They threw an autumn in for free

Things are starting to get a little chilly indeed in Tokyo at the moment – they have one of those autumn things here! By which I mean that the trees change colour and everything:

The street I work on is a rather nice tree-lined avenue, so I was looking forward to seeing it all blazing red. Just as the first leaves began to change, though, a council crew came through and stripped the entire street of foliage within 1 hour while I wasn’t looking. I’ve been told that this is because they were ginkgo trees, and this is the time of year they drop their rather odorous fruit. Still – bah to the council. Just because they’re universally described as smelling “exactly like vomit”, that’s no cause for discrimination.

The red leaves don’t last long and sadly, in Tokyo, there’s only certain places you’ll be able to see those “tree” things. So, it’s a good time to go traveling. Kyoto is said to be one of the most spectacular places to visit at this time, and it’s a relatively short (3 hour) and expensive ($150 AUD) bullet train ride there. Unfortunately, bad timings put an end to that plan for now.

While I didn’t get to Kyoto, I was able to visit Kawagoe, a historic town about 45 minutes train ride from Tokyo.

As you can see, a lot of the buildings are wooden constructions, which has ensured the rebuilding of the city after several major fires over its history. When it’s not a hellish inferno, it’s quite a charming place indeed.

Within the city, there are plenty of shrines and museums. It has a very nice small-town feel to it which is very welcome after the cluttered, cement-paved madness of Tokyo.

This picture is a little interesting in that is shows that two different eras in Japan’s history. The European-influenced building in the back belongs to the Meiji Restoration period beginning in the second half of the 19th century. At this time Japan ended a long isolationist policy, welcoming foreign trading partners and beginning to change into the modern economic power it is today.

What’s more interesting is how it came about. An American by the name of Commodore Matthew Perry (no relation, though he was reportedly much funnier) parked some gunboats (known as the Black Ships) off the coast of Japan near Yokohama. He politely asked that the Japanese government sign a “Treaty of Peace and Amity” providing trading rights to Western powers or he would blow the living bejezzus out of them. They signed, forever validating the use of “gunboat diplomacy” as “awesome“.

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Cramming time

Oh, the relief after university at never facing another exam again. Or so I thought.  It’s exam season!  Mr Textbook, we meet again… but this time, the advantage is yours.  Once again.

December 2 in Japan is the day of the annual, worldwide Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). There are four levels, from four (beginner) to one (many universities or job require that you have this level). Lots of foreigners I’ve met in Japan only go as far as level two, which is good enough to get by in daily life. Level one is by all accounts Very Hard, so you’ve got to have a significant reason to want to tackle it.

Me though – I’m just going for level four this time around.  So, it’s back to the books for me.  Here’s my current studying environment.  I tidied it up for the photo.  You’re welcome.

From the top left, clockwise:

  1. 24 inch multi purpose TV / monitor.  I put it close to my books because I like to be easily distracted.  That helps me appreciate the time I spend studying all the more.
  2. Notebook – I feel I should write random things down as I study, as it seems like the thing to do.
  3. Past exam book (brown) – yes, you can buy last years paper and listening exam for the modest fee of 1200 yen ($12 AUD).  Very handy, especially if you want to confirm that you are, indeed, doomed come exam day.
  4. Far-too-expensive Apple wireless keyboard – I buy all technology based on whether it matches my furniture.
  5. TV remote control – unhelpfully, all the buttons are marked in Japanese.  Helpfully, there aren’t many, so mashing it with a balled-up fist makes it do things.
  6. Nintendo DS – it’s for study, really!  The kanji lookup software I bought when I first got here is worth it’s weight in gold.  Here’s someone demoing it on YouTube, too.
  7. Gulliver’s Travels (in Japanese) – a friend gave me this book, and it’s great because a) I know the basic story already, b) it explains how to pronounce all the difficult characters, c) it’s designed for kindergarten kids, which means that d) it’s got pictures.  Lots of pretty pictures.  It really is useful for reading practice though, and it helps get the hang of right-to-left, top-to-bottom reading.
  8. JLPT exam cram book – this is my bible at the moment.  It lists out exactly what you need to know.

Wow, with all these study aides, how could I fail?  Well, you’re forgetting about number 1, the honking big desktop TV / monitor:

That appears to be a man dressed in pleather sitting on a women wearing not much at all.  I think he just suplexed her.

Study, or crazy Japanese wrestling?  No contest really.  As an added bonus, watching Japanese TV is often far more amusing if you have no idea what is going on.  And I certainly did not.

I hope there’s questions about that on the exam.

In Japan, candy plays practical jokes on YOU

 Excellent, another strangely named confectionery for my rapidly appreciating collection – “Look Orchestra”:

At first, I had hoped this was a convenience store prank, like they were trying to convince me that there were some timpani sneaking up behind me.  Sadly, I was mistaken.

The mystery was later revealed by a co-worker – the brand is called “Look”, and the chocolate is called “Orchestra”, apparently because it has an “orchestra” of flavours inside.  Having tried it now, I don’t know if I can agree with the “orchestra” rating.  It was nice, but I would have to rate it somewhere between “slightly above-average high-school string quartet” and “toothless old man playing decent harmonica”.

“Look Toothless Old Man Playing Decent Harmonica” would be the most awesome name for a candy ever.

Walking with Maid-o-saurs

I don’t think I would have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself:

(Click to make it bigger)

Very roughly translated, it says:

Walk with a maid

Explanation: walk around Akihabara and spend some time with a maid on a shopping date.  We’ll have an enjoyable time!

Rates:

1 hour: AUD $60
3 hour “pack”: AUD $165
5 hour “pack”: AUD $250
Additional 35 minutes: $35

Maid cafes are already quite (in)famous in the Akihabara electronics-wonderland district.  Once you enter the cafe (apparently), I hear (through unsubstantiated conjecture) that the waitstaff are usually young ladies who (supposedly) wear maid outfits and address customers very reverentially, as they would an employer.  Allegedly.  To be fair, the equivalent “butler cafes” also exist.

“Walk with a maid” takes it to another level.  As it says, you’re paying for the company of a young lady who’s dressed like a maid or a 60’s airline hostess.  She’ll walk around on your arm (and be seen in public with you, no less!) as you tour the unequalled geeky surrounds of Akihabara, no doubt pretending to be amazed of your exploits about that time you totally owned that guy in World of Warcraft.  I was also told the story of a guy who hired one of these young ladies to go to Tokyo Disneyland for a day with him, which cost over AUD $1000.  That story makes me a little depressed.

So, it’s all generally innocent as far as I can tell, but there is something just a little bit disturbing about it…