Thursday, January 29, 2009

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami

This is a very special story to my heart, and I think the author houses some of my very deepest secrets in his soul. The beautifully complicated struggle of the character in the book both clarifies and clouds my thoughts in a profound way. I very much want to read more by this author because of his enticing prose with a depth to his story telling that is indicative of someone who has actively complicated his own life, yet would not change a thing just for the sake of simplicity.

In this story, we follow the character from his young life all the way through his adult married life. We encounter his very real struggles with certain personal morality and business ethics. The story shows the very real scenario of a person so morally conflicted, yet extremely ethically sound. This story speaks not only to the plight of this one man, but is also a commentary on Japanese social practices that many parts of the western world would find appalling. I feel special sympathy for this character, and am not ashamed to say so despite his behavior. In addition I have great respect and true admiration for his wife in the story. She is a woman with strength to be recognized and understood as nothing but maturity and true love.

I would suggest this book to anyone. With a story like this, it is easy to be judgmental, my challenge to you is to see the characters with an open heart and a mind that seeks to understand the reality and devastation of the heart versus the mind.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Fare-thee-well Sakai Nishi

Today was my last visit to Sakai Nishi koko. I cannot lie; being there for the past few months has been a struggle. The students had absolutely no interest in my being there, nor in my having interest in them. However I learned so much about patience and just not letting this job get to me. For those of you that have known me all my life, believe it or not, I am not so uptight any more. Frankly this is something I have been working on ever since I started watching home videos of my six year old self and realized what a brat I was. But seriously, since I have been in Japan I have learned to let go of my own personal control and trust others completely. Really in most cases I have to because of language barriers and whatnot, but in addition to giving over some of my power, I have learned that mistakes are inevitable no matter how much thought and effort I put into planning a lesson, it will never be perfect. Learning how to let go of my micromanaging tendencies has helped me to enjoy most of my classes more and take this experience at face value instead of always trying to instill some life-changing, earth-shattering lesson to be learned. Even ordinary days are exciting and the less I actively try to make each day extraordinary, the more extraordinary it actually becomes. Wow, I feel like I could go teach a class in organizational behavior!

However, before I left school today, I was bombarded with some handmade gifts created with incredible care and many warm wishes for luck in the future. I hope the students at Sakai Nishi realize how kind-hearted and dedicated their teachers are to them. I hope they realize this and begin to appreciate it sooner rather than later.

So this means starting next week I will begin teaching at Koga san-ko. This school has the reputation for being the top school in Koga City and I am pretty excited to meet the students and teachers with whom I will be working. I trust that this will be a completely different environment from Sakai Nishi and that my responsibilities will sky rocket. I have been begging and pleading for more responsibility, so I am looking forward to having the opportunity to extend a bit more of my creativity and willingness to really own this job.

Wish me luck. I will let you know how my first day goes.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Archeology Dig - 9th century is pretty recent, right?!

Normally when I am sitting at my desk during the day, a number of fliers, newsletters, pamphlets, announcements (all in Japanese) are placed upon my desk. And normally I put them aside and throw out the accumulation at the end of the day as I am leaving. However, today an interesting piece of paper was put on my desk by the Vice Principal himself, so I was inclined to check it out. Again it was in Japanese, but I could make out dates and times, so I thought it had something to do with a schedule for a school event. At my next opportunity, I leaned over to the English teacher who sits next to me and I asked him what the paper was all about. He turned the paper over and showed me a kind of map on the back. Then he asked if I had noticed how right across the street from school people had been digging for many weeks. Of course I had noticed and when Gabby was here, she even asked me about it. At that time, and up until today, I thought they were rice farmers across the street doing some overhaul on their rice field. However, he told me that the paper said that it was an archaeological dig site and that most of the artifacts were from the 9th century.

After speaking with this teacher, I talked to a history teacher at the school. I was a bit surprised when she balked at 9th century artifacts. "I don't know why they are wasting their time over there, it is just the 9th century. That's not so old." I guess when you have a history as long and rich as the Japanese, it can be easier to balk at the past. Being from America, and our history being so young; ancient artifacts are just freakin' cool!!! I hope to be able to find out more about what they are doing in the coming weeks.

This whole archeology dig got me thinking a bit about my own history and the idea of a time capsule. Cheesy? Of course! But I think a time capsule would be a really cool thing for me to begin now. I am a pretty sentimental person, and I really like the idea of being able to pass along some tangible stories or history or something along to my children and grandchildren some day. So far my life has been really exciting and I have had the good fortune to experience a lot in my young life. I want my kids to feel encouraged by that - they should know that they too can do anything with enough motivation and perseverance to succeed. I really like wallowing in nostalgia too, and I want to make a pseudo time capsule for me too. It is so easy for each of us to forget how cool our lives have been when the going-gets-tough. I never want to forget the good times and the grand adventures because I refuse to let the hard times push out my good memories!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I'm the student again

I could go into a whole philosophical rant about how we should all be students of life and learn everything we can each day. Every experience is a gift, even the bad ones and we should take something away from living each day. But, this time I mean literally, I am the student in a new Japanese class I just started last Friday.

So way back during the international festival in Koga, I met a man who is very involved in the Koga community. He invited me to join in the Japanese class the community center offers for foreigners. I told him that I would really love to be in a class again and decided to join. Our first class after the New Year's holiday was just last Friday evening. The class, as it turns out, was completely different than what I was expecting. In this class there are people from all over Asia (China, Vietnam, Philippines). And because we all have different native languages, we are split into four groups for more personalized study with a volunteer teacher that speaks our language. The woman that is helping me is named Yasuko and she is actually one of my students from the Heartful conversation club I teach!

The way they run the class is probably different for each teacher, but she likes for me to read from the text book. So there are no written examples or exercises, but I do a lot of reading and creation of new sentences based upon example situations and vocabulary. I think the class will be very helpful in giving me practice speaking Japanese in common and colloquial situations. Hearing myself use Japanese, and being conscious of what I am saying has already really helped my confidence in using Japanese. I have noticed a difference in the frequency with which I use Japanese and the wider range of my conversations. Granted these are small changes so far, but I am confident it will get better.

This same community center also had a New Year's party the Sunday after my first class. I went to this party and it turned out to be a lot of fun. We did Japanese calligraphy (which rocks!) and played bingo (I won some picture frames). After the festivities at the community center, we all went to karaoke. I will never turn down a karaoke invite and we ended up having a group of about 15 people there! Given that we were all from different countries, I heard a lot of Chinese songs and Korean songs. I was the token white girl singing in English. :) It was so much fun to hear everyone singing in their native language, and then when I got my chance to sing (You Were Meant for Me by Jewel). It was really fun because they heard me sing and then they started to treat me a little bit like a celebrity. It was fun and made me feel really special. They started choosing songs for me to sing and just clapping and cheering every time. It's a little silly, but they make me want to be famous.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Chasing Harry Winston by Lauren Weisberger

And on the coat tails of a 150 page book that took me weeks, I read a 300 page book in 4 days. This was just a fun, mindless read. Three friends living in New York City make a pact to change their lives. Lauren Weisberger is the same woman who wrote The Devil Wears Prada. Essentially it is a flitty romantic comedy written to make you feel excited and sexy.

Every little girl wishes for friends as they are portrayed in this book - successful, rich, independent, living in the big city, honest, and with plenty of boyfriends and love to go around. This is one of the greatest reasons I read books, because I want to (just for a moment) lose myself in someone else's story of perfect romance and love or big city living and spending. A quick read, lots of fun, pretty witty if you just need to free your mind.

The Old Man and the Sea By Ernest Hemingway

As tiny as this book is, it definitely took me a while to get through. I was not so driven to read it as I have been with other books in the past. Hemingway has a way of writing that is so unimaginative. The whole story was supremely mundane and felt as though it was repeating itself over and over. If I had to guess however (since Hemingway is famous, and his work is award-winning) I would say he wrote this book in that fashion on purpose. My theory:

Perhaps he wanted his audience to understand and experience this struggle through the eye of the old man. The story kept repeating itself, because the man's mind was stuck repeating itself as well. The plight of this old man was to be lonely and even through a glimmer of hope be ultimately unsuccessful. By the end when the story has finished, your heart really extends to the old man and his life of bitter misfortune. However, you have to respect the character of the old man for continuing to have not only the will, but the optimism to continue fishing and living his life in utter poverty.

I would like to read more by Hemingway, hopefully with more exciting characters next time in the hope that my theory is correct and Hemingway writes through the eyes and plight of his characters rather than in a narrative sense.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

I hear they're famous for gyoza

Last weekend as Lauren and I each bid farewell to our guests, we decided to soften the blow of being all alone by hanging out with each other for the weekend. Lauren and I always have fun with one another and we generally like to play it by ear when it comes to our adventures. For this particular weekend we chose to go to Utsunomiya for their acclaimed gyoza. Now it seems that every single small town in Japan is "famous" for something and Utsunomiya just happens to be good at making fried dumplings. In addition to its gyoza fame, it is also the capital of the Tochigi prefecture just west of Ibaraki.

It is only about a 40 minute train ride from Koga, so it was a nice little day trip. When we first arrived we spoke to the very nice information lady who gave us maps and suggestions for the best gyoza and let us in on the little secret that Utsunomiya also has some pretty decent jazz clubs! We headed out of the station and to the most famous gyoza restaurant in all of Utsunomiya; it is called Minmin. We didn't want to stand in line for a seat, so we just quickly went up to the take-out window and got a dozen for $4. I think what makes this gyoza better than most other gyoza are the ingredients they use. I noticed that there is much less meat than in normal gyoza. There was a lot of cabbage and garlic stuffed into those little dumplings and I think less meat really does make all the difference.

After our gyoza we kept walking down the main street of town and ended up happening upon a street festival! As always, festival food is the best and naturally we each had our own choco-banana. As we walked through, the Japanese food vendors noticed that we were the only two non-Japanese people walking down the lane. It was exciting because everyone was speaking to us and giving us little samples of whatever they were selling. We tried some lamb meat, small raw prawns; we even bartered for our own Daruma dolls.

A Daruma doll is a Japanese wish doll that is mostly used around the New Year's holiday for making wishes and resolutions. As you can see from the picture, the doll comes with two white eyes. It is customary for the owner of the doll to paint in the left eye with black paint while thinking of a wish. The right eye should remain blank until the wish has come true. The most common color for a Daruma is red, but never losing our American touch, Lauren and I got green ones in an attempt to be different. While we were shopping around for the best doll, one of the ladies selling the Daruma came up to us and started speaking English. As we spoke back to her, she was so excited and thankful, that she offered to give us a discount on the price of our humble Daruma. She was a lot of fun and just kept saying in English, "I give you discount, it's our secret, yeah?" We laughed and bid her goodbye, and when Lauren and I got home that night, we made our wishes.

After the street fair, Lauren and I continued walking through the city searching for food and excitement. We happened upon a cute Indian restaurant that we later went back to for a scrumptious dinner. And just beyond that was a huge shopping mall. Being female, we walked in for just a minute, a tiny look around and came out having done some heavy window shopping and some Starbucks. That night we searched around for a decent (inexpensive) jazz club to patronize, however the music charges at each were rather steep. We ended up having a really great day even without the jazz music. We each decided that having guests can be sooooo much fun, but also crazy expensive, so we decided just to hold out until payday and then we can maybe hit up the club with the $20 cover!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

This isn't the wave pool

One tradition in Japan that I thoroughly enjoy is the onsen. I have mentioned it before, but the onsen is a natural hot spring and public bath house. I am lucky enough for my apartment building to be right in front of an onsen, so I can take advantage of it all the time. The whole ritual of communal bathing is so un-American in its public nakedness and vulnerability, but I find it relaxing. Of course the onsens are divided by gender, but even then being naked in front of other women can be a daunting experience the first time. During Gabby's visit, I took her to the onsen. Honestly, I never thought it would fly, but I was really impressed with how she just jumped right in and actually enjoyed the experience. The coolest part for me was watching her surprise with herself. The onsen is not an experience necessary for life, but even the tiniest things allow people room to expand their outlook and grow in some way. The bigger lesson from all this is that she did something she never expected of herself - she succeeded where she didn't think possible and that is something that can transcend this one event and possibly make her more confident in life.

Kabuki, creme brulee, and singing the night away

In all the times I have visited Japan, I had never before seen a Kabuki theatre performance. Sadly, as with most live performances and really any kind of art, no one is allowed to take pictures, so I have only my arsenal of words to paint the picture of my Kabuki experience. As always, Lauren has the best ideas for a random something to do and she suggested that while Gabby and her sister were visiting we should hit up a Kabuki show.

Now, if you know nothing about Kabuki there are some special things you should know. #1 Kabuki theatre performances are an all day event usually lasting the better part of 6 hours with as many acts. #2 Professional theatre in all its forms all over the world is expensive - but there is ALWAYS a student discount :) #3 You can choose to wake up very early and trek in to Tokyo to stand in line and wait for the half-day tickets. These tickets have a significant price reduction, there is no assigned seating, just first come first served and you can only stay for half of the acts (3). This is the option we chose and I think it was more than sufficient to get a feel for what kabuki really is.

Each act of a Kabuki performance seems relatively disconnected. In each act there is a clear beginning, middle, and end of the story. In my acting classes in high school and college, I was always taught to draw upon true emotions and actual life experiences in order to develop my character and make my plight as believable as possible. In Kabuki, the name of the game is shtick and over-acting. Kabuki is extremely physical and elaborate; everything from the costumes to the language to the physical movements is something seeming almost animated and not of this world. To watch Kabuki is a treat for the eyes with all the color and grandiose stage props.

After our theatre excursion, we headed off for some lunch at a lovely French restaurant called Henri Charpentier's. When you walk in, you think you are in an upscale jewelry boutique; but upon a closer look you realize that there are cakes and desserts in the glass jewelry cases, not ruby and diamond rings! The restaurant is actually down a lovely spiral staircase tucked in against a two story bookshelf. Kathryn (Lauren's sister) nailed it when she said it reminded her of The Great Gatsby!

Lunch was delectable and naturally, four girls, had to order dessert after. We were not disappointed in the least by our four flavored creme brulees, lemon tarts, strawberry shortcake, or caramel flan. We felt like fancy princesses while in the over-stuffed, larger than life pink chairs and love-seats. Even the bathroom doors were hidden behind faux black-lacquered bookshelves with pink and white and purple books.

Shortly after lunch, Gabby and I had to hit the road and get back to Koga in time for her Welcome Party. My conversation club, Heartful, decided that Gabby should have a proper welcome with Karaoke hot chocolate and all. The group of us ended up having a really fantastic time that night. The only downside is that Gabby sang her little heart out and that along with the chilly weather caused her to lose her voice a bit. She will be more than fine, but I think her parents thought I had poisoned her. I swear, lead a girl to karaoke and you can't rip the mic away!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Big Buddha in, "Love and Loss in Chinatown"

It has been eons since I have written, but now I am back in my apartment all alone and a bit lonely. That means I have plenty of time to catch you all up-to-date on my adventures with Gabby and everything during winter vacation!

Kamakura and Yokohama are two pretty interesting cities just outside Tokyo with some incredible history and some exciting places to see. First Gabby, Chika, Jason and I went to Kamakura to see the Daibutsu (the Big Buddha). The pictures I have taken do not do justice to the immense size of this grand statue. It is incredible to think that something so large was built without modern technology nearly 800 years ago. I think I would feel an even greater sense of wonderment and awe at the Pyramids in Egypt, but as for now, this Buddha blows my mind.

For a mere 20 cents one can climb inside the Buddha and peer through his great eyes to see the world from his perspective. This Buddha is rather ironic, as are all Buddha statues, shrines and places of worship, because Buddha never intended to be a Deity. In his teachings, Buddha wanted all people to respect one another and all of the natural world equally where no one person or thing was higher or revered more than anything else. The teachings of Buddha embody the true root of the Japanese culture of togetherness and group mentality; but as with all "religions" this one has been a bit distorted as well.

After indulging the Buddha, we naturally went through the gift shop. I purchased a lovely bell for Mom's birthday (early yes, but it was really pretty) and a frog phone charm for Kaitlin's safe travels through Africa. Gabby got some chopsticks and Jason bought some omiyage for the teachers at his school. Chika just got a lollipop and we all should have just followed her lead and saved our money!

After our stop off at the Buddha, we ventured on to Yokohama. This is a lovely little harbor city a 30 minute train ride from Kamakura. Even though the air was brisk, we drove right into the busy streets of Yokohama's Chinatown. The smells from the Chinese restaurants were so tempting and every few steps there were people giving away Japanese roasted chestnuts to entice you to buy a whole bag. Aside from an incredible amount of restaurants, there were little souvenir shops with Chinese print dresses and jewelry with semi-precious stones. In one of the jewelry shops, the four of us looked for about an hour. Finally both Gabby and I decided upon pieces we really liked. I bought a small sterling silver ring with a small garnet stone. It was dainty and I really thought it was pretty.

We left the jewelry store and continued with our travels through the streets of Chinatown. After another couple stores and browsing, I suddenly realized that the bag I had been carrying with the bell, phone charm and Gabby's chopsticks was no longer with me. I panicked because I had lost all our souvenirs and we retraced our steps back through Chinatown. Sadly, our lovely presents never turned up, so we wrote it off as a loss and luckily it wasn't too expensive.

The four of us were hungry and we decided to scour for a place to eat. We went into a beautiful old brick building that was probably a factory of some sort, but had been renovated into an interesting shopping mall. On the bottom floor of the building was the food court, and the moment we walked in to see the Hawaiian burger joint, it hit me! I had totally been in this exact place before! The second time I was in Japan, I was lucky enough to have a homestay experience for a few days. Because it was the summer time, my host sister wanted to take me to a fireworks festival. At that time I was 17 and in awe of Japan and quite the following little sheep. I wasn't really conscious of the fact that we were in Yokohama and I just took the experience as it came. When I saw the Hawaiian burger place again, all the memories of standing in the crowded food court in my yukata and geta and then finding a place to sit along the brick patio outside came flooding back. I was so excited to be in that exact place again, that I took pictures. I wish when I was younger I would have really understood how important it is to keep contacts and remain friends with people even very far away. I have not spoken or emailed with my host sister in many years, and for that I am sorry.

Finally, late at night, we took the train back to Koga talking and teaching Chika all kinds of wonderful American slang and -isms. When we finally got back to our car to drive home, Jason looked down and realized he no longer had his bag of omiyage either. We had successfully managed to lose everything we purchased while in Kamakura. Maybe the Buddha cursed us.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Learning to cook a New Year's dinner

Gabby and I were invited to Maya's house to celebrate the New Year with she and her family. Maya is one of the teachers from Sanwa high school and she is a wonderful cook. She is always bringing new and wonderful creations to school to share with the teachers here. I am very happy I was able to accept her invitation because it was a wonderfully fun night with so much food and my very own cooking lesson.

When we arrived, Gabby and I met Maya's family and enjoyed some Japanese rice crackers and fresh oranges and apples. I have always been impressed by Maya's English and I was just as impressed with her family and how well they new English and tried to speak to Gabby and I. We saw pictures from Switzerland and Guam (Maya's family loves to travel the world!).

After our snack, Gabby and I went to help Maya prepare the New Year's meal. Because Maya is such a worldly person, our New Year's meal consisted of Spanish Paella, Japanese gyoza, Italian pizza, and an American cake recipe. There were some other traditional Japanese appetizer foods of which I cannot remember the name, but they each represented a different thing for the new year. There were fish eggs and radishes, coagulated egg and black beans, among other things.

There is visual proof that I was cooking, so I would like to encourage everyone to take a look at those pictures because otherwise I doubt you will believe me! I was even wearing an apron! In the beginning Maya had me chopping everything from ginger to garlic to onions to boiled cabbage. I have never really been too great at chopping, so this was good practice. Maya's daughter Mayu helped out so much too and I can just tell she is going to inherit Maya's gift of cooking. After all the chopping, we had to make the gyoza by putting the mixture of vegetables and meat into a small round dumpling to be folded and then fried later. I have discovered that I really enjoy cooking as long as I am not alone in the kitchen and I have a recipe or directions to follow. It is kind of fun thinking that the food people are eating is a creation by you!

After the meal was prepared we sat around the heated table and just laughed and joked with Maya's family. Gabby and I looked at so many photo albums of Maya's travels over the years. She has been all over the world to Barcelona, Turkey, Brussels, Australia, Hong Kong, Guam, Greece - just to name a very few. I asked her what made her want to travel the world so much, and she said that because she is a world history teacher, she thinks it is her duty to see the world to make her a better teacher. The way Maya is a wonderful teacher and has such a happy and beautiful family who love to travel the world together, she is truly an inspiration to me! It was such a lovely family experience, and I am very happy to have gotten once since spending Christmas without my own parents and siblings.

Let your wish fly

My New Year's Eve proved to be an experience of which I could not have asked for anything more moving and traditionally Japanese. Gabby and I were invited with some of my friends (Mari and Yumi) into Tokyo to count down the new year like real Japanese. We made the long commute and met up with my friends in Tokyo at Zojoji Temple. This spot in Tokyo is especially acclaimed because of the incredible melding of rich culture and modern technology. Just beyond the temple is the overwhelming Tokyo Tower; with an uncanny resemblance to the great tower of Eiffel in Paris, however this tower reaches higher and serves a much more modern purpose. The Tokyo Tower was built to serve as a communications tower in order to coordinate all the radio and television waves rushing around Tokyo.

When we first arrived at Zojoji, we stood in line to receive a piece of paper on which we could write any wish we wanted. I made a wish sincerely from my heart, but I won't tell, so you can guess for yourself ;) Once we had our tickets, we ventured out into Tokyo a bit to grab some dinner and sit in a warm restaurant for a while. We had some Korean food and some fruit sours to wash it down. It was so much fun sitting in the restaurant introducing Gabby to Japanese culture and helping her to make some new friends!

After some time in the restaurant, we headed back to the temple to collect our balloons and attach our wishes to the string. I would say there were hundreds of thousands of people crowded at this huge temple. We were ushered out with a flowing wave of people right in front of the temple to wait until the clock struck midnight. With about 5 minutes left of 2008, all the lights in and around the temple were turned off, there was some light floating in from other parts of Tokyo, but it was really dark. The countdown for the last ten seconds of the New Year is a universal behavior, and as soon as the new year hit, all the lights came on and lighted signs had been changed to read 2009 and there were 3000 balloons released into the air. Balloons released into the world with sincere wishes and prayers to heard by someone more powerful and loving.

Once the balloons were released the crowd charged forward to enter the temple, offer their small monetary sacrifice and pray. I cannot explain how many people there were, maybe the pictures will give some indication, but the crowd was so forceful, we would not have had the option of standing still if we wanted to. We were being carried forward. When we finally reached the temple, the decorations and adornments were an incredible sight. Everything was golden and brilliant. Just after praying, we walked back to the station and made the long commute home. It was a really fantastic way to spend the New Year and I feel so fortunate to have been able to experience something so Japanese and yet it be so personal to me at the same time.