Theory Teacher's Blog

Tokyo Diaries 2: My Old Legs

My students and I arrived in Japan on Tuesday; it is now Saturday night, and it has been an intensely busy past few days, with quite a lot of walking. I am exhausted; my students are exhausted. And to punctuate that exhaustion, one of them walked into the common room area of the dormitory shortly after dinner last night and announced that he had just fallen asleep while typing on the keyboard and pointed to its imprint on his forehead. So, I hope you’ll forgive me if I have nothing witty to say. We have been packing in a lot of stuff.

And I’m going to summarize that “stuff” in a moment, but before I do, I guess I should mention that I once lived in Japan — from 1997 to 1999. I visited again in 2000. And so, now in 2009, it does feel strange to be back here. Some things are the same, but it took me a while to remember how everything works and how I was able to “get by” way back then. And then some things are vastly different. For instance, this blog is obviously new … as well as things like FaceBook… ooohhh yes, the magical internet. When I first arrived just 12 years ago, I simply assumed that I wouldn’t be in frequent contact with my friends and family. I wrote — which is to say, I wrote by hand with a pen — letters once in a while, and essentially that was it. But now in the year 2009 my students are constantly on FaceBook or Skype or whatever. It’s fun to watch them posting photographs of their daily tour through Tokyo onto FaceBook, and then sharing the photographs not only with friends and family back home, but with each other. Please picture in your mind three people sitting just inches from each other, communicating simultaneously through the computer and through voice. So, obviously, in some ways, my experience 12 years ago is different as I was relatively cut off from America. But in other ways, it is the same, as the basic form of sociality for both me back then and for them right now is the institutional setting — where we go to school and/or work.

To put it another way, while new technologies certainly do lead us to new forms of social interaction, we shouldn’t get so excited about the new that we loose site of the enduring power of the old. In both my case in 1997 and their case in 2009, the school is probably what shaped our experiences the most, because it is what brought us together in the first place, and also what brought us into contact with all of the Japanese people who are helping us. To put it briefly, place matters, and history matters.

I believe that’s what the author Junichiro Tanizaki was getting at in his essay In Praise of Shadows, first published in 1933 — a book that I just recently re-read for the third time because my students on this trip are reading it. In it, he reflects on the changes to Japanese architecture and daily experience as it rapidly westernized. Through witty, idiosyncratic contrasts of East and West — starting with the difference between the shadowy, meditative space of Japanese toilets vs. the gleaming, white, antiseptic space of American ones — he reveals how our feelings are shaped by the spaces which we inhabit, move through, and depart from. He often sounds nostalgic for the past, but ultimately he is working through the past to influence Japan’s future.

So, with that sense of place in mind, I will summarize the recent activities. On Wednesday morning my students and visited the quite and restful Nezu shrine, which is just five minutes walk from our dormitory. Then our host university held a reception for us, and then we explored the local area, ending up near the Tokyo Dome baseball park and an izakaya (Japanese pub) for dinner to sample the variety of small dishes typically served in such places.

On Thursday, we woke up at the ass-crack of dawn so that we could visit the Tsukiji fish market, the largest fish market in the world, which is most active between 5:00 and 7:00 in the morning. We caught the very first subway at 5:04 a.m. (yes, the trains and subways here are not only frequent but always exactly on time, predictable to the minute), so we got there at 5:45, just in time to see the famous tuna auctions. I was then eager to stop in at one of the sushi places nearby for some of the freshest sushi you’ll ever find, but my students from central Minnesota didn’t quite have the stomach for that, so we walked from Tsukiji towards the Imperial Palace through the ritzy shopping district Ginza (whose name derives from the word for silver, as Ginza is where once upon a time silver coins were minted in Tokyo), which was of course all closed up at 7 in the morning. After a brief exploration of Hibiya park, the first European style park in Japan, and a brief rest at a bagel place (one of the few places that wasn’t Starbucks and that was open this early in the financial district we had wandered into), we made it over to the moat surrounding the Imperial Palace and crossed into its enormous East Garden, which remains separate from the well-guarded grounds of the emperor’s residence.

For those who have never been to Tokyo, it is a rather strange city. While the much older capital city, Kyoto, is organized clearly according to the grid pattern dictated by Buddhist and Confucian principles, the newer feudal capital of the Shogun is organized around the imperial palace.  Long ago, all roads led in to it, and the many way-stations and postal stations on those roads became their own neighborhoods — their own centers. So, in effect, what you get in Tokyo is a chain of individual town centers that circle around a big empty space. And what this feels like when you’re trying to navigate is a chaotic mess. Even the taxi drivers have a hard time finding things, and I noticed when I got here that they rely on GPS to map their routes.

All told, we probably walked several miles, so we took the subway home and took a nap so that we would be well-rested for Kabuki theater, back at the Kabuki-za in Ginza. As it turned out, we weren’t exactly well-rested enough for the dramatic arts, but we got dressed up anyway. And after three hours of feudal-era theater in a foreign language (and we really should have rented the headsets with the simulcast translation),  we met up with several Japanese students from our host university for a late dinner…. That was Thursday.

Friday, I let the students explore on their own, because I had a meeting across town with a non-profit organization whom I hoped to convince to support a media arts school in Ethiopia — Sandscribe Communications (which I mentioned in my blog here). And at meetings such as these, it always amazes me how my credentials as a professor pave the way for a whole set of interactions I couldn’t have before, even though I don’t feel all that much smarter or more knowledgeable. I think the meeting went well because during our idle chit-chat, they discovered that I am teaching a novel by Natsuo Kirino to my students, and I discovered that they have worked with her before. Our mutual admiration was a happy coincidence. Meanwhile, while I was doing that, my students decided to walk all the way to Akihabara (a.k.a. “electric city” where anything having to do with electronics can be purchased) and to nearby Ueno park, where they randomly witnessed some kind of traditional ceremony. When they got back, I took them out to dinner for some soba noodles and tempura.

Yesterday, the eight of us met up with seven Japanese students and headed over to the Asakusa neighborhood for the Sanja festival — a festival which happens once a year. We walked through many stalls selling touristy stuff and arrived just in time to see the gods taken out of the shrine and paraded around the neighborhood. Then we could eat classic festival food — yakisoba and my favorite, takoyaki (a.k.a., octopus balls.) Following that, we went to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which graphically narrates the history of the town from its beginnings in the 16th century to the post-World War II era. My hope was the museum, which is interactive and excellently designed for pedagogical purposes, would give some life to the rather dry history book I assigned them to read, but they were too tired to appreciate it, and we spent only an hour there. A few  of the Japanese students came back to our dorm with us, and we made dinner… there’s more to say about that, but perhaps in another post.

Tomorrow morning, several other Japanese students will come over to take my students to the shopping districts of Shibuya and Harajuku. If you want an amusing image of Shibuya, see the music video by Camera Obscura that I blogged about a few weeks ago here. I will not participate on today’s Shibuya-Harajuku adventure  because I have other things to take care of, because I think my students can have more fun without me, because I know they will be in good hands with the Japanese students… and because I am just too tired. My old legs need a rest.

But to get back to my original point about space and history, what has most structured our activity from the beginning is the school in the United States that we came from and the school in Japan that is hosting us, as I hope you can see from the nature of our trips and from our constant interaction with our host. And for me personally, this trip is quite different from my time here ten years ago, simply because the social position I occupy this time around.


May 17, 2009 - Posted by | Japan


  1. Wow, Steve! Sounds like you guys are having fun! (I’m kind of jealous — I totally should have gone with you instead of going to Ireland next fall.) Shame on your students for not trying sushi! I love sushi! But then again, I guess I’m not from central Minnesota, either.

    And I agree with you; social interaction networks HAVE changed a great deal in the past ten years, and the way you view them changes with social postion. I’m sure in the rank-and-age concious Japanese culture that’s even more apparent. I also think it’s really interesting how you can compare your two experiences of Tokyo. I hope you continue having a great time!

    Comment by Megan G | May 18, 2009 | Reply

  2. Like you, I lived in Japan in 1996 and again in 2000. It’s interesting to hear how the Japanese experience has changed since then – I hardly ever called home back then because it was so expensive! Of course there was no such thing as Skype, and even sending all my letters from the post office broke the bank! I wonder how exchange students are able to fully integrate into Japanese society now, in 2009, when it’s possible to spend our lives immersed in our internet lives, watching our favourite programs on iTunes and twittering with friends back home…

    Comment by Stace | May 27, 2009 | Reply

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