"Do you have a bellybutton?"

Other than the picture dump, it's been quiet on this blog. It's the end of the term in Todai, which means final projects and exams. Luckily, since I'm an AIKOM student, I only had two to deal with, so there's not much of a problem there. Three papers, but currently I'm tying off one, with one already done (minus needing to add a bibliography) and one halfway through.

Assuming everything goes according to schedule, I should be completely done with the first term by Monday, when I turn stuff in at the office, then it's off to Shibuya Station. There's a Fukusaya in the basement's Tokyu Foodshow, and Fukusaya is the definitive place to get castella, which is a specialty from Nagasaki. Castella is actually Portuguese, but it was brought over to Japan and the Japanese have made it their own--it's like a pound cake, but lighter and not so sweet. Since my relatives in Taiwan have traditional Asian tastes--i.e. not too fond of overly sweet stuff--castella's perfect.

Note: there's a neighbor that makes castella all the time and passed the recipe on to my mother; Nate and I didn't like it much because we didn't think it had much flavor. But I had some here, and it was different; the texture's more cake-like and there's flavor, but it's a lot lighter than pound cake for sure. They've even got it in different flavors, like green tea--had that at Rie's place, and it was terrific.

So, what's been happening since I last wrote in here?

I met some more people, or at least got to know them better and got their phone numbers. I feel bad because I haven't really contacted most of them, but then again, since this is a busy time of the year, it's probably not going to be missed. I haven't really been seeing anyone unless I'm in class, and everyone I've talked to has mentioned essays, if not exams.

One of them was Yamamoto Takahiro--he surprised me by speaking in English when I asked if a certain saying in Japanese was right. He's interested in diplomatic relations, and he'll be in the US this spring attending a conference about the whole thing, if I'm not mistaken. The title of this entry is an actual question he asked me; it wasn't his fault--first of all, his English is pretty good--he just had a brainfart. What he really wanted to know was if I had a navel piercing. Then I told Maru-chan in Japanese what he'd asked, and Maru-chan did this loud, deep belly laugh he always does when he's amused.

Seriously, I love the way Maru-chan laughs. It's terrific and totally fits him, since he's a huge guy. I want to think up funny things to say to him in Japanese just so I can hear it.

The range of English ability amongst the Todai students is wide; there's some who speak it fluently (Ken, Maho, uh...that girl who spent time in Berkeley, Kazu, Jun, Koichi Goto) , and there are the ones who understand it but can't or don't want to really speak it, and there are some who are just...well, to use Japanese, "ダメ" or no good. They can read or write it just fine, but speaking is completely out of the question for them.

It's hard to gauge ability the first time you really speak to someone in English, though; since my Japanese is reasonably fluent, it's the default language unless I'm speaking with Ken or Maho. Talking with Kazumi, Gaelle's tutor, though, I had to be reminded to speak slower--though I thought she could understand me well due to how she spoke English with me and I didn't have to repeat myself. She's really nice, if shy.

Katie arrived the first week we got back; we had lunch and there was much happiness around. One of the best senpai ever; I don't know what I'd have done without her advice. Assuming her schedule can handle it, we'll be going to Ishigakijima, one of the islands on Okinawa, for the week before my birthday. It's like Okinawa Island, if less crowded and touristy, and since it's spring, it should be comfortably warm.

For the most part, though, there was burnout. Lots of it. My sleep schedule is still out of whack; there was one day I just went, "screw it" and called in sick because I hadn't slept at all that night, and then mad planning to see if I could get these papers done early. The pressure is easing up now that the end is in visible sight and I go to Taiwan in less than a week.

This is what the vacation schedule looks like for me so far:

February 2-15: Taipei, Taiwan with Apple

February 24-25: Hakone

Mid-March, two weeks: Kyoto, Osaka and Fukuoka with Feng Lan

First week of April: Ishigakijima?

I may go back to the U.S. early if I do Ishigakijima; technically, we can return around July or August. But the term ends in July. I'd probably go, then, after Tanabata, maybe go see Fujisan with Feng Lan before I leave.

Today, I had a strange dream about being back home. My brother was there, my dad was there, and I recognized the house in Ann Arbor, but it was different. Like, the way the bed was placed in my room, the color of the walls and the light the lamp gave off. I woke up here in Mitaka wondering why I didn't go get a glass of milk. I also wondered how some pals in the U.S. were doing; around here, if it wasn't for instant messaging, email, journals and the like, I'd probably not really remember them by the time I came back.

Without knowing it, I've become used to life in Mitaka. I remember when everything here was so strange and foreign, and now it's not anymore. There's the Family Mart I saw whenever I rode the bus, there's the plum tree on my bike route to Mitaka-dai that I didn't know about until I looked up one day to find out what it was that smelled so floral and lovely in January, and there's the Tsutaya store I see when I ride back to the dorms.

I wonder what it's going to be like when I go home in July-August. You know, besides the painful flight Sarath and I both will have to endure.


Bronze dragon over the purification font. This is one of the most awesome photos I've taken.

A Buddha statue just outside the main temple.

The lantern in all its entirety.

this is the base of the lantern.

Detail on one of the lanterns at Todoroki Fudomyou.

Fanta Winter Apple flavor soda. Mmm.

This is a hamaya, or lucky arrow, that I got at Meiji Shrine. It's supposed to protect the living space and whoever dwells in it from evil. Let's hope it works.

"Dancer in Kyoto," my favorite of the entire exhibition.

"Woman of Gion in Kyoto," another postcard.

"Japanese Card Party," a drawing by Takehisa Yumeji. We went to see the exhibit on the top floor of Tokyu in Shibuya, and Rie gave me some postcards.

I like the composition of this picture.

Yidan asking Rie for Japanese terms on stuff. She'd been carrying that dictionary around for the entire trip. I wish I was that diligent, but I guess I'm just too lazy. Fneh.

Looks like Mihara got used to it, and Yidan's busy trying to check her dictionary for something.

Rie's looking at me weird because I'm trying to get natural photos of everyone. I need to have better stealth skills. Seriously.

This is warabi mochi, something we got at Koots, which is like Starbucks, but they feature green tea. Yum yum.

Rie, posing with two dogs also in kimono. Whoo.

From another angle.

Another torii.

The arch of Meiji Jingu.

Another picture of a complex obi knot.

This is how Rie tied her obi; this is more of an ordinary style unlike the other two. She's not wearing furisode, though.

Two girls in furisode; apparently, according to Rie, it's OK if I ask them to pose for me because I'm a foreigner and stuff. Yar.

Here's Rie, holding out her sleeve for me to shoot a picture of. I think she said that kimono was handmade.

A complex obi know on one of the other kimono girls.

Mihara and Rie at the entrance; that kimono Rie's wearing? She put it on herself, which is amazing, since it's extremely hard.

Mihara-san, who Rie, Yidan and I ran into when we were hitting Meiji Jingu for hatsumoude.


New Year's, days 2 and 3

Woke up once Rie turned on the light, and we went downstairs for o-sechi ryouri breakfast. It was all very yummy, though Rie's grandmother noticed that I liked kuromame a lot (I do, actually; it reminds me a bit of the mung bean soup we make for healthiness). We also had sake, which Yidan was able to drink more of than I was (one cup and they laughed themselves silly at the face I made, apparently).

Once we were finished, we went to Hinosaki Jinja (日先神社) for hatsumoude. Instead of throwing in the normal five yen, we were supposed to throw in fifteen yen; the ten yen coin apparently stands for abundance. The shrine was tiny compared to what else I've seen in Tokyo, but still very nice. Rie's mother bought all three of us education omamori, and we went back home for a lunch of mochi and sleeping near the kotatsu.

Woke up about two hours later, where Rie, Yidan and I ate pudding that we'd bought after coming back from the shrine while watching a program that was about...different colored ramen soups. Seriously. There was green ramen (negi ramen, really), black ramen (squid ink and stuff), red ramen (crab ramen or really really spicy ramen) and brown ramen (miso ramen).

Dinner occured later, where we had sashimi and tried sea urchin. Yidan and I both didn't like it; I thought it was going to be salty, and instead it was slimy and bitter. We'd also made green onion pancakes for the Kubotas to try, and that filled us up some good while we watched the New Year's "East vs. West" special. There's something about seeing one half of Debuya (the guy in overalls, all I know is that he's not Papaya Suzuki), dance around wearing nothing but a bathing suit, accompanied by four comparatively skinny and hot looking members of a boy band, while trying to paint the Mona Lisa in an empty swimming pool.

After the special finished, it was yet another lovely ofuro soak before bedtime.

The next day, we got into the car and headed out to Kasumigaura Park, which is on the coast of a lake. It was freezing, but the lake was beautiful, and the view from the windmill was nothing short of spectacular (as you can tell by the accompanying photos). We then piled back into the car to see the castle, where there wasn't much but two monkeys, pigeons bathing when Yidan and I weren't terrorizing them, and a little shrine that I took pictures of after I translated Yidan's description of camellias ("they fall off like human heads!") to Rie.

Afterwards, it was off to the Ushiku Buddha: there was also hatsumoude there, which we participated in, rang the big iron bell before the statue, and then we went inside. There were about three floors we visited: one had glow in the dark Buddhas and an incense burner, and then the second floor talked about how the Buddha was built (with models and diagrams, along with selling omamori on both the second and third floors), and the final floor we went to consisted of tons of golden Buddhas and a prayer service.

Then it was out, pictures near one of the Buddha heads, lunch at Hanaya Yohei (mmm, nabeyaki udon), and home to Tokyo, where we stopped off at Bic Camera to get Yidan a digicam before coming home and collapsing on the bed.

The next day, Rie, Yidan and I did hatsumoude again at Meiji Jingu. I got a hamaya (good luck arrow destroying evil within the home and protecting its inhabitants), a new anti-harm omamori, and an omikuji that implores me to study. We stopped off at Koots, a cafe that is similar to Starbucks in the uniforms and look, but serves green tea in many complicated forms, along with traditional Japanese snacks. After that, we headed to Shibuya to see an exhibit by Takehisa Yumeji (竹久夢二), an artist in the 1910s-1930s who was famous for his pictures of pretty women. It was quiet up on that floor despite it being in the station, and there were a ton of images. I know there's a permanent collection somewhere in Japan, but this was insane. I took some pictures of postcards Rie gave me, so you can have a look at what his style is like. He really really shot off around the 1920s, I think; his watercolor scrolls are the best.

We left and hung out a little at a kimono store before going home.

Next Tuesday, we go back to school for about two or three more weeks. There's not much; four papers due in February, two exams (Japanese and Boccellari-sensei's class), and a speech I need to work on once I get back. Before then, I saw two exhibitions at the Ueno Museums that I absolutely must see; the first is the Mucha Foundation exhibition starting on January 27 and the second, right next door, is a jade exhibit that has started in November and runs until mid-February. Go take a look, I beg of you, for they look awesome.

I've invited Maru-chan and Rie (the former is interested in museums, it looks like, and the latter wanted to go as soon as she found out it was about art nouveau for the art museum), along with a mess of other friends (too numerous to list here). It might be sketchy since the Japanese students have exams, but we'll be going on the 30th, which is when the AIKOM kids are done, for the most part.

After that it's off to Taiwan for two weeks; Apple and I just paid H.I.S. for our tickets and got our re-entry permits this afternoon! We're really going!

Yes, I am excited; this is the first time I've done travel plans by myself.


New Year's, day 1

Yidan and I met Rie at Shibuya early New Year's Eve, where we hopped a train to Ueno and transferred to another one that got off at Arakawaoki (荒川沖), and got driven back by Rie's dad.

The Kubotas live about a five-minute-drive from the station; after we came in, we were ushered upstairs to Rie's room, and then called down to have some toshikoshi soba, which is a traditional New Year's food that's supposed to connect the new year with the old. During that, we chatted with Rie's grandmother and mother about stuff; they were impressed with my Japanese speaking. I couldn't understand everything they said, but I got enough, apparently. Heh.

We walked to the local grocery store, played video games in the Toys'R'Us they have there (Naruto fighting game! Squee!) , and found this baby Pooh doll whose head spazzes when you rattle the attached toy. It got frightening after a while.

Once we got back with some takoyaki in hand (octopus balls, for those of you who don't know), we got called over to sit in the room with a kotatsu by Rie's grandparents, and they taught us a game called hanafuda, which is played around New Year's. Basically, it's a matching game of sorts; you're dealt out these cards, and there's a main motif (iris, peony, hills, whatever) and the cards have one of these on a picture with varying complexity. The more complex the picture, the more points it's worth. Out of the remaining deck, there are about six surrounding cards, and each player takes turns matching up their cards and tossing one out to replace the missing one, and then drawing another one. The winner is the one who has the most points.

I won all three times. Just lucky, I guess. (I got my ass kicked the next day when we were playing another card game, though.)

We went back up to Rie's room and hung out playing with Rie's makeup and hairdos until we were called down again for dinner (yakitori, mmm). We stayed until about half-past eleven or so watching the traditional Red Vs. White singers show on NHK.

A few comments I feel I should make on it:

Hikawa Kyousuke's adorable. It's even cooler because he dresses up in pink sparkly tuxedoes and sings like one of the old-time enka dudes, and he's like, in his twenties.

Takizawa Hideaki (or Takki) is really hot, at least from what I could see when he was being a judge. He looks good in a tuxedo, even cooler when he's dressed as Yoshitsune in the upcoming drama for this year. Better than the sparkly boxers.

There is a singer whose first name is Akiko who I swear looks and sounds a lot like a man, despite the evidence from old footage that she really is a woman. Rie kept pointing to her throughout the stay saying, "she's a woman, really" while I just gaped and gaped. There's an Asian Bea Arthur for you.

There is also another singer called Kenichi who is known for outlandish costumes and wears makeup. The costume this year can only be described as Bjork's interpretation of Queen Elizabeth I, carried out by Liberace. A ruff, sparkles, and the lights rippling off his huge winglike skirt thing (I swear, the thing was big enough to fit at least four of him) in a rainbow motif. He spent the rest of the show either in a sparkly purple tux or the girliest man's kimono I've seen.

Ayumi Hamasaki had cool backup dancers for her performance "Moments"--then again, I'm way into ancient/medieval Japan like nobody's business, and the women were dressed like they were from the Kamakura era. I don't think she could move in her costume, though; she stayed in it rather stiffly (it looked like a rather gaudy Elizabethan costume with sparkles), until the backup dancers helpfully ripped it off, leaving her standing in an equally sparkly corset and bloomers a la Moulin Rouge.

Matsudaira Ken, for me, was the highlight of the show; there's something about a man with the build of a football player prancing about in a gold sparkly kimono and shaking his hips better than any woman. Thanks to him, I had the "Matsu Ken Samba" stuck in my head even when I got back to Mitaka.

Since I was dead tired, they let me hit the ofuro first amongst the three of us, and it was terrific. Fantastic. I want one in my house. You wash outside the tub with a little stool, and then when you're rinsed off, you step in. The water was deep--it reached just above my chest, and it was incredibly warm and comfortable once I eased in.

That ended the New Year's Eve for everyone after they had their baths, and it was peaceful, except for the earthquake that happened during the night. Luckily, nobody was hurt and nothing was harmed, but it was an experience.

More to come...


Melon soda at Hanaya Yohei, to make up for the one I didn't take when I was there last.

Big one up there; almost didn't spot it.

Closeup of a closeup. See what I mean?

Closeup of the lotus it's standing on; see the gold thingies? That's for plating it, I think.

This is a closer look at the Buddha. It's huge. Just...huge.

This is me taking a crack at it.

Yidan ringing the bell for New Year's.

Actually, it's Ushiku. My bad.

Ushiku Daibutsu; the tallest statue in the world.

Old gate at the castle; supposedly Edo-era, meaning from the 1600s-1868.

A closer look.

Little shrine at the corner of the castle.

A camellia Yidan found on the ground--she said she found it interesting how they'd fall off easily if you touched them...like a human head...

The carp in the river.

This is way too much fun.

They even take baths.

Pigeons were everywhere.

Yidan near the castle fountains.

This was the one in the adjacent cage, he wasn't sick like the other one.

Monkey at a castle we went to.

The white speck you see is a kite someone was flying on the new year.

You can see Mount Tsukuba from here; they're actually two of them; the left is the male and the right is the female.


Here's a better view of the park. The horizon seems off because I was lining it up with the ground.