Sunday, February 17, 2013

Do a Barrel Roll!

...aaaand we're back. I went on a huge nostalgia bender and played Star Fox 64 this morning, and started to update my status about in on Facebook when I started to prolix, and so I decided instead to post my blathering on here! 

Graduation from college had meant a lot of things, and one of the unanticipated parts of that is that I no longer have anyone compelling me to sit down and write any more, and so I have been missing it a lot. In an effort to get back to it, I've started to keep a personal journal on (awesome site). It's been a great way for me to unwind and  spend some time thinking. What I realized today however was that on the occasion when I feel like posting something for others to read I don't really have a place to do it other than trite messages on Facebook. And then I thought what any person my generation would think - this problem can be solved with a blog. You might ask why am I writing in the blog I created to document my adventures in Japan over a year ago, and the answer would be because I'm too lazy to think of a new title for another blog. Even if it's just my mom reading this, writing for an audience forces me to work on writing with polish, and if nothing else comes from this it, this will be good practice. But don't get me wrong - I still hope to entertain or intrigue whomever happens to be reading this, and I will endeavor to write about topics and musings that everyone in my audience can relate to. 

Which brings me to Star Fox. 


Today is Sunday, and I decided to spend the morning doing what I do best - being unproductive. As a part of that, I plopped down on the couch and played a round of Star Fox 64. I recently had all my old Nintendo 64 games shipped out to me from home, and I've been going through a stint of nostalgia replaying these old games. After getting my ass handed to me on Expert Mode, I realized there are some things I did better as a child than as an adult (NB: talking about my poop is not one of them). As a consequence, I decided to erase all the old data and start over fresh. I was determined that if I couldn't play Expert Mode, I would need to earn back the privilege to play it by unlocking it again. And so I played through the game from the very beginning, just like I did on Christmas 14 years ago when Cedric and originally got Star Fox, which happened to be our first video game ever.

If only starting over fresh in real life was as easy as erasing data.

After I was done and set down the remote, I took a moment to reflect on what transpired. I was feeling a mix of emotions - certainly nostalgia from revisiting a childhood landmark, but also something else. I was excited, elated, energized. I had just had a ton of fun replaying this old game. Certainly the nostalgia was part of the fun, but it wasn't just that - it felt kind of like re-watching old Bugs Bunny cartoons as a grown up;  I realized that Star Fox 64 was objectively a very well-done game which is simply a whole lot of fun to play, both then and now.

** For those who have never played before (my mom can skip this part), you can get a quick look at the plot and the characters in the video below, which is just the introduction footage from the game. Even if you know the plot, re-watching the video is helpful to refresh on what the graphic capabilities were of the Nintendo 64.
Introduction video from Star Fox 64. Count the Star Wars references. 

Star Fox really had it all. Even though the game is now 15 years old, it still fells snappy and quick to play. And while the N64's graphics capabilities are laughable compared to even something my cell phone could do now, I think the designers of Star Fox 64 were very intelligent in crafting their aesthetic to take complement the angular shapes and polygons the N64 makes so well. Instead of being an eyesore, the game has held up remarkable well, still managing to feel sleek and stylized.

The dialogue was as cheesy as I remembered, but overall the Star Fox manages to come off as cheeky and fun, and had the good sense not to take itself too seriously. The gameplay itself is fast, with each level lasting at most 10 minutes, owing to the fact that your Arwing seems to have every modern technology in it except brakes. Every level has dozens of quick strategic decisions you need to make as you zoom through the obstacle course while shooting down bogies and picking up power ups.

The quick, arcade style of the game means you can beat it in 90 minutes, but since every level has 2-3 possible outcomes, it ends up being a game you can come back and play again and again. Star Fox was my first video game, and the fact that I can come back 15 years after it came out and find it just as fun is a testament to the workmanship Nintendo invested in this game.

Box Art from the original SNES game, Fantastic Mr. Star Fox

By now you're might be wondering when I'm going to get to the "so what" part of this post, so here it is. The thing about nostalgia is that it inevitably causes you to compare the past to the present. And what I realized today was that there is a lot that modern video games could learn from old games like Star Fox.

Now, don't get me wrong, there have been unbelievable breakthroughs and in the video game world over jut the last 15 years. Graphics and processing have improved exponentially, new interfaces and technologies for controlling and experiencing games are coming  out every day, and now millions of people play games online together in colossal, intricately detailed worlds.

But along with this shift, the way people play video games, and the reasons they play them, have also shifted. Games used to be short and simple (owing in no small part to technological limitations), and as a consequence a lot of these old games were so easy to pick up and have fun playing.

Where video games used to be short, fun, and simple, modern games have grown increasingly complex and sophisticated, and the time commitment required for someone to win a game or gain any skill with it has increased as well. For many, playing video games has shifted from a fun past-time to something akin to an obsession or addiction.

The video game industry has experienced changes. It's grown into a multi-billion dollar industry, which caters to hundreds of millions of consumers. And like any industry that gets that this large, video game companies have become dependent on consumers who keep coming back to buy more products. The costs of gaming have now go far beyond simply buying the newest games and hardware. Buying a game now is more like an initial investment, and consumers are now asked to pay for things like monthly subscription fees to play online (sometimes as high as $30/month), and in the months following the release of a new game companies will release new "downloadable content" to expand your initial purchase.  It used to be that when you bought a game, you assumed you were buying a finished product which you could expect to play forever (or at least until you got bored). Now when you buy a game it's more like buying a first draft and having to pay for the revisions. Profit-motive caused developers to stop making games which are focused on fun, but instead making games that will keep you hooked.

Now, I'm not saying that spending hours playing video games is a new thing, and I won't deny I spent plenty of days obsessively playing  games on my N64 when I was younger. Most video games are naturally addicting because they feed our brains a steady stream of objectives, successes, and accomplishments, which triggers the brain's natural reward response mechanism. What's happening now is that games are being intentionally designed take advantage of this, so that you keep playing for as long as you can. Because as long as you are playing their game, it means they can count on you to pay for another month's subscription, or to buy the newest downloadable content, or to sit through another advertisement on your phone while you wait for your next turn in Words with Friends.

Video games aren't the only thing that have been affected by this movement. In the last 15 years, it seems like our entire world has moved to this online realm of social networks, where being "connected" has become paramount to modern living. I know I sound like a crotchety old man reminiscing about "back when I was your age", but sometimes I really wonder if we need all of this. It seems like this is all just a part of the next Big Thing, a new marketing ploy to keep us buying things we don't need, and spending time on things we don't care about. When I take a step back, I realize that I don't really give a shit about what my friends are liking Facebook. My life isn't really a whole lot better when I can endlessly refresh my inbox on my phone in addition to my computer. And I really think I don't need to pay $30 a month to spend my waking hours sitting in front of a computer screen playing video games while typing to people I will probably never meet.

Perhaps the key to happiness is much simpler than that. Perhaps happiness doesn't require the latest and greatest technology, or being connected to thousands of other people at all points of the day, or a require huge investments of time and money. Perhaps, I ever really needed was a swift Arwing. With Fox McCloud at the helm. And a star to steer it by.

A really big star. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Points of Interest, Part I: Sendai Castle

It’s been quite a while since I’ve updated this, but now I have even more to tell! And, currently being in the middle of a 17 hour transit from Kanazawa to Sendai (story for later!), I should have all the time I need to tell it.  

As I said in my last entry, the day after the previous night’s nomikai with the Sendai staff ended up being a day off for everyone in the office. After waking up at a comfortable hour, I took the opportunity to put my bike to good use by exploring the outskirts of Sendai. After taking a look at the area around Okayama-san’s apartment from the satellite-eye view Google maps affords, I decided to head to a wooded area about half a mile west outside of the city, where there appeared to be a few shrines and temples off the beaten path.  Despite this vague semblance of a plan, really I had no particular destination in mind; my only goal was to relax on my day off with a nice ramble.

Shortly after crossing a river and finding myself in sparser surroundings, I stumbled upon a detailed map with information on points of interest in the area, which including directions to the remains of Sendai Castle (仙台城). Perched on a large hill just outside the city, atop the ruins seemed to be the perfect spot to get a good view of Sendai, and as a perk would provide a perfect “detour” for my aimless adventure. 

Map with points of interest marked.[click to enlarge]

However, upon arriving at the approach, I was greeted by a formidable “do not enter” sign and a placard which explained that the castle was closed because a small rockslide spurred by the earthquake had obstructed part of the path. From the pictures the damage didn’t look too bad at all, and the cordon was at an easily hop-able height, but I saw a few construction workers pass by, and I decided that trespassing might not be the best idea. I tried without success to find another way in, but all official roads were blocked, and my shorts and Tevas made the prospect of bushwhacking a trail an unattractive option.

:[ [click to enlarge]

For the remainder of the afternoon, I decided to opt for biking along the river. I happened across a large shrine, but also owing to the earthquake only a small section of it was open. Despite this, I ended up forking over the 400 yen to take a look, and ended up being pleasantly surprised – most shrines in Japan maintain a “natural look” with largely unpainted wooden buildings and carvings, but this site was both a shrine and a tomb dedicated to some ancient noble, and so it was regally fettered to match.

Shrine/Tomb entrance. [click to enlarge]

closeup on a corner joist. [click to enlarge]

Noteworthy things lacking for the rest of the day, it wasn’t until night came that I decided to go through with a plot I concocted after my defeat earlier in the day. Sometime after midnight, I set out on my bike again, rudder angled for Sendai Castle. Arriving once again t the path leading upwards, an effortless jump put me on the other side of the hazard tape. I was slightly on edge, but the low murmur of the forest soothed my nerves.  Finally having escaped the light and smog of the city, looking up brought me an unexpected surprise; for the first time since arriving in Japan, I could see the stars.

I only had to walk for about 15 minutes before I arrived at the massive bulwark of the castle foundation. There were small shrines lining the walkway to the top of the plateau, but the castle itself had disappeared long ago, leaving behind a perfect viewing platform of all of Sendai.

For a long time I watched the city gleaming motionlessly in the dark, until I noticed a slight stir among a group tall buildings – a lone glass elevator had begun its descent over over the obsidian façade of a distant skyscraper, and In a city of over one million people, my attention was drawn to a single person. My heart beat heavily in my chest, and I suddenly felt as if the city had turned its gaze on me. Standing face to face, the language of my feeble inner monologue slipped into the darkness behind me, and I was left, within and without, standing in absolute silence.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Rainy Day

After my beautiful day with the garbage it seemed only appropriate that it should rain through both the night and our bike ride to the office in the morning. When we finally arrived, we learned that we would be delivering the futons Nael had helped pick up the day before to their intended recipients around Ishinomaki. For those of you used to the Western version of a futon, the genuine article is actually just a thin padded mattress that lies on the ground which is usually put away during the day. We traveled up in two vans, and after stopping at a few locations and then shortly leaving again (apparently they were all set on futons), we finally arrived at a small settlement called Hamagurihama (here on Google maps).

Hamagurihama [click to enlarge]

Although it’s hard to say that I could ever grow accustomed to seeing the devastation along the Tohoku coastline, by this time what I saw at Hamagurihama was far from new. Before the tsunami hit I’m sure the cozy little hamlet nestled in the hills along the sea was a perfect paradise, but now most of it lay in ruins, with only a handful of houses still standing on the hillsides around the wreckage, saved by a few precious feet of elevation.

 We also traveled through the coastal areas of Ishinomaki today and saw the real damage the city had sustained. Above, a small section of a pile of debris along the highway (note the rusted car frame to the right for scale), Below A massive steel drum in the middle of a traffic island. [click to enlarge]

Those who remained in Hamagurihama had moved into the few surviving houses, and were almost all elderly individuals with the exception of one younger woman there who seemed to act as their caretaker. In total we had brought seven futons to deliver to two of the houses, but before we could do that we needed to do some cleaning. The tsunami contaminated wells and knocked out electricity across the region, which meant that homes without their usual dehumidifiers and air conditioners became perfect environments for mold in the summer. First we disposed of the old mildew-laden futons, and after that we proceeded to clean and disinfect the entire room where five people had been living. After that, the AARJ workers showed the ncie old ladies how to use moisture blocking mats to protect their futons on the floor, in addition to providing them with an array of cleaning supplies.

Midori-san, Nael, and an adorable grandmother cleaning. [click to enlarge]

Post cleaning and futon delivery. I actually had to take this picture as a part of work - we needed to make provide some visual evidence to action medeor that we were using their funds as they wanted. [click to enlarge]

Our work in Hamagurihama was done, but before heading back to Sendai our van decided to go eat. Now, I’ve neglected to mention Midori-san so far, but she was by far the highlight of the day. Besides paying for dinner (which ended up being udon and takoyaki – fried octopus – yum), she also paid for Nael’s and my lunch earlier that day (she said it was a grandmother’s responsibility), and outside of things relating to supplying my belly with food she was also the nicest person I’ve ever met. While we ate, a flash cyclone brought a sudden crescendo of rain and thunder upon us. But despite the torrential downpour, the rain was gone quicker than it came, and the sun was left shining once again.

Surprise flash hurricane. [click to enlarge]

Returning to the office we learned that almost everyone would be taking the next day off, so Okayama-san made Wednesday an unofficial office holiday, and we all went out for nomikai to celebrate. To explain: nomikai (飲み会) means “drinking meeting”, and it is an essential time in Japanese work life when everyone goes out, forgetting about their various hierarchical divisions, and just gets moderately to severely plastered together. We had a great time talking and drinking with the Sendai office staff, and I was struck by the genuine warmness they had showed us in the few days we were in Sendai. Midori-san poured me Shochu for my tea, which is about the most Asian of cocktails I could ever think of, and while Nael was in the bathroom one of the AARJ employees took the liberty of adding a little more body to his tea as well.

Cheesin' with Midori-san. [click to enlarge]

Nael's drink gets a boost. [click to enlarge]

After the nomikai we said our tipsy goodbyes, and began our last bike ride back from the office.  But since we had the next day off Nael and I decided to check out one more bar in Sendai, and after stumbling around lost trying to find the place, we wandered into another bar where I sat down to a 12% ABV Schneider & Sohn - the perfect end to a great day. On the way back to Okayama-san's apartment it began to rain again, but this time I wasn’t bothered by it. Maybe, after today's encounters with the wonderful people working in Sendai, it was going to take more than a little water to douse the warmth in my heart. 

Or maybe I was drunk.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

To the Dump, to the Dump, to the Dump Dump Dump!

Our work in Sendai began to peter out after the Sunday Ishinomaki soup kitchen operation. Nael and I had separate tasks for Monday, and it became my happy job to help dispose of all the garbage generated the day before. It actually ended up being a pretty cool experience.  I was helping two other AARJ workers with the job, a younger guy who knew a little English and an older Ojii-san (grandpa) who was wonderfully flippant and spoke at an unforgiving pace.  

After picking up the truck full of garbage, we drove to the rural outskirts of Sendai. As a general rule, in Japan I tend to have only a faint idea of what we’re actually doing at any moment in time, and today proved no exception. While I had initially thought we might be headed off to some sort of waste disposal site, instead we ended up at a small, abandoned elementary school. It turned out the school was one of AARJ’s storage sites for their many supplies en route to northern Tohoku, and we were there to use the field in front of the gym for the unpleasant job of sorting and rebagging all of the garbage before disposing of it.

Just before unloading the truck. [click to enlarge]

Despite our messy task, I enjoyed the chance to get out of the city. The quiet road and surrounding hills were suitable simulacra for Vermont, and even the acrid odors from the garbage made decent substitutes for the nasal delights of farm life (although it didn’t quite capture the full bouquet of horse shit). I almost felt at home.

The school had a ghostly sort of sereneness to it; tall grass had overgrown the baseball field where a catcher’s mitt still lay at home plate, and peering into the building I could see half-swept piles of dust and a few disconnected phones against the wall, as if the previous occupants had rushed out. The large clock in the schoolyard was broken, but at precisely noon an eerie, chiming melody wafted through the field to summon phantom children back to class. I wandered off for a few minutes to take pictures, and along the way I caught a little tree frog.

Silent recess. [click to enlarge]

Wuddle bitty fwoggy. [click to enlarge]

After reloading the truck we were off again. Several miles later we arrived at a massive building with a huge smokestack – an incinerator complex. All day I had imagined the place we would be dumping the garbage would be, well, a dump, but arriving at the building reminded me that outside of recycling, almost all trash in Japan, for better or worse, is burned. Inside, we backed up to one of the eight thirty-foot tall doors, which opened to reveal a massive collection pit for the garbage-to-be-burned (think end of Toy Story 3; there was even a claw at this one!). They put harnesses on us so we wouldn’t inadvertently fall into the pit, and then we began the merry process of chucking the trash bags we had labored over to their fiery doom. Satisfaction.

Ramp leading into the incinerator. [click to enlarge]

The Claw! [click to enlarge]

I don’t remember too much about that evening except that drunk udon happened, and I kept asking random Japanese servers about the names of pop songs on the radio while trying to hum them and sing the words I remembered. After all of this volunteering, I guess I have to do something to maintain my American image. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Holding out for a Hero

I apologize to any anxious “followers” for my lack of updates this past week, but after a little vacation this weekend and returning to work today (in Tokyo!), I feel that I finally have the time (and energy) to get back to this. These next couple entries (!/?) will be devoted to recapitulating my time in Sendai, but for those of you dying to hear about the wonderful and magical things that surely happen in a Tokyo office, I promise that a full account is on its way.

The day after our first soup kitchen operation in Minami Sanrikucho (南三陸町) we awoke at 5am to travel to Ishinomaki (石巻), a significantly larger city. Through the various thank you letters and project reports I had read in preceding weeks in Tokyo, I also knew that Ishinomaki was one of the hardest cities after the tsunami, accounting for about a quarter of those killed or still missing. One particular story that came up again and again was about an elementary school which was completely washed away, killing 74 of 108 students and 10 of 13 teachers. I was expecting to enter another warzone.

Instead, we were introduced to different victims of the tsunami - those who were left behind. Our base of operations for the day was in front of the train station, a mile inland and far from derelict – there were already several hundred people lined up when we arrived for food  that wouldn’t be prepared for another 4 hours. In addition to tending to AARJ’s supplies – a kakigori machine, two grills, and several hundred slabs of “Aussie Beef” – we helped other volunteer organizations at the scene unload their goods – from soup supplies to sneakers and clothes.

Preparing Aussie Beef. Apparently the two guys on the right were Japanese pro wrestlers. [click to enlarge]

Three girls in conversation over Kakigori (shaved ice and syrup). Too cute not to share. [click to enlarge]

As things got underway it was clear today would be a different type of day. There were many orders of magnitude more people (all told we served 2,000 meals that day), and more volunteer organizations working together as well. It wasn’t long before the event began to feel more like a small town fair than an emergency supply depot – there was free fried food and snow cones, and people got prizes to take home. And most importantly (and what I’ve neglected to tell so far), there was star entertainment for the afternoon, including none other than Japan’s favorite 70s superhero, Kamen Rider!

I hadn’t heard of him either.

He could have totally looked like a normal guy chilling in a track suit, hockey pads, and fabulous red sash if it weren’t his huge moth face. The performance had everything a Japanese rubber-suit action show needs, including bad fighting, corny sound effects, and a villain who looks like a lobster.

Kamen Rider and friends take on dastardly foes. [click to enlarge]

But even with the best efforts of the bright banners and colorful costumes, nothing could overpower the hungry eyes of the people who came; each of whom asked us for a second serving, and to each of whom we had to say no. While the visitors to the soup kitchen the day before seemed to bring with them the even louder echo of those absent, this day I was brought face to the face with the hundreds of thousands left behind, homeless and hungy.

It may take a superhero to defeat Godzilla, but afterwards he rarely sticks around to help the little styrofoam people pick up the pieces their little styrofoam homes (I knew this metaphor was doomed before I started). While Kamen Rider was dancing onstage and giving out Kamen Kicks and Kamen Punches like nobody’s business, I continued to carry out my noble part in the meal assembly line, handing out chopsticks saying a polite “dozo”. I think almost anyone in that line would have traded away their superhero for just one more plate of Aussie Beef. At this point, it would be hard for me to say which one they need more.

Returning to Sendai that evening, Nael and I reacclimatized and took advantage of Japan’s lack of open container laws by knocking back drinks in the park while hanging out with a few Japanese skateboarders Nael had chatted up. After that, we stumbled into a concert by presumably a local college band, featuring all sort of Japanese angsty yelling (and a few Foo Fighters covers thrown in the mix).

What a day.

Picture mid-rage from the concert. [click to enlarge]

Saturday, July 2, 2011

First Day in the Disaster Zone.

Forgive me if this is a little unpolished; it's very late in the PM here and I have to wake up at about 5 tomorrow to travel to Ishinomaki. 

Nael and I are staying the apartment of Okayama-san, one of the volunteers at the AARJ Sendai office. Besides putting us up, Okayama-san also gave us bikes to use while in Sendai, and after going out for beer and fried food with him and another worker at the office last night, we got to put them to the test while drunkenly biking home. Luckily the route wasn't too hard, because Nael and I had to find our ways back to the office this morning by ourselves. 

We had mostly loaded all of the things we would need into the van last night, but this morning we went with Itou-san, a former JAL pilot and now worker at AARJ, to pick up two grills and a kakigori (snow cone) machine. After that we traveled to a small vacant lot where the other AARJ vehicle was, which ended up being a huge, military-looking truck which had been donated by Daimler. The vacant lot is going to be used as a future parking area for AARJ vehicles, but first we headed north we needed to clean up the lot and clear it of weeds and grass... manually. We used ninja-like scythes to cut the grass by hand, and put all of the bricks, brush, clipping, etc into a big pile. I found a toad at one point and showed him to the other workers, but they all looked away in disgust - apparently Japanese people aren't a big fan of toads (although they did ask me if I had eaten one before). 

Nael gives the grass a trim. [click to enlarge]

After that we began the 3 hour drive north from Sendai. Itou-san drove, and he ended up being quite a talker, so it was a good chance to practice our Japanese although I fell asleep in the back of the van fairly quickly (which was quite an accomplishment, considering how hot and uncomfortable the back of the cargo van was). 

Eventually we entered Minami Sanrikucho, where we would be working for the day. Although I had seen pictures and heard stories about the disaster, nothing prepared me for seeing it in person. While I can attempt to describe what we saw, it still remains difficult for me to convey at all what it felt like to be there. The entire town had been leveled - piles upon piles of rubble covered every surface. Everywhere we looked there was shattered concrete, crushed cars, and upturned boats, sometimes more than a mile inland. Almost nothing was recognizable within the debris - there were no solid walls or unbroken objects, only jagged piles of twisted steel and the dull colors of former belongings. We drove by the pulverized remains of a railroad bridge, once two lanes wide and made of solid concrete, now only the stumps of the massive columns stood above the water. There was no vegetation or signs of any life. The trees which remained, marking the maximum extent of the tsunami, had all turned a deep maroon; killed by the saline water which soaked the ground. The twisted and cracked remains of a handful of buildings remained, often with one or more walls completely blown out and the shredded remains of the interior spilling out. On the roof of a former hospital, an upside-down car precariously hung over the edge of the building. It felt as if we were driving through the aftermath of an atomic bomb, and I found it difficult to believe that anyone could have survived.

Driving through Minami Sanrikucho. [click to enlarge]

Driving inland. [click to enlarge]

We eventually parked at a middle school just outside of town, which was protected by the hill it was on. We met the other volunteers for the day there, and afterwards set up shop. We assembled various tents and grills, grated radishes, thawed fish, and began preparing huge bags of rice. We had about 5 hours to make the 80 meals we would be serving for the day, but no one seemed to be in a huge rush. Okayama-san and Itou-san led us over to a group of middle school students who were playing basketball, and we played a half-court game with them for a good hour. It's probably the most fun I've had since arriving, even though the Japanese students (and even Okayama and Itou-san) put our basketball skills to shame. 

Itou-san goes in for the kill. [click to enlarge]

Finally at 6pm the people started trickling in. There were never more than three or four people there at a time getting food - most of them were older women, often picking up four to five meals each; it was unclear if this was for their families, or for the people who could not come to the soup kitchen site. Although the soup kitchen volunteers and the kids we played basketball with were chipper as could be, the survivors who came to get food had an unshakable air of solemnity. And I could hardly blame them - it's been nearly four months since the tsunami, and looking at the town I could have believed it happened yesterday - it's hard to think that they will ever finish clearing the remains of the town, much less rebuild it. In Tokyo I wrote letters to donors talking about the long road to recovery, but before today I could never have understood how long that road must seem, and probably I still don't understand it. 

Our host Okayama-san preparing Akauo (Red Rockfish?) [click to enlarge] 

Grating raddish, which frequently accompanies fish in Japan. [click to enlarge]

After we finished serving food, we cleaned up the site, and the director of the middle school, Abe-san, came over and gave each of a letter with our names on them. Although I couldn't read most of it, the first line is apparently from the school song, which read "In you we have a friend, a path, and a tomorrow." 

At dusk we all said our goodbyes - it seemed like I will be seeing a lot of the same people tomorrow in Ishinomaki. We finished loading up the van, and then the four of us began the long drive home. By now the sun had set, and without any lights, Minami Sanrikucho was completely swallowed up in the night. I found myself thinking of the letter we had been given by Abe-san at the middle school. The kanji for the word "tomorrow" in Japanese literally mean "bright day", and yet driving through the oppressive darkness, that bright tomorrow still seemed like a long, long way away. Watching the small bit of road carved out of the darkness by our headlights, I began to grow tired, and with thoughts of tomorrow, finally fell asleep. 

Friday, July 1, 2011

Tadaima! (I'm Home)

It’s been nearly three weeks since I arrived in Japan, but I have yet to write anything about it outside of a few emails to friends and family, so hopefully this will be a better way of letting everyone know what I’m up to!
At this very moment, I’m riding the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Sendai, where I’ll be working for the next week providing on-the-ground relief to the evacuees and survivors of the tsunami (which sounds more glamorous than saying I’ll be working in a soup kitchen). I’ll also be working with Nael, the other AARJ (Association for Aid and Relief, Japan) intern. From the sound of it, the work in the soup kitchen will actually be quite intense, since we will be preparing meals in some of the hardest hit towns in Miyagi prefecture.  I have been told the damage in Sendai is not so bad when compared to the rest of Miyagi, but considering that the far end of this scale is the complete annihilation of villages, “not so bad” may still be shocking for my first visit to the disaster zone.

I’ll be writing more about all of this later I’m sure (especially when I have a better idea of what I will be doing), so for now I think I’ll just give a quick review of what I’ve done up to this point. I’ll try to keep it short, since I can always write more about Tokyo when I return there next Friday.

So; the beginning. The flight in was uneventful as long as you completely ignore the fact that I arrived at the airport 15 minutes before the plane left, and only made it to the plane because the attendant allowed me to opt for a “no guarantee” boarding pass, and I miraculously sprinted through security in five minutes flat. In retrospect, it’s a good thing I only brought carry-ons. The trip to the dorm after I arrived was also fairly normal, except I ended up having no idea where it was, and also had never navigated in Japan before. Turns out, they use a completely different address system here that’s based on blocks rather than streets. In order to find the place you’re looking for, you have to know which city or town it’s in, but additionally you must know which “chome” (district) it’s in. Chome (pronounced cho-may) are a small segment of a town, generally made up of 10-25 blocks. Each block is numbered within that chome, and then each building is numbered within its particular block. I spend a good hour or so looking for the place, which ended up just being a 5 minute walk from the train station. Oh well; at least it was a learning experience.

Within the first week, I moved out of the dorm Harvard found for me into the same single-room apartment complex Nael is living in. The rent is about half of what I would have paid at the first place, which was reason enough to move, but I was also excited to move there because it meant moving from the quiet, residential area of Ota-ku to Takadanobaba, which is home to three of Tokyo’s universities, and is just two train stations away from Shinjuku, one of the most popular nightlife areas of Tokyo. I haven’t been out to really experience the nightlife yet, but last Sunday night I explored Ni-Chome, Sinjuku’s famous (and perhaps somewhat infamous) gay district, which supposedly has the largest concentration of gay bars in the world, with 200-300 crammed into just a few blocks on Ni-chome (Second Chome, for those of you who are paying attention). However, in typical Japanese fashion the bars are very small, and highly particularized, and often have a very specific crowd they’re looking for, which generally doesn’t included gaijin (foreigners). I checked out a few of the foreigner friendly ones I’d heard about, but on a Sunday night there wasn’t much going on. The only other time I’ve been out was two weekends ago when I went to a skateboard themed bar (specific bars aren’t limited to Ni-chome)  with Nael, where we chatted with a few students, both gaijin and Nihonjin (Japanese). There was even some live music, which finally showed me that Japanese people listen to things beside J-pop. I also got to teach the bartender how to make a white Russian. It was delicious.

Before today, my work has consisted of working in the AARJ Tokyo office from 10am to 6pm every weekday, which I suppose makes it my first full-time job.  Tokyo was over 300 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake, so there’s not really any relief work to do in the city. Rather, the Tokyo office serves as the Headquarters for AARJ, and is responsible for administrative functions, including communicating with large Japanese and Foreign donors, PR, and managing the accounts of AARJ. As I suspected before arriving, AARJ has been putting our native English skills to use, having us check documents and letters written by the staff, as well as edit their blog, newsletters, and personalized thank-you notes to big international donors. Lately, we’ve been getting more responsibility to write the letters and reports ourselves, and last week I had the intimidating task of drafting a project proposal for Direct Relief International, which requested in total requested $400,000 for AARJ’s relief efforts.

That’s probably enough for an intro. Sorry to end it suddenly, but I realize I’ve been staring at this computer screen for a good hour now, and I think it’s time I put this away and take a look at the beautiful landscape rushing by outside. Who knows when I’ll get another chance.