Japan TV Debut!

Friends, family, strangers who arrived here through various mysterious means: I’ve made my Japanese TV debut! The following clip aired a few weeks ago on a local Tokyo TV station, filmed when my friends and I attended the Bunkyo Cultural Festival. I appear at the 3:47 mark:

Translation (of my appearance only):

Reporter: Is this your first time doing flower arrangement?
Me: Yes, it’s my first time.
Reporter: How is it?
Me: It’s fun. I don’t understand the shape (that you’re supposed to arrange the flowers in) and such, but… it’s pretty, so it’s fine right? ^_^
Reporter: Haha, that’s right.

Reporter: You all are so good (at flower arrangement)!
Me: No no, since our teacher is good… (we could do it well).

On to fame and fortune from here, clearly.

Bunkyo City Culture Festival

My friend Reiko, who works for the Bunkyo City* government here in Tokyo, invited me to a culture festival they were holding around mid-February. It was, overall, a blast: “free” is very much the right price for me and my fellow students; Bunkyo is a super swank city where Tokyo University (Todai) is located, lots of richy rich Todai graduates live, and where I can only guess their taxes help pay for the very impressive government building the festival was hosted in. The entire festival was very well thought out and accommodating to foreigners, sharing different parts of traditional Japanese culture via displays and knowledgeable on-hand experts.

At Reiko’s recommendation, we arrived before noon to beat the crowds and went first to the Ikebana (flower arrangement) station. There an ikebana teacher showed us how to place the flowers following some basics of the craft’s aesthetics. This amounted to making a sort of triangle shape with the height/placement of the flowers. We were then given our flowers to wrap up and take home. Mine were tragically crushed by the end of the day, and I had to toss them – but don’t they look lovely?

EDIT: I can’t believe I forgot! While we were working on our ikebana, a reporter from a local cable channel heard we were foreigners who spoke Japanese and came to our table to chat with us. She gave me her card and said the video would be on Youtube in a week or two. I am keeping an eye out and will post as soon as it’s up.

Next we wandered downstairs and practiced some calligraphy, eventually painting our kanji of choice on our own uchiwa (a circle-shaped fan on a stick). Reema, who’s from Saudi Arabia, picked “suna” (砂/sand) for her kanji at our instructor’s recommendation, and I asked for something like sun (“hi”/日) but more complicated: so the instructor suggested the “you” (陽)from “taiyou” (太陽、also “sun”). I also recently learned from a friend that the same “you” is part of “youki” (陽気)which, when referring to a person, means she’s sparkling or energetic. Good choice, calligraphy teacher. I’m quite fond of my fan.

Later we went to the bonsai tree station, some very advanced examples which you can see above. These are all fake trees, crafted from plastic and paint, not real bonsai. We made our own mini versions by wrapping some bendy sticks in tissue and tape, painting them with brown gritty paint, and putting some green colored moss in the base. My little bonsai made it home in one piece, too, and is now keeping my fan company on my desk.

All in all a fantastic day courtesy of the Bunkyo City office. Thanks Reiko and thanks Bunkyo!

*For Japan know-it-alls: I’m aware “Bunkyo-ku” doesn’t translate neatly to “Bunkyo City” but since Japan and my point of reference, America, treat the governmental divisions of land mass quite differently, let’s just roll with it.

Gokokuji and St. Mary’s Cathedral

Aka the day I walked around for four hours, soaking in sweat, somehow didn’t die, and it was worth it.

I cannot navigate Tokyo. I wish I could remember how I managed when I studied abroad, because I did, somehow. I also got lost, but maybe it was that I was usually in groups, and then usually with Japanese people, so I handed the reigns to other people.

Per my friend Charlie’s recommendation, I set out on Wednesday morning to find St. Mary’s Cathedral, a crazy 60s architecture Catholic church in Bunkyo, a neighborhood just south of where I live. On the way I was going to stop at Gokokuji, a Buddhist temple recommended in the invaluable guidebook Tokyo by Tokyo. Google Maps told me they were close together, and only about a half hour walk from my dorm.

I memorized some basic features of my route, the directions I should go, and set out. I found Gokokuji easily, but was a little puzzled by where to walk in. There are three gates on the main facade, and I found two of them: one was closed, and the other led into the courtyard of the elementary school on the temple grounds. I walked in, pretended I knew where I was going, passed the crowd of mothers and their children, got to a dead end… and turned around and walked out. Act like you know what you’re doing and no one will say anything.

Somehow I missed the third gate, and thinking the first, closed gate I found meant the temple was closed (I don’t know, do temples close during daylight hours? The Buddhist monk I met a few years ago in Kyoto got up at 5am) I decided to look for St. Mary’s. At that point it was getting toward noon and it was deathly hot and humid. I’d slathered on sunscreen and was carrying a hefty bottle of water, but I was sweating it all out fast.

What followed was an ultimately unremarkable but at the time epic-feeling journey in circles in the area around Gokokuji. I knew roughly which way the church was, but not which street to turn down, exactly, or if I’d gone too far, or not far enough. I did find out, in my random twists and turns, that the Bunkyo neighborhood immediately around Gokokuji Station is swanky. Really swanky. I saw some impressive houses and apartment buildings, and felt a twinge that I hadn’t gone for a newer dorm in the neighborhood instead of the older and dingier one I’m living in now. But then I remembered the long hot walk from where I lived to the area, and I thought, nevermind. I never would have been able to make it from here to the train station I needed every day.

Some highlights from my lost wanderings:

1: An octopus looking rather smarmy considering he’s selling “takoyaki,” fried dough balls with octopus bits inside.

4: The sign says “Beware of perverts.” “Chikan,” or perverts, can be a problem on the crowded Tokyo metro system, but I found this sign down a small neighborhood alley amidst a cluster of nice, walled and gardened houses.

5: Jonathan’s, “Neighborhood” Restaurant. As has come to light in many conversations with my Japanese friends, they don’t really do (or get) the air quotes thing, so I don’t think Jonathan’s knows it’s being sarcastic…

Finally, while venturing down another of the many neighborhood side streets, I came upon a map. My meager reading abilities were enough to parse out which little dot on the map was St. Mary’s, and my victory close at hand, I followed the route until… I found it! While I’d been circling in the heat I had many thoughts about giving up and going home, and many more mental pep talks saying no, dammit, you are finding this church.

I’m not usually a big church or architecture person, but it was worth it. St. Mary’s was beautiful. So beautiful even I could take good pictures without really trying:

4: A replica of the Pieta.

5: No idea.

7 & 8: A little grotto outside the church. I found it more relaxing out here than in the cathedral proper. The AC wasn’t on inside so it really evened the playing field.

I hung out for a while, drank and refilled my water, used the restroom (side note: Tokyo is the best for clean, numerous, free public toilets), read my book, then started out again. At the time I still thought Gokokuji had been “closed” when I went by, but if so surely it was open by now. I went back the way I’d come and ran smack into the front gate. It was on a busy street corner I’d passed several times in my wanderings. How did I miss it? It was a huge temple gate. Who knows. Heat stroke. Moving on to the temple itself:

It was gorgeous and empty and I wandered around the place with nary a tourist in sight to interfere with some lovely photo-taking. I also got my fortune at the temple, and will show photos of that and a translation once I… translate it myself. (A brief skim says it’s good, though.) Finally, exhausted, gross and stinky, I headed home.

And I got lost. Again. The last place one wants to be lost is close to home while also carrying heavy groceries (a bag of Asian pears for 400 yen? how could I say no?). But all is well, and they were the most delicious pears I’d ever eaten.


Rikugien is a traditional garden near Sugamo Station. According to the brochure:

This strolling, mountain and pond-style garden was created based on the theme of Waka poetry in the 15th year of the Genroku Period (1702) by the shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi’s trusted confidante Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu. This garden is a typical example of the famous gardens of Edo Period. In the Meiji Period, this garden became a second residence of the founder of Mitsubishi, Iwasaki Yataro. Later, in the 13th year of Showa (1938), the Iwasaki family donated this garden to the City of Tokyo, and in Showa 28 (1953) it was designated as a special site of exceptional beauty and an important cultural asset.

Tragically some of the landmarks in the garden, including stone formations in the lake as well as one of the structures, were damaged in the Tohoku earthquake six months ago.

The garden is about a half hour walk from where I live, and miraculously I did not get lost on my way there. It was 300 yen to enter, and I wish I’d brought a book to manufacture a bit more patience to sit and enjoy the scenery. Rikugien was a strange oasis in the middle of the city, with huge trees that blotted out the sky in places, and everywhere cast this incredibly cooling shade. The noise of the wildlife – bugs and birds – was almost deafening, especially with summertime’s constant cicada hum.

Immediately across the street from Rikugien was an office somehow related to Anpan Man, with characters on the signage, peeking out of office windows, and filling a store in the basement. Alas I’m a bigger fan of anpan than Anpan Man, so I didn’t go in.