Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Immediate Concerns Alleviated by Technology

In six days I’m on my way. The immediate concerns before any trip seem to crowd in on you but for a 3 month trip I’m finding that the pressure isn’t as severe. I’ve accomplished many of the things I needed done before departure so what remains is touching base with everyone to say goodbye.

I think the internet also alleviates a good portion of my concerns because many of the things I do in Arizona I can do from Japan. For instance, banking. The movement of funds from account to account is easily done from Japan. Non-automated deposits were a concern but I’ve managed to get deposit slips made out and my son will do the leg work. I manage two accounts for a distant elderly relative but deposits and post-dated checks are taken care of so all I have to do is transfer funds.

Just-in-case checks have been made out for people whose services I may need while I am in Japan and my girlfriend will fill in the amounts and get them in the mail when needed. I could mail checks from Japan but that would add a week to the delivery time.

The JIC checks are for my editor who will be working on my second novel with me while I'm in Japan. As mentioned earlier, I am a writer and I use a free-lance editor for my novels. The writing world has seen major changes in the past decade; a major one being full service publishing houses dropping in-house editing services. Publishers now expect to receive well polished fiction so they don’t foot the bill for the editor’s work. As a result, the editing staff for many publishing houses have been let go and they have offered their services for hire.

This is also true for the publicity side of the industry and many of the publicists formerly employed by publishing houses are offering their expertise directly to the writer or to the smaller publishers. The publicity campaign for my novel will be executed by a book publicity firm of this nature. I will be working with them on the campaign over the internet and via Skype.

Another example is my fantasy football leagues for the upcoming NFL season and the ability to watch games. It’s the same internet in Japan as it is in Arizona so things won’t be a whole lot different I can participate in the fantasy drafts and monitor the Sunday action.

One would think I wouldn’t be able to watch my team’s games from Japan but I did some checking. I subscribe to DirectTV which offers the NFL Sunday ticket. I receive all games for the entire season in HD. This year I was automatically enrolled (for an additional $9.99/month) in the NFL Online service. This allowed me to watch any game during the season online. At first it sounded like exactly what I was looking for and then I checked it out.

The service is provided subject to local blackout rules as defined by the NFL. The subscribers local blackout area is based on the address listed on his DirectTV account. So, if my team is blacked out I don’t get to see the game even though I’m not in the blackout area. I can see being blacked out if I’m in the area but not if I’m traveling. With today’s technology DirectTV should be able to tell where my point of entry to the internet is located and if it isn’t in my local area allow the video stream to be delivered. What if I’m a business man and I have to work in another city one weekend and the hotel doesn’t carry all the games? It would be nice to be in my hotel room watching over the internet.

So I then figured, at least I will be able to watch the away games and the local ones that aren’t blacked out. I was comforted by this until I read some fine print somewhere on the DirectTV site that the game would also not be shown on the DirectTV channel if the game was simultaneously to be shown on the local Fox or CBS affiliate. All of the games, home and away, are on the Fox or CBS affiliate on Sundays so I or anyone with this service will never get their local team's games online.

I suspect there will be a clearing house somewhere on the internet so that people who want to see the Arizona game while they are in another city or when their home games are blacked out can swap logins and passwords with someone from Houston who also wants to see his team play their game.

I have figured out a different solution and again, the internet makes it possible. I plan to use Skype. As mentioned elsewhere I bought my girlfriend a netbook and loaded Skype on it so that we could communicate via Skype rather than by phone. With a PC camera in my PC and my girlfriend’s netbook we can also see each other during conversations.

I will have her setup her netbook so that it is focused on the television and I will be able to watch the game. Not only that, I will hear the broadcast and I will be able to talk to her while she watches the game with me. She is a football fan and has some attachment to another team so the problem with this whole scenario is that I won’t have access to the remote.

Technology and Skype is also providing communications with home. The football viewing aspect was an after-thought, the real reason for the Skype setup was for regular conversations with people at home. I initially only wanted to put it on my girlfriend’s netbook but then I thought my kids could install the software on their netbooks and out of the blue one day my brother called me and asked me if I had Skype. Now my sisters have installed it and we can stay in touch better than if I wasn’t going to Japan.

The 16 time zones between us aren’t really a problem. Ten o’clock in the morning in Japan is six o’clock in the evening (of the previous day) in Arizona. By mid morning I will be fully awake, and hopefully have accomplished something, when my friends and family will be getting home from work. At 2:00 PM I could call to say goodnight.

Television is another concern I have while I’m away. I want to be able to watch and understand Japanese television so I will be watching a lot while I am there. It is a good way to hear the language spoken and it’s a sink-or-swim environment because you can’t ask the speaker to repeat their words again more slowly. However, I won’t want an exclusive diet of Japanese television, there are shows in the US that I follow and I would hate to miss them while I’m away.

Thanks to the internet I will be able to follow my shows when the new season starts in September. Some of the cable networks only provide recaps but all of the major networks provide full episodes for free, at least for now. I wonder if providing them for free is just their way of getting us all hooked on internet entertainment and in the not too distant future there will be a charge for each show watched.

I think that thanks to the internet long term travel doesn’t have to be as emotionally stressful as it has been in the past. Using this blog and, as many travelers do utilizing travel blog websites, I will share trip experiences shortly after they happen to provide the people back home a small feeling of coming along with me. For me it will be more than a small feeling, it will be the tie to my real world.

My thanks to all the computer technicians and software development companies that created the technology that we take for granted today. The internet has become a utility like electricity, water works, garbage pickup and even streets and roads with the background infrastructure of professional engineers, administrators, clerks and laborers required to deliver what people expect from their technology.

During the 80’s I went to a computer seminar and the speaker, who’s name I can’t remember right now, talked about how computer intelligence was being added to almost every aspect of people’s daily lives. He said that one of his party conversation starters was to take any common daily used item and put the word ‘intelligent’ in front of it then ask his conversational companions to define how such an item would work. The example he gave in the seminar was an intelligent-lawnmower.

What he and his friends came up with was a small, maybe 8-12 inch wide robot with wheels and a spinning blade that could be programmed to ‘graze’ the lawn. You would place the mower in one corner of your lawn and enter the command via the remote control, to go forward. When you reached the other side of the lawn you would tell the mower to stop, turn 90 degrees in one direction, and then go forward again. You would do this type of programming the first time you used the mower and when you finished cutting the lawn you would store the program. For curved lawns or pattern cutting the optional joy-stick could be purchased.

The next day you could place the mower in the starting position and tell it to execute the program you had saved and off it would go but, this time you could go inside and watch television. You could then have this small mower ‘grazing’ on your lawn every day because you don’t really care how much grass is cut off the top; you just want it to be kept at a certain length. The only reason one cuts his/her lawn every week or so is that one doesn’t want to do it every day. With a robot mower, who cares if it’s done every day or if the device is in a constant state of ‘grazing’?

The most interesting thing about the mower is that it exists today. So does the intelligent-vacuum cleaner and it is programmed in the same manner. What ever humans can imagine can eventually be created. Once it is imagined it’s been invented, humans just have to execute the development portion of the invention.

Because of this human imagination, the internet exists, Skype exists, entertainment on demand exists and travel with lesser amounts of stress exists.

I’ll probably write once more before I leave and then I will recap how the day of travel to Tokyo went. Did all the best plans of mice and men get executed well or did they all go out the door?

If you’re interested in my novel and what it is all about please check out my author page at www.pensmithbooks.com.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Updates and About the First Meal

First, I am excited to tell you that my first choice apartment has been reserved. Weird though because the deposit showed up in my bank account almost immediately the day I paid them and today it disappeared.

So, when I get to Narita Airport I will take the train to Shinjuku Station. I haven’t done this before because my travel agent has always pre-purchased a bus ticket directly to the hotel in Shinjuku. I’m looking forward to trying the train and hoping it costs less that the bus. The one consideration I have is the luggage. The bus has lower compartments for storing luggage. I’m sure the train will have overhead racks but we shall see and I find I have very little patience for luggage after a long trip. If my carry-on bag slips in my grip or the roller luggage flips on a wheel I’m ready to drop kick it through the goal posts to hell where they are welcome to burn for eternity.

The other reason I like the train idea is that if I have visitors and want to meet them at the airport. If the train is less expensive it will be worth doing and if it turns out that luggage is better handled on the bus I can get my visitor going in the right direction from the airport on the bus to Shinjuku and I’ll take the train back and meet them there.

For my arrival, my friend will be meeting me at Shinjuku Station. From there we will lock my luggage, if I still have it, in a locker and we’ll walk over to the rental office which is just outside the west exit of the station. The rental agency won’t do any of the work ahead of time so you have to go there to get keys to your apartment and pay the first month’s rent. The deposit is for cleaning and damage and I could get 2/3rds of that back after I vacate.

My guess is that I will be in the apartment by about 7:00 PM after about 18 hours of travel. I actually enjoy the trip and get a lot of reading done, plus I watch a movie or two. I like to stay up the first night at least until my regular bedtime. That way I get a regular night’s sleep, waking up at a normal time in the morning and get on Japan time right from the start.

My friend and I will probably check out the apartment then go get something to eat to kill a little time before I go back to unpack before pulling out the futon and putting together my sleeping apparatus. I don’t recall if I mentioned that the apartment has the straw mat tatamis on the floor and that means no western style bed. I’ll be sleeping on the floor with a futon for 3 months and I’m looking forward to that experience.

I’ve purchased all the toiletries and OTC medications I’m going to take so it’s now a matter of deciding about clothing. Usually not a difficult task for me; socks, undies, slacks and some golf shirts. I’ll wear a jacket so I don’t have to pack it.

Over the past few trips it became a tradition that the first meal upon arriving in Japan would be okonomiyaki with my friend from the Keio Plaza Hotel. There is a restaurant we go to in the basement of a building between the hotel and Shinjuku Station. It seats about seven customers and we always end up standing in the corner beside boxes of cabbage waiting for a seat. It stays that way the entire time we are there, with people standing and waiting for openings. If two singles get up and leave at the same time and there is a twosome waiting, people have no problem shifting over a seat to let parties stay together. Everyone is so courteous in Japan and you just fall into being that way as well when you see how readily they accommodate each other.

My friend prefers Hiroshima style okonomiyaki and did some research to find a restaurant that served okonomiyaki in the layered, noodle filled format. He was also really happy when he discovered it was so close to the hotel. He always makes sure to be working the day I arrived and after I check in he gets off work and we go for dinner.

Okonomiyaki is sometimes called Japanese Pizza but it isn’t even close to being pizza. Hiroshima style is cooked in stages and then the stages are stacked. The chef cooks a crepe, some seafood, some noodles, a pile of cabbage and finally an egg on a teppan, a large flat iron cooking surface. This is the type of cooking surface you see in Japanese restaurants where they cook the meal in front of you and flip shrimp and fried vegetables.

In America, teppanyaki cooking is part entertainment and part food preparatioin. When we went for teppanyaki in Japan it was all about the food preparation, the chef displayed his skills at cooking and we benefited from the chef's skills by enjoying the flavor. The show in America is fun but don't expect that type of entertainment if you go for teppanyaki in Japan.

Once the layers are stacked they are left to cook for a while then the whole thing is flipped, covered in okonomiyaki sauce and allowed to cook a little longer. Some places put a lid over top of the stack to help the cooking. When done, the chef sprays Japanese mayonnaise over the top in a grid pattern and cuts the whole thing into smaller more manageable pieces then the okonomiyaki is placed in front of you, still on the teppan to keep it warm. The teppan is cooler on the edges.

There are bottles of extra sauce in case you need it. Okonomiyaki sauce is a date-fruit based sauce that is a bit sweet. It is certainly umami. I was able to find the same brand at an Asian grocery store near my home in Arizona.

Of course sake goes great with okonomiyaki but cold beer is also a nice accompaniment. The last couple of times my friend has also ordered beef tendon as a side dish. They’re slow cooked and as tender as can be. A little gelatinous but they have the most intense beefy flavor I’ve tasted in a long time. We eat in about an hour and then my friend catches the train home while I get back to the hotel.

I did a search on the internet for okonomiyaki and there are plenty of hits. I figured out a recipe and have begun to make it at home. My kids and girlfriend love it. They think I make a pretty good version of okonomiyaki and they’ve eaten the real thing in Japan.

It is one of the foods of Japan that I knew nothing about before going on our first trip. We went out to find a place for dinner one night in Kyoto and ended up at a small Japanese restaurant. We think my daughter may have ordered okonomiyaki for dinner that night but we don’t remember exactly what it was called. After my friend introduced me to it, we all think it was a great find.

Our tradition will be broken on this trip because I won’t get to the rental agency and out to Mitaka in time to make the trip back in for okonomiyaki. I do have that dinner date scheduled for the next night and will probably eat at that particular restaurant on more than one occasion. I don’t know the name of it so I can’t provide a link but I know where it is.

I leave in less than 2 weeks and I’m starting to get pretty excited. While I’m preparing I’m also staring to work on a publicity campaign for my novel. I’ll be doing a lot of work on that while I’m in Japan.

To read more about my novel and me, please visit my publisher’s website at www.pensmithbooks.com.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Umami Japan: Sushi First

Mysterious, simple and delicious. For me, one of the most exciting and anticipated joys of traveling to Japan. The variety is expansive and every trip introduces me to something new because of the regional specialties found during excursions throughout the country.

However, the food Japan is most famous for is, Sushi. So I will start there. Whenever I mention that I travel often to Japan one popular question I am asked is, “Do you eat a lot of sushi?” The answer is, no. Now, I love sushi and, sushi in Japan is so delicious that I’ve all but stopped eating sushi in America but, at the end of each trip, on the long bus ride to the airport, I usually think back to the food I’ve eaten and always remark that I only ate sushi, as a meal, once. As a result I usually eat sushi in the airport before heading home.

I’ve eaten sushi a number of times as part of a meal but, there was always food other than sushi that was the focus of the meal. Many Japanese meals begin with sashimi, raw fish without the rice, and often have a second course that includes a few pieces of sushi. Then the main portion of the meal is served.

My point here is that when you go to Japan you are not forced to eat sushi at every meal because of a lack of choice but, if you want to it is generally available.

Of course there are sushi-only restaurants available. One of the most popular styles is called the Kaiten sushi. You may have seen them here in America, they are the ones were various plates of sushi are riding on a conveyor belt around the restaurant and the customers help themselves to the plates as they go by. The plates are color-coded based on price and when you are finished your meal you signal for the waiter who totals up the stack of plates in front of you and hands you your bill.

The first time I saw something like this was in San Francisco and the conveyor was a slowly flowing moat and the plates of sushi were placed on little boats.

Some of the Kaiten sushi restaurants in Japan are very high tech. Each color-coded plate has a transmitter or barcode on it and the waiter scans the stack of plates in one smooth downward motion and the total shows up on his little screen. He then prints you out a ticket and you go and pay. The total is all you pay because in Japan there is no tipping. How civilized is that.

The sushi is good and the experience is kind of liberating in a way. You watch the food go by and choose what you would like. If you change your mind about wanting the horse mackerel sushi, you just have to wait a minute or so and another plate will glide by. You are free of making the wrong choice because you are always deciding and you don’t have to feel guilty because you can’t decide right now on what you want to eat while a waiter impatiently awaits your decision.

On a trip in January of 2009 my son and my friend from the Keio Plaza Hotel were going on a day trip to Mito, which is on the Pacific Coast, north of Tokyo in Ibaraki Prefecture. We were going to visit the Kairakuen garden that had been constructed by the Mito branch of the Tokugawa family which ruled Japan as the Shogunate for over 250 years. A fellow employee of my friend grew up in Mito and suggested that we take a side trip for lunch to the small fishing village of Nakaminato, a 5 minute trolley ride.

A historical note: My friend’s fellow employee’s family had been in the service of the Mito Daimyo (Lord) during the Edo period from 1603 to 1858. Around 1635 the Shogun created a policy called, Sankin Kotai. This was a policy of, Alternate Year Attendance, in which all Daimyo in Japan had to live in Edo (Tokyo) one year and were allowed to go back to their home province the next. The daimyo’s wife and some members of his family were not allowed to return and were therefore prisoners.

The purpose for the policy was two fold. First, it cost a lot of money to travel each year from Tokyo to the daimyo’s home province so they didn’t have enough money to strengthen their armies. Secondly, they remained loyal so that nothing happened to the family they left behind.

My friend’s ancestors were artisans who traveled with the Mito daimyo to and from Edo and he remembered his grandparents telling stories of other older relatives making these trips. I was thrilled to come this close to a history that I had so often read about.

Back to Nakaminato where we hunted for a specific restaurant where my historically connected friend recommended that we eat lunch. We missed it the first time we walked by it and so my friend asked a fisherman (he was wearing the white rubber boots that the fisherman wear) standing on the street where the restaurant was located. We had been told to eat on the second floor of the restaurant because the sushi was better on the second floor so my friend asked the fisherman about that as well. The fisherman pointed behind us to a bright yellow building to indicate the restaurant and then pulled out his cell phone to call the restaurant. He asked the restaurant if the food was better on the second floor to which he was asked, “It’s the same food, so how could it be better on the second floor?” Makes sense to me.

The restaurant served sushi Kaiten style and the sushi was exceptional because it was very fresh. When we left we noticed that the back side of the building was a large fish market and we knew that the fish was as fresh as it gets.

If you're looking for an interesting day trip I would recommend going to Mito to see the famous garden. It is considered one of the three best examples of Japanese gardens in Japan. The side trip to Nakaminato for lunch and a visit to the fish market are also worth the trouble.

For the freshest set-menu sushi experience the best location is the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo. It is famous for being the largest fish market in the world and one of the tourist stops that are listed as a ‘must see’. Here’s what could be a bit of a deterrent for some people; the best time to see the market is very early in the morning and the best and freshest sushi is also served at that time, so you have to get your head around eating sushi for breakfast. Common in Japan but not so much for us westerners, especially when, I believe and recommend, you must drink sake with the sushi.

There are numerous restaurants in the area. The best ones, I think, are right up adjacent to the market. The market is just around the corner from the Tsukijishima subway station on the Toei Oedo line and as you walk into the market there are a group of small kiosks and restaurants to the left. These small restaurants have 5 or 6 seats and usually have a lineup outside. My son and I have gone to the same restaurant both times and know it by sight, not by name. They have a set-menu and we usually go after we have walked through the main fish market and looked at all the various species of fish.

It is the freshest sushi I have eaten and the atmosphere of being right next to the market in these old and partially rundown buildings is hard to match. My girlfriend and I went a little later in the day on one trip and, although you don’t get to see as much activity in the fish market, the sushi is still the best, even as late as noon.

One thing you will notice is that wasabi is not provided on the side of your plate. This is because part of the chef’s skill is the application of what he believes to be the right amount of wasabi between the rice and the fish. Asking for more wasabi is like saying you think the chef is wrong. I knew this before my first trip to Japan so I haven’t ever made that mistake and I advise anyone not to make it either.

Now an update: I still haven’t confirmed my apartment. We are still playing a waiting game because the rental agency wants me to take the place 9 days earlier than I arrive. We’ll try them again this week.

The apartments in Japan all come with internet access which is becoming more important to me each day. I am about to enter into a publicity campaign for my novel, A Wind In Montana. Blogging, Facebooking and interviews are all going to have to take place via email or Skype. It’s nice that the technology to be anywhere to conduct business is so readily available and accepted. Time zones will surely come into play.

Another consideration on the packing front has come up. Usually my trips are for a week or two and if I charge up all of my rechargeable items before I go, they last for the entire trip. This time I have to take all my charging units which will take up more space in the suitcase.

More about food in future posts. I felt that sushi needed some exclusivity.

Please visit my publisher’s website for more information. www.pensmithbooks.com

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tracks In Japan

The train systems, and I mean the National railroad system and the local subways, in Japan are something to behold. While preparing for my first trip I received a copy of the Tokyo subway system. It is a colorful and confusing work of art both visually and in the details of how it works.

I watched a show called, Begin Japanology, in June of 2010 that dealt with the trains and subway systems in Japan and was amazed to see how their analysts create a schedule. They have these large, probably 15 foot long, reports with a grid that shows station on one axis and time on the other then diagonal lines very tightly knit across the grid. If the line flattened out then the train would be on a scheduled wait to stay on time for its coincident arrival at another station so that it could pickup passengers from another train or drop off its passengers in time for them to change platforms.

I had some training in scheduling back during my university days but I don’t think it would even get me started on something like they are doing.

I mentioned before that I do a lot of preparation before leaving on a trip to Japan. One of the things I do is plan some of the activities for my train trips and that includes checking train schedules. On one website or another I saw a link to the Japan Railroads (JR) schedule planner. The link is on my author web page at my publisher’s website www.pensmithbooks.com.

With this planner you enter the station you are starting at and then the station you are going to. You can pick the date and time you want to leave then hit search and the system comes back with 5 routes that you can take to get to the destination.

You can also tell the system to use JR trains only, Shinkansen (Bullet Train) only, airlines, busses and walking. This allows you to check your alternatives. I was just checking out a trip and by not using the Shinkansen I can save about $26 each way on the trip. It adds 2 hours but you get to see the country side better.

I end up printing all of my planned routes and taking them with me and this has proven to be pretty helpful. I did it for this trip as well. I have discovered that the schedules are regular and predictable, like every half hour or 5 minutes before the hour, so if I change departure times I still have some idea when the trains are leaving.

The key thing is that the trains are on time and the schedules don’t change so if I find a train that is leaving at 8:44 AM on September the 6th that I want to be on, I can count on that train leaving exactly at that time.

JR offers a rail pass that provides you with unlimited train travel on all JR trains (except the Shinkansen Nozumi) in weekly increments at a cost of around $300 per week. If you are doing a multi-city tour I would recommend that you get one of these passes. They are only sold to people who hold non-Japanese passports, can only be ordered while you are outside of Japan and have to be validated by showing your passport with an entry stamp at a JR ticket office.

This trip I’m not getting one because I will be in Tokyo most of the time except for one 2 day trip I’m planning and the fare for that trip isn’t very expensive.

The platforms for the JR trains are part of the information system. For example, if you are traveling on the Shinkansen Hikari you got to the platform that your train is leaving from and look at the markers on the platform floor. They will indicate the train and the car number that will be stopped at that spot. Some trains, and always on the Shinkansen, have some cars that are reserved and some have open seating. On the overhead signs there will be information letting you know which cars are open seating and which are smoking cars. If you see that car 3 is open seating then find the spot on the platform that indicates car 3 for the Shinkansen Hikari and get in the line at that spot. You can be sure that the car that stops in front of you is car 3.

There are also lines painted on the platform to indicate how the line should form. There are 2 lines for each door, one on either side. The middle is left open for exiting passengers and this system works. I’ve always wondered what is going through the heads of people trying to get on the subway in New York who stand in the middle of the door before it opens so they can get on first. Make room so people can get off then get on.

During my last trip in November of 2009 I didn’t follow my own advice and we got on a reserved car, put our luggage up on the rack and took seats. Two stops later a grumpy old guy got on the train and showed me that we were in his and his wife’s seats so we had to move forward to the open-seat cars. By this time the train was packed and we had to stand in the crowded area between cars for 2 hours on the way to Osaka. We had arrived early and chose to catch the train at Tokyo Station rather than in Shinagawa because there would be a better chance of getting a seat. Thanks to my error we stood for two hours.

On our first trip in 2005 the five of us were on a Shinkansen train from Kyoto to Himeji. It was not very crowded and therefore was very quite. When a conductor came through the train you barely noticed them they are so polite and unassuming. They always stop at the door and turn to the passengers and bow before they leave. I love to dip my head and bow back each time; the bow in Japan is such a nice gesture. I find myself doing it for a few days to people in America after each trip.

There was an older Japanese lady sitting by herself in the first row, two rows in front of us. She was by the window of a three seat row. At one stop an older businessman got on and sat in the aisle seat in the same front row as the lady. He seemed restless and moved around quite a bit in his seat.

At one point he placed his foot up on the wall in front of him and tried to sleep but that only lasted for a few seconds. All of a sudden he was yelling at the lady in the window seat. We all looked at each other then back at the guy who was loud and based on his tone he was really tearing a strip off of the poor lady. Suddenly he stood up and turned to go to another seat and he spotted us. Five foreigners who he guessed spoke English. He paused for a second and then yelled, in English, “F--K Lady”.

Again we looked at each other kind of shocked because you almost never see any display of emotion in public in Japan. We couldn’t help but look at the lady who just smiled at us then shook her head.

My kids and my daughter’s boyfriend (now her husband), still tell that story to people and when some one annoys them they quite often use the angry man’s words to display frustration.

With regard to the rail passes, JR has different regions and each region offers its own rail pass for slightly less money. If you know you are going to be in just one region you could get a less expensive pass. The one I mentioned above is for the entire system.

JR did an interesting thing that I read about before going to Japan. They hired a composer to make a 4 or 5 note jingle for each of the train stops. As you approach you will hear these tones. It isn’t easy to differentiate the different jingles but at first I did hear them. Now I don’t pay attention, I’m listening to the announcers and trying to understand what is being said in Japanese.

The subway system is different in that it runs underground and has many more stops. It too runs very efficiently and on time. All the stations have plenty of maps that are usually a straight line with the different stations marked in order along the line. Each station also has a number and each subway line has a designated color.

If you know which station you are at and which station you are going to you look on the line map and you can tell how many stops is to your destination. You can also see which direction you should be going to get to the next station and on the subway wall across from the platform there is usually a sign that indicates the direction for the first or next station on the line. If your train comes in and is headed in the direction of the next station on the way to your destination then that’s the train for you. If not, then you probably want the train on the track behind you.

In the subway there are ticket machines that also have a map of the whole system. Take your time and find your destination because written under the station is the amount of the fare to get there. Once you know how much it is, you purchase your tickets. Most machines have a button to have the instructions presented in English. You can also buy all-day tickets that are good for the subway line/company that you buy them for. There are 2 or 3 different subway lines and the day passes don’t transfer between lines although the individual fares do.

The subway is very important in Tokyo. Like New York, you don’t really need a car if you know the subway system. While I was looking for an apartment, one of the most important features of an apartment is proximity to the subway station and each apartment lists how long it takes to walk to the nearest subway station then how long it takes to get to some of the major subway stations in Tokyo.

Another interesting thing about the importance of the subways I discovered while talking to a young American man who had been in Tokyo filming a documentary about the underground music scene. I asked him if he got to see a lot of late night/early morning club activity and he said that doesn’t happen with underground music in Japan. The venues are usually a long subway ride away and the concerts have to end in time for the audience to get back and catch the last train. In this case the subway schedule dictates the social life of the young citizens.

Here are some updates. I still haven’t made a commitment on an apartment. I found a bigger place in a better location but they are telling me I have to take it 9 days earlier that when I arrive. My friend went to look at the place and said it is a good place in a nice quite part of the town so I really want it. We are playing a waiting game right now, hoping it doesn’t get rented for another week and that they will allow me to rent from August 1st, which is still before I arrive.

The money issue, that is getting money in Tokyo rather than taking all I will need, isn’t as big an issue as I thought since my girlfriend is coming over halfway through my stay and she can bring some additional yen if I need it. She's coming during the September sumo tournament,
; that’s the only time she said she would come over.

The phone hasn't been arranged but with today’s disposable phone technology I’m not worried about it.

There weeks before departure. Now I working on the clothing etc. that I’m going to take. I’ve been living in shorts and T-shirts for 4 months and going back to long pants and shirts is going to be weird.

Next blog is going to be about food. I get hungry thinking about food and Japanese food is one of my favorite cuisines. Sushi is definitely excellent in Japan but I find I don’t eat much of it while I am there. There are so many other things to eat.

Please visit my publisher’s website for more information. www.pensmithbooks.com

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Title – Why Go to Tokyo? – Part II

I’m sure you are all in a state of despair, just as I am, with regard to the scandal brewing in the sumo world. Quite a number of the wrestlers have admitted to gambling on baseball games, card games and golf. Gambling is illegal in Japan except for horse racing so the wrestlers involved are being investigated.

Detailed information is available throughout the web so I won’t report on what is going on but wanted to acknowledge that the sumo world is facing some difficulties right now.

The sumo world is why I eventually decided to go to Japan on my first trip. I already had a strong interest in Japan and the sport of sumo back in 2004, when an article on sumo appeared in the travel section of my local newspaper. Of course I read the article which provided me with some new information regarding the sumo schedule and, the article concluded with a sentence like this: So, if you were looking for one more reason to make a trip to Japan maybe that reason is sumo.

Well, it was. I phoned my kids and asked them if they wanted to go to Japan and the trip was on for May of 2005.

Within a month I’d found a flight and hotel package on the JAL website that fit our plans and budget so now I just had to find out about getting tickets to sumo. The JAL agent I worked with has since become a good friend. The JAL booking facility has changed since then so visit my author page on my publisher’s website, www.pensmithbooks.com, for more information.

The agent booked us into the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku so I phoned the hotel and talked with the manager in the Guest Relations group. He became my first friend in Japan and we have spent many days together on subsequent trips. He asked me to fax him a list of what I was looking for, which included tickets to a taiko drum concert and the sumo tickets. I included my email address and we’ve been in touch ever since. My friend acquired both sets of tickets and it really made life easier for us to have that all taken care of.
My interest in sumo rubbed off on my two friends. My friend from the Keio Plaza now joins me when I go to the matches in Tokyo and my travel agent friend who has lived in the US for many years has rekindled her interest in sumo because I was always commenting to her about the matches.

A little sumo info. There are six Grand Championship tournaments each year. They take place every 2 months in the odd numbered months. Three of the tournaments are in Tokyo and they alternate to the other three cities. January’s tournament is in Tokyo, March’s is in Osaka, May’s in Tokyo, July’s in Nagoya, back to Tokyo in September and the final tournament of the year is in Fukuoka.

During my second trip to Japan in July of 2006, my girlfriend and I went to the tournament in Nagoya and it was at that time that I set a goal of going to each of the tournaments. I completed my goal in November of 2009 when my girlfriend and I went to Fukuoka for 4 days and took in the sumo action on 2 of them.

The first of those days we purchased general admission tickets and sat in the higher area of the stadium. It worked out great because we arrived at about 1:00 PM when the much lower ranked wrestlers are in action and the seats are pretty empty. We chose a section where we were lucky enough to meet a group of US university students who were participating in a program called, A Semester at Sea. They were traveling around the world for 4 months in a cruise ship and had to study and complete assignments related to the places where they made port.

They had just come from China and arrived in Yokohama the day before. When they arrive at their port they are turned loose to do what they want but of course it is related to their studies. This group had done some research on Japanese culture and ended up at the sumo matches in Fukuoka, a 5 hour train ride from Yokohama. They were unfamiliar with how their sumo ticket worked and had arrived at the stadium at 6:00 AM to make sure they got tickets. They didn’t know that their ticket allowed them to leave the stadium once and then return so they spent the entire day in the near empty stadium not know what level of wrestler they were watching.

When they found out that we had been going to sumo for a long time they started to grill us about the sport. We told them a lot about it and I hope they found it educational.

The group was all young men and I asked them if there were any girls on the ship and they all smiled and nodded. It turns out the majority of the students were female; they just weren’t interested in sumo.

This sort of chance encounter is another reason why it is so great to go to Japan. The Japanese people are more than willing to help visitors and go out of their way to provide information to those of us who look lost at times. Even still, foreigners will often ask other foreigners for help first. Being able to provide information about Japan to people who look like they need help gives me a stronger sense of attachment to the country and I too go out of my way to provide help when I am there.

Here is an update on my accommodations. Last night, (10:30 PM Arizona time, 2:30 PM the next day in Tokyo) I Skyped my friend in Tokyo to give him the go-ahead on the small 175 SF room that I will live in. Skype is such an interesting way to communicate. You see that your contact is online so you initiate a call. If they are at their PC they can answer. I have a camera in my PC so I add video so my friend can see me. He doesn’t have a camera so I can only hear him.

While we are talking we are also looking at the apartment websites and since we are not using his phone line, he can place calls to the rental agencies while he is Skyping with me. You have to keep your wits about you when there are multiple conversations in multiple languages going on.

At any rate, he made an appointment to go and reserve the room. However, this morning I get up and search the apartment sites again and I find a similar deal for a different and larger apartment that is closer to his house that the other one so he’s going to talk to them today. When we talked this morning it was 1:05 AM in Tokyo. My friend is in the restaurant business and is getting home about that time. I should know for sure which apartment I will be in, in a few days. The logistics of making the reservation and payments are still to be worked out. It sure helps to have a friend who will do these things for you.

I haven’t completely answered the question of why I go to Tokyo but I could go on about it for a long time. It started out to be specific points of interest but it has turned out to be the people I have met and who have become good friends. Sharing and learning about their country from them and with them is a great way to spend time.

I haven’t even mentioned the food yet.

Please visit my publisher’s website for more information. www.pensmithbooks.com

Monday, July 5, 2010

Why Go to Tokyo? – Part I

After making my third trip to Japan in January of 2007 people started asking me why I was so interested in going to Tokyo and visiting Japan. Learning the language had a lot to do with it. If I was investing so many hours to learn the words and sentence structure of this complicated language then the only way to see how well I was doing was to go to Japan and see if I could actually use the language.

This was an easy answer that people could understand and accept but, there is a lot more to it than a test of language. When I think back to the first curiosity I had regarding Japan it would have to be sumo.

At age 13, two of my buddies (one was 14 and the other 15) and I went to see the James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice. The movie was rated, Restricted Adult, which at that time meant you had to be 16 to get in. The girl at the ticket counter looked at us for a second then asked our ages, looking at me first. I was bigger than my two friends and answered that I was 16. Then my friends seemingly lost their minds. The 14 year old, who was also bigger that the other guy, said he was 15 ( he didn’t lie enough) and the 15 year old, the smallest of the three of us, said he was 14. He was the closest to the age required to see the movie yet because he was the smallest, he lied himself a year younger.

The ticket girl looked back at me, raised her eyebrows and let us in anyway. For those of you who don’t remember, You Only Live Twice, is the James Bond movie in which Bond becomes Japanese. Shortly after Bond gets to Japan he goes to the sumo matches to meet a contact or get a message. He gets to his seat and the movie shows some sumo activities, including the preliminaries to a match and the match itself, after which Bond receives his message.

I was floored by the brief sumo action. The first time you see two giants, barely clothed in a stiff looking loin wrapper, throwing salt and calmly staring each other down in the raised clay ring you have to be curious.

Bond finds himself in the wrestler’s locker room where he asks questions to find his contact and the wrestler who answers him is, Jesse. Jesse Kuhaulau is an American sumo wrestler who became a fan favorite in Japan under his wrestling name, Takamiyama. He was the first foreign born wrestler to become the head of a sumo stable and in 2009 turned 65 and had to retire from his position in the Sumo Association. There were many retrospectives of Jesse’s sumo life shown in Japan.

The next time I saw sumo was on, ABC’s Wide World of Sports and again I was put into a trance by the procedures leading up to the match. So much time spent getting ready and the match is over in seconds. I didn’t know how that could be interesting, yet it was and today for me, even more so.

I saw a few sumo documentaries over the next few decades and each one provided more information regarding Japanese culture, therefore, my interest expanded. If you visit my publisher’s website, www.pensmithbooks.com, my author page provides some links to two sumo oriented websites.

The next big event that caused a peak in my interest for Japan was James Clavell’s novel, Shogun. I mentioned it in a previous blog entry related to learning the Japanese language but Clavell’s novel did more than introduce some Japanese words, Shogun, immersed it’s readers into the Japanese samurai culture of 1600. It was a book I hoped wouldn’t end. You got involved with the characters lives and after the last page you dreaded that they would be with you no longer. It was sad. Luckily Clavell wrote another book that takes place in Japan, Gaijin. It takes place in 1862 when Japanese society was on the verge of a major change, the Meiji Restoration.

Only one other set of characters surpassed those from, Shogun, as being missed after completing the story and those were the characters of the, Three Musketeers novels. There were five novels and finding all five volumes wasn’t easy back before the internet made its place in the history of information. They are each about 600 pages and my set was printed in such small type that I may not be able to read them now.

Just like I injected a lot of the Japanese phrases from, Shogun, into my every day speech after reading the novel, I talked in the polite manner of the Musketeers while I read the books and for a long time after.

After, Shogun, I went on a search for other samurai related novels but didn’t find anything that compared. I then tried novels written by Japanese authors and at that time I couldn’t get into them so I went a long time without reading samurai themed stories.

A few years after reading, Shogun, it was made into a mini series starring, Richard Chamberlain (whom those of you who are film and TV buffs will remember played Aramis in the 70’s version of, The Three Musketeers). After, Shogun, aired it seemed everyone was interested in Japan, eating sushi, and speaking a few words of Japanese. A twenty-fifth anniversary DVD set came out in 2005 and it has a lot of interesting special features related to the making of the series.

Years later I saw a book in the book store that had a picture of a crazy looking samurai on the front and I picked it up to look at it. I was on some other jog of reading at the time and didn’t buy it for a few months but when I did, that was it. Here was the samurai story that I had been looking for after, Shogun. A giant book that was referred to as the, Gone With the Wind, of Japan. In the historical preface they state that it takes off in the time period shortly after, Shogun, ends. Wow, I was beside myself with glee and hadn’t read a page.

I was a little nervous to get started. It promised to be exactly what I had wanted so long ago and it was so big. The preface also indicated that it was the novelization of the life of a real swordsman who lived in Japan during the period referred to as, The Period of Warring States.

It introduced me to the historical characters who had shaped Japan. It mentioned places and castles and battles and foods and art and people and events that are readily available today in Japan. I visited the resting place of the man whom the main character of the novel, Shogun, was based (played by Mifune Toshiro). Tokugawa Ieyasu became the first Shogun and for over 250 years his heirs ruled Japan.

On my last trip I visited the castle in Kumamoto where the Satsuma Rebellion took place. The Satsuma Rebellion was lead by, Saigo Takamori, who was the character that the Tom Cruse movie, The Last Samurai, was based on.

So, this one book fulfilled a desire, a quest and an unknown hunger that had been started years earlier by, Shogun. It created my current quest which was rekindled back in 2003 and shows no sign of dying out. The book is titles, Musashi, and was written by Yoshikawa Eiji and published by Kodansha International.

Musashi Miyamoto is the most famous swordsman from Japan’s past. He was a writer and an artist. His history has been made into movies and television shows and there are a number of electronic action games based on his exploits. The novel does not have an abundance of action; it is far from a swash-buckling adventure story. The 1950s movie starring Mifune Toshiro won the Academy Award for best picture in a foreign language. It was a trilogy of movies that stay pretty true to the novel.

I’ve found other non-fiction books about Musashi and I’ve read, The Book of Five Rings, which he wrote in the last years of his life. The book was about his fighting style and philosophy and during the 80s and 90s was very widely read by corporate managers in the United States as they tried to get a glimpse inside the Japanese management style. I found it interesting but the link to corporate management seemed a bit weak to me.

I’ll write more about how this novel spring boarded me into the world of Japan. This period of samurai history seemed to be all I needed to satisfy my craving for things Japanese but it turns out to be just a trickle that has lead me to the point of wanting to live in Japan.

He’s a small teaser though. As mentioned, Musashi was an artist. I read of a museum in Tokyo that had some of Musashi’s art on display so I arranged with my friend in Japan to make a trip to the museum. He suggested that we also go to lunch afterward. The museum, The Eisei Bunko Museum, was actually located in the house that is owned by the Hosogawa family. The Hosogawa clan ruled their fife in central Kyushu from the castle in Kumamoto mentioned above. The Hosogawa were also the benefactor of Musashi Miyamoto and he gave the Hosogawa daimyo (leader) gifts of his art as tokens of his appreciation. These works are now in the house in Tokyo but were not on display the day we went.

Another point of note is that the character, Mariko, in Shogun, is based on the real person, Hosogawa Gracia. Gracia’s life does not parallel Mariko’s in every detail however. But this links my two strongest Japanese influences together. The character in, Shogun, is from the family that was a benefactor to the main character in, Musashi.

And one more point, Hosogawa Morihiro was Prime Minister of Japan for a short time in 1993 and 1994. He lived in the house that is now the museum.

It is a difficult museum to find and my Japanese friend even took us to the wrong place at first. I have a picture of him standing in front of the wrong mansion. We were all so proud of the fact that we had found it but my friend reread the sign and we were off on the hunt again.

After the museum, which was still very interesting, we went to a hotel for lunch. The hotel surrounded a huge Japanese Garden which we toured after we ate. As a result of reading the Musashi novel, and wanting to see the art works the man actually touched I visited a Japanese Garden for the first time and have developed an interest in them which I try to imbibe every time I go to Japan.

For me every interest I take in things Japanese, snowballs into another interest that I must follow up.

I will describe the snowball in future entries.

A quick update, the apartment I had lined up isn’t available for August but the apartment manager has a smaller one, 170 SF, he’ll let me have for the same price. I’ll take it for a month and see if I can stand the small space.

For links to more information and a list of other samurai related novels and books please visit my author page at www.pensmithbooks.com.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Things You Leave and Take.

The little things you leave behind can be worrisome. For the last 15 years that I lived in Calgary I went to the same barber. He gave me great haircuts; he understood my hair. When I arrived in Arizona I was concerned that I wouldn’t find someone who could cut my hair as good as Frank. Now, as I prepare to leave the country for a period longer than I can go between haircuts, history repeats itself.

I tend to go too long between haircuts but I’ve never gone 12 weeks. The long wait comes from when I was a teenager. I wanted long hair and avoided the barber as long as possible. One summer I was grounded until I got a haircut. I was only allowed to run errands for my mother or go to the used book store. Peer pressure finally saved my summer for me but my friend’s mothers weren’t forcing them to get haircuts so it was no sweat to them if I got a trim.

As an adult I wait a little too long because I’m an adult and I can decide for myself when to get a haircut. It’s a meaningless form of rebellion against the strict grooming code that I suffered as a teen; like some nights Woody Allen has cake for his dinner or Jerry Seinfeld says he can now eat a whole bag of cookies before dinner if he likes.

My Scottish barber Frank had lived in Canada for over 20 years when I met him but he still had a thick Scottish accent. He was great to talk to, we had many interesting discussion but I will only tell you one here. It is food related so it kind of goes with what’s to come in this blog, Japan travels and a lot of food.

Frank one day asked me if I ever made ‘Chip Buddies’. I said no and asked what they were and he gave me the recipe. Take potatoes and make French fries. Put them on white bread and slather them with butter. Add another piece of white bread on top and you have a ‘Chip Buddy’.

I’m sure I sat there in shock thinking of the cholesterol bomb that Frank had just described. Frank went on to tell me that he and his family would get a craving for ‘Chip Buddies’ and would call friends, also from Scotland, to come over for dinner.

Now I’m sitting there thinking, theses chip buddies must be good if you get excited enough about eating them that you call over friends and they get excited enough to come. So, I want to try one. It never happened. Still today I want to try one but I don’t know if my blood chemistry is willing to make the sacrifice.

Moving away from Frank to a land of unfamiliar barbers meant that I spent a year trying a number of different barbers and never found one I was happy with. While complaining about this at work one day my boss said, “Why don’t you try my barber?” How do you say no to that? If you do, you imply that your boss has a bad haircut.

I went to his barber knowing that she could hack out large swaths of hair leaving an uneven cubist interpretation of a haircut and I would have to go back to the office swearing it was the best haircut I ever had. Luckily, she gave me a good haircut and I’ve been going to her for the past 15 years that I’ve lived in Arizona.

Now, I’m leaving her behind and I’m worried about the first haircut I’m going to receive when I’m in Japan for 3 months. My previous trips fell well within the time gap between haircuts so it hasn’t been a worry in the past.

By coincidence this week's episode of, Begin Japanology, on TVJapan was about Japanese hairstyles. One segment dealt with going to a barber and I'm glad I saw it. First they cut your hair, then they give you a shampoo. The sink folds out of the counter under the mirror and you lean forward to get your hair washed. After the wash and dry, the barber gives you a neck and back massage; all for one fee, about $30. It would have freaked me out if I had not seen it first, now I know what to expect .

Timing the conveniences prior to a 3 month trip is tricky. The other growth control issue I have is the lawn. It’s a bigger issue because I do it weekly. It could be stretched easily so my girlfriend will have to decide how she wants to handle it. The lawn I’m going to try not to think about. Medicine is another concern. I take an over the counter heartburn control medication and I’m planning to take a 3 month supply. I just hope that many pills in my luggage don’t raise any suspicions at Japanese customs.

The first full day of our first trip to Japan in 2005 we traveled to a smaller city to attend a taiko drum concert. We arrived early and my daughter’s boyfriend asked if we could find a drug store because he had heartburn. We’d brought anti-acid tablets but left them back in the hotel so off to the drug store we went. In this small city the people didn’t speak much English and we had difficulty explaining what we were looking for so we set off looking at the boxes on the shelves hoping we would find something that indicated the product was for stomach ailments and, we did find that section.

There were many boxes and a number of them had pictures of internal organs such as the stomach but we couldn’t determine what ailment was being depicted. There was one which had some arrows which seemed to show the direction in which things should flow or would flow and we concluded making things flow wasn’t what we were looking for. What if it was a laxative or the Japanese equivalent to ipecac? The young lad may miss some of the concert. Without knowing the expected results of the medication he chose to suffer.

I’m making sure I have the right medications. My heartburn pills, some ibuprofen and that’s about it.

I also have to think about the other toiletries, like deodorant and toothpaste as well. How much of that do you take? I don’t know the rate of consumption I have with those items. Also books. I’m taking some of my language books but what about books to read? I have a nook (recommended, that or a Kindle) and can take a number of books in that form so maybe that’s not an issue. I’m only taking one travel type bag on wheels plus a carry-on bag for my computer. For a 3 month trip I can’t load the bag with books like I usually do.

A couple of updates for you. I checked on the apartment and it still doesn’t show as being available in August. Starting in early July my friend and I will be trying to get a better picture of the availability. The other update is related to the money. My bank said it would not send me yen via FedEx so I will probably carry a little more cash than I had planned and trust that the banking machine will accept my debit card.

A little tidbit for you about Japan. The other day I was reading an article about the law in Japan and the writer mentioned that in Japan it is illegal to be rude to someone in public. The Law was created in 1907 but left written in archaic Japanese until the mid 90s. I don’t think the law has anything to do with the fact that the Japanese people are extremely polite. I think they figured out that things are better when polite.

Please visit my website.


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Zonajin Learns Japanese.

The Japanese language is spectacular. I’ve been studying it for 5 years and the effort will never end. During my first trip to Japan I watched and listened to two Western men and a Japanese woman having a conversation in Japanese. When the men spoke to each other they continued in Japanese rather than switch to their native language. There are many possible reasons for this but that’s not what I’m writing about here. I was struck by their ability to communicate in Japanese and their seeming preference for it.

I wondered after that trip if I would return to Japan. It had been a great trip and we all enjoyed the things we had set out to do. (I plan trips in detail and have an itinerary to fall back on if spontaneous activities don’t rise up.) I had to decide if I wanted to go back and, the scene of the Westerners talking in Japanese did a great deal to make me decide in favor of returning. I thought it would be great to talk with the Japanese people in their own language and these two men showed that it could be done.

I knew that the little I’d learned from reading James Clavell’s, Shogun, wasn’t going to get me into any in depth, meaningful conversations, so off to the language section of the book store. There are many texts on the Japanese language. Going to the book stores or searching online you will find a hard-to-decide-upon array of lesson books, dictionaries, grammar guides and vocabulary builders. I currently own about 40 of them and I’ve read at least half of them, some of them twice. (In a future blog entry I will be listing the ones that will make the trip with me.)

If you would like to see a list of texts I have purchased go to my author page on my publisher’s website, www.pensmithbooks.com. (Note: I don’t list them all.) I will mention the first one I purchased here because I think I made a good choice. Its aim is to provide you with the most common sentence structures and build you a vocabulary with examples. The book is titled, Japanese Step by Step. Written by Gene Nishi and published by McGraw-Hill. Other books that are needed deal with verbs, adjectives and of course a Japanese-English/English-Japanese dictionary. I prefer one from Random House with that exact title.

I also purchased two audio lessons series’ but that didn’t happen for about six month while I read my books. One day I realized that while reading I was pronouncing all the Japanese words in my head with no listener to process what I’d said and look at me in a state of confusion because I wasn’t saying words correctly. The confused look is pretty emphatic feedback. The only way to develop that skill is to hear the words spoken and repeat them. The most productive audio series I have is from Pimsleur, Published by Simon & Shuster. The link is on my author page at the link listed above. There are 3 groups of 30 lessons and each has a separate section with some comments related to the lesson. I’ve been through these lessons 4 or 5 times now. I have them on my Ipod which is plugged into the stereo system in my car so I listen and speak Japanese whenever I’m driving alone. I found that my passengers don’t participate with the kind of zeal that I do.

The other thing I did to help me hear Japanese was to purchase the TVJapan channel from DishNetwork. It’s the only channel I bought from them but now I can listen to the language whenever I want. There are some shows related to things Japanese in English which are also interesting including the sumo broadcasts. I’ll blog about sumo later on.

So, after all of this, how good is my Japanese? Well. It works well enough, I guess. My biggest concern while I was learning was that I would say something to a Japanese person and it would some how insult them or embarrass me. It happened. I was at a sumo match and went to the concession stand to buy two more bottles of sake. There was an older lady beside me and yet a little behind me. The person in front of me paid and left me facing the clerk. I had rehearsed my order several times while waiting and was going to say, “Osake wa nihon onegaishimasu.” Which means, “I would like two bottles of sake.” Sake means the alcoholic beverage, ni means two and hon in this context means bottle. As a nervous westerner speaking Japanese to Japanese people in Tokyo I wasn’t very smooth in my delivery and I said, “Sake ni…(a sizable pause) hon onegaishimasu.” During the pause, the older lady stepped forward and began placing her order and when I continued to talk, she and the clerk both spun their heads toward me and simultaneously burst out laughing.

The older lady gestured for me to go ahead and I asked (in English) what I had said that made them laugh but, they just kept gesturing for me to place my order. I returned to my seat with my sake and asked my friend what I’d done. It turns out that the word combination, “Sake ni” means, please go ahead of me, and people in Japan use it daily to be polite and let people move up in line etc. So I had instructed the lady to, please go ahead, and then ignored my own polite behavior and ordered over top of her.

I learned that sometimes the same sounds mean different things and the pace at which they are delivered is important.

Early on in my learning efforts my friend at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku allowed me to send him emails written in Romanji. Romanji is the use of Roman characters, the 26 letter alphabet used for English, to create the syllabic sounds of the Japanese language. So, wasabi, is using the Roman alphabet to represent the syllable sounds, wa, sa and bi.

It would take me about an hour to write a 5 sentence email and they were pretty simple sentences. I was planning my second trip to Japan and had written to my friend a sentence that was meant to say, “On the same day that we buy the drum, would you also like to go to a baseball game?” (I wanted to buy a hand drum for my office wall and my friend had located a drum store.) The email I received back from my friend asked me, “Mitch san, do you truly mean to buy shoe cream every day?” Obviously I had mis-spelled some Japanese words and distorted my meaning.

This botched question set me off on a long period of diligent study and that study has paid off. I was riding the train to Kochi City on the island of Shikoku but before the train left I asked one of the conductors, in Japanese, if the train I was on was the train for Kochi City. He answered yes, in a very long, fast sentence and left to perform his duties. During the ride he came back to me and showed me his schedule of train stops, pointing at one particular entry. I couldn’t read the name of the stop but the time was written in the universal method of indicating time. He pointed at 2:56. I didn’t understand what he was saying to me but I assumed he was indicating that was when we would be stopping in Kochi. I was right.

One thing about the train system in Japan, if you know your stop is scheduled for 2:56 and the train stops at 2:56 you get off even if you didn’t see any signs indicating the name of the stop. In Japan the trains run on schedule. You could set your watch by them. More on the Japanese train system in a future blog entry.

Five years into it and my Japanese is functional, barely. I can get my message across but I have trouble with the responses. My brain is too slow at processing the word sounds and also the word order. Add to that the need to recognize which syllable ends a word and that the next sound starts another one. I’m constantly asking Japanese people to please repeat themselves a little bit slower. One of the first sentences you will learn.

The Japanese language is interesting (omoshiroi), beautiful (kireina), difficult (muzukashi) but most of all fun (tanoshii) but, miles to go before I sleep. – (Robert Frost)

Please visit my website.


Friday, July 2, 2010

Zonajin Begins!

Greetings! I'm Mitch Davies and I'm an author from Arizona. I'm going to Japan for 3 months starting in August, 2010. Until then I'm going to write about how to prepare to make a 3 month long trip to Japan and tell you what I plan to do once I get there. After that I'll be posting every other day or so as I try out living in Japan.

First, let me tell you that this will be my 8th trip to Japan. It is an amazing place with plenty of things to do and very tasty food and I am a very food oriented guy. Most trips I take revolve around food. I once went to Memphis for a weekend just to eat ribs and pulled pork and that was the only thing I ate.

On my first trip to Japan with my family, I made 2 friends that I have maintained contact with since 2005 and they are helping me to get my trip in order, from Japan.

The 3 things I need to accomplish prior to arriving in Tokyo are finding an apartment, arranging for banking processes and getting a local telephone. I have a friend who works at the restaurant, La Rochelle, which is a great French restaurant owned and run by Iron Chef Hiroyuki Sakai. They have a website if you care to see what the Iron Chef is up to. http://www.la-rochelle.co.jp/

My friend has found me a 1 room apartment for about $1,000/mth US that includes everything. In most cases you have to pay extra for electric, water, utilities and the internet plus a cleaning fee. The apartment he's found includes it all for the one low price. The place is small, maybe 200 SF. There are places like this available in every district in Tokyo and you rent on a weekly, monthly or multimonthly basis. I won't know if I have the place for sure until the beginning of July but we think it should be available. I'll provide an update when I know.

With regard to acquiring a phone, I'm not anticipating any problems. The issue I am concerned about is banking. You have to have a permanent address in Japan in order to open an account. In the past they didn't check too deeply into a foreigner's address but I'm told they have tightened up a bit. I think the situation is similar in the US. I had a bank account here before I moved here in 1995. ( I'm originally from Calgary. ) Now you need a US address and some sort of immigration identification to open one here as well.

I'm pretty sure debit cards will work in Japan, I know AMEX works there but I'm concerned about exchange rates in Japan versus in America. My bank offers foreign currencies so I'll have Yen when I arrive but with no bank account in Japan I won't be able to do electronic transfers and I don't want to carry 3 months worth of spending money. The Foreign Currency department of my bank FedExs the money in America so I'm going to see if they will FedEx to Japan. I'll post what I find out later.

While I'm in Japan I will be working on a promotion campaign for my Young Adult novel, A Wind In Montana. ( Links below.) I will also be working with my editor to polish my second novel which I hope to publish when I get back at the end of October. And if that doesn't keep me busy enough, I will be doing research for my 3rd novel, of which I have completed 3 chapters. It is a novel about Japan that takes place just before the Meiji Restoration which, for those of you who are not familiar with Japanese history, is when the samurai way of life came to an end and Japan began to westernize.

So, that's what I'm going to do. Before I leave I will talk about many of the things about Japan that have caught my interest. I mentioned the food; I am also a sumo fanatic, love the train system in Japan and the historical places that can be accessed quite easily can fill up a long calendar of events.

When next I write in this space I will talk about my efforts to learn Japanese.

Soredewa mata. (That's it for now.)