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Josiah's Japan Travelogue
Part 6: January 2008
Part 5: December 2007
Tuesday (1st): Nikko
Like Kamakura, Nikko is a popular New Years destination because of all the shrines, which naturally means that the biggest attractions and a lot of the shops and restaurants stay open, making it a good place to visit on the holiday. I already did a write up about Nikko and its really neat shrines last time I went so I won't repeat it. Being New Years, there was a lot of people there doing New Years type stuff. It was also lightly snowing for most of the day. Not enough to be a problem, just enough to make for a nice affect.
It's traditional to pray at shrines on New Years, there's also New Years wreaths people hang on doors and the like, roundish red dolls you buy and make a wish (you color in one eyeball when you make your wish and the other when it comes true), and wooden arrows (not quite sure what they're for). While visiting a shrine people also write prayers and wishes on little wood plaques which they hang up, and draw a piece of paper containing their luck for the year (not a fortune, just an amount of luck ranging from extremely lucky to extremely unlucky). Some people then tie that luck paper to a tree (sorry for the blurry photo), although I can't remember if you do that to make sure your predicted good luck comes to pass or to negate your predicted bad luck.
There were also a bunch of food stalls set up (a typical holiday thing). There was the usual noodles, sweets, candied fruit, grilled fish, yakiniku and the like (a lot of the same type of stuff that was at the local Matsuri I went to in Nogi). I also got to try some steamed Chinese buns stuffed with azuki. They were pretty good, too bad you can usually only find them filled with pork. Plus there was amazake, a traditional New Years drink. It's a very low alcohol and very sweet sake that's severed hot and often has pieces of rice inside. There's so little alcohol that even kids can drink it. I liked it but my brother thought it was a bit too sweet. Anyway, I had fun getting different things from the stalls instead of going to a real restaurant.

Wednesday (2nd): Disneysea
Once again, a lot of stuff is closed around New Years which limited our possible destinations (no point in going somewhere if everything you want to see is closed). Disney is open 365 days a year and there's no equivalent of Disneysea in the US so I took Noah there. It was a good bit more crowded than last time I went (which was to be expected, given the holiday and all) and my brother has a lot less patience than me when it comes to lines but we still managed to hit most of the rides and attractions. I already gave Disneysea a pretty big write up when I first went there so I'm not going to repeat all that. Suffice to say, it's a great park and I always enjoy myself at Disney parks so we had a good time. Also tried the buffet restaurant they've got near the Tower of Terror, which was really good. Anyway, here's a few pictures (sorry about the over exposed sky in some of them, my camera settings were a bit off and I didn't really notice until today).

Thursday (3rd): Shopping in Tokyo
I showed Noah more of Tokyo, namely Ueno and Asakusa. Useful tip, avoid Asakusa around New Years, there's so many people there to visit the shrine that even getting to a lot of the best shops is near impossible. Speaking of shops, in America we've got the day after Thanksgiving and the day after Christmas. In Japan, on the other hand, the two or three days following New Years are the big shopping days. There's lots of sales and special deals plus many Japanese stores have a selection of mystery bags for sale. A mystery bag is a bag full of stuff that would cost a whole lot more if you bought it all separately. But, since it's in a mystery bag, you don't really know what you're going to get until after you buy it. Although many bags are themed after various things such as a particular brand or product type and clothing mystery bags (the most common from what I saw) have sizes marked on them so you're not completely in the dark about the contents. They can be a bit of a money waster but they're also kinda fun and an incredible bargain if you can find some stuffed with things you want.

Friday (4th): Sendai
Today Noah and I went somewhere I hadn't been before. Sendai is a city a ways to the north of Tokyo. It's the biggest city in that part of Japan with about a million people or so. It's too far for me to do a day trip on the local trains but it's not all that long of a ride on the shinkansen (bullet train), although shinkansen tickets are pretty expensive so that's a whole different problem.
First stop in Sendai was the ruins of Sendai castle, also known as Aobajo. There's a nice tourist bus that loops around a large portion of the city and stops at many of Sendai's main attractions, include Aobajo. Unfortunately, Noah and I didn't take it since my tour book said that a different bus also went to Aobajo and said other bus arrived at the bus stop first so we got on. Turns out the tour book was wrong and that bus left us stranded a decent distance from our destination. We eventually managed to get there (thanks to some helpful people and another bus) but we wasted a decent amount of time in the process.
There really isn't much of anything left of the castle but there's a restored gate house part way up the hill. The former castle site itself is home to a shrine, some restaurants, and a nice (although rather small and kinda expensive) museum with some artifacts from the castle and recreations of what it looked like when it was standing. One interesting thing I saw there was one of the shrine priests apparently blessing cars. Not really sure what was up with that. Anyway, there were also some monuments for Date Masamune, one of Sendai's former lords and the one who had the original castle built. He seems to be quite the local hero. The former castle site also offered a great view of Sendai. See that enormous statue in the distance? Want to know what it is? Well so do I. It wasn't listed in my tour book (would have gone if it was) so I'm gonna have to do some searching on the internet.
From there we walked down the hill and across the river, heading for the next stop on my list. We paused briefly to check out a small shrine on the way but our destination was Zuihoden, which is Date Masamune's mausoleum. It's quite a neat building and a couple of Date's successors have similar ones there was well. Unfortunately, the originals were destroyed in the war so the ones there now are very accurate (and very costly) recreations. But there is a little museum that holds relics from the original structures.
After that we made our way back to Sendai station to check out the large shopping arcades nearby. A shopping arcade it like a shopping street (as in it's a street lined with all kinds of stores and restaurants) that has a roof overhead. There was a good variety of stuff and a couple of my favorite stores from Akihabara even had branches there. Certainly not worth traveling to Sendai for, but the arcades make for a nice stroll if you're already there.
We headed home after finishing up in the shopping arcades. I had a couple more items on my 'to see' list but since we'd lost a lot of time in the morning thanks to the bus mix up there just wasn't enough time. Might go back on my own sometime (despite the overpriced shinkansen ticket) and check them out though. Besides, I'd really like to get a closer look at the huge statue.

Saturday (5th): Trying Pachinko
Pachinko is the Japanese alternative to slot machines (although lots of pachinko parlors have some slot machines too) and it's very popular. For details, see the following Random Japan Comment.
So, I'd been meaning to give pachinko a try one of these days, not cause I particularly like gambling but just to check it out, and Noah did too, so Saturday night we stopped by a pachinko parlor in Akihabara. It took us a little while to figure out what to do (so the first 1000 yen disappeared pretty quickly) but with a little help from the person sitting next to us we soon got the hang of it. So we put in another 1000 and Noah got lucky and got a bonus round going. From that point on we swapped back and forth every now and then instead of getting two separate machines. Noah definitely had luck on his side but I didn't do horribly either (although he was the one who activated most of the bonus rounds). While he was taking his turn, I watched some of the other people in the parlor and was able to figure out what to do with our winnings. We quit after a certain amount of time although we had been doing pretty well so we probably could have kept going. After getting our balls counted (see the following RJC) and exchanging the points for prizes, we hung around outside the parlor for a couple minutes then trailed one of the other players to the real exchange station where we traded our prizes for cash and boy were we surprised. Our 2000 yen investment had netted us whopping 26,000! Of course, we probably just got lucky but after a first try like that I'm gonna have it give it another go at some point...

Random Japan Comment: Pachinko
You can think of pachinko kind of like the Japanese alternative to slot machines. It's kinda part slot machine and part pinball.
Pachinko parlors can be found pretty much everywhere in Japan (in Tokyo, there's a particularly large concentration of them in Ueno) and are usually easily recognizable by their big colorful banners, bright lights, deafeningly loud music, etc. They also tend to smell strongly of cigarette smoke (although some aren't quite so bad in that regard). People under 20 aren't allowed to play pachinko (mostly because many pachinko players tend to smoke and drink, not cause of the gambling part) but from what I've heard that rule isn't very strongly enforced. For the record, casino type gambling is illegal in Japan, though pachinko is basically gambling, it loopholes the law. More on that in a minute.
In a nutshell, you pay to get a bunch of little metal balls and then you turn a knob to launch the balls into pachinko machine where (if you've got the knob turned to a decent spot) they'll fall down through a bunch of pins to a hole at the bottom. If you're lucky, some of the balls will fall in the other holes that are spread through the grid of pins. Unfortunately, you don't really have any control over where the balls go behind how far they're initially shot so it's pretty much luck. Getting balls in the special holes typically wins you a few more balls. In the old pachinko machines that was pretty much the whole thing. With the newer ones however, getting balls in the right hole will activate a virtual slot machine on a built in monitor. If you get really lucky and match three symbols you'll be treated to a short movie and a bonus round will start. Basically, another hole opens up on the board and for each ball you get in there you win a whole lot more. The bonus round will go on for a while and then it'll switch back to normal mode. There's also different levels of bonuses depending on luck, where the balls go, and how well you're doing in general. The exact details vary a bit by machine (ours had a big red button you had to push at certain times to help you win the virtual slot) and the machines come in a variety of themes but that's pretty much how the game goes. To be blunt it's not really all that fun or exciting, most of the time you're basically just holding a knob steady, but you can just zone out for a bit or something. If you start to accumulate a lot of balls (as opposed to losing them all) you can dump them into a plastic tray. Fill the tray and an employee will soon notice and swap it for an empty one, while stacking your full trays nearby. When you're done an employee will use a machine to count your balls and give you a paper with your total amount.
Now it's time to take your paper and trade those points for prizes. Typical stuff includes food, drinks, and cigarettes, though some parlors have much fancier things. But, unless you're dying for a bunch of candy bars, just grab something cheap because you have to get at least one regular prize. After picking your normal prize(s) you'll be given little medal type things in exchange for the rest of your points. I think the looks vary a bit by parlor but they're basically fancy little plastic thingies. Now to loophole that anti-gambling law. If you haven't done it before, wait for someone else with a stack of medals to leave and follow them. Somewhere in the general vicinity (usually tucked off to the side down a small street or alley) you'll find a little booth or window that "just happens" to be buying those medals you won. What a convenient coincidence! Or not. But anyway, give them your medals and they'll give you a bunch of yen in return (different medals are worth different amounts).
Of course, none of that matters if you didn't manage to win anything but it's really all luck so it doesn't hurt to be prepared just in case... From my limited experience, it looks like you tend to either lose fast or get on a roll and win big so you never know.

Sunday (6th): Japanese Alps Day 1
I'd always planned to do an overnight trip with my brother though the heavy hotel bookings and massive amount of closed shops and tourist spots around New Years made me change my original plans, but it worked out just fine in the end so I shouldn't complain. Anyway, we headed out fairly early in the morning and got a Shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano, a city that's more or less the gateway to the Japanese Alps (not sure why Japan couldn't come up with a more original name for the mountain range, I mean we really don't need two sets of Alps). Nagano and the surrounding area was also the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics.
Nagano itself isn't all that exciting and generally serves as more of a stop over point on the way to other places further into the mountains. Nagano's one big attraction is the Zenkoji temple. I wasn't sure if it'd be all that impressive after some of the shrines and temples I'd already seen but I figured that as long as we were in Nagano anyway (had to switch from the Shinkansen to the regular trains) we might as well go see it. The tourist info office wasn't open yet so my brother and I just followed the signs. Unfortunately, we didn't quite follow them far enough. See, we ended up coming across a small temple, figuring that was it, taking a couple pictures, then heading back. Turns out we should have kept walking for another block. Anyway, we did get to see the real temple (which was pretty nice) the following day so I'll get back to it.
After our brief time in Nagano we got on a train to the first of our main destinations, Matsumoto. Either a very large town or a rather small city, Matsumoto is quite a nice place to visit. Even the weather was good (surprising considering that some major Japanese ski resorts aren't all that far away) There's a lot of museums, a shopping street with a frog theme, and plenty of other stuff to see. The big draw (and the main reason I wanted to go there) is Matsumoto Castle. It's the oldest surviving castle in Japan that's still in its original form (many of the other remaining castles had to be rebuilt or massively renovated). As you can probably tell from the pictures, Japanese castles are a lot different than European ones, although there's still a moat and a courtyard. The castle was really cool and there's a great self guided walking tour through the whole thing (complete with English translations of all the important stuff). So we got to see the inside, see some displays, and get some great views from the top. There's also an interesting museum right nearby that has relics and information from the town (and castle's) history.
I'd originally planned to go to another museum after that but Noah wasn't all that excited about it and wanted to go to a different place on my list instead (putting the museum off until the next day). I agreed, forgetting at the time that most museums are closed on Mondays (so I didn't get to go), and we headed to the Daio Wasabi Farm. Speaking of wasabi, the area around Matsumoto is rather famous for it. At the farm you can walk around, see the fields, get lots of different foods (all with wasabi), take a 'pickle your own wasabi' workshop, and the like. We got there a little late in the day so we didn't have time to do too much except walk around and check out the stores (wasabi chocolate anyone?) but it was still neat.
Eventually we made it to our hotel, the ryokan (a ryokan is a traditional Japanese style inn) Seifuso. It was chosen for a combination of online bookings (in English) and price. It was nice though I would have preferred a hotel with an onsen (hot springs). But the ones that I had found nearby were too expensive. Here's a picture of our Japanese style room.

Monday (7th): Japanese Alps Day 2
The next morning we headed back to Nagano (since it's kinda the hub for trains in that area) then took a train to Yudanaka. Yudanaka is an onsen town close to some more ski areas. It was a lot colder and snowier there but we weren't there to ski or hang out in an onsen, but to see Yudanaka's most famous attraction, Jigokudani Yaen Koen. It's a park / wildlife preserve and the home of a whole lot of wild Japanese Snow Monkeys. Getting there took a bit of work (we had to take a bus from the station then walk for quite a ways) but it was worth it. There were monkeys all over the place and we weren't stuck on one side of a fence or glass window but right there with them. The monkeys didn't really mind people so taking nice close up shots was no problem and neither was posing with the monkeys. Of course, you weren't supposed to feed them or touch them (probably a good idea even though they look all soft and cuddly). Like I said, there were quite a lot of monkeys around and that included babies. They monkeys even had their own onsen, which a lot of them like to hang out in during the winter.
When we finally finished watching and photographing the monkeys, it was back to Nagano. Before heading back home, Noah wanted to check out a sake brewery he'd heard about. There wasn't all that much to see but they did have a restaurant and a store. While we were there, we also ran into the real Zenkoji temple (and realized that we'd visited the wrong place the previous morning) so we stopped to check it out. The road leading up to it is lined with shops, restaurants, and ryokan and there's big gate part way up. Note the statues on either side. It's kinda hard to tell from the photo but they're really around 20 feet tall. The temple itself wasn't super impressive from the outside but there was a lot of fancy stuff inside (which you naturally couldn't photograph) like hangings, statues, and all sorts of decoration type stuff. If you got an admission ticket (which let you get a closer look at said fancy stuff), you could also go through a pitch dark tunnel under the temple. Aside from the fact that it's kinda fun to find your way through without being able to see, you're also supposed to be feeling around to try to find a special handle that's on one of the walls. Not quite sure what the purpose of it is, but I found it. By then it was getting kind of late so Noah and I got something to eat and headed back to the train station.
And that pretty much wraps up my trip to the Japanese Alps. Definitely a lot of fun and I highly recommend Matsumoto castle and the monkey park in Yudanaka.

Friday (11th): Quick Update
I took my brother to the airport today and we didn't do anything over the past couple days that's really worthy of a write up (took him to Yokohama but we didn't really go anywhere I hadn't been before).

Monday (14th): Sumo Wrestling

Hasn't been the best day for me. Some things went ok, but others... On the plus side, I got Monday off cause of a national holiday (the one for people who turn twenty in the past nine months or next three months) so I decided to hang out and relax Sunday. On the down side, my apartment was freezing all day on Sunday despite having both heaters running (not to mention my December electric bill was even higher (a lot higher) than November's). Plus my internet has been randomly dieing about every other day lately. Needless to say, I really dislike this apartment. I ended up getting a small cold on Sunday too (fortunately it's not too bad, just hope it goes away soon). To top off the bad luck, when I got back from today's excursion (which fortunately went fine), I found that my router had somehow reverted all its settings to the factory defaults, which kinda killed my network and internet until I got everything back to the way it was supposed to be. Ok, on with what I did today.

Monday (14th): Sumo Wrestling
Japan has several sumo tournaments throughout the year in different parts of the country. The January tournament is going on right now in Tokyo. It started yesterday and goes for two weeks. Being one of Japan's two national sports (the other being baseball), I figured I should check it out since I'm here and all. Tickets range from the equivalent of hundreds of dollars (for the seats closest to the ring) to less than $20 (same day tickets at the very top of the stadium, which is what I got). The stadium is easy to get to and a ticket gets you in for the entire day (around 8:40 - 6 or so). If you plan far enough ahead (and have decent Japanese skills), you can preorder tickets, which is the best way to go if you want anything aside from the cheapest seats (which actually can't be preordered). Otherwise, the box office sells around 350 cheap tickets every morning starting around 8:20. I got there at 7:20 and there was already a line, although not a very long one. It did get a lot longer over the following hour though so getting there early is a good idea.
Thing is, though lots of people buy tickets early, hardly anyone goes to the early matches. See, the day starts out with about 20 minutes of matches between unranked trainees. Around 9 or so the matches between the lowest ranking wrestlers start and they go on for several hours. It's not until mid afternoon when the mid ranking wrestlers show up that the place starts to fill up (naturally the highest ranking wrestlers towards the end of the day attract biggest following). BTW, these fancy aprons are given to the mid ranking guys and above but they're not worn during the actual matches, just ceremonies. According to the pamphlet I got at the stadium, each one costs at least 2,000,000 yen (a bit under $20,000) to make.
Anyway, sumo itself is a very old sport and still retains much of the ancient training routines and ceremony. Wrestlers live a very strictly regimented life and are easily recognizable no matter where you see them since they always wear traditional clothes and hairstyles. The matches are very ceremonial in nature and start with a guy chanting something followed by the wrestlers following a set procedure of where to stand, foot stomping, and the like, before the referee actually calls the start of the match.
When the match begins the wrestlers charge at each other. A wrestler loses if any part of his body touches the ground outside the ring or if anything other than the soles of his feet touches the floor inside the ring. There's no best two out of three or anything, it's just one match and that's it so if a wrestler gets a bad start or something they're gonna lose. Fortunately, their overall performance is based on how many matches they win over the course of the entire tournament so a little bad luck isn't necessarily a disaster. The opening ceremony for each match can easily take a couple of minutes or more (especially with the higher ranked guys) but the matches themselves are often finished in seconds, maybe a minute at most. Here's a movie of a couple of the mid ranking guys fighting. This was one of the more exciting matches I saw (in general the higher ranking the guys the more interesting it was to watch), but quite a lot of battles were over in less than ten seconds when one guy was just pushed out of the ring right from the start.
I also walked around inside the stadium. There's a restaurant, some snack stands, a bunch of souvenir shops, and a sumo museum.
My ticket allowed me to leave and re enter the stadium once so after watching a bunch of low ranked guys I took a break and went to the nearby Tokyo Edo Museum. It chronicles the history of Tokyo (which used to be called Edo) from the Edo period till modern times. It was a very interesting museum and quite a lot of the signs had English translations. There were lots of models and recreations of things, many life sized, and real artifacts as well. For example, here's a recreation of an Edo era bookstore and here's an Edo era peasant's house (only slightly smaller than my apartment). Anyway, it was a really cool museum.
I finished with the museum just in time to get back to the sumo stadium for the mid ranking matches (which I already posted some pictures of) and watched those for a little while before heading home. I was kinda tempted to stay another hour or so and see a few of the matches between the highest ranking guys but as I already mentioned I got a little bit of a cold so I decided I should probably get back a bit early.

A couple more things about the sumo tournament that I forgot to mention earlier. First, the sumo museum in the stadium. It was free with admission to the tournament. Pretty small but worth a look if you're already there. There was actually a decent amount of English translations but the grammar was pretty poor and there were some occasional (and really weird) spelling errors. My favorite line was, "His sun had a very healthly and strong childfood."
Also, while watching the matches, I started to wonder if any of the wrestlers ever got seriously hurt falling out of the ring. Some just kinda got pushed out or fell right outside the ring but others would go tumbling off the raised platform itself. Looked like it could be pretty painful if you fell wrong, although I suppose most of them have a lot of padding... For that matter, I also wondered if anyone ever got hurt by a sumo wrestler who was falling out of the ring. There were a few time I saw that they smacked into other wrestlers who were waiting for their matches and one wrestler who fell out completely flattened one of the judges (at least I think that's what the guy was). Everyone seemed to get up pretty quickly but it does seem a little dangerous.

Friday (18th): Schools in Japan
It's been getting colder around here and so has my apartment. I have to say, for such a tiny place (and with such a high electric bill, presumably from using the heaters so much) I find it very strange and annoying that the temperature of the apartment in general never reaches warm, just slightly less cold. I'm only warm in here when in bed, in the bath/shower (with the hot water running of course), or sitting right next to the heater (and even that usually only manages to warm one side of my body). It's almost like there's a space time anomaly in here that sucks out most of the warm air...

Random Japan Comment: Public School in Japan
The public school system has many things in common with the US at first glance, but if you look closer there's a whole lot of differences, some minor, some significant. Like in the US, there are elementary (1st - 6th grade), junior high (7th - 9th), and high schools (10th - 12th) and the ages at which students enter are roughly equivalent as well. Interesting note, high school is optional, but only a very very small number of people (several percent of the country's entire student population at most) decide not to attend. I should probably also note that there are lots of private preschools but very few private schools for elementary and junior high age kids.
The school year begins in April and ends in March (unlike the US which starts in Aug or Sept and goes through sometime in May or Jun). Japanese kids attend school during most of the year. Naturally they get national holidays off but aside from that breaks are very short compared to the US, with Japanese students getting only about two weeks for winter vacation, a week or two for spring, and a month for summer. They also tend to spend a much longer portion of their day at school. Even in elementary schools the kids are there before 8 and don't leave until around 4. Junior and senior high students often stay much later for club meetings (these meetings, and even joining a club in the first place, are mandatory at many schools). Because of this, many junior and senior high students have to get up extremely early and don't get home until fairly late, at which point they have to do their homework for the following day, leaving them little time for sleep. It's quite common to see students walking around on their way to school in the morning or way home in the evening looking like they're about to fall asleep at any given moment (because of the public transit system and the relative safety of the country, most kids walk, bike, or take the trains/subways to and from school). Many also have to go to club meetings (or, at some schools, even extra classes) during part of the weekend. Skipping school for nearly any reason (sickness included) is strongly discouraged.
All students have a home room teacher who stays with their class for the entire year (or in many cases their entire time at the school). Classes are set so the same group of students studies together the entire time (which means it's important for everyone to try and stay on good terms with everyone else in the class since they're together so often). In elementary school the homeroom teachers teach nearly every subject. In junior and senior high there are dedicated teachers for different subjects (who are often home room teachers as well) but the students don't go to them, they go to the individual class rooms (the only exception being classes that need special areas, equipment, and the like (labs, sports, etc)). As such, there isn't much flexibility in the curriculum, you learn what they want you to learn and that's about it.
Since high school is optional (even though pretty much everyone does it anyway), it's considered a privilege, not a right, to attend. Unlike elementary and junior high (where students attend what's usually the closest school to where they live), high schools have extremely rigorous entrance exams. High schools are also ranked based on how many of their students make it into top colleges so competition for the best high schools (even if they're far away) is fierce. To prepare, many junior high students attend private cram schools at night (on top of everything else) to help prepare for the tests. High school students preparing for college face an even larger array of entrance exams which usually means more cram school. Upon failing to make it into the college of their choice, some students will even wait until the following year (getting a dead end type job in the meantime) to retake the exams rather than enter a lower ranking college (on the plus side, college in Japan is typically very easy and undemanding, giving the students time to rest, enjoy club activities, and unwind a bit after years of overwork before starting their career).
The other things worth mentioning are clubs and school uniforms. Clubs are found mostly in junior high and high school (and colleges) but many elementary schools have them too (albeit unmandatory and with fewer meetings). Clubs cover an extremely wide range of subjects from sports (technically, a school's baseball/volleyball/whatever team is a club) to music to anime. Students are generally expected to join one (and only one) club shortly after arriving at the school and to stay in that club until they leave the school. In many schools both joining a club and attending all the meetings and activities (which there are often quite a lot of, especially for the sports clubs) is mandatory. However, it does ensure that students spend lots of time with others who have similar interests so clubs are often the favorite part of a student's school experience.
Now for school uniforms. If you haven't already figured it out, schools in Japan are a lot more strictly regimented than ones in the US, which fits with the general social rule in Japan of going along with the crowd and not sticking out (which has led to a lot of blatant counter cultures but this isn't the place to discuss that). School uniforms are a part of it and are a hallmark of junior high and high school (most elementary schools and colleges do not have uniforms). Any anime or manga fan can recognize a school uniform at a glance but for everyone else reading this I'll give a description. Keep in mind however, that uniforms vary by schools. And, even though they usually follow more or less the same basic setup, some are quite unique and locals can easily identify which school a student attends just by glimpsing the uniform. The typical uniform for boys is dark slacks (usually black or dark blue) with a white button down shirt, sometimes with a dark tie, and a dark coat (usually with large metal buttons). Girls get a "sailor suit" which is a dark skirt (of varying lengths) and a shirt or blouse that's usually either dark blue, black, or white and has one of those sailor type flare things around the neck, sometimes they wear a tie too. Both girls and guys' uniforms were originally based on US Navy uniforms. Also worth nothing is that the girls' uniforms are widely considered to be very cute and attractive (an idea that's sometimes taken a bit too far). Interestingly enough (considering that uniforms are mandatory there is little tolerance for not wearing or altering them), students have to buy their own uniforms and, from what I've heard, they aren't cheap.

Sunday (20th): Odaiba
Odaiba is part of Tokyo set on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay. It's a popular area for dates, family outings, etc and features a whole lot of shopping malls, attractions, museums, fancy hotels, and the like. With the most obvious landmark being that giant Ferris wheel you can see in some of my pictures from Tokyo Tower.
So, after being told repeatedly that I should go, I decided to take a day to explore Odaiba. Despite it being on an island, getting there is pretty easy. There's actually an underground tunnel connecting it to the rest of the city if you've got a car. For everyone else, there's a monorail line you can get on from Shimbashi station.
I had a list of several places there I wanted to check out but, since my main goal was just to explore the general area, I decided to walk around and stop at whatever looked interesting along the way instead of just hopping on and off the monorail at each of my main destinations. First thing I noticed, hardly anything at Odaiba opens before 11 AM, at least on Sundays. Fortunately, there was some places open at 10, one of which was Sega's Joypolis, an arcade complex inside the Decks Mall. Although they say it's an arcade, Joypolis doesn't have a ton of arcade games. The main attraction is the large bunch of rides (motion , haunted house type stuff, a roller coaster, etc) and 'big' games (various Sega arcade games (racing and shooting type stuff) on big screens with the players sitting in fake cars, snow mobiles, etc, that move and shake along with the game). Some things were pretty fun while others were clearly made with little kids in mind. Individual rides and attractions are also a bit on the expensive side considering how long they last (although if you think you're going to be hanging out for a while you can buy an unlimited day pass).
Anyway, by the time I got tired of Joypolis, everything else was open. Since I was already there, I took a walk through the Decks Mall, which is actually two malls with some walkways between them. If you like walking around malls, Odaiba is definitely the place for you. Even if the prospect doesn't sound all that thrilling, the malls can be worth a brief look anyway as some of the floors have different themes (often with matching stores, restaurants, and entertainment). For example, this floor was kinda a Japan in the 50's or 60's style and this one was based on Hong Kong. One other interesting feature of the Decks Mall was Muscle Park, an indoor theme park with a bunch of game type attractions designed to test your speed, reflexes, strength, etc. It looked like a lot of fun but I didn't find it till right after lunch and it definitely didn't look like something I'd want to try immediately after eating. If I go back to Odaiba sometime though I'm definitely going to give some of the games there a whirl.
There's another big mall, the Seaside Mall, (complete with a big movie theater and a Toys R Us) next to the Decks Mall, which I also walked through, and a third (Pallet Town) across a couple of streets near the huge Ferris wheel but I decided two malls were enough so I skipped it and kept going. Oh, if you like weird signs, I think this was for a clothing line.
Being an island and all, Odaiba has its own beach. It was a nice place for a stroll but I'm betting it's much more popular during warmer times of year. If you're on the beach in Odaiba, and haven't had a chance to visit New York City, you can save yourself the trip and see the Statue of Liberty, although Odaiba's version is only ten or fifteen feet tall, making it a heck of a lot smaller than the real thing.
Once I got past the malls and hotels there wasn't a whole lot to see on the road I was on, aside from the occasional neat looking building. After a bit of walking I made it to the area where some of the museums were. Only one of the museums really interested me and that was the Museum of Emerging Science and Technology (although there's lots of others in the area including the Fuji TV Museum, Maritime Sciences Museum (think ships), Shell Museum (the gasoline company, not real shells), and more). It was a pretty big museum and had some neat exhibits about things like space, robotics, and nano machines. It had English translations for most of the stuff, which was nice, although a lot of it got really scientific. It started out interesting but my mind began to bog down a bit after reading too much of it. There's also some more visual and hands on type stuff for the kids (and people who get tired of reading description boards after a while).
Having had enough science for one day, and wanting to make it to my last major destination, I left the museum a bit earlier than I could have and headed for Odaiba Edo Onsen Montigiri, a "themepark" based on onsen (Japanese hot springs baths) and the Edo period. Now if you think that sounds like a really weird theme for a themepark, it is. Still fun though. It's a real onsen too (they actually managed to find a spring way underground) so it's a great place to try the whole onsen experience without the time or expense of traveling to one of the usual onsen resort towns. And it's definately an experience, in some ways more so than going to an actual onsen resort.
You start out by getting a shoe locker and ditching your shoes, traditional Japanese style and all that. After that you pay and get your pass, which is a wrist band with a locker key (for your main locker, not your shoe locker) and a barcode. To save you the trouble of carrying a wallet around (and I do think it would have been a bit of a pain to carry mine, you'll see why in a minute), any time you want to buy something while you're inside the park, they just scan your wristband and you pay up when you leave. After getting your pass, you've got to get a yukata (traditional Japanese summer time type outfit) to wear while you're inside. Yukata rental is included with admission to the park and guys and girls both have about eight different designs to choose from (mine was a light blue color with a mountain design on it). After that it's off to the changing room where you change into your yukata and dump your clothes and other stuff in a big locker. For people who can't figure out how to put on a yukata, there's a sign with English instructions in the changing room (useful since I probably wouldn't have gotten the belt right on my own). From this point on, it's barefeet and yukata only.
Emerging from the locker room, I found myself in Edo (old time Tokyo). Well, sorta. It's no Nikko Edo Mura (the Edo era village theme park I went to last year), but the "main street" is still fun to walk around and packed with stores, Japanese style carnival games, and restaurants. There's even some live entertainment from time to time. If you're hungry there's two foodcourts and a ton of restaurants. It's mostly various types of traditional Japanese food (but quite a wide variety of that). Nearly all the restaurants had picture menus but there was almost no English and some of the menus had so much kanji that I could have only figured them out with my electric dictionary in hand, so I went with kake soba (a Japanese noodle dish) for dinner, simple, popular, and and a nice safe standby when I can't figure out what the heck the rest of the things on a menu are. Aside from the food and shopping there's also a traditional ryoukan style rest room (a large tatami room with a lot of low tables people can lounge around when they want to relax). Most of that stuff stays open till around 9 although the main baths are open all night (closed only during mid morning when the entire complex is shut down). I heard they even have a capsule hotel in there somewhere.
Anyway, it's an onsen park after all so what people really come for is the baths. There's a lot to choose from. First off, the foot bath (it was dark outside by the time I went to check out that area). There's a large outdoor area with a sort of onsen river looping around it. Great for walking through or dangling your feet in the water but that's about it Keep in mind that, unless you're really tall, you're gonna have to hold up the sides of your yukata so it doesn't get wet. It's also one of the only baths that isn't seperated by gender.
Moving on, there was a whole lot of special baths (hot sand bath, hot stone slab bath, etc) and oriental massage type stuff available but those cost extra so I saved my money and instead headed to the main baths. There's seperate main bath areas for both men and women, the only exception to the rule being little kids who have to stay with whatever parent brought them. Naturally I was only in the men's bath but I'm going to assume that the two are pretty similiar. The baths start out with yet another locker room where you pick up towels and another locker key (yes, all the different lockers do get kinda redundant). You use this locker to stash your regular locker key, large towel (to dry off with after the bath), and yukata. The only things you bring into the bath itself are your bath locker key and the smaller of the two towels you were given (basically a really large washcloth). Keep in mind that, even though this is a "themepark" it's still a traditional Japanese onsen which means that everyone goes in completely naked. Like I said, it's seperated by genders but if you're extremely shy or have some other problem with being naked or being surrounded by a lot of other naked people, you're going to have to either get over it or take a bath in your apartment/house/hotel room, instead.
Interesting note, people with tatoos aren't allowed inside. It's nothing against tatoos exactly... Thing is, members of the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) have a tradition of being heavily tatooed so in Japan tatoos and the Yakuza are linked in many people's minds, making them uncomfortable around people with tatoos (like many people in the US would probably be uncomfortable if a whole bunch of Hell's Angels bikers sat next to them in a restaurant).
Anyway, I already covered onsen etiquette in a previous post so I won't go into it again but it's the same at the park. As always, it's very important to follow (there are some cultural things, such as onsen etiquiette and where you can and can't wear shoes, in which Japanese people have a lot less tolerance for mistakes than others). Fortunately, there's an English signboard somewhere in the locker room with the details if you're new to the whole thing.
The main bath area was pretty big and had something like nine different baths in a very nice setup. Water temperature was usually the main difference (mostly ranging from warm to moderately hot, with one really cold and a couple really hot) although there was also a bath with spa jets, and one with milky white water that I assume was from some sort of mineral mix (there was a sign explaning it but I couldn't translate the part that said what was in the water). Two of the baths were outdoors in a nifty little faux mountain retreat setting (complete with rocks, trees, waterfall, etc). And, if you wanted the heat without the water, there was a big sauna too.
And that's the onsen park. If you like (or just want to try out) the whole onsen thing without having to leave Tokyo I'd said it's definately worth checking out and your admission fee is good until closing time (the following morning since it's open all night) so it's great for anything from a couple of hours to an entire day if you're really enjoying yourself (although if you're staying that long, keep in mind that it wouldn't be healthy to stay in the baths the entire time, so take a break and hang out in the Edo main street from time to time).
I had work the next day so I didn't want to stay too late so after exploring the onsen park, hanging out in the baths for a while, and getting dinner, I changed back into my regular clothes, paid my tab, and headed for the nearest monorail station.

Friday (25th): Update and Cute Stuff

So, just a few updates on what I've been up to before today's RJC. First off, they finally finished construction on the sports field at school so I can go out and play dodgeball and stuff with the kids again during recess. It took something like two months but they transformed a big dirt field into...a big dirt field. I mean, it's nicer dirt now, there's a whole lot less rocks and they put some sort of gravel layer beneath the dirt to keep it even and all, but going just by looks it'd be pretty hard to tell the old field and the new field apart. And here I thought they were gonna put in grass or something fancy...
The school also did a safety drill (or maybe more of a presentation) today that I watched. I originally thought it was gonna be a fire drill of some sort but it turned out to be about what to do if some one comes into the classroom with a knife (since it isn't legal for civilians to own guns in Japan, although criminals can get them on the black market). Seems like a rather odd subject for a drill, especially since the rate of violent crime in Japan is extremely low, but I suppose it's a required safety thing (or maybe just looks good on an events checklist). Anyway, the basic point of the whole thing was, if someone wearing a mask and carrying a knife walks into the classroom, scream and run away. Also, if someone comes into the classroom and they're not wearing a mask or carrying a knife, you don't need to scream and run away. And that was pretty much it, seriously. Since I really doubt that Japanese school kids completely lack any shred of common sense, the whole thing seemed like a waste of time. Kinda amusing to watch though.
Outside of school, my apartment is still freezing and Mario Galaxy is awesome, as is Final Fantasy Tactics for the PSP (a port of the original Playstation FFT with some new features). FFT Advance was nice and all but nowhere near as good as the original. Actually, as hard as it may be to believe, even though it's been something like nine years since since I first played FFT and I've played a ton of strategy RPGs since then (many of them excellent games), the original Final Fantasy Tactics is still the best strategy RPG I've ever played. The story is great and there's some cool sub quests and all that but no other SRPG has managed to create such perfect battle and character development systems. Which is especially unusual since when a really good game comes out, it's typically not long before most other games in the genre start ripping off its best features. Personally, I'd love it if some games started stealing FFT's stuff, especially the battle system. Having characters take turns individually based on their speed makes for much more interesting battles than having entire teams take their turn at once (which is what just about every other SRPG does). Now if Square-Enix would just make a proper sequel instead of more FFT Advance games... But enough going off topic.

Random Japan Comment: Cute Stuff
In the US, the general push for mascots, logos, and the like seems to be "cool". You know, something sleek, hip, and stylish that will attract the teens and twenty somethings. In Japan there's still some "cool" stuff but the real key word in Japanese advertising (and just stuff in general) is "cute". Who needs some cool guy advertising their products when they could have a talking cat or a smiling cartoon whatever? And I'm not just talking kids and kids products. For example, DoCoMo, the country's largest cellphone provider, has a family of walking mushrooms that pop up in every single ad, sign, and flyer that they have. You can even buy mushroom plushies (stuffed animals) and cell phone charms at any DoCoMo store (and you'd be surprised how many people have one (or a couple dozen) hanging from their cellphone). At times it seems that just about every major brand and store/restaurant chain has a cute mascot thing of some sort. Most US based companies don't seem to bother with it but then again, some do. For example, Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders (yes, seriously) are a heck of a lot more visible at their Japanese restaurants than their US ones.
It's not just a business thing either, Japanese people in general just like cute stuff. Just about everyone under 30 (and a lot of people over) have at least one cute thing hanging from their cellphones (often times two, three, or even about fifteen). There's also plenty of cute things to be found on clothes, bags, etc. And I'm sure any anime, manga, or video game fan would have no trouble pointing out just how many series have a token cute character (be they human(ish) or some fluffy animal thing). Some especially popular "cute stuff" includes various Pokémon, Slimes from the Dragon Quest/Warrior games, Hello Kitty, and Disney characters (particularly Mickey, Chip & Dale, and Stitch).

Sunday (27th): Ueno Museums
I didn't want to do anything major Sunday plus I only have a handful of big day trip plans left anyway (like, two or three) since, having been here for so long, I've toured this part of Japan fairly extensively. Most of the remaining things on my 'to see' list are just stuff around Tokyo. So anyway, I decided to see some more of the museums in Ueno Park. There's quite a lot of museums in the park and the only one I'd seen so far was the excellent Tokyo National Museum (which I talked about in a previous post) so I went through the list in my tour book and picked out the ones that looked interesting.
I was originally planning to go to three museums but the National Museum of Western Art was closed while they get ready for some big special exhibit so I moved on to my second destination, the National History Museum, which is very easily recognizable by the giant whale in front of the building. If you've ever been to a natural history museum, this is the same type of thing. There were exhibits on things like animals and plants from around Japan, the life of ancient Japanese people (really ancient, like stone age), rocks, fossils, dinosaurs, etc. There was some neat stuff to look at but the museum has almost no English and I didn't want to spend all day trying to translate the signs so look was about all I did.
After walking through the park for a bit (there was a very small festival going on) and grabbing lunch from some stalls near the shrine in the center of the lake, I headed for the Shitamachi Museum. It's a small museum about life in Tokyo during the 1920's-50's. It's a very hands on place and they have sections from several old buildings inside that you can take off your shoes and walk around in. For example, here's a shop from the 20's that sold straps for traditional Japanese sandals and here's a candy shop from that same time period. And here's a house from the 20's and one from the 50's. There wasn't a lot of English (heck in some parts there wasn't all that much Japanese either since you're supposed to be checking all the stuff out for yourself) but the museum has a bunch of volunteer guides, some of which speak English. As soon as I got my ticket I was greeted by a Japanese lady who spoke passable English and gave me a very nice tour of the museum, explaining the history and purpose of a lot of the different things. It was very interesting and after my tour was finished I hung around for a bit longer to take a closer look at some things, snap a few pictures, and try out some traditional Japanese toys.
Since one of the museums I'd planned to see was closed, and I got through the National History Museum fairly quickly (since I wasn't reading any signs), I finished up earlier than I thought I would and had some time to kill so I went to Nakano for a while to browse the figurine, game, and music stores. As I've said before, it's no Akihabara but there's still some great stores there, especially when it comes to old toys and figurines. Besides, since Akihabara is so close to Ueno station I end up going there quite a lot, while Nakano is pretty out of the way so I don't get there much, making it a nice change. So yeah, I had fun, found some rare soundtracks I'd been wanting, and stumbled across a rather awesome clearance sale so it turned out to be a pretty great shopping trip. I'll probably have to go back once or twice more before I head back to the US in April.

Part 5: December 2007

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