頑張って!!! (Ganbatte!!! meaning Best of Luck!, Go For It!, or Try Your Best!)

(This is a bit of a long, haphazard post. I started writing it and already had six pages of single spaced text the first time I took a break, and I’d only gotten through the first couple of days of my trip here. So, this is highly abbreviated but still long. But, I’m also going to be out of touch for a bit as I visit my German grandmother in the remote hills of Germany, so this is probably five weeks worth of post. Hopefully I’ll have internet again within a month lol.)

Best. Song. Ever. But, lest I make the Japanese appear too silly, here’s something a bit more legit:

Absolutely. Freaking. Awesome. That’s what Japan is. This is the most well put together place I’ve ever seen. It’s so safe that I’d be willing to walk down any alley, anywhere in the country, with my big camera around my neck, my passport in one hand, all my cash in the other hand, and walking in a big human Y so that everyone can see. And that’s not all. The food is great. People are unfailingly willing to help you out (I’ve had numerous people offer me rides in their cars, which I’ve taken because it’s that safe). It’s so clean I’d consider eating off the ground. The people are beautiful and stylish. The sights are plentiful and nicely run. Everyone is genuine and honest. No one locks their bike up because there’s no risk of it being stolen. Do I need to keep going?

With a fifteen year background in Martial Arts, my personal faith in a mixture of Buddhism (there’s three branches), and two years of Japanese in college, Japan was something I was almost certain was going to be the highlight of my trip, and it definitely hasn’t let me down. It’s pretty crazy being here because I’m seeing a lot of things I’ve known about for years and years, but have never seen in person.

It’s also a very interesting trip if solely for the reason that Japan is a first world country but isn’t of direct European descent. There’s not too many countries like that. And furthermore, the Christians who came here long ago and started up with the whole “you’re going to hell if you don’t convert” thing were relatively quickly executed, in mocking cruelty, by crucifixion. So there’s hardly even any Christian influence here. This makes for a whole different sense of what’s valued and expected. If you come here, you need to know that pretty much everything you do in your daily life is held to a different standard here because none of our cultural influences exist here.

However, as I’ve been roving around over here, I’ve started to wonder if someone else would be having the same awesome experience I’ve been having. I know what I’m looking at, albeit for the first time in person, which makes a huge difference. I imagine that walking into a restaurant, having the entire staff stop what they’re doing, and start screaming at you (seriously, it happens every last time), may be unnerving for someone getting their first exposure to Japanese culture. Let alone, if you’re unfamiliar with Buddhism and/or Shintoism, a lot of the things around are probably confusing and boring.

There is also, without a question, an enormous barrier up between the Japanese people and foreigners. And I don’t really blame them. The only people I’ve seen here who’ve been loud, in my way, causing trouble, or being generally obnoxious, have entirely been foreigners. Every last one of them. This is something that’s not lost on the Japanese and is the reason why you see a lot of signs on businesses that say “no foreigners welcome”. Sadly, my white skin automatically makes it easy to associate me with the rude people, so I’ve been doing everything in my power to avoid being anywhere near the other foreigners I’ve run across (which to admit, I rarely ran into any outside Kyoto and Tokyo. In fact, I was in some places so remote that people were pointing and staring at me when I was walking around). Though, maybe it’s because I know that I’m being lumped in with the unwelcoming nature towards other foreigners that I was trying to distance myself as much as possible.

Examples: I consistently get the worst rooms and tables at any hotel and restaurant I go to; when I’m sitting at counters meant for solo people, I’ve had numerous people get up and move away from me after realizing who’s sitting next to them; there’s almost no English at all outside of Tokyo (professional relationships are well tolerated by the Japanese, but for cultural and social mixing… that’s a wholly different thing, hence why Tokyo, the business hub, has a lot of English friendly signage); it’s nearly impossible to get Japanese citizenship no matter how well you speak the language and how long you’ve lived there; gaijin (foreigners, similar to being called a gringo) are not allowed to use the majority of hotels at all.

More complicated is people using incorrect verb tenses with me in Japanese. Japanese is the only language I am aware of where the verb conjugation in your sentences is based on how much respect you’re giving someone rather than what you’re talking about. I’ve caught a couple of people being rude to me by using too casual of verb tones, so I start doing the same thing back, and suddenly they’re being polite again because they know I just caught them being rude.

However, that said, for the by and large part, the moment I start speaking Japanese to people, I can almost tangibly feel a huge amount of tension lifting from the interaction. Most people warm up immediately, because I’m obviously embracing their culture. Most of my car rides have been offered because of this, where when I initially walked up to them, I could sense the “get away from me” vibe.

I think another big part of my successful trip over here has been my general demeanor. In Japan, you’ll never see people being loud anywhere, you’ll never hear music leaking from someone’s headphones, and you’ll never see someone leaving trash randomly in public. This is the only place I’ve ever been where I feel at home in my attitude towards coexisting with others. The only two times I’ve had to say “excuse me” to get by someone were met with not only with an “excuse me” back, but an “I’m sorry” because it was rude for them to have even held me up to begin with. I love it. When I have to stop to look at a map, I walk out of the way first and then get it out. How many times have you been walking around when the person in front of you just stops dead in their tracks and you almost topple over them? (it’s like they think they’re the only person in the universe) You’ll never see things like that happen here. I think a lot of people would find the general politeness level here shocking. But, that’s also why the foreigners here seem like such ogres.

The politeness level is interesting, and in stark contrast, to the incredibly violent nature of the martial arts in Japan and Japanese history in general. One of my favorites trips here was visiting Tokyo Aikikai, the world’s main training facility for Aikido, a martial art. I couldn’t take pictures, but you can see some pictures of what class looks like if you click here http://www.aikikai.or.jp/eng/ and click on Hombu Dojo. I studied Aikido for awhile and would consider it to be my main art form, both spiritually and physically. It was the founder of Aikido, Osensei, who said “The Way of the Warrior has been misunderstood. It is not a means to kill and destroy others. Those who seek to compete and better one another are making a terrible mistake. To smash, injure, or destroy is the worst thing a human being can do. The real Way of a Warrior is to prevent such slaughter – it is the Art of Peace, the power of love”. I was 23 before I understood and agreed with that statement. Everything in Japan fits together in complex layers with statements like that. Don’t let the politeness here fool you, the most intense battles of World War II were fought against the Japanese.

Everything is kind of jammed together in the central cities. You’ll just be walking along and bam, shrine
Takoyaki, it’s an octopus dumpling, good stuff
Whatever floats your boat. Speaking of which, the amount of nudity that’s within ready view of the public here is mind boggling. Again, without the Victorian era influence that our bodies are bad and shouldn’t be seen, nudity doesn’t really hold the same meaning over here and is no big deal.
They have some pretty awesome arcades here, this was a Gundam style game where you have your own controls and HUD as if you’re sitting inside the robot suit itself. You can just see the person’s right hand holding the control above the foreground bar in the picture. There was also another game I wanted to take a picture of, but the employees freaked out when I tried. You buy cards for a regular trading card game (like Magic or Pokemon style), but you use the cards on a tabletop to play the video game. From what I could tell they weren’t RFID cards, so my guess was there was UV ink on the back that was being read by the game. Interesting.
Found out the hard way that when the subway lines in Tokyo shut down at 12:00, that means “get off now” rather than, “until the end of this loop”.
Not a single bike was locked up
Very nice Buddhist altar
The bottom says “Earth Magic”. Man, that’s Engrish so bad it makes my head heart.
Watch out, the Japanese Colonel is no nonsense here.
One of the major difficulties with going outside of Tokyo. This sign is in English, sort of. I was looking for an internet cafe and got directions from a local on where this was, but I kept walking back and forth past it till I asked again. The sign actually says, in phonetic Japanese, “intaanettokomikkukafe” aka “intanetto komikku kafe” aka “internet & comic cafe”. If you don’t read Japanese, what are you gonna do? Look it up? Does big squiggle come before little squiggle in this dictionary? (It actually does, but you’re not going to figure that out if you can’t already read the characters)
This was a plain old subway stop, the shopping here is epic.
More major unlocked bikage.
Why are bottles square here? Because it saves energy. Next time you buy a crate of water, notice how much space is wasted in between the bottles because they’re round. More weight in less space means less trucks/trains are needed to transport goods and therefore less fuel is used. Why doesn’t everyone do this?
This one was really tricky. I got to Kyoto only to find all the hostels were completely booked out, so I checked into a real hotel. I read the key chain, which was entirely in Japanese and understood about 50% of it, something about power and entering. Which still wasn’t enough to figure out that in order to turn on the electricity in my room, I had to stick the keychain into the hole in the wall. Good way of conserving power. So, I get in the room and can’t figure out why nothing is turning on. Finally I notice the hole in the wall. Oh. However, my room was a bajillion degrees and I wanted the AC to cool the room down while I was out, soooo… <JAM> Pen in the wall. This is probably why programming came naturally to me, I seem to notice how to break the intended method of doing things almost immediately. When I was leaving the next day, I got some really disapproving looks when the cleaning ladies saw what I had done.
High contrast photos are proving to be the bane of my photographic existence. Any advice on how to handle shots like this would be greatly appreciated.
That’s a big Buddha. This is the Japanese equivalent of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Shrine and Temple right next to each other.
(No smiles in this picture sadly, this was the only picture I got that wasn’t blurry) I had a middle school aged girl start giggling to her friend about the “guy with blue eyes” after she passed me (I’ve been getting that a lot on my trip so far since blue eyes don’t exist in most areas of the world). She said something to her friend to the effect of “that was nice”, which I looked up and smiled to, making her ask “you understand me?” in Japanese. I said yes and she freaked a bit. The next thing I know she’s standing right up against me and asking me all sorts of stuff lol. All of her friends starting walking up and asking for my signature. Sure, alright =p Snagged a picture with em. Everyone in Japan does the peace sign in their pics =D Love it.
Geisha apprentices, called Maiko, walking home in the evening.
The girl on the left is Maiko, and the woman on the right is full Geisha (it’s a little more complicated than that but I’ll leave it there). Because they stopped for me to take a picture, I gave them a very formal thank you in Japanese, and spoke up to them in doing so, which is apparently something you don’t do, as both of them proceeded to start giggling afterwords because of the foreigner treating them like royalty. Their laugh was like the sound of a wind chime, it was awesome. Turning the act of being a woman into an art form is a bit amazing to me.
Just a regular old train stop. Epic.
Very famous hill top outside of Kyoto.
This was the only picture of a Shinto altar I was able to snag (you’re not really supposed to take pictures of the altars). Elegance through simplicity and home to a God.
These deer absolutely do not give a flip. Every deer I’ve ever seen flies off the moment it catches even a glimpse of you, these deer actually walk up to you, sniffing around for food.
Lots and lots of Tori (Shinto gates)
I was eating Okonomiyaki and these guys were cracking me up something big, good times.
Contrary to popular American folklore, the swastika is not a Christian cross with all four of it’s limbs broken. It’s actually a symbol that comes from India, used in both Hinduism and Buddhism, and signifies the 10,000 things that comprise reality as we know it (colors, shapes, thoughts, etc). Many times when reading translated Buddhist texts, you’ll see lines that says things like “… and once you are in harmony with the 10,000 things…”. If you were to read the original text, it would probably have a swastika where it said that. As adapted by Buddhists, the clockwise and counterclockwise swastikas have additional meaning as well. Counterclockwise represents love and unity. Clockwise represents strength and passion. Both, still in addition to being the 10,000 things (so it’s a bit yin-yang-ish). Now, what’s interesting is that this is the accepted meaning of the symbol, however, it shows up all over the world and was even used by the Native Americans. There’s some theory that its prominence amongst groups with no contact may have to do with the nature of weaving, the swastika being a logical weaving pattern. So the question becomes, how did the Nazi’s end up using a Hindu/Buddhist symbol as their main logo? Well, some anthropologist/archeologist dude in Germany was doing his thing and noticed that there were bowls uncovered from ancient Germany that had the swastika on them. He then started looking at India, where he saw the same logo, and started reading their scripture. Well, in the Vedas (the oldest Hindu scripture), there’s mention of a group that came into India long ago that had light colored skin. These light skinned folk came in and did some serious conquering while they were in India. The southern Indians called them the Aryans. This researcher read that part of the scripture, and immediately thought “well, we have light skin and have that symbol, we must be those Aryan people!”. There’s no logical hole in that argument at all, right? Anyway, you know the rest. Nonetheless, you see counterclockwise swastikas all over the place over here. The clockwise version has largely become disused around the world in order to create some distance from its gross misuse.
Where Buddhism came to Japan.
Japanese version of a strip mall, which they call Arcades.
Sleeping in an internet cafe, which makes sense to me now. Your own cubicle, internet, and your own futon… this is better than most of the places I stayed in Guatemala.
Matsushima, beautiful.
I’m sure most of you have seen the name Masamune before (probably in a Final Fantasy game or such). Well, Masamune was a dude, and a total badass warlord. If you’ve ever seen a helmet with this kind of crescent on it, that’s Masamune. He’s the only person in Japan to ever use that unique crest on his helmet. He was also blind in one eye which earned him the nickname “the one eyed dragon”.
Choensan, who after hearing me speaking Japanese, spent the entire day showing me around Sendai on his own time and money. Nice guy.
Holy crap, I went too far north if I’m seeing Russian! Wait, no… I’m good.
Watching glassblowing in Otaru. This kid was pretty good.
Big, immense castle.
Damn! Thwarted!
You would have laughed if you had seen me taking this photo, I was jammed up in the fetal position inside of a slot meant for an archer half my height.
I couldn’t pass it up. Eating Kobe beef in Kobe, Japan. If this has been in an English speaking country, a fancy waiter would have read the menu to me and said: “For your lunch today we will introduce you to your steak. After which, your lunch courses will include a heavy, rich cream soup with aged bread crumbs, followed by a light mesclun salad with ginger highlights and a dressing of aged vinegar and aged fermented soy. To begin the grilling portion of your meal, paper thin slices of garlic cloves will be roasted and presented. Then, part of your steak with be seared to a perfect medium rare with only the slightest hint of salt. Next, potatoes, cucumbers, and green peppers will be seared on the open grill in a light oil that can be dipped in a florally accented, aged vinegar. This will be accompanied by crisped pieces of fat from your steak. At this time, the highest quality green tea, from leaves dried to a powder, will be brought out. The next course will be more pieces of your steak cooked to perfection, followed closely by roasted white rice turned lightly brown, cooked with a small amount of egg, garlic, and the remaining meat from your steak. The remaining fat will be used as flavor in the rice while the last meat is crisped and combined with lightly roasted sprouts. An accompanying dish of pickled Japanese vegetables will be provided. After this, coffee with heavy cream and sorbet with just the slightest hint of lemon will be brought out to conclude your meal.” Sounds good to me. Sadly, I didn’t get the American Psycho description, but rather a bunch of really hard to read katakana. Regardless, this was easily the best meal I’ve ever had. Blew that quesadilla I had in Oaxaca, Mexico right out of the water. Imagine beef so tender it melts on your tongue like a piece of butter. Amazing.
I’m going to have to start a whole collection of random toilet pictures. Why is there a faucet on the top? Cause the clean water comes out the faucet when you flush so you can wash your hands. The water then drains into the back to be used on the next flush. Who cares if the water flushing the toilet has soap in it? Conserves fresh water and saves energy. Again, why doesn’t everyone do this?
There wouldn’t be a sign if somebody hadn’t done it. I wanna hear that story.
Flushing sound? Really? I had to try it. So I turned the volume down all the way and hit the button… and it was really loud and wouldn’t stop for nearly a minute. It’s also sounds incredibly fake. About halfway through, because I knew everyone else in the bathroom could hear it, I started trying to shut it off to no avail. After mashing buttons I finally said “”For f***’s sake, why won’t it stop!” not realizing everyone in the bathroom spoke English also. Lots of laughing. Fun times in the bathroom.
Yakitori chicken hearts. Good stuff.
I seem to have an uncanny ability of finding remote, quiet, uninhabited locations in the middle of concrete jungles.
“What you want to have is here”. If I ever start a business, that’s going to be my slogan. Very subliminal.
NO! Look at my sign!
Downtown Tokyo. Check the immense crowd crossing the street in the bottom right.
During World War II, this unaltered room is where the Japanese Admirals discussed whether or not to attack Pearl Harbor. This room is not marked on any map, nor is it open the public. I ended up there by accident. How I got in, I’m going to leave as a mystery to those with too much time on their hands.
That’s not confusing. Identical to the original in size and shape, but 30 ft taller because they can.
Also confusing, but not to scale.
That’s a big mother stinkin Gundam.
Lucky shot. I caught someone’s rather powerful SLR flash in the middle of my long exposure.
Look, the maritime museum is shaped like a big boat. How cute.
Nifty artwork on the boardwalk.
Downtown Tokyo.
So. Many. People.
I was ten feet past this sign before I thought anything of it. Wait… Evengelion 2.0? (written at the bottom) Yeah, seriously. Apparently they’re remaking the entire TV series into four movies, but the plot has some significant differences. If you care, you care.
I wish all my cup of noodles came with a constructable Gundam toy. Awesome.
Say what now?

In Japan, the subway system shuts down at midnight everywhere. You wanna party? You party till the subway opens again at 5:00am. Rough. Also, my cool LA friends and fellow partiers in Tokyo.

All the riches baby, won’t mean anything…. standing in Harajuku taking pictures of the girls/guys. This is a big Harajuku thing of getting dressed up in cool fashions and meeting up with your friends. I’m guessing this wasn’t what you were expecting. (Most of the people there are just there to hang out with friends, rather than have a bunch of people snagging pictures, so they stand in clumps with their backs towards everyone, I took what pictures I could)
I so thoroughly dig this Japanese 50’s greaser dancing thing. Awesome.

I’ve noticed the tourism here is almost exclusively by the Japanese themselves, and even in the million plus populous cities, it’s been extremely rare for me to see another non-Japanese face outside of Kyoto and Tokyo. It seems the language barrier, distance, and first world costs are enough to keep most tourists out of the country completely. But, I’m cool with that.

I leave you with this, a passage from a translated Japanese Buddhist-based book I read while I was here:
“[What is the Greatest Happiness?] To be without desire and to know what is enough, to be perfectly fair and selfless, not to fight about what is right and wrong with things, to understand the very foundation of one’s mind, not to be confused by life and death or good fortune and calamity, to entrust life to life and to exert all your powers in following that Way, and to entrust death to death and to be content in that return. Not to envy wealth and honor, not to loath poverty and low birth, not to be obsessed by thoughts of the differences between happiness and anger or like and dislikes, but rather following good and bad fortune, or prosperity and decline as one meets them, and calmly enjoying oneself in the midst of creation and change: This is the Greatest Happiness under heaven.” ~ The Demon’s Sermon on the Martial Arts by Issai Chozanshi, translated by William Scott Wilson.

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