Thursday, September 29, 2011

You Look Familiar

I’ve been here nearly a month, and I’m realizing just how small the foreigner population is in Japan.  Everywhere I go, I run into the same people.  It is really easy to pick us out and perhaps the foreigners just go to all the same places, but there is this amazing feeling when I recognize someone in such a strange place.  I actually met a Japanese guy in a bar called Fubar a couple weeks ago and then ran into him again just the other day at a ramen restaurant.  It’s bizarre that in a city of millions I can run into someone in a totally different neighborhood.  Of course, I didn’t recognize him, he recognized me.

Osaka has this awesome music bar called Rock Rock.  This past Friday they were having an independent music night so Edward, Josh, and I went to check it out.  They were playing stuff like MGMT, Passion Pit, Oasis, The Killers, and New Order.  The crowd was really into it and I felt right at home.  We didn’t leave until six in the morning.

A couple of us went to sing karaoke the other day.  I’m slowly expanding my set of singable karaoke songs.  They have a much better song selection in Japan than America.  They actually have Sublime songs here!  Karaoke is extremely popular in Japan and it’s mostly “box” karaoke where you get your own room.  It seems to be a weekly event for some groups and people have been known to have eight hour karaoke sessions.

Osaka is getting a little cooler each day and it feels so much nicer as it gets closer to San Francisco’s weather.  I can actually walk around without sweating through my shirt.  It was feeling so nice that this past weekend I biked over to Nakanoshima, a pleasant area filled with parks and museums on which is made up of a few islands in one of Osaka’s rivers.  I snapped a few pictures (I keep meaning to take more pictures).

 Park on the island

People Boating Between Islands 
 Osaka Library
 I think this is an art museum
   Art Museum? Plaza

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Mayflower House

This trip is accomplishing several goals for me.  
  1. I get some time off to recharge my batteries.
  2. I get to find out what it’s like to live in another country.  I’ve been tourist in a lot of places, but I’m really living here.  
  3. I get to learn Japanese
  4. I get to relive my college dorm experience

I have this reoccurring dream where I’m back at Rice, living in the dorms.  It’s usually a super happy dream because I’m surrounded by all my friends and everyone is in the same age group with similar experiences and similar goals.  Sometimes my dream gets weird and I start to question why a 30 year old is living in a college dorm or maybe I freak out about some class that I seem to have missed for an entire semester, but mostly, it’s a good dream.  I really miss the whole dorm experience.  I enjoyed having tons of friends to hang out with all the time.  I’m blanking out all the hard work, stressing over tests, and 100’s of hours in the lab, but I chose those things so now I’m choosing to remember the good times.  College was a ton of work, and I was ready to leave, but I miss it.  So, since I’m essentially living in a dorm, I’m taking full advantage of our awesome lobby.  I love running into people, hanging out, having interesting conversations, watching crazy Japanese TV shows, and spontaneously deciding to head out to a few bars.  I get to live my reoccurring dream, and it’s a lot of fun.

If you’re curious about the Mayflower House, there are thirty singles and a six person dorm room.  Two of the singles are unoccupied and there are currently only two people in the dorm room so there are thirty people living here.  Of those people I think there are:
9 Japanese People
5 Americans
4 English People
3 Australians
2 Canadians
2 Italians
1 Pakistani
1 Filipino
1 French Person
1 Romanian
1 Peruvian

These numbers probably aren’t completely correct, but close.  Not sure why I felt compelled to figure them out.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Back To School

It’s back to school time.  This past week was my first week of real classes.  Actually, it’s more like private lessons since I’m the only student in the class, but even when the class is “full” there is a maximum of four students.  My teacher, Tanka Sensei, tells me that it has been hard to get students since the tsunami.  The lessons have been informative.  It’s basically a 1.5 hour conversation in Japanese where Tanaksan emphasizes a particular set of grammar rules for the day.  It is exhausting attempting to hold a Japanese conversation for so long, even if it’s probably only fifty percent in Japanese.  I have previously learned most of the material we have been covering, but I have never been confident enough to use it in conversations so the class is really helping with my speaking ability.

So what do my days look like?  I usually wake up around 9 and eat some bread and cereal.  Next I spend about an hour and a half start studying Kanji.  So far, I have memorized the meanings of around 500 characters, but I’m having a lot of trouble retaining them.  I still can’t read much, but I can pick out a fair number of symbols.  I’m using a great book called Remembering the Kanji which really seems to work.  From there I go through some vocabulary flashcards, listen to 30 minutes of Pimsleur, pick up some instant noodles or a bento lunch from my local 7-11, and then bike to class.  When I get back, I do my homework and I might hang out in the lobby studying and talking to people as they get back from work.  I’ve been alternating between cooking my own dinners and heading out to restaurants.  When I cook, it’s usually some sort of stir fry.  When I go out it’s sushi, ramen, or some kind of tempura/katsu.  In the evenings I’ll either read, study, watch some downloaded TV, or head out to Shinsaibashi for a few drinks.  While I’m getting to know the nightlife, I feel like I need to venture out during the day more.  I really want to spend a day riding my bike around and just checking out Osaka.

I weighed myself in the gym the other day and I’m down to 155lbs from my 165lbs pre-Japan weight.  That’s 10lbs in 2.5 weeks.  Japan, it’s the ultimate diet.  It’s a little concerning since I can’t afford to keep losing weight like this.  It’s not that the food is particularly healthy, but the portions are pretty small.  I have been trying to maintain an active lifestyle which probably contributes to some of the weight loss.  Living in Japan involves a fair amount of walking and bike riding, but I also have a weekly trip to the gym and run around Osaka Castle.  As a bonus I’ve been trying to do 7 Minute Abs every other day.  Although I can now see my ribs, no six pack yet.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Mariachi Bands in Japan

I’ve made a few friends here but it can be difficult to actually do things with people.  While they are all working, I have tons of free time.  Sometimes I troll around the lobby, studying, hoping that I’ll run into someone who wants to do something.  There are a couple guys who hit the clubs nearly every night, but just the thought of staying out until eight every morning makes me exhausted.

A few people have been nice enough to invite me out to various events.  Yuya and Varitey took me out drinking the other night and showed me a bunch of cool bars.  Bar Moonwalk has 200 yen drinks, a bartender who looks like the Japoanese version of Jack Sparrow, and a few passed out Japanese people knocking over glasses in their sleep.   I guess the bartenders don’t mind passing out in bars too much.  We also went to an amazing bar called All Blue which is centered around Japan’s most popular anime show, One Piece.  There were tons of figurines and every inch of the walls was plastered with One Piece posters and autographs.  I hope to go back and take pictures at some point.

Jeff invited me to a Mexican festival under the Umeda Sky building.  The whole thing was pretty surreal.  They had tacos, Coronas, mariachi bands, and marimbas.  It was such an odd mix of people.  I couldn’t believe I was experiencing it in Japan.  I really should have brought a camera.

One of the downsides of going out in Japan is that my clothes always end up smelling like smoke.  I miss American smoking bans.

Monday, September 19, 2011

I'm gonna tell you what I really think I like about Mondays

“Cause they feel like Saturdays
When you don't gotta go to work
Every day is a holiday
I wake up when I want to
I do anything I wanna do
Can't wait for Tuesday”

So, I don’t want to rub this in, but I haven’t been working for 3 weeks now, and I have to say, it’s really nice.  Working straight for the last 7 years has worn me down.  Yeah, I always take my vacation days, but it never really feels like I can get away for very long.  My aching wrists are sure thanking me for the time off.  I have actually had a hard time adjusting to a flexible schedule.  What am I supposed to do with all these unstructured days?  It feels really strange not having to be anywhere.  For some reason, my body hasn’t adjusted to the time change very well either.  I tend to have a hard time getting to sleep, and I get really tired around 4-5PM (midnight to 1 SF time).  I’m starting a Japanese class this week so maybe the fixed schedule will set me straight.  I don’t know where my time goes, but the days just zoom by.  I expect it has something to do with all the sleeping in and searching for food.  I’ve also worked my way through seasons 1 and 2 of Community and spend a fair amount of time browsing the internet aimlessly.  It’s not like I’m doing nothing though.  I spend several hours a day studying Japanese, but the thing about studying is that I can’t do it all the time.  If I study for an entire day my mind feels super numb and I wake up the next day only to realize that I didn’t learn very much.  I need to study in bursts and then have some time to absorb what I’ve learned.  Some people seem to be natural language sponges, soaking everything up, but that’s not me.  For some reason, I’m really bad at languages.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Stuff on Buildings

Osaka has some crazy facades.  Most of these are from the Dontonburi area, but some are just random points around town.
 Kayak sailing up building

 The "world famous" Guriko Man
 From Dotonburi Bridge

 This is supposed to be sushi

 This pet store was selling monkeys and lemurs

 Female sumo wrestler riding a fish

Shinsabashi arcade from Dotonburi bridge

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Riding Through This World...

There are bikes everywhere in Osaka.  I was kind of surprised since I don’t particularly remember bikes from my last trip and I haven’t read anything about them.  There’s hardly anywhere to park cars and the subway is fairly expensive so I guess it makes sense.  The bikes are a little different from American bikes.  They’re mostly one speed and they sit a lower to the ground so you can put your feet down without leaving the seat.  It’s really easy to stop which is important since bikes share the sidewalk with pedestrians and often have to navigate around them.  I hope there are not many collisions because I haven’t seen a single bike helmet.  All bikes seem to make these horrible screeching sounds when the breaks are applied.  It’s something similar to scraping finger nails across a chalk board and it kind of makes me want to tear out my eardrums.

Since I’m not going to be here very long, I thought I would just ride the subway and wouldn’t need a bike.  But people kept telling me that bikes are essential and that it would make my life a lot easier.  I did a little math and found that subway trips really add up with each round trip costing 460 yen/$6.  Used bikes are relatively inexpensive at only 5900 yen/$77.  It’s the one thing that seems to be cheaper over here.  So, with that in mind, I bought a bike.  It’s got a basket, a bell, a built in lock, a chain cover so I don’t get my jeans caught on the chain, and one of those lights that’s powered by the wheel.  With my phone, I’m now Japanese gear complete.
My Bike

Apparently bikes do get stolen, but sometimes they get returned.  Edward told me that his was stolen once, but turned up a few days later with an apology note in Japanese.  Someone just really needed the bike that day.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Sun and Tiger Music Zoo

I heard that amateur bands play in the park every Sunday afternoon so I walked over to check it out.  I finally found them but their setup was a little silly.
Three Bands

Three bands play at the same time all within 100 feet of each other.  The result is a ridiculous jumble of sound.  You could sort of focus on one band by standing directly in front of them.  I tried listening for a while but gave up.  It was oddly segregated.  The first band seemed to have an all moms crowd, the second was an all dude crowd, and the third was all girls.
Mostly dudes

On Sunday evening, one of the Aussie guys, Edward, told me there was a rock show in Kobe so we took a train to check it out.  It turns out that Kobe is only a 30 minute train ride away.  We arrived at The Sun And Tiger Music Zoo and I was surprised that I recognized one of the bands.  I saw Hystoic Vein at the Independent a few months ago with Alex.  The other bands were A Mad Tea PartyThe John’s GuerrillaAstro Attack, and Pills Empire.  Edward seemed to know everyone and Hystoic Vein even gave him a shout out.  The venue was small and it was a little hard to see the stage, but it seemed like a cool place.  I loved the crowd.   They were really into the music.  Sometimes the crowd can make or break a show.  I hate going to see bands I’m really into when no one on the crowd seems to care.  Many of the people we talked to were in their own bands so it seems like there’s a nice little scene here.  It made me really nostalgic for those days where I used to go to show like this all the time (of course non-Japanese versions).  I still feel uncomfortable trying to talk to people.  I don’t know enough Japanese to hold a real conversation, but Edward is really good at translating.  On the way home we had to run to catch the last train.  20 seconds later and I don't know what would have happened.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Too Much Party Rocking

On Wednesday evening I was feeling cooped up so I forced myself to find a foreigner friendly bar.  I ended up choosing Murphy’s, an Irish Bar just a 30 minute hike down the road.  When I arrived it was practically empty, but I talked to the manager for a while and had a few beers.  He was an Irish guy named Steve and he was really friendly and talkative.  He has been in Osaka for four years, but it is his last week working at the bar since he is about to start as an English teacher.  It seems like English teachers sit at the top of the food chain in the world of expat jobs.  I got my bill for the 3 beers at 2400 yen (i.e. $31).  $10/ beer, yikes!  Either the dollar is really weak or the yen is really strong.  I guess it’s probably both.

It was about midnight when I finished walking home.  I was tired and intended to get some sleep, but as I got to the door some guys were heading out to hit some clubs.  What the hell, why not?  They were biking, but most Japanese bikes have this little space on the back wheel where you can tie things down.  Expert tip: it also works as a seat.  I hopped on and soon enough we were at some club called Azure in Amerika-mura.  I was tired so I immediately chugged a Red Bull to stay awake.  I couldn’t believe how crowded it was on a Wednesday.  We ended up going to a couple different places and they were all packed.  It’s pretty easy to move around because foreigners either don’t have to pay cover or have reduced rates.  The music was a mix of Japanese and typical American club music.  I had an awesome time.  We stepped outside at some point and I was shocked that the sun was coming up.  Time had just flown by.  So that’s how we found ourselves foolishly buying breakfast for some Japanese girls before wandering around looking for the bikes and getting back to the Mayflower House around eight in the morning.  I tried to sleep, but just laid there on my bed unable to get any rest due to the Red Bull.  I eventually gave up and got some lunch.  It was a loooooong day.

I’m learning that late nights are the norm here.  On the weekends clubs stay open until noon the next day.  I’m having trouble keeping up.  Everyone is always surprised when I tell them that everything shuts down at two in the morning in the states.  However, Japanese trains stop at midnight so while Japanese people may stay out late it doesn’t mean they always make it home.  In the late evening it’s pretty common to see people passed out on the sidewalk too tuckered out to get home.  Since the crime rate is so low I guess it’s safe to sleep anywhere.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


On Tuesday it was sunny with a cool breeze so I made the laborious two block journey to Osaka Castle.  At the entrance I was met by a Japanese volunteer who showed me around for an hour.  He spoke in broken English and I spoke in broken Japanese.

He was very friendly.  

The castle grounds are a nice green oasis in the middle of such a dense concrete city.  The castle has a rich history and is one of Japan's most visited attractions.  It was originally built in 1583 by Toyotomi Hieyoshi who unified Japan and is considered one of its great heroes.
Toyotomi Hieyoshi

After his death, the castle was put under siege and destroyed by the Tokugawa shogunate, who promptly rebuilt the castle due to its ideal location.  The main keep was then burnt several times by lightning and further damaged by bombs in WW2.  It was finally restored to its current form in 1997.  Now it’s a museum with screen paintings, armor, writings, and other musemey stuff.  I walked around the extensive grounds for a while afterward then headed back home.


Thursday, September 8, 2011

Learning Japan

Monday I briefly saw some sun and it didn’t rain for the majority of the day at least.  I went to ARC Academy for my Japanese placement test.  It was intimidating.  While I know hiragana and katakana, I’m not too used to reading in it exclusively.  I was also pretty rusty on conversation.  Despite all this, they wanted me to take a trial lesson.  The first half of the class went ok, but I was completely lost for the second half.  I think they’re probably 2-3 weeks or so ahead of my skill level.  I felt a little too uncomfortable to take the class.  Luckily, the class restarts in 3 weeks so I may try to take it then.  In the meantime, I’m thinking of taking some private lessons.  I was pretty disappointed it didn’t work out exactly the way I wanted, but I guess that’s what you get when you drop everything and go to Japan without planning to coincide with the start of a class.

It takes me a long time to get anything done here.  Any time I want to go somewhere I have to look up directions on how to get there and map a route across the subway.  The addresses make no sense here so I end up getting lost trying and end up wandering underground train stations for what seems like miles.  When I finally arrive, I’m confused about what is going on and it’s difficult to get what I need.  I spent hours the other day buying groceries and figuring out how to use my hot plate to cook them.  I did manage to cook one of my staple salmon dinners and it actually turned out pretty good.  I’m seriously craving fresh fruit and vegetables.  Everything here is loaded with carbs, breaded, and fried.  I like Japanese food, but I’m learning that I don’t really like it every freaking day.

Everyone in my building seems to have these SoftBank prepaid phones.  It’s really expensive to make calls on them, but the text messaging is free.  Without a phone it’s pretty tough for me to hang out since I have to randomly run into someone in order to make plans.  So, I went over to Yodabashi Camera the other day and picked one up.  It only took them 3 hours to figure out how to set it up and verify that I’m not a criminal.  Yup, I have my own “burner” phone now.  Just call me Stringer Bell.

I saw a cab driver pull over to the side of the road, hop out, and take a leak right on the side of the curb.  I guess that’s ok here.

Japan seems to have a large population of escaped ferrets.  I’ve already seen a few running through the streets.

I saw a guy wearing a white shirt the other day that said “FUCK EVERYONE”, in huge lettering.  I wonder if he knows how offensive that actually is to English speaking people.

Facing West on rooftop of the Mayflower House
 Facing South on rooftop of the Mayflower House
Facing East on rooftop of the Mayflower House

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Old School

I haven’t seen blue sky yet which I think is responsible for my nagging jetlag.  I’m looking forward to seeing some sun in the next few days.  While the Typhoon hasn’t been super windy, it did bring a bunch of rain.  Since the rain hasn’t let up much my first day’s main priority was locating an umbrella.  It didn’t take too long to find one at my local corner store where I also snapped up some other some other basic stuff like kitchenware and soap.  Next I found an electronics store where I bought a power converter and had my first successful Japanese “conversation”.  I managed to ask them where I could buy a fan and actually understood their directions and found the place.  I lugged the fan back to my place and, whew, the room is so much nicer with some circulation.  I later learned that I can actually adjust my room’s AC, but the fan helps a ton.  I’m pretty happy with my room, however I don’t get a lot of natural light on the 3rd floor.  The apartment building is sandwiched between two other buildings and you don’t get a lot of light until the 5th floor where our building rises above our neighbors.  Maybe I can move up a few levels at some point.   

I spent the afternoon exploring my neighborhood.  It seems that I’m in the “fireworks district”.  There is this one street where every store for blocks is filled with fireworks and cheap plastic carnival toys.  It’s very strange.  I wandered through subway malls, open air arcades, and super markets trying to figure out where I could food and supplies.  Food is sort of an issue.  The corner store has a bunch of noodle cup stuff, but I can’t read any of the directions.  I’ve been to a few restaurants, but I’m going out of my way to find places with pictures.  Even then, I don’t really know what I’m ordering.  I find the whole process kind of intimidating.  I feel embarrassed and helpless not knowing how to order, but I’m trying really hard to get over it.
As I’ve settled into the apartment I’ve come to realize that it is a lot like a dorm of single studios.  It reminds me of college and I really like the nostalgic feeling.  People hang out in the lobby and everyone has been super cool so far.  There’s a pretty good mix of foreigners with the typical slant toward Australians.  Apparently it’s really easy to get a working visa for Australians.  Most people seem to be English teachers and they’ve all been here for years.
In the evening a few people were hanging out in the lounge so I joined in and we drank cheap wine and expensive whiskey.  One of the guys was really pushing to go out, but I was on the fence.  I felt jetlagged, and you know, it was Typhooning outside.  But, I didn’t come out here to just sit in my warm room and watch Community episodes, so I decided I shouldn’t pass up the chance.  Six of us finally left around 1 in the morning and took a cab to Amerika-mura which isn’t too far away.  We bar hopped for a while and some of the guys left to go to a club, which I wasn’t quite ready for yet.  It’s crazy how all the bartenders and door guys seem to know everyone in our group.  I guess the foreigners get around a lot.

The next day my main success was finding a Gold’s Gym and getting a little workout.  Gold’s Gym will give you a travel pass to visit their international Gyms.  I was surprised to find that they actually have gyms in Japan.  I caved and ate at a McDonald’s which wasn’t half bad.  In the evening I wandered around Osaka Castle exploring a running route and I came across some sort of concert festival.  I saw these guys performing and they were pretty good.  

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time studying Japanese.  I’m really trying to focus on the Kanji.  I’ve got over 300 of them memorized, but rather than helping, it just makes reading infuriating.  Knowing 1/7 of the kanji means I can’t understand anything but just catch glimpses of what’s going on.  I figure if I can learn 1000 of them while I’m hear I might actually start being able to read a few phrases.

An unexpected source of entertainment are Japanese targeted internet ads.

My hallway
 My Entry
My kitchen
My Bed

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Planes, Trains, and Typhoons

The night before I left for Japan I started flipping through a travel guide and found myself skimming through visa requirements when something caught my eye.  Apparently you need a valid return ticket to gain entry into Japan.  I had not really paid attention to the visa requirements this time around since I’ve been to Japan twice before and never had a problem getting in as a tourist.  Your airline is supposed to check for a return ticket before you board your plane and then you get checked again when you go through customs in Japan.  I looked on a few web boards and some people were actually forced to buy a return ticket when they got to Japan.  I was a little worried with my one way ticket, but not worried enough to buy a return ticket.  It turned out that when I boarded my plane they never asked for anything other than my passport and when I arrived in Japan they just asked me how long I was staying.  No problems.

My flight was pretty smooth.  Alex was nice enough to drop me off at the airport so I didn’t have to deal with BART and MUNI while dragging around my 45 lbs suit case and backpack.  The flight was probably only 80% full which makes me think that there must be something wrong with United’s pricing system.  They’re charging way too much for this flight right now, but it made for a pleasant trip. 

While we went through the customs area on arrival I remembered how I was stuck here for 12 hours waiting for Typhoon Jangmi to pass over Taiwan.  This time around, when I was waiting for my bag I started talking to a guy who was going to a conference in Kyoto.  He wasn’t sure if it was going to happen anymore since Typhoon Talas is about to hit the entire region.  Yup, the category 1 storm is about to score a direct hit on Osaka in the next day or so.  I wasn’t even aware of it but now I’m just glad I got in before it hits.  What is it with me, Osaka, and Typhoons?

As I walked outside the airport I was met with a rush of heat, rain, and humidity which reminded me of Houston.  Unfortunately, I’ve been ruined by San Francisco’s year round 60 degree weather so I started sweating up my own storm.  It didn’t help that I was dragging around all my stuff through a bunch of transit.  I managed to get a train ticket into Namba station and from there navigate the Subway to the Tanimachi-4-chome station which is the stop for my neighborhood, Izumimachi.   Then I wandered around in the rain for an hour looking for my apartment building.  When I finally found it I was huffing and puffing and soaked from the rain.  Yeah, it was pretty exhausting with the Jet Lag and the 12 hour flight. 

As I was walking in the door, a Japanese woman was walking out and I asked her if she worked there.  She said, yes, but she was closing up for the day.  I told her I was supposed to check in and she seemed confused.  Even though I had e-mailed a few days earlier to remind them I was coming and what time I would be there (I was right on time too), she had no idea I was coming and had no record of me.  If I had showed up 5 minutes later I would have been screwed.  She didn’t speak a ton of English so it was a bit difficult to communicate.  She made some calls and I guess figured out I was supposed to be there and then showed me to my room.  It was surprisingly larger than expected.  I immediately took a shower and then started unpacking my stuff before crashing.

I think the heat and humidity is going to be rough on me.  I have an air conditioner, but it doesn’t seem to do very much.