Being out of an internet connection for two weeks is not fun. I haven’t had a connection in my room until my modem from NTT showed up a few days ago. But even then, it was terribly unreliable until I had time to stop by Yodobashi Camera and pick up a router. Now that I’m actually reconnected with the world again, here are some updates.
On the 27th, I made the trip from Tokyo (東京) to Sendai (仙台) via the Tohoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線). The scheduling was slightly annoying because I had to check out by 10 AM and I had to be in Sendai at 3 PM, but the Shinkansen trip would only take about 2 hours, leaving me with about 3 hours to kill. I pretty much headed right for the station after leaving the Weekly Mansion since it was raining and I had to deal with my luggage. Fortunately, I had the subway shortcut figured out so I managed to get to the station without getting terribly wet or dropping my luggage in the middle of the street. The subway shortcut, by the way, simply involves taking the escalator down into the subway station on the west side of Hakusan Dori, crossing under the street, then taking the escalator on the other side directly into the JR Sugamo Station. It’s quite handy on cold and rainy days and when one is in a hurry and the light just turned red.
Anyway, after catching up with Richard in the station, I boarded the Yamanote line and took it to Ueno. Transferring to the Shinkansen terminal is pretty simple, but takes a bit of coordination. First, the Shinkansen ticket is really two tickets. One is the standard fare (if you took regular trains, that’s how much it would cost) and the second is the Shinkansen surcharge (for the privilege of getting there faster). To enter the Shinkansen terminal, the tickets need to be stacked on top of each other and inserted into the gate at the same time. However, since you’re leaving the regular station at the same time, you also need to insert either the ticket for the regular JR line that you took to get there or swipe your suica card. Since I used my suica card to get on the Yamanote line in Sugamo, I popped the tickets in and then swiped my suica card. Just after wrestling myself and my luggage through the gate, I realized that I needed to grab my tickets from the far end of the gate since I would need them in Sendai to leave the Shinkansen terminal. However, in a moment of the kind that you really only see in comedy movies, just as I reached for the tickets sticking out of the top of the gate, some sort of timeout elapsed and it sucked them back in. Fortunately, it wasn’t a very busy day at the Shinkansen terminal and a station attendant happened to have been watching the whole thing. Having seem my reaction when the tickets disappeared, he came over, opened up a door on the side of the gate, pulled out a small metal box, dumped the tickets out, and handed them back to me. Whew!
After getting through the gate, we made our way to the underground Shinkansen platform. The Shinkansen requires special tracks that are difficult to run in the middle of a city (restricted grades and very large minimum radius of turn due to the speeds) so the Shinkansen lines run underground in Tokyo until they get out of the main downtown area. Me and Richard were a bit quick getting down to the platform, so we had to kill some time until a train headed to Sendai with non-reserved seats came through. We ended up taking the Max Yamabiko train at 11:14, it’s the one on the top of the track 20 side of the display. The train actually turned out to have two parts that were separated in Fukushima where the first half went towards Yamagata (山形) and the second half went towards Sendai.
After a bit of head scratching to figure out precisely what car to get on and where we were supposed to line up, we moved down the platform and found a place to sit down for a bit. Since there are quite a few different train configurations, the floor of the platform is a mess of stickers and lines of various colors indicating where the doors of the cars for each train type will end up and where people are supposed to line up for each door. There are also screens over each door location that indicate the next couple of trains that can be boarded from that particular location as well as small car number signs that change as each train comes through.
The Max Yamabiko train that we boarded happened to have a Pokemon design. Well, the first part of the train anyway. We boarded the latter half of the train since we weren’t going to Yamagata. The part we boarded was actually a double-decker, adding a small amount of complication to things as we had to drag our luggage up a short but very steep and narrow staircase to get to the upper floor. Once we got up there, we had to figure out what to do with our luggage, since apparently the trains aren’t designed with any sort of baggage compartments besides overhead shelves. We ended up stowing our luggage behind the last row of seats. By the time we actually sat down, the train was already above ground and heading out of Tokyo.
From what I gathered online, riding on the Shinkansen was supposed to be so smooth, it didn’t even feel like you were moving. Not surprisingly, that wasn’t quite the case. However, the ride was definitely very smooth. The train was definitely going very fast, though. I had to use a rather fast shutter speed to be able to take pictures of the countryside whizzing by without significant motion blur. Even so, missing the overhead catenary support posts and tensioning cables was more luck than anything else. I snapped quite a few shots with crisscrossing tensioning cables or big blurry support posts because they’re flying by all the time.
Finally, we arrived in Sendai and got off the train. In the Sendai station, the Shinkansen platform is actually on a floor above the rest of the station instead of underground like in Tokyo. After meeting up with a bunch of other exchange students and some people from Tohoku University, we boarded a shuttle bus that took us through Sendai to the Tohoku University International House (東北大学国際交流会館 touhoku daigaku kokusai kouryuu kaikan).
Once we arrived at the International House, they dragged us back into a meeting room for a brief orientation. After the orientation, they gave everyone a nice big stack of forms and we spent the next hour or so filling them out. Fortunately for me and the handful of other students who had attended the ILP program in Tokyo, we already had some of the necessary documents so we were able to skip a couple of forms. After that, the group split up between those who would be staying in the International House and those who would be staying in the University House Sanjo.
Since I would be staying in the International House, I joined that group. We were each given a folder with our keys and more paperwork to fill out. Then, someone from the International House showed everyone to their rooms. Since mine was the closest, she used it as an example for the rest of the group. A couple things to note, though. The International House is actually quite old. And my room is on the ground floor. When our guide opened up the door, my room seriously smelled like the basement of my grandma’s house in Virginia. It was a little unnerving, to say the least. After demonstrating how the hot water heater and stove worked, she took every one else off to show them to their rooms.
After collecting my suitcase from the storage room I had left it in earlier and getting a few things unpacked, I decided to get a bite to eat. I knew I could get something at the local convenience store, but I wanted something a bit more filling and hopefully more healthy. After walking around the area of town right next to the international house and seeing about five cleaners but no restaurants, I was beginning to get a little discouraged. But then I stumbled across a ramen shop that looked pretty reasonable. After a nice, large bowl of real Japanese ramen, I swung by the FamilyMart right next to the International House and bought a few things for breakfast.
The next day, we met up with the group MORI and took the bus to downtown Sendai to take care of some important paperwork. We stopped by the Aoba-ku (青葉区) ward office (区役所 kuyakusho) to fill out forms for the National Health Insurance (国民健康保険 kokumin kenkou hoken) and the Certificate of Alien Registration (外国人登録証明書 gaikokujin touroku shoumeisho). After turning in our forms and passports and waiting around for an hour or so, we left the ward office and headed across town to the 77 Bank head office. There, we filled out more paperwork to set up our bank accounts. In Japan, paperwork needs to be done just so otherwise they have you redo it. If there is a box that either needs to be checked or left blank, you have to put a check in it (✓) or leave it blank. If you put an X in it (✗), it’s no good and you have to get a new form and start over. Quite a few of us messed up at least once and had to get another form. I think one guy actually went through three forms before getting one filled out completely correctly. The Japanese and their paperwork….
After doing paperwork at the bank, we went to a nice Japanese restaurant for lunch. I got a tempura (天ぷら) set. I was considering getting sashimi (刺身), but it’s a good thing I didn’t because it turns out that it only came with two or three pretty small pieces of fish. We had some good fun talking while waiting for our food. Most of the people in our group could speak at least a little Japanese. However, there was this one Korean guy who didn’t speak any Japanese and wasn’t particularly good at English, either. When we went around the table introducing ourselves in Japanese, he was completely flustered. And to top it off, a little while later he was talking with one of the ladies from the MORI group in English and she then proceeded to compliment him on his english – in Japanese! It was pretty funny.
A 100 yen shop (100円ショップ hyaku en shoppu) was next on the list of places we visited to get some necessities. After that, we dropped by the bank one more time to pick up our new bank books. Finally, we hopped back on the bus and zipped back to the International House. Unfortunately, by the time we got back, the front desk was closed so I was unable to pick up the rest of my luggage that had just come in, so I had to pick it up the next day.
On Friday (Oct. 1st), we all piled onto a bus to zip over to Tohoku University’s Aobayama Campus (青葉山キャンパス) for our orientation. The first thing we did when we got there was…you guessed it…more paperwork! Once the paperwork was completed, there was a brief orientation followed by introductions and a group picture. Then we went on a brief campus tour of Aobayama campus, followed by a bus ride and a brief tour of Kawauchi campus and the university library. Finally, we took a bus back to the International House.
That evening, Fred organized a nomihoudai (飲み放題) at a bar in downtown Sendai. The group of international students who decided to tag along was so large we had to walk all the way to the bar. The upside of that, I suppose, is that we got a bit of an introduction to the streets of Sendai just in case we need to do some navigating later. Anyway, the nomihoudai was quite good. I suppose there could have been a bit more food, but I suppose that’s not necessarily the point of a nomihoudai. I did get to meet a few interesting people, though. After the party and a long walk back to the International House, I was definitely ready for a good night’s sleep.