Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Great Experiment

This is the blog post I've been turning over in my mind for the past two months, and I'm finally going to put it up here. A bit of a retrospective.

My life is generally incredibly busy--nearly every single day I spent in LA last month I was seeing people, friends, family, acquaintances--exploring, running around, doing all sorts of things. For a brief summary:
- Saw a bunch of great concerts (rock shows mostly), including The Killers, Green Day, Akron Family, Goodbye Motel, and The Faint.
- Saw and spent a lot of time with many friends (as well as acquaintances and family).
- Went to two(ish) Dodger games.
- Went to two tapings of The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien
- Made some money, enough to finance a new guitar! (There's a great saga about my new guitar, but let's just say for now that I'm very happy with what I got)
- Contacted friends from Russia, as well as some from Israel. (Skype and Vkontakte are great--VKontakte is the Russian ripoff of Facebook)
- Wrote the following text from my laptop, but my battery died before I could post it. It was a very "LA" sort of moment, and I wanted to preserve it...
< I'm sitting just outside a Coffee Bean & Teal Leaf at The Grove on 3rd&Fairfax in Los Angeles. I'm sipping a pumpkin Ice Blended. I'm watching the "trolley" leave, and in the last ten minutes I've heard Hebrew, Japanese, Spanish, and two other languages that might have been [Korean and perhaps Filipino. This is without a doubt the most cosmopolitan place I've seen in this city, with the possible exception of LAX.]

- Found some very good deals on things., and sold a couple old things too.
- Got my computer fixed, installed both Snow Leopard and Windows 7 on it, and upgraded the RAM.
- Collected things for Japan, acquired a TON of information, as well as books and supplies.
- Learned more about LA, and found some cool new places!
- Played a lot of guitar.
- Got some new clothes.
- Volunteered at the OCC Run/Walk at CBS Studios

The following text was written about one month ago and never posted. I feel so much different now from how I felt then, so I'm glad I wrote this.

< But today was different. I realized that I have ten days left, and I've been running around trying to do as much as possible as if to flesh out my curriculum vitae for a big interview coming up. I've been growing restless, living in my parents' house that no longer feels so much like my home. I had been away from this blog for a while in part because this particular post has loomed large over my head. I thought that I would write the post looking back on my summer abroad immediately once I returned home, but I didn't. I wrote a couple short posts about what I'd been doing during my return and a post about Birthright that ended up being more hortatory encouragement than searching exposé. It feels really good to get back to blogging--back to writing. One thing I have been doing, especially having new instruments in the house, is playing the guitar. I notice improvement every time, just like I've noticed personal improvement every time I've gone out to play tennis with Kyle, and that's really exciting for me. [Note added later: I notice the same thing now with my Japanese speaking and understanding, and it was similar with Russian language earlier this summer. Круто, or すごい, so to speak] A major goal of this whole fifteen months of study abroad is to develop personal confidence--a sense of self. It's a part of growing up, and I struggled with confidence for much of my childhood. When I'm playing "Thunder Road," it's really for me. Depression gives way to the more comfortable occasional melancholy of being young. Anxiety releases, and I find myself with some things that are lasting, permanent, and meaningful, all as I recognize my deeper sense of self through greater perspective. The result is growth, and I feel older and more mature. When this year 2009 began, I told myself that it would be a good year, and certainly better than the last. In truth it's been intense, and often very difficult, but it has been the sort of hardship that leads to profound growth, and I have indeed grown more than ever. To be honest, I was afraid of what the result would be, so it has been an encouraging surprise and an exciting journey for me to find that what I thought and hoped mattered to me really does matter, really is there, more than I could have realized, and the effect is something like trying to listen to music on a loud plane when the engined slow as you get closer to where you want to go and the music stays with you and seems all the clearer without so much noise. Music has a powerful way of affecting emotions.

Having grown up in LA, I have in my life spent lots of time in a car. Since I have been driving, I have always felt that I should be a good driver, though once I had been driving for a year or so, I realized that I like to drive fast and in control and to listen to music. In my life I often drive fast, trying to accumulate destinations. I want to say that I've been there. I craved the feeling of connectedness and wonder and joy that comes from experiencing something amazing. I craved it so much that I kept looking for it in all sorts of places.

Going abroad is like the final test, the ultimate, or to continue the analogy, maybe something like driving that car out past the familiar roads, away from the city, and searching because you have to find your own road.


Maybe that last bit it is somewhat cheese, but I've grown more in the past five or six months than I have ever thought possible. The absolute truth is that I'm having the time of my life here in Japan, and I feel more relaxed and more secure and generally happier with life than I have in many, many years. There is a song I listened to dozens of times this summer, more than any other song--"Soul Meets Body" by a band called Death Cab For Cutie. I'll let whoever reads the lyrics interpret them:

I want to live where soul meets body
And let the sun wrap its arms around me
And bathe my skin in water cool and cleansing
And feel, feel what its like to be new

Cause in my head there’s a greyhound station
Where I send my thoughts to far off destinations
So they may have a chance of finding a place
where they’re far more suited than here

And I cannot guess what we'll discover
When we turn the dirt with our palms cupped like shovels
But I know our filthy hands can wash one another’s
And not one speck will remain

And I do believe it’s true
That there are roads left in both of our shoes
But if the silence takes you
Then I hope it takes me too
So brown eyes I hold you near
Cause you’re the only song I want to hear
A melody softly soaring through my atmosphere

Where soul meets body
Where soul meets body
Where soul meets body

And I do believe it’s true
That there are roads left in both of our shoes
But if the silence takes you
Then I hope it takes me too
So brown eyes I hold you near
Cause you’re the only song I want to hear
A melody softly soaring through my atmosphere
A melody softly soaring through my atmosphere
A melody softly soaring through my atmosphere
A melody softly soaring through my atmosphere

Even now, I feel nostalgic looking at those lyrics. Now, for the first time since I've ever had a conscious awareness of such a concept, I feel that I am in the right place at the right time, and I'm totally loving it.

I've made a Flickr account (link) with some of my best pictures from this summer. The plan is to periodically add pictures to it, from my various adventures in life--only my absolute best or perhaps most interesting photos. Check it out!

Now, obviously, this post is much, much different from what it would have been two months ago when I thought I'd actually be writing it. I wanted to talk about all the new perspective I've gained on life, thoughts on speaking and hearing a different language, thoughts on comparing cultures, thoughts on my own life and thoughts on America too. Fact is, I've been doing that a lot anyhow, but it's always worth mentioning.

I've said many times that I experienced a lot of culture shock in Russia, and that it took about five weeks for me to come to terms with it and feel more comfortable. Fact is, I still don't particularly like Russian culture. Russian people that I met in Russia would tell me that life in Russia is difficult, and it's also difficult to LEAVE Russia, should they so desire. What I got from my host mother on the issue is that leaving Russia is basically not an option, so it's not worth thinking about. Everyday life was often full of apparent inconsistencies. There's a stereotype of "the typical Russian soul," and foreigners seem to love joking with Russians about what the Real Russian Soul might actually be. Russians I met and asked about this question were often mildly amused, and one friend of mine compared it to the idea of the American Dream (occasionally, American Spirit), as in a very broad cultural ideal for which an attempt at definition is often suggested but rarely attempted.

Perhaps the fact is that Russian culture is simply different. As an American who has been rooted in America for at least four generations no matter how you look at it, I had a hard time adjusting to my first time living in a foreign country--especially in one with a reputation for life being hard. Russian history is full of hardship, to put it very simply, but I discovered in Dostoevsky and in the people I met in Russia a certain determination for life that I found very powerful. It was this determination that made me think I might want my university program to end up being ILVS (International Letters and Visual Studies) after all, with a focus on Literature: comparing Japanese and Russian, to be exact. (So now in Japan, I've organized a weekly Russian Literature class that I'm doing for credit--entirely in Russian, of course.) Even though "Russian Culture" and life in Russia doesn't particularly interest me, maybe it is in the Russian Soul that I've found something to fascinate me.

In Israel as well, I found an unexpected connection. I was raised in a nonreligious household but with certain cultural ties to secular American Judaism and New England Protestantism that helped defined me also. By the circumstances of my life growing up, or for whatever reason, I felt more connected to Judaism, so I did the Birthright program in Israel. What I found was a place and a culture that I loved without expecting to love (as, I suppose, love often happens), a connection I wasn't expecting to feel, and an unexpectedly amazing experience.

It's true that experience is what you make it, and for me and where I was in life, I needed perspective on myself. I needed to get away. I'm glad that my computer was broken for two months, that I felt out of touch in Russia. Going abroad was something I knew I needed, and it's been really good for me. Looking back now, I have so much appreciation and gratitude for where I've been--and it's true what they say, that going through hard times makes a person stronger. I've grown up a lot. I love my life now, and I have a much better sense of myself. It would be foolish to suspect that I know where I'm going, but I'm really not so worried about it anymore.

April 27, during a rather difficult time for me. This is a photo of my Japanese 2 class at the end of the year--on the far right next to me is Koizumi-sensei. I have very few pictures from my last semester at Tufts; this is a tiny glimpse at where I was coming from.

Drinking a Baltika 7 at a rock club in Saint-Petersburg. I've mellowed out a lot; I'm a lot less uptight than I have been for a long time. (As Russian beers go, I don't recommend Baltika 7.)

With my new Israeli friend Dean, in Israel of course. He's one of the great new people I've met, and I'm glad to say we've kept in touch since then too.

Photo from the choir performance during my last week in Russia. The girl in the salmon-color top is Nadezhda, the lead singer from Лесной Пегас (Forest Pegasus), a really awesome band (they're from Псков/Pskov, actually) in Russia that you should check out. She was our choir director, and the guy at the far right is Sasha, our guitarist and musical director. We had a great time in the choir, and I was glad to learn some Russian songs! My love for music, both to create and appreciate, is another part of me that solidified this summer. From right: Sasha, Leo, me, Olivia, Nadezhda, Clare, Alena, Heather.

Our group leaders in Israel, at the very end of the program at the airport. The guy in green in the middle, Shahar, was our main guide and group leader. Like other group leaders for outdoor educational trips I've been on, he had a great personality and an awesome humanity about him. I learned a ton from him and from all of these people, and I found them all to be incredibly inspiring. I can't wait to go back to Israel again someday. From left: Abra, Gordon, Shahar, Jason, Avishai.

With my friend Sasha, in front of that Vasileostrovskaya metro station in Saint-Petersburg. I met with Sasha at great length three or four times after I met him, to talk about language and culture. From these meetings, I learned a great deal about culture itself, and I saw valuable perspective on myself as an American. I learned how to use the phrase "in my country" with respect, as I saw myself as a person of substance from a specific place that actually does have a culture.

I have an enormous amount of respect for these guys. That's Dean on the left, and my other friend Amos on the right. They're both officers in the Israeli Defence Forces. I'd never really known any soldiers before, but these guys are my friends. Not only that, but I feel a personal connection to what they're fighting for that goes beyond my friendship with them. This was new for me, and as I thought about what it would be like for me to do what they do, I felt great respect and admiration for them. They're real, good people, doing the best they can, and they're part of something that makes them strong in a way I'll likely never know. Even though I ought to hope I'll never have to do what they do, part of me really, truly wanted to be in their boots, and I felt a glimmer of understanding for what it is that makes young people, perhaps especially young men, want to put on such a uniform.

On board one of the tall ships at the Tall Ships' Races 2009 festival. I reconnected with my love of sailing and ships and the sea, and made a personal resolve to return to it at some time in the future. I also experienced one of the most beautiful moments in my recent memory, as the ships were leaving port and sounding their horns.

Photo from when I saw The Killers live at UC Irvine last month. I love going to rock shows, and this was certainly a great one. I'm proud of the photo with all the lights and confetti, but besides all that, it's indicative of part of what makes it so cool to go to shows.

On May 12 in Chicago, I saw Bruce Springsteen with my best friend Zach. It was my third time seeing Springsteen, probably my favorite musician and performer of all. At that time (or any time, really), the company of Zach and the Boss was exactly what I needed. Besides that, it was a hell of a great show! In a massive arena (it's where the Chicago Bulls play), we were in the pit, about ten people back from the very front. AMAZING.

With my friend Vitaly and his son Kiril (probably the cutest kid ever to exist), in Saint-Petersburg. Vitaly was enormously kind and generous to me, and he invited me to visit him and his wife and son at their house outside the city. I had a great time, and as a guest in someone else's home I felt humbled as I learned about what their life is really like. Vitaly is a computer programmer working for Smolny (and, by definition I suppose, for Saint-Petersburg State University), and he's one of the nicest, funniest guys you'll ever meet. Plus, he and his wife are really into anime and love the show Babylon 5, my favorite tv show ever.

With my friend Viktor in a Petersburg metro station. This guy is a ton of fun. I spent a lot of time with him and another friend named Ruslan toward the end of my stay in Russia this summer, and I learned more about what life in Petersburg is like for someone around my age. We had a great time walking around the city, going to a hockey game, discussing the finer points of language (swear words), and we're still keeping in touch too.

The only decent picture I have of me with my Russian host mother Sveta. This was taken on my very last day in Russia, mere seconds before I dashed out the door to get to the airport, courtesy of a very kind acquaintance who saved me a TON of time and money by driving me there. Sveta was really wonderful--a practical and personable woman who cared about my well-being, physically, mentally, and in terms of my education as well.

Photo with my brother Matt at Lowry's steak and chop restaurant in Los Angeles, courtesy of my grandmother and her husband. Another thing that's happened in the past year is that I've grown a lot closer with my brother, and for that I am so, so glad. Matt is awesome, and actually, today (Oct 26) happens to be his 23rd birthday. Happy birthday, Matt! Now come visit me in Japan and we'll go clubbing!!

Photo on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, with my dad, Judie the makeup artist, and a totally awesome Australian rock band that is about to take the world by storm. I was photographer for the band at their showcase at The Roxy, and then we all went out afterward. Opportunities like this wouldn't exist without my dad, and I'm glad I've gotten to know him better this summer. Check out his new website!!

Photo with my friend Ido in Tel-Aviv, on my last night of traveling abroad this summer. Goldstar beer is ridiculously tasty. I had a fantastic time in Israel that whole day, and it's entirely thanks to my friends there--Pri especially, as well as Ido, Mor, and Shani.

In Vyborg (near Finland!), my second-to-last weekend in Russia. We visited the old castle, and there I got to try on some knight's gear. I then proceeded to defend the honor of my dear friend Alena, another wonderful person I met abroad. I'm still in touch with her, too--earlier this week, we talked for an hour entirely in Russian. Благодаря Skype!

Photo with my mom (!) on my second-to-last day in LA (September 28) before leaving for Japan. I spent most of the day with her, and we had a really wonderful time. I love my mom!

I'd say this was a rather amazing summer.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Update: My room!

I've been so busy with various activities, I haven't had time for an update. I don't even have time now, but here are some quick pictures of my room! I'll make a real update when I can. Really quickly, life is amazing here and I'm basically having the time of my life. But now I must study Japanese, because it is difficult and requires much studying!

My kitchen! Fridge/freezer on the left. That's my new rice cooker in the middle, my pride and joy. I love having my own kitchen!

View looking the other way. Pantry and such.

The bathroom is a combined toilet and shower. And they said that multitasking doesn't happen in Japanese society!

Looking more into the main part of the room. The bed is quite comfortable actually, with a futon top and a strange pillow that seems to be made of beans. That's my new guitar over there in the corner, obtained two days before I left the US. I've been very happy with it! More on that later. Two maps of Japan are taped to the wall there, one in English (free at the Japan Tourism Center in LA!) and one in Japanese (only ¥100, about $1!). Currently, the top shelf of that metal thing is inhabited by my Jōdō (杖道:"the way of the staff") gi (the uniform for it), as well as a karate gi, and my nice camera.

View looking a bit to the left (instead of a bit to the right), where you can see my Bashō print, my dehumidifier, and some of my desk.

The Desk! Somehow I managed to finagle United Airlines into letting me bring all those books without any fees at all. Nice. That's my New Japanese Cell Phone From The Future, on the right.

View the other way.

And in the daytime, my balcony.

My Excellent Panda, and my Boss Coffee poster that I got for free. I don't know if you knew this, but Suntory Boss is the Boss of them All.


Monday, October 12, 2009


(でんわ / denwa) - phone

I have a Japanese cell phone that is so awesome, it could literally eat your lame phone. The thing gets digital TV broadcasts FOR FREE, and seems to play them in HD. It has an infrared data port, an unexpectedly useful device that's great for meeting new people. It can scan business cards and text with OCR that works for Japanese and English both. It has an internet-enabled dictionary. It has internet. It has email/MMS. It can record TV, do video, make video calls, AND IT WAS ONE OF THE CHEAPEST PHONES I COULD GET.

The number is similar to my American number, sort of. I've also got a Softbank C-mail address now, so if you text or email apmichaelson(((at-sign))), then you'll be texting me in Japan.

I RECEIVE ALL CALLS FOR FREE AT ALL TIMES. And I think I can receive those MMS C-mail messages at all times too.

My phone number is
the country code for Japan (+81) and then 080-3743-xxxx (those last four digits being the same as my American phone).

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Alexander Michaelson
Kanazawa University International House, 204
Ta 1-1, Kakuma-machi, Kanazawa
Ishikawa 920-1192 JAPAN

(Baked goods are appreciated! Among other things like letters and presents and such too. Give me your address and you can get a Japan postcard!! Kawaii!)


(たいふう / taifuu): TYPHOON!!!!

In a few hours, Typhoon Melor will hit Kanazawa! I've never experienced a typhoon before, so I'm pretty stoked. Although tomorrow is supposed to be the first day of classes, they might be cancelled! Typhoon Day!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Beautiful City and the Well of Truth

Sign on campus: 金沢大学 (かなざわだいがく / Kanazawa Daigaku): Kanazawa University. That's Marcell on the right, one of the other Tufts guys, though he's originally from Hungary.

Kanazawa is amazingly beautiful. Of all the places in the world where I have been, I think there's no more photogenic city I've ever seen. The city is beautiful and a ton of fun, the other international students are amazing (and the most cosmopolitan group of people I've ever known), and the university is vastly exciting. Besides the other Tufts guys, I have friends here at KUSEP now from Germany, Finland, Ireland, Russia, Korea, China, Czech Republic, England, Australia, and of course Japan. My room is fantastic--it's got every amenity I could ever ask for and then some. Today I did a lot of shopping, and I didn't get a rice cooker (YET), but I did get a bunch of useful things. It's really really late because there's ALWAYS awesome stuff to do, but I wanted to get in a quick post here. With some pictures! Check out my photos on Facebook (just uploaded a bunch), but here are a few for the blog too. Photos of my room are to come--still decorating (though I finished moving in), so I haven't really taken any yet.

Today we did Alien Registration and the Japanese Language Placement Exam, also. I now have a booklet called You Too Are a Citizen of Kanazawa! Plus, I got my personal hanko name seal: I am "Well of Truth"! Bitchin, as they say.'s the place where I live!

Street in front of Kenroku-en, the night of the Moon Festival.

Autumn moon reflecting off the stream at Kenroku-en.

Koto players underneath the moon.

Saturday early afternoon on campus, before classes have really gotten started, so there aren't many people about.

This is my university now.

City tour day! The Tufts group, led by Makiko Kura (in the background, our Tufts program assistant director), all spent the entire day exploring different sites all over the city. It was an incredible, wonderful day. The food everywhere, by the way, has been pretty amazing.

This is where I live. The big green area in the middle back and slightly to the left is Kenroku-en. To the right of it in the other hill is the samurai castle.

Tufts-in-Japan 2009-2010
In the Geisha District of Kanazawa

A view of Kenroku-en in the daytime.

In a special exhibit room at the Kanazawa 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. It's awesome. I'd certainly say it was the best and most interesting collection of contemporary art I've ever seen. (This was before we visited the ukiyo-e woodblock print museum.)

The most advanced sink I've ever seen. Automatic water, soap, and dryer in one bowl. They all work really well and they are efficiently integrated. What a concept!

One of many gems.

I came very close to buying this track jacket! I have decided that I won't ever leave Japan without buying a track jacket.

Special thanks to Rich Marchewka for the camera that produces the most spectacular pictures. Rich, if you're reading this, you'll soon see some photos from summer! Thanks again!

Thursday, October 1, 2009


hajimemashite = Nice to meet you!

After roughly 25 hours of travel (though it also seems I slept through most of it), PLUS a 16-hour time change, I'm in my own room at the International House at Kanazawa University. In Japan. With all of my stuff, plus some welcome gifts and stipend money. Such a welcome! We arrived here at the university after midnight, but now...I'm here! The other students in the program seem to be really awesome and diverse--a couple of guys from Egypt, a girl from Russia (I'll get to practice Russian!), two students from Sheffield, England, a Chinese guy, a guy from Finland...the list goes on, and everyone is really nice and excited to be here. I just realized that I haven't slept in a bed since...well, it's the day before yesterday now, so I'm looking forward to getting in that super comfortable-looking bed. I haven't seen much Japan yet, since I slept most of the way here from Kansai International Airport and it's dark, but the view from my balcony is pretty cool. YES I HAVE MY OWN BALCONY! The room is really ridiculously nice--there's an awesome balcony overlooking what seems to be a field in the middle of campus (I'm on the second floor), a heater, dehumidifier, air conditioner, internet access, vacuum, refrigerator, induction heating plate, closet wardrobe, shower/toilet/washroom, kitchen sink, and a bed that looks to be amazingly comfortable.
So with that said I'm going to bed!


(にほん / nihon: Japan)


I'm enjoying free wifi at Osaka Kansai International Airport at the moment, having just gone through customs very quickly and easily (yet totally smooth and professional), now waiting for the "Jumbo Taxi" to pick me up and take me to Kanazawa University. I still can hardly believe I'm actually here, in Japan, to stay, for the duration. I hardly have any impressions yet--I was enjoying my time in LA up to the very last minute (I was in the audience for The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien last night) and now suddenly I'm halfway across the world, with my awesome new guitar and a ton of other luggage.

Really, the overwhelming impression that I've felt so far is how very smooth it's all been. I slept through most of the flight to Osaka from San Francisco, had some nice conversation with the person next to me on the plane, read through my handbooks for the program, and now I'm here. Totally business as usual. It's certainly not a bad start though--I have a feeling that my experience in Japan is something that won't happen all at once. It'll be gradual. I expect that the first couple of months will actually be quite difficult (albeit awesome and tons of fun), considering my present challenges with the language, but it'll get better and better!

I think the other part of it, though, is that this is totally new. Yes, I've thought and talked about ways I connect and relate to Japanese culture, and reasons why I'm interested in Japanese culture, but there's nothing personal about this connection. I have no ancestry or family here. I'll be living in a culture probably more foreign than anything I've known before, and this time I'm on my own, responsible for my own space. I'm incredibly excited, but I'm feeling cautious to start. I've been wanting my own space more and more recently, and now I'm finally going to have it in what is undoubtedly for me the best way possible. Every minute I think about it, I realize it more and more--

This is going to be an amazing, unbelievable, incredible, unforgettable year...!!!!

行きましょう!! Let's go!!