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: