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A little Buddhism – Kawagoe 2010

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We stopped for a late lunch at this fabulous tonkatsu restaurant call Tonkatsu Katsuzen (かつ善).  They serve fabulous tonkatsu, and I am going to put there address up here in case anyone in Saitama stumbles onto my blog and sees this:  埼玉県川越市大字鯨井544-1.  It is located further out in Kawagoe, close to the cities of Tsurugashima and Sakado.  Take the Tobu Toju line to Kasumigaseki, and then either walk a lot, jump a bus, or grab a taxi.  It is actually easier to get here by car or scooter.

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They serve four sizes: small, regular, large, and super.  I went with the large, and it was filling and satisfying.  You get the tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), a heap of shredded cabbage, a bowl of rice, miso soup, and some pickled vegetables on the side.  I think it total it was about 1500 yen or $15.  Completely worth it!  It is so much better than the standard train station tonkatsu shops.

With a full stomach and the sun starting to set in the short winter days, we headed out to the temple where the paternal side of the family rests.

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Families rent a burial site at this template, often for the whole family.  Inside the enclosed area are headstones for members of the family.  I suppose it resembles the fenced in family lots at some cemeteries in North America.

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These weathered headstones in a large family plot dated back to the Meiji era.

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More headstones ranging from the Meiji era to modern time.

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The mountains were not that for off – I miss mountains.  This flat wetland called the Lowcountry that Charleston sites in is rather geographically bland.  I miss seeing the mountain in the distance…California, you are calling to me again I think.  Will I ever make it there?

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I NEVER tire of Japanese Buddhist architecture

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While the sun was still standing, we wrapped up at the temple of the paternal side of the family and headed back into Kawagoe where the temple of the of the maternal side of the family is located

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This temple is newer, but the architecture is still manificent

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Another display of what the cemetery grounds look like

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The sign says 慈思 (Chinese: cisi, I don’t know how to read this in Japanese, there are multiple ways) – the characters mean “mercy; compassion” (慈) and “think” (思).  I quick Google search doesn’t turn up much, I will have to look into this more.

On the way home we stopped by the Costco and the outlet mall to spend our last evening before I would have to head back to the USA.

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The outlet mall had these blankets of lights set up for Christmas

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And Costco had these magnificent king crabs on sale – two for $100.  You can get a much better deal at the Ohmicho seafood market in Kanazawa.

My bus would be leaving at 7 AM in the morning for Narita airport, so after getting something to eat and walking around some more, we headed back so that I could finish packing.

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Night walkabout in Kawagoe 2010

So I called up Mr. Hong earlier in the week to see if he was up for grabbing a drink.  End of the year is a busy time for Japanese employees; not only do they have end of the year dinner parties with their coworkers, they also usually have project deadlines.  In that antenna company I worked in, it usually meant that the employees with the hardest project were literally sleeping and living at the company for the entire month of December.  As this trip was an all of the sudden sort of thing, I didn’t expect anyone at the old office would have time to catch up, but Mr. Hong was able to make some time.  He was working late of course, so I set out an hour or so ahead of time just to get in some more walking time.

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Someone had the Christmas spirit – note that this is very rare in Japan.  Very, very few people decorate for Christmas.  I liked it though, and he did a lot better than a lot of wankers down here in Charleston that just put electric light candles in their windows.

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A corner “bar” – its mostly older guys who sit here and yap with the owner while drinking whiskey or shochu and snacking on something salty

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The Seibu Shijuku line zips through the city

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Red lanterns typically indicate that the establishment serves booze  They also have a sign advertising that they serve Kirin Ichiban Shibori beer.

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A carry-out yakitori stand selling all kinds of grilled chicken and gizzards on a stick

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Rogers – its like the Kmart of rural and suburban Japan. My wages were very basic in Japan, so I furnished my one bedroom apartment with goods sold here: curtains, bathroom mats, et cetera.  It was only about fifteen minutes from my apartment.  They also sell groceries and cheap clothing.  If you want to pick up a basic white shirt or belt for work, you cannot beat the prices.  I’m not ashamed to talk about it, but apparently Japanese are embarrassed to speak of shopping at Rogers, especially those who want to appear more “metro” and “urban”.  Nonetheless, I highly recommend the store to foreigners getting settled in Saitama.

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My favorite ramen shop – あじ平 (ajihei).  It is on Rt. 16 and is basically a truck stop ramen chain that can be found in Saitama, Ibaraki, and other neighboring prefectures.  They have all of your basic types of ramen, but they prepare your miso ramen in an mini-iron caldron.  I’ve traveled to Saporro, home of Miso ramen, and I can proudly say I prefer this truck-stock ramen joint to the place in Sapporo I had to stand in line for just to get miso ramen.

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A bow of the Ajihei’s miso ramen – the noodles are stacked in the middle, surrounded by chashao, and topped with sliced onion.  And of course all of this bathes in a heavenly miso soup base…this might just be my favorite meal in the world.

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Seibu shinjuku line again, this time I’m off to central Kawagoe

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Matsuya, Saitama’s answer to Yoshinoya and Sukiya.  Yoshinoya is big in Tokyo, but all over Saitama you find Matsuya.  All three brands are 丼 (donburi) chains with their essential product being a bowl of rice topped with beef and onions, and it usually comes with a side salad. In the winter time Matsuya had Kim-chee Chigae donburi, which really warms you up in the cold of winter!   It will cost you about $5 for the whole meal–and with such fast food options, who needs McDonald’s???

When you enter the store there is a vending machine where you select what you’d like.  The vending machine spits out a ticket (or more if you ordered other sides like natto or an egg).  You take that ticket and sit down at the counter where a shop employee will retrieve the ticket and begin to prepare your meal.    If you’d rather just take the meal back home, go to the carry-out counter and hand over your tickets, and in a few minutes you’ll be ready to go.  These chain restaurants are very popular with men and women.  Women, however,  are often too shy to sit at the counter where the men are woofing down a fast meal, but you do see the ladies lined up at the take-out counter.  Everyone likes a good donburi!

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A small family-run shop selling Croquettes, fried chicken bites (kara-age) and deep-fried breaded pork cutlets – I am always happy to see small mom and pop shops like this staying in business.  Much like the USA, Japan is being overrun with national chain stores

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If you have some money to blow, try one of the man pachinko and slot machine establishments in your local city.  Most employees in Japan are on some form of a pension system, either through their company, through an industrial union, or even a private pension offered through an insurance company.  There is also of course the state pension, so instead of having to tuck away money into a 401k and pray the market doesn’t tank when you are 59 years old, you can rely on your job and your state pensions for retirement, and then blow all of your cash gambling.

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Taxi pool at Kawagoe station west exit – I met up with Mr. Hong here and we had to search for quite awhile to find a restaurant with some open seats.  The restaurants were packed due to the end-of-year parties.  We settled on a shop that specializes in the chicken dishes.

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Mr. Nagatsuka andd Mr. Hong, my former coworkers at the antenna company.  Mr. Nagatsuka was the first person at the company to actually come up and talk to me.  Also an avid beer fan, we enjoyed many a night around the table sharing stories over beer.  Mr. Hong and I were in the same “entrance class”, meaning we went through the same new employee training program.  Mr. Hong is an ethnic Korean born in China, and he speaks Japanese, Korean and Chinese like a native!  Us both being foreigners and new to Japanese corporate culture, we just tended to stick together.

As the night progressed and I heard all about how the company had changed, I had forgotten how a man’s life is fully encompassed by his job in Japan.  No time for hobbies, learning outside of work, or recreational sports.  Just work.  Work.  Earlier in the week I had been really thinking hard about Japan, about how much I missed it.  But after hearing about these guys and how hard they are working, on average 70 hours a week, and during crunch times sleeping at the office just four hours a night, I remembered why it was I wanted to leave Japan in the first place.  It is a wonderful country, but unless you are lucky enough to have a good job, you work and just work.  Weekends are a time to sleep and rest to prepare for the coming week, and sometimes weekends are even for working.  The adverse health effects of high-stress and long hours really stands out after time.  Men have no problem with it when they are in there twenties, but problems appear in the thirties, and by the forties, the effects are very acute.  One of our former coworkers had to retire at the age of forty due to so much work and stress.  I miss many things in Japan, but I do not miss Japanese corporate culture.

After Mr. Nagatsuka headed back on the last train for the evening, Mr. Hong and I decided to go for another drink at a local yakitori restaurant.  Grilled chicken and chicken gizzards are great with beer, by the way.

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Much beer was consumed

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And then some more

We wrapped up around 3:30 AM, and headed home in taxi.  Mr. Hong had to go to work the following afternoon, even though it was a Saturday.  It would be my last day in Japan, and the plan was to visit the family graves to pay respects.  Amazingly, I woke up at 8 AM the following day with no pain in the skull.  Luck was on my side!

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More Kawagoe walkabout 2010

There really isn’t much of a time line to these, just pictures of things I noticed while walking. I snapped some of these while walking towards the park where Liam could play. Others I snapped on the way home from the 回転寿司屋 (Conveyor belt sushi restaurant).

We begin this walkabout on the industrial strip in Kawagoe and Sayama cities.

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I interned with Sumitomo in Nagoya back in 2002.  Sumitomo is everywhere in Japan, and in this industrial park alone they have a logistics center and then this electrical machinery factory.

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A typical industrial Japanese office – aluminum panel siding with windows that may or may now open.  Of course inside the traditional island desk layout is used. I spent my first two years working in an antenna company that had an industrial office quite like this.

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A smaller enterprise tucked away in the industry park.  Despite the image of Japan as a place of large corporations with loyal employees, there is an ever-growing number of entrepreneurs starting up their own companies and trying to do things their own way.  I worked in both the large traditional style company and the small, single-owner company.  The styles were completely different, but Japanese business culture is still large the same.

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武州 (Bushu) Gas, the local supplier of gas for industry and residential sites.  I was a loyal customer for nearly two years, their gas powered my single burner stove and the hot water to my bathtub and shower.  This giant orb sits in the industrial park, but residential areas are not far away, just two blocks actually.  When I lived in Kawagoe, I always wondered about how safe such structures are with respect to earthquakes.  After what happened this past March, it makes me wonder even more.

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An empty 公団 (Public housing site) – this unused facility sits on prime real estate just three by foot from the train station.  There are many such sites in Japan, and I always wonder what the government is doing with these empty buildings.  Not all public housing looks like this, however.  This is just an old building that has served its time.

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I think this modern design and the colors, it stands out fr0m the traditional style Japanese house, as can be seen on the left.  Japan has neighborhood associations, but there is no all-powerful Home Owner’s Association that can tell you what type of style house you can build, what colors are permitted, and what you can keep on your property.  Because the Japanese usually build a house and live in it their entire lives, they have a lot of freedom to do what they want.  Most Japanese don’t like to buy used homes anyway, so there isn’t any worry about resell value.

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Not public housing, but close!  This is an NTT employee dormitory – yes, it looks old and not very nice.  But employees can live here a few years for little to no rent, allowing them to save money to buy their own home in the future.

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Another typical Japanese home – the pole across the sliding door on the first level is for hanging the laundry to dry.  The balcony on the second level probably also has laundry hanging facilities, and one can also hang the futon over the edges to let the futon air our during the day.  A very functional home if I do say.

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Public housing is a good option for foreigners actually.  While privately-owned apartment complexes are supposed to be fair and there is not supposed to be discrimination, I experienced it first hand and was turned away from a place I could have easily afforded just because the owner did not want to rent it to me.  The owner eventually ran out of excuses and it was clear he just didn’t want to rent it to me.  With public housing, any one who can pay is eligible and there is no gender, race, or nationality based discrimination.  You also don’t have to pay ridiculous fees like key money or have been in the same job for X number of years.  Public housing in Japan is also very safe and completely different from that of the USA.  You won’t find gangs, drugs, and violence in Japanese public housing.

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Family-run そば (soba) shops are all over Japan…it seems like on every street corner even. I often wonder who their clients are and how they can stay in business.  I suppose they thrive off of local workers looking for a place to eat lunch every day.

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This shop is called “Sabai Sabai”, which means “Hello Hello” in Thai.  This restaurant had popped in the time I had left.  The restaurant has a very reasonable lunch menu at very reasonable prices.  Pad Thai please!

They also advertise that they serve Asahi Super Dry beer.  I never really could taste the difference in Asahi and Kirin beer, but some guys swear by one brand.  When I lived in Nagoya, whenever we went out for drinks, we had to order Kirin beer only.  Apparently Sumitomo and Kirin had some sort of agreement, and we had to find a place that served Kirin beer.  I believe we had some sort of discount because of it.  I never understood how it worked, but the Sumitomo guys were serious about Kirin beer.

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I just love these gray buildings, they fascinate me.  The sign on the fence talks about a 新狭山幼稚園 (Shinsayama Kindergarten) and my draw dropped….could this be a kintergarten? Poor kids, not a very happy looking place! As I turned the corner I saw the kindergarten just past this building.  Phew!  This gray monstrosity is a community center actually, probably only utilized by the retired locals in the area.

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A specialist sake shop – notice the barrels in the window, which is how sake is sold and packaged in volume amounts.  No, I doubt you can purchase one like a keg, the barrels are probably just for display.  You can often see such barrels of sake stacked up at famous temples and shrines.  I just had to squeeze the mini post box in the picture too.

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I really do miss Japan for its restaurants and dining out.  In the USA you cannot escape a restaurant without paying $40 these days, even just a simple place like a Pho shop.  At this 回転寿司屋 (conveyor belt sushi shop), during the afternoons all sushi is just 100 yen per plate, or about $1 per plate.  Of course the green tea is free, unlike in the USA where you have to pay $3 for a glass of tea.

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My favorite sushi – ねぎとろ.  It is just minced tuna served with shopped green onions on top.  In may conveyor belt sushi joints, they don’t put wasabi on it as this sushi is popular with kids.  I am a simple person really.

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Many conveyor belt sushi places are starting to sell cooked items as well as the raw fish.  Above is my wife’s favorite, charcoal grilled salmon.  It is so tender and juicy, I high recommend it!  I have also seem カルビ (Korean galbi — Korean BBQ style beef) too.

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Regular 鮪 (maguro – tuna)   Yes…I’m one of those contributing to the depletion of the giant tuna in the ocean waters.  I’ll quit eating tuna when everyone in America gives up their steak.

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Kawagoe walkabout 2010

I was back in Japan in mid-December 2010 for a family emergency.  It was my first time back since leaving Japan at the end of May 2009.  I wasn’t sure what to expect upon returning to the country.  I forfeited my work visa and my resident status in 2009, so I was returning as a tourist.  While my time was very busy for the week I was there, we did manage to make some time to go shopping. I wanted to stop by the bookstore in central Kawagoe and pick up a book for learning more advanced Japanese grammar. Of course I was armed with my cell-phone camera…the good old Nokia N73!

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It started out overcast with light rain.  While this building looks small from the front, the building is actually quite long.  Such a long and thin structure feels quite awkward, especially when there is nothing else around.

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After arriving in Kawagoe the sun managed to break through the cloud, and the rain also let up.  This is クレアモール (Crea Mall), the central shopping area that stretches between JR/Tobu Kawagoe Station and Seibu Hon-Kawagoe station.

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Kimonos on display – but who can afford one?

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This was the first sushi place I ate at upon arriving in Japan back in 2004.  I ate here with the HR guy and Mr. Nguyen, who like myself, eventually moved back to his home country.  I also once tried to order a draft beer, and was shocked to receive two pieces of hamachi sushi instead.  I suppose my accent was very horrible and they just couldn’t understand me!

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A standard 居酒屋 (izakaya)…I believe we had an engineering group  忘年会 (end of year party) at this establishment in 2005.  The food isn’t anything special, but it is cheap, the beer always flows, and it is a decent place to blow off some steam with the guys.

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This was new, I had never seen it before.  It says “see na ra”, which means “fantastic”.  No idea what it is though.

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A fabulous place to get an easy meal after work – Gyoza no Manshu.  For $5 you get a plate of gyoza (potstickers), a bowl of rice, and I believe a salad or something…my memory is slipping.  Any way, it is a bargain, and it is delicious too!  I have only seen this chain in Saitama, so if you’re ever in Saitama give it a try.

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A traditional snack vendor – the sign says they sell Kawagoe City’s famous 芋菓子 (sweet potato snacks/candies).  The also have various 煎餅 (toasted crackers) and other snacks.  You don’t see young people shopping at stores like this, however.  It tends to be the older generations, and they like to make gossip with the vendors in the shop.

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My wife was looking for some clothes for my son, so we stopped in a department store to have a look.  I managed to find a good spot to snap some pictures.  The empty-looking building on the left used to be a Nova English language school office.  In fact, one of the ESL teachers that worked there was caught by the police in Roppongi trying to buy narcotics.  I remember walking by this building one night on the way home and a news man stopped me to ask me if I worked at the school.  I was in a suit because I was on the way home from a job interview, and I guess the news man thought I was a teacher at the school.  I had no idea of the news at the time, and I said no and he then let me be.  Looking back, I should have said yes so I could have had some fun with the news man!

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The large skies of the Saitama plains…with the mountains in the background

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Hakamas, usually work on 成人の日 (coming of age day) or at graduation from university

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Liam loved the book shop in the department store — it was so easy to get to the books at his level

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He decided we should play hide and go seek – the old lady manning the cash register didn’t see so amused though.  Who cares though, we were carefree tourists!

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Then he stumbled onto a Chupa-Chups machine.  If you press the blue button, it plays a song.  So he kept pressing the button, and when the music started, he clapped his hands and rocked back and forth.  Who would have though a chupa-chups machine would offer such entertainment?

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The building houses a dansha, which is used in the famous Kawagoe Matsuri every autumn.

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A nationwide bread store chain, but the bread is really good.  You don’t see bread like one would find in a European bakery.  Rather, they sell pastries and breads with lots of goodies on the inside.  My favorite is the french-bread with black pepper bacon and mayonnaise on the inside.  Heart attack all wrapped up in a nice little package!

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Once day children won’t understand the concept of a pay phone

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Your friendly neighborhood policemen…or the heat, depending on what you do for a living

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Due to the privatization of the post office’s bank division, a new bank, Yucho Bank, was created to handle the savings accounts traditionally managed by the post office.  (Yucho is short for postal savings)

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A typical post box – regular letters and post cards on the left, international mail and oddly shaped envelopes to the right!

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The noodles and chopsticks actually move up and down mechanically.  I imagine back in the 1980s when the noodle shop owner purchased this it must have been something new and fun.  But in 2010 it really feels…like the 1980s.

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A traditional warehouse building, with the first floor currently being used as a shop.  These type of old buildings are all over Kawagoe, and they are protected by the city government as monuments and local treasures. Thank the heavens that they are protected–otherwise another boring high rise condominium would sprout up in its place.

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芋菓子 (sweet potato snacks) on display for the tourists– Kawagoe doesn’t get a lot of international tourists, but they do get a lot of tourists from other parts of Japan

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A typical high rise condominium not far from the train station

More photos to come!

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Earthquake aftermath

This has to be one of the most heart-breaking pictures I’ve seen from the Earthquake aftermath.

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Back in Japan

The plane touched down at about 15:00 in Narita, and after 14 hours of flight I was happy to be on the ground.  The ride was turbulent from the outer-lying island chain off of Hokkaido all of the way into Narita.  Narita is notorious for turbulence around the airport, and unfortunately since I am always flying from the East Coast of the US, I’ll probably never be able to fly into Haneda (only Honolulu and Los Angeles for now).  There was no line in immigration and an agent was there to direct us to the correct place and made sure I filled out my foreigner form completely.  The immigration officials were very polite and professional, and after getting photographed and finger-printed, I was on my way to baggage and customs.  Our flight must have been full of transfers, because like immigration, the baggage claim was empty and an ANA employee had stacked our luggage on a cart for us.  No way Delta or United would have offered such a nest gesture.  The customs agent was also very polite too, what a change from arriving in the US where everyone is harassed and greeted with contempt.

After exiting customs it was only then that I realized I was back in Japan.  The volume of people was intense, and I had to swerve pushing the luggage cart to make it through the dense crowd.  Along the way were hired drivers in gray trousers, navy jackets and white gloves on their hands.  They stood with a stiff stance, lightly swaying and waiting for their client.  Though it was only mildly cold outside, everyone was dressed for a Canadian winter with the still-popular bubble jackets.  The old VISA ATM that I always used to obtain some currency was no longer in the airport, but luckily my wife had some currency in her purse from the last trip.

We were just in time to get the next Airport Limousine–a bus, not a limousine–to Kawagoe station where my wife’s family would meet us.  We piled onto the bus and grabbed a set of empty seats in the middle.  The bus pulled away from the curb and within minutes was on the highway heading towards Tokyo.  Liam fell asleep immediately, which I was grateful for as I could look out the window and admire the old-style Japanese houses built by the side of the hills so as not to take up any precious land for rice farming.  It being mid-December, of course the fields were laid to rest.  Modern Japanese homes don’t look like this anymore, they look like anything you would see in Europe these days, and in fact they looked similar to many of the modern homes I saw in the Czech Republic.  The bus was steaming with the heater blasting at high levels, and even as the sun set and it grew dark, the bright lights of the bus interior were still kept lit.  I had forgotten that the Japanese like to keep their environments very bight and very warm.

The Wangan highway (湾岸高速度) was a parking lot, nothing unusual for a weekday around 17:00.  I had slept about ten hours in the past seventy two hours and my eyes were heavy.  I cannot sleep in moving vehicles so I kept dosing off in five minute intervals, waking up to see we’re still inching along Wangan highway.  The highway sits tall above Tokyo and I was nervous being able to look out the window of the bus and see I’m well above the guard rail.  Below were lots of small buildings, residential and commercial, and the streets were bustling with cars.  If there are zoning laws in Tokyo, I would love for someone to explain the system behind it some day.  Highways in Tokyo and Saitama are amazing in that you are almost flying over the land at a low altitude, like a bird except these annoying walls keep blocking your view and your are moving slowly.  North Tokyo and Saitama are very blue-collar and working class areas, so different from the parts of Tokyo that most tourists and international business travelers see during their visits.  Out of the other window I could see  the Arakawa river (荒川), which stretches all the way back into Saitama where I am much more familiar with it.  Tall condominiums lined the river bank in Sumida ward (墨田区), Taito ward (台東区) and into Saitama’s North ward (埼玉県北区).

Wangan highway became Shuto highway (首都高速度) in Kawaguchi (川口市), which then became Gaikan highway (外環高速度) in Saitama’s South ward and Toda city (戸田市).  We used to drive all over these highways and in the cities below and the memories started to flood into my head.  We crossed Arakawa river into Wakoshi (和光市) and Oizumi Gakuen (大泉学院) where we once lived for a short time while I worked the worst professional job I ever had in my life with a weird ex-IBM guy’s company that was like a little mafia.  Needless to say my opinion of IBM’s standards in Japan was a lot lower after working for that guy.  The weekends were nice when I was not at work, however, especially in autumn.  The bus pulled off of Gaikan and onto Kanetsu Highway (関越高速度) that takes you all the way into the mountains in Saitama and Gunma prefectures, along the way taking you through Kawagoe, our destination, and Sakado, the first city I worked in and still feel–oddly enough–nostalgia.

As the bus pulled off of the highway and onto national route 16 I was struck by how small the road lanes were compared to the southeastern US.  All of the restaurants and small companies I had seen along this road the hundreds of times I had drive up and down it were still there.  The newspapers always say that the economic situation in Japan is so dire, but from the outside I could not tell that.  Route 16 was more crowded than my wife and I could ever recall, and the restaurants looked packed with customers.  Some of the small business looked as if they had even expanded, but perhaps I recall the place differently.  I was struck at how many neon signs and flashing lights were in my immediate view and in my periphery.  It can never be dark in the metropolis.

The bus pulled into the taxi and bus pool at Kawagoe station’s west exit.  I lived a short walk away from this entrance, and to my delight my old barber shop was still in business.  All of the watering holes were still there as well as the coffee shops.  After stepping off the bus and gathering our luggage, I was again shocked at all of the people.  My wife and I were wondering why it was so crowded at the usually calm Kawagoe station, but then we remembered that it was Friday night, and it was bonenkai (忘年会) season, the time for end-of-the-year employee parities.

We piled our luggage into my sister-in-law’s car and ourselves into my mother-in-law’s car and were off to their home.  This was an unplanned trip for a family emergency, so I would not be doing any sight-seeing or traveling.  I was mainly there to help Liam get through his jet-lag and look after him so the family could focus on other matters.  I would also be waking early to work remotely so that I didn’t fall to far behind schedule on my work projects.  I was able to get in a few good walks around the neighborhood and to make it to a few of my old haunts.

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Charlotte Japan Festival 2010

This worked for the last video, so here I go again. The beginning of the video clip is part of the performance by Matsuriza, a drum group based in Florida I believe(http://www.matsuriza.com/). I don’t remember who the singer is in the last half of the video.

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