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As I plan to get my third night's rest in Japan tonight, I also look back on a very eventful day at ICU.
Getting used to the time difference here has been somewhat of an ordeal. Last night I went to bed extremely early, at about 8:30 PM, and woke up at 3:20 AM initially. The upside was that I could easily take a morning shower and get dressed in time to leave the house at 7:30 AM; of course, such a sleep schedule isn't exactly productive. I called my family at 7:15 AM local time, or 8:15 PM last night New York time, to check in. All is well here.
Even though most Japanese families do not take morning showers, my family seems to be okay with my shower schedule. In a twist on my New York home life, I get up and get ready to go long before the rest of my family does. We'll see how long that lasts. This morning, my host mother shadowed me on her motorbike as I walked to and from the train station. It's a long but manageable walk.
The Summer Courses in Japanese program starts with a placement test to determine each student's proficiency in Japanese. The test takes about 2 1/2 hours and has three parts: aural (listening exercises), RWV (reading, writing, and vocabular), and comprehensive (grammar and reading comprehension). The first part, where we listen to spoken sentences and passages, was incredibly hard, and I think I did terribly on it. Most other students agreed that it was very intense. The second part, with 90 Kanji and vocabulary questions to be answered in 30 minutes, was okay but I made a few stupid mistakes. The last part's grammar questions were manageable, but like most students I didn't get to the mammoth reading comprehension portion until very close to the end of the section time.
I signed up for the Advanced level course, since I had most recently taken Advanced Japanese II at Carnegie Mellon. It looks like "Advanced" at ICU means "Why are you studying?" The results will be posted on Monday.
The highlight of the day was getting to meet and speak with many other ICU students, including people at both the Global House dormitory and in homestays. Both the dorm and the homestay program have their advantages and disadvantages. The dorm features a little more personal freedom, but ICU imposes a strict curfew and no cooking, alcohol consumption, or private visitors are permitted. Also, the dorm is on campus, making commuting much easier. Since there are so many students concentrated in the dorm, planning fun activities is much easier. I expect to see my classmates only on campus, but those in the dorms see each other constantly. Dorm living has social advantages.
On the other hand, a homestay includes home-cooked meals and a fully immersive language environment. I haven't found the situation at my house too constricting lately, as my initial anxiety has waned. Although my family includes two twenty-something sons, I see very little of them due to their late-skewing schedules. The inclusion of meals is the single biggest advantage to homestay life, according to the dorm students, since those in the dorms must use the on-campus dining hall or seek food in the area every day. Of course, no two homestays are alike. There are dream homestays and there are nightmare homestays.
There are 117 students studying at ICU this summer, representing 20 countries. They are of many different ages, experience levels, and personal backgrounds. There is a fairly even balance between males and females. All are very nice: after the orientation meeting, I spoke with several students about my homestay so far and about anything else that came to mind.
The on-campus minister, Paul Johnson, has a great sense of humor. He's also very aggressive about students immersing themselves in Japanese culture. Here's a quote from him earlier today.
Yesterday, while at Musashi-sakai station, I saw a few of you. Two of you were sitting at a Starbucks drinking coffee. That's a yellow card. (pulls out a soccer-style yellow card) However, I saw another two of you sitting near the station eating some Kentucky Fried Chicken. That... is a red card. (pulls out a red card) I have a lot of these, so be careful.
Maybe you had to be there.
Speaking of the on-campus minister, a brief prayer was said before we started our social hour. It was non-denominational, and didn't bother the non-Christian students (myself included) at all. ICU was founded on Christian principles and has bilingual services every Sunday, but is not aggressive in its religious affiliation. I don't foresee any problems there.
After returning to Ogikubo station but before calling my host mother, I took it upon myself to explore the expansive shopping area that I wrote about yesterday. It's incredible how much there is for sale there, but I was disappointed not to see more electronic goods. A pilgrimage to Akihabara, the "Electric Town," tomorrow will be much better. Fortunately, there are several video arcades near the station. They feature prize-winning games, with prizes that include giant bags of ramen noodles and giant plush toys. Also, I played pachinko, the addictive pinball-like game that Japan is (in)famous for, but didn't really enjoy it all that much. Arcades that allow children have pachinko and slot machines set up to award "medals" instead of coins, similar to the tickets awarded in American arcades. A lot of high school students were there playing games to blow off steam. To encourage repeat business, several games accept a card that costs ¥500 ($4.17) to save personal data. Each game costs ¥100 ($0.83) but is often set to longer play settings. For example, the fighting games I played were set to best-of-five matches instead of the usual best-of-three.
Near the station is an authentic pachinko-ya, a place which deals exclusively in pachinko machines which pay out real money. After spending just a few seconds inside, I had to get out. First of all, I didn't really want to play. Secondly, the noise from thousands of balls clanking around is absolutely deafening. Much like casino slot machine addicts, pachinko players will chain-smoke as they gamble away coin after coin in depressing succession. There are other ways to gamble, including slot machines, video poker, and virtual horse racing. I swear that I'm not making this up. People sit around a tiny race track and gamble on little plastic horses that vibrate around the track like Electric Football players. Fascinating stuff, but I decided not to blow any money on it.
I hope that my host mother is getting the message that I don't eat very much at all, particularly within three hours of eating previously. When at home, I dread waiting to be called down for dinner since I know that I won't eat everything on my plate. I talked with some other students on campus about this problem, and they confirmed that it is not even confined to Japan: in many European countries, mothers insist that their families eat everything that they're served. There are physical limits to how much I can eat, and they tend to be lower in the summer.
Not too long after I arrived, I noted that Japanese TV isn't as unintentionally hilarious as it was when I watched segments in class. I think that was because I was watching in a group when it was funny, and alone when it wasn't. Over dinner, my host parents and I watched a Japanese baseball game, and I found some of the commercials to be just silly. A Pepsi commercial featured lots of American good-looking people in swimsuits, and some footage of Japanese-born baseball sensation Ichiro Suzuki. PlayStation commercials end with the same "pureesuteeshon" tag-line as they do in the U.S. Most commercials are 15 seconds or less, so the editing makes everything go in ultra-fast motion. It has to be seen to be believed.
I still have a couple of tasks to do this weekend, but exploring the city of Tokyo is definitely one of them. I'm taking lots of pictures, but uploading them will probably be done after I get back to America and its wonderful cable modem Internet access.