Saturday, November 16, 2013

2-Month Update

Osaka/Kobe Vacation—Day 1
The morning after the shrine festival, my alarm went off at 5:40. Despite the ungodly nature of this hour, the sun was shining and I was pumped to be heading off on my first vacation in Japan! Three other teachers and I were supposed to be meeting to take a 6:38 train, and we got separated before we even started when two of us met down by the subway line and the other two waited outside the station. Eventually we all got to Nagoya Station, a transportation mecca of subway, buses, overland trains, and taxis where we were meeting up with two more friends.

We caught our bus from Nagoya Station, and I’m not exaggerating when I say there were literally only three other people on that 3-hour ride to Osaka. This was nice because we were able to turn around in our seats, talk across the aisle, and take pictures without disturbing anyone. It was on this bus ride that I saw my first rice fields since arriving in Japan! We also passed through some lovely mountain scenery, though it was strange not seeing any fall colors even though it was the end of October.

We disembarked in Osaka and immediately got turned around looking for Tennoji Shrine, which was beautiful when we found it. In contrast to the smaller shrines I’d visited before, the grounds of Tennoji Shrine were extensive, housing multiple shrines, gardens, and even a couple lakes. Everything inside those gates was pristine and impossibly beautiful. I bought an O-mikuji, a small paper with a fortune inside, and it turned out to be a pretty subpar fortune! I tied it to a tree alongside many other strips of paper in the hopes that the bad luck would wait there rather than follow me.

We got equally turned around looking for someone’s favorite Osaka restaurant and, like the shrine, it turned out to be well worth the trek. It was located in a tourist area, one small, brightly decorated building in a sea of brightly-decorated buildings. Here, we had more fried things on sticks (yay, Japan!) and I got my first taste of Osaka’s specialty, Takoyaki.

Now, when I asked my high school and adult students what I should make sure to do in Osaka, there were two things that every single one of them said—take a picture with Glico (more on that later) and eat Takoyaki. Given that Takoyaki is made of fried dough balls (yum!) around pieces of octopus (erm…), I wasn’t sure how excited to be. It turned out to be delicious! In all fairness, the bites of Octopus were very small in comparison to the golf ball-sized dough balls, but I was still quite proud of myself for liking it so much.

After lunch (and clowning around in a photo booth), we stopped to check in to our ridiculously cheap hotel. Our hotel was in a slummy area—though not as slummy as I was expecting for $20 a night—but the hotel itself was decent. This stop was a bit out of our way, but my shoulders were killing me after carrying a shrine around the day before, and the others took pity on me and stopped so I could dump my backpack. I have nice friends!

After the hotel, we headed over to Dotonbori, which is basically the Times Square of Osaka. Among other things, we made sure to track down Glico, one of the many giant advertisements lining the street of Dotonbori. For reasons unknown to me, Glico is a famous tourist destination for photo ops, so we dutifully posed alongside dozens of others.

After walking around for a bit and shopping, the sun was starting to go down over the river that runs under Dotonbori. When we cut down a side street between two main thoroughfares, we ended up on a wide, surprisingly quiet riverside sidewalk. There was barely anyone on the sidewalk even though it was a block-long path joining two roaring tourist streets.

When we stopped for dinner, it was in a small, fairly nice restaurant that seemed out of place with its touristy surroundings. Here, I got to try Osaka’s other speciality, Okonomiyaki. My friends and I were seated at the bar, which in this restaurant meant we were right in front of a giant grill and got to watch the chef make our food. Basic Okonomiyaki is a pancake-like batter topped with vegetables or meat (I think it’s Japan’s answer to pizza). Though it has spread throughout Japan and diversified according to each region’s preference, it originated in Osaka. To me, it pretty much tasted like a giant Takoyaki, which is to say it was good!

Topped with a sweet kind of barbecue sauce, mayo, and bonito (dried fish flakes)

After dinner we put one of our friends back on a train to Nagoya, bought drinks and snacks for the night, and headed back to our hotel. The boys immediately changed into their hotel-provided yukatas (a cheap cotton version of a kimono that is basically a bathrobe) while we girls waited for the women’s turn in the hotel’s public baths. Of the three girls left in our group at this point, one was Japanese, one was half-Japanese, and one was me. The other two had both been in public baths many times before and, though the prospect of being naked in a giant bathtub with a bunch of other women was daunting to me, I persevered.

There were two other women present when we arrived at the baths—one Japanese and one foreign. The first room was your basic powder room, with mirrors, sinks, and baskets for us to leave our clothes after undressing. The main room was a big tiled room with a sauna in the corner, one giant raised bath (read: hot tub) on one side, and a row of sinks, stools, and mirrors on the other. We each took a stool and set about washing, shampooing, and rinsing the day’s dirt away.

Before getting into a Japanese bath, you first do all your cleaning with a portable shower head and a small hand towel outside the bath. Only after rinsing all your dirt down drains in the floor do you get into the bath to soak and steam until your fingers get prune-y. The other two women left shortly after my friends and I came in, so we were able to soak in the bath just the three of us. Though I initially felt awkward when we were getting undressed, that was quickly replaced by pure relaxation. After a full day of exploring (in my case, immediately following a full day of carrying a shrine through the streets), soaking in that bath was heavenly.

After the bath, we girls changed into our yukatas and crashed in the boys’ room, where we played cards and ate snacks until just after midnight. It was another long, exhausting, fantastic day.

Osaka/Kobe Vacation—Day 2 AKA The Day of Eating
Though the others in our group were up earlier, my roommate and I slept until about twenty minutes before the 10 am checkout. As the five of us were apparently the only people on our small floor, we had the run of the place while getting ready. 

After checkout, we hopped a train for the 40-minute ride to Kobe. I sat next to an adorable little girl who stared at us in either wonder or terror, depending on the moment. By the end of the ride, we were playing a game where she would look away when I smiled at her, then peek back out from around a pole or under her mom’s arm. It was so cute and such a great start to the day!

The first thing we did in Kobe was seek out some Kobe beef. The place we found was a lovely, rather fancy restaurant for which we wrinkled travelers were horribly underdressed. Each table had its own grill and a chef who came to cook right in front of us. We bought $30 meals, for which we were given rice, miso soup, salad, pickled vegetables, and sirloin steaks. While the accompanying dishes were good (I was a particularly big fan of the garnish of garlic chips), the meat overshadowed everything else. The steaks were so tender that the chef sliced through them like butter. It was easily the best steak I’ve ever had.

After a quick stop at an arcade where we did taiko drumming and played air hockey, we walked around looking for a dessert café so we could have tea. The specific café we were looking for eluded us, but we found a different place and stopped for quick desserts. Though the food was delicious, it didn’t have quite the fancy tea-and-crumpets atmosphere I was hoping for.

After dessert, we headed over to Kobe’s Chinatown, where we did a little window shopping and a lot of walking-around-buying-street-food-from-different-vendors. 

Bruce Lee--the hero of Chinatown

Frozen peaches shaved/blended into bize-size pieces of goodness
Later in the day, we spent a couple hours exploring (read: buying sweets and hitting sales in) a really beautiful strip of tourist shops not far from the train station. I bought omiyage (souvenirs) for one of my adult classes in which everyone is kind enough to bring their classmates gifts from trips. We were also able to have the posh tea we had been looking for earlier.

Stained glass panel in the street of the tourist shopping area

Our posh tea place
As it turned out, heading back to the station to go home was when the real adventure started. Because we took so long at tea and then had to find the lockers where we had left our bags that morning, we missed our train back to Osaka. Taking the later train gave us only minutes to make our bus transfer, which was somewhere at the opposite end of Osaka’s huge main station. Despite this distance and not knowing exactly where we were heading, we ran through the terminals and down the streets, trying to find our way as we went. Though our departure time came and went, we kept running, knocking through the city crowds with our bags, no doubt making a good name for foreigners everywhere. To my eternal shame, I gave up first, but the other two girls soon followed while the boys ran on ahead. Eventually, they too admitted defeat.

I was feeling a bit too sweaty and frazzled to take pictures at this point, which is a shame, because the streets of Osaka are beautiful at night. While trying to find a toilet (I’ve taken to calling them that, since the bathroom really is a separate room here), we stumbled upon our long lost bus terminal and ducked inside on the off chance there was a later bus back to Nagoya. There wasn’t, but the company very graciously offered us half our ticket money back for showing up.

With the clock ticking down to last train, no buses to be found, and one of our number having an early flight out of Nagoya the next morning, we again found ourselves rushing. As Osaka Station houses the convergence of multiple local trains, regional trains, and bus lines we barely found what we needed in time. We were all a bit sweaty and stinky from our earlier sprint, and the train was so packed we could barely move. I was dreading an hour and a half of standing on my aching feet; luckily, it cleared out enough after a few stops for us to sit down.

Though taking the train theoretically should have shaved an hour off our trip back, taking it at the last minute meant a lot of transfers between lines; accordingly, the two of our number with iPhones spent the two hours to Mayabara doing time crunches, figuring out exactly what connections we had to make in order to catch the last train back to our neighborhood. I was more than happy to let them do the heavy lifting. Despite every seat being full, the train was so silent that I could hear the quiet creak of the wheels at every stop. Thankfully, we made all of our connections and got home around midnight.

Vacation Close to Home
On Thursday (I spent Wednesday recovering), a friend took me a fruit and veg market in our area which shall henceforth be referred to as Heaven on Earth (though it’s basically Horrocks, finding cheap produce here was exciting beyond measure). While I was browsing the vegetables, a smiling woman who was somewhere between 50 and 200 years old grabbed my arm and started talking to me in rapid-fire Japanese. Despite my patented deer-in-the-headlights look, I think she assumed I understood, which was rather flattering. My friend translated that, among other things, the women thought my nose was very long and was jealous because hers was so short.

On Friday, I went with a couple friends to Atsuta Shrine, one of the most revered shrines in Japan. Located in a large section of forest right smack-dab in the middle of the city, it was beautiful in a whole different way than the other shrines I’ve seen. Though it was simpler in design, it was surrounded by a natural beauty that quickly made it my favorite place in Japan to date. For the first time since leaving home, I was completely surrounded by the smell of trees and earth and the sound of rippling water. Walking the winding trails behind the shrine, I actually forgot we were in the middle of the city until I saw a building through the trees. 

After the shrine, we went to Sakae, a major shopping district and what I would call the true downtown area of Nagoya. They took me to see the (outside of the) Nagoya Science Museum and the Nagoya Art Museum, the former of which I will likely go explore when the weather gets colder. Wandering around after the sun went down was even better, as it was the day after Halloween and crazy costumes were everywhere. The city was also beautifully lit at night, especially the Nagoya TV Tower and Oasis 21, a big tourist/event area that is difficult to describe. We eventually laid in the grass under Oasis 21, watching its illumination change colors and practicing fake laughs, thereby likely ruining the romance of all the couples sharing the park with us.

The next day, we went to Inuyama, a city not far from Nagoya, to see Inuyama Castle. Though I saw Osaka Castle from a distance, Inuyama is the first I’ve seen up close, and it was beautiful. Japanese castles are very different in design and execution from European castles, so much so that if I hadn’t done my research, I would have thought I was looking at an old manor house.

Though there are many reconstructions in Japan, Inuyama Castle has the distinction of being one of only a handful of original Japanese castles still standing. This means that the history is almost palpable as you walk around the creaky floorboards in your sock-feet, knowing that these are the very walls from which feudal lords were ruling some 250 years before America even existed. However, this also means that, despite year-round maintenance, being inside is a little terrifying. The steps between floors are steep and slippery, and the floors of every level sag and emit alarming cracking noises with every step. The catwalk, which is a little aisle clinging to the outside of the highest level, is essentially a narrow, slippery ledge (bear in mind, you’re in your sock feet) on which the only safety measure is a single, rickety wooden railing.

The next day, I went back to Nittaiji in Kakuozan for their Autumn festival. This, like the Kobo-san Festival, turned out to be a big flea market in the street, but it was interesting nonetheless. At one point, I stopped to look at a rack of clothing and the saleswoman—who was rather excited to see a foreigner—came over to talk to me. She told me the price in Japanese and said “Mitte-ne yukkuri,” which I was able to translate meant, “Look slowly.” It was so exciting to be able to figure out even those two words! After I bought something, she thanked me in both Japanese and English. I like to think she was having some language excitement on her end, too :)

Random sidebar: last weekend, I had my first experience at a Japanese bowling alley. Important things to know:
1. There was a row of bowling shoes dispensers. You push the button on the one for your size and it dispenses your shoes. Clever.
2. Bowling alley here doesn’t mean smoky, smelly room! There was a small booth in the back (about the size of two phone booths) for smokers to go and get their fix without leaving the room.

Back at Work
The first week back from vacation was also the week before the Eiken, a big English proficiency test, which made for a busy week. I only had a few students taking the Eiken, but that was more than enough. In their last classes before the test, I felt like I was sending my kids off to college! My junior high and high school kids said they don’t think they did well, but they say that about every test and it’s rarely true, so I’m feeling optimistic.

Yesterday was an especially exciting Eiken-day because I found out one of my favorite students passed! He’s quite a bit younger than most kids who take that level, which makes it even more impressive that he passed. I didn’t even know he was even taking the test, but I was so excited and proud when I heard the news!

I am now a few hours into my weekend after finishing my second week back at work. Despite the Eiken craziness, I’m surprised by how easy these last couple weeks have been. I’m getting used to working full time, and I’ve been getting better at managing my planning time, which allows me to have more time at home. More importantly, though, I’m getting used to being a teacher. I’m really getting to know my students and how they learn individually and, as a result, I have more confidence in my ability to teach them. It’s also becoming easier to remember, even in the challenging classes, that my students really are good kids and that I’m very fortunate to be here teaching them.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

7-Week Recap

As of writing this, I have been in Japan for exactly seven weeks, which seems impossible; I feel like I’ve been here forever. Since my last post, I’ve started doing a number of things:

1.  Taking Japanese lessons. My teacher is one of the Japanese staff members from the school, and I’m in a class with one other person. So far, it has mostly been review of things I studied on my own, but I need the practice!

2. Walking around my neighborhood. My favorite time is late at night, around 11 or midnight. The first night I was out for almost an hour and I just wanted to keep going and going and going. I live right near the very busy main road, but it’s strange how quickly it turns into quiet suburbs the moment you walk away from it. Even one block away feels like a completely different place.

I’ve said this before, but I love that I can safely walk around by myself after dark here. Even though I’m a giant fraidy-cat, on the first walk, I ended up alone on a dark street with a construction zone on one side and a swatch of forest on the other. I had only the faintest idea where I was, and it was great. To be fair, I live near a couple of the tallest buildings in the area, so there isn’t much chance of me getting lost, but I like fearlessly losing sight of those landmarks from time to time.

3. Ordering for myself in Japanese. My first order was in a karaoke room, ordering over the phone (linked to the kitchen) for a friend, and it went something like this: “Nama beeru, hitotsu, onegai shimasu. Eeju desu.” (One Nama beer, please. That’s all). It was irrationally exciting! I’ve ordered for myself since then, either telling the server what I want or—when I can’t read the menu—pointing and saying please.

4. Treating typhoons with indifference. There have been at least four since I’ve been here. I don’t know if it’s because typhoons happen so often here or if they generally aren’t very destructive, but no one (including me) cares when a typhoon hits. There was one a few weeks ago that howled a deep, throaty howl all night, and it was bizarre to open my eyes in the morning to find that howling wind accompanied by blue skies and sunshine.

5. Becoming (slightly) more self-sufficient. Aside from being able to order my own food and navigate the subway alone, I’ve gotten better at working around not reading or speaking much Japanese. The day after I got my Japanese phone, I figured out what charger I needed without being able to read the packaging and bought one. The next day, I was able to guess my way through the Japanese-only voicemail system and check my messages. I’ve learned to treat these little things as big victories.

6. Adopting Japanese habits. I find myself automatically gravitating to the left side of staircases and sidewalks now instead of the right. By day two of being sick last week, wearing a medical mask around felt as natural as breathing. I sometimes use chopsticks even at home. Instead of a napkin, I reach for a moist towelette before and during meals.


A few weeks ago, I had a birthday. It was easier than I expected to be away from home for that, probably because it was an insanely busy day. My birthday was on a Saturday, which is my early day at work. When saying our birthdays during greetings, a couple of my elementary students recognized the date and wished me happy birthday, which was very sweet. My afternoon break was spent getting my Japanese phone, which ended up taking more than two hours. We had to leave before it was done because I had an evening class to teach, and I ran back into the school with less than five minutes to get things around for my five kindergarteners.

After work, my coworkers gave me a birthday card and a few of us went out to karaoke. We called it an early night because we were supposed to have a school event the next morning, but it was still a very good day and night. Bonus language skills: I told a woman in the bathroom, in Japanese, that her shoes were cute. In an elementary class the next week, one of the girls noticed I was a year older when we were saying our ages, asked in Japanese if I had had a birthday, and then wished me happy birthday in English. I was so proud of her for noticing and knowing how to say happy birthday in English, and I was equally proud of me for understanding her Japanese!

A few weeks ago, I attended the Kobo-san festival in Kakuozan and visited my first temple. This is a monthly festival held in honor of a famous monk named Kobo-Daishi, who founded the Shingon sect of Buddhism. (He is also credited with the invention of the Kana, one of the main components of written Japanese.) The entire road leading up to the shrine was closed to traffic and lined with booths selling everything from greasy street food to fresh produce to jewelry to knitting supplies. I’ve heard it described as a giant flea market, and that’s essentially what it felt like. Despite there being hundreds of people there, I was the only foreigner in sight.

The temple yard looked impressive to my virgin eyes (though I have since seen enough others to know it was fairly small), but inside the Hondo (the main temple) was what took my breath away. It had an atmosphere all its own—quiet and cool despite the heat of the day, filled with chanting and drum beats and history. Everything inside was incredibly ornate, rich, and beautiful; you could sense the care put into every minute detail. I stood and just absorbed for quite a while, watching people toss coins into the offering box and pray. Quite a few monks came out while I was waiting, and I lingered for a long time to see if something was going to happen, but it never did. Later, I found out I left just before the monks started chanting sutras.

Last Sunday, I participated in the Katayama-Hachiman Jinja Grand Festival. Riding the crowded subway there, I was near three young boys who were very awed by my foreignness. One of them said hello to me—in English—and was quite proud of himself. Another one kept talking to me in Japanese. I told him—in Japanese—that I didn’t understand, but he kept trying. They were very cute, and their excitement at seeing me set the tone for the day.

At the festival, I met up with some international students from Nagoya University, and the six of us were the only foreigners in the 200-some festival participants. This was a shrine festival (Jinja means shrine) in which we carried two VERY heavy shrines—one for men, one for women—through the streets all afternoon. For this, we wore special festival jackets, pants, shoes, belts, and bandanas. Even getting dressed for this was a challenge—the pants were a strange wrap-pant/diaper combination that—happily!—many of the other women struggled with, too. Some of the men dressed more traditionally and wore a festival jacket and no pants! Secretly, I think it was because they couldn’t get them on ;)

When everyone was dressed and fed, we lined up and the festival started with a Shinto ritual. I was near the back and couldn’t see much, but I followed everyone else’s lead in removing my bandana, bowing, and clapping.

When we foreigners lined up for a picture, you would have thought we were movie stars. Cameras just appeared out of thin air! It probably didn’t help that two of the guys were VERY foreign (one was about 6’5 with crazy hippie hair, the other from West Africa, so his skin was very dark), and we drew attention every time we moved. After the Shinto ritual, one of the head honchos who had just spoken spotted me in the crowd and came to talk to me. He asked where I was from and if I was interested in Japanese culture. It was very nice but strange insofar as he completely ignored the other foreign girl standing with me. Even more strangely, this became the trend for the day in which people would come up and ask me typical foreigner questions while my friend was ignored. The only thing we could figure was that because she is from El Salvador and her coloring is a bit darker, she wasn’t as noticeably different as I was with my pale skin and blue eyes. Saying, “Claudia isn’t foreign enough” amongst ourselves became the day’s running joke.

Shortly after the ritual finished, we picked up the shrines and headed out. Both shrines had about twice as many carriers as necessary (so we could trade on and off), and I carried a very light sawhorse for the first leg. I was fine when we stopped for our first break about 15 minutes later, but the women who had carried the shrine were ready to collapse. When I took my turn carrying on the second leg, I found out why.

The problem with carrying things on poles like this is that the weight is unequally borne mostly by the tallest laborers. The shrine started off heavy in a challenging but bearable way but, as shorter girls subbed in and the ground tilted one way or another, a huge amount of the weight fell on me and the other foreign girl, as we were the tallest ones on our side. I have no frame of reference for how much weight I was holding; at one point, even breathing was a challenge. I barely lasted the 10-15 minutes to the next stop, but I felt so accomplished when I did! Though I theoretically wasn’t supposed to carry on the next leg, a girl dropped out and I got drafted in. I can only guess that our chant of “Oisa” translates to “Spinal compression.”

About 5 seconds after lifting it for the first time--we're smiling because the weight hasn't hit us yet!
At the halfway point, we took a long break and ate udon (noodle soup) while a dance troupe performed. I was exhausted by this point, but some of the others had enough energy to join in with the dance troupe and jump around. While eating with the other foreigners, I was quite embarrassed to find out that they all spoke at least three languages fluently (except for one slacker who only spoke two). I felt so inadequate! It’s also worth noting that, after plying us with free drinks at every stop and no food until lunch, parts of the day were marked by drunk, half-naked men carrying an immensely heavy and (presumably) expensive shrine. Only in Japan.

In the second half of the day, exhausted girls started dropping like flies. By the time we hit our last leg, as we carried our shrine through the dark streets, our four lines were on a constant rotation—the front girl would tap out, the line would shift forward, the new front girl would tap out a minute later, and the line would shift forward again. I don’t know how many times I jumped in the back of the line, shifted up to the front, got sent out for a rest, and got drafted back in. The temple guides who had been with us all day, guiding and encouraging and keeping a beat with a whistle blows, became bonafide cheerleaders. Our constant chant of “Oisa” became a mantra that fueled us and pushed our exhausted bodies to carry us back to the temple where crowds of people waited for the end of the festival.

Standing in front of the temple, rocking back and forth with our shrine and yelling our chant as if our volume was holding us up—it was the best kind of exhaustion. The feeling of camaraderie in that dark yard, the only lights from the temple, all of us sweaty and aching and a couple inches shorter than before… we were a team who had climbed a mountain together. Even though I could barely raise my arms the next day, it was amazing and worth every exhausting, painful, sun-blinded moment.

Overall Reflections
It has been a crazy, busy, exhausting, fun few weeks. Outside of work, I’ve been attending and enjoying cultural events. At work, I’m still getting used to being a teacher, and with that comes normal teacher frustrations. Right now, I’m struggling with a couple classes in which one or two kids who don’t want to be there try to ruin it for everyone; it’s very unfair to the other kids to have to limit what we can do because of those few, and that frustrates me. For the most part, though, my students are great, and I keep reminding myself that I’m very lucky to have them.

Writing this, I’m coming off a week-long break from school, during which I had many more adventures. A breakdown of those will be coming soon!