Friday, October 31, 2008

Traffic kills all the fun

As I said before, Lauren and I decided to get up very early so we could spend the whole day in Kyoto. We had temples to see and culture to embrace! We hopped on a local train nice and early and got to a station where we could transfer to an express train straight for Kyoto. The ride was only 30 minutes from Osaka to Kyoto station. Once at the station, we bought all day bus passes for $5 and started on our way. It should have been a big fat clue that it was going to be a slow moving day when we saw the line for the bus to kinkaku ji (The Golden Pavilion).

When we arrived at Kinkaku ji, the sun was shining brightly and we had a beautiful view of the temple. This temple is in the traditional pagoda style and sits in the middle of a small lake with a single bridge connecting land to the temple. The reason it is called the Golden Pavilion is because it is actually plated in real gold! It was build during a very economically prosperous time in Japanese ancient history; during the time of the Shoguns.

It was amazing the way the sun glinted off the gold of the temple and reflected beautifully on the water below. The path for visitors around the pavilion is a nice light gravel walkway around the perimeter of the lake. Tourists cannot walk inside the temple because it is still used by the Buddhist priests that maintain the temple and the grounds. As we were walking along the path, I happened to look down into the water, and there were a ton of coy swimming in the lake. They were bright orange and white and clamoring along the bank of lake. The path goes up a small hill and through some nice trees. Lauren and I were there just as the leaves were beginning to change color, so it was quite pretty to see. Kinkaku ji is one of those places that even the most challenged photographer can get a postcard shot every time. I feel like such a professional taking pictures of this place because it is impossible to get a lousy shot!

Next, we walked back down to the bus stop and hopped a bus to Ginkaku ji (The Silver Pavilion). Yes, this is the opposite side of the spectrum from Kinkaku ji. In all my travels to Japan, I have never seen this temple before and it comes very highly recommended from all my Japanese friends. The story with this temple is that it was built to be in competition with Kinkaku ji. Originally the architect wanted to make a beautiful silver structure that could be revered even more than the Golden one. However, it was coming to the end of Japan’s economic high, so the architect did not have enough money to carry out his original idea. He kept the name however, but made the structure an incredible architectural beauty. It showed his talent and skill rather than the amount of money in his purse, and for this reason, Japanese people love and respect this temple more than the one of gold. I was really excited to see Ginkaku ji because of how highly recommended it had come, but when Lauren and I arrived, we discovered that the roof was being repaired and it had been closed to the public since February! Needless to say, we were very disappointed. We were still able to walk around the grounds and take in the natural beauty of autumn, but all in all, it was a bit of a bust.

After taking the path through the woods, we ventured back down to the main road to see where we could grab some lunch. After all the traffic of that morning it was already about 2pm and we were hungry. We weren’t able to find any lunch places, so we settled for a little coffee shop on a side street and each had a cafĂ© latte and split a banana cake. After this, we shopped around a little on the side streets to look for souvenirs for family and our schools. It is customary in Japan, that if you tell co-workers you are going away on a short trip or vacation, that you should bring something back to share with everyone. I bought a watch for myself because I really love watches. But also, the watch I wear everyday was starting to show some wear in the wristband; I really love that watch, and I want it to stay nice, so I decided that I needed a new everyday watch that I could wear and save the other watch for nicer occasions.

After our shopping excursion, we hopped on a bus for Kiyomizu; it means “pure water.” This was the worst bus ride of the whole day. The others had been long, but this one was ridiculous. Lauren and I waited for about 30 minutes for the bus to arrive in the first place. The traffic had gone from bad to horrendous because street dancers with portable shrines were dancing through the street. I would have expected that if there was a festival or parade of some sort, that roads would have been purposely closed and the people would have been given a proper path to perform, but no, of course that is not the way it went. The dancers would traipse through the street and then the cars would continue to pass by, and then more dancers, and more cars. Once the bus finally got to the stop, it was very crowed, but Lauren and I piled on anyway, along with about 7 other people. At every stop it seemed as though no one was getting off, but 5 to 7 people were getting on. There was need to hold onto anything, because we were crammed in there so tightly that no one could breathe, let alone move or fall down. This bus ride took us just over an hour. Once we finally got off the bus, we were tired, a bit cranky and really hungry because we had only eaten that banana cake.

The first thing we did was search for a place to have a late lunch. We were at the point that we didn’t really care about eating traditional food from Kyoto, so we just stopped in the first place and it happened to be Italian. So we had pasta in Kyoto; traditional, Japanese/Italian pasta with some salad and bread and fish flakes. It was good and helped us to pull it together to make the loooong trek up the hill to Kiyomizu. This temple sits at the top of a big hill and has fresh spring water, which tourists cleanse themselves with by washing their hands and/or drinking it. The hill up to Kiyomizu has been lined with omiyage (souvenir) shops and little places to buy the traditional Kyoto sweet; it is a rice cake wrapped around red bean paste.

Lauren and I hit the shops on the way down, because we wanted to make it to the top by sunset, for the view of Kyoto in the pink and orange hues. We kind of buzzed right through the “temple” part of Kiyomizu, but Lauren really wanted the pictures, and I had been there twice before, so I wasn’t bothered. We were able to get some nice pictures and despite all the people it was kind of peaceful up there. After the pictures, we jaunted back down the hill and did a bit of shopping. We each bought omiyage for our schools, and then went to catch a bus back to the station to head back to the Mansion.

We waited for a long time at the bust stop, and as we were waiting, a bus – nearly full – stopped and a few people got on, but Lauren and I recognized some JETs on the bus! They noticed us too and we got a phone call inviting us to dinner back at the station. Lauren and I grabbed the next bus and met them for a drink and then caught the train back to Osaka to eat some dinner and crash. The next morning our Osaka/Kyoto adventure was over and we took the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) back to Tokyo and then went our separate ways. It was a really great weekend and I am so happy to have seen some of the more real sides of Osaka rather than the touristy stuff I have always done. I feel very lucky to have gotten to do both in my lifetime though.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Life in 3-D

Our second day in Osaka began with a trip to the Osaka Castle. It is big and bright white and green with gold trimmings. The grounds of the castle are huge and are a great place just to walk around for the day. When we first arrived we were a little peckish and wanted to grab some quick food before our trek up the stairs to the top of the castle. It wouldn't be Japan if they didn't combine their history with the modern phenomenons commercialism and technology. Just in front of the main gate into the castle there is a bit of an outdoor food court. Lauren and I stopped here to grab some yaki soba (kind of like Chinese lo mien) and apple juice. While we were enjoying our sustenance, a little bird decided to join us. I guess there are just too many people in Japan, but the wild animals don't seem to be bothered by people in the slightest. It makes for some cool close encounters and some good pictures.

Yaki soba having satiated our hunger, we made our way through the main gate of the castle. Just beyond this gate lay a rather large and crowed festival. I am not quite sure the occasion, maybe just the autumn season and the long weekend. But there were people dressed in traditional warrior garb taking pictures with tourists. Just a bit further was a stage with a vivid performance happening. I really didn't understand what they were doing, but there was a woman singing and 4 dancers doing some interpretive dance around her with fans and instruments that looked like horns. I think it was a show depicting a battle of some kind. It was pretty cool to watch for a while.

After the show, Lauren and I ventured up the castle stairs. Again leave it to Japan to completely gut the inside of an ancient castle and make everything inside sleek and modern. We discovered quite quickly that the only reason to go to Osaka Castle is to climb to the top and see the view. I always enjoy a good bird's eye view of a city, so I was not disappointed. The view was nice, and after a once around the top, we made our way down and back to the Mansion to regroup and decide what should be next.

After a quick nap - about 30 minutes - we got up and headed out to the IMAX theater and Suntory Museum. This was a very busy little section of Osaka and we just couldn't do it all. We decided to check out the 3-D IMAX movies, check out the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit, and ride the Ferris Wheel. We began with the museum and the IMAX movies. Now the coolest things are always in 3-D! The first movie we saw was about the ocean and how all the creatures co-exist and are dependent upon one another to survive and keep the ocean in balance. Lauren and I had to wear this awesome, gaudy headphones in order to hear the original English narration by Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet. You know when you are watching a 3-D movie about the ocean you are guaranteed a shot when it looks like the shark is going to chomp right down on you, and this movie did not disappoint! The next movie was about Mummies and ancient Egypt. It was fascinating and talked about how if scientists can figure out how to successfully extract DNA from Mummies it will help to advance modern medicine. This movie wasn't nearly as 3-D awesome, but it made my inner nerd jump for joy!

After the movies, Lauren and I checked out the museum and gift shop. Just browsing, Lauren happened upon a plastic folder that had my quote on it. The Albert Einstein quote that inspired the new name for my blog. It was actually pretty inexpensive, so I jumped all over that. I even strayed a bit from my usual red and bought the Kelley green one with white lettering. I love when I find/Lauren finds little things that just seem to fit so perfectly into my life. It makes me feel like the world is created just for me and gives me a renewed sense of confidence or excitement or a little boost of whatever I happen to need at the time!

When we finally got out of the museum - we seem to trap ourselves in them :) - the sun was setting and we went to the top of the Suntory building to grab a quick dinner and glass of wine. I was able to capture some nice pictures of the sunset over the water. After our pasta and wine, we headed out to the Ferris Wheel. It was a beautiful evening, not too chilly and the all the lights in the city were about to come on as we got in line for the Ferris Wheel. It was about a 15 minute ride to go once around and there was a nice little English voice over so we knew what we were looking at as we climbed higher and higher. We could see a beautifully lit bridge that connects the islands of Kyushu and Honshu.

After the Ferris Wheel ride, we booked it back to the train station and headed back to the Mansion to change clothes and head back out to the Sky Building observatory. Now this is the for real observatory in the heart of the city of Osaka. When we arrived at the correct train station for this observatory, we could see the building from the station, but we had no clue how to get there walking. There was a ton of construction going on, obstructing the sidewalks, so walking would have been a pain. Instead we hopped in a cab and the nice guy took us to the Sky Building. And he turned off the meter, so that Lauren and I only paid the flat fee - I guess we looked cute!

We found the counter to get our ticket to go to the 40th floor observatory. Once we were one the 38th floor, we got in line to take escalators up to the 40th floor. There is a picture of the escalator as we are ascending - it looks like a never ending tunnel! Once we were on the top of the building, the wind was strong, but the view was gorgeous. I love night time views of cities with bright lights and tall buildings. One thing that made this observation deck so cool was that they had black lights up around the perimeter of the walkway and the floor was specially made so that it glowed in the black lights. Pictures of things that are supposed to be glow in the dark just never work out. So think of going to laser bowling dressed all in white! Pretty soon, Lauren and I started to get a little chilly, so we headed back inside.

By this time we were pretty well starving and began our search for some dinner. We had seen signs for a restaurant at the Sky Building called the Star Cafe. It seemed like a nice choice, but we soon realized that it was closed. Sadly, we hopped over to the Westin Hotel for a drink to regroup and figure out where we should go for dinner. We went to the executive bar in the Westin called, Blue Bar. It was a dimly lit smokey little place where the cocktails were $14, and they sold $500 champagne! BUT, they did make a Black Russian - which I had been craving, so all was happy and well. After sitting for a while, we finished our drinks and headed back out into the world to try our luck and see what was still open at 11pm for dinner. We just started walking around the nearly deserted streets of this section of Osaka looking for a glimpse of an open restaurant. We thought we had totally lucked out when we heard karaoke coming from inside a brightly lit bar. Unfortunately we found out it was a private party and they wouldn't serve us food.

Shortly after that, we happened upon a little French place with blue Christmas lights hanging from the stairway up to the main entrance. We ventured up the stairs and saw the host at the front of the store. It was very quiet inside, but we asked if they were still serving food and the little guy asked us to wait a moment and ran around the corner. Next, a very well dressed man in a formal suit came out and seated us. As we rounded the corner to where the tables were, we saw that the whole place was empty and they were beginning to close. We started to apologize for bothering them at closing time and started to head out, but the suit man stopped us and said, "No, please stay, anything you want." Lauren and I looked at the menu and decided on a salad appetizer with fresh greens and tomatoes. For our main course we ordered a lamb stew and then for dessert we got the creme brulee - my favorite!! We each had a glass of wine with dinner and then when the nice man brought us our dessert, he also brought two glasses of port!

It is not customary to tip in Japan, but had we been in America, that incredibly nice man would have gotten one heck of a nice tip!!! The food was delicious and the atmosphere was just calm and warm. We really lucked out in trying to find a nice place to eat. After dinner we headed back out and hailed a cab to take us back to the Mansion. We basked in the fantastic-ness of our day and our wonderful finale evening and crashed when we hit our beds. However, despite the fact that we had gotten in so late, we both decided we needed to get up bright and early to be ready for Kyoto in the morning!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Pub crawl back to the Mansion

After the zoo, we were getting kind of hungry, and luckily, directly across the street from the Zoo was a street bazaar. It had many shops and a ton of places to eat and again, lucky us, it was the beginning of happy hour! When we started down this street, I noticed a big golden statue of a fat man sitting in a thrown. On the bottom of the statue it has the words, "The God of Things as They Ought to Be." I became minorly obsessed with this guy and started taking as many pictures as I could. These statues were all over the street. There was even one of those face cut-out picture things where I was this fat statue guy and Lauren was a Sumo wrestler.

We ducked into a little place that had a sign that read 190 yen for Kirin draught. We got some skewered meat and veggies and each had a beer. They gave us free cabbage and we met a guy from Chicago who was studying in Osaka for the year. Lauren also went to school near Chicago, so she was really excited to meet this guy. He was really nice and we talked about the food and Osaka for a few minutes. His Japanese was really good and it made me want to practice mine a little more too.

After we were finished our small appetizer and beers, we headed out with no plan just to explore some more of this crazy bazaar! I happened to glance down a side street and read a sign that said Karaoke. Of course Lauren and I had to go. We booked a room for an hour and ordered another set of drinks. She had a Moscow Mule and I had a G&T. We sang our little hearts out for our hour and then started back on that dusty trail to find more excitement and entertainment! We vaguely remembered how to get back to the station - and by vaguely I mean that we had gotten ourselves so turned around we just weren't sure any more. So we just started walking around the outside of the zoo, back in the bustling city of Osaka. We happened upon a nice woman and asked her directions back to the station, she pointed us in the right direction and we were on our way back to the Mansion, so we thought. As we are plodding along the sidewalk, I see a sign for a German Pub with an arrow pointed down an alley. Sketchy? Maybe if we weren't in Japan it would have been, but we headed down the alley and happened upon a quaint little pub with a fantastic bar mistress. Lauren knows German better than I know Japanese so she was really excited to be in this little place.

We found out that the woman who owned the pub was married to a German man and had lived there for a little while. So we ordered a round of cold German beer and chit-chatted in English/German/Japanese for a while. It was such a good time and this woman was so excited to talk to us. We talked about traveling, and teaching, and boys (ooh la la) and food and language. I am so happy to have met her! Next, we really did find the station this time and we made our way back to the vicinity of the Mansion. Before we got there though, we popped into a little bar called Tani York.

This place was right across the street from the Mansion and I was initially drawn to it because it had a large blow-up bottle of Southern Comfort in the window. Frankly I was not expecting to see SoCo anywhere in Japan, so I was intrigued. We walked up the little stairs and turned out we were the only people in this little place. Oddly that happened a lot during our stay in Osaka... Anyway, the girl working was named Aki and she was adorable. Her English was very good and she spoke Spanish very well too. She spent some time in Mexico because her uncle moved there to open a Chinese restaurant. I thought that was a little funny. But now she is just living and working in Osaka and loves to speak English and Spanish any time. Lauren and I both ordered a White Russian. It tasted like candy - I hadn't had Kahlua since I had been in Japan and really I wanted a Black Russian, but White was all Aki knew how to make.

A little later Aki's friend came in, his nickname was Soldier, and he bought Lauren and I our next drinks. Lauren had a Leiche cocktail and I had a grapefruit cocktail. We sat and chatted a lot. It was fun to make some more new friends during our short time in Osaka. Around 1am or so Lauren and I started to lose steam in a major way, so we bid our new friends adieu and headed back across the street to the Mansion. Our first day in Osaka was completely filled to the brim and that is kind of the pace we kept up for the rest of the weekend!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The land of misfit animals

Lauren and I left late Thursday evening (October 9th), and took the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Osaka. We found our hotel and were VERY pleased. Our accommodations were cheap even though the place we were staying was called The Weekly Mansion. This place was decked out as far as cheap hotels go. Lauren and I concluded that our room was about the same size, if not bigger, than each of our apartments. But I am also happy to say that we spent very little time in our hotel room, as we had many places to see and fun people to meet!

On Friday morning we headed to the Tennoji Zoo. This zoo is combined with a botanical garden as well as an art museum. The entrance fee was $5 for all three locations - that should have been a tip-off right there that the zoo was, shall I say, interesting. We did not begin with the animals however, we started with the flowers and shrubbery. Upon walking through the gates there were elementary school children running around and enjoying themselves. There were also bushes growing out of large wooden animal faces - they had a distinct Chia Pet look about them.

The gardens are just beyond the Chia Pets. I really like to look at flowers and I think some of them are just gorgeous when I happen to get a good picture of them. I practiced taking a lot of flower photos during this little excursion through the green houses in front of the zoo. Note: there is an interesting looking cactus photo. I took it because the child inside got the better of me and reduced my maturity level to that of a 12 year old boy for a moment; I hope you think it's funny too.

Before we actually hit the zoo Lauren and I ducked into the art museum. I am always sad that pictures are not allowed to be taken in art museums. Art is one of those things that makes me really really happy, and I want to be able to share my thoughts about certain pieces I see, but if you cannot see them too, it makes that a little more difficult. I saw a beautiful Japanese piece of art depicting each of the four seasons. It was a very old piece, but the colors were still extremely vibrant and each season looked happy and inviting. The painting was on four different panels of rice paper sliding doors. I have similar doors in my apartment and if only I were an artist, I would try painting them too. Of course there was a gift shop and I bought a puzzle there. I love puzzles and these are of famous paintings so it makes it even cooler.

This finally brings me to the zoo. The pictures I have just don't do it justice, but this truly was the land of misfit animals. To talk about it on here and give the impression that it is funny may seem wrong and heartless, but believe you me, these animals were a laugh riot! It reminded me of the part in the claymation Rudolph the Red nosed Reindeer movie when there are on the island of misfit toys. We walk in a see these monkeys just swinging from branches in a faux habitat. There are about 5 monkeys and one of them has a huge growth right on his hind quarters. This thing was at least as big as his head. It was gross to see, but I just couldn't look away. Needless to say, we made jokes about it for the rest of the weekend and are still making jokes two weeks later. (Sorry about the bobbling near the end, I was laughing so hard I couldn't hold my hand still.)

After that round of monkeys we went to check out the seals. The water was a bit murky green and then we saw one seal with a bit of a swollen eye. The poor thing looked diseased, but it was then that I started to catch onto the fact that the animals here just weren't right. We saw the different kinds of bears next. The first had black fur, but then a yellow and orange colored faced. The second looked like a shaggy dog and the third must have forgotten to take his Ridelen because he was totally hyped up. This bear looked like a cross between a dog and a monkey and it couldn't sit still - or even walk slowly. The polar bear looked brown because he was so dirty and his "ice" needed a new paint job.

We saw a lot of different kinds of birds, and I have to say my favorite are the flamingos. I just try to contemplate how a bright pink bird happens. Pink is a rather unnatural color - when you think of natural colors don't you see greens and blues and browns mostly? How and why would an animal adapt to such a florescent shade? We moved on from there to the indoor monkeys and they were just as crazy as the outdoor monkeys. I started teasing a monkey who was swinging on a faux branch suspended from the ceiling. I was moving my body back and forth with the swinging of his branch and I could tell I was aggravating him maybe a little. Next thing I know, this monkey is launching himself at the glass barrier between us to try and eat me alive. He immediately fell off the glass because it was smooth and there was nothing to hang on to, but he was undeterred; he kept jumping at the glass and trying either hug me or eat me. In the next cage there was a monkey hissing at everyone who passed by. Again I decided it was a good idea to taunt the monkey and I started hissing back. He didn't come flying at the glass, but he was surely not happy with me and eventually expressed this by showing his butt and then sticking out his tongue. Lauren and I thought these monkeys were hilarious.

Sadly, we weren't allowed to take pictures in the koala house. I have only seen koalas at the zoo, but they look so incredibly cuddly it makes me want to have one as a pet - for about ten minutes, because that is as long as I want any pet before I am finished with it. After the koalas we tried to check out the African safari part of the zoo, but the animals had all gone in for the day. I have some pictures of bronze animals to take the place of the pictures I didn't get of the real animals. Soon after we realized we weren't going to see anything else, we left the zoo. Subsequent observations and adventures will be saved for next time. And every entry will probably be very long. Just be glad you can read a little and then come back. At least I'm not sitting in your living room rambling on...haha. I will try getting the pictures up as soon as possible. It is hard to do it on my school computer.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The magic word is not please

In fact, I don't know what the magic word is at all. I probably made the goofiest mistake I have ever made. I am sorry that I have been completely out of touch for the past two weeks. Believe me there has been plenty happening; I think I have six new entries that illustrate that. I legit forgot my password to log-in to my computer. This is just proof of my slowly decreasing attention span in my "old" age. So really because I am young, I have NO EXCUSE for this mistake; but of course I will try anyway.

Firstly, my computer is paranoid and makes me change my log-in password once a month! How lame! When I was at Bentley, I would have to change my password once per school year. That is much more reasonable, but when I had to take my computer off the Bentley network, my computer had a freak out and decided that it was necessary to make me change the password all the time. I cannot figure out how to turn off this setting, I have tried. The closest I have gotten is that the screen saver is no longer password protected.

When the computer prompted me, I was getting ready for my long weekend in Osaka and Kyoto with my friend Lauren. Needless to say, I was in the middle of packing and doing laundry when the prompt popped up. I hurriedly changed my password and subsequently forgot about what I had done. Before I left the house I thought it would be a good idea to turn the computer off - had I left it on, this problem never would have happened. This is what I get for trying to save energy!

So, I am still trying to work out how to break into the steel fortress that is my computer. I have gotten some ideas and I am still experimenting and trying to make these suggestions work. I will keep you posted on my progress. I have only just had the time to sit and write a blog while at school. They have been keeping me so busy, which is nice - but many of you thought I had dropped off the planet, sorry about that! I will make updates as I can from school and soon I should be able to start making them from home. Talk soon!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Off on grand adventures

I am heading to Kyoto this evening with my dear friend Lauren. She has never been before, and I have just done a lot of touristy stuff there, so wer are looking forward to getting into a lot of the hidden treasures and night life! I just wanted to send a quick farewell for a few days, and I will be sure to post pictures and document everything when I return on Monday night.

If you haven't already checked them out, I have posted new pictures of my apartment (gasp!) and some pictures of decorations at one of my schools. And, while we are in Kyoto, Lauren and I really want to do something uber cultural. I don't want to give it away on the off chance it doesn't happen, so be sure to be excited for the surprise culture updates to come. Ta for now.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Lights in the sky inspire

I really love fireworks, especially when they last for two and a half hours!!! This weekend I took a crazy long train ride to visit my friend Cat at her place in Tsuchiura for this spectacular Hanabi Masturi (fireworks festival). While the train ride was really long, it helped me to finish my book and start on a new one, so that is always nice. I got to Cat's place around 3pm and was so very happy to see a bunch of JETs there for the festivities! For this festival, if you had a ticket ($100!) you could sit in the reserved seating section and hear the music and announcements being made. Frankly since everything was in Japanese, the ticket wasn't worth it and I think we ended up with such a perfect view of all the fireworks. You can see how sweet the view was by watching the video I took with my little camera!

The fireworks began at 6pm and before that the group of us JETs hung out at Cat's ate some, drank some and just had a nice day catching up and getting excited for the evening to come! At about 10 to 6pm we all walked down to the official row where the food stands were set up and the fireworks launch site. It was like walking down the corridor of an old time bazaar. We were surrounded by a giant mass of people and flanked on either side with delicious, handmade food and sweets and all the drinks you can imagine! We walked up and down the entire path to get a good look at what was around, and then the group of us when to find a place to set up a homebase and sit down for the long light show ahead. We ended up finding a nice big place in an empty parking lot right behind a takoyaki (octopus balls) stand! The fireworks were just beautiful and intense. In addition to that video, I put up a bunch of pictures too!

I love things like fireworks because it's dark, and the lights bursting in the sky are so vibrant; I feel like a giddy child. There is something about fireworks that are just so magical and bewildering. I'm no chemist, so the inner workings of fireworks and their beautiful colors are beyond my comprehension. I think it makes them more enjoyable; the mystery helps me to feel awe and inspired by something so grand that I do not understand.

Learning to Bow by Bruce Feiler

This book is really a great read and a testament to the fact that reading can be enjoyable after college! To confess I have owned this book for years, but this is the first time I have actually been able to read all the way through it. My sister, Christina, has this way of giving gifts that is simply spectacular! She is the person who gave me my first Cranberries CD before they were popular - I loved them first; and she gave me Macy Gray before she was popular. Among other fun and insightful gifts, she gave me this book, Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan. Giving the subject matter, it clearly has helped me to be more understanding of Japanese culture in regards to academia. When I read this book, I feel as though I am having a conversation and I am able to ask questions and bounce ideas and he does a pretty great job of delving into some common frustrations, but also playing devil's advocate and shedding light upon the beauty in indirect speech and the undying commitment to the group above oneself.

Some excerpts I would like to comment upon:

"I didn't know cotton grows in Japan," I said.
"It doesn't," he said, "We don't have the right soil. Plus we don't have any slaves..." He paused as if to consider his next line. Then slowly a smile crept across his face. "All we have is our wives."

This is a piece from early in the book and I think it speaks directly to how the Japanese view Americans through an odd scope filled with misplaced reverie and disdain. I have experienced such instances when the Japanese are so proud to display a very tangible similarity between America and Japan. They want me to know that we are not so different, that they can adapt to my culture and appreciate the oddities of America. This of course is all for show and most Japanese, given the way of their society, do not appreciate American culture because they view it as individualistic and often lacking manners. This has caused me to think deeply about how societies form and how politesse is defined across cultural lines. For example, the Japanese view Americans (and most Western cultures for that matter) as rude and out-spoken. They believe they are lesser than the Japanese because we discuss private thoughts out loud, have little regard for the well-being of the group above our individual goals and the fact that we embrace differences and individuality and frown upon conformity. However, the Japanese can be seen as rude despite their togetherness attitude. For instance, when I am walking down the sidewalk, and the little lady, or the young kid, or the old man almost hit me with their bicycle because they have no concept of personal space and the fact that bicycles can inflict bodily harm. In a moving crowd, (like coming on or off the train) there is no thought of pushing and shoving and stepping on toes as acceptable, impatient methods of boarding the train. The Japanese do not hold doors for one another. They think we are rude for looking them in the eye when we speak or listen to them, we think they are rude for always avoiding eye contact. All of these things are just basic socially accepted behaviors that each culture has established and it is fair to call them wrong or rude. We are making that judgment based solely upon what we have learned - it is a bit like the religion debate - why does anyone have to be wrong - why can't we just be different and move on?

"Shinjinrui are people who cannot think for themselves," Komaba said. "I went to buy a coat the other day in Tokyo, and all I could find were leather jackets. Two years ago it was football jackets from America; then it was navy pea coats. This year it's leather. The people who buy these coats are shinjinrui."
"The problem," Komba said with a tone of authority, "is that with all the American movies and fashion clothes, students have forgotten what it means to be Japanese."

This is a classic Catch-22 the Japanese perpetuate all by themselves! Frankly the Japanese are not taught to think for themselves, they are taught to think for the commonwealth, the whole group. That group can be their homeroom class at school, their co-workers in a company, sometimes the family, but often the whole community makes decisions as one. So this passage is not complaining that the Japanese cannot think for themselves, it is rather lamenting that the effects of internationalization cause the Japanese to become more judgmental toward the outside world. The Japanese want all products to be Japanese, they want all people to look and dress and like Japanese culture and set aside the products and fashions from the Western world. As the Western world infiltrates, the Japanese recoil. They seem to go through this cycle every several years or so - "We need a policy of internationalization so Japan can grow and show the world our greatness" "Wait, this means that the Western world will come here, I thought it just meant that Japan exported our products to the world....oh no, this won't work at all!" This is perpetuated much by the government of Japan, but the cyclical nature of Japan's homogeneous society is performed by the Japanese all together. They are deathly afraid of losing what it means to be Japanese and the only way they can think to preserve what they have is to isolate themselves. Of course this mentality is much more prevalent in the more rural parts of Japan - but much of Japan is rural; less than 20 minutes outside of Tokyo is open countryside and a wildly different way of living than in the metropolis Tokyo. You'd think, "Oh, well Tokyo must be proof that the Japanese are changing and learning to accept difference." Wrong. It is a common occurrence that when a student or really any person migrates to Tokyo for college or work, they can never return home (metaphorically speaking). They are then considered Westernized and not true Japanese. They become loud and rude and are always kept on the outside circles of their home communities - ostracized by the ones who knew them best.

Living with the Japanese is a very fascinating and often rewarding experience. I have been able to learn very much about their culture and acceptable ways of communicating and simply living. As I said before, they are different, often frustrating, but not necessarily wrong. I am here to learn something new and accept change - that is my job, not theirs. Just as I wouldn't expect people from America to change their culture or life simply because they have a Japanese neighbor - I cannot expect to (nor do I want to) change the community in which I live. I merely want to live here for a short time, display my own personal culture of openness and acceptance with the desire to learn. I hope I am remembered fondly and as a friend when my time here is complete. But personally I want to see the differences I want to allow things to frustrate me or make me happy and really delve into what that means in contrast with where I am from and how I have been raised.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

What a crazy, random happenstance!

One heck of a great day! But I should really begin from yesterday afternoon so that I give you the whole story.

Warning: If you're running short on time, just come back and read this later, this is going to be a long one!

So, Wednesday afternoon Otsuka-sensei asked me my plans for Thursday. This question was a bit perplexing, so I answered in question form, "Coming to school...?" His face sank and he seemed genuinely worried for my well-being. He replied, "But you'll be the only one." There it was, the reason for the sunken expression, I was coming to work all alone. He proceeded to explain that the juniors were on their class trip to Kyoto, Osaka, and Kobe and that the seniors were going to be taking their class trip to Tokyo Disney Sea and that the freshman were only going to play games and have an assembly all day. He asked me if I wanted to go with the seniors on their trip. Of course I said yes, and he immediately got on the phone to the head teacher of the senior class. This teacher approved my tagging along and then Otsuka-sensei went to seek approval from the Principal as well. He came back to the teacher's room and gave me the all-clear to ditch work and join the seniors for their trip! I was stoked.

This morning, I arrive at school at 6:45am and we leave promptly at 7am. Once we pull out of the school parking lot, Hiromi, one of the English teachers at Sanwa leans over to me and says, "One of my students couldn't wake up this morning, so he is not here." I assumed this meant the poor kid just missed his chance. I should have remembered - never assume, it makes an ass out of you and me - no, we were going to pick this student up from his home. Yeah, reread that sentence, I'll wait here. This charter bus navigated amazingly through the tiny streets of residential Koga to the student's home. I was floored that this was not only an acceptable solution, but the "obvious" one.

Next, we are on the bus for maybe half an hour after picking up the delinquent kid, and a student shouts from the back, "I have to go to the bathroom!" Mind you, these are seniors in high school, 17-18 years old. Next thing I know, the bus is pulling over to the side of the road, and the students who have to use the restroom, now 4, run off the bus and do their business! I mean, really?!??? About 30 minutes after this little show, we arrive at our planned rest stop for the students.

Eventually we arrive at Disney Sea. I posted pictures, so check them out. I don't know why it is called Disney Sea, there are no water rides that I saw and there is a weak theme (at best) of boating, kind of. As I expected however, everything was pristine and beautifully decorated and lifelike. Leave it to Disney to turn an extremely environmentally and health conscious nation into wasteful slobs. Kind of a funny juxtaposition, I enjoyed it. The first thing I see at the entrance of the park is a giant World. I don't want to call it a globe because that words sounds so academic to me, whereas when I see pictures of the world I just think of beauty and art - that is definitely what this statue was. It was a rotating statue with running water over the sphere, but underneath the pieces of land. Definitely my favorite thing in the whole park.

I mostly hung out with Hiromi and Ishiki-sensei for the day. (For those avid readers out there, this is the husband of the English teacher at Sakai West and Mio's father.) We had a really great time, and they were always surprised that I liked the thrilling rides best. Frankly I didn't find a great thrilling ride at Disney Sea, but the company was splendid and more than made up for the lack of flippy roller coasters. We explored for a bit and road a kiddy coaster. At 11:45am, the teachers all decided to meet up back at the entrance for lunch.

We were at a theme park, I was thinking hamburger, ice cream, bit of chewy caramel popcorn - again I was mistaken. For lunch, the 9 of us headed into the elegant Disney Sea Hotel for a gourmet buffet. Tidbit, soft drinks are almost never free refills in Japan when you are dining out. But, this place had three choices for free refills, orange juice, oolong tea, and Coke. I ordered a Coke, and the pumpkin soup for my appetizer. P.S. I love pumpkin soup - just learned that today. And then we proceeded to gorge ourselves on the buffet. I had everything from a shrimp cocktail with avocado to sea bass in a puff pastry. There were marinated mushrooms, and penne pasta with chicken, payaya, grilled calamari with chickpeas, grilled asparagus in a lemon sauce. For desert I had pear ice cream, a Bailey's chocolate raspberry fudge cake, and creme brulee. And then when I was stuffed beyond belief, Keiichi asked me if I was brave. I said yes - for the record, this was a mistake. He had been filling up on curry and rice; he was on portion number three and stopped to grab some vanilla ice cream for dessert. You probably see where this is going now... He offered me curry and vanilla ice cream - I partook - it was gross - I got more dessert to wipe the taste from my mouth.

After lunch Hiromi, Ishiki-sensi, and I ran (again, not a wise idea just after gorging myself on lunch) for our Fastpass time to Journey to the Center of the Earth. This ride was beautiful with the fiber optic lights and larger than life flower models. After this ride, they wanted to take me to the Tower of Terror. They were being very kind and wanted to make sure I was having fun, but since neither of them wanted to ride, I was all alone. The line moved very quickly and I was in that haunted elevator in no time! The Tower of Terror has a great atmosphere, but as far as scare factors go, it is sub-par. The Drop Zone at King's Dominion is much more thrilling, but definitely lacking in the atmospheric build-up. The Tower is the last ride I rode at the park, and then we headed off to relax a bit, have an iced coffee and do some shopping.

I only bought another charm for my phone, now I have apples and bananas - you know, like the song. I had a really great day at Disney and I hope you all are very jealous. :-D