Sunday, March 29, 2009


For those of you trying to track my day to day movements through this blog, I've got a few older posts half written that I hope to put up some time this week. Unfortunately, even these mindless, rambling descriptions of my life take a while to type. I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about blogging, but it definitely can be a time waster.

A few observations as I approach the two month mark:

*I've become accustomed to being the tallest person around. When I occasionally encounter someone taller, it weirds me out. There's kind of a moment of vague surprise followed by the self-conscious realization of the cause. It's really strange. Similarly, when I cross paths with other gaijin in Bunkyo (which is fairly uncommon), there's often a brief moment of eye contact before we go back to pretending that we totally fit in here. I'm wondering if my first few days after leaving Japan will seem really weird.

*I have an annoying tendancy to adapt my speaking patterns to people around me. Like after a trip back to Missouri, I'll often notice that I've picked up some new phrase that I will from then on utter with disturbing regularity. Mostly, the language barrier makes this a moot point here. However, the other day I was eating with a couple of the guys from work and noticed that I was often dropping 'a's and 'the's and generally bastardizing the English language with my responses. While I'm sure limiting my vocabulary helps some of the less fluent English speakers, I don't think there's any advantage to my modified grammar. Except to probably make me unintentionally sound condescending.

*I have started using a drawn out 'ehhh' type sound to express confusion/surprise. It's kinda hard to type, but I'm generally amused by the Japanese conversational versions of 'ums' and 'uhs'. When trying to read things, I would sometimes 'ehhehhh' to myself (b/c I'm easily amused). Then I noticed that I started doing it unintentionally. I probably sound like a moron to everyone else, but I'm still amused by it and hope I maintain this speech pattern.

*When I first arrived I was completely immune to the temperature b/c it was so much nicer here than Boston. There were a couple times early on that I'd wear just a Tshirt and everyone else had winter coats on. But then Tokyo had a warmer stretch, I adjusted and am now forced to wear a jacket even if it's not freezing outside.


It's cherry blossom time in Tokyo.

The cherry trees began to bloom late last week and should last through this weekend, but probably not too much longer. There's a street lined w/ cherry trees between where I'm staying and my office (pictured above). I took this picture on Monday. You can see a few tarps people have set out to picnic under trees. Over the weekend, the whole place was packed with people and tarps. Vendors setup shop along the streets and people just hang out all day.

Sunday was nice so I wandered around a lot. I ended up in Ueno park near dusk and it was insanely crowded. Apparently, during sakura season, the entire city of Tokyo just hangs out under the cherry trees on the weekends. Hopefully it will be nice this weekend.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


Overall, I've been pleasantly surprised by Japanese food. I could do without seaweed, but mostly stuff has been palatable and some of it surprisingly good. The biggest drawback is that there is a serious lack of cheese around here. You can get it at the grocery store, but it's really expensive.

Anyway, Friday it occurs to me that I am in Tokyo and given that Mcdonald's is on every corner and there are multiple Denny's around, there is probably a Pizza Hut hiding out somewhere in the city. The internet informs me I am right. It even turns out that there is one not terribly far from Ebisu, where I have to go pick up a new scuba card.

So, that evening I stop by the Padi place and get my scuba card and head off in search of Pizza Hut. Unfortunately, I'm not smart and didn't bring the directions I had made. I pretty much remember where it was and figure I don't have anything better to do than wander around anyway. Two hours later, I'm starving and convinced that the Pizza Hut was a lie. I decide to give up and just eat somewhere around Ebisu. But after having my heart set on a delicious American cheese and grease combination, the trendy Ebisu places I'm walking past do not appeal. I settle for KFC, figuring it will at least satisfy the urge for American grease.

It does not. In fact I can safely say KFC is probably the nastiest thing I will eat in Japan. I have yet to try nato, a rotting pile of soy beans, I'm betting it's better than the KFC. I mean, I'm not saying KFC in America is particularly great, but something here was not right. The skin wasn't the same. I didn't even get a biscuit. It was bad.

But I did notice some interesting things about fastfood in Japan. For one, while real estate seems to be at a premium and most restaurants and bars are pretty small here, fastfood places are at least as big as they are in the states. Probably bigger. Many, like this KFC, have multiple levels of seating. The KFC was also pretty busy. The weird thing is that it's not a bunch of business men trying to get a quick meal after work or something. There's like a 4 to 1 girl to guy ratio at the KFC. At like 8pm on a Friday night. A lot of the girls seemed to be dressed up and meeting friends. I just can't quite imagine a group of college-aged girls planning to gather at a KFC before hitting the town on a Friday night back home. And I wonder if guys gather at the Wendy's across the street or something.

So, after my nasty meal, I decided to head to Shibuya. I'd read up about a small row of bars similar to Golden Gai that were tucked away near the train station and wanted to check it out. Many of the places were full (each bar only holds like 5 people tops), but I found a place on the second floor that was empty. The bartender didn't speak much English, but I got some shochu and fish soup (most bars provide some sort of snacks).

Actually, I think these places were smaller than the bars in Golden Gai, b/c they didn't even have bathrooms in them. You had to go outside to the common bathroom at the end of the alley. I did so and then stopped in at another place with a gaudy door that said 'Piano Bar' in tiny writing.

As it's name suggested, the bar itself was a piano. The walls are covered in a red velvet and there are gold plates and crests on the walls and chandeliers covering the ceiling. In addition to the 3 seats stuck in front of the piano, there was also a small room upstairs that was full when I got there. When I got there I was the only person downstairs, but I was shortly joined by a couple in there 40's. There both spoke a fair bit of English and were friendly enough. The guy turned out to be a basketball fan. He also drew some kanji for 'branden' that he said meant something like 'crazy dancing king'. When I told him my name was spelled 'brandon', he changed the last kanji so that now it apparently means 'crazy dancing drunk'. I will have to get verification about this.

I left Piano Bar and was thinking about getting some food, when I passed GasPanic. Lonely Planet had mentioned this place (although I think it was one in Roppongi) as a gaijin bar. It definitely didn't feel like part of Japan.

First off, there was a bouncer out front and I was actually carded, which was odd. Inside it was like some crappy bar in America. Unlike most Japanese bars, this place was crawling with staff members, none whom were Japanese. Very few of the patrons were either. It was also dark and loud. I was half-regretting coming in, when a fight breaks out on the other side of the room.

Like 4 staff people get into the middle of it. A female staffer runs upstairs to get the bouncer guy. I catch eyes with the bartender who shrugs and laughs. He is unconcerned that other staff members are in the middle of a minor brawl. It's quite a spectacle. Finally, one of the fighters is escorted upstairs and out of the bar. The other guy is restrained by the bouncer who kinda reminds me of Bald Bull from Punch Out. Eventually Bald Bull drags the other guy away as well. The bar goes back to how it was. There's another guy passed out at a table. No one cares. Awesome. I leave.

Back in Japan, I stop in a convenience store to grab something to eat. Here I meet a group of 4 college-agish Japanese guys. They are drunk and excitable and we become fast friends. They don't speak the best of English, but inform me that they are going to a club and that I should join them. They assure me they have connections and that I won't have to pay a cover charge. I figure I will finally discover where younger Japanese people go on weekends and agree to tag along. This seems to amuse them.

The leader of this group, or at least the one who spoke the best English introduced himself as Gas Face. Another one is wearing a skull cap and calls himself Match. I think they say they're in a band, I'm not entirely sure. I don't catch the other names. The whole situation is bizarre. Now, in America, or probably most places on earth, I don't know that I'd feel comfortable following four twentyish year-old strangers off to some random club. However, Shibuya's full of people and these guys seem friendly enough. Also, I probably weigh as much as any two of them combined.

So, good to they're word, Gas Face and Co. lead me to some off-the-beaten path club and get me in without a cover charge. From the outside, the place doesn't look like much. Once inside, however, you go down some stairs and it opens up into a huge dance floor. The place is packed. So I finally have my answer of where younger Japanese people are hiding out: underground dance parties.

Unfortunately, other than being able to navigate the crowd more easily, the Japanese danceclub is as unpleasant as an American one. I lose track of Gas Face and crew almost instantly, have one beer and decide to call it quits. It's a long walk to Bunkyo.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Work Impasse

So I've hit a bit of a snag at work and haven't gotten much done the past couple days. I'm probably just over thinking the problem and trying to come up with an optimal solution when my time would be better spent just hacking some crap together. This seems to be a problem I have.

My response to work frustration is usually to go wandering around looking for somewhere appealing to eat. I still find Tokyo endlessly entertaining to just wander around in. You don't have to go far off the main streets to get lost in maze like residential areas. With the narrow, winding roads these places feel very removed from the giant apartment complexes, even though they're really not.

Tonight's wandering led me over near Tokyo University. I had the hamburger and omelet combo plate (a fantastic menu find). Unlike at some nicer restaurants, the places near the university don't skimp on the food. For like $10 I had more than I could eat.

A few other fun wandering stories:

-On my way back from the Mexican restaurant the other night I was in a convenience store when it was invaded by a herd of formally attired Japanese youths on a beer run. I walked outside into a mob of them that had apparently just exited the karaoke place across the street. This karaoke place is not a bar with karaoke, mind you, it's a multi-story building dedicated just to karaoke. And there are many of these places in the particular area I was in. I don't really understand the appeal.

Anyway, I ask one of the beer drinking guys in the street what's going on and he explains that they all just graduated from a nearby university. Hence, formal attire and drunken karaoke debauchary. I guess the karaoke places were closing b/c there were mobs of graduates all over the place. But my favorite part was when I came upon the group presumably waiting for cabs near one of the main rows. One guy in a suit is bent over a railing puking into the street. He then proceeds to fall over as his friends look on without concern. They were probably unconcerned b/c another of the group had beat him to the punch and was already lying on the sidewalk unconscious.

It's not that there's really anything that strange about drunk college kids, but at the time the scene seemed very surreal. I think it was the formal attire combined with the fact that everyone treated the situation as completely normal.

-I discovered a new super toilet feature. I dont't think I've previously mentioned, but bathrooms have a tendancy to be a little insane here. In a lot of the cramped little bars and restaurants they have short doors and are about the size of an airplane lavatory. On the other hand, if they place is nicer, it will have a super toilet. The ones at work have heating, deodorizing and adjustable water pressure bidets, as seem below. This is relatively simple compared to some toilet controls I have seen.

But anyway, the new feature I discovered was a toilet that automatically raised the lid when I entered the bathroom. It took me a minute to figure out, but I was able to decipher the pictures to also raise the seat using the wall-mounted control. This place was also kind enough to label in english the flushing button. A good idea, as not being able to figure out how to flush a toilet makes you feel really dumb and no one wins in that case.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Mexican in Japan

A while back, during one of my wanderings, I noticed a Mexican restaurant. I noted it within my mind.

Tonight I returned, curious to see what the Japanese version of Mexican food was. Apparently, at some point during my stay in Texas I became a bit of a Mexican food snob. As such, I generally dislike the Mexican food available in Boston. Or, it could just be that Boston Mexican food sucks because they haven't figured out that that burritos and quesadillas shouldn't have the same shape.

Anyway, I went to the restaurant. They had no English menu, but since Mexian food is foreign, it's all in Katakana so I could read the menu and feel totally smart for distinguishing taco from enchilada.

The biggest issue I have with Japanese restaurants is that going in I have no idea how much it will cost. You can't really tell the price by looking at the place b/c shady basement restaurants can be as fancy as any other place. And even if they have a menu w/ prices outside, it doesn't really indicate how much food you will get. Earlier, Leo and I went to a contemporary Japanese place and after ordering entrees were disappointed to learn that to get your fill, you apparently had to order the one of the full course meals rather than the individual menu items. But this isn't always the case. Not speaking Japanese makes this hard to discover until it's too late.

This was the problem w/ the Mexican place. When I was shown my seat, the lady apologized about the lack of English menus and rambled something about nachos. I tried to agree, assuming this would result in tortilla chips. It did not. Apparently it was meaningless small talk. So, strike 1 for not provided free tortillas. Totally lame.

I order the beef enchiladas. Unfortunately, this apparently translates to 1/2 of an enchilada, as I was brought a plate w/ a single, tiny enchilada cut in half w/ 2 tortilla chips and a bit of refried beans in the middle. However, it was delicious. I don't know if it was b/c I've been so removed from Mexican food or what, but it was about the best 1/2 enchilada I've ever had.

Still hungry, I specifically order some tortilla chips, a chicken taco (the other option was pork) and a tecate. This all begins to get a bit pricey, but I figure, how often will I eat Mexican in Japan anyway?

Again, the chips come is annoyingly short supply (apparently the Japanese don't know that I should be allowed to completely gorge on tortilla chips), but they are quite tasty. The taco, however, turns out to be a small tortilla w/a bunch of chicken and some onions piled on it. You cannot pick it up as a taco. I'm not really sure how you're supposed to eat it. I forgo the chopsticks and just eat it like pieces of chicked w/ a fork.

Anyway, the meal, while a bit expensive, was delicious. Again, maybe I've just been deprived, but I'd say it was on par w/ the most Mexican food in Austin. I suppose Tokyo should have good food, so maybe that's not a big surprise, but it totatlly blows Boston out of the water.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Other Oddities

The interest sparked by my coffee vending machine only reinforces my suspicion that these would totally work in America. And yes, the coffee comes in small aluminum cans and it is pretty hot. Like if you pick up the can right out of the machine and just wrap your hand around it, it's not a pleasant sensation. However, if you were to immediately open it and say, pour it all over your arm, I doubt you'd wind up hideously deformed. Who ever would have guessed that there was an intermediary temperature between cold and scalding hot?

As for why Tommy Lee Jones? I have no clue. Generally I find advertisements here seem to be much more entertaining. Lots of anthropomorphic characters. I think I've become more or less accustomed to them, but here are a couple pictures I took the first week or so I was here.

In addition to the friendly water drop guy, there are usually at least two employees who's job it is to bow towards you and wave batons to direct you to walk around the hole in the ground that is completely surrounded by cones and flashing lights.

I have no clue about this but I see it on my walk to work every day.

As far as ad campaigns go, I think Subway seriously needs to consider going with the "The Natural Ideal style of eating vegetable." slogan in the states.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Russian Embassy

It's just a little after noon here and I've already had a pretty productive day. Considering I've gotten in the habit of rarely being conscious at this time of day, I'm pretty pleased with myself.

The reason for my early start was that I had to apply for a Russian visa and the embassy is only open from 9.30 to 12.30 M-F, but not on Russian national holidays. If you look into getting a Russian visa it seems like quite a daunting tasks. The requirements vary by consulate and a lot of it seems to hinge on paying some middleman to provide various paperwork. Also, the US citizen application requires a lot more information than the application for other nationalities. They want to know where you went to school and who you've worked for. Also, it's best not to be a drug addict.

I was up at about 8.30 making sure I had all the forms I could possibly need. Tourist invitation form: check. US citizen application: check. Regular form for the embassy in Japan (just in case): check. Extra passport photos (conveniently there are passport photo booths near many convenience stores in Tokyo): check. Blank backups of everything (in case I filled something out incorrectly): check.

I get off at the subway station closest to the embassy around 10am. It's raining and I immediately get lost and wander off in the wrong direction. Half an hour later, I finally get to the iron gate in the wall with a plaque that proclaims it to be the Russian embassy. The gate is closed. I curse myself for not looking up the Russian national holidays.

But then I notice that an inner door is open and discover that, while closed, the gate is not locked. I let myself and follow the arrow through a narrow, winding entryway towards the visa office.

On the door to the visa office is a sign proclaiming that "we will be using a new visa application starting this Wednesday". No date is given and it's impossible to tell how long the sign has been there. This seems like a bad sign.

There's no one waiting in the office and just a single man sitting behind a bank teller-esque window. I approach and state that I'd like to apply for a visa. He slides open the exchange tray thing. While I wouldn't call the man friendly, he speaks fluent English and is probably more helpful than most American government employees I've had to deal with.

During the 5 or 10 minutes he looks over my application a Russian woman joins him at another teller window and a few people come in to pick up forms and such. The man seems satisfied with my application, asks when I need the visa by and hands back the unnecessary Japanese form and a ticket. He tells me to take the ticket to window 3. I'm a bit confused and ask if I return later with this ticket. He says "No, take it to window 3 now" and points to the woman sitting 2 chairs away from him in his small room.

So I take the ticket move over two windows and give it to the woman. She requests 4100 yen and gives me a receipt instructing me to return in two weeks. When I emerge from the visa office, I'm pleased to find that it's stopped raining.

Since it's now pleasant outside and I'm nearby, I decide to head over to the Reiyukai Shakaden Temple. Leo and I discovered this strange/cool temple the day we went to the Tokyo tower. It's visible from the Tokyo Tower and stands out b/c unlike most temples, it has modern architecture and looks kind of like a space ship. This picture doesn't really do it justice since you can't see the top half.

Anyway, the day we went by it was closed for the evening, but I got to go inside today. The inside is at least as impressive as the outside with lots of marble and a giant main room with some people meditating on benches.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Coffee & Cream

Oddly enough, I've actually been working a lot lately. I guess as I approached the halfway point of my stay, I felt that I needed to at least have something to show for my time here. So for the last week or two I've been putting in long hours. Since my body refuses to wake up early, this has led to me leaving the office at ~3am or so.

One of the reasons I like Tokyo is that things are still open and people are around at 3am. Maybe New York is similar, but Boston's definitely not. There are multiple 24hr restaurants and a 24hr grocery store along my route home. So if you're wanting a Jersey Milk Cream Sand in the middle of the night, no problem (It's pretty much whip cream between a couple pancakes, I just liked the name).

Another thing that I'm going to miss is the coffee vending machine. I think I mentioned them before, but they're great. I'm completely addicted. It's about $1 for an 8ounce can. I don't understand why these don't exist in America (and the crappy ones at travel stops that drop a cup and fill it up don't count, the little cans are way better). Surely I'm not the only person that would rather purchase coffee from a machine than set foot in a coffee shop. And with the brilliant ad campaign of a bored-looking Tommy Lee Jones pasted next to a coffee can, who could resist?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Strangest Thing Yet

So I had a bit of time to kill and just wandered into a video rental place near where I work. Mostly it wasn't very interesting, but then I came across the top rentals section. What was the Monthly Ranking Best #6, you ask?

Why, none other than Johnny Mnemonic.

Probably there's a simple explanation (like the box was in the wrong place), but I much prefer to think that crappy Keanu Reeves movies from the mid-90's are just really popular here.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


On Sunday, I left Tokyo for the first time since arriving in Japan. I only went to Kamakura, which is about an hour away by train, but it's a step in the right direction. Tokyo is pretty sweet and I haven't quite seen all that it has to offer, but I need to pick up the pace on my greater-Japan explorations.

Kamakura, as seen above, was the capital of Japan from 1185 to 1333. Shogunates and Minamoto Yoritomo and other historical things took place in the area. As a result there are a lot of shrines and temples and such.

Knowing that I would be wandering out of the safe and civilized Tokyo and into the heart of one of Japan's heathenistic religious centers, I decided I would need protection. Fortunately for me, Nozomi, who had spent a year at the Media Lab, invited me to tag along with her and a couple Toshiba colleagues who could safeguard against my being ritualistically slaughtered to appease the blood-thirsty Buddha.

My posse (Jimmy, Nobu-san and Nozomi) and I in front of the gate to Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu.

I met the Toshiba crew at the train station in Fujisawa since they all live more on the outskirts of Tokyo. Nobu-san was already there when I arrived and, though we had never met, was quickly able to identify me. I knew immediately that his keen eye for out of place foreigners would come in handy on our mission. Jimmy showed up shortly thereafter. Jimmy is originally from China. He picked up a master's degree and has worked at Toshiba for a couple years since. I didn't think to ask about it, but in retrospect it seems kind of strange that Jimmy would chose to call himself 'Jimmy' rather than a common Japanese name upon coming to Japan. After another 10 minutes or so, Nozomi arrived and we were another train.

The most famous of the Kamakura temples is the Daibutsu. It's a giant Buddha that you can walk inside. It also has a pair of giant shoes that are apparently made by local children.

After the Diabutsu, we wandered over to Hase-dera, another temple. Hase-dera has a lot of outdoor statues and is laid out going up a hill. The picture up top, overlooking Kamakura was taken there. There's also a cool cave/tunnel thing with a bunch of statues inside. You could buy candles to light in front of your favorite diety statue or place smaller diety figures in an army around them. Fun!

After lunch, we went to Tsurugaoka Hachiman-Gu, the main Shinto shrine in Kamakura. The shrine itself seemed a lot like most the shrines scattered throughout Tokyo, but its location on a hill led to by a path that runs through the middle of town gave it a better appearance. Since I'd likely already incurred God's wrath by purchasing a sovenir at the Daibutsu, I figured I might as well push my luck and purchased a fortune scroll at the shrine. I got one of the good-but-not-great luck scrolls. It was in typo-ridden English and predicted that my marital situation would be resolved this year. So I've got that going for me.

While we were at the shrine some people were getting married. Or at least having their wedding pictures taken. I would have felt bad about photographing them, but as you can see, a lot of people were staring and taking pictures. I guess that's what you have to deal w/ if you want your wedding at a famous shrine.

Lastly, I sampled a chunk of fish at a local vendor's shop.

It was gross.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Subway Posters

I am a big fan of the instructional posters in the Tokyo subways.

I'm not sure if it's b/c the women seem so upset or b/c the guy seems so pleased about their anguish, but this one makes me laugh every time I see it.

Another variation on the "talking on your cellphone makes people cry" theme. I'm guessing the subway must have been really unbearable with people on their phones to justify as many signs as they dedicate to this cause.

Apparently I should hide my trash under furniture at home.

I like this one b/c I can't figure out what the couple is supposed to be doing. I mean obviously they're not letting the crippled old man sit in the courtesy seat, but is the guy eating a Reese's peanut butter cup? And the girl's giving him a heart, which should be done at home? Also, the injured guy doesn't seem as upset as the people in the other posters. In fact, he's kinda creepy.