Tuesday, January 31, 2012

2012: Year of the Dragon

This is definitely a little late, but let's talk about the new year. Hard to believe it's already February, isn't it?

The Chinese Zodiac is composed of twelve animals, but the only legendary (read: fictional) animal is the dragon. Additionally, the dragon is considered to be the luckiest of the twelve animals. I find this somewhat amusing, considering 2012 is also supposed to be the year the world ends (just kidding)!

Dragon years also alternate between the five elements of the Chinese Wu Xing (Five Phases): Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. 2012 is the Year of the Water Dragon, and the Year of the next Wood Dragon will be 2024. The previous Year of the Dragon was the year 2000, Year of the Metal Dragon.

Regarding the Zodiac animals, 2011 was the Year of the Rabbit, but I think many people are more than willing to exchange one for the other. Dragons can fly! They shoot fire! They defy our attempts to will them into existence! Can a rabbit do any of that?

Japan was very hyped for the Year of the Dragon. They had filled their stores with dragon-related merchandise by the end of December. I received a dragon-shaped piggy bank from a local business, and noticed that the post office has begun issuing dragon stamps:

There was even a special ceremony in Osaka to formally welcome the near year, with an exchanging of the animals. How can an exchanging of the animals take place with live animals if dragons don't exist, you ask? Well, let's just say the Japanese are creative. I can only imagine what a pain the transition to Year of the Tiger will be in 2022.

Friday, January 27, 2012

New Vice

I don't know if I mentioned this already, but during winter vacation one of my vice-principals moved to Hong Kong. Now, he's managing a bilingual school somewhere overseas with a handful of other Japanese teachers. As a result, a new vice-principal arrived in my village around the beginning of the new year. He took up residence in one of the apartments above me, and seems to be an all-around nice guy. Although he isn't fluent in English like the previous vice-principal was, we can still communicate easily enough.

As is typical whenever welcoming a new teacher to the village, we threw him a welcome party on Tuesday. It was your typical run-of-the-mill drinking party, which usually consists of: 1) an introduction by the party organizer, 2) an introduction from the head of the teachers, 3) some welcoming words from the principal, 4) some words of thanks from the new teacher, 5) some kind of wacky game, and 6) a ton of drinking and eating.

In this case, we ate everything from fried chicken to rice pudding. The amount of food tends to border on the obscene, so I just eat what I can and let the others take home what I don't finish. There was delicious tuna, salad, sushi, and even marinated shrimp. Also, because most of the other teachers commute from far away, there was plenty of non-alcoholic beer. I hope the new vice-principal feels welcome. Luckily, I can take a break from welcoming new teachers now. These parties can be very expensive!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Winter? is Coming

It has started snowing in my village to a severe degree. As you can see from the photos, we've had over a foot of snow in the last week. Where snow simply annoyed before, it now impedes me from safely doing my job. It rarely snows in Salem, Oregon, so I've rarely had to drive/walk/dance in the snow. I have no experience, and it's counting against me.

But I'll perservere! My coworkers tell me the snow should begin melting in mid-February. Hopefully I can make it until then. For now, I'll just drive 10 miles an hour and drink lots of hot tea. Twenty students were out sick today with influenza (no one says 'flu' in Japan, despite having abbreviations for everything else), so school let out early and I didn't have any classes. Tremendously boring, but at least it gave me time to work on other projects.

I'll keep you updated, in case an iceberg forms outside my apartment or something. Maybe I'll make a Japanese snowman! Ask me what the difference is between a Japanese one and an American one!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Tokyo Vacation Part 5: Reflections

The best part about spending two weeks in Tokyo, by far and large, was the company. I was able to meet with a lot of people I didn't expect to ever see again, including people from my stint abroad and fellow university alumni. When people graduate from high school, or college, you expect them to all go their separate ways. I was very fortunate in that many of my friends chose to go, seperately, to the same place.

Through Christmas parties, karaoke, sighting, and New Years Eve celebrations, I was able to rendezvous with one friend after another. Some old, some new, no two the same. While no two friends provide the same experience, neither is better than the other. I have some great stories (I'll keep them to myself) from Tokyo, and they each take place in different parts of the city, at different times, with drastically different endings.

Would I do it again? I spent two weeks in Tokyo--two weeks! That is a long time to go on vacation, and I will admit it got a little boring near the end. While I didn't get to do everything I had planned, I did manage to accomplish everything that I considered important. However, I think I'm done with Tokyo. That's enough sightseeing for at least a decade. If I do visit Tokyo anytime between now and my inevitable return to America, it will be solely on business or for the purpose of meeting friends. No holidays, no sightseeing.

On a final note, I just want to say: it is very tough to maintain long-distance relationships. There is a reason why people tend to prefer face-to-face meetings, or physical contact. I am glad to see that my relationships with those close to me haven't degraded over the last year. I graduated in December of 2010, but I hadn't seen some of these people since December of 2009, a little over two years! Even though we only communicated sparsely, via methods such as Skype, Facebook, letters, and e-mail, there was still a bond that has yet to be broken by time or distance. For that, I'm thankful.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tokyo Vacation Part 4: The Imperial Palace

On January 2nd, 2012, I made a short trek from my hotel to the Tokyo Imperial Palace, located in Chiyoda-ku. The palace and its grounds were built atop the remains of the former Edo Castle, after the Emperor of the time left Kyoto (the former capital) for Tokyo. The grounds are massive, spanning nearly three square miles, and contain not only the Imperial Family's housing but also archives, a museum, and the original diet building.

 The Imperial Family makes public appearances only two days a year: on the Emperor's birthday, December 23rd, and on January 2nd, for a New Years Declaration. This year, the message was one of peace. Along with thousands of others, over the course of an entire day, I trekked through the Imperial Grounds and waited in a crowd outside the main palace. Eventually, the Imperial Family appeared in a bullet-proof, glass-encased balcony. From there, they waved to the crowd while the Emperor made his speech. I was not the only foreigner in attendance.

There must have been dozens more like me, eager to get a look at real royalty. In fact, all of my Japanese coworkers tell me they have never gone to see the Emperor, and rarely do they watch or listen to the Emperor's speech during broadcast. It seems that the exoticism is more of a tourist attraction than an actual cultural affair. That's not to say that the Japanese don't care about the Emperor, or that they lack patriotism--there were plenty of flag-waving citizens to support both points.

After the ceremony, I took a short tour of the grounds, gaining access to areas that are normally restricted to civilians. The picture above is of the "Fuji Mountain Viewing Tower," which suggests it was constructed only to have an excellent view of Japan's most famous mountain. The tour is such a staple for tourists that the palace guards offer English-translated audio guides for guys like me. It was a real advantage, as the tour guide never repeated himself or answered questions. I was able to re-listen to tracks to find the information I wanted.

This building is the former home of the Privy Council of Japan, an advisory organization for the Emperor that disbanded in 1947, in the aftermath of WWII. Although some state that pre-war, the Privy Council was the most powerful agency of the Meiji Government, the fact is that it was a largely inconsequential organization due to the overwhelming influence of party-nominated government figures.

Finally, this is the Imperial Household Agency, the building where all affairs relating to the Imperial Family are handled. During WWII, the palace sustained heavy damage from air raids, and the Emperor's family was temporarily relocated to this building. Even now, it exists to aid Imperial Family members in performing their duties as figureheads of Japan.

The tour and the speech were quite interesting, as most of the studying I've done regarding Japanese history relates to politics, not actual historical events. Anyone who decides to visit Tokyo could do worse than to take this one-a-year opportunity to glance at real royalty.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

New Years in Japan

This year, I decided to pull a typical "New Years" move and go party. But I didn't decided to go party just anywhere. I went to Joypolis, the indoor amusement park that is located on the man-made island of Odaiba! The Joypolis amusement chain has been in Japan for almost twenty years now, and most of its rides are 3D simulators. For example, one ride is meant to simulate a wild jeep ride through the mountains, while another simulates an airplane ride.

Of course, there are more exciting rides as well. For example, the ride pictured above is something like a "snowboarding simulator," where two people, strapped onto a giant snowboard, manipulate it in tandem to perform tricks at high speeds. It was a thrilling ride, although the line was ridiculously long.

This year, a stage was set up in the center of Joypolis, and a variety of comedians and performers gave their best while waiting for the countdown in Japan. The amusement park was absolutely packed. It is a three-story indoor park, and the railings on every floor were lined with spectators. I was barely able to see anything. While waiting for the clock to hit midnight, my friends and I entertained ourselves on rides and by playing games like UFO catcher or making Purikura.

In honor of the festivities, the park stayed open much later than usual. Even after we all welcomed the new year, the rides remained available to enter until roughly six in the morning. It gave us plenty of time to do everything we wanted to do. And honestly? I'd rather go hang out in an amusement park with my friends than get wasted in Roppongi with a bunch of strangers, then stagger to the nearest train with a horrible hangover.

Next time: My trip to the Imperial Palace!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Tokyo Vacation Part 2: Akiba

 During my time in Tokyo, I decided to visit the famed Akihabara, home to a variety of consumer electronics ranging from video games to camcorders. The name Akihabara means "Field of Autumn Leaves." These days, Akihabara is more widely known by its slang name, Akiba, or as "Electric Town" because of its gadgets.
 The streets are lined with tall, thin buildings, each floor catering to different types of content. While I was there, I visited a store that produces toy statues, as well as a seven-floor building that housed video games on each level. I also visited electronic stores so massive that, if their floor-span was confined to ground level, they would easily rival the acreage of the largest Walmart.

 While in Akiba, I decided to satisfy my curiosity and visit one of the often talked about "maid cafes" which can be found in great number amongst the towering edifices of Electric Town. A maid cafe is a small cafe or restaurant where young women, dressed in maid outfits, serve outrageously expensive cuisine. I believe the attraction of maid cafes is the exoticism, and most people pay the outlandish prices for the experience.

Because of how popular these cafes have become, they no longer cater simply to lonely young men with disposable income. While I was there, throwing away money on a $15 ice cream sundae, I saw foreigners, groups of women, and even romantic couples. They would pay to have their pictures taken with the maids. The entire concept has certainly transformed from a niche concept to an integral part of tourism in Akiba.
All in all, Akiba is a nice place to visit for a few hours, but doesn't offer any interesting sights or events to the casual tourist. If you are looking for a place to find the best and cheapest electronics, this is definitely one of my recommendations. However, it is purely a shopping district, so don't expect to derive any fulfillment from Akiba with a wallet full of cash.

Next time: New Year's Eve!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Gratuitous AKB48

There is a somewhat unsightly plague that has been sweeping across Japan for the past five or six years. The music group AKB48 arose in 2005, and since then has been sending the people of this nation into  frenzy with their J-Pop anthems concerning boys, school, and friendship.

The group started out with 48 members, but since then their numbers have increased to almost sixty. In addition, other groups have been created throughout Japan. While AKB48 operates primarily in Tokyo, other groups like SKE48 in Nagoya. The name itself, AKB48, is an abbreviation of the district where the girls perform, Akiba, and the number of original members.

Frankly, it's unsettling. This group of girls has pervaded Japanese culture so much that you can find them advertising all manner of product, from fast food to electronics. They advertise for Sony, candy, chocolate bars, restaurants, and coffee. One of the most popular members, Oshima Yuko, had TV endorsements from 19 different companies between Jan 2011 and Nov 2011. They have all types of consumer media availabled to the public: trading cards, keychains, DVDs, CDs, video games, magazines, and even cartoons. They simply overwhelm Japan with their endorsements.

What's the point I'm trying to make? I don't think they're evil, or corrupt. They have donated at least 500 million yen to Japanese tsunami relief efforts. But the group is definitely more of an organization than a musical act. They have a devout army of followers and their producer, Yasushi Akimoto, creates new groups as quickly as he can think them up. He has transformed them into commodities, selling them as the faces of other companies, building up their likenesses in the public eye. These days, AKB48 is as well known as Michael Jackson, or Elvis, might be in the United States.

For the year of 2011, they topped 7 of the 16 Oricon's rankings. These rankings represent the entirety of the Japanese music industry and include: Total sales by an artist, Copies sold for a single, Total sales for a single, Total sales by an artist (for singles), Copies sold for a music Blu-ray disc, Total sales for a music Blu-ray disc and Total sales by an artist (for Blu-rays discs). In addition, it was also announced that the group broke the all-time records for the most singles selling over 1 million copies in a year, the best-selling single by a female group and the highest-earning female group.

They hold the Guiness World Record for being the "largest pop group." Their singles constantly set new records, with upwards of 1.334 million singles sold on occassion. You will not find another pop group as well-known as AKB48 in Japan right now. The members are always changing, though. When a girl becomes too old to continue, she "graduates" from the group, and a younger girl gets brought in. Their ages range from eighteen to early twenties. As a result, the "face" of AKB48 is constantly changing, though the name will always evoke a particular image of young women in fancy costumes, dancing and singing.

 To give you an idea of what kind of music has swept Japan's young music lovers off their feet, I will leave you with one of their more popular music videos:

... yeah.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Tokyo Vacation Part 1: Roppongi

Well, I'm back! After nearly twenty days of vacationing in the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo, I have returned to Fukushima. I had forgotten how cold it is here, and the first day back my heater decides that it doesn't want to work anymore. Cruel fate!

Anyway, I'm going to spend the next week or so covering some of the things I did in Tokyo. I'll give you a general idea of the major places I went and the things I saw there. Part 1: Roppongi.

六本木 Roppongi is a fancy district of Tokyo, home to Tokyo Tower, TV Asahi, and a variety of bars and nightclubs. There are also tons of expensive stores and shops, as well as Ferrari Japan. The name "Roppongi" literally means "six trees," named either for six famous trees (now gone) or six famous warlords. In the daytime, it is an excellent place to go shopping (if you are a millionaire). At night, it is an excellent place for both Japanese citizens and foreigners to get completely wasted and party until the next morning.

I've never been much of a party animal, so I went in the daytime to meet my friends. We visited the TV Asahi Building, home to such popular Japanese programs as Gundam, Sailor Moon, Kamen Rider, and Doraemon. The entire first floor is filled with life-sized cardboard stand-ups that you can take photos with (see the top picture in this entry).

After that, we went to see Tokyo Tower! I've already blogged about Tokyo Tower once before, when I discussed how it was being replaced by the Tokyo Sky Tree as a broadcast tower. Although I said that Tokyo Tower will be obsolete, I suppose it will at least continue to be popular until the opening of the new tower in Sumida. As you can see from the photos, it is all lit up (on December 28th) to celebrate the upcoming new year.

I took the elevator to the "special" platform, 250 meters above ground (roughly 820 feet). From there, you can see a vast majority of Tokyo, stretching far off into the darkness of the night. It is an awe-inspiring sight, especially when you see the plethora of lights below and realize each one of those represents a person.

I was fortunate enough to have my friends from college there to show me around. Even though we haven't hung out in about three years, we still managed to get along and have a fun time. I am truly lucky to have such good friends. Next up, Part 2: Akihabara and Maid Cafes!