Musings on Japanese learning

I’ve been in Japan for about a month now. So what’s been happening with my Japanese language ability since I got here? I could of course say it’s slowly improving, and though that wouldn’t be a lie, it wouldn’t be an interesting read either, so allow me to go into a little more detail.

Language acquisition isn’t a uniform process. People with different backgrounds and study methods will have different levels for various language skills. Since coming to Japan I have noticed a remarkable boost in my receptive language skills: listening and reading. I can understand much more actual conversations, and the speed at which I can process input has risen dramatically. I noticed this most clearly while reading electronic billboards. These have text moving at the speed native readers would need for processing the message, but when I push myself a little, I end up reading much faster without a noticeable loss in comprehension. When talking to Japanese people I have noticed the same thing. Though I still have to ask them to repeat something at times, this happens much less frequently. Since there’s always input to process, whether it be listening or reading, I’ve been able to practice this nonstop since coming to Japan, and I’m starting to sense improvement in these domains.

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The same cannot be said for my productive skills, however. I’d been warned by professor Niehaus and Klaus Pinte (both of whom taught me Japanese at Ghent University), that one of the most difficult things about being in Japan, is getting people to speak Japanese to you. It just doesn’t happen. This has less to do with my Japanese than with the way Japan relates to the English language. It is taught in schools, but this is done by Japanese teachers, who for the most part can’t speak a word of English themselves. Their pronunciation is horrible, and this is transferred onto a new generation of Japanese. That’s why many Japanese go to English cram schools (juku), or take extra English conversation classes (eikaiwa). Since the traditional Japanese education creates people that aren’t very good at English, they react to this in one of two extremes: they either want to take every chance they can get to speak it, or will do anything to avoid speaking English. The weirdest instance of the first scenario happened last week, when I was walking in Shinjuku Station and was suddenly surrounded by a horde of old Japanese women. A wrinkled sample steps forward: “How’s your pronunciation?”. No hello’s, not even a “Where are you from?”. We’re retired and don’t have a lot of time, let’s get down to business please. “Well, how’s your pronunciation?” Upon explaining them I was Belgian but spoke English pretty well, they proceeded with the next item on the list. Did I have an hour or two? Jeez, these crows know how to ask for the entire arm up front. No messing around with fingers or hands for them, no sir. Well, you get the picture. Luckily, I had a train to catch, and bowed my way out of that situation. I was actually quite flattered, and shall return to these lovely ladies in about a sentence or two.

A similar scenario occurs at a lot of the places where I stay. If you ask Japanese people why they act as CouchSurfing hosts, I think the majority will answer they do it to practice their English. As these wonderful people take me into their home, I don’t want to be a bad guest and will gladly speak English with them. But as that’s the majority of the conversation I participate in during the day, I think my productive language skill has risen more for English than it has for Japanese. The old ladies were right: you have to aggressively force your way into situations where you can practice speaking, or you won’t get enough chances to. For me, that means always opening conversations in Japanese, as well as sending e-mails to new hosts or people I’ve met only in Japanese.

This brings me to the second way people deal with their insufficient English around here: avoidance. I’ve come across multiple people that flatout refused to acknowledge I was even there, when I asked them for directions. These were mostly middle-aged or old people, and while I was certain my Japanese was correct, they just pretended not to understand me. I couldn’t understand why this happened, until Kentarō offered a very plausible explanation: apparently they feel they have to answer in English, and as they don’t feel capable to, they’ll just pretend the situation to speak English never presented itself.

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But there are plenty of times when I do manage to converse in Japanese. These moments have been very instructive. Most of my conversation partners are young Japanese people, often hosts and therefore we talk like friends do: using the more informal short forms. This has become a lot more natural to some degree, and I have to be very careful when speaking to older people not to use the same informal grammar, because they will politely smile and correct my mistake. A heart-chilling experience every time it happens. But to answer the initial question: yes, my Japanese is improving. Improvement is slow, but it’s there nonetheless.

Kawasaki, Tsukishima, Omotesandō, Nezu with Etsuko

This weekend I stayed with Nozaka Etsuko, a professional translator. She translates children’s books from Dutch to Japanese. On Sunday we went on a trip to Tōkyō together. Etsuko wanted to attend two lectures by a foundation for Japanese children’s literature, and I happily tagged along. It was good practice for my Japanese, and the first lecture also included a 40-minute documentary on the March earthquake and tsunami. It was the first time I had seen such a collection of amateur footage of those events and was quite moved by the images.

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Afterwards we walked from Tsukishima, where the lectures were held, to Omotesandō, and on to the Nezu Museum of Japanese and other Asian pre-modern art. It housed a very nice exhibition on artwork connected to Kasuga. The museum is world famous for its first-class collection of Chinese bronze work, and I must say this renown is well-deserved. I remember seeing a lot of these designs in my university classes and they are even more impressive in real life.

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After we arrived back at Shinyurigaoka, we stopped by Aeon, a humongous supermarket to pick up ingredients for the evening meal. “What hast thou eaten?” asks the slightly archaic rhetorical device. “Takoyaki.” I reply, still smiling at the thought of those delightful balls of dough containing minimal pieces of octopus. You can get these all over Tōkyō, in stalls selling them in multiples of three. They are served with a brownish takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise (Wait, what? That’s not why I left the mother country!) and thin dried slices of fish known as katsuboshi. These dried pieces of fish start squirming and wriggling as if they were still alive as soon as they touch anything hot. And we had all that at home, because Etsuko possessed that most wondrous of kitchen appliances: a Takoyaki maker. Think of it as a waffle iron for making takoyaki, only it doesn’t look like a waffle iron at all, and you don’t make waffles with it.

Interview with Candlegravity

candlegravityA little while back, Alan Herrick reviewed ‘Before I Go’ by Candlegravity. When I found out that Sean Crownover, the man behind Candlegravity, lives in Tokyo, I decided to lure him out to a bar for an interview. My bait proved successful.

Hi Sean, could you tell us something about yourself?
I’m a very old person, I’m 37 now. I was born in Los Angeles, and I moved all over California with my family. Since San Francisco is where I went to university and it’s the place in California I feel most closely related to, I usually call that my hometown. I currently live in Tokyo.

How and when did you move to Japan?
I met my wife, Tomie, back in the US while attending a junior college in Chico, and we eventually decided to move here. That was in ’99, nearly 12 years ago now. Before moving here, we’d already found a house and a job for me, but even so, I wasn’t really prepared for Japan. All I knew about this country was hearsay information.
My only solid plan was that I wanted to learn how to play the koto. This is a traditional Japanese instrument, an integral part of geisha culture and playing it is a role that was mostly reserved for women. I didn’t really know that though, so when I first started working as a teacher here, and I told my students I played koto, they all bursted out laughing. One of those students, however, introduced me to her mother, who in turn put me in contact with her koto teacher. I started studying with her. Recitals were pretty funny, as everyone was focused on the tall white guy. (laughs)

You know the nail that sticks out gets hammered around here.
Haha, I guess that’s true. But at the same time people will have a sort of respect for you because you’re interested in a part of their traditional culture they don’t know much about.

Do you use the koto in your music?
I use it all the time, both the actual instrument and sampled versions. I found a very good koto Kontakt sample library made by Soniccouture.

Have you found that such a radical change of surroundings has altered your art?
I didn’t notice it in the way a lot of people might think you’d do, and most certainly not in the way I thought I would. However, my first release I published after moving here, ‘Wrapped in Bamboo’ must really have had something different about it when compared to my earlier work. Mark Fahey, a long time friend of mine and pioneering dj in many discos in California, is one of my best feedback mechanisms. He is quite critical about what he likes, and if he doesn’t like something, I’ll know about it in a forgiving silent kind of way. Yet somehow, he always mentions that release, so something must have changed. There’s also been a more direct influence on my music. My latest release is a good example of that. The reason it’s called ‘Before I Go’, is that I completed it just before returning back to America for the first time in quite a while. The last song on that EP, ‘A Lifetime of Summers Past’, is a collection of emotions and memories I had of summers spent back home in California. I suppose in that sense, the alterations to my music are more a result of the absence of home more than an influence from being here.

So how did you first get into making music?
I grew up with a piano in the house. It just stood there, but one night, when I was 9 or 10 years old, I saw the movie ‘Chariots of Fire’, and the next day I remembered the theme song. I got behind the piano and started looking for the right notes. That was my introduction to playing music. When I was in high school, I of course played in a band, and later played trumpet in a semi-professional jazz band. At the same time I fiddled around with an application for the Commodore Amiga, called Sonix. It allowed you to modify soundwaves and sequence sounds, and from that moment on I just knew I wanted to make computer music. There weren’t a lot of options back then, so I worked with Cakewalk for quite a long time.
I eventually found my way to a music program at San Francisco State, and I studied jazz and recording there. Later I got a job in LA, and made music for a video game company for its presentation at E3, and have kept writing music ever since.

What’s your music making process like?
It really depends. As I studied music in college, I often find myself doodling around on napkins, writing short parts and then later converting them to the actual sounds. I also work from the opposite direction. I always carry a recorder with me, so I can instantly make recordings of interesting sounds I hear, and start building a track that way. Field recordings are of varying importance in my music, my last EP [‘Before I go’ recently reviewed on netlabelism] featured quite a lot of samples, but that’s not always the case.

Could you give us a tour of your setup? What instruments and software do you use?
I used to have a lot of hardware synths, but I recently sold most of them in order to get a Novation Ultranova. I still have a guitar, a trumpet, saxophone, my koto, a Kaoss Pad 3 (which I use mainly as a midi controller) and some other hardware effects lying around. I’m always amazed at how fast people can make complete songs in sequencers like Ableton Live, while making a similar song might take me a very long time. I’ve never gotten used to the graphical representations that split the music into clips and scenes. I need to see my music as one continuous stream from left to right, almost like a picture book. That’s why I’ve always used sequencers like Cubase or Logic. It doesn’t have the graphical anchor points of 4, 8 or 16 bars, but at the same time that’s a tremendous freedom for me, as it allows me to be more creative with the way I construct pieces. This oldschool left to right view is especially useful for ambient music. It’s such a cliché, but it really doesn’t matter what pieces of equipment you own. Whenever I get stuck in a mindset that focuses too much on expanding my setup, I’m reminded of the Japanese musician Harakami Rei, who recently passed away. All he ever used were two Roland SC-88Pro’s. That’s it. Yet he succeeded in creating incredibly rich material.

How would you describe your own music?
Hmm, that’s a tough one. I guess I just make the sort of music I like listening to. That varies greatly, so sometimes I’m somewhat scared there’s no common thread in my music or that I may lose a few fans when dabbling in other styles. I can tell you what I’m trying to achieve, though. One important characteristic that’s important to me in my music is the way silence is incorporated into the composition. I really feel like silence is an instrument. I live by it, and I’m not afraid of having parts of complete silence in a song. Apart from that I enjoy working with contrasts. By this I don’t only mean contrasting the amplitudes or dynamics of a sound, but also contrasting sound characteristics and/or timbres. This often enables a more general feeling of tightness or tension which might build up, letting the sounds in a track generate a sense of pressure, only then to release it. Yah, this play of contrast between tightness and looseness is often what I ultimately attempt to create.

You wrote the music to a short film by Claus Ostergaard, how was the contact with him and do you have any plans to work with him again? Do you often write scores for film?
The soundtrack for the Claus Ostergaard movie is actually related to another project I participated in: ‘Taboun’. That is a short film by Suha Ayash. Taboun is the staple bread eaten in the country of Jordan. Suha’s shortfilm was produced to illustrate taboun’s importance to many low-income families living in the more impoverished regions of Jordan. The film follows one family that has been fortunate enough to live near a road that has recently gathered tourist attention because of it’s historic importance. To date, that has been my most rewarding project. I learned a lot about Jordan and the people who live out there.
I wrote 3 songs for ‘Taboun’, but in the end only two of them were used. It just so happened that Claus was interested in using the third one for his ‘Ocean:dreaming’ shortfilm. After that, we talked about doing something together, and we did a movie showing the city of Aalborg in Denmark. I just wrote the backing music to it which I called ‘Aalborg Pulse’. Claus and I had fun with it though. In the middle of that song, there’s a quiet part, when the movie is showing a cross-country skiier . I searched for ages to find a sample of the sound that makes. Eventually I found it and Claus lined up that sound with the video, and we were quite pleased with the result.
To answer your question on collaborating again, right. I would love to work with him again, but he seems to be very busy lately as am I, so I don’t know how likely another collaboration might be in the near future anyway.

I’ve made music for quite a few film shorts, actually. However, when you’re a small unknown artist like me, writing music for films is really tailoring your own way of working to the tastes of the film maker. You have to bend to what they want, so I’ve had multiple experiences where I worked for a long time on a piece, but it didn’t make it into the finished product. If the director doesn’t like it, to his credit, he just won’t use it. The music I write for films is quite different from my ‘normal’ studio work: it focuses more on acoustic instruments and piano parts.

Have you made movies yourself, or do you mostly write scores for other people’s work?
I have made some movies myself. They’re not always very good though. The third track on the album you recently reviewed is called ‘Snow Monkey’. It’s the soundtrack to a shortfilm by the same name, showing some red-faced monkeys in hot water springs, surrounded by the snow. It was shot in Nagano prefecture. [If you’d like to see the movie, you can find it on the netlabelism front page, or in the links at the end of this interview.]

Do you have any upcoming releases?
I’m almost always working on something, so there’s a good chance I’ll publish some more tunes in the near future. I’m currently working on a soundtrack to a film called “Three Days in Kamakura”. I started working on that soundtrack two years ago, and the film will probably be released in another six months or so.

I’m also working on a tribute song to the artist I mentioned earlier, Harakami Rei. He passed away too soon, and I hope I can express the respect I have for him through this piece. Most tribute songs suck though, so I’m really hoping mine doesn’t! (laughs)

Sean, thank you very much for taking the time to provide us with an inside look at your music. Best of luck with your upcoming projects, and we hope to hear from you again.

Links
Candlegravity Website
Candlegravity – Snow Monkeys (Video)
Suha Ayash – Taboun: Kindling For Eight (Video)
Claus Ostergaard – Ocean:dreaming (Video)


This interview was originally published on netlabelism.com, an online music magazine covering netlabel culture and releases. I was editor for the magazine from January 2011 until December 2014.

Riding a bicycle in Tōkyō

Inspired by some interesting analyses of cycling in Rome that recently made their way onto my screen, I decided to embark on a similar venture, and paint a picture for the people at home. What is it like to ride a bicycle in Tōkyō?

There’s two sorts of Japanese cyclists: your everyday imbalanced one and the maniacs.
Let’s start with the everyday imbalanced sample. Japanese couldn’t ride a bike properly if their life depended on it. Which it does, though they seldom behave like it. Somehow, they all adjust their saddles and steering wheel to make it look like they’re riding a Harley Davidson, but then they miss the buff appeal that comes with riding a vehicle like that. They sway from left to right as if they’ve only just learned how to ride a bike last week. As I’m writing this, I just witnessed a bicycle accident: two old ladies ran straight into each other. No preventative measures where taken, no brakes used, not even the slightest of turns to avoid each other. They simply opened their mouths, screamed and collided. People rushed in to help them and one minute later they’re back on their bike and continuing their cute clumsy journey.

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There’s two cyclists in this picture. You can’t see the maniac because he’s moving too fast. You can’t see the other one because he’s fallen off his bike.

The second kind of cyclist is very different from the first. I lovingly refer to them as “the maniacs”. These cyclist ride racing bikes, can sit on the saddle properly and ride in straight lines. Very similar to how you’re supposed to ride a bike in Rome, they pretend they’re cars and are quite successful at that, as they move about twice as fast as the average car in Tōkyō. Do they wear helmets? Sometimes, though not very often. These are just madmen racing through the traffic. They don’t really care whether it’s a road for cars or the sidewalk, they know where the brakes are but don’t like using them. As there are no bicycle lanes in Japan, people are pretty used to being surprised by maniac cyclists on the sidewalk.

Since public transportation is so incredibly good around here, the majority of the people don’t ride bikes. Those Japanese that do, have developed their very own peculiar style, and whether they are the clumsy or the maniac type, they’re a sight to behold.

The Japanese supermarket

Any reason to test out a new camera is a good one, and I thought it was time to share some of the fun I’ve been having in Japanese supermarkets. They are pure heaven. There’s loads of fresh fish, stored on ice, as well as fresh squid and octopus, shellfish and crab. The fruit is very similar to the selection in Belgium, only a lot more expensive. Vegetables differ a little more, and include a great selection of sweet potatoes and turnips, with the iconic daikon (or great radish) swinging its proverbial vegetable scepter supreme over the other vegetables. If you thought the previous sentence came out wrong, that probably has more to do with your perverted mind than my choice of words. I love Japanese chocolate, they are really creative with sweets, both their traditional sweets like dango with anko, dorayaki, mochi (the best one I had was a triple-flavour chocolate tiramisu cheesecake mochi, mmmm) and more modern sweets like pocky (Belgians may know these sticks with chocolate as mikado) or cruncy chocolate-covered almonds. I will have to book an extra return ticket if I keep eating like this. For once, I’ll let the pictures do the talking. Feel free to make up your own words as you wander through the Japanese supermarket.

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Working at Apex English School

My day started very nice: my university degrees finally arrived this morning. Sadly enough, that also marked my last day with John and Miyuki, as I noticed looking for a job in Tōkyō from a place a few hundred kilometres away is much more difficult than actually being in the city itself. So I’ll return to my CouchSurfing life in the capital while looking for a job there.

This might be a good time to talk about my experiences while teaching at Apex English, the school run by John and Miyuki. The school is dedicated to English conversation (eikaiwa), and thus focuses more heavily on conversation skills than on grammar. A lot of parents send their kids to this kind of school from a very young age, so the majority of the students are between 3 and 12 years old. There’s quite a few junior high students (between 12 and 14 years old), some high school students and one or two elderly ladies taking English classes there. Depending on the age of the students the curriculum of the classes changes, but they all involve being very active, and engaging the students so they don’t just listen, but actively talk English themselves.

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The youngest group consists of kids between 3 and 6 years old, and they are usually accompanied by their mothers. These classes focus heavily on imitating the sounds the teacher makes, letting them repeat words. This class was quite a new experience for me, as you have to sing, dance and be quite the clown to keep their attention. Even when doing all that, and the presence of their mothers keeps the more active kids at least somewhat focused on the lessons, they often wander off completely, and many a hilarious situation ensued when trying to get the kids to return to the chair they where sharing with their mother just a moment before. Japanese kids are really cute, I’ll tell you that.
Most of the students of Apex English are between 6 and 12 years old, and these classes all follow the same general pattern. Classes start with flashcards showing the alphabet and a word starting with that letter. The teacher’s job is to quickly go through the alphabet and pronounce the word on the flashcard, which the kids repeat. The tempo is quite high, again to keep them focused. After some initial warm-up exercises with the alphabet, similar exercises with translating verbs describing everyday actions, and some basic nouns are the meat and potatoes of the first half of a class. These exercises are all graded, whoever gets something right scores a point, and the kids will go to some lengths to ensure victory. This competitive atmosphere keeps the classes going, and is a great addition to their learning environment. This would be very hard to implement in an adult learner’s environment, but it works great with the kids. After the flashcard exercises, the teacher asks the kids some questions, they ask him questions, everybody makes up lies, there’s a game of “Simon says” (I finally nailed the part ^^) and more active exercises. Classes end with the teacher reading a book out loud, and the kids repeating every sentence. Afterwards they each have to read their homework assignment to a teacher (there’s usually more than one present at any given time) to see whether they get to read a more difficult book for the next class.

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For older students, the flashcards are abandoned, and more time is spent on actual conversation. The teacher talks for a bit, and the students ask any question that pops into their perverted little heads. That means answering questions about your personal love life in the case of teaching 14-year old girls. While having the entire class videotaped for the school blog. I always wondered whether I’d be nervous if I’d have to take a lie detector test. Now I know the answer: not really, though it’s still a weird feeling. Because these junior high and high school students also get tests on grammar at school, Apex has to spend time on grammar as well. This is a difficult issue to tackle, because teaching grammar in this direct way isn’t very beneficial according to more recent theories of languages teaching. However, parents send their kids to an English conversation school and pay a lot of money for that. Even though somebody who talks English for an hour every week will eventually reach a higher skill level, in the short run they’d still fail grammar tests, and in Japan’s grade-centered education system, there’s not really any room for a more longterm vision. Because of this shortsightedness of many of the daytime schools and the way parents gauge a child’s success by its grades, actual education is hampered quite a bit at this type of conversation school.
Though I only spent 11 days at the school, I loved every minute of it, and wish John, Miyuki, Amy and Chris (and their two lovely daughters) all the best.

Camera’s, delays and one gorgeous sunset.

Yesterday John, Miyuki, Alex and myself went on a little shopping spree. Alex was looking for an mp3 player (and did he ever look. I’ve seldom seen so many hours of research go into the purchase of an mp3 player ^^), and John wanted to return a faulty midi controller. We ended up touring some secondhand shops in the neighbourhood, and I was very surprised at their extensive selection of musical instruments. I found Technics SL1200’s (both the mark2, mark3 and mark5 versions) for insane prices, Vestax mixers (including two PMC-06, the one I have at home), Korg Kaosspads, microKorgs, Korg MicroX, M-Audio midi controllers and even a 48 channel mixing board. One Hard-Off (leave it up to the Japanese to name a hardware store ^^) even sold a pair of Yamaha NS10 monitors for 25000 JPY.

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I wasn’t there to buy musical instruments, however, I needed to replace my broken camera. I eventually found one that had higher resolution than my previous camera, two spare batteries, a protective cover, a manual, a disc with editing software and a manual for that software for 3600 JPY. There was a person who’d also been looking at the camera’s and as he’d been there longer, he called a sales clerk and got first picks. He pointed at the one I fancied, picked it up, and the universe threw me a bone when he suddenly put it down and picked another one. Hurray for cosmic coincidences and my new camera.

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On Monday, I started getting a little worried about the delivery of my university degrees. DHL had gotten them from my parents’ house in Gentbrugge to Nagoya in two days, but they’ve been stuck in Nagoya fro three days since then. If they don’t arrive within the next two days, I’ll miss my job interview. Well, all one can do is wait, so I decided to spend my free time (I got most of the day off as I worked on Saturday) exploring Omaezaki.

I biked inland to a shinto shrine, which was ok, but nothing special. I guess I’ve gotten used to the architecture a bit, and the shrine wasn’t too impressive when compared to the really spectacular architecture of Yasukuni or Meiji shrine, or even some of the smaller shrines in Tōkyō. I came across a lot of traditional Japanese houses, and there’s tea fields everywhere. Alex pointed out that almost no plot of land goes unused in Japan, and it really looks that way, even here in the countryside where there’s a lot more room compared to the insanity that is Tōkyō.

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I eventually made my way to what I thought was the lighthouse, but turned out to be a large radar dome on the hills overlooking the sea. During my bicycle ride to the beach the light gradually changed from yellowish to deep red, and I made it to the beach just in time to watch the sunset, my very first time watching this scene over the pacific ocean.

Jobhunt, Saying goodbye to Mert

I called the English school in Saitama, and talked with the school manager about a job opportunity there. I met all the criteria and he would like to see me for an interview in Sageo, Saitama (about 40 minutes from Ueno station in Tōkyō) before November 1st. Guess I’ll be heading back to the capital much sooner than I anticipated.
For the interview I needed the original copies of my university degrees, so my parents were kind enough to ship them overseas with DHL. They should arrive here on Friday or Saturday, so I’ll probably have to leave for Tōkyō again some time next week.
The head of the foreign staff for the school I applied for advised me to apply to as many schools as possible because there’s other candidates as well, so I’m not too confident about my chances. I have at least some experience, as well as formal training in teaching foreign languages, however, so that might come in handy. While I’m in Tōkyō I’ll go on a jobhunting spree, and I’ll figure out a way to prolong my stay here.

Omaezaki is a really nice place. The pace of living is quite different from the big city hustle I got used to, there’s more of a laidback surfing vibe here, which is probably largely created by John, the Australian surfer and musician I’m staying with. Mert and Alex, the two German guys that are also here, have become good friends in just a few days. Mert left tonight, and we drove him to the Kakegawa train station from where he’d start his midnight journey to Kyōto.

Kakegawa is about a 45 minute drive away from Omaezaki, and it turned into quite the road trip. Imagine a white van with an Australian driving, Skeeter from Sri Lanka next to him, and two Germans, a Belgian and a Swiss dog in the back. Mert aptly named it the gaijin van (gaijin, short for gaikokujin is foreigner in Japanese).
We cruised down the pitch-black Japanese countryside (only Belgium deems it necessary to illuminate every last corner of its territory at night), guided by a dark yellow moon. Across our laps lay a giant slobbering dog, and the speakers painted our journey in the giant synth swells only Underworld can pull off. After depositing half of our German payload at the train station, I actually felt quite sad. In just a few weeks I saw a lot of people I really started to like leave my life as suddenly as they had entered it. I guess that’s travelling: you part ways with the people you meet before you’ve gotten to know them really well, and that fleeting character gives these encounters a much higher intensity than what I’m used to. It’s the same with the places and basically everywhere I go. Travelling is experiencing impermanence at a much higher intensity. Every meal is your last. Luckily Mert will be in Japan for about a year, so I have a lot of time to meet up with him again. Here is to the Germans and the Turkies. May their curly hair reign supreme over Kyōto and the entire Kansai area.

Arrived in Omaezaki, Shizuoka

When leaving Avocado House, I got one last nice surprise from the house members: they’d told me to wake them up before I left, so I did, and they all wanted to come to the station with me. So there we were: sleepy-eyed, most of the avocado members still in their pyamas, and it even rained slightly. They insisted on walking me all the way to the station. What a great group of friends I’ve found here already. I hope to see you all again soon at Avocado House.

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I actually got lost for the first time since I’d arrived in Tōkyō, the ongoing construction works at Tōkyō Station coupled with the insanity of underground passages that connect Ōtemachi and Tōkyō station got the better of me. Asking some of the station clerks, I made my way back to the bus platforms and waited for the Highway Express to Shizuoka and Nagoya.
It had started raining more heavily by this time, and the first part of the bus ride was a wet, overcast goodbye to the city I’ve come to love in the past few weeks. Once we made it out of the city, however, the rain abruptly stopped, and I got the enjoy some of the splendour of the Japanese countryside. There are a lot of mountains here. It was too cloudy for me to actually see Mount Fuji, but its smaller siblings worked just as well. Houses or cities are never far away, though, as literally no piece of land is left uncultivated.

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Upon arriving at the Yoshida bus stop, where John would come and pick me up, I found the payphone to be somewhere between comatose, stubborn and retired. Whatever its deal was, it would definitely not let me make a phone call, but the ever-friendly Japanese came to the rescue with one of their fancy smartphones.
While driving back to John’s house, we stopped at the beach to check out the surf. He explained to me what direction the wind should come from for the water and the waves to be at their most enjoyable, but as their were too many people (and he had classes in about an hour from then) we just watched the other surfers for a bit, and made our way back to what will be my home for the next few weeks.

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There are currently two other people staying with John and Miyuki (who is away for a week to Kyūshū for the week): Mert and Alex. Mert is part German, part Turkish, and Alex is part German, part English. His English life revolves around Cambridge, and he will return to England in 6 weeks for an interview at Cambridge University. He will probably go to Gonville and Caius, the same college I (very briefly) stayed at in the summer of 2004.
Mert went with John to teach some classes at the school in Sagara, while I stayed at home with Mert to unpack my bags for the first time in weeks, do some laundry and find my way around the house. In the evening, the adorable Rin-chan, an elementary school student and one of the school’s best students came over for a private English lesson. I sat with John and Mert to observe what exactly happened during a class, but there was not much observing to be done, as I was immediately involved with talking, singing and playing. It was a lot of fun, I’m looking forward to some of the classes on Monday.

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Sunday mornings are pretty relaxed here. I woke up early and spent some time studying kanji. I’ve bought a series of small books that elementary school children use to practice kanji, and as I have at least a few hours for studying every day, my Japanese is ever so slowly getting a little better. Studying didn’t last very long though on this particular Sunday though, as Skeeter brought his friend Larry over, and we had some coffee on the porch, deciding what to do with our day. To be more accurate: what would we be doing until the Rugby League game Australia vs New Zealand started that afternoon. Turns out we just went for a walk with Dave, John’s enormous dog. He’s a St. Bernard dog with one brown and one white eye, and is thus aptly called David after Mr. Bowie. He’s a big slob, but a crowd favourite among the local population (and the female surfers at the beach, as Mert would have me know).

Unfortunately, my camera broke just as we headed out, so I haven’t been able to take any pictures of this little piece of paradise. I will go to a second hand hardware store on Wednesday, when we’re dropping off Mert at the Kakigawa train station, and see if they have a worthy (cheap!) replacement. Things I haven’t been able to photograph include: a beautiful bay, with Mount Fuji rising over the waves at the far end, heaps of palm trees, surfers and the compulsory surfer chicks, the larger traditional houses and of course the people I’m staying with in this house.

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On our way back we stopped at Chris and Amy’s house, to invite them to come watch the rugby game that afternoon. They’re an American family that recently moved to Japan, and Amy works as a teacher at John and Miyuki’s school. They have two adorable kids, whose raison d’être seems to be to tickle other people.
We got back just in time to cook some lunch (we had fried rice with tofu, mushrooms and a very large helping of miso soup), and installed ourselves in front of John’s pc screen to watch the Rugby. Chris joined us and we watched Australia humiliate New Zealand with 42-6. I heard that in the Rugby Union game played some time after that, the All-Blacks returned the favour.

I’ll start working tomorrow. First Mert will give me some training on what to do during lessons, and then we’ll assist Amy in some of her classes. I also need to call the English School in Saitama to find out if they might have a job for me. I’m beat, I’m calling it a day.

Last week in Tōkyō

I spent this last week pretty much as I’d spent the ones before that: a mixture of must-see tourist sites with personal crusades. Only this time, I had some friends to share the fun with.

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On Monday I spent most of the day at the Takadanobaba go club, which was celebrating its 1-year anniversary. There were quite a few people there, all in all I think about 15, and most of them were much stronger than I am, so this club is a great learning environment. I played a long game against Ishida Junichi, a guy around my age and strength. I took black and the game had a komi of 6.5. The game was quite exciting, and while people all around us finished games, started new ones and finished those, we kept on playing. It was a close match, and in the end, I managed to win with 6.5 points. By this time, Antti (the Finish 6-dan player who has become an insei and has had almost straight wins since starting), had commenced playing against a very strong ex-insei who now worked for the Nihon Kiin. Mr. Urasoe gave live commentary and even stopped the game for a little pop-quiz. Some of the fruit juice cocktails you can see in a lot of stores here seemed very popular among the go players, and one by one, the Japanese faces lit up with a bright red “woops, I’ve had a drink” kind of glow. We had great fun, but I had to leave because I had another place to be that evening.
I was going to stay with Kentarō again for the coming days, and this time, I would be joined by Reed. He is an American from California, but did all of his undergraduate studies in Scotland, where he worked as a bartender at night. About 10 piercings and a quarter body suit of tattoos adorn his body, but even so, he doesn’t quite manage to pull off the bad boy look. He’s always smiling and a great guy to hang out with. I actually met him at Avocado House, where he arrived the day I was leaving to stay with Taka. The three of us went to the izakaya near Kentarō’s house, and this time I didn’t forget to bring my camera.

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The next day (that will be Tuesday for the budding Sherlock Holmeses among the readers), Reed and I set out to explore Tōkyō together. Our first stop would be the famous Meiji Shrine. From the bustling streets of Shibuya, you enter an actual forest, and while walking deeper and deeper into the forest in search of the shrine, the sounds of the city completely disappear. Birds, insects and the sound of shoes on gravel are the only things that break the silence around these parts, as most people seem to respect the aura of this place. After some five minutes of walking, we suddenly stumbled upon the shrine, and to our amazement, a Japanese wedding was taking place. The parade of people wearing traditional Japanese clothes made its way to another part of the shrine just as we arrived, and soon it was just us (let’s forget about the hundreds of other western tourist for a moment) and the shrine. The shrine is a beautiful piece of architecture indeed, but it gets it magic not from man-made art, but rather the serenity of the surrounding forest, even though it’s located in some of the busiest districts of Tōkyō.

From the southern exit of the shrine, we walked straight into throbbing heart of Tōkyō’s hipster culture: Harajuku. This district is full of second hand clothing shops, sneaker stores and unidentified spaces that look like they might sell or exhibit something even less identifiable. The reason to come to Harajuku has got nothing to do with those, however, it’s the people that make this district. Since Reed is a degenerate smoker (if you ask him whether he smokes, he’ll reply “Like a chimney” with one of his big grins), we had to take quite a lot of nicotine-breaks, which doubled as opportunities for people spotting. And were there ever people to spot around here. We seriously suspected people dressing up like an avant-garde fashionista and then just randomly picking a spot in Harajuku to grow roots and check out how your coolness compares to that of the other hipsters. This place is so cool you could liquidize nitrogen with it. Just sayin’.
From Harajuku we walked to Roppongi Hills, the mega-building that looks like it should have bat-sign on its roof. On the way we stumbled upon a temple, and some of the readers can imagine my astonishment when I read its first kanji as Dōgen Zenji, the 13th-century zen master I wrote my master’s dissertation on. I really want to visit his temple Eiheiji, but it’s located in the mountains in Fukui prefecture, and not very accessible through public transportation. Turns out there is a branch temple right here in Tōkyō, and Reed and I explored it just as an afternoon session of seated meditation came to an end. The sound of the singing bowl and the chants of the monks lead us to the zendō, and Reed managed to take some excellent pictures. Still somewhat baffled from encountering such a dear part of Japanese history right here, we walked around Roppongi Hills to the shrine dedicated to general Nogi, one of the last examples of samurai culture who tasted defeat in the Russo-Japanese wars of 1904-1905, but only took his own life after his lord, the emperor, passed away years later. Dusk was upon us, and we had some very hot beef, followed by some very cold cocktails at HUB, watching Japan humiliate Tajikistan 8-0 in the preliminaries for the soccer World Cup. It was a good night to be in a bar with drunk Japanese.

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On Wednesday Reed left for his next host, and I dropped my bags off at Avocado House. Man, I love that place. Instant home-feeling. For everybody that knows Frédéric “Frekke, Frekke7, Frekstok” Van Hamme, imagine 6 Japanese versions of him living together in one house in the centre of Tōkyō. Things are bound to go wrong in the most hilarious way.
I took a train to Ginza, and for the first time since coming to Japan, I saw people being pushed into the train. There’s too many businessmen in Tōkyō. Luckily there’s quite a few businesswomen as well ^^. Ginza is one Tōkyō’s oldest districts. It got its name from shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu who minted silver here, quickly turning Ginza’s main street into the most fashionable place to be. Today it still houses the main shops for brands like Gucci, Swarovski, and all the other stick-your-nose-up-in-the-air things that don’t really concern me. Out of place though I felt, I have to admit the shops had some first-class interior design, incorporating waterfalls, ponds and vines.
From there I walked through block after block of bank headquarters. Nihonbashi is Tōkyō’s financial center, and it shows. I’ve never seen so many banks in one place. The district actually gets its name from a famous bridge (hashi is bridge in Japanese) that used to mark the start of the Tōkaidō, the great road connecting Tōkyō (then called Edo) with the old capital Kyōto. next up were Marunouchi, with the immense JR Tōkyō Station, and Yūrakuchō. I eventually ended up at zōjōji, a large buddhist temple related to the Tokugawa shogunate. Tōkyō tower rises over the temple grounds, and after having a brief look at this slightly larger copy of the Eiffel tower (the Parisian model has a lot more charm than this red and white copy), I went back to meet up with Hashi, Tōma, Tetsu, Shuji, Eiji and Yang Soo.

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On Thursday I finally managed to attend a karate training at the JKA headquarters near Kōrakuen. In the afternoon Antti and I headed to the second english study session at the Nihon Kiin. Meeting the professional players and studying the game through their eyes remains a spectacular experience.
At night we had a huge party with a lot of couchsurfers and hosts. Kentarō and the guys from Avocado want to promote CouchSurfing in Tōkyō, as it’s still rather unpopular, mainly because according to them Japanese people are not inclined to invite complete strangers into their houses. They want to change all that by showing how much fun it can be. This sort of commitment is just heartwarming. If you’re anywhere near Japan, head over to CouchSurfing.jp to support their efforts. The party was also the last time I would see Reed in a long time, and I was slightly sad to see such a wonderful specimen leave Tōkyō. He’ll come back though, and when he does, many a Moscow Mule will be had in his honour.

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Friday was my last day in Tōkyō, and I spent most of it hanging out with Tetsu, tasting the life of a Japanese university student. At 10:00 AM we headed out to the games arcade for a long-anticipated bout of Street Fighter IV. Tetsu plays Ken, and I play Ryu, so the inevitable trashtalking had to be settled. We were pretty equally matched (Tetsu winning slightly more rounds, and scoring a lot more ultra combos, reminiscent of the way Boets would beat me at my own game). Afterwards I had a continue left, and we finished the singleplayer arcade mode in one go. The Xbox AI seems a lot harder than that of the original arcade version.
All mashed out, we strolled towards Tetsu’s favourite ramen-place, and had a huge bowl of the best ramen I’ve ever had. Afterwards I attended one of his classes ‘something something life insurance.” I didn’t get all of what was going on, which was sort of embarrassing as we were 15 minutes late and had to come all the way down to sit in front of the guest lecturer. I wrote down every new word I could understand and learned a lot of kanji, though. Tetsu didn’t seem to be too bothered by the whole class-thing, as he fell asleep after a few minutes, only to wake up moments before class ended. 犯罪者養成大学、お世話になりました。