Thursday, May 31, 2007

JUNE 1st, 2007

The countdown has officially begun.
I am leaving Japan 2 months from today...
Time to start easing my way back into reality...
Time to start thinking about jobs. money. taxes. (ugh.)
Time to start thinking about how I'm getting ALL OF MY STUFF home.
Time to start saying my goodbyes and packing a year's worth of memories...
and time to really agressively attack those items on my "things to do before I leave Japan" list.

These last few months have been rife with awful news of deaths and cancer of friends and family...

Can I get some happy news, people?

I had to dig up some just to cheer myself up a little today:
Dancing robots and a Yoda postage stamp?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Japan in the news

Sadly shocking--

Japan's high rate of suicide (2nd in the world, after Russia) is now more than 30,000 deaths a year. The subject has surfaced again due to the recent suicides of Toshikatsu Matsuoka (Japan's Agriculture Minister) and executive Shinichi Yamazaki. Their "honorable" ways of dying (hanging & jumping out of a window) to atone for their public disgrace are considered acceptable according to Japanese tradition, to restore their honor. (In the past, it was to take responsibility for failings in feudal Japan.)

"In this country, it is difficult to live without belonging to a group, and once you fall out there is hardly a chance to go back in," says Yasuyuki Shimizu, a representative of Life Link (a nonprofit organization providing support for suicide prevention). He also blames the lack of flexibility and diversity in schools and companies, where the unorthodox or people with personal troubles can be ostracized.

It is so strange to think that a country as modern as Japan still has such deeply rooted traditions. Again, I bring up the word in Japanese for "different" is the same as "wrong", and it is instilled into children from the day they are born. Even though there are obvious exceptions to the rule, it still is deeply disturbing to me that acts such as suicide are still honored as respectable while spouses, families, and their community have to deal with the aftermath.

However, in happier (?) news, 20 year old Miss Japan, Riyo Mori, was crowned Miss Universe 2007! It is only the 2nd time that Japan has won this title (1st time was in 1959). Poor Miss USA Rachel Smith slipped and fell to the ground during the evening gown competition... and was jeered by the Mexican audience. Ouch...

Grrrr.... Rainy rant!!!

It was hard to get out of bed this morning without the sunshine pouring into my bedroom like it normally does. Instead, it was dark and gloomy outside, threatening rain at any second. Finally dragged myself to my computer to check the forecast for this morning and breathed a sigh of relief that it wouldn't rain until about 3pm. The air was heavy and I opened the windows for some fresh air.

Got ready for work (school) while listening to NPR, made an uplifting breakfast of a fried egg over cheese w/ tomatoes on a toasted English muffin with my daily double espresso. (Am I in Japan or New York?!?) Yummy, put me in better spirits.

Was finally ready and packing up my bag when it suddently started to POUR outside... huge fat raindrops, a real downpour. Stupid weather forecast. Then I smelled a stench like rotten eggs. i thought.... oh god... my eggs went bad. Oh no!!! and i just ate the whole thing- but it didn't taste bad... what?!?

I went over to shut my window and there HE was. The toilet waste tank vacuum guy. Right, it's the end of the month. He was vacuuming away at the in-ground tank at my neighbor's house. I guess mine was next. No mask or anything. Maybe gloves, I didn't care to check. I slammed my window shut, took a deep breath and ran out of my house.

CRAP. Forgot to pick up my keys to lock my door.

Ran back in, took a deep breath, grabbed my keys.

CRAP. Forgot my umbrella.

Ran back and grabbed the umbrella. Deep breath. Ran back out.

Ran down the stairs. Oh god! Frantically fumbling to open the umbrella while balancing my laptop bag and purse on my forearms. Couldn't BREATHE!!!

Took a breath, almost threw up from the smell. (Note to self... breathe through the mouth!!)
Breathed through my mouth... the thought grossed me out so much that I almost passed out. Practically hyperventilating now. Ran past the waste truck and jumped over its miles of pulsating tubes from the vacuum and half ran/walked to school.

My pants I JUST picked up from the dry cleaner yesterday were falling off my hips so the hems were dragging on the ground while I was walking. (Have I really lost that much weight?) Was trying to balance the umbrella to shield my laptop bag and purse while simultaneously pulling up my pants and now my socks had wriggled down below my ankles! What?!? Had to stop in the middle of the street to adjust the socks, yank up the pants, readjust the heavy bags, and reorient the umbrella to the rain. Finally made it to school as the bell rang, with dirty muddy hems and wet socks.

And now, it's stopped raining.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Countdown lists....

Crazy.... 2 months from this Friday, I'll be on a plane heading back to my family and friends laden with luggage, gifts, and memories!!!

I have started a list of lists (gosh, I love lists!!!).... "things to do", "things to eat", "places to go", and the more mundane "things to deal with" before I leave Japan.

Here goes:
#1: Eat "fugu", the poisonous pufferfish (well, eat the carefully prepared, NON-poisonous part, that is)
#2: Stay in a "capsule hotel"- unfortunately, not many of the places I go have offered these for women! :(
#3: Go to a "biking"... this is the Japanese word for a "buffet", not a bike ride. It is inspired by the word "Viking" which refers to the northern European pirates raiding and taking everything they possibly could get their hands on (you know, like you do at an all-you-can-eat-buffet). Since there is no "V" in Japanese, the word sounds like "biking" (YAY! Went to a "nomihodai" (all-you-can-eat/drink in Kyoto on June 8th!)
#4: Watch a baseball game
#5: Watch sumo wrestling?
#6: Go to a pachinko parlor
#7: Go to all the festivals in the next several months wearing my new yukata (lightweight summer cotton kimono) (7/28/07- in the process & loving it!!!)
#8: Watch a taiko performance (YES!!! The Yoshida's hooked me up with tickets to see the infamous KODO group!) Yay! Went on 6/22!!)
#9: Go to life-drawing class with Jason (sorry, I know I've been promising that for like 7 months!) Yay! Went on 6/30!!)
#10: See a movie in a movie theater?
#11: Try "natto" the supposedly delicious fermented soybean dish that most Japanese enjoy, and most gaijin abhore. Yay! Tried it on 7/1! Not so bad actually, but difficult texture.)


#1: Yakitori at Daikichi w/ Bryn & Jannie (yay! did that last Tuesday!)
#2: Kaiten (literally "revolving" or conveyor belt) Sushi (yay! did that last Tuesday- yes, we had 2 dinners.)
#3: Go to the Amanohashidate Beer Garden (7/28/07 YAY! Been there twice now...)
#4: Plant rice in a rice field (YES!!! Scored next weekend to do this with the Yoshidas!) (June 3)
#5: Go to Kotobikihama- the famous "squeaking sand" beach in Amino (Yay! went there this past weekend!)

#6: Dinner at Orange & then karaoke at SKY
#7: Go to Karachi, the Indian restaurant in Maizuru (June 10)
#8: Go to the "secret beach" and jazz club near Kunda
#9: Go hiking on Mt. Oe and the other mountain that Bryn & Jannie keep talking about.
#10: Go to the summer festival behind my house and watch the waterfall get set on fire (um, what?!?)

#1: See & drive over the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world! (to and from Awaji/Shikoku, June 9-10)
#2:  Watch "Ukai" or the very bizarre / beautiful (cruel?) traditional cormorant fishing
#3: The Uzushio whirlpools" (YAY! Went on June 10th- probably one of the highlights of my entire year in Japan!)
#4: Tottori sand dunes (YAY! Went on 6/23, on the way to Matsue!)
#5: Fushimi Inari in Kyoto- and actually spend some quality time there.
#6: Nara

Unfortunately, as much as I would love to go to Tokyo, especially to see the Ghibli Museum, it's just not going to happen. Since Tokyo is a big, modern city that I can easily visit in the future, I decided to conentrate on the smaller or remote areas.

#1: Throwing (or giving) away wornout clothing, shoes, etc. (There are also some that I am so sick of wearing I can't bear to look at them anymore...)
#2: Settling all my financial stuff- taxes, closing bank accounts, utilities, etc.
#3: Buying gifts/souvenirs for everyone back home
#4: Trying to get a job (or my former job back) in New York
#5: P a c k i n g . . .

I've been really lucky to have been able to do many things I never thought I would be able to, including traveling to the most extreme parts of Japan, being able to wear so many kimono to many events (and learning to put one on by myself!), eating many types of new foods, being invited to so many people's homes...

Feel free to offer anny suggestions, I'll be updating this list regularly!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

peko-chan & poko-chan

"Peko-chan" is the cheekiest girl I've ever seen with that little tongue sticking out and all her little outfits! I had been mistakenly calling her "The Milky Girl" for several months until a Japanese friend corrected me...

We found a Fujiya shop in Sapporo which had all these Peko & Poko collectibles and even the shop clerk looked like Poko-chan, with his chubby cheeks and happy demeanor. He didn't flinch once when I pestered him with questions (Is the boy "Poko" her brother? Or is he her boyfriend? Where did they get their names?)

He patiently told me that Peko-chan was born in 1950 (but has not aged) as the official 6-year old mascot of Fujiya Confectionary Co., a major cake / chocolate / sweet company in Japan.

Poko-chan is Peko-chan's boyfriend, and is one year older. He was created in 1951 after marketing executives realized that Peko was so successful. Together, they represent the yummy Milky candy. He also informed us that Peko's name was inspired by the northern Japananese pronunciation for cow ("beko") whereas Poko was derived from the Japanese word for boy ("boko").

Although Fujiya was rocked by a major scandal earlier in the year, looks like things are OK now after some major changes and cleaning up. Who can turn their backs on this charming little girl?

Even Dondon-ya, my little udon shop in Miyazu has a Peko collection!

People have been caught stealing the nostalgic life sized Peko dolls outside of the Fujiya stores- and getting pretty severe prison sentences!

You can download adorable desktop wallpaper here.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Himeji Castle

After a great night's rest, Jannie and I took the train to Himeji to see Japan's most beautiful castle, Himeji Castle.

It is famous for its white walls and typical Japanese architecture, and is sometimes known as “White Heron Castle”. On that day, it really popped against the blue sky and rose majestically above the bright green trees! There are so many details about it that pictures could never capture, from the gently curving tiled roofs to smooth white plaster walls to the soft well-worn wooden floors... Like many of the other suviving castles, Himeji was built of wood, which required them to be covered with the fireproof plaster walls.

You could tell that Jannie and I were the "foreigners" because we refused to wear the small (yes, even to us!) plastic slippers (imagine tripping on those precarious steps!) after we had to take our shoes off and put them in plastic bags. At least she had socks on, but I was barefoot!!!

The castle had some really well thought out architectural features.... (yes, I'm such a nerd). There were these stone "gutters" set into the ground beneath the eaves that caught rainwater and directed them to drains. Even the deep windows had built-in steel pipes draining rainwater away from the building!

Just like the ninja-dera in Kanazawa, the castle had many defensive and architectural features which helped to confuse intruders. The gates, baileys, and outer walls of the complex are organized in a spiral pattern with many dead ends and there were layers upon layers of steep walls with massive wooden and steel gates (sometimes with smaller gates inset) that they would have to get past. Uneven steps and low doorways were constructed to slow down troops while gun and arrow slits in the walls allowed them to be aimed without allowing attackers to know where they came from.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


A few hours of sleep and then it was off to Kobe to meet Jannie. My head was throbbing and I reeked of cigarettes. Somehow made it to Kobe and wolfed down a huge bowl of noodles while Jannie and I traded stories of our previous night's adventures.

Because of my condition, we ended up just strolling around and window shopping until we could check into the hotel. I was exhausted but the weather was beautiful (why couldn't it have been beautiful on sports day?!?). Since the big earthquake of 1995 pretty much destroyed Kobe, the city has been rebuilt into a modern, bustling city with great transportation, skyscrapers, and looks more "western" than Japanese!

We checked out "Harborland", a new development of restaurants and shops right on the water- it was very Horton Plaza (San Diego) meets Fisherman's Wharf (San Francisco) meets New York's South Street Seaport. Jannie and I looked around in vain for a sign that we were in Japan!!!

We shopped at the Totoro store for awhile then FEASTED on Indian food- curry, lamb, nan, chicken, mango lassis... We wanted to catch a movie afterwards, but unfortunately, the last movie had already started (7pm!) so we wandered slowly back to the hotel. We were mesmerized by a complex art installation in a shopping mall- it was a "Mousetrap" like creation with rolling balls and ramps and mechanical gadgets and gears and bells... tons of fun!!!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Kyoto Kraziness

After the baseball game, I trained it down to Kyoto... It started rather calmly as Jason and I got some coffee, checked out random architecture & stores, and ate at an amazing Italian restaurant with a REAL WOOD-BURNING PIZZA OVEN with the most beautiful "outhouse" I've ever seen! We celebrated with a carafe of red wine, yum.

Then it just went downhill (and I have no pictures). We stopped to pick up some alcohol (I got plum wine & soda) and got to Ruth's place, where a boisterous game of "Shithead" was being played. Since I didn't know how to play, I was in charge of making the "Shithead drink"- which basically consisted of mixing every alcohol in the kitchen into one cup... The next thing I knew, I was playing (with Lliam as my coach) and then we were in taxis on our way to Sanjo Kawaramachi....

ABar was ridiculously packed with loud drunk gaijin and Japanese locals but I just wasn't feeling it. So a small group of us went to a tiny bar around the corner and hung out there, until Tom passed out and fell off his chair. Rob kept bringing up a "whipping bar" next door that he had "stumbled upon" and then we found ourselves "sumimasen-ing" out of this bar into the bar next door.... me, being the only girl at this point. There were 3 sketchy older men and a dildo at the bar, so we realized that this was not a "typical" bar. However, we were all very drunk happy (several vodka sodas later at this point), but for some reason, Jason was not entertained. The bartender/ hostess/ "mistress" pointed a finger at Jason and announced that he was "boring". After some discussion, we concluded that she was saying that he was "bored", so, Rob suggested that she whip him, which she happily did with some leather contraption that she had behind the bar. Jason barely even flinched as the whip flailed at his arms and back, and Rob, in his excitement, yelped as he got "residual" whipping fron getting too close to the action.

Disappointed at the lack of reaction from Jason, the woman peered into Jason's eyes, and then proceeded to shove two fingers UP HIS NOSE. We all just sat there in shock, like WAIT... Did that JUST happen?!? Jason turns to us and says calmly, "She just stuck her fingers up my nose." and turns back to look at her, at which point she does it again! and held them there! It was wild. Definitely not a drunken imagination...

Finally we left and she followed us out to say goodbye. She was very civilized and sweet to the guys, but then, she tried to um, make out with me. HOT! errrrr, NOT. I think it was a ploy to get the guys to stay (as I heard in the background "TAKE ONE FOR THE TEAM LAURIE!!!" but no.... I gracefully ducked out of her arms and said goodbye. Wow, close one.

Staggered out of there into some convenience store where I apparently bought some kiwi-flavored alcohol (?) and joined the group of foreigners drinking down at the river. Staggered over to Hamid's, the falafel place. Tried to say goodbye for an hour. Finally, Lliam, Jason, and I staggered into a taxi as the sky was turning a light blue at 4-something am.....

I guess this is what you get for living in little Miyazu, where everything closes by 6pm... Life in the big city!!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

My First Baseball Game

Saturday, May 19th... a cold, dreary, rainy day.

It was the annual sports tournament (baseball, volleyball, basketball, tennis, etc.) between all the high schools of the Tango area. I, along with most of the Miyazu students and staff not participating in other sports, was ordered to go to watch the baseball game between Miyazu and Kaiyo High Schools.

Tanaka-sensei & I had to stand in the cold rain on the side of the main road ("highway"?) making sure the students were "safe" as they biked their way to the city baseball grounds- tucked away uphill, through a dark narrow tunnel, in some remote location. They were soaked and exhausted as huge trucks and heavy winds nearly blew them off the road. (If we're being "forced" to go this game, WHY don't we have schoolbuses taking us there?!?) "The officials" were going to decide 5 minutes before the game started whether or not it would be canceled due to rain (and then the students would have to bike BACK in the rain). After a half hour of this torture, we finally got in the warm car and drove up to the grounds, passing the miserable students. The game was ON and an announcement was made for "severly wet" students to go home if they wished. NONE went home.

Anyway, the game was fantastic. I sat and cheered on the Miyazu side-the team members who weren't playing in that game were in the stands with us, wearing their practice uniforms and cheering, singing, chanting in unison for their fellow players. It was awesome- they had a different song and chant for each player and play. There were stolen bases and bunts, homeruns and lots of sliding on the muddy field.
Miyazu's baseball team was perfectly coordinated, great pitching, throws, and catches. Kaiyo, on the other hand, was terrified of the ball (catching or hitting). They didn't wake up until the 6th inning, but the game was finally called in the 7th inning- Miyazu, 10: Kaiyo, 2.

This makes me really excited to go see a Yankees (or Mets) game when I get back to New York!!!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Miyazu Matsuri (Festival)

I went to the Miyazu Matsuri with Bryn & my ICC students- it was a 3-day celebration (started on Sunday) but the final and EXCITING day way was on Tuesday, the 15th.

Along with the usual colorful street vendors selling food and games, there were also groups of men (including Eric) parading the streets in white yukatas chanting "YOISA!! YOISA!!" as they lowered and lifted the portable shrines in front of shops and crowds of people. They looked exhausted- they had been straining to carry the heavy lavish shrines on their shoulders for about 8 hours!!

At the end of the night, the parade made it to the local shrine. Men in traditional costumes played music on wooden flutes while lion dances entertained the women and children. Shinji's fingers were all bandaged up from beating on the taiko drum for three days! There was a near mishap as the cart's tall bamboo and lanterns couldn't fit under the gate into the main shrine, so he had to run around getting a ladder and disassembling the whole production and then putting everything back together inside the gate!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

"What do you do during your free time?"

So, I'm correcting my students' handouts from our lesson on "hobbies and free time"...

They had to interview each other and ask what they were doing each day of the week, and then had to invite eachother to join them. Then, they had to write a complete sentence summarizing what they were doing each day.

I had given them a box with all these choices like: Go shopping, hang out with friends, study, play baseball, listen to music, sleep, etc.

Here's how one of the dialogs went:

Eri: Hi Risa, what are you doing on Friday?
Risa: I'm going to the beach. What are you doing?
Eri: I'm sleeping. Do you want to join me?
Risa: Sure, sounds great!

Complete sentence: "On Friday, I'm sleeping with Eri."

Uh, maybe "sleep" shouldn't have been one of the options! ha ha!!

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Kinosaki, Genbudo Caves, & a coastal bike ride

After a late night of watching somber movies (Letters From Iwo Jima & Flags of Our Fathers) at Bryn's house on Friday night, we woke up early on Saturday to cheer on many of the local junior high students running in a mini-marathon. It was great to see those two happy students ("Laurie is on my heart") as well as some of the other kids.

Afterwards, Bryn, Jannie, and I went on a drive to Kinosaki. I had gone there in October with Paul, but it is such a beautiful city that I didn't mind going back again. The canal, lined with weeping willows and colorful flags, was full of koi (I think it was mating season because of their vigorous activity!) and every once in awhile, we saw the famous white storks dip in and snatch up a fish.

We peacefully strolled around and then headed off to Genbudo. We weren't even sure where Genbudo was, nor what it was. I had heard about it from several people who suggested that I go to this "must-see" when I had gone to Kinosaki before. Yeah, understatement of the year! The "caves" were unbelievable- and even better, it was free admission!

Apparently these geological formations were formed by frozen lava that flowed out of a volcanic eruption 1.6 million years ago. There are thousands of basalt pillars forming these arches & caves... you can just imagine them in liquid form and then crystallizing into their present state!

Sunday was "Laurie-time"- had a long talk with Paul, did some laundry, and then went for a bike ride. I decided to ride east, and follow the coastal road as far as I could. It was a spectacular day for a ride, and I was rewarded by breathtaking views of the sea and rice paddies. I ended up riding about 10 km to a remote fishing village, got in trouble by an old man and woman for trespassing onto their private beach (oops!!) and rode all the way back into Miyazu in time for the long shadows of the day to cool me down. Wound down the day by watching Charlies' Angels, the weekly English Sunday night movie!

Saturday, May 12, 2007

:: H a p p y ::

H A P P Y 1st Birthday to my adorable little niece, Kayla!

...and a Happy Mother's Day to my Mom!

...and an especially exciting Happy Mother's Day to new (or fairly new) mothers: Vel, Lisa, Emily, Meredith, and Mindy!

...and belated birthday wishes to Karen, Larry, Pam, Nia, Whitney, & Brian!

Maybe it's the gorgeous weather but I have never been so happy in my whole life....

I'm breathing in the fresh country air, eating fresh vegetables and fish, and surrounded by the freshly planted rice fields. I'm enjoying my last 2 1/2 months here in japan but looking forward to getting back to life in the US.

It was great to catch up with Katy in New York and Glen in Korea for a few hours the other night, and Paul and I are still going strong with our frequent phone/video conversations. I have been so lucky that he has been able to come out to visit me in Asia 3 times since I have been here! DOKI DOKIi!!!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Golden Week: Osaka

After a day in the sun at Awaji, we headed back to pick up our luggage and took the train to Osaka. In one day, we were in Sapporo, Kobe, Awaji, and Osaka.... we were exhausted! (Coincidentally, our hotel was designed by Aldo Rossi!)

We spent the next day and half shopping in Kobe's Sannomiya district and Osaka's Umeda area... The lights, people, and bustling of the cities were a big change from the mellowness of Hokkaido, and especially Miyazu. We both literally shopped till we dropped. Jun even bought these herbal compresses that we stuck on our legs and feet to soothe the "fever" that they got from all the walking.

As usual, I hit up Bagels & Bagels (NY Style Bagels)- mmmm, lox!! We feasted on Thai food (Krungthep's green curry never fails to disappoint) and Jason took us to El Pancho, his favorite Mexican restaurant. Due to Golden Week, every place was crowded but I was NOT going to let the wait deter me from my enchiladas!

I finally walked into my apartment on Sunday afternoon with 25¥ in my wallet.