Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Morning Commute

Tokyo is (in)famous for the massive morning commute that takes place on the many subway and train lines that snake through the various parts of the metro area. 

A friend of a friend made the video above shot at the train station that I use everyday, Shinagawa Train Station. Much better than I could have done, the video captures the madness that is a Monday morning Tokyo commute. 

In fact, one month later, I'm still recovering from my first foray into train commuting. Partially out of ignorance and partially out of sheer terror, I was "that guy" who made the boneheaded decision to walk in the middle of the station (against the flow of traffic). Lesson learned. 

Nonetheless, my fellow commuters graciously dodged me as I walked the wrong way, and they never said a word.

Here's a map of the more popular commuter lines

Monday, December 07, 2009

Japan, December 7th, 2009

Today marks the 68th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

While every year I take notice of December 7 and what it means to America, being in Japan on this historic date has made me stop to think just a little more more about the significance of the Japan-America dynamic. 

I'm told it's not polite to bring up World War II and that era, so I haven't asked. I wonder, however, how the date is thought of among the Japanese. Is December 7 significant? Is the date one of nostalgia, or is it one of embarrassment, or none of these things at all?

More importantly, I think about Japan then--our enemy--and now--our ally, and then I look at the friends I've made and many gracious people I've met here and I wonder: Will my children ever have the opportunity to visit and call the people of Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan "friend"?

Shichi-Go-San at Meiji-Jingu

This post got away from me, and I've been meaning to write about my November 15th visit to Meiji Shrine (Meiji-Jingu) for a few weeks now...

Japan's largest torii at Meiji Shrine

The weather was perfect on this particular November Sunday--according to locals, probably the last day like it this year. On my visit to this important Japanese landmark, I was fortunate to stumble upon Shichi-Go-San festivities and even a Shinto wedding.

Meiji Shrine is located in Shibuya, Tokyo on the grounds encompassing an iris garden that the Empress Shoken liked to visit. The shrine is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, and it was first built in 1920. The shrine was subsequently bombed and destroyed during WWII, and it was rebuilt in 1958. 

Shichi-Go-San (literally "Seven-Five-Three") is a traditional festival (dating to the Heian period, 794-1185)commonly held on November 15 to celebrate the of Japanese children into middle childhood. The numbers 3, 5 and 7 are said to be lucky, and they correspond to special ages in a Japanese child's life. In the past, age 3 marked the time when children were old enough to grow out their shaved hairdos. At age 5, boys could finally don hakama pants, while at age 7 girls became old enough to wear an obi with their kimonos. Proud Japanese parents dress their children in their finest and the family ventures to the local shrine. 

Posing for Shichi-Go-San (7-5-3) 

These days the festival has taken on a modern twist, turning into something of a fashion show complete with adoring photographers and paparazzi--actually, they're foreign tourists and local "Camera Clubs" made up of elderly folks with brand new SLR cameras. Here's where I got my first taste of the national pose of Japan: flashing the peace sign. Something of a reflex now, I continually find myself posing for pictures with a peace sign...

My good fortune at Meiji Shrine didn't stop with the Shichi-Go-San festival either. As I was about to enter the main shrine complex, I almost walked straight into a Shinto-style wedding taking place. Photos follow in the slideshow below.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Dinnertime Visit From the Namahage

Hosts: Takeshi-san and Ichiro-san

This past Monday, my work buddies, Takeshi and Ichiro played gracious hosts and and tour guides and took me out for a top-notch Japanese dinner. Dinner was in lively Ginza, and we ate at a restaurant called Namahage (after the Japanese boogeymen from Akita prefecture up north).

Takeshi-san keeps guard while the Kiritampo-nabe cooks

The night's featured cuisine was Kiritampo-nabe, a style of nabe (one-pot soup) that Akita Prefecture is famous for. It did not disappoint! Akita gets very cold in the winter, but after one taste of Kiritanpo I was convinced I could put up with 9 months of snow if it meant a hot pot of this soup every night.

Akita Prefecture - home to Kiritampo-nabe and Namahage

After the last of the Kiritanpo was eaten, an unexpected guest showed up... Namahage! These guys from Akita mean business, and they typically come around the village houses during New Year's Eve and shout "Any misbehaving kids live here!?!", which obviously scares the living hell out of little kids. (I know it scared the you-know-what out of me). Not to worry, though. According to legend, a little alcohol and assurance that the kids here are well-behaved and the Namahage are content to be on their way.

Trouble! Namahage has arrived! "Any misbehaving kids live here!?!"

In our particular situation, the alcohol was easily found, and no one said the Namahage have especially good lie-detection abilities... 

My new Namahage friend