Thousands of Miles from Home


I've made you something tasty, delicious, and full of oil 

Janna's host sister testing the soup 

Janna's host sister, real mother, and I making delicious American foods 

A good view of the Rotary crowd and food for the evening 

Janna and friend, in mid judo roll 

Not sure what is going on here. Move along... 

Japan, in the hotel room from HELL! 

Janna's host sister giving me a wonderful smile 

We somehow packed 6 people into the tiniest Japanese car I have ever seen. Apparently this car also gave me a nice Jerry Curl Posted by Hello

Janna, Katrin, Cori, and I at the station 

Tsuyama Judo kids from the previous day's party 

Playing a very strange version of Pictionary 

Some Tsuyama high school students at the senimar 

A friendly sunset on the Seto Ohashi 

The Road to Tsuyama

Since Janna’s mother happened to be in Japan, it would be silly not to throw a little party in Tsuyama. At first Janna asked her Rotary counselor, Tomosue-san (who you may remember as the man with the Hummer) and he agreed to have the party at one of his three very large houses. Some problems arose and he later told Janna we couldn’t have the party at his house, but instead arranged for the use of the Tsuyama International Hotel as the merrymaking location. Janna invited about 25 of her teachers, friends, and Tsuyama High School Judo team members for a night of tacos, music, and general American-style excitement.

I was welcomed to Tsuyama around 12:30 on Thursday by a mix of clouds and drizzle. Janna and her mother (who had packed an entire suitcase full of taco mix) were out shopping for meats and other party provisions so I spent the day walking Tsuyama. The first stop was my favorite clothing shop, Mate, where I purchased a swanky new jacket and some t-shirts for the impending Japanese summer. At Joyfulls, a type of Japanese 24 hour dining location, I grabbed some fries and a mediocre hamburger (more like a meatloaf sandwich) before walking to the hotel amid cloudy skies to meet Janna.

The party was being held in the garden of the International Hotel (accessed through a series of back doors and stairwells through a valet parking lot), with a large connecting tatami room piled high with food, drinks, and American candy. I was introduced to Janna’s host family (perhaps her fifth, she moves often), and her sister and I set out to make some latkes. I couldn’t find a grater, so Janna’s host sister and I diced potatoes and onions by hand. It is amazing how well you get to know someone while crying your eyes out over a chopped onion. She had spent about 3 months in New Zealand, so we alternated between Japanese, English, and sobbing.

Around 5 guests started to arrive for the party. I was frying latkes by the entrance, and greeted everyone with a hearty “Irashyai!” Cori and Katrin, exchange students from Okayama, arrived and joined the fun along with various Tsuyama Rotary members, Kimura-sensei, and about 15 students from Janna’s school. Michiko, whose house I stayed at last time I traveled to Tsuyama also made an appearance and informed me she would be studying Marketing at California Berkeley over the summer. She wanted me to come and see her, but even with my poor American geography skills I could tell flying from Boston to CA would be a bit pricey. We decided on New York as a compromise.

The party went amazingly well, with tons of food to spare. Janna gave a small introduction on how to make tacos, and everyone dug into the sushi, latkes, chicken, sandwiches, and salad. The Hotel provided free drinks, and Janna’s mother brought chocolate and candy from America for dessert. I went around the room with a microphone and had everyone introduce themselves, and then the Judo club did a small demonstration with Janna right there on the tatami mats.

Following dinner, which lasted quite a while, I had assumed I would be sleeping on the floor of Janna’s room in the hotel. Instead, the Rotary member who owned the hotel gave Cori, Katrin, and I rooms of our own, as well as tickets for free breakfast in the morning. We hauled some candy and drinks back to the room for the evening, and spent the rest of the night listening to music and discussing philosophy, politics, and nature (sort of).

Oddly enough, around 11:30, everyone had a craving for cup noodles so we walked in our pajamas to the nearest konbini where Janna spotted her school principal. He gave us a strange look but said nothing.

In the morning, Katrin had to leave early from the station to return her school uniform to her school in Okayama. She was then traveling to some famous cities in Japan, and then back to Germany at the beginning of April. It was the third time I saw someone who I will probably not see again for a long time board a train and wave goodbye. I had not spent much time with Katrin, but Cori went to school with her everyday and those kinds of goodbyes can be quite emotional, albiet movie-like (on par with, “frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn” although admittedly a different emotional tone). It’s odd to know that almost everyone you meet on Rotary exchange is only for a short-term basis, but I think we make the most of the time we have.

Cori and I walked from the station to Janna’s school, where we were invited to attend a meeting with other English teachers in the area and students from Tsuyama. About 50 students were there for the event and we spent most of the day playing games and activities related to English. While I had never met the English teachers before, they all knew Neil, Jez, and John from my town. It’s also always good to have connections in other parts of Japan in case I get stranded (or end up running from the police). One of the teachers, Alexa, brought her mother with her to the conference (who was from England and reminded me almost instantly of Judi Dench). I had a great time speaking English with the Tsuyama kids and on the whole felt like more of a teacher than a student. Janna’s mother commented that I should be a teacher, but I don’t think I could live with the salary (or mental strain). It was rather exciting, though.

After the conference Cori and I took a taxi back to the station (we were far too tired to walk) and then a train back to Okayama. In the station a new import foods store had opened so we spent a while drooling over Skippy peanut butter before taking our respective buses to our respective houses. Respectively.

Another trip down, but the fun’s not ever yet. Tune in next time for Kanonji, Japan’s number-one must see location (perhaps).


Lunch with Kimura-sensei in Okayama 

Kimura-sensei displaying her calligraphy 

Janna, Cori, and I relaxing at Kimura-sensei's house. Ohina dolls in the background 

Haru-chan played the accordion in tune with the Koto, an odd fusion of French and Japanese 

My feeble attempt at making Japanese music 

The correct method for use of the Shamisen 

Just Like Music

Last Wednesday, before attending Japanese school, Kimura-sensei invited Cori, Janna, and I to lunch at her house. Janna's mother was also coming all the way from America to visit Japan, so it happened to work out perfectly that I could sample Kimura-sensei’s fine cuisine as well as meet Janna’s mother. I took a bus to Okayama and met Cori, Janna, and Mrs. Hall at the station (I had the intense urge to call her Hall-san but she preempted my mistake by telling me to call her “Judy”). The four of us took a taxi (it was raining) to Kimura-sensei’s house, a beautiful brick building near the edge of the city area of Okayama. I got a chance to talk with Judy while Kimura-sensei prepared what ended up being a massive lunch. The trip to Japan was Judy’s first time to be outside the US, but she was hosting not one but three exchange students at her house in Newport News. One was only short term, but she said it would be great to get a break from the cooking, cleaning, and carpooling of three exchange students.

Kimura-sensei then served lunch; Chinese egg rolls, a corn soup, chicken salad, go moku (vegetables over noodles), with strawberry ice cream for dessert. Amazingly delicious. I felt important as Janna, Cori, and I translated Kimura-sensei’s Japanese into English for Judy, and vice versa. After lunch Judy took a small nap while we waited for a cab to take us to the Japanese school. I felt quite tired myself, and relaxed a while on the couch chatting with Janna and Cori. Back at the school, no one felt much like studying (or teaching) so we only did one lesson before finishing for the day. After class I shopped for a while with Janna and her mother before taking the bus back to Tamano.

Arriving home around 7, I went to Jirou-sensei's house for the weekly guitar lesson. He amazed me with his skill, as usual, but after the lesson a girl from Tai came over to play the Shamisen and Koto. It was my first experience with a Shamisen, but I found it somewhat similar to a guitar. Unlike a guitar, the head of the Shamisen is made of cat-skin (also dog-skin in cheaper models). The Okinawan Shamisen, also called Jamisen, is made of snakeskin. The Koto is a long hollowed out box made from Paulownia wood, with thirteen silk strings. It is instantly recognizable as Japanese, and both the Shamisen and Koto have sounds that would remind me of Japan in any situation.

I tried my hand at both instruments, having a little luck with the Shamisen playing “Sakura.” It was excellent to get a chance to play these traditional instruments, and the girl who brought them gave me tickets to a show next month in Okayama. I thanked her profusely and hopefully I will get another chance to play before I leave Japan.

The next day I left for Tsuyama, but I will leave that experience for another entry.


Kiyoto, Wataru, and Michi at Club Desperado 

An all-girl high school band from Okayama 

This guy was not a bad signer. I much prefered the bands that sung in Japanese 

Wataru, sporting some rings and a lovely red hair extension 

This shirt will always and forever remind me of the one and only Josh Pigza 

Dining at "Cannery Row," Okayama's excellent Italian restaurant. We hadn't received our food yet, so the waiter placed that glass vase on the table as a centerpiece 

Amazing amounts of basil pasta! 

The main gate to Sogenji Temple in Okayama 

One of the numerous small gardens of Sogenji 

A large stone sculpture in the woods 

Down the home stretch on the Velodrome 

Amber getting ready to race 

Shogo-san and I 

With a little more protection this time 

My host mother and brother playing "Taiko Drum Master " 

Time and a Half

The original title of this entry was “Quite A Day.” But when being forced to choose between sleeping and blogging, I reluctantly caved and changed the name to “Quite a Few Days.” More procrastination quickly ushered in “Quite a Week,” which leads me to this entry. A decent sized chunk of time to recall, but I promise no pop quizzes at the end.

As far as exciting days go, Sunday was rather fun-filled. My host brother presented me with a vociferous wake-up call around 6:30 in the morning. Our destination was a temple in Okayama for Zazen meditation (perhaps more recognizable as simply "Zen"). I couldn't think of anything I wanted to do more than stay curled up in my own warm “Zen” ball on the futon, but I slowly crawled out of bed and downstairs for some breakfast. At 7 it was off to the temple, which was about 45 minutes away by car.

Arriving at Sogenji Temple (an international monastery), I spotted some foreigners walking around the premises with towels wrapped around their shaved heads on the crisp Sunday morning. The Zen temple in Okayama attracts many people from around the world who wish to study the art. I slipped off my shoes after passing through the main gate, noting being able to see my breath in the air, and entered a large tatami room where people had gathered for the morning meditation. After talking to a man who seemed to be in charge, I took a seat on a small cushion (zafu) in seiza style (on your knees, putting most of your weight on your heels). The “traditional” or “correct” method of meditation is called agura, which for lack of a better description is a very tight “Indian-style” sitting position that I could not attain. I sat in seiza for a good ten minutes, and just as started to get up and stretch my legs, the meditation began with the beating of a large drum. After the drumming, everyone in the room began chanting a certain prayer that I couldn't follow. After the prayer everyone sat quietly for another 20 minutes. That doesn’t seem too long, right? But after already having been seated for 10, my legs went numb and started to exhibit a dull constant pain below the waist (that's never good). I also lost the ability to wiggle my toes (probably not good either). Instead, I tried to focus on a point and think of nothingness. I was told, “As you sit, the mind takes on various postures.” My mind posture manifested itself as various rap and hip hop lyrics that melodically interrupted my thoughts of emptiness.

I usually keep track of time in half hour segments, about the length of a short television program. Sitting on my knees for 30 minutes in a chilly room seemed like a small eternity. By the end of the first session, signaled by the beating of the same large drum, I was ready for a wheelchair. Most people in the room quickly stood and began some leg stretches, while I lay paralyzed from the waist down. After a few minutes, I regained the strength to stand in a position similar to that of “homo-erectus”. I eventually rose and joined in what looked like some “Tai-chi” exercises before assuming the seiza position for the second round of meditation. During this session, once everyone had achieved a quiet sitting position, the two monks in charge walked through the rows of silent bodies with a large wooden paddle. One by one, the priests would stop, bow, then strike the meditating individual with the wooden bat four times on each shoulder. If nothing else, the shock of the bat took my mind off the cold and kept me from shivering. Additionally, my mind felt crystal clear and the musical interludes came to a stop. After everyone had been struck with the bat, another prayer was chanted and everyone left the room for some green tea (which I drank in a comfortable sitting position). While not my favorite 50-minute relaxation activity, Zazen was an interesting experience indeed.

After touring the grounds of Sogenji with a girl from Okayama University (also her first time at the meditation), my host mother and I drove back to the house, arriving around 10:53. I can pinpoint the exact time because as she went around back to open the door (we had both forgotten our key), I felt a level 3 earthquake that slightly shook the house and car. My host mother appeared at the door but had not felt anything at all. I told that that I was sure there had been an earthquake so we ran to the television to check the news. At first there was nothing, but after a few seconds a warning flashed on the screen that stated there had been a level 6 earthquake centered around Fukuoka. I messaged Rahul to make sure he was okay, but he replied later saying he had been sleeping at the time and didn’t feel a thing.

After the earthquake, I ate some lunch with my host mother and father at a ramen restaurant where we discussed Zen mediation. Afterwards, as if I hadn’t punished my legs enough, my host mother took me to meet her friend Mio’s husband who is a professional “Keirin” bicycle racer. “Keirin,” performed inside a “velodrome,” (two points if you know what I’m talking about without reading on) is a type of bicycle racing on a curved track that you may have seen on the Olympics. Mio’s husband races for a living, and agreed to let me, Amber, and Mark (two English teachers in the area) give it a try.

There is a velodrome close to where I live in Tai, but I never got the chance to be inside the building, let alone on the track itself. The bicycle used for racing is a fixed gear, which means you have to continue pedaling as you proceed around the track. It was quite windy that day, and I was informed that a good time for one lap around the track (400M) is 37 seconds. I breezed through with a cool 43 seconds on the first lap, but was spent by the second. Races usually consist of five laps, with the racers staying very close during the first three and then sprinting to the finish. The scariest part about Keirin was the curved sections of the track around the corners. The slightest movement of the handlebars sent the bike wobbling, and I could picture myself tumbling to the coarse sand and clay mixture below. After destroying my legs with meditation and biking, we took a break inside the locker room and watched a Keirin race broadcast live from another part of Japan.

The following day, I taught English classes in Tama for most of the day. Most of the classes were free talk and general conversation, so I had a blast and met some interesting people as well. One woman told me her job was “eating,” but later clarified that eating was in fact only her hobby. She ended up inviting me to a special invitation-only soba tasting event at a local man’s house in Tamano.

That evening my host family took me to “Cannery Row,” the delicious Italian restaurant in Okayama. I usually stick out wherever I go in Japan, but even more so when I wrote my name on the waiting list as “Ben-sama,” a very unconventional Japanese surname. The Maitre d' did a double take before announcing the name, but we were served just the same.

The following day, Wataru invited me to a rock show in Okayama at Club Desperado. His band, as well as 9 other high school rock bands in the Okayama area attended. Two of the bands were composed of only females; one played Avril Lavigne covers, which I have to admit were terrible, but redeemed themselves by finishing with an excellent Japanese song that I can’t remember but was super-thrilling at the time. The bassist in another band was sporting the largest base I have ever seen in my life. It was easily as tall as most of the girls in the club. He compensated by being an excellent base player, with singing that was not quite understandable yet decent.

Wataru’s band HOOP was excellent, as usual, heightened by the fact that I knew most of the lyrics and there were a ton of people in the club. For the most part, Japanese kids don’t seem to want to dance very much, but a few guys started moving around and got the whole crowd involved.

Tune in next time for the shamisen, accordion, and a little bit of Tsuyama fun.


My first attempt at flower arrangement, not too shabby 

A bit of a sensory overload, three Ikebana with Hina matsuri dolls in the background 

My host mother making a "bird's nest" type arrangement 

Harumi's Ikebana creation 

Haru-chan and the Ikebana sensei 

A final game of Slackline Volleyball 

This kid could almost slackline on his first try 


Neil getting ready to board the RRY (ferry) 

Neil and I in Takamatsu Posted by Hello

Scavenger hunt: can you find the two girls in this picture? 

Kimura sensei teaching Janna a thing or two about volitional verbs at Japanese school 

Journeys Into The Japanese Arts

Coming back from Tokyo, I thought I could manage a small break from travel. You know, relaxing times. Suntory times. Instead, I found myself with a large pile of procrastinated Japanese homework and a gun to my head (see picture).

Nonetheless, on a relaxing note, I did find some time to try my hand at Ikebana, Japanese flower arranging. My host mother and Haru-chan (Saeki-san) visited the resident Ikebana teacher in Tai for a little lesson in the fine art. It was my first time with any sort of floral arrangement (omitting times I accidentally kicked, clipped, or otherwise dislodged flowers from my mother's garden and feebly attempted to hide the evidence). I found the whole experience rather freeform and relaxing. If you like geometry (like Euclid) you might get a real kick out of Ikebana. And truthfully, the same goes for people who don't (like me). In a stroke of luck, it happened to be Shoko's birthday on March 17 so I snuck into her house while she was away at a movie and left her the Ikebana and a small note.

Yesterday I set up the slackline in the park once more with Amanda, drawing a large crowd of elementary school students. They were quite shy at first, until a few of the more fearless students approached the line and struck up a small conversation with me (mostly in grunts and whistles, broken English, and occasional Japanese). The "leader" of the boys called back to his friends "It's okay, he's not weird!" which gave me a good laugh. The slackline eventually digressed into a volleyball net, but the Tai neighborhood kids are crafty like that.

In other news Neil and I attacked Takamatsu this weekend with full force. Events of the trip will be omitted again to protect the innocent. However, something to blow your mind: last week Neil biked the distance from Tamano to Osaka (about 250Km) in one day. That leaves my vicariously tired and speechless.

Tonite, after arriving home from teaching an English class, I feasted on some delicious sushi from the supermarket. Tomoya, about an hour after I finished the sushi, inquired if I was still hungry. My whole family ended up driving to a ramen restaurant at 10:30PM just to grab some noodles. Delicious, to say the least, but I don't want to see any more noodles for a little while (the pain!).


A tasty burger from the Hard Rock Cafe, Ueno Station, Tokyo 

Rahul and a massive pile of clothing near Akihabara 

A man and his monkey in Ginza 

The Tokyo crowd watching a monkey on stilts 

Shibuya by night 

Ana, Me, Rahul, Bhaveen (hidden), Anna, Gabe, and Dimitri in a Shibuya coffee shop 

Running from Roppongi to Tokyo Tower 

View of Tokyo from the Tower 

Tokyo Tower from a distance 

Tokyo Tower from below 

Gabe, who is way too much like me 

Risking life and limb for a $7 train ticket 

Shot of the packed trains at Tokyo Station 

View of Tokyo Bay from Yusuke's apartment 

This is the best hat ever. Period. 

Mai on the Shinkansen 

Saying goodbye at the station 

Ben VS The Most Populated City in the World (Part II)

On Saturday morning, Rahul and I awoke to the beautiful view of Tokyo Bay from Yusuke's apartment on the 14th floor. Due to the early morning trip to the fish market on the previous day, we took our time and met Shoko at Ueno Station in Tokyo around 12:30. Searching for a place to eat, we spotted a Hard Rock Café and decided to give it a try (since the Hard Rock Café is synonymous with world travel). It turned out to be the Hard Rock Café, Ueno-Station, Tokyo (there are two within the city, seven total in Japan), which gives you another example of the gianormous size of Tokyo. I ordered the best hamburger I have tasted since arriving in Japan, but also found some odd menu items including the largest onigiri (rice ball) I have ever seen. It was Japanese food, American style (or British style, I suppose, since the Hard Rock is from London). We were seated underneath Prodigy’s “Fat of the Land” album, which brought back some good memories. The numerous TVs were also playing old school music videos, a welcome sight.

After lunch we walked to from Ueno Station to Akihabara. Akihabara, a virtual city in itself of computer, handheld, and electronic-related stores had enough colors signs and flashing lights to distract you from the millions of people streaming by on the streets. On the way to Akihabara we walked past a large set of clothing stores dubbed “America Town” (or some such silliness). There were also three large golf stores at which I would have had to leave my father for some amount of time had he been accompanying us.

On the way to Akihabara we were struck with a sudden rainstorm, which reminded me of the odd weather patterns in Tokyo. A mere hour’s train ride away, it was sunny and warm, but here in Akihabara the rain clouds gathered and cleared in a matter of minutes. I am going to conjecture that the massive amounts of concrete cause changes in temperature and therefore climate. I know for a fact that the Tokyo weather forecast is reported in terms of city blocks instead of Tokyo as a whole. Without too much trouble we arrived on the sprawling streets of Akihabara, where Rahul and I ended up losing Shoko and instead following a very Shoko-looking Japanese person across the street and down a block until we realized our mistake.

I had a list of places to visit in Akihabara, so after regrouping and walking around the area for a while Rahul and I decided to take a look in the Radio Kaikan building near the station. The Radio Kaikan (or Radio Hall) is the proverbial “barrel of weird” in Akihabara. The first floor is an electronics store, much like every other building in the area. The second story boasts a huge collection of Stars Wars and Anime toys, figurines, and general miscellany. Need a 1:3 size replica of the Starship Enterprise? How about an army of miniature dump trucks? Then this is the place for you (weirdo). The third floor is all manga (Japanese comics). Rahul and I didn’t even attempt this because we knew it would be useless and didn’t have anything in mind we wanted to purchase. The forth floor was excellent. A DVD shop selling (for a steep price) unreleased DVDs, as well as an entire store devoted to miniature figurines and toys. There was also a gun shop, with plastic pellet replicas of a wide array of guns and pistols spanning at least a century. There didn’t appear to be a fifth floor, which I found odd but didn’t really care because of the massive treasure-trove of weirdness on the sixth. The Volks toystore, a sort of Anime doll workshop, sold doll eyes, arms, legs, clothes, and other assorted creeperies. There were assembled dolls in glass cases with just enough detail more than a little spooky. I ended up purchasing a stuffed “Cactaur” from Final Fantasy, then descending the stairs to meet everyone on the first floor. Before leaving Akihabara we stopped in the Mac Store. The place was packed, but there were some great displays of the new iMac and iPod Photo. In the back of the store was a whole wall of iPod cases, cleaners, accessories, and clothing because everyone treats their iPod like they would their child and would not the want the reflective metal surface to become tainted or scratched.

After Akihabara we took a train to Ginza, where the famous Sony building is located. Coming out of the station, Shoko said she wanted to do a little shopping and would meet us in an hour or two but immediately called us back when she spotted a monkey show. A man with a drum and a monkey were performing tricks on the side of the street, which eventually drew a large crowd. The monkey did some tricks, and then the man pulled out a set of 10-foot stilts, which I took to be a joke but sure enough the monkey climbed to the top and started walking around. All I can say is “awesome.”

The Sony building in Ginza, spanning 7 floors, is a display of the newest music, video, robotic, and gaming equipment from Sony. Rahul and I played with some excellent high-end video cameras and watched “Bring It On” on a large screen plasma TV before discovering the Aibo robotic dog “kennel.” My greatest accomplishment to date in Japan is commanding the robotic dog to dance in Japanese. I was both shocked and awed. When I first heard about the Aibo I was skeptical, but after playing with the dogs for a while I can see why people would enjoy having a robotic pet in their house. If I had the choice, I would pick Honda’s ASIMO as long as it didn’t sleep in my bed or hide behind doors to scare me. The last floor of the Sony Building was all Playstations, but to tell the truth I’ve mostly lost interest which is a shame because as a kid I could imagine nothing better than spending all day in front of a game (ideally getting paid for doing so).

After the Sony Building, Shoko, Shun, Mai, Yusuke’s mother, Rahul, and I regrouped and went to a coffee shop for some refreshment. The strangest part about the coffee shop, named “Coffee Time” or something similar, was the distinct lack of coffee on the menu. You could order flavor water, flavor milk, or hot chocolate, but nothing made from the coffee bean (as the name of the shop would lead you to believe). I was waiting for a call from the Rotary kids, so after the “coffee” shop Rahul and I decided to grab some dinner. About halfway through the meal Anna messages me saying we should come to Shibuya Station in an hour. Rahul and I bid farewell to everyone, and caught the train from Ginza to Shibuya.

It was a windy evening. After freezing for a while at the Shibuya main exit, we walked around trying to pick foreign faces out of the sea of Japanese in front of the station. I spotted someone who looked exactly like Anna, before finding the real Anna talking with a group of Rotary kids near the middle of the square. Gabe (in a t-shirt), Bhaveen, Ana, and Dimitri (who I had not met but was also from Brazil) were also there, talking about their Rotary meeting during the day. They immediately gave Rahul and I fistfuls of candy (byproducts of any Rotary meeting) and told/partially showed us the Japanese dance they learned during the day. After that, due to dropping temperatures, we found a small coffee shop (this one actually sold coffee) and started a heated game of Uno (the international card game). When our candy and drinks ran out, Dimitri asked me if I had ever been to see Tokyo Tower. I said no, and he whipped out 7 tickets to the Tower that he received as a gift from a Rotary member. It was a little after 9 o’ clock, and the tower closed at 10, but being kids were confident in our ability to get there in time.

We rolled into Roppongi Station about 9:30, where Dimitri and Ana thought they knew which way to go for the tower (Tokyo Tower is the largest structure in Tokyo, but amazingly impossible to see from Roppongi Station). About 9:40 we decided we should run, with Tokyo Tower visible in the distance. We were all carrying bags, which made running difficult, so Rahul brought out the video camera to catch the whole event on tape. We came to the base of the Tower about 9:55, where the guard on duty told us that the Tower had already closed, and there would be no more elevators to the top. Devastated, we pleased with him in Japanese (Gabe fake cried) and showed him our already purchased tickets and watches, reading 9:55. The two An(n)a’s finally broke down and told him that we were all leaving the country the following day (which was partially true, Rahul and I would be going back home) and that this was our last night to see Tokyo Tower. That convinced him, and he escorted us in a special elevator ride (the second fastest elevator in the world) to the top of the Tower. There were still people there (just as I suspected), and all of us, overjoyed with our good luck, snapped photos and laughed for a few minutes before taking the elevator back to ground level. There is something to be said for being on time, but cutting it that close makes for a much better story.

After Tokyo tower we walked back to the station where Dimitri said goodbye for the evening. Still having some time to kill, Gabe, Rahul, Anna, Ana, and I walked around Shinjuku where I subsequently lost my train ticket back to Yusuke’s house to a gust of wind. I could have purchased another, but that was a seven-dollar gust of wind and I wasn’t going to let my ticket get away that easily. I watched it blow underneath some parked taxis and into the busy street,. It was then hit by a massive truck after which I couldn’t see where it went. I finally spotted the ticket and (stupidly) dashed into the street where I realized picking up small pieces of paper from flat surfaces is difficult, and subsequently dragged the ticket back to the curb. Alive, laughing, and $7 richer we returned to the station. I said goodbye to Anna and Gabe, then got on a train with Rahul and Ana back to Tokyo Station.

Looking at a map on the train, which was packed around midnight, we met a Japanese guy who asked us if we knew where we were going. At first I thought he was drunk, because his friends and girlfriend kept hitting him over the head with newspapers and a flower, but we later realized he was just a cool guy trying to speak English. His friends told us where to go, and we had a little chat before Ana got off the train at her stop.

Back at Tokyo Station, Rahul and I started walking to our train on the Keiyo Line. We spotted other people running, and decided we should as well. Dashing through the partially deserted Tokyo station, we arrived at our train minutes before the doors shut. Little did we know it was the last train for the evening, and otherwise we’d be stuck at the station overnight (Ana caught her train with only one minute to spare, and Gabe’s train stopped at the station before his house and he had to walk the rest of the way).

After the train ride and sufficiently exhausted, Rahul and I spotted Yusuke coming to meet us at the steps of his apartment building. We had beaten the train system, talked our way up Tokyo Tower, and made it home in one piece.

The next day, Rahul and I awoke late in the morning to another beautiful day and ate some breakfast prepared by Yusuke’s mother. Yusuke burned me the new Jack Johnson CD, and a different Japanese band for Rahul. Yusuke’s mother took us to Tokyo Station, where we said goodbye and went on our own to see the Emperor’s Palace. We stopped for some lunch due to a freak snowstorm (Tokyo weather will always surprise you) in a nearby restaurant with a nice view. After lunch we got a call from Gabe, and decided to go to the Sunshine 60 Building instead of the Emperor’s Palace due to the cold weather. The Sunshine 60 Building, in Ikebukuro, is one of the tallest buildings in Tokyo (can you guess how many floors it has?). Inside (and underground) is a massive shopping complex, planetarium, and aquarium. Rahul and I made a quick stop at a gaming center where huge crows of kids were battling each other in Tekken 5 (I was not even aware it had been released). The consoles were set back to back; so one player could battle the challenger sitting on the opposite side. Gabe showed up later, and we spent some time in Tokyu Hands browsing costumes, funny gifts, and other crazy items before it was time to meet Shoko back at the Station.

We bid farewell to Gabe (it was sad to say goodbye to all the cool kids from Tokyo) and caught a train to Tokyo Station. Rahul got his bag from a coin locker, and we said goodbye after spending a very awesome weekend together. It was great to hear about all the things he had been doing in Fukuoka (check out the blog), and perhaps I’ll see him again before we return to the States.

Shoko, Mai, Shun, and I purchased some bentos (lunch boxes for the train ride home) and caught the Shinkansen back to Okayama, and then a train to Tamano.
In retrospect, it’s hard to accurately describe Tokyo in any sort of concise manner. It’s so massive and sprawling, and I didn’t spend nearly enough time to even get a taste of all it has to offer. Regardless, it was wonderful to meet new kids from all over the world, Japan and elsewhere, and I hope it won’t be the last time I see them.


Mai and I with Shibata-san from the comedy group, "Untouchable" 

Some choice Engrish from a Tokyo restaurant 

Rahul and I in front of the entrance to Asakusa with a massive lantern 

The Asakusa shopping district, leading to a temple 

An interesting statue in Asakusa with Rahul, Mai, Me, Yosuke, and Shun 

I am awesome 

Mai, Shoko, and Rahul waiting for the ferry 

The Asahi Building, which is supposed to look like a flame but I would guess a giant raddish 

Me, in my "First Class Body Shop" jacket, stolen from Wayne 

Yosuke, sunset samurai 

Wielding a sword on the Odaiba ferry 

Shun, Mai, Me, Yosuke, and Rahul on Odaiba 

Fuji TV Building 

All that time wasted searching for Red Lobster in Cleveland with the Robotics Team. It was in Tokyo all along! 

Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo Tower as viewed from Odaiba 

Rahul and Shoko in the love seat 

Tokyo's Fuji TV Building by night 

The obligatory Odaiba photo; Statue of Liberty, Rainbow Bridge, Tokyo Tower 

Each one of these fish will sell for around $1,000 

On of the very numerous vending areas in the Tsukigi fish market 

The Park Hyatt Hotel 

While searching for the Part Hyatt, we found this firehouse demonstration 

Bamboo thicket from "Lost in Translation" 

The Piano Bar of "Lost in Translation" 

United of Ben, my kind of store 

Rahul AKA "David Craig" Posted by Hello


Yosuke, AKA "Yo" 

Mai, Shun, and Yosuke 

Anna from Austria 

Ana and I in Starbucks 

Bhaveen, in school uniform 

I found this awesome "BEN" hat, but thought it was a little too strange to purchase 

View from the "Lost in Translation" Karaoke parlor 

Anna and Bhaveen singing something that is obviously funny 

Anna, Bhaveen, Me, and Rahul 

Bhaveen and I at karaoke 

Group photos guarantee crazy faces 

Finishing the evening with a little sushi 

Ben VS The Most Populated City in the World (Part I)

The only suitable way to end a whole week of excellent trips to Takamatsu, Miyajima, Hiroshima, and Iwakuni is a proper finale in the big T itself, Tokyo. Tokyo, I have been told, has a reputation for not only blowing your socks off, but those of your grandmother and her bridge-playing friends as well. Tokyo has a lot to offer, much more than I could or care to list on this blog. However, accompanied by members of my first host family (Shoko, Shun, and Mai), I planned to meet Rahul from Fukuoka and pillage Tokyo for all the fun, excitement, and (pirate) booty it could offer.

The journey began on a day like any other. A Thursday, to be precise. Shoko, Shun, and I caught the train from Tamano to Okayama where we purchased 9AM tickets for the Nozomi Shinkansen line to Tokyo. A mere three hours later, we found ourselves on the massive Shinkansen platform of Tokyo Station. Rahul, who was flying from Fukuoka, messaged my phone to let us know he would arrive shortly on the monorail from Haneda Airport. Shoko, Shun, and I took our bags to the Yaesu Central exit of Tokyo station where we met Mai waiting for us by one of the numerous pillars. If you aren't accustomed to the daunting size of Tokyo, you can at least count on the station to give you a good idea of the madness that is to come. Tokyo Station has several exits, and each of these exits usually sports three smaller exits (North, South, and Central). There should honestly be a paid attendant waiting beside the Shinkansen when you exit to punch you right in the face, just to get you ready for the task of trying to exit the station where you would like.

Surprisingly, even though I packed a semi-large bag for the weekend, we had little trouble navigating our way through the sea of people to the Yaesu exit. While waiting for Rahul to arrive at the station, Shun spotted our first famous person of the trip, a guy named Shibata from the comedy duo "Untouchable" walking toward one of the exits. Nobody else seemed to recognize him, and I don't watch enough Japanese television to tell the comedy groups apart (there are quite a few), but I chased after him and introduced myself, asking if he was indeed a member of "Untouchable." "Un," he replied, meaning yes, and I quickly asked him if it was alright to take a picture together (I doubt many foreigners stop him on the street, he seemed slightly shocked but let me take the photo). Shun and Mai also got in on the action, and we laughed our way back to the terminal to wait for Rahul.

When Rahul came through the gate, it was my turn to be shocked at a number of things. For one, he was amazingly tan. He was also much taller than I remembered, but perhaps living in Japan for all this time has made me accustomed to feeling large. We exchanged pleasantries; I intoduced him to my host family, then we were whisked away to a small restaurant in the station to grab some lunch. Rahul and I talked a bit about our exchanges, host families, school, etc, but eventually decided to postpone the conversation until later due to the numerous occurences of "it's a long story."

After lunch we stashed our bags in a locker and met our first Japanese guide, Yosuke. Yosuke, now 17, spent four years in England and speaks excellent English. Yosuke's mother is a friend of Shoko's, and Rahul and I were scheduled to spent the night at their house. All assembled, we took a train to Asakusa, known for it's shopping street and large red lantern outside the nearby temple. While admiring the goods of various quality levels (keychains, swords, dolls, and every other tourist item available), I noticed a man who appeared to be staring right over my shoulder when we stopped to buy some deep-fried omochi (Rahul later informed me the man was staring directly at him). The man approached not Rahul, but Rahul's right ear and uttered the following, "Are your ancestor's from India?" "Yes," Rahul replied, "my parents are from India. But I live in West Virginia." "Ahh! West Virginia!" the man retorted, "West Virginia used to be part of Virginia, but split during the civil war over the concept of slavery eventually involving the creation of the Mason-Dixon line. Stonewall Jackson, leader of the South in the civil war was born in West Virginia." While Rahul was slightly stunned by the man's knowledge of West Virginia History, I was wondering where this man was when I had to take the Golden Horseshoe test back in 8th grade. The man proceeded to recite information about India and various other topics until he abruptly finished and walked away, thanking us for our time and leaving us with a cryptic, "just my English practice" final message. The whole set of circumstances struck me as very odd, not the only man's omnipotent knowledge of the world but also his tendency to talk directly into Rahul's right ear with a blank stare on his face. The encounter only lasted a matter of minutes but was crazy weird. Shoko, laughing, finished eating her deep-friend omochi and walked on.

After Asakusa we took the ferry down the Sumida River to Odaiba. The ferry ride, which Rahul later dubbed as a structural engineer's wet dream, passes beneath 12 unique bridges of differing structural materials and construction before arriving on the island of Odaiba. Ascending the stairs to the upper deck of the ferry, we encountered a woman holding a very large Kitana. Quite shocked (we were on a ferry, which implies motion and instability, which are not friends of edged weapons) I took a few pictures of the woman (who we later learned was from Romania) and then asked if I could take some photos holding the sword myself.

Without injury we arrived at Obaida. An entirely manmade island, Odaiba plays host to the famous Fuji TV Building as well as various museums, a large shopping mall, and a likeness of the Statue of Liberty. We toured the Fuji building, took some pictures of the Rainbow Bridge by night, and ate a delicious meal at an Indonesian restaurant before returning to the mainland (extra points there if you thought to yourself, "but Japan is an island...").

That evening Rahul and I said goodbye to Shoko, Mai, and Shun before taking the hour train ride to Yosuke's house on the outskirts of Chiba where we would be spending the nite. Yosuke's mother (an English teacher) offered us more dinner and cakes, and we were introduced to the whole family after watching Jackie Chan's "Legend of Drunken Master" (the old version) dubbed in English and subtitled in Japanese." It turns out that Yosuke's father (family name Shibata, like Shibata from "Untouchable") works for the Tokyo branch of Mitsui Zosen, the same shipbuilding factory I toured a few months ago in Tamano. After some conversation with the Shibata's about Japan, Rotary exchange, and West Virginia, Rahul and I tried to sleep but ended up talking about our exchanges all night, which was not a great idea because we had to wake up early for a trip the next day to the Tsukigi fish market.

Rahul is impossible to awaken. It's an involved process which involves the use of force and moaning. Even so, he, Yosuke (our guide for the morning), and I were up and out of the house by 6 to head to the Tsukigi fish market near Tokyo Bay. Tsukigi is the largest fish market in the world, with over 2500 tons of fish being sold daily (that's 23 million dollars of fish rolling through those streets every morning). We made the mistake of going directly by train to the fish market, and ended up carrying our baggage with us for lack of coin lockers, but I still found the fish market amazing. Hundreds of little motorized carts zoom through narrow streets next to men pulling wagons filled with fish, squid, octopus, and other various sea creatures. After being overwhelmed in fish, we looked for a sushi restaurant (our first choice restaurant was closed) but we found a quaint little back alley shop with a friendly Ojii-san and Mama-san who whipped up some crazy fresh sushi (right out of the ocean) and miso soup for a decent price.

Sufficiently full, Rahul, Yosuke, and I walked back to Tsukigi station where we met two new faces, Yusuke and Yo (real name Yosuke). Yusuke is also the son of Shoko's friend in Tokyo, but not to be confused with the Yosuke whose house we stayed at the previous night, or the other Yosuke who is friends with Yusuke. There were five of us, I will make a small chart:

Rahul Syamlal- AKA Rafuru Shamurairu
Me - AKA Funkmaster B
Yosuke Shibata- Lived in England for 4 years, hosted Rahul and I at his house on Thursday night
Yusuke Takakou - Currently attends a prestigious school in Tokyo whose name I cannot remember, studying Economics. Rahul and I stayed at his house on Friday and Saturday. Enjoys Jack Johnson and the Red Hot Chili Peppers
Yosuke (AKA Yo) - also attends a good school in Tokyo, studying Literature. Friends with Yusuke, but had never met Yosuke Shibata before. I believe he asked us to call him Yo to avoid confusion, which was impossible given the situation

Japanese names are fun, aren't they? Anyone other than John Nash or Einstein would be lost without nicknames, which I use whenever I can.

Anyway, Yusuke, knowing Tokyo well, had researched the movie "Lost in Translation" and took us to the hotel where it was filmed, the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku. Rooms here for the night start at $500, so I was skeptical if we would even be allowed into the building without two bottles of Krystal and keys to a Bentley. Luckily, it being 10 in the morning we snuck (or rather walked right by) the guards and into what we thought was the main entrance of the hotel. Instead we found a lot of businessmen in suits (some sort of convention) next to a catacomb of elevators. Stepping into one of the lifts, we rode it to the top floor only to be told by one of the hotel staff that we were in the wrong area, and that the hotel was not open to the public. Distraught, we walked back outside where some sort of fire hose demonstration was being performed by the businessmen. Not to be defeated so easily, we then spotted a set of stairs leading to a second level with a large "Park Hyatt" sign and arrow. Entering the upper lobby I thought I recognized the reception desk from the movie. The floor was deserted so we walked straight to the elevator which had only two buttons, "2" and "42". In a flash, we were on the 42nd floor overlooking the city below from large panoramic windows. Mirrors on the walls were polished to the point I was positive I could walk through them, and I noticed a clump of bamboo trees that I certainly recognized from the movie. We took an adjacent elevator to the "New York Bar and Grille" where we found the famous piano bar at which Bill Murray spent his evenings. Snapping a ton of pictures and feeling important (we seemed to be the only visitors since the restaurant was closed) we stood by the windows for a while surveying Tokyo. Even by day the sight is impressive.

Around lunchtime, and after visiting some famous music stores in the Shinjuku area, the five of us met Shoko, Mai, Shun, and Mrs. Shibata in a restaurant in Harajuku. Harajuku is known for it's outrageous fashion styles and equally shocking people. Foot-tall platform shoes, Little Bo Peep costumes, and dyed hair seemed to be par for the course. In fact, we found a whole clothing store devoted to Goth jackets (I'm all for a little originality but I enjoy my Goth dark, dirty, and a little less mass-marketed). Over 500 clothing lines have been founded in the Harajuku area, which makes it a pretty cool place to find weird styles.

After lunch, Anna sent a mail on my phone to let me know she would be meeting her friend Ana (that makes two Yosuke's and two An(n)a's) in Shinjuku. I met Anna, much like Angela, through her blog of Japan. Anna is also a Rotary exchange student (from Austria) and got me hooked on collecting free cards in Okayama city. I had never met Anna in person, and since Yusuke didn't have any plans we went to a small art musuem in Harajuku (to kill some time) then walked to the Shinjuku Starbucks to meet Anna and Ana.

Ana, or Ana Luiza, I later learned, is from Brazil. The whole group of us got a table in Starbucks and introduced ourselves (I got confused as to who was who when it came to Yo, Yosuku, and Yusuke). Anna got a call from her friend Bhaveen (another Rotary exchange student), who came to join us at the Starbucks as well. Bhaveen, from India, fit the mold perfectly as Rahul's counterpart. When Starbucks told us to leave (I suppose there were two many foreigners and not enough coffee being purchased) we all went to the housewares section of Tokyu Hands to sit on couches. Ana Luiza was leaving to see a movie with her host family, but Bhaveen and Anna were convinced to come with Rahul, Yo, Yosuke, Yusuke, and I to sing Karaoke. But not just any Karaoke, the same Karaoke parlor as "Lost in Translation" (with great big windows overlooking the city). We all sang and laughed and had a generally awesome time with the bright lights of Shibuya in the background. From what I can remember the highlights include:

Yosuke singing "Scarborough Fair" and "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough"
Yo singing Orange Range's "Hanna"
Yusuke singing "Scar Tissue" perfectly which made me jealous of the Japanese innate ability to sing
Rahul singing "Bittersweet Symphony"
Anna singing Aqua's "Barbie Girl" and Spice Girl's "Wannabe" in a duet with Bhaveen
Me singing "Ch-Check It Out" and "More Than This" just because I was in the Lost in Translation mood

About half way through the singing, Anna's friend Gabe joined us. I am not just saying this because everyone already seemed to have a twin, but Gabe had the same personality, facial expressions, eyes, and hair as me. It was creepy. But he was an awesome guy. Because he's me, of course.

We had a rousing finale of "The Beatles Megamix" then left the Karaoke joint to procure some dinner. We stopped in a kaiten zushi restaurant (where the sushi goes around on a conveyor belt) but it happened to be full. Instead, we were given our own room (and sushi chef) on the second floor where we could be as noisy as we wanted. The sushi chef seemed to be entertained with whatever we were talking about (I doubt he could understand it) and he sure made some tasty sushi. I got a better chance to talk with Anna who is a very awesome person (all the Rotary kids I meet in Japan are cool) and we ate sushi late into the evening.

We finally said goodbye (after an in depth discussion of proper hand shakes), but promised to meet the next day because all the Tokyo rotary kids were getting together for a meeting. Overall, I was very happy to have met so many charismatic people.

Rahul and I went back to the station, got our bags out of the locker, and boarded the train for Yusuke's house. At our station we left Yosuke sleeping (he got off at a later stop) and said goodbye to Yo, who lived in a nearby apartment. Yusuke introduced us to his mother (who I had met once before when she came to Tamano to visit Shoko) who fixed us some cookies and tea. Rahul and I stayed up talking again, and then fell asleep with the sounds of Tokyo drifting through the window.


The floating Tori gate of Miyajima 

The shrine at Miyajima, partially reconstructed after this summer's typhoons 

View from the shrine over the water 

In front of the Tori gate 

These stairs to a temple reminded me of Montmarte in Paris 

Approaching low tide 

The afternoon view of Miyajima island 

Looking down the main street of Hiroshima 

A preserved building from the Atomic Bomb Blast in Hiroshima. The Atomic Bomb Dome was one of the only structures left standing within a 2Km radius 

Another view from above the Aioi river of the Atomic Bomb Dome 

Angela and Kat inside PARCO 

Angela, being crushed by a picture frame from Muji 

The Killers vocalist Brandon Flowers singing longingly into my camera 

Slightly blurry picture of the guitarist, I swear this band is just a copy of The Strokes 

Meeting the bassist of The Killers, with a drumstick in my pocket 

Down one of the streets in Hiroshima 

From the back of Angela's car 

Yon-sama socks! Now that's just terrible 

Kintaikyo and accompanying river 

Angela, at the restaurant Granpa, dispelling an old myth 

Testing fate by inhaling directly through piece of bread 

Going Solo: The Trip to Hiroshima, Miyajima, and Iwakuni

I have made it out alive from the sprawling mega city that is Tokyo, but before I can dispell the mysteries and events of the last four days I must go back to my previous expedition to Hiroshima and Miyajima.

It all started with an early 7AM train ride to Okayama station. I was surprised to find my friend Nano waiting for the morning train as well at the station in Tai. She was headed to the city for a piano recital so we spent most of the train ride talking about the piano (of which I know very little) and our favorite bands. She "played" me her impressive piano piece on the back of a notebook, and I did my best to imagine what it would sound like.

From Okayama station I ran up a few flights to stairs to catch my Shinkansen to Hiroshima. It was my first experience riding Japan's bullet train solo and I almost had to laugh picturing myself next to all the salarymen making their morning commute. I rode the Nozomi line, which to my knowledge is the fastest of the Shinkansen models, and made my way from Okayama to Hiroshima in a little under 40 minutes (at a smooth top speed of 200km/h). From Hiroshima I took a series of trains and a ferry to reach Miyajima island around 9. Miyajima, known for it's floating tori gate, is ranked in guidebooks and websites alike as one of the three most beautiful places in Japan (as to who is responsible for these rankings I am unaware). The ferry to Miyajima ran parallel to the island for a few minutes to allow foreign and Japanese tourist to snap shots of the famous water gate. Upon exiting the ferry the first thing (or rather scent) that came to me was the smell of apples. I actually stopped and looked around for an apple stand, or a box full of apples with a fan blowing apple-scent towards the direction of the ferry. To my disappointment I found neither.

Miyajima long considered a very mysterious island, boasted few inhabitants until the shrine was founded in 593 AD. The floating Tori gate was built over the water as to not offend the Miyajima Gods, and for many years no one was allowed to be born or die on the island. There are still no hospitals or cemeteries on the island of Miyajima.

I spent most of the morning walking around the small harbor town, eating a famous Miyajima sweet featuring a waffle with sweet azuki bean filling. Wild dear roam the island, and one followed me up a small mountain path until it found something more interesting and staggered back into the forest. The tides on Miyajima are strong, and by noon the water had receded far enough to be able to walk about halfway to the Tori gate. A small rock was calling to be sat upon so I spent a little while looking out over the water and contemplating life.

After I had my fill of meditation, I took a ferry and then a train back to Hiroshima station. My next stop was the Peace Park and Museum dedicated to the World War II bombing of Hiroshima. On the train I struck up a conversation with some high school kids who appeared simultaneously eager and scared to talk with me. I asked if it was possible to walk from Hiroshima Station to the Peace Park, and got a resounding answer of "muri" and "taihen" (both meaning "impossible"). I though to myself, people have walked the entire length of Japan, surely getting around by foot in one city can't be that difficult. Regardless, they gave me some detailed instructions for a set of streetcars but it seemed a little silly so after they exited the train I stayed on until Hiroshima Station. Coming out of one of the numerous exits, I spotted an arrow pointing me in the direction of the Peace Park, and it being such a beautiful day I decided the walk would be worth it. I stopped in a convenient store and bough some sandwiches and onigiri (rice balls) to eat in a small park by a river. The main street of Hiroshima is packed with towering buildings and I browsed a few locations (including the Tokyu Hands you-can-find-everything-here type store) before arrive at the Peace Park.

I had prepared myself for a solemn experience, but what I found in the end was truly mind-blowing. Along the walk to the peace park small plaques and signs had been posted on buildings and bridges recalling distance from the atomic blast, as well as photos taken after the bombing. The first major landmark I encountered was the Atomic Bomb Dome next to the T-shaped bridge of the Aioi river (The bridge was the target of the atomic bombing). It was originally constructed as an Industrial Promotion Hall and was one of the only buildings left standing in a 2 Km radius after the blast. The T-shaped bridge was also left intact, but due to the immense pressure exerted from the bomb jumped several meters into the air before landing back in it's original location.

I continued through the park toward the Peace Museum, passing the Peace Flame and thousands of small paper origami cranes from all over the world that have come to represent peace. I entered the Peace Museum, a large structure consisting of three buildings, and spent the rest of the afternoon viewing various exhibits and videos concerning the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. I was extremely impressed with the depth and description of all exhibits, including a history of the war before and after 1945, reasons behind the bombing, and why Hiroshima and Nagasaki were chosen as targets. Attempting to describe my feelings while moving through the exhibit is difficult, but to be truthful by the time I exited the museum I felt extremely disgusted and saddened at the whole situation and set of circumstances which led to the bombing. During my time in the museum I didn't feel burdened with nationality or race, but simply as one human being viewing the unnecessary pain and suffering of hundreds of thousands. I found traveling alone frustrating because I wanted to discuss my feelings with someone, but instead found a place where comments could be recorded so I could at least document and vent what I was experiencing. The only redeeming aspect I could find came while sitting in the Peace Park and looking out over the city less than 60 years after the bombing in a place where experts said nothing would grow for 75 years.

I went to a small ramen shop for dinner and talked with some people in the restaurant, which put me in a better mood. About that time I got a call from Angela, who said she would pick me up in 30 minutes with her friend Kat.

I found Angela (an English teacher in Iwakuni) through her blog of Japan. We had never met in person, but occasionally talked online and said she could offer me a place to stay if I ever came to Hiroshima. When she mentioned that The Killers would be playing a show which she and her friend were attending I jumped at the opportunity do to a little traveling and meet someone new. Angela is also starting a little club of people she has met online and then in person, so I was happy to be added to her list.

She picked me up in her tiny car and after some introductions sped away to find some dinner before the show. Kat, from England, is also an English teacher living near Iwakuni. I had made them some mix CDs, and we instantly realized that our music interests were very close. We did some shopping before speeding to the PARCO building and Club Quattro for The Killers concert. We arrived about 10 minutes early, which in America would mean a seat at the very back of the venue. Instead, I was shocked to find only 80 people at the club, and all three of us easily walked to the front near the stage. We talked with a guy who ended up being the brother of the bassist who told us that last week The Killers played to a crowd of 3,000. Yowza!

Concerts in Japan are distinctly different from what I had previously experienced elsewhere. The energy was high, but no one pushed or shoved to get to the front. Even though cameras were not allowed I got some great shots of the band, and the whole vibe of the club was like being back home at 123 Pleasant Street. After the show, which only lasted 1 hour (apparently the same set list as every other tour date but with no encore or opening band) we got to meet the guitarist and bassist. I also procured a broken drumstick that was (dangerously) thrown to the crowd.

It still being early we decided to visit a small Irish Pub in Hiroshima where I got to know Angela and Kat a little better before heading back to her house in Iwakuni. The Irish pub smelled like America, which was both surprising and welcoming. Kat spoke with a great English accent and combined with the Scottish accent of the man behind the bar I was having a foreign overload. Angela didn't turn out to be (that) creepy like all those weirdos you hear stories about meeting on the internet, and I had a wonderful time that evening in Hiroshima. Back in Iwakuni we stopped at a Conbini to get some breakfast and cruised to Ladytron all the way back to her place.

The next morning Angela took me to the Kintaikyo bridge which is constructed entirely out of wood and stone. The weather was yet again beautiful so we found some food for lunch (where I learned that inhaling through a piece of bread is indeed not deadly) then headed to Hiroshima for a little shopping. Angela gave me a mix cd of her favorite bands before we said goodbye at the Iwakuni train station and I took the Shinkansen back to Okayama.

In retrospect, an awesome midweek excursion. I didn't get horribly lost or injured, and meeting new people is always a blast. Stay tuned for the next broadcast of Tokyo.


Floating tori in Miyajima, one of the three most beautiful spots in Japan 

Look, it's The Killers 

Did I mention we were close to the stage? The Killers played to a crowd of 3,000 last week. Club Quattro in Hiroshima: 80 

The wonderful Angela and Kat, windswept under Kintaikyo bridge Posted by Hello


Ben VS Japan Part 2: Hiroshima (qualifying round)

I find it hard to believe it's only Wednesday after an impressive trip into the southern reaches of the Chugoku area of Japan: Miyajima, Hiroshima, and Iwakuni. However, due the substantial amount of sights, sounds, and experiences I will have to delay the blogging of this section until after the final battle; Ben VS Tokyo. This SundaySundaySunday! Tickets $5, $10 at the gate.

Until then, a small photo teaser to pique your appetite.


On the ferry from Tamano, ready for anything in Takamatsu 

Kendo at the Takamatsu sports center 

A golf course, right in the middle of the city! 

Street tricks outside the Ana Clement Hotel 

One of the very large banquet tables 

Celebrate 100 Years of Rotary 

The maid costume seemed like an odd choice but the Rotarians enjoyed the show 

Out with the Rotarians 

James with Carter, gaze intentely locked on his phone Posted by Hello

Micah in the Tiki-type restaurant 

Neil, ready for anything as well Posted by Hello

Micah looks amazingly angry/sad in this photo. Urte would be reading a Cosmo Posted by Hello

An excellent blurry picture of the Incan/Mayan/Hindu theme of Cludy-1 Trance Club Posted by Hello

Urte and Micah at the dance venue Posted by Hello

Takamatsu Museum of Modern Art 

At Ritsurin Kouen, a park in the middle of a city 

Micah, Carter, Shaun, and James 

Carefully crossing the mighty stream Posted by Hello

We found this little truck behind a clump of bushes 

On a neat-looking bridge 

You would think that for a special park sign the English would be checked a bit more thoroughly. The first sentence is almost a palindrome, and I've never heard of "hranches" 

A ton of Coi, Japanese carp. Fall in here and it's nightmares for weeks! 

The popular photo spot at Ritsurin Kouen 

Why do Micah and I always eat ice cream together? Because he's lactose intolerent, of course! 

Ben VS Japan Part 1: Takamatsu

About a month ago I was informed of a large Rotary event that would be taking place in the port city of Takamatsu on Shikoku Island. Although Tamano is very close to Takamatsu (a mere hour's ferry ride) my Rotary club was not invited to attend the event. But with a little help from my friends (and Joe Cocker) I received an invitation to attend/infiltrate the function (or at least the exciting parts). As a result of attending said Rotary function, in the past 24 hours I have seen some of the most eclectic, erratic, and cosmopolitan set of Rotary events and Japanese nightlife available. Certainly, an excellent time was had by all. My only regret will be slightly censoring the recount of the evening to protect the innocent and underage.

The journey started when I left Tamano by ferry a little after noon on the 5th. I was greeted in Takamatsu with remarkably clear weather considering the massive blizzard that had overtaken Tokyo earlier in the week. Micah, Shaun, Carter, and Urte, who I intended to meet later in the day, were in meetings until the evening so I took the chance to explore the sights and sounds of Takamatsu on foot. I found a small make-your-own udon/soba noodle shop to sufficiently gird my strength for the rigors of Takamatsu.

Takamatsu is known for it's massive shopping center with over 800 shops, restaurants, and various stores spanning multiple streets and alleys, which crisscross the town. I spent a small amount of time window shopping, but decided the Tokyo shopping centers would be a much better place to find clocks that tick backward, anime plush pillows, and other various Japanese novelty items. Instead, I walked toward the large mesa to the west of Takamatsu port called Yashima. You might remember Yashima as the sight of the last ditch effort in the battle of Genpei in 1185. I talked with people along the way and stopped in small stores to check out the local flavor. At one point I walked into a massage parlor, which happened to be filled with old women, but exited without sampling the trade. On the way back from the mesa I found a Kendo arena and stopped to get some pictures of the students practicing. Outside Takamatsu's Symbol tower I met a guy and girl doing BMX street tricks and chatted with them for a while until it started to get dark.

About dinner time I was thinking about searching for a reasonable place to find some food but Micah sent me an e-mail saying the conference was over and I could come to the Ana hotel for a banquet. Not knowing quite what to expect I easily found the hotel (one of the largest buildings in Takamatsu) and entered through a set of large sliding doors. Scouting the room I instantly spotted a ton of rotary members (usually very old and very male) wearing nametags and the occasional "Miss America" type name banner on their shoulder. Being a foreigner I was able to stride right up the escalator to the third floor and into the largest banquet hall I have ever seen in Japan (imagine a ludicrously sized hall, then double it, and you will probably approach the dimensions of the hall for the Rotary banquet). And food. Ah yes...the food. About ten long tables were dressed with eats and cookery from around the world. At the other end of the room, more tables with enough cakes and fruit for dessert to feed a small army (or about 500 Rotarians). I met Micah in a corner table with Carter, Shaun, Tom, Urte, and his host counselor, Yamamoto-san. There was also a new exchange student from Australia named James who recently came to Japan. Yamamoto-san welcomed me to the party and told me to eat whatever met my fancy. I couldn't believe the good fortune.

Sometime during the feast, Micah and I left to run across a 4-lane bus road to a convenient store and purchase deodorant. I left my "lumberjacket" in his room with the intention of blending in a little better with the well-dressed Rotary crowd and went back down to the party. A dance troupe of about 8 women had just started performing on a stage in the banquet hall. It began innocently enough, some kicks and twirls here and there. They invited Rotary members (quite intoxicated by that point) up on stage to perform the "Mexican Samba" with some of the dancers. It was then that I witnessed the most hilarious moment in Rotary performance history when an old man (I would assume some sort of District Governor) came to the stage wearing a napkin/tablecloth around his face (not quite all the way around his head, but sort of tied together under the nose). He proceeded to do the most outrageous beer-inspired dance I have ever seen. Urte, Carter, Micah, and I quickly volunteered to go up on stage with him and the other dancers for a round of "Mexican Samba."

Following the samba the dances became increasingly more risque. Skimpy cop outfits with guns and cosplay maid uniforms would be two costume changes that come to mind.

After the Rotary event came to a close some exchange students went to their hotels to drop off their bags before "a night on the town" in Takamatsu. Yamamoto, apparently feeling generous that evening, gave Micah, Urte, and I 10,000 Yen and told us (with a slight twinkle in his eye) to have a good time. Micah suggested using some of the money to buy him a sweater or tie from a fancy department store.

The evening moved quickly from that point. Some Rotary members asked Micah and I go come with them and the GSE (Group Study Exchange) members from the US to a small bar. We picked up Carter along the way and spent some time talking with the guys from GSE (and a Ukrainian waitress in the bar who asked us all about Rotary Exchange) before deciding we should probably go and spend our money in a place not so full of old people. We finally found James and went to a small Tiki/Reggae bar to wait until Urte met us.

The group set, James, Micah, Carter, Urte, and I looked for a place to spend the evening. After some shady bars, we almost accidentally found a dance club called Cludy-1. There was a cover charge but we took a peek inside anyway. There were only a few people and it was decided we would wait a while before hitting the "Cludy." To burn some time (and wait for Neil and John who were coming from Tamano to party with us) we went to a place called "Once Upon a Time" and listened to Miles Davis and some smooth jazz until the clock struck midnight.

Meeting Neil and John in front of the club, our massive group of Gaijin entered Cludy-1. Somehow (perhaps extreme luck) we picked a good night and there were DJs from Kobe and Himeji spinning Trance and Rave, and a decent amount of Japanese were present as well (most of the other palces we had been that night were rather quiet). I can't say I've been to many Trance parties but I do love to dance so we spent most of the night in the club before stumbling back to our respective hotels. Even though the club was only half full, how could I possibly not enjoy dancing next to crazy Japanese guys and girls to DJ Spiritual walker (aka yuki vortex), Nao, and Mintama (aka DJ mind warp)? It was amazing! I lost track of Neil and John by morning but early e-mails to my keitai reassured me that they weren't dead in a gutter somewhere.

I went to breakfast with Micah which was interesting due to lack of sleep, and became even more amusing as we piled onto a bus with the rest of the Shikoku exchange kids for sightseeing at Ritsurin Kouen and the Takamatsu Contemporary Art Museum (sightseeing after all night parties seems to be a specialty of Japan Rotary). But a fun time was had by all and the cherry blossoms were starting to bud at Ritsurin. Micah and I shared our usual ice cream before piling back on the bus to return to the Ana Hotel. I ate another free meal with the Shikoku rotary kids then said goodbye until our next crazy meeting.

If anything, this trip continues to prove how excellent the Japanese Rotary program can be (and why Contemporary Art Museums are more fun after little to no sleep). I felt completely welcomed even though I wasn't specifically invited and had a killer time.


The Hina Matsuri Dolls 

Ooga-san, the Kimono teacher and Saeki-san, the talkative 

Odd that Jirou, while Japanese, is dressed like a lumberjack and I am wearing a Kimono Posted by Hello

Kimono-sensei, Amanda, and I 

Ooga-san, the Kimono teacher and Saeki-san, the talkative Posted by Hello

An odd-angle photo of everyone at the party 

The cuteness! I'm dying! 

"Smoke on the Water" never sounded so good 

Come, Mexican Samba with me! 

Saeki-san and Nano-chan 

Takurou's Mexican Samba! Posted by Hello

Girl's Day

March 3rd in Japan is the time to celebrate and recognize young girls during Hina Matsuri. Sadly, I must wait for Boy's Day on May 5th to get my fair share of the celebration but in the meantime Kawai-san threw a large party at our house inviting all her friends. During the Hina Matsuri (Hina meaning doll and matsuri meaning festival) families usually prepare a set of hinaningyo or set of elaborate Japanese dolls arranged on a traditional staircase. The sets are usually handed down from family to family but since Kawai-san only has a son we borrowed our set from a friend. Shoko-san also set up hinaningyo in her house for the holiday.

Somehow, during the day Saeki-san went on Japanese radio talking about Hina Matsuri and the party we would be having that evening. She also mentioned that I would be performing Guitar Zamurai (something I had thought about but had not yet prepared). So, never one to disappoint, I wrote up this skit about some of the people attending the party

(a sample about Saeki-san, translated into english but subsequently losing most of the humor):

私 はるちゃん
いつもあたしは無口なんです って
ずっと壁としゃべてなさい ぎり!

I am Haru-chan (means "girl of the spring," Saeki-san's nickname)
"I am always quiet and reserved"
Didn't you say that?
But! Because when you have a conversation you can't stop talking... It's Too Bad!
Please go talk to a wall.

(that was fun here's another)

わしは さえき じろうです
ギターが白くて、ぼっけぇ高いよ って
自称30才なんです ぎり!

I am Saeki Jirou.
"My white guitar is very expensive"
Didn't you say that?
But! Because your hair color matches your guitar...It's Too Bad!
Pretending you are 30 years old.

Anyway, the party atmosphere was wild and a ton of people came. Kawai-san's kimono teacher talked all about the origins of Hina Matsuri, what the dolls on the stairs represent, as well as the traditional colors of the Hina Matsuri. Afterwards we feasted upon copious amount of food followed by Takuro's performance of "Mexican Samba."

"Mexican Samba," or more appropriately "Matsuken Samba" in Japanese, features Ken Matsudaira (the star of a popular Samurai tv-show) wearing a bright yellow sequined kimono dancing to Latin music wearing geta and with enough backup singers to rival a Broadway musical. Sound like fun? You can listen to it here.

Takuro performed Mexican Samba for his school closing ceremony so he already had the outfit ready to go for the party.

The party slowly transformed into a concert. Tomoya, Takuro, and Jiro-sensei played some hard rock guitar tunes (certainly having nothing to do with the Hina Matsuri). I was dying by the time Jirou sang "Smoke On the Water" and begged for an encore. Saeki-san played the flute with Nano-chan on saxophone, followed by Jirou and I playing "Dock of the Bay," complete with Otis Redding's newfound Japanese accent.

At the end of the party, the Kimono teacher brought out a large wedding kimono for Amanda to wear. I wore a less impressive male kimono jacket, which still looked rather snazzy.

Overall, a very awesome Girls's Day festival.

The most cartoon figures I have ever seen in one place 

The entire wall was filled with cut-out cartoon characters 

A city of colored plastic houses 

Being lit from below gave this city landscape a nice effect 

Artwork by the junior high student 

A selection of stuffed animals 

Amanda with a little present (just baking soda for my latkes) Posted by Hello

Shogo, otherwise known as "Crazy Shogo," "Darrell," or "Pantera" Posted by Hello

He used to live in LA in the 80s Posted by Hello

Another Trip To The City

While in Okayama after Japanese school I made another stop to the gallery near the symphony hall. The exhibit had been switched from last week's display, this time featuring the art of an autistic child in junior high school. He created five exhibits of astounding proportion. The first featured hand-drawn cartoon characters in colored pencil pasted on a massive wall and scattered about the floor. The sheer amount of drawings would be enough to catch anyone's attention. The second exhibit was a small model city created with clear-plastic buildings filled with colored liquid and projected on a wall with a high-powered lamp. The third exhibit was a series of drawings next to the fourth, a dozen or so stuffed animals of various sizes and shapes (reminded me of the animals decorating Bryn's* apartment in Morgantown). The fifth was a smaller recreation of the model city but with a white clay material lit from underneath with lamps. I couldn't believe that all displays were created by one child.

Also, at last week's english class with my host mother I took some photos of the infamous "Shogo" (otherwise knows as Darrell). He is quite a character, to say the least. Against my better judgment, I accepted a candy bar he offered me. No adverse effects experienced as of yet.

*Perhaps Brynn
**Update on the Music section, take a look**


Tamano High School students waiting for the Graduation ceremony to begin 

This has to be one of the best Graduation set-ups I have ever seen 

Kiyoto, with the perm for Graduation Day 

I call these guys "The Ramones" because they always give me good music recommendations 

Wataru (looking dapper) and I 

Keiko (who went to Texas last year) and I 

The Graduate

High School Graduation in Japan, similar to any other corner of the world, is a momentous occasion. A ceremony marking the flowering of goals and aspirations of high school students as they progress to college or the workplace. Perhaps better described in the e-mail I received from my friend the night before the ceremony, "Graduation of JAPAN is an emotional." An "emotional" indeed!

I leisurely biked into the school around 9:30, right on time for the ceremony at 9:45. I was seated in the back of the large auditorium with the other first year students in my class. Second year students were seated closer to the stage, with empty chairs for the third years in the foremost section. Parents and other guests sat on the opposite side of the auditorium, next to the "distinguished guests." Teachers were next to the stage facing the distinguished guests. (In Japan you can always tell distinguished guests apart from the "masses" because of a very loud, large, and colorful flower and ribbon pinned to their lapel. At Rotary Meetings and School Graduations it's a sure thing)

Around 9:45 the doors to the auditorium slid open (most if not all doors slide in Japan) and to the obligatory performance of "Pomp and Circumstance" the third year students proceeded to their seats in the front. I spotted a lot of my friends including Kiyoto who had grown his hair out and put it in a perm (giving the aura of a Californian surfer) and Wataru with a great big smile. After all the students were seated, the curtain on the stage was raised, revealing a large podium under a massive Japanese flag. To the right of the podium stood a small yet impressive Bonsai tree. The atmosphere was decidedly Japanese.

When I begin to ponder high school graduations, I usually think of long ceremonies with a lot of name calling, clapping, and semi-tearful speeches. In contrast, Japanese high school graduation, or at least Tamano high school, was quick and to the point. The principal made a small speech congratulating the students followed by two speeches by the "Special Guests." Then two top students, one from each of the two courses (International and Regular) approached the podium to receive diplomas for the whole school. No name calling, just two students being recognized. The valedictorian and a top second year student then gave speeches recalling their time at Tamano High School. Both started crying toward the end, and I could see some teachers getting teary-eyed as well. At the end everyone stood, sang Auld Lang Syne in Japanese for reasons still unclear to me, and finished the ceremony with a rousing reprise of the Tamano High School song (which I stumbled through with the aide of a cheat sheet).

After the ceremony all third year students exited the auditorium to go back to their classroom and individually receive their diplomas. I stayed around to take pictures and check out the yearbook (of which I am trying to get a copy). I was stopped by the principal of the school and chatted for a while about the differences between Japanese and American High School Graduations. I'm always excited to talk with the principal because regardless of his comprehension of what I’m saying he always makes me feel well understood. So be it elaborate farce or my genuine improvement in Japanese, both are equally impressive.

During the rest of the day I whipped up some delicious latkes, applesauce, and a fresh garden salad for dinner. Tomoya was blown away and has requested I make latkes once a week. I told him it would probably kill him but he said he didn't care and that death was “an acceptable price.” Tomorrow is Hina Matsuri so for now I must arrange some dolls on a large set of stairs...