Tokyo: September 2001

Japan : Sept 2001

My collected emails

I arrived in Tokyo around 1:30 pm on 9/3/2001 for my consulting job with Toshiba Elevator... I'll be here until afternoon of 10/3. At least that's the current plan. I'll be working with Toshiba most of the time, but I'll be giving demos of our software product to Toyota and several other places. It will be a busy month, but I'm going to try to do a little sight-seeing as well. I'll send along some pics of anything really interesting.

Where am I

This shows the view outside my hotel room window. I am a little west of Tokyo, really in a suburb, called Fuchu City. I am in a hotel right above one of the train stations, which is good since it makes it easier for me to get around.

Vending Machines

Vending machines are everywhere, selling just about everything, including beer.

American celebrities often endorse products in Japan, even when they decline to do so in the States. The Japanese endorsements pay well, and, since they're generally not seen back in the States, they don't have to worry about looking as though they've "sold out". Bruce Willis in particular I've seen in advertisements, and Kevin Costner on some TV ads.

NOTE: Pocari Sweat is something like Gatorade...

This is a train similar to what I take to work each day. It's not one of the "bullet trains" so famous there, but I may take one of those sightseeing if time allows.

Yet another very cryptic advertisement... some sort of happy acorn family insisting everything is OK!

Never used an electric toilet before, especially not one that squirts you... this one has some sort of bidet squirter built into the seat. The hotel, unfortunately, is somewhat Westernized. So the room is pretty much like any Days Inn room you'd see anywhere in the world. However, breakfast is included, with all the standard fare... eggs, Canadian bacon, spaghetti, and potato salad (well, maybe not exactly the standard fare...).


Yes, they're everywhere, even in Tokyo. I had to stop in at one, and I ordered a "Teriyaki McBurger" (and, no, I'm not making that up). I have also eaten at KFC, usually with a statue of the honorable Colonel out front. It's about the same... fried chicken is fried chicken...

The World Trade Center/Pentagon attacks:
(note: I wrote this a few days after it happened. I was still in Tokyo)

- I don't really care to say much about this... suffice to say that it's as much in the news here as it is at home. Fortunately, one of the channels here ran a feed from ABC almost 50% of the time during the following couple of days, with English available.
I was on the phone with my boss at 10pm Tuesday here, which was around 9am Tuesday EDT. He called back not 5 minutes later saying "ummm... you might want to check the news". So I had the dubious honor of watching the initial few hours of coverage live, including the collapse of both towers.
The tone here is as much one of shock as anywhere... I was offered condolences by several of the people I'm working with here (Tokyo).

What else is in the news?:

The Japan Times (an English-language paper) ran a story about a man who had been beaten by several other men at a Tokyo restaurant over an argument about seats. He was suing for damages.
The court, upon hearing that he had given the other men "the finger" during the conversation, promptly reduced his award by 20% or so, citing the fact that the gesture was insulting and so he was in part at fault in provoking the others. I don't think that would happen back in the States, where "personal responsibility" is a concept from Mars...

Everyday Food

Lest you think I'm only searching out American restaurants while I'm here... I have actually been enjoying eating the "everyday" food they eat in Japan. Back home, we tend to think of Japanese food as whatever we find in the sushi restaurants. But they have a lot of food here that we don't ever see. The cafeteria at Toshiba (which has to be the closest to the "working man's" food I can get here in Tokyo) regularly features lots of fried foods (think tempura fish/shrimp/anything) along with bowls of dried/salted minnows mixed with some peppers and dressing. The latter were actually quite good. And, of course, a bowl of noodles in broth is common.

My general liking of Asian cuisine back home has made me fairly proficient with chopsticks, which surprised some of them. They kept offering me forks until I demonstrated that I could actually use the sticks without throwing stuff all over myself. Of course, they were also impressed that I could figure out their subway system... I don't think they generally put much stock in the Intelligence of foreigners...

At a street fair I stumbled onto during a holiday weekend... some yummy grilled baby octopus bits!

An average supermarket, not a special seafood shop. A fish-lover's dream

At the Tsukijii Fish Market, one of the largest in the world. You can find just about anything...

All right, now... I've only taken pictures of Trumpet fish back home!!! And that was while SCUBA diving!


Shinto and Buddhist temples are very prominent, with Buddhism being in the majority (left photo). But you'll find both sorts of temples everywhere, often in the middle of skyscrapers... the temple was there, and they built around it. (on the right is the Shinto Fox shrine near the Fish Market where the fishermen pray for calm seas and a good catch)

I visited another, the huge "Senso-ji" temple in Northern Tokyo... After standing around for a while, trying to look reverent, I got bored, and decided to see if I could hit the big red balloon looking thing with some rocks (see left). This resulted in a rousing game of "catch the foreigner", which apparently they enjoy, but take very seriously, since they didn't appear to be laughing. I led them on a merry chase, during which I inadvertently knocked over small statues of some pot-bellied guy, which made them all the more determined, but gave me some lead time, since they felt obligated to set them upright again... hah! they are so gullible! (everyone who thinks I'm serious, raise your virtual hands...)

At Zozoji Buddhist temple, thousands of these little Buddha dudes, decorated by people wishing for fertility

A portable Shinto shrine... carried through the streets by followers of the religion

A large bell at Zozoji temple

Temple Kitty! Guarding his lair... a miniature shrine.

A graveyard at Sengakuji temple. This grave was recently visited by a relative or friend, who left the occupant's favorites, a beer and sake. (Next time I'll have to get there a little earlier... the beer was a kinda warm for my taste)

When Pigeon's Attack!!! At the Senso-Ji Temple... I like this photo, for whatever silly reason.

At the Sengakuji Temple... the site of a famous episode in Japanese history, 47 samurai avenging the death of their Lord Asano. At left are their graves, where people still regularly visit and light incense in their honor. At right, the actual well where they washed the evil Lord Kira's head before presenting it to the Lord Asano's grave. Read the entire jolly tale here.

Terrorist on the Train!?!?!

(ed. note: I wrote this about 1 week after the World Trade Center attack...)

So I'm on the train, headed to Toshiba Fuchu (where I'm working with the guys from the Elevator Division). And at one stop, on gets a guy of obvious Middle Eastern descent.

Now, I'm not an loony... it's not like I think everyone from the Middle East is a terrorist, despite the recent events. But I did notice him since there just aren't that many people of Middle Eastern descent around here in Japan. I see a few people of obvious European or African extraction, but even they are few and far between. So, I'd have to say I noticed him, and then forgot about it and resumed reading my paper (Japan Times, it's in English).

Except... he kept staring at me. And not in a subtle way, either. I finally looked at him, and he kept staring. I looked away, and he kept staring. I met his gaze again, and he looked away. So I ignored him again, and he resumed staring. Finally, I looked at him again, with the intention of asking him what the hell his problem was... and he broke into a big, sort of forced smile, and said "you... you are American, yes?" And I said "yes, I am". And he went on, in somewhat hesitant English, "How are you?... How are you doing?... I am Pakistani!!!"

At that point, I had to chuckle. It was suddenly clear that he had assumed I was American, and was apparently very concerned about what I might be thinking about him!! I hope that by the time we reached my stop I convinced him that I didn't think he was Osama bin-Laden in disguise...

Is this how it's going to be for the foreseeable future?? Either European-Americans or Middle-Easterners, or maybe both, not able to cross paths without one or the other having to wonder about what the other one's thinking?... sigh...


Kabuki is a revered expression of the theatrical arts in Japan, featuring actors representing humans, demons, and a whole host of mythological characters.

They're usually heavily made-up with lots of white facepaint and gaudy costumes (think "Kiss" without as much leather...). And the characters deliver their lines in a bizarre style that makes it sound as though someone already suffering gastro-intestinal distress is now being strangled as well.

I saw a one-act play at the Kabuki-za, a famous Kabuki theatre (see below left). (Top left shows an actor... all the parts, even female, are played by men... somewhere in back I thought I could make out an Indian chief, a construction worker, a cop...).

The play was "Momiji Gari", about a famous general travelling through the woods who runs into a beautiful princess and her retainers, who persuade him to stay for a party. However, the princess is really a demon, and is waiting for the general to fall asleep so she/it can attack! Very suspenseful!... (Zzzzz..)

The princess/demon was played by one of Japan's Living National Treasures named Jakuemon (they bestow the title on persons who have dedicated themselves to the preservation of such arts). Of course, what this really meant was that he was so old he could barely stand upright. At least as far as I could tell... you can't see much under all the makeup. During his parts, people in the audience would randomly shout out something like "Boo-Yah!!!", which is sort of like Japanese for "Amen!", or "you go, girl!" (guy, whatever...)

When he sang it was hard to tell which was at work... the odd Kabuki vocal stylings mentioned above or simple old age... I clapped anyhow... the general won...

The food, in general, is great here. I've always liked fish and Asian-style food anyhow. But ordering in restaurants when I'm by myself can be a challenge. Menus are rarely available in English. Sometimes the menu has pictures, and I can point and make various ape-like noises and be understood. Or I can use my phrasebook to order something close to what I want, and hope for the best.

But they do have one great idea... many of the lower to middle price restaurants have window displays full of very realistic plastic versions of the various dishes they serve. It all goes back to when a lot of people didn't necessarily know how to read so well, and that's how they knew what the restaurant offered. But it also works well for friendly foreigners like myself... more than once I've simply been able to walk over to the display window and point to what I want. They're used to it...

Food Fakes

Squid Ink Sacs and Fish Eyeballs

As I get to know folks over here, I end up being taken to restaurants that are more and more "Japanese"... and the food keeps getting mysteriouser and mysteriouser. They tend to order a bunch of dishes to share, rather than everyone just getting their own dinner... kind of like ordering and sharing a bunch of appetizers back home.

For the most part, it's all been good, but the other night it was clear they were anxious to see just how "Japanese" I was willing to get, and it was a seafood restaurant, so you can probably imagine. I was out with some of the younger guys from Toshiba Elevator.

With certain dishes, they offered the advice that "this one has a VERY japanese taste!" which was a warning that I might find it too unusual... buy, hey! I'm no wimp, and I kept up with them!

Finally, after lots of sake, one of the guys ordered squid ink sac... that wasn't so good... but, hey, at least I tried some (after I made sure he tried it first). I also had a fish eyeball (from the cooked fish we ordered, see above left), which are considered quite the delicacy.


Well, I had to do it... I'd read about fugu years ago, and was determined to try it if I ever got to Japan. Heck, they even did a Simpsons episode about it!

What is fugu? It's a type of blowfish (actually one of several varieties) that is prized for it's mild, tasty flesh. One problem... if not prepared just right, it's incredibly poisonous. The toxin in some of its internal organs is much more powerful than cyanide. Only specially licensed chefs are allowed to prepare it. Restaurants that specialize in it often display a sign that has the fish on it (see left).

So, when they brought me the entire fish and a fillet knife and said "Help yourself..." naturally I became suspicious. The promise of an additional tip got me my fugu already prepared.

They typically serve it up several different ways in a single meal... as sashimi (sliced raw fish), as sushi (the same sliced raw fish on a pad of rice), and then cooked a couple of different ways.

The photos to the right show
  • the actual fish on the left, taken by me at Tsukijii Fish Market
  • the waiters bringing me my fugu... well, ok, it's really a "bless the fugu" ceremony somewhere (a web photo)
  • and as sashimi on the right. It's sliced paper-thin, almost clear. And, no, I didn't take a photo in the restaurant! I got that photo off the web also... but it looks just like what I got at the restaurant.
The fact that I'm writing this means I survived... not sure my bank account will, though... it's an expensive dish. It is topped off with the traditional drink of "fugu hirake-zake", which is hot sake poured over a toasted fugu tail fin!!! (yum!)

Ya ever get the feeling they make this stuff up just for us??? Like they're still mad about something...? (BTW, Homer also survived)


When there's no English programming on TV, I can often find a baseball game. The one I'm watching now is between the Tokyo Giants and the Hiroshima Carp. The Carp won!, despite the name... boy, those Carp from Hiroshima must have mutated or something... for, uh, some reason...

There are plenty of American players on the teams over here, and of course they closely follow the few Japanese players on our teams, like Shinjo and Ichiro. I think Shinjo is actually leading his league on batting average (he plays for Mets or Yankees).

Only obvious difference is that they list "strikes/balls/outs", instead of our order which is "balls/strikes/outs". Other than that, it seems baseball's baseball...

Sumo Blubbering (er... I mean, "wrestling")

Now here's the sport that I was born for! It matches my natural body type perfectly!

Note to anyone who thinks they're a few pounds overweight: watch a few minutes of sumo, bear in mind that these guys are worshipped as demi-gods over here, and you'll feel much better about yourself.

I was watching a match on the Blubber Channel (all Blubber, all the time!) the other night... it's fascinating, really. Two astonishingly blubbery opponents enter the "Ring of Blubber", about 15 blubbers (or perhaps feet) in diameter. When the referee gives the blubber, the two combatants blubber fiercely, each trying to blubber the other one out of the ring, or at least force his opponent's blubber to touch the ground first.

This Blubbering, between the crowd favorite Akebono and the up-and-blubbering Tsukijii, was a particularly hard-fought blubber, and was not without blubberversy! It seemed at first that Tsukijii had out-blubbered Akebono with an "overhand knuckle blubbering" followed by the deceptively peaceful-sounding "blubber in SpringTime"... but wait! On the instant re-blubber, it was obvious that Tsukijii had blubbered just before the official blubber! When the blubbereferee called for a re-blubber, the crowd went blubber!

This time, the Blubbers favored Akebono, and he was able to blubber Tsukijii out of the blubber with his patented "flying reverse blubber free fall", a terrifying blubber to witness, I can assure you!

I'll tune in next week!... same Blubber Time, same Blubber Channel!!!

Sumo (an additional note):

When I wrote my last "Notes" about sumo wrestling, I gave an account of a fictional battle between Akebono and Tsukijii. I was just joking, of course... Tsukijii is the name of the large fish market in Tokyo, and I just thought that would be a funny name for a sumo wrestler.

However, Akebono is a real sumo wrestler, and a famous champion at that. I believe he is one of the very few foreigners to have attained any success as a sumo wrestler (it's a very traditional, and very "closed" part of Japanese culture). Akebono is from Hawaii, and his given name was Chad Rowan. I think he is native Hawaiian, but he might be part Samoan.

Anyhow, it looks as though he just retired. I was watching the tube, and they had a special show on called "thank you, Akebono". He was seated in the middle of a sumo ring while all sorts of testimonials were being read. And then out came an older sumo guy (a coach in one of the stables) and, with tears of emotion running down Akebono's face, he carefully cut off his topknot with a pair of golden scissors (the topknot is similar to the "knot" of hair formerly worn by a samurai on top of his head, and the topknot was traditionally cut off when he was defeated or retired).

Anyhow, I just stumbled onto his retirement ceremony and I thought it was interesting, especially in light of my blasphemous note from last time. Notice I got through this entire part without any reference to the "B" word :)


You think I'm coming all the way to Japan and not looking into some weaponry!?!?! Think again!

I went to one of the dealers in Tokyo that handles some of the really good stuff... genuine antiques and quality modern pieces.

Forget it... a genuine antique samurai sword (they had some dating from the 1300's to late 1800's) run into bucks that I'm not willing to shell out! I basically had to treat this part as a trip to a museum. Swords in this category run into the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Authentic New Swords:
There are some artisans who produce new swords with the old techniques. This involves a very labor-intensive process by which the metal is heated, and then pounded into a long strip, bent in half, pounded, and then reheated. The process is then repeated many times... the result is metal that is "layered" and so can retain its hardness and yet be flexible (it all has to do with the carbon content and the martensitic vs. austenitic states of steel... something I actually remember from my Materials Engineering classes. I'll explain it to anyone who's interested and buys me a beer...).

Anyhow, a quality "new" sword will run around $6000, if it's made with the traditional layered technique mentioned above.

Other Reproductions:
Some other swords use all the traditional materials (for the handle, scabbard, and so on, which includes sharkskin and silk) but have a conventional blade. A good one will run $500-$1000.

So... I'm not coming back with one this time. But I should be back to support this contract, so we'll see :-)

These actually were in a museum. The Tokyo National Museum. They typically display just the blade, with the handle and hilt removed. The metal's the important part... the rest is just decoration.

my first earthquake

They have small tremors over here all the time. It's a very active area, with something like 1,000 noticable tremors a year. I woke up at 3 one morning to what felt like someone shaking my bed. I was hoping it was the cute hotel maid, but no... there was no one there, cute or otherwise. And then I felt it again and realized what it was. It wasn't much of a tremor, but still my first experience with an earthquake.

Cell Phones

Everyone has one or more... everyone is constantly using them. If they're not talking while they're walking, they're fiddling with them in some other way (checking email, games, whatever).

This has bred an entire nation of people who DON'T WATCH WHERE THEY'RE GOING! Put a thousand teenagers in a crowded train station, with every one of them paying attention to their cell phone instead of where they're walking, and basically you have an enormous pachinko machine (pachinko is sort of Japanese pinball).

Given my size relative to most of them, I always feel in danger of leaving a trail of human pancakes in my wake. But I usually manage to avoid collisions.


They love to give each other nicknames... among the folks at Toshiba Elevator I've been working with, we have "The Flagship" (he's a manager), "El Presidente" (his name sounds somewhat like one of their past Prime Ministers, I think), "Comedian" (obvious), and "The Octopus" (they think his head looks something like an octopus's head. They also claim he "acts" like an octopus, though I'm not certain what that means. See Octopus.jpg at right. He's the one on the left... you be the judge. They are using their fingers as tentacles. Mind you, this was after MUCH sake... these are the culprits responsible for ordering the Squid Ink Sac for dinner).

I'm not sure if I have a nickname yet or not... but "Randy Bass" was suggested. He's an American playing on one of the baseball teams over here, so I'm assuming he's of European descent with a goatee. I could have been "Mark McGwire" just as easily, I suppose... at least I'd have a better home-run record.

Note: at my going-away party, they gave me a foam-rubber bat and ball and again I was "Randy Bass", so I guess it's official. But I also found out he's retired.

The guy at bottom is Randy Bass after Hanshin Tigers won the championship in 1985. Do I look like him?