Friday, April 25, 2008

Pandas, Pangolins, and Scorpions... oh my.

Last Monday night I went to visit my boyfriend in Yokohama. We ate dinner at a diner near his apartment. The atmosphere and d├ęcor felt a bit forced, but it I suppose it generally captured the idea of the American diner. It was more expensive than the average American diner, and much classier and cleaner. It had booth seating, like in a real diner, except the booths were made of an antiqued wood that was painted white. It felt like I was in a fancy country restaurant in New Hampshire or Maine or somewhere equally as quaint. There were old-fashioned kitchen appliances lining the shelves on the wall, such as blenders and toasters. Even the floor was checkered black and white.

Most importantly though, they had every kind of food you’d expect a diner to have: Italian, Mexican, Greek, sandwiches, pizza, pasta, salads. The food I was most excited to encounter was a fabulous Oreo milkshake. Except for the smaller size, it was just as good as any milkshake back home. Oh, diners, how do I miss thee.

On Tuesday, I went to the Zoo in Ueno Park. Yes, that’s right. Adam and I went to the very same zoo that we couldn’t find the entrance of last time. I was so sure we needed to enter by some kind of magical wizarding process, but turns out, we walked right by the entrance. This time, of course, we found it right away.

Our main reason for visiting this particular zoo was to see its famous Giant Panda. Imagine our major disappointment when we read the following notice immediately after purchasing tickets:

Ling Ling the panda is not available today. On the morning of April 22nd,
Ling Ling the Panda had stomach pains and went to the hospital.

Boy, were we pissed.

Geez, Ling Ling, why did you have to have stomach pains on the very morning that we were coming to enjoy your company? (I’m sure I’m going to regret this statement when I read a news article about the tragic death of Ling Ling the Panda later this month).

Nevertheless, it turned out to be a pretty fabulous zoo. They had every animal you’d ever want to see, including elephants, lions, tigers, monkeys, owls, and bears…oh yes. We even watched a lion roar. The most exceptional thing about this Zoo experience, however, was that I learned about the existence of at least two new animals. (That’s how many animals this zoo had).

Usually at the zoo I see the same old animals. This week, I learned that there exists a strange nocturnal animal called the Pangolin. It has large scales on its body and looks like this:


According to Wikipedia, Pangolins are also called “scaly anteaters.” Pangolins are mammals. Pangolins live in Africa and Asia. If you want to learn more about Pangolins: click here!

The other animal I discovered was the Secretary bird. It looks like someone crossbred a chicken, an eagle and maybe a heron, or some other long-legged bird. The long legs really confused me. I was sure someone had taken an unsuspecting chicken and taped on a heron’s legs. It looks so out of proportion, and walks more like a chicken, well, than a chicken does. Anyway, a secretary bird looks like this:

After the zoo adventure, Adam and I checked out an area called Ikebukuro which, according to Bobby, the owner of Bobby’s bar in Ikebukuro, has the largest underground train station in… well, Tokyo, and maybe all of Japan. It's certainly one of the largest stations in the world. Ikebukuro is a big college town and has a lot of restaurants, bars, shops, etc. They have a great bookstore with a huge English book section, which I love. Anyway, we happened upon Bobby’s bar when a guy with a native English speaking voice handed us a Bobby’s bar flyer and begged us to come inside and talk to him. His name was Nathan and he was a friend of the owner. He was desperate for someone talk to, so we finally agreed. Inside, we met his family friend, Bobby. I’m not sure where Bobby was from, but he looked like he could be Middle Eastern, European, or South American. I honestly wasn’t sure. He had a thick accent when speaking English, though. Nathan was from Toronto apparently, and was visiting for a couple months while he helped Bobby out at his bar. We had a nice chat with Nathan and Bobby, and then went along our merry way because we had to catch the last trains.

Before meeting Bobby and Nathan though, we ate dinner at an Izakaya. As I was chattering away about work or something equally as boring, Adam suddenly had a funny look on his face. I looked around to find that he was staring at a platter on the table behind me.

“My God, are those scorpions!?” cried Adam in his splendid British accent.

Hai. Yes,” replied the grinning middle-aged couple.

“Ugh! Wow,” we giggled in disbelieving unison.

The woman warmly gestured at the scorpions, “Dozo.” (Please, go ahead.)

“Um, really? Seriously?”

Hai, eat-o.”

“Well, um okay.” Adam clumsily picked up one of the leggy creatures with his bare hands and brought it slowly to his face. “So… stinger and all?” he asked nervously.

Hai, hai!” the couple nodded eagerly. “Dozo, dozo!”

He stuffed the scorpion into his mouth, stinger and all. “Delicious!” he cried after a moment. He pushed in a few straggler scorpion legs hanging awkwardly from the corner of his mouth.

Then it was my turn. I refused quite a few times. For starters, I couldn’t believe we were grabbing food with our fingers off of a strange Japanese couple’s table. Wasn’t that unbelievably rude in Japan? Then I noticed that neither of them had eaten more than one scorpion each. Maybe they wanted to get rid of them. Maybe this was a new, exciting food for them, too. “Really? Are you sure?” I asked repeatedly. “Dozo, dozo,” was the reply.

“Oh, what the heck.” I gave in and picked up a scorpion tentatively with my chopsticks. It was crunchy, and spindly like a spider. What if the stinger stings me as I chew?

In one hurried movement I flung it into my mouth and chewed vigorously. I felt the delicate spidery legs breaking off and pasting themselves to my teeth, my tongue, the roof of my mouth. It suppose it tasted okay; it mostly tasted fried. There wasn’t much to chew, honestly. There isn’t a lot of “meat,” per se, on a scorpion. Nevertheless, I took a large swig of water to clear out any remaining parts of this terrifying creature I had just consumed.

Throughout the rest of the evening, we periodically stopped and smiled at each other in astonishment.

“We ate scorpion.”

Friday, April 18, 2008

I really just had to share this...

You know how I mentioned that every subway station in Tokyo has its own little tune that it plays as trains arrive or depart? Well, I just found a website that lists information on many of the subway lines and stations in Tokyo. Among the information listed is the "departing melody" for each stop, that plays as trains pull away from the station. It even tells you which specific variation of the melody is played at which train track. You can click on the provided links and listen to recordings of many of them.

For example, here's the link that goes to the song that plays at Musashi Koganei, the stop where I live:

Official Subway Song of Musashi Koganei

Now you know what I listen to EVERY day. Please go to the actual site and enjoy the many varied subway songs of life in Tokyo:

Listen to more Train ditties!

(Click on the track numbers next to the words "departing melody").

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

wow, pretty cute

There's this couple living together in the same shoebox-sized room in my guesthouse. I couldn't imagine sharing my room with someone. It's tiny.

The more amazing thing is that he's some combination of Asian-Australian and his native language is English. She's Korean, and doesn't know a word of English. And, of course, he doesn't know Korean. I found out last night that they both learned Japanese so that they could be together. Neither of them is totally fluent in Japanese, but they can communicate well enough to be in a relationship. As my friend Chani put it, that is pretty frickin' romantic.

It was awkward when a bunch of us went out to dinner last night though. The guy's girlfriend came for a bit and we were all speaking in English. None of us can speak more than a few phrases of Japanese. When I found out she didn't understand our conversations at all, I felt kinda bad for her. I know how it feels. I remember that time last summer when I went to an Izakaya with my boyfriend and like 10 friends of his from middle school that he hadn't seen in eight years. None of them spoke any English except one girl who knew a few of the usual important phrases like "I'm a student." The whole night I just sat there pretending to follow the conversations around me. What else can you do in a situation like that?

Anyway, I find it amazing that they learned Japanese for each other. What devotion, man. It's a tough language.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

I'm gonna learn some Nihongo!

wahooo. I just signed up for free Japanese lessons at a nearby Community center. They are every tuesday and friday morning from 10-11:30am. I have tuesdays off and then I don't have t be at work until like 2:30 on fridays, so this is totally doable. And they are FREE. I'm super excited. Maybe my Japanese will improve a little faster now. The classes don't start until May 13th so I have like a month til then. I wish they were starting sooner.

I learned about the classes from a student of mine though. She's Indonesian, but her English is pretty good so she's in the highest level English classes with me. She actually teaches English to little kids for the same company as me, but they are required to attend FTL classes with native speakers to keep up/improve their English. She works for the program where Japanese housewives (sorry, I mean homemakers? that's what they're taught to call themselves in English class) hold classes for children in their own homes.

Anyway, she's married to a Japanese man and they have a couple kids, so she's been living in Japan for about 8 years. I guess she was working at a Japanese company in Indonesia and she met her husband who was also working there. They eventually moved here and she's been taking Japanese classes at this Kunitachi Community Center a few stops near where I live. When I asked her how she liked living in Japan and how she learned Japanese she told me all about it. So I went out there today to find out more details. It took me a long time to find the Kominkan (community center) because, of course, it's name is written in Japanese. When I finally entered the place, it was a bit of a struggle to find the front desk cause it was actually a couple floors up, not on the ground floor. Very strange. The lady who helped me sign up didn't speak much English but she had a packet of phrases that she might need for this exact occasion, so we worked it out, at least, I think. She was very nice about it and showed me the rooms where the clasess would be held and everything. Apparently there is a book I have to buy which is roughly $25, but that's okay cause the classes are free!

Anyways, feeling good about it. Very excited to learn more Japanese.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

speaking of fish...

So I’ve really been getting into learning how to speak Japanese. I’ve been teaching myself during my free time, on days off, in between classes, on the train. I bought a CD that has recorded dialogues in Japanese. You can listen to it for pronunciation and speaking practice. I’ve been reading through the grammar section of my phrase book and writing copious notes in my little notebook, and every time I learn a new word or phrase I faithfully write it down. I carry this notebook with me everywhere I go. It’s amazing how I’m sitting on the train and suddenly something clicks in my head and I understand what something means. A phrase or word I’ve heard over and over again suddenly means something to me. It’s a wonderful feeling.

It’s also awesome when you finally get to use a phrase you’ve learned in a real-life situation. For example, the other day when my friend Emma was visiting and we were out for dinner, I was able to tell the waiter that we were done ordering. “Sore dake desu.” (That’s all.) It’s not much, but I tell you, it beats waving my arms and grunting. I felt like a human again.

Now for a series of random thoughts on the past couple weeks:

Some of the students I meet are really interesting. For example, I taught this old guy last week who manages a grocery store. He hates riding in trains or driving cars because he’s claustrophobic. He rides his bicycle everywhere, except for longer distances when he takes his motorbike. One time, he rode his motorbike across the country, refusing to take the train. One of the lesson’s suggested discussion topics was, “What’s the strangest place you’ve ever fallen asleep?” His answer: “on a motorbike.” After riding 26 hours straight, he just fell asleep.

This is also completely unrelated, but the saying “April showers bring May flowers” really rings true in Japan. It has rained on almost every day off of mine lately. It has rained almost every day, in fact. I can’t wait until that’s over. Apparently it’s not even the rainy season yet. By the time it’s over, Tokyo is going to be disgustingly hot and humid. We’ll all be soaked in sweat anyway.

In other news, my long-time family friend Emma, who’s like a cousin, came to visit last week. She stayed at a hostel in central Tokyo cause my guesthouse has crazy rules about guests, and I had to work a lot. We got to hang out a little bit before work one day though. Then Saturday night I took her to an art opening at my boyfriend’s gallery. It was quite an event because the Tokyo Contemporary Art Fair was going on and people from important art organizations from all over Japan were in town. There were a few celebrity sightings. The best was famous conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, who we learned about back in art history class. This was his most famous piece:
One and Three Chairs. That was exciting.

On the following Monday, Emma and I went to Kamakura, where I’d been once before. It was raining—big surprise, but we saw some impressive temples and I sampled not one, but two intriguing ice cream flavors: sweet potato and cherry blossom. The sweet potatoes are purple here, so the ice cream was purple. It was wild. It also tasted great.

I also showed her the wonderful world of Japanese department stores where you can find anything and everything you need in twenty different varieties, shapes, and sizes. We enjoyed the costume section where I felt we needed to try on a giant fish head. I really wanted to buy it.

Speaking of fish, there are these fancy stickers that are made specifically for decorating cell phones. I bought a fish sticker and put it on my phone. My phone is officially tacky and very Japanese. I love it. I also put one of those dangly things on my phone that everyone has here. I may have to take it off though. It’s starting to bother me. It’s amazing though; even stern Japanese businessmen have them on their phones. They are purely decorative dangly things that you loop through a little hole in your phone. There are whole sections in the department stores that sell every kind of dangle you can think of. Figurines, bells, fake food, cartoon characters, fuzzy teddy bears. They’re like key chains only much more popular, and on your phone. I don’t know why this happens, but it does.

Another thing. Why do people think it’s okay to spit in public here? I often have to step around huge spit wads on the sidewalk on my way to the train station. The other day I was standing on the busy platform in Shinjuku, and this guy in a suit just hawked one on the ground right next to someone’s feet as he waited for the train. Gross, man.

A very pleasant train line.

This past week was eventful. I live off of the Chuo line, which is a very pleasant train line, except that it's infamous for being catastrophically delayed. There could be an accident, a suicide, a fire, or an overabundance of passengers that causes severe delays, stranding tons of people and making them massively late to work. I’ve been living here for about two months and haven’t had a single problem with the Chuo line until this week.

It was just fabulous because it was my first week of the new school year. It caused me a lot of problems getting to work. Last Saturday I was twenty minutes late. It took me about two hours to get to the school when it should have been more like 40 minutes. Luckily, when the trains are that delayed the train staff hand out late slips explaining that the train was late. It’s understood that certain train lines are often going to be delayed, so people take these slips and give them to their employers. At least I wasn't really in trouble for being late. It wasn’t my fault. Still, it wasn't a pleasant way to start my first day at a new school. Also, everyone tells me that being late to things in Japan is a really big deal. It’s just not something that's done.

This past Thursday I woke up to the continuous roaring of airplanes flying low over my guesthouse. I immediately thought, are we being attacked? Then I thought, perhaps it’s this Japanese guy living in my guesthouse who claims to be training in the American Air Force at the base in Tokyo. I figured he finally went crackers and tried to fly his plane over the guesthouse so he could say hello and throw down American candy and other essential provisions by way of parachute. He’s always coming into the kitchen as I’m making dinner. He kind of hovers over me for a bit and watches me cook. I ask him what’s up and he says, not much. Then he continues to stare. Eventually he says, “Oh! I have a present for you!” I wait, expecting something rather creepy (this guy has a reputation for being a bit odd). A few minutes later, he comes running in with a fistful of starbursts and milky ways screaming, ‘American candyyyyy for youuuu!” Apparently he has access to top-secret stashes of "American" candy at the American air base.

So I've digressed a bit. The reason there were a ton of planes flying over my guesthouse was because there was a fire at the train station one stop away from mine. The Chuo line was completely down from roughly 8am to 4pm. This was a very, very bad thing because the ONLY train line that stops at my station is the Chuo line. It is impossible to get anywhere from my place if the Chuo line is down. And, yet, my fellow teachers and I are still expected to at least try to get to work. Some gave up and went home, while others attempted to take the bus, which was very brave in my opinion. I, however, was confident that taking a taxi would be the obvious easy solution. This particular school was only four stops away from where I live; in New York, the distance wouldn’t have cost more than about 15 bucks (1500 Yen). Smugly impressed with my own cunning, I gleefully hopped in a taxi without consulting headquarters.


(At least I got to practice my rudimentary Japanese with the taxi driver.)

Either the guy took an unnecessarily long route because I was foreign, or taxis are just ridiculously expensive. It may have been both. I ended up getting to work only five minutes before my shift started. The school was happy that I wasn’t late, but they obviously thought me an idiot. One staff member cried, “What!? Don’t ever take a taxi!!” It cost me 4,700 Yen, so almost 50 US dollars. I couldn’t believe it. My company usually reimburses us for all travel expenses to and from work, but I was sure they would never agree to pay for this. In the end they essentially said: “Okay, we’ll pay it this time, but NEVER do that again.”

The kicker was that as I sat down with my first student of the day, I began my warm-up by asking her where she lived.

“Oh, I live in Kokubunji,” she replied.

“Um. Wasn’t there a fire at Kokubunji? How did you get here!?”

“Oh, the trains are running again.”




If I had waited for the trains to start again, I probably still would’ve made it to my first lesson. And it would’ve only cost me $2.

A great day.

Two weeks ago I went to Ueno Park. Tokyo has so many amazing parks; this park is huge and has a zoo, tons of museums and a nice, big lake. I spent the day there with my buddy Adam. We wanted to go the Zoo, but somehow the location of the entrance continued to elude us, which mostly had to do with the fact that we couldn’t read the Japanese maps. I came to the conclusion that the only way into the Zoo must be by apparation (Harry Potter style). We could tell the Zoo was there and that it was quite large. We could hear animal sounds, mostly birdcalls, and we could even see cages through the vegetation, but alas we could not find a way inside. As we muttered to ourselves one last time, “how the heck do you get into this blasted zoo!?” a passing Japanese man barked in a loud monotone, “on the monorail!” Well geez, now where do we find the monorail? Forget it. It was closing in thirty minutes anyway.

We desperately wanted to feel as if we had accomplished something during our time in the park. Rather impulsively, we rented a swan-shaped boat for a mere 700 yen ($7) and paddled around a big lake lined with cherry trees. It was the most hilarious thirty minutes of my week. We had to pedal with our feet, as if riding a bike. It was very tiring and we weren’t very good at steering the thing so we almost rammed a few swans-full of disgruntled Japanese people. I was quite tempted to pretend we were in bumper cars.

After our thirty-minute swan ride, we strolled along a lane filled with vendors selling delightfully strange foods. I don’t know what it was called but we ordered a pile of Japanese pancake, egg, meat, vegetables, and sauce. It was just too delicious. We stood in the middle of the crowded lane and devoured the plate with our chopsticks in two minutes. Then we ate meat on a stick that was definitely an animal part I had never eaten before—I’m guessing some kind of internal organ, perhaps heart? We also considered buying a skewer of whole squid, meaning tentacles, head, and all. After imagining biting into that plush round head with the little squid eyes we ran away disgusted (and feeling bad for the cute little squid).

We also ate many delectable Japanese pastries, such as pancakes in the shape of fish filled with chocolate. I ate an entire banana on a stick covered in chocolate. You can imagine how good that was.

In the evening we wandered the park, admiring what seemed like miles and miles of cherry blossoms and gawking at the staggering numbers of people out drinking and picnicking on a weeknight. I've never seen anything like it. People of all ages, young and old. Grandmas, men in business suits, families. No one would do this back home, except maybe teenagers. But I can totally understand why they do it here. The cherry blossoms really are gorgeous at night. Please to see for yourself: