Archive for October, 2012

Tokyo on Halloween

This should get you in the mood for an entry about clubbing in Tokyo. Oh yeah, cuz they play our music. 

I spent the Saturday night before Halloween in Tokyo for the first time. I was in Tokyo until about 6 am.This entry has SO MUCH potential to be the lyrics to the next Nicki Minaj/Ke$ha/Katy Perry song…

Unfortunately I did not “take too many shots/dance on table tops/think we kissed but I forgot” and what ever other debauchery happens on Katy P’s song “Last Friday Night”. Because my friends are almost 30, and we are all a bit lame.

I actually saw these guys, they ran around as a mob and struck poses in the middle of  the streets

However, regardless of not attaining Ke$ha levels of stupidity, it was a fun night. Our goal was to go clubbing, specifically to a Halloween party at a club, after a full day of work and a two hour train ride to Tokyo, getting us there are 10:30 pm. We found the club that was having the party, and the streets were PACKED. Like, more crowded than I’ve ever seen New York or Disney World. Every club has lines outside of it which are pretty long, plus most clubs had an entry fee of about 40-50 bucks…not including any drinks. There’s music pounding from most of the clubs and vendors into the street, so you’re always hearing “Gangnam Style” or “Blow my Whistle”. We’re in Roppongi, the foreigners’ district, so there are many nationalities, though still 95% Japanese. As you walk down the street, there’s a gyro place, next to Columbian men yelling at people (mostly women), trying to get them into their Latin club, next to a 50 story Karaoke place, and so on. And by walk down the street, I mean mosh down the street. Fantastic atmosphere, although I would’ve appreciated it a lot more had I been shit-faced drunk.

The Costumes. I stole some pics from the internet, since I didn’t take my camera. But Tokyo on Halloween is an American teen boy’s wet dream. Seriously. So many tiny, slutty Japanese chicks. I have never seen so many Japanese girl butt cheeks in my life. And never need to again .

We ended up going to a club called “Gas Panic” which was playing American club music and was so packed that it was impossible to actually stand still. You just kinda moved wherever you got pushed to. You also had to have a drink in your hand at all times or you got kicked out.  We had one expensive drink and left, because there wasn’t even really enough room to dance. We then wandered the streets of Tokyo for like 3 straight hours, got some sake from a convi and drank it while we walked (you can do that in Japan), and made it to the Shibuya district…(literally, the “young people” district, mostly for like…25 year olds and younger. My friends are 27 and 29 and said that they were really too old for it, but that I was appropriately-aged). We were going to go to one of my friends favorite clubs, but when we got there at 2:30 AM there was still a line two blocks longs to get in, and a $30 cover. We decided to say fuck it and do karaoke until 5:30 in the morning instead.

Karaoke in Japan is different than in the US, and in my opinion SO much better. You rent a private room with some friends or coworkers for a set amount of time. It’s got a comfy padded seating area around a big table and a karaoke machine with tv. You can order drinks (alcoholic or non) and food to be brought up to your room. And then you rock out with just your friends, taking turns making songs. It’s pretty awesome, I’m kind of addicted already.

So I pulled an all nighter in Tokyo, clubbing, wandering the streets, and rocking out on the tenth floor of a karaoke skyscraper, dancing in front of a window looking down on the street.

Not too shabby.

And one more link: …I actually saw this guy in real life.


Eating Out

Last weekend, the first two girls I met (Carolin and Hiromi) were nice enough to hang out with me, show me around, help me navigate a few stores and restaurants, and just generally distract me enough that I didn’t run to Tokyo and hop on the nearest plane back to the states.

Hiromi and Carolin. Guess who’s Japanese and who’s German! 

A few of the things I did (which I may or may not elaborate on in posts to follow):

-went to AEON, the mall, went in a few stores and ate my first Japanese food (in Japan) 

-went to Hiromi’s aunt & uncle’s mandolin orchestra concert and met part of her family
-was attacked with broken english by an elderly gentleman at said concert who was very excited that I was from America (Carolin, a German girl, and I were quite obviously the only people who weren’t Japanese at this concert)
-went to a park in Ota where an old Japanese castle used to stand
-saw many japanese Akita 秋田犬 (specific Japanese breed of dog) romping together in said park 
-tried to find the cheapest rice cooker (which amounted to almost $60, and I didn’t buy it)…however there were rice cookers for over $1k. It’s fricken rice. Do you really need a $1200 machine to cook it?

A large incense burner in front of a shrine.

-went to a Peruvian restaurant in Oizumi, which is the next town over with the large Brazilian and Peruvian expat population. I spoke Spanish to the owner, since he spoke only a small amount of Japanese and no English.
-went to the driving range with Hiromi…as in yes, golfing. I was bored. And I made a straight 160 yard drive with a  five iron! I think that might be pretty decent, considering I’ve held a golf club…twice.
-visited a shrine where Hiromi showed me the traditional way to pray
-went to an izakaya (居酒屋) which is a really common place for the Japanese to go out to socialize. It’s characterized as a pub, and people often go there to drink, but to me it felt more like a restaurant. There’s a large drink menu, and all you can drink special, and smaller sort of appetizer or tapas-style dishes, along with some dinner sized entrees. I think that since many Japanese homes are not traditionally built with enough room to entertain many guests, places such as an izakaya are used for that purpose.

Which brings me to my main topic of this entry: Restaurants. 

When you go into a restaurant, you may need to take off your shoes before you go into a seating area, it depends on the place. You also may be sitting on cushions on the floor, or at a normal table/booth. If you’re sitting on the floor, the proper way for women to sit is kneeling or with their legs bent and their feet tucked to the side….as if you were kneeling but then kinda fell over to the side. Men sit cross legged, I think. (It’s not really a big deal, especially since you’re a foreigner, really you can sit however you want). The waiter will bring you a small glass of water, and if you want more you will need to ask for it. Some menus have pictures on, some don’t. Better hope you have a Japanese speaking friend if there are no pictures! 😀 

This is a picture of MY portion of Ramen. It’s huge. And it comes with huge chunks of pork, a bunch of bamboo and scallions, and a piece of seaweed, along with noodles and broth. There are a ton of different kinds of Ramen, and Ramen shops are everywhere.

When you want to order, you either press a button on the table which calls a waiter over, or you call”sumimasen!” すみません meaning “excuse me!” At this point you rely entirely on your friend to order for you. And probably to ask for more water. Never pour anything for yourself, it’s considered…rude? I think? You’re supposed to pour for the other person, which should remind them that you need more water/tea/beer etc too. If they’re still not getting the hint, then you’re supposed to nudge your glass towards them. 

Hiromi, fried rice, ramen, gyoza, and I. 

A warm slightly damp towel is given to you in a plastic bag. It’s polite to use it to wipe off your hands before the meal. 

It’s absolutely fine and even encouraged to pick up the bowl you’re eating from while eating. Also, drinking soup sans spoon is the way to do it. 

An interesting thing that I wasn’t aware of before today… I went to lunch with a male coworker. This coworker has a girlfriend whom he frequently takes to the same restaurant where we went. The waitress gave him dirty looks the whole time we were there because of the fact that he was at the restaurant with a woman who wasn’t his girlfriend. It’s assumed that he’s cheating if he’s out to lunch with another girl.

When paying, it seems that you always go up to the register. And you never tip, for any service.  If it was really really amazing service, you can pay extra at the register. You’re also not technically supposed to say ‘thank you’ for service in a restaurant or store or anything. I find this to be a pretty impossible habit to break.

I’ve heard people say that the portions in Japan are smaller and that you don’t get enough food at restaurants. So far that seems to be entirely untrue. I have never left a restaurant still feeling hungry, and about half the time I can’t finish the amount of food I’m given. My only complaint would be that restaurants on average seem to be a bit pricier, however, you aren’t tipping, so it ends up evening out. 

So far I’ve eaten at a Peruvian restaurant, an izakaya, a foodcourt, two Indian restaurants, a Ramen restaurant, and several convenience stores. But more on the food another time.

This is really. fucking. hard. (But that makes me a badass).

I’m listening to the song “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show, quite possibly the most quintessential Amerrr’can sounding song ever.

It makes me feel introspective, and like I want to do Amerrr’can things.

Moving to a different country is really fucking hard. This is an objective fact.  I am making this an entry, because even though I realized all of the following things objectively, they did not add up in my head to the reality of how insane it is to move to a foreign country (particularly one as foreign as Japan).

You are in a completely alien environment. I mean, alright, I’ll give you that some things are universal. Everyone poops. Though don’t count on the toilets being the same. Everyone breathes…the air is relatively similar, except for the fishy aroma that occasionally drifts in on the wind. If you’re a human, smiling is good. Though if you’re any other animal…baring your teeth is not friendly …so perhaps nothing is actually universal.

Nothing works the same. Really. The microwave has a mode for rice balls, not popcorn. And by the way, rice “balls” are actually triangular. So that makes sense too. The heater and air conditioner are the same unit, controlled by remote. On the remote are kanji on each button that say important things (for example…”heat” and “cool); you can’t read the important things. You can’t even read the unimportant things. Similarly there are 6 options on the bathroom fan which you can’t read, a kanji on the stovetop, and about 8 buttons on the washing machine which you can’t read. You have to put specific garbage into specific bags, which then go outside into specific bins, and there are also nets outside for the garbage which shouldn’t go into either of the first two bags. Now, you can’t read any of the finer points of this…however there are pictures on the bags. For example…I know that if I’m throwing away fish bones (and therefore I infer food waste) it goes into the yellow bag. Also, the key to your apartment looks like a giant dogtag. Don’t worry, you should be able to figure out how to open your door within fifteen minutes. These are all the issues you have inside your own home.

Now, take a step outside. Maybe to the grocery store, 100 yen shop, a restaurant, or a convenience store. No brands are familiar. You can’t read packaging or ingredients or signs. When something is cut up in a rice bowl or noodle bowl or salad you oftentimes cannot determine if it’s meat, or fish, or seafood, or even a vegetable that you didn’t know existed. You also can’t read menus. Some have pictures, but then you run into the same problem as above…having no idea what’s in the food you’re ordering, which can result in an expensive mistake. Not to mention that constantly not knowing what food you’re buying/ordering/actually consuming and get a little mentally weird and exhausting after a bit. You manage to buy yogurt at a convenience store, but can’t ask for a spoon. None of the cleaning products at the grocery store have pictures on them determining what, in fact, they clean. Because personally, washing my dishes with toilet bowl cleaner would kind of gross me out. And probably make me ill. And possibly dead. I’m not sure what’s in toilet bowl cleaner.

Hopefully these places are all within sight of your apartment because GUESS WHAT. The streets here aren’t labeled.

You decipher and interpret everything in the world around you only visually, since you don’t speak, understand, or read the language. Everything you hear sounds the same, especially since the Japanese are not huge on inflection.

And all of these factors don’t even begin to scratch the surface of “culture” and “interpersonal communication”. When do you bow? How often? How low? Repeatedly? Do you tip? Do you say thank you? When do you not say thank you? Why are you constantly being started at? Why do people keep talking to you loooong after you’ve made it clear via your actions that you either don’t understand a lick of what they’re saying or that you are the most mentally handicapped person ever?

And this is the beginning of why it takes pretty much all the guts to move to a foreign country. And I am a badass.

Living Space

My apartment in Japan consists of a hallway, in which there is a washing machine, a small refrigerator (it comes up to about my waist), a microwave, a sink, and a range. There is no oven, and no counter space of any kind. There’s a separate room which has my bed, two chairs, a small table, a closet, and a small tv. This is my bedroom and main living area, meaning if I had people over, I’d be entertaining them in my bedroom. Most Japanese apartments have separate rooms for these things, with thin, sliding doors  in between. I’m just lucky I guess. The fortunate thing is that my apartment is smaller and thus cheaper to heat and cool, and seems to be better insulated. There’s a WC (watercloset…British, meaning, a room with just a toilet) and a bathroom.

The bathroom contains a tub which is deeper but shorter in length than western tubs, and a shower head that can be placed low or high. “High” here meaning that if I was 5’10” instead of 5’8”, I’d need to do a back bend to wash my hair. The entire bathroom is designed to get wet. There’s a drain in the tub and on the floor, and traditionally, no shower curtain is used. I bought a shower curtain, but because the shower area is quite small, it seems to just get in the way. I’ll probably end up throwing it out.

People don’t use dryers in Japan. In fact, the concept seems to be a bit alien. When I told Hiromi, a native Japanese woman, that in the US everyone uses dryers, she was very surprised. This means that they’ve come up with…laundry mobiles, essentially. Which allow them to hang many pieces of laundry out to dry in a small space. Also, my bathroom fan has a normal “vent” mode, but it also has a heater mode, a cool air mode, a whole house circulation mode, and a dryer mode. So if it’s raining, I can hang my wet laundry on my shower rod, turn on “dryer mode” and dry my clothes in my bathroom. There’s also a timer on the fan in the bathroom which allows me to set if for 30 minutes, 1, 2, or 3 hours.

The walls are made of paper. Thick layers of pressed paper hodge-podged (or…something) together. I bought a shelf at the 100 yen shop which is designed to be held up with push pins…I set it up, and it can hold a surprising amount of weight. Something in grams or kilograms, according to the package…but that meant fuck all to me. I can’t tell you in metric or pounds, but I certify that this shelf can hold a decent amount of make-up, a substantial glass perfume bottle, and some earrings. And yes, that’s an official unit of measurement.

Oddly enough, even though the walls are paper-thin (HA. GET IT.) I barely hear my neighbors at all…only when they turn on the shower or something like that. I’m not sure if this is because the sound insulation is actually decent…or because the Japanese are so quiet and considerate.

Futon mats or mattresses….ungodly uncomfortable. The mat which was given to me was about 2 inches thick. Luckily it was coupled with a mattress topper that was about an inch and a half thick. So my first nights…after 18 consecutive hours of neck cramping, I slept on a piece of hard wood with 3.5 inches of fabric on top of it. NOT. COMFORTABLE. Americans are used to ten inch mattresses on top of ten inch  boxsprings on top of 20 inch tall bed frames. Meaning YOU are 40 inches from a piece of solid, hard wood. I am 3.5 inches. So I bought a second futon mattress…giving me a squishy 5.5 inches before solid wood. Still takes adjusting.

You have to take off your shoes entering any home in Japan, and some other spaces too (for instance, some classrooms). My floors are not tatami (finely woven bamboo[?] mats), but they’re really nicely finished wood, so it’s still a socks or barefoot only rule. So far it seems like you keep your shoes on when you go into stores or malls, and sometimes when you go into restaurants. The elementary school I went to today required you to take off your shoes when you entered the building, and it provided slippers for you to wear around the school instead.

I’m Big in Japan

I’m big in Japan…but these shrimpy shrimps are not!

I was really concerned that I would be both the fattest and tallest person in Japan. I was less concerned (and more pleased) that I would also at least have the biggest boobs. Turns out, none of these things are true!

Most Japanese women are small in stature and positively waifish, but not all. My friend, Hiromi, has a bit smaller stature than I do, but is similarly voluptuous. I am taller than almost every woman I’ve seen here; I would say my height (5’8”) seems to be the height of the average adult man in Japan. I may, however, have the broadest shoulders in the country. There are some Japanese people who are what I will term as “Asian-chubby,” meaning they have cheeks and thighs, but really in America they would be quite normal sized, even fit. Then there’s Asian-fat, which for America would be our version of overweight or chubby. There’s nothing to compare to America’s truly obese…perhaps sumo wrestlers, but I haven’t seen any yet.

Hiromi also has large feet (size 10)! She says usually she can only buy shoes at “oversize shoe stores” in Tokyo or online.

The Japanese have apparently begun to get larger in the last 5 years or so, due to the introduction of more western style foods. In Ota-shi and the surrounding cities, there are at least two McDonald’s and two other “burger” places, and there’s a large influx of Brazilian and Peruvian people, which equates to restaurants which serve a lot of red meat and fried meats.

I was hoping I could lose weight simply by being in the country and breathing skinny Japanese air…that may not actually happen.

Apparently Japanese men regard all women who aren’t “emaciated” (in the words of the man explaining this to me) as “fat” and therefore undesirable. Looks like I won’t have to worry about navigating the cross-cultural dating scene.

Getting Here

A statue at a local shrine where people can pray for children who were miscarried or stillborn.

Flying nonstop from Chicago to Tokyo takes 13 hours, plus the hour and a half drive from Milwaukee to Chicago, plus the 3 and a half hour bus ride from Narita (where you actually fly into when you fly into Tokyo) to Ota-shi means that you have committed to 18 hours of travel, nonstop.

Get ready for some neck cramps. 
I’d highly recommend flying on an airline that is not United. Of my 7 international flights, this was by far the worst (though not the longest). First, know that a 17 inch seat with a 31 inch pitch on an aircraft that is filled to the brim with people is going to be heinously uncomfortable. Each time I flew to/from Europe, I flew on Lufthansa, which had larger seats and individual screens so that you could watch the movie and/or flight progress on the back of the seat in front of you. Much nicer. Additionally, the United check-in kiosks did not recognize my flight confirmation number. Talk about a $1400 heart attack. When I spoke to a United clerk about it, she was flippant and rude, which is irritating when you’ve spent that much money, and the mistake is not your fault. Lastly, United is cool, because when you book online you get to reserve a specific seat. I chose a window seat, so I could see Tokyo and also take a nap and drool all over the window and not the person next to me…United ignored the seat which I reserved, and stuck me in the middle of a row. 
All in all though, the pilot didn’t crash the plane. Not even once. So bravo there, United. 
The Japanese in the airport and at the bus stop were very helpful and friendly, if mostly lacking in the English department. The porters looked at the bus ticket which I had purchased, and indicated that the first two buses I was eager to get on were not, in fact, my bus. So thanks to them. Likewise, the poor young Japanese man who I attacked with English on the bus managed to help me figure out which stop was mine when I showed him my destination address.