Friday, April 01, 2005

Our expensive trip to Kyoto

Hello from beautiful Kyoto! I took a couple of days off work to take my mother, who is visiting from the U.S., to see Western Japan. While the Kanto region (where Tokyo and Gunma prefecture are) has a lot to see, it really can't hold a cultural candle to the Kyoto area.

Kyoto is one of the most amazing places in all Japan. The former capital of the country for 800 years or so, it's filled with many amazing temples, shrines, pagodas, and ancient streets that have been in use for centuries, despite the fact that Kyoto is also a modern, vibrant city. Yesterday we hit most of the most famous sites, starting with the Golden Pavillion (perhaps the most famous single building in all Japan) and Silver Pavillion (which isn't really silver). We took in the Hall of 33 Bays, a long building containing 1001 intricately carved Buddha statues, each with a unique face (supposedly, you can find one that has your face if you look hard enough) and Ryoanji, a temple with the most famous rock garden in Japan. The cherry blossoms are later than usual this year, so we've missed catching the "season of the sakura" here, however Kiyomizu-dera, a raised temple and pagoda overlooking Kyoto (which was nearly destroyed during Godzilla vs Mothra), was really lit up beautifully when we went there last night. Today we're off to another favorite place of mine, Nara, the first capital of Japan and home the amazing Todaiji, a huge wooden temple that houses the largest Buddha statue in Japan.

I've lived in Japan for thirteen years, so it shouldn't come as a surprise to me, but traveling in Japan sure is expensive. Although we're only to be gone four days, we're spending a small fortune, enough to live like kings in most other parts of the world. My wife is in Hungary right now with a friend who always wanted to visit Budapest, and they're spending a lot less than us, despite flying to the other side of the world. I dearly love Japan, but it can sure cost a lot to see it properly.

Japan's pagodas ("goju no toh") are an amazing part of Japan's architectural history. Usually containing five levels but sometimes more, these multi-tiered buildings on Buddhist temple grounds are fitted together with no nails or cements of any kind, and they're so perfectly balanced that they withstand earthquakes better than any other structure in Japan. We caught a TV show the other day in which scientists built a complete replicas of the pagoda at Horyuji, built in the 7th century, on top of a platform that simulated earthquakes artificially. No matter how they shook the pagoda, they couldn't make the balanced structure sway more than a few degrees from center. And in fact, there's not a single record of a pagoda collapsing in a quake in Japan's history.

And for the pictures and product images today I have...nothing! Yes, thanks to the stupid hotel I'm in now (the Hotel No Internet or something like that), which promises me broadband Internet and a ride on the train, there's something the matter with...oh nevermind. (Apologies to A.A. Milne) I have done my update with my trusty Bluetooth phone, which is packet-based and can get very pricey when it wants to, thus I am going "all text" today. Ever so sorry.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Pouring your own beer in Japan, and what we could learn from the Japanese

You know you've lived in Japan too long when you're incapable of pouring your own beer. It's true -- in Japan it's customary for friends to pour beer or sake (sah-KAY) for each other, and "lifer" gaijin like me get so used to this that anything else becomes impossible. Pouring your own drink is called "tejaku," and it's rarely done in mixed company -- although in enka, the traditional sad music of Japan that fills the same niche as country music in the U.S., the image of a broken man pouring his own sake while he cries his eyes out over his lost love, is quite common.

Living outside of my home country as I do, it's sometimes possible to see things I wouldn't be able to see otherwise. Sometimes I feel the U.S. doesn't look as hard as it could at other countries when trying to come up with solutions to its problems. Japan has an annual tax on cars that's based on engine size that makes a lot of sense -- if you drive a car with a huge, inefficient engine, you'll pay around $800 a year, but for drivers with small, efficient engines the tax is just $30, and hybrid cars are free. And when the topic of health insurance was big in the U.S., the model that Japan uses -- a health insurance system with a 30% deductible that's available to everyone without insurance through their place of employment -- didn't come up at all. Now, some people are discussing how to improve schools in the States, and I fully expect there to be little discussion of Japan's approach to education. The one thing that Japan does differently is create competition among students: competition to have the highest score in the class, competition to get into a good high school or university, and so on. By and large, Japan's competitive education system creates students who are serious about setting goals and working at them over several years, and because they spend more time studying, they have less time for getting into trouble. Since the best national universities are also the most affordable, it creates a class of people who succeed through their academic skills and hard work, not because their family had money, which is a great idea for every society to strive for.

I'll be going to Kyoto over the weekend with my family, so we're doing a double-strength product update for you today. First and foremost, we've got the long-preordered Battlestar Galactica toys from Konami, and they are really something special for fans of the original series. In the tradition of Konami's previous sci-fi toy sets, this new set of all the vehicles and Cylons from the 1978 series -- known in Japan as Space Aircraft Carrier Galactica -- are extremely well made, a very special item for collectors. We've got both the basic set of 5 toys and the three "rare" items -- the Atlantia, the Pegasus and the gold Cylon commander -- available on the site. Since we know some fans will want extras of their favorite ships, such as sets of three Cylon Base Ships for display, we've posted individual items to the site too, with discount for buying multiples.

Monday, March 28, 2005

New adventures at a Japanese immersion school, and the end of Doraemon as we know it

My son has officially finished the third grade, and will be beginning his new adventure next month, at an experimental school in which half the lessons are taught in English, half in Japanese The new school is coming together nicely, and we attended the orientation on Sunday, meeting the teachers and finding out which class our son will be in. It was our first time inside this completely new facility -- which looks like it was designed by the Ikea company, not exactly something you expect when you go to a Japanese elementary school. Because a partial immersion school funded with public money is such a bold project, it's attracting a lot of media attention, and there were TV cameras everywhere, recording footage for future broadcasting on the news. Since I'm the only American parent in the entire school, I stand out even more than I usually do in my daily life here in rural Japan. When we met our son's new homeroom teacher, who's also from the States, I asked him some questions in Japanese, and the cameras were there to record it all: there's nothing more interesting than two gaijin speaking Japanese to each other. During the orientation, many parents were buzzing about a new product that security company Secom has released, a portable GPS device that makes it possible for parents to see where their children are, and to send a signal that they'd like a Secom employee to go pick up their child if they're worried about them. A number of recent incidents, including the kidnapping/murder of a girl in Nara in November of last year, have made parents and teachers especially aware of the potential dangers that lurk out in the world.

The end of an era has been reached: voice actress Nobuyo Oyama is finally retiring after over a quarter of a century of performing the voice of Japan's most famous anime character, Doraemon, the nekogata robotto ("robot of cat type") who comes from the future to help keep his friend Nobita out of trouble. The show has consistently been ranked as the favorite anime of all time by the majority of Japanese viewers. In addition to Oyama, the voices for Gian, Shizuka, and Nobita himself are retiring. The final episode with the original cast aired last week with emotional farewell messages by the voice actors.

We hope everyone had a Happy Easter. Like Thanksgiving, St. Patrick's Day and Superbowl Sunday, Easter is one of those special days that are easy to lose track of when you're a gaijin living in Japan -- it's just a lot harder to be aware of these special events when living in another country. This year we had a rather traditional Easter, however, thanks to my mother coming from San Diego. She brought Easter chocolate and baskets and dye to color eggs with. My kids had loads of fun enjoying some American traditions in Japan.