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Josiah's Japan Travelogue
Part 1: August 2007
Day 1 (14th-15th): Traveling and Arrival

I had to get up at around 4 AM to get to the airport. My dad came with me to tour Japan and help me get settled. We flew out of Phoenix (cause it was cheaper), switched planes in San Francisco, then flew straight to Narita airport in Japan. The flight was long but actually a bit shorter than I thought it would be (something like 10 hours). Planes aren't the most comfortable things in the world (unless you want to spend a ton of money to fly first class) but I'm pretty good at keeping myself entertained so I had a book and my GBA, DS, and PSP handy.
After landing in Narita we had to go through customs. There was a really long line but the actual customs part was really quick and a lot less work than I had expected. After that we were met by a guy my dad knows (a friend of a friend that my dad has been exchanging e-mails with). He helped us get on the train to Tokyo. See, even through Narita is the Tokyo airport, it's actually quite far away from Tokyo proper. Fortunately, there's a train station right in Narita. And, although sitting for another hour or so wasn't exactly what I wanted to do, at least the train had more leg room than the plane and I got to see some of the country side and suburbs along the way.
Eventually we got to Tokyo and took a cab to our hotel. Here's our room. The picture doesn't adequately display just how small it is. If you take a US hotel room and knock out 1/3 - 1/2 of it, that's about the size of this room. Overall though, it really wasn't that bad. The hotel is nice enough and the room works even if it is cramped.
After that my dad's friend took us on a short walk around the nearby area then took us to his restaurant (a Korean place right by our hotel) for dinner. It was different than most of the Korean food I've had before but good. That was about it for the night. After all, we'd been up around 24+ hours straight.

Random Japan Comment: Vending Machines
If you think your home town has a lot of vending machines, you've clearly never been to Japan. In Tokyo you'd have a pretty hard time walking more than a block or two without seeing at least one or two vending machines. Most are pretty standard but there's some fancy ones too (saw one with a TV in it). I've heard that there's vending machines for just about everything but most of the ones I've seen so far are drinks and cigarettes. Speaking of drinks, there's some pretty weird named ones. Notice Pocari Sweat, Calpis (if you don't get what's weird about that say it out loud a couple times), and Energy Squash. Japanese people seem to like English but they often use it pretty poorly.

Day 2 (16th): Tokyo Exploration Day 1

My dad woke me up at 4:30 AM thanks to jet lag. See, if I'm tired I can sleep no matter what time it is, him not so much. And when he can't sleep usually no one else gets to sleep either, at least on trips. On the bright side, that meant I was awake in time to experience my first earthquake. Yes I'm serious. Not exactly something that was very high on my to do list... Fortunately it was really mild (although we could feel the building shake) and it didn't last very long. Didn't even phase me. Hmm... Maybe I've been on too many thrill rides... Anyway, hopefully that won't ever happen again.
Since we were up, we decided to walk around the city a bit. Of course it was way too early for anything to be open (we were going to go to the Tsukiji fish market but it was closed cause of a holiday) but we did see some famous landmarks like Tokyo Station, and the Imperial Palace. Well, the area around it anyway, you can't get very close to the palace itself. Here's a shot of me in front of the moat. The streets were pretty empty but considering how early in the morning it was and that it was also a holiday, it's not too surprising. And, if you're into random images, here's an amusing sign my dad spotted while we were walking.
After a while we headed back to the hotel and ate breakfast before going back out.
Now, getting around Tokyo is really easy...sometimes. At least it's easy if you're going to a general area or a famous landmark. More specific addresses, not so much but I'll talk about that later. Anyway, it didn't take us long to figure out the subway system. Tokyo has great subways. They're fairly easy to navigate and a whole lot cleaner and quieter than the NY ones. Anyway, there's stations all over the place and if you've seen one you've pretty much seen them all. The subways themselves are fairly comfortable although they can be pretty crowded at times (the rings hanging from the ceiling are for standing riders to hold on to). I've heard that it gets insanely packed at certain times of the day (as in so packed you can barely move), fortunately the ones I rode on so far ranged from pretty empty to fairly full. The only annoying part, at least for me, is that each station has multiple exits so it can be easy to go to a familiar station, leave by the wrong exit, and get totally turned around. Plus, in some stations you have to walk really far to get to the train, especially if you're changing lines. I have a feeling I could walk through most of Tokyo just by going through the subway stations without getting on the trains...
Anyway, my dad and I went to Ueno. One of the major train/subway stations is there. There's also a pretty large park which we walked though. The park had a couple of shrines in it. Actually, there's shrines all over the place if you look. Anyway, here's my dad in front of the red gate path leading to a shrine and here's a really big shrine. Shrines are made of wood and some are really old. The park also had small zoo which had pandas, red pandas, and Japanese monkeys, along with all the typical zoo animals. There was a neat old pagoda too. But what my dad really liked was the plants they had by the lake. I think they're Butterbur, isn't that the name of those plants that Korropokkur (a type of Japanese fairy) live under in legends or did I get it mixed up with another plant? Anyway, they're pretty tall and have neat flowers that dry into these things, which you might have seen before.
After the park we walked around in Ameya Yoko-cho, a part of Ueno with streets that are closed to cars so people can walk through a whole bunch of stores. You could find nearly everything there but there was quite a lot of clothes, jewelry, and food in particular. It's pretty big and fun to walk through, a lot more than the US equivalents (at least in my opinion). While I was there I also took a look at my first Japanese game store. It wasn't all that big of a store (just a bookstore that had games on one floor) but it was pretty impressive. Aside from stuff like how many Japanese games never reach the states, and how the ones that do usually have different covers (plus stuff often gets released in Japan way before anywhere else), the selection was really good and they even had a lot of games for old systems like the NES (Famicom in Japan) and Saturn, what's more they were in their original boxes and in perfect condition, something you just don't see in the US.
By then it was time for lunch and, since my dad's friend had invited us to come back to his restaurant, we headed there and had lunch with him. Then he took us to Akihabara. Now a lot of you anime/manga/game fans out there have probably heard of Akihabara. It's Tokyo's electronics district and the place to go for anything anime/manga/game related plus pretty much anything electronic (cameras, computer parts, and about everything else that can be plugged in or uses batteries). In a word, it's awesome and totally overwhelming if you're a fan. It's also very crowded and there's tons of stores since most of the buildings either have stores on every floor or stores that span several floors. Since my dad's friend was there, we didn't get to stay too long but we walked around a little outside and explored what has got to be the world's largest department store. There was a video game section (that you can only see part of in this pic) that, while it didn't have all the old stuff some stores did, had a huge selection of newer games. You never realize just how many games (and game accessories) never get released outside of Japan unless you visit Akihabara. Then there was the section with the figurines... And man did they have a lot of figurines. Even the entire vendor area at a huge convention like Otakcon or Anime West would have a tough time competing with that number of figurines in that store. I'll have to get a picture of that part sometime... I would have bought some but I don't want to buy much until after I move into my apartment. Since I didn't see a whole lot of Akihabra outside of that store until the following day I'll talk more about it then.
Finally, my dad and I headed to the part of the city where Tokyo Tower is and walked around a little before heading to the tower itself. Tokyo Tower is based off the Eifel Tower but it's even taller and you get can some great views from the top, especially at night when all the lights are on (for all you anime fans out there, I think the giant ferris wheel in that last picture is the same one they show in one of the Inuyasha ending themes).

Random Japan Comment: August
If you ever want to visit Japan don't do it in August. Sure it's off season so there's not a lot of tourists (at least not in the Tokyo area) but it's hot and really muggy. Sure it's nowhere near as hot as it is in Phoenix so the heat itself doesn't bother me much but heat + very high humidity isn't all that great. I'd rather have it 20 degrees hotter in a dry heat any day. Which means I should probably try not to get a job in the east coast area when I go back to the US... Anyway, I now know why there's so many vending machines. When it's this muggy you need all those drinks!

Day 3 (17th): Tokyo Exploration Day 2

I actually got to sleep till 6! Ok so that's not so great but it's sure an improvement compared to the last couple of days. This time my dad and I stayed in the hotel until after breakfast. Speaking of the hotel, it's kinda weird to walk into on a hot day. First you enter the nice air conditioned lobby, which feels great. Then you walk through it into the hot unairconditioned elevator which you take to your equally unairconditioned floor. Then you enter your room which finally has air conditioning again. I guess they save money that way, annoying though.
Anyway, after breakfast we went to Yayogi Park, which is a really big park that's made for walking, biking, jogging, and sitting in. And not a whole lot else since pretty much any type of game you'd normally play in a park (ball games, frisbees, etc) isn't allowed. There's some pretty nice parts of the park, and a couple giant paintings that seem rather out of place, but there's also parts where a lot of homeless people live. On the up side, they seem cleaner and better organized that the homeless I've seen in the US. The park was full of cicadas, a type of insect. You could hear them everywhere (kinda like the sounds crickets make). Didn't see any, but you could see their shells here and there on plants and trees (when they get old enough they break out of their shells and emerge with wings).
When we were done in the park we walked through some parts of the Shibuya and Roppongi areas trying to find a sports card store that my dad wanted to go to. It was a pretty nice part of the city and there were some neat buildings scattered around. Japan has some pretty interesting architecture in places. Long story short, we had a lot of trouble finding it (more about the process of finding stuff in the following Random Japan Comment) and, in the end, I think the store we found was a different one but my dad got some cards he wanted anyway so it all worked out.
Next we went to check out the Tokyo Dome area (if you think we're doing a ridiculous amount of stuff in just a couple of days, that's just the way my dad is when he makes the sightseeing plans on trips). The Tokyo Dome is where one of Japan's baseball teams plays but there's also a whole complex there with shops, restaurants, and rides. The main reason my dad wanted to go there was to see the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame since he and my brother are big baseball fans and autograph collectors (which is why we went to a card store earlier) but we also walked around a little and got some lunch then went to Ueno and looked around in some parts of the Ameya Yoko-cho that we hadn't seen the previous day.
Our last stop for the day was back in Akihabara since we didn't get to spend all that much time there the day before. Got a much better look around this time although with so many awesome stores I could probably spend a couple days and a small fortune (or a large fortune, or several large fortunes) wandering around there. As I said before, if you have any interest in anime/manga/video games, or electronics of any kind it's an amazing place to be in. Some stuff is more expensive than it is in the US and some is cheaper with the differences ranging from a little to a whole lot but you just can't beat the selection. Looking for a certain figurine, a really rare video game, hard to find DVD, or just some computer accessories? Trust me, there'll be there somewhere. One place I really liked was a store that specialized in old video games. Although the games were all in Japanese which limits which I could play (both because of languages and system region lockouts) it was still cool seeing so many rare and old games sitting there in perfect condition. Plus they had a whole bunch of video game soundtracks so I got a couple I'd been wanting.
And that was it as I spent most of the rest of the day writing this huge post.

Random Japan Comment: Finding Places
Finding your way around Tokyo is really easy as long as you're just looking for general areas and well known land marks. Finding specific addresses or smaller places isn't so easy. For one thing, there aren't many road signs. In the US we've got signs at every corner and intersection no matter the size. In Japan all the intersections have their own names (which are fairly easy to spot) but that doesn't help you a whole lot. Street signs, which aren't up above the traffic lights (that's the intersection name) are pretty uncommon, especially on smaller roads. Although, since none of the Tokyo maps I've gotten in the US (or Japan for that matter) list names for anything other than the biggest roads, more signs might not have helped a whole lot. The next problem involves the way Japanese buildings are numbered (which only matters if you know the exact address of the place you're trying to find). I'm not gonna explain the whole thing now but suffice it to say that it doesn't make much sense. Then there's the very handy map boards that dot the city (big signs with a map of the local area). They're great...Except for one thing. See, in the US the top of a map almost always points North. Simple, right? In Japan just about every map seems to point a different direction. I've yet to notice any real consistency. One map may be pointing North but the one a few blocks away North is probably pointing a different way entirely, effectively rotating the entire map. Of course, with some patience and careful examination you can still figure out those maps but it's a pain.
Now, you could always ask a local how to get to wherever it is you're going but, even if you can get past the language barrier, it may not help much. Although the Japanese people I've asked for directions have all been friendly and helpful there's a pretty good chance that they won't know how to get where you're going either. Seriously. Sure they know where the big stuff is but aside from that there's been times when the natives seem to know less about where we are and where to go than I do.

Day 3 (18th): Tokyo Exploration Day 3

This was a shorter day than the last couple and, although I didn't get to see quite as much, it was nice to spend a little less time on my feet.
First off there was another earthquake in the very early morning (which, when combined with the one later in the afternoon, makes three or four so far). Fortunately they're all really minor ones. Hopefully they'll stay that way, or just stop entirely, that'd be even better.
That morning my dad and I walked to Tsukiji, a part of Tokyo near the bay. First we walked though a market that sold lots of seafood and the like. There was some interesting stuff but that was just a warm up for the Tsukiji Fish Market (unfortunately a lot of the pics from there got kinda blurred) which is where the fishermen sell their stuff to restaurant and shop owners and the occasional pedestrian shopper. There was all kinds of fish, crabs, eels, those things that live in seashells, and more. If it lives in the ocean near Japan and it's edible then it was probably there. It was kinda gross (I mean you're surrounded by tons of dead sea creatures) but kinda neat too and it was really crowded and busy.
After the fish market we went to a more relaxed location, the nearby Hama Rihyu Garden. It's a large traditional Japanese garden that used to belong to the Shogunate (think ancient royalty). It was much more relaxed, very pretty, and rather peaceful, a nice place to walk or just sit down and relax. There was also a shrine, tea house, and a big field of flowers.
Then it was back to the hotel for a little break (we'd been walking almost constantly for the last couple of days). Saw a pretty strange building on the way but that was about it. Since it was a Saturday we went to services. That friend of my dad's leads a congregation and between services and talking to people we spent the rest of the afternoon there.
That evening we decided to visit the Ginza area. Like how Akihabara is the place to be for fans of electronics, games, and the like, Ginza is the place to be if you're looking for fancy clothes, jewelry and related items. Naturally, it's a place for the rich and the people who want to look rich, or are at least really into high fashion. It's big, bright, and busy and has some of the largest department stores I've ever seen (which have some pretty interesting food markets on their lower floors). For me it was certainly worth a look but, since I'm not all that into clothes (especially the expensive stuff) a quick tour of the area was plenty (unlike Akihabra which I'll probably be going back to fairly often).

Random Japan Comment: Prices
Some things here are about the same price as in the US, some are cheaper, and some are more expensive. Food seems to pretty much even out (at least if you don't go to a bunch of fancy expensive restaurants) and hotel rates aren't horrible as long as you don't mind a small room and don't mind not being in one of the best locations (not a big deal with the subway system). Now some things, like clothes for example, I can't really comment on because I never really paid all that much attention to their US prices to begin with. But here's my comments on some of the things I am familiar with.
New video games seem to be priced pretty similar to the US, although a touch more expensive ($5 or so). Games for older systems, on the other hand, and some games for newer systems are cheaper, sometimes a whole lot cheaper (too bad they're all in Japanese so I can't understand most of them, maybe I'll be good enough by the time I leave...). CDs seem to be about the same price as the US or a bit cheaper, especially the Japanese stuff that never gets released in the US (things you'd find at conventions or anime stores like J-Pop and soundtracks). Figurines are a mixed bag. The small and medium sized ones are a whole lot cheaper than I've ever seen them in anime stores or cons but the large ones are often a bit more expensive (sometimes a lot so).
And DVDs? DVDs are strange... Some are ridiculously cheap (especially old American movies) but the average new movie DVD tends to be about $5-$10 more. But that's not all that bad, it's the box sets you need to watch out for. Now, I used complain about the cost of anime boxsets in the US. I mean, when box sets of US TV shows were only costing $30-$50, it seemed ridiculous to charge $100-$200 for an anime box set. Fortunately, things have improved and a lot of anime sets are now getting released in that $30-$50 range, except for a few that still get put out at $100+ (which still bugs me). But, the point of this whole thing is, after seeing the prices of DVD box sets in Japan, I don't think I'll ever complain about the US prices again. Box sets of US TV shows (stuff that costs $30-$50 back home) are going for around $120-$180 here in Japan. And you think that's bad? The anime boxsets I've seen (and these are just for single season/series box sets) are all between about $250 and $500. Yes, I'm serious. What's up with that? I mean, DVDs cost almost nothing to make and there's really no way to justify those kind of prices other than saying something like 'If people will pay that much there's no reason to sell them cheaper.' Guess I won't be buying any anime while I'm here, no matter how good my Japanese gets.
Once nice thing about shopping in Japan, the sales tax is included in the price on the tag/box/whatever so you don't need to worry about it. What you see is exactly what you pay.

Day 4 (19th): Tokyo Exploration Day 4

Once again, my dad packed a whole lot of stuff into one day. We started out going to the large Yasukuni Shrine where they have a flea market of sorts every couples of weeks. The shrine was big and had a really big gate to match. While I'm not into Shintoism in the least, some of the shrines look pretty cool and feature some really amazing woodwork. The flea market wasn't huge but there was a lot of neat old antique stuff that was interesting to look at.
Moving on, we headed way out to a western suburb of Tokyo called Shinokitazawa. The tour book said it was the hippy area, of sorts. I think that definition is a bit debatable. There were some hippie clothing shops but not a ton and there were plenty of other types of stores, include some selling traditional Japanese clothes. There was a pretty nice video game store there too... All in all, it was an ok shopping area and offered a different experience than the crowded streets and towering buildings of downtown Tokyo. Plus we got a photo of some good Engrish (if you don't know, Engrish = very poor and often humorous Japanese misuse of English) on this sign.
After that we got a little lost trying to find one place (even took the policemen with their super detailed maps like around 10 minutes to figure out where it was and that was with the address; can't believe the tour book didn't think to list directions...) and ended up taking a quick walk through part of Harajuku, which is the teen fashion district of sorts. There were stores for regular clothes and all the Japan teen fashions (punk, lolita, gothic lolita, etc). As previously mentioned, I'm not really into fashion but the diverse selection of clothes and all the teens walking around dressed up in lots of different ways made it worth a look.
One long subway ride later my dad and I arrived in Asakusa (yet another part of Tokyo). Once there we found a roofed in shopping arcade. While the selection wasn't quite as interesting to look at as in places like Ameya-Yokocho, there were a lot of very affordable clothes and other things and it seems like a pretty good place to get gifts and/or souvenirs. While walking through the arcade, we stumbled across the massive Asakusa Shrine. There must have been some sorta of local festival going on because the shrine was packed with visitors coming to pray, tie papers to strings, burn incense, and the like. Some of the women were even wearing kimono. While we were there, we also stopped for lunch at one of the many small Japanese restaurants in the arcade. This was actually the first time I'd gone to a Japanese restaurant since coming here (ate at a Korean place twice and an Indian place once, plus my dad isn't big on eating out a whole lot on trips (unless he's in Phoenix)). After we'd finished exploring the shrine area and arcade, we took a quick look at a section of Asakusa that sells lots of kitchenware and also lots of plastic food (both individual items and ready-made plates plus some keychains the like). It's actually something like an art form. More on what that's for in the following Random Japan Comment.
Once we'd finished up in Asakusa my dad decided to head back to the hotel and rest. I was still ok so I decided to head back to Akihabara for a little while. First off I went back in that giant department store I visited my first time in Akihabra and gave it a much more thorough look through. Turns out it was Yodabashi Camera (a pretty famous Japanese electronics location) and man did they have a lot of figurines (and everything else for that matter). They even had rows and rows of the gumball dispenser figurines (random figurine sets you get out of gumball like machines for between 100 and 300 yen each). Once I finished there I went into a couple others stores I'd been wanting to check out and spent a while exploring them. Sunday isn't a bad time to visit Akihabara. It's a bit more crowded than the weekdays but roads are blocked to traffic, which is nice. No matter what day you go, you'll probably see some costumed girls handing out flyers for various nearby shops and cafes. You might also see some people dressed up or cosplaying just for the heck of it. Although some of them probably shouldn't...

Random Japan Comment: Restaurants
Eating out in Tokyo isn't all that hard and, if you go to the right places, can be really cheap (or really expensive if you want it to be). There don't seem to be many big restaurants (at least not that I've seen so far) but there's tons of little places tucked into small spots along just about every street. Naturally Japanese food dominates but I've also seen Korean, Indian, Thai, Italian, and American. Just don't expect the staff to speak English. If you're in the right part of town you might find a place with an English menu but don't count on it. Fortunately, it's usually not a big deal if you can't read the menu. Right outside most restaurants or in their front windows you'll typically find either a picture menu or collection of plastic food which represents the various dishes served at the restaurant. From what I've heard and my own limited experience what you get seems to match the plastic food pretty closely. The displays might also include pricing and numbers (so you can tell the person inside you want #23 or whatever). Anyway, the displays make for a handy way to check what's being served in each restaurant without actually have to go in and look at a menu plus they made it a lot easier for non Japanese speaking people to order.

Day 5 (20th): Moving Into My Apartment

As most of you probably know, I didn't come to Japan just to see the sights (although part of me wishes I had). I'm here to work for seven months (beginning of September until near the end of March) as an Assistant English Teacher. Although it's a kinda freaky prospect, 7 months (or more like 8 when you count the touring I'm doing before and after) isn't all that long and it'll no doubt majorly improve my knowledge of the language and culture.
Anyway, this was the day I moved into the apartment where I'll be staying for the duration of my teaching job. First off we had to get to the apartment so my dad and I got a taxi to Ueno Station (one of Tokyo's major train and subway stations). We kinda got there during the morning rush hour when tons of people pour into Tokyo from the numerous suburbs and smaller town to go to jobs, school, and the like. I'd recommend trying to avoid traveling at this time of day, although while lots of people are coming into Tokyo not many are leaving it so if you're going out it's not a bad time, crowded station aside.
We were on the train for a little over an hour before we arrived in Koga (turns out my apartment is technically in Koga, not Nogi but as the two seem to border each other I suppose it doesn't really matter). Not too long, especially if I bring a book or DS or something when I want to go to Tokyo, although having to pay 1,100+ yen per trip (one way) isn't all that great considering I'll be going to Tokyo at least once (if not twice) a week most weeks for Saturday services if nothing else. It'll definitely add up over time. Anyway, a bit after arriving we got picked up by a guy from Joytalk (the company that hired me). First stop was the realtor's office to get the apartment key, after that we spent probably 40+ minutes as our guide tried to find the apartment (he even had a map leading to it), which further reinforces my opinion that Japanese addresses and the like are so messed up that even the Japanese can't find their way around.
Eventually he found the apartment building. Which, to my relief ,wasn't one of the gigantic apartment buildings that fill the towns closer to Tokyo. (Not sure exactly why I didn't want a building with a zillion other apartments, lots of stairs maybe?) It's in a decent looking neighborhood too. Too bad I'm stuck in a small apartment instead of one of those houses. Actually, the apartment size isn't that bad (it looks pretty good now that's everything is unpacked, I'll get a picture sooner or later), but it's certainly can't compete with my old apartment in Phoenix (not to even mention my parents' house). It's also missing a few things that you'd think would be rather obvious, at least in any American apartment. More on that another time. Anyway, the Joytalk guy helped us get the hot water and internet working (which I never would have been able to do myself with my current Japanese skills), and my dad and I shopped for futons (a type of bed), a bike, and lots of other necessary items.
While not an amazing apartment, it's a pretty convenient location. I'm only around half mile from the school I'll be working at. The train station is a bit further but not that bad. And there's a shopping plaza right nearby with a big grocery store, 100 yen store, a few other shops (a couple of which may come in handy from time to time), a fairly big arcade (which has some cool games but, unfortunately, no DDR), and a kaiten zushi restaurant (a sushi restaurant where a chef makes sushi and puts it on a conveyor belt and people grab the stuff they want off the belt. We ate there that night, it's pretty good and sushi is a whole lot cheaper here than in the US. I gotta be careful with my money since I'm not going to be making a lot but I'll probably stop in every now and then.

Random Japan Comment: English
Everyone is Japan takes English for at least several years in school so you'd assume that they'd be able to speak at least a little or even be semi-fluent. Definitely not the case. From my experience the average person seems to speak little to no English and often doesn't understand all that much better. Plus when talking to you, they'll usually go off in rapid Japanese, seemingly expecting you to understand it. What's with all those stories I heard about Japanese people wanting to practice their English with foreigners? In general it seems more like the opposite to me. Well, I suppose it'll help my Japanese (or just leave me totally lost, that may be more likely, at least at first). My advice? If you're going to visit Japan learn some key words and phrases (asking where things are, where you are, how much something is, please, thank you, excuse me, etc.). Sometimes you can also throw some hand gestures in there to help, depending on what you're trying to say.

Day 6 (21st): Orientation Day 1

Not the most interesting day to write about but here it goes.  This was the first day of orientation/training for my job. I had to take the train for an hour or so to Ujiie. Went through a little bit of country and a whole lot of medium sized towns that, from the train, at least, look a lot like the one I'm in (ok, nothing particularly special though, and mostly a home for people who commute into the big cities for work). Missed one of my trains because, although I was on the right platform, it was a really long platform and the train stopped at the end of it furthest away from me so I didn't notice it. Fortunately, I'd left early so I just got the next one.
There were six other new ALTs at the orientation (3 from the US, 2 from the UK, and 1 from Australia). They seem like a nice enough bunch although, since we'll all stationed in different parts of the country, I kinda doubt I'll see them much, if at all, once the orientation is over. Anyway, we did our little intros and listened to Grant (the guy who originally interviewed me) talk about about himself and Joytalk (the company I'm working for). Grant also ran through a little bit about what we'd be doing at the schools, what resources were available for us on the Joytalk websites, etc. I got off a little easier than most since the school I'm at already has a full English curriculum so it looks like I'll mostly be following that and won't have to make a whole lot of new stuff. On the down side, my salary kind of sucks. I mean, I get enough to live off of and have a little left over (most, if not all, of which will probably pay for the touring I want to do on weekends) but considering that some ALTs (none of the ones in the company I'm with, although most of them still make more than me) get paid about twice what I make... Guess my school is kinda cheap. Oh well, it's not like I came here for the money.
Anyway, after that we all ate lunch at a nearby restaurant (it was sorta Japanese style American food). Then Grant talked a little more and then he and I reviewed my contract (which, if you didn't know, runs from September - March after which my current plan is to tour for 2 or 3 weeks then head back to the States, although if I do well I would have an option to stay here if I really want to) and I was done for the day. Hmm... Doesn't really seem like they'll be able to fill three more days with this kind of stuff...
Didn't do a whole lot when I get back, did some work on my computer, downloaded Super Metroid on my Wii, and helped my dad with some stuff.
While I was at orientation my dad explored the town. From the sound of it, there isn't much around here worth seeing or doing but he did take some decent pictures (unlike me since pretty much all I got to see was some fairly drab buildings). First off there's this poster. Who wouldn't want a God-Cleaner? Well, me for starters. I mean, I don't really have any dirty gods lying around :-P Bad jokes aside, here's a picture from a Japanese cemetery. Since ancestor worship is a big part of the traditional Japanese Shinto religion, they tend to build really nice monuments which typically guard the bodies/ashs of many family members. Next up is another vending machine. As I said before, most machines seem to have either soft drinks or cigarettes but I've seen a few others on occasion (beer, coffee, soup, ice cream, and milk). Here's a new one. Now I know rice is practically its own food group in Japan but still isn't this pushing it a little, especially with a grocery store so close by? And finally here's the local shrine (not quite sure if it's in Nogi or Koga since the border is so close).

Random Japan Comment: Lack of Foreigners
If you live in the US, Canada, parts of Europe, etc, you're probably used to seeing a pretty diverse group of races living in the same country (Caucasian, blacks, Asians, Mexicans, etc, etc, etc). The US is especially like that (some parts a bit more than others though) so you usually can't tell just by looking who is a foreigner and who isn't. Tourist perhaps, but foreigner not so much since so many different types of people live in the area (of course, if you heard them speaking another language or something, that would make it a bit more obvious). In Japan however, foreigners (or gaijin if you want to use the local word) stick out pretty blatantly. Most of Japan's population is Japanese and most of the little bit left are Koreans. Put those two together and you'll see that hardly any non-Asian people live in Japan. As such, it's pretty easy to spot us and recognize that we're from another country. For us, it can also be odd to only see Asian people around. Sure it's not a big tourist season right now but still, once you move away from the big attractions you'll hardly see any non Japanese (and even at the big attractions you'll see mostly Japanese). Nothing wrong with any of that, it just takes some getting used to if you don't do a lot of world traveling.

Day 7 (22nd): Orientation Day 2
So, more orientation. Yay... I headed back to Ujiie and got there without anything special happening. Like the day before, the other new ALTs and I listened to Grant talk for a bit first. Seems to me like he could have just put most of that stuff in an e-mail and saved us all the time and train fare. Anyway, we also did little practice presentations like we were introducing ourselves to a class. Decent practice but I was fairly well prepared for that already. After lunch I and two other ALTs had to go get a quick exam at a nearby hospital which required for everyone working in public schools (the other ALTs did it the day before). Turns out I'm perfectly healthy, which is what I was expecting.
And that was it. Walked around a little near Koga station when I got back and found another arcade which, though further from my apartment, has DDR. Oh yeah, I also got soaked when it started raining about halfway back to my apartment (Note to self: remember to keep an umbrella handy).
My dad, meanwhile, spent the day exploring Nikko, a mountain town to the north of Koga (where I'm living). Judging from what he said and the pictures he took, there's a lot of pretty fancy shrines there with lots of carvings and statues and some nice scenery too. I'll have to go there sometime (probably on a weekend) and take a look for myself.

Day 8 (23rd): Orientation Day 3
This was the first day of the two day orientation over night thing. Basically, after taking the train back to where I'd had the previous two days of orientation they drove us about 20 or 30 minutes into the country to a kids camp of sorts where we stayed until late afternoon Friday. I didn't have internet while I was there (or a computer for that matter) which is why this update is late. So, I was there along with about 20 or 30 other ALTs (assistant language teachers). Predictably enough, the day's events started with one of the typical ice breaker activities you usually have at big get togethers. We had to all go around and find out everyone's name and a bit about them to fill in a sheet. Turns out quite a lot of them were from Australia. Plenty of Americans too, one Canadian, a couple Brits, one from the Philippians, one from Thailand, and one from Ghana. Not everyone was close to my age either, some people were definitely in their 30s or 40s at least.
That afternoon we broke into groups and had to create short lesson plans for a certain age group on a certain subject then take turns presenting them to each other. Some of the plans were fairly entertaining and it wasn't bad practice although, since my school has a pretty detailed curriculum that they stick to I don't think I'll be creating a lot of lesson plans.
After that we tossed some balls around for a while outside (and I learned that Australians have their own weird version of football) then had dinner, which involved grilling things on little grills built into a bunch of tables. After dinner I played ping-pong for a bit with some of the others. Eventually a sort of drinking party started. I stuck around a talked for a little while then ducked out since I don't drink and it gets kinda boring sitting around watching out people do so.
My dad, meanwhile, went to some parts of Tokyo that we hadn't visited yet. He mentioned this one area called Nakano that he said has a ton of figurine stores. I'll be adding that to my 'check it out myself' list. Unfortunately, he didn't take any pictures and, as for me, there wasn't really anything particularly worth taking pictures of.

Day 9 (24th): Orientation Day 4
The last day of orientation. Got up, ate breakfast, got back into our groups, then spent the next couple of hours doing a treasure hunt type of game. You know, the kind where you're given a clue which tells you where to go to find the next clue and you keep going until you reach the end. The only problem was that all the clues were in Japanese... My group didn't have any of the really good Japanese speakers but we actually did pretty good for a while. Thanks to some hard work and a bit of luck we were in second place until near the end when we got stuck on a really tricky clue that screwed up a lot of teams. We figured it out in the end but thanks to that our overall time ended up being fourth best. Whole thing took around 50 minutes. Of course, we were told that Japanese elementary school kids usually solved the course in about half that...
That was about it till lunch after which the president of the company gave a speech and we had a last little teaching activity (making short self intros in Japanese and English) which was really easy for me since I'd done much more complicated Japanese intros in college.
Unfortunately, right before I left, one of the Joytalk guys threw a wrench into my plans for next week, saying he wanted me to go to a school that's already in session and observe the classes for a couple days. While it could be kinda useful, I think watching one or two classes would be plenty (not one or two days). Plus the school I'll be at has its own curriculum (different from the place where I'd be watching) which is pretty detailed so I don't think I'll have any trouble figuring out what to do. Finally, after some of the other things I've done, I don't think I'll have any trouble with nerves, leading a class, or anything like that. Not to mention that's two whole days of touring with my dad that I'd lose and that this was sprung on me at the last minute (until today I'd been told that I'd have the entire coming week, except for Wednesday, free). Long story short, I did my best to talk my way out of it with the result being that that they couldn't decide if I could skip it or not so I'll have to wait and see. I could probably force it, since it was a last minute thing and not in my contract, but I don't really want to tick off my superiors right from the start.
And that was about it for the day. Well, except for me having to wait in the train station for around half an hour since the orientation ran late and I missed the train I'd taken the previous days. Definitely looking forward to the weekend.

Day 10 (25th): Nakano
Is was a Saturday so my dad and I went into Tokyo for services which took a pretty good chunk of the day.
That evening we decided to swing by Nakano before heading back to Koga. The Nakano part of Tokyo features a shopping arcade (which has several regular arcades in it) not far from the subway station but it's what's at the end of the arcade that's more interesting. Nakano Broadway is a four story mall. There's a lot of different things for sale but the main deal here is toys and figurines. There are tons of stores dedicated to vintage toys, various anime/manga figurines, or a mix of the two. As far as the figurines go, you won't find a lot of random boxes (go to Akihabara for that) but you will find lots of opened figurines, complete sets, and the like. So if you don't want to test your luck with random boxes or just need/want a certain figure or two from a given set, this is the place to go look for it. It's also the place to find rare and out of print figurines. Plus there was a game store in the shopping arcade with some pretty good prices. I picked up the Japanese version of Phoenix Wright 3 for the DS which, like 1 and 2 (but not 4) features not only the Japanese game but the complete English US version too! I'll do a review on it eventually. Anyway, Nakano was pretty cool but there were a lot of no picture signs so I don't have any photos right now. I might try and sneak some next time I go though.

Day 11 (26th): More Adventures in Tokyo
My dad and I went to the southern part of Tokyo and rode the city's last monorail to a big horse racing track. But we weren't there for racing. A couple times a month the track hosts Tokyo's largest flea market with over 600 booths selling a huge (and very random) collection of stuff including used clothes, games, electronics, figurines, antiques, and just about everything else you can think of. It's pretty interesting to walk though and you might be able to find some pretty good deals while you're at it. Some of the things I saw were insanely cheap.
As it turns out there was a Pokémon Center (official Nintendo Pokémon store) near the monorail. But there was a huge line to get in (not sure if there was something special going on or if that's normal) so I'm going to go back another time.
After we'd finished up at the flea market, we headed to a different part of Tokyo where the Swallows baseball team plays. They're not as popular as the Tokyo Giants so it's a lot easier to get tickets. We walked around a bit and then my dad found the spot where people wait to get the players' autographs as they come to the stadium. He wanted to hang out there for a while and get some autographs so he did that and I played Phoenix Wright 3.
Eventually we went into the stadium for the game. The stadium itself was a pretty old one so nothing really fancy about it although the selection of food you could buy was certainly different than in the US. The game itself was pretty much the same although the Japanese teams had much more enthusiastic fans than I've seen anywhere else. Aside from how they seemingly have different songs and chants for every single player when they came up to bat (chants which everyone seemed to know), they also had guys with trumpets playing along and, naturally, a ton of team merchandise. Then there was the umbrella thing. I wasn't sure what it was at first. Turns out it's a taunt. It means something along the lines of 'the other team's pitcher is doing so bad he should get sent to the showers'.

Day 12 (27th): Bandaiatami
Sunday morning my dad and I headed off to Bandaiatami, a mountain town that's fairly well known for its onsen (hot springs in English). We rode in a shinkansen (bullet train) on the way. They're certainly a lot faster than the local trains but they're more expensive too. I wouldn't say that riding in one is all that incredible but if you have the cash it's nice to save time. Anyway, the town itself wasn't all that impressive. There were a bunch of onsen hotels and not much else. But the scenery was nice and there was a little trail that led along the hillside through a forest full of big old trees.
After a little bit of hiking and walking around town (which was fairly empty since, when you think about it, the hottest time of the year isn't when most people go on a hot springs vacation) we went back to our hotel, Kirakuya Inn, which we chose because it was close to the train station and had a nice English web site. Wasn't super fancy but it wasn't a bad place either. The rooms were decent, the onsen wasn't bad (well, at least I don't think so since this is the first Japanese onsen I've seen in person), and the food was pretty good (breakfast was free and you could pay for lunch and dinner if you wanted). They had some nice Japanese style rooms too. Although that's not the room we stayed in, not sure if those type of rooms were already booked, more expensive, or if the staff just figured that, as Americans, we'd rather have an American style room (if I'd known they had Japanese style rooms from the start I would have asked for one). There was a large public onsen (divided into mens' and womens' sections) with a hot outdoor pool, a hot indoor pool, a cool indoor pool, and a sauna. There was also a couple of small private onsen that you could reserve for a little while. My dad and I did that first, as a sort of practice run before going to the main onsen. We went in the main one a bit after dinner (which consisted of a variety of traditional Japanese foods). If you've ever been to a hot springs, then you've got the basic idea of an onsen. They're really the same thing, it's just that Japanese onsen have a traditional etiquette and atmosphere to them. It was nice and relaxing, definitely different than going to an American hot springs though (see the following Random Japan Comment) but I pretty much knew what to expect. Finally, here's a picture of me in a yukata (type of traditional Japanese clothing, now a days mostly worn when lounging around in hotels) Yukata are usually provided by the hotel staff (like bath robes in some US hotels).

Random Japan Comment: Onsen
There are a lot of rules and customs surrounding the whole onsen experience. The whole point is to immerse yourself into the hot water (often with only your head above the water) and relax. But there's things to do before that.
First off, you have to wash yourself before getting in the water. There's stools and shower heads (or little buckets you can fill with water and dump over yourself) that you use to rinse and wash before ever entering the onsen itself. It's important that you wash yourself completely and make sure you wash off all traces of soap and/or shampoo before going into the actual onsen.
Second, you don't bring large bath towels into the onsen area, those stay in the changing room for when you're done bathing. You do get a small towel that you take into the onsen which is used to help you wash/scrub/dry or whatever. Actually, a lot of people seem to put it on their heads while they're in the onsen, which works since you're not supposed to let that towel get into the onsen itself. If it's on your head, it's not in the water so that works out fine.
If you're switching between multiple pools, or just want a break, you can get out and rinse/wash yourself off again before either leaving entirely or getting back in the water. Just remember, make sure to wash off all the soap before getting back in the onsen.
Finally you should know that while you're doing all this washing, rinsing, and soaking you're completely naked. You've got that little towel but since it's all you've got and you can't actually take it into the water, you might as well just use it to wash off and/or stick it on your head like the Japanese people do. There are separate men and womens' areas so you'll just be with other guys/girls but if you're really shy you might want try and find a place with small private pools that you can rent/reserve.

Day 13 (28th): Class Observation
Didn't really do anything exciting today. After having breakfast my dad and I left Bandaiatami and took the train to a small town where another ALT worked so I could observe a couple of his classes (two hours of observation was plenty and certainly beat the two full days that I nearly got roped into before). We were going to take a taxi from the station to the school but a really nice Japanese lady approached us at the station (probably to practice her English, which was a lot better than that of most of the Japanese people I've met so far) and, upon finding out why we were there and where we were going, offered to give us a ride.
We sat in on two classes, one 2nd grade and one 4th grade. Although the school seemed to have a much different method of doing things then my school (at least judging from what I've heard about my school) watching the other ALT teach the kids was somewhat interesting and informative.
After that it was back to Koga (a pretty long trip) and that was about it. Tomorrow I'm supposed to meet with the Nogi board of education and get a few other things squared away then, come Thursday, it's back to touring, at least for a little while.

Day 14 (29th): Getting Stuff Done
Another rather uninteresting day. A guy from Joytalk came and took me to several places. First was the elementary school where I'll be teaching four days a week. Fortunately it's really close to my apartment. The building seems nice too. Too early to say much about the staff and students yet. Their scheduling is kinda weird though. Looks like I'll be spending the majority of my working hours each day sitting around and doing nothing. Which begs the question 'why do I even need to be there for all that time anyway?' I guess if they're paying someone they like it to at least look like said person is working. Not that they're paying me much, I'm pretty sure I'm the lowest paid ALT in my company plus the school board tacks on extra fees every month for school lunches (which I'm required to eat) and coffee and tea (whether I actually drink any or not). Yeah, I'm definitely not going to be making any money on this trip. At least not if I want to do any touring on weekends and holidays. Good thing I have some money saved up in case my expenses surpass my salary. Anyway, all that 'doing nothing' time could either be ok or really boring depending on what I'm allowed to do during it. I think I might end up helping other teachers with things from time to time but supposedly the majority of the time is for making lesson plans and the like, which will probably take a grand total of 1 hour a week tops since the school follows a very detailed curriculum and I just have to do what it says. Hopefully I can get some other things done (writing, working on PV strips, etc) during some of that time.
Then if was off to the board of education to meet with them. I have to go there every Wednesday morning for no apparent reason (other than that whole 'look like you're working thing') then eventually go first to a nursery school (where I teach one whole 10 minute class each week) and then a preschool (where I teach two fifteen minutes classes once a week). Could be kinda fun but the whole goal is just getting the kids to memorize a song for a little presentation they do later in the year so it could get pretty repetitious. And that's assuming I can find the places on my own since Japanese addresses are fairly useless and road signs are nearly nonexistent. Anyway, after that I'm supposed to either go all the way back to Nogi elementary (despite the fact that I don't teach there on Wednesdays) to eat lunch or sit around at the BOE for a couple of hours (I have to pay for the lunch either way but it's a pretty long ways back to the school). Finally there's a weekly meeting with the BOE and other Nogi ALTs (which teach at different schools in the area). I really hope it doesn't rain on Wednesdays, considering I've got like an hour of biking to do and all...
After that the Joytalk guy took me to the Koga city office to fill out some forms (well, we got there eventually after spending a long time going around in circles). Then he showed me where the post office was (once again after spending a ton of time driving around aimlessly in an attempt to find it), hopefully I can find it again later. And that was it.

Day 15 (30th): Yokohama

Getting back to touring, my dad and I went to Yokohama, a fairly large city south past Tokyo. It's not as crowded as Tokyo and the buildings aren't as smashed together either. Reminded me a bit more of an American city, as least as far as general layout goes. Anyway, we didn't do anywhere near an exhaustive tour of the city since it was drizzling on and off throughout the day and Yokohama doesn't have anywhere near as good a subway system as Tokyo so we had to walk a lot.
We spent most of our time in Yokohama in Japan's largest China Town. There were some neat gates at the main entrances and a really fancy temple inside as well as lots of Chinese trinkets, clothes, food, etc. Nice place to go if you're looking for Chinese stuff or if you like Chinese food (there's a ton of restaurants). We walked around for a while, looked in the shops, and got some lunch before moving on.
Next stop was the Yokohama Landmark Tower. A big skyscraper with the highest observatory floor in Japan. You can get a really nice view of Yokohama from up there and you get to ride the world's second fastest elevator up and down (and it's really fast, my ears popped like three time on the way up). The bottom few floors of the tower were mostly taken up by a fancy mall. Which, as luck would have it, had a Pokémon Center! So I healed my pokémon then headed for the next gym and... Or not. That'd be pretty cool though. Anyway, the center didn't have any real pokémon but they did have a huge amount of Pokémon related merchandise (games, DVDs, figurines, plushies, etc, etc, etc) so that was pretty cool.
Unfortunately, we didn't stick around Yokohama for very long after that due to the weather. I'll probably go back sooner or later to check out some of the museums so expect more on Yokohama sometime in the future.

Random Japan Comment: Money and Buying Things
Yen is the Japanese currency. Unlike in the US where dollars are divided into cents, there's no higher or lower denomination of currency, there's just yen. Last time I checked 1 yen is worth around .8 US cents, a bit less than a penny. There are 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500 yen coins and it's pretty useful to have a nice little stock of them (except for 1's and 5's which are worth too little to be of much use), especially if you plan to get a lot of train/subway tickets or buy drinks from vending machines. For higher amounts you've got bills for 1000, 5000, and 10000 yen.
Prices are pretty easy (at least when you can find them, on some products they're pretty hard to spot) since tax is already figured into the price on the label as is the tip at restaurants so there's nothing extra added on, you pay exactly what the price tag says which is almost always in multiples of 10 (hence the mostly useless natures of 1 and 5 yen coins).
Unlike in the US, cash is the preferred method of payment and it's perfectly normal to pull out a bunch of 10000 yen bills to pay for an expensive item. Which kinda confirms that pickpocketing and armed robbery aren't very common in Japan since everyone seems to feel safe carrying so much cash around.
Bigger stores, restaurants, and hotels mostly take credit cards as well and Visa lives up to its billing of working just about anywhere (although oddly enough, there's been a handful of places where my Visa credit card has failed to work when it should; my Visa debit card, however, has worked everywhere I've tried it, including those problem spots). However, there are still plenty of places that don't take credit cards so having a decent amount of cash on you is a must.
Finally, in Japan personal checks are pretty much nonexistent. Not that I ever used them much in the US but in Japan they're useless so stick to cash and credit.

Day 16 (31st): Kamakura
The weather in most of Japan wasn't all that great so my dad and I decided to go to Kamakura because, of all our potential destinations, it had the lowest chance of rain. In the end, we got lucky and it didn't rain at all while all the clouds kept things nice and cool. Kamakura is a seaside town a bit past Yokohama. It's a popular tourist destination due to its large number of temples and shrines.
There's a shopping street right by the train station with a nice collection of shops and restaurants. Most of the places were closed when we first got there but we got to take a better look around in the afternoon when we came back to find a place for lunch. Good spot for souvenirs.
Our first real destination was Tsurugaoka Hachimangu, a very large shrine by a lilly filled pond. We then walked most of the way across town (could have taken a train or bus but we got to see more this way). Kamakura is a nice place. There's tons of trees and other greenery so it's got a country feel and buildings and stuff aren't smashed together like they are in many Japanese towns and cities. All in all, Kamakura had a pretty good feel to it. Really made Koga (the town where I'm living) feel dull and boring, which it is. Maybe there's nothing in Koga because everyone there just goes to Tokyo when they want to do something fun/exciting/interesting.
Anyway, we weren't just randomly wandering around, we were headed for the Diabutsu or Giant Buddha, Japan's second most famous symbol/tourist spot after Mt. Fuji (which I'll get to eventually). The Daibutsu is pretty old (700 or 800 years if I remember right) and lives up to its name, as you can see from the previous picture. For an extra 20 yen (less than 20 cents) you can even go inside it. It's kinda like being inside the Statue of Liberty except that the Daibutsu is a lot smaller and you can't climb up to the top. It's not all that amazing inside but hey, for 20 yen there's no real reason not to go in.
Moving on, we stopped at the nearby Hasedera Temple. It's on a hill and surrounded by gardens and woods. There several small shrines in the temple area (including some inside a man made cave) and you can get a view of the ocean from where the main temple sits (that's where I took the town shot from earlier).
Since we were nearby, we made a quick stop at Yuigahama beach. As far as beaches go it wasn't all that great although there were some pretty big seashells lying around. I heard that there's a much nicer beach a few miles away but we didn't go there since we didn't go to Kamakura to swim or lay on the sand.
And that's about it. I may go back sometime to show other family members when they come to visit or if I just feel like looking at more shrines and temples since the ones there are pretty nice so you may be seeing more about Kamakura in the future.

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