uiuu .: December and a little-bit of the New Year

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.


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