Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas in Japan

As only a tiny fraction of the Japanese population is Christian, everyone works on Christmas Day. For this reason, families celebrate the holiday on Christmas Eve. The Kato family did the same.

Mune and Asako joined Otoosan, Okaasan, Tomo and I for an amazing dinner, long night of talking, Christmas music, and presents. The food, as always, was delicious! We prepared it first (I made broccoli with olive oil and garlic!) and then headed to Mass at a nearby Church. It was a small, intimate service with lots of Christmas carols (as most were in Japanese, I was very thankful to have been provided with a hiragana lyric guide). Afterwards we went back home, ate dinner, and opened presents.

My search for the Kato's presents was a long and hard one. I wanted to make sure each one had meaning and substance, as they have been so so so kind to me over the past 4 or 5 months (which is it?). Eventually, I found what I thought were good gifts for everyone:

Tomo- a guide book to Brazil (he keeps talking about going there next year, and as Okaasan seemed a bit worried over this, I thought it'd be a good idea), a love charm from Hiroshima (which ended up working, as he had a date the next day!), and a few sticks of insense (loves the stuff).

Mune and Asako- figured a joint gift would be a good idea, as they're about to get married. Found a nice photoframe, thinking they could put their wedding picture in it...they promised! : )

Okaasan- I found a plant/bonsai/thing...it's really hard to explain, but I think she liked it! I'll try to take a picture so you understand.

Otoosan- a bottle of wine I like- Casillero del Diablo's 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon- and a book I read in high school religion, "A Man's Search for Meaning." He and I are always discussing that sorta stuff.

The Kato's, being the extremely giving people they are, were so generous towards me. Mune and Asako gave me two wonderful pieces of Japanese craft...not sure what else to call them. One is a New Year's piece to go on the wall...the other is a miniature kite-like thing with the kanji for dragon! Okaasan and Otoosan gave me really nice gloves...Okaasan was scared I'd be cold in Beijing- and boy was she right! Tomo gave me a really cool wallet/business card holder thing, saying "You get alot of those in Japan...and you'll get more if you ever become a salaryman (businessman in Japan)."

After gifts (which, by the way, were given out during happy singing and dancing to Christmas music) we indulged in Christmas Cake...something that exists no where but Japan I think. The whole country rushes out to buy strawberry and vanilla cake... really tasty, but is it truly a Christmas tradition? In Japan!

The famous Japanese Christmas Cake

Tomo, proud of the underwear (and nice pants) he received from his brother Mune.

Asako and Mune brandishing their haul ; )

Okaasan and Otoosan- everyone's happy!

Someone show Julia this so she knows her bear was omnipresent!
Thanks again Jules!

My host family...I've been so lucky.

Three siblings...which one do you think is the homestay kid?

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas!

I think it's still Christmas in America, so I can safely wish everyone a happy, healthy, and exciting Christmas! To all my family, Lisa, and friends, thank you for being there for me during the down times and for going with me during the good times. I hope God blesses your family, and that we can reunite in the near future! Also, Happy New Year!

Japanese Friends

The Japanese, for the most part, like Americans. They especially like New Yorkers (lucky for me) because we're "ka-kui!" (cool!)...which of course I already knew ; )

That being said, up until about midway through my time here, the only Japanese people I considered close to me were the Kato's...which, of course, is fine because they are amazing people whom I now can consider family. But there are only so many times I could go to JUSCO events (see Princess post somewhere below) and be told "How are you Burian? Good? Okay good... be a nice boy. Smile. Yes. Good." I am in a Sophia University circle, as discussed in my previous post, but there everything is just business...and besides, half the members are gaijin like me. So you can see why it was nice to finally make REAL Japanese friends- Satomi and K.

I met Satomi in Nagoya while on the Toyota business class excursion. She is a very traditional Japanese girl who hates the modern Shibuya-plastic girl culture (yea, haven't spoken on this yet...but expect a rant in the next week or so). She comes from Saitama (area just North of Tokyo) and has excellent English. In fact, she is taking a few classes in English! She is 24 years old, as she missed a couple of years of school due to illness, but is fine now and will graduate in a year.

This is Satomi. She likes octopus.

K, or Kyohei, is from Hokkaido- the northernmost part of Japan. He loves baseball, so our early conversations all revolved around how much the MLB teams would bid on Matsuzaka Daisuke. He is a business major who is studying to take over his father's import-export business in 10 years.

This is Kyohei...he ate quite a bit of sushi at kaiten.

Both Satomi and K currently have apartments (for some reason called mansions in Japan) in Roppongi, a ritzy area known for expensive restaurants and great views of Tokyo Tower. We had a wine and dinner party a week ago:

(From right to left, since we're in Japan) Dominick, myself, K, Maya (Satomi's younger brother).

Satomi and Jade enjoying some Shiraz or Merlot.

K: What? I didn't do it! All I did was make AMAZING rice balls!

Good food, tasty wine, soft jazz in the background, and good friends!

K and I saw this statue at the train station...good lookin' fella.

A couple days ago Satomi, Kyohei, and I met up at Roppongi Hills. We had a great sushi meal at a local kaiten sushi place (the conveyor belt approach). There was a beautiful Christmas light display, and after strolling through it we headed over to Shimbashi for another one! Afterwards, still hungry, we ascended to the 45th floor of a nearby tower and had appetizers! Here are some photos:

Green tea and raw salmon...does it get any better?

The view from the promenade at Roppongi Hills...Christmas light display and, in the distance, Tokyo Tower.

K and Satomi in front of Roppongi Hills.

The Christmas display at Shimbashi was set up to resemble the ocean.

The building in the distance is where we went to eat afterwards...during the show there was music, dry ice, and even a Santa Claus! (sorry, no pictures)

Our table had a great view of Tokyo....not to mention the food...ohh the food! Kind of a Japanese-Italian fusion!

Anyway, so it's nice to have real Japanese friends. Satomi is talking about coming to NY in the spring, and K may come...additionall, Satomi insists on talking in Japanese so I can learn as much as possible while here. K has invited me to his home in Hokkaido, and maybe I'll go! They have been so generous, and so willing to show me Tokyo in the short time we've known each other. I'm very grateful, and look forward to years of having both family and friends in Japan. It'll make a good excuse for vacation or business trip!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Japanese Circles

Here in Japan I belong to one Sophia University club, "Sophia Enterprises". You can find my name nicely displayed under the Board of Directors list (impressive, huh?) at Sophia Enterprises: The Business Circle of Sophia University. So far I've done...well, very little for this club. I've prepared a letter to send to companies in the hopes of receiving internship offers for Sophia students. I've made an announcement to my classes regarding the organization's Job Forum and...well, thus far that's it. But I am on the Board of Directors!

You see, clubs in Japanese universities work a bit differently than in the United States... Here, there is something called a "sempai-kohai relationship" in which a certain kind of militaristic obedience is taught. New members (kohai) are assigned (sometimes dogmatically, sometimes simply implied) a sempai under which they, for lack of a better word, serve. My sempai is a fourth-year student named Keisuke. He is a nice enough guy, very dedicated to the group, and likes to call and email his kohai.

Currently, I am on his internship hunting team. We are charged with finding local companies willing to give Sophia students internships. I have contacted (betchya ya never could guess) The Ritz Carlton and Disney. As far as other things go...the group is planning a 2 week trip to Xian, China in the spring. Attending students will learn basic Chinese, see famous sites, and eat good food. I will be in America!

Thats it on this for now.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Hiroshima and Miyajima

This past weekend, all the CIEE students traveled from Tokyo to Hiroshima by shinkansen. The bullet train trip took only 4 hours, and in the luxurious surroundings of the shinkansen, it was quite the pleasurable journey! Well, actually, that's a little misleading. After the first hour, in which we passed by Mt. Fuji and I was able to snap a good photo, I feel asleep. The group had met at the shinkansen station at 7:30 AM, meaning I had woken up at 5:00 AM (oi!). The night before was spent in good company (Dom, Randi, Satomi, Greg from England, Milo) and doing good stuff (seeing the new Bond movie and eating bad Italian food) but as a result, my sleep was severely limited. The shinkansen nap was nice.

Upon arriving in Hiroshima, we immediately met two tour guides who showed us Hiroshima Castle (although we simply passed by in the bus!), the Bomb Dome (which had somehow survived the a-bomb albeit being situated but a few yards from the blast's epicenter!), a few memorials to the tragedy, and a museum. The musuem was truly haunting. From a watch stopped at 8:15 am (time of the blast) to graphic photographs of melted skin and deformed fingernails, to intimate stories of what young school kids were doing when they perished, it really made everyone sit back and think. The war was obviously a horrible event, no matter who you were. Japan did horrible things to begin the war with the United States. That being said, the fact that so many innocent people died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and other places throughout the world, on both sides) is still an awful tragedy.

The museum visit was followed by a pair of lectures. The first, by a local American historian, disturbed quite a few students, myself included. He stated, quite frankly, that the atomic bomb (disaster as it was) was a war crime, that it was "special" and, in a sense, worse than the other war crimes (Holocaust, among others)...this was too much for me to hear. I can understand having a questioning mind and looking at history from all sides, but this was simply too much. Many of the Asian CIEE students felt the same way.

The next speaker was an atomic bomb survior, an old lady (obaachan) who retold her vivid account of the events of the day. It was chilling, so I obviously can't say it was "fun" or "interesting" but...it left a mark and made everyone think.

That night, we all went to a collection of okonomiyaki restaurants. The restaurants were basically stalls in one big, 4 or 5 storied building. There are two famous variations of okonomiyaki in Japan- Hiroshima and Osaka. Having now tasted both, I have to say the Hiroshima wins hands down!

After dinner, Jade, Dom, Randi and I headed out in search of a jazz club we had heard about. Unfortunately, the map and address we were given proved faulty, and we ended up walking up and down the same street a couple of times. The good news? We found an awesome coffee and cake shop and had a great dessert! We went back to the hotel pretty soon afterwards, and Dom and I headed to the onsen. After a good chat and relaxing soak, we called it a night.

The next day was spent at Miyajima, and I have to say it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to (up there with Mont Blanc, Hoh Rain Forest, and Arches National Park). The island is home to the world famous "floating" torii. After a tour of the Itsukushima Shrine (built in the 6th Century AD!), we ascended, via cable car, to the top of the mountainous island. The view at the top was spectacular! We were able to see to the far horizon, where rounded mountain peaks covered in mist appeared as the humps of a rolling dragon (no, really!). Below, oyster farms dotted the sun-sparkled sea and fishermen scurried to and fro in their tiny boats. It felt...well, to be honest, a little bit like looking down at the world of Zelda in The Wind Waker!

Pictures can be found below:

Monday, November 27, 2006

Late night studying....

There are no 7-11's in Japan.

There are 7-i holding's, but those just sound funny. Same company and all, but doesn't do it for me. So late night studying can't consist of taking 4:00 am trips to get YooHoo and chips with Erv, Andrew, or Mark. But I guess their absence (and the fact that there's only a Family Mart within walking distance) makes that impossible anyway.

When I need to study late into the night here, I go to Johnathan's (basically a Friendly's/Denny's substitute). It's open 24 hours a day, is a 15 minute walk from home, and has a great deal- all you can drink coffee/tea/soda/juice for Yen400 (about $3.50 or so). Of coure, this invariably ends up with me studying successfully, but always regretting the idea of "getting the zen for my yen" by drinking enough coffee to fill a salaryman's quota. That being said, it's a nice setup.

I'm about to go to sleep. I just finished memorizing 40 or so Japanese terms, all of which look strikingly similar (try dismantling separate meanings from seiri, seida, seiru, zaibatsu, zairen, saikin, blah, bleh, and blooh) and have similar meanings (orderliness in the workplace, cleanliness of the desk, meaningless of this management technique, pointlessness of that economic theory) for my Japanese Management midterm tomorrow.

One thing I do want to say (besides the stuff I already mentioned) about Johnathan's is that there's a great song they play every 10 minutes or so. Most of its in Japanese, but spontaneously the singers break out in the following English chorus:

Lalala, we're gonna have a hardy party toniiiight,
Yea we're gonna have a hardy party toniiiight,
A hardy paaaaarty,
Yea a hardy paaaaarty,
A hardy paaaaarty,
You heard right a hardy paaaarty.
All right?

It amuses me.

That is all.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Royal Imperial Highness Princess Takamado Hisa

Yesterday I gave a speech to 800 people, including the President of the Yomiuri Shimbun, various ambassadors, different corporate leaders, Lady Fry of England and, most importantly, Princess Takamado Hisa of the Imperial Royal Family.

For any interested parties, the following is a picture of the Princess. The next graphic details her relation within the Imperial Family. For more information, refer to this link.

Imperial House of Japan
HIM The Emperor
HIM The Empress
HIH The Crown Prince
HIH The Crown Princess
HIH Princess Toshi
HIH Prince Akishino
HIH Princess Akishino
HIH Princess Mako
HIH Princess Kako
HIH Prince Hisahito
HIH Prince Hitachi
HIH Princess Hitachi
HIH Prince Mikasa
HIH Princess Mikasa
HIH Prince Tomohito of Mikasa
HIH Princess Tomohito of Mikasa
HIH Princess Akiko
HIH Princess Yohko
HIH Prince Katsura
HIH Princess Takamado
HIH Princess Tsuguko
HIH Princess Noriko
HIH Princess Ayako

Until arriving at The Imperial Hotel's Peacock Room, I hadn't the slightest idea of neither the size or reason for this event. I soon found out when I entered the ballroom to find huge flags (both Japan and U.S.), white-gloved servers, chandaliers, and lots and lots of table settings. I also discovered the purpose- to award the 3 chosen winners of the annual H.I.H. Prince Takamado Trophy All Japan Inter-Middle School English Oratorical Contest (really, thats the name)!

Many students from all over Japan participated, and there are three winners who get scholarships to high schools. This basically decides the rest of their professional lives, because what high school you go to
determines which college you can go to, which in turn determines which company you can work for! If you don't go to one of the top 5 or 7 universities (Todai, Waseda, Keio, Nanzan, Sophia, et...) you will most likely not get the chance to work for Nintendo, Sony, Mitsubishi, Toyota, or perhaps most impressive, the Japanese government.

Before the speech I was sitting and staring at my Japanese in a vain attempt to memorize the stuff and Japanese people kept coming up to me and saying "Ah, are your Buraian Sumisu-san?"and I'd say "Hai", and they'd say "Are you ok? Do you need more comfort?" and I'd say I was fine...but invariably they'd find me a new place to sit, so I was moved around so I was moved around quite a bit. People would say "Ok, now you can do this if you want...." and if I didnt do it they would say it again...so I realized they were telling me what to do. I felt a bit like Bill Murray in the commercial scene from Lost in Translation. Here's the scene I'm referring to:

Basically, I was the token gaijin whom they sheparded out onto the stage like a puppy. I do tricks for food.

So the event started and I sat there and sat there, confused the whole time as I was originally informed I was to give the opening speech. Then, towards the very end of the reception, a white-gloved Japanese person dressed like an airport pilot motioned to me, "It is time". I was then led to the side of the stage and sat in a chair. The white-gloved attendent left.
Finally, three minutes later I heard "Ladies and gentlement, please welcome Mr. Brian Smith, from the United States of America, student at Sophia University."

I got a lot of laughs during my speech...probably because most of the Japanese audience found it impossible to believe any non-Japanese person possesed the ability to speak their language. After a few minutes, I bowed and said "Arigato gozaimasu" and stumbled (I was shaking the entire time) back to my seat. Finally it was over! It was such a relief, and I said so too- to the several people who congratulated me at the end. The speech itself was in both Japanese and English. I will provide transcripts at the end of this entry.

Afterwards, I took a picture with the Princess. During the photo session, and while the camera was flashing she spoke to me:

Princess: I know a boy about your age. He comes from England.

Me: Oh, sounds interesting.
Princess: Yes. He came here thinking he was to be with his girlfriend. But she trunked him the day he arrived.
Me: Oh golly...gee Miss that's awful!
Princess: Yes. And so I took him out to dinner the other day and I said "Gregory, whatever are you going to do now?" He has no English-speaking friends other than myself, you see.
Me: Wow, that's a horrible situation! How long is he in Japan?
Princess: Yes. For a while. I do wish he had some English-speaking friends. If only I could procure someone's contact information.
[Here, Princess turns and smiles at me]
Me: Well um...er...Do you want....m-m-my information?
Princess: Oh thank goodness! That's what I was after the whole time! Please!

So now I'm officially on call for the Emperor's family's whim. Should make for an interesting last 2 months in Japan. I did get an email from young Gregory, actually. I won't paste its contents here in fear of deportation but to summarize: "Let's hang out!"

I hate the internet

About 5 minutes ago, Mozilla Firefox crashed, making it the second time in 1 week I have lost a valuable entry to this blog. I had spent good time writing a few paragraphs about my visit to the Toyota plant (see entry to sections below) and had just pressed the "insert photo" button in order to present my loving family, friends, and admirers with evidence of the robots I had witnessed, when Mozilla just....crashed. So much for technology!

Last week was filled with 3, yes THREE, straight days of Japanese tests! Nothing else but continuous studying and the feeling that hell was crashing down upon my shoulders. The first day was a skit (mine was with another student, Alvin, and was a rather comical rendition of a Japanese salaryman mixed up with the wrong crowd in a party). The second day was kanji, for which I spent maybe 20+ hours writing the complex critters non-stop...in all, there were 111 new kanji required for this test! The third and final test day consisted of grammar points and listening. All in all, it was an exhausting experience that I am overjoyed to be done with. That being said, I think I did decently.

On Wednesday afternoon, CIEE held an organized trip to the Toraya company headquarters. Toraya is a Japanese sweets company that has been producing traditional wagashi for over five centuries! Wagashi is made from azuki beans, grains such as mochi-rice or wheat, potatoes, and sesame seeds. We were talked to by two guys in lab coats, whom I originally assumed (and naturally I think) were bakers. Ends up they were actually salary-men-executives. The whole thing reminded me a lot of the Muppets lab and the two guys were Dr. Bunson Honeydew and his assistant Beaker. Not quite the Wonka experience I had hoped for- no one was turned into a giant wagashi- but we were given samples with tea and a gift bag at the end to boot! Overall another interesting look into Japanese culture.

For any interested parties, here is wagashi:

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Kato House

This space will soon be occupied by a photojournalistic tour of the Kato household. Thank you for your patience.

The Robots of Toyota

This space will soon be occupied by an account of my travels with my Japanese Management class to Nagoya, where we toured a Toyota manufacturing plant.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Kyoto! 京都

Rather than make some vain attempt to rack my mind for all the memories from the time since I last posted, I'm going to simply say this: I was in Kyoto for a week, came back to Tokyo, then left for Nagoya for an additional 2 days. For this reason, I was unable to post anything here.

Wow. Okay. I just realized I had already stated that. Yay for the obvious!

Now, the much anticipated KYOTO STORY!

I had started planning this trip a few weeks back, and even compiled a small group that wished to go. It included Jade, Milo, Lizzy, the other Brian Smith, and Randi. One thing led to another, though, and eventually the group shrunk to just myself, Jade, and Milo. Lizzy ended up receiving an invite by her host family to go another time, and the other Brian Smith ran into some financial issues with his bank. Soon enough, however, Randie joined back up and, this time, brought Brown-Haired Dominick along! (from now on, he will be simply referred to as Dominick).

Thus, our team on Mission Kyoto consisted of:






After a frantic search to find everyone (ends up there are 3 or 4 entrances to the same Shinkansen gate at Tokyo Eki), we finally were aboard the bullet train and headed for Kyoto! The train left the station at 10:36 (and having boarded at 10:32 I'd say the Fates smiled kindly upon us) and arrived in Kyoto Eki a little before 1:00. It's a good thing, too, because prior to said arrival we weren't quite sure whether or not we had gotten on the correct train!

Our first impressions of Kyoto were quite different than had been expected. Rather than the cobbled roads lined with tori gates, hoardes of strolling geishas, and samurai recruitment offices set up on each corner, we saw this:

Besides not fitting the above assumed description, Kyoto Tower (the white protusion above) is perhaps the most hideous structure ever deemed a tourist attraction. There's supposedly an observation deck located in the UFO-looking thing at the top...but with Kyoto possessing virtually no skyline to speak of, I'm not quite sure of its purpose.

I'll come back on and write more later- I'm a bit sick and need some rest. But before I leave for the time being, let me say CONGRATS to Mr. Nicholas Giglia on a great job offer!

Back later today.

Okay, so back to Kyoto! The first priority was to check into our first hotel, which was included in the skinkansen ticket package. For some reason, Milo, Dominick, and myself were given a room far, far bigger than 3 people would need. This incited a bit of jealousy amongst the girls, which we of course took as a sign to rub our good fortune in : )

I could sit here and bore you with minute details about each temple we visited (and there were ALOT), but instead let's go for some photojournalism, shall we?

Am I the only one who wants to crawl on the bumpy green background?

Ginkakuji Temple

At "Philospher's Stone"- the ending point of the famous Philosopher's Path- so named for famous Japanese philosopher, Kitaro Nishida, who used to walk the route during meditation sessions.

Sun-god give me the power to rule the lake!

Ryoanji, the most famous zen garden in Kyoto. If only the people weren't so loud! It was extremely difficult to meditate.

Where was this? Not sure I remember but not sure it matters...beautiful nonetheless! Notice the beginning of fall.

Milo and I reinacting the Japanese cupid scene. This is from the so-called Love Stone Shrine. Legend has it that a lover or lover-aspiree is to shut his or her eyes and walk a straight line 20 yards or so to the "love stone". If he or she is able to accomplish this feat, they will enjoy love forever. If he or she fails, however, they will spend the rest of their lives alone and miserable. There are many such tests at temples and shrines in Japan. It is always my policy to simply not try them out.

In front of Kyomizudera...the top gave us amazing views of the forest and downtown Kyoto.

From atop Kyomizudera.

Once again...

Later, we spoke to these "geisha" who said to us, "Um, you know we're not real...right?" Too bad!

Eating on the first night. They cooked right in front of us! Some kind of Japanese omelette....I forget the name, and need to look it up but wow was it good!

In front of the famed Kinkakuji temple...we visited at the perfect time of day- just in time to witness the sun reflecting off the equally golden temple, washing the lake in its warmth! The picture does it no justice whatsoever.

Kinkakuji temple, seriously one of the most beautiful sites I have ever seen...so why not include two pictures?

Thought my father would like the site of this- a ton of fresh, raw seafood! The roundish sausage-looking things to the bottom right are actually ovaries of some kind! And no, I didn't eat them.

So that's a lot of pictures...one interesting note- the hotel/hostel we were staying at did not have any rooms available on the last day (Friday night)... so we had to find alternative housing. Little did we know, however, how hard that would prove to be. We called 2 hostels. We stopped by one hotel. Nothing, nothing, and nothing was available. The owner of our original hotel then presented us with two, er...less convetional options- karaoke bar and manga cafe. For those who are unaware, a karaoke bar becomes extremely cheap after midnight, and can be rented for maybe $10 for 5 hours or so....if you're lucky and there's couches, you get a cheap hotel room! This is the option we selected....unfortunately, we did so without seeing the room first. It was nice enough, but music blasted from the hallway all night- resulting in a measely 30 minutes (at the most) of sleep!