Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Kanazawa, Baby!

My little Suzuki Alto made a journey out of Fukui and into Ishikawa prefecture today - and all of the car's passengers (and the car itself) happily lived to tell the tale. Destination: Kanazawa City, a bustling metropolis of 458,000 which provided me which a much-needed urban fix. I've been in the rice paddies too long!

The Alto braved the Hokuriku Expressway, where it topped out at 100 kph (a whopping 60 mph). I cried inside as little old ladies in Japanese Buicks scowled as they flew past me. I cried out loud when we learned our round-trip toll fare would be 3,000 yen ($30). Ouch.

Once in the city, our first stop was Kanazawa-jo. The castle was lovely, but the highlight was a fellow JET's find of a severed statue head in a pile of rocks. Nice work, John!

Next stop was the Ninja-dera, a temple blessed with trick staircases, hidden rooms, ritual suicide chambers and a bit of a checkered past. Samurais used to hang out there, ostensibly "on call" to protect royalty in the temple and at the nearby castle. We, of course, weren't allowed to take pictures of all of this secrecy, so you'll have to visit to see for yourselves!

We visited Kenrokuen Garden, designated as one of the top three gardens in the country. I felt like I'd walked inside a calendar photo - everywhere I turned, well-manicured beauty abounded. We paused to get pictures at a lakeside vista and then headed for dinner at....


What excursion to a large Japanese city would be complete without this piece of Americana? Complete with English-language menus and Heinz 57 ketchup, Freshness Burger served up a mean meat patty. I stuck to my veggie-lovin' ways and had a salad and shake, but may have to come back to feed an onion ring craving in the very near future.

Kanazawa, we heart you.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Conveyor Belt Sushi: Why I Love Japan

'Twas a weekend of festivals and camping trips (read on for details on these adventures). But perhaps the most profound of my cultural experiences over the last few days involved eating sushi off a conveyor belt.

It was deeeee-lish (or "oishii" here in Japan). Until you've tried conveyor belt sushi, you haven't lived. Starving when you walk in? Just plop down, pull some fish off the belt, and dig in. Not finding what you like on the belt? Simply pop your order into the table-top computer, and your wish is the kitchen's command. There's free tea, ginger and a little soy sauce dispenser at every table.

And the best part? Everything at this restaurant was 100 yen (about $1). That means I ate nine plates - yes, NINE plates - of delicious raw fish and spent less than 10 bucks.

Special thanks go to my dining companions, all veteran JETs, for humoring my in-restaurant photo safari. I appreciate their indulging my "newbie" status and not laughing too hard as my flash photography caused Japanese patrons at neighboring tables to stare at us. Their next 100-yen plate of sushi is on me!

Happiness, Love & World Peace

The Japanese love their fireworks. In the good ol' USA, we get 'em just once a year at the Fourth of July. But during my month in Japan, I've been to no less than three spectacular fireworks shows.

But this fireworks show was different, even by Japanese standards. It was held in the town of Eihei-ji, home to the Eihei-ji temple, one of the "most influential" centers of Zen Buddhism in the world. As our crew arrived at the festival grounds, we were greeted by the low murmur of these Zen Buddhist monks chanting and bells ringing. Dozens of robed monks marched in a procession on the stage.

For a mere 1000 yen (10 bucks), families could purchase paper lanterns, blessed by the monks, write blessings for ancestors on the lanterns, and then release them into a river that flows through town. Hundreds of glittering lanterns floated by us as Eihei-ji hosted an impressive fireworks show on the banks on the other side.

A couple of JETs purchased a lantern and wrote their wishes for the world: happiness, good health, love and, of course, WORLD PEACE!

Ono: Oh Yes!

Saturday night marked the annual Fukui JET camping trip, where I shared a forest clearing with a couple dozen fellow senseis right outside of Ono City. We enjoyed swimming in ice-cold mountain water and all of the "many natures" that Fukui-ken has to offer.

The setting was idyllic: after a campfire and s'mores, I was lulled to sleep by the chirping of crickets, the babble of the river, and, oh yes, the screams of drunken JETs jumping naked off the cliffs into the water. Nice.

And these are the people charged with "internationalizing" Japanese youth. God help the children of Fukui-ken!

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Gomi Stress: I'm a Victim

Japan is a small island with a lot of people, and, thus, a lot of garbage. This phenomenon causes a lot of "Gomi Stress" (Garbage Stress) among the Japanese. But they're serious about recycling - so much so, that upon arriving at my apartment, I was greeted with a huge, four-color, two-sided poster describing how to sort my various papers, plastics, glass, and metals into color-coded recycling bags. The problem was that the poster was all in Japanese. And I'd already missed one of the only two designated recycling days for the month.

So, for the last three weeks, the front foyer of my apartment has been covered in trash - er, recyclables - as I've waited for today: Recycling Day!!

I set my alarm early - 7 a.m. - loaded my car with the six bags of recyclables I'd carefully sorted, and headed out to the designated recycling spot for our neighborhood. Pleased that I'd arrived on time (I thought I'd done something right for once), I was disappointed when I began to received strange looks as I pulled the brightly-colored bags out of my car: turns out the bags I used were out-of-date. The color scheme had changed. I'd need to re-sort.

So, at 7:15 a.m., in front of my entire neighborhood, I dug through six bags of my own trash to re-sort it according to the new guidelines. Just in case I didn't stick out enough already...

But I still didn't have the correct bag for plastics. I used blue (stupid gaijin!) and needed green.

I didn't have a green bag. And it was 7:47. Recycling closed at 8 a.m.

A kind recycling staffer explained to me that I could buy bags at the convenience store a few blocks away. But time was running out, she said. I'd have to come back in two weeks. I cringed at the thought of my foyer being covered with plastic bottles for another 14 days. So I hopped in my car, sped off to the combini (I'm getting good at driving on the left), played charades with the store clerks to get what I needed, and sped back to the recycling post.

The staff literally cheered as I pulled in. I victoriously pulled the new green bags out of my car. It was 7:59 a.m.

On a side note, actually throwing something away - not recycling - is even more of a process. Trash Day comes twice a week. I pull all of my trash into yellow bags and literally write my name and address on it before I can throw it away. If I've tried to toss something away that I shouldn't, my concerned neighbors will leave the bag on my front step. Now that's Gomi Stress!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sunrise in the Land of the Rising Sun

I was among the first people in the world to welcome Saturday, August 18, 2007.

Yesterday, I spent 12 hours - from 10 p.m. on Friday to 10 a.m. on Saturday - on Mt. Fuji, the tallest mountain in Japan (the summit is 3776 meters above sea level). The Japanese have a saying about Mt. Fuji: "You're a fool if you don't climb it once, but you're a fool if you climb it more than once." I agree: it took us just under 7 hours to scale to the top!

Along the way, we experienced temperature extremes (I started the climb in shorts and a t-shirt and finished with lined pants and a sweatshirt), saw stars in a clouless sky (because we were above the clouds!), and enjoyed some of the most amazing udon soup I've ever tasted (at 3360 meters above sea level at 4 a.m.).

The trail was at times easy (it felt like an average hike through the woods) and at times treacherous (it required me to hold my flashlight in my mouth as used both hands to climb vertically on volcanic rock), but the view from the top made the long journey worthwhile. Pictures can't do justice to a sunrise above the clouds, but I've shared them here.

I carried a walking stick with me through the entire trek - mountain staffers stamped milestone brands into the stick at each rest station along the way, and a Buddhist priest blessed it with a "top of the mountain" brand when I reached the summit.

It took us another 5 hours to get back down the mountain, and it will take perhaps another 5 days to recover from the climb (my legs are soooore), but here's hoping the memories will last a lifetime!

Domo Arigato, Mr. Nagata

Meet Mr. Nagata, leader of the Harue Community Center English conversation class and my new 75-year-old Japanese friend. Mr. Nagata took me under his wing earlier this week, giving me a guided tour of Harue (a small community next door to Maruoka), inviting me to his home to meet his wife, daughter, and grandchildren, and then treating me to lunch at a local Italian restaurant (great food - pasta with a Japanese touch!). Mr. Nagata is a tennis pro - he plays at least 4 times a week - and is quite possibly in better shape than I am. He also survived WWII and has some incredible stories to tell. I'll look forward to conversing with him in English in hopes that he'll reciproate with lessons on Japanese culture and perhaps life in general...

There's More Than Rice in Fukui!

As the saying goes, there's more than corn in Indiana. And, there's more than rice in Fukui. Some "veteran" Fukui JETs took us newbies on an lovely tour of our fair prefecture, and I have photos to entice y'all to visit (I even wore my skull n' crossbones t-shirt for all the photo opps)!

Our first stop was Maruoka Castle, which is actually just a few blocks from my apartment. Who can say they live down the street from a castle?!? Built in 1576, it is the oldest standing castle in Japan, pretty impressive considering that means it survived all of the bombing and earthquakes than have hit this area.

We then headed west to the mountains, home of Fukui's finest ski slopes (that's where you'll find me this winter) and the Dai Butsu, the biggest Buddha in Japan. It's, well, slightly newer than the castle - it was actually built in 1987 after a wealthy Japanese businessman died and left his entire fortune to complete the construction. But what it lacks in antiquity (the pagoda has an elevator), it makes up for in impressiveness.

(Is "impressiveness" a word? My English is suffering...)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Fireworks, Cliffs, and Ghosts - Oh My!

I spent Saturday in the lovely village of Mikuni, one of the four small towns that make up the bustling metropolis that is Sakai City. Mikuni is a charming place. It's situated right on the Sea of Japan, has a cute little beach, and is home to an annual fireworks festival, billed as one of the biggest in the region.

And it's haunted. But more on that later.

We started the day at the Cliffs of Tojimbo, Japan's equivalent to Ireland's Cliffs of Moor. These jagged peaks stretch out into the Sea of Japan and are quite picturesque. Our group scaled down the cliffs and stuck our feet into the sea - it was a nice break from Japan's humid August weather.

We then ventured out to Oshima, an island located just a few miles away from the cliffs. The island is home to a Shinto shrine, a cool pine forest, and great views of the sea.

But while it's pretty during the day, this area has a somewhat ominous feel at night. Sadly, the cliffs are a popular place to commit suicide - and many people that choose to jump are young students who have failed their college entrance exams. A strange tide causes bodies to wash up on Oshima's shores. Some say that the shrine pulls the bodies towards it. There have been reports of ghosts walking the island at night.

Pushing the ghost stories out of our head, we trekked back up to the beach and settled in for the fireworks show - a full 90 minutes of some of the most amazing fireworks I've ever seen. A team of tugboats crisscrossed Mikuni's harbor, dropping fireworks directly in the water. Moments later, the fireworks would explode right up from the sea. You didn't just see the show, you felt it!

After enjoying the fireworks (and a few beers), we decided it was time to go on a ghosthunt. Armed with the light from our cell phones, we headed back to the island, and stumbled back around the trail to the shrine.

We waited. We took pictures. No ghosts.

We continued along the path to the back of the island, where a clearing in the forest allowed room for a lighthouse - and opportunities for killer stargazing.

We waited. We took pictures. No ghosts.

So my Tojimbo adventure resulted in a dead cell phone, several hundred new bug bites, and a mild hangover the next morning. No ghosts, but a great story to tell!

One time, at English Summer Camp....

August in Japan is vacation time - students get a brief, three-week break from Japan's infamous year-round school system. So, how do many youngsters choose to spend their time away from school? They study! I had the pleasure of working at a two English Summer Camps for Jr. High students last week, and got my first taste of what teaching in Japanese schools would entail.

I started my Adventures in English with a two-day, overnight camp in Fukui City. We slept in a nature center in the mountains, on futons rolled out on tatami mats. Chasing around dozens of junior high students would drain anyone, but coupling that with speaking in broken English while writing and rehearsing skits, playing charades, and singing songs around the campfire really wiped me out. I'm getting old!

But it was the day-long camp in Sakai City later that week that made me realize that I had a lot to learn about life in Japan. Teachers were asked to bring their lunch to the camp, so I stopped by a conbini (convenience store) and bought a package of pre-cooked noodles. When lunch time came, I sat down with a group of students, opened the noodles, and proceeded to, in true American fashion, douse them with the package of sauce included in the box. My students stopped eating and stared. The conversation went something like this:

Me: What!?! Is this sauce bad?
Them: Dead silence.
Me: Can I eat this?
Them: Dead silence. (One student runs to get her English-Japanese dictionary and shows me the Japanese word for "itchy.")
Me: Laughing so hard I cry.
Them: Laughing so hard they cry.
Me: Am I going to die?
Them: Nodding their heads "yes." Then laughter.

Turns out I had doused my noodles in a sort of oatmeal sauce used to minimize the effects of wasabi. If your lips starting burning from the wasabi, you were supposed to rub some of the oatmeal on them - not pour it directly on the noodles.

With my noodles ruined, I proceeded to pull an apple out of my bag. Again, being the unmannered American that I am, I bit into the apple, juice running down my face. Again, my students stop eating and stared.

Me: What? Am I not supposed to eat this either?
Them: In Japan....cut!!!

So, for those of you planning to visit Japan, please remember to first peel, and then cut your apples. It's the Japanese way.

I made a complete a$$ out of myself in front of six 13-year-olds. But I got them to speak English in the process. All in all, not a bad day's work!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Phoenix Festival Pictures

Fukui is a resilient little city - the Allies bombed it to bits during WWII, and then it was leveled again a few years later by an earthquake. So, it's only fitting that the city's symbol is the Phoenix - it has proven its ability to rise from the ashes. Fukui greeted me with the Phoenix Festival, held during my first weekend in town. Groups of young and old perform impossibly complicated dances as part of a competition - and wear matching outfits. It was a photography heaven - I put my new camera to use and shot more than 100 pictures. Enjoy!

Fukui: Home Sweet Home

My new home, Mauroka Town, part of Sakai City in Fukui prefecture, is a nine hour bus ride from Tokyo. Our bus pulled away from the neon lights and bustling streets of Tokyo, and chugged through the rice paddies, pine forests, and mountains of Fukui prefecture. The further we drove from Tokyo, the more nervous I got: where, exactly, was I going to spend the next year?!?

The answer? I live in the Mahomet of Japan! More precisely, I live on the ground floor of a two-story apartment complex. My apartment is half "Japanese" style, meaning I sit on tatami mats and sleep on a futon on the floor, but the kitchen and bathroom have all "western" amenities - thank God, as Japanese-style squat toilets are not easy for this American to adapt to!

I'm also the proud owner of a 1998 Suzuki Alto - a surprisingly quick little car that's much more reliable than Chicago's CTA! I had to go pick up the car in Tsuruga, a port town about two hours south of Maruoka, and drive it home through the mountains back home. Nothing like jumping in feet first with driving on the left!

So my apartment and car are quite modern, but the washing machine is another story. The dinosaur sits out on my front stoop, in all its olive green, mosquito-covered glory, and washing, like, a pair of pants, takes a full hour. I put put in the water with a hose, change the clothes for the spin cycle, and then hang them on a line to dry - no dryers in sight! So much for hi-tech Japan!

The view from my apartment? Rice paddies and mountains. Japanese inaka (countryside) at its finest. But, just a few kilometers from my house lies the urban mecca that is Fukui City - Starbucks, pachinko parlors, and all the karaoke a girl could ask for. I'll be okay here after all...

Lost in...Tokyo

Tokyo: Days filled with JET orientations sessions, nights filled with attempts to navigate the city with broken Japanese and a poorly translated subway map. I braved the streets of Tokyo's Harajuku and Shinjuku districts with fellow JETs, resulting in three days of "Lost in Translation"-esque moments.

Sunday: We arrived, jetlagged, after a 14-hour flight and 3-hour bus ride, to our five-star hotel in Tokyo's Shinjuku district. While the thought of crawling into bed was tempting, the lure of the streets of Tokyo was stronger. I ventured out for dinner with fellow JETs, thanked God for a menu with pictures, and quickly mastered the "point-and-smile" ordering technique. Ironically, my first meal in Japan was much like the culinary delights I'd experienced throughout my college days: ramen noodles!

Monday: After a grueling day of JET orientation meetings, I convinced two fellow JETs that a trek to Harajuku would be easy - just two stops on the subway. However, actually purchasing subway tickets and navigating the sea of people, train lines and vendors at Shinjuku station was a quite a different story. We got lost at the station, lost on our way to Harajuku (we arrived just in time for shops to close and the rain to begin), and lost on our way back to the hotel. All in all, a fun evening!

Tuesday: More meetings, more getting lost on the streets of Tokyo. Orientation leaders organized a Fukui-bound JET dinner at The Lock Up, a creepy jail/funeral themed restaurant. A giant group of gaijin (foreigners) headed out from the hotel, with another Chicago JET and me bringing up the rear. We started chatting, looked up, and realized that we'd lost the rest of the group. After 45 minutes of wandering the streets, creating a sign that said "LOCK UP???" and asking random Japanese on the street for directions (we had to ask for "ROCK UP," accounting for the lack of "Ls" in Japanese), we found our way.

The all-you-can-drink ticket helped alleviate the stress of getting lost, and we rolled right into a 4-hour karaoke session. We got back to our hotel at 3 a.m., refreshed and ready to catch our 8 a.m. bus to Fukui City (a mere 9 hours away). Yokoso (welcome)!!

Where's the Hook Up?

Dear Friends and Family,

Now that I'm a resident of hi-tech Japan, you'd think that getting an internet hook-up at home would be a piece of cake. Not so - it takes lots of patience and native-like proficiency in Japanese.

Unfortunately, I have neither.

So, thank God for globalization - I'm at my local Seattle's Best coffee shop, sipping green tea-flavored lattes as I scam their free wi-fi connection. My apologies for the delay in getting you all an update - read on for news on my (mis) adventures in this fantastic country. I don't officially start teaching until Aug. 31, so you'll see that I've been doing a lot of "playing" these past two weeks. Hope to be able to update it more regularly moving forward, so please check back!!

Miss you all!!