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.

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