1. The most disgusting food item I’ve seen in all of Japan thus far wasn’t pulled from the bottom of the ocean or pickled. It was a hot dog at a 7-11. Yeah, obvious, I know. But this wasn’t your usual convenience store wiener – this was a packaged hot dog. A cold hot dog covered in cold ketchup on a bun wrapped in plastic. Do people actually buy these things?

2. The majority of magazines on sale in Japan seem to be in a similar vein to rags like Maxim: nothing but scantly clad women on the cover. Stranger, though, are the magazines with cartoon women wearing next-to-nothing on the front cover right next to them. Given the choice between pictures of real women and hand-drawn women, wouldn’t you go with the prior? But hey, whatever you’re into…

3. KFC serves beer.

4. An Italian restaurant here is named Miami Garden. Because when I think of Miami, I think of its five-star lasagna.

5. Back in Chicago, all the Olympic bid advertisements featured big photos of athletes playing their sport. In Japan, their bid ads feature a gaggle of anime-ish animals walking towards a lake. I’m pretty confident about which city is going to win out.

6. Nothing is more intimidating than approaching a train station and seeing an endless wave of Japanese people flood out of the station straight at you. Pure terror.

7. They still have Tower Records in Tokyo!

8. The best part of Shinjuku, and what makes it one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been to, is how many surprises this place holds. Most major city alleyways are just shady, narrow stretches where nothing happens. Here, every alley seems to hide a new batch of neon signs and storefronts.

9. Whatever is playing on pop radio in America is probably blasting out of stores in Shinjuku. Today I heard Kelly Clarkson and Drake, along with Nickelback blasting out of a Nike store.

10. I fell in love with a girl wearing a Cornelius t-shirt. I had to resist laughing out loud when I walked by a guy wearing an exaggerated hip-hop shirt complete with some bizarre phrase about “going hard to the grave” or something. I nearly did a triple-take after seeing a guy wearing a shirt boasting a Butterfinger candy bar wrapper design with the words “buttfucker” inside the wrapper. Can’t make this stuff up.

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Tokyo

July 27, 2009

Tokyo

Tokyo

I’m currently sitting in my hotel room staring out at stretches of lit-up windows dotting Tokyo. I should be out wandering aimlessly amongst them, since I have no idea when the next time I’ll be in this city will be. A representative from my prefecture (the region I’m living in) said earlier today there would be a karaoke night for all of us and, despite my trepidation about singing Michael Jackson songs badly in front of a crowd of strangers, I planned on going. When I showed up in the hotel lobby, though, nobody was there. After several minutes of me creepily hanging out near the reception desk, I decided that they must have left early. And now I’m up in my room staring out a window at a city I’d like to be exploring while one of my roommates is snoring on the other side of the room. On the plus side, I’ll get plenty of sleep, which I could use.

I could beat myself up over not getting to see more of Tokyo, but I’m convinced it isn’t that bad. Trying to see everything this city has to offer in only three days seems borderline impossible – one night walking around Shinjuku revealed that this city is massive and mysterious. The only semi-decent city I can compare what I’ve seen so far with is New York, and even that doesn’t really capture it.

Shinjuku

Shinjuku

Stores and restaurants clog the streets, and most buildings hide three or four different establishments within. Entire shopping centers lurk underneath train stations, and you could never tell from the outside. People sleep in cardboard boxes. The only song I heard playing from a store was something by Pink. You can buy a tall-boy sized can of Coke for only a $1.30. The salt shakers look like pandas. I think an anthropology expedition would have a hard time figuring this all out, let alone a goofy tourist.

Panda Salt Shaker

Panda Salt Shaker

Writing about Tokyo just seems weird not having seen much of the city. I’ve spent most of my time cooped up in a (extremely nice) hotel going from one workshop to the next. Add to that the still persistent jet lag, and I’m in no condition to try to muse about anything. But I really, really want to write something about this – I’ve wanted to be here for two-and-a-half years, and to finally be here and not be able to share any sort of deeper thought on it seems as wrong as the AM PM convenience store five minutes from my room (alternatively, I could just be at a loss for words due to how awesome this all is. Half-full or half-empty, it’s your choice). On the bus ride from the airport to the hotel, as we drove by verdant landscapes and intricate urban areas, I thought “I want to live in this city at some point before I’m 30.” But why did this thought spark? I don’t know, and I don’t think I will until I spend a significant amount of time in Tokyo. Which I won’t be doing anytime soon.

Well, at least I have something to look forward to. That and sleep. Sweet, sweet sleep.

More Tokyo

More Tokyo

I’m in Japan

July 26, 2009

I expected the flight over to Japan would be a welcome period of relaxation before being flung into the insanity that was “life in Japan.” Eat some delicious American-made pretzels, drink a little Diet Coke and watch a mindless movie or two. I prayed I would at least sleep for an hour or three. Alas, most of these wishes didn’t come to fruition on my 14-hour Japan Airlines flight. Thank goodness Diet Coke transcends all cultures.

You aren’t just stepping onto an airplane with JAL. Once you make sure all overhead baggage is stowed correctly, you’re overwhelmed by Japanese culture. No pretzels, only rice crackers dashed with some kind of fish powder that lingers in your mouth for half-a-day. They show an “in-seat exercise” video, featuring a Japanese woman stretching her feet for what feels like forever, two times. The in-flight magazine has to be read from left to right, for god sakes. Instead of offering you one last gasp of non-cultured air, JAL wants you to know exactly what you are getting into with this, one warm hand towel at a time (don’t ask)

It isn’t all terrifying. The two meals served were actually really good, and the Japanese style salad easily trumped its American counterpart (hint: it had a lot of croutons). The safety video shown at the start of the flight also shined, mostly because all human actors were replaced with adorable Nintendo Wii-ish characters who could buckle their safety belt and deploy the emergency slides. And though it was completely over-the-top, the cameras attached to the outside of the plane were kind of cool in a “I’ve made way too much small talk, I need to look at something else phase.”

The worst part of the flight wasn’t JAL’s fault though. It was me not being able to sleep for more than an hour on the flight, resulting in me hunched over for most of the flight speed-reading through books. The flight attendents even asked if I was OK, wondering why this lunatic was still awake, starting to read his third book of the flight. Upon arriving in Tokyo, I wanted to sprawl out on the floor, swine flu check be damned. So, obviously, I’ve chosen to stay up even later to write. Blame that bad decision on the lack of sleep.

I’m in Tokyo, but can’t really sum up what it’s like…still need to experience a lot more of it. But here are a few quick observations on the Japan I’ve seen:

– Tokyo’s apartment complexes would be as drab as any other chunk of concrete if it weren’t for there secret weapon: laundry. Everyone dries laundry by hanging it up, and the resulting blanket turns otherwise boring apartments into big, colorful quilts. Quilts made out of beach towels and pants.

– The homeless people in Tokyo don’t just pass out on benches or on a subway platform. They have boxes. Actual cardboard boxes. That they straight up live in. I swear I saw some dude just chilling in a refridgerator box, no shirt. And he wasn’t alone – there appeared to be an entire commune of these guys. Thrilling times.

– They do, in fact, have Burger Kings in Japan (just discovered, yessssss).

– I heard one Pink song and a couple J-Pop tunes playing in the street today, but the clear winner was…none other than Michael Jackson. I caught five of his songs played over the course of the not, and not one was “Thriller.” Also played: “99 Luftballoons.”

– They have wi-fi on busses here. Hold me.

Programming Note

July 24, 2009

Japan does a lot of stuff right. Like really cool cell phones, and robots. But no country is perfect, and one of Japan’s flaws, at least in my biased eyes, is the existence of the “foreigner card.” Every foreigner (duh) moving to the country has to get one before they can do things like buy a cell phone or set up a bank account. Most pressingly, and most important for what you are reading now, I can’t get the Internet in my apartment until I get said card. And that takes about two weeks. What do they expect me to do, actually socialize with people???

So yeah, posts may be somewhat infrequent in the short-term. I’ll probably still write, but entries may not be posted until later on, in one big annoying rush of text. Heads up.

I’m Going Away

July 22, 2009

The realization that I’m moving to Japan really hadn’t hit me at any point during the past three months. Save for an initial rush of joy following the official “congratulations” e-mail arrived in my inbox (amplified by the fact it appeared a day before a career fair I’d been particularly dreading, turning said fair into less of a “oh god what am I going to do with my life” into a strange victory lap), I’ve mostly seen the whole JET thing as more of a relief. “I have a job after college, I don’t have to live at home now, yay!”

Predictably, with three days to go before I hand over my boarding pass, I’m now fully being hit with the revelation that, yes, I am actually going to be living in Japan start Saturday.

With this now an imminent fact, I’ve been trying to soak in as much as my American surroundings over these last few days. That has amounted to walking aimlessly around Northwestern’s campus and seeing the new Harry Potter. I did go into Chicago, to visit my favorite record store one last time and also buy a few last minute things for the trip (said purchases were also incredibly awkward, but that’s a story for another blog). It has all been a pleasant reminder that moving to a foreign country is probably the best decision I could make, as I have so little going on here that most nights end with me watching ESPN alone sometime after 2 A.M. I’m not exactly a thrilling 20-something.

I might not be doing a great job entertaining myself, but I have been doing a splendid job of hiding all the fears I have about this move. I’m most immediately nervous about my luggage – I have two suitcases each roughly the size of a German Shepard, and I’ve resigned myself to the fact transporting these things across Japan is going to be a disaster. I hope the Japanese are patient people, because I’m going to be quite the annoyance with my five-ton bags full of work-approved polo shirts and khaki pants. Thankfully, my phase as “that guy” will end when I get to my apartment, assuming I get my bags up the stairs without breaking any bones.

Long term, I’m really not worried about my job, where I’m living or even my complete lack of knowledge about the Japanese language. The only fear I’m really latched onto at this point is that I’m going to make all the stupid mistakes I’d made before. Since graduation, I’ve thought far too much about all the things I regret regarding the last four years. I know you’re supposed to live life without regret, but I just can’t stay consistently true to this belief, at least not now. I’ve been up and down since graduation, thinking about the things I did (and, even more stinging, didn’t do) and trying to squeeze some sort of meaning or lesson out of them. I’m petrified I haven’t taken good notes, that I will fall for old habits and weaken my time in Japan.

Take writing. I’ve been in a bit of a rut recently in regards to writing (this blog post has taken much longer to write than it should, and there have been several moments where I’ve just contemplated deleting it, but writing something down is better than nothing, as embarrassing as it may be) because I’ve been so self-conscious and nervous about it all. Something I love has become a challenge, and it is one of the most agonizing feelings I’ve ever experienced. I don’t naively believe moving to a new location on the globe is all it takes to reinvent yourself and cure all woes, but I don’t want old insecurities dragging me down over there.

But for the immediate future, the only worries I should have are getting to the airport on time, not contracting Swine Flu (they are freaking out about this) and making sure I don’t kill anyone with my massive luggage.