Anne's Adventures in Tokyo

This is a highly informal and, hopefully, humorous record of my stay at the Hakubi Kyoto Kimono School in Otsuka, Tokyo. At the moment it doesn't have any photos; I'll probably wait until I get back to process my film (it's very expensive to do so, here) so you should check back later to see some pictures!

Disclaimer: I've tried to make this accurate, but I'm sure to get someone's name wrong, or otherwise mess something up. Please forgive me, in advance.

If you've already read some of this, you can jump to specific days:

                        15 (T), 16 (F), 17 (S), 18 (S) 
19 (M), 20 (T), 21 (W), 22 (T), 23 (F), 24 (S), 25 (S)
26 (M), 27 (T), 28 (W), 29 (T), 30 (F), 31 (S) 

                                                1  (S)
2  (M), 3  (T), 4  (W), 5  (T), 6  (F), 7  (S), 8  (S)
9  (M), 10 (T), 11 (W), 12 (T), 13 (F), 14 (S), 15 (S)
16 (M)

Day 1 (May 14-15):
In Which I Lose A Day, Get Some Sleep, and Am Not Detained by Customs and Immigration Agents

I felt fine about leaving until I was actually at Logan airport, saying goodbye to Jon. Suddenly I realized I was going away for a month to a place I'd never been, working with people I'd met only a few times. What was I doing?

Well, at least I'd been to Japan before. I knew, for instance, that the plane ride was going to be long and boring (there is nothing you can do to keep yourself entertained for 14-18 hours while sitting in one place.) Imagine a whole 747-load of grumpy, tired and bored people - then make them a bit grumpier, and add some tired flight attendents...You get the idea.

I had hit upon a new idea in an attempt to get some sleep - I wore my sweats on the plane. Other than the fact that I stuck out like a sore thumb among all these nattily-dressed Japanese returning home, I was quite comfortable, and managed to get a lot of sleep.

So I arrived at Narita zillions of hours later (ok, it was only 18 hours - a transfer in Los Angeles), moderately rested and shabbily dressed. I found a bathroom, however, and changed into some real clothes. My groggy brain, however, starting concocting these scenarios wherein I am accosted by an immigration officer, who thinks I'm a spy (who else would head straight for the first restroom and change their clothes? Yep, that's me, Anne, Anne Bond.) This did not happen, as you might expect, and I sailed through immigration and customs.

Much to my surprise, I was met by my friend, Prof. Naito, who had come all the way from Kamakura to say hello to me at the airport. (Kamakura is at least 2 hours away from Narita airport by train!) (Prof. Naito came to MIT in January, '97 to do an origami exhibition here, and teach in my IAP origami class. He's also building a human powered helicopter, and trying for the Sikorsky prize for human powered helicopter flight.) I was also met, a few minutes later, by two people from Hakubi - Mrs. Lily Nakao and Mr. Kamitsu. Lily, an American employee of Hakubi, lives in Hawaii, and was working in Tokyo for the month I was to be in Japan, and so could help me out, translating in my classes, etc. I had met Mr. Kamitsu, the CEO of Hakubi when they came to Boston in October, 1996.

After some confusion (the Hakubi folks were rather taken aback that someone else was also meeting me at the airport) we bowed Prof. Naito off to his train, with my promises to get in touch when my schedule settled, and we headed off to our train. The ride was uneventful, but interesting, as Narita is quite a ways from Tokyo. You get to see farmland, and the change to an urban landscape as you come in. I'm always struck by the difference in visual texture that Japanese farmland has, compared to New England farms. The village houses often have black or grey or blue tile roofs, and are clustered together in odd-shaped clumps. In between, the rice fields are so flat, and, this time of year, flooded with water, with tiny new rice plants popping up in their straight rows. Non-rice fields are stuck in wherever they fit. And the change from fields to city feels very sudden, somehow. Maybe it's the same at home, I'm not sure, but it seems that one second it's green, the next it's houses and high rises and neon.

Kamitsu-san hauled my luggage through the train system with good grace, and I apologized profusely at every possible opportunity. (Just getting in practice for the rest of my stay.) The apartment I'm staying in is actually just a five minute walk from the Otsuka JR train station (Yamanote line), but we got off one station earlier, and took a taxi, to save everyone's backs, I think.

The apartment is spacious, even by American standards (which makes it pretty huge for Tokyo.) It's owned by Hakubi, and used as an office by Mr. Oyama. I have my own separate room, and the run of the living/dining room, and kitchen. Oyama-san gave me a whirlwind tour of the apartment, with running commentary and instructions on how to use everything in Japanese (which I caught about half of), much to the amusement of Lily, Kamitsu-san and Mrs. Yamada, another Hakubi person who was there to greet me.

Dinner was the occasion of the first of many discussions entitled "So What Will Anne Eat?" My protestations of "really, anything except natto [fermented soybeans], I like Japanese food, honest" were met with nods and "ah, soo desu ka." ("oh, really.") Until I proved that I could both use chopsticks and happily eat just about anything they put in front of me, everyone was worried that I wouldn't get enough food.

I crashed, and managed to get a decent night's sleep, even though my body kept waking me up about once an hour to tell me to get up, what was I doing sleeping in the middle of the day? The 13-hour time difference will take a while to get used to.

Day 2 (May 16):
In Which I Am Introduced to Hakubi, Otsuka and Japanese Shopping

Friday morning, Mrs. Yamada (aka Yamada-sensei from now on in the diary) picked me up at the apartment to head to Hakubi for my introductions. None of the streets in the neighborhood are straight, and even though it's a short walk, I was confused by the time we got there.

The morning was taken up by a discussion of my schedule and introductions and such. Lunch was with Lily and three of the Kimono teachers who came to Boston last year (Kakutani, Nahata and Sakuma sensei.) We had a grand time talking about the Boston trip, and my impressions of things so far ("confused"), and round two of "What Will Anne Eat?"

A tour of the building followed. The building itself is pretty cool, and was designed by a famous architect (whose name I failed to write down.) It makes nice use of glass block, and large windows, so there's good light in lots of the rooms. Most of the classrooms have tatami mats on the floor (on which you never wear shoes or even slippers), and as the tour progressed I became more and more sure that sneakers were a Bad Choice of Footwear for this trip. (Should have looked harder for those clogs, or something.) I guess I'll just get used to always being the last one fussing with their shoes.

I had to write up a couple of paragraphs explaining who I was, what I had studied, and what I was working on, so they could give it to people I would meet at the school, etc. One of the young staff members of the school (who speaks very good English) was to translate it that day, so it could circulate around. Yikes.

Yamada sensei was kind enough to give me a walking tour of the neighborhood, including the local supermarket (which is three floors, with housewares, and stationery and appliances and things. Fun place.) I wasn't sure if I'd actually be able to find everything again, but at least I knew how to get to and from the school, which was a start.

Lily and I had figured out we were kindred spirits - we both collect hobbies, and we headed off in the afternoon for the next town over, Ikebukuro (whose name means, literally, "pond bag". Still haven't figured that one out.) to a craft/fabric store. I exercised great self-restraint, there, however, and only bought a book. I'm sure I'll be back.

Dinner time, Oyama-san (my daytime apartment-mate) cooked dinner for me and a friend of his who lives nearby. It turns out he was a professional cook for a while, and makes wonderful soba (buckwheat noodles.)

The end of my first full day here - not too bad. The language thing is a bit overwhelming, but I'm surviving.

Random Observation of the Day:

No Japan diary would be complete without at least one comment about the toilets. The toilet in the apartment is a marvel of engineering. It's set up so that when you sit down, the room fan starts up, and stays on for a while after you leave. There are about 5 different controls on the thing (you can heat the seat to the desired temperature, for instance. This might be nice in the winter, but seems a bit odd to me right now, so I turned that feature off) and I can't even figure out most of them. Just amazing.

And yet, public toilets (for instance, in train stations) are pretty scruffy. It's my pet theory that this fancy-toilet thing is some sort of emotional overcompensation for the less-than-elegant old fashioned systems. As long as you've got all this high tech, you might as well use it to pamper yourself, or something. I dunno.

Day 3: (May 17)
In Which Anne Has To Stand On Stage and Pull Strings In Front of Many People

Saturday (theoretically a free day in my schedule) started out pretty mellow. I spent a while decoding the kanji in the craft book I bought on Friday, and decided I really wanted to make some of the things in the book, so I ventured out on my own for Ikebukuro. (See, I knew I'd be back.)

Actually, I headed for a different store than the one we went to on Friday, this one called Tokyu Hands. Imagine combining a great hardware store, a toy store, a Charette's, and a few other craft places, and put them all in one building. That's Tokyu Hands. Needless to say, I had fun, and managed to find just about everything on my list. Just wandering around Ikebukuro on a Saturday morning was cool, too. It seemed like everyone in Tokyo was out shopping, and Ikebukuro has some huge department stores.

A quick lunch of ramen (Chinese-style noodles) at home (thanks to Oyama-san's cooking; he works most Saturdays, I think, so he was around) and then I was off to the school for a presentation about Kabuki. (Traditional Japanese theater.) I was going out to dinner with Mr. Mizushima, the head of Hakubi, so I decided to wear a jacket and nice slacks.

Darn good thing, since it turned out this presentation was being done in Hakubi's auditorium - which seats around 900 - and they decided to formally present me to everyone there. (Most of them were Hakubi teachers or students, folks interested in the Kabuki costumes, which was what the presentation was to be about.) So I had to stand up and bow, and they read some of my who-is-Anne thing. It was a tad embarassing, but bearable.

Then they got on with the presentation, by a man who has one of the few companies that still makes Kabuki costumes. It was beatiful, and very interesting. There's an amazing technique they use for quick constume changes called (if I got it right) "hikunuki", whereby they attach two kimonos together with threads at strategic points, and then a stagehand pulls them (usually while the actor walks behind a piece of the set) and miraculously appears in a new kimono. Well, they dressed someone up (not me!) in one of these, and then needed someone to pull the strings. And of course, they decided to use me.

So I scramble up on stage, with Lily in tow to translate. The main guy gives me a little pep talk about pulling the strings firmly, all in one steady tug, and shows me the order to do it in. Apart from the fact that I had to do it in front of 900 people, it was totally cool. You pull all the strings, and then grab strategic parts of the old costume, and the actor just walks forward and *poof* they're in a new kimono. I loved it.

Afterwards Mr. Mizushima took me, his wife and daughter and several teachers and other Hakubi people out to dinner at a spiffy Chinese restaurant. Oddly enough, Chinese food in Japan frequently bears little resemblance to Chinese food in America. It leaves me wondering whether any of it is anything like Chinese food in China! In any case, it was all delicious, and a fun evening. Mr. Mizushima continued to overwhelm me with Hakubi's generosity (a stipend to offset my expenses, and a gift of a kimono from his wife, who, it turns out, is quite tall, and had her kimonos specially made. Their daughter, Yumiko, is quite a bit shorter than I am [this is not unusual, of course] and so she cannot use the kimono. Even so, it's a stunning gift.)

Random Observation of the Day:

Not to continue the toilet theme, exactly, but so far every single piece of plumbing and bathroom-related hardware I have seen is made by a company called "Toto." I am forced to go through this visit with songs from The Wizard of Oz running around in my head, as a result. ("And Toto too?")

Day 4 (May 19):
In Which I Eat Some Awesome Raw Fish

Sunday morning, it turns out, there is a big flea market at a temple near where Lily lives. She gives me instructions, and I almost manage to find it without getting lost. At the last minute, though, I take a wrong turn. I'm pretty sure it's wrong (I know it's not this far) so I take a deep breath and ask two teenagers on the street if they know where the temple is.

Miraculously, they understand me (yay!) but all they know is that it's nearby. (Bummer.) There is a koban (a tiny police-office) right there, though, so I go in and ask there. I got a bit flustered, and the policeman there was sort of weirded out to have to deal with me, I think, so it was not the most successful language exchange. But it got me to the temple, anyway.

The flea market was lots of fun, all sorts of odd mixes of stuff, real antiques and junk, new stuff, old stuff...Lily often buys old kimonos there, and we had a good time digging through piles of them.

Mid-day we headed back to Hakubi, for lunch with Mr. Mizushima. A local sushi shop is rated among the five best in Tokyo, and I can see why. The food was amazing. The chef is a real artist, and a steady stream of small bowls and plates full of interesting tidbits, and pieces of sashimi (raw fish) and nigiri-sushi (fish on a little patty of rice) flowed from behind the counter and from the kitchen. I can't even remember what we ate, it was mostly new to me. The chef was thrilled that I was not only willing to try everything, but that I enjoyed it, too. As a joke, he made a tiny rolled sushi (about 1/2 inch in diameter) with a tiny strip of tuna in the middle. In return I asked for a piece of nori (that's a kind of seaweed dried in sheets) cut into a square. I folded a crane out of it, much to everyone's disbelief. Nori is a bit hard to work with, but it came out looking like a crane, at any rate.

In the afternoon, I attended a presentation of the Hakubi Mai. This is a whole set of "dances" where they have coreographed the moves required to put on a kimono, and reduced the process to three minutes or less. It's incredible. This presentation was done by about 200 people, teachers and students in the various Hakubi Mai schools run by Hakubi. There are different dances for different types of kimono, and different ways to tie the obi, etc. Just amazing. Apparently they think I'm capable of learning it, as I'm scheduled for two days of lessons near the end of my trip! (Eeeek!)

Sunday evening I had soba leftovers, and vegged on the couch.

Random Observation of the Day:

Japanese television is odd. I suppose it would be less odd to me if I could actually understand what was going on more often, but the feel of the whole thing is quite different, somehow. I can't really put my finger on it.

I also had the peculiar experience of watching "Pretty Woman" dubbed in Japanese. Since I already knew the story, it was easy to follow. The choices of voice and style and things were interesting - you could see that they tried to get the Japanese equivalents in style and tone, not just random voices.

On to the second week...

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Copyright 1997 Anne R. LaVin
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