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Part VIII Tokyo and Beyond

September 26, 1998

Last weekend I went to Tokyo by train, and it was great.  Tokyo was cool, too.  Public transportation here is fantastic.  The buses run exactly when they say they will run, and the trains are even more precise.  My train pulled out of Kiryu at the exact minute it said it would, and after a trip of an hour and 48 minutes, it pulled into Asakusa station in Tokyo at the exact minute it said it would.  Why can't they do stuff like this in every country?  I had to take the subway several times in Tokyo, and through all the line changes and everything I never had to wait for a train for more than one minute.  Maybe I just got lucky, but it was pretty amazing.

While in Tokyo I visited my friends Nancy and Hiro, who have two little boys, and that was very fun.  A bit loud, but fun.  After having lived with them for 36 hours, I realized how much I like other peoples' kids.  I just don't think I could handle it myself.  But then, does anyone ever really feel ready?  Anyway, Nancy and Hiro introduced me to two of their friends, Japanese people who lived in the States for about 7 years when they were younger.  It was really cool talking to them because they were perfectly fluent in both languages, without even a hint of an accent.  They spoke English better than some of my American friends.  Their names were Kayoko and Tomoko. Akiko, Kayoko's friend, who also speaks perfect English, was there too.  Say those names three times fast.  So, now I know people my age to hang out with in Tokyo, which is cool.

Tokyo is a very interesting blend of old and new.  I went to see a very beautiful and peaceful Meiji period Shinto shrine in a big park stuck right in the middle of Tokyo ("Meiji period" translates roughly as "old").  About three blocks down from the shrine is a Condomania.  And no, they don't sell condominiums.  There are countless examples old traditional stuff existing right alongside the modern office buildings, and it makes it really fun to walk around and just look.  They also have Subway restaurants, my favorite fast food, which don't exist in Kiryu, so I think I will return often.

Tokyo is also a typical international city.  I heard all types of languages, some of which I couldn't place.  On the subway a couple sat down next to me and started speaking Russian, which I thought was pretty cool.  Then I realized that I understood a little of what they were saying, which is strange, because I don't speak Russian.  So, I started paying attention and realized that they had switched to Hebrew.  Without thinking, I blurted out, in Hebrew, "Do I hear Hebrew?"  They both stopped, looked me over, and seemed a bit tongue-tied.  I don't exactly look like someone who should be able to speak Hebrew.  I mean, I guess everything is relative -- although I am neither,  I do look more Israeli than Japanese.  Anyway, after they got over their initial shock we had a halting conversation in Hebrew.  It was halting because I found out much to my chagrin how much Hebrew I have forgotten.  The funniest part was when they asked a yes/no question.  I understood the question perfectly, but I answered "hai,"  which means yes in Japanese, not Hebrew.  They just laughed.  But hey, I'm trying to learn Japanese right now, so the Hebrew is stuffed way down at the back of my brain.  My mind, thinking it was in Japan (correctly, I might add), was trying to speak Japanese.  They got off the train very shortly, but it certainly was an interesting experience.

One of the more interesting places in Tokyo is a place called Akihabara, which is a huge collection of electronics shops.  There are department stores in Japan, but they are not as good as the ones in the States (in my opinion), and for specialty items like electronics it is a good idea to go to an electronics shop, which are ubiquitous.  Anyway, Akihabara has about three hundred electronics shops, all selling basically the same stuff (stereos, TV's, video cameras, portable tape, CD, and minidisc players, etc.) at a nearly uniform price.  Just one store after another.  Itís kind of absurd, in a way.  The cool thing about it, though, is that I was able to walk around to three or four different vendors and get them to bid the price down.  Business is business, in English or Japanese.  I was there to buy an electronic dictionary, which is a very cool item.  You can type a word in English or Japanese, and it returns the other.  It has more words and phrases than most dictionaries, and it fits in your pocket.  A very useful toy.

Anyway, the price started at around 19,000 yen, or $140, plus tax, but after a few trips back and forth I had gotten three different stores to quote the price of 16,800 yen and no tax (because I am not a Japanese citizen -- the very first vendor had failed to mention this and was trying to be sneaky, so I didn't go back to him). That seemed like it was as low as anyone would go, so to be fair I went back to the first guy who offered it at that price, also because he was the nicest and spoke the best English.  So, I was all ready to buy the thing, when suddenly he paused and said, sort of conspiratorially, that if I could answer a quiz he would knock 200 yen off of the price.  Granted, that's like a buck fifty, but what the hell, right?  So I agreed, and he said, I'm not kidding, "name three Elvis Presley hits."  It turns out that he is a huge Elvis fan.  So, I said "Hound Dog, Don't Be Cruel, Love Me Tender" and made a quick $1.50.  Life is weird.

This is the line in which I add some witty remark which provides a smooth segue into the next part of this section.

Schools in Japan have a sports festival day once a year, in which they put on a little pageant/parade type thing and run relay races and stuff like that.  The thing is, at the junior high school level these sports days are held on weekdays, so very few parents or others can attend.  That does not mean, however, that they don't prepare.  Two of my school have been rehearsing nearly every day for two weeks.  The school is split into three teams, each consisting of students in all three classes.  The three teams at one school are called "Red," "White," and "Blue."  And I don't mean the colors, I mean the words.  In English.  My, they love English here (but hold that thought for a moment).  There is even a dance contest between the three teams, where they each perform a dance that they made up themselves.  The only audience, though, is the other two teams.  I am not sure how the winner is decided.  Maybe they fight.

Anyway, the point is that there is all this preparation of pageantry and ceremony (another thing they love here is pomp and circumstance), but the only people who see it are the students and teachers, and maybe a scattering of a dozen or so extras.  It seems strange to rehearse that long for something and then not have anyone watch it -- this is the kind of thing that parents in the US eat up with a spoon.  Could you imagine a junior high school in the States putting on a play or something and having no parents show up?

This is already too long, but I have just one more cultural comment.  As I mentioned briefly above, people here love to use English.  Even when they don't know it.  The results are sometimes very funny.  I am sure that I will have quite a collection of these by the time I leave, but I'll give a few examples to whet your appetite.  There is a store in Tokyo (right next door to Condomania, actually), called ěDFW.î  It stands for ěDon't Forget Woman.î  Yes, it is a womenís clothing store.  At many of the train stations there are little snack/newspaper stands.  It seems to be a national chain, actually.  Their name is "Let's Kiosk."  I never get tired of turning to whomever I am with and saying "Hey!  I have an idea, let's kiosk today!"  And after we do that, maybe we won't forget woman.  The Japanese also like to use English acronyms, except they shorten them.  So, UFO is the Japanese word for unidentified flying objects, too, except itís not pronounced UFO.  Itís pronounced "you-fo."  A VIP is a "veep," which I have actually heard in the states, too.  I haven't heard anyone here say "you-say" or "you-sah"  or "us-ah" rather than USA, but I think itís only a matter of time.