The last weeks of December are marked by a typically Japanese phenomenon: the bōnenkai, or “end of year” party. As companies around the world no doubt do after the last day of work before the end of year holidays, members of a company go out together to have a drink. One can imagine this involves reminiscing about this year’s achievements, and looking forward to next year. Such a guess, though understandable, fails to grasp the slight twist the Japanese have appended to these proceedings: 忘年(bōnen) literally means “forgetting the hardships of the old year”.
Alcohol has the magical characteristic of making one forget almost anything when consumed in large enough quantities. The fact that the last two weeks of December turn Tōkyō businessmen into an army of mass vomitters suggests that there is quite a bit worth forgetting about Japanese corporate culture. Should you ever walk around Tōkyō between December 15th and December 31st, I suggest you invest in a decent pair of waterproof boots.

A Good Night’s Sleep

When night falls, Tōkyō’s streets become quiet. One assumes that the people who populate the city during the day have all gone home. Reality is quite different. A lot of people haven’t, either because they missed the last train from overworking and/or overdrinking, or because they simply don’t have a home to return to.
We all know the stereotypical image of a homeless person sleeping in the street, carrying his belongings around in plastic bags. Tōkyō has another type of homeless, though. These people often spend the night in one of the many 24/7 restaurants, coffee shops or another alternative: the manga kissa. This is short for manga kissaten, or manga (Japanese comic book) café. In the most strict sense, it’s a place where you can read comic books. Most have come to offer at least a (semi-) private cubicle with an executive-style desk chair, computer, fast internet and free unlimited drinks as well. Some even offer actual beds, showers and toothbrushes. All this can be yours for around 1000 yen for 5-6 hours, which is more than enough sleep for the average Tōkyōite, who catches up on sleep through cat naps on the subway. Multiply that by thirty, and you have a monthly rent that is less than 50% or even 33% of the average housing cost around here.
I decided to do a little researching myself, as I had heard these stories before, but found it hard to imagine fancy schmancy businessmen staying in a manga kissa. Was I ever wrong.

mangakissa1As I was planning to get to the bottom of this, I took the last train to Akihabara, and did a little tour of the McDonalds and Starbucks around the station. Sure enough, there were tons of people sprawled out over the tables, with no intention of leaving their sleeping places anytime soon. Could this have something to do with the holiday season? At around 1AM, I started looking for a manga kissa. That’s when I really started believing there was some substance to stories I’d heard. Every single manga kissa I found was fully occupied. After wandering about for almost an hour, I finally found one that still had some open seats.
I had scored a good one, with aforementioned executive-style desk chair, pc with internet, unlimited free drinks and tons of manga of course. I tried to sleep a little, but sleeping in a chair only works when you’re already exhausted. So I instead spent the night studying the clientele, reading the news, answering my email, etc. About an hour after I came in, there was a lot of movement and the floor I was staying on filled up really quickly.
After a few more hours, I gave up sleeping completely and thought I might as well do something with the internet as I was paying for it anyway. So I made a free NBA.TV account and watched the highlights of all NBA games played since December 26th.

mangakissa2Almost everyone left around 5:45 AM – 6:00 AM, right around the time when the first subway started running. When I made another round of the McDonalds around Akihabara station I made a startling discovery: the toilets were all filled with businessmen brushing their teeth, combing their hair and straightening their ties. Furthermore, they looked quite comfortable doing their thing in the toilet of a fast food chain.
Just before I wrote this entry, I took about an hour-long nap in a McDonalds. Wondering how disgusted the daytime population of Tōkyō would be when I lifted my head from the table, I found the person in front of me to be asleep as well. Nobody seems to even raise an eyebrow. Even though it’s 10AM now, I can see at least 3 people sleeping here. Welcome to Tōkyō, city of millions, where businessmen sleep among the homeless people.

Boys will be boys

What is better than watching sports on a holiday? Not much, except perhaps for watching sports on a holiday with nachos. Enter NBA TV!
Because of the ongoing discussions over (what else?) money and the resulting lockout, the basketball season in the USA has started embarrassingly late, though I’m sure fans are glad there’s even a season at all. Since December 25th, my favourite spectator sport (well, second favourite after StarCraft 2, but that’s a subject I’m not touching with an adamantium-coated stick) has kicked off again. Sean is quite the basketball fan himself and so we decided watching a game of hoops would be the perfect holiday activity.

nba01As Sean is from California and fell in love with NBA in Sacramento where he went to high school, the game to watch was a no-brainer: the Kings’ revenge match against the LA Lakers, the team nobody likes yet is annoyingly consistent in posting good results (*cough* Anderlecht, Hannes?). The Lakers had stopped the Sacramento Kings in the semi-finals of the play-offs last year, so there was indeed quite a bit of revenge to be taken. On top of that, the Lakers had lost their first match the day before, and this match would be played in Sacramento. Enter second bag of nacho’s.
The game was awesome. The Kings quickly gained the lead in the first quarter, and even though LA came back to within 2 points, they never managed to overtake their Californian rivals. The Kings eventually won the game with 91-100. Tiny Lakers tears were shed, and all was well with the world again.

Christmas in Tōkyō

Christmas in Japan is not a holiday to spend with your family, but for going out on a date with your loved one. It’s the most romantic day of the year. Sean and Tomie uphold the true American meaning of Christmas, though, so I joined them for a cosy night at home with tons of food. As Christmas should be.

xmas01We started the evening with some grocery shopping, which quickly turned into a visit to Starbucks and Krispy Kreme donuts. As Sean put it: “These are no ordinary donuts. They’re more like crack on a sandwich. Can I have another one, now? Please?”
We reluctantly left our sugary paradise to search ingredients for tonight’s food. We found what we were looking for in some outrageously fancy and overpriced supermarkets. But they had cheese and Belgian beers, so that did the trick. I’m sure you can imagine my surprise when I discovered they even had Belgian olives.

Back home I barricaded myself in the kitchen, while Sean and Tomie burst out one of the more elaborate plastic Christmas trees I’ve seen so far. We had cherry tomatoes with Boursin and sliced olives, followed by toast with avocado, lime juice, pepper and salt and fried chicken and firmly cemented that in with a vegetable dish containing potatoes, red, orange and yellow peppers, zucchini and feta cheese. Stuffed as a turkey (I’m sorry I stooped to this level of Christmas puns. Not really, actually) we still managed to fit in some Häagen-Dazs ice cream, before passing out on the heated floor.

xmas02The next morning, I woke to the sound of Tomie making Christmas cookies. A few hours later, severe cookie monstering ensued.

Yokohama, China Town

I joined Dessi again today, as she was staying in Yokohama and I have only been there to change trains. So this was as good an excuse as any to perform a more thorough investigation of this second, mostly neglected part of the Tōkyō-Yokohama megalopolis.

yokohama-02Yokohama is famous, among other things, for its bustling China Town and many shopping malls, which are supposedly extra pretty when lit up at night. Not ready to trade the sapphire skies for neonlit luxury stores, we headed out to the far side of Yokohama.
China Town means a lot of pandas, apparently. It must be something of a Chinese national symbol, as you couldn’t pass a single store without being positively smothered in its black and white cuteness. I took lots of pictures for a particularly panda-obsessed friend back at home. That would be you, Maud Cosijn. If this panda-madness lasts any longer, we, your concerned friends, will have to organize a little intervention.
The neighbourhood was large enough for other cultures too, as attested by the large amount of lamas in front of the many hippie Nepalese shops.

yokohama-01Yokohama’s China Town is indeed the largest one I’ve seen to date, and it presented ample opportunities for one of my favourite hobbies: sampling unknown food. We had doughnut balls with sesame seeds, Chinese umeboshi, ryūgan (or ‘dragon’s eyes’, a nutfruit – or a fruitnut – that had a shrivelled black core that smelt of tar inside its hard brown exterior) and best of all: jellyfish. Yes, that’s right. I ate jellyfish. It was a lot less gooey than I imagined it would be, the texture reminding me more of cartilage than jelly. This delicacy was served with cucumber and balsamic vinegar. Afterwards, we strolled a little more around Yokohama, and when the sun set we returned to the – indeed spectacularly lit – shopping malls around Yokohama station, where we ended the day at a yakitori place. Positively stuffed and immensely satisfied, I bid farewell to Dessi as she boarded the night bus to Ōsaka.

Today was my last day in Japan for the first part of my trip. Tomorrow I’ll be off to Korea. I almost can’t believe how fast these three months have passed. I have seen a lot of things, tasted a lot more and learned quite a bit of Japanese. I do, however, feel like my ‘To Do and Learn’-list is growing faster than I’m capable of crossing off the items. I won’t be out of things to do when I return on December 23rd, that’s for sure.

It’s payback time

Five days ago, I wrote about how I will repay the people that have been taking care of me here by doing the same for them and others once I go back home. My chance to do this might come sooner than I expected. Through Shūji, one of my hosts from Avocado House, I met Takuya, a Japanese researcher working for Yakult. He’s going to Ghent for a two to three year period starting April 2012, only a week or two after I’ll have returned there.
I met up with Takuya in a café near Tōkyō University today, and we talked about Ghent for several hours. I am really excited about being able to help him get settled once he makes the move overseas next spring. And seeing how he’s a pretty awesome guy, we’ll have to integrate him in our bar routines, ensuring opportunities of speaking Japanese for years to come. We’re both pretty excited about the prospect, and I can’t wait to show him around town.

Tōkyō University, CouchSurfing.jp Christmas Party, Lunar Eclipse

I’m staying at Avocado House again. This time I’m joined with fellow CouchSurfers Ida (from the Philippines), Noemi (from Paris) and Samuel (also from Paris). As Shūji is still really busy with his master’s dissertation, we decided to pay him a little visit on the Tōkyō University campus. Tōdai, as it is called by the Japanese, is Tōkyō’s most prestigious university, and the goal which almost all Japanese high-schoolers strive to achieve.
As I wrote before on this blog, many of the old stereotypes about Japanese education still seem to hold up today. The goal of education is not to study something which you find interesting, but just to get into the institution which happens to top the charts and rankings that particular year. Once you pass the difficult selection exams to enter the university, you’re set, as Japanese students’ academic performance (or more aptly: lack thereof) has almost no influence on their future employment.

todai01If you graduate from the right university, everything is possible. Likewise, graduate from an institution that is much lower on the rankings, and getting a top job might be almost impossible, no matter your talent or achievements. This results in Japanese students working insane amounts from a time when they should be outside, playing and discovering the world, producing a backlash once they do make it into their university of choice, and 4-5 years of being brain-dead present themselves. Even then, choices made are the result of employment considerations, not actual interests. I’ve lost count of how many economics and accounting students I’ve met that would rather study art, but won’t for fear of future inability to make a living for themselves in Japan’s highly competitive society.

Sad though the actual educational process may be, if you’re going to sell your soul, you might as well do it here. Tōkyō University is famous for its autumn view, and the sight of the yellow trees shedding their leaves on its campus housing both old English-style halls and ultra-modern towers is a view to behold.

todai03The ivory tower of Japan’s knowledge is but a subway station away from the decadent pleasures to which man is prone to lose himself every once in a while. Though “every once in a day” might be more accurate when it comes to Tōkyō’s crazy lifestyle.
My friends from CouchSurfing.jp had organized a Christmas event in Shibuya. Befitting of the Japanese Christmas spirit, which is all about blatant consumerism and oddly enough: romance (it’s a couples holiday), we were greeted by a pack of runaway Santa’s elves. I propose to Mr. Claus that he teaches his girls to drink less and wear more, or he’ll be severely understaffed because of several cases of pneumonia and vomiting. That, and I believe him to be a dirty old man.

todai02After the Christmas party we went back Avocado House, and got some more glimpses of the full lunar eclipse that was unfolding in the skies above us. We hurried back because what was waiting for us in Todaimae was nothing less than a full-blown lunar eclipse cake. Actually, it was the chocolate cake from Roald Dahl’s Mathilda, but an eclipsed moon is chocolate colour, so no harm done there. At any rate, it was delicious, so who cares what it’s called, it will still end up… IN MY BELLY!
Oh, in all my excitement for the total lunar eclipse and its accompanying cake, I didn’t take even a single picture of the phenomenon. So that’s why you’ve been presented with a slightly tipsy Japanese guy wearing a Russian hat. Same thing, really.

Crossing paths, study session

The internet works in strange ways. While checking my CouchSurfing page yesterday I got a message from Dessi, a Swedish girl that just arrived in Tōkyō. She wondered if I had any sightseeing tips, and less than 24 hours later we were having a cup of tea and examining subway maps. The tea place we went to had premium tea. I know I promised not to drink any tea of this year’s harvest because of radioactivity concerns, but I couldn’t resist. The two cups of kukicha I had were very rich and creamy, and needless to say, they were served at exactly the right second. Best not get too comfortable. I’ll come back for more cups in a few years’ time.

dessiteaAfterwards, I rushed off to my next appointment of the day: the English study session at the Nihon Kiin. Because there were too many people to gather around the central go board on which Antti’s games were being analyzed, we split up into separate groups, and I played a game with Kurt, an American kyu-player present at today’s session. Feng Shiung 6p (Kuma-san) provided live commentary as we were playing. He actually approved of most things we did, though he made us replay certain key sequences differently, and guided us through the endgame to find the largest points. I feel like I learnt a lot from his comments and both Kurt and myself were thrilled to have been given this opportunity. Thank you, kuma-san, for your wonderfully insightful analysis.


Tonight I went for a moonlit walk of Ueno Park. As I exited the station, the bitter cold hit me in the face like a giant frozen boxing glove. As I gathered my bearings, I saw several homeless people building a shelter for the night using nothing but cardboard boxes. This striking image of poverty and homelessness made me think about my own stay in Japan.
What constitutes a home? A place to stay for the night? A shelter against the December cold? I’m personally more inclined to also include a feeling of warmth in the definition, warmth provided by people to share your day with. A home is not a thing constructed from bricks and concrete. A home consists of people. Since coming to Japan I realize just how much of a home my friends in Belgium are. My home has shifted from comfy couches to facebook, skype and email, but it still feels the same.

homeabroadHowever one would define it, seeing the homeless man clambering about in his cardboard abode made me realize just how lucky I’ve been ever since I came to Japan. Dozens of CouchSurfing hosts and one wonderful pair of people in particular have provided me with a home, every night I’ve been here. I’m extremely grateful for this, and will repay this in the way that seems most logical: be a home for weary travelers that end up in Ghent.

Some time after writing the last paragraph, I read an article about debt over at BBC News:

We used to have it. The idea that being in debt to someone was about things that money couldn’t buy – from random acts of kindness to bigger stuff. Everyone could make out their own list. Mine would be – I don’t know – the man on the Tube last September who, when I discovered I had lost my purse, gave me a 5 pound note to get home, with no wish to be paid back.

Or the family in India who befriended my teenage daughter travelling alone (grrrrr), and took her home to their village for a week, refusing anything in return. This kind of debt can only really be repaid by doing something similar for someone else at some point in your life. This kind of debt really does feel as if it could make the world go round.

Sarah Dunant: “A Point of View, The meaning of debt”, 2011-12-27

I would like to thank all the people that have been taking care of me so far: Sean, Tomie, John, Miyuki, Horiken, Abe-chan, Shūji, Eiji, Tetsu, Hashi, Tōma, Yang Soo, Edwin, Taka, Yusuke, Sōichi, Konstantina and Hiroshi. Thank you for giving me a home. I will repay the favor and help someone who needs it.

Goya Exposition and Tōkyō Museum of Western Art

Today was a beautiful day with clear blue skies and fresh autumn air. I took a stroll through Ueno park and couldn’t resist taking a peek inside the Tōkyō Museum of Western Art. There was a large exhibition on the works of Francisco de Goya, and as I wasn’t really familiar with any of his work, I decided to do a little exploring. The exhibition used a large amount of sketches, prints and paintings that were on loan from the Prado in Madrid.

goya1Francisco de Goya – The Maja and the Masked Men (1777)

The exhibition displayed his work in chronological order, from his early days as a lower-ranked court painter, his initial sketches for and completed prints of Los Caprichos, portraits, his visual account of Napoleon Bonaparte’s ambitions in Spain, his own original take on bullfighting pictures and finally a series of prints on the folly of life.
Goya possesses the technical skill of the old master, the critical view of the enlightenment philosopher (visible in his critique of medieval practices through his donkey pictures in Los Caprichos), the vision and imagination of a modern artist and the crisp execution that reminds me, personally, of many modern American cartoonists. The few hours I spent watching his work made me a very big fan indeed.

goya2Francisco de Goya – Unfortunate events in the front seats of the ring of Madrid, and the death of the Mayor of Torrejon (1816)

Upon exiting the exhibition I felt quite satisfied, but then I discovered my ticket also covered the permanent collection of the Tōkyō Museum of Western Art. This was at least as impressive as what I’d seen just moments before: loads of sculptures by Rodin, paintings by Brueghel, Rubens, Van Ruysdael, el Greco, Courbet, Manet, an entire room with only Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Gauguin, Ernst, Munch, Miro, Pollock and Picasso. Quite the collection, I must say. Completely exhausted from the slow museum-shuffle, I made my way to Sean and Tomie’s place to study the last kanji of grade 4. Starting from tomorrow, I’ll be in fifth grade, hehe.