Big in Japan: The Week That Was…

For those of you who follow not only my blog but my Twitter as well (@MGarvis) you will likely know that I have been walking a lot since I got to Japan, and my FitBit (www.fitbit.com) has all the proof you need.  You may also have noticed that Tuesday and Wednesday this week my daily steps dropped from an average of 15,000 steps per day to about 2000 steps for those two days.  That is because I caught a bad chest cold and spent two days in bed – which is to say I was working from my hotel room, but once my actual work was done I did not have much energy for blogging.  Sorry fans… but I’m back!

I have now been in Japan just over three weeks, and have on several occasions mentioned how clean I have been finding it.  Listening in on a conversation yesterday between two people with more experience here than I do I think some of the reasons became clear.  One of them described Tokyo as ‘shared space’ – a country that is two small and too populated to allow for much privacy, and so when you are out and about the honourable thing to do is to show everybody the respect of their shared space by keeping it clean.  That is why almost nobody litters, spits, or any other impolite behaviour that we might consider commonplace in the west (and most other parts of Asia)… out of respect for each other.

In ancient Japan – really not that long ago – most walls were made of rice paper.  As such there was no real privacy – it was easy enough for your neighbour to know your business.  I have heard it told that because of that it is commonplace in Japanese culture to always maintain a completely polite exterior, even when your feelings are very impolite.  Maybe that is one of the reasons that there are few PDAs (Public Displays of Affection) in Japan.  It is also likely one of the reasons why everybody at my office seems to like me – whether they do or they do not, it is customary to show outwardly that you do.

DSCN4019 Last Monday I was walking around an area called Osaki when I noticed these tiles in the ground.  It was interesting to see just how far I am from home – if we are 10,350 kilometers from Ottawa, we are not that much closer to Oakville – say, 9,950km to be conservative.  There is no question that I miss it (especially the people), but at the same time I am really enjoying life here.  It would be nice if I was not stuck living in a shoebox hotel (please don’t misunderstand, it is a really nice and clean hotel, but the rooms are extremely small) but other than that, life here is good.  I am seeing a lot of cultural differences both at work and out and about, but that is not a bad thing.  I have never been one to poo-poo cultural diversity.

DSCN4049 My friend and Master Dimitrios Beis spends a lot of time at different industry shows and fairs in and around Toronto – wedding shows, food and drink shows, and the like.  It is part of his business, and he has on several occasions invited Theresa and I to join him there.  When I stumbled upon a similar type of fair in Osaki on Monday I thought of him as I walked around, sampled some of the foods (I had aDSCN4065 wonderful fried chicken dish for lunch, followed by a couple of sesame balls for dessert… scrumptious!) and took some pictures of the people and booths.

There were several ‘cartoon characters’ in costume walking around, and the kids were flocking to meet them.  There was also a booth sponsored by the Tokyo Fire Department, where kids were invited to try on their gear (sized down of course) complete with the helmets.  The kids were having a ball, and the parents were taking pictures of them with their ear-to-ear smiles.

DSCN4044 Just as they would in Canada, some people brought their dogs along.  This was, after all, and outdoor fair, and as long as the dogs are well behaved they are a welcome addition to any setting as far as I am concerned.  This gorgeous girl was very happily sitting in a pram, and seemed content to smile at people who wanted to pay any attention to her, as I certainly did.  Her owner was working one of the booths, but she obviously knew that puppy was well behaved enough to not try to escape.

DSCN4056 When I say there were all sorts of booths, I am serious – there were crafts (both pre-made, and ones for the kids to participate in) ranging from Japanese pottery to drawing to flower arrangements). There were dancers, there were plants – this tree pictured is actually less than a foot tall, and an amazing sight to see.  It struck me as very… Japanese.  I could imagine Mr. Miyagi having trees like this if he had fruit trees.

All in all everyone seemed to be having a good time, which I suppose is the entire point both of a fair and of a holiday Monday.  The kids were laughing, smiling, dancing, playing, and eating.  The parents did not need to chase after them – the perception I have is that they are much safer in general in Japan than they might be in Canada, with no threat of kidnapping.  The vendors were sharing their wares – as soon as they realized I spoke no Japanese the majority of them knew there was no sale to be made, and yet they convinced me to try different teas, finger foods, and breads.  I did buy my lunch of fried chicken and sesame balls (the two dishes, from two separate vendors, cost a staggering 600 yen, or about $6).

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This was only one bit of my walking for the last week, but it was a very memorable part.  I have seen so many wonderful places and people that it would be impossible to tell you about all of them… but trust me, if you have never been to Japan you should definitely get down here!

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Back to Japan!

I got a nasty email today from a friend who is angry that I have been writing about PowerShell.  Actually to be completely accurate he doesn’t care that I blog about PowerShell, he is just upset that it has been several days (a week?) since I last wrote about my travels in Japan.  I am sorry about that, and I will try to keep the balance for both audiences 🙂

It has been an interesting week; firstly I was thrilled that on Thursday afternoon I was finally able to charge my FitBit, meaning I was able to start tracking my steps, et cetera. That may not seem relevant to you, but on a weekend when I can either go walk around and be a tourist, or I can stay in my hotel and watch movies, when there is incentive to get that 20,000 step day can be the difference (and it was on Saturday).

I am staying in an area of Tokyo called Shinagawa Seaside.  It is a very nice area – not downtown, but there are still a lot of businesses around here – the office towers of Rakuten where I am working are both within a block of the hotel, and Microsoft Japan is a ten minute taxi ride away.  I am getting to know the area very well, because even when I am not out and about exploring Tokyo, I am walking around Shinagawa every day or evening.

DSCN3910I found out the other day that Shinagawa is built on reclaimed land, which means that by all rights there should be plankton here and not offices.  Nevertheless here we are.  However there are several signs within a few blocks that point out our elevation – I have seen them ranging from 1.8m above sea level (right outside my hotel) to 2.8m above sea level (about three km by foot from the hotel).  In a land recently hit by typhoons, tsunamis, monsoons, and earthquakes this is a bit unsettling to be sure, but I assume that if nobody else is particularly frightened by it then I can live with it too.  The 2.1m picture to the right of this paragraph is just outside the office tower where I am working.

DSCN3916 I think I mentioned in a recent post that the Rakuten Eagles, the baseball team owned by the company where I am working, won their first pennant ever last week.  The lobby of Rakuten Tower 1 has been completely filled with flowers since, and one day last week there was a celebratory meal in the cafeteria – complete with a very nicely decorated cake.  I am glad that I was able to take a picture before everyone dug in, because I ended up getting the last piece of the last cake that the had.  I should have asked how many cakes they actually baked so that all 12,000 employees could have a piece.  I will tell you this… victory tastes good!

DSCN3917 Saturday I opened my tourist book and decided to take the train to Akasuka, an area that is not only bustling with commercial activity (spoiler alert: the entire city is like that) but also has some amazing sights to see.  The Sensoji Temple is said to have been built in 628.  It was a rainy day, but it didn’t matter… I had an umbrella, and I walked the five minutes from Akasuka Station to the holy site.

It’s funny, but when you are in a strange land where you can’t understand a word that anyone is saying it is even easier to pick up familiar tones.  Just outside of the train station I did a double-take when I heard an older couple (Reuven and Eilat) speaking Hebrew.  I introduced myself and they invited me to join them.  We walked through the throngs of people carrying umbrellas toward the temple.

DSCN3926  While it was great to be able to speak to people in a familiar language for a while, their idea of interesting and mine did not seem to connect.  They wanted to see the temple, but as soon as they saw it they wanted to leave and head to the next subway station to see something else.  I understand, because they are in country for a few days and want to see as much as they can.  I, on the other hand, will be spending a lot of time here over the next few months, and I wanted to look around the grounds, which it turns out are amazing.  There is a Five Story Pagoda, and the gardens are magnificent.  I am glad that I came back and strolled around after splitting with the Israelis… there was just too much to see to only spend five minutes in the temple and then turn around and go home.  Below is a picture of the ancient bridge, with signs asking people not to feed the carp (which are huge).

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I finally stopped for lunch, but that mission was a failure.  As I was alone I was told to sit at the counter with my back to the room… not my favorite position my wife will attest.  Before I could even order I was actually hit (hard!) on my back… although not with any malicious intent.  An older gentleman did not realize there was a step, and he swung his arm trying to break his fall.  Look, I know he didn’t mean anything by it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it hurt!  I decided that it was a bad omen and removed myself from that restaurant.  I ended up eating a bowl of fish and chicken soup with noodles with a side order of gyozo (dumplings).  The soup wasn’t great… the dumplings were good.  What was spectacular though was the dessert that I had at a market stand a few blocks away… If you have ever had the sesame balls in a Chinese restaurant, imagine those, but not fried, and wonderfully prepared… for about the equivalent of $.80 it was like a taste of heaven… and I am glad that I had the willpower to stop at one!

There is so much more to tell, but I will save it for another day – tomorrow, don’t worry!  Thanks for reading!

Another 500 milers!

Michelle Ragusa and I have gotten to know each other recently because of our nominations for the SMB150 awards. Well it turns out that we have something else in common – we both wear FitBits! 🙂 She sent me the link to her blog article on it – http://michelleragusa.blogspot.ca/2012/02/i-would-walk-500-miles-and-i-would-walk.html . It is amazing, because I also recently wrote an article about it, with a very similar theme! Check it out at https://garvis.ca/2012/03/09/and-i-will-walk-500-more/ .

Thanks for the support everyone… Michelle and I are now going to be friends on FitBit as well, and she and I will continue to encourage each other!