My friend John Nelson first mentioned back in 2005 or so that he was going to Japan for that convention. I hadn’t thought about it up until then, but since I’ve been a fan of Japanese anime for a few years (and a science fiction fan for decades), I decided I’d attend that Worldcon, too. It occurred to me that this would be the perfect excuse to explore Japan by staying more than the week of the convention. After all, it seemed kind of a waste to take all the trouble to go halfway around the world, only to turn around and come back after a few days! The main problem with staying longer, though, was figuring out where to stay for weeks on end, without going broke!
After doing a lot of research, I discovered a company in Tokyo that specializes in month-to-month apartment leases, called “Sakura House“.
In Japan, most apartment companies expect tenants to sign up for 2 year leases (which was just a tad longer than I wanted to stay!), and to provide “key money” and a deposit. Sakura House started in 1992 offering to make it easy for students, business travelers, and tourists to stay for at least a month, without all the hassle of the usual Japanese apartment leasing. John and I researched the apartments available based on price, size and location, and settled on each getting an apartment with Sakura House in the Monzennakacho neighborhood of Tokyo.
With a place to stay for at least a month settled on, it was time to work on travel there and back and on attending the convention itself. Hotel reservations for the convention were handled by a travel agency associated with the convention organizers, but I decided to handle my own flight arrangements. I had been using a frequent-flyer credit card for many years and had travelled as often as possible with American Airlines. I had a substantial number of frequent-flyer miles accumulated by then, so I decided to cash some of them in. I was surprised to find that I could get a round-trip business-class ticket with miles to spare, so that’s what i signed up for. That took care of the cost of getting there. To attend a Worldcon, you have to pay the dues for that year’s convention, which also gives you the right to vote on that year’s Hugo Awards. Pretty good deal! Now, what to do about getting around Japan?
Japan has a railway system originally government-run but was privatized some years ago, called “Japan Railways” or “JR”. In order to promote tourism, Japan Rail offers tourists a “Japan Rail Pass” which is good for unlimited travel on any of the JR companies’ lines, for one, two or three weeks per pass. You can’t buy them in Japan, you have to buy the vouchers overseas and cash them in once you get to Japan.
Once you have your rail pass, you can show it to any ticket attendant and get on any train bound for anywhere JR goes. This includes the very expensive but very fast bullet trains (shinkansen) which can take you from one end of Japan to the other in a matter of hours. This sounded like too good a deal, so we both got enough rail passes to last the 5 weeks of the trip. I found that the one trip I made up to the Aomori Prefecture and back to Tokyo would have cost more than one of the rail passes I used, and I still had several days use out of the pass for the rest of the week! It turns out that staying in Tokyo meant that traveling by subway was more convenient, but for long hauls, JR Pass is the way to go!
So, travel to and from Japan was settled, staying in Japan was settled, and getting around Japan was settled. Now, what to do about actually surviving there? I’ve been a kind of language collector ever since I was in high school, where I took Latin for two years, then Russian and German in college for a year each. I looked at some of the self-teaching books on Japanese, but decided after several half-hearted attempts that it would be easier for me to take a couple of college-level courses on the language. In the summer of 2005 I enrolled at George Mason University, to take a “cram” course of Japanese 101 and 102, which would last 3 hours a night two nights a week for about 7 weeks.
Since the teachers were all native Japanese speakers, I got a lot out of the classes in terms of how to really pronounce the language, as well as useful information about how to write as well as speak, and about how the different politeness levels work. It was really challenging, but I managed to pull a high C out of the two classes, but I decided I needed to get better so I signed up for 101 in the Fall of ’05, and 102 in Spring ’06. Having more time to study and do homework meant I could absorb more, and gave me more time to practice. I went ahead and signed up for the “cram” 201 and 202 courses in the summer of ’06, and repeated them in Fall ’06 and Spring ’07.
Since the JAPA330 course was going to be starting just as I was taking off for Japan, I told the professor that I would try to keep a bi-lingual blog of my trip, so that she and the class could see what I was doing, and I could practice the language. You can see some of the attempts I made on my original blog pages, but I didn’t do a very good job. Unfortunately, I had no idea how much time it would take to write in Japanese, considering I really hadn’t learned enough to write very sophisticated sentences! As time went on I was spending less and less time on them. After a while I decided that I would concentrate on actually being in Japan, rather than try to write about it in a language I was just barely capable in!
Thanks to Professor So, I was able to learn and practice a lot of practical Japanese, and in the 300 and 400-level courses, I managed to even learn a bit about the culture of Japan. Unfortunately the rising cost of tuition has kept me from going back and finishing up the courses, but thanks to So-sensei I have the tools to keep studying on my own.
Eventually, doing so much running around in Tokyo and Japan each day took so much out of me that I had no energy left to even write up that day’s events! Therefore, I am going to rectify my failure to back then by posting a few “Flashback” entries over the next few weeks. I likely won’t be covering the whole 2007 trip, but I should be able to show a few more things than I did the first time!