When you lose your passport...

... the trick is NOT to freak out. As a person who self-identifies as an eternal optimist, I did what any rational-thinking person would do: tore my room to pieces. Ten minutes later, everything I possessed had been flung about the room, making a mockery of my oh-so-careful unpacking, and I knew that my passport was lost. Not that that stopped me from checking every pocket of every stitch of clothing (again), or flicking through every single stack of books. Twice.

As it turned out, my passport was in the ONE bag that hadn't made the transition to my second host family's house (the fact that I was onto my THIRD family and hadn't checked my passport should tell you that I was CONVINCED I had put it away carefully), and the AMAZING, FANTASTIC, HARD-WORKING folks at the Japanese host organisation drove immediately to my first family and grabbed my stuff. I asked my family to PLEASE check the bags themselves, but they wouldn't ever dream of going through my private things. One of the situations where Japanese politeness and Irish practicality don't mesh together well, I suppose.

One of the upsides to the whole affair was that when I checked the bundle of money that I had kept with my passport there was significantly more money there than I remembered putting away! So, naturally, I blew it all in a trip to Tokyo the next day. In hindsight, had my passport been lost I could have just called into the embassy while I was in Tokyo, but I wasn't really in a mood to listen to anything but my own panic, to be honest. Not that it would be a bad thing, per se, to be stranded in Japan, but my friends and family would probably fly over here just to beat me for it. Six weeks is a very long time - for them! For me, it feels like everything has just sped up so much this last week. I mean, I only have 5 days left in Japan (today doesn't count, for reasons I will explain later)! Wow. When you write it down it seems so much more... menacing. Five days... five days... five days...

SO a skip to the next topic is in order, before I begin to pity myself! A six week FREE trip to the other side of the world is a LOT more than a majority of people will ever get to experience! Now is not the time to be greedy.

Before I talk about Tokyo, I want to continue my habit of reinforcing some cultural stereotypes: Japanese people look remarkably young for their age! I thought my new host mother was in her forties, but in fact she is almost sixty! And when her daughter called in with her four-year-old son, I had to get her to repeat that she was not actually twenty four but THIRTY four! [a lot of fours there...] Japanese elderly people are remarkable, though... Their age never really catches up with their physical experience (my first grandmother did NOT look eighty, and my latest grandmother doesn't look a day past seventy but is actually eighty eight!), but it never seems to affect their day-to-day lives, either. With my second host family, the grandparents (in their seventies) took care of all the gardening and harvesting the vegetables for the whole family! I think this is because they are never told to "get old"; I'd imagine that they will stop doing hard physical work when they physically can no longer get out of the house, which isn't likely to happen this side of their centenary. Not that Irish elderly people are OLD, but there is such an enormous difference regarding what arbitrary limits society places on their abilities that... well, it's embarrassing!

Obligatory cultural sound-bite out of the way, onto the fun stuff: TOKYO! This was the Japan that I had come to see: a futuristic metropolis that is impossible to get bored in and gets destroyed by giant robots on a weekly basis. Unfortunately I did NOT meet Godzilla, or Optimus Prime, but I DID get to see some equally bizzare things! One of our first stops was Akihabara, quite possibly the electronics capital of the world, but also a Mecca for Otaku the world over! For the non-geeks among you, Otaku are those people who are really into the whole anime and manga scene, analoguous to the Trekkies of America. To give you an idea of how much geek stuff there is here, imagine the local hobby store in the town near you. The one that is filled with model figurines, merchandise, comic books - even hobby trains will do. Now imagine an entire building filled with twenty of those shops. Now imagine several of those buildings within a two block radius. THAT is Akihabara.

Of course, I couldn't leave Akiba without SOME form of electronics (I had already bought a shameful amount of merchandise), so I bought a great camera, which will probably be available in Ireland at a comparable price in about five years or so. Next stop: THE POKEMON CENTER!!!!! This place is so popular that it practically has its own train station. It DOES have its own pokemon-themed train. My eight-year-old self (who am I kidding; my EIGHTEEN-year-old self) had a dream come yesterday. To give you an idea of how crowded the shop was, they had a woman employed to hold a sign pointing to the line of cashiers. How the children did not get trampled I will never be able to work out. There was a queue to play the new games, which I would have forced my parents to queue in if I was that age, but - now I feel OLD - I didn't want to wait in line for eternity! Some of my friends back home had promised my generous cash rewards for merchandise from this store, so, of course, I obliged.

After some victory Starbucks (the fourth ATM we tried finally accepted my Laser card, and was conveniently located beside a Starbucks), and a disgusting spree at my personal favourite geek store, we arrived in Akihabara. This is the place you see in all those photos of NEO-TOKYO. One THOUSAND people cross the street at once here. It reminded me more of a stampede than anything else: never before had I seen that many people all battling to cross a street at once. You could probably have walked on peoples' shoulders all the way across the street blindfolded and never have your foot miss a step. To compliment all my nerd-driven purchases, I got a pair of traditional wooden sandals, or geta. Not entirely for cultural reasons, though: they will be useful to cosplay, or "dress-up", as we would say. In Tokyo you will see crowds of teenagers dressed a their favourite anime characters pretty frequently. The one place I didn't visit was Harajuku, the coolest place in all of Japan. Every single fashion trend in the country originates here. This place is so cool that what you buy is already out of fashion by the time you leave the store. I DID see some maids, though. Yep, maids. Maid cafes are a bit of a craze in Tokyo: you pay an exorbitant fee to eat in a themed restaurant and get served by women in matching outfits. There are standard Victorian maid cafes, Goth cafes: a cafe to suit every perversion. I use that term deliberately, because let's face it: you know the REAL reason men pay to have these women in servants' outfits fawn all over them, right?

The complete and utter antithises to this experience took place this morning, when I woke up at the even ungodlier hour of half four to practice zazen, or traditional Zen meditation. My friends would tell you that I have no problem letting my mind go blank, even mid-conversation (my head kinda tilts, and they know what's going on by the fact that I'm more looking THROUGH them than at them, and I don't really blink. Can be handy when you want to appear to be paying attention in class, though), but this was REAL meditation. After some taiso (stretching, Japanese style), the monk led us into an adjoining room where we knelt on cushions, faced the sliding paper door, and meditated. In silence, without moving - though NOT with your eyes closed, as you would think. We did this for twenty minutes the first time, and a half an hour the second time, and you do lose all sense of time. The fact that I was highly sleep-deprived and that the whole point was to empty your mind didn't do much to help me stay awake. And (as I learned after the first repetition) sitting cross-legged for that long REALLY HURTS. The monk helped me correct my poor posture for the second round, which was much more comfortable but much harder to stay awake...

I'm not sure how much you know about Japanese religion, so I'll tell you a bit about it. Japanese are rather religiously ambiguous: Buddhism and Shintoism (the traditional animist religion) have become so much a feature of this place that few people celebrate one and not the other. In every house I have stayed in stands a prayer altar, with a figure of Buddha, mortuary tablets and photos of deceased family members, and offerings of rice, water, and in the case of my first host family, beer and sake (obaa-san's recently deceased husband was fond of the drink, and she had a sense of humour), and incense, of course. On my second weekend in Japan, I went with obaa-san to visit the family's grave site near the house, and then we went to the local Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple. Ancestor worship, while it may sound strange or even backward here in Europe, ensures that grave sites are always cared for by families, which is sadly often not the case here. What was very interesting for me was the way that obaa-san told me the stories of all of her relatives, and about the family patriarch (I believe that's what who she was on about... Unfortunately my limited Japanese meant I couldn't follow the hold thing), and about the Buddhist gravestone for her husband, but later when we went to the shrine she told me about the god that was enshrined there and how to pay my respects properly. It is not uncommon to have a Shinto wedding and a Buddhist funeral here. While most young Japanese, like their Irish counterparts, identify as non-religious, everyone still turns out for the frequent Shinto festivals, and most would toss a coin in the box or buy omikuji (good luck charms, which I had my friends decipher for me) if they visit a shrine. These religions represent much of the spirit of classical, romantic Japan, and you can still see them today if you know where to look.

Wow... these things always turn out much longer than I expect, and never really deal with the topic I intend either! Oh well. As long as you can understand what I'm on about that's the important thing!

And yes, I DO have plenty of photos - on my Facebook account!