Archive for the 'Life outside school' Category

Tokyo weird

May 22, 2007

Sometimes you just see the strangest things.

When I first saw him, this bloke was standing outside the chemist store where he works, just near Shimbashi station, helping some customers – yes, just as he appears in the photo.

I walked past, but turned back when I realised that I just had to get him on film and show him to you.

I didn’t ask any questions. I like the fact that he’s wearing a name-tag!

Tokyo weird - the pharmaceutical horse 


Cycling to Todai

May 22, 2007

The woman in the next door to me at the dorm in Odaiba is called Waki san. (Waki is pronounced like the ‘Marky’ in ‘Marky Mark’.)  She is a Masters Chemistry student at Tokyo University (called ‘Todai’ – short for ‘Tokyo Daigaku’ – by the Japanese), and each weekday she cycles the distance to and from university.

Having done the same sort of thing in Canberra for many years, I asked Waki one day if she would mind my tagging along behind her – for the experience of cycling in
Tokyo, but also because I wanted to see Todai. She agreed, and so the next morning I prepared for the journey.

Waki had bought her bike – a quite attractive black mountain-type bike – from a Japanese chain store called Muji, which seems to be a sort of Ikea for all things except furniture – clothes, small household items, and also bikes. I didn’t have a bike, so I had to borrow one from Emiko, another Japanese woman on my floor.

Emiko and Waki

Emiko bought her bike second hand from another student for about $50. It is what the Japanese call a ‘Mamacharo’, which translates roughly into something like ‘Mum’s shopping bike’. It has a wire basket on the front, three gears, a bell and girly handlebars.

Luckily, these things are everywhere in Japan. Men, women and children ride them everywhere – to school, to work, out shopping, or to nightclubs and restaurants. Just yesterday, in
Ginza, a forty-something ‘sarariman’ unlocked his mamacharo and cycled down the footpath of the main shopping drag. It’s not unusual to see mothers cycling around with toddlers strapped into chairs placed over the back wheel. Or to see young women cycling them down streets, on the wrong side of the road and directly into the flow of traffic, without a care in the world.

Most Japanese don’t wear any protective gear. Only westerners wearing professional gear and cycling to and from work on the road system, and bicycle couriers, wear helmets and gloves. This may be because most Japanese ride on the footpaths, dodging and weaving between pedestrians.

And that’s pretty much what I did. First, Waki and I went northeast through Odaiba, heading for the bridges that would take us over the wide canals and into Tokyo proper. The area around where we live is quite deserted, so we were able to make good time.

After about 15 minutes we had crossed the bridges and were passing through places like Tsukishima, Tsukiji-shijo and Kachidoki on our way north. Here, things became much more crowded. It was about 10am, many people were out shopping or going to work. Our progress slowed down a bit – but not by much, because Waki is used to this sort of riding and was able to weave her 10-speed mountain bike through the crowds like a pro. I was a bit slower on the 3-speed mamacharo. People were always appearing – out of doorways, subway exits, cross streets, etc.

Thankfully, one thing the mamacharo has in spades is stability. You can ride this thing at less than walking speed, and – unless the ‘operator’ is a moron – it will stay upright. This feature came in v. handy.

When the crowds became too much, or sometimes just randomly, Waki would swing right into the left lane of the road, which took me some way out of my comfort zone. After continuing on for a while, she’d then switch back to the footpath. It made the journey quite interesting!

Before long, we came to a large crossing. Dance music was blaring from a large video screen on one of the buildings, there were plenty of people. ‘Hang on’, I thought, ‘I know this place.’ I had reached
Ginza, and was waiting to cross Chuo Dori – one of the most exclusive shopping districts in the world – sitting on a rusty mamacharo.

We cycled for another half hour, heading first along main roads – around the Imperial Palace and the ultra exclusive businesses and government departments stationed in Kasumigaseki, up to Ueno, through Ochanomizu (literally ‘tea water’) – and then along a number of backstreets, so that I quickly lost my way and had to shuffle to keep up with Waki, whom I may have delayed with my amateur Tokyoite-dodging.

After an hour, we reached Todai’s ‘Red Gate’ (‘Aka Mon’, I think), which is apparently the famous entrance to the famous university.

Aka Mon

Inside, the buildings were a mix of the classical style and the truly appalling 1960s architecture that seems to plague all the sandstone universities in
Australia. I must admit, it was nowhere near as attractive a place as the more pleasant parts of Sydney or Universities (I’ve heard that UWA and
Queensland are pleasant too, but I can’t comment because I just haven’t visited them).

I wandered around for the better part of an hour – most of the time quite lost – before deciding to head back. I passed through the ‘Red Gate’ and down the first two back streets that I could remember, then found my way back to Ochanomizu, but after that I was completely lost.

And I’d left my map in my room back in Odaiba.

All that I had to go on was my sense of ‘general direction’ and my limited Japanese, which allowed me to ask the nearest Japanese waiting for the lights to change at the lights: ‘Sumimasen,
Ginza wa, doko ni arimasu ka?’ (I could find my way home from
Ginza – I just didn’t know how to get there).

Luckily I found a main road, pointed the mamacharo in the right direction, and cycled off, taking occasional soundings from the very helpful Tokyoites who had the misfortune to meet me. After about half an hour, I arrived at Chuo-dori,
Ginza, once again. Just in time to see the politics bloke from Seven News doing a live to camera about the PM’s visit to
Tokyo. When they were finished, I asked the cameraman if Johnny was actually there in
Ginza – unfortunately, no.

The rest of the journey was uneventful – just a pleasant ride along pleasant roads, glad that I was back cycling again.

Here are some photos of the more pleasant parts of Todai:

Todai 1

Todai 2

Todai 3

Todai 4

Todai 5

Todai 6

Todai 7

Todai 8

Todai 9

Todai 10


A trip to the Doctor’s

February 22, 2007

While getting dressed one morning I noticed two moles, quite close to each other, on the upper left of my abdomen, that I hadn’t noticed previously.  Having been alerted to the worrying stats on skin cancer in Australia, and also to how quickly moles can turn malignant, I decided to have them checked by the nurse here at GRIPS.

First, I visited my friend Teruyo in the student office, to find out where the school’s surgery was, and what time it was open each day.  After giving me the facts, Teruyo leaned across the desk and said:

‘Be careful.  Other students have said that the nurse is a bit odd.  She may be mentally ill.’

This isn’t what I wanted to hear.  It confirmed something that Susanna, who had studied here two years ago, had told me about her experiences with the nurse.  I instructed Teruyo to send out a search party if I wasn’t spotted the next day – just in case I happened to be in the room when nursey went round the bend.

My own diagnosis, though, is that the nurse is probably quite sane, but that her conditions of employment aren’t helping her mental stability.  (People who have worked in Treasury’s Issues Management Unit will know what I mean – yes guys??).  The surgery is located in a quiet service corridor, away from all of the activity of the school, and behind a solid windowless white door.  So the poor thing probably doesn’t get much human contact.  And when another living being does turn up, it is usually a snivelling, coughing or otherwise distracted foreign student with little Japanese and only passable English.   

So nursey appeared quite happy to see me walk through the door.  I told her my concerns and showed her the offending moles.  She got out her magnifying glass to have a close look at them, and pronounced that, although they looked quite normal, she would send me to the doctors’ surgery in nearby Roppongi Hills, just in case.  She also kept me there a little while with some conversation, and invited me to drop in anytime so that she could practice her English conversation skills.

Which all adds weight to my hypothesis of reasonable sanity placed under unreasonably stressful loneliness.

The next day I went visited the surgery in the Roppongi Hills complex, which is a large office tower, surrounded by extravagant landscaping including a sculpture of a large spider, a bit like the one that I wish had eaten the annoying actor who played Frodo in the Lord of the Rings.  The surgery was a large affair.  On walking through the door, you are greeted by a pleasant young Japanese woman asking (in Japanese) for your health insurance card and your letter of referral.  Once your details are punched in, she points you in the direction of a set of lounges and asks you to wait for a little while. 

There were about three or four other patients waiting at the lounge.  No ‘Time’ or other magazines were on the coffee table, but that was OK because quickly after I was led to another part of the surgery, to wait on another couch outside what turned out to be the dermatologist’s office.  After about 5 minutes of watching young nurses in pink nurses’ uniforms rushing about with files, one of them asked me to come into the doctor’s surgery.

Inside the doctor (whom the school nursey had told me to call ‘sensei’ (a la The Karate Kid) was sat in front of her desk and wearing a surgical mask.  The pink nurse came into the room after me and shut the door – so I had to reveal my embarrassingly un-Brad-Pitt-like, hirsute abdomen to two strange foreign women.  The doctor examined the moles and then made a short speech in Japanese.

‘Sumimasen, demo … wakarimasen’, I whispered (‘Excuse me, but … I don’t understand‘ – I’ve been saying this a lot over the last five months).

She then repeated what she had said, this time in halting but passable English.  I don’t know why the Japanese do this.  A lot of them speak quite good English, and I am clearly a clueless foreigner – but they’ll still talk to you in reams of Japanese at the drop of a hat.

Anyway, she explained that the moles weren’t malignant, but that each time I go out I should wear sunblock, especially in Australia, which is known for its harsh sun.

I thanked her for her time, and was shown out by the pink nurse, who directed me to the payments counter, near the entrace and the waiting lounge.  There, another young woman took my file and asked me to wait on the lounge.  After a few minutes, she directed me to where three other young women were sitting at cash registers, waiting for customers to come along and pay.  The service culture in this country is remarkable – they devote considerable resources to ensuring that there is someone to deal with customers.  Despite this, the woman working on her own at my local surgery in O’Connor was able to process my payments faster than all four of the Japanese admin assistants combined. 

So, with no worries, I stepped out of the Roppongi Hills complex, past the useless spider and out into Tokyo’s warm winter sunshine, to walk back to school.  On the way, I saw in a sidestreet a homeless Japanese man sitting with his back to a wall, cradling in his arms a large and very contented white-brown cat, who had found a convenient (if a bit whiffy) place to soak up the sun. 

Festive Season III: New Year’s Eve

February 1, 2007

Good, essays largely out of the way, so I can tell you about my New Year’s celebrations.

After a dinner with some friends (international cuisine – Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, China) I went to a Buddhist temple at Daimon with my friend Chin and her sister Yi Shuan, who was visiting from her home in the US, for the countdown to the new year.

Daimon temple

Above you see the entrance to the temple grounds.  You arrive there after a walk of about 50 metres along a road with white paper lanterns hung on the lampposts.  This is quite common for Buddhist temples, it seems – there is quite a long approach from the first gate, throught the second gate, to this, the third gate.

There were plenty of people around, but it wasn’t too squishy inside the temple grounds.  We stood at a place where we could see both the front of the temple, and the video board showing the countdown, and the large bell which would be rung after midnight. 

Before the countdown, the sound system played two youngish Japanese people having a discussion, possibly about what the celebration meant, I don’t know, I couldn’t understand.  Then, at about a quarter to midnight, Japanese musicians began playing traditional music on traditional instruments.  It was dissonant, high-pitched string music (maybe it wasn’t traditional, maybe it was Schoenberg??) and was quite haunting.

But the crowd wasn’t in much of a spiritual mood.  Lots of the Japanese were carrying clear balloons.  Occasionally, someone would get careless and let theirs go – at which everyone would say ‘aaaaaaah’ as it floated away into lower space.   

At one minute to midnight, the countdown began on the video board.  It wasn’t just your usual countdown sequence, with the numbers ticking down.  Here, the lights on the board made crazy patterns, only stopping every ten seconds to flash ’50’, ’40’, ’30’ etc.  The colour and movement worked the crowd into a little frenzy, which gave out excited gasps every time a number flashed.  Then came the final ten seconds, all ticked out by the board.  At ‘zero’, the board flashed, lights went on, balloons spiralled upward, boyfriends and girlfriends kissed, cameras flashed – a really good, happy atmosphere. 

A cold author

In the background there is Tokyo Tower, the Japanese’s answer to the Eiffel Tower and constructed to show the world how proud they were that they had ‘arrived’ as a developed nation.

The ‘western’ half of the night over, now began the more Japanese festivities.  Buddhist priests were standing around an enormous bronze bell at the right-hand side of the temple grounds.  Every few minutes, a family group would ascend the pagoda from which it hung, be blessed by the chief priest, and ram an enormous tree trunk into the side of the bell.  ‘DONG’.  Because of the size of the bell, it continued to vibrate at a low frequency for around thirty seconds after being struck – I could feel the vibrations running along the ground under me.

Meanwhile, hordes of Japanese and foreigners like I and my friends made our way up the path and steps to the temple.  After about twenty minutes to half an hour of slowly walking and frequently stopping, our part of the crowd came to the front of the temple:

Front of the temple

Behind us were the unfortunates who hadn’t been as quick as us:

The crowd of unfortunates

You can see the video board there, way in the background, displaying ‘2007’.  I had been standing near there during the countdown. 

After another ten minutes of waiting, we were able to make our way into the temple.  I didn’t take any picutures in here, but it was quite lovely – beuatifully polished wood and gold finishings, chandelieres, gold statues of the Buddha, etc.  At the front of the inside of the temple, in front of the main alter and about ten metres inside the doors, there was an enormous strip of white plastic sheeting, formed into a square.  Hundreds of Japanese were standing around it, around seven deep, waiting to make their way to the front of the crowd.  Once there, they would throw a five yen coin into the sheeting (which served to collect all of the coins), say a prayer, and then make their way out of a side door. 

I didn’t happen to have any five-yen coins, so I threw in a 500 yen coin, made some wishes for this coming year, and then had another look around the temple.  I was quite beautiful, I will go back there at some stage and take some photos for you. 

After that, the three of us made our way back home, past the crowds.  I’ll leave you with some photos that I took on the way back.

Part of the temple 


Banners II

Statue of Riberty

Rainbow Bridge

A better class of hobo

January 23, 2007

On Saturday morning I came in to school to work on some of my essays.  It was quite a cold day.  I suspect the cold was what had encouraged a homeless man in a beanie to buy a train ticket and sleep on one of the comfortable seats in Japan’s subway trains.

(The Oedo line that I catch to school runs in a big circle, which means that Mr Homeless would have been able to buy a ‘one-stop’ ticket and travelled the circle all day before getting out at his destination.)

When I first saw him, he was curled up in the corner of one of the long, bench-like seats that run along the sides of the train carriages.  He was unshaven and dishevelled.

But he had remembered to remove his shoes before placing his feet on the seat.