So many reasons for a public holiday…

Great Wave Off Kanagawa

Great Wave Off Kanagawa

Today was a public holiday in Japan – for culture day. This is a poor excuse for a public holiday if ever I’ve seen one – the Japanese people I’ve talked to about it don’t really know what it is in aid of, and Wikipedia (meta link!) isn’t particularly clear, either. Not that I’m complaining. I spent the day in Ginza, soaking up Japanese culture. ;-)

The Melbourne Cup was run today, too – resulting in a public holiday in Melbourne.

It was (is?) election day in the US (which in my humble opinion ought to be a public holiday).

And, today, my PhD was officially conferred. I satisfied all the requirements some time ago, but the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences only confers degrees three times a year. Reason enough for a public holiday, I think.

Ghibli Museum

English language map for the Ghibli museum.

English language map for the Ghibli museum.

On Saturday, I went to the Ghibli museum with a Japanese friend. While it was nice to have a personal translator, it certainly wasn’t a necessity: most of the exhibits were self-explanatory, and the short movie we saw in the museum’s theatre contained no speaking (in either Japanese or English). I particularly enjoyed the “history of animation” exhibit.

I certainly haven’t seen all of Miyazaki‘s movies, although I’ve enjoyed the ones that I have seen (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle). However, I don’t think that seeing any of Miyazaki’s movies is a prerequisite for enjoying the museum. If you’re interested in film, animation, or well-presented museum exhibits, then you’ll probably enjoy the Ghibli museum. I would, however, recommend buying tickets well in advance (you can’t actually buy tickets at the museum), and, if you don’t speak Japanese, in a country other than Japan.

Learning Japanese

When I first found out I was going to spend at least 6 months in Japan, I enrolled in Japanese language class. I managed exactly one class. In the course of that class a few things became abundantly clear:

  • I didn’t really have enough time on my hands to focus on learning a new language (I was, after all, writing a thesis).
  • I don’t particularly like learning languages (there is a reason I majored in physics and not in French literature).
  • The class wasn’t that good. The class was blessed with a student who couldn’t keep his mouth shut, and the teacher didn’t really seem to know how to deal with this. We covered next to nothing in the first class. I glanced around at one point when the talker was talking, and saw most of the class staring into space, or doodling in their notebooks, or …

I thought that I’d teach myself Japanese once I got to Japan, and the need for the language became more immediate. I bought some textbooks before I left, and had the best intentions. Teaching myself didn’t really work out so well – aside from a lack of discipline on my part, I realized that I needed someone to listen to my pronouciation. When someone suggested organizing private lessons, I realized that this was the way to go.

I now have a two-hour-long private lesson once a week. I’ve had two lessons, and so far things seem to be progressing well. We spend an hour working from a textbook, and then an hour on conversation, and at the end of the two hours my brain feels like it’s ready to explode.

Basically, I’m completely out of practice with the type of learning that’s required when learning a language. Slowly, I can feel my brain remembering what this kind of learning requires, and I’m getting better at setting reasonable goals when I sit down to study. For me, Japanese is not an easy language: there are three sets of characters to be learned, the sentence structure is completely unlike anything I’ve dealt with before, there are all sorts of “politenesses” to be taken into account. When I do master something, there’s a real sense of achievement!

Japanese elevators

Japanese elevators are a technological wonder, especially when compared with the US. There’s two features I particularly like:

1. The door-close button actually works! I’d always been suspicious about the door-close button on American elevators, and then I learned the truth:

In most elevators, at least in any built or installed since the early nineties, the door-close button doesn’t work. It is there mainly to make you think it works. (It does work if, say, a fireman needs to take control. But you need a key, and a fire, to do that.) Once you know this, it can be illuminating to watch people compulsively press the door-close button. That the door eventually closes reinforces their belief in the button’s power. It’s a little like prayer. Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command.

2. An over-ride of an incorrect floor selection is possible – you just hit the button of the floor you want to cancel twice. Then, I learned that an over-ride is (perhaps) possible on American elevators:

Supposedly, if an elevator passenger simultaneously presses the “door close” button and the button for the floor he is trying to reach, he can override the requests of other passengers and of people waiting for the elevator on other floors.

Aside: New Yorker, oh how I miss thee! Just as soon as I have a longer-than-6-month address I’ll be subscribing again, even if it means an expensive international subscription.


I spent a day at the end of September at a sumo tournament. There was a fifteen day sumo tournament in Tokyo (there are six tournaments a year, with three of them in Tokyo), and I went on the second last day. It’s possible to buy “day of” tickets to sumo tournments, but you have to arrive early. When I arrived at 8 am (when the tickets go on sale) there was already a line of over 100 people.

Its possible to get day of tickets to a sumo tournament, but you must arrive early!

It's possible to get "day of" tickets to a sumo tournament, but you must arrive early!

I’d recommend a sumo tournamet as a nearly perfect tourist activity. It’s not overly expensive (¥2100), it feels authentically Japanese, they are very well equipped to deal with tourists (they have information booklets in English and most of the staff speak very good English), there’s very little commercialization (no Coca-Cola banners hanging from the ceiling), and the rules are very simple (bouts are won when one competitor forces the other to the floor or out of the ring).

The sumo wrestlers really are huge. The match referees sit quite close to the ring, and often have to leap out of the way when one of the wrestlers is thrown out of the ring and off the dohyo. In one match, a wrestler was thrown from the dohyo and injured – it tooks several men to get him back on his feets and help him out of the arena. The day starts with amateur matches, and then in the afternoon the professional bouts begin. In the lower level amateur matches it is always the bigger wrestler that wins, but as the wrestlers become more experienced the bouts become a little more subtle in the display of skills. Right now, the two best sumo wrestlers are Mongolian, which is an embarrassment of sorts for the Japanese, but there is no doubt that they are completely dominant. In the bouts that I saw them in there was never any suggestion that they would lose.

A Japanese Cell Phone

I’ve been in Japan for a little over a month, and I finally have a prepaid cell phone. This was not an easy undertaking. For other gaijin struggling with the process, I’ll outline my path to success here:

  • There is no GSM network in Japan. For that reason, many cell phones from other countries will not work. Moreover, to get a phone on contract requires lots of paperwork, and the contract is difficult to break early. For me, a prepaid plan was the way to go.
  • There are two cell phone companies in Japan that offer a pre-paid mobile phone service: au by KDDI and SoftBank. In both cases, the available models of prepaid phones are limited. However, the phone from au does not allow for text messaging – this made SoftBank the way to go for me.
  • Not many of the SoftBank stores stock the prepaid phone models, and not many have bilingual staff. The easiest way to find out which SoftBank stores have prepaid phones in stock is to visit one of the five SoftBank stores that have bilingual staff. If they don’t have prepaid phones in stock they will be able to direct you to a SoftBank store that does.
  • When you get your phone you’ll need your alien registration card and some cash. For me, the handset cost ~¥5, 000, and a prepaid refill card was ¥3, 000.
  • The money from my prepaid refill card is good for 60 days, and I signed up for an automatic ¥300/month deduction from my phone credit to allow for unlimited text messaging.