December 27, 2011

All I Want for Christmas Is...

The bounenkais were a lot of fun last week. We ate, drank, and lead by the professor we continued from the first restaurant to a famous restaurant chain in Nagoya, Yamachan, to eat spicy tebasaki chicken wings. And nothing is better than washing them down with some beer, of course. A few nights after was the time for our ultimate team's bounenkai, which ended in a karaoke bar. I was the only non-Japanese and also the only one singing non-Japanese songs. It was interesting to see what kind of music the Japanese enjoy and hearing them sing was quite an experience: they sang with such passion that I wonder if they still had vocal cords in the morning.

Bounenkai. Just before the "BOMB".

レミオロメン 粉雪 (Remioren - Konayuki) seems to be a popular karaoke song...

On Christmas Eve many foreign students gathered at Mauricio's place for Christmas dinner. Everybody brought more or less typical Christmas dishes from their country, so we had food all the way from South America to the Middle East, passing by Europe. Christmas Eve's dinner in Japan made no exception to the Finnish one and eventually I was on the brink of indigestion. Especially the numerous sweets and desserts at midnight were treacherous. The next day we had a small party at Alisson's apartment. We ought to have known better than so much as mentioning drinking games inevitably leads to the obvious outcome. Rumors say a merry party of one Japanese and two Finns was quite excited about the unexpected snowfall in the middle of the night...

Ok, so there is actually concrete proof of what happened.

The next day only one man was still standing.

December 18, 2011

Jazz & Shaking

The past two weeks I've been busy at the laboratory finishing a set of experiments and preparing a presentation about the results. I don't remember ever putting in so many hours in a week. Then, last Wednesday, just before the presentation, the tension was literally palpable. It started off as a little shaking and suddenly the building was swaying gently. It lasted for 20 to 30 seconds and, as suddenly as it had began, it also ended. I had just experienced my first earthquake. No need to tell you that after the tremor, the presentation was the easy part.

Our takoyaki party. Alisson behind the camera.

During the week I also received a very pleasant surprise from my parents, who had sent me a care package stuffed with chocolates, piparkakku, näkkileipä and warm socks. Thank you, Christmas came early this year! Speaking of Christmas, it doesn't really feel like it is at hand. Perhaps it is the lack of snow and cold. Or then, it is because Christmas is merely a popular day for romantic dates in Japan. Of course, many department stores have decorations in an attempt to exploit the commercial aspect of Christmas and boost their sells, but it doesn't have any deeper meaning to it in here. On the other hand, New Year is the most important holiday in Japan and it is the time when families gather to spend time together and visit temples. So the festive traditions are more or less the exact opposite of those in the West.

It's rare to see Christmas decorations in private houses, but these guys are
quite eager about it to say the least.

After all the sweating and shaking at the laboratory, last weekend was finally time for some fun. On Friday Viviane organized a takoyaki party. The takoyakis turned out delicious and it also came clear to me what some people were laughing about earlier that day, when I told them about the night's theme: it is usual to fill one random takoyaki with an excessive amount of wasabi to one unlucky person's delight. After eating, we headed to Sakae to sing the night away at a karaoke bar and took the first subway back home. Thanks Vivi for the great night!

Definitely no wasabi in that takoyaki just below the chopstick.

To put a perfect finishing touch to the weekend, we went with Joy and her friends to see Drunken Fish featuring guest stars from Jazz Dragon at Jazz Inn Lovely yesterday. The lead guitarist, who had been drinking something stronger than virgin Cuba Libres, engaged in spirited improvisations and solos to the surprise of some of the other band members too, judging by their laughs and expressions. You could see that the band was having fun playing together and the public was also entertained and amused, me included.

Drunken Fish feat. Jazz Dragon.

This week will be an interesting one and I'm looking forward to both our lab's and my ultimate team's 忘年会 ("Bounenkai"), the Japanese counterpart for end-of-the-year party and somewhat similar to pikkujoulut in Finland. The kanjis in Bounenkai actually mean "forget year party" and the aim is to leave behind the worries and troubles of the past year. In other words, it is an occasion to go on a binge and forget. Sounds good.

December 02, 2011

The Cardboard Dragon

Time to break radio silence! The blog is lagging behind, which you have probably noticed by the lack of updates recently. Some of you may have seen glimpses of the future blog entries in social media networks in the form of pictures, wall posts or location data. It's time to tell you what really happened.

Almost a month ago we decided to go to Spa Land in Nagashima. Spa Land is more than just a spa resort with outdoor pools and dozens of slides; it is also known for its onsen, japanese hot spring, and one of the biggest amusement parks in Japan. Our lionhearted group, consisting of Jana, Naoko, Noora, Viviane, Ankur and me, set on the arduous quest to tame the Steel Dragon (explanation follows, hopefully).

The last picture.

The weather forecast was cloudy with a 50% chance of precipitations at noon, increasing toward the evening, but it didn't discourage us. To the contrary, fewer people meant shorter queues and more time to enjoy the attractions. In our unfaltering logic, we decided to slowly build up momentum starting from the more easygoing and stomach-friendly rides, to finally culminate the day on the awe-inspiring and almighty Steel Dragon 2000, the biggest roller coaster in Nagashima and one of the biggest in the world as a matter of fact.

The almighty Steel Dragon 2000.

The traditional viking ship was the first attraction to test our guts (hehe, a pun). We also got rocketed sky-high and soaked in the overflowing chute just to be blow-dried a while later on the White Cyclone.
All slicked up, it was the perfect moment for an intense photo shoot in a purikura booth. The idea is the same as in a normal photo booth, but in purikura the goal is to strike cute poses and retouch the pictures with ready-made backgrounds, texts and items to make it as adorable and sweet as a possible.

Purikura. The definition of kawaii :)

Shortly after the purikura, the odds turned against us and it started to rain. The rainfall didn't stop and most of the attractions were shut down, thus we opted for some lunch. We had been to most of the rides, so as soon as the rain stopped, we rushed to the Steel Dragon entrance. We were fast enough to get on the second car and felt a surge of excitement. Finally, the big finale of the day! We were all laughing when I said let's take the last picture. As soon as we sat down in the car and the security belts were tightened up, all hell broke loose and spears of ice it started pouring and the roller coaster was closed. We weren't laughing anymore.

Next time your mine, Steel Dragon!

Fortunately, the day didn't end there. The hot waters of the onsen soothed our wounds and washed away the minor disappointment. Back at Nagoya, we were starving and decided to fill our stomachs with ramen. We were reborn. High five!


November 16, 2011

From Ultimate Failure to Success

Most of the readers probably know that I play ultimate frisbee and the title of the entry refers to that. With the intended pun, of course. To tell you the truth, I was not in a rush to start playing ultimate again, because after the very eventful ultimate summer I was not only bruised, battered and physically exhausted, but I needed to put it out of my mind as well. As the weeks passed, though, I had to give in to the temptation to play ultimate again.

Looking for an ultimate team was actually harder than I thought. The major obstacle was the language barrier since all the information was in Japanese. I spent countless hours trying to decipher kanjis using google translate and electronic dictionaries. The other obstacle was the surprisingly large amount of outdated information, which hindered my search. Even the Aichi flying disc federation (the region comprising Nagoya and its surroundings) had a lot of links to non-existing webpages and teams that no longer played. Despite the difficulties, I found out that the teams from Aichi face each other four times a year in a regional tournament, the Toukai Open, which was held for the last time this year at the end of October in the nearby city of Okazaki. A perfect occasion to get to know the local ultimate scene and find a team. Adding to my excitement was also the news that UNO, one of the best women ultimate teams in the world, was participating to the event.

Okazaki Sports Center

I nearly overslept the whole thing, because what was supposed to be one or two beers the previous night turned into partying the night away. Anyway, I was able to leave around noon and arrived to Okazaki around 2 pm, an hour later than I anticipated, because switching trains from two different railway companies and then finding the right bus in an unknown place took longer than I had imagined. Okazaki Sports Center extended over a hill and it took me some time to go around looking for the ultimate tournament. By 3 pm I had been everywhere, but I hadn't seen a single frisbee, player or team. The whole thing turned out to be an ultimate failure. Perhaps the games were already over by 2-3 pm, but I never got any confirmation to this and never found any tournament results. Luckily the weather was nice, so I went for a walk and tried to enjoy the beautiful scenery from the top of the hill despite the disappointment.

But where are the ultimate fields??

At the top of the hill with the city of Okazaki faintly visible in the distance.

Blooms, the ultimate team of Nagoya University, practices every Saturday morning from 9 to 12 am and two weeks after the Okazaki incident, I was able to participate. The team consists mostly of first and second year ultimate players with a few more experienced players, all in all a dozen players. The drills were quite basic throwing drills with one slightly more challenging one, ダンプ練習 (dampu renshuu) or more familiarly a dump drill with a few well-timed cutbacks from upfield. After the practice the whole team went to eat an abundant tonkatsu meal at a nearby restaurant, a custom after every Saturday practice. Such a habit is elusive in Finland, although it could be plausible a little bit more unfrequently, say once a month. At present our team in Finland goes to eat together only at the end of the season, so in my opinion such a habit would be very welcome.

The vending machines at the Sports Center sell two suitably named sports
beverages: Pocari Sweat and Match.

Next week Blooms has a practice match and I will go play with AG Funks, a non-university team based in the city of Toyota. So stay tuned, there will be more ultimate news in the near future!

November 08, 2011

Home Is Wherever I Am with You

Stretching to the south west of the university campus is large residential area formed mostly by small two-story houses. By day the area is not exactly the definition of lively and by night it is as silent as the grave, to the point where I sometimes wonder if any living souls really dwell in those houses. Hopefully the reality isn't as grim as I describe it, and I actually like to go there for a walk, because it is quite different from what I see in my home country.  There is a stark contrast between the modern, wealthier, western-looking houses and the old rickety shacks that stand side by side. It is at the same time repelling but also fascinating, a feeling that often arouses in Japan.

The parking slots are small.

This house definitely looks out of place...

This doesn't look too safe. I wonder what my insurance company would say about it...

November 03, 2011

Everyday Life

Time has flown by these past two weeks and it feels like an eternity from my last blog entry. The lack of time imparts an inevitable and dull fact: I have settled down in a routine of work, studying, sports and sleep. Sometimes, walking down the quiet streets to the mall or jogging in Tsurumai park, I suddenly realize that I actually am in Japan and a cheerful grin fills my face. Luckily, everyday life has been spiced up with a number of interesting encounters.

Weekdays are spent at the laboratory where I work from 9:30 to 17:00, but the working hours tend to stretch past the five o'clock mark. It's not because there is an endless amount of work to do, but rather because in Japan there is a consensus to do extra hours and work as late as your coworkers. If I leave office at 17:30, I'm the first one to go. Heck, even if I leave at 18:30, I'm among the first ones to go. Although it might not be expected from exchange students, it still puts a little pressure on me knowing that everyone else will be working late. And this habit really takes its toll on the Japanese: it is not uncommon to see people taking a nap at the lab, subway or any public place for the matter. Not only is it not considered shameful or unusual, but the Japanese truly have a skill at sleeping. I have never seen people rest in such absurd or awkward positions. Imagine sitting in your office chair, hands crossed on your stomach and slightly leaning back so that your head is completely bent backwards when you fall asleep. I can only imagine how your neck feels afterwards...

It's hard to leave work when the view is like this, isn't it?

The Japanese language classes also began and I'm attending 3 classes per week. We also started a study session or as we call it 勉強会 (benkyoukai) with Noora and two Chinese students, Fuu and Shou. We gather once or twice a week to do exercises. There is a kaleidoscopic spectrum of nationalities at the Japanese classes and it is interesting to notice different cultural backgrounds and ways of thinking. There are a lot of students from the closest countries such as China, South Korea and India, but also Bangladesh, Iraq, Iran, Indonesia, Tunisia and Marocco. Western nationalities are a small minority and include Spanish, French and Italian students. There is also a large Brazilian minority in Nagoya and I've met quite a few of them. The funniest encounter I've had so far is when Ankur, the Indian "dude", told me that I'm the shortest Finn he has ever seen! Apparently the previous Finnish exchange students were quite tall even on Finnish standard.

October 23, 2011

Hachiman Festival

After an eventful Saturday, I was in need of a good night's sleep, so the next day was as easy as the famous Commodores' song. Monday was Health and Sports Day, a national holiday in honor of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, therefore I had been thinking about a one-day trip to a smaller city outside of Nagoya. My first thought was the town of Gifu but browsing through Lonely Planet I stumbled upon Takayama, where "one of the three most beautiful festivals of Japan" was being held on that weekend. Therefore we decided with Noora to do an ex tempore visit to Takayama and the Hachiman Matsuri.

Hachiman shrine.

Karakuri marionette performance on the float.

Takayama, situated some 120 kilometres North of Nagoya in the Japanese Alps, is a small town compared to Nagoya and the change of landscape was a breath of fresh air. The initial peacefulness, though, was about to change as we got closer to the old town and the crowd of tourists. The old town was very beautiful with traditional Japanese wooden houses and walking through the small alleys we eventually found our way to Hachiman shrine, the center of the festivities. The shrine was on a hillside enclosed with tall trees and in front of it, in the plaza, we saw a traditional Karakuri marionette performance.

The floats and at the end of the road Hachiman shrine is barely visible.

The yatai were sumptuous.

Most of the tourists were elder Japanese people and standing in the middle of the crowd I was head and shoulders above everyone else, which amused some of the older people who were trying to guess my height. The marionette performance was quite spectacular and I really have no clue as to how they managed to move the marionettes on the float and in the air. Leaving the temple we found the famous yatai, lavishly ornate floats, that are only displayed and paraded in the town during the Hachiman matsuri and its spring counterpart, Sanno matsuri. 

Ramen and Hida beef, yum.

The next step was to eat and thanks to Lonely Planet we found a good ramen place where we could also taste Hida beef for a reasonable price. The meal was, and I'll probably never get tired of saying this, delicious. On a full stomach we went to see the procession that displays the mikoshi portable shrine, dancers, musicians and lion-dance performers, who purify the streets and rid them of devils. Instead of describing the parade any more precisely, here is a short video I took with my mobile, enjoy:

After the parade and some souvenir shopping we headed back to the train station to eat something and wait for our train to depart. The matsuri was impressive and definitely worth a visit to Takayama. I can recommend it!

October 17, 2011

My Hovercraft Is Full of Eels

Saturday morning (8th of October), I woke up with that startled feeling you have when you realize you just overslept and missed something important. My mobile phone was in my left hand, next to the pillow, and I have no memory whatsoever of waking up to the alarm. It was 10:21 and I had a rendez-vous at 10:30 with the lab's assistant professor, Obata-sensei, her friend Noriko-san from Tokyo and Noora. Luckily for me, that particular morning my bed hair was truly awesome and after getting dressed I was ready to go. Since I live on campus I was barely late at the meeting point in front of the lab.

Our intention was to eat at the renowned Atsuta Houraiken restaurant, which is specialized in one of the local delicacies, hitsumabushi or grilled eel with rice, seasonings and a special tea-based sauce. We also wanted to visit the sacred Atsuta shrine located in the same area.

Everything went according to plan except for the part where we wanted to avoid the long queues at the restaurant. At 11 o'clock the queue was already an hour-long and we decided to go see the shrine while waiting to be summoned by the waitress, who was calling out names in an annoying and endless high-pitched voice in front of the restaurant.

Atsuta shrine. The sword was nowhere to be seen...

The path leading to the shrine, overshadowed by 1000-year-old cypress trees, was filled with families and tourists, most of whom were Japanese. The shrine is one of the most sacred in Japan and holds one of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan, Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, literally meaning "grass-cutting sword". According to the legend it was handed to the imperial family by the sun-god herself and is only viewable by the Emperor and a few selected Shinto priests. Having said that, I really think I chose the wrong profession... We also witnessed a traditional Shinto marriage ceremony. The shrine was quite modest, resembling all the other shrines I have seen so far. That was a little disappointing since I was expecting something spectacular after reading about the legendary sword.

Exiting the refreshing shade of the temple area we were greeted by the blazing sun in front of the restaurant - and it did not make the waiting any easier. Once inside Atsuta Houraiken we took our shoes off and sat down at a traditional Japanese low table. The food arrived quickly and we followed the three-step custom to eat hitsumabushi: the first serving with eel and rice only, the second with added seasonings and the third with seasonings and the special sauce. The savor matured with every new ingredient and the final serving with all the ingredients was by far the most delectable. The only thing tempering my delight was my utterly numb left leg that I had to get out from beneath the table midway through the meal. I really thought I had lost that leg for good but it would have totally been worth it.

Hitsumabushi. We were so hungry we nearly forgot to take a picture of the meal.

After the meal we all headed back to downtown Nagoya to take a peek at Osu Kannon, the temple I described in my earlier blog entry, and eat some dango for dessert.  The next stop was another Japanese peculiarity, namely a cat café. Because the homes are small and local people spend a lot of time at work, it is often not possible to own a pet. But there is a cure for that: at pet cafés you can cuddle, stroke and play with cats, dogs and most probably other types of pet cafés exist too. Confined in the small room were a dozen cats and as many people, all girls and one couple. Admittedly, had I been alone or in a different party, I would have most likely been frowned upon.

View from the ferris wheel.

It wouldn't have been a perfect day without some karaoke, so we rented a little karaoke room for an hour and sang our lungs out. The singing session's highlights included My Neighbor Totoro's ending theme song and the popular South Korean girl group Kara's song entitled Mister. It was really a lot of fun, but it didn't end there. We rode the famous ferris wheel on the department store façade (picture in one of my previous posts) and enjoyed the magnificient views over the city.

The karaoke room.


Before calling it a day, we had to taste another speciality of the local cuisine, tebasaki or spicy chicken wings. According to our guides, one the best places to eat tebasaki is Furaibou so that is where we went although it was very well hidden. All in all I really can't praise the day enough... luckily I didn't oversleep in the morning! High five everyone!

October 09, 2011

Where East Meets West

Sunday dawned bright and sunny so the weather was perfect for more sightseeing. My plan was to visit Osu Kannon, a Buddhist temple situated in central Nagoya and then take the shortest route home passing by the grocery store. As it turned out, the plan was perfect but the execution was poor. Lead by my insatiable curiosity I walked the streets rudderless, following any scent that arouse my slightest interest.

After taking a right turn from Osu-dori, I imagined that the temple would be right there, visible to the naked eye. Instead all I saw was office buildings one after another. For a second I thought I had already missed the turn but after checking my map I was convinced I was in the right place. A hundred meters further and there it was, hiding in the shadow of the taller buildings. This is something I really love about Japan, that at each turn, you can find something unexpected whether it's a small peaceful temple, a narrow backstreet packed with tiny shops or just something that looks totally out of place.

Osu Kannon.

A statue at Osu Kannon.

The temple area was quite crowded and people of all ages were making offerings, praying in front of the shrine and burning incense sticks. From the eastern side of the temple area starts a maze of small walking streets crammed with tiny shops from ramen booths and vegetable stalls to electronic retailers and clothing stores. Some of the shop names where quite amusing such as the m/c clothing store, with a motorbike parked in front of it, called Skooter or the coffeehouse chain Café de Crié ("café of shouting"). Somehow beauty salons had managed to got their names right such as Beauty Salon Cuore ("heart") or Beauty Salon Dandy House but still most of the attempts to sound original were horrible. It's like Hollywood stars naming their children, it's not their forte.

Lost in the labyrinth.

If you can find your way to the other end of the labyrinth you arrive at the edge of Sakae. Not as colossal or breathtaking as for example Shibuya in Tokyo, the district has more of a Western feel to it. For example Hisaya Odori, one of the main streets in Sakae, has the same kind of mellow atmosphere as Esplanadi in Helsinki with a park in the middle of trafficked streets. But the similarities end there. Especially at night, when all the neon signs are lit, Sakae is the unresting heart of the city with its numerous restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

View of Hisaya Odori from the Galaxy platform.

More Sakae.

After marveling the city for a few hours I had lost track of my position, but owing to the grid-like structure of the city, I was quite easily able to find my way into the right direction and eventually got to the grocery store. After spending a few days more or less just wandering in the city, I'm really starting to like it. Eager words of a newcomer? We'll see...

October 03, 2011

A Walk in The Park

Friday we took advantage of a day off to go visit Nagoya Castle and Sakae, the city's buzzing shopping and nightlife district.

Noora and I took the subway at the nearby Tsurumai park to the western edge of the city centre, JR Nagoya station, which is a small city in itself packed with department stores, hotels and skyscrapers. Although the morning rush hour was over, the atmosphere was quite hectic compared to the surroundings of the university.

Nothing is impossible in Japan, like this ferris wheel accessed from the department store.

We decided to go by foot all the way to Nagoya Castle and have a better look at the city. As soon as we left the immediate vicinity of the station, the mood suddenly calmed down and one or two blocks away from the station you could barely notice you had just left the main station of Japan's fourth largest city. And this applies to most of the busy, heavily trafficked roads too. As soon as you take a turn between the big company buildings bordering the main streets, calmer, sometimes even eerily quiet small streets unfold.

Wandering through the streets and gazing around us, we arrived in no time to the moated Nagoya Castle sitting pretentiously in the middle of the park. The castle was reduced to ashes in World War II bombardments but has since been reconstructed. The exterior resembles faithfully the old castle, but the interior is made of concrete and holds a museum with paintings and a few samurai armors and swords. 

Nagoya castle
On Saturday the laboratory held a BBQ party at Shounai Ryokuchi park to welcome the new members and bid farewell to those who were leaving. We arrived around noon and after a short speech and a little organizing the grills were ablaze. A Japanese BBQ party is very similar to a Finnish one: there's meat (including sausages), beer, chatting and ball games (yes, yes). The mood was very cheerful and relaxed from the beginning and there was an overall sense of fellowship. The day culminated in a drinking game and to my astonishment even the professors partook. And no one was spared. All in all I was very happy with the BBQ party. I got to know most of the laboratory staff before starting to work on Monday and I was able to slip some Japanese here and there in the conversations.

September 30, 2011

Welcome to My Mansion

Let the pictures talk for themselves!

View of the room from the front door.
The kitchenette.
Bling bling.

Night time view from the balcony.