My not so secret bad habit

japanese books


I love books.  Whether they are from the library, a bookstore or a friend, I adore them.  I would say a vast majority of my books are of the, “how to…” variety.  They are on exceedingly varying themes, and there are a lot of them.  That may not sound so bad, but books and information are definitely my preferred form of procrastination.  Even though I know ( and I do know) that it takes consistent effort and work to learn new things… at some point in the learning process I get frustrated at my level of success my brain decides, ” it’s not you, and it’s not that you need to put in more time, you just need another resource… a better resource.”  And even though it’s not true my brain will lead my feet to a bookstore where I aquire a new book with a new promise to learn whatever I want to learn, but this time ” the fast and easy way!!!!”

I’m a sucker everytime.


Reading japanese: step 1

I can’t seem to get into a good working rhythm this month to get everything done. Fun mini projects keep getting in the way. I think it’s a result of thinking up the million and one projects I am interested in on New Years. The most recent one: Katakana.

Last time I was in Japan, Katakana was the one thing I really wished I would have learned. This time around, even though it was a shorter trip I really wanted to give it a go. I’ve been using this awesome book :


I haven’t managed to learn them all yet and it gets a little more complicated than I thought (of course) towards the end, but overall it’s been a small effort that has yielded great rewards! Katakana is EVERYWHERE (in Japan)!

Now when I’m looking around, instead of seeing a blur of characters that are meaningless, I find pockets of decipherable symbols… it’s like a word search treasure hunt! The best part of katakana for me is that once I read it, it’s most likely a word I am going to know.  You just have to get used to listening for the japanized version of a word or phrase.  Here are some examples around Tokyo that got me so excited 🙂



to-ma-to!  Ok so the picture of tomatoes is also a clue…but still, SQUEEE!



i-be-n-to-su-pe-su … event space!




fu-a-i-na-ru fu-a-n-ta-ji…    Final Fantasy!


ha-n-ba-ga … hamburger

do-ri-n-ku … drink

…and on and on.  Menus are the best  for katakana 🙂


ma-i-ku … MIKE, as in microphone!

Now I just have to squeal a little less when I am able to read something!


Katakana – shoulda, woulda, coulda


If there was one thing I wish I would have done before I went to Japan it’s learn Katakana. As you may recall I put a pretty good effort forward to learn to speak and understand some basic Japanese and also a learn a specific script for the show. All of which I would say was a huge success and was really, really useful!

Katakana is one of Japanese’s three branches of written symbols, the other two being Hiragana and Kanji. Kanji are borrowed from Chinese and there are said to be near 50,000. Kanji is more of a symbol that represents an idea or object like a pictogram, whereas Katakana and Hiragana are symbols that represent sounds to spell out words or particles. Hiragana is the Japanese alphabet and is used to write Japanese words and Katakana is used to write out foreign words and places.

I got along well enough without it, learning just a few helpful characters as I went. Most of what I did learn was really random kanji, not really useful for anything except taking the train back to Tachikawa. However, it was interesting to see that once I learned the symbols they seemed to pop out at me from signs, even though I have no idea what they were saying. For example the symbol for the city we were living (tachikawa) in was:


Or as I thought of it: ice bucket on a table / cat scratch

The setting on the rice cooker that I wanted to select (white rice) was:


or window / angry face cross

I avoided learning either for a couple of reasons. First, I thought the difficult : useful ratio would be too high to be worthwhile.

It seems like I was wrong. People have told me that it can be memorized in a matter of days at the most. As for not being useful…katakana was all over the place!  Especially on signs and menus, which are the main things I read there anyway 🙂 I don’t have any illusions about picking up a copy of the Tokyo Daily News and plowing through it, but it would be nice to decipher a menu or store sign.

It also helps you speak better because when they write something in katakana, pronouncing the foreign word that way is the best way of being understood. For example I was in front of a movie theater aptly named Cinema City. It was written in English and also below in katakana. One of the guys with me sounded it out to me from the katakana:

Si-ni-ma Si-ti ( pronounce all i’s as ee’s : see-ne-ma see-tee)

He said I would be well understood if I said it like that, but pronouncing it in correct English was more likely to be unintelligible. I felt a little weird pronouncing words like that, but Japanizing English words defiantly made me better understood.
The second reason I avoided learning was that I knew I had to learn to speak for the show, so I wanted to put most of my focus into speaking. While I think that was a good plan for my first trip there, now that I am going back I think it’s time to tackle katakana for sure and hirgana as well as I can.

Oh yeah, did I not mention that 😉 I’M GOING BACK! Apparently we made a really good impression and we’re headed back in the beginning/ middle of January… and this time I’ll be able to order what I want!


Salmon Sushi gyoza-yummy



how do you say “om nom nom” in Japanese?

Food in Japan is on another level. I don’t think I ate anything I normally eat at home, but I never once missed western food. Well, I did slightly panic when I found out that I was supposed to eat the crab in the middle of the picture below:


I found the tastes, quantities, and presentation perfect for myself and my well being. One of the foods that surprised me the most was the rice. I am not a rice fan, I usually avoid eating it and almost never make it. So of course at first I was a little nervous of what I would eat over there. Then I tried Japanese rice.


I think I ate rice at every meal and a rice ball for every snack. In fact my favorite thing to make in the mornings was avocado rice balls which where just: rice and avocado wrapped in seaweed. I took a few pictures, but they were so messy looking I can’t post them and maintain any self respect. Messy or not… they were delicious 🙂 We would also buy these togo rice balls often… and by often I mean almost everyday.


rice balls should be mandatory in all 7-11’s

Besides how great they tasted, they were filling, convenient, and reasonably healthy compared to what you can come out of a US 7-11 with. And maybe that’s what I loved most about the food in Japan, I always felt good after eating. I don’t have any allergies to any food that I know of, but it’s not uncommon for me to feel, “uncomfortable” after a meal even when I haven’t eaten a crazy amount. But with the food I was eating in Japan, even when I ate A LOT, I never had that same bloated/ upset stomach feeling. WHICH WAS AWESOME… and so was endless sushi:


Even at the festivals we always received a bento box for the day that would contain rice balls with different fish inside and sometimes inari (rice in a sweet bean curd) or tomago (egg). You may think bento boxes are just for kids, but they make amazing meals on the go for any age. I think they could convince anyone to eat their veggies.

20081210-yoshi-pica-bento calvin-and-hobbes-bento-box

matbento mushbento

Actually Bento seems popular for all age groups and served in restaurants as well as a way to prepare a meal togo. I love them, they are like mini buffet meals. I always want to taste little bits of lots of different things and bento makes that possible!


Japan made it so easy to eat healthy on the go, compared with my attempt in August. If I had done that same trial in Japan it would have been a walk in the park! Where I could have coincidentally bought a baked sweet potato 🙂

baked potatoes hand cart1

One last note… Royal Caribbean… this is NOT sushi:

RCCL sushi

To which Royal would probably respond, ” but it is free.”

The Ghibli Museum in Tokyo – daisuki desu!

Studio_Ghibli_Museum_image_Japan slice

The Ghibli museum in Tokyo is one of the most memorable museums I have ever been to. I don’t say that lightly – I’ve been privy to hundreds of museums ever since I could walk, and probably even a few before that.

museum kid

That’s me!

That being said, it probably helped in part that I loved the subject matter, I’ve seen most of his films and I love the worlds he creates. It seemed to be more of a journey into his world and less of what museums sometimes are to me: a place to look at stuff. I went from room to room ready to uncover more about his process and to see my favorite film characters.

The museum allows a set number of people in for two hours and you aren’t allowed to take any pictures inside, which is a shame, but makes you want to immerse yourself even deeper in the experience.

From the first look at the structure of the building and stained glass windows with his characters at the entrance, I knew it was going to be a special and unique place.


entrance3010276737_20396526bbGhibli3As you enter the museum you get a ticket to see a short film playing inside the museum’s theater that has never been released to the public. Your ticket is a couple frames from actual film once used in theaters from one of his many films.

Ghibli Museum Tickets

I was planning on going straight there, but the first room on the right caught my attention and my body followed. It was a dimly lit room, but all across the room lights flickered from various films and animations. Playing throughout the room was a hauntingly sweet melody, I have no idea what it was, but for me it seemed to be the musical interpretation of wonder, whimsy, and imagination run wild. As I entered the room there was a giant house facade, each window was for a different Ghibli film, represented by a still frame from the film along with the title and releases date. At the bottom of the house the windows were shuttered and you could open them to peer into dioramas of different scenes from various films.

Next were several animated wheels – like a flip book – they would pause long enough for you to see the individual drawings on the wheel, then burst into top speed and brought the animation to life before your eyes.

Next came a huge carousal that was like a 3D version of the previous flip books. I found a picture online, which was helpful because it would have taken me forever to explain 🙂


This carousal would do the same pause then run cycle. Once it started spinning it appeared that each layer of characters were running opposite directions from the one on either side of it. I loved it, and I think I stood there for 5 minutes watching it come to life over and over again.

In the corner they were showing a really short film that I will call Ever-Lution. There weren’t very many signs in English so I don’t actually know the title of the film. It started as two organisms racing and playing in the ocean and each one proceeds to evolve into something else to help win the race. They one up each other from organisms to fish to reptiles to dinosaurs to birds to monkeys, each time changing so deftly that you don’t always realize what’s going on until the transformation is complete. They continue changing back and forth until they lose each other and you are following the one that changes into a little boy. He climb higher and higher up a mountain until he reaches the top where there is a little girl waiting for him. I’m not sure, but like to think that she was the other organism he lost along the way and they found each other in the end. Besides the film being fluid and captivating, the way it was physically presented was so cool (Which in a general sense sums up why I loved this place). It was projected on one main screen, but as you walked around the side you see that it’s running through an overly complex system of wheels. As you look through the maze of film and wheels there are random places they have put lights and business-card-sized screens behind the running film so you can see the film in action at different parts. So there’s the main screen and also 4 or 5 small ones placed throughout the maze of running film.

The last feature in the room in a film that is a series of vignettes that end and start in the same way so they can repeat over and over without really knowing whether they are ending or beginning. In the center of the whole room there was a large cylinder with vertical slits all around it. Inside is the figure of one of the robots from Howl’s moving castle looking up and there are blue birds all around him. The slits are moving around so the birds appear to the flying endless upward in circles around him. It was beautiful and matched the feeling of the room’s music perfectly.


This is a still picture of the robot and birds

As you can probably tell, that was my favorite room. I probably spent 45 mins of my two hours in there. It was like getting lost in his world of characters and creativity.

When I did finally leave that room I followed a tight winding staircase up to the top floor to take a view of the garden roof top.



Another winding staircase lead me into what I assume were recreations of their work-spaces.


Staircases everywhere!

The walls were literally covered with hand drawn character sketches of Kiki the witch, Seita and Setsuko from “Graveyard of the Fireflies” and Princess  Mononoke, among many others.



The room was chock full of stuff and the details were amazing. His desk was surrounded with tons of books, the vast majority of which were fairy-tales from all over the world. It lead into another room which detailed more of the process of turning ideas and character sketches into painted cells and eventually an animated film. There were also storyboard books for all the Ghibli movies that you could look through. I can’t imagine anyone leaving there not wanting to draw and live in a world surrounded by the creations of yourself and others.

Lastly I headed down to watch the screening of the short film in the museum’s movie theater.


Like all his works it was full of detailed characters inside a fully imagined world. Every time I tried to write out the plot, it didn’t really do it justice. But it follows the clear logic that witches are evil and humanized eggs are adorable and deserve their freedom, along with come to life men made of bread!


Those were my favorite parts of the museum, but there were many other rooms. The whole building was like going on an adventure and you never knew what would lie behind the next door (maybe if I could have read the Japanese I would have had more of an idea…) There were couple rooms I didn’t really understand because it was all in Japanese and it was almost all text. It was either the history of fairy-tales in general around the world, or the fairy-tales that most influenced Miyazaki’s. Oh yes and there was a giant catbus for children… what is a catbus you say…

catbusThis is a catbus… clearly 🙂

Once you leave the museum you can get some cute snacks at the attached cafe. Giving you one last chance to see or eat your favorite characters 🙂



Bento totoro1




I was so sad to leave the museum, but it’s nice to know I can visit anytime via his films Smile


BYE  Totoro!

Tokyo – Population Surge

There are so many people here, the main train stations are always busy round the clock, and heading into Shinjuku or Shibuya is enough to make your head spin with just the sheer number of people walking around.

And yet there are so many things that make it feel less crowded than at home…

It’s eerily quiet:

People are so quiet in public spaces. Almost no one uses their phone on the train and if they do they whisper so quietly it’s a wonder they can be heard by whoever is on the other end of the line. People don’t really talk on the train either… it’s amazingly quiet for the number of people all smooshed together. I’ve been on the train with 10 people in Chicago and it’s louder.

People are full of patience:

There is usually a line of some sort, whether it’s for food, the train or the bathroom, there is going to be a line. But it’s a line full of people quietly, patiently, not complaining about the line. I waited in line for 12 minutes 42 seconds once to get coffee… and no one complained… I know that, not because I am suddenly fluent in Japanese, but because no one said ANYTHING audible the entire time. I feel like at home people would have been complaining and both visually and audibly annoyed at the inconvenience around minute 5. It’s way easier to stay relaxed about waiting when everyone else is relaxed too.

“Hey what do you want to do today?”

“Let’s wait in line!”

“OK sounds great 🙂 “

It’s unbelievable clean:

I can count on one hand the number of pieces of litter I saw on the streets the whole month I was there. That’s not so amazing in itself, I’ve been witness to lots of clean cities. However when coupled with the fact that there are NO TRASH CANS, it’s freaking amazing. An entire city has been trained to take the trash they have/made with them until they get home to throw it away…what?!?! I’ve seen it, they literally ball up the wrapper/ tissue/ whatever and put it in their purse or pocket and carry on. I wonder what our streets would look like if garbage cans went away… *shudder*. It probably helps that eating on the go isn’t as popular here. Also when buying a drink from the awesome vending machines, most people stay at the vending machine and drink it there where there are recycling pods for bottles and cans attached.

Public parks are a haven:

You would think that in a city of 13 million people the public parks of that city would feel just as busy, but some how they don’t. Everyone just kind of spreads out and does their own thing.

My favorite park –  Inokashira Park

Besides the traditional park activities like reading, strolling and picnics, parks also seem to be an unofficial meeting space in a city where renting a space is probably quite expensive. We saw people practicing plays, dances and sports, we practiced in the park and no one even gave us a second glance.

Training in Showa Kinen Park


Grocery Store Wars

(I found this picture after I wrote this.  It doesn’t exactly fit, but it was too good to resist 🙂 )

Grocery Wars?  Is that a new show on A&E?  No (at least not yet), I’m talking about preparing to go into battle against a grocery store where you can’t read any of the labels and the food staples in general are very different.

Criteria for Adequate Mission Planning

The Commander: That would be me… a good commander is well-trained and well prepared for the mission at hand, or can fake it with the best of them.

The Sargent:  That would be Daniel, ready to advise on UFI (unidentified food items) and create any necessary diversions.

The Mission:  Obtain food for at least 3 days.

The Limitations: We will only know as much Japanese as we learn before hand, or write down and bring with us.  It is unlikely that any labels will be in English , although limited scouting suggests there are pictures on some packaging.  Also the food available will be Japanese of origin, so plan for meals accordingly…  I suggest embracing rice.

The Resources: Yen, a notebook full of translated japanese food names and attempts at their kanji.

Step one: The Reconnaissance

Time spent on planning is rarely wasted time… I’ve that much so far, so of course it would extend to this mission as well 🙂  We decided to stay within typical Japanese meals so we aren’t wandering around forever looking for quinoa.  Plus Japanese food is so tasty!  Our meal ideas:  Miso soup, japanese sticky rice, veggies and meat/ fish or tofu for a stir fry, eggs, seaweed sheets and gyoza (amazing japanese dumplings, and anything else that looked exciting in the moment.

Even though all those things seem like we find them by sight, I wrote them all out along with reviewing useful phrases like:

“Excuse me, do you have XYZ”

“Where is it?”

(as a side note – “where is it?”  has been an extremely useful phrase.  However, “what is it?”  is probably the least useful phrase I know… if I don’t know what it is, it’s unlikely I’m going to know what it is in Japanese.)

Step Two: Deploy Operation OM NOM NOM

Upon entering it looks like the usual grocery store… except everything is packaged adorably.




seaweed sheets


that’s a lot of miso… ummmm…that medium brownish one looks good…

and lastly meat:

WHY ARE YOU YELLING AT ME!!!!!!! Oh wait that’s Daniel telling me to stop filming…

ekkk we’ve been spotted…just grab any of them, s’move, s’move, s’move!

alrighty: gyoza  random exciting treats  and rice… 1500 yen ($18)…for rice… are you kidding me, this better be some kind of miracle rice.

To the counter…paying without incident… I think she just asked me how many bags I want… I think she said bags… she’s pointing to bags… “San (3)” ….whew, crisis diverted.

Step Three: Enjoy the spoils of grocery war

It’s Champange, it’s sparkling wine, no it’s Champarkling.

Baby Asahi!  (He really takes after his father doesn’t he?)

It really is amazing rice (it might have something to do with the cooker)

Now don’t you all want $18 rice?

When I’m travelling mundane activities like grocery shopping, taking the train or mailing a postcard really do become operations.  If you don’t make it fun and a way to learn more of the language and interact with people, it just becomes an overly difficult and frustrating mundane chore.  I think I’d rather it be fun 😉