Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Record-breaking heat in Tokyo

It's taken me a while to post it, but July 20 was officially a record-breaking day with the temperature reaching 39.5 degrees Celsius or 103.1 Fahrenheit. Apparently, this was the hottest day since 1923, when the government began keeping records. I try not to think about this too much because it just makes me feel even worse.

I don't know why it is that hot weather seems to follow me no matter where I go, and I'm a person who can't stand hot weather! When I went to live in Las Vegas, Nevada to be near my daughter, there was record-breaking heat. The day I was driving around and my indoor temperature gauge read 122 Fahrenheit, I decided to move. Then I went to Eugene, Oregon and that summer got up to 106 Fahrenheit, another record-breaker. Now I'm in Tokyo, and. . .well, you get the picture.

I miss seeing the stars at night

I miss seeing stars and the beauty of the night sky. Since I've been in Tokyo all I see is the ambient light of a big city. Coming home from work late in the evening, I've been lucky enough to see the past two full moons, but that's about all I've been able to see. There's no depth to the sky. It looks pale and flat. I want to look up and see brightly twinkling stars, or perhaps a few planets. I suppose I should get used to the fact that I'm living in a city of over 20 milion and the odds of seeing any stars at all or a deep indigo sky are remote.

Over the past few days there have been major solar flares ejected out into space by our sun. Some parts of the world have been lucky enough to witness an astounding aurora borealis display. I remember seeing those a few times when I lived in Seattle and will never forget those shimmering colors sliding across the twilight sky.

Put away the fireworks and other silly attempts to entertain. Nothing matches the beauty or magnitude of what Mother Nature dishes out.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Konbini and clusters of manga shoppers

What would Japan be without the konbini, or convenience stores? They're everywhere, and people flock to them no matter what their socio-economic status, it seems to me. I see business men, students, housewives, office clerks, and "salarymen" using them to buy everything from bottled water, to take-out dinners, to the ever-present manga, or comic books. Manga are read everywhere by almost every age group. For an example of what manga look like, click here.

They're a huge business in Japan and even business men sit on trains openly reading manga without any embarrassment at all. Their themes range from science fiction to super heroes (for men and women), to violence and sex, and dozens of other themes. They're designed for all age groups, including very young children, teenagers, college students, and "for adults only."

The konbini has flocks of customers standing around the magazine rack where they peruse the latest catalog-thick isues before slapping down as little as 200 yen (roughly $2) or so for their reading pleasure. How can books compete at that price?

Capturing worldwide attention is the spinoff of manga, anime , the animated version of manga. Its market in the U.S. is over $2 billion annually and growing by leaps and bounds. Along with the TV anime market and the fast-growing video and DVD rental segment, is the anime toy shops that are popping up all across the U.S. Girls seem to prefer Sailor Moon, Fushigi Yuugi or Revolutionary Girl Utena. Men prefer such anime as Inuyasha, Dragon Ball, Yu Yu Hakusho, Tokyo Pig, and Hamtaro.

This Japanese export is a hot ticket in the American economy and I'm sure manga and anime will become as big in the U.S. as they are now in Japan. What an interesting phenomenon.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Cacophony of sounds

Opening my window today, I was greeted by a cacophony of sounds. One of the sounds came from the cicadas, enormous flying insects that are often called locusts, although they aren't actually locusts. I've seen some dead ones lying on the sidewalks and they appear to be two or three inches long, with large brown wings.

Their sound is an ear-piercing "acoustic song" that's made only by the males, and is "the loudest produced by any insect." I believe it! I can't even begin to imagine the number of them singing in the trees outside my window right now.

Another mind-numbing sound is the cawing made by huge crows that harass smaller birds and cats. One day I heard a cat and crow in a screeming match. My worst fear was that the crow was carrying off a kitten, as they are known to do. Their nest raids are also well known. Despite their murderous tendencies (perhaps the reason for a group of crows being called a "murder of crows"), I have to admit to being quite fond of their intelligence and trickery. I've even written a children's story about how a crow saved the earth, a re-telling of an ancient, indigenous tale.

Adding to the cicada and crow cacophony is the cooing sound of pigeons and the woeful sounds of mourning doves. There's the screech of another bird, but I can't identify it. I hear it's call, which sounds like a car door buzzer or an annoying alarm clock.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Discovering new places that sweat

As I write this, at noon, the temperature is 97F or 36C. I'm discovering parts of my body I never knew had sweat glands. Did you know that knees can sweat? If it's humid enough, your entire body can sweat copiously. Even though I keep thinking my makeup will last until I get to work, by the time I get there it's been blotted off with the wash cloth I now carry in my purse at all times. I've taken to wearing waterproof mascara, so at least my blonde eyelashes remain tinted brown.

When I first saw women carrying opened umbrellas when there was no rain, I chuckled to myself, amused by the quaintness. I'm from Seattle, and unless it's raining buckets, we pride ourselves on never opening an umbrella. That's for tourists or whimps. Now, however, I've taken to carrying an opened umbrella under the blazing sun. It's at least 5 degrees cooler, I think, under the umbrella.

I've also noticed women, and some men, wearing white gloves, but I'm not sure of the exact reason. My guess is that, for the women, they're trying to avoid getting those ugly age spots on the tops of their hands. For the men, maybe it's because of previous skin cancer and they're now protecting against further overexposure to the sun's damage.

The heat is so oppressive. When I'm not working, I stay in my air conditioned room at the guesthouse because the rest of the house is blazing hot. The management apparently has a no AC mandate because, while there are two large AC units in the living room, no one has ever turned them on. Trying to use the kitchen to cook, or the living room to watch a little TV, is futile because of the bloody heat. Only the most heat-resistant tenants, such as the Sri Lankans or Indians or Pakistanis, can handle these temperatues and continue to cook and watch TV. They don't even use the AC units in their rooms, choosing instead to leave their apartment doors open to the hallway and bank of windows that run the length of the hall.

Those of us who are American or British or Australian remain in our rooms, isolated from any possibility of good, friendly conversation.

Sunday, July 18, 2004

Earthquake Blog?

I hope this doesn't become a trend, but for the second Saturday in a row Tokyo experienced an earthquake. This one was a 5.5 on the Richter scale and occured at 3:11pm just as classes ended and teachers were writing up their class notes in the teachers' lounge. The building shook and swayed in a rolling motion. It seemed to go on for a very long time, and I wondered if this was going to be the big one . Fortunately, it subsided and everybody laughed. In fact, quite a few teachers barely seemed to notice it at all. Some of us looked out the second storey window and people in the street down below were either unphased or hadn't noticed anything. To read more about the quake, go here.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Earthquake update

I did a search on the Japan Times Website and discovered that the quake Saturday night registered 4.9 at its epicenter, but only 2 in Tokyo. You can read more about it here if you're interested.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Never tempt Mother Nature

There's been a ferocious thunderstorm circling the area for the past few hours, but at the moment it seems to have waned. Each ear-splitting crack sounded like mortar fire and made me want to dive under my bed like I remembered doing as a child. Glancing over at my one-inch thick futon planted firmly on the tatami floor, I realized I had no place to hide.

For a while, a nearby dog cried with the most pitiful whimper. There are huge trees all around the area where I live, but I know there are many houses up the hill just past those trees. The dog must live in one of those houses. After a short while, I didn't hear its whimper anymore, so I hope its owner rescured the poor thing.

The storm dropped torrents of rain and the air now feels cooler. I turned off my AC and opened the window to let in the nice breeze. What a relief from the hideous 37C temperatures and humidity of the last few days. I know the cooler air won't last long so I'm enjoying it while it's here.

Amazingly, during the worst of the storm and while grotesque fingers of lightning flicked across the skies, I saw several people walking down my hill carrying opened umbrellas! Trees, umbrellas and lightning. Now, that's just crazy!

My first earthquake in Japan

Forgot to mention that Saturday night around 8pm, while sitting in the Irish pub, an earthquake rattled the joint. It seemed that no one really paid too much attention since it was pretty mild. I've lived in California and Seattle where earthquakes are taken in stride, so this didn't seem too noteworthy. My co-worker and I felt several light aftershocks. I didn't happen to notice if it made the news since I rarely watch TV and haven't talked to anyone since Saturday night.

Caution: Drinking in Japanese

Last night after work another teacher and I went to an Irish pub for a drink. For some reason, Irish culture seems to be of interest here, and quite a few Irish pubs and restaurants have sprung up in the Tokyo area.

Along with our brews we ordered fish and chips which unfortunately turned out to be nothing like that served in Irish pubs. No matter. The place started filling up and we soon realized it was their anniversary celebration. Along came two Irish musicians with a violin, guitar and accordian to entertain us. (Made me feel like doing a little step-dancing!) They were very good and even spoke Japanese!

After each song, they asked questions about anything Irish, such as how many pubs in Ireland (over 10,000) and how many Irish pubs in New York City (over 1,000). My friend and I managed to answer several of the questions and won a few prizes.

First I won a telephone fob with a miniature "pint" of beer that lights up when a call comes in. Then we each won a couple of bottles of vodka "Ice" which I had never heard of before, but they tasted just like something else I had been buying at the grocery store. When I questioned my friend about them, she burst into laughter. What I had thought were cans of carbonated grapefruit juice turned out to be alcoholic drinks! We both went into hysterics visualizing the possibility that I might have brought one to work to drink while teaching a student!

I'm really going to have to learn to read Japanese packaging!

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

What's your sign, er, blood type?

During introductions with one of my chattier male students, I was asked the strangest question. What's your blood type?

Now I've been asked a lot of questions since arriving in Japan, but this is the first time someone has asked me my blood type! A teacher I work with told me that it's common in Japan to ask people their blood type, sort of like in the 80s when everyone asked "what's your sign?" Apparently it's quite important to know people's blood types, and in Japan my understanding is that Type A is considered good. Go here or here to read more about this.

I told my student that I was Type A and he looked so surprised. He kept saying "Type A? Type A? You're Type A?"

Another teacher told me that for men Type A is considered the best, but for women it's not so good. Too aggressive. Hmm.

Each day in Tokyo is like opening an encyclopedia of new information!

Shibuya: Meet at Hachiko and people watch

Before going to work Tuesday I decided to get on the train and head for Shibuya. How to describe Shibuya? It's an unbelievably crowded and bustling area of Tokyo that's quite popular with the younger Tokyoites who use it as a meeting place. In a web site called Tokyo Essentials, they describe it as:

" Vibrant, lively, fun, faddish, crowded, cramped, and busy, and the streetwise love it! Shibuya is another shopping and entertainment district situated in the west of Tokyo. . .Alongside its huge department stores it's also famous for the studios of NHK, the Olympic gymnasium, "Love Hotel Hill" and "Hachiko" - the tear-jerking statue of a dog." (Note: The statue is a memorial to a loving and faithful dog who met his master at the train station every evening. When the master died suddenly at work, the dog continued to look for him at the station each evening for nine years, until his own death. For more about Hachiko, go here or here.)

Another description is: "Shibuya, where youth fashion is born."

I browsed through the shops in the train station, especially the one that's a wonderland of culinary delights. It's massive not only in size, but also in the variety of foods it has on display. Every conceivable delicacy is there to taunt you as you stroll by the hundreds of mini-shops and counters. I watched a young woman inside a glass-enclosed bakery area as she meticulously aligned every succulent whole strawberry atop a gorgeous torte and then bathed it in a glistening coat of glaze. It reminded me of the exquisite displays I had seen in Paris.

Presentation is paramount in Japan, and these food shops have refined it to the utmost art form.

I spent a couple of hours just wandering around inside the train station, taking in as many of the shops as I could. I wanted to get out to explore more of Shibuya, but the heat was so intense that I decided to attempt it another time. I had been to Shibya once before when I needed to find a CitiBank to cash my paycheck and vowed to go back. It's a place where you could do nothing but people watch and have memories to last you a lifetime!

Don't forget to wear clean underwear

In a June 27 post, I wrote that men were not allowed to try on shirts before buying them. Today I asked one of my students, a young electrical engineer, if that was true. He said men could try on shirts as long as they were wearing an undershirt. Maybe in some cases it also depends on the store. In this heat I can understand why stores would be reluctant to let anyone try on clothing!

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Tokyo's poster child

I saw the cutest little boy get on the train yesterday afternoon. He was about 7 years old and dressed smartly in his little navy blue short pants, white short-sleeved shirt, black loafers, navy knee socks, and a white yachting-style cap. He also had the standard Japanese private school accessory strapped on his back--an enormous and heavy-looking black leather backpack that looks more like luggage than a backpack, emblazoned with a Mercedes-Benz symbol.

He threw himself down onto an empty seat across from several small school girls dressed in their female version of the same uniform. In their case, navy skirts instead of short pants. As he sat there, more slouched than sitting, with his legs sprawled out in front of him, he held up an ice pack to his little sweaty head. His face was a picture of utter defeat at this ungodly heat.

There was a poster child for all the misery people are feeling during this dreadful month of July.


Still trying, off and on, to learn more about my new cell phone. I just discovered that it has a feature called "bow-lingual," which will translate a dog's bark so you can understand its mood. Of course, this is an extra subscription cost and I'm not feeling the dying need to subscribe. A friend told me they also have it available for interpreting a cat's meow. Seems easier to just get to know your pet better.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

More features than Cineplex theaters

First off, let me say that I am not a technophobe. I love technology. I even worked in technology for several years, so that's not the issue. What infuriates me is that so many technical writers are incapable of writing software manuals that are in the least bit helpful. They assume you already know everything about their product, including how to use it!

For at least the last four hours I've been trying to learn how to use all the bells and whistles on my new cell phone. It's really a work of art, compared to what I had in the U.S. This baby even has a barcode and text scanner! Now I'm just trying to imagine when I would ever use such features. I can record movies, take photos, surf the 'net, listen to music, play games. . .well, you get the idea. It's got more features than Cineplex theaters.

So far, after four hours, I've managed to set the ring tones, adjust the text size, enter about ten names with phone numbers, accidentally delete three of those ten numbers, lose a telephone message, call a wrong number, and choose a new wallpaper design. The fact that my phone is bilingual is of very little help since all the really important key shortcuts are in Japanese. I finally had to ask a resident of the guesthouse to help me figure out what key I was supposed to use to enter phone numbers, and of couse it was one of three that have only Japanese characters on them.

Using the manual has been of no help. While the Japanese section is 95 percent of the book, the English section is abridged and difficult to navigate. I went to the Vodafone Web site and downloaded the manual as a bunch of PDF files, but they're in about 15 different files, and finding what I need is like going on safari and hoping I'll stumble into the right area. The terminology is not bilingual and nothing is straightforward or easy to find. Feh!