Photo Post: Scenes from Spring, 2011

This spring has been a little strange for Japan – March was eaten by a series of disasters we’re still dealing with, and April flew by in much the same way.  The end of April and very early May, however, brought some beautiful weather and a series of national holidays referred to as “golden week”, where much of the country has a few days to an entire week of vacation.

The last month has been an attempt to return to normal here, and I think in many ways, it has worked.  I’ve been out enjoying the sun and stimulating the economy as best as I can, and it’s been a very nice way to spend these spring days.  The blooming of flowers in Japan follows a schedule, and many parks even have posted information regarding what time of year to come to see X flower.  Shortly following the earthquake, the first park visited was Furukawa-tei in Komagome, an English-style rose garden with a little Japanese influence.  At that time, the ume (plum blossoms) were showing their colors in pinks and whites.  It was a nice way to remember that life goes on, despite what had happened up north.

ume blossoms, furukawa-tei

ume blossoms, furukawa-tei

ume blossoms, furukawa-tei

The next park visited was a few weeks later, at the tail end of hanami season, which was sadly, much less fun this year than expected.  Government requested that people show “self-restraint” regarding their yearly hanami parties as a gesture of politeness to those affected by the earthquake in northeastern Japan.  While I can understand the sentiment to some degree, it seems to make more sense to get out of the house and stop using electricity for a few hours (like everyone has been trying to do) rather than sit glued to a TV waiting for news.  Regardless, I did not participate in any hanami parties this year, just took in the cherry blossom trees in parks on my way to work.

cherry blossom tree

This park is Korakuen, in central Tokyo.  It’s a Japanese style garden built right next to Tokyo dome, which provides some interesting background noise at times from cheering baseball fans or other events, but the day was very nice.  Some of the cherry blossoms were even still going at this point in time, though certainly on their way out of bloom.

Korakuen

Korakuen

Today, May 4th (may the 4th be with you, haha, I know, fellow star wars nerds), was “midori no hi” or “green day” or “greenery day”, whatever you want to translate it as.  Regardless, this is supposed to be a day to go out and celebrate nature and greenery.  I had completely forgotten about this until I arrived at my destination, a park in Shinjuku near my home.  Shinjuku Gyoen (Shinjuku Park) is only about a 10 minute walk from my apartment.  I woke up on Wednesday, the national holiday, and saw the weather was beautiful, so after breakfast and a coffee, headed out for the park.  Of course, seven million Japanese people had the same idea I did.

I love the area surrounding Shinjuku Gyoen – there are tons of cool shops and restaurants with outdoor seating and funky, interesting stuff.  Its proximity to my apartment is one of the reasons I chose to live where I do now.

Shinjuku Gyoen Mae

Shinjuku Gyoen is a huge park in the middle of Shinjuku.  It’s a 58.3 hectacre (144 acre) park done in a combination of styles – Japanese, French, and English.  I walked around every inch of the park over the course of about an hour and a half, enjoying the beautiful sunshine and people watching.

Shinjuku Gyoen

These were pretty much the only thing in the park that was a bright purple against an almost sea of green.  Grandmothers and men with zoom lenses were pushing their way up to these flowers to take their picture.  I, thus, decided to be a jerk too and take a picture:

Shinjuku Gyoen

A Chinese style building at the back of the park:

Shinjuku Gyoen

Shinjuku Gyoen

Spotted this guy as I walked down the path:

Caterpillar

CATERPILLAR, GO!

Other influences besides Japanese are evident throughout the park – some pinks and lighter color shrubs are near the back of the park.  This area had a very Alice in Wonderland feel about it.  Minus all the Japanese people, anyway.

Shinjuku Gyoen

The whole park is beautiful, and the contrasting styles keep it interesting.  I was in no rush, and spent a good portion of my afternoon relaxing here.

Shinjuku Gyoen

Shinjuku Gyoen

Shinjuku Gyoen

As I mentioned before, this park is right in the middle of Shinjuku, arguably the heart of the beast that is metropolitan Tokyo.  You can see some of the buildings in the background of this photo.  Amazingly, however, the sounds of the city disappear while you’re inside the park.  It’s easy to forget where you are while you’re wandering around these grounds.

Shinjuku Gyoen

Expansive lawns leave plenty of space for family and friends to play.  Shinjuku Gyoen restricts activities that other parks do not – there’s even usually a 400 yen admission fee for adults to visit.  The pamphlet available at the entrance states that no alcohol is to be brought onto the grounds (yes, drinking in public is allowed in Japan), no lights/lanterns, no tripods for your cameras, no smoking, no music, no pets, no bicycles, and no sports equipment.  Whew.  Big list.  Regardless of this, families and friends still visit the park to play, chat, and nap in the sun.

Shinjuku Gyoen
Japan seems to have done a good job of celebrating greenness today, at least from what I saw.  It’s evident spring is in full swing, which means that summer is right around the corner (ugh).  Bare legs now appear more and more often on both men and women not just to be fashionable, but because the days are also getting warmer.  Today I watched people relaxing and having what I think was a much needed vacation.  Even the vigilantly beautiful Japanese girls went for a walk in the sun.  I sat on the grass near two young women who had kicked off their heels and nice sweaters to play catch with a shiny pink makeup bag.  Today was a day for us to do the human equivalent of a lizard basking in the sun.

Shinjuku Gyoen

For all the reputation Japan has for being stoic, there was no shortage of cheery faces at the park today, and it was infectious.  After my long walk around the park, I sat barefoot in the grass and remembered: these are the moments life is really all about.

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Posted in Photo, Stuff and Things, Thoughts | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

The aftermath of the aftermath

The earthquake and subsequent tsunami now two weeks ago gave Japan a lot to clean up.  Most notably, the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Northern Japan.  Concern arose following the earthquake and tsunami when power was cut off to the plants, preventing temperature regulation.  For about the last week, teams have been working day and night to get the situation under control.  While at the time of writing this post, the situation at the reactor seems to be in a somewhat-controlled state, there have been some effects.

Products from Fukushima and surrounding prefectures have been discovered with higher than normal amounts of radioactive material on/in them.  Leafy greens and milk were most recently discussed – images of farmers disposing of the contaminated products can be seen all over the web.  Many countries stopped accepting shipments of these kinds of products as a precaution to their citizens.

Water was also effected as a result of the situation at Fukushima.  On Wednesday, radioactive iodine was detected in water supplying much of Tokyo and some of the surrounding areas.  Officials declared the water unsafe for infants to drink, but acceptable for adult consumption.  The statement was made under the assumption that the radiation would be present in the water long-term.  However, this fortunately does not seem to be the case.  Thursday, officials stated the radiation detected in the water had dropped, and had become safe for consumption by all once more.

Regardless of this, it still resulted in immediate attempts to hoard water, especially among families with very young children. Tokyo distributed 240,000 bottles of 550ml water bottles to families with infants in an effort to assuage fears and provide assistance.  Every vending machine I’ve come across recently shows there is no water available.

The red kanji denotes items that are sold out.

Signs posted in convenience stores and supermarkets note a restriction for some goods, including water, milk, and bread.  Somehow, my local 7-11 seems to be perpetually stocked with water, despite all this.  The water is labeled as “French” mineral water, though.  Given France’s reaction to the recent events here, I wouldn’t be surprised if leaving this water on the shelves was a subtle statement by the Japanese.  Who knows.

Shoppers are limited to one or two bottles of water, depending on the size they purchase.

This aside, Tokyo is quickly resuming business as almost-usual.  Many stores and businesses have shorter hours and less lighting in an effort to conserve power all across the city.  Trains run at slightly different schedules.  Mostly, however, people, are continuing about their normal lives as best they can.

The only real issue still present in Tokyo is paranoia.  Stress and lack of proper sleep combined with steady streams of news have produced a very weary population.  A recent report on the news discussed something many citizens were apparently very concerned with – a “strange” yellow substance on the ground all over the city following the previous day’s rain.

The offending substance on the ground outside my apartment

“Is it radioactive?! Is that the result of acid rain?! WHAT IF WE STEPPED IN IT?!”

These were some questions asked honestly by the population.  The news took the time to interview an expert about this mysterious substance, who calmly stated (probably after heaving a big sigh and rolling his eyes): “It’s pollen.  It rained, and stuck to the ground, because it was in the air before.”  I’m willing to bet the expert would have liked to add: “Go take a nap, you paranoid idiots.”

It’s become far too easy to be scared about regular aspects of life.  People have even forgotten it’s allergy season, despite pollen level broadcasts on the trains and on TV.

Life is returning to normal, though.  Rather than spend my time hovering in front of the news and worrying about the well being of Tokyo, it’s clear there are better, more productive things to be doing.  Relief efforts in Japan are underway.  Contributing to the aid of those affected by the disaster in Northern Japan should really be the current focus of the media and other concerned parties.  Heartbreaking stories now litter the news – a father who had to bury his three daughters, an elderly husband and wife unable to leave the evacuation areas because the husband suffers from dementia and is unable to walk.  People are unable to find even the simplest of items like clean socks, underwear, or blankets.

At this time, it unfortunately appears as though physical items cannot be sent north at this time – I’m hoping it’s because there’s already a surplus of supplies, but traffic is posing a problem.  Regardless of this, I know many are coordinating relief efforts both online and in their communities to help the affected people in Northern Japan in any way possible.  I hope the media and public can shift into aid mode to help those who need it.

I’ll continue to write about this and more information where applicable, but I do also want to continue including information about regular life, like previous blog posts.  Tokyo needs some normal.  Thanks for following along throughout all of this, and thanks for your feedback.

 

Posted in Earthquake, Japan Aid, Thoughts, Tsunami | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

When the Lights Go Down in the City

In wake of recent events in northern Japan, much of the eastern region of the country has noticed some changes.  one of these changes is the institution of planned blackouts in designated groups throughout Tokyo and the surrounding areas.  At the time of writing this post, metro Tokyo remains largely unaffected by the planned power outages.  Most of these blackouts are taking place in the suburbs of the city, and last for up to 3 hours at a time.

TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) has released a blackout schedule for the week, and the scheduled group/times.  These blackouts affect residences, businesses, and trains, so planning ahead is important.  While I have not yet been affected at home by these blackouts, my teaching job has been.

On Thursday of this week, the blackout time fell right in the middle of our designated teaching times.  I got a message from my manager stating our school would be open, but we’d have to get creative with the lighting for a while.

I came to the office early, because the train running to work was also planned to halt.  We had two small solar-powered lights “charging” in a window and a random assortment of candles ready.

We also had lighters and flashlights.  We all rushed to use the copier to get our materials prepared.  Then, at 3:50, everything went off.  Our first classes were lit by fading daylight.  5:00 classes were dim, and by the end of class, we were grabbing lights for students to see their workbooks by.

Our 6:00 classes were completely black.  For this class, I had two of my returnee students.  We sat in the dark with one of the solar lights and a candle.  We chatted about the earthquake, the blackouts, and their thoughts and feelings regarding the situation.

Game pieces we used to practice our vocabulary in the dark

They described the blackouts as fun – one mentioned doing shadow puppets with his siblings.  The other student had pushup and situp competitions with her sister and father.  Neither expressed fear of the “dark time”, as they put it.

It was the same with all my other students.  Power returned at 6:30 PM, and the rest of my classes went as planned.  I informally surveyed my students regarding the situation.  The answers were all similar – they feel Tokyo is relatively safe, though there is still worry regarding what will happen next.  Many of the students mentioned shopping with their families for water, bread, eggs, etc.  They are tense, but alert, and all the students seem to be handling things well.

Tokyo has had many of the scheduled blackouts canceled because the city has done so well concerning power.  Restaurants, businesses, and residences alike have shutoff signs, lights, and appliances.  Trains are running at more limited schedules in some places.  It’s impressive, the way everyone has pitched in to conserve power so it can be used where it’s needed!

Yasukuni dori, Shinjuku, near my home - at night, lights off

 

I have to say, if I had to choose a place to be during a disaster, Tokyo would be it.  Everyone working together has been astounding.  Some people chose to leave Tokyo, but my feelings are best summed up by the fitting words of Journey: “Oh, I wanna be theeeeeere, in my city!”

(Whooooa, whoooa, ooooohhh)

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Update regarding nuclear reactors and radiation

Recent developments in the aftermath of Friday’s disasters have again brought up concerns about the safety of Japan’s residents.  I wanted to put together a resource page regarding these recent updates for concerned parties to check in real-time.

Most recently and possibly, most pressing in many peoples’ minds is the current state of the nuclear power reactors in Fukushima, located 150 miles North of Tokyo.

The reactors in question are on the eastern coast of Fukushima prefecture.  The recent explosions and radiation concerns are at this time confined to a 30km (18 miles) circle immediately surrounding these reactors.  At the time of this blog post, current radiation levels as reported by the news are 200 microsieverts.  Reports state that 250 microsieverts are currently considered a concern for human health, though the research I’ve been conducting suggests lower levels are actually cause for concern.  Again, this radiation reading is in the area immediately surrounding the reactors.

150-ish miles to the south, in Tokyo, radiation levels are within ranges safe for humans.  Research indicates that regular background levels of radiation range depending on the area.  A live radiation monitor, called a geiger counter, is setup right here in metropolitan Tokyo.  This is setup in Koto-ku, in south central metro Tokyo.  Current readings at the time of this blog post indicate 18-27 CPM, or counts per minute regarding radiation levels.

http://www.ustream.tv/channel/geiger-counter-tokyo

Now, let’s take a look at this article, which summarizes the recent radiation information in Tokyo:

http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2011/03/14/geiger-counter-readings-rise-in-tokyo

To summarize:

100 CPM on a geiger counter = 1 microsievert per hour.

100 microsieverts = risk of permanent damage, such as infertility.

1,000,000 microsieverts = risk of serious harm, or death from radiation poisoning.

Given the current readings, Tokyo is in the 10-30 CPM range.  It is also not harmful for human health at this time.

Take a look at this website, updating with real-time radiation levels within Japan.  The Tokyo area is still reported as within normal ranges of radiation:

http://www.bousai.ne.jp/eng/

If you are concerned about the radiation levels in Tokyo and throughout the rest of Japan, try to keep an eye on monitors like these.  It’ll provide you with real-time information you can use to determine your personal safety and the safety of your loved ones.  Everyone is exposed to regular amounts of radiation on a daily basis.  Tokyo is currently not even experiencing 1 microsievert per hour of exposure, let alone 200-250, like in the evacuated areas near the reactors.

I will continue to monitor the radiation levels and update with any additional information.  I am not an expert, but am attempting to educate myself in the interests of my own safety and for the safety of those around me.

Regarding aftershocks – they’re coming less and less often, though earthquakes have been hitting other parts of Japan.  Tokyo has food, water, power, and supplies.  Please continue to focus your worry up north.

More updates later, or I’ll be late for work!  I’m back at the office this week.

Posted in Earthquake, Radiation | 6 Comments

Quick, look busy!

Japan is famous globally for its efficiency.  The statistics regarding productivity and timeliness from this culture are astounding.  The country runs on certain standards – respect and tradition are probably two of the most highly regarded qualities exemplified by the majority of the Japanese workplace.  While much of the praise Japan earns it certainly deserves, I’ve also found that a ton of the other “efficiency tactics” used within this culture can just be summed up as: Japanese people are masters at appearing busy.

Japanese OfficeImage via Peter-Rabbit on Flickr

This is present in every industry, and it is often something physically visible.  Sure, we Americans pride ourselves on our lightning speed window-minimizing abilities when the boss walks by our computer, but the Japanese take busy-ness to a new level.  Let’s start at one of the easiest-to-spot industries: retail and services.  Department store workers are a shining example.  When they aren’t shouting at passerby on the street or actually making a sale, retail staff are cleaning, arranging, and fixing things at a frenzied pace.  Often times they may also periodically yell at customers as they perform these tasks.  They dress and re-dress mannequins, move stock from one shelf to another, dust constantly, and clean windows meticulously.  Staff at restaurants where the customer is supposed to dispose of their own tray will jump to you as soon as you stand up with the remnants of your meal in hand, usually yelling “o-sore iremasu!” while taking the tray to the exact same place you were about to.

Every once in a while in a while, I, in all my large, clumsy gaijin-ness, will knock over items in a store.  Staff teleport from the walls in seconds spluttering that they will retrieve the item, and I can leave it to them.  I like to think that they are actually just horrendously, horrendously bored, so part of me often feels tempted to just walk through stores knocking things over and leaving things in mysterious places just to give staff something to do with their day.

While cleaning and straightening projects is an immediately visible, easy to recognize version of this phenomenon, more difficult to observe is the office worker pretending to be busy.  Having an email program open may or may not be work related, and if one spends too much time on the computer, one may look suspicious.  After spending a reasonable amount of time in an office where I work alongside excellent timewasters, I think I’ve learned a few tricks.

  • Unnecessarily Flamboyant Typing – most of the people in offices are computer literate, and can type quickly.  However, writing up emails at lightning speed or quickly assimilating information doesn’t make you look as busy as typing loudly or adding a flourish with your hands to the end of that sentence to your manager you just wrote.  Typing speed seems to increase dramatically as one nears the end of what one is writing, and then the final keystroke gets hit with a loud “bang!”, and both hands lift off the keyboard in exactly the same motion with which an orchestra conductor uses a baton.  This move apparently increases the intensity of whatever is being typed, and thus also increases the apparent efficiency and usefulness of the person typing.
  • Useless Phone Calls – I have witnessed (or overheard, I suppose) phone calls that take longer to spit out the “thank you for your hard work” and “please excuse my rudeness” than it takes to get through the actual content of the conversation.  This is an intercompany thing – clients and individuals working together in different departments or different companies will pick up the phone to call each other about inane details of projects.  Rather than, say, create an organized list of questions/comments/concerns, phone calls are made to confirm, re-confirm, excuse, confirm emails, and more.  Again, constantly being on the phone is an excellent way to appear busy, especially when one’s boss constantly hears business speak spewing from your mouth.  The useless phone call does this perfectly.
  • “Update” Meetings – you are part of a team working on a project, and you work together on a regular basis.  You email one another daily, chat in person, and move forward on your project as a group.  However, inevitably, the ranking officer in your group will call a meeting to discuss the current status of the project.  Probability of whiteboard use is high.  The meeting will be held in a space where the immediate supervisor or boss can see or hear that you are having a meeting.  Someone will note everything that was written on the whiteboard during the meeting and send it to all team members.  Whoever called the meeting will request it also be sent to a supervisor or boss.  The group will set “goals” in the meeting that will be disregarded almost immediately, but all team members will note in company emails regarding the meeting that “the meeting was a great help,” they are “glad everyone is on the same page,” and “the project is moving in a positive direction”.  The next day in the office will be exactly the same as the days preceding the meeting.
  • Random Changes to Regular Work – if your office has any kind of protocol regarding email, hours reporting, report submissions, etc., it will be occasionally and seemingly for no reason changed.  This is both a) to see who is actually paying attending to orders that come from higher ups and b) to make people do something else that will take up time.  The changes are inane, and overall useless time wasters, but that’s the point.
  • Meetings and Seminars – out of office time (especially time alone) is excellent.  Allotting extra time for transportation to get to a meeting or scheduling a seminar on a work day both removes one from the office scenario and makes one seem to be doing something productive for the company for the entire duration of the time away from the office.

These are a few common ways to increase the strength of the illusion of busy-ness that Japanese working folk do so well.  Unsurprisingly enough, as soon as the boss steps out of the office, working folk become real people again – they make jokes, they chat, and they slack off (openly).  Their posture relaxes.  They share facebook photos and make convenience store runs for coffee.  I’ve heard some employees in stricter companies actually took up smoking as a way to take a break regularly.  After all, when you’re expected to spend 12 hours of your day at the office five or six days a week, you have to pace yourself and your productivity to make sure you always have something to do, and thus always appear busy.

Of course, I am leaving out the fact that stuff actually does get done.  Ultimately, there has to be something to show for all those hours in the office typing and talking.  Getting actual results is important, so while people may be good at appearing busy, they also typically make it a point to do their job at some point.  Surprisingly, it’s usually even in a very timely fashion.

The experiences I have had requesting/sharing important details with Japanese coworkers have usually been positive.  Rarely does a Japanese colleague “forget” or “overlook” something, or get horribly delayed in forwarding a simple email to me.  When I signed the contract for my new apartment recently, the agency informed me that the rent would be due by the 27th of every month.  I, having dropped an enormous sum of money to move into the place, was unable to pay the rent until the next week after the deadline.  I noted this one-time inconvenience and the date I would pay the rent by to the agent.  He nodded, said he would tell my building owner and actually remembered. I know because my phone didn’t ring off the hook the day after the rent’s deadline.

While much of working society in Japan does seem to be a lot of smoke and mirrors, there is a foundation of genuine service behind it.  I feel a degree of trust toward the Japanese that I do not feel toward Americans.  My luggage was left behind on a flight back to Narita last year, and the airline I used only had to record my address at the airport once I deplaned, assuring me they would deliver my luggage to my home the following afternoon.  And they did!

This standard of service exists in all industries – when the cable company says the cable guy will come between 3 and 5, he will be there between 3 and 5.  When you miss a package delivery at your home, and arrange to have it redelivered the next day early in the morning, it will be.  If you are promised  dessert along with your meal, it will not be forgotten.  Your coupon will be accepted without hesitation.  These little conveniences are things I’ve come to depend on here, and they’re things I miss when I go back to the states.

Though, for all the amazing services Japan provides (without tips!), there’s still something magical about a chatty, gossip-happy American barista explaning her woes to a random customer.  Ah, shop banter – that’s one service Japan will never quite be able to provide.

Posted in Stuff and Things, Work | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

One year in

One year ago today I was waking up at 4:00 AM in a freezing guesthouse in Yotsukaido because I was jetlagged after returning to Japan. I was about 20 minutes away from Narita airport, and extremely excited to start Season 2 of life in Japan. Season 1, as some readers may recall, was spent as an intern with non-profit organization Run for the Cure Foundation. This year has seen a lot of exciting things for me, as I’m sure it has for everyone.

It’s easy to forget sometimes about the small accomplishments we make over a period of time. The big ones are always easier to remember, and our failures always seem to stand out more. My big accomplishments this year included transitioning to being an English teacher (or something like it, anyway), signing my first ever Japanese apartment contract (this is recent – more on this next week), and launching an exciting new career-related project I’m optimistic about.

Not a lot of failures come to mind, which I hope is good. I’ve felt frustrated, sad, angry, and sick here and there over the last year, but I can’t say I’ve messed anything up too badly (yet).

More so than all these big events from the last year, I’ve been thinking about the little things, which in strange ways carry more meaning for me. There are so many bizarre encounters and weird skills I’ve picked up that it’s difficult for me to discern sometimes exactly what is normal. Last week, I successfully navigated phone menus in super formal Japanese (and cheered myself on afterward). I can run up and down stairs for departing trains in high heels. I taught a three year old girl how to write her name in English.  I cooked eggplant for the first time, and went to a shinto shrine on New Year’s eve.  I am teaching elementary children how to read and write in my language. I sang karaoke in an almost empty bar run by a Japanese woman who wanted to give me presents and hair style advice. I confirmed with a 10 year old Japanese boy that “poop” is both a noun and a verb. I walked across hot coals with Japanese mountain priests, and surfed on the beaches of Enoshima (without being attacked by a jellyfish). I saw cherry blossoms bloom with my own eyes. I went to a year end party with coworkers, and a new year party with them two weeks later.  I forgot the word “renovation” in conversation (all I could think was the Japanese “reform”).

These changes have been small, but they add up.  I forget sometimes that I actually have a job here where I make a teeny impact from time to time, and it’s not all about enjoying myself. Many of my students took the “Eiken” test recently – it’s a level check of their English skills.  They’re passing with flying colors the listening, speaking, and fill-in-the-blank portions, which I am responsible for assisting them with. I joke a lot about only pretending to be an English teacher, but wow, I think I may have accidentally become one (and a somewhat effective one, at that).

All of those moments up there are special (and often silly) memories in some way, and there are many, many more.  Growing personally and professionally was my (however vague) ultimate goal in coming back to Japan, and I like to think that’s what I’m doing. I’m very excited for the next year. I still have a lot of “firsts” to experience, and I’m really looking forward to them.

Mostly, they all have to do with food, but hey, that’s something.

Thanks for joining me via the internet – who knows what the next year will bring?

…more blog posts. I hope.

Posted in Thoughts | 3 Comments