Last month was the Japanese high-school baseball tournament, which is far bigger than professional baseball here (and that's saying something). The tournament starts with somewhat over 4000 teams. The final 48 or 49 teams, roughly one from each prefecture, play the single elimination finals at Koshien Stadium, near Osaka. The pressure on these poor student players is incredible: despite the national TV audience (for virtually every game in the finals), the real pressure seems to come from the coaches, the fans, and the students themselves. After each game, the losers, while crying uncontrollably, shovel dirt from the field into bags to take home as reminders (of being there? of losing?). (One year after WWII, for some reason I couldn't figure out, Koshien dirt being taken back to Okinawa was quarantined for several months.) In the post-game interviews, the losing coaches often say that their players failed, and that they probably just didn't practice and work hard enough.
The final game pitted the favorites from Nara against a team representing Okinawa (who hadn't made the finals in many years). Nara beat them 1-0, with the game ending on a world-class over-the-shoulder catch by the Nara left-fielder. That night the first 20-30 minutes of the newscast was on the game, with replays, interviews from both home prefectures, etc. Then the interpreter said: "Well, that's the world of baseball. Now let's see what's happening in the Middle East."
The bilingual interpreters have a tough job, simultaneously translating the news. It's clear that they get lost on occasion, but they generally stay calm. One night, however, the guy simply got confused and, after describing something bizarre said: "I have no idea what *that* has to do with the story." After having lots of conversations with Japanese people, I felt incredible sympathy with him.
That reminds me. For you technical people, if you're ever invited to join a panel or attend a workshop in Japan, double-check what the language is. I forgot to do this the other day, and spent over half a day in a meeting where the only presentation -- 10 minutes of a panel session --- that was in English was mine. It wasn't really a waste, though, since it is fun listening to all the Japanized-English words, like "o-bi-jye-ku-to".
About 10 woman made a presentation, which is only the second I've seen since coming to Japan (and I've probably heard over 50 presentations, both formal and informal). But there's hope. At one of the companies, I asked whether they were satisfied with the number of women in technical positions. The response ws: "Well, women are well-suited to software engineering, since they don't have to move heavy things like in lots of other engineering disciplines."
On a lighter note, Cathy and I went to Tokyo Disneyland. It's virtually identical to the one in southern CA, although I suspect R2D2 and C3P0 don't speak Japanese there. On the way home, the train had a poster advertising concerts for B.B. King and Ricky Lee "Jorns."
Last month was the O-Bon festival, where people return to their home towns to pay respect to their ancestors. The dates of this festival are hard to figure out, since they seem to differ among cities and towns. But there is a peak time, in mid-August, when it seems like almost everyone travels home. This year, a typhoon hit near Tokyo the Friday before the biggest travel day. The bullet trains had to stop because of the torrents. This set up an unbelievable Saturday morning (which, thankfully, we just heard about on the news): Over 1000 people were lined up at 4AM in Tokyo Station to try to get unreserved seats on the bullet trains to Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, etc. The trains ended up running at 400 bumper-to-bumper traffic jams that spanned something like 60 kilometers (I may not have this quite right, but it's in the ballpark).
We went (during the week) to a park near Shinjuku to watch the Bon Odori, a folk dance associated with the festival. There was a large multi-level pavilion built in the middle of a large fountain. There were five or six women, in beautiful traditional garb, on the pavilion demonstrating the dances. The top of the pavilion were the musicians, including a drummer of some sort. Around the fountain, people dressed in beautiful yukata, as well as dresses and suits and ties, danced along. We tried a dance or two, but they were of course far harder than they initially appeared. After cooling off with a lemon shaved ice, we headed home.
Before we left Tokyo, we held a small picnic and barbeque for our hosts and their families. On the whole, everything went great. Cathy negotiated the buying and filleting of a 3 kilogram salmon, and she charcoal-broiled it just like at home. It was wonderful seeing the four kids (and the adults, in fact) toast marshmallows for the first time. We were kicking ourselves for not getting stuff to makes s'mores. The one telling comment by one of the guests, when he found out we were having the picnic outdoors, was: "We don't usually do this in Japan, because it's too hot outside." It was hot and humid, but not by any means outrageous for a picnic.
Tony, one of our friends from Seattle, came to Tokyo for a week in late August. He stayed at a standard "businessman's" hotel nearby. In contrast to the ritzy $200+/night hotels aimed at rich Americans and shieks, this place is geared towards Japanese salarymen in Tokyo for meetings. In the lobby there is a row of vending machines: a change machine, a newspaper machine, a cigarette machine, and a pornographic magazine machine. I saw one guy go right down the row, getting change first and then buying something from each machine in order.
One night we had a fancy Japanese dinner with three Japanese friends, Tony, Cathy, and me. Cathy and I have been wanting to go to a "karaoke" (Empty Orchestra) club, which is essentially "Music Minus One." They have a special machine that has hundreds of songs, usually along with MTV-style video, that play all the music but none of the words (which are shown on the screen, in follow-the-bouncing-ball mode). After dinner, we asked our hosts if we could go to karaoke. Well, most of them had been at most once before, and they were sort of hesitant. Also, the place right next door was about 2000 yen per person, just for a cover charge. But luckily, right down the street, we found: "Karaoke Boxes." For 600 yen basic rental and 100 yen per song, we jammed the six of us into one of the six or eight karaoke boxes in this upstairs poolhall. Most of the songs were in Japanese, but there were a couple of great American hits including: "Yesterday", "Hey, Jude", "Sherrie", "House of the Rising Sun", "Moon River", and "I Left my Heart in San Francisco." Let me tell you. With two mikes, six hot bodies, and only one decent voice (Matsumoto-san's) in the box, it was something I'll never forget.
On the weekend, Cathy, Tony, and I went to Kamakura, about an hour outside of Tokyo. At the station two college girls picked us up---I don't remember this happening to me so easily when *I* was in college, sigh---so that they could show us the sites while practicing English. The first and third sites were shrines that were quite nice, including the biggest pond of waterlilies I've ever seen. The second site---the Daibutsu, or Great Buddha---was the big attraction, though. It's about 12 meters high and looks huge. (Apparently it's not the biggest Buddha in Japan, though.) It's over a kilometer inland, but about three or four centuries ago, the surrounding temple was washed away by a tidal wave. It's since been rebuilt, but it's hard to imagine a wave that big going so far. Other than the watermelon that was laid out as an offering in front of the Buddha, Cathy's favorite part was going into the Buddha itself. For 10 yen or so, you get to climb a half dozen stairs into the middle of this thing. It's a bit dark and dank, and it's very hot (you could hardly touch the metal), but it's lots of fun to look at its shape from the inside and think about how big it really is.
Cathy and I have now moved to Toyonaka City, which is just north of the city of Osaka and is within a 10 minute walk of my office at Osaka University. In contrast to Tokyo, where we were in a special guest house for visitors, here our hosts found us a standard "mansion" (that is, an apartment) in a six story concrete block. Ours is a 2DK mansion. Of the "2", one room is Western-style. We're using it as our bedroom, although it only barely fits the two "gaijin" size twins beds they bought for us. (In fact, we can't open the door the whole way and getting to the closest isn't the easiest thing to do either.) These beds are bigger than we usually use---because our host assumed we would need huge beds---and finding sheets for them was a nightmare. (Cathy suggested to him that we use futons instead, since space was tight, but he thought this was a bit strange, even though he had slept on a futon when he stayed in our house in Seattle.) The other of the "2" is a Japanese-style room consisting of eight tatami mats. It really is nice, and we're thinking of putting one in when we move back to Seattle. The "DK" is a combination dining-kitchen area, which feels like something from a standard studio apartment in the US.
It turns out that the place is officially rented by Osaka University. Indeed, the Dean of the Faculty of Engineering Science, I believe, officially signed the lease (and is technically, I believe, personally responsible). Even with this, we had to go (with the professor who is hosting me, along with a guy from the contracts office) go sign a lease at the realtor's agency. (The owner of the agency was a woman, which seemed extremely surprising to our host.) In addition to signing the lease, they took two pictures of us, one for their records and the other for the landlord.
On Wednesday I had to stay home since the air conditioner/heater was going to be installed and the kitchen furniture was going to be delivered. The installation was to be at 11AM, so I got home around 10:30. The installers were already there, patiently waiting. I couldn't explain it to them, of course, but I knew that they were supposed to wait since the guy from the contracts office was supposed to tell them where to install the sucker. They laid everything down and prepared to work, but miraculously waited for a go ahead. Well, when the sundial struck 11, not one, not two, but three guys from the contracts office showed up. They babbled at each other, asked me if a specific place was fine---it was---and these guys went ahead and installed the machine in record time. The contracts guys mostly sat around and watched, although they took a couple of Polaroids of the place. (It was great watching a Japanese fellow use an American camera.)
We all went to lunch (separately), since the furniture wasn't coming until about 1:30PM. Well, it came, was delivered, assembled, and left before 1:30. When the sundial struck 2, not one, not two, but all three guys came back into to check everything out. Except for the fact that the table and the hutch leave no room for people in the "DK", everything was fine and they took off.
A couple of weeks ago on TV Cathy and I watched the movie "Anne of Green Gables." This movie is an enormous hit in Japan. Thousands of Japanese make a pilgrimage (I can't think of a better word) to Prince Edward Island every year to see where it was filmed. At the end of the movie, a guy came on and blabbered about it being continued, and we assumed it would be the following Sunday. Well, we couldn't find it in the papers or on the tube tiself, which was disappointing. But Cathy noticed in the film pages that, playing at a theater near you, was "Anne of Green Gables---the Sequel." So on Saturday night we trucked on down to the Umeda Koma Gold Theater for the 7PM show, shelling out 3000 yen (over $30, given the recent decrease in the dollar) for two tickets (Cathy's was 1400, since she had a student card, but mine was full-price at 1600 yen). Well, luckily we got there 15 minutes early, since the theater was SRO. I guess there were 500 people seated and another 50-100 standing and sitting in the aisles. The bulk of the people were women probably ranging in age from 13 to 25, but there was a scattering of mothers, grandmothers, boyfriends, and weirdos like us. Before the show started, the only line longer than the women's restroom was the line to get "Anne of Green Gables" souvenirs. I can't imagine a relatively sappy, G-rated movie getting quite the same kind of audience in the US.
One nice thing about our place is that there is a Denny's less than 50 meters away. Well, this morning around noon (after getting up at 5:30AM to watch Sabatini beat Graf in the US Open Tennis finals and then sleeping in until past 11), we went to check it out. Maybe we missed the breakfast menu, but we didn't miss it all: French Toast and pancakes were available. Cathy had the French Toast, which was reasonably standard. But watching other people eat with chopsticks at Denny's, and having incredibly polite waitresses, was not so standard. On the other hand, I suspect when a Japanese visitor goes to a Denny's in the US, he wonders why he can't order a VSOP whiskey along with his special tuna "sashimi" platter.