Sunday, March 28, 2010

What do blue fin tuna and the US Ambassador have in common?

Day 5:

This was by far one of my favorite days of the entire trip. It started out relatively early. We had to take several trains to get to Tsukiji. It’s the world’s largest fish market. They carry over 450 different types of fish. It’s quite the sight to see. I had never seen a lot of the things they had on display. Once we arrived we all went our own ways to explore the market. One of my classrooms described it as a labyrinth of fish and seafood. She was correct. Every which way there were fish, and of all types: some were fresh, some dried, some a part of sushi and some fried. It was great; many of the booths even gave out samples as you pass by. I couldn’t be as adventurous as I would have liked because I didn’t want to get sick, but what I tried was very good.

After walking around for a bit the group randomly reconvened outside a restaurant. We still had about half an hour until we needed to meet up, so it was funny we all ended up in the same place. Even more coincidental was the fact that there was a blue fin tuna slicing demonstration going on right there. While we were in Japan there were talks at the United Nations to put a ban on selling blue fin tuna. Apparently, some animal advocacy groups believe that the species might be extinct by 2012. The morning we headed to Tsukiji I happened to be watching a news report on CNN about the potential ban. It said that about 80% of blue fin tuna is consumed in Japan alone. Needless to say the Japanese were not very happy about this potential ban.

All of a sudden, a CNN crew showed up to film the tuna being sliced. It was really funny considering they were standing next to and then even interviewing journalist students. Two of my classmates were interviewed and one made the final cut. Seeing the tuna sliced was really cool. It was huge and ironically, it was caught right off the coast of Spain. I took a few photos with the CNN journalist, Kyung Lah, and mentioned to her how I had watched a clip on CNN about the blue fin tuna that morning. She chuckled and told me it had been her report.

Here’s the clip:

After the tuna slicing, we were ready to consume some tuna of our own so we headed to lunch. The entire group went to what is supposedly one of the best sushi restaurants at the market. It lived up to its name. It was really good. I have no clue what I was eating, but I enjoyed most of it.

At the restaurant we had to remove our shoes before stepping on the wood floors and there were lockers where you could put your shoes. If you entered the bathroom you had to put on these special slippers. My feet were about 5 sizes too big, but I made it work. I had tried on a pair of shoes in a shoe store I had passed the day before and the biggest size, LL, wasn’t even close to fitting!

From lunch we headed to the US embassy to speak with David Marks (who I mentioned earlier.) He’s the press attaché at the embassy. It was great to speak with him. He’s an incredibly intelligent man. He graduated from IU with a master’s in Russian Literature and he speaks something like four or five different languages. He spoke about his time in the Foreign Service and it really sparked my interest. He’s lived all around the world and his next posting is in Kabul. It sounds like that will be an adjustment from Tokyo. During this meeting, we also had an opportunity to speak with ABC reporter Margaret Conley. It was really interesting to hear her stories about being an American living in Japan and the things she’s gone through in the journalism field. As if these two speakers weren’t amazing enough, we also got to speak with John V. Roos, the US ambassador to Japan. It was really cool to hear how he became ambassador. He even allowed us to visit his residence. The Tokyo ambassador’s residence was the first US ambassador’s residence that was built specifically for an ambassador. It was a really beautiful building. I was tempted to sign the guest book, but thought it would be best for the school if I didn’t.

I was exhausted after such a full day, so I just returned to the hotel. It was the second group’s turn to have dinner with the professionals, so I was on my own. I met up with three other girls in the group to wonder around for dinner. We ventured to the other side of the train station and ended up an Irish pub. It was a multicultural evening. I was in Japan at an Irish pub, eating Italian food. You’ve got to love globalization.

It ended up being a later dinner, so we were all happy to just go back to the hotel to pass out. We didn’t want to be tired for our last day in Nihon!


Friday, March 26, 2010

Conquering the city of Tokyo

Day 4:

Last night I thought ahead about buying breakfast for this morning so I wouldn’t have to leave my room. What a smart decision. It was nice being able to have a slightly slower morning. We met down in the lobby for our daily meeting/briefing at 8:30am. After a slight recap of the week and reminder of the day’s events we took the trains to Kreab Gavin Anderson, an International PR firm. They have offices in 25 different countries on 5 continents. William Sposato spoke to us for a while about the company, his career and his time in Japan. He’s worked in Tokyo, London, and Bombay/Mumbai. I’m envious. I really hope that I can work abroad. I’ve been so fortunate with all I’ve seen thus far and I hope I can continue to explore this beautiful world of ours.

We also heard from a Japanese employee there. It was interesting to hear her perspective regarding the Japanese and business. Their culture is very different from ours. It’s a complete hierarchy system and everyone is very introverted. All of that said, Americans (and many other cultures) really stick out here.

After their presentation we spilt up for lunch in the area. Two friends and I tried a noodle shop down the street. It was delicious, like most of our Japanese meals. After lunch the entire group headed back to the hotel. I changed into some more comfortable clothes to explore the city with more friends. Four of us decided to go back to Asakusa to continue our souvenir shopping. We had hoped to visit Ginza too, but we got a little carried away in Asakusa. Since we cut it too close to do both of them we had some down time at the hotel before going out to dinner with several Japanese professionals.

We headed to a very interesting/strange restaurant on the other side of the train station. I didn’t look at the menu, but I can’t say I was a big fan of the food, at least what they ordered for us. Actually, I felt pretty sick after the meal. Rule to live by: don’t eat parts of a chicken you cannot identify. Aside from the mediocre food, the people I got to sit with were exceptional. We sat with several PR professionals who work at Fleishman-Hillard and David Marks who is the press attaché for the US Embassy. It was great to hear from the PR professionals who PR functions in this country and it was also great to hear from David Marks about living in Japan, working abroad and being in the foreign service. We also got a chance to speak with David Marks the following day (which I’ll mention in a bit). All in all, he really convinced me to look more into the Foreign Service.

After dinner I was pretty tired, so I just went to bed. I wanted to end this post with an observation about Japan. We had been warned that there wouldn’t be a lot of garbage cans, so many people have to walk with their trash. I thought it was kind of strange when our professor and guest lecturers mentioned this, but I didn’t think much of it. It was only when we got there that I realized how strange, or different rather, that is to the States. It was virtually impossible to find trashcans. You might see one at a train station, but other than that it was only in your hotel room. I tried to find one in the lobby of the hotel and couldn’t. So weird. Also, the ones in the rooms are tiny. Both of ours were filled daily. I don’t know where all of their trash goes!


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sun and fun in Japan

Day 3:

Today was another extremely busy day. We left at 8:15am and didn’t get back until almost 10pm. It’s tough to be a tourist in Japan. This morning another one of our professor’s friends, Yas Nakano, met us to help show us around the city. Our professor said they randomly met in Bloomington and have remained friendly. If it’s not clear by what I’ve written so far, my professor is really into networking. He knows people from all over the world. He said he’s got something like 4,000 contacts in his palm pilot. Several weeks ago we had the opportunity to skype with Walter Jennings, who runs the PR company Fleishman-Hillard in Australia. One kid in my class emailed him about their internship program and he ended up getting the position for this summer. I’m super jealous and thinking about applying for next year.

Ok, back to Tokyo. So, Nakano-son. He met us at the hotel for our mini bus tour of the city, primarily of the government district and the imperial palace, where the emperor lives. It was nice to see it all, but not exactly the best atmosphere for taking photos. I hope to go back on foot to wander around. The area around the imperial palace was beautiful. It was also nice to go around by bus because all of our travel has been by train thus far; most of them were underground which obviously doesn’t allow you to see the city.

On our tour around the city Nakano-son was talking about the problems the US is having with Japan’s consumption of tuna. He made an interesting point. He said that it’s very possible India will become the largest world power soon and cows are sacred there. He posed the question, what are you going to do when India is the biggest world power and they tell you you have to stop eating beef? I told him I was going to argue with him because cows aren’t on the endangered species list like some of the types of tuna are, but I saw his point.

We took the bus straight to Bloomberg. We had these official looking name badges, sadly we had to give those back. We also weren’t allowed to take photos inside, which was a major bummer. It was such an amazing office. All of the walls and meeting rooms are glass because they believe in transparency. No one has offices, they all work next to each other. (Can’t say I would personally love that.) Right when we got in they told us to check out the kitchen area. They had so many different types of food and drinks. I grabbed an apple juice, but tasted some of my classmates’ juices. They tried carrot juice and a vegetable juice, both of which were surprisingly delicious. After our snacks, a Malaysian man named Nicholas talked to us about the company. They refer to themselves as an electronic news source, not a news wire. They have these terminals, which they rent out to businesses. It’s insanely expensive, but has the most up-to-date business and financial news. There’s also a ticker running across the floor of the office. We got a brief tour. It’s pretty large, something like four floors. After our tour we got to speak with Brian Fowler, who is the managing news editor. It was awesome to hear from him. He also showed us how the terminal worked. He primarily used the search function, and I have a feeling we could have spent much longer learning about all of its different functions.

After Bloomberg we took a train to lunch. We were told it would be a ten-minute walk, but it ended up being a train ride away. Unfortunately, we all had to go to the bathroom really badly. We stopped at the train station and I had to use my first squatting toilet. It was an adventure. I’ve been really surprised with how many eastern style toilets they have. Most bathrooms have a combination of “normal” toilets and eastern style ones. The difference between the two is funny. It’s either quite primitive or very advanced. The “normal” toilets play music, have the seat heated, bidets and several other functions. They’re pretty crazy.

For lunch we went to an okayomiaki type restaurant. It’s like a do-it-yourself Benny Hanna. They bring the food out for you and you cook it on the grill in front of you. It was really yummy. We tried three different types, one had pork, one prawns and the other ground beef, at least it looked like it. I’ve stopped trying to care what’s in my food. Very few people speak English so I just point and hope it will be good.

After lunch we went to the Tokyo Edo museum. It’s a history museum and I was a little bored. I wouldn’t say I’d rush back there. Our guide was a little difficult to understand. He was so adorable though. He asked all of us to sign his guest book at the end. It was really cute.

After the Tokyo Edo museum we went to the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan for dinner and to meet some journalists. The Jschool really went big on this one. It was a western style dinner and the food just kept coming. We started with salmon, shrimp and white fish and then had a mushroom soup, salad, a steak with veggies and a baked potato and then dessert, too. I was stuffed beyond belief. Thank you, Jschool. The man who helped set up dinner was named Hiromi Hemuki and he actually works for the state of Indiana and tries to bring Japanese business there. I sat across from him and it was interesting to hear about his work. There were several other journalists there, but unfortunately I wasn’t sitting close to them. Dinner ended pretty late and we were all tired, so afterward I just came back to the hotel to go to sleep. It was another wonderfully full and exciting day in Japan!


More fun in Tokyo!

Day 2:

Japan is a wonderful country and it has such friendly people. Our professor and his wife (who’s also on the trip) have taken in a Japanese grad student at IU. Her family lives right outside of Tokyo and they met us at the airport to take us to our hotel so we didn’t get lost. This is the third year this trip has run and the past two years the dean of the Journalism school’s wife, Hiromi, has joined the group. She grew up in Japan, knows her way around and most importantly is fluent in the language. Unfortunately, she’s pregnant so she wasn’t able to join us this year. However, this Japanese couple has taken our group under their wings. When they met us at the airport they brought all of us these great Japanese cookies. Yesterday they met us at the hotel and then took us to Asakusa and stayed with us for the day. Today, the gentleman took the train in to meet us. His train ride was about an hour an a half and he just wanted to make sure we’d get on the right train to go to Nikko. It was so incredibly nice.

So this morning after one train transfer, we were off to Nikko. It’s a 2.5-hour train ride up to the mountains. Nikko is a national park with ancient Shinto/Buddhist shrines. Sadly, photography isn’t allowed inside of the shrines. They were magnificent. I think the first one we went into was my favorite. It had three huge Buddha-like figures. They had to be several stories high. Nikko was also a great break from the bustling city. We got in at about 11:30 and had a mile walk up the mountain to the park. We took a wrong turn and ended up walking down this alley. This tiny, elderly Japanese woman saw we were lost and had us follow her back to the main street. People consistently go out of their way to help you. It’s refreshing. There’s a famous bridge before you enter the park, I forget it’s significance, but we made sure to take a ton of photos, including the obligatory peace sign ones.

Upon entering most of the shrines, you need to remove your shoes. It’s a complicated process. You cannot put your shoes up on the mats, but you can’t have your socks on the sidewalk. You kind of need to do to dance to get them off and simultaneously be in the right spot.

As I mentioned, people are very friendly so they’d ask if they can take a picture for you, and we’d return the favor. My professor sticks out a bit in Japan. For starters he’s over 6 feet tall and balding with white hair. A group of Japanese girls had asked my professor to take a picture for them. They were sitting on the steps in front of one of the shrines. I couldn’t resist going up to them asking if we could all take a picture together. They said of course and were very excited that I asked. All of us jumped in the photo with them and then several Spaniards/Italians (couldn’t really hear them well) jumped in, too. It was hilarious. Everyone wanted a picture with their own camera. It was one of the many highlights of the day.

After we left the park we went to a traditional noodle shop where you sit on tatami mats on the floor. I got soba noodles that you dip into a soy sauce. It was ok. Shabrelle, the girl I was sitting with, got a delicious udon soup. I helped her finish it. After lunch we did a little shopping on our walk down the hill to the train station. Then we had another 2.5 hour ride back on the train. Surprisingly, both ways went faster than I anticipated. I might have taken a little nap on the way there. I was attempting to study for my History of Rock and Roll class by listening to our required music, but it put me to sleep. Oops.

When we got back to Tokyo, we returned to the hotel, had dinner and then met up at 8:30 to go to Shibuya. It’s the Time Square area of New York and about 10 times cooler. It’s probably what you think of when you think of a neon lit Japan, because American media love to use pictures from the area to represent Japan. It’s also home to the Hachiko crosswalk, which is the busiest in the world. I took a ton of pictures. There were people coming from everywhere! It was fun wandering around aimlessly. Most of the group I was with went into a Krispsy Kreme to get donuts. I didn’t come to Tokyo to get Kripsy Kreme, so I sat outside to people watch. I was out there for what seemed like forever. The reason being, it’s very rude to eat on the street in Japan, so the group had to sit down to eat their donuts (I also think they were taking their time.) We found an H&M and went in. It was nice, but similar to the ones at home—and even more expensive. Again, something to take a pass on. After walking around all day we were beat. We returned to the hotel to pass out. Tomorrow is an early morning, so I want to get some sleep.


Monday, March 15, 2010

Konichiwa Tokyo!

We have arrived!

After what seemed like a never-ending trip, we are finally in Tokyo! We got up at 4:00am EST in Indianapolis, took a 7:15am flight to O’hare, a 10:15am flight to Tokyo-Narita and then a train to our hotel. We got to the hotel on Saturday at 5:30pm Tokyo time. Since I have a difficult time sleeping on planes, I was more than ready to go to bed last night. Once we arrived we got settled in the hotel and then met for dinner at 7:30pm. We had no clue where to go so we walked around aimlessly for a while. We were in a group of 11 and decided we needed to spilt up since there weren’t any Japanese restaurants that could handle a group of our size. I spilt off with 4 other girls to eat. Some woman on the street started blabbering in Japanese and insisted that we follow her. A girl in my group fell for it and the woman then led us to the restaurant she works for. We were fooled. We sat down and the lady immediately asked us if we wanted beer. We took a pass. Luckily, well somewhat, the menu had photos. We pointed at what we wanted. We ended up with edamame, an egg dish, a noodle/stir fry dish and eggplant covered with dried fish flakes. Yum! It was all small portions, so we then went to the convenience store downstairs to get some more food. After our delicious C-store meal I was more than ready to hit the hay.

This morning we were able to sleep in a bit. I woke up at 8:30, went downstairs to a coffee shop to get a croissant and then met the group at 9:45am to leave. We went to a neighborhood called Asakusa. It’s filled with great souvenir shops and old Shinto shrines. The souvenir-lined street is also sprinkled with some food vendors. We tried moshi balls. It’s padded down rice, filled with a bean paste and fried. I got the apricot flavor and sampled a bit of my friend’s sesame one. They were delicious and only 100 yen or just over a dollar. After indulging in our moshi, we continued on to the shrines. They were beautiful. Outside of the main shrine were these beautiful gardens. We explored those and then looked at more of the food vendors. We saw some interesting cuisine, the most shocking being octopus.

Everywhere we went we got looks for being American. People love us. It’s really funny. I heard several Japanese women sneeze so I said, “bless you.” They thought it was the most hilarious thing ever. Needless to say, I’m making a ton of Japanese friends. We also met some kids all dressed up in different costumes. We made sure to take some photos with them. For lunch we went to this really neat restaurant. We all tried uniguiri, rice balls filled with salmon and covered with seaweed. Delish! After lunch it was time to meet up with the group.

From there we headed to the 100-yen store (or dollar store.) We met a girl around our age. Her parents are friends with my professor and his wife. Her aunt was with her, too. It was really cute; I mentioned I wanted to get chapstick with kangi (Japanese lettering) on it and they found it for me at the store and bought it for me! I also purchased some stationary at the 100-yen store. I was standing at the counter ready to check out and a man came up to me and started speaking in Japanese and pointing at my stationary. He was also making a praying gesture. I didn’t understand so my new Japanese friend Arina stepped in. She informed me that the stationary I picked out was a funeral card. Oops. That being the case, I switched it out.

After visiting Asakusa, I went with 7 other kids to Akihabara, the electronics district. We wondered around for a while, walking into arcades and a store that I would compare to Best Buy on crack. This store had everything! It was 9 stories high and a block long. After exploring most of it a friend and I decided to camp out in the massage chairs. It was glorious, and a much needed break for our feet. However, we had some trouble securing our chairs. My friend Lexi sat down first. I asked if I could sit next to her and was told to wait, granted I couldn’t really understand since she was speaking Japanese, but it sounded like wait. I think she wanted us to switch off sitting in the chair. There were still a ton of other open chairs, so I went up to another woman and asked if I could sit down. She pointed me to the a chair three chairs down, which coincidentally happened to be the cheapest one, to sit down. We got the impression that they worked for commission and didn’t want us hogging their chairs. Either way, it was a much needed and wonderful break.

On our way back to the subway we stopped at 31 flavors. I couldn’t resist getting some green tea ice cream. From 31 flavors we took the train back to the hotel. From there we decided it was time for dinner. I went to a ramen restaurant with two classmates. I ordered a wonderful noodle soup and we spilt gyoza (dumplings.) Now we’re back in the hotel room and I’m attempting to load my 100+ photos on to my computer. Unfortunately, the fee for internet in the room is pretty high, so I’m hoping to go to the business center to use their computers there.

Thus far, Tokyo has been amazing. I’m looking forward to the days to come and our new adventures.