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... 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