Monday, May 19, 2008

Earthquakes and ice cream and other nice things...

Last week I went to Ikebukuro with my friend, Amanda. In Ikebukuro they have an earthquake center where you can learn what to do in disasterous situations. Sadly, most of it was in Japanese so I’m not sure how helpful it really was. Honestly, I was interested in going because it was free and my guidebook’s description made it sound like those simulation rides at Universal studios. In reality, it was a bit less exciting, but still rather impressive.

First we attended a workshop addressing the proper ways of "escaping" a room on fire. They had created a smoke maze made up of many little rooms connected by closed doors. The first room was completely filled with a smoky substance that smelled rather sweet, like the stuff they released on the dance floors at Barmitzvahs when I was thirteen. It definitely did the job though, because it was impossible to see anything in that room. It was rather embarrassing because Amanda and I weren't totally sure what they were telling us to do, and each separate party had to go through the smoke maze while the rest of the group watched them on a screen. Amanda and I, the only foreigners in the room, were very conscious of the fact that we were being watched by a large group of Japanese people. I couldn’t see anything, so I crouched down low and followed the wall with my hands and eventually found a door. We made it out okay, but pathetically we managed to disobey most of the directions. We failed to cover our mouths properly, Amanda didn’t bother crouching down low, and we forgot to close all the doors behind us. Big F for the foreigners.

Next was the earthquake room. Each separate party got a turn in the earthquake room while the rest of us watched on a movie screen outside. When it was our turn we were paired up with another Japanese couple, making us a group of four. We earthquake room was made up to look like a kitchen. There was a fake stove with a pot and a kettle on it. We were told to sit at the kitchen table and wait. On the table were four cushions, one placed at each seat. As the room began to violently shake we had to cover our heads with the cushions and hide under the table. We were told to hold on tight to the legs of the table. The simulation was pretty creepy. They had simulated fake debris falling outside the windows of the room and the teakettle flew off the stove and onto the floor next to our table. Obviously they had lots of sound effects, as well. Luckily the kettle was actually attached to the wall by a metal wire, so it couldn’t actually hit any of us. After what felt like 3 or 4 minutes the simulated quake stopped and we were allowed to come out of hiding.

I now know exactly what to do if I am sitting at a table that has a cushion on it and an earthquake hits. Sadly, if I am anywhere else when the next earthquake hits, I will have no idea what to do. It was a nice idea, but not sure if they needed to spend all that money creating this earthquake simulation room just to give us some very simple and rather impractical information.

Seriously, though, I would really like to know more about earthquakes because the week before I visited Ikebukuro’s earthquake center, there was an earthquake in Toyko. It was sometime in the middle of the night, so I was rather groggy when I woke up. My bed was shaking quite a bit, the clothes in my closet were swishing back and forth, and the lamp on the ceiling was shaking. I was so sleepy, I don't think I realized how strong it was. While earthquakes are rather common here, this one was a fairly strong one I hear. The epicenter was actually pretty far away, but people seemed very surprised that we could feel it so strongly in Tokyo. It was about 6.8 on the richter scale. I hear Japan is long overdue for another huge earthquake, having had a massively destructive one back in the 20s. Here is an informative passage I stole from a 2004 BBC news article:


“Japan is one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world, perched on top of several converging tectonic plates.

Geological instability causes around 1,000 tremors in the country each year, although many of these go undetected by the public.

Every time they do strike they are a reminder to the country's capital, Tokyo, that it is long overdue "a Big One".

The last major quake in the city was in 1923, and records suggest the geologically precarious Kanto region - where Tokyo in located - will experience one of a similar size about every 70 years.

The 1923 quake, known as the Great Kanto Earthquake, killed more than 100,000 people. Although building and safety standards have greatly improved since then, experts predict that a major quake in the capital could still kill several thousand people and shake the world's financial markets.

The urban density of Tokyo - home to more than 12 million people crammed into an area of just over 2,000 sq-km - therefore puts it at great risk.

A government earthquake panel said in August that there was a 70% chance of a quake around magnitude 7 hitting Tokyo in the next 30 years. The city government has predicted a quake measuring 7.2 could kill more than 7,000 people and injure around 160,000.”


Pretty scary, eh? So now I can see why most Tokyoites are so nervous about earthquakes. I still have to get over my tendency to think that being in an earthquake would be exciting. Sometimes I almost wish a big earthquake would strike just so I could see what it’s like. I remember loving that movie “Twister” because I had never experienced a tornado. I thought the idea of trying to escape a natural disaster sounded so romantic and exciting. I know it's silly, but I still think that way sometimes. Since the awful earthquake hit China last week though, I have realized the seriousness of our situation in Tokyo. Who knows when the next big one will be?

Anyway, enough about earthquakes. Let’s talk about ice cream! Following the earthquake center, Amanda and I went to a large mall-type complex called Sunshine City. It has tons of clothing stores, a little theme park (of sorts) called Namja town, an observation tower with an aquarium in it, and a place called Ice Cream City. Ice Cream City turned out to be a mini museum about the history of ice cream in Japan. There was an arcade as well, as there often are everywhere in Tokyo. Lining the place were vendors selling packets of astronaut ice cream, strange flavors of Gelato, such as black sesame (the ice cream was actually black), and stretchy ice cream. The list of strange ice creams continues. I liked that everyone let you taste flavors before buying. We walked around and tasted all the flavors that a.) looked tasty or b.) looked really odd and possibly disgusting. There was also a room of freezers stocked with little cups of the strangest flavors of ice cream I have ever seen. A few examples are squid, octopus, shrimp, crab, curry, corn, and chicken. I, of course, just had to try one of these disgustingly strange ice cream flavors. After much deliberation, I chose chicken flavored ice cream. Well, here’s the thing… never eat chicken ice cream.

Chicken ice cream is basically bland, white ice cream, with minced fried chicken chunks mixed into it. The ice cream was boring and tasteless, and didn’t even taste like chicken. How utterly disappointing! (And those minced chicken bits sure didn’t do the ice cream's texture any favors). I’m pretty sure I remember finding a bit of cartilage in there, too.

After this exciting edible adventure, I settled upon a nice cup of gelato to calm things down a bit. I ordered a cup of two flavors: blueberry and rare cheese. Now rare cheese sounds pretty strange too, but it was actually amazingly delicious. The two flavors went together extremely well.

After Ice Cream City, we wandered Namjatown. I'm not sure how else to explain it except that it was kind of like an indoor theme park. There were no rides, but there was tons of food, such as Gyoza town. Gyoza town was filled with tons of vendors all selling their own versions of those tasty Japanese dumplings. There was also a three-story maze of many elaborate theatrical themed sets: a Florentine town, an Egyptian tomb, a haunted forest, and so on. It sure reminded me of Disneyland. I wasn’t really sure what the purpose of this place was, but people seemed to be playing some kind of game that involved wearing a big plastic cat on a string around your neck, sticking it into these little portals around the maze of theatrical sets and pressing buttons a lot. We foreigners, as usual, had no idea what was going on. We just enjoyed admiring the amazingly extensive detail put into the theatrical sets.

What really surprised me though, was the bathroom. In the last stall there was a large scary face sculpted onto the wall behind the toilet. When you sat down and closed the door, a trap door snapped shut on the top of the stall. The lights went out, thunder noises commenced, and a loud, booming voice began to yell threatening things in Japanese. Flashing blacklights revealed skeletons painted on the walls in glow-in-the-dark paint. What could be more frightening than sitting on a toilet in the dark, not sure what’s about to happen to you?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Nijima Island

During April, I had about ten days off for Golden Week. It was a bit random because the new school year had only started just two weeks before. I was not really in need of a break at all. Nevertheless, I went to Nijima Island with my friend Chani for about four days.

Nijima is a volcanic island south of Tokyo and the mainland. It is one of the many Izu Islands, which are administered by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. You can get to Nijima in two hours by speedboat, but most tourists take the ferry. The ferry takes seven hours from Takeshiba port in Tokyo. The ferry is also cheaper than the speedboat, so we chose the ferry. Our boat departed at 10pm and arrived in Nijima the following morning. I was quite excited because I’d never been on such a large boat before. There were even different levels for different prices of tickets, which made us feel as though we were commoners in the third class lower level. As we had little knowledge of or experience with large boats, we couldn't help comparing everything we experienced to the Blockbuster hit movie "Titanic."

Our reserved "seat" on the boat was actually was a human-sized rectangle of space marked out by masking tape on a red-carpeted floor. We were given pathetic little round pillows the size of a bean bag. At 11 o clock they turned out the lights and told everyone it was bed time. It was amazing. There were rows upon rows of these masking tape rectangles lined up side by side on the floor, filled with snoring human beings. Luckily we had sleeping bags because we were planning on camping out in Nijima.

When we arrived in Nijima we weren’t sure how far it was to the camp site but we had a lot of stuff with us. We were picked up by a really nice taxi driver who didn’t speak a word of English. He kept stopping along the road to show us things, saying in Japanese, “this is a restaurant,” and "this is the grocery store.” Note I say THE grocery store, not A grocery store. Nijima is a very small island. It probably takes roughly 5-10 minutes to drive from one side of the island to the other. Of course, that’s the short distance. The Island is a bit oval-shaped, so the other distance is much longer. There’s another town on the other end of the island that can only be accessed by driving through a tunnel through a mountain. You are prohibited from walking or riding a bicycle through the tunnel. Apparently it’s very long and uphill. What's really crazy is that as you get closer to the middle, there isn’t very much oxygen. It could be very fatal to someone that tried to pass through the tunnel NOT in a car. We decided not to enter the tunnel since we didn’t really have access to a car.

Ah but, anyways, back to the taxi driver. I found him very funny because I honestly think he may have been the ONLY taxi driver on the island. Everywhere we went we were constantly running into the guy. We’d be biking down the road and hear a honk honk and there’d be the goofy taxi driver waving frantically at us. If we were lost, we could count on him to suddenly show up and tell us where to go. Awesome guy.

The cab driver dropped us off at the campsite and sped off to find his next customer. It was a really nice campsite, set on a softly sloping hill that led up to the mountains. These were the most carefully planned and manicured campgrounds I'd ever seen. Of course it fits in with the Japanese stereotypes. There were little plots marked out for each group, with little concrete bbq grills to make fires in and cook food on. Of course, we hadn’t really brought any food with us, just some bowls, chopsticks, cups, dish soap, and a bit o charcoal. There were even metal sinks with running water placed every fifty feet or so, making it easy to wash dishes or brush our teeth. There was also a bathroom at the bottom of the hill with working toilets and sinks.

When we first got to the campsite we were super hungry because it was about 10am and we hadn’t had breakfast yet. Our campsite was on one side of the island close to Habushiura beach, so we walked to the other side of the village where the port was, in hopes of finding some food. It was a pretty long walk, perhaps 40 minutes, so we were starving by the time we found any shops. We went to the grocery store and bought a bunch of vegetables to cook on the fire: already cooked corn on the cob sealed in plastic, pumpkin, red peppers, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes (for making baked potatoes). Well, here's some advice: don’t ever try to cook pumpkin on a crappy little charcoal fire. I’m sure our fire making skills were lacking, but pumpkin also takes a ridiculously long time to cook. We ended up tossing it in the bushes. The peppers cooked nicely, at least. The sweet potatoes were not so lucky, however. We wrapped them in tinfoil, placed them in a bed of glowing charcoal, and promptly forgot about them. Later on we unwrapped the tinfoil to find large burnt lumps of charcoal. Blech. We didn’t bother trying to cook the regular potatoes yet. The corn on the cob was okay, but since it was already technically cooked and had been sealed in plastic, it was rather like eating warm, canned, corn on the cob. It was quite the unfulfilling dinner. Let’s just say we didn’t make any more fires that week.

Luckily there were other English-teaching foreigners staying at the campsite that WERE good at making fires. In the tent right next to us, there was a duo of male English teachers who had both been in Japan for quite some time. One had married a Japanese woman and was due to have a baby soon. They were nice enough and let us share their fire. We were especially grateful for its warmth. The final night we met a more interesting group that was cooking large quantities of steak and sausage on their grill. They also gave us noodles. We supplied skewers, green pepper, and baked potatoes with salsa and cheese on them. (Yes, I know, salsa… weird. We needed something to flavor them!) Anyway, they were fun people.

Now for activities: the first day we rented bikes. I was very glad about this, as the 40 minute walk became more like a 15 minute bike ride. One day, we rode over to the port side to explore. As we passed a little shop on the side of the road, some old man on the porch motioned for us to come over. He gave us little cookies with pictures of Nijima on them, and made us sit down. Immediately he began feeding us rice, sashimi, and other random Japanese foods. He kept trying to make us drink beer even though it was only about 10:30am. I’m guessing he was probably drunk already. We kept wondering if it was a trick. I was sure he was going to feed us and then demand large sums of cash. He kept inviting other young Japanese travelers passing by to join our feast, too. After awhile we determined that he probably didn't intend to charge us anything and began to enjoy ourselves a bit. He even had a little fire on a grill going and he gave us pieces of meat to cook on it. We were totally stuffed by the end. The man was actually quite entertaining, though. He was very fat in a jolly sort of way, and kept pulling up his shirt to show us his perfect, bulbous belly. He kept rubbing it and cackling, “BAYBEEE! Hah hah hah." He motioned for all of us to touch it, but only one Japanese girl was brave enough to reach out and pet it. Hilarious. Though, it a was a little less hilarious when he asked us to meet up with him later around 6pm for some Karaoke. We pretended we didn't understand because we were slightly creeped out about the idea of hanging with this guy at night.

My favorite part of the trip was when we went to this Izakaya (bar/restaurant) that was owned by a middle-aged couple. It was rather late, so after serving us food they sat down at the table next to us to eat their own dinner. The guy kept taking his sushi and putting it on our plates and making us eat it. We didn't refuse, as again, he wouldn't let us refuse. He didn’t know any English really, but the wife knew quite a few words. It seemed like maybe she had studied it at some point, because she had one of those electronic translators that all my students have. So, using our minimal Japanese and her minimal English we managed to have a stilted, but rather satisfying conversation. We learned that they had two kids around our age: a daughter who was 23 and a secretary, and a son who was an intern at an architecture firm, I think. They woman was especially sweet to us and kept giving us extra food, free of charge, and asking us all about ourselves. She even tried to teach me some Japanese, and showed me how to read some Kanji from the newspaper. Then they asked to have a picture taken with each of us. Adorable. I want copies of those pictures.

What was amazing is I think they kept the place open late, just so they could continue talking to us. After awhile, everyone else had left and we were the only customers. Eventually they said, Um…. Is it okay if we go home now? We are a little tired, but really sorry! We were like, um, what? Yeah, of course. Don’t let us keep you open! Anyways, this experience really made me want to learn Japanese even more.

We also hung out in the Island’s onsen (hot spring) a lot because it was free, and right on the coast. It also required bathing suits which made us foreigners feel very comfortable. The onsen was built to look like old Greek Ruins or something which was kinda cheesy, but funny. Around dusk you could sit in the onsen and watch the sun go down behind another smaller island off in the distance. It was gorgeous because the sun turned completely red. It looked like a big red ball sitting on top of the other island in the middle of the ocean.

On another day we hung out on the beach. We collected rocks, got sunburned, ran away from huge scary waves and watched the surfers do their thing. The island is really popular with surfers. It’s a tiny island and there aren’t many tourist attractions other than the scenery. But that was sort of what we liked that about it.

We spent a lot of time riding our bikes around the island and exploring. Sometimes we abandoned our bikes and hiked up in the hills, hoping to get some good views. It was nice to be walking, except that there weren't any trails. The trail was just a paved road going up the mountainside. As a result, the actual walk wasn’t very scenic and we often had to stop to let cars go by. One exciting moment was when we found a large dead snake in the middle of the road. We took many pictures. We also enjoyed making our walking sticks out of bamboo that we found along the side of the road. Only in Japan… We also checked out the green glass museum and the Nijima Museum, which basically gave us the history of the Island. Like Australia, Japan used these little Islands to exile criminals for a long time. There was apparently an old execution square somewhere but we didn’t find it. Anyways, all in all, a rather relaxing camping trip. Except for the part where I got really sick and then a huge tropical storm blew in on our last day. That was fun. I really enjoyed being sick on the 7 hour ferry ride home. Good fun.

Oh my god

Well I just got a panda foot in the mouth...

chew on this:

I can't believe it. The one time I joke about a panda dying...




Dear Ling Ling the Panda,

I'm sorry. I wasn't really mad at you for being sick that one time. I was just disappointed. That's all. I'm sure you're a great Panda. Honest. So... come back, okay?