Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Osaka.... again!

So Becky and I went Christmas shopping in Osaka a couple weekends ago. It was a good time, except for the fact that I had to drop all of my shopping spree money on the new 15" Macbook Pro laptop rather than cute coats and dresses as originally intended. oh, and gifts for friends and family too. The left hinge on my beloved titanium laptop finally snapped (apparently it's a common problem- the fact that it lasted almost 4 years is amazing) and it was time to get one.... luckily, I qualified for Apple's educational discount but still.... what a purchase!!!

In the spending frenzy, I also ended up buying myself a very Sex in the City cream-colored belted trenchcoat (from Uniqlo). Of course, we ate tons of delicious international food (bagels, MEXICAN!!!!!!!!, THAI!!!!, etc.) and it was kind of fun being in the hustle and bustle of a big city, especially for the holidays.

Great architecture, great hair. Oh, and uh, yes. that's Starbucks, the place I hate. However, I was suffering from the low blood sugar and it was the only place that was open. I know, excuses.....

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


As you can tell from the title.... this is POSSIBLY THE BEST SIGN I'VE EVER SEEN.

No explanation needed. Click on the picture to enlarge it.
(Thanks to Becky who took the photo in Hokkaido.)

Enjoy, and remember, smoking is bad.

Happy Holidays!

Wait, it's the middle of December? Didn't I just arrive in Japan? Wait, I've been here for almost 5 months?!?!?

For a country that doesn't get the actual holiday of Christmas off, they sure capitalize upon it enough... the twinkling Christmas lights, gaudy decorations, and the cheerful nonstop Christmas songs playing at the grocery stores, malls, and even on the street loudspeakers... arghhh, it's too much.

And I'm hosting a Christmas party this weekend... Right, so last night, Eric, Bryn, Jannie, and I went to the 100 yen store in Omiya and stocked up on all of our Christmas needs. Well, I picked up a (very misleading 525 yen) fake tree and some decorations, while the wholesome twins (Bryn & Jannie) picked up MORE decorations for their respectives tree(s). Unfortunately, there's a party in Kyoto the same night thrown by some good friends, so it's going to be a split of Tango (country) v. Kyoto (city) people.

So this is the interesting tidbit I learned this week. Apparently the song "Auld Lang Syne" which most of us Westerners sing at the START of the New Year, is sung at the end of the year here in Japan, in addition to be played at graduation ceremonies and at the end of the day when stores close! It is a song to remember the god times, to close out the year, day, or whatever.

Paul gets here this afternoon and he'll be staying for a month! I hope to have time to update the blog more during his trip this time, but we'll see. We leave for Okinawa next Thursday and will spend Christmas there. Then, we'll go to Kyoto and Osaka for a few days. We haven't decided on any New Years plans, but we both agreed it's overrated and we're excited about spending our first holidays together.... I know, I'm getting sappy. Maybe it's all the Christmas songs getting to me...

Oh I don't want a lot for Christmas
This is all I'm asking for
I just want to see my baby
Standing right outside my door
all I want for Christmas is....

Happy Holidays everyone!!!

More photos of the beautiful countryside/seaside near me

It's been awhile since some of these pictures were taken... Miyazu Bay at sunset...

...and the coastline of Amino (near Becky)

...and persimmons being hung to dry.

Japanese Life: Extreme Differences....

It's getting cold... the lowest I've seen so far is about 4 degrees C (about 39 degrees F)- which, of course, is NOT too bad.... but remember my no-insulation problem in my apartment? In the summer, it was about the same temperature as it was outside- well, it's the same thing in the winter. Seeing my breath INSIDE my apartment is not one of the things I want to wake up to, but it's an accepted fact here.

Again and again, I've asked people here why they don't put "insulation" in their homes- I see new homes being built all the time, but they all just shrug- it's the way it's been for thousands of years- we don't mess with tradition. The EXTREME positions the Japanese takes are appalling....

Here are some of the extreme differences I've noticed since I've lived here:

1. Japanese electronics and technology are constantly evolving and getting faster, smaller, and more advanced and efficient. However, the concept of insulating homes to conserve energy costs (cooling AND heating) has not been accepted.

2. Same thing with toilets- on the one hand, you have these beautiful toilets that sing and make noise, have heated seats, and sensors and different washing levels (soft, strong, spray, squirt, etc.) and then you have the basic, drop toilets on the other hand.

3. The garbage system: I sort EVERY single piece of garbage into like 10 different bins, from combustible to paper to recyclable plastic to non-recyclable plastic to plastic bottles to metals to styrofoam, etc... but everything you buy here is individually wrapped in plastic, then wrapped in pretty paper and stickers, then put into a plastic bag, then placed inside a nice shopping bag.

4. Conserving: water, energy, etc... There is a huge emphasis on saving energy (except for the cooling/heating part)- the lights in the hallway are never turned on at school until you can barely see.... but this I found interesting. The overpoliteness of the Japanese has manifested itself at the toilet level.... If there is more than one person in a public bathroom or something- one of them will FLUSH the toilet WHILE going, to mask any sounds- of course, using more water than necessary, but god forbid someone can hear you go pee!!!!

5. The discipline issue- parents do very little disciplining of their children in order to be a "nice dad" or a "nice mom"- so they spoil their kids rotten, let them do whatever, get whatever they want, and save the disciplining for the teachers, since they see their children more often than they do. This puts a lot of unexpected and unnecessary pressure on the teachers, who can't give their attention to all of their students.

6. The repressed society: Conformity, conformity, conformity. Masses of salarymen in black and gray suits shuffle back and forth from work to home to work, pretty well-dressed OL's (Office Ladies, or "secretaries") clicking away at keyboards, hordes of smiling uniform-wearing students on trains and buses.... Right now, the look of almost every "conforming" Japanese woman / lady is to wear a nice fitted sweater, knee length skirt, and tall boots. Every city seems to look the same. And then you have the outrageously colorful mohawk sporting hoop skirt wearing teenagers of Harajuku and other big cities. You've got these slutty teenage girls wearing short shorts (Daisy Dukes) with over-the-knee boots with blonde hair and buckets of makeup, the guys with crazy hairsprayed hair and ALSO wearing makeup (apparently the girls like the "pretty boy" look). Oh, and women are thought upon as pretty things that reproduce, sex symbols, but not really human beings. So men can just treat them like shit and it's ok. And women take it because, well, that's what they've been told. Men can take mistresses and all that and women just stay at home and cook, clean, and deal with it. You don't talk about sex and porn or anything because that's not "proper" but the underground scene is bursting. There's porn vending machines and booths on main roads, sex shops, love hotels, and fetish-inspired restaurants, bars, etc.

7. The teeth. I don't know what to say about this. I've heard that messed up teeth is "cute". You'll see thousands of beautiful, put together Japanese men and women on the street- great outfits, accessories, hair, the whole thing... then they open their mouth, and you're just like WTF!!!???? Either they have scaffolding keeping their teeth together, or they're just sticking out every which way.

8. The "SMILE": The Japanese are probably the most polite people I've ever met. They go out of their way to help you out, make sure you're happy, greet you with a smile, and follow you around stores to make sure you can find everything you want. However, underneath it all, they could be SEETHING, SCREAMING INSIDE, but outside they've got this cute smile and cheerful voice. The "smile" is Japan's way of masking any sort of feeling they have- whether it's anger, confusion, sadness, or whatever- because expressing their opinions is not allowed.

OK, that's all I can think about for now... For more interesting things about Japan, check out this amusing and informational
website. (Thanks Sono for forwarding to me).

I'm not necessarily complaining about these aspects of Japanese culture- I guess it's a bit of culture shock (or as JET likes us to call it: "culture fatigue"?) and when you compare certain things with the customs of your home country, you're certain to feel frustrated and confused. So, I guess all I can do now is... smile!!!

Monday, December 04, 2006

More food....

On a lighter note.... I went to one my favorite izakayas the other night...

Edamame, sashimi (w/ maple leaf garnish!), pumpkin tempura, fried chicken gizzards, fried octopus, grilled alligator (a bit chewy, kinda pork-like), salad, fried pig ears (ugh... very cartilage-y), cucumbers w/ miso paste, and a slice of ice cream cake for the ladies...

Mecha oishiii!!!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Late Autumn

This is an excerpt from a nice article in The Asahi Shinbun.

I recently stood under a colossal ginkgo tree... Underfoot, a thick carpet of red and yellow fallen zelkova leaves covered the rich dark soil. It will not be long before the whole tree will be ablaze in gold.

Autumn is coming to an end.

A special sense of melancholy accompanies this transition from late autumn to early winter. Autumn is the harvest season, when the branches of trees are laden with fruit, and ears of rice bow under the weight of ripened grain. With such images still vivid in one's mind, one naturally feels somewhat desolate when that season of plenty comes to an end.

"The plants that once bloomed with flowers and the trees that once bore fruit are all withered now. Having completed their year's work, the trunks and branches of trees are now bare, and readying themselves silently for their long hibernation. In nature's cycle, nothing compares with the quiet beauty of late autumn."
--"Machi Bugyo Nikki", [Shugoro] Yamamoto

By their presence, the trees that are about to complete their annual cycle seem to invite us to look back on the past year. Calendars will turn to the last page.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 30(IHT/Asahi: December 1,2006)

Friday, December 01, 2006

Hiroshima Controversy

After returning from Hiroshima, I was talking to one of my Japanese English teachers, and she was telling me how most of the AETs that she has worked with has visited HIroshima, but many Japanese students today have not. In the past, it was a mandatory field trip for primary or junior high students to visit the Peace Park and learn about the atomic bomb, talk to "hikabusha" (survivors of the atomic bomb), and raise awareness about the atrocities of war and advocating peace. She has been there 3 times, as a student and once as an adult, but her teenage daughter has never been. If she wants her daughter to learn about Hiroshima's history, she would have to take her there herself, at her own expense.

With the rise of international nuclear activity and tensions, it seems that everyone is on guard. So, can Japan be part of the world's leaders, discussing global conflicts while maintaining a peaceful viewpoint? Nowadays, the government is steering schools away from the Hiroshima field trips and is "encouraging" the schools to go to Tokyo, where Tokyo Disneyland is a symbol of a modern Japan, to visit the Imperial Palace and grounds, and enjoy the bustling capital's entertainment and shopping. (And what student is going to argue with this??) Even if some teachers still wanted to take their students to Hiroshima, pressure from the schools and parents keep them from going- in the fear that they would be thought of as "too liberal" and "non-conforming".

Any comments?

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Peace Park, Hiroshima

It was a cold dreary wet day. The night before, we had seen the A-bomb Dome dramatically lit up, but it was even more powerful in the daylight. It is one of the few remaining buildings which survived the blast after the atomic bomb was dropped on that fateful day, August 6, 1945. Seeing the destruction of such a massive building- the twisted steel beams and the crumbling bricks, the cracked concrete and the distorted skeleton of the dome, I can only imagine how thousands of innocent fragile human beings endured being burned alive or suffered a long painful cancerous death... The feeling of disbelief that such a massacre occurred reminded me of walking through Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam many years ago. The raindrops and the leaves of the weeping willows along the river looked like teardrops from the sky.
I was so emotional in the Peace Museum that I couldn't bring myself to take any pictures. I drew long deep breaths and felt tears welling up exhibit after exhibit, from the before / after photos of Hiroshima to the impressive wall of telegrams sent to the leaders of nations pleading them to discontinue the use of nuclear weapons, from the photos of burned victims to the drawings by school children of the aftermath. The second half of the museum housed the sacred remains of victims: blood stained school uniforms, a scorched tricycle, a single tattered slipper, the charred hair of a young girl, a burnt, beatup lunchbox.... I won't get into some of the more gory details... It was definitely a humbling experience... Was I proud to be an American at that point? Not so much... Leaving the museum, we solemnly walked past the Flame of Peace and Cenotaph, disappearing underground to the chapel-like Hall of Remembrance in the Peace Memorial Hall.

As a child, I had been deeply moved by the book "Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes". The pages of my book are yellow and wrinkled from all the tears that fell onto them as I read the book over and over. So when I saw the Children's Peace Monument with a statue of Sadako at the top, I expected to break down in tears. Instead, it was uplifting to see the thousands of colorful cranes hanging in the display cases nearby, as symbols of Sadako's determination to live. Let no more children fall victim to an atomic bombing.

 This is our cry.
 This is our prayer.
 For building peace in the world.

Thanksgiving weekend in Hiroshima

Despite its depressing history, Hiroshima is a very alive modern, bustling city.
I don't think I had any Japanese food (or even used chopsticks) the whole time I was there!
I met up with Jason who shinkansened (yes, I just made that up) from Kyoto and we were really excited to go to a Spanish restaurant that we had read about, but were totally misled and disappointed when it didn't actually exist. Boo!!! Instead, we ended having Indian food and then going to an Irish pub with some of his friends. Had a variety of Saturday breakfast/lunch options and finally opted on a Spanish / Mexican / Argentinian restaurant that we read about, but this time, gastronomically misled. I was really excited at the prospect of having plantains and black beans or a burrito or something, but these were not on the menu. I ordered a very delicious looking "Argentinian Stew over rice" which was in fact a very dry piece of tonkatsu (fried pork) with a side of rice. Very unimpressed.
Most of Saturday was spent walking around Hiroshima castle, several parks, and finding coffeeshops, which were all closed. Hiroshima was surprisingly very walkable, very much like San Francisco, except that it was completely flat. Tom and Steve came in on Saturday night, which was the highlight of the weekend- not only was it Tom's birthday, it was the Thanksgiving Feast at Kemby's, a local bar!

For 1500 yen (about $12), we would be able to have a huge Thanksgiving feast of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, mac and cheese, salad, corn, cranberry sauce (canned), candied yams, pumpkin pie, brownies, and cornbread.... it was AWESOME and it was even more awesome that the dinner was made by Japanese chefs who had pored over recipes and gone through a few dry runs before they got everything perfect... The fact that I was with good friends and making new friends and having good food reminded me of how happy the holidays are for me, and of course, how thankful I am for having everything I have...
Tom's friend Brian, a JET from San Francisco who lives in Hiroshima, served as our fantastic, energetic, spastic, hilarious guide the rest of the night. I knew it would be a good night when he met us on a bridge with a bag of beers, and forced us to chug them down in less than 2 minutes. We bought shots and drinks and snacks and candy for eachother all night as our group grew to about 8 or 9 people, trolling the streets from bar to bar, ending at this several story entertainment venue. For a flat fee of .... well, I actually don't remember now, we got unlimited access to karaoke, ping pong, billiards, batting cages, and my favorite part.... massage chairs!!! And that was just on the floor we were on. I have no idea what they offered on the other floors, but I didn't want to leave those amazing chairs.

Miyajima (near Hiroshima)

Due to my working a Saturday to judge the junior high recitation contest, I was able to get a 3 1/2 day weekend that coincided nicely with the Thanksgiving Holidays. So, I decided to go somewhere "far"- Hiroshima and Miyajima, which involved taking the speedy Shinkansen (bullet train)!

First stop- Miyajima. It's considered one of Japan's 3 Most Beautiful Places- along with Amanohashidate (near me) and Matsushima (in the Sendai area). Definitely beautiful, but I think the spectacular cliffs of Shirahama still blow them all away. Ehh.... I guess you can't argue with Japanese tradition. Anyway, it's a small island near Hiroshima. Deer wander the streets and from the warning signs everywhere, they have eaten tourists' food, tickets, passports, etc. The island is known for the famous Itsukushima Shrine - it was so sacred that people were supposed to arrive by boat through the giant orange Otorii (Grand Gate) that stood in the middle of the sea. The sprawling shrine itself is also built in the sea, but it has stood the test of time for more than 800 years! Depending on the tide, the shrine is either surrounded by water, making it look like an impressive floating Heian Period houseboat, or surrounded by mud- where you can inspect the foundation posts and structure.

Beyond the shrine, there are countless other beautiful shrines and temples. The colors surrounding me were intense, from the bright vermillion shrines to the crystal clear greenblue sea, the deep red of the maple leaves to the green mountains beyond. I climbed the hills and steps to the Daishoin Buddhist Temple complex and then wanderd around Maple Valley, admiring the leaves and natural beauty of the crisp fall weather.

It's amazing how much the MAPLE LEAF has become a symbol of autumn in Japan. They are everywhere- printed on scarves, t-shirts, stationery, and there are even these amazingly delicious smelling maple-shaped pastries with red bean filling that are cooked on streetcorners. I can already imagine cherry blossom season!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Roadtrippin' with the Yoshidas- Maple viewing in Hikone

The ever-awesome Yoshidas asked me and fellow JET, British Simon, to join them on a daytrip driving "maple (momiji) viewing" as well as all the other "koyo" (colorful leaves), culminating at Hikone, a castle town several hours away. Of course, we went!
A bunch of us had celebrated Becky's birthday with a big potluck dinner party at Leigh's the night before. Since Leigh lives about 5 minutes from the Yoshida's, I ended up just sleeping over at the Yoshida's sprawling house, which was an experience in itself. Getting back at 1 or 2am and then having to be up at 6am totally sucked, but Simon and I settled nicely in the backseat of the car with a loaf of warm, fresh-baked bread as well as several full baskets of fresh sushi, vegetables, coffee, cookies, oranges, etc. (do these people ever sleep???)
Anyway, the mountains and leaves were spectacular. We stopped a few times on the way to Hikone to enjoy the shrines and a little village at the base of a mountain. Seems like we weren't the only people to have the same idea though. It rained most of the day but I can't imagine how many more people would've been out if the weather was nice!!
It took about five hours to get to Hikone- Simon and I exchanged stories about everything from dream houses to monkeys to traumatic childhood memories... with that much time in the car, you end up knowing a lot about the people you're traveling with! (Thank goodness he is so awesome and chill).
The castle was actually not as exciting as I thought it was going to be- it was really bare and pretty "small". I guess it looked more like a "tower" to me. Unlike European castles, there wasn't any furniture or any sort of context. Instead of showcasing weapons, suits of armor, period costumes and tapestries, there were cases and descriptions of ancient roof tiles and maps. It was also a risky, litigious experience- we had to carry our dirty wet shoes and umbrellas in separate plastic bags while traversing the extremely steep "stairs"- more like ladders with really really low handrails- defiinitely not ADA) throughout the four story structure. Not sure how the 80 year old obachans were doing it because I was ready to have a heart attack. Then again, I'm the one with the arthritis and back pains.
The nearby Chinese-inspired garden was much more beautiful, despite the rain. We enjoyed a brief Japanese tea ceremony in the teahouse overlooking the pond and wandered around the grounds. Despite the cold weather, there were some uplifting "winter-blooming" cherry trees. Then we got back in the car and drove back. I think it was like a total of 8 or 9 hours in the car in one day!! The Yoshidas rock.

Monday, November 27, 2006

The Last Kimono Festival of 2006

Kumi (Yoshida) took me to the fantastic blowout kimono festival at the fancy schmancy Royal Hotel in Miyau, overlooking Miyazu Bay. The view wasn't so great due to the giant freezing raindrops (i guess we call them hailstones!) that were pouring from the gray skies. I also only had a few hours of sleep due to a late night out the night before- I was at a taiko drumming performance an hour away with some fellow JETs after a day of judging the junior high school recitation contest and then shopping for fun home stuff like mirrors and lamps and down blankets. The AET band, "The Jets" (Tom, Dave, & Adam) played some lively covers onstage (never thought I'd hear clapping to "Country Roads" or such a welcome reception to "Hotel California")- the party kept on going at a huge house but I missed out on most of the craziness so I could come home "early".

Anyway- it was great- Kumi helped me get dressed in my other kimono- a vintage purple silk one with white flowers. I borrowed an obi and a purse from her extensive collection. "Getting dressed" in a kimono is actually a huge deal- there are layers and layers of undercoverings and ties and clips and padding and a specific order in which you put them on, how you tie them on. Apparently, you are supposed to be cylindrical when you wear a kimono, not showing any sort of waist or hips- this is so different from most Western cultures!

The festival was packed with hundreds of women, from about 5 years old to about 105, each one showing off a beautiful kimono. And Becky was there too! She was there with Shinobu, her private Japanese tutor, and we were even seated at the same table. Becky wore a gorgeous vintage green kimono and she even put on her obi herself! It was my first experience at a kimono festival- but this one I guess was really different from the others anyway. We sat down to a lavish Western-style six or seven course lunch in the grand ballroom of the hotel and were entertained for the next 3 hours- there were singers, dancers, an obi fashion show, an auction, more singing and dancing (the special guest was a former member of the weirdly fascinating Takarazuka Revue troupe. However, the garish looking emcee in her pink and gold sparkly dress did take advantage of the gaijin factor and interviewed Becky and me in front of these huge spotlights and cameras and made us stand up and show off our kimonos for the crowd. Actually, she interviewed Becky and the crowd ooh-ed and ahhh-ed at her ability to understand and speak Japanese. Then she moved onto me- "the gaijin's japanese friend", but of course, I had no idea what she was trying to say so I just looked at her blankly. I get this all the time, and I've been told that people actually think that I could be retarded. Becky had to whisper the translations to me under her breath and we finally got through the painful ordeal. Got home, peeled off the layers of kimono, and watched My Neighbor Totoro. (Yes, Chrissi, and any other curious folks- my city does look a lot like the movie!!!)

More wholesome Halloween shots

Chick-a-dee Kayla (my little niece) and friendly fireman Jack Hickey!

and a (VERY belated) congratulations to Lisa & John on the birth of their son, Sean!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Halloween 2006

Boo! Halloween in Japan.
Wholesome, and not so wholesome.