Monday, December 8, 2014

Social Progress in Conservative Japan

In the news today, Shunkoin Temple, a historic Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, has publicly announced that it offers LGBT wedding ceremonies. It is the first temple in Japan to do so, at least in so public a fashion.

As the article points out, gay marriage is not legal in Japan. And homosexuality is an issue that has not yet come to the fore in domestic politics. Japanese anti-discrimination laws do not specifically protect the LGBT community and the UN has raised concerns earlier this year about the current state of legal protections available to the LGBT community in Japan. Although Tokyo has a gay district and although there is almost certainly a vibrant gay community, in the 10+ months that I have been here, I have seen less than a handful of openly gay couples, and in conversations with Japanese people, I have been shocked by how foreign (both literally and figuratively) the concept of homosexuality is to so many here.

Kudos to Shunkoin Temple for coming out in strong support of progress:

“Shunkoin Temple is against any forms of ‘Human Rights Violations’ in the world. No religion teaches how to hate others. Religion teaches how to love and respect others.”

Read more here:

Mt. Fuji: Honeymoon Hike

We rang in our first anniversary in July by watching the sun rise from the summit of Mt. Fuji. It was romantic, unforgettable... and grueling. In order to enjoy the view from the top we spent a long, sleepless night hiking to get there.

We hiked for 7 hours, from 8:30pm to 3:30am, gaining nearly 5,000 feet in altitude over a distance of just about 3.7 miles. I could attempt to put the incline in perspective in various ways, but suffice it to say it was so steep that it took us 7 hours to walk less than 4 miles!

Smiling at 12,380 feet above sea level as day breaks. 

The whole experience was more akin to a pilgrimage than a hike in the great outdoors. The trail, especially in the first few hours, pulsed with individual hikers and tour groups; however, the vibe was serene, spiritual and reverent. The tour groups (many composed of elderly Japanese) were headed by dedicated leaders who periodically called out to their respective flocks to provide energy and unity of purpose. At points the path bulged with such a volume of people that it was impossible to pass; however, as the night wore on and the crowds stretched out, there were also a series of peaceful, empty stretches where we spent the better part of our seven hours.

Vince looking into the crater of Mt. Fuji, an active volcano and the tallest mountain in Japan. 

The view was worth it; the feeling of exhausted accomplishment was worth it, and so too was the memory. Now, when we see Mt. Fuji, we exchange knowing and somewhat incredulous smiles recalling the laughs, grumbles and sense of awe we shared as we celebrated our first year of marriage --  "we climbed that thing!"

We were also accompanied by a very small dinosaur given to us
at our wedding reception in Sweden by a relative who delivered a lovely speech
as the toast master of our reception at Angavallen. Thank you, Adja!

Mt. Fuji from a distance, taken earlier in the year. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Beyond Japan: One Week in Hawaii

Surprising though it may be for a couple spending a year in Japan, our first international adventure was to Hawaii.

In August, our cousin Tony married his long-time girlfriend (now wife!), Dina, in Las Vegas. As we contemplated the long trip from Tokyo to Vegas, we figured we may as well sneak in a vacation. Alas, we settled on Hawaii, conveniently located in the middle of the Pacific, very roughly 1/2 way between here and there. Hawaii has never been more convenient.

So, we went. 

We spent plenty of time on the beach.

Explored the interior of the island.

Went hiking.

Enjoyed a fair share of wine on the rooftop deck at our hotel.

Visited the farther reaches of the island.

And went on a shark dive into these waters.  

It was terrific.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Izu Peninsula and Precious Time with Dad

Time with my dad always passes too fast. I don't see him as much as I would like, and I'm reminded of that every time I recall one of our all-too-infrequent visits. They always start with a big hug followed by him carefully scanning my face. Sometimes he does this while holding my shoulders square, sometimes with a hand steadying me at the jaw, and sometimes he does this from across the table at the coffee shop nearest our reunion where we inevitably find ourselves, his head slightly askew, peering over my latte and the cappuccino emphatically ordered "dry" every time but rarely ever dry to his liking. It seems as if he is taking a mental picture of who I am at each visit - how I've grown or changed - for his memory, a collage of a life he's nurtured for 30 years and counting. Though these brief, tender moments predictably devolve into my rapid chatter and his prolonged silence, they are there each and every time. 

My dad's peaceful, positive and gentle nature always centers me. He reminds me who I am and who I want to be without saying much of anything.

Our visits are (almost always) laid-back affairs, prioritizing good coffee, leisurely breakfasts and at least one good outdoor adventure. This year we met in Tokyo. It was as always.

Lots and lots of high-quality coffee...

First day coffee at Shiroikuro in Azabujuban.
Obscura Coffee Roasters in Kanda, courtesy of
Dad and his cappuccino at Obscura Coffee Roasters.
Omotesando Koffee.
Last day coffee at Shiroikuro in Azabujuban.
and an adventure. This time to Izu Penninsula, 2 and a half hours to the south-west of Tokyo, to hike the Jogasaki Coast.

The 10-km hike meanders along atop the jagged cliffs and overlooks a striking sight: groves of hexagonal columns of solidified lava that shoot out in places many meters above the water. These columns are believed to have formed when the nearby volcano, Omuroyama, erupted thousands of years ago and its lava flowed in great quantity into Sagami Bay, cooling as it seeped out into the water. Though the physics behind why lava cools in such peculiar formations appears to be quite complicated, the groves they formed couldn't be easier to appreciate.
The two most important men in my life looking out over Sagami Bay. 
It was a wonderful walk made even more enjoyable by good company, great conversation and lots of laughter.

Dad, thank you so much for visiting. I can't wait for our next cups of coffee together. kram och puss

Monday, November 3, 2014

Tokyo: Japanese Baseball

Imported in the mid-1800's to Japan, baseball is one of the country's most popular sports. The Japanese professional league, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), has twelve teams, divided into two divisions, each representing (or co-representing) a major metropolis, a region, or, in the case of Hokkaido, an entire island. The rules are essentially the same as in the U.S., but for the avid observer, the NPB differs in many details. Apparently, for example, a regulation baseball and a regulation-sized NPB field are smaller than their MLB counterparts. Being generally apathetic about baseball and only a bandwagon Red Sox fan, I never would have noticed. 

Meiji Jingu Stadium from our seats at the first game we attended. Giants won.
Some of the less technical differences are, for me at least, more memorable:

Each Japanese baseball team is owned and/or sponsored by a corporation and each team's name includes the name of its corporate owner/sponsor followed by the mascot name. Imagine if you will... the Pittsburgh Heinz Pirates or the New York JPMorgan Chase Yankees. (For illustrative purposes only - I know these companies are not the owners of these MLB teams.) Adding a corporate name is, in my opinion, tacky and confusing. For a newbie it requires more effort than it should to figure out what really matters: where a team is from. I don't care what corporate interest bought your uniform. I want to know in which cities I can see a game and what the best rivalries are!

Also, a number of the NPB mascots rival NESCAC's decidedly non-intimidating roster, including: 
  • Nippon Ham Fighters - sounds like a vegetarian's dream team!
  • Orix Buffaloes - as unlikely a mascot as a camel, an elephant or a lord jeff
  • Hiroshima Toyo Carp - an oily freshwater fish
The two Tokyo-based teams are the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and the Yomiuri Giants. The Giants are owned by the media conglomerate Yomiuri Group and are considered the Yankees of the NPB. This is, as best I can tell, because they win a lot, have more non-local/bandwagon fans than any other team and are the subject of much ire and more than a little controversy. (My inner Boston bandwagon fan types furiously, indignantly.) The Swallows are more like the Mets - chances are you aren't rooting fo them unless you're a local. If the Giants are "Japan's team," then the Swallows are Tokyo's team. 

We have been to two Giants-Swallows match-ups at Meiji Jingu Stadium, the Swallows's home field, and saw one victory for each team. Each time we sat on the home team/Swallows side, and I cout I could sum up the experience of being a Swallows fan for an evening any better than an article I read in Men's Journal did, so I won't try to: 

"The non-stop cheering, syncopated noisemaking, and drunken trumpet bleating when the home team is batting make you wonder what the hell kind of game we're watching [...]. Join the fun by buying a tiny umbrella at the stadium. You'll see. Fans break into "Tokyo Ondo," a lovely festival song, for every run scored and the seventh inning stretch. It's a song full of nostalgia, but the rowdier version starts off with a chant telling Yomiuri to go @#$% themselves, sometimes even if Yomiuri isn't the opponent. Beautiful, traditional culture."
Courtesy of Men's Journal 

Go, Go, Swallows!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Grand Sumo Tournament: One thing worth planning an entire trip to Japan around

I have had the pleasure of attending two Grand Sumo Tournaments during this year in Japan, and it is hands down an event that I would recommend any prospective visitor plan an entire trip around.

Each year, there are only 6 each Grand Sumo Tournaments in Japan - two of which are in Tokyo. Tickets go on sale roughly a month before each event and Saturday and Sunday tickets sell out completely within hours of going on sale. This frenzy is with good reason. Sumo is a fantastic sport. Each Grand Sumo Tournament (GST) runs all day with the most junior divisions competing from early in the morning and matches continuing all day until the highest, Makuuchi division, competes to close out the tournament by 6pm.

We arrived to our first tournament in May, with our lovely guests in tow, at about 2pm concerned that we would bore from an entire day of matches.When Hakuho, a Mongolian-born sumo powerhouse who holds the second longest winning streak in sumo history and has the highest number of undefeated tournament championships, won in the final match up of the day, to win the tournament with a 14-1 record, we could hardly believe how quickly the time had gone. I could have stayed for more.

But, let me back up. Each GST is a 15 day long event. On each day, each sumo wrestler has only one match so that by the end of the tournament they have accumulated a win-loss record totaling 15 matches. It is a sort of round robin, however, not every potential match-up takes place as there are many more competitors in any one division than there are days in the tournament.

Sumo has a rich (and also notorious) history in Japan. Its roots originate in Shintoism where sumo wrestling was originally a way of praying for a bountiful harvest and these connections are evident at each GST. Hovering over the sumo ring is a canopy with Shinto iconography and decoration.

Before entering the ring for a match, the competing  wrestlers throw a handful of salt into the ring. The history behind this tradition is a belief that the salt would serve to purify the wrestlers and the ring. (PS I have read that women are not allowed to enter sumo rings because they are inherently unpure. Sadly, this doesn't surprise me, as many aspects of Japanese culture contain a not-insignificant dose of ridiculous sexist garbage. Moving on... )

Upon entering the ring, the wrestlers clap their hands in order to attract the attention of the gods and then raise their arms out to the sides, palms forward, to demonstrate that they are fighting without any weapons.

Then, in defiance of their own stature, each wrestler will lift his substantial legs, one and then the other, out to the side and up until they are around or above the level of their heads and then drop them quickly to the ground. The purpose behind this exercise is to stomp out any evil spirits.

Each of these rituals will take place multiple times before each match as there are almost always a few "false starts", which I think serve mostly to "psych out" the competition.

As seen here,
not all wrestlers are created equal in the leg lift department ;)
With these rituals taking place between each match, the speed of sumo is similar to the speed of American football - lots of set-up and anticipation for relatively short "plays" that can last anywhere between a few seconds to maybe a minute. Yet and still, it is worth the wait.

It is hard to describe the match itself, but I understand now that it is a sport of strength and significant technique. Avid sumo fans could rattle off significant information about each wrestler, his style and favorite techniques, all of which of course have names.

The fan base is dedicated, zealous and vibrant. I managed to capture a small bit of the energy surrounding sumo, when, at the September tournament, in the last bout on the 13th day, Ichinojo summarily and anticlimactically defeated his opponent Kakuryu in the final bout of the day by using a tactic called "henka" Henka, by all accounts, is a widely criticized tactic that is effectively a side step. If executed properly, as it was by Ichinojo in this bout, a henka move leaves your opponent running himself headlong out of the ring, bypassing the intense physical battle that typically characterizes a sumo match. The astonished and surely disappointed crowd erupted in cheers and jeers, launching their seat cushions wildly into the air:

This is the most unruly thing I have seen in Japan all year (by a Japanese person, obviously the guy who depanted himself at that bar crawl otherwise takes the cake!).

How to Get Tickets

As I mentioned, tickets for each GST go on sale about one month prior to the event. If you want tickets for Saturday or Sunday, you need to buy them the first morning they go on sale. If you are flexible about the dates you can attend, you can typically still get mid-week tickets a week or two before the tournament.

Buying Tickets in Person

You can buy tickets by going directly to the stadium. The Ryogoku JR stop is just steps from the Kokugikan ticket office. The Ryogoku subway stop is about a 6 minute walk to the ticket office and there are a fair amount of signs and maps to point you in the right direction.

The upsides to buying your tickets directly are that you can pick your seats yourself and you can get your tickets for face value (Western seats are around $60-70 USD, box seats, which fit 4 people, are about $320 USD, variable with exchange rate of course). The downside is, of course, that this option requires a physical presence in Japan.

Buying Tickets Remotely

For those not present in Japan, there seem to be two options: 1) the official sumo ticket site ( which provides sales information, online sales (Japanese only) and a phone number to call to buy tickets (not sure if the operators speak English but hotel staff will almost certainly help with this) or 2) use a third party vendor (e.g. that levies a service charges of about $10-15 per person for the convenience.

Tips for Attending Sumo at Kokugikan

Choosing a Seat

There are two types of seats available, Japanese style box seats (in sections A, B and C), which are typically priced to seat 4 and Western-style stadium seats, which are higher up and farther from the ring. I have sat in a section C box seat and in the Western-style stadium seats, and I highly recommend the box seat experience. Tickets in Section A are essentially impossible to get unless you are someone or know someone and seats in Section B are elusive. Section C sells out but not quite as fast, and it is still sufficiently close to the action that you can hear the sounds of the wrestlers making contact and get great pictures withe a decent camera.

If you opt for Western-style seating, try to get a seat in the first row, so you look cleanly over the balcony edge. This is the vantage point from which I took the video above. Keep in mind that video is not zoomed, so it accurately reflects the distance from the ring.


YOU CAN BRING IN FOOD AND BOOZE. And, anyone who knows anything (aka all the Japanese attendees do it). I saw bento boxes and beers and each Japanese style box has a bottle opener attached to it.

If you decide instead, or also, to go out to eat afterward, find a place that serves "chankonabe", a Japanese stew that is a staple of the sumo wrestler diet and can be found all around the stadium.

Monday, October 27, 2014

News in Japan: Japan to Release First Affordable (-ish) Social Robot in February

His name is Pepper. He is three feet tall and utterly adorable. V & I might need to book three seats on our flight back home!

Courtesy of

More on Pepper and his price tag here.