Photos: Nogawa Park

Photos by Carson Risser, 2016.

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First Day at ICU, Getting to My Apartment

September 1, 2016.

I took a taxi from my hotel to International Christian University, suitcase in tow. On my way to the school chapel for the matriculation ceremony I met some other study abroad students, including one who had offered to help me find the key store today.

The actual service was conducted in both English and Japanese, with singing, speeches, and a roll call of every incoming, exchange, and graduate student joining ICU this autumn.

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The person in the pink shirt in the back right corner is me.

Following the ceremony was a brunch in the dining hall. I knew it was supposed to be an opportunity to mingle with faculty, staff, and new students, but I was hit with the terror of trying to find my apartment key on my own when I knew, last night, that I couldn’t find it even with the help of Google Maps.

I ended up sitting on the side and once again using that precious, valuable cell data to write a desperate email to ICU’s International Office. After hitting send, I tried to find taxi information while weighing the possibility that maybe I’d have to skip the Japanese language exam to actually get into my apartment. However, after being reassured I would have time to take it in an email from the International Office, I decided to stay.

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ICU Dining Hall in front of Dialogue House, one of the dorms.

 

A Japanese friend of mine offered over Facebook to travel from hours away to go with me to the apartment key store, but ultimately, I ended up receiving a different message that changed my afternoon.

In between breaks during the placement exam, I got a second email from the International Office, saying that an ICU student who had studied abroad at my school would help me get to the key store office after the Japanese exam. Tremendously relieved, I messaged my friends back to tell them they didn’t need to worry about going with me, and continued with the test with my mind much less preoccupied.

After the exam (which consisted of vocabulary, grammar, reading comprehension, and a brief, low-pressure conversation with one of the professors in Japanese), I went to the International Office and spoke to the woman who had emailed me. She contacted the bus service and the ICU student to make sure I could meet her on time at the train station, and they let me leave my suitcase and bag in the office so that I did not have to continue navigating them through the streets of Tokyo.

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The pathway from ICU campus to the bus stop.

 

Startled by the amount of kindness I had run into after so much stress, I met up with the ICU student (who I had never actually met but whose name I’d seen pop up on Facebook many times) and we were able to make it to the key store. I realized I had walked right by it the night before. The building stood across and over from the shoe store that Google Maps had pointed me to.

In the apartment offices, thankfully, my ICU friend was able to listen to the extensive Japanese explanations and rules for the apartment and tell me the most important parts, including rules about trash, how to return the key when I move out, and so on. They served us iced tea, a small thing that meant a lot on another hot day.

My friend was kind enough to travel back with me to ICU (where we were greeted with cheers and cookies, which was too nice) and then walk me to my apartment. Relief and exhaustion washed over me. I was finally home. It would have been impossible for me to get here if I hadn’t asked for help, and been met with responses from people who were so exceptionally kind.
First Day at ICU, Getting to My Apartment

First Day in Japan: Planes, Trains, and Apartment Keys

I am studying abroad for one semester in Tokyo, Japan. I had initially booked my flight to arrive on Monday, August 29, but upon hearing the news of Typhoon Lionrock, I changed it to Wednesday. Given that the place where I was to pick up my apartment key was closed on Wednesdays, I reserved a hotel, knowing this would mean I’d have to carry my luggage with me all the next day during college orientation. However, an hour before my flight to my layover in O’Hare, I received an email saying that the key store WOULD actually be open. Miracle of miracles, I would have a place to settle down and not have to drag my luggage through campus. However, I couldn’t figure out a way to get from Narita (my plane was scheduled to arrive at 4:45 PM) to the key store in time (which closed at 7 PM). “Unless,” I joked to my mom, “the plane lands early.” Like that would ever happen, I thought.

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Photo from Passenger Terminal Today.

My plane landed an hour and a half ahead of schedule. I was so early, I decided to go straight to the key store, not wanting to chance it. I remembered to get cash, but decided not to pick up portable wi-fi rental for the months I was in Japan, as I didn’t know where to buy it and figured I shouldn’t waste time. I didn’t want to use data, except for texts, because it was so expensive. This will come back to bite me. Wait for it.

The JR Narita Express from the airport to Shinjuku was a breeze. I was happy and not yet jetlagged. All I had to do was transfer lines when I got to Shinjuku and go to my stop, and I was a winner.

Cue the mistakes.

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Photo from Tepper School of Business Unofficial Japanese Website.

First of all, I had only bought a ticket to go to Shinjuku, not all the way to my final stop. Inside Shinjuku Station, I suddenly forgot how to buy a ticket at a station, despite having used the Japanese train system the year before. Cue me wandering around for 20 minutes trying to find a ticket dispenser and being stubborn enough to only ask one person for help, and then not ask again despite my deep confusion. Eventually I realized I had to exit the main area of the station, buy a new ticket, and then re-enter. However, before doing so I made sure of which train I’d have to hop on and what escalators I had take to get to it.

Once I had my ticket, I headed to the stop. As I stood in line with other folks waiting for the train, I realized something. Not all the train stops were listed on the signs down here. The place I wanted to go to wasn’t on the sign. Was it possible I went down the wrong escalator? The train came, but I ran back upstairs. I looked around at the signage.

No, this was the right one, all right. I went back down and waited. But wait, I realized. What if I forgot the name of the district I was going to? I must have mixed them up! This must be the wrong train!

I went back upstairs. I searched out the complete list of all the lines and all their stops running out of Shinjuku Station. I couldn’t find my stop. I searched and searched, desperate, stubbornly wanting to use the train ticket I had purchased and too embarrassed to ask for help. I had no choice. I had to get a taxi.

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Photo from Them Travels. Pictured: Ikebukuro Station. 

I stuck my unused ticket in the exit gate and…ERROR. It wouldn’t let me out. Since the ticket was one I had bought here, the gate would not read it as used. Still too stubborn to ask someone for help, and knowing how much cheaper the train would be than a taxi and how I had already bought a ticket, I went back inside the station.

Searching through my phone, I eventually found my notes on train lines and realized that that the train I’d been trying to go on DID go to the stop I was searching for. I hurried back down the escalator, wondering if people were wondering why this girl suitcase-hauling kept going up and down the escalators to the same train lines. I decided, emboldened with the knowledge that this train was indeed correct, to run. My bag twisted and I slammed on the concrete, taking all the weight in my knees. The last thing I wanted was to draw attention to myself, so I hurried back up and smushed into the next crowded train available. Rush hour. Overall, I had wasted almost an hour trying to find the right train.

On the train, I began praying monotonously in my head, my eyes in a blank stare. “God, please let me get there in time to pick up my key. God, please let me get there in time to pick up my key.” I accidentally caught a businessman in my deathglare and when I realized we made eye contact, I quickly looked down. I repeated my prayer to the train floor.

I got to the station. I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t find the correct exit. As I was spinning in circles, a girl who spoke English came up to me, helped me find my way out and maneuver my luggage. Grateful to be helped by a stranger, once outside the gates, I thought, this is it. I have twenty minutes to spare, I have my map from the apartment people, and I can figure out where this place is.

There are three things marked on the map as landmarks. One is a drugstore directly across from the station exit.

I look. I see no drugstore.

Panickingly looking for the other landmarks and trying to use Google Maps or NAVITIME with the painfully slow city wi-fi (remember what I said earlier about not buying pocket wi-fi? Yeah, it would have come in handy around now), I decide to bite the bullet: I decide to use data.

I am not supposed to use data in Japan because it costs big bucks. But with fifteen minutes left before the key store closes, I’m desperate. Desperate enough to reach out for help. Desperate enough to forget that I have hardly spoken Japanese in the past year.

I call the number on the sheet for the key store.

A woman answers. She is very kind and helpful and I understand all of what she says at first and then almost none of it when she tries to give me directions. I am lost at the names of buildings (kanji? More like kan-not-ji! Ha ha ha. Ha). She says something about a phone call and I say okay and hang up, thinking she will call me back. Apparently, that’s not what she said.

In a vain attempt to make sure the phone call was not in vain, I try to scour the map for some kind of street I can follow. I scan the signs on every building I can see, and then, desperate, I once again use data: Google Maps.

According to the app, looks like I can get to the building in a 9 minute walk, but at this point, it’s only 5 minutes until the store closes. I call the woman again, more apologetic and explaining my situation, asking if it’s okay if I get there in 10 minutes and giving her my name. She is very gracious and says that is fine, and offers to give me directions, but after I think about it I say I will use the smartphone (because it’s hard for me to understand directions and I don’t want to take up too much more of her time). I say thank you and hang up without hanging up ON her this time. I feel assured. I will do it, I think. I will make it.

I don’t. Where Google Maps says there’s the key store building, there’s only a shoe store. There’s nothing. My mom is texting me, asking how my apartment is. I try to find the key store, one more time, so that this all won’t have been for nothing. I can’t.

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Photo from Japan-Guide.com. Pictured: an Osaka shopping arcade, much like the one where I was trying to find the key store.

I text my mom back, and the last thing I do is go up to a building advertising apartments. The offices are on the second floor, just like my sheet of paper said. It’s closed. The phone number I called now doesn’t ring; a voice just says, “We’re sorry. Please check the number and dial again.” Someone else has called me but I don’t recognize the number. I take a couple pictures of the offices to send to the apartment people and ask if this is the correct office – because I will have to do this all again tomorrow if I actually want my key.

I am texting my mom. She says I could go to the hotel. I still have a reservation. I finally give in and sit on the curb at the side of the road.

I know my hotel is only 1 train stop away and barely a walk outside the next station, so I buy a train ticket, carefully looking through and double checking the kanji for my stop, and I get on the train.

Correction. I get on the wrong train.

However, I realize that if I get off the first stop and run across to the other train waiting to be boarded, I can get off at its next stop and be where I want to be, like a boss. Problem solved.

At this station, hoping to find relief, instead I find a new degree of misery when I realize that even every angle of Google Maps I had looked showed this station as having only had 1 exit (the one near my hotel), it actually has many.

However, as I wander in confusion I am once again greeted by a kind stranger, this time someone who worked at the station. Thankfully, I knew which stores were by the exit I wanted to go to, and after I named them, he directed me to them.

I exited and turned the corner, reciting my notes in my head. “Turn left and walk past the bakery. You should see a –”

And there it was, shining in the night. My hotel. What a glorious thing it is to find what you have been looking for.

First Day in Japan: Planes, Trains, and Apartment Keys

Review: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)


Image from filmforum.org

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is a 1944 screwball comedy written and directed by Preston Sturges, of The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels fame. It was nominated for best original screenplay, and it is one of the worst movies I have ever watched.

The plot of the movie is this: a single father living with his two teenage daughters fears that his older child, Trudy, will marry one of the soldiers going off to war. This “marriage boom” has been all over the newspapers, and he forbids Trudy from going to an army dance. She tricks a childhood friend into driving her there anyway, and promptly hits her head dancing. However, during her blackout state, she marries one of the soldiers. The next day she finds out she is pregnant and can’t remember her supposed husband’s name.

This is a movie that, when not attempting to rely on broad slapstick comedy and playing the male protagonist’s stutter as if it’s funny, offers for laughs a scene in which Trudy proposes a double suicide to her childhood friend. The scene is supposed to elicit chuckles from the audience, but only succeeds in being extremely uncomfortable.

In addition, the blatant sexism from some of the characters isn’t charmingly 1944, it’s offensive and disturbing. Some choice dialogue includes the response from Trudy’s doctor after she tells him she can’t remember her name of her husband:

“The responsibility for recording a marriage has always been up to woman. If it wasn’t for her, marriage would have disappeared long since. No man is going to jeopardize his present or poison his future with a lot of little brats hollering around the house unless he’s forced to. It’s up to the woman to knock him down, hogtie him, and drag him in front of two witnesses immediately if not sooner.”

Wow, that’s really progressive. That’s really funny. That’s worthy of an Oscar nomination, right there.

In case you thought that misogyny was satire, according to Turner Classic Movies, Preston Sturges said in his autobiography that in making this film he wanted to “show what happens to young girls who disregard their parents’ advice and who confuse patriotism with promiscuity.” And don’t get me started on the ridiculous finale (although I did laugh at the bewildering cameos of people portraying political enemies of the time).

It’s a shame that the ultra-talented Betty Hutton was given the thankless task of this role (without even the charm of her trademark song-and-dance numbers). Another highlight is the smartly snarky Diana Lynn as Trudy’s younger sister. However, you can see them in other movies.

In many ways, this is a “you have to see it to believe it” film. Very of its time, the finale reaches for such unbelievable heights and strange gags that I simply laughed with incredulity. I’m glad that I saw it, so that I can know never to watch it again.

Review: The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (BBC 2015)

Courtesy of artofvfx.com

The gothic hues of Georgian England, photographed in all blue and green, fog and twisted old trees, beckon you with a whispery question: “Why is there no more magic done in England?” The question carries an air of both fiction and reality. You remember the stories of your childhood and the English novels that talked of secret doors that led to other worlds – but this world, as familiar as it feels to you, is new. Here, magic is just knowledge for scholars to horde – maybe a few street performers still make it seem mysterious and enticing, but for the most part, spells and tales of hidden realms are locked away in the private libraries of the wealthy educated class.

But wait. Here are some heroes: some characters to assure you that the world you stumbled into is not so sterile as it appears, for there will be magic done again in England, and adventure, and danger.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a particularly beautiful miniseries, not just because of the attention to cinematography and production design, but also (and predominantly) the honesty with which the characters are portrayed. Both of our title characters have good intentions. Both of them are very often wrong – in their actions or judgments. But they have humanity, the nature of which is at the core of this tale of magic.

The story contains a legend within itself, and that is what drives the plot: it was prophesized long ago that two magicians shall bring magic back to England, but only tragedy awaits them. Through their books, the war against Napoleon, local politics, and a contract with a magical being, they do indeed restore magic to their country – but was this truly the right choice to make? What have they unleashed upon their their country by unlocking the doors that had been shut for so long?

Courtesy of The Telegraph & Argus

Many reviews and summaries of this series have designated the two main characters as “rivals,” but I feel this is incorrect. Even in the series itself, the word “enemy” is used, but the absolute, dichotomous tone of the word feels wrong to describe their actual relationship. It is instead the complicated clash of ideals between teacher and student, who are more alike in skill and ideals than they would care to admit. They differ in their philosophy of action: whether to cautiously adhere to tradition, or to abandon it in favor of instinct and feeling. The viewer (especially considering the way the series portrays the two magicians) will likely side with the latter in the form of Strange, but the characters (due in no small part to the unfailing efforts of the actors, in the form of Eddie Marsan as Norrell and Bertie Carvel as Strange) offer something more complicated than a choice between good and bad. They are both right, and both wrong, and the two of them very much admire and hope for the approval of the other. Of course, each is too strong-willed to concede to what they consider the other’s “incorrect” way of thinking. But in the end, their relationship is one of respect and admiration.

The series itself, despite the evil, betrayal, and tragedy it portrays, truly believes in the inherent goodness of humankind. It represents the practice of magic as something as broken and faulty as anything a person would try to learn in everyday life. The world Jonathan Strange inhabits feels so much like an alternate past of our own. Won’t you cross through the mirror and explore this world, too? It’s a beautiful place, and dangerous too, but the exhilaration of magic is incomparable to any other journey you may take. Come to London, early 19th century, still breathing the last of its magic. See if you might watch it come back to life.

Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (BBC 2015)

Movie Review: There Will Be Blood (2008) – The Spirit, the Water, and the Blood

Courtesy of http://www.asset1.net

Paul Thomas Anderson holds the story wrapped in his hands, uncovering the pain and confusion of a family and showing it to us like a reflective opal. “Make of it what you will,” he says. The scenes are presented slowly, unfolding with little music: no emotive commentary on how we should feel, or what we should know about the characters. It’s all just happening. What can you, the viewer, do but take it all in?

The film culminates in a balance between drama and humor that is reminiscent of certain scenes in The Shining. Perhaps the comparison to Stanley Kubrick is apt: every symmetrical shot feels expertly lit and lovingly crafted, a small attempt at perfection.

Of course Daniel Day-Lewis holds the movie down with confident voice and charismatic presence without ever revealing the character’s real intentions, beyond what he shows in a few troubled, lingering shots of his face, all unflinching eye contact and a hateful, stubborn smile.

Paul Dano balances between soft-spoken assuredness and shrieking, animalistic chaos, while holding a gravity of emotion and truth that makes his character mesmerizing to watch and of such importance it is difficult to explain.

Perhaps that is what the whole film is, or any Paul Thomas Anderson movie might be: a presentation of people, as they are, simply stated but extraordinarily difficult to pin down or succinctly describe. There is pain and sarcasm and beautiful imagery, deceit and lies and power, oil and family and God. Make of it what you will.

Movie Review: There Will Be Blood (2008) – The Spirit, the Water, and the Blood

I remember

Every day now, I

close my eyes and a nighttime street comes to me

or Ikebukuro lights up like neon in my dreams

and I remember the feeling of sand between my toes

on Sekiya Beach as I got morning coffee

or I’m sitting with my computer in my lap

and I’m typing away

but the street outside Yoneyama comes back to me

and I remember the friendly, enthusiastic woman

who greeted us every time we got ramen

and nodded decisively as we awkwardly placed our orders

in broken Japanese

and I remember

the calm sensation

of walking as part of a group, but separate

with camera in hand

as cats slinked behind Inari

and spiders danced on Torii

and I remember

Roppongi and the museum

and the way it felt to look at ink beneath glass

and I remember

every day now

I remember.

I remember