Thursday, September 29, 2011

computers - not so much

I thought when we got here I would be overwhelmed by the technology. I heard Japanese people have fancy cell phones and love gadgets. I thought this love of technology would extend to computers and everyone would be pecking away at their lap tops. Not so. I spent a lot of time in air conditioned cafes this summer and I never saw a person with a lap top. People would be there working away in notebooks and on worksheets but not on computers. In fact, I don't think I've seen anyone anywhere public using a lap top. I also figured wi-fi would be ubiquitous but it really isn't . I don't think this is because I can't read. The Japanese borrow a lot of words from English - computer in Japanese is konpyuta, so I expect wi-fi would sound something like wi-fi.

I asked some Americans who have been in Japan for a long time and they think it is because Japanese people are not social risk takers. In the 90's when computers were all the rage in business, companies here figured they'd never used them before so why should they start now. The internet became associated with teenage girls following the latest J-pop crazy (youtube Smap if you want to see how bad music taste is here). It is starting to change, however. Presumably those same teenage girls are working at companies now and don't see computers as such a big risk.

The whole saying "there are no stupid questions" doesn't exist here either. People do not want to stick their necks out in front of their peers so they won't ask questions in class. This means they also won't ask for help learning how to use computers.

tanjoubi omedeto - happy birthday

I celebrated my first birthday in Japan on Wednesday. Craig got me a lovely necklace, took me to a nice dinner at an okonomiyaki restaurant and, the best part, I got a puppy dog cake.

It even came in a fancy dog house.
Isn't it about the cutest cake you've ever seen. In Japan bakery cakes don't have that awful super sugary frosting either so it was delicious too. We debated whether to cut the dog along the medial or sagittal axis. Since it was a roll cake we opted for sagittal. His insides were chocolate whipped cream with a vanilla pudding spinal column.

Since my work-oholic husband still has summer vacation he needs to use before October, we were going to go for a hike too. Unfortunately it started to pour rain while we were walking up to the mountain. We decided to tough it out for about 40min but the rain only got heavier and we were drenched before making it to a trail head. We figured if the roads were this slippery then the trails were probably muddy little rivers. Craig got to see lots of BIG spiders. Apparently sub tropical climates are very good at evolving big, web making spiders. I tried getting a picture of one but I couldn't bring myself to get close enough. These were spiders on webs on street signs and lamp posts, I don't want to think about what they're like in the actually forest. I keep telling myself they can't climb up 10 stories and if anyone know anything to the contrary keep it to yourself.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Why I don't go to the bank often

Yesterday I had some errands to run around Sannomiya (downtown Kobe), so I met Quinn for lunch and then set about them. A fair number of these had to take place at the bank. I always find the bank to be a confusing and frightening place, so I tend to save up my bank visits until I have four or five things to do there.

They don't really do personal checks here, and credit cards are sort of exotic. So there are basically three ways to pay for things. One is cash. The other is to wire money from a convenience store -- when we get our electric bill, for example, it comes in the mail with a barcode on it. We can take that to a convenience store (e.g. 7-11) where they scan the barcode, take a cash payment, and then give us a receipt for our electric bill payment. It seemed really weird the first time, but it's actually a fairly convenient way to do things. The third way is automatic withdrawals -- most of our bills just get taken straight out of our account, which requires filling out a form with the proper account numbers and signatures in advance.

Quinn has been taking classes at a yoga studio in Rokko, and they prefer to get their monthly tuition payment by automatic withdrawal. Twice now the form has been returned by the bank because my signature wasn't quite right. My signature tends to be on the messy side and that was never a problem before, but here they're quite particular. It has to look exactly the same every time.
Most people don't use a signature at all; they carry around a little personal stamp (called a hanko) that works in place of a signature. Almost every adult in Japan carries one of these things on their person all the time. Because the space for signatures is the size and shape of a little stamp rather than a line for a signature, my signature often turns out sort of odd-looking, which only compounds the problem. Actually, I'd registered my signature with "Craig" and "Jolley" on the same line and had mistakenly signed the forms with "Jolley" directly below "Craig", which was not deemed to be the same signature at all. One of the secretaries in our lab had ordered me a hanko to use for RIKEN paperwork, so I figured I would simplify things and register that as my signature at the bank.

After lots of stamping and signing and filling things out (and an hour of my life that I'm never getting back), things appeared to be taken care of and I headed back to work. A couple of hours later I got a phone call from someone at the bank. After my repeatedly asking her to please repeat herself and slow down and use easy words, she tried explaining things to me in her broken English. She seemed very concerned with whether my stamp was self-inking or whether I had to use an ink pad. I thought that the self-inking feature was pretty cool, actually. I spoke with Maki, the secretary who had ordered the stamp, and she confirmed that it was in fact an automatic self-inking stamp. I was informed that this was not acceptable, and I was stuck with my (often ineffective) signature. I expressed my confusion to Maki, and she figured (correctly) that she might be able to get more information out of them than I could and called back.

Apparently, the self-inking stamps are mass-produced, and two that are made for the same name will produce identical stamps, making it not sufficiently unique for a signature. I can't imagine that there are actually that many stamps with my name floating around Japan, but that's (apparently) not the point. A real hanko is hand-carved (usually from wood) and each one is slightly different. So Maki put in an order for a wooden hanko for me. As long as I don't have to use my name for anything before it shows up, I should be fine.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mexico and China in one day

We were world travelers this past Monday. It was Respect for the Aged Day and Craig had the day off from work. Respect for the Aged Day is a national holiday dedicated to people calling their grandparents. We started the day in Kobe, Japan, swung by the Mexican Festival in Osaka for lunch, and then went to the Mid-Autumn Festival in China Town in the evening.

I went up to the guy in the photo and asked, in Japanese, if I could have a picture with him. His Mexican Festival outfit was too much for me to ignore. Of course, he might walk around with a liquor bottle in a holster and a shot glass ammunition belt every day.

Here I am showing off my new bag. It is a Cheryl original and I know you're all jealous.

I just sneaked this picture of a Japanese guy wearing an impressive sombrero.

The festival consisted of about 2 booths selling Mexican knick knacks, 4 or 5 selling food, and a stage featuring live music. Corona was the major feature for the festival.

There was a Mariachi band and we think all the musicians were Mexicans, or at least not Japanese.
We did get to enjoy some Mexican food. There were tacos, quesadillas, and Mexican fruit juice drinks. While there was a picture of chips and guacamole, no one seemed to be selling it. Here is our friend Rachel eating a chicken taco with chop sticks.

After we were all Mexican Festival-ed out, Craig and I took the train to Kobe's China Town. We were hoping to see a Dragon Dance but got tired of standing and gave up after about two hours. I think that must be the finale and next time we should show up around 7pm, not 3pm.

There were these people wearing weird and sometimes frightening masks standing in front of a shrine. I asked one of them for a picture but you actually have to buy incense and pray at the shrine before you can take pictures. I just got this one from a distance, holding the camera above the heads of the people standing in line to pray.

While we missed the Dragon dance we did get to see a concert featuring traditional Chinese instruments. There was also an extensive Tai Chi demonstration.

The highlight, of course, was the food. This time there were probably 30+ booths selling food. Craig and I enjoyed Peking duck and vegetables wrapped in rice paper.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Japanese movies

We got netflix awhile ago and have used it to watch some Japanese movies. We can't rent Japanese movies because they don't come with English subtitles here. The first time we looked for a Japanese movie it took some time and some false starts before we settled on "Nobody Knows." The film is based on a true story from the 1990's when a mother abandoned her four children in an apartment. The oldest was 12 and the youngest was 4 years old. It was a beautifully made film. The children were amazing actors, the set design was heart breaking in its accuracy of how an apartment would change when four kids are left alone - you see the youngest girls crayons turn into little stubs as the months pass by. The mother never allowed the kids to go to school or registered their births so only the oldest was allowed to leave, the other three weren't allowed outside. When they finally decide to break that rule and the little ones get to play outside for the first time their sense of freedom and joy was exhilarating. Unfortunately, bad things do happen. The movie adaptation was less gruesome than the actual event, according to Wikipedia, but it still left me pretty depressed.

Craig decided to be pro-active for our next Japanese film choice and found a list of the top 10 must-see Japanese films. "Nobody Knows" was number 10. "Seven Samurai," "Akira," "Godzilla," were all on it. I was reading through the options and picked "Audition." The review began with something like - The first 40min of this film are like a Jennifer Anniston style romcom and then it takes a dark turn. So I figured it was a black comedy. I should have read the rest of the review instead of eagerly starting the film. The premise is a widower decides he wants to remarry but doesn't want to go through the hassle of dating to find the right woman. He's a tv producer and his pal/co-worker talks him into holding fake auditions for a movie they'll never make so he can pick out wife candidates. He immediately like the beautiful, obedient, docile, quiet girl. I say girl because he's in his 40's and she's maybe 22. He starts taking her to dinner and she gives him all the right answers and lets him feel like a real knight in shining armor. Then the movie takes its dark turn and I should have read the rest of the review. Apparently Rob Zombie had problems watching the last 5min and you shouldn't plan on eating anything after watching the movie. While I can appreciate turning the tables on the torture porn genre and having the 40 year old man be the victim of a young, seemingly obedient, docile woman, I really, really, really didn't want to watch her gleefully cut off his foot - while he was conscious - using a piano wire. I finished the film with my hands in front of my eyes while Craig told me what was happening. It ends well - his son comes home and manages to push her down some stairs. She was abused a lot as a child and now only values pain - for the actress they are the only scenes where she shows any emotion, mostly pleasure - as a way to really know someone. Why in the world would a film like that make it on to anyone's top 10 list! I know I'm supposed to be all educated in film and appreciate less pedestrian fare but the next movie I watch is starring Renee Zellweger and it is going to make me laugh.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Thai Puppet Show

On Monday night we went to a performance of the Joe Louis Puppet Theatre. It was founded by a Thai man who wanted to bring back the traditional Thai art form -
One of Craig's co-workers is Thai and she invited us to the event. It was commemorating the 84th birthday of the King of Thailand. The Thai consulate-general was there. Thanks to watching too many Bond movies I expect diplomats and their staff to be intriguing people, this dude looked like he'd have been more comfortable in an engineering department not being forced to socialize.
The puppets are operated by three people. They recruit puppeteers with dance backgrounds because all three people's movements are precisely choreographed. They told the mythological story of why there are lunar eclipses. The story begins with the white monkey chasing a beautiful girl in the moonlight, but there is an eclipse and he loses her in the dark. We then jump to the Gods and Demons fighting. The show wasn't just puppets, there were also some people in really blinged out costumes who fenced to symbolize the big battle. The gods decided to drink a magic elixir to get the upper hand on the demons. However, one of the demons sneaks a sip and also becomes immortal. The moon witnesses this and tattletales to the god in charge. This god cuts the demon in half, but because he's now immortal he isn't dead, just half the man he used to be. He eats the moon to avenge his missing half. But, because he has no bottom the moon just slips out. When there is an eclipse the demon has seen the moon and has eaten it, temporarily blocking its light. After all of this we jumped back to the monkey and beautiful lady. They came down into the audience so people could get a better look. Since I was on an aisle I got a kiss on the check from the beautiful lady. The monkey man was busy causing trouble.

Saturday September 10th

Last weekend there was a typhoon so we stayed in our apartment all day Saturday. It rained from Thursday night through Sunday night, sprinkled on and off on Monday and was absolutely beautiful on Tuesday. The storm cooled everything off and cut the humidity and it was actually pleasant outside for a couple days. Of course all of that wore off by Saturday and we were back to hot and humid. Because of the weather we decided to go to some air conditioned museums in Osaka. We've actually only walked around Osaka once before but travel through it so often it felt like we were regulars at the public transportation. That is until we had to use the subway in the actual city. We only got on a train going the wrong direction once and picked up on that pretty quickly so it all worked out.

We went to the National Museum of Art, Osaka and the Osaka History Museum. When I go to art museums I usually spend most of my time reading the information about paintings rather than looking at the actual paintings. I don't have that problem here. It was a pretty small museum, they seem to throw around the word "national" which makes me think the museum is going to have a rather large collection because it is representative of the nation. This doesn't seem to be the case. I wasn't allowed to take any pictures but snuck this one when the docent wasn't looking. As you can tell the art was all rather modern. We spent out time making up what everything symbolized. Unsurprisingly, Craig is very good at making up credible sounding nonsense. The entire entrance to the museum is covered by a sculpture we'd read on the internet was supposed to represent tangled bamboo. I think it looks like a winged creature.The history museum was pretty cool. I bet we would have learned more if we could read Japanese. It is known for its models and I was allowed to take pictures of them, as long as I didn't use my flash. When I asked the docent I asked in Japanese and she responded with "no flash." I asked Craig what that meant since I was still in a Japanese mind set.

These are of some ladies in the emperor's entourage. Apparently they are shade bearers.
To end the day we found a pretty good Turkish restaurant. I couldn't find it again if I tried because we were just walking around the twisty streets surrounding the train station and came upon it.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Kyoto - the second day

Another day, a whole bunch more temples and shrines and empress's gardens.
He's not pulling a Narcissus, he's just being a good sport and pretending to pick a water lily.

Remember, someone purposely placed each of those stones.

A super cool tree on the edge of a temple complex.

The whole "Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil" monkey thing is pretty popular here. I have no idea what the colorful hanging pillow things are in the background but there was a guy near by selling them so they must be an offering you can leave.

It is considered good luck for your health to drink the water from this spring. First you reach out the can to fill with the water, dump it on your hands to clean them, fill it up again, and them pour the water in your hands to drink. There was also a thoroughly modern UV cleaning system you inserted your cup into after you were done. The site was established in 798 so people have been drinking that special water for quite some time.

This is a good picture to describe what Kyoto was like - lots of people, the occasional yukata, lots of opportunities to buy chotskies.

While on our way to a shrine I turned to the right and was very surprised to see the giant Kannon sculpture. Kannon is a bodhisattva of compassion. I included the car and building to give you an idea of scale. The place was already closed for the night so this was the closest picture I could take.