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I think I might be getting used to this whole Japan thing.
Without any school obligations today, I was free to do as I pleased. A couple of new adventures and several thousand yen later, I'm back at home. It's good to be back.
I don't know how I've gone through three updates (July 3, July 4, and July 5) without introducing my host family and describing my accomodations. My host family consists of two parents and four children, although two of the children are away. One of my brothers is working in Kyoto, while the youngest child -- Rei, a 19-year-old college student -- is spending her summer abroad in America. As I've mentioned before, I don't see too much of my other two siblings due to their late-skewing schedules. This evening I got to sit down for dinner with Toshi and his girlfriend, but I've still only seen Kei once as he popped his head into the kitchen.
My homestay is set in a small but comfortable house in Suginami-ku. The first floor has an almost-impossibly-small garage, the genkan (entry room where shoes are stored), the "piano room" holding a grand (!) and upright piano, the kitchen which also contains the clothes washer and dryer, my host father's office, and a full bathroom. On the second floor is a sink, toilet, my bedroom, the tatami room, and bedrooms for my parents and brothers. Everything is small, but I don't feel claustrophobic about any of it. The hardest part is getting around Nene, our golden retriever, who sits guarding the genkan at all times.
Because space and energy are expensive in Japan, everything is designed to take up as little of both as possible in the home. For example, my host family has two Sony Trinitron TVs that would be considered luxury items in the U.S., but their relatively low cost and small size make them preferable for Japanese homes. Many refrigerators, including the American-made GE fridge in our kitchen, have a cutout in the door to access beverages and other small items without swinging the whole side open and wasting cold air. Air conditioners are about half as tall as their American counterparts and run much quieter. PCs are much smaller, from so-called "slimtop" home computers down to miniscule laptops like the Sony VAIO U series and the Toshiba Libretto. Cars are built smaller to use less gasoline (about $2.50-$3.00 a gallon here) but that doesn't stop families from buying the occasional minivan or luxury import.
My host family has been tolerant of my Japanese so far, and I've offered to help out with their English where possible. Sometimes, mistakes completely alter the intent of a sentence. When explaining that I was full after dinner, I offered "Zenbu taberareru mono o tabemashita," for what I thought was "I have eaten everything that I can eat." However, that second "I" isn't implicit like I thought it was, so it came out as "I have eaten everything that is edible." The word "I" is almost never explicit in Japanese, so these sorts of slipups are possible.
My host mother is best described as "multitalented." In addition to raising four children, she also runs a baking class, prepares meals, and teaches children at a nearby juku (cram school) once a week.
Odd moment tonight: after dinner, we were watching a baseball game on TV. All of a sudden, my host mother reaches into a bag and starts asking me if I like toumorokoshi. Not knowing what that word means, I ask if she knows the English translation. "Kon" she says, with a long 'o', which sounds like "cone." Cone? Koan? Kona? It's "corn," as she pulls an ear out of the bag. I pronounce it the English way and have a nice laugh as everyone in the room tries to mimic my exaggerated 'r' sound. The corn was fine, although (1) we ate it about an hour after dinner, and (2) my host mother has the unusual habit of manually pulling the kernels off the cob and eating them or distributing them, while my host father eats corn like I've seen most Americans do -- straight off the cob. Was it dessert? I don't think so, but it was good.
Today I finally got to Akihabara, Tokyo's "Electric Town," and I was not disappointed by what I saw. I did forget my passport, forfeiting my tax refund on purchases of more than 10,000 yen, but that didn't sour my trip too much. The first department store is accessible from the station platform, and so I was able to browse shelves of toys, games, and other fun things even before reaching street level. Leaving the station at ground level, bright neon colors burst from everywhere, brightly advertising what is on each floor of department stores that stretch eight or more levels up. Many of the large stores have escalators up, but only stairs and slow-moving elevators down, to seemingly discourage people from leaving right away. In addition to the department stores, where I got a few small things to send out, there are also countless stalls along the streets: some legit, some not. Most of the stores are open to negotiation, but I didn't feel like negotiating over anything today. There were some prices that were just silly, like a posted price of ¥10,000 ($83.33) for a bootleg 40-in-one Game Boy Advance cartridge. I remember my friends in elementary school and middle school had similar carts for the NES, which they got from similar stalls in Flushing, a neighborhood in Queens, N.Y. Only stupid tourists would pay more than $80 to get several semi- to non-working games hacked into a cartridge that could potentially damage a game console.
The trip wasn't a total bust: in addition to some postcards and a World Cup pin (all World Cup goods are discounted now), I picked up an electronic dictionary on the street for ¥10,000. It was on sale from ¥14,800, and also features handwriting recognition. It's not as advanced as some of the other dictionaries I saw, which ranged in price from ¥5000 ($41.67) to well over ¥40,000 ($333.33), but it should help me get through this summer. I plan to sell it to someone on campus in the fall since I won't be taking any more Japanese language courses.
If you've ever played the game "Shenmue" or been in an American supermarket, you've seen capsule vending machines. For ¥100 (in Shenmue; about 20 cents by the 1986 exchange rate) or 25 to 50 cents in the U.S today, you get a little toy in a plastic bubble. The toys don't do anything and are typically cheap plastic trinkets, but might calm down a crying young child. Akihabara features rows after rows of capsule toy machines that charge ¥200 ($1.67) or even ¥500 ($4.17) and dispense very large capsules containing toys to assemble. The machines aren't confined to Akihabara, but are still pretty impressive.
I'm still debating whether to invest some money in a mobile phone while here. The throwaway $20 models on sale at department stores have as many features as a top-of-the-line model from most American providers, but are cheap because fickle Japanese consumers have tossed them aside in favor of the latest and greatest. Thousands if not millions of Japanese consumers are getting phones with color displays and digital cameras built in, to communicate using multimedia on a network becoming increasingly capable of 3G speeds (144 kbps). One of the stores I visited had a clamshell e-mail device for ¥1800 ($15.00) that, if it can access any IMAP server, could be a great bargain. I'll have to investigate.
I've been looking forward to schoolchildren randomly coming up to me and trying their English out. Today I got my first chance, but didn't realize it. After exiting Ogikubo station, a team of elementary school soccer players were getting on a bus. One of them looked at me and said "harao." Not understanding him, I said nothing. The child said it again. "Harao! Harao!" Only after he had gotten on the bus did I realize what he was trying to say. "Hello." Maybe he was learning English from someone with a strong Australian accent.
There are thousands of 7-Eleven stores in Japan, but they do not have Slurpees or any of the other items that an American might associate with them. They do have PlayStation games, lunch boxes, and a variety of snacks and drinks.
Japan has embraced baseball to the extent where it is displacing sumo as the national sport. Some say that it already has, with stylish baseball players commanding millions in endorsement deals and hoping to make it big in America. "Ichiro" has become a colloquial adjective for something really cool, from the name of Seattle Mariners star Ichiro Suzuki who played for nine years in Japan with great success and is still doing very well in the U.S. There are many things about Japanese baseball that differ from the U.S. version. Fences surround the stands even in the outfield. When a foul ball heads towards the fans, an alarm horn is sounded. The foul ball is expected to be returned by the fan who catches it, even if it's from the fan's favorite team. The one thing that got me, though, is the home run prize. Any player who hits a home run is rewarded with a prize when he touches home plate. In the case of the Yomiuri Giants, each player gets a large plush toy of the team's mascot after each home run. That's one toy per player per home run. After the game, the players who hit home runs come out of the dugout -- with prizes in hand -- for interviews. I thought that the prizes only apply to home teams, but my host father noted that prizes are given out by every team in every game, home and away. Of all the things that could have caused Japan's long-running economic depression, don't consider low discretionary spending.
Sunday will probably be spent working on this one job application test that I have, and possibly some Internet connection time. I will likely only be able to check mail while on campus, and I won't have my laptop on me to push front page updates. We'll see how things work out over the next few weeks.