Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Singin' in the Rain

On the first day of the rainy season
From even before I arrived in Tokyo, people told me in sympathetic whispers, "Caitlin, do you know Tokyo has a rainy season that lasts from the beginning of June to the end of July? (conveniently, of course, coinciding with my travel dates)  It rains the entire time and it is so humid!" To which I answered with a phrase I am beginning to realize I use more and more frequently, "Remember, I am from the South."

"Bring on the mosquitoes, humidity, summer storms, and scorching weather; its nothing that I haven't experienced before."

Confident in my Southern-life derived ability to enjoy summer irregardless of insects and weather, and still scarred from my decision to pack my big heavy rain boots in my suitcase when I studied abroad in Turkey (of which the six weeks I was there it rained only one day, you can decide for yourself the pragmatism of that decision), I put no value in the kind warnings I had received.  Coincidentally, I did not pack my rain boots or my rain jacket, and on one of my first days here, I lost my only umbrella.

Losing my umbrella; however, was more a blessing in disguise than anything else because it gave me the opportunity to invest in a Japanese umbrella.  You might ask, "what is so special about a Japanese umbrella?"  The question really to ask is, "what isn't special about a Japanese umbrella?"  Small, compact, light, colorful, and available for a few hundred yen about every 100m down a street at a convenience store, the umbrellas available here are not only cheap but as every everything else here in Japan, they are also cute.

The umbrellas here come in all shapes and sizes. Below is my amateur survey of umbrellas across the city.  They get quite the use during Tokyo's infamous rainy season (which unlike the "rainy season" in Istanbul, really does exist here in Japan!).  Enjoy!

A smattering of umbrella styles

Most common: clear umbrellas

The ever popular sun umbrella, as seen on the left

I am always impressed by the people who manage
to match their outfit with their umbrella

Super blurry but equally impressive are the
people who carry groceries, hold an umbrella,
and simultaneously ride a bicycle in the rain.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Lessons Learned

I feel I was very fortunate to be able to attend the annual planning and strategy meeting for JEN this week.  My job was to type the minutes and record the meeting in English but I feel like I got so much more out of the experience than simply typing their conversations.  One of the main reasons I came to Japan in the first place was to see how a large NGO operates.  I have often been on the serving side of volunteer work but I have never really experienced the organizational side of it (or at least not the organization required of an NGO to successfully operate in eight countries as JEN does).

However, one of the most surprising things I have learned, is that irregardless of your organization's size, there are some problems and issues that seem systemic.  Many of the problems that student leadership boards face at Duke, are the same problems that JEN faces here at their headquarters in Tokyo.

Here are some common problems:
  • How do we facilitate communication?--both between the board and the organization, people within the organization, and between the organization and the general public.
  • How do we not overwork our staff or leaders?
  • How can we make advocacy more prominent in our organization?
  • How can we give a name and a face to our organization?

It is amazing how much I have learned just in this week alone.  From the annual conference last Saturday and the strategy meeting this past week, I have learned that confidence is essential to active leadership and that empowerment and communication with group members are essential to an organization's success.  Hopefully, I can take the lessons I have learned to heart and use this knowledge in the coming year at Duke.

Some favorite quotes from the week:
"I have heard that a goal you know how to get to is a goal that is too small to accomplish.  If we know how to achieve something, then that goal is too small."
"I think the goal we are aiming for, is not simply a goal we can achieve, but a goal we want to achieve."
Jamie and I with our supervisor, PR manager, Miyako Hamasaka

Monday, June 17, 2013

Forgetting and Relearning

Growing up in the South,  I told myself that manners in Japan would not be that different from the famous Southern hospitality and old-time manners I was was always surrounded by. I thought I had mentally prepared myself for the inevitable hierarchy of the office space and the keigo (honorific language) used by the service industry. However, immediately upon my arrival in Narita International Airport, I realized the just the extent of my naivety in assuming I would blend seamlessly into a city half-way across the world from my hometown, with 2600 times more people to boot.

Here is a list of some of initial observations of different manners and customs I have seen so far during my trip to Japan.

  • There is no common phrase in Japanese to say "bless you" for sneezes
  • You walk on the left side of the street to be polite instead of the right
  • When you first meet someone you bow instead of shaking hands
  • Although the service industry is very customer oriented, you never pay your bill at your table but rather you walk to the cashier
  • When you enter a house and some restaurants, you always take off your shoes before entering
  • You never place your bag on the floor at restaurants but rather in conveniently provided boxes beside your chair
  • Throwing away trash is a very resourceful but complicated process of separating it into combustibles, incombustibles, and recyclables (each neighborhood also has its own rules for recycling which makes it even more complicated)

Whenever you enter a foreign country there is to a certain extent a process of forgetting old customs and learning new ones. Every day is a part of the continual process of forgetting and relearning only to have the same process repeated on your return trip home. However, while this might be true in a generic sense, as time has gone by, I have realized that while many of these customs are not exactly the same ones as the ones I grew up with, they are not entirely different either. I have begun to find that these culturally specific manners are simply a different vein of a similar intent: to humble yourself and show care to your neighbor always, an admirable aspiration indeed.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Birthday in Japan-land :)

I share an early summer birthday with my mother but since our birthday is during the summer, I only occasionally get to spend it with her.  This year I am in Japan but with the lovely application skype, we were able to spend a part of our birthday together (granted I am thirteen hours ahead of the US east coast so technically while it was our birthday in Japan, it wasn't our birthday on the east coast).

After skyping my family, Jamie and I traveled to Yokohama to meet one of our friends from Duke who lives in Yokohama.  We went to Chinatown and ate lunch at an all-you-can-eat place. Anyone who knows me, knows how much I enjoy food, so you  can only imagine how much fun I had ordering seemingly endless amounts of dishes off the menu.  After eating for two hours, we counted how many plates of food we ate and it was exactly 21 which seemed fitting for my 21st birthday.  At lunch, Jamie also revealed he attempted to bake me a red bean cake for my birthday in a rice cooker, since our apartment doesn't have an oven.  However, it didn't work so he gave me a very cute pop-up card of An-man (a red bean bun anime hero) for my birthday instead.

After lunch we walked to the ocean.  Although you couldn't go into the water, we walked on a path alongside the bay and it was absolutely gorgeous.  We passed by an old amusement park and saw a beautiful old Ferris wheel but decided to ride a really crazy spinning ride instead.  Before we said goodbye to our friend and returned to Tokyo, we went into an arcade and took pictures at a photo booth, to commemorate the day.  Unlike photo booths in the US, there are an enormous amount of options to edit, draw, and write on your photos after you take them.  While the photo booth still spits out a narrow strip of pictures at the end, there is also an option to have the pictures emailed to your phone as well.

Once we were back in Tokyo, Jamie and I went to eat at a very cute pancake place for dinner.  I, again the sweets and food lover that I am, had a monster plate of flower shaped pancakes with mango, pomegranates, bananas, kiwis, mango sorbet, chocolate ice cream, and these really cute colored white chocolate hearts.  My perfect dinner was then followed by a perfect after dinner chamomile tea.

I am so grateful to my friends and family who helped make my 21st birthday one of my best.  Thank you!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

When the Water Reflected the Sun

Yesterday, Jamie and I went on a day trip to Hakone.  Hakone is a breathtaking mountainous area about an hour and a half outside of Tokyo.  I have now been in Japan for two weeks but yestedary was the first time I have left the city.  As much I love the city and its perfection at making everything "convenient," I am so glad I had the opportunity to escape for at least a day to the surrounding countryside!  Hakone is beyond beautiful and is so green!  However, one of my favorite moments was at the end of our hike around the lake.  As we walked across a bridge that connected the peninsula to the main land,  I looked out over the water.  The water was so clear and reflective that the center of lake reflected the clouds and the sides reflected the trees.  It reminded me of some lines from T.S. Eliot's poem, "Burnt Norton," from Four Quartets.
"And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,/ And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,/ The surface glittered out of heart of light,/ and they were behind us, reflected in the pool./ Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty./ Go, said the bird...human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality."
What I saw in Hakone certainly did not feel like reality.  Throughout the day, as we walked around the lake, I felt as if I had entered a divine place, devoid of train timetables, stoplights, and convenience stores.  I felt as if I had a window into a naturally harmonic eternity.  Even now, it is difficult for me to put into words what I felt, but I have always been amazed at poetry's ability to encapsulate feelings, emotions, and experiences in ways that prose fails.

Below is Eliot's poem with pictures from my trip to Hakone that I think can be applied to the poetry.  If you get the chance, read the poem a few times.  Eliot has this magical quality of staying with you.  His words rise to the forefront of your mind, sometimes, when you least expect it.

Friday, June 7, 2013


As I said in earlier post, it was inevitable that I would commit another cultural faux pas at work.  I was a bit late this morning and as I quickly walked in, I said my customary おはようございます (good morning) to my co-workers and hurried into the kitchen to fill my water bottle for the day.  As I came out of the kitchen, I walked by an old man I didn’t recognize (whom I now assume was a visitor or a donor) and one of my co-workers.  I quickly said おはよう to them as I walked back to my desk.  As I began to sit down, I heard my co-worker say かわいい (cute).  As I turned to look at her, she motioned me back over to her and the old man.

She explained to me that in Japan when you are speaking to someone who is older than you, you have to be respectful.  Since both she and the older man were older than me, I could not say おはよう, but I had to  おはようございます (the longer and more polite version).  I apologized the best I could and said  おはようございます to both of them and returned to my seat. What was more embarrassing than being told to say  おはようございます to adults older than me in front of all my co-workers, was the fact that I already knew this, but in my haste to begin working, I forgot. 

This event reminded me that I need to take time to slow down.  In my typical American haste, I offended not only a co-worker but also a potential donor.  This morning was a good reminder that I need to not only put effort into the physical work I do but also into my interactions with others.  In the future, I will do my best to be more conscientious of those around me.


Thursday, June 6, 2013

Fireflies in the Night

I am still suffering a bit from jet lag but this morning I woke up even earlier than my usual seven a.m. and began my day around five.  With an encroaching rainy season on the horizon, I am ecstatic every morning when I wake up and look out my window to find one more sunny day.  This morning when I woke up, I opened the curtains and was shocked at how bright it was outside.  Japan is truly the "Land of the Rising Sun," with the sun rising at 4:30 in the morning! However, despite the early sunrise, Tokyo is a bit chilly in the morning and at nights (although it is plenty hot during the day).  It was on a more chilly and windy night than usual that I discovered you can access the rooftop of the building I live in.

As I quickly scaled the access ladder to the roof, I was struck by the multitude of lights all around me.  Tokyo is the biggest city in the world in terms of both population and land area.  It makes perfect sense that I would be bathed in the lights from the neon restaurant signs, the flashing red airplane guides on skyscrapers, or the occasional light left on from a condominium apartment, but the sight still surprised me.  I honestly have never seen so many lights or so much proof of human life before.

I wish I had brought my real camera with me to the roof but all I had was my rented Japanese flip-phone (which is actually pretty neat despite having no touch screen).  The picture above can't even begin to describe what I saw around me but it is proof of that chilly night I stood on the roof of my building, looked out, and was mesmerized by the flashing firefly-like lights around me, so different from the fireflies back home, but somehow still magical all the same.