Tuesday, May 1, 2007

konichiwa back to cracker

Wow. Almost 3 months and 3 weeks ago I was getting on a plane and was destined for Cincinnati and then Detroit and Paris and then finally Tokyo. The fact that I was actually in Tokyo, some 7500 miles away from my home, my college, my family and friends took almost 3 weeks to fully sink in. Once it did, I began living here rather than just visiting. Small things like my commuter pass, business cards in Japanese and modest language made easier the transition from tourist to resident. Every moment brought with it new experiences and a better understanding of what makes this dense metropolis tick.

The relaxing atmosphere of the Temple Law program allowed me the flexibility to tour Japan. It’s hard to pick one thing that I liked the most. In part the society’s homogeneity defeats any one striking aspect. With a few notable exceptions, Japan is defined by its standardization, order, and harmony. People dress similarly, earn a similar amount, pray similarly, and act similarly. Although this is a generality, for the Japanese it is a point of pride.

Tokyo is a city of communities. Inside Tokyo there are districts, and inside the district are neighborhoods. Many US cities were designed in grids. Streets go in one direction and avenues in another. Japan is quite different. Japan is organized into blocks. Addresses wrap around these blocks. This design forms – or more likely, was formed by – smaller communities within their neighborhoods. Learning to get around Tokyo was sometimes a challenge, but getting lost was always a pleasure.

Some random thoughts on my experience…

Japan is efficient. The trains run every 4 minutes. At every station, lines indicate where the train doors will open and shut. The Japanese wait on both sides of the doors, forming a corridor through which passengers exit. The interoperability of two competing subway/train companies is incredible. One declining balance credit card will work for all subway and trains in the city.

The food is delicious and fast and hotter (in temperature) than my American mouth could handle. When you order ramen, the restaurant heats the soup, the bowl and the noodles and delivers it to your spot at the counter within seconds of being cooked. The restaurants here are very small, but there are so many on a city block that there is almost never a wait. I tried and enjoyed domestic delicacies, regional recipes, and some foreign fare. Initially forced to try new things, in time I began experimenting on my own (not likely to continue when I return).

The Japanese are polite. More than any other place I’ve ever been, the people in Japan are always on their best behavior. The Japanese are quick to apologize, whether they have made a mistake or not. The apologies effectively stifle the common skirmishes so often found elsewhere. The notable exception is that on the sidewalk; the Tokyoites leave it to the other person to move out of the way. Still, they always walk on the same side, preventing the sidewalk tango. The only time I see the Japanese argue is when they are trying to give up a subway seat to someone else. Each will look toward the other and point at the seat. Sometimes this will go on for multiple stops. I’ve even seen someone get off the subway to induce the other person to take the seat. Students from temple have been stranded throughout the city, and it is not uncommon for a stranger to offer the student money for a cab back to their apartment. Even at night, when the drinking begins – the drinking of salary men at night is ubiquitous – the intoxicated are jovial rather than belligerent. In Japan you are thanked at least 50 times a day. My grandma Frances used to end every conversation with a thank you. I don’t think she ever came to Japan, but she would have fit in perfectly. It’s quite an experience to walk into a restaurant or a store or a supermarket and feel like your business and at a more basic level, your presence, are actually welcomed.

Amidst all the differences between the US and Japan, many norms of society, for better or worse are the same in both countries. Japan is a male dominated society. Adolescents try to rebel and adults talk about the good old days when traditional values were respected (meaning family, not imperialism). Everyone runs the last block to work, because they don’t want to be late, and young couples hold hands (usually).

I am happy to be coming home. Some of my classmates in the Japan program came here to find work or to start a new life. This was not the case for me. I wanted to experience something new. I wanted to begin to understand the thinking of the people in a nation with a history almost entirely independent from and over ten times as old as my own. As I’ve said to a number of people, I loved my time here and (not but) can’t wait to come home. I am eternally grateful that Angela and Joe came to visit me. The company was greatly appreciated, as were their opinions and perspectives on Japan. Plus it was nice to always have someone nearby to take your picture when you stumbled across a 50 foot Buddha or a 7 foot tuna. Thank you for reading the blog and sending me your comments, it made me feel much closer to home. See you soon! Pretty much all of pictures are available in the Japan new and Japan albums at www.kaskelweb.com/pics and my videos are all uploaded at www.kaskelweb.com/vids.

And finally…
A story from today. In two days I begin my trek home. My last final is Japanese law and is tomorrow. The weather today was the nicest it’s been since I arrived in Tokyo. There was not a cloud in the sky and it was in the upper 60’s. I decided that I would study at Yoyogi park rather than sitting at my apartment in front of my computer. The park was packed. In addition to the weather, today was a minor holiday in Japan, so a huge percentage of people took the day off. Yoyogi park was as incredible as I had hoped. There were thousands of people having picnics layout out in the sun, playing Frisbee and tossing around baseballs. I was even lucky enough to see a guy walking a gaggle of dachshund puppies (wiener dogs). I was at the park for a few hours and decided I had my fill. I walked about ten minutes back to the train station and then took the 15 minute train back to Gotanda. In Gotanda I sat at starbucks for a couple hours while I finished reviewing for my exam. As I was walking to my apartment, I reached into my pocket for my key and to my horror and surprise didn’t know where it was. Immediately I realized that when I lay down at the park the key fell out. Tons of things ran through my head. Could I call a locksmith, could I make a duplicate so I didn’t’ get charged for new locks, how would I communicate with a locksmith, were they still open????? I decided my first action would be to search the park for my key. By the time I got back to the park, it was dark and almost deserted. Equipped with the light on my cell phone and the fear of sleeping at the park, I began searching the 30 foot by 30 foot area I thought I was at earlier in the day. On the edge of where I thought I could have been, there were a group of people. For the first hour and a half of my searching they would occasionally look up and try to figure out what I was doing. Eventually, the only area I hadn’t searched was where these people were lounging. There were about 15 people, all from Australia. One offered to help me and then the others joined in. These were the only people I saw in the entire massively enormous park. After another 20 minutes of searching one of the Aussies found the key. I think I screamed in joy and jumped around for about two minutes before I more calmly thanked her and the others. Whew.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

end of semester cruise

Temple treated the law studends to an end of the semester cruise. It was a nice gesture. I added pictures to my online photo album at www.kaskelweb.com/pics . The pics are in the japan new album. Best one is four Uf alumns doing the gator chomp. GO GATORS

Friday, March 30, 2007


this blog is quickly coming to a close, but before it does, here are some flower pics. The flowers came out and so did my camera.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

All pictures

I posted all of my pictures to the internet. They are very organized and accessible, and the original pictures can be saved (for printing, if anyone is so inclined). the website is


Saturday, March 24, 2007

more videos now available

Both because I wanted to have a lazy saturday and also because it was cloudy and drizzling all day, I uploaded a massive number of videos to my video webpage. The link should be just to the right of this post. Enjoy. Most files are between 3 and 10 megabytes. If you have a fast internet connection, you should be able to stream the videos with no problem. If your connection is slow you may want to download the videos and watch on your computer. Here's a couple random pictures.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Kyoto Day 3 (part 1)

Like the second day, the third day presented us with many pictures, so I divided them again. On our third day in Kyoto, we got up early enough to eat breakfast. This also meant we were in store for a very full day. We strategically put our bags in lockers at the subway station closest to our hotel. The hotel was situated conveniently at a juncture of the two main subway lines. Also convenient was the locker that was big enough for Joe and I to share.

We had completely ignored the temples in the northwest area of Kyoto and decided that some exploring was in order. Our goal was to start at the most southerly temple and make our way north up the mountainside. This process worked fine. By far the most impressive temple we saw was the golden temple (one of the most northerly). Not only was this beautiful, but it was the first place that offered seemingly unique items to buy. As Joe and lamented throughout the day, it is very difficult to buy gifts for people. Friends expect things that are classically Japanese, but to get something similar to that which can be purchased at epcot is a waste of locale. This golden temple offered some solutions, and we were thrilled.

Also really neat were the rock gardens. There were two temples with substantial gardens of this type, one being known specifically for this reason. I didn’t find the gardens to be particularly awesome or awe inspiring, but I did find them very peaceful to look at. Adding the ridges in the sand offered a wavelike motion that was appealing.

After the golden temple, Joe and I wanted to get to one more before we headed back to Tokyo. Looking at our map, which was pretty sketchy, we headed in what we thought was the direction of our sought after temple. However, it turns out we were very very very wrong. After walking (at a rate that was almost a jog) for about 35 minutes we got to the top of the road, which ended at a very worn down area of town with no people and two chained barking dogs. When the movies portray an area as inhospitable, this is their primary shooting location. We turned around and headed toward a recreational and social club where we saw taxis. Turns out that the taxis were waiting to take patrons elsewhere and wouldn’t drive us to the train station. However, the drivers did direct us toward a major street that was clearly marked on the map. A little over a half of an hour later we found the street. That street then led us to two more streets and eventually we found the temple we were looking for. At this point we were tired and our legs hurt and we wanted to get back to Tokyo. After our arduous climb and descent of the mountain we thought it necessary to at least peak at the temple we were looking for. The temple was closing as we walked in the gate. Joe and I looked at each other and without a word decided we didn’t have the energy or desire to fight to get in. We walked hurriedly to the nearest train station, which took us to our junction subway station, which took us to the main Kyoto train station. We knew there was a train leaving relatively soon, but upon arriving at the ticket counter, were informed that immediately was less than 2 minutes. So we ran, with our gifts and our backpacks through the train station, from track 1 all the way to track 24 (or thereabout), which was passed a second ticket taker and up the stairs. We then ran from one end of the 14 car train to the last car running with the train as it was arriving. Literally beyond exhausted we sat down and about an hour later were able to move and talk.

We regained our composure later in the train ride, and Joe wanted some Thai food for his last dinner in Japan. We went to the Thai restaurant near my apartment and had a delicious and relaxing dinner.

Kyoto Day 3 (part 2)

Kyoto Day 3 (part 3)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Kyoto Day 2 (part 1)

Lot of pictures, so 3 posts for this day --- On day 2, joe and I woke up at a reasonable time, but just missed breakfast, which was a large and not-included buffet at the hotel. Eager to get started, we grabbed some pretzels at a nearby store and headed for the emperor’s palace to sign up for a tour. We were told to return in a couple hours. In the meantime we walked west toward the castle. The castle was neat, but overpriced. We walked to the emperor’s palace and met up with the tour. The palace itself was neat, it had a ton of inner buildings and rooms, sadly we were unable to enter any of them. The reasoning of the tour guide was kind of sketchy. Apparently the rooms are off limits because the palace is still in use by the current emperor… Ok, that’s fine, but then the guide told us the emperor uses another area of the grounds that is entirely separate from the ones we were viewing. Odd. Interestingly, as we were on the tour it started to snow. I say snow, joe says it was a wintry mix. I saw precipitation moving horizontal and up and then down, so I say snow. Luckily, whatever it was, it was light and transitory.

After the palace, we decided to visit the temples in the northeast area of town. We started looking for the orange gates, or as we learned they were called, toris (rhymes with corey). We found the orange gates and saw a ton of temples. Interestingly though we don’t really know what temples we saw. We thought we were approaching a couple particular ones, but never found them. Still, for the next three hours we did travel further up the mountain seeing what appeared to be at least 4 distinct temples/shrines. What make this unexpected excursion even more delightful was that the sun was setting and the vistas from the high parts of the mountains were beautiful.

Interestingly, as the sun was setting we were approached by another Japanese who was intrigued by two Americans. This gentlemen, however, was far more normal than the woman at Hamarikyu gardens. For starters, Joe and I were off the beaten track, so his surprise to see us was more understandable. Secondly, his demeanor was far more calm then the lady’s was. Finally, he was quite knowledgeable about the surrounding area and so we learned a little while he was practicing his English on us.

After the sun set and the temple grounds’ closed, we took a train to the Gion district. This is the area famous for its active Geisha community. Geisha (for those of you who don’t watch movies), according to travel book, are female professional entertainers who talk and accompany men to various events. A more sexual version of Geisha developed and so traditional Geisha are now called geiko. As opposed to many japanese women who still dress traditionally, the Geisha/geiko generally wear white makeup on their face and bright red lipstick. Although Joe and I didn’t see throngs of these women, we did see some walking around, which was pretty neat. After buying presents for people in the gion area, we sought and eventually (after about 30 minutes) found somewhere to eat. It ended up being an Irish pub, which seemed to be run by a Japanese woman, as odd as that sounds. However, as we were leaving, I was surprised to hear a live entertainment warming up. One of the singers had a right-off-the-boat Irish accent, that added immediate authenticity to the place. After dinner, we called it a night and we back to our lovely hotel.

Kyoto Day 2 (part 2)

Kyoto Day 2 (part 3)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Kyoto day 1

If you have facebook (and therefore know what it is) I recommend signing on and viewing joseph green and/or Angela Tweedie’s photos, as the two of them recently posted a number of pictures from their respective stays here in Tokyo.

Joe and I took an incredible train to Kyoto. There are 3 forms of this bullet train, also called a shinkansen. Joe and I took the middle level one which took about two and a half hours to get from Shinagawa (which is right near my place) to Kyoto. The faster and more expensive train, which I didn’t want to pay for and which was not included in Joe’s train pass took about 20 minutes less. The slower train took about 30 minutes more. The train was an absolute treat. The cars are split into two with two seats on one side and three on the other. The seats recline a good deal and are quite wide. The train is smooth and the people on it considerate. The only downside was the price. It was about 100 dollars each way. On the way, we gradually made our way higher and higher into the mountains. At one point, we noticed that it was snowing with a thing blanket covering the fields. As we approached Kyoto, however, the snow dissipated and upon our arrival, Kyoto was cold, but dry.

Kyoto is situated in the middle of a number of mountains. Probably 70% of the city is surrounded. The temples are everywhere, but mainly concentrated in the northeast and northwest sections. The emperor’s palace, which was about a ten minute walk from our hotel and a castle were right in the middle of the city. On the first day, Joe and I walked around the palace grounds and found out about mandatory sign-ups for tours. It was already later in the day when we got to the palace, and it (as do almost all temples) closed at about 5pm. It was getting cold and we were hungry, so we went in search of food. Finding people that spoke English was no problem, finding maps was no problem, finding somewhere to eat, was significantly more difficult than we were used to. Eventually we found a tapas place, very much like domo domo in Tokyo. We ordered too much food, then ate too much of the food we ordered. After waddling around town for a little longer, we found our way back to the hotel and called it a night. As an aside, the hotel was great. It was very affordable, especially when split between two people and it had a great location. Apparently, we arrived a few days before the blossom season, when the rates almost triple.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The day before Kyoto

The day before Kyoto (which my father pointed out is an anagram of Tokyo), Joe and I woke up early and went to Tsukiji fish market. This was a very busy day. We also visited the Hamaryku gardens, odaiba, Akasaka, Roppongi and Roppongi Hills. I split the day up into a few posts to show more pictures.

We arrived at the fish market at about 6am. The first time I went to Tsukiji it was raining, this time it was dry but freezing. Being my second time there, I rushed into the market and started pointing neat stuff out to Joe, who, as a first time visitor, was a little overwhelmed by the hubbub of activity and the somewhat grotesque selling of fish. After 15 minutes or so, he was acclimated and the fun began. The cold didn’t keep anyone away, and the very narrow aisles of vendors were far more crowded than the last time I was there. I only took a few new pictures, so the bumping didn’t affect me, but Joe went on a picture and video rampage. He nimbly avoided the (as opposed to him) very petite Japanese buyers, who bounced from one vendor to another.