Friday, January 20, 2012

Tokyo - June 2011

Back in May, my acquaintance from Fukushima called me up and asked if I would be interested in joining her and her friends on a weekend trip to Tokyo to see the stage production of The Lion King. I accepted, naïvely assuming that a weekend trip meant that I wouldn’t have to miss any work. As it turned out, that weekend happened to be a sports day, meaning that I was expected to be at school. On the bright side, my head teacher told me I was free to take a holiday on those days; it just meant using up two days of paid leave.

At the same time, my sister had floated the idea of coming to Japan to visit me. I was reluctant to encourage her, with the country recovering and aftershocks still a near-daily phenomenon. But she seemed to think it was safe enough, and with the situation improving weekly it was hard to contradict her. She’d mentioned June as a good time, and it struck me that if I was going to Tokyo anyway, it would be the perfect opportunity to meet up with her and have a proper Tokyo vacation.

So I settled on the following plan. I used up the last of my vacation days to take a full week off work. On Saturday I would go down to Tokyo with the other ALTs. Then on Sunday my sister would fly in and I would meet up with her. We’d spend a few days in the city before going back to Sendai together.

On Friday evening I went down to Fukushima by train and bus. The next morning we got the bullet train to Tokyo. The ALTs had booked us a room at an international hostel in Asakusa, in the north-eastern part of the city. The hostel was right next to Senso-ji Temple, which we had to walk through to get to the subway station, so that was one tourist attraction I saw quite a lot of.

After lunch and some window-shopping in Ikebukuro, we headed down to the theatre for the show. I’d seen The Lion King once before in Toronto, but this production had the added novelty of being in Japanese! My Japanese skills are evidently still really poor, because I understood almost nothing of what the characters were saying. On the other hand, I’d seen the movie so many times I knew pretty much all the dialogue anyway. The theatre wasn’t as big as the one in Toronto, but in spite of that they managed to put on a spectacular performance that was well-worth seeing.

The next day we checked out of our shared room and I checked into a private one. I killed time letting the Fukushima ALT show me Ueno Park and the Science Museum, then took the train down to the airport to collect my sister. We caught up a bit and she gave me the things I’d asked her to bring from Canada: Canada flag stickers (I thought I could use them for Canada Day), toothpaste (with fluoride!), and sunscreen (you don’t know how expensive it is here!) I expected her to have wicked jet lag but she manned-up remarkably well under the circumstances and we managed to make the most of our time together.

My sister had never been to Japan – or indeed Asia – before, so it fell to me to play tour guide. It was my first time in Tokyo and even after almost a year my Japanese was barely enough for the most basic conversation, but I was still the “expert”. I started by pulling out my Japanese guide book and noting some of the locations of interest I’d bookmarked. Then I turned to the subway map to see if I could figure out how to get us there.

If you’ve never been to Tokyo, the first thing you need to know about it is the metro system. It truly is a wonder. The only thing I know of that even compares to it is the London Underground. It’s not as though I’ve never lived in a city with an extensive railway system; it was my main mode of transportation in Hong Kong. But even for a city of seven million people, the Hong Kong MTR map is nothing like the bird’s nest that confronts the recent arrival to Tokyo. After a couple of minutes of staring at the map with the exact same puzzled expression on my face I realised I was still no closer to understanding it than when I’d started. I thought it would snap into place after a moment or two, but it obstinately remained a tangled mess, reminiscent of the wires inside some electronic device or Salman Rushdie’s Ocean of the Streams of Story.

It doesn’t help that when travelling around Tokyo you’re actually dealing with not one system, but several. The biggest is Tokyo Metro, but there are also lines run by the Japan Railway Company (JR), and other smaller companies. Transferring between these systems involves paying separately for each. And even when you stay within a system, transferring between lines can involve long walks, even leaving a station by one entrance and re-entering it by another. I’ve done a transfer that involved walking “500 m” (that’s right; half a kilometre) outside to get from one platform to another of what was nominally the same station!

The one piece of good news was that my Suica card would work for both the JR and Tokyo Metro systems. It’s the card I use to take the train in my own city, and after a false start trying to figure out day passes and such we decided the easiest thing would be for my sister to get one too.

On Monday we started back at Ueno Park. It’s a large public park in the northern part of the city, within walking distance of our hostel. It’s notable mostly for how big it is and how much it contains. Besides being a public green space it has several shrines, museums, a zoo, and other cultural centres. We couldn’t go to any of the museums, which are closed on Mondays, but we saw some of the larger shrines. Then we headed up to Koishikawa Korakuen, a garden in north-central Tokyo. It was quite lovely there, and though there weren’t as many flowers out as there would have been in the spring, we did get to see a lot of irises. After lunch we strolled south towards the Imperial Palace and actually made it all the way to Tokyo Station, where we got the train back to Asakusa.

On Tuesday we went back to the Imperial Palace, hoping this time to see it properly. Unfortunately the grounds are usually closed, so the only thing we were able to do was walk around the park and through the East Garden, which is the one section that is open to the public. We walked down to Ginza for lunch, where we found a ramen shop serving cheese ramen. That was… different. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around Ginza. I was looking for a nice fan shop where I could buy my mom a souvenir, and eventually found one after stretching my Japanese skills asking several people for directions. We browsed for a bit, then picked up dinner at the local Mitsukoshi department store.

We returned to Ueno the next day to visit the Tokyo National Museum. The main building of the museum is full of historical Japanese artefacts, and I spent a good long while there learning what I could about Japanese history. The museum also contains a second building for foreign artefacts, but its collection is small and we finished there quickly. Then we went across town to the Harajuku district. We spent half an hour looking for somewhere to eat that wasn’t either ramen (by our third day together we were already sick of the stuff) or faux Italian, and finally stumbled on a decent Thai place.

After lunch we went to our main destination: the Meiji Shrine, historically the shrine of the imperial family. I guess that makes it like Westminster Abbey with more trees and fewer dead people. The shrine is found in Yoyogi Park, yet another one of Tokyo’s large green spaces. The park is lovely, and much more attractive in itself than the actual shrine. The entrance is marked by a massive torii (Shinto gate) made of wood. We passed under that to a long, tree-lined promenade that was surprisingly scenic and peaceful for being at the heart of a big city. The road eventually took us to the shrine, where we dutifully took some pictures and then headed back into the park. On our way out we stopped into the Meiji Treasure House Annex. This is a small gallery with rotating exhibits of artefacts from the imperial treasure house. Their current exhibit was of kimonos, and we got to look at some gorgeous and lavish-looking robes.

For our last dinner in the city, we went to an okonomiyaki place near the hostel. I’d told my sister that if she had to try one food in Japan, it was okonomiyaki. Fortunately I think the one we had lived up to my hype, though I was less impressed with monjayaki, which we also decided to try. Afterwards we went to Shinjuku, where I was hoping to show my sister Tokyo by night, but we got there too late and the observation deck was closed, so we just looked at some buildings and went back.

On the morning of our last day we checked out of our hostel, found a place to store our bags, and took the train east to a suburb called Mitaka. We went to visit the Ghibli Museum, tribute to Japan’s most beloved studio of children’s animated movies. I’m a fan of Ghibli films and even wrote a paper about them in university, so it seemed like this was one of the places I should see while I had the chance. Access to the museum is tightly controlled. Only a limited number of tickets are sold for each day, and have to be purchased in advance from Lawson’s convenience store. You also have to specify an entrance time when you get your ticket. Despite this, the place was packed, mostly with tykes half my height. That shouldn’t be surprising, though; the place is clearly designed with children in mind. The unusual architecture, the instructive displays about the making of animated movies, the giant stuffed Catbus – they were all things that would grab the attention of an eight-year-old. But aside from getting my picture taken with a Laputan robot I didn’t find much to hold my attention. I still recommend it if you’re travelling with kids, though.

We took the Shinkansen home, which got us back to Sendai in just over no time. I didn’t have much to show my sister in the city, but I figured I could at least take her around some of my common haunts. On Friday we went up to my school. It was a holiday so there were few people around, but I introduced her to a few of the teachers and what students had come in for club activities. Then we went downtown and took a walk along the Ichi-ban Chou looking for souvenirs. In the evening my Japanese neighbours had us over for dinner and were characteristically friendly and helpful with suggestions for things we could do.

On Saturday we took a walk around my neighbourhood, looking at rice fields, green hills, and one temple. In the evening my tea lady had us over for dinner. My poor sister had to sit patiently through an English lesson between me and the nieces, but at the end we got dinner, and the food was really good. We had sashimi rice, yakitori, and sukiyaki, and my sister was even brave enough to try natto, which I took a pass on. There was a mild aftershock that evening, one of a couple we experienced that weekend, but none of them was serious enough to be really impressive.

Our last day together was spent with my Japanese neighbours, who volunteered to drive us to Zao in Yamagata prefecture. It was my first time there, though I’d heard about it before. We stopped several places, starting with a lookout point that had partly fallen away after the earthquake, then a gorge flanked with a Martian-like landscape of red earth and rocks. Our main destination was a volcanic crater, which was pretty cool to look at and which I was unfortunately unable to do justice to with any of the pictures I took. We had a picnic lunch and drove around Yamagata city for a bit, stopping for ice-cream before driving back.

I said goodbye to my sister on Monday morning, seeing her safely to the train station before catching the bus to work. Our time together was too short, especially considering that it’ll probably be at least a year or two before we see each other again. But it was really nice to be able to show her some of my life in Japan, and it also gave me an excuse to see Tokyo.

I’m continuing with my Japanese night course, where of late we keep getting free stuff handed to us. Apparently organisations have been donating things to the “disaster victims”, which is to say us. So one night we all went home with boxes of cookies, which I can’t say I particularly needed, but which I certainly enjoyed. Much more usefully, we all got hand-crank-operated flashlight-radios, exactly the sort of thing one would be glad to have in an emergency situation. Unfortunately the radio’s range is limited to the lower frequencies used in Japan, and may not be much use in other countries, but I still plan to add it to my permanent stock of emergency supplies.

In the news this month, the Vancouver Canucks lost the Stanley Cup, prompting riots in downtown Vancouver. I don’t even know what to do with that. The rioters have done nothing to make either their city or their compatriots proud of them. But mostly I’m amazed that anyone could take a hockey game that seriously while simultaneously showing such a complete lack of sportsmanship. Sometimes people disgust me.

Movies I’ve seen this month:

Monsters, Inc. – I’m finally going back and watching all the Disney films I missed over the past decade, since I got too old to go see animated movies. I’m continuing to be impressed with them. Here’s yet another one with a good premise and likeable characters that feels like it could appeal to both children and adults. I really liked the main characters and the relationship between them. My one complaint is that the film seems at a bit of a loss when it comes to its villain, shoehorning one of the more engaging supporting characters into the role late in the story. (Three and a half stars)

The Incredibles – The first of the new Disney films I’ve been disappointed in. The struggles of a superhero family to re-adjust to the superhero life sounds like a great premise, but the story was too confused and the villain to annoying to be engaging. (Two and a half stars)

The Cat Returns – Another Studio Ghibli film. Not exactly a sequel to Whisper of the Heart, but featuring one of the supporting characters. Although it has some nice ideas, the story’s kind of juvenile and disconnected. It would work well as a short-story by a junior high school student, but doesn’t make for much of a movie. (One and a half stars)

Plays I’ve seen this month:

The Lion King – Man, I’d forgotten what a great story The Lion King was. The theatrical version also has the added virtue of including several musical numbers not found in the original. An all-round enjoyable and entertaining experience!

Books I’ve read this month:

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde – Interesting piece of imaginative fiction about a young man who wishes that a painting should bear the mark of all his sins for him. I wasn’t sure what to make of the ending, and I think sometimes Wilde is so obsessed with being clever that it’s hard to know what he’s really trying to say, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Holes by Louis Sachar – I caught the movie on T.V. a few years ago and thought it seemed like an interesting story poorly executed. As it turns out, it works much better as a novel, with a whimsical yet moving story reminiscent of one of the Jacob Two-Two books. The ending leaves a lot of loose ends, which is frustrating, but it’s still a good piece of children’s fiction.

I am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki, translated by Aiko Itō and Graeme Wilson – A long, meandering, and, frankly, quite dull string of anecdotes supposedly told from the perspective of a family cat. Some of the cat’s adventures were entertaining to read about, and if the story had focused more on the animal and less on his owner it might have been a lot more enjoyable, but with a few exceptions the human side of the story consists of nothing but long-winded and absurdly pointless conversations. Maybe I’d find more humour in them if I read them in the original Japanese, or had a better understanding of the time period, but as it was I didn’t get much out of them.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Semblance of Normality - May 2011

Life in Sendai is now more or less back to normal – or at least, a reasonable semblance thereof.  In the coastal areas and around the power plant there are still lots of destruction and displaced people.  But in my part of the city things look much as they did before the earthquake, and it’s easy to forget that just a few short miles away whole neighbourhoods have been wiped out and lives upended.

May began with “Golden Week”, a week featuring three holidays in a row that is consequently a popular time for taking vacations.  I had originally thought of going somewhere for the holiday, but after the earthquake changed my spring break plans, I decided to stay home.  The only real activity I got up to was singing.  The ALTs who had done carolling back in December were invited to sing at a refuge area as part of their Children’s Day celebrations.  We sang a couple of pieces from our Christmas repertoire, as well as some other numbers that were easy to learn and that we hoped would appeal to our audience.  Given my lack of actual vocal talent, I was most fond of singing “Stand By Me”, where a group of us formed a bassline and spent the entire song singing the same four bars over and over again.  The most moving song, for me at least, was “Lean on Me”.  It’s one of those songs I’d heard many times before, but never really thought about the lyrics to.  Although I’d always liked it, the words took on new meaning for me in light of the situation, because so many people had lost everything and so many others had stepped up to donate their time and money to help.  I actually found myself getting choked up while singing it.

Speaking of donating time, I went volunteering again, and this time got sent to clean the yard of a house.  The tsunami had rolled over the whole area, leaving a water-line four feet high.  The house itself needed a lot of work too, but our job was to go through the yard collecting all the little bits of garbage that had washed up.  I worked for hours with a rake and by the time we were done had sifted through an area maybe four metres square.  I kept coming across patches of heavy black earth, which I thought at first must be ash from something burnt, but eventually discovered was petroleum.

It wasn’t until we were done working that I really took a look around me to see what other kinds of damage had been done in the area.  Right next to where I was working was a rice field that looked like a burgeoning landfill.  It would need some serious work before it was anywhere near ready for growing rice again.  The house across from us was also a mess.  Clearly no one had done anything in there either, because furniture and debris were still plied up every which way inside and the walls had holes in them.  It’s sights like those that make one appreciate the scale of work to be done.

I’ve started making elementary school visits again.  This year it looks like I’ll be spending most of my time with the grade five and six classes, which I’m happy about, since those tend to be my favourites.  I’m going to my tea lady’s house for dinner again.  Her family all survived the earthquake and seem to be fine.  At church, the English teacher from the U.S. has finally returned and is re-starting the English programme there.  It’s good to see him again, and to hear his stories about the awareness work he was doing while back home.

I was falling behind in my Japanese study even before the earthquake, and once it came it drove all thoughts of homework out of my head.  As a result, even though the JET Programme extended the deadline for submitting out tests, I regret to say that I failed to complete my correspondence Japanese course.  I wasn’t finding it very easy to stay motivated anyway, and hopefully I’ll be able to find other ways to study.  I’ve decided to sign up for another round of night classes.  I completed the beginner programme in the fall, so now I’m in the high beginner class.  I was worried my Japanese might not be good enough for it, and I’m certainly the weakest student in the class.  But clearly I have actually learned a few things over the last nine months: I find the class challenging, but I’m able to keep up with most of the material.

I got the rest of the packages my mom sent me from home.  The first ones contained a lot of snack food: granola bars, raw almonds, dried fruit, etc.  Not that free food isn’t nice, but given how easy food is to obtain here, they seemed a bit extravagant.  Still, snacks were made to be eaten, and some of them are things I haven’t been able to find here, so I’ll enjoy them.  The later packages contained oatmeal, more milk, pasta, canned fish, and beans, lots of beans.  In other word, really practical food food, the kind of food you’d be really grateful to have in a famine situation.  And again, stuff I was in no need of.  As I counted the items off I almost wanted to cry, thinking of how useful the food could have been to some people back in March.  I felt deeply unworthy of it, and wished there was some more worthy cause I could give it to.  I thought about donating it somewhere, and even asked around about it, but I don’t think there’s a big demand any more for individual food donations, and I’m not sure Japanese people would be interested in a lot of those things anyway.  So some of it’s going to get squirreled away as emergency supplies, and the rest I’ll eat up myself.

Since the beginning of April we haven’t had any really big aftershocks, and in fact they’ve died down so much that we can go whole days without feeling any.  I’m starting to relax my hyper-prepared mentality, and with the weather getting warmer I’ve decided I should drain my bathtub too.  I’ve still got my backpack packed, though, and I’ll probably keep it that way for the rest of my time here.  If there’s one lasting effect the earthquake seems set to have, it’s to keep me vigilant about natural disasters.  I wouldn’t be surprised if, even when I get back to Ottawa, I remain the person who’s always stocked-up and prepared against the next earthquake, hurricane, or triffid attack.

In the news this month, Osama bin Laden is dead.  I know I shouldn’t feel happy about that.  But I have to admit to a pang of glee when I first heard the news.  I actually wanted to jump up and shout, “Yippee!”  My own enthusiasm surprised me; it’s not like the attacks on the World Trade Center or any of his other crimes affected me personally, and I was never a fan of the so-called “War on Terror”.  But I guess those things have dominated the public consciousness so much over the past decade that I got caught up in them more than I realised.

Fortunately I had a chance to re-evaluate my attitude once the initial shock had worn off, and now my feelings are more circumspect.  Thankfully the international response has also been somewhat equivocal.  I think Stephen Harper summed it up nicely in his “sober satisfaction” speech, and I felt both gratified and humbled to hear a family member of one of the victims say that the death in no way made up for her loss.  Ultimately, this is only a reason to celebrate if it actually makes the world a safer place and prevents further loss of life in the future.  Only time will tell us that.

In other news, Canada had an election.  I didn’t vote, initially because I had too many other things on my mind, and then because by the time I got around to looking at absentee voting procedures it was too late anyway.  I wasn’t too enthusiastic about having another election, and I wasn’t expecting it to change much.  Boy was I wrong!  Not only did the Conservatives go from minority to majority government, but the Liberals got creamed, the map of Québec went from blue to orange, the N.D.P. is our new official opposition, and the Greens have their first elected member of parliament!  It’s probably the most interesting election we’ve had since 1993!  And unless you’re a Liberal or a Bloquiste there’s something to be happy about.  Although there’s arguably a lot to be unhappy about too.  On the plus side it’ll be nice to have a stable government for a change.  But I may not like all the policies it decides to enact.  I guess we’ll wait and see on that one.

In yet more news, Manitoba has been hit by serious flooding.  While this isn’t as bad as some of the natural disasters that have made the news this year, I’m still sorry to think that people in my home country are suffering, and I’m not keen on the way this year is continuing to suck.

Movies I’ve seen this month:

Toy Story 2 – Surprisingly for a sequel, I liked this quite a bit better than its predecessor.  The characters have grown out of some of their more obnoxious characteristics.  The story is also better, and surprisingly adult (in a good way).  (Three and a half stars)

Toy Story 3 – Not quite as good as the previous movie, but still a satisfying conclusion to the Toy Story trilogy.  I was once again surprised at the adult nature of the story, which perhaps made it more accessible to me.  My only complaints are that the villain feels weak and unnecessary, and there are too many twists in the last half hour.  (Three stars)

How to Train Your Dragon – A young boy from a tribe of dragon-killers befriends a dragon and learns how to fly it.  Really good idea for a story – which makes the poor execution all the more disappointing.  The animation is okay, and some of the bonding sequences are really fun to watch.  But the last part of the movie doesn’t make much sense.  And somebody needs to tell DreamWorks that obnoxious teenagers are obnoxious; apparently they haven’t heard.  (Two and a half stars)

Whisper of the Heart – A Studio Ghibli film not directed my Miyazaki.  The story is simple and sweet.  I did wish some parts had been fleshed out more, and that they’d shown more of the story the protagonist writes.  The ending is a bit laughable too, but over-all I enjoyed it.  (Three stars)