Monthly Archives: September 2011

Shimokitazawa (bunnies and sashimi, etc.)

A friend back in the States recommended the neighborhood of Shimokitazawa to me as an indie/hipster haven in Tokyo. So Alonna and I decided to spend most of the day yesterday exploring the neighborhood. I couldn’t find any specific guidance on the Internet, so we had no agenda whatsoever!

It was the first time we had to take a non-Japan Rail train anywhere (way exciting! buying tickets at different-looking machines!) and even as we were pulling into the station, I was already enchanted. We followed the trickle of fashionable young people walking around at 2:30pm on a Sunday, and sure enough, we started to find interesting things. Places you’d expect to find in Seattle or Boulder were hiding out in this southeastern pocket of Tokyo. Like a biker cafe…

and some sweet hippie stores that reeked of incense

Because it was such a small, walkable neighborhood, we could return to things that caught our eye, like the bunnies on a second-story window:

I guess if either of us had any expectations as we climbed the narrow stairs to the bunny window, they were something along the lines of bunny decor. But it turned out to be way more amazing than we could have imagined…


They were asleep when we came into the cafe, but once we went into their pen (yes, you read that right, we got to go IN THE PEN WITH THE BUNNIES) they became so active I couldn’t get a non-blurry picture. But this is THREE BUNNIES AT ONCE ON MY LAP

and really cute tea service too!

I immediately understood: this was the secret behind Japan’s low crime rate. Who would steal or hurt other people when there was the option to pet bunnies and drink tea at the same time?

After we left the bunny cafe, reeling with joy, we wandered up a side street because I’d caught a glimpse of what looked like a little shrine. It turned out to be an Inari shrine (dedicated to the Shinto god who sometimes takes the form of a fox), which Alonna had just figured out when a man approached us and told us as much.

You have to understand, this has almost never happened to me in Japan. Strangers don’t just strike up a conversation with you, especially when you clearly look foreign (a clue that your Japanese language ability is probably not perfect. And indeed, mine isn’t). But this man was incredibly friendly and wanted to tell us more about the accompanying Tengu shrine a few steps away. (I can’t find a satisfactory Tengu explanation in English and didn’t take a picture… but it was a huge bright red face mask, probably about as tall as a person, with a long Pinocchio nose.)

The space around the two shrines had a mini farmer’s market of sorts set up, with a few booths selling produce and packaged food. Everyone there welcomed us and one guy proudly introduced himself to us in English — which is a little less rare: some people take our foreign faces as an excuse to practice English. which is fine with me. 🙂 Alonna and I got the vibe that we were a pretty rare sight there; maybe Shimokitazawa is one of the places that tourists haven’t discovered yet.

As we wandered into early evening and started to feel like dinner, this place caught our eye: traditional-style seating, outdoors!

We were welcomed in (I love that this happens at restaurants and bars. Once you’ve paused outside the doorway, you almost have to go inside. You’re showered with “irasshaimase” and “douzo” from the entire staff once you do enter) and quickly realized that we’d stumbled on a pretty trendy — but not prohibitively expensive — place.

The handwritten menu was in elaborate calligraphy, so between our limited reading skills and the unfamiliar look of the characters, we had a pretty difficult time with it.

But the wait staff were so helpful and patient! One strategy in particular seemed to work. Anyone living or traveling abroad should remember this little gem: when in doubt, apologetically emphasize how dumb you are. So when I said to the waiter, “We’d like sashimi, but… I can’t read very well,” he immediately and graciously explained the sashimi menu and recommended certain dishes. (My theory is that by putting yourself down, you elevate the other person — and who doesn’t want to help you once you’ve made them feel good?)


A milestone on the interaction front!

Everyone tells you that living abroad entails good days and bad days, and that’s definitely been true. Thankfully, the ratio’s been changing, even in the short span of 3 weeks that I’ve been here — the bad days are fewer, farther between, and even less severe!

Yesterday was a milestone in terms of good days. I spent the entire day exclusively in the company of Japanese people. To backtrack a little: I joined the jazz band here, which rehearses 4 days a week! But I had really only been spending time with the 3 other trumpet players, since most of our practice time is split into sectionals. Anyway, we played in a competition yesterday hosted by the alumni association at ICU: a bunch of different clubs and organizations on campus were competing for cash prizes.

The competition was a great study in Japanese culture. There was A LOT of bowing. When someone standing in the front introduced themselves to the audience, we would all incline our upper bodies even from our seats. When the prizes were awarded at the end of the competition, the recipients bowed until they formed right angles — two or three times. Oh, and immediately after the jazz band finished our performance, we bowed for five full seconds (try counting that off right now, it’s a long time!).

Each competing group would do a short presentation in which they spoke a little about their activities and goals, then take some questions from the judges. There was a table set up next to the judges where assistants had a bell and an 後一分 (one minute left) sign. During the speeches and questions, they would ring the bell and hold up the sign… then ring it again once the minute had passed! And indeed, the competition ran exactly on time. That gives you some idea of the fastidiousness that pops up again and again in Japanese life.

We won second prize, and I think it was during the reception that I began to feel like I was bonding with my fellow band members. We ate adorable Japanese snacks (you think the stuff you can find in the US like Pocky is cute…. it represents only a fraction of the snack foods here), drank iced tea, and chatted. My vocabulary is really limited, which is frustrating, so I’ve been astonished more than once to find myself talking about interesting or complex topics in Japanese!

The competition ran for several hours, and by the time we’d gotten all of the instruments and equipment put away, it was almost 7:00pm. Several people in the band wanted to make sure I was joining them for 飲み会 (celebrating, I guess; it comes from the words for “drinking” and “meeting/assembling”) at a nearby restaurant.

Bikes are ubiquitous here, but unfortunately I never learned to ride one, so I perched on the back of one of the trombonist’s bikes. We sat in the long, traditional-style room that many Japanese restaurants have, with low tables and cushions on tatami mats. Thankfully, some people sat cross-legged instead of in the traditional yet uncomfortable seiza position (sitting on your heels).

Sharing is important in Japanese meals: you’ve probably heard about communal meals like shabushabu and sukiyaki where there’s one big dish on the table that everyone is served out of. Last night’s meal was a million different dishes, enough for everyone to have a few bites of each, and an endless supply of huge beer bottles for us to serve to each other. (One of those famous stories about Japanese etiquette is that you never pour your own glass; you serve a friend whose alcohol supply is running low, and in turn he or someone else refills your glass when you need it. In fact, this rule is so strictly followed that if you want to stop drinking, you’re supposed to leave a full glass so nobody can refill it for you!)

We stayed at the restaurant for four hours, with a steady supply of beer and interesting foods (I ate tiny fish, chicken head, and nattou, among other things!). It was wonderful to get to know my Japanese bandmates better, and like I said before, I surprised myself a few times with my Japanese ability. If it wouldn’t blow my wallet (and my time to study), I’d do this every night. (^_^)

Getting back together with music (babe, I was lost without you.)

I had briefly considered bringing my French horn with me to Japan, but I’ve had some pretty terrible experiences traveling with it in the past and didn’t want to risk any damage to it on the plane. I’d reconciled with the idea of leaving my instruments home for a few months. But I hadn’t realized how much I’d miss music.

Today was club orientation at ICU, and as I considered which clubs I’d like to join, the ones that I was really drawn to were the musical groups. Study abroad is supposed to be all about exploring and realizing your identity, and today I realized that the lack of musical instruments was painful for me: playing music is perhaps the biggest part of myself that I have to offer to the world, and without instruments, I’ve lost that dimension of social experience.

So I timidly asked the wind ensemble if they had instruments… and not only did they say yes, they brought out a French horn for me to play, right there in their booth! I was incredibly excited about playing with that group until they showed me their rehearsal schedule. One thing you have to understand about clubs at Japanese universities is that they take themselves VERY seriously. So the fact that the wind ensemble has 3-hour practices 3 nights a week, plus 6-hour practices on Saturdays, isn’t actually all that unreasonable in context. But it leaves me a little terrified.

I’m thinking of joining the jazz group instead. Their schedule is a little less intense, and really jazz is my favorite kind of music to play. Only problem? That group doesn’t have a horn to lend me. (In fact French horn remains unrecognized by the jazz community at large — the injustice of it all!) So I’m considering learning trumpet: I’ve played a little before, it’s similar to horn, so I’m not too worried. It would certainly count as “trying new things” as part of my experience abroad.

And when I came home tonight, I was chatting with Henry and my other guesthouse friend Li about music when Li mentioned that he has a guitar! He brought it down to the lounge, we played a little, and he offered to let me play whenever I want to. So just like that, in one day, two musical opportunities presented themselves! It feels good to be reconnecting with something that’s so important to me.

Brazilian Day

My awesome friend Henry from the guesthouse invited me to a Brazilian festival yesterday at Yoyogi Park near Harajuku. It was beautiful weather: we didn’t get rained on, but because of the typhoon there was this crazy strong wind most of the afternoon.

First we stopped off at the betting counter because Henry has a fondness for horse races.


The crowd at the festival was incredibly diverse. There’s a significant Brazilian population in Japan because a lot of Japanese have emigrated to Brazil… and even several generations down the line, if they have a drop of Japanese blood in them, it’s very easy for them to move back to Japan.


We stuffed ourselves with a billion different kinds of Brazilian food; I also tried caipirinha (blehhh. about as enjoyable as drinking straight rum).






Ridiculously hot backup dancers or something


Yup that’s an Asahi….




So much drunken joy!


Towards the end of the festival they put on boob suits and brought all the kids on stage…. an interesting combination