include First Human Gyatorusu (sp?), Bleach, Inuyasha, Yattaman, Speed Racer, and an older Adachi show that looks similar to Slow Step. The older shows all have primitive-looking artwork and are aimed at little kids. I've already seen the earlier episodes of Bleach and Inuyasha, so nothing interesting there.
New shows include:
Soul Eater: (a silly show about people trying to find legendary swords. Today's episode was a really dumb running gag about the ham actor version of Excalibur. No interest in this show right now.)
Meitantei Conan: (The artwork in this show is good, but I just can't believe in a soccer ball wielding-teenager-shrunk-in-the-body-of-a-schoolgrader- crimefighting-detective. Latest episode has Conan discovering the culprit in an arson fire, and then one of his ultimate enemies moves into Conan's own house next door to the professor's place. I can take or leave this show.)
Special A class: (This is a weird little shojo title about a group of university students having daily life adventures. The two main characters are a boy and a girl that have long known each other and vowed to out-do each other in any activity they take on. They are currently the top two students in one of the best universities in Japan. They also happen to be secretly in love with each other but don't want to admit it. Good artwork, simple character designs, silly romance storyline. Not my type of show, but I may keep watching it anyway.)
Reruns include Dog of Flanders (I think), First Human, Dodge Danpei, and Dragonball Z. DBZ currently has Goku facing off against Freeza. The animation quality of DBZ does not stand up over time. Dodge Danpei was a silly show about 12 years back about a legendary dodge ball player and his son's attempts to follow in dad's footsteps.
New shows include:
Uchi no Sanshi-mei: ("My Three Sisters". A very silly, limited animation show about the misadventures of 3 young girls. Kind of like Crayon Shin-chan, but less funny.)
D.Grey-Man: (I don't really like this title. The artwork in the manga is muddy and hard to follow, and the characters in the anime suffer from a bad case of ham acting. The current episode has the heroes defeating some bad guys, and using the piano in the teleporter to set up gates between the various labs around the world. The TV series is probably 2-3 months behind the manga.)

In summary:
Manga: Lots of good stuff to read.
Radio: Mostly western classical and pop music, sports shows, some J-Pop, and Japanese news. The only two supposedly anime-related shows seemed to be completely anime-unrelated.
TV anime: Lots of old reruns, and a small handful of new shows that don't appeal to me. But, that's just for Monday and Tuesday. The rest of the week may turn out to be better.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Natural threats in Japan

Yesterday, there was a major rain storm in western Japan that left 4 confirmed dead and 50,000 evacuated from their homes. While it's true that all countries experience some kind of natural disaster at one time or another, Japan is especially vulnerable to the full range of problems.

Hurricanes are common along the Pacific Asian coast, and even if one doesn't make it to Japan, it'll still cause heavy rains (see below).

Heavy rains and thunderstorms:
You'd think that a heavy rain wouldn't be that big a deal. However, things get severe fast because of the way Japan is laid out. There are a lot of rivers on the main island, and many of them have been dug out and paved over to turn them into culverts and big drainage ditches. Rain water gathers in the hills, gets diverted into the culverts, and then directed out to sea. If there's 2 or 3 inches of rainfall in a couple of hours, then the culverts fill up fast. What made yesterday's storm more deadly was the fact that the city of Kobe had rebuilt one culvert into a kind of park, with terraced steps and hiking routes. Security cameras in the area showed a number of people playing around in the park. When the rains hit, a flash flood rampaged down the culvert within about 40 minutes and the people still in the park didn't have a chance to react before being washed down stream. Apparently there's no warning system in place to alert hikers in the culvert park to "get out now".

Another issue is that many parts of Japan really aren't that much above sea level, and a heavy storm can easily cause rivers to overflow their culvert walls and flood out the surrounding city. Again, this wouldn't be that much of an issue if it weren't for all of the underground subway lines. Once water gets into a subway tunnel, there's no place else for it to go. Anyone trapped in the tunnel is looking at drowning.

Yesterday's storm flooded out Kobe, and came within about 135 miles of Tokyo, yet I was completely unaware of it here in Kawasaki. My wife had gone outside for some shopping in the afternoon and had commented on seeing lightning in the distance, but that was about it.

Large cities in Japan have long been ravaged by fire storms, since most of the buildings were made using wood, with thatch roofs. Japan's firefighting system became very advanced in order to try to limit the damage of a specific fire. These days, fires aren't as much of a problem because most buildings are made of concrete and glass. But the fear is still there in the back of most people's minds.

Fortunately, being near Tokyo, volcanoes are not a problem. But, since Japan is located right on the "ring of fire", there are other locations that have been leveled when a volcano blew, killing hundreds of people at a time. Mt. Fuji is a dormant volcano right now, but there's always a chance that it will go active over night.

This is the biggie. The "ring of fire" is also an earthquake zone. The Kobe quake that hit in 1995 killed 4,000 in Kobe and another 2,400 in the surrounding areas, while causing about $200 billion USD in damages. The last big quake before this was in Tokyo, 1923, with 140,000 dead.
Tokyo lives in constant dread since big quakes occur roughly every 60 years, and the next major one is overdue. And it's not just the quake - tall buildings collapse, subways cave in, bridges fall and fires break out.

If you live in California or other quake-prone areas, you know what it's like. If you don't, there's nothing to compare it to. Most small quakes can't even be felt, and usually only last a second or two. Others are a bit more noticeable, with a slight swaying of the building for 5 to 10 seconds. Once, in 1994, a really fast quake hit the Kawasaki area; it felt like a truck crashing into the apartment building - a fast "thud" like bang. This one caused one of my apartment's windows to crack, but fortunately the landlord didn't blame the damage on me.

Then there are the slightly less-mild quakes. Twice in the last 2 weeks I've been woken up around 3:00 AM, with the building swaying and shaking, dishes and things starting to rattle, for close to a full minute (registering 6.7 and 6.8 on the Richter scale at the epicenter). With these quakes, I can never be sure if they'll just keep getting stronger or not. "Is this going to be a bad one? Should I be trying to run down the 14 flights of stairs to get out before the building collapses?" Then the quake slowly subsides and we wait for the aftershocks to come.

Think of a wall of water 20 to 30 feet high, miles long and maybe a mile wide. Kind of like the one that hit Indonesia in 2004. Some tsunamis can be caused by heavy winds or hurricanes at sea. Others by earthquakes. That water isn't going to stop, no matter what it hits, and you don't want to be along the coast at the time. Fortunately, big tsunamis are rare. The ones that accompanied the two earthquakes I felt in the last 2 weeks were only 14-18 inches tall - not a real danger. Hollywood made a movie with a tsunami hitting New York, and the destruction that resulted. It's much more likely that a big tsunami would hit Tokyo than New York, and the destruction would be a lot worse than the movie predicted.

Ok, this is less of a natural phenomenon than a man-made one, but just imagining Godzilla wading into the middle of the city and throwing whole trains around is enough to keep me glued to the TV when the news comes on.

Final comments:
Living in Japan is something of an ongoing adventure. With the spate of random stabbing attacks (like the one in Akihabara 7 weeks ago, and another by a woman in Kanagawa yesterday) and other human-driven violence that comes from living in crowded cities during a weak economy, there's also earthquakes, flash floods, mudslides, hurricanes and tsunamis. It's just something that you have to accept as a possibility and keep moving on in the hopes that it won't happen to you.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Tobacco in Japan

From about 1960 on, Japan became a nation of social smokers. Earlier generations rarely smoked, and later generations developed a 2-pack-a-day habit. It's considered a friendly bonding tool, and smoking in public was much the same as in the U.S. up to the 1980's. Smoke-filled offices and restaurants were common sights, and many people smoked while walking on the streets.

More recently, certain groups have been more health conscious and have been pushing for changes, with mixed results. The "smoke clean" campaign just asks smokers to not throw their used butts on the ground. Smoking-only areas have been designated at one end of the train platforms, but the wind tends to blow the smoke all through the station. Restaurants now have smoking and non-smoking sections, but there's no ceiling ventilation so the smoke just slowly fills the entire restaurant. Vending machines dispensing cigarettes can be found everywhere, encouraging teenage smoking; lately, the vending machines have been pulled from the train platforms, encouraging adults to buy cigarettes in volume at drug stores and smoke them at home more often.

A story ran in the papers a few days ago about work being conducted to add facial recognition software to vending machines so that they can automatically determine the age of the potential buyer, and refuse to dispense to anyone looking like a teenager. But, this misses the heart of the real problem - that Asians (Japanese, Chinese and people from Pakistan and India) view smoking as a social activity. People get together to smoke a couple of cigarettes and chat. And, that social smoking has no harmful physical effects. Until the public is educated on the damage done to the body by just one cigarette, there's no way that teenagers will stop picking up smoking on their own - they'll just find ways to trick the facial recognition software.

In Japan, there's a secondary issue regarding smoking. And that is the fact that doctors won't tell a patient if he or she is dying. The doctor will tell the family, friends and even the press, but no one will tell the patient. In part, this is to keep the patient from stressing over being terminally ill. In part, it is also intended to avoid confrontations between the hospital staff and its patients. This means that no one really wants to talk about cancer, and the odds of a smoker developing certain kinds of cancer more quickly. Subconsciously, the Japanese know that they have a higher incidence of cancer than for countries with less smokers, but they don't want to consciously admit it.

Cigarettes are cheap in Japan - between $1.50 and $2.00 per pack. And smokers can be found in the strangest places (by U.S. standards). It's still common to see someone swimming laps in a pool, stopping at the end of each lap to take a drag on a cigarette. Or people breaking between sets of tennis for a smoke.

The reason I raise this subject now is that my wife, her mother, sister and brother-in-law and I all went out to a restaurant last night. My wife, her sister and her brother-in-law all chain-smoked for the entire meal, going through a pack each in a couple of hours. We sat in the smoking section and there was no air flow. The smoke just hung in the air during the entire time. I'm still coughing up my lungs this morning from all the smoke.

If you're a non-smoker, Japan is really not the best place for you to be.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The importance of listening

I have a tendency to dominate conversations. In part, this is because the person I'm talking to eventually goes quiet, and I want to fill in the silence somehow. In part, it's because I'm competitive and want to tell stories that are at least as interesting (to me) as those the other person tells. What this means is that often I'm the one doing the talking.

But, while traveling to other countries or visiting things that people normally don't get to see, it's better to just ask a couple of questions, sit back and nod your head a lot.


(Ikuta Park, man tending insect-preventing cooking fire, July, 2008)

The first example of this occurred yesterday in Ikuta Park. Three of the older buildings have volunteers that sit in the kitchen area, monitoring a fire that is used to put smoke in the rafters to discourage insects from nesting there. I sat down in one kitchen, and one of the two older men three starting asking me questions just to be polite (where am I from, how do I like the park, etc.) In turn, I asked him about his job, and why he was volunteering to sit in a hot building on such a hot day, when he could be off doing something more fun. This broke the ice and eventually we talked about cycling (we both like watching the Tour de France, and he's really impressed with Lance Armstrong), the history of that specific building in more detail (this had to be the house of someone with money - it had boulders in the floor anchoring the main post in the middle of the room. With boulders, the post could be made sturdy enough to go up over 30-40 feet; a peasant with a dirt floor could only get the post up for a 15 foot ceiling). Additionally, the center of the house showed charring - long ago someone had accidentally launched fireworks into the house, where it ignited some of the thatch in the ceiling. The owners had thought they'd put it out completely, but part of the thatch continued to smolder, finally breaking out into a full-blown blaze. Firefighters had to cut through the 2-foot thick reed roof in order to put out the fire. However, while the pillars had been charred, they were still strong enough to not need to be replaced when the reed roof was repaired.

(Hand-made bamboo grasshopper, July, 2008)

When I told the guy that I needed to keep moving, he reached to the back of the room and gave me a hand-made bamboo grasshopper. He probably hands them out to whoever comes into the house, but while I was there, no one else even bothered to look in. So, I was one of the few to get a grasshopper that day.

During that same trip, I met a businessman up from Yokohama (about 1 hour away by train) who had visited Ikuta Park twice before. I had entered the first exhibit building in the park and was the only one there. The exhibit encouraged people to take off their shoes and walk around the polished wood floors of the house, and that's what I was doing. The businessman then arrived, and while hesitating whether to look around, I invited him in as if it were my own house. Undoubtedly, the big ugly, fat foreign guy scared him, but he did take his shoes off and looked around. Since we were following the same path, we kept bumping into each other, and I kept cracking jokes in bad Japanese and asking questions about the buildings. Turned out that the guy was hesitating talking to me because his English wasn't very good and he was afraid of embarrassing himself. Since I kept speaking in Japanese, he eventually warmed up and decided to act as my tour guide. He told me more about the area, the places where the buildings originated from, and Japanese history that I would not have learned on my own, and also treated me to a mizu yokan snack. Once I got him talking, I just kept silent and let him take center stage, and I learned a lot more that way.


(Kudamatsu City Walk, at lunch picnic area, 1995)

Back in 1995, I worked on contract with Hitachi, in the small town of Kudamatsu. For the previous 2 or 3 years, the city councils of Kudamatsu and several of the neighboring towns had joined together to put on a "discover the area" event. The basic premise was to let foreigners in the area learn more about the city, and to teach local history to Japanese school kids, but it was open to everyone that wanted to join in. The best part was that it was free, and included a fish fry lunch at the end. The event consisted of a walking tour and scavenger hunt. The tour went through a temple dedicated to a local fox god, some parks, and a sake brewery. The brewery was the highlight of the trip for the adults, but no one paid any attention to what the guide was saying. They just wanted to chat with each other and then sip on the tiny cup of free sample sake on their way out. Since I like sake and wanted to learn more about how it's made, I was the only one to talk to the guide and to really listen to him. As a result, the guide gave me a bottle of the better stuff (much better than the freebie) as a parting gift.

Granted, none of these things I received were really worth all that much (the sake, the most expensive thing, was probably only worth $10), but they added to the fun of the trip, and they are memories that I'll associate with those trips long into the future. They're further proof that being quiet and nodding can be a good thing.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Siteseeing, 1 - Ikuta Ryokuchi Park

(Example of early Japanese housing architecture)

I like to get outside and explore the areas around where I'm living. It makes me feel more anchored to that place. Unfortunately, if my only option is to hike around on foot there's a limit to how far I can go and how much of the area I can see. I say this because when I first lived in Tokyo around 1994, it was in Inadazutsumi, about 1 mile from where I am now. And there's still a lot of the area that I haven't seen. So, it was time to go out exploring again.

10 days ago, when I went to the Kawasaki municipal office to register for my green card, I picked up a Japanese language area map, which included a handful of suggested siteseeing routes kind of centered around Noborito. I go to Noborito every day in order to buy the Japan Times paper from the kiosk within the station. This is kind of a pain (I don't have a subscription yet) because it costs 130 yen each way to ride the train one stop just to get the paper. Plus, because the kiosk is within the station, I have to pay both fares even though I don't leave the Noborito station. What this means is, if I want a 180 yen paper I either have to pay 230 yen daily for the round-trip ride, or walk the 1 mile to Noborito, buy a ticket to get in the station and then ride the train back. So, I figured that if I'm going to walk occasionally, I might as well work in a siteseeing route in Noborito from the map while I'm at it.

(Ikuta Park entrance)

Ikuta Ryokuchi Park is about 20 minutes by foot south of Noborito station. It's buried in the trees within the hills, so you don't know what to expect even as you're getting closer to the entrance. In front of the park is a series of hiking trails that go through some rice paddies, connected by little wooden pavilion viewing stations. The park itself is on the other side of a small museum, and it costs 500 yen for 1 adult to get inside.

(Example of nail-less joint work)

Inside is a collection of historical houses that have been moved from various parts of Japan, many dating from 200 to 300 years ago (one house was completed around 1924, but it's still of the older design and building materials). The houses are mostly designed using interlocking joints held in place with rope - no nails used at all. The roofs are 1 to 2 feet thick, consisting of rice reed stalks. Some of the buildings are placed on stilts to allow for airflow under the floor to cool the rooms during the Summer. These are very elaborate buildings, sometimes owned by Samurai, otherwise by merchants.

(2 of the transported houses)

Three of the buildings are manned by small groups of people monitoring cooking fires in the main kitchen area. The purpose of these cooking fires is to circulate smoke up into the rafters to discourage insects from nesting in the roofing materials. There's a small kiosk in the middle, selling snack foods and drinks, but you're allowed to bring in your own bento and bottled water if you want. At the top of the Tama hills is a kabuki stage, a demonstration of dying cloth with indigo dyes (Japan was very famous for the production of this dye) and an observatory for star viewing.

(A more recent house; no thatch roof)

I had a lot of fun checking out this park, and ran into a businessman from Yokohama who offered to act as a tour guide. Over all, I spent 3 hours in the park. Unfortunately, in the middle of July this means that I also got pretty sunburned. It's a long, hot trek through the hills so be sure to bring lots of water and sunscreen if you go in the Summer.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Learning Japanese - School, Day 1

(Door greeter outside restaurant, at night, near JLC)

Japanese Language Center had offered a series of free introductory language lessons a while back, and my wife passed the URL to the school on to me. But, when I went in to check the school out a few days ago, I was told that the free lessons had ended. However, they were willing to start up another set of free lessons for me if I was interested. Additionally, they had one person signed up for beginner's classes on Friday mornings, and I was welcome to join up to turn it into a group class. Afterwards, I took a skill check to assess my level, and it turned out that the beginner's class would be too easy for me. So I settled for just the 1 day a week intro, on Thursdays at 7:00 PM.

I get the feeling that the school's approach is to guilt you into signing up for the $600/package classes. With all of the attention I got from individual instruction, and the fact that I'm going to be doing this for 2 months straight, I'm uncomfortable with it being free. At the end, I'll probably have to buy a real class just to ease my conscience.

My nihongo sensei is a young woman (all of the front staff seem to be women; so I expect that the upper management is all male), who is very enthused with her work. We alternated between simple grammar exercises, and free-form conversation. It became really obvious to me why I can't hold a normal conversation - on top of not knowing a lot of simple basic words (like the numbers for different shaped objects), I never learned simple sentence structure. So, my task is to focus on the basics, while expanding my collection of kanji. But, the lesson covered a wide range of subjects and that gave me a lot more practice speaking than I normally get.

The course isn't exactly free - I did have to buy two books for a total of 4,000 yen (about $40). The main textbook is "Hyakuman-nin no nihongo, No. 1" ("1 Million People's Japanese, Vol. 1) , billed as "image lesson learning". The accompanying book is a kanji practice workbook, "Kanji nooto 1" (Kanji Notebook 1). I'm just starting to look both books over, but there is one thing that strikes me right away about them - they're very illustration heavy and almost read like manga. This is something that I like about Japanese culture; rather than just lecture you on a subject, which western textbooks like to do, Japanese books often use the manga approach to create characters and tell a story in along with the lecturing. In "1 Million People's", 10 characters are introduced, including two Japanese senseis, and 8 students from countries like England, Korea and Russia, all with different backgrounds and job descriptions. The families of the characters are introduced as part of the vocabulary lessons (this is my mother, this is my father), and it almost feels like you're being brought into a novel as the lessons progress, which may help keep the interest level up.

The Kanji Notebook takes on a pictorial/historical approach, showing how certain kanji originated from forms in nature and then evolved to their current designs. The exercises go beyond mere repetition, and ask that you copy out entire sentences over and over.

I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't complete either of these books if I bought them to practice on my own. So, I'm going to knuckle down and get my homework finished before the next class next week, just to avoid disappointing sensei.

Initial impressions: JLC is staffed with friendly, interested people that take their jobs seriously. I'm looking forward to the next class.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Living in Japan - Tokyo Summers

(Bookstore in Kawasaki in July, 2008)

The weather in Japan pretty much depends on latitude. Hokkaido is about even with Maine, and Okinawa is closer to Florida. This should give you a rough idea about how the weather extremes along the country are going to behave. But, since Japan is surrounded by ocean, the extremes are tempered a bit, just as they are on the U.S. Atlantic coast. Tokyo is about even with northern cities in North Carolina.

During the winter, Tokyo can get a couple of inches of snow, with temps hovering in the 40's (F) for several days. But, usually snow melts off within 2 or 3 days. What snow does land here tends to be very mushy. If you grew up in Iowa or Wisconsin, you'd consider Tokyo winters pretty mild.

Spring tends to be quite pleasant, with Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) being the highlight of the season. Temps in the 60s or 70s, clear skies, and low humidity make it perfect for a picnic lunch alongside a riverbank to watch the petals fall.

Now comes Summer. Having grown up in Minnesota, with temps regularly dropping down to -15 F, I simply can not handle hot summers. Sure, we'd get up to 96 in July or August, but that's what indoor air conditioning is for. What it comes down to is that I am not equipped for living in Tokyo between June to September. First is rainy season (Tsuyu), which generally starts around June 8 and runs to around July 20. During Tsuyu, the temps may be in the 70s, but humidity feels like 90 percent ALL THE TIME! All day long, no matter what, there is drizzle. Everyone walks around with umbrellas, but that doesn't help because the air is so wet your clothes soak through anyway. When it does rain, it's not that heavy and only lasts maybe an hour or two, not counting the humongous rain storms that occasionally pound the city and flood the sewers, rivers and subways. But it's like this for 6 SOLID WEEKS IN A ROW! You need to check yourself for mold since this can be a real danger.

Ok, we've survived Tsuyu, and are now in full-blown Natsu - Summer. In Tokyo, the skies can start out clear, but then turn hazy for the rest of the day. According to, it is now 85 F, feels like 95 F, and with a humidity of 71%. Mushi Atsui!!! IT'S HOT! What makes Tokyo different from living in most places in the U.S. is that it's not convenient to drive around in an air conditioned car. That is, you either walk to and from the train station, stand on an open-air platform, ride a 1-speed bike around, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with 100 other commuters in an under-conditioned train car, or otherwise get exposed to hot muggy air for an hour at a time. I can't even hide in the apartment; electricity is expensive, and we only run the air conditioner when the laptop PCs start shorting out from the dripping sweat. Going outside and walking around results in my being drenched in sweat within a couple of minutes. My shirt can take an hour to dry out afterwards. If I had my choice, I'd be taking cold showers 3 or 4 times a day, but water is expensive here, too. I can't image what I'd be like if I rode around on a bike - simply walking is bad enough.

The temps do cool off during the evenings, which is one respite. Unfortunately the humidity doesn't change and the dew point is at about 71 F. So, if I go out at night, I get covered in dew. Stupid dew.

I was hoping that this rant would take my mind off of the fact that I have to go to the Japanese school this evening, during rush hour, and walk 1 mile from the Shinjuku station out to the school's location in Shinjuku Gyoenmae, but it hasn't. I'm seriously considering taking the Marunouchi subway instead. Combined with the time waiting for the subway and at the stops, riding the subway takes as long as walking. But at least it's less physical effort and I may not sweat quite as much...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Learning Japanese, Part 2 - Resources

It's a lot easier to buy Japanese textbooks and dictionaries these days. Just jump on and enter your credit card number. Further, you can watch Japanese TV shows if you have a satellite dish; visit Japanese websites if you have net access; watch subbed anime DVDs, and even converse with Japanese natives by using Skype or by spending time at a university campus. Additionally, you can visit the websites of the English versions of Japanese newspapers and check out their "Learning Japanese" articles.

And, naturally, none of these resources come close to the experience of growing up in Japan and learning the language as a native speaker. But, at least we do have access to these resources, anyway.

If you want to learn Japanese, you have to make a decision - are you going to focus on the written or spoken language? Written Japanese has certain conventions and rules that spoken Japanese does not. Further, in written Japanese you really have to know kanji, which is a completely different issue by itself. On the other hand, spoken Japanese is influenced by a series of etiquette rules that require that you know your relationship to the person you're talking with. I'm going to make a gross generalization here, but there's one form of Japanese for male speakers, another for female speakers, and the written language generally takes on the male form. On top of all this, Japanese history and culture have vastly influenced the present-day language, so if you're going to learn Japanese, you need to study its history as well.

In my case, I want to learn both.

I went to a language school in Shinjuku yesterday to learn a little more about a free introductory lesson that they offer. The school, the Japanese Language Center (JLC), gave me a 5-page quiz to fill out, which took the better part of 1 hour. The quiz consisted mainly of questions regarding specific pictures ("here" is a picture of a red pencil, "there" is a picture of a yellow cat; what is the color of that cat?; what is that thing "here"?) Then, I received a short intermediary level lesson on counting, using polite Japanese. JLC's assessment was that I'm firmly in the intermediary level, but that I have huge holes in my basic vocabulary. That is, I can handle the question "how many books are shown above and below the table", but I don't know how to pronounce the numbers when counting from 1 to 10 books (ippon, ni-hon, san-bon, etc.) So, I'm now looking at starting tomorrow a series of free classes that will run 2 hours a week for 2 months. I'm just hoping that I can find a job in the meantime in order to cover my living expenses here.

Resources for learning Japanese:

A lot depends on your needs. A small dictionary is easy to carry around in a backpack, but won't contain all possible definitions of a word, or contain more obscure words. A larger dictionary will be more complete but less portable. At least consider getting a small Japanese-English/ English-Japanese translation dictionary. Keep in mind that if you get a kanji dictionary, if you don't know how to pronounce the kanji you're going to have to look it up manually based on the stroke count. If you get a phonetic dictionary (hiragana or romaji spelling of words), you're not going to be able to find a specific kanji if you don't know how to pronounce it.

You may also want to get a verb book. Japanese verbs can be complex, irregular, and hard to figure out. There are whole books just dedicated to explaining how the verbs work.

Electronic Dictionaries:
I really like my Casio dictionary. I have the Japanese model XD-SW6400, but it looks the same as the U.S. version. I can enter romaji or hiragana through the keypad, or write the kanji on the touchpad. It's a very powerful tool for kanji look-up. It also has all kinds of specialized dictionaries that can be downloaded to it from a PC, but I haven't needed those. If you buy anything, buy something like this Casio.

There are all kinds of workbooks and practice books on the market. If you take formal Japanese lessons, the required textbooks will be specified for you. If you study on your own, pick something that meets your personal needs and tastes. As for myself, I don't like anything on the U.S. market. As I mentioned in Learning Japanese - Part 1, Japanese is not taught as it is actually used in practice. This places a limit on how useful any given book or audio course will be. Personally, I'd save the money and use it to buy an electronic dictionary.

Audio Courses:
I've tried listening to a few of the audio tapes and CDs on the market, and none of them did much for me. My opinion is that audio tapes are fine for some people, but not others. I guess that here, I'm an "other".

So far, I've only found one podcast that issues episodes regularly - I have mixed emotions regarding Japanesepod (JP). First, JP does have some simple basic lessons that can help new learners. Second, if you get a basic subscription, you can read the dialog notes, get practice kanji sheets, and see more examples of specific grammar notes. Third, podcasts are really MP3 files that can be played in a car on any MP3 player, making them great when on long commutes. Conversely, I *hate* the main host - Peter. I can not stand him. His jokes tend to be stupid wastes of airspace, and when an episode runs long it's usually because he spent 5 minutes on a pointless digression. He over-explains simple grammar concepts, and often doesn't know about basic cultural things that even the newest fan to anime understands by heart. Another drawback to JP is that it doesn't stand on its own as a learning tool. You'll want to take night classes or buy some textbooks to build up a stronger starting vocabulary. Also, JP is aimed at the beginner to lower intermediate learner. JP doesn't have an advanced learner course. Finally, the Japanese dialogs tend to be simple jokes. It's rare to have a dialog that is lifted straight from regular life. I don't really have a problem with the joke dialogs, since the humor makes the learning process more fun, but you're not being taught spoken Japanese that you can memorize and immediately use on the street or in the workplace. One thing that I do like a lot, though, is Miki's Blog. Later episodes of Miki's blog are hosted by 2 Japanese natives, and the discussions as well as Miki's narrative are in all-Japanese.

Japanese Textbooks:
"Nazo Pe" is not a textbook per se. Rather, it's a practice puzzle book aimed at Japanese school children. My wife gave me 2 books aimed at 3rd graders. Even at this level, they're almost too much for me. Lots of cultural references, and quotes from famous poetry and novels. I really like them, but they're not something a non-native speaker is going to be able to cope with without outside assistance. "Nazo Pe" is a shortened form of "Nazo Paper", or "Puzzle Paper", and the Nazo Pe books are designed so that a parent or older family member can study with you and help with questions or pronunciation problems.

Most later versions of Windows now come with Japanese language support built-in. Just go into Control Panel and select the language you want to use. You'll want IME support to allow for entering hiragana or kanji. Beyond this, I recommend NJStar. NJStar is an Australian-based product that allows for Japanese wordprocessing. It has real-time kanji look-up, kanji selection based on radicals, and a separate dictionary feature. I like NJStar a lot, especially when it comes to finding kanji that I can't write by hand into my electronic dictionary. That is, if I find a kanji that I don't know how to pronounce, I'll first try writing it on the touchpad of the Casio. But, my handwriting is bad and the Casio will often convert it to the wrong kanji. When this happens, I'll go to NJStar and look for the kanji based on its radicals. Once I have the pronounciation of the kanji, I'll go back to the Casio and hand type it in romaji.

Language Schools:
I can't say anything about schools in the U.S. The extension night classes are usually too basic and shallow, and I've never studied Japanese in a university. I do know, though, that what's taught in the U.S. universities is not what's spoken in Japan, so keep that in mind. And the reason for this is that teachers want to be able to teach to a set of rules that they can then test you on for grading purposes. Unfortunately, spoken and written Japanese is very sloppy, and a lot gets sacrificed in order to shoehorn the language into a specific training format. Universities usually only teach polite Japanese, which is used only in moderation in real life.

As for language schools in Japan - I'm just starting to explore this myself. So far, there are about 10 schools that actively advertise in Tokyo. Most offer support for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT), most have small group or private lessons, and most are full-time or part-time lessons. Full-time lessons average $600 per course, and about half the schools charge $100 for registration, with maybe another $100 in operating fees. Textbooks aren't included in the price.

Right now, I've only contacted the Japanese Language Center branch in Shinjuku. The staff is very friendly, and they've broken the 2-person minimum rule for group classes. The deadline for the free introductory classes has passed, but they've offered me a special free class anyway. The first class is tomorrow, so I'll know more about the school after then.

There are about 4 English-language papers in Japan: Asahi Shimbun, Japan Times, Nikkei Weekly, and the Daily Yomiuri. Of these, Asahi, Japan Times and Yomiuri have online articles on learning Japanese. None of these articles really go into specific grammar concepts in depth, but if you're taking full-time classes, these articles are good for explaining slang terms and popular word usage. You can get subscriptions to all these magazines, but they're difficult to find at the stores. Generally, Nikkei and Japan Times are available only at select kiosks within the train stations in Tokyo.

English Language Magazines:
So far, I've found two English-language magazines in Japan: J Select and Metropolis. J Select is more business oriented and costs 500 yen. Metropolis has more articles on pop culture (the July 18 issue had a cover article on Cos Play) and is free. Both have large listings of ads for language schools. I found copies of both magazines at the Japanese Language Center office.


Final Recommendations:
These are the things that I use myself:

NJStar Word processor
Casio XD-SW6400 electronic dictionary
Nazo Pe, vol. 1 &2, 3rd Grade level
Japan Times newspaper podcasts

Learning Japanese, Part 1 - Incentives

One of the interesting things about learning a new language is that the deck is stacked against you from the beginning. Foreign language schools don't teach the language as it is actually used, night classes don't have the time to cover the vocabulary and grammar in detail, you can't learn conversational language from books, and conversational classes don't get into written structures. You can spend years trying to earn a language, yet when you get to a country that uses it, discover that you can't understand anyone that talks to you. What this means is that there's no substitute for growing up in that country and practicing the language every day in real-life situations. Which isn't an option if you weren't born in that country to begin with.

I've mentioned in a previous post that I fell in love with anime after watching "Akira" in 1990, and that I decided to learn nihon-go in order to understand what was going on in unsubbed TV shows.

I started out by driving to Chicago (8 hours from Minneapolis) to visit the Japanese import store there to buy a kanji dictionary and a book on verb forms (this was before I also picked up a color comic of one of the Lupin III TV episodes. After returning home, I sat down and practiced reading and writing hiragana and katakana - spending an hour writing all 5 characters from a given row, then writing down from memory all of the other characters I'd learned up to that point. After finishing katakana, I started on the first 100 of the simplest kanji from the dictionary. After the hour of character practice, I'd move on to the manga. First, I copied the dialog from the book to a ruled note pad. Then, I converted the nihon-go into the equivalent English sounds. Next, I looked up each word in the dictionary (if I could find it), and finally I cleaned the English up to make it sound more natural. Because I didn't understand how verbs worked, I made a lot of mistakes. But, this approach at least allowed me to memorize the alphabet, and introduced me to the difference between Japanese readings and Chinese readings.

After about 6 months of working on my own, I attended a couple of night classes offered by the extended learning department of the local community college. You've probably seen catalogs for these classes - 60 minutes per night, 1 night per week, for 6 weeks, for $45. All that was offered were two very basic beginner's courses, in which I learned the words for various colors, and various simple verbs (i.e. - "to see", "to walk" and "to run"). The only really useful thing to come from these classes was having access to a native Japanese speaker to ask her for help on translating the "Dragon Half" manga.

By now, I'd spent about 1.5 years trying to read manga on my own. The time had come to travel to Japan and try to get a job. I left as a tourist, sent out resumes cold to 150 companies, and got one job offer. The job was at a small video game company with 8 employees, and the president spoke English. It was too easy to survive without knowing Japanese, so my skill level didn't change. After 4 months of this, I left the company due to poor health, and then got a 9-month contract with Hitachi to write their user manuals in English. I had to interact with about 20 people, almost none of whom spoke English, so I ended up learning Japanese really fast just to be able to do my job. The problem here is that I only learned engineering Japanese. I could describe a bug I'd found in a menu system, but couldn't talk about the weather to strangers on the street.

Fast forward to 2008. Not much has changed. I'm still reading manga, still only understanding 50% of the dialog in most books. I'm living in the U.S. and most of the people I deal with don't understand Japanese; there are few people to practice with. My wife is Japanese, but she speaks in a fast Tokyo dialect and I can't get her to sit down and just help me learn anything. Plus, my current job contract is about to end in June. Time to go back to Japan.

Thing is, Japan's job market is really tight right now, and there's an age bias against hiring anyone over 35. The only way I'll be able to get a good job now is if I become fluent in nihon-go. This means that I have to really do things right this time.

But, I have learned one thing that has nothing to do with nihon-go itself. And that is the importance of incentive when tackling something new. Most people go into a new venture with a wide-eyed sense of innocence. There's a happy glee while learning all these new and wonderful things. But then, reality sets in. Learning becomes a chore, practice never seems to end, and no matter what you do, you never really seem to master everything like the person next to you does. This is the point where most people drop out and move on to something else. What causes the remaining group to plow on through the tough spots is that they have either an ultimate goal, or a larger incentive to keep at it. That is, they're not learning something simply for the sake of learning, but because they either love what they're doing, or they're doing something to achieve a larger goal. In my case, I was learning nihon-go in order to read manga in the original language. And now, I'm moving on to getting a good job so that I can stay in Japan and continue reading manga as I like. In order words, I have a reason to keep studying that will carry me through the tough spots.

Continued in Part 2.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Living in Japan - Radio Station Names

Since the Newtype radio listings section only gives the station names in kanji, I decided to provide the English names here. Newtype doesn't provide the frequencies, so that will have to wait until later.

ラジオ大阪 - Radio Osaka

ラジオ関西 - Radio Kansai

文化放送 - Bunka Broadcasting

FM-Fuji - FM Fuji

FM仙 - FM Sen

九州朝日放送 - Kyushu Asahi Broadcasting

山陽放送 - Sanyo Broadcasting

東海ラジオ - Tokai Radio

南日本放送 - Minami Nihon Broadcasting

岐阜放送 - Gifu Broadcasting

静岡放送 - Shizuoka Broadcasting

ラジオ日本 - Radio Nihon

MBSラジオ - MBS Radio

東北放送 - Tohoku Broadcasting

秋田放送 - Akita Broadcasting

BAY FM - Bay FM (Tokyo) 78.0 MHz

HBCラジオ - HBC Radio

TBSラジオ「MIXUP」内 - TBS Radio (in MIXUP)

STVラジオ - STV Radio

栃木放送 - Tochigi Broadcasting

西日本放送 - West Nihon Broadcasting

ラジオ沖縄 Radio Okinawa

朝日放送 - Asahi Broadcasting

和歌山放送 - Wakayama Broadcasting

NACK5 - NACK 5 (Tokyo) 79.5 MHz

四国放送 - Shikoku Broadcasting

KBS京都 - KBS Kyoto

中国放送 - Chugoku Broadcasting

信越放送 - Shinetsu Broadcasting

FMぐんま - FM Gunma

FM大分 - FM Oita

FM宮崎 - FM Miyazaki

FM山口 - FM Yamaguchi

FM山形 - FM Yamagata

FM岩手 - FM Iwate

FM新潟 - FM Niigata

FM熊本 - FM Kumamoto

FM秋田 - FM Akita

FM長崎 - FM Nagasaki

FM青森 - FM Aomori

FM香川 - FM Kagawa

FM高知 - FM Kouchi

FM鹿児島 - FM Kagoshima

岐阜FM - Gifu FM

RKBラジオ - RKB Radio

ラジオNIKKEI第1 - Radio Nikkei 1

岩手放送 - Iwate Broadcasting

琉球放送 - Ryukyu Broadcasting

茨城放送 - Ibaragi Broadcasting

北陸放送 - Hokuriku Broadcasting

南海放送 - Nankai Broadcasting

新潟放送 - Niigata Broadcasting

熊本放送 - Kumamoto Broadcasting

ニッポン放送 - Nippon Broadcasting

山陰放送 - Sanin Broadcasting

高知放送 - Kouchi Broadcasting

Living in Japan - Listening to radio

As I mentioned in a previous post, American radios don't pick up the entire Japanese FM band. On the other hand, Toshiba markets its Gigabeat MP3 player/FM radio in both the U.S. and Japan, so the technology exists for a universal radio - it's just apparently limited by software to be country specific.

As I also wrote, if you like anime, you're really better off in Osaka or Kyoto than in Tokyo, since those locations have the larger programming base than Tokyo does. This holds true for anime- and voice actor-specific radio programs as well. Newtype magazine has a section at the back entitled "Anime and Voice Actor Radio Listings", which goes on for 2 pages of tiny print. There are 57 separate radio stations listed, only two of which are in the Tokyo region (Bay FM 78.4 MHz and NACK 5 79.5 MHz). Unfortunately for me, Bay FM transmits from Chiba, on the opposite side of Tokyo, and it doesn't reach me here in Kawasaki. Fortunately, Bay FM does have an online streaming track, but it looks like Mozaiku Night is the only program available for online listening. I can receive NACK 5 clearly enough, it's just that it only carries 2 programs, and those are both on late Sunday nights.

So far, I've only been able to listen to the regular programming, which consists of news, weather, traffic reports, world music and celebrity interviews. This is fine for Japanese listening practice, but does nothing for my need for an anime fix.

Below is a list of the stations I've found from Kawasaki:

76.1 MHz .. InterFM
77.1 MHz .. Unknown station
78.4 MHz .. BAY FM (? 78.0MHz) Poor reception
78.6 MHz .. Unknown station, poor reception
79.5 MHz .. NACK 5
80.0 MHz .. Tokyo FM
80.3 MHz .. Unknown station, poor reception
80.8 MHz .. Unknown station, poor reception
81.3 MHz .. J-Wave
81.9 MHz .. Unknown station, poor reception
82.5 MHz .. NHK FM
83.4 MHz .. Unknown station, poor reception
83.8 MHz .. Unknown station, noisy
84.7 MHz .. FM Yokohama, poor reception
85.1 MHz .. Unknown station, noisy
91.2 MHz .. Dead band, no station
95.8 MHz .. TV channel(?), children's programming
103.3 MHz .. Dead band, no station
107.7 MHz .. TV channel(?), sumo coverage

The anime and voice actor programs around Tokyo are:

Jam Punch! ---- Bay FM 78.4 Friday 19:00 120 min.
Vitamin M ----- Bay FM 78.4 Tuesday 24:30 30 min.
Bay Line 7300 - Bay FM 78.4 M-Th 16:00 170 min.
--------------------------- F 16:00 110 min.
Majiasa ------- Bay FM 78.4 Sunday 09:00 150 min.
Mozaiku Night - Bay FM 78.4 M-Th 25:00 30 min.
Trouble Maker - NACK 5 79.5 Sunday 22:00 30 min.
Voice Crew ---- NACK 5 79.5 Sunday 23:30 30 min.

And yes, some of these times look funky. That's because of a bug in the way Newtype collects their data. To get the info on the NACK 5 programs, go to the NACK 5 website, and click on the second button down under the "NACK5 Contents" column on the left. This will get you the programming schedule. Then, just click on "Sun" for the Sunday listings. I'd put in a direct link, but it looks like NACK5 is using Flash or Java.

I'll put the list of radio stations in the next post.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Living in Japan, Part 3 - Electronics here

If you know anything at all about Japan, then you know that it's a gadget geek's heaven. From tiny feature-packed cell phones to HD TV, and everything in between, this is the country to visit. And, within Tokyo, you really want to stop at Akihabara at least once. Here's what to expect before coming to Japan.

Parts of Japan run on 120VAC, 60 Hz. Other parts don't. If you're coming from the U.S., make sure that all of your electronics use universal power supplies. These supplies automatically adjust to the voltage and frequency they're plugged into. Otherwise, go to a travel supplies store and get an adapter kit.

TVs and DVD Players:
If you bring your own portable TV or DVD player, be prepared to be disappointed. Japanese TV stations broadcast on different frequencies than U.S. stations do, and U.S. TVs won't pick up all of the available Japanese stations. On the other hand, you can easily buy a Japanese portable TV from any number of electronics shops (usually found in department stores) for under $350.

DVDs are region-coded so that players from one country can't play DVDs from another country. You might be able to get a region-free DVD player, but they cost more than normal. But again, portable Japanese DVD players aren't that expensive or hard to find.

You'd think that a city like Tokyo would be an anime mecca. You'd only be half right. You can buy anime DVDs almost anywhere (Akihabara is good, along with some Animate stores), but they're going to be region-coded for Japan. DVD rental is more bothersome, and few Japanese residents are willing to fill out all the paperwork to get a rental membership.

The real shocker is TV anime. Tokyo broadcast TV only has maybe 5 channels, with only 2 or 3 anime shows per day on average. If you're lucky you can get a satellite hookup to bring in more stations, but that's expensive. If you really want to watch TV anime, you're better off going to Osaka or Kyoto, where there are more anime shows on during the day.

If you do plan on visiting Akihabara, consider checking out GI Jane in my Recommended Links section. GI Jane provides tours of Akihabara, although I haven't tried them out myself yet.

Again, Japanese radio stations don't broadcast on the same frequencies as U.S. stations. My U.S. radio only gets two no-name stations in Tokyo, at 95 MHz and 107 MHz. The U.S. radio band is only from 86 MHz to 108 MHz. Most of the Japanese stations in Tokyo are between 75 MHz to 85 MHz. So, if you want to listen to Japanese radio, don't bother bringing one from the U.S.

Yesterday, I bought a Gigabeat MP3 player/FM radio from Yodabashi Camera in Shinjuku for about $95. It displays photos, has 4 Gig storage for MP3 files, and can record FM radio to MP3 files. The radio presets system is very clunky, forcing me to tune the stations manually. But, it's very compact and cute. What I don't like about it is the need to convert files through Windows media player to put them on the Gigabeat. One good thing though is that the Gigabeat menus can be displayed in either Japanese or English.

If you look at the back of Newtype magazine, there's a list of anime and voice actor radio programs. Again, most of these programs are only available outside of Tokyo. I'll list the shows that I have been able to listen to in a later post.

I'm currently using my U.S.-bought laptop here in Kawasaki with no problems at all. I'm using Win XP, with Japanese language support turned on. I'm cabled into an ADSL modem, although I expect that there'd be no issues with going wireless.

If you do buy a PC here, expect it to come with Japanese Vista (which is nothing more than regular Vista with Japanese language support activated and a few more support files installed).

Duty Taxes:
If you come to Japan for a short stay before returning home, keep in mind that you'll be paying duty taxes on purchases over $400. Most of the shops in Akihabara can help you out with figuring out what your duty tax requirements will be.

Living in Japan, Part 2 - Staying here

If you come to visit Japan for any length of time, things become a little different from just being a short-stay tourist. Topics covered here include working in Japan, staying in Japan, and the alien registration card.

Working in Japan:
Generally you need to either find a company that will sponsor a working visa, or be related to a Japanese resident (spouse or dependent). Obviously, it's best to work at a U.S. company with a Japanese branch office, but lately U.S. companies have found that it's cheaper to just hire a Japanese national to work in the Japanese office. If you are related to a Japanese national by marriage or birth, then contact the nearest Japanese Consulate to get the forms required. Under a spouse visa, you can hold a job without needing a separate work visa. If you decide to come to Japan as a tourist and then look for work, concentrate on applying to the English schools, like NOVA or GEOS (because they have experience hiring foreigners). Keep in mind though that the English schools prefer to hire Canadians and Brits because their working holiday visas don't require any special paperwork to be completed.

If you come here on business for a U.S. company, make sure that you are paid in U.S. dollars to a U.S. bank - that will save you some headaches when you go through customs since otherwise you'll need that work visa.

Hotels get expensive fast, and youth hostels only let you stay in one location for 3 days at a stretch. For longer-term housing, you're either looking at an apartment, or a gaijin house. My experiences here took place in the early 1990's, so things may have changed since then. In any case, you need to go through an apartment finder service if you want to find an apartment. Normally, these services are near the train stations in residential districts, and they are small shops with ads for the apartments plastered over the windows. They expect a "thank you gift" of a few hundred dollars, along with a "gift" for the landlord if you get the apartment, and they generally don't work for short-term stays (i.e. - under 1 year.) They're also very picky about not renting directly to foreigners, due to the risk of the renter skipping payments, damaging the apartment, or whatever. Even many Japanese are finding it harder to get an apartment due to not having a good-paying job. However, if you look at magazines targeting foreigners in Japan, there will be ads for foreigner-rentable apartments.

This leaves gaijin houses. Be warned - these are often ghetto apartments leased by a Japanese landlord from a rundown building in a bad neighborhood. The one I stayed at had up to 12 people in 1.5 apartments, with 1.25 working kitchens and 1 working shower. It was $400/month, so cheaper than anything I could have gotten otherwise, but it really was a slum.

One option is company housing. When I worked for Hitachi, I stayed at a company-owned apartment complex. Of course, this means having a job with the company, but it's not that bad of an arrangement. The apartment complex was a 1 mile walk from the factory, and in decent condition. The problem is that if the company lets you go for one reason or another, you've got no where to stay.

Alien Registration:
In the U.S., this is what we call a green card. If you plan on staying more than 90 days, you need to get an Alien Registration card. The procedure is to go to the municipal office for the city you're living in, and bring with you your passport and 2 passport-sized photos (taken in the last 6 months). You'll be given a form to fill out. The people you deal with here may or may not speak English, so you may want to bring an interpreter with you. If your paperwork is accepted, you'll get a temporary permit, and instructions to wait 3 weeks for a letter to arrive to you in the mail. When you get this letter, return to the municipal office to receive your actual alien card.

The alien card will be good for the period that you plan on staying in the country. If you came in under a working visa or spouse visa, then the length of your visa will be the length of the alien card. You'll have to return to the municipal office to extend the alien card when it nears expiration.

If you plan on getting a job in Japan, you'll need a bank here. And, to get a bank account, you'll need the alien registration card. I'll expand this section later when I go get my account.

If you plan on staying in Japan for any length of time, you really need to be able to speak a little Japanese, and be able to read hiragana and katakana at a minimum. Fortunately, there are schools that specialize in teaching Japanese to foreigners. I'm in the process of visiting a couple of these schools now, and will write about them in more detail later.


That's all for now.