Sunday, December 30, 2007

Daily life.

I'm back from my trip, safe and sound. I had a good time in America, but I'm happy to be back.

However, I am not happy to have come down with a bit of a cold. It's not much of a surprise, considering that I was in a big metal tube for over 10 hours with 400 other people. If one person was sick, it would have been easy to get sick myself. It's not so bad, however I feel like if I go out, it'll only get worse, and I want tomorrow to be fun as it's new years, so I didn't do anything today except for rest. It's kind of a depressing way to spend a Sunday in a town that loves to party on Sunday, but if I'm fine tomorrow, it's totally worth it.

In America, I got a lot of questions about my life in Japan. I thought I'd take time to answer them. First off, I've been asked multiple times what I eat here. I do eat a healthy bit of American food, but I also eat a lot of curry. Another favorite Japanese food of mine has always been tonkatsu, or a fried pork cutlet. I also eat a lot of chicken in various forms, including chicken livers and stomachs which I don't like all that much and chicken cartilage, which I liked more than I thought I would. I'm willing to try pretty much anything once (with some exceptions), so I spend a lot of time eating rather strange items. Of these, some are really bad, but some are great. There is no question that my diet has changed. I hardly ever eat sandwiches, pizza, or many bread products. I do eat a healthy amount of hamburgers, and a new favorite of mine is a teriyaki burger.

Another big difference is I don't ever get in cars. I don't drive, I don't have any friends that drive, and I only have one friend who has one friend that has a car. My roommate (age 25) just got her driver's license, yet she can't drive around here unless she rents a car. Besides a taxi cab on the first day here, I haven't been in a car in Tokyo. So, I spend a lot of time on trains and walking.

I also wanted to talk about my daily life and my home for a bit. I live in a 3 bedroom apartment with 2 other people. It's a cosy place that is in a nice neighborhood. I sleep on a futon on the floor, but other than that, life here isn't too different than the US. We have a couch, we watch TV, we enjoy a good beer now and then. It's not this radical lifestyle change living in a Japanese apartment with other Japanese people. But, here are some differences worth noting.

First off, there are no shoes allowed in homes around here. Every home has a place for shoes once you walk in. Here's mine:

You'll notice that the shoes are in a tiled area that is slightly lower than the regular floor. This is quite common here. Also, you'll notice a box on my door. We have a mailbox here and one in the entranceway of the first floor. Apparently, the first floor mailbox is for normal letters, but this box is for important things. I find it quite odd, as it's an apartment building with only 4 units on each floor, assuming they follow the same pattern as this one. It seems quite time consuming to use the front door boxes.

The most different part of my home is the bathroom. Bathtubs and shower rooms are a bit different.

You'll notice the unusually deep bathtub (by American standards) and the tiled walls. The whole room is designed to get wet and if you're taking a bath, it's the same, but in a shower, you just stand in the middle of the room and get clean. It's hard to take a good picture, but this room is not really that small, but not so big. It's comfortable to shower, and while I'm still a fan of the American style bathtub, this is not a bad way to do things.

The toilet is a little strange, but something I've come to really like and understand.

The water is filled in the back via a sink head and a small sink. That way, you can wash your hands with the same water that's used to fill the toilet. This is quite logical, as any water that you use in a toilet is wasted, and there's no need for it to be completely hygienic. So, washing hands with soon-to-be toilet water is quite clever. We also have a normal sink for brushing teeth and shaving and all that other stuff.

Another thing we have in our bathroom is our own personal washing machine.

It's quite small, but it gets the job done. I'd much rather have a small washer than have to lug my clothes to a laundromat. Most people in Japan don't have driers, and we don't either.

The only thing that really bugs me about my bathroom is when I look in front of the mirror in front of the other sink, I see this.

I also seem to be the only person living here with this problem.

There is no seperation between my kitchen and living room. I've seen places in America like this too, but this whole room isn't very big. Here's a shot of my rather cluttered kitchen area.

You'll notice that there is no oven. Well, there is a tiny, tiny gas oven designed for grilling fish apparently. Other than that, it's quite a normal, but small, kitchen area.

Another curiosity is my light switch. It's a remote control.

I don't quite understand WHY it's a remote control, but it doesn't seem unusual here. Also, that phone is linked to my doorbell, so you can talk to someone without letting them in.

One thing that I described numerous times is how I keep warm. Looking around my living room, I don't see a heater. Of course, we could always get an electric space heater, but instead, like a lot of people in Japan, we use what's called a Kotatsu. It's like a coffee table with a blanket and a heater. It looks like this:

Under the blanket is a small electric heater. You sit down and wrap the blanket around you, and it keeps your legs and whatever you want warm. If your hands get cold, you shove your hands under there. It's much more efficient than having a heater warm up the whole room, and it heats up really fast, as there's only a small area to warm, and it stays hot for quite some time, as the blanket traps all the heat. People keep asking me what I do if it gets REALLY cold... Well, this heater gets quite hot and if I'm wearing a sweater or a light jacket, if it's really cold in the room, it's really not bad under the blanket. Also, some of the heat inevitably leaks out and warms the room too.

So, that's my life here. If anyone has any particular questions about the similarities/differences in my daily actions, feel free to ask.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Leaving Japan for a bit.

Tomorrow morning, I'm leaving for America for the holiday season. I'll be in America between the 18th and 27th of December. Due to the long flight and the time change, I don't get back in Japan until the 28th.

I'll try to write some more thoughts while in transit or away, but last time I flew, I didn't have enough room for my laptop on the plane. I'm afraid this is going to be a similar case.

Anyways, thanks to everyone for reading, and I'll be back here writing in a few weeks.

Friday, December 14, 2007


There have been many Japanese foods that I've become quite fond of, but two items that I have become a huge fan of are ramen and yakitori. I have plenty to say about yakitori, but today I'm here to talk about ramen.
I, as most Americans, used to think of ramen as that dried crap in a package that cost you 12 for a dollar if you get a good sale. I've also tried the pre-processed bowls of ramen that can be found at Asian grocery stores. As far as the crap noodles, comparing that to real ramen is similar to comparing a well seasoned, well cooked piece of fillet mignon to a McDonald's hamburger. The pre-processed bowls are closer, but still not the same as the real thing.

For clarification sake, ramen is not a Japanese dish. It originally came from China and became popular in Japan after World War II. It's popularity exploded in the 1950's, as it was cheap, filling, fairly healthy, quick, and could be tailored to almost anyone's needs. Each area of Japan has their own particular style and ingredients. Japan has quite heartily embraced this dish and it can even be seen in how it's written in the language. Japanese has a separate set of characters designed for foreign words entering into the language called katakana. Words like coffee, bus, computer, and my name are written this style. Ramen, on the other hand, is sometimes written this way, but not always. If it's written using the normal Japanese alphabet, it looks like らーめん, but using katakana it looks like ラーメン. I very often see both cases, which is a bit strange, because I can't think of anything else written using both sets of characters.
Ramen is basically noodles in some type of pork or fish broth with fresh and/or pickled vegetables and quite often an egg. It's fairly healthy, except for the large amount of sodium, and there is very little meat used, other than the bones and fat to season the broth, normally there is only a few thin slices of pork. Usually, the pork used is high quality and quite flavorful, while the vegetables add a nice crunch into the mix while enhancing the flavor. I think my favorite type of ramen would be miso, which is a bit strange because I think it's the most "Japanese" of all the ramen flavors.
The first time I tried ramen, I must admit that I was terribly underwhelmed. It wasn't quite what I was expecting, and looking back, those were tasty noodles, but the broth was not the best that I'd ever had. A few weeks later, it was storming and a friend and I wanted to do something indoors. Having heard about the Yokohama ramen museum, and having thought that the concept was a bit silly, I decided that it would make for a fun outing. Not only did this museum completely reverse my stance on the silliness of itself, but it also made me a believer in ramen. Not having a bottomless stomach, I got a chance to try two types of ramen, both of which are probably my top two bowls of ramen I've eaten. One was a miso ramen and one was katsu, or fried pork cutlet.
Since I moved to Mitaka, I've been on the hunt for a good ramen place. For me, not only is the food important, but the atmosphere and ease of ordering are almost as important. I've mentioned before about vending machine restaurants, where you buy a ticket and hand it to the register. These are quite handy for me, but if the vending machine buttons are all written in kanji and there are no pictures of the food, if I can't recognize the kanji, which is the usual case, then this isn't any better than a written, non picture menu. Atmosphere is nice too, because it's just more enjoyable to eat at a comfortable place that feels warm and welcoming. I also enjoy the feeling of history that a place has. Also, friendliness is important, as I know a lot of ramen places are run as mom and pop operations and a few mom's and pop's don't like foreigners. I don't care if I go to a place and they don't treat me special, but I am nervously expecting the time that I'm treated with hostility. In the case of friendliness, I am quite pleased with apathy.

Also, I should take a moment to talk about my opinion on taste. It's really hard to compare two ramen shops unless I get the exact same thing, and since I'm often left up to "that looks good, I'll try that", I don't know what I'm ordering until it arrives. And with something like miso, which is kind of an orange-red color, I have ordered a spicy kimchee soup instead of miso ramen on accident. Again, the overall quality can be judged, but the particulars aren't so easy to compare.

The first ramen place I went to in Mitaka was on the other side of the train station, a good 20 minutes walk from my house. They had a picture vending machine, the staff was pleasant, and the food was quite tasty. My two biggest complaints about this one is that it is a major chain and the distance. First off, the distance is obvious. On the way, I pass by or can see 5 ramen restaurants, and I know of 3 more that are closer. The chain thing is a bit bothersome too, as the whole place feels overly sterile and shiny. It's like the difference between going to your favorite neighborhood bar to getting a beer at an Applebee's, it's just not quite right. This isn't a deal breaker, as I've been back twice, but it kind of makes the 40 minutes round trip walk seem a little less worth it.
There is another shop by the train station practically on the way home. It's small, cosy, convenient, and run by people who I think live above it. It seemed quite popular too. While they had all this going for them, the ramen itself wasn't my favorite. It certainly wasn't bad, but they had an overabundance of fresh vegetables on my soup, which caused the whole bowl to be overly crunchy and sour. Also, this place was a bit overpriced.
Around the corner, there is another shop. This place was fairly big, had a nicely decorated interior, and seemed popular enough. According to my roommate, at least one staff member was apparently Korean, so they at least have an internationally minded work force. Service was generally friendly, but also a bit apathetic, which is again, quite fine. I want to go back there soon to try their miso ramen, but I wasn't overly impressed with their flavor. My roommate tells me that they have fish-bone flavored soup stock instead of the more common pork bone, which is a good reason why I wasn't so impressed.
A few days ago I was forced to go to my city ward office. The service was unprecedentedly wonderful and the staff was bending over backwards to help me out, which I truly appreciate. The location, however was about a half hour's walk from my house in the opposite direction of the train station. As I've never been that way, I took the opportunity to learn more about my neighborhood and I found a range of interesting places, including 3 ramen shops. Today was my day to try it.
I was hungry around 4, so I went to go grab some food. The first ramen shop I saw was closed, as many shops are between around 3 and 5, so I headed to the next shop. This shop was just what I was looking for.

It's a small, long shop run by an older couple. It was also quite clear that this was not a new operation and they had obviously been there for quite some time. They had a picture menu which was obviously just pictures of food taken by them, as it did not look very fancy and the food, while still looking tasty, did not by any means look perfect. Like real pictures of real food instead of photoshopped McDonald's meals. When I walked in, the older man was talking to some woman about some business deal, both of which seemed to be pleased. I ordered my ramen, which was of the Kyushu variety, and watched as he and the woman took great care in preparing my dish. I'm sure if she wanted to, this woman could have made everything with her eyes shut. I also noticed her squeezing a noodle to determine if it was done. At the same time, the man was making some fried rice and putting in a lot of effort.
The ramen was quite good. It's hard to say where it was on the spectrum of things, because it was not miso ramen, but it was quite tasty and flavorful. Also, this place had a wide variety of ramen types and several different fried rice dishes and some other Chinese food. The prices were quite good, and my meal was cheaper than a big mac meal. There is no doubt that the quality per yen was excellent at this place.
But, I think the highlight of this was the staff. Both people were really friendly, attempting to communicate despite my lack of Japanese and their English vocabulary being even more limited. I got a really warm feeling communicating with them and I felt very welcomed. Considering the price and location, I'm sure that they will see repeat business from me.

So, does this end my quest for ramen in Mitaka? I know of 8 ramen restaurants, and I've only tried half of them. The closest one, I am very curious about, but my roommate keeps telling me how bad it is, so I can live with not trying that one. I'm not sure, but as it stands, the place today is the champion.

(intro picture blatantly stolen from here via Google images)

Friday, December 7, 2007

Inokashira park.

On Monday, I did my second to last final, and talked to the teacher afterwards which went much better than I had expected, so I was feeling good. Although this final was at 9 AM on Monday which meant I had to deal with REAL rush hour traffic on the busiest line in Tokyo. I can't say I liked it, but it could have been much worse. My last final was on Wednesday, but I was feeling pretty confident on it, and I knew it was an in-class essay on something I already gave a presentation on, so I knew the source material pretty well. This was also a class I didn't really like and was required, so I had very little intention on studying. So, instead of opening a book, on Tuesday, I went to Inokashira park, which is a very large park around here. In hindsight, this was without a doubt the right decision.

A few things about this park... First off, it's one of the largest and most famous parks in Tokyo, and is very well known in the Eastern part of the city. It was founded in 1918 and used to be one of the city's main sources of water.

Anyways, as it is fall, and I keep hearing how beautiful fall is in Japan, I wanted to see for myself. I didn't get far before I was awestruck by the colors.

I'm not really sure how to get all these colors onto a camera, so looking back at these pictures, they're significantly more dull than reality was.

I was however, a bit worried that I had missed the best part.

But, I was wrong. It was all absolutely amazing. It's hard to capture on film, but as the wind blew, it rained down leaves. It was so perfect, it didn't seem real.

These pictures all show Tamagawa Jousi on the left. This used to be a mighty river where many people, including a famous author, committed suicide by jumping in and getting knocked about by the current. Now it's not much more than a small stream. This is partly due to nature and partly due to human intervention.

Anyways, it was a really lovely walk, maybe 20 minutes, from my house to the park. Left takes you to the main part of Kichijoji, which I've walked that path a few times, so I went right.

And I found an exercise field.

It was a very quiet and peaceful place to run, walk your dog, enjoy the fresh air, whatever.

I went back to the main part of the park which is on the way to Kichijoji.

That's the same street from a different angle.

The woods smelled great.

There were plenty of people also taking pictures and enjoying a nice walk. It wasn't too cold, but just cool enough to remind you that it definitely is fall.

Inside Inokashira park there is a small temple devoted to a vengeful goddess of love.

the temple is this amazingly bright color of red. Most of the temples I saw in Kyoto were bright orange, but this was truly magnificent and different.

The lake:

Here were two construction workers just enjoying a nice rest. This park was very much for the people. I saw young, old, rich, poor people enjoying the natural beauty.

People were also really friendly at the park. Everyone was relaxed, smiling, people randomly said hello to me. I felt like since it was relaxing, everyone just let their guard down and became quite pleasant. I did see some missionaries on bikes trying to convert someone, in English nonetheless. That made me kind of sad, but I couldn't be too sad.

Here's the boathouse. You can rent a paddle, swan, or row boat and enjoy the lake.

I found it odd that in the park walking around, I saw 2 people that might have been foreigners (I didn't get a good look), but in the lake, of the 5 boats I saw, 4 of them had foreigners.

The park also had the gutsiest ducks I ever saw.

These ducks were walking right in front of me. If I hadn't stopped, I could have easily stepped on one. They just didn't care about humans, or at least weren't afraid of them.

I saw a guy sitting on a bench playing a shamisen, which is a traditional Japanese instrument. I took a little video clip:

As the sun was going down, I felt the need to leave, but it was an amazing stroll through the park, one that I'm sure I will be repeating.

This last picture was yesterday in Mitaka. It's the other side of the train station from my house, and I like this picture and I wanted to share it.

Sunday, December 2, 2007


School is almost over. I have 2 more finals and a take home final due this week. Both of the classes I'm feeling pretty decent about, so I'm not that concerned. That's not to say that I won't be studying anymore, but it is to say I finally have some breathing time.

"So, Keith. It's been almost a month since your last REAL post, what have you been doing?" Well, everything.

Just to get it out of the way, Thanksgiving was lame. There is no Thanksgiving in Japan, as it's pretty much an America only holiday. I didn't have turkey, as it's really hard to get here, but I did go to a strange birthday party (more on that later). Also, I had a TON of stuff due on Monday, so that 4 day weekend was spent mostly indoors doing boring stuff. Much love to my roommate Chisa for helping me on my Japanese homework.

"So, what about the rest of your time off, Keith?"

Well, among other things, I went back to Yokohama.

I found this quite fancy shopping street on accident. It was nice and there was a grocery store that sold root beer!

I really like Yokohama. It's got a much different feel than Tokyo, and it's less crowded with more open space and fewer tourists, it seems. Chinatown is a terrible example of everything I just said, but I like it anyways.

I also like that they don't fuck around with store names in Yokohama.

Hey, at least they're honest. I'm not so sure I can say the same about Lawson.

Was it really happy? I didn't go in, but people didn't exactly look "happy" going in and out of there. They weren't UNhappy, but, well, you get my point.

I also went up Landmark tower. It's the tallest building in Japan (which pales in comparison to the tallest building in America, but whatever), and it had a really lovely view.

Why do I always go to these places at night? Anyways, that was Yokohama.

I got to see how much people in my neighborhood respect the law and follow all signs.

I got to see my roommate's old high school yearbook.

I went to this CRAZY restaurant in Shinjuku called "Pink Big Pig" and it was really bizarre.

It was all you can eat, all you can drink for 3500 yen, which is like $32. The food was good and the drinks were tasty but weak which I think is preferable when it's all you can drink. But the atmosphere? This place was weird.

That's the buffet table. It had a giant rotating pink pig. It was really really bizarre. We also had a nice private room, but it seems most people didn't get that luxury.
This was above our table:

I want to go back there, but man, it was strange.

I went to this bizarre place with a new friend and an old one. A great time was had by all.

But, like every time I hang out with that friend, it started raining.

I also saw the world's least intimidating police car.

I feel like if that was chasing me, I would be too busy laughing to drive fast. I know cars in Japan are small, but this was tiny. Like 'Mr. Bean' tiny.

I also FINALLY saw Mt. Fuji!

It was off in the distance and from a train, but it was still amazing to see.

On Thanksgiving day, it was 2 of my friend's birthdays. So, what did we do? We went to Alcatraz ER, an izakaya with an insane asylum hospital theme.

They had things like drinks from I.V. bags or baby bottles, Russian Roulette food, where there were 6 pieces and 1 was REALLY spicy, item menus like fried chicken in a cage (REALLY good) and a bizarre meat and vegetable ball served in a bedpan...

The food was great, but that wasn't the point. The atmosphere was hilarious and there was this really bizarre show where they had monsters running around, banging on the metal doors, rattling cages.

It was truly a bizarre site to see. This guy forgot to pay his bill:

I went to Akihabara and experienced a made cafe. Well, it was a maid izakaya, but it's the same concept. You're not allowed to take pictures inside, which is too bad, because it was a lot more fun than I expected, and I understand the appeal now. It's enjoyable to have cute girls in silly outfits be nice to you. The food was overpriced (of course), but not THAT overpriced. I found the whole experience to be really relaxing and fun. It was a bit odd as I was the only foreigner and my friend was the only woman who wasn't working, but it was a really fun experience. Would I go again? Sure, if I was with a friend who wanted to go. Would I go alone? It'd be a bit creepy, but if I was in the neighborhood and hungry anyways, then maybe. I wouldn't go out of my way to go alone. Would I wait in line for hours like some people do? Hell no.

I also went to Tokyo Station after the maid izakaya. Apparently it just recently got totally revamped, and now is much nicer than before. But, also most of the shops are closed after 8, and we just ate so going to a restaurant wasn't the best idea, so it was a tad lame, but we had fun anyways.

On Friday, I got a chance to explore the park near my house. It was amazing.

I liked it so much that I'm going back as soon as I'm done writing this.

I also went to this AMAZING chicken restaurant here in Mitaka. It was way better than I expected and I'm very anxious to go back. Unfortunately the menu is all in Japanese (and loaded with Kanji) and my roommate hates chicken, but I got a copy of the menu and I want to get it translated.

And that guy in the corner was awesome. I saw him yesterday riding a Harley.

So, that's what I've been up to. I know I'm leaving out a lot, but those are the main highlights that I want to share.

Every day is an adventure here, and I am loving it. It can be quite challenging, but the rewards make it worthwhile.