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Photo Journal Week 1
 
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Thursday
January 24th
Arrived on business class flight (thank you, frequent flier mile man!). I joined Chris at the Hotel Okura, which is right next to the American Embassy in Akasaka, Tokyo. The hotel's decor and architecture are a really amusing 60's chic. Went to dinner with Chris at a sushi place. First experience of the Japanese restaurant with it's many shouts of "yashai shimasei!" "shitsurei shimasu!" and the repeat shouting of any order by waiters and sushi chefs.

Friday
January 25th
Went to the Shinjuku city district. Saw the beautiful new buildings of the municipal government center on the east side. Went to the observation decks and got a terrific view of the city. I was very amused to see that you could get a memorial stamp to commemorate your visit. Wandered through the shopping and red light areas on the west side.

The fancy new Tokyo Municipal Government Building:


A view from the top:


A commemorative stamp from the observation deck!:


Just another crazy day on the streets of Shinjuku:


On the way home, Chris's office building, Sanno Park Tower:


For dinner we had sukiyaki, which was delicious. Also mind-boggling-they started out by putting a big block of "rard" in the cooking pot; a performance they repeated between each round of cooking vegetables and meat in the pot. Then we dipped the cooked items in raw egg before eating them. It was delicious, but we were ready to burst!

Saturday
January 26th
We started the day going to Starbucks for coffee and pastries. This became standard practice because Japanese breakfast would usually be something like rice balls with fish paste, or dried fish. Then we went to Akihabara, the electronics district, thinking we'd see cool devices that hadn't yet made it to the states. We were disappointed, although we heard later that you can see cool stuff "if you know where to go."

After lunch we went to see a Sumo match. (It was on the way there that Chris-zilla struck.) At the match we ate Japanese snack crackers (including, I think, "okra crackers") and enjoyed the show. It was really fun. There was a lot of ritual to it, lots of the big fat guys leaning over on one leg and then the other, slapping their thighs very loudly, throwing salt on the ground to purify the ring, and then many false starts to the wrestling itself as they tried to psyche each other out. And the wrestling, though brief-typically less than a minute-demonstrated a lot of skill and strategy as they tried to surprise and outmaneuver each other. For dinner we ate with Chris's Japanese friend, Junko, at a high-end izakaya with many small dishes of a wide variety of foods. Two firsts for me were sea cucumber and sea urchin (uni) sashimi. I did not like sea cucumber, which is tough-almost like plastic-but I did like uni, which very sweet and had a good texture. On the menu I also saw "horse sashimi," which is apparently very popular.

Sumo match warm-up ritual:


Then they kind of danced around the circle:


And then they beat the stuffing out of each other!:


(Close-up! Instant replay!):


After dinner we saw one of Chris's co-workers, Chris Mack, playing guitar while another gaijin banker sang at a small Roppongi bar, Bourbon Street. I joined in for a rhythm-free but fun rendition of the Gambler. I met lots of Chris's co-workers: Tim "the schmooze" who's ultra-friendly, kind of a Japanese convert, maybe grew up there, went to Kyoto University; Peter, the "brains" of the distressed debt business, with whom I had a very interesting conversation about how broken the Japanese debt market is, and how companies keep bad loans on the books until they have a good quarter and can offset unusually good results with the paper loss incurred by finally selling the bad debt; Peter's girlfriend Yuko; Chris Mack, the "face" of the debt business, a good talker; Ian, a Brit I think, a tall fun-loving guy; Ed-zilla, Chris's boss, a nice low-key guy; and a couple others I forget. Ed-zilla got a picture of me that makes it look like I'm kissing Tim-he thought it was so funny he sent it all over the office the next week. Thanks, Ed...

Chris Mack and Avi performing:


Stop kissing me! (The tall guy in the middle is Ian, who appears later in the story. He's talking to Peter, another of Chris's co-workers):


Sunday
January 27th
We met up with my business school friend, Daisuke Takatsuki. He took us for breakfast/brunch to a great ramen place as an example of food that everyday people often eat. It was good, although the piece of meat in the dish was incredibly fatty-in America people would have really freaked out about that. He showed us the high-end shopping district of Ginza, gave us samples of a popular sweet bean paste desert, and showed us popular department stores.

In addition to giving us a sense of the city, he told us lot's of interesting things about Japanese life. His wife was pregnant, and they were going through the arduous process of selecting a name for the baby girl. This involved two characters for her first name (or, in Japan, last name) that would be auspicious in their relationship with each other and with her family name. The number of strokes used in writing each character should be lucky, and not only that, but they should be lucky in combination with each of the characters of the last name. For example, odd numbers are auspicious, even are not; and the numbers 4 and 9 are very unlucky because when spoken they sound like the word for death. Daisuke had set up an Excel spreadsheet to compute all of the implications of different names. He also had to consult extensively with family members to solicit their input, as much a matter of ritual as of seeking advice. I was honored to be asked for my thoughts on the sound of different possible names in English. Of course, each character in the name has a meaning, and you want it to mean something nice! Daisuke, for example, means "big help." A final complication to name selection is that the government has to approve all names (true story). For most people this isn't actually a factor, but it does mean that no "wierd" names are allowed (no Moon Unit Zappas in Japan), and no hyphenation of last names. On the latter point, the man's last name must be used except in the case where the wife is the last representative of a family, in which case the baby can be allowed to take on her last name (but still not in hyphenated form). He and his wife selected the name Haruka when the baby was born a few days later.

The very carefully-named Haruka Takatsuki:


Daisuke also told us a lot about his job at the Ministry of Finance, where he oversees Japan's relationship with the World Bank, and in particular had been overseeing the work on aid to Afghanistan. He also told about what it's like to switch jobs in Japan. Daisuke already had accepted a job at a highly respected private equity firm, but the Ministry of Finance insisted that he wait six months before leaving his job there. And... he had not choice but to agree; otherwise he would have a smirtch of his reputation that would linger with him for many years to come. The scenario is pretty amazing in contrast with US practice.

For dinner Chris and I met up with Adam Block, also a friend I met at the business school. He dropped out after the first year to start a company, and their major investor is a Japanese firm, so he was in town to meet with them. Dinner was amusing because Adam is an incredibly picky eater, meaning that he can hardly eat anything in Japan. Chris and I actually had pretty bad luck at dinner. One of our dishes was soup with chicken meatballs, which led us to the discover that the Japanese put the gristle and cartilage into their meatballs. Ick! They were very crunchy. Adam gave us other tips on Japan: guys don't say "arigato" for "thank you;" they say, in a deep, gruff voice, "domo" (short for "domo arigato"). (In Japan the men definitely speak quite differently than the women.)

Monday
January 28th
Took the Hato bus tour of the city. Visited the Imperial Palace, the Asakusa buddhist shrine; took a river boat tour; and viewed the city from the World Trade Center downtown. Not the most exciting tour ever, but we did get a decent sunset view of Mt. Fuji,which I'm told is pretty rare. For dinner I think Chris and I tried yakitori, which is grilled chicken and vegetables on skewers. It was very tasty.

This is as close as you can get to the Imperial Palace, but at least the walls are pretty:


Our tour guide is telling us that there is a five-year waiting list to get inside the palace, which gets you the chance to work four days without pay cleaning up the emperor's garden, at the end of which you get to see the emperor for twenty seconds:


The impressive entrance gate to the Asakusa buddhist temple:


Ahem... a second entrance gate to the Asakusa buddhist temple:


The first of many pagodas I would see on this trip:


Holy smoke! You can cure a body part by wafting smoke over it. Or you can bless that body part for a future endeavor, say by wafting smoke over your head before an exam. I didn't see anyone wafting smoke anywhere inappropriate:


The Japanese are very concerned with cleanliness. At this fountain you can wash you hands and mouth to purify yourself before entering the temple:


The temple itself was a grand building. (There were also lots of great mini-temples and shrines on all sides of the main temple.):


Lighting candles is just one of many ways you can worship at the shrine. You can also buy fortunes on little pieces of paper. If you don't like your fortune you roll it up and tie it to a tree on your way out.:


Of course, most of the tour group spent our entire visit here, the big shopping mall in between the two entrance gates:


Northward view from the observation deck of the Japanese World Trade Center in central Tokyo:


Fuji-san! Yes, this southeasterly view from the observation deck features a rare sunset view of Mt. Fuji (the bump in the middle of the horizon line). It was pretty when viewed in person!:


Tuesday
January 29th
In the morning I went on a shopping trip for Chris. I just wanted to get him one of those vinyl, zippered suit covers that you get when you buy a new suit. He wanted it for travelling. I even managed to communicate, using hand signals and limited English, the idea of a suit cover. But the store sales people couldn't imagine the idea that I was asking for a free vinyl suit cover. Oh no! I must be looking for a $300 Gucci suit bag!

As a gaijin in Japan, shopping and eating out are an adventure unto themselves. Walk into any restaurant or store and the staff all shout out welcome! welcome! And then leave the store and they all shout out thank you! thank you! Anything you want they trip over themselves to help you with. Well... anything on the menu or in the normal course of business. Have an odd request? Want them to bend the rules for you in some eminently reasonable way? a) they usually can't understand what you want, because they can't imagine your asking for something out of the ordinary; b) it will never, never, never happen. It's amazing! They just follow the rules all the time. So, of course, my suit bag trip was doomed from the start.

Later I had lunch with a friend, Aileen. Then I went to a craft museum in the gaiemmae district. There were a few pretty items there, but the nicest bit was a large hillside garden with stone paths and lots of shade. It also had a nice tea house where I stopped to read my book and drink a pot of tea.

Wednesday
January 30th
I forget exactly what I did this day. You see, I had it all written down on this great little notepad, which was last seen sitting on top of a pay phone in the Kyoto train station. I guess during the day I probably did laundry. And I do remember Chris and I had dinner with my friends Mike and Aileen. Mike works at the same company as Chris. He trades "exotic derivatives." The restaurant was a "barbecue it yourself" restaurant, a little bit like Korean barbecue. The best item was the chocolate fondue, for which we got to melt the chocolate ourselves in a little bowl over the barbecue. The least best items were the whole sardines which we barbecued and crunched and swallowed whole (head, fins, spine, skin, eyes, and everything else).

Thursday
January 31st
Chris left on a whirlwind two-day business trip. He went to something like six cities in two days (Fukuoka, Nagoya, Hiroshima, Kyoto, Gufi, and Oita), traveling by train, bullet train, taxi, plane, and hovercraft (on land and over water, true story).

Chris sent me a few photos from this trip. They were taken by his boss, Ed-zilla. I have no idea what's going on in this shot, but that's Chris in the middle, and Ed-zilla's title is "a couple of animals."


Ed-zilla and his big twin!


The "tushie" of Ed-zilla's big twin. (Sorry, no picture of Ed-zilla's tushie.)


Chris in Hiroshima:


I spent the day with Adam Block. We went shopping in the Shibuya district. We spent a long time in a well-known hardware store called Tokyu Hands. One of Adam's hobbies is building furniture, so he showed me all sorts of beautiful, interesting (and, in Japan, very expensive!) types of wood including some big, knotty burls in very striking shapes. We also looked through some traditional Japanese tools, such as their wood-planes, which are of a completely different design than those used in the west. We finished off with a tour of their garden department where we discovered some flowers and potted plants we'd never seen before. After that we checked out some manga, Japanese comic books that appeal to adults as well as kids. I'd heard about this, but it turns out they're pretty perverted. And there are just tons of different comic books to choose from.

After that we poked around a funky little store called Pelf. They sold a wide array of odd little collectible items. The one that caught our eye was The Impossible to Find Kubrik! Little toy people figures in collectible series. You buy them one at a time in little boxes, about two or three inches high and maybe one wide and deep. Each box has a label showing you all of the Kubriks in that series--usually six or so--plus a distribution, showing you how common they are. You don't know which you get until you buy it and open the box. And everyone wants to find the special Kubriks, such as the super special forces guy in the special forces series of Kubriks. Or god knows what in the Tofu Kubrik series. (I'm not kidding. They have tofu-shaped square heads.) They're hysterical. My friend Adam and I each bought one. We thought it would be great if we opened them in the store and then luckily happened to get an impossible to find Kubrik. But... no. I got a "Hooligan" and he got a "French Riot Police Man". One of the special, hard to find toys was around $100 at this store, but when my friend Adam checked eBay it looked like we couldn't make any money exporting these back to the US.

At a Chinese restaurant, over gyoza and ramen, Adam and I opened our Impossible to Find Kubriks! Adam was excited to get "French Riot Police Man.":


I was much less excited to get "Hooligan," even though he's only the second most common Kubrik, ahead of "French Riot Police Man":


Hooligan man hates Riot Police Man. They have a fight...:


...Hooligan wins. Hooligan man.:


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