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Government Buildings

It was a beautiful day yesterday. As winter creeps in on Tokyo I thought it was an obligation of mine to do something with it. Newton, the bicycle, and I took a tour of the governmental heart of Tokyo. I occured to me that I couldn’t live in Japan’s capital for four months and not see its political home. I rode an hour or so to the Chiyoda city of Tokyo, not far from the Imperial palace, and found myself where Japanese diplomacy is done.

Chiefly, Chiyoda is home to the National Diet Building: the country’s legislative arm, Japan’s Congress.
Japan’s bicameral legislature is not only responsible for day to day policy, but also for electing the country’s prime minister, currently Shinzo Abe (Think the in-power Congressional party electing the American President).

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The Odd Couple

I was on a train a few days ago and heard something I hadn’t heard in almost half a year: an old married couple fighting. They were American tourists, or so I surmised from blatantly and unabashedly listening to their conversation. She felt that he always treated her “like a child,” as he had recently done by asking a waitress in a restaurant where the bathroom was on her behalf.

It was odd. I do see non-Japanese Westerners almost every day, particularly in Tokyo, but I don’t as often overhear English and more specifically, American English. It was refreshing to hear the squabbling that is a signature of long relationships. It was nice to think that I might be lucky enough to have a berating, nagging wife willing to stand by me for the better part of a century and maybe explore another continent. Someone who will be willing to tell me everything that is wrong with me on a crowded train in Japan. That wouldn’t be so bad at all.

Jaa ne,

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I started counting the roads in my Tokyo atlas. I didn’t finish.

Look, it is no secret that I get lost. I walk and bike and ride long and fast and blind. I welcome it, even if not in the moment I become lost.

There is no place I have gotten more lost, more often than here in Tokyo. Maybe I have stumbled upon the answer.

What I have been struck by these one and a half months is how rarely Japanese people seem to know a damn thing about Tokyo geography. I would stop by someone and even with map in hand, they wouldn’t seem to know. It didn’t seem to be out of indifference for my being lost, either. It seemed more as a general unawareness.

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The Imperial Palace

I had a Sunday morning and, well ahead of my school work, I needed to do something with it. I flipped through a Tokyo guidebook, but was unenthusiastic. I took to reading the news and heard mention of Japan’s Emperor. I realized that I hadn’t visited the Emperor yet, and I had been in his country for more than three months, how rude of me!

So, as I often do, I saddled up old Newton, my bicycle, and took to the road, destined more than an hour northeast of my apartment towards Ginza, a large Tokyo business district. My destination: Kokyo, the Imperial Palace.

It was cloudy but warmish and I flew through the crisp wind towards. The Imperial Palace is on the site of the old Edo-jo Castle, which was built in the 14th century, remastered in the 1590s, and by the 17th century, it was the largest castle in the world.

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A month ago, my readers might remember, I mentioned an earthquake I survived. Alright, apparently, a 4.8 earthquake is inconsequential to the experienced. I am not experienced.

So, needless to say I was more surprised than most of the Japanese students around me when I heard ceiling tiles and lights rattle for a few seconds. There was a moment of laughter and then someone switched back on the fast-paced Tokyo walk that surrounded me.

Not knowing what else to do, I followed. This I have mentioned. It wasn’t until later, when another student from Philadelphia who is also here in Tokyo mentioned the brief stir that I got to announce that that was my first earthquake survival story.

Alright, so it wasn’t anything to focus my autobiography on, but it was an accomplishment for me nonetheless.

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Japanese Addresses

Here is something else to be learned about Japan. Addresses are done a bit differently than they are in the United States. See, except for major roads, the streets of Japan are not named.

Instead, the 47 prefectures of Japan (think, states) are divided into cities and towns (Tokyo has 23), which are then subdivided into neighborhoods and blocks. I will use the address of my school as an example.

2-8-12 Minami Azabu, Minato-ku
Tokyo 106-0047, Japan

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Japanese Culture: Episode Five

Friday was another national holiday here in Japan: Bunka No Hi or Culture Day. Of course, culture day, along with a day off from classes, got me to think about Japanese culture, as I had explored it in my fifth episode, which premiered last week.

What is contemporary Japanese culture? What is any country’s culture? I’ve been here for nearly two months and seen a lot of Tokyo and surrounding cities. I’ve been to Kyoto in the south, Gunma and Nikko in the north. I’ve spoken to a sociologist who has lived in Tokyo for nearly two decades. I interviewed Donald Richie, who has lived in Japan for 60 years and has written 40 books on Japan. No one can really define the culture. It is too large and too diverse, not to mention the Japanese people do tend to take on styles from around the world. Especially here in Tokyo, there are so many contrasts.

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There is disparity in this world. The English language and my position on this planet afford me the opportunity to refer to the largest-scale, globally encompassing, heart-wrenching, should-be-apoplectic, kick-you-in-the-balls obstruction in a tight, succinct six words. Polonius said that, “brevity is the soul of wit,” but in a civilization of complexity, the terse can be irresponsible at best, incendiary at its most violent worst.

I went to a bar with some American friends one night a few days ago. Down a few flights of stairs, below the well-trafficked streets of Shibuya, an entertainment district in Central Tokyo, I stuffed myself in a booth with four guys and slowly sipped a beer as I told dirty jokes and ate complimentary popcorn. In time they coaxed a few Japanese girls to our table, and soon our party had ballooned to nearly twenty.

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Teaching English

Offered the option by an administrator at my university, I hopped on a bus and taught at an English camp in the rural Gunma Prefecture for a weekend.

It was fun to interact, teach and eat with high school kids, most of whom did not speak English well but were required to only do so this weekend. I was chosen, among others, specifically because our Japanese wasn’t particularly strong. It was tough and frustrating for some of the kids but certainly got the point across.

Secretly, during breaks, I did use it as an opportunity to push my Japanese.

We bonded some and laughed a lot. Like others, I led specific lessons and groups of 10 or so rotated through this massive lodge-like space, atop a peak amid a massive, wilderness of fall colors around us.

Like any culture, they were teenagers feeling out what kind of people they are, and we were slightly older young adults, who happened to also be foreign and American, so there was an awe. This was one of the simpler, yet  more transformative and likely memorable experiences.

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A Ragged Steno Pad

I used to have a forty-minute bus ride from my apartment here in the Jiyugaoka section of the Meguro ward of Tokyo to my classes in Minato-ku, Tokyo. During that time I took to writing in a ragged steno pad that serves as notebook, journal, draft and drawing pad for me.

I traded that sitting time for physically and visually exercising time, as readers familiar with my bicycling will know, but the habit finds a place even so. It is a habit familiar to any travel, any experience, to any period of my life.

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