小さい経験 (LITTLE ADVENTURES) : Part 1

This is the first post in a series of “Little Adventure” posts I’ll put up showing some of the adventures of the past two weeks.

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As of today (Monday, June 24th), I’ve been in Japan for about 12 full days. Thanks to an incredible host family and host-extended family/friends, I’ve met a ton of people (about 30 — I’ve been counting) and had a number of really wonderful and exciting adventures.

The picture above is from the Meiji Shrine, a Shinto shrine built in the early 1900s to commemorate Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken, who were important players in the Meiji Restoration (a period in Japanese history that oversaw the emergence of Japan as a modernized nation). The shrine is located in Shibuya, quite close to my current host family’s house; I visited on Wednesday of last week with my host mother. Here she is!

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We didn’t stay for too long (I had some more work to do preparing for my English lessons the next day), but it seemed as though there were just a few main things to see. The shrine is placed within a large, dense forest area, with wide paths paved for people to walk along. In order of discovery, here are a few things we saw!

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A huge Pi symbol? No! It’s a 鳥居 (torii, traditional Japanese gateway).

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Barrels of wine on the left, sake on the right. For one reason or another (religious, political, commercial — perhaps all three), Meiji Shrine attracts bountiful liquid donations from renowned distillers and winemakers around the world.

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You’ve got to wash your hands using a special bamboo cup (here are a bunch of girls doing it, left) before entering the main shrine (right).

I didn’t grab any great pictures inside the shrine (no pictures were allowed at the main shrine area where people pray), but it’s essentially a large courtyard with a further, closed off area that you can look at / pray toward. There’s also an area to hang prayers cards, for a small donation of course!

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I have to admit that the place still feels pretty new — compared many other shrines in the world this one is very young, of course — which made it a bit less exciting to me. But overall, I was glad to go, and to spend some time with my host-ma!

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私はサラリーマンです. (I am a salaryman.)

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Yesterday I joined the ranks of the Japanese ‘salaryman’. With a suit jacket, tie, and backpack full of lesson plans, I slipped into the stream of similarly attired Japanese men journeying at various lengths to their own 会社 (kaisha, company). My own commute on Mondays and Thursdays, to a company called Oclaro on the outskirts of Tokyo, is about 1.5 hours.

Sitting on the Keio-Sagamihara Line train to Hashimoto station, I was surrounded by other Japanese men wearing similar suits, going to similar places, and making the same tired faces. I have to admit that, in a way, I was charmed. I think I felt a sense of the ‘collectiveness’ that Japan is so well known for — playing my part as one (albiet foreign) cell within Tokyo’s hard-pumping venous system. Of course, it was my first day; such feelings likely go the way of novelty with time. But somehow I think even the seasoned 部長 (buchou, company manager) might occasionally look up and feel at home in the communal rush of his fellow salarymen.

Oclaro is an American-owned company that produces some mysterious products related to optical communication. They’ve got a huge building located in the midst of a corporate park in the very southwestern most part (I think) of the Tokyo area. Although yesterday was my first day of teaching, I’d been to Oclaro once before earlier in the week with the coordinator of my fellowship, to meet my Oclaro bosses and iron out details about my English lessons. Without writing a novel, I’ll comment on a few things I’ve found particularly interesting:

1) At Oclaro, and perhaps all Japanese companies, you trade your shoes for a pair of slippers at the door. This is true for Japanese households in general, but somehow I didn’t imagine that big companies would do the same. In any case, everyone in Oclaro walks around in these white slippers that remind me of a future-age hospital.

2) 名刺 (meishi, business cards) are a huge deal. I am receiving them left and right. And there’s a complex set of customs around properly receiving someone’s card and giving them your own. Although the more subtle points (of which there are many — typical Japan) are over my head, the key elements, which I’ve gathered by observation and some literature, are something like this:

a. take the card with both hands and say thank you while in a slight bow

b. read the card thoroughly, still holding with both hands, and perhaps make an ‘ah’ or ‘oo’ sound

c. (for Japanese people/really good foreigners) comment about the person’s name, specifically the name’s kanji and the meaning of the characters

d. if you’re at a table, put the card on the table in front of you. if you get several at once, try to organize them such that the people’s statuses are properly represented (ie. the boss’s card on top).

The whole process takes about 20 seconds. It’s an adventure every time.

3) In Japanese companies, everyone with a desk job works in the same, massive room. There are partitions between the desks, but they only go up about 4 feet. The result is that, when standing, you can see everyone who is at work simultaneously. Even the upper level staff — managers, etc — simply have a larger dedicated area within the same huge space. It is so different from anything I’ve seen in the US. Perhaps another reflection of the collectivist culture. One way or another, a very different way of doing business, literally.

To finish this up: I ate lunch in the company cafeteria. カレーライス (kareiraisu, curry and rice, duh) — delicious. In case you’re wondering, I’ve put vegetarianism on hold while in Japan for convenience’s sake.

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すごい!!(Amazing!!)

Nom nom nom.

Nom nom nom.

After today, I’ll be at the end of four full days here in Tokyo. The days have been so busy — I already feel as though I’ve been here a month (in a really great way)! My host-family is absolutely incredible; the whole family –consisting of Masumi-san (the mama), Yasuaki-san (the father),  Taisuke (the older brother), and Shuuko-san (the younger daughter) — has been so warm and welcoming. They live in Uehara, Shibuya-ku, a really nice neighborhood southwest of Tokyo’s downtown area. My host-mother, who is a stay-at-home mom, has been staying-at-home with me and facilitating both constant activity and plenty of Japanese practice. Each day so far, she’s taken me along to meet her friends or sent me off with one for some other adventure, the end result always being a handful of new Japanese friends (frequently middle-aged mothers), lots of Japanese practice, and (perhaps best of all) consumption of incredible homemade 和食 (washoku, Japanese cuisine). On my first full day, she brought me to a potluck lunch with five of her friends; yesterday, her older sister took me along to a さど (sado, tea ceremony) lesson! Needless to say, I feel so lucky to have an incredible new family here in Japan.

Here are a few general interest photos; I’ll start posting more topically next time!

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My first Japanese meal! Took place on a plane.

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An amazing potluck lunch during my first full day.

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My host mom, walking down the street in Uehara, the neighborhood I now (for the next two weeks) call home!

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A quarter panorama of my tatami floored bedroom. No shoes or slippers allowed!

Before I wrap this up, I will say that Japanese is hard. I knew it before, but I’m definitely discovering just what a challenge it will be, even in an immersive context, to become functionally proficient (which, at this point, is my goal). I’m finding listening comprehension to be especially difficult — the way people talk in real life is so far from what’s set down in textbooks through ‘grammar points’ and ‘practice conversations’. It all flies at you so fast, and there are so many words I don’t know!! けれども、がんばります! (keredomo, ganbarimasu; “however, I will try my best!”)

That’s all for now. Good luck and much love to all. Treasure every day!

PS. Shout out to my dad for Father’s Day (Happy Father’s Day, Dad!). I briefly Skyped with him today and forgot to mention it. Damn.

さようなら!(Goodbye!)

Goodbye Belfast!

Goodbye Belfast!

Thanks to the miracles of modern travel, today I will be launched 13 hours into the future as I travel from Belfast, Maine to Tokyo, Japan.

The pre-launch is a short flight from Portland, ME to JFK, and a 6 hour layover in JFK. Then, at 6 pm (perhaps I should get used to calling it 18H), I and my All Nippon Airways (ANA) comrades will begin the 14 hour odyssey from JFK to Narita Airport in Tokyo.

As the ‘salaryman’ might say as he heads out to work: “いってきます!” (I’m going!)

Here’s to an summer filled with adventure, new friends, good food, and lots of learning.