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.

"," 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.

" 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.