Monday, November 16, 2009

Japan Reloaded

Back in the 1980's and 1990's, I used to spend about two weeks a year in Japan, and although that isn't a lot of time, it was enough to keep me somewhat engaged with Japanese language study, and I found my skills gradually improving with every trip. In recent years, things have changed. I need to spend more time in other countries and not so much in Japan. I kind of miss it.

So I was really happy to spend last week in Japan, the first extended trip in about four years (I spent a couple of days there in 2007). I was visiting customers, mostly in and around Tokyo, though we did spend one day in Nagoya. I had spent a little time reviewing Japanese and exercising the new iPod app Kotoba!, an amazing electronic Japanese dictionary that I've written about before. My Japanese worked well enough with taxi drivers, restaurants, asking directions, etc. though I was frustrated at how much I had forgotten. I guess it can't be helped (shikata ga nai) - use it or lose it.

Aside from trains, restaurants, and customer sites, I spent most of the time at the New Otani Hotel in the Akasaka area of Tokyo. This is a pretty nice hotel, with a great view of the nearby State Guest House, formerly known as the Akasaka Palace. The Google Maps view at left shows how close this building was. Saturday morning I was eating breakfast on the 40th floor of the Garden Tower, thinking about the fact that President Obama was also in Tokyo at the moment, and wondering if he was staying at the State Guest House next door. A number of visiting presidents had stayed there, but I couldn't find any information on where Obama was staying on his current visit (not surprising I guess). It didn't look very busy from 40 floors up, so I decided to take a walk in the rain and check it out.

But first I took a detour through the New Otani's best feature, its beautiful Japanese garden, complete with red bridges, koi ponds, a waterfall, a tea ceremony house, and a Christian chapel. Passing the chapel, I noticed an unusual book mixed with the usual propaganda. It was called Manga Messiah and it was rather unusual propaganda, the New Testament in Japanese comic book format (subtitle: "Has he come to save the world... or destroy it?"). Not my usual cup of ocha, but I had to check it out. This required a brief chat with a very nice Japanese-speaking American former missionary who was staffing the chapel that morning. Seeing that the book included full furigana (pronunciation hints for the kanji), I really wanted it in spite of the subject matter. We talked about Japanese study and other safely non-religious stuff, and as I started to put the book back in the rack, she said I could keep it! Cool. Maybe it's a stealth conversion thing. I'll be careful.

After the garden walk, I found my way to the wall surrounding the nearby State Guest House and walked a kilometer or so past the front gate of the palace grounds. With a total of maybe ten police officers on the whole perimeter that I walked, I was quite sure that the Obama party was staying elsewhere this trip! Then I went back to my room to finish packing and check out for the flight home Saturday evening.

Earlier in the week, I did manage to grab a couple of hours one afternoon to check out a bookstore in Akihabara. It wasn't the best bookstore I've seen in Tokyo, but it was handy and fairly big, and I mainly wanted to refresh my supply of small Japanese notebooks. For years I've used these small notebooks for language notes, travel notes, flight lesson notes, etc. Of course now I do most of that on the PC and/or iPod and/or blog, but I still like these little notebooks, especially the ones with wacky quasi-English cover art. I didn't find anything as wacky as the one pictured here, my all-time favorite from the "Frisky Naughty Penguin Series" (1986), but I got a couple of cute ones. I also bought a great 2010 calendar with scenes of Mount Fuji. I probably could have bought that somewhere closer to home, but it was just the right size for my office so I went for it.

After that I searched the children's book section for anything worth buying to help me build vocabulary (and keep some interest in Japanese going once I got home, always a problem). I found a cool little book for only ¥960, Chikyuu-Uchuu, (Earth-Space). This is a small, colorful paperback with descriptions of basic geology, meteorology, astronomy, and a smattering of space flight stuff. Lots of color photos and diagrams. It's probably middle-school level or below, but it's perfect for me because all of the kanji characters have furigana for pronunciation, just like Manga Messiah! Except that the vocabulary and world view are just a bit different, I'm guessing.

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