Tuesday, December 25, 2007

One Time, One Meeting (一期一会)

It took me 36 hours to get home from Japan.

That included 14 hours of layovers, four trains, three planes, one cancelled flight, a thunderstorm, a subway accident and many, many, many bottles of Diet Coke.

But there was one bright spot in this transportation debacle. It occurred during the time I expected to be the most lonely: my four-hour, pre-dawn layover at Nagoya airport. I arrived in Nagoya at about 1 a.m. on Sunday morning (JST), after enduring the multiple train rides, the thunderstorm and the subway delay, only to find that the airport itself was closed until 5:20 a.m. I'd need to wait on the floor of a cold sitting room, located right outside the main entrance, until the airport opened.

Cold, wet and exhausted, I maneuvered my 50-pound suitcase to a free space and sat down to contemplate how exactly I'd pass the next four hours. Fortunately, that dilemma was resolved for me. Within five minutes, a 20-something Japanese guy approached me.

"Hello. Do you speak English?"

I nodded yes, not sure what exactly I was getting myself into. He proceeded to squat down next to me and showed me a stapled packet of papers.

It was a take-home English exam.

"I not understand question 24."

So, I switched into English teacher mode, despite the fact that it was now nearly 1:30 a.m. We discussed the ever-fascinating subject of English verb tenses until our conversation turned to more interesting topics: why exactly we were both sitting on the floor of an airport waiting room at the crack of dawn. Turns out he was a helicopter pilot for the Japanese service, heading home to Kyushu to visit his one-year-old son for the holidays. He was studying English with hopes of getting a job promotion.

He chatted away, using broken English (him) and broken Japanese (me) and plenty of gestures. After about 30 minutes, our conversation sparked the interest of another 20-something guy (turns out he worked in finance, and was on the way back home after visiting his fiance in Hokkaido). His impression of America:

"I been to Hawaii. Hamburgers is very big."

The three of us talked for the next three hours - about nothing and about everything at the same time. It was "internationalization" at its finest. Among our many topics of discussion:

Fart, hiccup and yawn. We swapped vocabulary words in our respective native languages. They wrote the Japanese down for me so I'd remember. It's he, shakkuri and akubi, respectively, in case you were interested.

The difference between "rap" and "lap." There are no "L" sounds in Japanese, so English words with the "L" sound are pronounced as "R." They asked how I kept in touch with family back in America, and I told them I used a laptop. They replied with, "Rap? Like 'yo,' 'yo,' 'yo,?" The helicopter pilot threw in a West Side-esque hand gesture for emphasis. Hilarious.

They learned about my adoration of all things Mexico and wondered how I could ever love a country that wasn't Japan. "The Japanese are the friendliest people in the world," the finance guy told me. I'd tend to agree, if these two guys were any indication.

Time flew by. We laughed out loud, catching dirty looks from other sitting-room dwellers who were wisely trying to sleep. We compiled lists of new vocabulary words for each other. We took turns buying snacks and beers from the 24-hour conbini conveniently located across from the waiting room. It was, hands down, the most fun I've ever had during a crappy airport layover.

As 5:20 grew closer, I prepared to say good-bye to my two new friends. But before we parted ways, they wrote some kanji on the bottom of my list of new words: 一期一会

Ichi-go Ichi-e. "One time. One meeting." Once in a lifetime.

"THIS is ichi-go, ichi-e," the finance guy explained, referring to the past four hours and our unlikely but instant friendship. He then bowed and walked away.

The extra explanation was kind, but it wasn't necessary. I understood the meaning perfectly because I'd been living it everyday for the past five months. It's fascinating that the Japanese have a term to describe that making-random-friends-in-an-airport, climbing-mountains-in-a-hailstorm, eating-fried-shirako, being-lost-and-finding-your-way-and-yourself feeling exactly.

Once in a lifetime. Random but beautiful.

Merry Ku-ri-su-ma-su, everyone.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Putting Fukui on the map...

...with my first Japanese earthquake. Yup, that's Fukui Prefecture on the map above, and that big red X shows the epicenter, which seems to be right under Sakai Town. The quake was a 4 (out of 10) on the Richter Scale, which makes it "light" with "noticeable shaking of indoor items, rattling noises," according to good ol' U.S. Geological Survey.

But apparently the U.S. Geological Survey doesn't apply in Japan. There was no "noticeable shaking." There was no "rattling." There was no rolling (sorry, I had to...). Actually, we didn't even feel it.

The earthquake happened this afternoon, while I was at school, smack dab in the middle of cleaning time. When the principal made an announcement in rapid-fire Japanese over the school's PA, a few students paused to listen, but didn't even bat an eyelash. For all I knew, cleaning time was ending early - now that would be exciting! So I asked for a translation.

"Oh, that? We just had an earthquake."

No big deal in a place where there are 100,000 quakes each year.

So thanks, Japan, for going easy on this Illinois-raised earthquake virgin. I'll consider it an early Christmas present.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

KFC in the Land of Sushi

Christmas is in the air at Sakai Jr. High, and it smells a little bit like fried chicken.

As I prepare to head back to Chicago for the holidays, I've been wrapping up my fall term classes with a Christmas-themed lesson. I lead the students through some games, talk about Christmas traditions in the U.S., and finish things up by asking them to decorate an ornament for a big paper tree I've taped up where my English bulletin board is supposed to be. But as much as I hope they learn about my culture through this lesson, I'm learning a ton about theirs.

For example, I learned that KFC is the food of choice for Christmas dinner in Japan.

Yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken. But here, they just just call it "Ke-n-ta-kki." Colonel Sanders is right up there with Santa Claus in the Japanese Christmas tradition. Please know that I'm not trying to judge the validity of the holiday custom - it's just that where I come from, KFC is usually reserved for summertime picnics, Monday night football, or maybe a dinnertime drive-thru run for a frenzied soccer mom, so the contrast is striking.

And what's KFC doing in Japan in the first place? Come to think of it, what's Christmas doing in Japan? Oh, the joys of globalization...

I've yet to visit a KFC here in Fukui (I try to stick to local fare, like sushi, or maybe shirako...). So, mom, if you're reading this, you can skip the turkey and ham for Christmas dinner. Better make it a bucket of Original Recipe. Or maybe some Extra Crispy, おねがいします. And please don't forget the biscuits.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Baby, It's Cold Outside...

Fukui is cold.

While we've got nothing on the six inches of snow that apparently fell in Chicago earlier this week (there's none of the white stuff here - yet), temperatures have been falling quite steadily. And it's been raining everyday for about two months. Torrentially.

So, it's cold here, and most of the buildings in Japan don't have the central heating that I'm used to back home. But leave it to Japanese to devise some amazing alternative ways to beat the cold. There's this fantastic heated, cushioned floor pad that you can spread out over your cold tatami floor. Or there's the kotatsu, a low table with a built-in heater underneath, which is then covered by a big comforter. And there are big, fuzzy electric blankets everywhere.

Feeling warm n' cozy yet?

But my new favorite way to stay warm is called なべ (nabe). This is a cold-buster that you eat. Nabe involves throwing lots of yummy vegetables into a big clay pot filled with warm broth. You wait a few minutes, then carefully pluck the now-warm, still-yummy vegetables from the pot with your chopsticks, dip them into some even yummier sauce, eat, and be warm.

Yum. (Did I mention that already?)

Nabe is so popular that people have aptly-named nabe parties. And my awesome scuba-instructor-turned-Japanese-tutor-turned-nabe-chef-friend invited me to one last night. The food and company were wonderful.

Of course, another way to beat the cold involves drinking large amounts of red wine. Which I did. And my awesome scuba-instructor-turned-Japanese-tutor-turned-nabe-chef-friend did, too. She's thinking about doing some diving in Latin America next year, and is interested in learning a little bit of Spanish. So, with the wine flowing, we spent a fair part of the evening learning the essential first words of any new language: the vulgarities.

I wrote the Spanish-English translations on a dry-erase board that was conveniently located in our makeshift dining room (we were in the scuba shop, after all), and my tutor carefully translated the English into Japanese. Like the good teachers that we are, we modeled correct pronunciation for all of the なべ guests, and everyone had a lovely time cursing in three languages.

Such fun. I hope it stays cold here 'til July!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

SGF? がんばってください.

SGF. That's Single Gaijin (foreign) Female.

がんばってください. That's gambatte kudasai, which translates to "persevere," or "try your best," but in my experience, it's usually used when the situation is so dire that it's laughable. (You have 200 essays to grade by tomorrow morning? Gambatte kudasai. You want to navigate the Tokyo subway but don't read kanji? Gambatte kudasai. You want to climb to the top of Mt. Hakusan, even though it's hailing? Gambatte kudasai.)

You get the idea.

What do the two have in common? Well, let's just say that the dating scene for a SGF in Fukui is well, uh, lacking. I don't want to perpetuate any stereotypes here, but Japanese women being what they are (read: beautiful), we SGFs have our work cut out for us. The SGMs (that's Single Gaijin Males) are into the beautiful Japanese gals. And the Japanese guys? Well, I tower over them when I'm rocking my heels (or sneakers, or flats, or when I'm barefoot...), so they're into the beautiful Japanese girls, too.

Today, one of my sixth-grade students brought this situation to my attention during our school cleaning time. Cleaning time is bonding time, really. We're thrust out into the hall, where there's no heater, and use cold buckets of water to wipe down the floors and shelving. It's how they'd punish students in the USA, circa 1912, but here in Japan, it's part of daily school life. I speak a lively mix of Japanese and English with the students during this time, usually related to the awful temperature (さむいですね - "cold, isn't it?").

But today, our conversation went above and beyond the usual temperature talk. One of the students noticed a ring on my finger when I dipped my rag in the bucket of water. I've had this ring forever - I bought it while studying in Mexico in 1999 - and I wear it on my right hand everyday. But my student didn't seem to care. The conversation went something like this:

Student: "Sara-sensei, you got married!?!?"

Me: "No, not me." (I show her my bare left ring finger.) "My sister got married, remember?" (My little sister's July wedding has been the subject of past class discussions.)

Student: "Oh." (Her brow furrows, she thinks for a minute, and then brightens.) "Well, do you have a Japanese boyfriend?"

Me: "No...."

Student: "Maybe a Chicago boyfriend?"

Me: "Nope." (I'm feeling mildly pathetic at this point, but am amused by her use of "Chicago" as a way to describe a type of boyfriend.)

Student: (Looking at me like I'm an alien.) "How old are you?"

Me: "I'm 27, remember?" (I've told them all my age a zillion times. They ask everyday, and never cease to be amazed by my oldness.)

The student stares at me. She then conferences with a friend who is cleaning the floor next her. I hear the words "27" and "boyfriend" mixed in with some rapid-fire Japanese. Then they both look at me sympathetically.

"Gambatte kudasai."

Oh, God. I just got gambatte-d by a 12-year-old girl. It's that bad, huh?

At this point I'm beginning to wallow in self-pity as I scrub the cold hallway floor with even colder water. Japanese get married younger than Americans, darnit! I'm normal in America! Don't they know that?!?

Sensing my sadness, the students try to cheer me up.

"Sara-sensei is very, very, very cute!!"

Except the "cute" comes out like "cute-o." It makes me laugh.

At least somebody loves me.

SGF, gambarimasho!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Merry クリスマス!

Merry Ku-ri-su-ma-su!

For being a country of mostly Shintoists and Buddhists, the Japanese sure know how to get in the Christmas spirit. Last night, my Japanese tutor (yes, the one who's teaching me to read in Japanese with Curious George) invited me to her company Christmas party. But what I haven't mentioned is that my sensei is a woman of many talents - not only is she a fantastic teacher, but she's also the owner of a sucessful scuba shop in Fukui City (and she knows how to rock a pair of reindeer antlers - see above).

What better way to get in the クリスマス spirit than with a room full of Japanese scuba divers?

The party, held at a local restaurant, was a blast. Winning a round of bingo and downing a few glasses of wine helped break the ice for me, and soon I was chatting away (slowly, awkwardly, but in Japanese!) with my sensei's customers and friends. Sensei was kind enough to provide nametags for everyone, translating guests' names (written in kanji) into hiragana (the Japanese alphabet that I can read) and romanji (Roman letters, like we use in English). Because of this, I became fast friends with a Japanese guy named...MAC.


But a Japanese party usually isn't just a party - it's actually a series of parties. Party No. 2 was at a karaoke bar, where I belted out "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas" with a Japanese guy whose voice could've passed for Bing Crosby's. Party No. 3 was back at the scuba shop, where we had a few more beers n' snacks before calling it a night. Yes, I slept at the scuba shop. (Actually, on a futon in an apartment above the scuba shop, but it's fun to say, just the same.)

Random? Yes. But oh-so-fun.

Merry クリスマス!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities: Osaka & Kobe

When I wasn't setting off alarms in public restrooms (see below), I passed the weekend bouncing between the cities of Osaka and Kobe. A few fellow female JETs and I took advantage of the Japanese Thanksgiving holiday on Friday to have a long ladies' weekend in urban Japan. Osaka and Kobe are 30 minutes apart, and they're a three-hour ride on the "cheap" train from Fukui.

Our accommodation matched our train: cheap. We stayed in a capsule hotel in Osaka, designed for business travelers and folks who have missed the last subway after a night o' partying in the city. The ¥2500 nightly rate included a toothbrush and a 7' x 7' space to sleep. These small, plastic capsule rooms were stacked on top of each other, but were surprisingly spacious: each room had a TV, mirror, light and radio. Not back for 25 bucks. The capsule served as an excellent base from which to venture out on our various (mis) adventures in the two cities.

The tradition-versus-modernity contrast I found in the toilets of Osaka (again, see below) is indicative of the rest of the place. Osaka, the second-biggest city in Japan, is king of preserving the old while building up the new. Our first stop was Osaka Castle, originally built in 1583. While it looks old from the outside, the modern-day "refurbished" version of the castle has a movie theater in the lobby, an elevator running up all eight of its floors, and an amazing view of the skyscrapers of Osaka from the top.

Our next stop was at the National Bunraku Theater. To describe Bunraku as a puppet show for adults downplays its cultural importance, but that's kinda what it is, in a nutshell. A team of puppeteers (dressed all in black so you don't see 'em) maneuver almost-life-size puppets while a narrator chants all of the characters' parts to the tune of a Japanese shamisen (a guitar-esque instrument). My description sounds a bit bizarre, but the overall effect is amazing - so much so that people sit through the five-hour-long performances without batting an eye. Our jam-packed Osaka agenda didn't include five hours for puppets, so we took in "just" two hours of the play before heading off to dinner.

Ah, dinner. Perhaps the most exciting part of my time in Osaka: we gorged ourselves on the "it's-not-quite-Mexican-but-it'll-do-because-I've-been-in-Japan-for-four-months" flavors of El Pancho, Osaka's finest (err...only) Mexican restaurant. There were a few less-than-authentic aspects to the meal - the fajitas had broccoli in them and the salsa included just a hint of wasabi -but overall, the food wasn't half bad. No corn or mayonnaise in sight...

We rounded out our Osaka experience with a fix of the urban nightlife we've been so desperately missing in rural Fukui. We hit up a club in Amerika-Mura (that's American Village), where the guitarist from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was spinning tunes as the evening's DJ. From Lonely Planet: "The best reason to come is to check out the hordes of colourful Japanese teens living out the American dream." LP is right on the mark - our fellow club-goers were Japanese teens and 20-somethings, dressed in a funky mix of club clothes and ski wear, with so much Aquanet in their hair that I feared for their safety in the proximity of their cigarette lighters. One of my fellow JETs (also from Chicago, making the city proud) jumped on the fashion victim bandwagon with a green wig and matching eyeshadow. Her wacky outfit scored us a spot right next to the stage and free t-shirts from club promoters. Thanks, M!

Caution: blatant hedonism ahead. While Osaka clings to its traditional roots, Kobe is all modernity, all the time. We strolled to Harbor Land (that's ハーバーランド, Ha-ba Ra-n-do, in Japanese) Kobe's answer to Navy Pier, complete with a Ferris Wheel, overpriced ice cream, and boat tours. While I avoid Navy Pier like the plague in Chicago, I jumped right on the tourist bandwagon in Kobe and - yes - took the harbor cruise. The view from the boat was lovely, and the $4 ice cream was delicious. When in Rome...

Still aglow from the Mexican food we'd eaten in Osaka the night before (or maybe because there were two vegetarians in our group), we decided against lunching on traditional Kobe Beef in favor of more international food. We landed in Kobe's bustling Chinatown, where rows of cheap-crap shops (plastic poop for 100 yen, anyone?) and street-food vendors (mystery fried fish parts, anyone?) beckoned. There's nothing like Chinese food in Japan.

So that's the way Thanksgiving's done in Japan - heaps of food (sometimes it's Chinese), a bit of booze, lots of indulgence, all while being thankful for every last bit. Japan's kinda like America, after all...

A word on Japanese toilets...

I've blogged before on the tradition-versus-modernity dichotomy that exists in Japan. Nowhere, in my humble opinion, is this contrast more apparent than in the washrooms of this great nation. Upon entering the loo, we're faced with an important question: To squat or not to squat?

The traditional Japanese toilet is a ceramic hole in the ground. You literally squat down to do your business. This style of toilet, found at Sakai JHS and in the various public restrooms I've encountered during my travels in Japan, always leaves me with a slight burn in my quads and a "I'm-camping-in-the-woods-where's-a-leaf-to-wipe-with" feeling.

Contrast these "squatters" with the Western-style sit-down toilets: these state-of-the-art johns come equipped with a heated seat and bidet function. There's a "modesty" option that makes the sound of running water so your neighbor can't hear you doing your business. In fact, there's literally a control panel on these toilets, with rows of buttons all written in kanji. Check out the pictures above. (No, these pics aren't mine - I borrowed 'em from the internet. But the fact that others have actually taken - and posted - photos of Japanese toilets online is almost as fascinating as the toilets themselves.)

The sit-down thrones are great - and are always a special find in a public restroom - but the fact that I can't read kanji sometimes gets me into trouble when it comes time to flush.

Our arrival in Osaka this weekend was no exception. After our three-hour train ride, our group of girls scoured Osaka station in search of a restroom. We were pleased to find a women's room with a relatively short line, and (yes!) sit-down toilets. After doing my business, I pressed what I thought was the flush button - it's usually a big red button at the bottom of the control panel

Nothing happened.

I pressed a few more buttons.

No result.

I searched on the floor of the stall for a manual flush button.


I spotted a button on the wall behind the toilet and pressed it triumphantly.

Finally, the flush...

To my horror, the button did not flush the toilet. Instead, a loud alarm sounded.

Oh sh*t.

Apparently, I'd pressed some sort of distress button. Fortunately, the alarm was such that it couldn't be traced back to my particular stall. So, I exited, waded through the line of women who were still waiting in the restroom (none of whom seemed alarmed by the buzzer going off), nonchalantly washed my hands, and got the hell outta there. There was no way that I had enough Japanese to explain myself out of that situation.

My fellow travelers were waiting for me outside of the restroom. They asked if I'd heard the "fire alarm." I nodded, then burst out laughing as I told them what had happened. We all had to stifle our laughter as, a few minutes later, we spotted a security guard running down the hall toward the women's room.

I stuck to squatters for the rest of the trip.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

I Think I'm Turning Japanese...

...not really, but I just wanted to give a shout-out to the One Hit Wonder that is The Vapors. That song has been stuck in my head since I got here, mostly because someone always insists on belting it out at karaoke...

But I did have an über Japanese day today, starting off with a nice dose of Zen Buddhism, followed by some serious soba-eating and origami-making, and then rounded out with a jog through the 小夜時雨 (sayoushigure, another fun just-for-fall Japanese word that translates to "a light rain shower on a fall evening").

I visited Eihei-ji Temple with my host mom this morning. Eihei-ji is one of the main centers of Zen Buddhism in Japan - about 150 monks-in-training live there today. The "temple" actually consists of about 70 buildings, and some are open for average secular folks to see a day-in-the-life of a Buddhist priest.

And based what I learned today, the life ain't easy. According to Zen teachings, meditation and discipline are the path to self-enlightenment. This means that they're up at 3:30 a.m., after sleeping only a few hours on a single tatami mat. They bathe only once every five days - when the date contains a 4 or a 9. They follow a strict vegetarian diet, eating nothing but miso soup and rice for breakfast and lunch, with a few vegetables at dinner. And they're unfazed by the cold. While my host mom and I shivered through the tour in the autumn rain, the monks-in-training walked around in bare feet and light robes.


Eihei-ji itself was gorgeous, built up into the side of a mountain and surrounded by ancient pines and colorful fall leaves. Unfortunately, my camera's batteries died at the beginning of the tour, forcing me to take dozens of mental pictures but leaving few to share with you. I did manage to snap the picture above (excuse the glass glare), which shows that the こうよう are still in all of their autumn-colored glory at the temple. My very-prepared host mom brought her camera and had a fellow temple-hopper take the other.

But lest our Eihei-ji experience be too spiritual, my host mom and I were brought back to reality toward the end of the tour. Two older-looking Japanese men walked up to us. One wore a smirk that I recognized as a blend of expressions I'd seen elsewhere in my life: a hey-my-friend-thinks-you're-kinda-cute-and-wants-to-talk-to-you-but-he's-too-shy grin mixed with the half-smile that my elementary school students give me when they're nervous about speaking in English. This guy was the wingman. He got my attention by tapping on my shoulder, and then pointed to his friend, saying "He forget English."

The friend stared at me for a few seconds. Still silent, he took my hand, shook it approximately 512 times, and then flashed a big smile.

"Welcome...to...Japan," he said slowly, enunciating each word carefully.

"Thank you very much," I replied.

The two men looked at each other. They hadn't understood my response. Confused, they walked away before I could open my mouth again.

By this point, my host mom has been with me for a number of these random encounters. She knows that going out with me in public sometimes attracts weird attention. She must've taken extra pity on me this time, because she invited me back to her house for lunch. While were were waiting for the big pot of soba noodles to cook in her kitchen, her daughters taught me how to fold paper to make origami cranes.

Never mind that they were able to create about a dozen each in the time it took me to painstakingly fold and re-fold my piece of paper to create just one. The girls gave me a thunderous round of applause when I triumphantly finished, adding my lopsided bird to their pile of perfectly-formed origami. No, I'm not quite Japanese...

Later in the day, I decided to work off the soba with a nice jog through the rice paddies. It'd been raining all day, but I took advantage of a pause in the downpour to head out. Turns out the 小夜時雨, the "light rain shower on a fall evening," maybe isn't so "light" after all. About 20 minutes into my run, when I was a least 2 or 3 miles from my apartment, the sky opened up, and I got pelted with freezing rain the whole way home.

Nope, I'm definitely not turning Japanese. I'm still not sold on the beauty of this fall weather. Too bad women aren't allowed to become Buddhist monks. I could use some of their discipline when it comes to the cold.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Let's こうよう Enjoy!

The Japanese are serious about the fall, so much so that they have a special word for autum leaves: こうよう (kouyou). And they go to the ends of the earth to see them: on a recent weekend, a math teacher at my school told me he was driving 7 hours each way to take in the こうよう. That's a little hard-core for my tastes (especially with the hard-core gas prices around here). I told him that I'd be sure to spend some quality time admiring the trees across the street from my apartment. For free. He laughed at my sarcasm. Apparently some gaijin just don't get it.

But this weekend, I caught a bit of こうよう fever. I drove a modest-by-comparison 90 minutes to meet some fellow JETs at the base of a mountain, and then hiked another hour or so to arrive at Karikome Ike, a mountain-top pond. The drive through the mountains to get to the mountain was breathtaking, and the hike was lovely.

Unfortunately, upon arrival we discovered that Karikome's prime こうよう season had come to a close, so the majority of the leaves we saw were of the brown-and-dried-and-crunchy-on-the-ground variety. But the day was crisp, and a pond-side picnic with a view of a neighboring snow-covered mountaintop made the trip all worthwhile.

But the Japanese love affair with autumn doesn't stop at こうよう. They have a "special" word to describe the fall air, one for a light rain shower on a fall evening, a word that describes a fall breeze, and even a word to talk about the way that fall leaves, um, fall and spread themselves over grass.

I'm in linguistics heaven, but my enthusiasm for the language doesn't necessarily cross over to the subject itself: I'm still not so sure about driving 14 hours to see a few leaves. But to each his own...

Thursday, November 8, 2007

1st Grade Pick-Up Lines

Today, I had my weekly ego boost - a visit to one of the eight Sakai-area elementary schools I support with semi-regular English lessons. Since my last "ego boost" entry, I've visited four schools, and all were fantastic experiences. But today's students were especially, uh, hilarious, so I thought I'd share a snippet of my day.

Because each visit marks my first time at the school, I start out my lessons with a brief self-introduction, where I try to get the students excited about English by telling them fascinating tidbits about life in "America" (I'm sorry, I've given up on being P.C. and calling it the "United States" - students have no idea where that is).

For example, I'll show a picture of deep-dish pizza and will explain that each pizza is made with a full pound of cheese. I'll then flash a picture of the Chicago skyline and will tell the students that the Sears Tower is one of the tallest buildings in the world. And I'll show a picture of my sister's wedding and will explain that my new brother-in-law is over 180 centimeters tall, which giant by Japanese standards (a big shout out to D. C. Dubya!).

I then give the students a few minutes to ask me questions. Most are pretty basic, which is OK with me because they're usually asked in Japanese. They typically range from "How old are you?" to "What is your favorite color?" to "Do you like sushi?"

But today, one little boy hit me with the following:

"What's your phone number?"

They're learning pick-up lines younger and younger these days. I took a moment to think about my response. I decided against giving out my Japanese ケータイ number on the off chance that I'd have 40 first graders calling me over the weekend. So, I gave out my old Chicago cell digits. I apologize to the poor soul who inherited that number - you might be getting a few calls. All of the students whipped out their notebooks and diligently wrote it down, asking me to repeat it twice so they'd be sure to get it right.

"Okay...next question, please."

"Where is your house?"

When I told them that I lived in Maruoka, the next town over, they all gasped.

"What?!? You live in Japan?!?"

What I'm thinking: "So you thought I took the red eye from Chicago to teach your class today? Right. My private jet's in the parking lot, waiting to take me home this afternoon."

What I said: "Yes, I've lived in Japan for three months."

(Has it really been that long? Sometimes it feels like three weeks, at other times, three years!)

Next question:

"Are there televisions in America?"

What I'm thinking: "Look, kid, I know Japan is the most technologically-advanced country in the world, but we're not that far behind you."

What I said: "Yes, we have TV in America, just like you."

"WOW! すげい!!"

Apparently, I sufficiently impressed the students with that last one. At the end of the class, they all lined, up, pencils and notebooks in hand, and asked me for my autograph.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

はしりましょう! (Let's Run!)

It takes a very secure woman to post "I-got-up-at-friggin'-6 a.m.-on-a-Saturday-to-run-a-marathon-and-look-at-the-great-tan-I've-gotten-in-cloudy-Japan" pictures online for the universe to see. But I'm convinced that only friends and family look at this thing anyway, and that you love me unconditionally.

So this morning some fellow JETs and I ran the Kikka Marathon in Takefu, a town just south of Fukui City. Japan is a magical place for a runner - not only is it home to MIZUNO, the best running shoe ever made, but it's also one of the only places in the world where you can say you ran a "marathon," when in reality you only ran a 10K (that's 6 miles, plus some change).

My blonde (ish) ponytail stuck out at the start line - I stood a full six inches taller than many of my fellow runners. Despite any advantage that my long legs might bring, Japanese men more than twice my age (and seemingly half my height, and, er, weight) passed me without breaking a sweat. A humbling experience, though I still pulled off a 47-minute race time.

Overall, Kikka was a well-oiled machine. For the 2000 yen ($20) registration fee, I got my name in the newspaper as part of a pre-race article (and, thus, the admiration of all of the teachers at my school: "Sara-san, you're running a MARATHON?! Wow! Gambatte!"), a nice course to run through at the base of Takefu's mountains, and all of the post-race tea a girl could drink. I also scored a gaijin-compliant XXL race t-shirt. Nice.

Another reason Japan is good for runners? You get to do the post-race pig-out at a conveyor belt sushi restaurant. Back home, I'd nosh on a sandwich or maybe some pasta after a race, but here in Japan, it's raw fish and rice all the way.

Makes the blood, sweat and tears all worthwhile.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Halloween, Fukui Style

If being blonde (ish) and standing 5'6" in a country of dark-haired, 5'2" women doesn't garner enough stares on a day-to-day basis, try walking alone through a shopping mall in a stupid cat outfit on a Saturday night.

People literally gape with their mouths open.

That's how it went down for me yesterday. I'd volunteered to pass out candy at a children's Halloween Party sponsored by Fukui's International Club (IC). The party was hosted at LPA, a shopping mall on Fukui's north side. But LPA is a very big, multi-floor place, and apparently I missed the memo about where specifically the party was going to be held.

So that left me wondering through the mall, fruitlessly trying to contact my fellow volunteers on my cell phone and forcing a smile as shoppers stared me down. Some were discrete in their gaping, others yelled "kawaii" (or was it "kowai"?) in my direction, while still others literally stopped in their tracks, mouths open, to gawk. C'mon people...

Later that evening, the IC hosted a slightly more adult-focused party at a local bar. Many of my fellow JETs dressed in costumes ranging from samurais to lions to uniform-clad Japanese junior high students. But the talk of the evening was "Steve" (you'll remember him from my back-of-the-bike Brazilian bar exploits) who dressed up like a shower. Yes, a shower.

Steve was kind enough to give me a ride to the bar on the back of his bike, under the condition that I hold his costume while he peddled. So, if I wasn't getting stared at before, just imagine us zipping through the streets of Fukui, Steve in a tank and towel and me in my black cat costume, trying to balance a plastic-pipe shower curtain contraption with one hand and myself with the other.

Thanks for the lift, Steve.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

It's Raining Noodles

In the United States, we traditionally throw rice at weddings.

In Japan, they throw noodles. And sweets. And ramen. And potato chips. But not at the bride and groom - at the guests.

Today, I was a spectator at a "Bridal Parade" in my host family's neighborhood. A neighbor's son was getting married, so the entire neighborhood gathered at the street outside of his house and waited for a fancy black taxi to pull up - inside was his bride, dressed in an elegant red kimono, her hair swept into an impossibly perfect updo with ribbons and beads (I played paparazzi and took tons of pictures, but my host mom cautioned that it was bad manners to put them online). The bride walked down the street, toward the house, bowing to all the neighbors in the process - in essence, we were welcoming her to the neighborhood.

But the best part was yet to come. Once the bride went inside, some men (I might equate them with groomsmen) climbed to the top of a decorated platform rigged up outside the house. From this platform, which was almost as tall as the house itself, they began to throw the aforementioned goodies - noodles, potato chips and sweets - at the neighbors crowded below.

But I must mention that these weren't small portions - they were entire bags of food, which proved to be quite heavy and hard-hitting when flung from 20 feet up. After getting hit on the shoulder by a bag of udon, I decided against taking pictures in favor of protecting myself from the "attack." I took all of this in stride - who else can say they got hit with noodles at a wedding party?

The Bridal Parade wasn't what brought us to the neighborhood, however - the family had decided to throw a party for my host "sister," a fellow JET whose birthday falls on Halloween. To mark the occasion, we made okonomiyaki - okonomi meaning "what you like," and yaki meaning "grilled." Perhaps simpler is my young host sisters' comparison - "it's Japanese pizza."

I worked with my host sisters to mix up an egg-based batter, complete with cabbage and corn. We poured this batter onto griddles and tried not to salivate as it cooked - it smelled amazing. The okonomi part came into play when we picked our topics - mushrooms, seafood, other vegetables - the end result tasted nothing like pizza to me, but was oishii nonetheless. The picture up top is of the family enjoying the results. It was a fun day.

Next time I'm over, maybe we can cook up the udon noodles that assaulted me. In the meantime, I'll ice my shoulder.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Shirako, Anyone?

In keeping in touch with my lovely friends and family back home, many of you have asked about my culinary adventures in Japan. Have I eaten anything out of the ordinary? Well, boringly enough, I've pretty much kept to standard fare: lots of sushi and sashimi, the ocassional bowl of ramen or soba, sometimes a midnight onigiri from the corner conbini. I've fallen in love with this wonderful snack mix that involves wasabi-flavored rice crackers, and when I'm feeling especially American, will hunt down some peanut butter or maybe some cheese.
But tonight, all that "boringness" changed.

I help out with an evening English conversation course at a local community center twice a month. They're a fun group. Tonight, they organized a "welcome" dinner for myself and the other JET that teaches them. We went to a local restaurant and proceeded to gorge ourselves on an amazing nine-course Japanese-style meal: tofu with sesame-coffee sauce for starters, followed by fresh sashimi, a tuber soup, some sushi, tempura, a seaweed salad, a bowl of soba, and fruit for dessert.

Everything was delicious, except for a little fried mystery that was included in my plate of tempura.

I bit in. It was squishy.

"Nan desu ka?" I asked what it was in the most polite Japanse I could muster.


Hmmm...I took another bite. This certainly didn't taste like any fish I'd ever eaten.

At this point, my dining companions across the table were looking at me. They'd been watching me eat the whole night, complimenting me on my ability to use chopsticks, so I didn't think anything of it.

"Do you like it?"

"Oh, yes. Oishii desu." It's delicious, I said, forcing an enthusiastic nod as I chewed. I had to like everything. It's rude not to clean your plate.

One of the women began scrounging through her purse, eventually produced an electronic dictionary, and began punching away. All the while, I smiled weakly as I choked down a few more bites of the slimy fried wonder.

Ummm, where was the soy sauce?

The woman showed me the screen of her electronic dictionary: 白子

Shirako. The sperm sack of a fish.

Riiiiiight. Not fish, but fish sperm. Big difference.

Oishii desu.

I've Come a Long Way, Baby!

Today, a group of 18 American Fulbright Scholars visited Sakai JHS.

They were all teachers from the U.S., participating in a special one-week visit to Fukui. Sakai JHS has been abuzz for weeks preparing for them. And as the token American at the school, I finally became useful outside of English class. I was the go-to for all things USA: the principal consulted me on which snacks he should buy for the visitors (do Americans like seaweed flavoring?). A social studies teacher asked me about activities he should prepare for his class (do Americans know how to play karuta?). And a head sensei requested my help in preparing a program book (are Americans interested in student demographics?).

It was nice to feel helpful, but the best part was realizing how far I've come. When the visitors arrived this morning, they fumbled at the door while changing into their indoor slippers. Their bows were awkward at the school assembly prepared for them. And their "ohayo gozaimasus" were heavily accented.

I'm not being critical. The visitors were lovely, and were genuinely interested in our school and the Japanese education system. It's just that these fine folks reminded me of, well, myself about three months ago. In seeing their newness, I realized that I'm actually getting it. It was an exhilarating feeling.

As the afternoon wore on, one of the Japanese teachers entered the staff room where I was working and announced that several of the American teachers had left the building. They'd gone in search of Diet Coke, he said. Was this normal for Americans?

I smiled as I took a sip of the Diet Coke sitting on my desk. As there are no vending machines at school, I've been bringing it with me for weeks, cleverly disguised as tea in my Nalgene bottle.


Friday, October 19, 2007

Sixth Grade Political Humor

The cynics are getting younger and younger these days.

By now, you've heard that (now former) Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe suddenly stepped down from his post amid a storm of controversy last month. He'd been in office for less than a year, and pulled together a last-minute press conference to announce the news. The resignation made headlines around the globe, and speculation as to "why" has been a hot topic of discussion at water coolers across Japan.

But today, the news hit one of my sixth-grade English classes at Sakai JHS.

The lesson was simple enough: we'd learn the proper use of the interrogative "who," and review the use of "I am," "he is" and "she is." To accomplish this, students divided into groups of three and pretended to interview a famous person, via webcam, using a script I provided:

Student A: "Let's talk with (name)."
Student B: "Who is (name)?"
Student A: "He/She is (insert description here). OK, let's talk."
Student C: "Hello, I am (name). I am (insert description here)."

Simple enough. Some student groups chose the usual suspects for their interviews: we spoke with Mickey Mouse, Sponge Bob, several Japanese anime characters, and even a few Japanese baseball players. For the most part, students were creative in portraying their famous interviewees. (Think: "Hi, I am Mickey Mouse. I am a cartoon. I live in Disneyland. I love Minnie Mouse.") But the real treat came toward the end of the class, when a group of boys presented their dialog.

Their famous person of choice? None other than Shinzo Abe. It went down like this:

Student A: "OK, everyone, let's talk with Abe."
Student B: "What? Who is Abe?"
Student A: "Errr....He's my brother."

(The kid cracks an 'I-know-I'm-a-smart-alec' grin as his classmates erupt with laughter. My Japanese team-teacher and I struggle to keep straight faces. It takes a few moments for the class to settle down, but, hey, they're speaking English, so I'm thrilled.).

Student A: "OK, let's hear from Abe."
Student C: "Hello, I'm Abe."

(There is a long pause as the class braces for "I am Prime Minister of Japan," or "I am a politician." Instead, we get another smart-alec grin and a killer punchline.)


'Nuf said. The group sits down.

The entire class - including both of its teachers - rolls with laughter.

I'd like to think that three little political cynics were born at that moment, and that perhaps I inspired them in some small way. At any rate, whoever said that the Japanese don't appreciate sarcasm or cynicism certainly hasn't visited English 1-2 at Sakai JHS.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ho-Hum (?)

I had my first seemingly uneventful weekend in Japan - no trips to thousand-year-old temples, no hikes to the tops of mountains, no backing my car into a ditch. It had to happen eventually - my Japanese bank account couldn't keep up with the pace of all of my weekend excursions lately. So I kicked it in Fukui this weekend - had dinner with my Japanese tutor and her fiance on Friday, drinks with some friends on Saturday. But an uneventful weekend in Japan isn't the same as an uneventful weekend back home - in Japan, uneventful weekends are still blog-worthy.

Off House
Add this to the list of Things I Love About Japan. This is a second-hand store, and happens to be the only place in town where one can buy a "gently used" pair of pants, sofa, toaster - and, if you really wanted it, a life-sized porcelain chicken - all under the same roof. Off House's companion store, Hard Off (yes, you're reading that correctly) sells used electronics. The Japanese love of shiny, new things means that there are some great deals to be had at these spots - and dumpster-diving gaijin aren't ashamed to shop there.

I visited the Off House/Hard Off Mecca on Saturday afternoon. My mission? To score a cheap snowboard n' fixins before the first snowfall hits Fukui (which, the way temperatures have been dipping lately, could be sooner than later). As I've been blessed with large-even-by-American-standards feet, I was a bit nervous about finding appropriately-sized footwear. But Off House is a magical, magical place. I was able to find a size 26.5 (my feet sound even bigger in Japan!) pair of boots in a lovely shade of lavender. I also picked up a scuff-free snowboard - complete with bindings - to match. I passed on the porcelain chicken, but snagged a pair of shades for a grand total of ¥10,105 - that's just over 100 bucks.

This winter, I'll be blowing all of the money I saved in the mountains of Fukui, which, incidentally, are slightly steeper than the hills of Wisconsin that I'm used to riding. We'll see how long it takes before I'm blowing all of the money I saved on medical bills....

Bug Spotting
The Suzuki and I headed into Fukui City on Saturday night. A shiny, new VW Bug caught my eye on the highway - there simply aren't a lot of VWs in Japan. I stared closer, then squinted - it appeared the driver was sitting in the left seat - something I haven't seen since leaving the U.S. in July. But it gets better: I passed the Bug only to notice that the car also had spinner rims and ground effects, plus TV monitors in the head cushions. I'm sure this kid is turning heads in all of the rice paddies he's driving through...

While we're on the subject of cars, this entry merits a brief discussion on car names here in Japan - they're all in English (sort of), and they're all hilarious. There's the "Friendee," which looks kind of like a toaster on wheels. There's also a model called "That's" and one called "Life" - a friend once told me that he saw the two parked side-by-side in a parking lot and snapped a picture. But my personal favorite - and I've only seen this once - is called "LaPuta." I'll leave you to sort that out with the help of your Spanish dictionaries.

Maruoka Matsuri
In any other part of the world, news of going to a festival would not be included in a blog entry on an Uneventful Weekend. Festivals are loud. They're exciting. They're colorful. But they're a dime a dozen here in Japan.

This weekend, my own little town had a festival. I met my host mom there for lunch at noon on Sunday, stayed to watch the parade with dozens of cute, smiling kids in costumes, and then headed home. A couple of hours later, I got a text from a friend - she was participating in a dance with students from her school. I should come to watch.

So I hopped on my bike, peddled over - and, upon arrival, was pulled into the crowd of identically-dressed students dancing in the street. Just in case being a tall, foreign 20-something in a sea of Japanese middle schoolers didn't make me stick out enough, I was wearing a bright white sweater while they were all in dark blue t-shirts. And, of course, I didn't know the dance steps. But I trudged along with some Macarena-esque moves, tried to keep up with the crowd as they moved up and down the street, and obligingly smiled and waved for the TV cameras that were taping the festival.

And I know people in this town. Classy as usual.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Field Trippin'

Today was field trip day at Sakai Junior High School. I joined ichi-nen-sei (sixth grade) on a trip to...

...my own town.

Sakai Junior High is located in the aptly-named town of Sakai. I live next door in Maruoka. So today I drove the 15-minute commute to school, only to turn around and take a chartered bus back to Maruoka. But field trippin' was fun!

Our first stop was Maruoka Castle, which I'd already visited, but not with 35 sixth graders. This time proved to be a slightly more exhausting experience, so much so that I was tempted to sneak away, walk the three blocks to my apartment, and take a quick power nap. Instead, I stole swigs of the Diet Coke I had cleverly disguised as tea in my Nalgene bottle.

Our next stop was a soba noodle-making workshop. I put my cooking skills (or lack thereof) to the test as I rolled out buckwheat flour dough and cut noodles. Soba is one of Fukui's claims to fame, prompting some people to link it to the residents' long lifespans (people in Fukui have the second-longest life expectancy in Japan). The workshop folks cooked up our creation and we had oishii soba for lunch. I had two bowls, just to make sure I live to see 2080.

We finished the day at the Echizen Bamboo Doll Museum, which houses, well, dolls made of bamboo. But we got to try our hands at carving our own works of art. I am proud to report that I successfully whittled a block of bamboo in to a fully functional toy helicopter. Mad skills.

Hanging out with my students away from school was a blast, but perhaps the best part of the day was the end. The sixth grade teachers, exhausted from six hours of castle-hopping with 12 year olds, decided to blow off some steam at a happy hour (which, because Japanese teachers work so darn late, didn't start until 7 p.m.). They kindly invited me, but the poor English teacher sitting next to me got stuck with Translation Duty. They'd talk for 15 minutes or so, laugh hysterically, and then my translator/colleague would give me the Cliffs Notes version of the conversation. And by Cliffs Notes, I mean 3-5 words.

Frustrating, but funny. This teacher knows I've had my fair share of Spanish-English Translation Duty, so we were able to commiserate: translation is a royal pain in the 尻. So I guess I better quit blogging and start studying some Japanese. The next happy hour is right around the corner...

Monday, October 8, 2007

Kyoto: City that Never Sleeps

Kyoto doesn't sleep.

That's because the subway stops running at 11:48 p.m., forcing unsuspecting gaijin to stay up all night hoofing the commute back to their hostel.

And that's exactly how I passed the early morning hours on Sunday, walking the otherwise-deserted streets of northern Kyoto in the company of four friends, all fellow JETs. We'd been out to dinner and drinks and had missed the last train by exactly 7 minutes. Not so thrilled with the prospect of shelling out thousands of yen for a taxi back to our hostel, we opted instead for the two-hour walk back to the comfort of our hostel-floor futons.

Needless to say, my long weekend in Kyoto was an eventful one. Our gang descended on Kyoto, Japan's third-largest city, known for its 2,000 temples and a handful of latter-day geisha, for a much-needed urban fix. When we weren't temple-hopping or geisha-hunting, we kept busy.

Saturday found us taking in the soon-to-be-fall foliage from Kiyomizu-dera, a mountain-side temple built in 798. Next, we trekked to Sanjusangen-do, a temple housing 1,001 Buddhist statues (thankfully, no pictures were allowed, otherwise I would've been there all day). We wandered through Kyoto's alleyways on foot, and ended up at Nishiki Market, home to some of the scariest/weirdest/freshest seafood I'd ever seen, plus thousands of varieties of pickles (pickled eggplant, anyone?). We feasted on free pickle samples for lunch, and then headed to the Gion district, home to Kyoto's remaining 100 geisha. Geisha hunting was followed by dinner, drinks and the aforementioned loooooooooong walk home.

Sunday found us at Fushimi-Inari Taisha, home to hundreds of red torii pillars spanning a 4km walk up a mountain. Next we hopped on rented bicycles and peddled through Kyoto's back alleys, crashed a street festival, took a nap on a temple (ooops!), and then enjoyed some Japanese beers by the river. Dinner was at the ever-authentic びっくりドンキー (Surprised Donkey Restaurant).

Monday - a Japanese national holiday - afforded me the opportunity to do a bit of travel on my own. Armed with my Japanese-English dictionary and notes on how to navigate the train systems between the cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe, I set out solo to explore Himeji Castle. The castle was built in 1333, but is still lookin' sharp.

Life in Fukui has its perks, but perhaps the biggest is its proximity to this amazing city. I spent a whirlwind three days in Kyoto but barely scratched the surface, so I'll look forward to visiting again soon - but next time will be sure to either catch the 11:48 or pack some extra Diet Coke.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

My Elementary Ego Boost

There was a school assembly at Ohzeki Elementary this morning.

The guest of honor? Yours truly. But you would have thought I was someone, well, important the way the kids screamed and clapped when I walked in. It was my elementary ego boost, and I relished every minute.

They asked me for my autograph.

They wanted to touch my hair.

They fought over who got to hold my hand.

Yes, I get paid to do this. As part of my role as "internationalizer" here in Fukui, I visit eight elementary schools in addition to my day-to-day role as a junior high English teacher. It's sort of a Clark Kent-meets-Superman existence. The kids at the junior high like me in their own 'tween kind of way. But I'm Superman at the elementary schools. The students oooh-ed and aaah-ed over my pictures of Chicago, cheered when I told them I liked sushi, and flat out screamed when I gave them American flag stickers. Awesome.

But what these students don't realize is that I'm more like them than they think. When I wasn't busy signing autographs, I made a few observations: I speak almost the same level of Japanese as the first graders. We write hiragana and katakana with the same messy, shaky strokes. We hold our chopsticks in the same clumsy way. We agree that kanji are hard to learn.

I fit in perfectly. I think I've found my niche.

Monday, October 1, 2007

I Heart Japan: Random Musings

I heart Japan. And the reasons why are almost as random as my day-to-day existence here. Take the last 24 hours, for example:

"They came in an airplane! They came in an airplane!"
A few of us from the Nagano (see below) crew decided to stop at a ramen shop on the way back to Fukui yesterday. It was Sunday afternoon, and the tiny restaurant was packed with families and young kids. We added our name to the list and waited near the door, attempting not to visibly drool at the bowls of steaming ramen being carried past us.

I decided to take my mind off of my hollow stomach by striking up a conversation with a fellow would-be diner standing near the door. He was four years old. I know this because I know how to ask "How old are you?" in Japanese. Err, it's the only thing I know how to say. Period.

The kid smiled shyly, held up four fingers, and then ran to his mom, who was seated, to bury his head in her lap. He stole a few stares at us before his family's table was called.

We were seated shortly thereafter and had set to work deciphering the kanji on the menu when we were interrupted. Our little four-year-old friend had walked over to our table to ask us a very important question:

"Did you come to Japan in an airplane?"

We nodded "yes." He ran back to his table, screaming, "They came in an airplane! They came in an airplane!" We could hear him talking about this amazing feat with his family for a full 10 minutes.

His reaction doesn't surprise me. We are, after all, fascinating people.

Curious George: How to Become Fluent in Japanese
I've been working with a Japanese tutor for about five weeks now. Considering the fact that I was illiterate when I arrived in this country two months ago, I'm proud of the fact that I am now able to read katakana and hiragana, two of the three writing systems used in Japanese.

I am, perhaps, not so proud of the fact that what I am reading is children's literature. Curious George, to be precise. And s-l-o-w-l-y.

Tonight, I arrived at my class and was greeted with a big, hard-cover, fully-illustrated Curious George book that my tutor had checked out of the Fukui Public Library on my behalf. She opened to the first page and asked me to read aloud. I spent five minutes staring at the first word: ジョージ

"Jiiii-yo-oooo-jiiii?" "Ji-yooooooo-ji." "Ji-yo-ji." "Georg-ie?" "George!"

It took me a full 20 minutes to get through the first page. I learned that George and the Man in the Yellow Hat went to a parade. I'll fill you in on the rest of the plot when I finally make it to the end of the book in December.

The Kindness of Strangers
I've blogged before on the Japanese people's kindness, and I experienced it again tonight.

My little blue Suzuki died in the grocery store parking lot this evening. The car was $800, so I guess the cliché about getting what you pay for holds true. However, I'm sure last week's trip into the Gaijin Trap didn't help matters at all.

I kept turning the key in the ignition with no luck. I needed jumper cables. And I had no idea how to ask for them.

A guy across the parking lot observed my struggles and walked over to me. He rattled off some Japanese (none of which I recognized from Curious George, unfortunately). He motioned to the driver's seat, sat down and turned the key in the ignition. Apparently satisfied that the car was really dead, he walked back to his truck and sped away.

All of this time, I was flipping though my pocket dictionary, trying unsuccessfully to find the word for "jumper cable." And now, my only hope at getting them had driven away. The supermarket was getting ready to close and the parking lot was almost deserted.

Just as I was giving up hope, the truck reappeared in the parking lot. My friend had come back, jumper cables in hand, and was able to recharge my car battery. Before I could even muster a bow and a "domo arigato," he was gone again.

I couldn't help but wonder if I would have done the same for a strange, bumbling, illiterate foreigner standing alone in a grocery store parking lot back home. I'd like to think that I would. In Chicago, that's considered kindness. But here in Japan, that's just the way things are.

And that's why I heart Japan.

Go Fuuuuuk-yu-i!!

There's a reason that Nagano was selected to host the Winter Olympics back in 1998: it's always winter there. Or so it would seem after passing a weekend in ice-cold rain while playing soccer.

My fellow Fukui JETs and I left the sunshine and warm temperatures of our fair prefecture to participate in a soggy All-Japan JET Soccer Tournament this weekend in Nagano, a mere 5-hour, 7,000-yen (yes, that's $70 in tolls - one way) car ride from Fukui City. It rained - at times, poured - the entire weekend. And Nagano's location in the "Japanese Alps" meant that rain was darn cold.

But we had fun anyway. Our men's and women's teams were true motley crews. Some had played soccer all through their formative years, while others - the author included - thought that a soccer game involved three-point shots and seventh-inning stretches. The women's team only managed to score one actual goal through the five games we played in the tournament. (Yet we still somehow finished 8th out of 12 teams. Who knows?)

Peronally, my lack of soccer skills was compounded by the fact that the largest shin guards I could find were made for Japanese women and, as such, covered about half of my actual shin. I have bruises on the other half to prove it.

But what we lacked in athletic prowess we made up for in team spirit. We battled through the rain, mud and freezing temperatures with matching red fingernails and creative cheers from the sidelines. And when we were done, we got to enjoy onsen (hot tubs), almost-victory beers and an All-Japan JET after-party in our hotel. Worth every last kick to the shins.

Here's how it went down:

Hotel & Food: 17,600 円
Expressway Tolls: 13,350 円
Post-Game Beers: 1,200 円

Being able to scream "Fuuuuk-yu, Fuuuuk-yu, Fuuuuuk-yu-i" at the top of our lungs: PRICELESS

Monday, September 24, 2007

Gaijin Traps. Doh!

I am a good driver in Japan.

I have learned how to drive on the left. I've gotten used to turning on the wipers where the blinkers are supposed to be, and the blinkers where the wipers are supposed to be. I even like the beeping sound my little car makes when I put it in reverse.

I am a good driver. I am a good driver. I am a good driver.

So how did my car end up in a ditch this evening?

My little piece of the Japanese inaka has a lot of rice paddies. And those rice paddies need a lot of water. So, the Japanese have built deep cement irrigation ditches that run along side most roads. On major streets, these ditches are covered with nifty metal plates. But on residential roads, like the ones near my apartment, they're wide open. Because Japanese tend to hug the center line when they drive, these ditches aren't a problem. But for Westerners, who have been taught to stay away from the middle of the road, they're trickier. That's why we JETs have lovingly dubbed them "Gaijin Traps" (Foreigner Traps).

And tonight, I met a Gaijin Trap first-hand.

I was on my way to "play tennis with Mr. Nagata" (read: get my a$$ handed to me by a 75-year-old man) and his tennis club when I realized I'd forgotten my wallet. The club charges 200 yen (2 bucks) to help offset the cost of the court rental, so I'd need to pay up. I was just a few blocks from my apartment, so I thought I'd turn around, but there was a car right behind me. So I drove ahead, pulled into a neighbor's driveway, and attempted to back up.

That's where it all went wrong.

Yup, I backed right into the Gaijin Trap. Both of my back wheels got stuck in the ditch. I put the car into drive and attempted to pull out, but no luck. I got out of the car and attempted to straddle the ditch and push, but no luck. I turned off the radio (that's what you're supposed to do in these kinds of situations, right?) and sat in the driver seat, trying to figure out what to do.

I was trapped. I was embarrassed. And my car was completely blocking the narrow street.

So I called The Best Neighbors on the Planet, two fellow JETs who have lived in Fukui for a year, and told them that I was stuck in a ditch. Before I could even continue, the neighbor I was speaking to put the phone down to yell to the other, "Sara's Gaijin Trapped!" I heard some muffled laughter. Then he picked the phone back up and told me they'd be over, with a third friend, to help me out.

I'm sure there was more laughter after we hung up. And I probably deserved it. But in my defense, the inaka is really, really dark, and those ditches are really, really sneaky.

So The Best Neighbors on the Planet helped me lift my car out of the ditch. It only took three of us (it's a really small car), plus one to give it some gas. They didn't even laugh at me to my face.

The Suzuki escaped the Trap with only mild scratches. And I was only a few minutes late to lose my tennis match with Mr. Nagata. All in all, not a bad evening.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

For the Love of Español

I bruised my butt on the way to the bar last night.

It's not what you think - there was no alcohol-induced falling involved. Rather, I was sitting on a rack on the back of a bicycle, holding on for dear life as my friend and fellow JET (we'll call him "Steve") peddled down the streets of Fukui-shi. The rack dug in with each bump in the road, leaving my 尻 a bit on the sore side today.

But these are the sacrifices a girl has to make to be able to speak a bit of Spanish in Japan.

Steve and I share a love of all things Latin. We both speak decent Spanish (Steve's able to rock the Portuguese, too). But we're still Japanese newbies, so communication with the locals has been a humbling experience for us both. We miss being able to, well, talk to people.

But all hope for communication is not lost - Fukui is blessed with a lot of Brazilians. They've been coming here for generations to work, and have created a great community in a town called Takefu, just south of Fukui City. So, we decided that spending Friday night at Fukui's finest Brazilian bars would be fun. Portuguese is closer to Spanish than Japanese is. Plus, Brazilian beer is tasty.

We took the train to Takefu. But upon arriving at the station at about 9 p.m., we discovered that there would be a few glitches in our well-laid plans. The last return train left at 11 p.m, so we'd need to work fast. Unfortunately, neither of us knew our way around Takefu. And neither of us knew enough Japanese to be able to ask for proper directions.

Working in charades and broken Japanese, we drew on the kindness of a a railway employee, a taxi driver, a hotel concierge, and a woman working at a video store to help us navigate the streets of Takefu. By the time we made it to the bar, it was 9:45 p.m. We'd only have 30 minutes before we needed to turn around and head back to catch the train.

So what if that left us time for only one beer? It was a sweet, sweet beer.

The bar was tiny. Five patrons sat around one of the bar's six or so tables, playing cards as Portuguese television blared in the background. When Steve and I walked in, all conversation ceased as five sets of eyes looked us over.

It could have gone very, very badly from here. But it didn't.

One of these "patrons" actually turned out to be our server, who politely greeted us in Japanese. But it was when Steve mustered a Portuguese "hello" that the bar warmed up to us. And when I told them I spoke Spanish, they erupted with a hearty "¡está bien!" We passed a delightful 30 minutes chatting in lively mix of Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese, or "Jap-ish-guese," a language we all seemed to speak and understand perfectly, though I suspect that this sudden fluency was aided by the beer.

Our server had lived in Takefu for 14 years. Her cohorts - the guys playing cards at the next table - had all been in Japan for at least a decade. They joked with me in Jap-ish-guese as I observed their game. A few minutes later, a woman and her daughter sat down - the girl was 10 years old and had been born in Japan. She spoke better Japanese than she did Portuguese, though you'd never guess by looking at her blue eyes and blonde hair. Is it weird to be jealous of a 10-year-old's language skills?

As bizarre as this scene was, I loved every minute. Who knew that it would take Brazilian bar in the middle of the Fukui inaka to make me feel at home in Japan?

The beer(s) finished, we made our way back to the train and to Fukui City. As it was still early (11 p.m. trains have a way of keeping the night young!), we decided to meet some other JETs at a nearby pub. Steve had left his bike at the station, so this is the part where I found myself half-sitting on a rack, dodging cars and pedestrians as my bum got sorer by the minute.

So was it all worth it for 30 minutes of español?

¡Claro que sí!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Bring it on, Hakusan!

After having (barely) survived my 12-hour trek on Mt. Fuji, I'd promised myself a break from mountain climbing for a while. But some fellow JETs invited me to climb Hakusan ("White Mountain") in neighboring Ishikawa prefecture over our long holiday weekend. One of the three holy mountains in Japan (Fuji is also one), Hakusan was not to be missed, they told me. It's smaller and more scenic that Fuji, they told me. We'd take a break from climbing to sleep in a lodge, they told me. Sounded like a great plan.

But there are some things you can't plan for. Typhoons, for example.

The climb started out wonderfully. We couldn't have asked for better weather as we zipped up the "difficult" trail toward the summit. We passed through fields of wild flowers, groves of pine trees and scenic bluffs. We stopped for lunch on a ridge that overlooked the entire Hakusan range. Beautiful, puffy clouds dotted the bright blue sky.

But the higher we climbed, the darker the sky got. By about 2200 meters - too late to turn around and seek shelter - the sky opened up and the rains began. And they didn't stop. The typhoon was upon us. I'd never seen anything as beautiful as the lodge peeking through the sheets of rain at the end of our 5-1/2 hour ascent.

Though we arrived soggy and chilled to the bone, we passed a lovely evening at the lodge. With the typhoon howling around us, we introduced "beer pong" to Japanese guests in the lodge cafeteria and were rewarded with gifts of homemade plum wine and salmon jerky from a guest named Saito-san. We snuggled under layers of fuzzy blankets, lured to sleep by Saito-san's wine and weary muscles from our 2500 meter ascent.

The next morning dawned overcast but warm. We worked our way to the summit shrine, only to find that the typhoon wasn't quite over. About halfway to the top, we were greeted by more rain and more torrential winds. At the top, we dug celebratory sake and potato chips out of our soggy backpacks as the wind howled around us.

We managed to smile for a few pictures, but the celebration was short-lived. We were hit with hail - yes, hail - wind and more rain on the way down. The experience made me long for Fuji, which by comparison, was an easy, hail-free climb. Nearly three hours later, we arrived at our car at the bottom of the mountain. As the clothes on our backs and the clothes in our backpacks were soaked, we hunkered down for a chilly ride back to Fukui-ken.

Needless to say, it may be a while before I complete the Japanese holy mountain trifecta!