Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Bittersweet Endings, Delicious Beginnings

Bittersweet. Both sweet and bitter, bitter and sweet, as the song goes. This little vocabulary gem has been creeping into my English lessons lately. I've been making final visits to each of my 15 classes here at Sakai Junior High, telling each of my 452 students that my time at their school is coming to an end, and undertaking the almost-impossible task of explaining how I'm feeling in broken English and even more broken Japanese.

So how, exactly, am I feeling? Even given the luxury of my native tongue, it's hard to put into words. Bittersweet gets close, but isn't quite intense enough.

Yes, leaving is bitter. Very bitter. Right now, I'm in the throes of a series of long, sad, drawn-out goodbyes. I'm pulling off the proverbial Band-Aid very slowly, and it is painful. My heart breaks each time I have to tell one of my classes that this is our final meeting, each time I have to hug a Japanese friend for the last time, each time I have to attend a sayonara party for a fellow JET-turned-ad-hoc-family-member, realizing that just days from now, we'll be scattered across the world all over again.

I don't know when/if I will come back to Japan. If I do, it probably won't be for a long, long time. It's the finality of everything that hurts the most.

But, yes, what I have to look forward to in the future is sweet. Very sweet. On Sunday, I'll be back in Chicago, surrounded by my family and old friends and size 8 shoes and pizza that doesn't involve corn or mayonnaise. And then, very soon after that, I'll be off to begin a new adventure in Mexico, starting what might just be my dream job. (I'll be firing up a new blog, titled GRINGA CULICHI, to share my exploits south of the Rio Grande. Stay tuned.)

So, for lack of a better word, I'd describe it all as bittersweet. But I think my feelings are being intensified by the outpouring of support I've gotten here in Japan. People who don't even share my language are telling me, in their own wordless ways, that I will be missed, I will be remembered, and that they support me wholeheartedly in my move to Mexico, a far-away country that they know little about, other than it's hot and people eat lots of tacos there.

And my tear ducts have opened and flowed freely in each of these instances, like when my little host sister finally addressed me as "おねさん" (older sister) on a goodbye card she shyly gave me this weekend. Or when my students encouraged me with "fight-o!" and "go for it!" when I told them about my new job. Or when my 75-year-old friend and student, Nagata-san, proposed a toast to my health and success in Mexico during a farewell party last week. Or when my students add to the stack of carefully-written goodbye letters accumulating on my desk at school.

A wise man named Dr. Seuss once said, "Don't be sad it's ending, be glad it happened." These words have become my personal mantra over the past few weeks. They're what I repeat in my head, trying to comfort myself as I fight back tears when faced with yet another goodbye. And they're running through my head right now as I prepare to push the "publish" button, thus officially wrapping my little MUY OISHII blog that has so faithfully carried me through my time here in Japan. Thank you, friends and family -- and, yes, thank you mystery readers -- for joining me on this crazy beautiful adventure.

It's sometimes bittersweet, but life, above all, is MUY OISHII (very delicious).


Please visit my new blog at http://www.gringaculichi.blogspot.com/.
Favor de visitar mi blog nuevo en http://www.gringaculichi.blogspot.com/.
わたしの あたらしい ブルオグ わ http://www.gringaculichi.blogspot.com/.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Grandmas are Universal

A year ago, if you'd asked me what I expected to take away from my time in Japan, my answer would have involved something about better understanding cultural differences: the Japanese language versus English, chopsticks versus the knife-n-fork, "r" versus "l," collectivism versus individualism, bowing versus hugging, squat toilets versus sit-down toilets, blah, blah, blah.

But a year later, I find that I'm more impressed by cultural universals, such as the ability of strangers anywhere to be unbelievably kind or unbelievably mean to each other. Or the fact that, around the world, or at least in Japan and the USA, mothers seem to cry at school graduations. Or the human tendency to talk about the weather when filling awkward silences(e.g. "あついですね" and "さむいですね"). 

After this weekend, I have yet another addition to add to the list of universals: it seems that, almost everywhere in the world, grandmothers spoil their grandchildren rotten.

My own childhood is filled with fond memories of trips to my grandparents' house in Southern Illinois. When my sister and I were kids, my parents used to leave us there for a week or so in the summertime, creating a win-win situation: Mom and Dad got some alone time, and Susan and I got spoiled by Grandma. Grandma would buy us the sugar-filled breakfast cereals (Lucky Charms!!) forbidden by Mom at home. Grandma would let us eat pie for lunch and ice cream for dinner. And Grandma's cabinets were always stocked with little treasures to foster our budding creativity: mini craft sets, harmonicas and kazoos for ad-hoc rock bands, and endless stacks of coloring books.

On Saturday, my host family invited me to a sushi dinner -– this time, at Grandma's house. But Japanese Grandma's house in Fukui City might well have been my American Grandma's house in Illinois. Upon walking into her tatami room, I was instantly transported into my own grandmother's living room: the walls were plastered with photographs of smiling grandchildren. Another wall bore framed prints of baby-sized hands and feet. A beam near the door was covered with pencil marks, names, dates, and measurements to mark each of her three grandchildren's growth.

We settled into small talk, until I ran out of Japanese and the Ohsakis ran out of English, and then Japanese Grandma produced a craft set from her treasure cabinet -- just like my own Grandma would have done. We spent the afternoon filing away at make-your-own chopstick sets. And when dinnertime rolled around, Japanese Grandma, just like my Grandma, took great pleasure in offering (forcing) heaps of food to (on) her already-full guests, refusing to take 'no' for an answer. And instead of eating herself, she putzed around in the kitchen -- you guessed it, just like my own Grandma.

"There's cake and watermelon for dessert, so I hope you saved room," she said at the end of the meal, sounding like my Grandma. Already having eaten too much, I groaned along with my host family, sounding a lot like my own family at home.

But I really knew we were at grandma's house when my youngest host sister bounded to the refrigerator, dug through a shelf in the freezer, and happily produced a popsicle. This ostensibly was the "forbidden-at-home" food that grandmas are so good at stocking: the Ohsaki children's version of Susan's and my Lucky Charms. Throughout the evening, I observed each of the three children making multiple trips to the refrigerator, digging through the drawers and emerging from the kitchen, slurping on popsicles.

"How many have you eaten?" I asked another host sister, the middle child.

"Eleven," she replied nonchalantly.

My host mom cringed. My host grandma beamed. It was almost like being at home.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Prepare to be humbled...


I visited the Fukui Prefectural School for the Blind (called "Mougakko" locally) with a group of fellow JETs earlier this week. I volunteered for the visit day expecting to have a pleasant experience, thinking that perhaps I'd help a couple of students practice their English or maybe learn a bit about Braille. But that’s not what happened.

Instead, I was humbled. The students were absolutely brilliant, overwhelmingly kind, and extremely gifted learners. Oh yeah -- and they’re all vision impaired.

While I’ve stumbled over learning basic Japanese for the past year, these Mougakko students have mastered both English and Japanese, along with the Braille systems for both languages, which makes them essentially quadro-lingual. (Is that even a word? I bet the Mougakko kids could tell me.) Perhaps polyglot superstudents is a more appropriate description.

Here's how the day went down: we started with a tour of the school’s massage facilities (many students study massage in addition to the standard curriculum, preparing for future careers as masseuses). Next, we were spectators at a game of “blind volleyball,” which is absolutely grueling when compared to the beach variety (it is played on the floor and involves blocking the ball by listening for it). We then toured facilities for music and art classes, subjects that are apparently these students’ fortes, judging from the amazing ceramics on display and the awesome piano solo from one of the students.

But it was the Braille that blew me away: students demonstrated how they use adapted computers to type in English, Japanese, and Braille, and then gave us old-school, six-keyed Braille typewriters to try it ourselves.

It took me about 30 minutes to figure out how to write my own name (which, you may recall, has exactly four letters -- not that difficult). But 14-year-old "K", our Mougakko-student-turned-Braille-sensei, demonstrated infinite patience. He checked my Braille by running his nimble fingers quickly over the sentences I'd attempted to type: "My name is Sara." "I like sushi." "Braille is hard." K even played it cool when suggesting corrections for my error-ridden phrases.

Yessir, K and his pals are truly superstudents. But they were so unassuming, you’d never suspect it. Once you get past the whole I-know-four-languages-and-could-probably-play-piano-at-Carnegie-if-I-wanted-to thing, they’re really just regular kids. This was evident when we went on a tour of Mougakko’s cafeteria and asked students about the food.

“It’s so-so,” they admitted with a grin.

One 17-year-old boy told us about his heartbreaking struggle to ask a female Mougakko student out on a date.

“She said ‘no,’” he sighed. “Girls are weird.”

“Keep trying,” we reassured him. “Girls are complicated.”

So, the next time I whine about not being able to read kanji at the grocery store, the memory of these Mougakko kids will keep my linguistic self-pity in check.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Walking (home) in somebody else’s shoes

My blog entries up to this point have been pretty sunny: I've rambled on and on about the kindness of the people here in Japan. They've gone out of their way to guide me by the hand when I've been lost on the subway. They've invited me into their homes and have cooked me delicious dinners. They've smiled and have tried to help when I've asked stupid questions in broken Japanese.

In short, they've taught me that kindness is universal, that there are nice folks all over the world. But yesterday I unfortunately learned that fear -- the dark underbelly of humanity -- is also universal.

My poor little car, still recovering from the mountainous road trip adventure this weekend, broke down again in the grocery store parking lot yesterday afternoon. The battery is dame (bad), but it just has to hold out for the 18 days I have left here in Japan, so I'm not motivated to shell out the yen required to fix it properly. Instead, I'd purchased a pair of jumper cables after this weekend's adventures in auto repair, so I was prepared to remedy the problem. I just needed to find someone’s car to use for the jump.

Now, this scenario may sound familiar because I had to get my car jumped in the same grocery store parking lot this fall. An extremely kind man went out of his way to help me, and, in doing so, reaffirmed my faith in the goodness of humanity.

So I anticipated that I'd have no problem finding someone willing to help me this time around. But I was wrong.

I sat in my car, turning the key in the ignition, listening to it attempting to but failing to turn over. My car was parked between two other vehicles, with people sitting in them, ostensibly waiting for their respective spouses to finish their grocery shopping. Hearing the distressed sounds my poor car was making, they both looked my way. They must've known that I was having car trouble.

I dug the jumper cables out of the back seat, opened my door, and walked to the car parked on my right. A middle-aged woman was sitting in the driver’s seat. The windows were rolled up, but the car was running. I waved, smiled, bowed a little and mouthed a friendly "sumimasen" (excuse me) while holding up the jumper cables.

She looked at me. I almost didn't recognize her expression because it had been so long since I'd seen it.

Fear.

She locked her door, put on her seat belt, and drove away, leaving me standing in the parking lot, jumper cables in hand.

I was surprised at her reaction, but somehow unfazed. I walked over to the other car, the car parked on my left, and repeated the procedure. This time, the grandfatherly-looking man sitting in the driver's seat just stared at me blankly through his window. Then, wordlessly, he started up his car and moved it to another parking spot.

I was starting to feel a bit defeated: I was actually scaring people, and couldn’t figure out why. It was 4 o'clock on a sunny afternoon. As I was coming home from work, I actually looked presentable, dressed in slacks and a blouse. This had never happened to me.

After I approached a third person – a woman walking out of the store, bags in hand, who sharply told me that she didn’t have time to help me before hurrying away – I gave up. I was at the breaking point: I threw the jumper cables in the back seat, grabbed my bag, and left my car in the parking lot (a friend helped me jump it later that night). I walked the 15 minutes back to my apartment, my eyes burning with tears of frustration.

I'm different here in Japan. But my story is no different from those told to me by friends back in Chicago, who have been harassed by police for no apparent reason, refused help when they've had car trouble, or eyed suspiciously when they're walking through certain neighborhoods at certain hours, just because they look a certain way. The blonde woman in a supermarket parking lot in rural Japan is the Middle Eastern man in the security line at the airport, or the African American talking the CTA through the north side of Chicago on his way home from work, or the Mexican immigrant denied service at a restaurant because “we don’t speak Spanish here,” even though she's speaking perfectly good English, just with a hint of an accent.

So I walked home in their shoes yesterday. I got a small taste of what some folks have to go through every day of their lives. And I'm grateful for the lesson.

Road Trippin'




We had all of the ingredients for your typical American-as-apple-pie road trip: summertime Saturday morning, four good girlfriends, music loaded on the iPod, snacks -- and even the token bout of car trouble.

I digress to tell the back-story here: My car battery died in a tiny one-road village we'd stopped at on one of our many potty breaks. Apparently, the constant uphill climbing on mountain roads was too much for my little Suzuki. (Read: It was rainy and I left the lights on. Doh!) But the four of us were able to pool our individually-lacking Japanese skills and communicate enough to call to get the car jumped. There was also the matter of creating quite a spectacle with the neighborhood kids, who had apparently never seen a broken-down K-car crammed with four giant gaijin women. We shared our raw veggie snack stash with them while we were waiting for the car repair guy to show up. They'd apparently never eaten raw carrots either, and, at first, silently stared at us – and our vegetable offerings – with wide, “you-want-me-to-eat-what?” kind of eyes. But they ended up really digging the ninjin (carrots) and even helped themselves to seconds.

But, this being Japan and all, last weekend's road trip was anything but apple pie.

For starters, our destination was pretty unique: We visited 白川郷 (Shirakawa-gō), a centuries-old UNESCO World Heritage Site tucked away in mountain valley in Gifu prefecture. Shirakawa-gō is a picturesque village of still-inhabited thatched-roof houses, painstakingly constructed against a breathtaking backdrop of towering deep-green pine trees and mountain mist. 'Twas one part Amish community (given the whole stepping-back-in-time factor) and two parts Brothers Grimm (given the whole stepping-into-a-scene-from-a-fairy-tale factor).

Our accommodation was also a bit strange: We slept in a temple-turned-youth-hostel (complete with a 10 p.m. curfew – apparently late-night carousing is not very Zen), run by a very kind Buddhist monk. We tucked into futons spread out on a tatami-covered floor. The earthy smells of tatami, pine and rain (it's still rainy season, y'all), along with the sound of the steady summer shower on the roof, lulled us to sleep. Quite the spiritual experience for a bargain 3000 yen.

Our company was out-of-the-ordinary as well: We caught dinner at a lively local restaurant, complete with Gifu's finest regional fare. Walking into the dining area, where we ladies were greeted with a rowdy “Hellooooooo!” from a table of young Japanese guys, out celebrating their friend's wedding. (In Japan, the bachelor party apparently happens on the night of the wedding. Yeah, we didn’t get it either.) The guys had downed quite a few beers and were quite eager to bust out their English – turns out they'd all met while studying abroad a few years back in California. A couple were actually working as English teachers in real time. But as our 10 o'clock curfew came around, we, being good Cinderellas, excused ourselves from the proverbial “Ball” and headed back to our temple hotel.

I digress again to explain, who, exactly, is “we.” “We” is me, plus three fellow Fukui JETs who happen to be the best pals a gal could ask for. This road trip was our final girl's weekend, a last hurrah before we left the safe, warm blanket that is June and flipped the page to July, the month we will leave Fukui and be scattered all over the world again. When I came to Japan 11 months and 1 week ago, these girls were strangers, but now they are my family-away-from-home, my lifelines, my sanity, and some of my best friends. I will miss them terribly.

Unfortunately on the way back home the next day, we – despite all of our girl-bonding glory -- experienced the dark underbelly of road tripping. The previous night's rainy season shower turned into a full-on typhoon, which made navigating windy mountain roads somewhat daunting in my little blue car. We got lost (of course), wound our way through four different prefectures, ended up in Nagoya, and blew 6000 yen and nearly five hours on toll roads trying to get back in Fukui. Nice.

But I guess that's part of the fun. Typhoons, carrots, cultural heritage sites, temple hostels and drunken J-boys: all the ingredients needed for your typical Japanese road trip.

Taiko Nights

The majority of my Wednesday nights here in Japan have been filled with taiko, a Japanese style of drumming. I haven't mentioned a lot about taiko (only here), mostly because I feel like I'm the weakest link when I go to the class. It's a bit embarrassing to have claimed to be a percussionist for upwards of five years (I was in drum line in junior high and part of high school, and yes, I've been to band camp -- don't judge me) and then to come to Japan and get yelled at for holding my drum sticks wrong. But, as would be expected given the fact that almost everything about Japan is different than what I'm used to, taiko isn't your average drumming experience.

Our sensei is approximately 137 years old, but keeps beat like a metronome, pounding away at his drum for the whole of our 90-minute class without even breaking a sweat. The rest of the students – mostly other foreigners, with a couple of brave Japanese ladies mixed in for good measure – takes constant breaks to apply Band-aids to their hands when the drumming-induced blisters start to form after about 15 minutes of hammering away. We're such rookies.

Sensei alternates between barking at us and complimenting us in Japanese, which we somehow understand, and then invariably yells at me for holding my sticks wrong. I hold them like I'm playing a snare, which requires tight and precise movement from the wrist, instead of like I'm playing a taiko drum, which requires wild, theatric movements of the entire arm. What can I say? It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks. But since sensei is 137 and I'm only 28, he doesn't seem to find that excuse amusing.

We had our last official taiko practice last week, and I brought my camera to document the experience. I'll miss those humbling Wednesday night classes, and my arms will miss the workout – though I doubt my hands will miss all of those blisters.

Dinner with the Small Temples

I had a lovely dinner last week with one of the guys from my Thursday night class. We'll call him "Small Temple-san," because that's how his family name translates to English. Small Temple-san invited me and a fellow JET (you remember “C” from the deflated chocolate mousse incident) to his house, where he, his lovely wife, and his beautiful daughter had prepared an absolutely breathtaking spread of food: soybean salad, smoked salmon bruschetta, mushrooms, shrimp tempura, sashimi -- even a little homemade ume-shu to wash it all down. Yum. Yum. Yum.

Dinner was served at 7 p.m., and the Small Temples begrudgingly admitted that they'd worked on preparing the meal since 3 o'clock that afternoon. The food was absolutely fantastic, but, ironically, it wasn't the highlight of the evening: the Spanish and the pedicure were the best parts.

During our conversation over dinner, the Small Temples learned that I had spent some time studying in Mexico. Their daughter's eyes lit up, and she excused herself from the table and ran into the kitchen to retrieve a packet of Arroz Poblano (Poblano Rice). Turns out that she had visited Mexico herself a few years back, had fallen in love with the food, and had purchased some souvenir rice to prepare in Japan. It was a great plan, except that all of the cooking instructions on this particular package were written in Spanish. She had been waiting two years to make the rice. Could I puh-lease translate the directions into English for her?

I was thrilled to be able to help with her request – it was the first time in eleven months that I felt linguistically helpful instead of like the non-Japanese-speaking burden that I really am.

Apparently feeling indebted for my translation services, Small Temple's daughter dashed off to her bedroom and brought back a pedicure kit. As I ate my dessert, she applied crystals and flower-shaped stickers to my nasty runner's toes, insisting that my feet “didn't smell that bad” as I was giggling with embarrassment. C even got in on the pedicure action, scoring gold nail polish and glitter on the big toe of his right foot.

I left the Small Temples’ house with a full belly, a take-home bottle of moonshine ume-shu, and sparkly toenails. What else could a gal ask for?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Plan Bs

Fukui is a rather soggy place. The autumn months found me wishing that I could somehow morph into an amphibian to better cope with what seemed like constant rainfall, and the winter found me digging my tiny car out of large-even-to-a-Chicago-gal snowdrifts that had literally accumulated overnight. So, the past few weeks of springtime sunshine and blue skies have been a welcome respite from the otherwise constantly-crappy weather in our random little corner of Japan.

Unfortunately, I’ve come to learn that this lovely weather was really just a tease.

This weekend, Fukui entered 梅雨(tsuyu), the rainy season, a Japan-wide phenomenon that runs from mid-June through July. Tsuyu translates to "plum rain" because it coincides with plum season (and ume-shu, plum wine, season -- yatta!!). But tsuyu should also translate to "dreary, sh*tty weather everyday."

When tsuyu hits an already-rainy place like Fukui (I guess my prefecture could be called the Seattle of Japan, minus the Space Needle), the results are, well, soggy. For example, 2004’s tsuyu once brought a legendary 11 inches of rain in six hours. Of course I realize that this will likely evoke little sympathy from my fellow Midwesterners who likely spent the weekend filling sandbags along the currently flood-ravaged Mississippi (keep fighting the good fight, y’all!), but that’s a heck of a lot of rain, by any standard.

So, what’s an outdoor-loving, sunshine-worshipping, soon-to-be-leaving-Japan-and-trying-to-pack-everything-in-one-last-time kinda gal to do during tsuyu?

Make lots of Plan Bs.

Which is exactly what I did this weekend after plans for a glorious two days of camping, cycling and otherwise worshipping the great outdoors were altered due to grey skies and lots o’ precipitation.

I’d been looking forward to one last round of camping and inebriated cliff diving at Fukui’s infamous Ono Watering Hole on Friday night. I was optimistic at first: I woke up on Friday morning to blue skies, chirping birds and butterflies, but as the day progressed, the storm clouds began rolling in. All I could do was laugh as tsuyu officially hit just as I was walking out the door at the end of the school day.

Plan B? We organized a little BBQ on a fellow JET’s front porch. The BBQ was more like a mini UN meeting, complete with a couple of Americans, two Japanese artists and a pair of just-passing-through backpackers from Spain. The trilingual conversation was lovely, as were the red wine and butter-soaked, charcoal-slow-cooked mushrooms and corn.

Saturday’s pre-rain plan was to cycle around the Five Lakes of Mikata, an aptly-named series of, uh, five lakes down in the funky “Dirty South” Reinan region of the prefecture. Some of the lakes are salt water, and some are fresh water, and they all differ in depth, so they’re supposed to be gorgeous, all different colors, in fair weather.

Plan B? We road-tripped down to the Reinan in my little car, stopping along the two-lane highway to take in views along the dramatic, rugged Sea of Japan coast. The grey skies actually made the greens of the moss-covered rocks -- and reds of the kitschy, rusted-out crab-shaped signs from long-abandoned seafood restaurants -- all the more vibrant.

We still made it to the lakes, and the rain even held off long enough for us to squeeze in a quick, 20-kilometer lakeside loop on some ancient mama chari bikes that we rented from the train station. We cycled through groves of plum trees, and along roads dotted with little stands staffed by hunched-over octogenarians hawking the corresponding fruit (it's pretty -- see the picture above). Rain soaked but happy, we later perused squid boats parked in the harbor in the little fishing port of Obama (yes, as in Barack), and had an amazing, multi-course dinner at an otherwise-empty seaside restaurant with no menu. All in all, an amazing weekend.

So, as the cliché goes, when life hand you lemons, make lemonade.

When life hands you plums, make ume-shu.

And when life hands you tsuyu, make a Plan B.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Gomi Stress: Part 2

Remember that entry I wrote about Gomi Stress, way back in August? I was brand-spankin-new here in Japan, and was stressing -- like the other 127 million people in this tiny island country -- about how to properly dispose of my trash. How to sort my papers and glass and empty Diet Coke bottles and tuna cans. Which color bags are appropriate for which kind of recyclables. How to label my trash bags with my name, address and phone number. What kind of stuff I can actually throw away on "regular" trash days without my very observant, well-meaning neighbors returning it to me on my doorstep.

Stress, stress, stress.

Well, times have changed. I've gotten the whole "gomi" system down pat since August, but on Saturday, my friends and I suffered a different kind of Gomi Stress: namely, we weren't able to actually find any garbage.

I will preface this story with a blatant plug on behalf of some dear, dear Fukui friends who are organizing a two-month-long bike ride through Japan to raise awareness of environmental issues. It's called the BEE Ride (Bicycle for Everyone's Earth) and it's pretty darn awesome. Mad respect, A, C and C.

On Saturday, they organized a 60-kilometer "mini" pre-BEE Ride through the rice paddies, over the mountains, and to a little town called Mikuni, right on the Sea of Japan. Our mission: to pick up garbage on up usually-filthy beaches that dot the coast there.

As a hippie-dippie, environmentally-aware kinda gal who once caused holiday drama in her family by protesting the use of live trees for Christmas decorations, I felt compelled to participate. So, I joined the dozen or so riders that chugged along the two-hour route to Mikuni, armed with garbage bags and green dreams, only to arrive at the beach and find that there was...

ABSOLUTELY NO TRASH.

Not even a stray cigarette butt. We cycled further up the coast, desperately seeking the garbage-filled stretches of sand we'd grown so accustomed to, but sadly, still found zero gomi.

Now isn't that ironic?

Turns out that the previous weekend, a group of like-minded folks -- Japanese employees from local businesses -- had volunteered their time and cleaned all of the beaches in the area. Apparently, the old habits learned from years and years of compulsory o-soji, or school cleaning -- time spent on hands and knees, scrubbing down the floors and bookshelves and toilets of Japanese elementary, junior high and high schools -- die hard. In fact, the employees were mirroring a thrice-yearly phenomenon called chiiki seiso (neighborhood clean-up), where hordes of school children, armed with brooms and dustpans and matching white cotton gloves, emerge from the schools to clean their communities. (On the last chiiki seiso day at Sakai JHS, our suit-and-tie-clad principal was outside with the kids, chopping away at some road-side plants with a weed whacker. Talk about hands-on.)

Can you imagine all of this going down in America? Me neither.

Only in Japan.

Our beach clean-up work already done for us, we found ourselves with some extra time on our hands, so my pal "A" and I snapped the bad-ass picture above.

Keep those green dreams alive, Miss A.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Road Less Traveled By





Today was made for a long bike ride: day off work, blue sky, puffy white clouds.

I set out with my iPod and a bottle of water, thinking that I'd do a quick 30-kilometer loop to the beach. But I quickly discovered that, while not so bad in a car, the route to the beach is, well, ugly. There's lots of concrete. Semi trucks whizz past at breakneck clips. And it smells bad.

After about 30 minutes of waiting in traffic and inhaling exhaust, I grew discouraged and headed back toward my apartment. This was not what I had in mind.

But, as luck would have it, I missed the turn that lead back to my apartment and found myself completely lost. I followed an unknown road, thinking it would lead me home, but instead, it led my further away, to the base of a mountain. Completely unknown territory. I pulled off to the side to consider my options: I still had the day off work. The sky was still blue. And there were still puffy white clouds in the sky.

I still needed to cycle.

So, with the kinda-clichéd-but-oh-so-true words of Robert Frost running through my head, I decided to take the road less traveled by. And it, of course, made all the difference.

The road wound through an adorable, straight-out-of-a-Japanese-countryside-calendar-picture kind of village with wooden houses separated by rice paddies and lines of laundry flapping in the wind. As the road continued, the houses became fewer and fewer, and eventually gave way to a forest of towering pine trees. I crossed under a covered bridge and then found myself cycling between a river and the base of the mountain. I turned off my iPod to listen to the sound of the running water and the wind in my ears.

No cars in sight. I was completely alone. Beautiful.

I continued to cycle along the river, under two more covered bridges, and then ended up in a second über-picturesque village. Lest the first be too cute, the second one-upped it with fields of wild daisies along the side of the road. Seriously. I cursed myself for not bringing my camera, but was pleased to discover that, this being Japan and all, my cell phone actually takes pretty darn good pictures (see above).

I followed the road to a T-junction, where it split into two intriguing options: right lead to a mysterious-sounding Senko-no-ie "Ancient House" and left would take me to a dam. Though I'd already been peddling for almost two hours, I decided that, having come this far, it'd be a shame not to try to see both places.

So I did. No poetry-for-the-ages-inducing choices necessary. Sorry, Mr. Frost.

The "Ancient House" was amazing, a centuries-old relic tucked away in a village where it already seemed that time stood still. All of the signage was in Japanese, so I have no idea when the house was built, but a subsequent Google search dates it back to the Edo Period (1603 - 1867). It's pretty darn old. The walls were made of thick adobe and the garden featured a still-working water wheel, the likes of which I'd never actually seen in person. Not too bad of a find, considering I completely stumbled across it. And there was nobody there -- not even a staff person -- so I was left alone with my thoughts and my cell phone camera.

The trip to the dam almost didn't happen. I left the house, cycled back through the T-junction and took the left fork, but promptly found myself at the base of a giant, ominous-looking hill (read: mountain). At this point, I'd been on the bike for nearly three hours and, frankly, was feeling lazy. But, being the stubborn gal that I am, I popped down to my lowest gear and chugged up to the top, where my efforts were quickly rewarded: the view was breathtaking. I cycled out across the dam. On one side was a deep-blue lake which was, well, dammed, and the other side was a spectacular pine ravine (see above).

Wow. Wow. WOW.

I was still completely alone, but that's what I said -- out loud.

In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due:

"...yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."

- Robert Frost, "The Road Not Taken"

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Getting my Zen on...


I was up with the sun -- and the Zen Buddhist monks -- this morning.

My alarm went off at 5 a.m. and I was out the door 30 minutes later, zipping through rice paddies and along pine-lined mountain roads, taking in the sunrise from my little car. My destination was Eihei-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple and training center for new monks that's nestled in the mountains right outside of Fukui City. It's one of only two training centers in the world for the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism.

My apartment is only about 30 minutes from Eihei-ji, but I've never properly visited the place (just once, really quickly, on a rainy day with my host mom). It's kind of like how I lived in Chicago for five years, but never made my way up to the Signature Room in the John Hancock. Sometimes, when things are so close, you take them for granted.

But I couldn't let the chance to visit Eihei-ji pass me by.

I'd called the folks at Eihei-ji a couple of weeks ago to inquire about organizing an overnight stay at the temple -- the monks occasionally allow the secular-but-curious public to experience "A Day in the Life" of a Zen Buddhist monk. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons (most of them probably stemming from my poor Japanese phone skills), the temple couldn't accommodate my visit. I was beyond disappointed, knowing that, as my time in Japan is coming to a close, I'd likely never have the chance to visit Eihei-ji again.

Bummer.

But a kind monk named Kuroyanagi took pity on me and offered to personally guide me through the temple and accompany me to the monks' morning services. やった!!

The only trick was that I'd have to meet him at 6 a.m.

Now, those that know me best know that I'm not a morning person. I really don't function before I've had my caffeine fix in the morning. So, to get up at 5 a.m. took some sacrifice -- and some very un-Zen guzzling of Diet Coke during my drive to the temple. But the monks at the temple are up at 3 a.m. every morning, so I really had no room to complain.

My early morning start (and the extreme post-lunch sleepiness that I experienced at school later in the day) were well worth it. Kuroyanagi proved to be an excellent host, chatting with me in perfect English about the temple, the morning service that I'd be observing later in the day, and slightly more secular topics, such as his travels to Los Angeles and his affinity for Disneyland. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: we are all more alike than we are different.

We wound our way through the halls of the temple, where robe-clad monks bowed as they hurried past us. Kuroyanagi took me to a large prayer room, where I sat on a tatami mat on the sidelines, taking in the spectacle that was the morning service. Words really can't do it justice, but I'll attempt to illustrate the scene: 100 monks chanted in unison from kanji-filled prayer books as they circled the room in single-file lines. A deep drum kept the pace. Incense filled the room, which was lit only by candles and the early-morning sun. Perhaps it was my sleepy state, but I was mesmerized, almost hypnotized, by the sound and smell. The experience was dream-like -- even as I type this, I can't recall particulars -- and before I knew it, an hour had passed. A monk motioned for me to stand, pray, and burn incense as part of the close of the service.

Energized by the experience, I hustled off to school, where I taught some very enlightened morning classes. Unfortunately, I hit a brick wall after lunch and sleepily snuck out of school over lunch recess in search of more Diet Coke. Very un-Zen.

Perhaps I'll be better able to process my Eihei-ji experience after I've slept on it, but suffice to say I'm glad I had it. 'Twas ichi-go, ichi-e, as the saying goes.

Thanks, Kuroyanagi.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Ink Stains

Yup, those are my feet, in their nasty, running-induced callused glory.

And, yup, that's a bit of ink on the left one. The kanji read "ichi-go, ichi-e," which roughly translates to "one life, one chance." You might recall how I came to learn these particular kanji at 3 a.m. in an airport waiting room in December. If you don't, the story's here.

I've been thinking about getting the tattoo for a while, since that night in the airport. And now that my time here in Japan is coming to an end, I thought it would be a great way to carry this experience, which has involved many once-in-a-life-time things, with me.

But, of course, even something as seemingly straightforward as getting a tattoo becomes not-so-straightforward when you're a gaijin gal doing it in Japan.

First, there's the stigma. Your average Japanese person is not a fan of tattoos because of their association with the yakuza (the Japanese mob). Members of the yakuza traditionally sport full-body tattoos called irezumi, which are "hand-poked" with bamboo needles. The process is long and painful, and the designs are intricate and symbolic. Those guys are tough. Because of their yakuza ties, tattoos -- and the people they're on -- are often forbidden at hotels and bath houses and public swimming pools. That's all tattoos, even if it's as non-yakuza-looking as, say, a tiny Tweety Bird on your shoulder or, ahem, a Zen Buddhist saying on your foot.

Unless I figure out a way to cover the kanji, it looks like my time days of swimming laps at the Maruoka pool have come to an end. And there will be no wearing of cute sandals at school this summer, lest my students think that their English teacher has joined the mafia underworld.

Second, there's the actual process of finding an artist and getting an appointment. Back home, you could cruise through certain neighborhoods after the sun goes down, walk into any shop on a whim, pick your flash off the wall, and walk out the door with your shiny new tattoo. Done and done.

But here in Japan, it ain't that easy, folks. You have to gain the trust of an artist before (s)he'll tat you. Luckily, a friend was able to introduce me to a lovely guy who did a fantastic job, but I've heard stories of less fortunate folks who have had to wait months -- even years -- before an artist would agree to work on them.

Third, there's the letting go of the Western "customer is always right" mentality. That's definitely not the case here. In Japan, the artist is always right. That means that when I walked into the tattoo shop a few weeks ago and asked for an appointment on my birthday, I had smile and accept the firm "no" I received from the artist (for future reference, the Japanese think birthday tattoos are bad luck). I also had to muster a cheerful "wakarimashita" (OK) when the artist refused to tattoo my wrist (my original choice) and decided where, exactly, the design would be placed on my foot.

With regards to that last point, it was kind of nice to relinquish control and let the artist do his thing. It's fitting, actually: my year in Japan has been a big exercise in letting go. Upon joining JET, I had no control over where I'd be placed to work (I wound up in the middle of a rice paddy in Fukui, of all places). I couldn't control who my friends would be when I got here (turns out I did pretty well -- a group of fellow JET pals presented me with an envelope of cash they'd collected in honor of my birthday, saying it was to help pay for the tattoo). And I've lost count of the number of times that, due to the language barrier, I've had to step aside and let others make decisions for me (try signing up for cellular service when you don't know the language -- the only choice I got to make was the color of my keitai phone). It was a big adjustment for a previously-independent gal who was used to making choices for herself.

But in the end, my year in Japan has been a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

And, in the end, I think my one-in-a-lifetime tattoo turned out pretty fantastic, too.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes...

I can't tell you when, exactly, I changed.

I can't tell you when I stopped missing my old life in Chicago -- a lovely little life that included readily available Mexican food, size 8 high heels, the various smells of the CTA, and the unincumbered use of the English language -- and started realizing that I had built a new, different kind of life here.

I can't tell you when the people here -- especially my fellow Fukui JETs, folks that came from all corners of the world -- stopped feeling like random strangers and started feeling like family.

I can't tell you when I stopped feeling like half a person -- one who could barely communicate, could barely pump her own gas or buy her own groceries, one who couldn't even eat fruit correctly -- and started feeling completely alive.

(The picture above, taken by my dear friend "S" on a perfect, puffy-white-clouds-in-the-blue-sky kind of day at the Tojinbo cliffs earlier this month, is my best attempt at illustrating what "feeling completely alive" might actually look like. Kind of like the "I'm king of the world!" scene from Titanic. You get the idea.)

I'm not quite sure when it happened, but at some point, this random, rural corner of Japan started to feel like home. The rice paddies. The mountains. Vending machines in the middle of fields. Swerving to avoid bicycle-riding octogenarians weaving in the road. The beeping sound my little car makes when I put it into reverse. The 30-year-old washing machine on my front porch. The stares at the grocery store. Everybody in my business. My local celebrity status. The excessive use of gesturing when attempting to communicate.

I can't tell you when all of this stopped feeling so difficult and strange and started to feel comfortable and, well, normal.

I can, however, tell you exactly when I realized that the change had occurred: it was this week, when I booked my one-way e-ticket to fly back to Chicago. As I pushed the "confirm purchase" button, I felt a strange churning in the pit of my stomach, similar to that slow, sinking feeling you used to get as a kid towards the end of summer vacation.

The party is almost over. The real world awaits.

A wise man named Confucius once said, "When a person feels happiest, he will inevitably feel sad at the same time." Big C speaks the truth: just as I am at the top of my proverbial game here in Japan, my enthusiasm is tempered by the fact that my time here is limited.

I have only eight weeks left in Japan. That's only eight more Saturdays for long runs through the rice paddies. Only eight more Fridays for laid-back, laughter-filled morning classes at school. Only eight more Wednesdays for taiko drumming and yoga classes. Only eight more weekends for random adventures and waking up in strange hostels in strange Japanese cities.

Time to live it up.

Ch-ch-ch-changes. It's official: the urbanity-loving, anonymity-craving, sarcasm-spewing Chicagoan has changed and now officially embraces the Japanese inaka.

And she will miss it terribly.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Like Schoolgirls...

J, my buddy from Chicago, left Japan yesterday, bringing an end to a whirlwind 10 days of hosting and traveling. Our adventures were too random and too numerous to post individually, so instead I'll try to synthesize the experience with one word: laughter. Maybe it was the emotional exhaustion induced by visiting the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, or the fact that we spent two solid days temple hopping in the pouring rain in Kyoto, or perhaps it was that we both spent obscene amounts of money paying for Shinkansen train tickets (me) and highly-addictive Starbucks Green Tea Frappucinos (him), but we took the high road in the laugh-or-cry paradox: J and I spent the vast majority of our 4-cities-in-10-days Japanese excursion giggling.

Like schoolgirls.

(See picture above for an illustration of said schoolgirls, taken at Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Temple in Kyoto. These gals peppered us with questions in rapid-fire Japanese while we were visiting the site, which, of course, also induced fits of laughter.)

Granted, most of our adventures were funny in a maybe-you-had-to-be-there sort of way. Like when we both failed to find the deeper meaning in a Zen rock garden called Ryoan-ji in Kyoto, and instead took stupid pictures with potato chips and caught dirty looks from our fellow garden-goers. Or when we ended up in a literally nameless hole-in-the-wall Hiroshima bar with four seats, being served by an already-drunk, Pantera-loving bartender and his four random friends. Or the fact that all of the pictures from the should-be-somber A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima feature me wearing a ridiculous sweatshirt with the words "Chant a Spell: Do-Vi-Do-Vi-Do" written on the front. I bought it for 800 yen at a second-hand shop in town.

Again. Maybe you had to be there.

J and I spent our last afternoon drinking coffee on the island of Miyajima, watching the sun set over a bright orange tori gate set out in the deep blue bay. We laughed and reminisced about our random experiences together -- and lingered a bit too long on the island. We were late getting to the eki to catch the trains to our next stops -- Tokyo for him to fly back to Chicago and Fukui for me to return to work. J got stuck in Osaka overnight, and I rolled into Fukui at 2:15 a.m., only to be up four hours later to teach a full day at school. Oops.

Missed trains? Gotta either laugh or cry. We, of course, chose the former.

Hiroshima


Manhattan was a project
That projected the worst of mankind
First one and then the other
Has made its mark on my mind

It's sixty years later near the hypocenter of the A-bomb
I'm standing in the middle of Hiroshima
Watching a twisted old eucalyptus tree wave
One of the very few lives that survived and lives on
Remembering the day it was suddenly thousands of degrees
In the shade

And what all of nature gave birth to
Terror took in a blinding raid
With the kind of pain
It would take cancer so many years just to say

~ Ani DiFranco, "Reprieve"

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Deflated Mousse, Deflated Ego

I worked in PR before I came to Japan.

I spent five long years as a "spin doctor," pitching media stories on Harley Davidson (even though I've never set foot on a bike), on sausage (even though I don't eat it), and, in a seemingly strange juxtaposition to the sausage gig, on heart disease (even though I'm not a cardiologist).

I thought I could sell anything to anyone. But turns out I was wrong.

My first failed sale came last Thursday at a dinner party being thrown in honor of J, my friend from Chicago who was hanging out here in Japan until today. The party was organized by the crew from my Thursday night English class, that crazy fun group of adults who have been responsible for my consumption of shirako and other strange foods during my time here in Fukui.

It was my night to teach class, but because J was in town, the gang agreed to practicing English over dinner instead of in the community center. We organized a potluck at my co-teacher's extra-large apartment, with the students agreeing to bring all sorts of Japanese goodies: fresh sashimi for build-your-own sushi, locally-brewed sake, and assorted Japanese salads and side dishes. In return, they simply asked that I prepare an "American" dessert for everyone to try.

The request was seemingly reasonable enough. In most instances, one might bake some brownies. Maybe a small cake or an oh-so-American apple pie. But this is Japan. I don't have an oven in my apartment. All of the ingredients that I need are in hard-to-read kanji-covered packages. And, to make matters worse, I don't even know how to cook.

Yikes.

C, my co-teacher -- and also a friend, fellow JET, and accomplished cook -- suggested that I tackle chocolate mousse (a dessert borrowed from the French, but hey, close enough...), and graciously sent me a recipe that required only basic ingredients and no oven. He even offered up his kitchen, saying that I could come over early to make it before the guests arrived. It sounded like a fail-proof plan.

With J in tow, I trekked over to the grocery store, and, armed with the kanji dictionary on my cell phone, carefully purchased unsalted butter, semi-sweet chocolate, sugar and eggs for the mousse. I went to C's apartment, reviewed the recipe, and then set to work, painstakingly following each direction step by step. I mixed the mousse, finishing just as the last guests arrived, and confidently set it in C's refrigerator to cool as we ate dinner.

As dinner finished, I swaggered over to the fridge, ready to impress my Japanese friends with my delicious chocolate creation. I pulled open the door, spotted the bowl on the bottom shelf, lifted it up, and...

To my horror, the mousse was still completely liquid, too runny to even pass for pudding. There was no way I could serve this. I ran through possible solutions in my head. Could I sneak out to buy dessert at a grocery store? Did C possibly have a stash of Oreos in his apartment somewhere? Should I just apologize and admit my failure as a cook?

I was ready to resign myself to the last option when C walked into the kitchen.

"How'd it turn out?" he asked.

"Uh. Umm. Errr. It's a little runny," I stammered.

C peered into the bowl and laughed.

"They've never had chocolate mousse before. You could just tell them it's supposed to be that way."

We argued back and forth. There was absolutely NO way that I could serve this mousse, I said. I was mortified. But C didn't listen. He pulled some fancy wine glasses off his shelf. He used a ladle to pour the would-be mousse. And then he marched into the dining room and announced that my dessert was ready.

I wanted to die.

My students/party guests enthusiastically passed around the glasses of mystery liquid. When J received his, he shot me a "what-the-hell-happened-to-this?" kind of look, which I returned with a "keep-your-mouth-shut-if-you-want-to-be-friends-after-this" glare.

C raised his glass, explained in Japanese that this was a special kind of American chocolate beverage, and then proposed a toast to ME as he lead our students in actually drinking the mousse. My face was burning as I shook my head back and forth, attempting to avoid both crying or laughing out loud. I composed myself long enough to snap the picture of the kanpai above.

Surprisingly, the liquid mousse was a hit. My students guzzled it down. Even J and C, the two Americans who knew better, drank away. I took a sip. It didn't actually taste that bad. I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that I might have actually gotten away with it all.

But after dessert, as we were cleaning up, I overheard one of our female students asking C, in Japanese, why the chocolate wasn't thicker. She wasn't convinced. She was my failed sale.

C had my back, though.

"My refrigerator hasn't been working so well lately," he explained.

Thanks, C.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

どこですか??




どこですか ("doko desu ka") is Japanese for "where is...?"

I used this expression approximately 436 times during the four Golden Week holidays I spent in Tokyo, a city with 12 million people, endless streets of neon lights and a confusing subway system with route maps written almost entirely in kanji. That's, どこですか, as in "where is the hostel?" "where is the subway?" and, of course, "where is my sanity?"

I hit up Tokyo with J, an dear old pal from Chicago who decided to jump over the Pacific to visit the city that inspired the movie "Lost in Translation" a couple of years back. Thus, it seems only fitting that "lost" was a recurring theme in our Tokyo adventure. J demonstrated endless patience and a wicked sense of humor as my crappy Japanese and lack of kanji-map-reading skills resulted in us wandering aimlessly in neon neighborhoods, back tracking on the Tokyo Metro, and stopping dozens of random strangers in the street to ask for directions.

Other things that were lost in Tokyo included the following:

Saturday: Approximately 16 hours of sleep. Despite J's jet lag and the fact that I'd been up since 5:30 a.m. on the bus from Fukui, we stayed out 'til the sun rose on Sunday morning. Our insomnia was due to the fact that check-in time at my "hotel" was 6 a.m. (that, and the fact that Tokyo's Shinjuku neighborhood has killer night life). While J got to sleep soundly in a private bed on a men's-only floor, I was relegated to an ad-hoc women's "lounge," where I had the privilege of paying 1,500 yen for a shower and 3,000 yen for a scrap of floor. In at 6 a.m., out by 11 a.m., y'all. Capsule hotels are the cheapest places to stay in fancy-pants Shinjuku, but most require a Y chromosome to get in. Thus, my chic-friendly options were limited. Nothing like paying $50 USD for a sleepover with hundreds of strange, snoring women...

Sunday: My sense of fashion. After much effort and "どこですか"s, J and I managed to find Tokyo's infamous Harajuku neighborhood, home to dozens of teenage fashion victims. Bright pink hair. Platform shoes. Applied-with-a-paint-gun makeup. Free hugs and free love flowing freely. Every Sunday, the Harajuku-ites take over a local park to parade around kind-of-cutting-edge-but-mostly-uber-bizarre fashion and pose for hordes of tourists. We got into the spirit of things by trying on some crazy shades, but still have nothing on the real thing (see pics above).

Monday: My respect for Japanese "rapid" transit. J and I trekked out to Nikko, a national park located about two hours outside of Tokyo. It's home to the three famous "Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil" monkeys, which are carved on the side of Tōshō-gū shrine, nestled in a misty pine forest on a mountain. Very atmospheric, but hella hard to get to. Our two-hour train turned into a six-hour round trip, complete with getting lost en route to the subway, on the subway, on our subway transfer to the train to Nikko, and on our way back to Tokyo. The monkeys, however, were lovely.

Tuesday: My appetite. We wandered around Tokyo's Tsukiji Metropolitan Fish Market, a place filled with all sorts of creepiness from under the sea. Everyday at 5 a.m., the market comes to life with folks auctioning off giant tunas to restaurants, the mob, and other assorted fish-lovers from across the city. A bit later, the rest of the market opens up, selling everything from sea urchins to tiny shrimp to still-alive crabs. When J and I stopped by, our first stop was to have The World's Freshest Sushi for breakfast. Delicious. Good thing we ate first thing, however, because walking through the rest of the place -- and seeing giant dead tuna heads poking out of blocks of ice, for example -- somehow made me lose my appetite for seafood. Eeew.

Given our adventures, it's not surprising that J, who spoke not a word of Japanese when he arrived in Tokyo, mastered どこですか after about 20 minutes of hanging out with me. But my rants about getting "lost" are, of course, tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes, getting lost is half the fun. J and I got to reflect on this phenomenon while seated at the New York Bar at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, 52 floors up in the sky. We looked down at Tokyo`s glistening, neon skyline as we sipped our respective 2,100 yen glasses of wine (reflection ain't cheap, folks).

It's only fitting that many of the scenes for "Lost in Translation" were filmed at this very bar. And it's only fitting that we got lost on our way there.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Caracoles

Caracol means "snail" in Spanish.

I've always liked the sound of the word, but found a new appreciation for it when I visited Chiapas, Mexico in 2006 and hung out with some Zapatista rebels for a couple of days. The Zapatistas live in autonomous communities called caracoles. The caracoles are named as such for lots of reasons, one being the fact that the Zapatistas move around a lot. Just like snails, they're self-sufficient enough to carry their homes on their backs -- both literally and figuratively.

So what does this all have to do with my blog on life in Japan?

I spent the weekend being inspired by caracoles of a slightly different kind -- the backpack-clad kind that are trekking the globe simply for the sake of trekking the globe. I've always liked the romantic, wanderlust-y notion of being able to live out of a backpack, being adaptable to enough to pick up and go when an opportunity for adventure presents itself.

(Disclaimer: At this point, I'm sure I'm raising a few eyebrows by drawing a comparison between backpackers on holiday and the indigenous people involved in the Zapatista movement. Those who know me best already know that I have the utmost respect and compassion for the latter, who are forced to move around constantly to escape government persecution. 'Nuf said.)

At any rate, I had a small taste of caracol-ness this past summer, when I was attempting to pack my life into two suitcases to move to Japan. There was something quite cathartic about giving away my furniture, selling my things on Craigslist, and donating bags of clothing. It was nice to get rid of all of that stuff, realizing that I could live a year with the few things I could cram (tightly) into two barely-meeting-airline-regulations-sized suitcases.

But, alas, I'm not much of a caracol after all: I have an apartment here in Japan. A place to hang my figurative hat. And I still have stuff. I'm a poser.

This weekend, I traveled to Osaka and met some folks who put my stabs at caracol-ity to shame. There was "L," an engineer who has a job that's 100 percent travel. She has no home -- just a P.O. box in Chicago -- but a passport full of stamps. There was "P," a Jamaican-Kiwi guy who's been circling the globe for four years with little more than a chess board, supporting himself by challenging people to games of chess in the streets. There was "I," an ex-exec's assistant from Australia, who was backpacking through Asia before heading to Serbia, where she was born, to reconnect with her roots.

Quite the motley crew. I swapped travel stories with these folks until the sun came up on Sunday. It was a fantastic evening/morning.

But perhaps caracol-ity is best embodied by "R." He's a Spanish guy who's been cycling across Asia for the past two years. Across New Zealand. Through Malaysia. Down Mt. Fuji in a snowstorm. That's a picture of his bike above -- and that's all the stuff he has to his name at the moment. Respect.

I met "R" back in Fukui, and, with some friends, joined him for a leg of his bicycle journey -- a 10-hour, 120-kilometer (75-mile) leg of his bicycle journey. The ride was exhausting, but the experience was incredible -- we wound our way through rice paddies, climbed mountains and coasted down to the Sea of Japan, where we cycled through the tiny fishing villages that dot the coastline. I rode past waterfalls, squid boats, and hunched-over octogenarians working in the rice fields. I tasted strawberry mochi and sea salt. And, lest the experience be too Norman-Rockwell-meets-Japan, I saw a woman hanging out with her random huge pet turtle in the road. (Really.)

All of this on a perfect 75-degree day with puffy white clouds in the sky. The pack on my back seemed almost weightless (though the pain shooting through my saddle-sore butt was very real!). Maybe it's fitting that カタツムリ (katatsumuri, or "snail") was one of the first words I learned in Japanese. I may get this caracol stuff down after all...

Monday, April 14, 2008

You say 'hanami,' I say 'hasami...'

Spring has sprung here in Fukui: my car's windshield is ice-free in the mornings (yippee!); I no longer see my breath indoors while walking through the hallways at school; and, perhaps most importantly, the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.

Happy, happy times.

The Japanese are serious about their sakura (cherry blossoms). This shouldn't come as a surprise: the Japanese are serious about nature in general. Remember my tale about the teacher who drove 7 hours to see fall leaves? Add to that dedication to nature the fact that the sakura blossoms last only a week or two, and you have an all-out sakura hysteria. The Japanese say that the brevity of the sakura is what makes them most beautiful.

Each year, the Japanese weather service issues a blossom forecast (桜前線) which shows when the sakura blossom "front" will start in the south of Japan (in late March) and move up to the northern parts (by early May). This forecast allows folks to plan hanami (flower viewing) parties, which involve packing a picnic, setting up a tarp under the blossoming trees, and drinking lots and lots and lots of sake.

On Friday, I went to school, proudly announcing to my colleagues that I would be doing "hasami" on Saturday. I felt so cool. I thought they'd be happy to learn that I was participating in something so Japanese. Instead, my little proclamation was met with stifled laughter and confused stares.

Hasami (with an 's') means 'scissors' in Japanese. Doh!

Turns out my hanami experience was as botched as my attempts to pronounce it. I had planned to meet two friends at the castle here in town, which, conveniently, is surrounded by cherry trees. Unfortunately, Saturday, in true Fukui fashion, turned out to be overcast and rainy. The raindrops pelted away some of the blossoms in the morning, leaving a soggy, cold mess at our designated afternoon hanami time. We met at the castle anyway, accepted a couple of beers from a few die-hard fellow hanami-ers, took a few half-hearted pictures (the picture above is actually from earlier last week, taken in Fukui City while I was walking to my car...), shivered for about 10 minutes, and then called it a day. Oh well.

So my hanami was as short-lived as the blossoms themselves. Hanami, hasami. Let's call the whole thing off.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Seoul & The Skin-Eating Fish



On my way back to Japan from Cambodia, I stopped in Seoul to catch up with two old pals: a friend from high school who I hadn't seen in eight years, and another buddy from my undergrad days, whom you might recall from my misadventures in Osaka in February. Both work as English teachers in Korea.

It was, of course, lovely to see my friends. We took Seoul by storm, visiting a centuries-old palace called Gyeonbok, climbing a mountain to view the city from Seoul Tower, taking in a healthy dose of America by drinking at a bar near the U.S. military base, checking out the Korea War Memorial Museum, strolling through markets and shopping districts, and dining on authentic Korean kim chi and bibimbap.

However, my most unforgettable Seoul experience came on Saturday night. In what will certainly go down as one of the Top Five Weirdest Experiences of my Life, I voluntarily stuck my feet in a pool of fish that eat dead skin.

Yes, you read that correctly.

I could launch into a list of obvious puns, about how I smoothed my soles in Seoul, or about how a nice pedicure is good for one's soul, but I think that this experience is weird enough to stand on its own, without the lame cliches.

The place was called the Doctor Fish Cafe, a lovely little coffee shop with a menu featuring creamy lattes and cute cakes - and, for 40,000 won ($4), the opportunity to stick your bare feet in a pool of sucker fish.

Is there no better way to bond with old friends?

The fish, as per my extensive research on Wikipedia, are called cyprinion macrostomusare and are imported from the Middle East. They eat dead skin. And they tickle like heck while they do it. So it's a good thing that this cafe also had beer on the menu -- a certain member of our party needed to consume several to take the edge off.

During our "treatment," I chatted with other patrons around the pool, trying to put the steady tingle of little fish lips out of my head. I concentrated on other things when the big fish -- fat from eating loads of dead skin -- attacked my pinky toes. And I tried not to be embarassed when the fish passed up my friends' comparatively-dainty feet to feast on my running-induced calluses. Gross but hilarious.

The post-treatement regiment included an aromatherapy soak in fish-free water (ostensibly to get rid of the fishy smell), coffee and beer at our table, and a piece of complementary cake.

Two days later, my feet are noticeably smoother. But I think I have a fish hickey on my big toe.

Smiles and Tears in Cambodia







In some ways, Cambodia reminded me of the United States. I used American dollars for all of my purchases, for example. Cars drove on the right side of the road. Lots of folks spoke flawless English.

Maybe I've been in Japan too long.

But I knew that I definitely wasn't in the United States -- or Japan for that matter -- when I woke up at 4:30 a.m. on my first morning. My alarm hadn't gone off early; instead, the folks in the home next to my guesthouse were blaring wedding music through rented loud speakers. I peered out the window to see a dozen or so people congregated in plastic chairs, eating breakfast as they shooed the chickens running through the dirt yard. In Cambodia, weddings last anywhere from three days to a week and are truly all-day affairs. The volume of your party music correlates directly with the amount of money you have (or are pretending to have). Talk about keeping up with the Joneses...

Other than the very early starts on multiple mornings, my spring break in Cambodia was an amazing experience. I sojourned to the town of Siem Reap to volunteer as an English teacher at Anjali, a locally-run NGO (the name means "divine offering" in Sanskrit) that provides schooling for street kids.

Working in a desperately poor country, Cambodian teachers make dismal salaries, forcing them to "tax" their students to supplement their incomes. While this "tax" is usually about 12 cents per day, it means that many struggling families can't afford to send their kids to school. Instead, these youngsters get sent out to work in the street, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Anjali is working to fix that by offering free classes -- and lots of love -- to these kids. As Siem Reap is located just footsteps from the Temples of Angkor, a world heritage site and major hub for tourism, Anjali tutors these kids in English, in hopes to help them score a legit job in the tourist industry when they get older. The kids -- all 80 of them -- were amazingly well-adjusted and eager to learn, despite their rough backgrounds.

As much as I loved my time at Anjali, I was able to play both volunteer and tourist in Cambodia. Already awake at 4:30 a.m., I set out for Angkor Wat at sunrise on my weekend off. Built in AD 800, Angkor Wat is the largest of the hundreds of temples at Siem Reap -- actually it's the largest religious structure in the world -- and is beyond breathtaking. I loved it so much that I returned at noon to photograph it again -- check out the postcard-ready shot of the temple with the three pine cone-esque spires.

You'd think that Angkor Wat would be hard to top, but Cambodia kept outdoing itself. After the Wat, I visited Bayon, a temple with 200 mysterious faces peering out of the jungle, and Ta Prohm, which also served as the set for Tomb Raider a few years back (see: temple crushed under tree roots, above). I covered the 17 kilometers between the temples in a tuk tuk on the back of a motorcycle -- with a fun-loving, Japanese-speaking driver named Heng -- and on the back of an elephant.

Pretty spectacular.

Other highlights included chatting up some Buddhist monks (and scoring a phone number -- turns out they're just normal guys!) at the Wat across the street from my guesthouse; meeting the founder of a land mine museum (a former child soldier of the Khmer Rouge, he planted the mines two decades ago, and now is working to deactivate them); speeding on the back of a motorcycle to check out a village floating on a lake; and dining on Cambodian stir fry with the locals for a buck in open-air street stalls.

Warning: buzz kill ahead. While I've posted smiling pictures and have painted a happy picture of my trip, I feel compelled to balance the sunshine with the truth. Mixed in with all of this fun was a sobering dose of reality. Cambodia's Khmer Rouge-induced civil war ended just over a decade ago, and the economy and people are still recovering. At the Temples, I'd meet tiny children hawking guidebooks who spoke multiple languages flawlessly (if I told them I was from the USA, their sales pitch was in English; my lie about being from Spain was met with a pitch in perfect Spanish; my Swedish friend got the pitch in Swedish; and I also heard them speak pretty darn good Japanese). Had these kids been born anywhere else, they'd be well on their way to going to university and leading comfortable lives. But in Cambodia, they have nowhere to go.

Sadly, even the the kids at Anjali weren't immune from begging: after dinner in town one evening, I was absolutely heartbroken when I saw two of "my" kids -- the same kids I'd taught and laughed with and hugged during the day -- selling postcards in the street. Though Anjali has a strict "no begging" policy, these kids' parents were HIV positive and unemployed, leaving the family little choice but to put the children to work at night. I bought the kids a hot dog and told them that seeing them on the street made me very sad, that they needed to go home, but I know that they're probably back out on the street as a type this, just one week later.

So I guess that's where my Cambodia-United States comparison ends. In the U.S., I'd like to think that driven, motivated kids would have options -- at the minimum, some small chance to break out of the cycle of poverty. In Cambodia, that's simply not the case right now. But perhaps my week in Siem Reap at least made a few disadvantaged kids smile.

All in all, it was an eclectic, unforgettable week -- both inspiring and sobering -- one that pictures and words really can't do justice to. Though I went to Cambodia to work as a teacher, I learned far more than I taught, and I'm thankful for the experience.