Day 13: Roaming the streets of Harajuku

After a class on Tanizaki’s ‘Naomi’, which is a great noveI about the relationship between a 28 year old man and 15 year old girl, I made my way to Harajuku. Harajuku is a place near Shibuya known for its cheap shopping, described as a sacred street for teenagers by my host mom (I have never heard more squealing and ‘kawaii’s in my life). It was a nice place to walk around. I noticed lots of foreigners there. Crepes were a popular food item being sold there. After walking past the third crepe stall, I felt the need to try one and bought the highly recommended macha cheesecake and strawberry crepe. It was heavenly. 
Harajuku’s Takeshta steet-known for its cheap shops
My beautiful crepe-the highly recommended macha cheescake and strawberry with whipped cream
The crepe menu at Angel Heart, the oldest crepe shop in Harajuku
In the Hirajuku area, there were several trucks which drove by with music blaring from them. On the main street, I saw a caucasian man outside the train station playing music and trying to make money. The area was really lively and I heard an unusual amount of english and hollywood music.
A passing truck at Harajaku with blaring (and really good) music
I later went to Yoyogi park nearby which is connected with a Meiji shrine. The park was huge. Once inside, it was so quiet and peaceful.
Barrels of sake near the Meiji Shrine, representing the sake offered to enshrined dieties on an annual basis
I discovered the secret of the kotatsu today. Kotatsu is a low japanese table with a heater below it. People put their feet under the kotatsu in winters to warm their feet.
I also wore a hokairo today. Since it was chilly and random parts of my body hurt, Kaori-san handed me a hokairo which is a little cushion with a sticky substance on one side. It is stuck on an undershirt and provides warmth to your body for up to 10 hours. My body ache disappeared. Japanese technology continues to amaze me.
The heater below the Kotatsu, used to warm people in winters. 

Day 12: The Wrath of Local Trains

The commute back and forth from Waseda University was the highlight of my day. Despite taking the same route to Waseda everyday, I somehow ended up in the train going in the opposite direction. I realized that soon enough and got on the right train. Then, while changing trains at the next station, I was feeling adventurous and tried getting off at an unfamiliar looking exit. But the doors of the exit machine where you tap your card slammed on me and the guard nearby redirected me to my usual exit.

But what made the train commute a highlight was my return journey. I left Waseda at 5 pm. By 5:20 pm I was at Ikebukoro where I had to take my third and last train. I took my seat in the train which was already there and started playing tetrus on my phone. At 6 pm, the train still hadn’t moved. There were frequent announcements being made in Japanese and after each one, some people would get out of the train and leave the platform. At this point, I was tired of Tetrus and left my comfortable seat in the train to go find an english speaking officer at the station. As I walked around the platform, I found that the doors for entering the platform for this particular train line had been locked and a police officer was making an announcement using a mic. There were huge crowds all around and officers were hanging out little tickets to people, presumably for different routes that they could take instead of taking their usual route home. I finally found an english speaking officer who said that there had been an accident somewhere along this train line and I would have to take another route home, one that took double the time. I was upset at already having wasted so much time sitting and playing tetrus on the train and now I had to spend another 40 minutes on the train. In any case I took my free ticket and tried to convince myself that it would be fun to take a different route home and see a new scenery through the window of the train. But when I got to the platform I realized that it was peak rush hour and there was going to be no scenery for me in a train stuffed with people. I was right. Two trains passed me by and they were so full that I didn’t have the courage to get on them. There were police officers employed to push people into the train and ensure that the doors shut. I didn’t feel like I was among human beings when I saw the way people were pushing themselves into the train. I got on the third train and sure enough, it was stuffed. I couldn’t turn even to look at the screen which displayed the name of the next station. The only way for me to know which station we were stopping at was to keep my ears open and wait for the announcement.

People were clearly tired and frustrated and I admired their resilience in doing this day after day. It also occurred to me that I was experiencing one of Japan’s rare train breakdowns and seeing the way the Japanese dealt with it was interesting. They immediately informed people and started redirecting them. Infact, when I was taking the longer route home, there was another brief delay and it came up on the screen of the train. The trains run by Japan Railways (JR) have a screen which shows any and all delays that are occurring on their trains. Today, there seemed to be three delays on the JR Line, reasons being passenger injury, door inspection and cable problem. I should know, considering how long I spent in the train today.

While I was in the train being crushed by people around me, I thought about how easily people in the train could steal my wallet or my phone from my bag without me noticing. But they don’t. And I’m grateful for that. Japan is one of the few countries where I can stand out as a foreigner and still be relatively unworried about being pick pocketed.

By the time on the last train, my frustration turned into a sort of empathy for the millions who ride trains like this everyday. It was 8 pm by the time I got home. My 75 minute commute had turned into a 180 minute commute. I later learnt that the train breakdown had made the news on TV. Although I am thoroughly exhausted right now, this was definitely a worthwhile adventure.

Apart from the train adventures, I watched the Japanese Movie called “The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine”, which happens to be Japan’s first sound film. It was interesting to see how expression and action was used far more in the movie than sound and dialogue. But the sound affects of the film played a big role in the film and were used in turning points, unlike movies today in which music and sound is perpetually present. The movie showed life in the suburbs of a writer in the 1930s. Although life wasn’t nearly as fast paced as it is now, westernization and modernization had started to occur already.

For dinner, I ate natto, which foreigners generally hate and what the Japanese consider soul food. Its fermented soy bean eaten with rice. Although I’m not particularly fond of the smell, I’m indifferent to the taste. To be honest, I don’t taste anything when I eat natto. Kaori-san made it with Japanese mustard and mixed it with soy sauce, as its traditionally done. We then ate it with rice. The challenging part was trying not get the slime (yes, natto is VERY slimy) everywhere. After putting natto and rice in your mouth, you are required to wave your chopsticks in circular motion in an attempt to cut the slime. We also ate daikon radish and pork in a kind of soy sauce, which tasted amazing. Kaori-san told me that Japanese dinners are meant to traditionally hold a bowl of miso soup, rice and three other vegetables or meat dishes.

The infamous natto

Day 9: Sushi and a trip to Kawagoe

The sushi conveyer belt. Grab whatever looks good! 
A sushi brunch was in order. This was my first time eating sushi in Japan. We went to one of the conveyor belt restaurant where you can grab any plate you want and you’re charged per plate. Although I’d tried sushi before, this was my first time trying so many different varieties. In addition, I had ramen and egg pudding, both of which were heavenly, as cliched as that may sound. Aside from the conveyor belt, there was a little screen besides our table using which we could order specific sushi or other food dishes that we wanted. The ordered food would arrive on another conveyor belt which was above the sushi conveyor belt. As we ate sushi, we were to keep disposing the plates in a mini-chute like thing which was besides the table. The plates would be counted through some automated system and we would be charged accordingly. Its amazing how such restaurants have minimized manual labor. Even at the entrance of the restaurant there was a machine which we had to get a ticket from for the waiting. In other places I’ve been to in India and Singapore, there is generally a waiter who stands at the entrance and takes down the names and numbers of people who are waiting for seats in the restaurant.  So basically, it was possible to go through an entire meal without interacting with a single waiter. 
Masaki-san’s father came with us and drove us around in his car. We went to Kawagoe, a small town in the Saitama prefecture known for its traditional architecture. Having only seen Tokyo, I didn’t know much about what traditional Japan looks like until today. Kawagoe was not affected by fire or natural disaster which is why it remains as it was in the olden days. We walked around looking at the small shops selling traditional Japanese sweets. Although many houses are modern and rebuilt, most are quite traditional.
The main street of Kawagoe
A house being rebuilt in Kawagoe. I was told that looking at the structure, the house will continue to have a traditional look when rebuilt. 
A traditional looking house in Kawagoe
Japanese sweets being sold in one of the alleys of Kawagoe

Day 8: A typical Saturday

Mostly a chilled Saturday with the family, but we had our little adventures.
We lazed around all morning, eating and watching television. In the evening we went kimono shopping for Kaori-san who is taking kimono classes and needed one for it (yes its not easy to tie a kimono and taking classes to learn is not unusual). I learnt that there are casual and dressy kimonos. They cost a fair bit and its takes 20 minutes for an expert to tie a kimono. It has several accesories to it which are necessary to complete the outfit and cost additional money. People buy different kinds of belts to complement the kimono. The concept is similar to that of a saree wherein people buy different blouses to wear with the same saree. A kimono is normally stiched depending on the buyer’s size and body dimensions, but used kimonos are sold as well which can be bought at a cheaper price.
Kaori-san, Masaki-san and me at the Izakaya 
Later, we went to an Izakaya for dinner and drinks. An Izakaya is a sort of restaurant cum bar where people come to drink and eat. It was the loudest place by far that I had come across in Japan. Many people were already quite drunk and chatted with their friends. Many people go to Izakayas after work, and Japanese people frequently socialize here. I couldn’t help but notice that there were very few women in the Izakaya. It was quite different from a regular bar, where drunk people often create a havoc and men hit on women. In the Izakaya I went to, people kept to the groups they came with. 
We ordered some sake (Japanese rice wine) and shared some local dishes. It was such a fun experience! 
Cold sake is served in the little black box which is also filled with sake. It is meant to show hospitality and generosity. 
Motsuni-pork gut with tofu-a food popular during the world war when people didn’t want any body part of animals to be wasted. 
Namero-cold fish with vegetables. 

Day 7: Through the eyes of a tourist

A poster at the Ryogoku train station

I went to Edo-Tokyo museum and Asakusa on a field trip with my class.

Edo-Tokyo museum traces the history of Tokyo to the Edo and Meiji period when Tokyo was Edo. The museum was located in an area called Ryogoku which has quite a bit of sumo wrestler activity (rings, restaurants, etc) and the building of the museum resembled a crouching sumo wrestler.

After learning about life in the Edo period and modernization during the time of the world war, we went to lunch to a place where sumo wrestlers often eat. The traditional food that sum wrestlers eat to bulk up is called ‘chanko-nabe’, a hot pot dish. But since we aren’t sumo wrestlers and don’t have the capacity to each 20,000 calories a day, we ate another type of meal, which included fried chicken, soup, rice and salad, all of which were delicious. The restaurant had a very traditional decor. The waiters were dressed traditionally and we sat cross legged on the floor in a tatami matted room. We ate sherbet for dessert. It was a lighter and more fruity version of ice cream.

A display of Kabuki, a kind of Japanese theater at the Edo-Tokyo museum. If you look carefully, you can see a circular line on the stage. That is actually a moving staging of sorts which rotates when its time for the actors to end the scene. Kabuki was known for its innovative effects. 
A sumo wrestler lunch
The Senso-ji Temple

 After lunch, we took the train to Asakusa which is famous for its Senso-ji temple. The temple was very beautiful with gold carvings and idols. Apart from the temple, there were little shops and restaurants on the side, and it was fun to wander around the area despite the rain. Asakusa had some very distinctive sweets. I tried a sweet with red bean paste inside a sort of bread. There were colorful ice creams available of some very exotic flavors, like yam, green tea and chestnut.

Both of these were fairly touristy places and I saw quite a few foreigners in the areas, which also meant that a fair number of people could speak English. Nevertheless, I tried speaking Japanese while asking for directions. 

I came home for dinner and ate a dinner of niratama and sashimi. Along with sashimi, I tasted a very strong flavored leaf called aojiso, which I could only take one bite of. Kaori-san introduced me to J-pop, short for Japanese pop music. It sounded very much like Hollywood pop and even though I couldn’t understand the words, I liked it. Apparently, it is quite normal for Japanese artists to make cover albums in which people sing songs written and originally sung by someone else (as long as they have the permission). 

The rain was a lot worse and I was exhausted by the end of the day, but I was very impressed to see that life didn’t stop for anyone and nobody complained about the rain. Infact, while walking to the train station in the morning, I saw a women in full office wear running to make it in time for the next train despite the rain.I guess the weather isn’t a good enough excuse to be late! I also saw a man dressed in a suit on a bicycle  holding up an umbrella with one hand. I stopped feeling sorry for myself after that. Resilience at its best.