Thursday, May 17, 2007

Hi all!

Ok, I have a lot to catch up on. Let’s begin with Thailand. I chose Thailand for our first venture outside Japan because it sounded exciting and I wanted to go somewhere I didn’t know much about. It also is a Buddhist country and that intrigued me too. So, off we went to Thailand. We arrived in the evening, traded in some Yen for some Bat and were directed to the taxi stands. It was a long way into the city to the airport, and the highways were much wider than Japan. It looked a lot like the States. The driving there is insane. The lane divisions are more “implied” and most drivers only loosely adhere to them. Once we got to the city, it was after 9pm, we had no hotel reservations, but we did have the name of a hotel recommended by a couple friends. We were dropped off on Koh San Road, which our travel book said was a good place to find a room for the night if you’ve just arrived late in the city.

Steve and I were a bit disorientated. (With all the vendors and neon lights, it was a bit like being George Bailey in Potter’s Ville!)

No one seemed to know the hotel we were making for and we were tired and jet-lagged. We decided to just sit down somewhere to have a drink and get our bearings. One immediate issue was getting used to the currency- and it wasn’t just the conversion rates. (We’d converted from yen to bat, but then usually had to think in terms of the bat to the dollar, so that was a whole other challenge, but I disgress…) The value of a dollar is sooo different in Thailand. In Japan, its not too different from living in a city in the US, things are a bit more expensive, but that’s all. In Thailand, everything was so cheap that my $6 drink at the bar could have paid for a 2 nights stay at a guesthouse in the city!

As it was, when I ordered my whiskey and coke, they were a bit surprised, then they brought me a whole 5th of whiskey and a full bottle of coke!

We couldn't find the hotel our friends had told us about, so we ended up walking down a little alley to a place called ‘The Apple House’ which I thought I’d read about in the guide book.

It turned out to be a cool little guesthouse and we chatted with the other guests- a couple girls from Italy who had biked to Bangkok from China (yes, its as long a trip as it sounds!) and a couple guys from… I can’t remember now. We sat out in the alley and watched the cats wander by (they are everywhere) and avoided the flying cockroaches. We retired to our room, which was just a plain ol’ room with a bed and a fan, that’s it. But it was comfortable and we were tired and grateful. Later that night I ran into another issue: bathrooms. There was a western-style toilet, a hose, and a basin filled with water with a ladle. No toilet paper. There was no back to the toilet, it was a septic system. Later, Steve and I found the section in the travel book that described how your supposed to use the toilets: you use the hose to cleanse yourself, and then ladle water from the basin into the toilet to ‘sink’ your waste.

In the morning we tried to talk with the older woman who owned the guesthouse (she slept on a cot out in the middle of the main room, so it felt like you were crashing at your grandma’s place) and with the help of her European friend, we were guided to a street that had several travel agencies. We were making for Koh Chang, an island in the Gulf of Thailand on the eastern side. It’s the western and south part of Thailand that has the more tourist-y, popular islands, (and the ones hit by the tsunami) but Steve and I wanted somewhere less developed and less populated. Koh Chang seemed like a chill, hippy hideout, so we opted for it.

We had planned to leave in the late morning and get there by evening, but discovered that we’d already missed the morning bus and would have to take the late, overnight bus, which was fine. We got some info from a tourist booth and then took a tuk-tuk (think of a golf cart and then put fringe on the top and speed it up, there you have it) to TAT (tourist association of Thailand) and had a very nice lady call a few places on Koh Chang for us and finally book us a place there. The price sounded good to us, but she said it was pricey because a lot of places were already booked up. She was nice, but I’m sure she made her own hefty commission on the arrangements.

We decided to explore Bangkok for the rest of the day and the tuk-tuk driver said he could take us wherever for the whole day at a flat rate. Now, at TAT, the lady had told us these dudes get paid by the government, so they really shouldn’t be changing people, but Thailand is a tourist-based economy and everyone is trying to make a buck. The people aren’t rude, but they can be very crafty and sly about getting their money. With the daily wage being so low, you can’t blame them, but the attitude unnerved me. The tuk-tuk drivers had a bad reputation for conning people, but Steve wanted to use them rather than a plain old cab, so I went along with it. We asked the guy to take us to the Reclining Buddha. I think it is the largest statue of a Buddha in a prone position and its supposed to be impressive. Of course, I wouldn’t really know, because we never made it there. The driver said he had to refuel and dropped us off at a jewelry place- just the kind of thing the guide warned us of. When he picked us up and it was obvious we hadn’t bought anything (and he hadn’t made his cut), he dropped us off at the first wat (a Thailand Buddhist temple) and told us “oh, yeah, the reclining buddha’s here” and asked for his cash. Here's a couple pics I took at the wat (which had a 'Standing Buddha' but no reclining Buddha).

We walked back to Koh San Road and shopped for the rest of the day. Between shopping, I drank down a couple coconuts and watched the roaming dogs and cats.

Beneath the vendor’s table that lined the streets, you could usually see children or dogs dosing. Cats walked around the many open-air kitchens set up on the street. Kids were bathed in plastic tubs on the sidewalk. We noted the many people wearing pale yellow polo shirts with the Thailand flag logo on them. Later, on the cab ride back to the airport, we learned that the sales of these shirts supported the Thai monarchy. Interesting, ne?

So, that night we were on our way to the island of Koh Chang. The bus was a double-decker and had AC, thank heavens! But the tiny toilet still had no tissue and only a basin of water! The ride was 4-5 hrs. We arrived early and slept on the bus until morning.

The ferry ride was about 20 minutes. The next few days were spent chillin’ in Koh Chang.

Though not as developed as some islands, it’s definitely in development- construction is everywhere. It’ll look quite different in a few years by all accounts. Too bad really. Our little hut had its own bathroom (bonus!) and was small, but cute. Here's a shot of the inside...

And the view from the outside...

And the cat that adopted us and visited nearly everyday...

There was a white sand beach within walking distance.

The beaches were one of the main reasons I chose an island local for the bulk of our time in Thailand. The water was clear and blue and bath-water warm! It really was gorgeous, though it somehow didn't feel real- like we were walking in a painting. The only problems were a worry that the coconuts might fall on our heads (I hadn't thought of it and as soon as Steve mentioned it, I couldn't get it out of my head!) and the fact we got sunburn. It was pretty unavoidable after being bundled up all winter then going to the tropics! It’s was ok, though, because we treated ourselves to some treatments at a local sauna/ day spa that became a highlight of the trip. It was run by an English ex-pat and it was wonderful! The sauna itself was in the center of the outdoor spa (it was a circular structure lined with benches that surrounded the sauna) and the steam inside was infused with all kinds of natural herbs. Here you can see the wooden doors leading inside.

The inside of the sauna had several 'windows' created from installing colored bottles in the walls. When the light from outside came through, you could see the colors reflected in the steam. It made everything glow in a wonderful, soft light, though the rest of the space stayed dark enough that if you moved out of the light, your neighbor only a few feet away couldn’t see you. When it became a bit too hot inside, you could step out and cool down by going to the one of the outdoor showers. We went there a lot in the evening. Here's a nice night shot I got with my tiny, tiny new Japanese camera I bought (with the help of my pal Doc, whose Japanese is very, very good!):

We also both got Thai massages, a milk/honey/tamarind & tumeric body treatment, a lime hair treatment, and I opted for a fresh mint and lemon smoothee that was unbelievable! All of it was so damn cheap! The only downside was that to get there we had to walk past a bridge that often had a pack of dogs ‘guarding’ it. All they did was bark, but it always made me nervous.

We also ate well. Check out the crazy bruchetta!

We went a couple times to a place called the Mangrove, which was beautiful, right on the beach, and even had an old guitar they let Steve play after he went into music withdrawl! Here's a shot from the main room looking out toward the beach (it was all open to the outside).

We talked with one of the managers there- an artist who had a friend that ran one of the elephant excursions further north. We never rode the elephants. Steve kinda wanted to, but we were in the south and they were way north and the 2-hour roundtrip ride by truck to get there and back was daunting. We also ate almost everyday at this one woman’s little restaurant.

Super good food (I got heartburn from some of the other places- too spicy!) and her- and her cat- were quite excellent people! We talked with some of the other business owners- Europeans who wanted to get out of the rat race and live life a little slower. Very interesting people.

I bummed around in the hammock outside our hut and read ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’ one day.

The book was ok, nothing spectacular. I’d picked it up at a used bookstore along the beach. The store, however, wasn’t technically open… There was a lovely ad for it in the Koh Chang magazine we picked up, but no sign on the building whatsoever. Some people I asked at a neighboring restaurant pointed it out to me and just told me to knock. There were people inside using the internet, but the lady who owned it hadn’t really opened for business that day. Don’t ask me why, that’s just how things run in Thailand sometimes!

We explored more of the area near us on foot- we could have used one of the many mopeds available to get around and go further, but the roads are hilly and curvy and neither one of us really wanted to drive. Besides, we only had one day of rain and despite the heat, walking wasn't too bad. It also afforded great photography opportunites. Steve got a great pic overlooking the main beach, called 'Lonely Beach' (don't let the name fool you, it still had quite a few tourists).

During our ventures, we found the ‘Treehouse’- a place I had hoped we could stay at, but was unfortunately booked. It was a cool place, though- like its own little village with a series of huts along the rocky shore and stone-covered outdoor showers. The check-in area and bar were right along the water and led to a walkway that took you to Lonely Beach.

The beach itself was full of European tourists (Koh Chang is known for having many Scandinavian tourists and we heard that Russians are coming quite often now too) and locals selling their wares. Though many locals live in little tin huts that provide pretty little shelter, right beside them you will see businesses for the internet and even skype access. In fact, on Koh Chang, a rather small island, you will probably find more internet cafes than in all of Osaka. McD’s has wi-fi in Japan I hear, though. (On a side note, our friends from South Africa say that in-home internet isn’t an option there- too pricey. In fact, our pal Doug’s family owns a mayonnaise factory and his dad only *just* got internet access at his office! So we’re totally spoiled in the US.)

Anyway, relaxing on Koh Chang was great. We could have gone to Cambodia or Vietnam (both weren’t too far away- Cambodia was *really* close), but we decided we needed more time to chill than to explore. After all, it was only the second country we’d been to outside the States and we had no idea what to expect. And I think we were rather under-prepared to deal with traveling in a ‘developing nation’. It was pretty crazy at times.

After 3 nights, we were back on the ferry, then back on the bus to Bangkok and then back in the taxi to the airport, and then back on the plane to Osaka! (Did I mention I *hate* being in transit??)

So, overall, it was a crazy experience for me! But that’s what traveling is all about. Steve had a great time and he really wants to return to Thailand. I did have a good time, but there’s a huge learning curve when it comes to traveling abroad and its just going to take some time to get acclimated.

My next post will be all about the awesome sakura (cherry blossom) parties and chilling out in Mitsue-mura for Golden Week. Oh and then the festival in Osaka and Steve’s performce at the Mac store downtown… wow, what a busy spring!

I shall leave you with some of my best Thailand pics- mostly of the *spectacular* sunsets!

Thursday, April 05, 2007

I have a TON to tell everyone about the trip to Thailand (what craziness), but while I go through the pics, let me caught up on old stuff- like when Steve and I went to Kyoto in January...
(FYI: I haven't finished adding all the pics to this blog yet!)

Three words: I love Kyoto.
The city has a great vibe: lots of young people hanging out by the canals, great shopping, as well as tons of culture and history. The first stop was Fushimi Inari Taisho.

I'd read a lot about this shrine and it definitely didn't disappoint. ‘Inari’ is a deity that’s worshipped at both Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Japan. It was related to the rice harvest, but now is associated with business and prosperity in general. The fox is considered a helper or messenger of Inari (and sometimes considered the Inari itself, though some of the monks frown on this).

Many Shinto shrines have guardians at the gates, and at this Taisho, they, of course, have two foxes. One holds an odd-looking key in its mouth- the key to the rice granaries- and the other holds a round jewel.

The Fushimi complex was beautiful and, if you leave the crowds to climb the entire 1,000 torii (the vermillion gates) path up the mountain, it’s very tranquil. Steve and I went because I had heard about a kyudo (archery) ceremony taking place. They did a purification ritual first.

Then two monks shot off two arrows each. In all, 3 hit the target, which I believe should signify a fairly good harvest for the coming year.

Afterwards, we climbed the whole path around the mountain (ok, its more like a very large hill, but anyway…). Families donate money to have the gates or 'torii' built, so there are different sizes depending on their contribution. The torii line the entire path, which takes about 2 hours to complete.

It was beautiful, but my knees were terrible by the time we reached the bottom again. (Old war injury… alright, alright, so it’s really from breaking my toes after falling from my loft in college, but either way it makes climbing painful.)
That night we went to a jazz club (after getting a little lost trying to find the hotel) and I hobbled along until we found the place. It was a fun time, though, and Steve was invited to play with the other musicians. I massaged my legs that night and took a hot bath and was way better the next day.

We’d invited our pal Emily to Kyoto to be our tour guide and she really was a great help! First she took us to Sanjuusangendo Temple, which was absolutely amazing!
Here’s a little info on the temple from a good site I found: “Sanjusangendo" means a hall with 33 bays. The number 33 is sacred in Buddhism, for it is believed that Buddha saves mankind by disguising himself in 33 different forms. The 33 bays hold 1,001 statues of Kannon-Bosatsu! Each small image is 5 1/2 feet tall, carved out of wood and leafed in gold. In the center, the principal image of Kannon is 11 feet tall. It was an amazing sight.

Also, ‘Kannon’ is a bodhisattva of mercy and compassion in Buddhism. (A bodhisattva is someone who has reached enlightenment, but refuses to fully accept nirvana- or release from the cycle of suffering-in order to pray for the freedom of all other suffering beings.) I’m familiar with the image being female, but here Kannon is male. I’ve always been attracted to this particular bodhisattva, in all his/her forms and after walking passed so many of the small statues, when you finally come to the large image of Kannon… well, for me it was overwhelming. I actually got all choked up. Steve admitted later that he was really moved too. All day I was trying to find the reasons behind my inexplicable tears, but Steve took everything in stride, trying to tell me that it’s a spiritual experience by nature of the fact that you can’t explain it- which is true of course, but my logical mind wanted answers!

As I’ve said before, however, these are not conversion experiences for either of us, because we don’t adhere to any one belief system in the first place. It’s really amazing, though, to visit these places and feel the spiritual energy there. It seems quite obvious that these places hold and represent a energy that goes beyond the borders of any one religion.

I’m waxing way too philosophical here. Can you tell I don’t have many people to talk to about these things? *laugh*

While we were at Sanjuusangendo, we found out that one of the largest (or THE largest) kyudo archery competitions was happening there the next day. There’s over 2,000 participants (the complex isn’t that large, I have no idea how they fit so many people) and the women who are ‘coming of age’ (turning 20) compete in their formal kimono. The competition has been held every year for centuries. The temple has a lot of info on this, and it’s mentioned that the most impressive competition took place (if I remember correctly) a couple hundred years ago. The archers had to shoot off as many arrows as possible for a full 24hrs. The winner shot off an ungodly amount that I can’t remember now, but I swear I have written down somewhere. It averaged to something like one every 7 seconds or something insane like that!

After Sanjuusangendo, we went to Kiyomizu-dera Temple, which is built largely on stilts along the mountainside and is vying to be one of the ‘new 7 wonders of the world’, though I didn’t think it was *that* great and Steve was rather unimpressed after Sanjuusangendo.

Next we went to the main Shrine in Gion- where we spotted some maiko and geisha and tried not to stare too much! *lol*
Surprisingly, Kyoto had the most foreigners by far of any place I've seen (even Tokyo). It’s a very cosmopolitan city and it’s definitely my favorite. (Ok, Osaka still wins for shopping but, I digress...) Even though Kyoto has tons of traditional culture, its facilities- like the main train station and the subway- are very modern and quite impressive. They’re even rather futuristic!

Before we headed back to Nara, we wandered a bit in a nearby shopping district that had built up amidst one of the older sections of Kyoto, so that right in the middle of the shopping arcades you’d suddenly hit old, little family shrines sandwiched between the shiny stores. An odd but very interesting experience.

That day I’d finally remembered to start asking for the ‘go-shuiin’ at all the temples and shrines. The go-shuiin is kind of like the official seal of each temple/shrine. You can buy a little blank book at any of the larger establishments and then anywhere you go, you can pay 300 yen (a little under $3) to have one of the monks write the name in calligraphy and stamp the sheet with the hanko, or seal. It’s mostly used to mark visits to the famous places, especially if you’re going on the famous 88 temple pilgrimage in Kyushu. (Takes about 60 days on foot, maybe someday I’ll do it!)
I asked for the go-shuiin at even the little temple in the arcade, though, and I think I amused and surprised them with the request.
At the train station on the way home, we saw more maiko (apprentice geisha) and got some ‘mochi creams’, from a store in the station. They were mochi (glutenous rice) on the outside and cool cream inside. Pretty cool. I need to go back and try some more! *hehe*

I wish we could've stayed longer, but it’s fairly close-by, so I know I'll be back soon! Late March is sakura (cherry blossom) season too, and Kyoto is supposed to be gorgeous then! There’s a little matcha (green tea) shop in Gion that I’m hoping to visit when I go back. Ah, Kyoto…

Hey! No pooping on the the blog! (I found this sign in Nara city on the way back from getting my re-entry visa!)

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Sorry for not updating in a while. I was working on the final project with my students and it meant lots and lots of grading! Then I got a little cold, and now Steve has a bad flu, so it’s just been a bit busy. I’ve also started doing some freelance writing on the side- as if I didn’t have enough to keep me busy! But I want to build up a good portfolio now so that I can maybe do freelance writing and illustration full time once I get back to the States. That kind of job would also allow me to travel, because I could write anywhere! I thought that maybe I’d want to teach, but after teaching here, I’ve learned I really don’t enjoy it much. I’m still open to (possibly) teaching college down the line- if I decide I want a more stable job with insurance, but for now I want something that will allow me more room to move (literally)!

Anyway, while you’re waiting on pics from Kyoto and such, I can at least tell you about graduation yesterday. All public high schools have graduation on March 1st. It’s pretty much a series of speeches, with a few songs thrown in. The kids wear their usual school uniform to the ceremony and the second-year (junior) students are required to attend. High schools here don’t have mascots, but they all seem to have school songs. So the Japan national anthem, along with school song, opened the ceremony. Afterwards each student’s name was called and they stood as if taking attendance. Then the principal gave a speech, a PTA rep gave a speech, a rep from the second-year students gave a speech, and finally a rep from the graduating class (the third-years students, since high school is only 3 years long) gave a speech addressing the principal. During that last speech, all the students started crying- guys as much as girls. Apparently it must have been rather moving, but I couldn’t understand more than 2 words of it, so I remained unaffected. It was interesting, though, because this speech had a live piano accompaniment! And it was timed just right to end at the same time as the speech. Gotta love that they gave the speech its own ‘soundtrack’! *L*

To close the ceremony, they sang- get this- Auld Lang Sine… in Japanese! It was highly amusing to me.

At the very end, all the students (still sniffling with tears), stood row my row and thanked their teachers in one voice, with a bow and a big “arigatoo gozaimasu”! It was really pretty sweet and touching, I gotta admit. (But, hey, what can beat hearing ‘Pomp & Circumstance’ for 15 minutes straight and throwing a cardboard hat in the air?)

Matta ne! ^_~


Thursday, February 01, 2007

We had our first snowfall today! It was pretty- very light and fluffy. It didn’t ‘stick’ at all, which is good cuz I’d have to ride my bike through it otherwise. I gotta say, even though we’ve had a very mild winter here, I still think a typical winter in Nara would be better than Chicago. Last winter was terrible here (I hear) and everyone was warning us that it felt so much colder than the actual temp. and even if they lived in Canada they still thought it was cold here. Now, if you had a big house to heat, I think this would be true, because there’s no central heat and the wall units turn off during the night automatically, leaving it really bad in the morning. However, unless they get freak snowstorms with a foot of snow and bitterly cold winds that whip through every layer of clothing, then it is nowhere as bad as Chicago! Maybe it’s the lack of the Chicago wind that makes the winter here seem better. Who knows? I’m just going to enjoy my first winter that I wasn’t permanently cold for 4 months on end and every plant in sight didn’t shrivel up and die!
Anyway, I have a new list of ‘observations’ in Japan. I hope to get my Kyoto pics downloaded this weekend so I will have more to post soon!
Until then, here’s the latest round of ‘random Japan-ness’ (hope I'm not repeating myself...):

-Kerosene heaters abound. There’s no central heating (usually, unless you’re up on the Northern most island of Hokkaido), and instead of the space heaters we’re used to, most places use kerosene. I found this astonishing. There’s the huge image of Japan as a beacon for the newest technology, but they still use kerosene to heat the buildings! The fumes usually aren’t that bad, though, and they don’t leave the heaters on longer than they have to. I do have to admit the kerosene heaters do the job amazingly well and they are pretty‘ high tech’ for kerosene heaters. Plus, since there’s a live flame doing the job, it’s like having a campfire right in the middle of the room. (Although, I’d still rather have central heat!) They didn’t bring the heaters in until almost January, though, so for a while there was only “solar heating” on sunny days through the windows! And although my classroom has a heater, I think most classes don’t. The kids all bring blankets to school, though, so they manage to keep warm even though the girls have to wear skirts without leggings all year round.

-Teens ride bikes while text messaging friends on their cell phone, instead of driving a car and talking on the cell phone like American teens. This is because (1) teens can’t drive until they’re in college and (2) texting or ‘keitai email’ is waaay more prevalent and popular than talking over the phone and it’s actually passé to email on a computer here. If you mention ‘email’ to anyone, they will assume you mean over the keitai, not computer.

-You don’t see as many hardcover books and the average book is compacted into ‘pocket-size’ compared to American paperbacks. You’re also always given the option of getting a paper jacket for your book when you buy it.

-envelopes open from the short side, not the long.

-When people start explaining something, its best to let them get all the way through before making any kind of comment because the point always comes at the *end*. This might not sound that different from the US, but trust me, it is! Next time you have a conversation, listen to how often you interrupt with an answer or exclamation while the person’s talking and maybe you’ll start to understand. People do not finish each other’s sentences in Japan the way we do. So many times at work I want to seem accommodating, so when they bring up a problem, I’m always jumping in with something like, “oh, there’s a meeting that day? We can reschedule, no problem!”, then they continue on and end up telling me they’ve already reschedule their day and its actually fine, but they just wanted to let me know, etc. etc.

-There are two kinds of soup here: miso and corn soup. You can find corn soup hot from the vending machines!

There are other hot teas and coffee drinks available, but, like the majority of convenient Japanese food, they are packed with artificial flavors and preservatives. (Natural food options are difficult to find in general here.) The best bet (hot or cold) from the vending machine is water or ocha (Japanese tea), which isn’t sweetened at all. I like it this way, but those of you who are used to Lipton ice tea (as Steve was) will feel unsweetened ocha is missing something.

Monday, January 22, 2007

I've been reflecting a bit on my experience of living in Japan recently, especially the difficulty of making close friendships. It's just another part of culture shock when I consider things like this. I'd known that in Japan there was always a big difference between 'tatemae' (expressed feelings) and 'honne' (true feelings), but I've really begun to feel it here.

Japan is a communal country and for the sake of 'harmony', people refrain from getting personal and just state what's expected of them- all the better to maintain the appearance that all Japanese people think alike. It's only with one's close friends that people express their true feelings. I think this is why I've found it so hard to meet Japanese people who I can talk with about anime and manga. If they are very interested in it, they will keep it to themselves unless with their very good friends (if they talked too much about it, they risk being labeled an otaku, which has very negative connotations here).

There's exceptions of course. Our friend Keiko is very frank and so are many of other people we've gotten to know. However, as gaijin who don't know the language well, it's typically only the more outgoing people who will be willing to strike up conversation with us. And even then you still have to work against the strict work ethic that most Japanese people have to endure, which means even if people are more willing to be open, you don't always have time to together with them. Also, some of the people we know who are more open are themselves "outsiders" within Japanese society. Steve met a woman through some of our friends whose a wonderful musician and who chooses to hang out with the homeless community in Osaka because she has issues with a lot of elements of Japanese culture. The homeless community is really close and doesn't conform to most of the standards that mainstream society impossess. This is why a lot of people chose to stay in the community, even if they have opportunities for housing.

Having such a large cultural barrier between me and the rest of the society is difficult, because I place a lot of stock in making deep connections with people and really getting to know who they are. I like getting personal. That's really hard here. For instance, it's difficult to get even opinions from the other teachers at my school when I discuss things with them. Currently we're doing a movie project in class (students memorize then perform dialogues from 'Before Sunrise') and some of the teachers I work with watched the movie and returned it to me without giving me any indication as to whether they loved it or hated it. Just a smile and 'here's the movie back'. Even small things like this- just a little opinion on a movie- are not freely given.

It's not that I consider this a "bad" trait, I just find it personally difficult. I'm sure living in any foreign country is challenging, but Japan in particular presents difficulties with getting to know people on more than a surface level. This is one of the reasons I'm looking forward to trying to live in Europe for a time after Japan. I'd like to stay in both Italy and Ireland for several months. (I know they'll have their own challenges, but at least it will be a change.) Living in Japan is unbelievably interesting and fascinating, but I think I will be fine with moving on in another year and a half. I think I enjoy studying and traveling Japan so much because it is so inexplicable in so many ways, but that same feeling can be isolating when you're living here on a day-to-day basis.

Monday, January 15, 2007

I just happened upon a webpage that discusses an interesting occurance when you live as a foreigner in Japan: the urge to acknowledge a fellow foreigner when you see them. There's always a question of whether to nod their way or not. Always. The page as a bunch of different people's take on the "gaijin problem": http://www.japanprobe.com/?p=846

Personally, I nod or smile when I see another foreigner (gaijin)- at least when I catch their eye. Living here, you just know that another gaijin living in Japan is sharing similiar experiences, so there's a weird connection. On the other hand, if you see them in your own small town, you sometimes feel as if they're encroaching on your territory, like, "hel-lo! I'm the token gaijin of this here county, got it??"
Steve has dubbed this urge to make eye contact with other gaijin as the "gaijin stare". However, (according to Steve) it can also refer to the way the Japanese tend to stare at any and all gaijin. Since most people (Japanese and otherwise) assume Steve is Japanese, he doesn't get 'the stare'. I know that (at least when he first arrived), this was odd for him. When he went out alone, no one would look at him, and he felt they should be looking, because, after all, he was just as much a foreigner as me. When we'd walk down the street together, he'd always notice how much people stared at me, though I can't say I have ever noticed this that much. He also feels the same urge as me to smile at his fellow gaijin, but they assume he's Japanese too! So he misses out sometimes on the weird connection you can make with just a moment of eye contact with other gaijin.

Once, when I was walking down the street in Osaka, I saw this middle-aged guy (a 'traveler type') and he caught my eye and just smiled and gave me a 'thumbs up'. It sounds so corny, but it really made me smile. In two seconds- and a single gesture- we both knew exactly where the other person was coming from.

On the webpage I mentioned above, someone says that they have lived in other Asian countries, but only experienced this 'gaijin' issue in Japan and that there was something unique about the country that makes you feel the need to acknowledge fellow foreigners. I'd believe it. It's one of the reasons I can't quite feel at home here, but its interesting nonetheless.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Alrighty, sorry I didn’t post for so long. I was enjoying some much needed time off, but of course now I have a ton of pictures backlogged!

This week it was back to work. It’s pretty hard getting used to waking up early when I’ve been staying up so late during my vacation time, but I found out that I won’t be starting lessons again until next week. I also discovered, upon entering the faculty room my first day back, that the morning meeting was already fully in swing and that the teachers had failed to tell me the meeting started 10 minutes early! I was less than pleased, to put it mildly. It not exactly the way you want to start off a new term. But, as I said, no lessons for a week, so at least I don’t have to rush around in a bad mood today.

So, you’re probably wondering how our holidays were here in Japan, so let’s start with Christmas. I had planned all kinds of outings and things for Christmas weekend, but we didn’t end up doing too much, which was just as enjoyable after working so hard last term! We were invited to our pal Matt’s place (he’s from DeKalb, so we get along well!). We went down south to Yoshino, almost to the end of the train line, to join him, a few of his Japanese friends (including this older Japanese lady that was pretty hilarious), and other ALTs. Matt put on old classics like Charlie Brown’s Christmas and The Grinch. We ate sashimi (raw fish, my favorite now), drank ume-shuu (an awesome liquor flavored with plums), ate some more, drank hot cocoa with Bailey’s, ate more, and had some hot sake (heated over the stove as you can see.)

Anyone see a theme here??

I can’t party as hard as the other JETs, but this was a really chill, nice time.

We stayed the night, along with our pal Chetan (from South Africa) and the next day continued to watch Christmas fare, drank spiked cocoa, and ate. Here's Chetan lickin' his fingers while partaking in the holiday-eating goodness!

Matt made homemade okonomiyaki. He made veggie ones from Chetan and myself and meat-lovers for him and Steve. Steve was in awe of his okonomiyaki!

We also just chatted and lounged all day. Matt showed us this great trucker's cap that an old Japanese townie had given him!

Southern Nara is considered the 'hillbilly' area to hip Osaka city-folk, but the countryside has a lot of color!

That night we caught the last train home and although I thought we might go to an onsen or hop out to Kobe on Christmas day, we decided to be lazy and lounge around. I slept in and read all day. Ahhh, I was nice! I regret that I never did get my Christmas caki, though! Steve brought this cake back from (I forget where), so it turned out to be our only Christmas cake!

I got Steve me an mp3 player for Christmas, which is wonderful because its to keep me from getting motion sick on the crowded trains. He also gave me a little bobble-headed guy that's so cute! There's all kinds, but this one is probably for students who are studying for exams because the little guy is reading, the sign says 'certain victory', and there's a little daruma-doll sitting next to him.

I bought a daruma figure for myself later when we went to Tokyo. They are these (typically) red, round faces that represent a historical figure in Buddhism that meditated in a cave for six years and supposedly lost his eyelids, arms and legs during that time! Now people get them at the start of the year, make a wish or resolution, paitn in one eye and then paint in the other when it comes to pass. I'll take a picture of my figure sometime and post it.

I brought Steve some tabi boots, which he loved! They look like ninja shoes, but construction workers here wear them and they're steel-toed as well! I had to take a day off and go to the blue-collar area of Osaka to get them!

On the 26th, it was back to work, but at the end of the week we were off to Tokyo. We took the overnight bus from Osaka. Just before we left, we found this little Turkish restaurant across the street from the bus stop.

The place was so great we decided we’d stop back there on our way home!

The bus was fine, though I can never sleep when I’m moving like that, so I was extremely tired when we arrived in Tokyo station at 5:30am. Also, I was very, very surprised to find that the bus didn’t have a toilet on board. This meant we had to stop every 3 hours- another reason sleep eluded me. At least we got to eat, though, and see some Japanese rest stops, which intrigued Steve. One of the stops had this odd design on the flower beds outside (yes, there's still flowers in bloom around here).

I don’t have a flash on my cell phone camera, so it’s a bit dim, but it looks to be a woman wielding an ax while she rides a wild bear in front of Mt. Fuji.

Can’t say there’s anything that cook at US rest areas!

After we arrived in Tokyo, we had to hop on the train to go east of the city into Chiba prefecture, where we met up with Steve’s cousin Corey and her family. She was born in the Philippines and her husband, Rich, is from Arizona, but they’ve lived in many places and been in Japan for several years. Here they are in a warm family moment, gazing at pictures of us they just took on their keitai (cell phones).

Rich teaches (although he’s not a JET) so he could sympathize with my situation. It was really great to hang out in a warm family atmosphere for the New Year. We met some of their neighbors and people some their church. Everyone was very friendly and we had some great times and great food! We went to a Korean bbq, and I order salad! Haha! I did try the meat, though and have to say it was pretty darn good. We also went to a sento one day as well, which is set up like an onsen, but doesn’t use actual sulfur water from the mountains. This one was hidden away in a huge strip mall! You’d never know it once you were inside, though. It was a really nice place. Outside the bathing area was a place to eat and sit and even (I can’t believe I forgot to get a pic of this) a long bench with a hot foot bath under it to soak your feet- right in the middle of the room! Once you entered the bathing area, the inside had several baths, along with a little pool for two where you could lean back and get a massage from the hot jets. Outside there was a tiki torch one regular hot bath, another bath with green herbal water, and a series of flat stones you could lie on that had hot, steamy water pouring across them. It was wonderful, but I have to admit I totally forgot to ask if it was ask for me to enter, since I have tattoos and although it may have been my imagination, I think I may have gotten a dirty look or two… (I'll explain more on onsens in my next post when I finally get around to that wekend in Mitsue!)

We went to church with the family the next day and it was interesting to see a Christian service in Japan (Christians make up less than 1% of the population, last I heard). There was a ton of singing, which Steve loved of course, and everyone was very nice.

On the second, we all went to Narita Temple and the place was packed! They had vendors and shops lining the street down to the temple.

I wish we would’ve had more time to look at everything, but Steve hates the crowds, so it’s probably just as well we didn’t linger.

Here’s signs for hot, roasted chestnuts! Even though we sing about them at Christmas, I can’t say I’ve ever seen them in the States, but they are everywhere in Japan!

This is a sign for unagi, or eel, which Steve and I both love. If we’d had time, I think this is the one thing we would have stopped for (ok, I would have stopped to look at the shopping too, but anyway…).

The temple was huge and I can’t say I understood the layout, even after taking so many classes on Buddhism. A side note, temples are always Buddhist, shrines are always Shinto (the native Japanese religion),. If you have trouble telling them apart, you’ll know it’s a shrine if there’s a torii gate in front. Also, if there are graves or a cemetery, it’s a temple, since Shinto doesn’t surly its hands with funerals or burials. (This temple had a large, important-looking cemetary right on the hillside leading to the upper-part of the temple complex.)

This is why some Japanese people joke that they are born Shinto, marry Christian (the popular ceremonies nowadays are based on Christian ceremonies, but usually not at all religiously-affiliated), and die Buddhist.
The shrine we went to had so many different buildings, I have no idea what they were each used for. It urked me that I didn’t know after so much academic study. We made out way to one of the main buildings to view the service. First, I tried to waft some incense over me, but I nearly got trampled squeezing into the crowd to get to the huge incense burner. People were shoving you all over the place. We managed to get up near the main building, looked inside, then wandered around some more.

A lot of people were getting their fortunes from the temple, but the lines were a bit too long for me to bother. After you read the fortune, you tie it on a tree or, here, one of the panels provided. I might be wrong, but I think if it’s a good fortune you don’t always do this. (Anyone out there know?)

There were also panels with these wooden plaques, which have prayer written on the one side.

Again, I don’t know as much as I should about these little, daily elements of the temple. Most of what I studied was big, religious principles, which almost seem useless in the face of these visits, where the ritual seems more important than the principle behind it.

There was also a long wall with writing all over it, which we thought might have been prayers or something at first, but upon closer inspection turned out to be the names and messages from various businesses that support the temple.

And, of course, there were more vendors within the temple complex itself- complete with the "traditional" Hello Kitty cotton candy on hand!

After our hectic temple visit, we went back to the house, picked up our luggage, and headed out to our hotel in Tokyo city. Because the scale of the maps is soooo much smaller than in the States (Chicago in particular, since we had the small problem in New Orleans), we overshot our hotel and got a little turned around. I stopped in a 24hr curry place and asked around if anyone knew the place and this guy ended up showing us the way when he realized I couldn’t understand his Japanese directions. He really helped us out and was the nicest person we met in the city. We thought we’d go out on the town, to the Roppongi party district maybe, but it ended up getting late, so we just ate locally. There was barely anything open for food, so we ended up at another 24hr joint near our hotel. It was pretty good food, though and we splurged! I got a black sesame chiffon cake. I was temped to try one of the stranger desserts, though, and almost wished I had. I mean, how often can you try tomato ice cream with aloe gelatin??

The next day we went saw as much of Tokyo as we could, which wasn’t that much! Since it was still shortly after New Year's, many of the businesses had these bamboo stands out front.

I asked one of my teachers later on and found out they basically mean 'welcome' and are just put up for the New Year. ( It's the Year of the Boar in the Chinese zodiac as well, so there was boar-themed stuff everywhere too.)

I was set on hitting the shopping districts, so we went to Ikebukuro first, where I went to a string of anime stores. It wasn’t as great as I’d hoped. I had planned on going to the anime stronghold of Akihabara, but the stores in Ikebukuro were supposed to cater more to the Girls’ comics, so I went there hoping to avoid the drooling fanboys of Akihabara. This meant missing the Maid Cafes, but since there’s some in Osaka, that doesn’t matter much. Actually, I didn’t see much I couldn’t have found in Osaka anyway, so now I wish I’d gone to Akihabara after all. There’s always next time. I also still want to see Tokyo Tower and the *huge* fish market, as well as the temples. I’d also like to get to nearby Yokohama (right on the bay, and has a large Chinatown) and historic Kamakura (has a huge Buddhe statue, but still not as big as the one in Nara!). Oh, and Steve wants to climb Mt. Fuji!

We ate lunch in Ikebukuro, at a new Indian place that Steve had discovered. The nan bread there was outstanding! Afterwards I took Steve to Harajuku. We hadn’t been impressed with the fashion in Tokyo and I was hoping this crazy shopping district would offer more. It did, but Osaka fashion is still way better. If you really want to see great, crazy Japanese style, go to Osaka, because *everyone* there is stylin’, not just in the trendy districts like Tokyo.
Anyway, I wandered, my shoe broke, and I didn’t find any Gothic Lolita shops until Steve called me and directed me to them (we’d split up so I didn’t have to subject him to my shopping habits). He found a great used store and I splurged on 3 lolita dresses. Of course, there’s also a good used store in Osaka, so again this isn’t something totally unique to Tokyo. One thing I think is interesting that most people probably don’t know about Japanese fashion is that Vivienne Westwood is THE name is punk clothing in Japan. Anywhoo, I ended the night happy and we ended up back at Jonathan’s 24hrs place for dinner. By then I was broke and the atms didn’t open til the next day (plus, my banking branch was back in Osaka!), so I was more conservative with this meal! However, we did buy the hot sake available from the hotel vending machine! Gotta love it.
The next morning we woke up early to go to the Dali exhibit we’d seen advertised on the train.

We actually went there the day before, but the line was terribly long, so we decided it was better to go early in the morning, and boy were we right! No line at all! I’d never seen any Dali in person, so I was blown away, even thought he exhibit didn’t have any if his master works (which are so large I’m guessing the would be terribly difficult to ship, especially to an exhibit that won’t be in one place for long). It was the last day of the exhibit, so we really lucked out!

Afterward we picked up our luggage from the lockers at the train station and headed back home. We took the bullet train (shinkansen) back to Osaka, stopped at the atm, then went back to the Turkish place for dinner. We were happy to be back in Osaka, where people are more friendly, dress better, and the food is superior!

Yep, we’re all about the Kansai area! Incidentally, there is a big rivalry between the Kansai (or Kinki) region, which includes Osaka, Nara, Kobe, etc., and the Kanto area, where Tokyo is located. Tokyo people tend to think Kansai folk aren’t as sophisticated and that their accent sounds very countryside, while Kansai people think everyone is Tokyo is kind of snobby. You could like of Kansai kind of like US South- there’s Southern hospitality, but maybe people are seen as a little rough around edges. Tokyo would be more like New York- they think they have the best of everything and can be rude sometimes.
Steve and I are very happy to be in Kansai! But we still have so many place we want to visit in Japan! We want to hit somewhere on all the other 4 islands, plus go to Hiroshima. There’s just not enough time! We really have to plan where to go because I don’t get that much time off.

So, that was the holiday!

I should note that before we left, Steve had a gig with his jazz band at a nearby café (which is awesome! I’m going to try and go there all the time because its very cozy and very difficult to find a real ‘coffee house’ atmosphere here in Japan.) Everyone came out and it was a really good time. Here’s Kati and Keiko.

Kati had brought going-away gifts from everyone. She got Keiko a little bottle of Estonian liqueur and gave Steve and I hand-knitted Estonian socks, which are yummy-warm! We hung out at an izakaya afterwards, although Kati and her friends (students at my school) were too young to go with us. Here’s Steve lookin’ happy at the izakaya! I had ume-shuu again. Good stuff.

Poor Kati, she left for Estonia on Tuesday. We got to hang out a lot before she left, though. Steve and her scaled our local mountain and then went to a live show that her friend was playing at and had a good time. Steve’ll have the pics up soon- some of the bands were pretty hilarious. I hung out with Kati while Steve cooked dinner, but I didn’t get to go to the other events because I was exhausted from coming back from Tokyo and also had some work to finish before school began again. *sigh*. Then on Monday Keiko drove us to kaiten sushi (conveyer belt sushi) to meet up with Kati again. She was tearing up when we had to part and we just kept giving her hugs because she really, really, wanted to stay in Japan! Funny enough, I met up with my friend Emily later that day and on our way home, who did we run into but Kati! She discovered she had a little extra room in her luggage and went out to get some matcha (powdered green tea) and a few other little things that she could fit to bring back with her. I seriously want to go visit her this summer and I really hope we can fit it in.

We miss you already Kati!