Sunday, November 27, 2011

End Week 2

Today was interesting. 25km bike ride from Matsudo to Shin-Urayasu (新浦安駅)for exercise and coffee with an old classmate. So far I have been pretty lucky just following Country Highway 6 (コクドウ六号線)to get around. Crossing over Edogawa was a cool moment. Although its mostly paved over with asphalt and built up as far as the eye can see, immediately next to the river are tall marshy areas...I think I saw a prime picnic spot, no vacancy today however. What nature is left alongside this wide river makes me somehow nostalgic for a time not my own. If only I had brought some of my textbooks from Pre-Modern Japanese Lit. I would search out some ancient poets romantic view of the river and that would suffice, but alas no textbook, and the only romance was had by the picnicking couple among the reeds.

After a pleasant coffee at Shin-Urayasu station, I said goodbye to my old friend and began the trek back. It took me 2 hours to travel 25km earlier that day with only a few navigational errors. I had hoped to cut this time in half on the way home. Unfortunately my strength (and girth) proved to much for my new, shiny, black bicycle. Not even 20 minutes into my return trip did the handle bars give out, sliding from side to side in a most unsettling fashion. It proved to be only a slight impedance as I was able to hold the handle bar in a neutral position with one hand and steer with the other. However, the one thing I have learned about bicycling culture in Japan is that this sport requires both hands at the wheel at all times. Why? one might ask. Well, side walks being as tight as they are, roads as equally tight, you must be focused at all times, watching for pedestrians, automobiles, and other bicyclists. I would say 50% of my ride today involved negotiating around pedestrian traffic. There are several ways to do this. My favorite is clinging the bicycle's bell loudly. An unspoken rule in Japan: when this bell is sounded, pedestrians usually yield the sidewalk to the bicyclist coming up behind them. And when the sidewalk is narrow enough for a single-file-line and no more? Then either I, the bicyclist, fall into line and wait patiently, or I jump the curb into the narrow car lane and go around. The quickest and fastest biking is achieved by the latter of these two.

Partially handicapped with a lame handle bar, I nearly ran into 4 different people on my way home, having to practically jump from the bike to avoid hitting the last guy. All because I did not have the use of my clinger. I hope to JB WELD the handle bar back in place tomorrow as I am fairly certain I stripped the bugger. Made it home safely in the end, and my consolation, home made teriyaki chicken and 90 yen sushi rolls, delicious to the last morsel!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

So you say you're colorblind...


Serendipity, I am in love with such a cool concept. An underlying theme throughout this "Nulla Dies" blog. Personally, I also enjoy the Japanese term 大冒険 (daibouken, DIE-BOW-KEN) which means "great adventure." Quite often, I think to myself, "Today's another great day for a daibouken."

The pretext for today's daibouken: Three years ago, the last time I visited with my aunt and cousins here in Japan, I attended the basketball practice of one of my 5 Japanese-American cousins. Team name: Matsudo Bears. Grade school ball. I had the good fortune of meeting a parent of another player. A Japanese man, nickname: Mitch. Mitch was and still is the head of the Bioinorganic Chemistry department at Japanese largest and premiere University, Tokyo University [Toudai (pr. TOW-die) for short]. After explaining my interest and personal background in Science studies, Mitch offered me a tour of his lab and the Toudai campus. I was not able to accept his invitation due to conflicting schedules. That is, until today.

Today's Daibouken: Having arrived about an hour early to the Tokyo University campus, I did as I always do with extra time on my hands, I followed my feet. Today I was led to the Tokyo University Hospital. Previously, I cemented a die-hard interest in medical history when I took an elective course at UW-Madison entitled Medical History and Pharmacology as presented by Dr. Scarborough in the UW Pharmacy School. So, when I discovered the Tokyo University Hospital museum, I was overjoyed. I spent that hour reading up on the history of the Hospital. With such a rich history of innovation and discovery within the medical realm, I couldn't possibly begin to relate the finer details of my findings.

However, I will describe the following encounter. As I sauntered around the museum to the various displays I came across one describing the origins of the colorblindness test. You know, that book of about 20 pages with tiny multicolor dots with a number in the center. Well, you guessed it, origins of that test are in Japan at Tokyo University.
An example of the test was on display. The original test used Japanese characters, hiragana, instead of numbers as we use in the West.

色覚障害試験(しきかくしょうがいしけん)の例: An example of the Japanese Ishihara Test for color-blindness.

As I was standing there reading the display's description, an elderly Japanese man, short in stature with an edified air about him, came up beside me to read the display. At the same moment, we both turned to the book of dots. Having just failed the test two weeks prior with less than 50% I had a keen interest in this display. I have always done poorly with color recognition. I have even made it habit to consulate others when coordinating dress shirts and ties with my suit. Anyway, we both look at the book on display. This man turns to me and tells me in Japanese and broken English that he can't see the hiragana at all. I exclaimed, "Me too!" as if I had just met a kindred spirit. We proceeded to take the test together, laughing like two old friends when neither of us could discern what was on the page. Then turning to the answer and description, again written all in Japanese, we laughed some more. If an English-only speaker had been there standing with us, this is the impression of a dialogue I imagine they would have had.

Old man: Oh I can't see anything at all!
Jon: You too? I can't see anything either, haha!
O: I am colorblind
J: You are colorblind? Me too! Let's be friends.
O: Haha, ok let's be friends.

Hey, thats just how I imagine things. When you meet an Ojiisan (Japanese for Grandpa; pr. oh-JEE-san) at the museum and you are telling the story, you can imagine it however you want. :-D

But I digress. As with all good things, my time with Ojiisan came to an end. We said our good-byes and parted ways. He continued on with his tour of the museum and I left to meet Mitch for lunch and a tour of the Campus and his lab. The latter part of this particular Tuesday was an adventure in and of itself, and to Mitch: I am grateful, sir, for your generous spirit and kindness. Perhaps another entry I will dedicate to you. But for all intents and purposes, I dedicate this passage to my "chromatically-challenged" friend, Ojiisan. Thanks for sharing a few laughs Old Boy.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The next chapter, "Lost in Transition"

Alright, so I had a bit of a slow start getting to Japan. I didn't have much luck with the jobs I had lined up so I made up my mind and came on my own looking for work. The day I decided to leave was arbitrary; November 9th, 2011. I had a 6am flight from Chicago O'hare. Heading to Tokyo, by way of Toronto. Why Toronto you might ask? In fact, a dear uncle pointed out that very fact, stating "But aren't you going the wrong way!" Yes, but with good reason. It was some $250 cheaper to fly this route than a direct flight from Chicago O'hare. In retrospect I should have just taken the direct flight.

Here is how that first day unfolded: After not sleeping well for two days prior due to the excitement of the trip coupled with my manic-panic packing and repacking mode, my body gave in and overslept one hour on the day I was to drive 2 hours to Chicago ORD for a 6 am flight to Toronto and as we all know international flights require extra time for customs and baggage inspections. I made it to the airport in record time from Whitewater, WI (1hr40min). It would have been faster except I got lost driving the last 2 miles of the trip, which any of my 5 siblings will tell you, I am notorious for doing. A troubling trait I wish I could shake. Anyway, I arrive at the airport at 5:20 AM, but I went to the wrong terminal (Terminal 5 which I normally fly out of when going to Japan). Arriving at the ticket desk at 5:35am out of breathe, the lady explained I could not make my 6:00 AM flight and pointed out this is an INTERNATIONAL flight...I almost said "yeah, but its Canada" but decided to hold my tongue. She was right after all. In all of my preparations to leave I never really equated my jump to Toronto the real "leaving the country" flight. I mean it was only 1hr50min flight compared to the 13hr flight to Tokyo.

In any case, it was this ill-prepared mindset that got me into trouble. I missed the 6 o'clock flight. Ticket-counter lady noticed my flight out of Toronto was not departing until 12pm and thought I could make the 8am flight from Chicago to Toronto in time to catch the Boeing 777 to Tokyo. I did not object since my former roommmate and dear friend(aka Grandma Gabrielle) had already driven off into the sunrise taking my cellphone which I purposely left for her to cancel service.

The ensuing flight to Toronto was uneventful. Although I did have one pleasant exchange that may have bordered on flirtation (I am pretty sure, but maybe not), age about mid to upper 30s, a business-like blonde woman, gave me a compliment on my ring as we were walking onto the jetway. I thanked her for the compliment and confirmed that her last stop was indeed Toronto, her home. Since a line had formed and we were standing on the jetway with nowhere to go, carry-on baggage in tow, I continued the conversation describing my intentions for work and travel to Japan. She responded by asking my age. I told her forthwith, 25 years. "So young!" she declared. Not quite the response I had hoped for (I mean, what young adult really wants to here that. Seriously...thats why I put the ring on, hellooo?). I thought, "It's not the years but the mileage," but decided it was a moot point when she suddenly asked me to return the compliment. I almost stammered trying to be polite, saying "Oh yeah, you look young...too, you must be what 30, 31?" While I was really thinking 36,37. I don't think any angels will weep for that little white lie, but, well the guilt, I could have been me who cut down the cherry tree. The rest of the trip to Toronto was uneventful. Then we landed...

With the time change (which previously had been overlooked by myself and the Ticket-counter lady) it was 11:05 AM when I exited the plane, receiving "Good luck in Japan" from one particular well-wisher. I thanked her, and zoom through Canadian customs I went, claimed and re-checked my bags at 11:20 AM. Then sprinted desperately to the wrong terminal, again.
11:30 AM Arabic, elderly female tells me my gate is way on the other side of Toronto's Pearson International. Run, run, run to the other side of the airport. Through the metal detectors. Stop to have my hands swabbed for bacteria (a seemingly common practice there). And finally arrive at my gate at 11:45 AM. I hand the lady my ticket and she stares at me as if I am a ghost.
"But we already off loaded you."
"What does that mean? Is there no way I can get on that plane right there?"
"No, you can't fly without your bags internationally. Plus you should have arrived at least 2 hours before."
"...story of my life."

The next flight was not until the next day. I rescheduled. Then I sought and found my baggage. With my bags surrounding me like a State Street hobo, I sat dejected. Deciding if I wanted to either stay 24 hours in the airport or start tapping the $250 I saved by flying this ludicrous route, give in, and get a hotel room. Although I would not have acted on it (probably), the thought did cross my mind like a flash of lightening. "If only I had exchanged contact info with my ring admirer." But immediately dismissed it thinking "She wasn't THAT young."

Two hours later, I had made up my mind. The best thing to do before a long flight is to rest up. I have tried staying up the night before the Chicago to Tokyo flight, and believe me, it just makes me one grumpy traveler. So I went down to the airport exit to see what hotels had shuttles for the airport. And something wonderful happened. A lady who volunteers at a traveler's helpdesk in the Pearson Airport recommended a hotel, the Comfort Hotel Airport North, where she had just made a reservation for another poor, unfortunate soul, lost in transition. I now know she had worked a steal of a deal, one night non-smoking for $76, $20 cheaper than their online price. And her services for making the reservation, completely free and volunteer.

The hotel was pretty decent too. You think I would have learned my lesson by now about trying to save money while traveling. I think I got pretty lucky. And when I saw the Woodbine & Mohawk
Racetrack/Casino across the street, I felt like I hit the jackpot with this hotel. I spent a couple hours at the casino playing with the free chips I got from the hotel. I didn't exactly hit the jackpot. In fact I lost it all on the slots. (I hate slot machines so much). But for a while there I forgot just how unlucky I was this, well, until I lost $30 on slots. Time for a pick me up, I thought, and I walked across the street to the mall on my way "home" and ate a giant, delicious Cinnabon while watching them made fresh. There is so much butter that goes into a Cinnabon, I kind of wanted to stop watching right then and there but I couldn't. My theory is that they have aerosolized some drug disguised by the cinnamon which makes their cinnamon roles so mesmerizing.

I also grabbed breakfast for the next day at an omnipresent and popular food chain called Tim Horton's. This chain reminds me of a preppy Dunkin Donuts shop, great donuts and sandwiches. I recommend trying the maple cream filled. Not that it was spectacular or anything (by no means was it a Japanese Mr. Donut), I just thought, "It tastes like Canada." And if Dunkin Donuts is what America runs on, you can be pretty certain that Canada runs on Tim Horton's.

After a terrific nights sleep and a hot shower, I was raring to go. And I am pleased to announce I made it to the airport with well over 2 hours to spare. Lesson learned Fate, you harsh mistress. Oh but you, my dear, had one last hand to play, didn't you? Yes, because I had to check in again my bags were scrutinized far more closely than they had the day before at Chicago when I was running late. My bags were well over the 23 kilo limit for international flights on AirCanada. In fact, my bags both were over 30 kilos (some 65 pounds). The most I have every carried. Never again. Phoenix, my ticketing lady, said it would be $100 per bag. I couldn't believe it. I expressed my discontent and this sweet, sweet lady heard my tale of woes. Because she also had a son living in Japan at the time, she was lenient and only charged me for one bag. I could have hugged her I was so elated. In the end though, I had spent all of the $250 I saved. With the baggage fees and such, it wasn't worth the hassle. Now if I hadn't overslept, I might be singing a different tune.

The flight went smoothly and I finally got to watch a few sequels I had missed earlier this year. Namely Cars 2 and Hangover 2. I sheepishly admit I enjoyed both to the extent that I was laughing out loud on the airplane. Yes, I was "that foreigner" on a flight full of Asian tourists fresh from Niagra Falls, laughing loud and long because my headset was turned up all the way and I couldn't hear myself. Perspective is so important. The flight went smoothly. I cleared customs and picked up my bags without a hiccup. Always pretend to know very little Japanese so the Customs agent does not sit and ask you a ton of questions as their English usually isn't their strong suit. I, thankfully, have mastered this skill on prior trips.
And when all of this charade was done, I was finally released from customs and entered Japan. I affectionately call this chapter "Lost in Transition."

A New Beginning

Having arrived in Japan one week ago, I thought it would be beneficial to start an online diary of my time here to keep myself on pace and focused. The title for this blog is "Nulla dies sine linea." This is Latin for "never a day without a line," a phrase I learned early on from my great-grandfather Walter Alwin, a seminarian from Concordia University and graduate of Harvard Divinity School where he studied Semetic languages.

The phrase is used nowadays to inspire writers to delve into their trade and keep them motivated as a quick search on google will reveal a number of blogs relating to such. But the way Grandpa Wally taught it was like this: no matter what the task is at hand, no matter how big or small, just get started and keep at it. If you want to start a journal, write one line a day. If you want to learn a foreign language, for example Japanese, learn a phrase a day. Everyday work at said task line by line, letter by letter, or in my case kanji by kanji. And before you know it the task will be finished.

My task is to keep an online diary of my time in Japan. I dedicate this online journal to the memory of Wally Alwin.