Hakone and Izu Peninsula

Finally, time for a new post, although not as detailed as the last ones.

School life goes on, we have a small vocab test each morning, followed by some grammar reviews, then new grammar is introduced and practiced. In the afternoons, we have some listening and kanji excercises.
I have applied to take the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), level N3 (N5 being the easiest, N1 the hardest) in early December. Thankfully, the school will provide us with copies of good books to prepare for the test.

Last weekend (Sunday the 18th) , we (12 Vulcanus guys and girls) made our first trip outside of Tokyo, to the Hakone area, known for its hot springs and awesome sights. After a quick visit to Odawara and its castle, with a museum of things from ancient Japan, we headed towards Lake Ashi. Armed with a travel pass for the whole area, we boarded a “pirate ship” to cross the lake, passing the red torii gate of Hakone Shrine, with a beautiful view of Mt. Fuji (sadly, without snow this time of year), and continued to take a ropeway to get a view from higher up. A steep cable car ride and some mountain railway stops later, we ended the day at a little outdoor onsen hot spring.
Once again, we were surprised by the friendliness of the local people: The owner of a small supermarket saw us waiting for the bus, and two minutes later, each of us was holding two bananas from his little shop, which he had just given to us before wishing us a safe journey. And after I offered up my seat in the crowded bus to a lady travelling with her elderly mother, I was rewarded with a little pack of camembert from her picknick sack.
Pictures of this trip here.

The following weekend, James, Jana, Sylwia and I decide to head back to the area, but keep on going down to Izu Peninsula. We started on the southern town of Shimoda, which looked a bit run down and seemed to have lost some of its former glory as a seaside town, so most boats and yachts lay forgotten on the shore. A path went along the rocky coastline, where many people were fishing. On a small island, connected by a bridge, we found some small buddhist jizo statues inside a miniature shinto shrine, which was an interesting combination. For sunset, we headed to the western coast at Dogashima, with some picturesque, and climbable rock formations stood out of the sea. The most challenging part of the journey, however, was finding the little guesthouse where we would spend the night. From the station and over a bridge, a small and completely unlighted road led up a hill, with other unnamed streets forking off. Using our cellphones as flashlights (it was already pitch-dark at the time) and a tiny map for orientation, we managed to find the place, which turned out to be a guesthouse with nice Japanese-style rooms (with tatami mats, shoji sliding doors and futons instead of matresses), but with little privacy, as the toilet was behind a (milk-glass-windoed) door accessible directly from the living room, and another one from the kitchen. And the sliding doors separating us from the other rooms let every sigh and snore through. I had heard about the lack of privacy in Japanese homes many times, now I finally experienced it myself. The other guest we met was a Japanese woman (Age? Impossible to guess, somewhere between 20 and 50) who visits the peninsula four times a year, to experience the beauty of each season.
The next day, we went to see the seaside park in Jogasaki and ended the trip with another visit to the onsen, this time, with an outdoor panoramic bath overlooking the ocean.
Pictures of this trip here.


School has started!

The first week of school is over, and it’s time for a new post!

The week began with a meeting at the EU-Japan Centre on monday, regarding some stuff like mobile phones, opening the bank account, etc, followed by the official welcome reception (some speeches) and dinner party. Gathered around a massive buffet of sushi, spaghetti and fruits, accompanied by beer and sake, were us 30 Vulcanus students, together with the people from the Centre, as well as some representatives from different embassies and companies (though noone from Germany). Probably the most interesting ones were the invited alumni of the “Vulcanus in Europe”, Japanese students who had been in different European countries for a year, just as we are doing in Japan. We had some nice conversations, mixing English, Japanese, and other languages the others had learnt in Europe. Afterwards, we went on with some of them to an Izakaya to drink and talk some more.

Tuesday was SoftBank day. Since we all were eager to get Japanese cellphones, we headed towards the SoftBank shop (one of the three major cellphone carriers) in Shibuya. To make a long story short, we came out of there many questions, lots of decisions, a few refused credit cards and five or six hours later; not everyone with a phone in hand. Since we needed a bank account to get a phone, and a phone to get a bank account, many of us ended using our European credit cards to settle the deal. So now I am a proud owner of a nice little sliding-keyboard, 3D-picture-capable Sharp Galapagos cellphone. I have already been able to browse the internet, use the integrated Japanese-English dictionary and install a flash-card study program to practice my vocabulary and kanji.

And on Wednesday, school started. The Naganuma Language School near Shibuya has about 500 people learning Japanese at any point in time (according to the chariman’s speech). We were split up into five groups of between four and seven people, depending on our previous knowledge. I am in the advanced course together with Enrique (ES), Przemek (PL) and Krisztina (HU), and although some have slightly more experience and kanji reading practice than others, i feel that everyone is in the right class. Our teacher is Ishigawa-Sensei, a kind and energetic man in his late 30’s (Almost all other teachers are women). The pace of the course is really fast: It took me about 3 years to reach chapter 34 of the “Minna no nihongo” book, and we are scheduled to get to lesson 50 within one month!! This is why a study application on the phone is useful, to cram vocab on the train or at home. School starts at 10 AM and ends at 4 PM, with a one hour recess inbetween, in which a woman from a nearby chinese restaurant stands in the school-yard offering well-priced bento boxes. Although, on the long run it will probably be cheaper when I start making my lunchbox at home… On mondays, wednesdays and fridays, the last hour will be used as private lesson time, in which only one or two students of the class stay in school for a personal tutoring, I don’t yet know when my first one will be, though.

One fun highlight of the lessons so far was the first “task” we got (there will apparently be a different task every tuesday and thursday afternoon): To call the information hotline to get the phone number of some attraction in Tokyo, such as Tokyo Tower or the Ueno Zoo, and then to call that establishment and inquire about opening hours, holidays, entry fees and the nearest station. Even though it was relatively simple Japanese, talking on the phone really is a LOT more difficult than a face-to-face conversation!! In the end, each of us got the information just fine.

Saturday meant a trip to the Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa, one of the biggest and oldest buddhist temples in Tokyo. For lunch we went to an Okonomiyaki place nearby. At each table, you have a hot plate in the middle on which you can prepare your own meal after ordering the ingredients, or have the shop owner do it for you if -as in our case- noone really knows the technique just yet. In the evening we went for a dring with some of the Vulcanus in EU guys, some stayed out after, but I decided to take a train home before service stopped at around 1 o’clock (can you believe it? Even Karlsruhe has trams running all through the night!), tired from the walking and the intense language lessons. Sunday was a stay-at-home day, to finish unpacking, do some food shopping, clean the room… and of course, write this blog!

I apologize in advance for probably not being able to update the blog as frequently in the coming weeks, since school and sightseeing will really keep me busy. I promise to publishe some short comments and pictures every once in a while!

Here are some pictures of a small shinto shrine we found hidden in Shinjuku, and of the great Senso-ji buddhist temple in Asakusa. And click here to see me walking over the famous street crossing in Shibuya!

Crazy Japan: Shibuya, Akihabara, Harajuku

Our first trip as a group (though not everybody made it, we were about 20 out of 30) was on Saturday, through the busy streets of Shibuya, starting from the Statue of Hachiko the Faithful Dog and going across the famous street crossing. Walking through town with so many people is hard, since everybody wants to stop and see different things or check out different stores, and little by little, small groups started splitting off throughout the day. After looking for some electronic dictionaries, we decided to go to the Electric Town of Akihabara, where there would be plenty of models to choose from.

Akihabara: Electronics shops, small market-like stands selling everything from light bulbs and laptops to copper wire and every cable/adaptor imaginable, girls in cute outfits inviting us into one of many Maid Cafes (from simple maids, to vampire and mermaid-themed , and of course, game arcades. The variety of games in there is amazing, and so is the mad skill of the people in front of the machines. There are musical games (one á la Guitar Hero, but with around nine buttons to press!), fighting games, toy machines, some games we didn’t even bother to try to understand, ….
My absolute favorite though, was the “Table flipping game”. You stand in front of the machine, which consists of a small plastic table, and a screen. After selecting a character, a small movie plays, in my case, a businessman coming home and finding (probably) a disgusting dinner waiting for him. To express his frustration, you must now bang your hands on the (physical) table, and on the screen you will see the effect, in the form of bottles falling over, and dishes rattling. This repeats several time, until your “anger” reaches a maximum, and you simply flip the table up, sending your virtual food and dishes flying through the air. As they crash into other household items, you see how much damage you create (breaking a cup: 500 yen, smashing a window: 20000 yen) and view multiple replays of the destruction taking place. Your anger is now relieved, and you can walk away knowing that those 100 yen you put into the machine were money well spent!

In the evening we went to check out the local supermarket at Takadanobaba. My first impressions were that white bread slices here are about double as thick as the ones at home, and everything seems a bit more expensive, though we may not have yet found the cheapest place. To give you an idea, four bananas, a pack of five (!) slices of bread, some ham, milk and cereal (which comes in tiny tiny bags of just below 300g) came out to be about 950 yen, or 8 and something Euros. Back home, we noticed that, while we have exactly one bowl, plate, spoon, pot, pan, meat flipper, and even a rice cooker, knife and fork are missing.

Sunday started with a trip to Harajuku, to see the funky shops and interesting people walking around Takeshita Street, the bridge to Yoyogi park and the park itself. From Cosplay to Rockabilly, this place reminds me of the “Chopo” in Mexico City. Of course, a visit to the Meiji Shrine came next. To see the sunset, we decided to go up the tower of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building to the 200m high observatory. But because of the heavy clouds, and humid air, the view was not as satisfactory as it would probably be on a clear winter day, so the photo session there was postponed.

Coming back to Takadanobaba after dining at a Kaitenzushi restaurant (the ones with plates on moving conveyor belts), we stumbled across some funny teenagers (one guy, two girls), who thought James (one of our group) was “handsome and kawaii (cute)”. We ended up talking at the station while they waited for the next train, they gave us some “purikura” stickers of themeselves posing in various funny ways, they started dancing when James and Diederik revealed they knew some dance moves from Korean and Japanese pop music, and were just generally very lively and overly friendly. In the end we exchanged e-mail addresses, so they might join us for Karaoke or something in the days to come! Fun stuff!

As the title suggests, the pictures are to show you the wild, crazy and hyperactive side of Japan.

Home sweet home, and mysterious memberships

Woke up at 5 AM today, just as expected..

After a breakfast at the hotel (a combination of eggs with bacon and rice with natto) we went to the EU-Japan Center for a brief introduction, and a schedule for the upcoming days. Though the presentation seemed largely improvised, with the boss of the Center basically repeating everything that Keiko-san (the lady in charge of the Vulcanus Programme) had said just a minute earlier, we did get some useful information. After the talk and a quick meal bought at the convenience store downstairs, a HR-Woman of Hitachi picked me and four other guys up to take us to our dormitory.

From today, until early January, I will stay at a single room in Takadanobaba, complete with my own bathroom, a tiny tiny kitchen, some utensils (even a rice cooker) and free internet. Valerio (IT), Diederik (NL), Dominic (UK) and my future colleague at the internship site in Kudamatsu, James (UK) are also staying in the same residence. Amazingly, we arrived at about 2:10 PM, and our luggage, which we had given up at the airport and set the delivery time between 2 and 4 PM, had already been carried up inside our rooms. Japanese efficiency at its best.

Shortly after, we went to the Shinjuku City Hall to register as citizens, and to get the certificate necessary for getting a bank account and a mobile phone contract. We even got some nice leaflets on life in Japan, ranging from garbage sorting to what to do in the case of an earthquake.

In the evening, after settling down in what will be our home for the next four months, we (the Takadanobaba group) set out to explore our part of town, and buy some notebooks for school while we were at it. While strolling down the busy streets we came across a group of about six young Japanese guys, which described themselvesas “a few students, a few workers and a few NEETs”, which turned out to stand for neither in education, employment or training, just like the Spanish “NiNi”. They were really friendly, but it was obvious one of them had had just a beer too much, and he kept rambling on about Tokyo and its nightlife, without making any sense.

While their little group went on to go to a “Girls bar” (we are still not quite sure what that implies), we headed for an Izakaya close to the dorm, which some exchange students from the US had recommended, adding that it was a good idea to get amember card for the place. So we went, and despite long explanations (in Japanese) by one of the employees, we weren’t really sure what the benefits becoming a member would be. After a long discussion, we decided to simply apply for the membership (whatever it meant, it was only 300 yen) and go in for a beer. Little did we know that we were also required to order at least one food dish per person, although we had just come from having dinner, and the ice cream which would have been the perfect dessert, did not classify as “food”, so we ended up with a second dinner in the form of roasted chicken on a stick. And in the end, the membership even paid out with good discounts (why couldn’t they just explain that in a simple way?), so we might just go there again in the future.

I’ll attach some photos of the way from the Station to our dormitory, as well as different shots of my room.


Welcome to Tokyo!

About 7 hours ago I arrived at Tokyo Narita, after a nice flight and an unexpectedly good sleep. My seat neighbor was Masayoshi, a Japanese guy studying History who was on his way back from a month-long stay in Freiburg. His German was decent but he wanted to keep on practicing, so I couldn’t yet put much of my Japanese skills to the test. At least he gave me some awesome hints as to where to find good stuff and cheap food around the apartment into which I’ll move tomorrow, and which will by my home for the next four month. More on that, probably tomorrow.

At the hotel, I was greeted by a small group of tired-looking Vulcanus colleagues, but there was no time to be wasted so after a quick shower, we went out to look for dinner. We got lucky at a small Udon Noodle shop in Akasaka. Instead of ordering at a counter, or asking a waiter, you have to put your money into a machine with a button for each dish they offer. It prints a ticket, which you take to your seat, then a nice lady reads the ticket, yells your order to the kitchen and around 5 seconds later, your dinner is ready to eat. Plus, free green tea!

Afterwards we took a stroll down Akasaka-Dori, ending at the Hie Shrine, a nice shinto temple on a tiny hill in the middle of the city. It was closed and dimly lit, but some lanterns were still shining, it had a nice atmosphere. And even up there you could get a nice cold drink out of the vending machine, while the spirits watched. In the end we somehow managed to find our way back to the hotel through the small and nameless streets of Akasaka. Tomorrow we will have a briefing at the EU-Japan Center, and we’ll all know more about the upcoming weeks and months. And hopefully, my camera will capture some first impressions to share here. Until then, I’m off to sleep, hoping that jetlag will spare me from waking up at 5 in the morning..

T minus 5 days…

So this is it, the gazillionth blog about some dude in Japan!

Here, I will ocassionally share with you some of my adventures and misadventures in Japan, as well as any random encounters I might have during this one year stay in 日本. I decided to keep it in English to ensure that everybody can read it without me having to think up a Spanish, German and Japanese version for everything. I make no promises as to how often I will post updates or what I will write about.

The gist is that, thanks to the “Vulcanus in Japan” program, organized and financed by the EU-Japan Centre for Industrial Cooperation, me and 29 other lucky guys and girls from all across Europe will be spending four months together in Tokyo, going to a language school, getting to know the city and generally having a good time! Afterwards, we each go to different companies to do an 8 month traineeship. As for me, I’ll be working in the town of Kudamatsu in the south of Japan, at at Hitachi’s “Rolling Stock Manufacturing Department”, where different trains -including the Shinkansen Bullet Train– are produced and assembled. Cool!

I hope to give you a glimpse into life in Japan via this blog. Feel free to read, look at the pictures, and comment or ask if you want! I’m excited to see how this turns out.

The next post will come shortly after I land in Tokyo on September 1st, at around 15:00 hrs local time (which converts to 8:00 in Germany and 1:00 in Mexico City ). Stay tuned…