A Travellerspoint blog

All sumo-ed out!


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It's 8 am on a Sunday morning, we have been awake for 3 hours already and we are watching fat men stamp their feet and then hurl their immense bodies at eachother. It may not sound like it, but a fantastic day has just begun.

We had woken up ridiculously early in order to queue for some last minute tickets to one of the prime annual sumo tournaments in Japan. One advantage to being there for the time the gates open was that we got to experience sumo wrestling "up close and personal" as most people only arrive for the 1st division fights at about 3; while the ringside seats are empty anyone plonk themselves down and enjoy the best view on the house no matter how cheap their ticket was.

The first fights were "novices" and as the day progressed so did the calibre of sumo wrestlers. With only a handful of spectators at 8 am, we watched the first wrestlers for an hour or so, accustomising ourselves to the various ritual chants, bows and footstamps. We were also surprised at how quickly bouts were decided (literally a few seconds) but once we were used to the pace we began to appreciate it more and more. Sumo is indeed an art, albeit one practiced by fat men in loin cloths. Even that isn't fair actually: they aren't all hugely fat and even those who are pretty wobbley are also incredibly muscled!

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We knew that the "big boys" would only be wrestling from 3-ish so we headed back to the subway station to squeeze in a couple of hours of sight-seeing in the mean time. After a few false starts (Matthew's fault mind you) we got on a subway heading to Harajuka. There we wandered around yet another designer shop district (the Japanese can't seem to get enough of them!) and sampled some of the areas more "cultural" offerings. These included the Ota Memorial Art Museum (which is famous for its wood-block prints), the Meiji-Jingu shrine and the infamous "cos-play girls."

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At the museum we were treated to an exhibition of some amazing wood block prints (most of them borrowed from the V&A for this special exhibition though) including Hokusai's "Great Wave Off Kanagawa." As a student both Matt and I each a poster of this on our walls - I never thought I'd get to see the original in Japan, or in fact live in Kanagawa!

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The Meiji-Jingu shrine is a large Shinto shrine set in a forest in the middle of the city. It was built in memory of Emperor Meiji (of "Meiji-era" fame) and his Emperess and although it was destroyed by bombings in WWII it has been faithfully and beautifully reconstructed. We purified ourselves using the troughs of puridied water outside (although Matt came very close to accidently sullying the water you're meant to wash with) and headed into the shrine. In the central shrine area we performed the customary prayer ritual: throw some money in the donation troughs, bow twice, clap twice (to conjure the gods), say a prayer and then bow again. We will let you know if our prayers are answered, but don't hold your breath!

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We then headed back towards Harajuku station, taking a detour by a bridge reknowned for it's "cos-play" girls. These are (social misfit) teenagers who live a life of suburban anonimity during the week but head to Tokyo on Sunday, dressed up in outlandish costumes ranging from goths to little-bo-peep look-alikes.. and they like nothing more than having their photo taken by gawking strangers! To be honest we found them a little disappointing: maybe we'd hyped it up too much but we could have headed to Cockburn Street (Edinburgh) to see goths, there was no need to fly out here!! That said, none of the cockburn street goths hold signs reading "free hugs here!" We decided not to part of the throng of photgraphers snapping away, so no great photos sorry!

After this we headed back to the stadium to watch the current sumo "greats" battle it out for the 7th day of the tournament. The stadium was packed out and we really got into the swing of things (after a little post-lunch sleepiness). Sumo may not seem sophisticated or rivetting at first but there is a lot more to it than either of us expected, and it is certainly very exciting!!! We would highly recommend any visitors to Tokyo make it to a tournament if they are lucky enough to be in town at the right time of year!

Posted by meli1984 06:32 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

A legendary night out at our local...


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We've just got home from a day of wandering around Machida (a city two stops from us) with our friend Ken.. we sorted out Japanese lessons starting next week, ate yummy food (including a big bowl of ramen) and wandered around the shops pointing at some of the odder clothes and drooling over many an item!! Japan truly is a shopper's paradise especially if you are looking for something a bit different from the status quo at home.

We were meant to be exploring a mountain that houses flying squirrels, temples, acclaimed Soba restaurants and views of Fuji-san.. however plans sort of fell apart because we were worried it might rain and then missed our train to meet the others and generally weren't too enthusiastic about it when we crawled out of bed.. which may have something to do with our shenanigans last night!!

We had decided to take a rain check on a big night out with lots of other teachers and choose to explore our local "counter pub" as the sign said above the door of a bar 3 minutes walk from our humble abode. We also recruited Ken to join us. After some trepidation upon approaching the place (mainly because it looked closed), Ken bravely reached for the handle and opened the door of the most surreal little bar I have ever been too. It consisted of a very small room with a curved bar running all along it and comfy stools/high seats at the counter. The clientele seemed to be mainly middle-aged Japanese business men - although there was only about 7 people there and once we sat down there were no seats left! We ordered our drinks (Asahi Dry beer for the boys, a tipple known here as a Lemon Sour for me, it's is made from a spirit distilled from sweet potato, very good!). Along with our drinks we were given various nibbles by the 3 lovely middle-aged Japanese ladies who were the sum total of the barstaff. As the night progressed and we befriended them, and some of the other punters too, we were also given some Kyoto sweet pastry things and a few glasses of some delicious pinky red liqueur! I gathered it was made from plums but also had something to do with red leaves, and apparently it is quite rare.

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You may well be wondering how exactly we befriended the staff and other drinkers, given that they were Japanese, twice our age and we were unable to speak their language.. well, mainly we owe thanks to Ken who is half Japanese and was our interpreter and representative! But also the guy next to Matt spoke English, and in any case not all communication is based on language - we found that singing did the trick!!! Unlikely as it seems to us, this teeny tiny local bar had fully functional, all singing, all dancing karaoke equipment and we charmed their cotton socks off with renditions of beatles songs and, upon request, Amazing Grace! Needless to say the locals were much better than us but I think they appreciated our efforts - Matt even ended up doing a duet with his English-speaking friend!! Also, there was one old man in the corner, drinking whiskey (I think) from a bottle that was clearing kept aside just for him, who had the most amazing voice ever! He put us to shame!

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The night ended when Ken had to catch a train home - though only after many hugs from the bar staff and reassurances on our part that we would come back!! It was an absolutely magic and eye-opening experience for us! No Westerners had ever been there as far as we could tell, and we couldn't have had a more Japanese or a more welcoming experience!

PS I forgot to mention their A/C was offline and it was very hot.. so to remedy this the ladies who worked there passed around free ice lollies (popsicles for you Americans!).. Now that's service!

addendum: I said Ken left to catch his last train.. well, he did catch it and arrived 15 minutes before the connecting train that would deliver him to his doorstep.. and there he sat down and promptly fell asleep only to wake up a few minutes later, just in time to see the train he was meant to catch pulling out of teh station!!!!! it was of course his last connecting train so he had to pay 4000 yen (about 40 US bucks) to get himself taxi-ed home! Ah, the joys of public transport..

Posted by meli1984 06:16 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Of Trains and Toilets

Trains and toilets: two things that have struck me as very different from what we are used to. Although I could lenthen that list to include: people cycling on pavements (which drives me nuts), the post service redelivering things on request at helpful times such as 7pm-9pm and obsessive rubbish sorting to name a few!

But for today I will just stick to the subjects of trains and toilets.

Toilets here range from the most basic squat toilet (I'll spare you the details) to the rolls-royses of toilets! The more sophisticated kind include heated seats, emergency-call buttons and a whole range of buttons that, judging from the pictures, will pump water or blow air just about any place you can imagine.. and then some. I haven't had the guts to experiment with these. But my absolute favourite is the button which, when pressed, simulates the sound of a toilet flushing. The reason behind this takes some explaining. If you happen to have read "Stupeurs et Tremblements" by Amelie Nothomb, which I reccommend if you haven't, youll know that Japanese women are averse to anyone hearing them pee. So, to avoid this embarrassment, they flush the loo first to mask the noise. But, not content with this arrangement, they've now gone one step further and made a recording of that noise just one push away! Quirky indeed!

Trains here are not so much quirky as almost inhumanly efficient - if we have to wait more than 4 minutes for one it seems like a long time! And there are train lines everywhere around here, and on each line there is a variety of options from local to rapid express trains! From about 7am til 9am, and then again at evening rush hour, the trains are absolutely jam packed with commuters - I swear I have even seen people's faces pressed up against the door's window, looking harrassed but grateful they managed to squeeze on!!! When the doors open at a busy a station, a tidal wave of identical dark suits pours out, only to be replaced by those queuing on the platform. But if you avoid rush hour I have found trains to be the best place to gawk at Japanese, especially young Japanese with their off-beat sense of fashion! And by off-beat I mean a mismatched, OTT combination of pretty much everything the fashion magazines reccommend, but all in one outfit... And, just one last comment, about half the people on a train at any one time are asleep. It doesn't seem to matter that they sat down 10 seconds ago, or indeed that they are standing up, sleeping on trains is a national pastime. Yet despite this they never seem to miss their stop but wake up exactly 10 seconds before the need to get off!! Crazy!

Posted by meli1984 05:33 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

Tokyo - the Imperial Palace and Ginza

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We've been teaching for a week or so now and, in a nutshell, that's going pretty well... but why bore with work details when we have more exciting things to tell you!!

On Friday night we hopped on a train for 15 mins or so to meet up with some other teachers (and now friends) - and we ended up spending a great evening in an izakaya which are Japan's answer to pubs. They serve yummy japanese nibbles, beer and sake.. all this set in a very japanese background (sitting on the floor etc). One charming quirk was having to put our shoes in lockers as no shoes are allowed on the tatami (Japanese mats in the area where you sit on the floor). The night was unfortunately cut short by us having to catch the last train home just before midnight, though from what we hear of how the night went on we think next time we'll just stay out and get the first train home!!

The next day, Saturday, we hopped on yet another train and headed in Tokyo! Our exact destination was the Imperial Palace and the nearby area called Ginza.

The Imperial Palace, or Kokyo, is closed to the public except for 2 days a year because the imperial family still live there, but a part of the grounds is now a lovely public garden and you can glimpse the palace in places.. We wondered around the garden, amazed at how peaceful it is even though it's in the middle of a bustling city, and then we took the obligatory photos of the palace peeping over Niju-bashi bridge.

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We then headed off in the direction of Ginza, which is pretty much Tokyo's version of 5th Avenue (although many other areas of Tokyo seem to offer designer fashion too). We wandered around for a while, gazing into windows of shops we can't afford and checking out some of Sony's gizmos and gadgets at the Sony Building. I got particular excited upon seeing a Long Champs shop, a belgian waffle shop called Manneken and a Pierre Marcolini (v. expensive Belgian chocolatier) cafe/shop all in the space of a few minutes! Big up for Belgians making their mark in Tokyo!!

We had dinner in a very surreal german-style beerhouse purpose built by some Japanese in the early 1900s! People view Japanese as somewhat subdued but give them a drink and watch the inhibitons disappear: we saw groups of business women drinking beer in litre mugs, and an old man chatting up the 20-something waitress!! Also, we ate steak and potatoes-and-sausage with chopsticks!! Only in Japan!

Just as we were heading home we got a call from a friend, David, so we went and joined him for a quick drink in Shinjuku (also in Tokyo). The area we went to had a distinctly studenty vibe and we plan to head back there for further exploration soon..

We had a lazy Sunday, except for a little cleaning - although here cleaning doesn't seem to be always considered a chore: some of my students list cleaning their room as a hobby! Then it was back to work today...

That's all folks..

Posted by meli1984 03:58 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Orientation and first sights

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So we're settling in a bit more. We just had a two-day orientation with our company and were able to meet with all the other teachers. For this we had to travel into Tokyo, which was exciting of course! It costs about 1.80 GBP (one-way) to get to the biggest station in the world (Shinjuku) by way of how many people travel through it, from our village. I've started calling it our village even though its part of a city of over 700,000. Its just because we're only travelling by train and then you just imagine each station (apart from the ones in Tokyo) as being separate entities. Our work is one stop away and it only takes 3 minutes by train. Its 1.5 km and you could walk it, I guess, but I have no idea how!

Food so far has been good, we went to a counter-pub or Izakaya and had dinner there after orientation on Friday. Alas, it was slightly upmarket and even the rice and soup cost about 2.70, which is expensive here! But, we tried quite a few dishes in a kind of Spanish tapas manner and enjoyed ourselves! Most of the other teachers seem like a lot of fun, even the older ones! There is quite a range of ages, although mid to late twenties seems the median.

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After orientation on Saturday we got the subway to Shinbuyu station, kind of shopping centre area I think. Anyway its all the bright lights and video screens you often see in films! We had some cheap counter food there, gyu-don or beef on rice, with some Asahi dry beer. It was delish! Then we headed back towards our neck of the woods because we didn't want to miss the last trains and be stuck out all night! We headed to Machida, two stops from our village and a pretty big and bustling place. We managed to find an Irish pub there, where I sampled the local Guinness and Melissa the local Belgian fruit beers. We got the last train home, although one girl, Jo, missed her last train home! It was ridiculously early we found out, something like 9.20, ours was 00.10.

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Tomorrow is our first day and it should be very exciting! We'll post more details on the teaching specifics as we see fit. Missing y'all..

Posted by meli1984 22:42 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

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