Wrapping it up, the last few days in Japan

Sorry this post has been so long in coming, but I'm finally going to wrap up the remainder of my trip to Japan.  So here you go.

Our first stop was the Docomo R&D facility.
We were allowed to take pictures inside, but they said for personal use only.  i.e., no posting to websites or showing people.  So... with restrictions like that, I didn't bother taking any pictures.

They actually had some pretty cool stuff in there.  For those who don't know, Docomo is Japan's leading cellular communication company.  Some of the stuff they showed us included an application for cellphone data analysis.  The phone companies track where each phone is at any given time, and therefore can tell how many people of what gender and age are in a given area at a given time of day (approximately.  Not everyone has a cellphone on them at all times).  They were showing how this can be used in city planning, and they're working to make it more readily available and useful to those in the government who could benefit from it to help with decision-making.  It's kind of a cool idea, and (unlike recent developments with phone companies back here in the US) they said that the data is purely an aggregate, so you can't really see who is where, just how many people and the general direction of movement.  It has potential as a quick mode of surveying the area to make building decisions.

That was a lot more detail than I intended.  They also showed us several new technologies in development.  I'm not really sure how much I'm allowed to say about them.  They're working on the next generation past 4G, which has speeds of up to 2GB per second (!), and should be widely available in Japan in about 2 years.  I'd assume something similar would be coming to the US sometime around then, too.  They showed a demo of that and said it's already functional, but the tower technology isn't yet placed around the country, so they can't release it.

They also showed us several new gadgets which are probably more secret, so I'll just give general info.  There was a device that transmitted sound through your bones into your ear instead of listening through a speaker.  It didn't seem to work that well for me.  There was a translator where you spoke in Japanese and it would write it out in English.  That's been done before, and it all depends on the quality of the translation.  There was something that could pick up trace body chemicals from your fingertips and breath (things you frequently use on a phone) and use that to monitor your health in various ways.  That one sounded really impressive, but the demo we saw in action was a little weak.

We also watched a whole bunch of videos showing the future potential of a lot of these technologies.  The first video was cool, but seemed pretty far-fetched, but then when they showed us how much they've already gotten done of what was in there, it made it seem like maybe it would actually work at some point.  Probably not for another 10-20 years, and not exactly like they showed, but still.

Alright, moving on.  Our next stop for the day was a fishing and farming village.  We got to pull up cages that were hanging over the edge of the docks, used to catch fish.  Two of them had octopi in them, and there were also a few fish, hermit crabs, and an eel.

One of the nets with its catches.

This octopus got out of the net and was trying to escape.  Everyone was taking pictures and watching it crawl across the gravel.  Lots of them (especially the girls I could hear) were talking about throwing it back in the water, but not too much later one of the fisher(wo)men killed it with a hook.  It wasn't very pleasant to watch.

A view from the docks towards the village.

And here's our octopus friend.  We had lunch in one of the buildings there, and it included some tempura (good this time), vegetables, seaweed, rice, and after a while, one of the octopi that had just been pulled up and cooked while we ate the rest of the meal.  I had one chunk of tentacle (they just cut it up with scissors...), and while it didn't taste bad, it was really hard to swallow.  Extremely chewy and rubbery.  And I'm sure knowing where it came from didn't help, either.
We then left the fishing village and went to Jougashima, a small, scenic island.

The town is built right up to the shore in some places.  It had lots of hills and plant life, too, so you could get a lot of nice views.

Looking down from near the top of one hill, upon which sat a lighthouse.

I always like staircases like this.  Long, curvy, and a little uneven.  Plus, one side has a wall of greenery the whole way down.  It's a pretty interesting place.

Some aloe vera plants, I'm pretty sure.  They were growing in a few patches here and there.

Everyone else beat my group to the shoreline, because we were taking pictures.

Not my idea.  The girl who doesn't like getting her picture taken likes taking pictures, and had us pose like this.  She liked that I was flanked by stripes.

I saw that natural bridge from all the way across the island and wanted to go there.  While we did get closer, we didn't have enough time to actually go all the way over.

Journeying through the foliage.

Emerging on another great lookout point.

There was a long, low bench near the cliff with a sign on it saying it was a glider observation point (in Japanese).  Two older men, probably at least in their 50s or 60s, were putting together gliders, and proceeded to fly them around for a while while we watched.

Building a stack of stones.  I've heard that there are some legends about stacking stones in certain shrines granting wishes or something.  Maybe that was just in an anime, but it sounds like it would be a genuine Japanese superstition.

Dinner that night was nice.  More western style.  I don't really remember where it was... but that's a long table, which is the real point of the picture.
 We got word that the trip to the Imperial Palace was canceled.  Instead we'd be going to the fish market.  Yeah.  Fish market.  So a few of us tried to go that night to the palace anyway.

Tokyo Station again.  A different part.  I say again, because I took a picture of a nearly empty Tokyo Station last time I was in Japan, too.  This one wasn't quite that empty, but close.  Shinjuku station is actually the busiest in all of Japan, I learned later, and that's the one that was right next to our hotel, which we took to get here.

We arrived at the palace gates, only to see them locked up with a couple police on guard.  Since I was the only one who really spoke Japanese in the group, I was tasked with talking to them and getting information.  It turns out that you can't actually see the palace from outside at all. :/ So we made the trip for nothing.

Well, we did get a few pictures, but it was really late at night, so it was hard to get anything clear.  This is much brighter than it actually was, because if I posted the picture that's closer to reality, you wouldn't really be able to see anything but a light gray blur.
We walked around for a while and discovered that the sidewalk running all the way around the palace grounds is really popular for joggers.  We met up with a bunch of Japanese college kids who were taking a break and all talked with them for a while.  They were training, one of them planning to run I think a 100km race in a day or two.  Whatever it was, it was ridiculously long.

And thus ends... whatever day that was.  Monday, May 27.

Tuesday, May 28

Our first stop was Mitsubishi Corporation, which does a whole lot more than just cars.  There we sat through a long and largely boring lecture on the company, and were given packets of info.  It sounded nice and all, but I think most of it went over most of our heads.  I'm not really sure why they thought that it would be a good idea to have us sit and watch so many business presentations on this trip.

Then they wanted to show off Tokyo Station, which I'd already been to several times.  But this time it was the front entrance.  That place must be huge.  I've never seen the same entrance twice.

The main entrance of Tokyo Station.

Tokyo is making a bid for hosting the 2020 Olympics, and there were lots of posters and signs everywhere promoting it.  I'd feel kind of bad if they lost after all that.

Lunch was... interesting.  Not good, but interesting.
We had lunch at a nearby restaurant, where they brought out a bunch of vegetables (probably cabbage, mostly) and cooked them on a plate in front of us.  I'm sure lots of you have seen these types of things, since we have them back here in the US, too.

After frying the vegetables, they made a donut shape, poured in some sauce, then mixed it up some more and flattened it out.  Then they left, and it never solidified past that, so we just kind of scooped it onto our plates and tried to eat it.
The first dish was pretty plain, and not that good.  Then they brought out some more, and this time there was curry powder with it.  And we were expected to cook it ourselves.  I did most of that one.  It tasted a lot better than the first, but still not that interesting, and there was just too much.  We were mostly feeling done already, when they brought...

Something that looked like a giant tongue.  It's actually a bunch of fish eggs, inside... something.  Egg sac?  Not really sure.  This one they cooked.
She did the vegetables like before, with the eggs sitting off to the side and not being cooked at all, until the end when she dropped it in the middle, chopped it into little tiny pieces, and mixed it all up.  We let it sit for quite a while after that, because no one really wanted to try first, and I don't think anyone was fond of the idea of almost-raw fish eggs, so we let it cook.  The red stuff was almost completely gone, whatever it was.  Instead, there were thousands of tiny eggs, about the size of a poppy seed, spread throughout the mixture.  We all tried some, but none of us really enjoyed it.  We left most of it there.  We weren't full, but after three not-so-good dishes, we'd all lost our appetites.

They brought two more sets of food, neither of which we even put on the grill.  I felt really bad for not eating it, but I couldn't take more of that cabbage stuff and the sauce.  The other tables were leaving heaps of food, too, but they all at least tried some of each.  One table actually managed to finish all five courses, but my friend there was obviously overstuffed and not too happy for the next hour or so.

Look familiar?
 Our next stop was back in Akihabara!  We only had about an hour 40 minutes to look around.  Nowhere near enough time to see everything.  I went around with my friends for a while, but eventually we split up and did shopping for our respective interests.  I bought a couple more games and an art book, then didn't have enough money or time to buy anything else.

Giant Vocaloid Nendoroid ad on the wall of the Sofmap store.  I think the big one is actually the fat, scary "Miku Dayo~" figure, but it's blocked so I'm not sure anymore.  Not sure why you'd want that.

Giant character art from one of my favorite artists, Kantoku.  I haven't watched any of the show it's advertising (Hentai Ouji to Warawanai Neko) but I always like Kantoku's style, so it made me happy to see it.

I just think it's funny there's a donut shop chain called Mister Donut.
After a depressingly short time in Akihabara, we moved on to Harajuku.  Well, I couldn't have bought anything else anyway, what with having only about 1000 yen left after everything else.  So I guess it's not that bad.  I only brought about $100 on the trip all together, so the fact that I managed to get everything I did is still impressive.

We are all chelsea.  I don't know who Chelsea is, but I assume it's that guy.  And now I'm him.  And you're him.  Everybody is him.

Looking down the street of Harajuku.  Once we got into the crowds, it was mostly girls talking excitedly and looking at all the shops, and guys ignoring everything around them looking straight ahead or talking with their friends.  Sounds like a typical shopping district.  Lots more girls than guys.

My friend fancied the fancy hat.  He didn't buy it.

Crepes are very popular in Japan, and if they actually looked anything like the displays I could see why.  My friend bought a strawberry cheesecake crepe, and it was pitifully small compared to the display.  Still, I had a tiny bit and it tasted alright.

Don't feed the shirts.  I actually thought this one was pretty clever.

Also clever, but...
Harajuku was basically a fashion mall, but I did manage to find a bottle of concentrated Calpis Water to bring back home, spending most of the little money I had left.  Much cheaper and lasts longer than getting individual bottles of the actual drink.

My group got bored with Harajuku after not very long, so we went to the nearby shrine.  At least, to the entrance.  The actual shrine was waaaaaay down the path somewhere off in the distance, and we didn't have time to go that far and back.

Illegal Disposal is forbidden!  Really?
And that's the end of that day.

Wednesday, May 29

The last full day in Japan.  We went to see a demonstration of kabuki dancing.  One man, supposedly a master of kabuki, but I don't remember his name, showed us a few sample performances, explaining the different motions and props as he went.  I studied kabuki back in fall semester in Japanese class, so most of it was pretty familiar to me.  He then had volunteers come up and join him in the performances, teaching them the steps.  I didn't end up going up, but probably about half the people there did.  He only did the female dances when the volunteers were up, for some reason.  In kabuki, both male and female roles are played by men exclusively.  So he showed us both types.

After that, we went to the fish market, an art museum, and a very small kabuki museum.  The fish market really wasn't that interesting, and the others had no pictures allowed.  The art museum was focused on the Japanese feeling of the four seasons, and how it's important to their culture.  I learned about that a couple semesters ago, too, but I saw it a bit more in depth in the museum than just what we talked about in class.  We mostly mentioned food and things, but it applies to a lot more than just that.  They seem to take it into every aspect of daily life, so the seasons are very important to them.  Having only been to Japan in the summer, that now makes me wonder what the other seasons would be like.

Outside the kabuki museum, my friends found a random store's mascot character and posed for a picture.  I've never heard of Gunma-chan before, but he had all sorts of merchandise inside the store.
Then we had the formal debriefing, where everyone talked about the things they learned and differences and similarities between the countries, and all that.  It was nice, but nothing I can really write about here.

Then, our last dinner.  We went to a restaurant near the hotel, and had nabe.  Well, I think that's what it was.  They never called it by that name, but it was Japanese hot pot at least.

Each table (for six) had two pots of boiling water, and a few plates of beef and pork, along with a bunch of vegetables.

We put in all the vegetables and meat, let it cook (it only took a few seconds, really), and pulled it out and ate it.  This meal was absolutely delicious!  I would have loved to have more of it, but I think it was probably pretty expensive.  They must have saved the best for last.  I left still a little hungry. :(
After the meal, one of my friends was trying to get rid of all her remaining yen, and really wanted to go to karaoke.  So a couple of us went along with her.  It was better in some ways than my first trip, but harder without a native-level reader to use all the controls.  I ended up having to figure out how to work everything, and we lost some time because of that.  Still, with only three people, we each got to sing quite a bit.  All in all, not too bad of an experience, but I wouldn't have considered it worth paying for (she paid for all of us).

We then spent a while looking for a suitcase for her, since she had bought too much stuff to fit into her original one.  We found a small bag in a clothing store, then thinking that would have to suffice stopped looking and I led everyone into a game store where I wanted to look around.  And lo and behold, at the back of the store, a corner for luggage.  To be fair, the store had more than games, but we were on the game and movie floor, and the luggage was completely out of place.  Interesting setup.

The next morning, we all gathered bright and early, around 7 am (after having an even earlier breakfast) with all of our luggage and departed for the airport.  I spent almost the whole trip home watching movies, including Wreck-it Ralph (first time, good movie), The Dog of Flanders (first time, good but kind of sad), The Hobbit (second time, awesome), and I think there might have been something else.  I didn't sleep at all.  I did try reading some of the manga I bought, and made it about a third of the way through one of the books with the help of my phone dictionary.

Flying over Alaska, or thereabouts.
It was a great trip.  I'd love to return to Japan again someday.  I might even try to make it an annual or biannual thing if I can afford it, but that might be pretty hard.  I'd really like to see it in the other seasons, though, and explore more of the countryside.  Maybe go up north in the winter, where there's tons of snow.  Stuff like that.  Anyway, those are adventures for another day.  For now, I'll have to be content at home in the summer heat of Virginia.

Thanks for reading.  I doubt I'll be posting much more to this anytime soon, but hey, you never know.

Buddhism and Shintoism

Today was pretty much all about religious things.  First, we went to see the Great Buddha at Kamakura.  This is a 2/3 scale replica of the one in Nara, which I saw last year, but this one is actually several hundred years older, because the one in Nara has been reconstructed a few times.  They said it was originally completely covered in gold, but now it's basically just a bronze statue.  A hint of gold remains on one of the cheeks, though.

The statue, dwarfing everyone around it.

There are windows in the back, which were probably used in construction for the workers to be able to get in and out.

We actually got to go inside it.  It's completely hollow, and you can see up into the head area and everything.  They figure it was built using a clay base as a mold and the copper was poured in in layers.
After that, we went to another Buddhist temple in the area.  It was a pretty simple place as far as the buildings go, but it was nice outside.  Lots of plum trees, which it's famous for, along with azaleas, hydrangeas, and irises.

I don't know what these trees were, but they were impressively tall and straight.
At the temple, we got a lesson on zen meditation, then all participated.  Basically, you sit cross-legged (ideally with both feet up on the opposite thighs), hold your hands together, palms up and somewhat open with thumbs touching to make an O, and sit perfectly still while breathing really slowly and counting each exhalation.  Your eyes have to stay focused on the ground a meter in front or so, not closed.  The monk also lit some incense which let out a slight smell, but wasn't too noticeable except when the wind was blowing it my way (the room was open on most sides).  I made it to 57 breaths by the end, which was 20 minutes.  You're supposed to start over counting after 10, but I figured I'd just keep going.

The meditation room and head monk.
Nothing really came of it, except that I realized how fast 20 minutes can pass when you're doing absolutely nothing.  We couldn't take pictures during the actual meditation, obviously.  You're not supposed to move at all.  I had to shift my legs a tiny bit when they started falling asleep, though.  And I kept slouching slightly.

After that, we went to a major Shinto shrine, but I don't have the name.  It was still in the same area, Kamakura, which apparently has 5 major shrines in it.  We went to the biggest one.

A wall of vending machines.  Apparently this path is really popular.  The guide said the shrine we went to gets about 10 times the population of the town itself in visitors every year, roughly 1.7 million.

A cool tunnel we passed through.
The streets we walked along in this area seemed much more familiar to me than most of where we've been.  It was a smaller town rather than a big city, so all the sidewalks were just a couple feet across, and the roads were narrow with cars driving very close by.  It definitely reminded me of Izumichuo from last summer.  Just more people.

Amish in Japan?  Or just some Japanese person selling old-style western food?
There was a wedding going on at the shrine when we arrived.  Another one was about to start when we left.  Shinto-style weddings are less popular than Christian-style (girls like to wear the big fluffy white dresses, it seems), but this is a famous shrine, so it probably gets a lot of people for weddings here.

You can see some of the wedding party in the suits and kimono on the right.

This tree stump was once a sacred tree, over 1000 years old.  It fell a few years ago, I think in 2010, due to the wind, making national news.
We also wandered around some shops, then went back to the hotel and had dinner at a family restaurant.  Everyone kind of split up after that, some going off to eat sushi, some shopping, some drinking (that may still be happening now).  We leave the hotel tomorrow, so after going around town some, I'm back and mostly packed up again.

One of our chaperones is sick with influenza.  She was sent to the hospital a couple of days ago.  One of the Japanese guides we've had from the beginning is also sick at the hospital, but we don't know with what.  They've made us start taking our temperatures every day to identify if anyone's getting sick, but no one else is having problems so far.  I've been pretty careful, I think, and using hand sanitizer and such, along with some immune system booster medicine I brought.  I think everyone else will be fine.

I'm not going to be able to post again until I'm back in the U.S. on Thursday.  I could respond to comments/e-mail when I get up tomorrow morning, though, maybe.  See you later.