A few days after graduation, I wandered into the Japan office of the MIT International Science and Technology Initiative (MISTI). I wasn’t really expecting anything to come of the meeting, but a few weeks later I received an email from an aerodynamics researcher at the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA, sort of the Japanese equivalent to NASA) offering me a six-week unpaid internship outside of Tōkyō. I’ll be working on a project that has the ultimate goal of preventing icing on airplanes,which means doing more “fundamental research” into supercold water and luminescent coatings. MISTI generously offered to cover airfare and a small stipend for living; my mom’s friend Sayoko Kinoshita arranged for me to stay with her friend Takako a few train stops away from the JAXA office; and I suddenly found myself trying to read subway signs in Tōkyō and wondering what exactly I’d gotten myself into for a month and a half.
Sayoko picked me up at the Haneda airport at 5 am on Thursday when I arrived, then dropped me off at Tōkyō Station so I wouldn’t have to switch trains twice while hauling bags laden with gifts and food. The train system here is easy to navigate for us gajin with limited Japanese reading comprehension: stops are announced in Japanese and English, and the signs are in kanji, hiragana, and English. Reading hiragana, the Japanese syllabary for native words, as well as katakana, the syllabary for words of foreign origin, makes life a lot easier around here. Kanji, on the other hand? My goal is to learn one or two per day in terms of reading and writing, and maybe even the stroke order.
Takako picked me up in her car and we drove to her home in Fujimoto, a neighborhood of Kokubunji City, which is part of the Tōkyō prefecture. The streets are narrow and there are trees everywhere: persimmon, oranges, magnolia, loquat, apple… it’s astoundingly verdant and leafy compared to the dry expanses of Northern California and the Middle East. Alas, figs (and just about most things) are four times more expensive here than they are in Jerusalem or San Francisco or Boston.
I was relieved that Takako’s English, despite her claims otherwise, is rather excellent: she spent several years in New York City with her husband in the 1970’s, and is taking classes at the extension school of the local university. Her daughter works for Sayoko as an assistant in the animation studio, and Takako used to be a painter. The house is full of her pointillist paintings of Switzerland and mountain ranges. Her husband, whose birthday was today, passed away four years ago, and was an executive at a dairy company. Thus, we have MEGMILK in the refrigerator and eat Snow cheese in his honor.
Thursday started out with being introduced to the neighbors on Takako’s street, some of whom were advising Takako as how to best take in a visitor from the US. Midori-chan brought flowers, and a plant with a tag that said “American Ivy”. “So,” advised Takako, “if you get homesick, you can go look at the plant.” Another neighbor brought Japanese sweets. Takako had brought cookies to thank all of the neighbors for their generosity, so we walked down the street distributing cookies while I was introduced to the neighbors (Hajimemashite, Sondy desu, dōzo yoroshiku onegaishimasu). And for Midori-chan, hana no arigatou gozaimashita…
At the main intersection in Fujimoto, Suzaki (すざき)-san and her husband run two stores that sell hardware/garden supplies and interior design fixtures. In addition to their shops and a gigantic RV, they have a prolific vegetable garden and gave us an overflowing box of yellow melons, pumpkins (カボチャ, kobocha), some sort of giant cucumber (?), two types of tomatoes, eggplant, and slender cucumbers.
We thanked them profusely, and returned home to pickle the cucumbers. Takako is quite worried about radiation in vegetables, and even drives an hour outside of the city on occasion to purchase “safe” vegetables that were grown further away from Fukushima to ensure they are not “hōshanō” (radioactive). She washes heads of lettuce for several minutes to try to flush away radiation that might remain.
Earlier, Takako had served pickles, or 漬け物, she had made from store-bought cucumbers, so upon returning home, she immediately chopped up one of the local キュウリ from Suzaki-san and set it in the refrigerator to brine. I returned to give Suzaki-san a snowglobe from San Francisco featuring the Golden Gate Bridge to thank her for the vegetables. Yasai no arigatougozaimashita, Suzaki-san…
One thing you’re supposed to do for your host family is to make an American meal at some point. With all these tomatoes, I was thinking of making salsa and some form of tacos. The grocery store stocks taco shells and seasoning, but cilantro and non-soy beans are going to be a bit harder to acquire. What else can you do with a mountain of tomatoes?
The other adventure of the first afternoon was trying to find phone. I wound up paying probably way too much for a phone and a pay-as-you-go plan from SoftBank, but now I have not only a Japanese mobile number but a mobile email address as well. Everyone sends emails on their phone here, but holy smoke it’s a pain to type without T9 or an iPhone keyboard. I’d love to use the SIM in my American phone, but whether I can unlock it via AT&T or SoftBank remains to be seen (apparently my fellow researchers at JAXA know how to do this?). The SoftBank store had some interesting publications regarding apps for the iPads.
Friday I woke up early, finished unpacking, and went for a run down to Kunitachi Station to make sure I could find it on my own. The humidity here is about 80%, with daytime temperatures in the vicinity of 85˚F. Not as bad as Tel Aviv or Washington, DC, but it’s still absolutely drenching to just walk outside even when it’s not raining. Running? Uuuuurgh. I saw one other runner out; no one else seemed phased by this tall gaijin jogging down the narrow roads of Kokubunji-shi. I haven’t seen another westerner since I left Haneda on Thursday morning. In the Middle East I was never mistaken for being a local, and I think the same will certainly be the case in this part of the world.
A long, thin strip of road provides a direct route to Kunitachi Station, lined with houses, large vegetable gardens, and orchards; pockets of agriculture in what’s otherwise a quiet suburb. I remember the way by the size and color of the sunflowers poking out from the edges of houses, the political signs for upcoming elections, and admonishments to be careful (あぶない！) because of children playing in the street. If there are street signs, I haven’t noticed them or I can’t read them (yet). Despite the road’s being one way and narrow, people ride bicycles along it in both directions and the cars somehow avoid any sort of encounter.
The news today from the Niigata Prefecture (新潟県) wasn’t good. About a meter of rain has fallen on the prefecture so far this year, and rates of 1 cm/hour were predicted for today. The rivers (川) were swollen and flooding the neighboring towns. Fukushima is also experiencing torrential downpours, and the footage on NHK of the flooding is terrible as half a million people are asked to evacuate those areas. We’re safe from flooding in Fujimoto, though we’re not safe from earthquakes, contaminated beef, or the dollar’s being worth less than 77 yen.
It alternates between raining, drizzling, and being overcast, but humid and warm are constants. I’ve yet to see the sun through the clouds and heat, so I’m disinclined to carry my camera. If it clears up, I’ll try to take more photos, but until then, expect more words than images.
The first hiragana I learned in high school was の (“no”), which can be both used to form form words (Princess Mononoke is もののけ 姫—do you see the repeating の?) and as a possessive particle of sorts (peach tree is もものき, momo no ki, peach の tree). The first kanji I learned was 川 (“kawa”), which usually means river. Here are some kanji and hiragana of the last few days:
市 – し – shi – city
区 - く – ku – ward
県 - けん – ken – prefecture
青い - あおい – aoi – blue
放射能 - ほうしゃのう – hōshanō – radioactive
者 - もの – mono – person (requires a qualifier)
蕪 - かぶ – kabu – turnip
漬け物 - つけもの – tsukemono – pickled vegetables, served at almost every meal