uiuu .

Monday, March 27, 2006

Last month in Japan

Sunday 12 February Nippon Budokan Hall

I got free tickets from one of my instructors at Honbu, Kageyama sensei, for a martial arts arrangement in the Budokan Hall. The hall is located in the central Tokyo, close to the Imperial Garden. It is maybe as famous amongst westerners for large scale rock concerts (actually The Beatles made their Japanese debut here) as it is for showing martial arts events. It was originally built for the Judo competition in the 1964 Summer Olympics and holds around 14000 people.

I invited my Spanish friend from the 1st level, Edgar to come along. He was quite eager, as he love to watch K-1 and such. I guess he had his vision of slashing samurai swords and blood floating everywhere when he accepted the invitation. We arrived a bit late, so the hall was quite crowded and some of the martial artists where just in the middle of their performance.

Everything from Okinawan Karate (showing Kata and self defense), Iaido (practising single cut with the sword), Kendo (way of the sword) to Aikido where represented. We watched for a while, some of the displays were interesting, and you could see that it really required skills to master. They would for instance cut bunted straws to demonstrate the sharpness of the katanas (swords), and then they would do attacks on each other. But at one point the different displays began to seem similar, so we went to have some food and a conversation instead. I guess Edgar didn’t get his thirst for blood satisfied this day.

Friday 24 February – Pool in Ikebukuro

Went to Ikebukuro along with Nicolas, one of my French flatmates who are staying in here in Tokyo for a 3 months period. He is trying to establish a business marketing Japanese art in Europe. We had a stop at a Chinese restaurant and ate some food at first, and then proceeded to a pool hall to have a beer and some games of pool.

Friday 03 March – Class speech contest

As a part of the language course we were suppose to hold a speech in front of the class. The theme was “Tsunagari” or “link”. So mine was about driving and language. My idea was that there is a link between the way you learn both, and also how both differs with countries and cultures. The speech where held in front of the other classmates and 5 Japanese that were invited by the school to evaluate us. I had memorised the entire speech and started off quite offensively, but eventually had to have a look into my notes. A 2 minutes speech in Japanese, in front of a partially Japanese audience. Very interesting experience!

Afterwards I went out with Bo, Dasha and Riku for some food, and we ended up in a Korean restaurant.

Saturday 04 March – Ueno Park

The weather was quite nice, so I decided to go to the Ueno Park which is a large public park just next to the Ueno Station. It was opened to the public in 1873 and offers its visitors a large variety of attractions. There are several museums; the Tokyo National Museum, the Orient Museum, the National Science Museum, the Shitamachi Museum, the National Museum for Western Art and the Tokyo Metropolitan Fine Art Gallery. There is a (Buddhist) temple, a Shinto) shrine, a huge pond and a Zoo, which makes it an interesting park. I also found a good spot to practice Kata.

When I arrived the park, some people had gathered and I went to see what it was. A young Japanese maybe some twenty years of age was doing a juggeling show. He had some music to accompany and was very funny throughout the session. He did the devil sticks (two sticks connected by a rope used to control a reel) and he actually did it with two reels as well. He then in succession continued with 5 clubs, rings and balls. And also did some amazing contact juggling (two or three crystal balls that he made move “all around his body”). Quite impressive and fascinating to watch such an excellent, multi disciplined juggler. Do I need to say that the battery of my camera (of course) was flat.

I decided later to have a go at the Zoo. This was actually my first time visiting a Zoo as I in general don’t like the idea of animals being kept in captivity like this, but I had some time to kill and was curious. I found a price on the board, it said 2400Yen. A bit expensive I thought, but maybe this is what you have to pay to enter a zoo in this country. I inserted the money and out came four tickets. Mm-mm. A bit odd, but maybe this is what you have to do to get into a Zoo in this country. Then I went to the entrance. The lady asked where the rest of the group was. Uhmm.. this was obviously not the way to enter a Zoo in this country. Being here 4 months I felt a bit stupid. But she understood, and offered me money back.

The Zoo was quite big. The best part was the birds (really a huge range of nice and interesting looking birds) and the smaller animals and rodents. They also had everything from otter, fox, bats, emu, penguins, flying fox, wild cats, orangutangues, you name it. All in all an interesting experience, though some of the less funny things to watch were two polar bears as they seemed distressed and the Pandas, as they looked really miserable in captivity.

Monday 06 March – Kino wa watashi no Tanjobi deshita

Since it was my birthday the day before (as the title suggests), I decided to bring along a cake and some softdrinks to the class. I forgot the candles though, maybe as good, since there had to be an awful lot of them…. A birthdaysong was sung, and afterwards I received a birthday card and a present (a nice sweater) from my classmates.

The teacher asked who would like to participate in the school speech contest, which was the next step after the class speech. Initially there were three of us that wanted to do the speech, so she had managed to get acceptance for two students to represent the class, instead of just one which is normal. Eventually it was decided that me and the other male representative in the class, Hyoung Guk from South Korea would participate on the contest the following Friday.

Thursday 09 March – Speech preparations

Quite busy week and not much sleep, as I tried to rewrite my speech so it would be around 3 minutes instead of 2 and also memorising it. Yesterday we rehearshed painting the speech title with Kanjis onto newspaper. And I finally painted my title "unten to kotoba" - driving and language in Kanjis onto a ricepaper which would be displayed when it was my turn to hold the speech. When I was on my way home my previous teacher, Iwaki sensei, came running after me. I had forgotten some details on one of the Kanjis. I guess the last few days without sleep was starting to have its effect.

I think my teacher Kuwahara sensei must have been even busier, as she spent long days following up both me and Hyong Guk after class and in addition had to do preparations on her own for teaching classes. It was really good to have here along, though. Every time I was pleased with myself and about to become lazy as I thought I was finished, she had some valuable input and pushed me a bit further.

My speech became ready in the evening, I made memory notes of it and I had brought my LapTop in order to record Kuwahara sensei reading my speech. This was quite important and very useful as I later could rehearse the pronunciations and intonation. We were probably the only ones left still preparing for the speech, so we got invited by the remaining staff/senseis to have a slice of pizza and some softdrinks. Around 10 in the evening it was time to leave. The night is still young….prononciation, intonation, memorising.... practise, practise practise...

Friday 10 march – School Speech Contest

I met Iwaki sensei and some others participants and teachers at the Shinjuku Railway Station South Exit, and we walked to the Shinjuku Bunka Center, where the speech contest were supposed to be held. The price for the best speech was…uh…an Ipod. We arrived there at 9:00.

My classmates, Riku, Dasha and Bu came along. They had made some nice banners in order to support me and Hyonguk during our speeches. There where maybe around 150 students and teachers gathered, along with a judge panel consisting of some Japanese and some former students of the KAI Japanese school.

We were 14 "speakers" all toghether. Hyonguk was number two out and did a good performance. I was the seventh to hold a speech. Being nervous, I had to read from my notes in the beginning, everything regarding pronunciation and intonation that Kuwahara sensei had recorded was completely forgotten. But it became easier, as I got response from the audience.
In case you wonder: No, neither of us got the Ipod, but it was really unique and challenging to do this speech in a language being so far from my own, an experience that I appreciate to have been through.

After the contest, the contestants and the teachers, the judges and the director of the school gathered. We ate food and had conversations. Afterwards each one of us was videorecorded as we gave an interview about the experience from the contest and if we would like to do it again.

Some pictures from the contest:

Saturday 11 march - IKO Honbu Annual Dan Promotion Test

I was allowed to come and watch the annual dan grading and when I arrived at 10:00 clock, the brownbelts were being tested. There where maybe around 20 of them trying to get their first black belt (Shodan). It was hard to see anything as it was crowded and we were only allowed to stand in a small hallway at the elevator looking in through a door.

Then the brown belts swapped place with the higher level students (1. black belt to 4. black belt) and we got the opportunity to move into the dojo. There were maybe 30 candidates all together, aiming for their 2. to 5. dan, and since the room was so small they were divided into smaller groups which were tested one at the time.

Similar for all the candidates were that they they had already completed a written test. So each of the groups started with kihon (basic techniques, punches and kicks). Then they continued with Ido Geiko (techniques while moving and while spinning). The next thing out was a physical ability test consisting of jumping over sticks, tobi nidan geri (jumpkick towards a small ball hanging two meters twenty above the ground) and handstands. Then a flexibility test (legs in split position while touching the chest to the floor) and push ups. Finally they had to do their respective Katas. The level of technical skill and physical condition amongst the candidates were in general very high and it was impressive to watch.

The examination board consisted of Kancho Matsui, along with 3 other higher ranking kyokushinkaikans.

Afterwards, it was 50man kumite (fighting 50 consecutive opponents, 1 minute on each) for the two participants that were tested for 5.dan, 40 man for the ones tested for 4. dan aso. Substancial number of fights for everyone with other words. I watched one of the 5.dan candidate that was in the middle of the forties. An excellent fighter that did not waste any unnecessary energy. After the two 50 man kumit was over, I went out to have something to eat. When I came back, they had started some of the 30man kumite, meaning that they had come down to the 3.dan candidates.
I left around eight o’clock, but they were going to continue to 23 o’clock I think. Quite a long day you may say.

Tuesday 14 March – Women’s day

Valentines day is celebrated in Japan as well. In addition they have something called the women’s day a month later, meaning that if you are unfortunate enough to be XY-chromosomed (a man) you should go out and buy chocolate to the XX-chromosomed ones (women). Having almost only girls in the class, and 5 different female teachers for the language class and a female conversation teacher in addition, I don’t think I have bought this much chocolate in one go ever!

Wednesday 15 March – Kanji Test

Today we were going to have the final Kanjitest. By this time we should have learned around 290 kanjis (1st and 2nd level). Sounds maybe a bit scarcely, and yes – if I try to have a look at the newspaper, it IS scarcely. But keep in mind that each Kanjis could have up to several readings making life lot more difficult in order to learn them. The test went okay and was over in a less than an hour, so we proceeded with normal studies afterwards.

Saturday 18 March – Noruweego o benkyo shiyoo! (Let's study Norwegian!)

I went to my favourite study place, the Excelsior café at the Metropolitan exit of the Ikebukuro station, as we will have our final test the next Monday. I usually come here to study a bit after school, before the Karate practice starts. Today it was really crowded around four o’clock, so there was a huge queue lined up. While waiting, I noticed some “foreign looking” people that went directly to the front of the queue, but then one of the staff came and pointed towards the back of the queue. They seemed still a bit confused. Then I heard one of them speaking and it sounded familiar – yes, it was Norwegian. This was the first time I have met Norwegians tourists here in Tokyo during my 6 month stay so I walked over and talked to them. Guess they got a bit surprised too, since I with my rather non-Norwegian look that previously deceived policemen to believe that I was native, started speaking Norwegian to them, even with dialect. Turned out that they were two couples from Kongsberg, and one of the male was the chairman of Kongsberg kommune. Quite funny to bump into these people at the very end of my stay here in Japan.

Sunday 19 March – Goodbye to some of my Karate friends

In the afternoon I went to what would be my last Karate practice here in Tokyo before I leave. The training was good, and at the end we did a bit fighting. A brown belt, next year shodan candidate was really unlucky and got his nose broken by a hiza geri to the face during the practise.

Afterwards I went out with some of the people in the club to a Isakaya. When Kensan (also one of the next years shodan candidates) arrived, we "exchanged" gifts – I got a nice Kyokushin overall suit and since he had mentioned earlier that he was a huge Bruce Lee fan, I had bought a Bruce Lee porcelain figure to him. As before, they took care of all the ordering, leaving me the sense of being a giant baby just waiting to be fed. And they also insisted to pay for me on top of it! Later we exchanged mail addresses. A bit sad, but it is a good feeling to know that I can always come back anytime.

Monday 20 March – Level 2 Final test

On Friday we had an interview test as a part of the overall testing. We had to answer questions, did a bit of roleplay etc in order for the teacher test our ability to speak.

Todays agenda was the written test. I think it went fine except the listening part, which I found to be a bit difficult. We listened to a tape and had to answer some questions afterwards.

Afterwards I went out eating with Riku. We ended up in a chinese restaurant between Okubo dori and Shinjuku. The service was…I don't have an appropriate word in any language to describe it.... I ordered a chicken dish that did not taste very well. As a matter of fact the meat tasted really harsh. Riku tasted as well and she agreed. Speaking fluently mandarin, she explained this to the waitress, that actually got upset and claimed that it was nothing wrong with the food, and that the meat was fresh. What happened to “the customer is always right”?

Afterwards we went to a gaming centre in Shinjuku where Riku tried a guitar simulator, while I tried to play the drum machine. We also had a go at the racing cars and the Taiko drums. Later we went to have a look in one of these really odd shopping centres that could span from 4-6 floors, and contains almost everything that was ever invented by mankind.

Wednesday 22 March – final day at Kai Japanese school

Today we would be given feedback, one at a time on Fridays and Mondays test. Kuwahara sensei brought along a video of the speech contest, so the remaining ones could have something to watch while waiting. Ricky and I were the last ones, so we played rock-paper-scissor, this *silly* game that I always end up losing. This time was no exception so I went to get my evaluation first. I had bought apple juice that I gave to my teacher hoping that she would ease up. Actually she is very nice, so I guess you could say this was an attempted bribery ;) I got my feedback which was better than expected, especially for the conversation test.

After the class we went to a Korean restaurant along with Iwaki sensei. Later Kuwahara sensei also appeared but she had to leave quite early. Peter and Emilio, two of the fourth level students that I have become to know, came along as well. Afterwards some of us went karaokeing in this ever fameous place near Shin Okubo Station (last time just before Christmas, also with Iwaki Sensei)

Friday 24 March – going back to Norway

At around 07:15 I went to Gokokuji station for the last time, with all my luggage. I had cleaned up my room and Nicolas had accepted to do the handover with Sakura House later, as they could not come this early. The train went non-stop to Narita. Arrived 09:25 and checked in my luggage. British Airways' limit on luggage is 23kg. I was about to hand in both my suitcase and my rucksack, totalling 35kg. Then the check in personnel suggested that I carried the sack as a hand luggage, otherwise I would have to pay overweight. Of course I did not object to that, being more than pleased that I did not have to pay anything. I bought some presents to my nephews and nieces before heading for the gate. The plane left at 11:00 (02:00GMT) and the flight time was scheduled to be twelve hours and forty minutes. I had nearly two hours at Heathrow before the connecting flight, not much more than I needed to get from terminal 1 through the queue at the security check and to terminal 4. Then another two hours flight before landing at Gardermoen airport, Norway. All in all it took me 22 hours from my flat in Gokokuji to I got to my destination in Norway.

Sunday 26 March – Epilog

As I am sitting here in Norway writing the last words of my 6 months stay in Japan, I am actually feeling more happy than sad. I would really like to stay longer in Japan, as my Japanese and my Japanese friends had started to pick up. The stay has been valuable, both in getting a glance at a language and a culture completely different from the one I have been brought up into, as well as being a good personal experience. I met a lot of interesting people and it has given me a lot of good memories. I can without exception say that all the Japanese I got to know are truly warm-hearted people. This is the reason why I am not feeling that sad, but instead happy by the thought that I can go back to Japan anytime and feel equally welcomed. And I will for sure!


Sunday, March 05, 2006

January and a bit of February

Tuesday 10 January – "Kagami Biraki"

As an opposite of the Karate Bonenkai this event is to welcome the new year.
It started with a practice at 7:30 in the morning (!) with all the Japanese branch chiefs participating too. The event was at the Metropolitan Hotel, and we were about 120 black belts, all ranks up to Kancho Matsui were represented. A few lower grades were attending too. The training was normal basic (Kihon), the same as they start all the trainings more or less with. After showering/changing we gathered in another room, where we got served food and drinks. All the branch chiefs reported status, and at the end prices were given to those who had been most eager to attend throughout the year. Quite attractive prices, as they were nicely framed board containing an eagle in metal, and the Kyokushin Kanku.

In Japan the New Year period is considered the most important time of the year, and 'Kagami Biraki' coincides with its celebration. Ritually it is held on the second Sunday of January and is usually celebrated by offering 'Mochi' (a concentrated round, flat rice cake). Men offer the mochi to their armour; women offer it to their mirrors.

Like many Japanese terms, the term 'Kagami Biraki' has different meanings. The literal translation for 'Kagami' is 'Mirror' and 'Biraki' means 'Open' or 'Opening' as well as abstinence; i.e. to break. The expression translates as 'Open Mirror, Mirror Opening' or 'Rice Cutting Ceremony'. The tradition stems from an old military custom. In the Japanese home, in similar fashion to the dojos, Kagami-mochi (usually a pair of decorated rice cakes) are placed on the family alter. Outside the home, New Year decorations are often hung, and simple decorations (made of bamboo, or pine boughs tied together with straw called 'Kadomatsu') are placed as an offering to 'Toshigami'; a god who is suppose to bring good harvest and prosperity. The text is extracted from: http://www.shitoryu.org/heritage/kagami_biraki.htm

Wednesday 12 January – Kai school starts

Back to “Shukudai” (another word for homework – this organised form of Japanese "schoolslavery") again. At least I now have a feeling for what I can expect. And, yes, the homework is for our own good at the end I believe. First level was really interesting, and I think this one will be as well. After school the entire class went out eating. As quite a few of the people from the first level had quit, and only one new girl joined, the headcount of the class is now reduced to the half.

Saturday 14 January – Tsukiji Fish market / Rock factory

I agreed with Lucia to visit the Tsukiji Fish market. According to “literature” (i.e guidebooks), there has been a fish market since 1590 in Tokyo, but Tsukiji current location was established in 1935. Imagine that some 50000 workers and wholesalers and 14000 retailers come daily to their business and you get the proportion of this market.

We arrived around eight o’clock as we also wanted to see some “action” i.e. some of the auction, bidding and buying that the books described so nicely. And yes, it was impressive with an endeless amounts of stalls. All kinds of fish, octopussy and shells. I guess whatever was on the seafloor is not there anymore as they managed to drag it into to this place.
There were no bidding, and actually the entire market was quite calm. Lot of salespersons but very few customers. Maybe we were to late already? Yes and no. I found out later on the internet that they actually had stopped visitors from watching at the actions as the previous ones actually had obstructed it (!)

I was going to meet Dani and some of his friends later in Roppongi. So I asked Lucia if she wanted to come along. We went out quite late and headed for Fridays to have some food at first. Yes – Fridays, but it is still NOT McDonalds! After the meal we went to a place called the “Rock factory”, where they from time to time have live bands performing. This nights band was the “21 Blades” (don’t let the name fool you, the members were all Japanese). They were actually quite good, playing some of their own songs along with coversongs of among others Red Hot Chillipepper. And the best part was that they had a cute looking female drummer, who handled the drums quite well.

Later in the night I actually got the chance to have a go on the drums, pleasing nobody but myself probably. We had such a good fun at this place that we did not bother to locate the others, and stayed there until they closed.

Thursday 19 January – Lucias farewell party

In the evening the inhabitants of Gokokujii 2 (my apartment), Nicolas and Claire, Celia, Lucia, Helena and me went out to drink on the excuse that Lucia was returning to Italy. That’s the good thing about this place; people leaving all the time = lot’s of parties……. Not a good thing to see good friends leaving, though.

Friday 20 January – Bowling with the language class

Went out bowling the class again. As mentioned the headcount of the class had shrunk to the half, and as not everybody could join we ended up being only four this time. But still good fun, and I managed for once to keep my concentration up throughout two consecutive games. And the score… well, if you knew me well enough you’d know that I would never brag about my score (a nice way to avoid publishing a rather lousy score?)


Sunday 22 January – Some post-Karate activities

After the training some of the people from the club invited me to join them for some food and drinks so we went to a local Isakaya. It was quite brilliant, as they took care of all the ordering of food and drinks, so I could just sit there, waiting to get fed. We drank beer and sake (two kind – one clear, strong and the other sweet and

milkish), and ate sushi, yakuniku, vegetables, ebi (shrimp), nabe (lot of vegetables, onion and some meat in a ceramic pot boiling on the table). Later, the most “hardcore” ones went to another place were we ended up having more beer and some food. I probably drank way too much, but no regrets and the best part - no headache the day after.

The session gave me a small déjà vu to the time in Scotland, were it was rather normal to go out drinking after the training, no matter what kind of sports you where doing.

Thursday 26 January - Thai Riori

Today the class went out eating. One of our class mates, Bu is from Thailand, so she was the "hostess" for the evening. She took us to a Thai restaurant near Shinjuku where her father prepared the food for us. What can I say other than that everything was delicious. Some of the dishes a bit more spicy than I am used to (Tom Yang soup for instance). And hearing afterwards that the food was prepared a bit milder, I would imagine some of the stuff to be almost uneatable prepared in the normal way.

Saturday 28 January - "Taikokan"

Thanks to my drummer friend Dennis back in Norway, I decided to visit the "Taikokan" (drum museum) in Asakusa. They had around hundred drums from all over the world. Unfortunately it was not allowed to take any pictures, but the drums had colourcoded dots, so you could actually test the sound of the ones that had the appropriate color code. All kinds of percussion/drums were represented.

Later in the evening I met Edgar (one of my former classmates from Spain) and wife and a friend in Shibuya.

Wednesday 01 February – “Setsubun”

Our teacher explained the tradition of celebrating setsubun during the class as some kind of a new year. “Setsubun” means the last day of winter. And since spring in Japan is defined to begin the 4. of Feb, it explains why they do this on the third, or “new years eve”. The Japanese throw beans to scare away demons, or “oni”. So we did this a bit prematurely in the class. It was quit fun to throw the beans, but of course not that fun to clean up the mess afterwards ;) Also, they have a tradition of eating “maki” (sushi roll) alone while facing “nan-nan-too” (south-south-west). At this time, you should make your “new years wish”. In the picture I am starring as an “oni” along with my teacher Kuwahara, who is very energetic and always in a good mood.

Saturday 04 February - Muse

Went out with Dani, Zaki, Juan and Alfredo. We were supposed to meet a French girl and friends for Karaoke, but being nearly two hours late, and unable to find the place, we ended up going to Roppongi/Muse instead. On our way there we stopped at a “conbini”, and drank 5 bottles of rum with coke. I guess you could say this was the Spanish way of having a “vorspiel” as the initiative came from the Spanish representatives in the group. Muse was crowded, as the last time we were there. Me and Zaki, Dani’s Toshiba colleague had a go at table tennis in the basement towards the end of the night. I guess neither of us had seen that many ping pongs flying around during one game.

Sunday 05 February – Sumo

Went to the Sumo wrestling in Ryogoku. Bought tickets from the language school, and each one of us just went there directly. There were two Sumo tournaments held that day, and as the first one was for the lower divisions, I went there just before the second started.

Before the second tournament started, they demonstrated how the hair of the Sumos were done. From the seat I got, I couldn’t see much, but I recon the entire scene lasted between 5 and 10 minutes, and the model was the popular and famous Bulgarian Sumo wrestler – Kotoshu. Later Then they showed a ritual where the current Yokozuna, Asashoryu from Mongolia, being tied up. Don’t ask me what this was, I’ll just answer it was some crazy S&M stuff, as I don’t know better.

Kotoshu lost for his opponent in his fourth match, while Asashoryu won the entire competition, proving his Yokozuna title worthy. Some of the matches were a bit boring, as they have this 2 minute ritual where they stamp their feets and throw salt 3 times and then end the actual fight after 10 seconds. Other matches were quite spectacular, as they took turns pushing each other from one side of the ring diametrically over to the other. And there were also matches were the smaller Rikishi (sumo wrestler) won the bout.

Sumo as we know it today has evolved into a sport, although if you ask the Japanese, som of them would not agree to this. It is heavily centered around the Shinto religion, and when it was introduced 1500 years ago, it was performed mainly to ensure good harvest. http://mcel.pacificu.edu/as/students/sumo/sumo_site/index.html

I think it was quite nice to watch these men forming a complete circle on the fighting arena. Then it struck me – imagine inviting these guys home for a party. They are probably all nice guys, and they’ll have no problem keeping your complaining neighbour away. However, averaging around 200kg in weight, questions such as “what should you feed them” and “is the house properly insured” would arise.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

December and a little-bit of the New Year

Saturday 03 December – Robot Exihibtion, Odaiba
Today Gerald and I went to Odaiba to have a look at a Robot Exhibition. Odaiba is a small manmade island in the Tokyo bay. A couple of hotels, shopping malls, a Ferris wheel, museums, and some really futuristic looking buildings, amongst other Fuji TV and the exhibition centre where the Robot Exhibition were held are located here. And, yeah - they do like to copy things here. A small replica of the Statue of Liberty in the U.S. has also found its place here. On our way there, Daniel, a Spanish guy that was going to do 6 months internship for Toshiba, joined us.

After a rather bureaucratic registration procedure involving two
queues and a form, we finally got in. Really a lot of stuff to see, from various kinds of industrial robots (e.g. pick and place) to human look-alike models. At one place they had a robot that could reply in English and Japanese. Or what about a bar robot that can make drinks, a dealer robot for cards, dancing robots, a Taiko-drumming robot and a human-looking robot in a shape of a female, I guess the original is quite beautiful. Never figured out what this robot was supposed to do, though, apart from being nice looking. A proper “Bimbo” robot perhaps?

One of the stands had small remote operated robots that were quite funny to watch. They could walk forwards, backwards and sideways. The operator even managed to make one of them do push ups, get it on its feet after a fall and do hand stand.

Unaware that they were arranging it, we came across a “ring” where people had gathered to se the “Robo-One Grand Prix 2005” just in time. It was 10 robots that would fight each other in a cup-like system. These robots had similar features as the "push-up" robot we saw earlier.
And of course, the event had a proper speaker, a Japanese version of the ones you see introducing boxing matches in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. One of the robots was operated by a

young boy, maybe 14 years, another by a female, maybe around 30. The remaining ones were men. It seemed a bit odd at first with such a huge crowd for this event, but as the finals were approaching we got carried away too. The boy was incredible skilled and he managed to win the final against the female operator.

Afterwards we went to eat and came across a really good Thai restaurant, before we went all the way up to the top floor of the 31 floors Le Meridien hotel and had a rather amazing view over the Tokyo bay and some of the city.

Sunday 04 December – The Fiddler
One of Lucias mentors at the internship program, a Japanese lady in her 40s who plays Saxophone and sing blues was going to perform at an Irish Pub, so we went there in the evening to listen. The bar had a nice atmosphere and pleasant staff, an sympathetic Irish guy being in Japan for 20 years, and a young talkative Malaysian waitress. There were a group of musician, taking turns singing and playing blues. They did not play bad, but the singing sound a bit odd. I’ll imagine it would be similar for the Japanese if they had to listen to a non-Japanese attempting to sing in Japanese.

Monday 05 December – Don’t mess with me, or I’ll wipe your ass!
After class, Edgar, Gerald and I went to a Ramen place to have something to eat.
I had noticed a couple of places up to this point that had this super-deluxe version of toilet with a button-panel that normally only can be found inside a Spaceshuttle. Unfortunately they have either been disabled or out of order, so I was quite delighted when I found one at this place that seemed to be operational. Engineer by nature, I simply had to find out how this beauty worked. I decided to try something that looked similar to the symbol for flushing the windshield of a car, but as I did not know what to expect, I stood beside the toilet while pushing the button. A small nozzle appeared, producing a rather forceful water-beam. The distance from the nozzle to the door was maybe a meter, but still the beam hit the middle part of the door, and unfortunately not very quietly. I thought that was it, but as I turn around and reached out for the doorknob, guess what! The mean piece of assembly produced a second beam, leaving the left rear part of my trouser completely soaked. Take my advice – you should always keep eye contact and never turn your back to one of these beasts. That was enough for me. I fled the toilet, but could nothing but smile. One of the waiters had now lined up outside and I look apologetic at him as he went in dry up the place. I don’t know if the episode made me any wiser, but at least I have a strong notion of why all the other deluxe toilets up to this point have been either in-operational or out of order…..

Friday 09 December – Karate Bonenkai
Meaning something like Forget the year party, most organisations have a Bonenkai, and the Karateclub was no exception. After a rather exhausting training, the thought of beer along with some food was really appealing. We went to a Yakuniku place (where doing your own “cooking”
is the speciality and supposedly the charm of the place). Do not go there if you are really hungry is all I can add. The entire place was reserved for the whole group, maybe 50 all together. At my table there were only Japanese, but one of them spoke a bit English. We drank beer from these really tiny glasses, and one of the important things is that you should always pour into someone else’s glass before your own. The person serving should hold the bottle with two hands, while the receiver should equally lift his glass in order to show appreciation (not doing so is actually considered rude). We got meat and vegetables that we fried and ate. Later there was a competition: each person got an attempt to put out a lit candle with a Karatepunch (not touching it of course). There were maybe only five who managed to do it, and one of the black belt girls was the first to succeed. Lot of red faces to observe towards the end, and the party was over around 11 PM, which I now realise is normal here in Japan.

Saturday 10 December – Tokyo Tower

Lucia and I decided to go out in Roppongi this evening.
Last time I was there with
Gerald we wanted to go to the Lexington Queen nightclub, but it was temporarily closed. So that was our destination for the evening. As we arrived Roppongi, we decided to take a closer look at the Tokyo tower, which is about 15 minutes away by foot. It was completed in 1958. Its resemblance to the Eiffel tower is evident, but in order to piss off the French, they made sure it became 13m taller, at 333m making it the world’s tallest selfsupporting building. Despite being taller, it weighs “only” 4000tons versus the 7000 of the French tower due to its advanced steel construction (http://metropolis.japantoday.com/biginjapan/biginjapaninc.htm). The Lexington Queen had a entrance charge of 4000Yen, but this also included free drinks throughout the night. The place was crowded. Lot of Gajins too, but I would say the majority, at least this night were Japanese.

Wednesday 14 December – Oral examination at Kai language school
Today was the first day to be tested in what we have supposedly been doing the last two and a half months, namely trying to learn Japanese. The system here requires a score of at least 70% to pass, while in the UK this would equal an “A” with only 40% required to pass. I must admit that this would be the most difficult of the tests for my part, as I up to this point rarely had spoken any Japanese at all after class. Luckily we got a hand out some days in advance containing questions that we could get, making life a lot easier. The examination, lasting only 5 minutes, went fine. In addition, we had to do a presentation in front of the class.

Thursday 16 December Shibuya – Translator
After school, Gerald and I went to Shibuya. I wanted to buy one of these electronic translators, as we had started learning Kanjis, and I also had found several shortcomings in my paperback dictionary. I went for a model from Canon, the Wordtank G55 containing 11 dictionaries. Canon is actually launching a new model these days, the G70. But considering the price being over 1.5 times the G55 one, and the fact that the G55 is for the intermediate student which is more than enough for me at this point, I found it to represent the best price/value.

Even the Japanese bring these translators along everywhere (as a matter of fact they are actually meant for the Japanese marked). One usage is of course English lookup, but they are using it for Kanji lookups as well. A bit odd, you could say. But taking into consideration that there are “only” around 2000 “daily use” kanjis that you really need to master in order to read a Japanese newspaper or a periodical (http://therfcc.org/kanji-49650.html) and that the kanji dictionary in my translator contains over 13000 kanjis, you’ll understand why.

Later in the evening we met Daniel and we attempted to get into a French club, “La Fabrique”, but it turned out that they had a private arrangement going on, so we went to another place instead, playing darts and having a beer before heading home.

Saturday 17 December - Zad’s Farewell party
Zad was going to leave the coming week, so we went out for dining, Lucia, Helena, a friend of Zad, Shino (the hostess for the thanksgiving party) and me. Afterwards we and ended up

Karaokeing joined by Edith, one of Helena’s friends and Celia, our fifth flatmate from Canada.

Monday 19 December – Final exam
So today is the grand final. Same requirement as the oral exam, 70 percent score in order to pass, and in order to enter the next level. If failing, the only other alternative is to do the same level again. Bah…the thought of having to redo the level did not sound too appealing. And they made us pay in the middle of December even before knowing what level we would attend later. It is only one thing to do…pass. We got four hours to complete the exam, which involved a listening part, a Kanji part and a grammar part. All in all plenty of time, even though mistakes were unavoidable. And the result…the entire class passed – what a bunch of great geniuses we are!

Tuesday 20 December - Farewell dining with the language class
I had my interview for the next level with Iwaki Sensei, were I got feedback on the results from the exam. It was supposed to take place the day after, but an exception was

made since I had to go on my “vacation” in Korea the day after. Afterwards almost the entire class went out for drinking and dining along with Iwaki Sensei. And guess what – I ended up Karaokeing again!

Wednesday 21 December - Going to Korea
My departure was at 14:00, and since all my travel details were in Japanese, I guessed that 12:00 in red accompanied by some kanjis indicated the check in time. So I made sure I had good time, but underway I had to ask which terminal I was supposed to get off at. Narita 2 I was told, but it also turned out that I had change train at the forthcoming station. That is what I would call pure chance! At the Japan Airline counter I met a nice girl whose smile probably met on the back of her head. She was a bit concerned that I did not have a re-entry in my passport. But no big hassle, I explained that I was returning to study more Japanese, and after some phone calls everything seemed fine. At the passport control I got the same question, and I had to hand in my Alien card. But again – no big hassle.

The flight took nearly 3hrs. Some Japanese kids on the seat across the aisle dropped their food package on the floor. Being Kent Clark, I stretched out and grabbed the package and handed it to the kids. In the process I managed to drop my own food package AND a glass of coke on the aisle. So much for being a superhero. The mother of the kids insisted that I should take here foodpackage instead, and after rejecting the second time, I finally understood that I should accept, even though I did not feel to good about it.

Arrived at Incheon airport, Seoul, around five. I had no problems at the airport, except one guy that came running towards me waving his arms. He obviously did not like the idea of me taking pictures in the airport (I was only taking picture of the enormous queues of people that had lined up to get in). I found the guide that I was instructed to look for by the girl at the JAL counter earlier. There were 7 other Japanese and me travelling with the same agency. I guess this is according to the Japanese standard of travelling. We were guided into a minibus and I was escorted safely to my hotel, the Samjung hotel along with my belongings. If I were to complain about anything – they did not put on my pyjamas and brush my teeth. But frankly, it was comfortable, and the guide was really entertaining and funny, even though she mostly spoke Japanese. The hotel was really high standard, so I didn’t get the chance to miss my flat-pet, the pedicure rat, that much.

I went out to have something to eat, and I found a local style restaurant and the food looked good but I was a bit anxious as I entered. It turned out that the middle-aged waitress spoke perfectly well English. I got some really spicy food, but the temperature inside the restaurant was freezing, so I was still cold even as I was fully dressed. Later I became aware that some of the customs regarding eating is quite different in Korea as to Japan. You should for instance never lift the soup bowl (or any other plate or bowl for that sake) and drink from it. Use the spoon! And you are not supposed to make sound while you are eating. I Japan it is for instance quite common to make a slurping sound when eating ramen or noodles.

Thursday 22 December - Exploring Seoul
I was (of course) too late for the breakfast, so I went out to have, uhm, lunch instead. I decided to visit the Changdeokgung Palace. It was completed in 1412 and is registered on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list. I went along with a English-guided group, while the guide herself

was Korean. The outside the different buildings Kanjis would explain their purpose. The Kings and the Queens bedroom was not an excemption. And the Kanjis here would read something like “a place were great things are created”. Oh well, that’s a nice way to put it.

Later I went to see a display in Korean folkdance in the Chongdong theather. This was on the recommendation by the travel-agency guide, representing the very Korean soul as she put it. And yes, it was impressive, some of the plays were really beautiful and aesthetic, others had spectacular dancing and massive drumming.

Towards the evening I went to see the Namdaemun market. It was massive, several streets overloaded with al kinds of consumer goods and food of all kinds and shapes.

Friday 23 December – Itaewon
After the hotel breakfast I headed into the centre of Seoul again to have a look around. As I was walking north of the centre, close to their second big palace, the Gyeongbokgung, I noticed lot of policemen making group formation along the street. Also, maybe 6 police buses where lined up along the street, as to make a barrier. I asked a middleaged man that was having a smoke session even though it was probably several minusdegrees. He said that it was rather normal, as the “less fortunate” would now and then make demonstrations here against the government, as this was a quite important business area. Well, looked more like a war zone to me, but obviously nothing to be too concerned about.

My next destination for the day was another area of the city – Itaewon. This place is perhaps the equivalent to Seoul as Roppongi is to Tokyo. Having an American military base next to it, there are a lot of foreigners here. It was basically a long street with lot of tourist shops along on both sides. I ended up buying a pair of trousers, a fake Bvlgari watch, a Korean drum and some stuff for my folks.

My impression of Korea after these two and a half days is that
1: it is bloody cold here! Having a cold and going here at this time of the year is not optimal, but I did not have much of a choice this time since my Visa was expiring.
2: people here are very friendly and openminded and they go very far to help you out.
3:I love Korean food, even though I am not accustomed to that spicy food.
4:Yes, I’ll definitively come back here.

Saturday 24 December – Returning to Nippon
At 10:30 I was supposed to be picked up at reception. And so I was. A young, goodlooking (female) Korean guide made sure that I got from the hotel, by a minibus all the way into the international departure gates of Incheon. And I was actually the only client.

Almost three hours flight before landing at Narita. Because I had to carry the drum, I sent my backpack as ordinary luggage. And during the flight I recalled that the confirmation from the language school that I was going to attend the next semester was in it. Oh well, no problem - lets improvise. I lined up in the foreigner queue, the immigration officer looked young and sympathetic enough. All the persons ahead of me passed by him in an even flow. Piece of cake! My turn. He babbled something in Japanese. I did not get it. He tried to babble something in English. I replied. He did not get my reply. Suddenly I stood there with a form in my hand, and he pointed to an office. 1 hour, a 6 page questionnaire and a numerous questions later they finally let me in. The officer, now in the shape of a woman, was 10 times as frightening as the WTIO I faced on my first entry to Japan. She was quite eager to have me put down the phone number of the language school, so I bet she actually called to check. One thing's for sure - it is easier to leave this country than to get back in again. I finally got back to my flat around 10 o’clock in the evening. So much for Japanese Christmas!

Saturday 31 December - New Years Eve
At New Years Eve, me Daniel and a Toshiba colleague of him, a Hungarian, teamed up to have some food and agreed to meet in Roppongi, as this was quite close to the Zojo-ji Temple. We were going to

meet some of Daniels internship aquaintances later. At the temple, there were really lot of people gathered by the time we got there. And everybody were carrying something that looked like plastic bags, I guess it was kind of a balloons. They had tents everywhere in the area, selling food and sake. Just before twelve a speaker did a countdown. No fireworks, but at twelve, everybody released their balloons. Guess this is somewhat more environmental-friendly way of celebrating instead of all the fireworks. Afterwards we went to Roppongi to "Muse", one of the numerous Nightclubs. And when we got trown out from there in the morning, we went to this really strange local Japanese place in Shibuya that one of the guys new of. Believe me when I say that the outside, which looked like a dump, actually reflected what was inside. Some locals were hanging around, while a guy and a couple of women were dancing. From the way the guy was dancing, I’d say he was either constipated, gay or maybe both. Well, well - eight o’clock in the morning; time for some sleep - Gajin way of partying. ..

Wednesday 04 January - Mitsumine Wintercamp, arrival
After Sosai Masutatsu Oyamas legendary mountain training (http://www.americankyokushin.com/cnt.akk.mas-oyama.html)

in mount Minobu in Chiba prefecture, he often returned to the mountains for seasonal training camps with his students and selected the remote peak of Mt. Mitsumine for this purpose. And for the past five years it has become the place for the yearly Honbu Kyokushin winter camp.

We arrived around 11:30 on Wednesday and checked in, after 3.5 hours busdrive from Tokyo. The lodging was proper Ryokan (i.e Japanese inn style) so there were no beds, futons only. I got three Japanese roommates, and one of them from the same Dojo (Honbu) as me. My Japanese has become slightly better than the misplaced grunts I delivered in the beginning, so I was able to do some conversation.

At 14:00 we lined up outside the Hotel in the karatesuits (dogi). There were around 130 participants in total, 40 children and 5 foreigners (Gajins). We were divided into groups, 13 in my group which also contained all the Gajins. “Some minusdegrees later”, Kancho Matsui appeared and we marched off to Oyamas memorial stone. Then we (luckily) returned inside the hotel for a 2 hour keiko (practice) with Kancho, starting with Kihon (Basic techniques), and then some Ido-Keiko (techniques while moving). But it was still incredible cold even inside the hall, especially for the feet.

At 18:00 it was dinner and 19:00 the Kancho had a 2hr long speech (!). We were sitting on the tatami-covered floors, and at the end any sitting position would be equally painful. After the speech, we got the opportunity to ask Kancho questions, which he answered thoroughly, up to several minutes on each question. So Shihan Fukuda eventually asked “Is there any more questions?” in such a manner that it could only be interpreted as “That’s enough for tonight folks”.

At 22:30 we gathered at our room to discuss entertainment (each group had to make some for the next evening). The Japanese in our group had their idea of what we should present and how, while we, the Gajins had some other ideas. At 23:00 it was supposed to be quiet, and at 23:30 we were instructed to stop. I think we managed to come to an agreement that everybody could live with at the end, though.

Thursday 05 January - Mitsumine Wintercamp, half marathon
06:15 in the morning we got up for breakfast. 07:00 it was line up so we went outdoors for our morning practice (it was still dark and very cold). We started with Kihon, and I can vaguely remember the sensation of my thumbs as two alien pieces attached to my body. After the Kihon, the groups gathered and did their individual training. Then we had a running session, before entering a temple. This was far from pleasant, as we sat in seiza for maybe 40 minutes, while the Shinto priests carried out their ritual. And to be on the safe side, they kept all the doors wide open, so nobody would suffer from heat stroke. And from the shivering bodies (mine included) and the blue faces around me I would say they managed this one quite successfully. It took around half a minute before I was able to stand up right afterwards.

At eleven we ate lunch, and at one o’clock, the infamous half marathon was to begin. This was basically 11km down hill on hard asphalt… and yes – the very same 11 km back up again. I guess 100 or so started, even some of the kids – the “good-runner-kids” as our group sempai put it. The majority of the kids would do 5km though. After the running it was time for O’furo, warm bath, which was a really, really good reward after this exercise. Later, there were quite a few potential recruits for John Cleese’s Departement of funny walks to see in the corridors. The entire range from One-legged-Pirate-John to the more modern Robocop ones were represented.

At six we ate dinner, and at seven the entertainment started. We presented our little play, which basically made fun of how the foreigners do karate as to how the Japanese do it.

Awards for the best runners and the best entertainment was given and later beer and snack were brought out to the tables.

Friday 06 January – Mitsumine Wintercamp, waterfalls
The first part of the day was basically the same as the day before with breakfast, morning practice and ending up inside that warm, cosy little temple again (actually it was, if possible - even colder today). Then we had lunch, packed our luggage and cleaned out the rooms. We then headed to Oyamas memorial for a final visit before starting on a 4km walking trail that would lead us to our next destination – a waterfall. Taki Abi is the Japanese expression for “training under waterfalls”. And that was exactly what we were going to do. On our way, we had an accident, as one of the elder participants slid and started to tumble down a hillside at a rather steep part of the trail. I was right behind him and my immediate reaction was to go after him. He had stopped at the trunk of a three for a moment, but seemed to be about to continue rolling any minute, and so he did. My backpack inhibited my superhero powers, although I basically flew parts of the way down, ending up with my head on a rock, before continuing rolling and stop at the bottom. The elder man did not tumble quite as far before he was lying rather still. He turned out to be fine, however. Probably some light bruises, so he was brought down to the waterfalls were he was picked up by ambulance staff later. I guess the two of us had quite some luck after all.

We finally arrived at the waterfalls, and some of the people had already been under the falls.
What can I say - a rather refreshing experience. We did punches on a count of thirty, before the next group replaced us. The coldest part was probably waiting our turn before going under the waterfalls and afterwards, before getting into warm clothes. When everybody had finished, we packed our gear and proceeded maybe another kilometer before arriving the buses that brought us back to Tokyo.