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


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.


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.


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 ("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.