Monday, June 23, 2014

8- and 9-Month Recap

The biggest news of the 8-and 9-month update is that my family visited for Golden Week! A friend drove me to the airport (thanks, Minori!) to get them right after work on a Saturday night. The trip from Grand Rapids to Nagoya is brutal, taking about 18-20 straight hours of travelling, and they were so tired they barely made it back to the apartment. Of course, thanks to the wonder of jet lag, I woke up at 6am the next day to find them eating Goldfish and Snickers in my bed. That first day was mostly a recovery day for them, so I just showed them the mundane everyday places around my neighborhood—they can now say they’ve seen a Japanese Wal*Mart—and introduced them to Japanese-style curry. For dinner, I took them to a Chinese restaurant that is practically my second home for gyoza (potstickers), ninikuchahan (garlic fried rice), and tontonmen (a kind of thick, spicy ramen).

I had planned to take them into the mountains to a beautiful sightseeing spot on Monday, but it rained and we decided not to go. After showing them around my school, my boss took us out for okonomiyaki (a kind of giant Japanese pancake loaded with veggies, meat, and pretty much anything else you can dream up). We were seated around a giant griddle and opted to cook our own (read: I made them try). I had had it before, but my mom and sister got to try it for the first time and liked it. The jet lag was hitting them hard again by the time we finished lunch and, after a nap break that went a bit long, we ended up just spending the evening around Midori. I took them to a secondhand store I enjoy and, because they were too tired for the karaoke plans we had with some friends, I introduced them to the wonder of conbini (convenience store) crunchy chicken.

On Tuesday, we hopped on the train (for the first time!) to do some actual sightseeing. The train ride to Inuyama is over an hour from Midori, but it was well worth it to show them one of the few original castles left in Japan. As a bonus, there were still some sakura lingering on the trees in the castle yard! On the way back to Midori, we stopped in Sakae and had tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) in the station.

Wednesday was supposed to be a very long, very busy sightseeing daytrip to Kyoto. Originally, we had planned to take a very early bus to Kyoto, sightsee all day, and then take a night bus back. By the time we hit Tuesday evening, we were all willing to shell out extra money for the Shinkansen (bullet train). I had actually never ridden the Shinkansen before either, and now I never want to travel any other way! Though it was expensive (about $60 each way, compared with $40 roundtrip on the bus), it was quiet, comfortable, relaxing, and oh-so-speedy. Upon reaching Kyoto, we set off to our first destination on foot, realized the city was big, and caught the subway back to Kyoto Station to have lunch (mom tried omurice!) and regroup.

Because I had never been to Kyoto before, I wasn’t much help in figuring out the best way to get around. We ended up buying all-day subway/bus passes, but it took so long to get everywhere that we weren’t able to do a lot (in terms of which city has subway stops near major sightseeing spots, Nagoya: 1, Kyoto: 0). We finally made it to Kinkakuji Temple, one of the most recognizable places in Japan for obvious reasons:

It was rather late in the afternoon by the time we hit a couple smaller temples and made it to Higashiyama, a preserved Samurai district in downtown Kyoto. It was really interesting to stroll around the cobblestone streets and literally walk through history, and I’m glad we made that spot a priority.

Getting back to Nagoya was a debacle from start to finish. The bus station map was all in Japanese, so we took a very long trek to the nearest subway station rather than risk it. The train lines at that station wouldn’t take our passes, so we finally boarded a different, very hot and slow-moving bus, not at all sure it was headed in the right direction (thankfully, it was). We got back on the Shinkansen and to Nagoya Station without incident, then somehow found ourselves still inside the train platform after scanning our tickets to get out and walking through some turnstiles. I got stuck with trying to explain that to the ticket man in Japanese and got as far as “we came from Kyoto, Sakura-dori” before tapping out. He finally took pity on us and let us through in spite of my abysmal attempts at telling him why he should.

On Thursday, we finally made it to sushi! I gorged on raw salmon while my family enjoyed vegetable rolls, karaage (fried chicken), and shrimp tempura (breaded and fried shrimp). I got them to try takoyaki (octopus bites in fried dough), but they both drew the line at anything raw. Next year… When we were finishing our meal, one of the staffers came over to chat with us. She asked about us and told us we were beautiful and that our mom couldn’t possibly be old enough to be our mom. For my part, it was a relief just to have a conversation that I (mostly) understood.

We souvenir shopped for most of Thursday, then took a quick taiko drumming break before hitting a Denny’s-like family restaurant for dinner (my sister was jonesing for American food). My mom took a video of me ordering in Japanese to show my grandparents. I'm sure they're very proud of my ability to say "tomato sauce spaghetti" with a Japanese accent.

On Friday, a good friend took over the host responsibilities and gave us an in-depth tour of Atsuta, one of the most important Shinto shrines in the world. It wasn’t as jaw-droppingly beautiful as I remembered, but it was still nice to get away from the city and escape into the woods for a while. We stopped by the tea house in Atsuta to drink matcha (green tea’s older, cooler brother), eat omochi (a chewy sweet made from sweet rice flour), and throw food to the koi fish in the tea house’s pond.  We visited Shirotori Garden, a lovely Japanese garden, and then had a lunch of udon (wide, flat noodles in broth). After that, we went to the Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium. We got there just in time for orca training, which reminded me of Seaworld, then wandered around for a while until it was time for the live dolphin performance in an outdoor arena. It was really cool! The dolphins were really well-trained and put on a great show.

We hit a big mall for souvenir shopping after the aquarium and then ate shabu shabu (double-sided Japanese fondue with vegetables, noodles, dumplings, and strips of meat sliced even more thinly that bacon). In one side of our divided pot, we decided to have sukiyaki, a traditional Japanese soup/stew with a base of soy sauce, sugar, and mirin (a kind of rice wine that’s used a LOT as a condiment here). I’d actually never had sukiyaki before either, and it was so good! Traditionally, you dip everything that comes out of that pot in raw beaten egg before eating, but my family wasn’t brave enough to try that. I did and instantly fell more in love with Japanese food.

Because my sister loves zoos and we’d been planning to visit one together for ages, we went to the Higashiyama Zoo on Saturday morning. It was both a weekend AND a holiday, and the place was PACKED. While we were queuing up for tickets, we ran into one of my students! He’s the youngest student I have—a very sweet 3-year old—and because I’d only had him for two classes before vacation, he didn’t really recognize me. His mother brought him over and said hello, though, and it was nice that my family got to meet at least one of my students.

Once we got inside, the zoo was a bit of a disappointment. Aside from being packed with people on an already hot day, it was a bit depressing. The cages were quite small and the animals looked even more sad and bored than the ones in zoos in Michigan. My sister was hoping for some unusual animals, but it was pretty much the standard fare. A little disheartened and worried we’d miss our next stop, we left after only a short time.

Luckily, our next stop at Nagoya Castle was better. An old man spotted us as we were getting off the train and was very insistent on showing us the way to the castle. He tried to talk to us as we walked, but he spoke very quick Japanese and I didn’t get most of it. When we got inside the castle grounds, we found him waiting for us next to an English-speaking guide. Though we had planned to show ourselves around, our guide was very nice and enthusiastic about the castle, and it was nice to be told some of the history that we couldn’t read off the signs.

Our first stop was seeing the Omotenashi Bushotai (samurai greeters) perform. This is a group of six men who portray important samurai from Japanese history—three great leaders and unifiers, three great soldiers. As it turned out, their performance was more for kids than adults—in a lot of ways, it reminded me of the renaissance faire—but it was still fun to watch. Standing around afterward, we accidentally found ourselves in line to take a photo with Maeda Keiji, who welcomed us in English and wished us a good day. Keiji is perhaps the least important of the six but is clearly the most photogenic.

The real Nagoya Castle was destroyed by American firebombing during World War II, and the reconstruction of it is largely a museum. Reading over the castle’s history and looking at old photographs of it ablaze was very uncomfortable for me. Even though everyone was perfectly nice, I felt like I shouldn’t be there, that it was wrong for me to share in this history that my countrymen had destroyed. It was also uncomfortably packed inside the castle, and I was happy to get back out onto the grounds.

On Sunday morning, it was time to say goodbye. True to form, we hit all the trains wrong and ended up taking two hours to get to the airport. It was easier to say goodbye this time, perhaps because I’ve now seen how easy it is to traverse the distance between us when I want to.

Though it was great being able to see my family, the vacation turned out to be a lot more stressful than I thought it would be. I’m not used to being the best Japanese speaker in any given group of people, so being in charge of all the navigating and communicating left me mentally exhausted most of the week. By the end of our long day in Kyoto, I hit a bus schedule that was only in Japanese and just wanted to cry. Because of jet lag, close quarters, and keeping strange hours, we were all very tired and a bit on edge most of the week. However, at the end of the day, I’m glad I got to show my family a little bit of my life here. Even those stressful days of forcing myself out of my comfort zone had the benefit of improving my Japanese by leaps and bounds. All in all, it was a very successful visit.

My family flew out in the early afternoon on Sunday, so I was a bit at a loss for what to do with myself for the rest of the day. I got on the train and found myself near City Hall. Our plans to visit the city archives had fallen through because of time constraints, so I spent the afternoon wandering around the old city hall, drinking in the history. Though there were more pictures of World War II destruction in some rooms, it was still a mostly positive experience. In one wing, I stumbled upon an art show completely by accident and ended up chatting with the six artists. One of them spoke some basic English, and together we were able to cobble together a short, fairly coherent conversation. They asked me about myself and told me I was charming—which I’m always pleased to hear—and expressed their gratitude that I had stopped in. Though I had actually already wandered through the whole display before the last artist called the others over to speak to me, I took my time going back through each room and asked questions as best I could. I’m not a huge art fan, but the pieces were lovely and the artists lovelier still.

After the archives, I walked the few blocks back to the castle and saw the samurai show again. Two of the three samurai were different this time around, but the show was essentially the same. After waiting in the shade for a while after the show, I stepped into the sun to join the photo line. The women at the end of the line tried to tell me something I didn’t understand, and they eventually very clandestinely let me in the line. I figured out later that they were trying to tell me the line was closed, and it’s still embarrassing to me that I unwittingly pulled the stupid foreigner card. I ended up taking a photo with Kato Kiyomasa, an important soldier and one of the chief architects of Nagoya Castle. He didn’t say much to me in any language, but looked at our picture together and declared it absolutely perfect.

The first Sunday after vacation was a school outing with our students. We met early in the morning and took a bus to go strawberry picking. As we entered the greenhouse, we were each given a small plastic tray for our stems and a small cup of condensed milk for dipping. This struck me as strange, but it was really good! Unlike fruit picking in Michigan, we were paying only for a set time eating strawberries in the greenhouse; we didn’t take any home with us.

After strawberry picking, we went to a park to have lunch and play. I spent most of the afternoon going down giant slides with two of my sweetest little girls and eating candy that other students insisted on giving me. Some of the upper elementary boys cornered the teachers one by and one and made them go down the giant slide backwards with them. I said no for a long time—they weren’t even my students!—but finally caved. It was terrifying but exhilarating and, though it was hot, it was a wonderful day.

A couple weeks ago, I went to a seaside barbecue with some friends. We paid a set price to get into a huge tent by the ocean and got a table next to our own cooking fire. There was a big buffet with every kind of raw seafood imaginable, some raw chicken and beef, and lots of other things you wouldn’t think to put on skewers outside of Japan. I actually ate a whole miniature squid! It was delicious. The weather was in the 90s that day, and with the heat from all the fires it felt like a furnace. Despite that, it was a great day.

I ate the tentacles.
Some random fun moments from the last couple months:
*After repeatedly saying “No Japanese” in an advanced beginner class of high school kids, one looked at me and said, in perfect English, “You need to study Japanese.”
*I put my bike in the subway parking and was able to pay and get it unlocked even though the machine was only in Japanese. Lest this victory go to my head, I later couldn’t figure out how to get my bike out of the mall parking until a nice man took pity on me and helped me out.
*I discovered a 5-floor fabric store only 20 minutes from my apartment. Pray for my soul. On the bright side, I managed to buy fabric while negotiating measurements in simultaneous metric AND Japanese.
*I went back to the castle for a visit, and an old man asked to take my picture. Foreigner.
*I cut bangs and then creeped on all the women on the subway to check out theirs.
*I’m friends with a woman who works in the information booth at the castle. Last time I was there, she asked me to proofread the English translation for a new display! She apologized for taking up my time, but I loved doing it, and I’m so excited to see the new display now.
*My subway card stopped working quite a while ago and I finally had a friend help me get it fixed. It turns out the problem was that I had scanned it going into a station back in February but never scanned it on the way out (I still have no idea how that’s possible). Because I couldn’t remember where I had gone that day (I can’t remember where I went last week), they weren’t sure how much to charge me and kept calling in reinforcements until five station employees were there discussing this serious issue. They eventually came to a consensus and solemnly charged me… 100 yen (c. $1).
*That same night, after clubbing with friends, we caught last train home. Last train on a Saturday night= being packed in like sardines in a can. I wanted to take a picture as proof but literally couldn’t get my arm free to raise it up, much less dig something out of my purse.

I’ve now been in Japan a little over 9 months. I could have grown a baby in this time! (So glad I didn’t!) I’m still enjoying my life here very much, and I’m planning to stay for a second year.