Tuesday, November 25, 2008

No pictures this time

I have solved the case of the missing host father –and the results are both sad and anti-climatic. I still haven’t seen my host father since that first day – unless you count the three times I’ve seen him through a window. One of those times he casually popped his head into the living room to talk to my host mom and scared the crap out of me. So that’s about three times in at least fifty days. This has gotten around among my friends in JSP and Jen even told her host mom about my strangely absent host father. Theories have abounded –an apartment in Tokyo, he’s a ghost, he works at night. I really didn’t want to pry into my host family’s lives and just straight out ask where the hell my host dad is – but I’ve been getting a lot of peer pressure from my friends.
“Just ask if your host father is busy – very, very busy.” Jen keeps telling me. I couldn’t bring myself to ask my host mom but I did eventually ask my host sister. A few days before this I had asked what divorce was in Japanese because we were watching a Japanese drama that brought up the question, and my host sister casually told me that my host mom and dad might get a divorce. And then she laughed. I didn’t pursue that conversation thread but a few days later (yesterday) my host mom took me and my host sister out for unagi (delicious, delicious unagi) and after dinner when we had come back home my sister mentioned her dad again. I managed to get over my nerves and asked her what kind of job her dad had. She told me she didn’t remember and when I gave her a weird look she told me maybe my host mom wouldn’t know either. I asked her why and she told me my host mom and dad don’t talk to each other, and they don’t eat together, and she doesn’t really meet up with her dad either. Which is sad. But on the plus side my host dad doesn’t avoid only the study abroad students – but his whole family. I guess my host mom might be stuck in a loveless and sad marriage, which is forcing her to work two part time jobs. And maybe she host study abroad students because she gets lonely? Ah well, even if my host family is too busy to really do anything with me they are still really great people.
My host sister and I have started doing Pilates together and we are up to day three. She keeps telling me that she needs to go on a diet even though she’s tiny (and makes her seem pretty similar to my actual sister actually) so we are doing Pilates at night.
Last weekend I didn’t do a whole lot – besides getting drunk trying to catch up to Japanese girls, and then spending the next morning getting real comfortable with floor toilets. I also went to a library that consists solely of books on Japanese literature or Japanese literature itself. Which was interesting – and out of the random copies I made I must now come up with some kind of paper. After the library, in our most unproductive day in Tokyo, my friends and I tried to go to Asakusa but arrived too late. Ah well, better luck next time.
Time is starting to catch up to me and I’m sure the next three weeks are going to be packed with frantic stressful urgency as I try to spend as much time doing fun things with all the great people I’ve met, and also write two papers, do a debate, and write a speech in Japanese based on a survey I hand out. Good, scary times ahead.
Love you all – oh, and I almost forgot (since thanksgiving doesn’t exist in Japan) HAPPY THANKSGIVING. I hope everyone eats a lot of turkey for me. And rolls. And mashed potatoes. And brussel sprouts. And pumpkin pie!! I will be eating curry and drinking beer in the true holiday spirit. More love and holiday wishes. I can’t believe it’s almost December!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Mikans and washi

So this will be a somewhat abreiviated blog entry due to the fact that I am writing it in my Japanese literature class. Which, if I haven't mentioned alread, is somewhat terrible. The poor teacher is trying - but I think this is his first literature class, which he was told about two weeks before classes started. So I guess it is understandably terrible.

Anyway- Mikans and Washi. That was the agenda this week for JSP's who elected to participated. Mikans are clementines - which Japanese people do not connect with any english words. Mikans are mikans. But they taste and look like clementines (maybe a little bigger) and on wednesday we got to visit an orchard out in the country and got to pick mikans. We also got to make traditional japanese paper (washi) which is the paper they use to make shoji screens. The two places we visited were out in the country and it took us about two hours to get there on a bus. But both places were surrounded by these hills that were full of koyo or fall colors - which are a big deal in Japan since they have tons of maple trees here so the colors are gorgeous.

First we made Washi which just means that the women that worked there prepared to ten pieces sections of pulp that we were allowed to decorate with maple leaves and flower petals. I was happy because I am always happy when I do crafts. And I impressed people with my asymetrical designs. After that we had lunch in the pretty garden next to the paper making...place.

Then another bus trip to the mikan orchard where we hiked up a hill and then got to eat as many oranges we wanted and also filled a bag to bring home with us. It was awesome. My friend Daniel loves picking his own fruit and his giddy energy made us all happy. It was a beutiful combination - making designs for paper and then wandering around an orchard eating delicious tangerines.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

This week- costumes

This week in Japan everyone buckled down and really spent most of the time memorizing our various skits or speeches that we had to speak/perform in Japanese. The three middle level Japanese classes all wrote and preformed skits, while the top class and the newbie class kids had to write ten-minute speeches. My upper class friends were none too thrilled with this prospect, especially since they were given so much liberty with the speech topics.

Saturday was the day of “Ha-pyo-ka-i”(presentations) so Friday I spent the day buying skit supplies and memorizing skit lines. My years of slacking in theater always come in handy when it comes to skits because I can learn skit lines fast. Also when we were rehearsing our skit my inner-director reared its head when I started yelling at people to rotate their bodies towards audience. My bizarrely controlling side comes out when I am stuck in groups that are leaderless and directionless. My class’s skit was about a Japanese ghost that kept haunting JSP students because the ghost used to be a teacher. We all wanted to write a ghost story and I picked the teacher theme, and it was admittedly cheesy but I figured drinking and being bad students was a fairly universal theme. Especially in Japan. And also that is what JSP students are renowned for. I played a narrator with my friend Eva and I think our skit went over pretty well. The “Hapyokai”’s last for about three hours so my host mom told me she was only going to show up for my skit, which I understood because three hours of bad Japanese is a lot for anyone.
The D-class speeches ranged in topics from food - To superstitions.

To topics that were too advanced for me to understand. But I think this one
Involved a strict teacher.

Also heavily featured in this years skits were people dressing up as pop culture references. We had an anime character from a kind of old anime “Dragon Ball Z.”
Dragon ball z

And then Ash from Pokemon.

And then there was a man as a woman gimmick.

And my favorite was Quin as Barack Obama.

Jen was pretty set on drinking after the whole event (She was one of the upper-class kids with a ten minute speech. She was very bitter until it was over.) So a large group of us proceeded to an izakaya and managed to get pretty drunk on sake and beer. And then we all wandered over to the closest karaoke place and proceeded to drink a few more cheap cocktails. Naturally both places were no-mi-ho-di. Four hours of all you can drink is a very dangerous combination. Especially if you throw in the fact that we were all giddy about finishing the giant Japanese project. It was a fun night followed by a fay of me lazing around my house watching movies. Next week I hope to make a trip to a club and hopefully spend a full night in Tokyo without worrying about catching a last train.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Japan is crazy, man

Today the difference between studying in the west and studying in the east was really crystallized for me. Of course it’s been something I’ve pondered since I started looking into studying in Japan, but today was that day I really felt that difference. It started with our mini-tour of locations from the movie Lost in Translation. I watched it again this morning and I actually understood some of the Japanese in the scenes, which made the movie so much better. Lost in Translation really captures the lonely, outsider confusion that being a gaijin in this country can make you feel. Being in France was hard because I felt like I should look more like the skinny, perfectly manicured French women you see everywhere. Being in Japan is hard because I cannot become Asian and so I could never blend in a crowd or disguise the fact that I am obviously foreign. Which means all my interactions with Japanese people are based on my foreign-ness not at all based on me. The Japanese look at anyone who isn’t Asian and use that as an indicator of how to treat you. Which in a way is nice because people expect me not to understand how to order a cheeseburger. Japan’s difference is the confusing blend of ancient traditions with radically new technology and inventions. Japan is a country of convenience and everything here is constantly being updated to make things more convenient. Transportation is easier, school supplies are more convenient, convini and dollar stores are everywhere making everything more convenient. Of course there is also the ancient history of Japan underlying everything, with the odd physical landmark to point this out. Temples and shrines, monks, matsuri festivals all are remnants of a much older society which is based on radically different ideals and histories than my western society. Another thing which is interesting to consider is that Japan didn’t have cobblestone streets and there wasn’t really a lot built out of stone, so when we bombed Japan huge physical landmarks and remnants of old Japan disappeared. So while I might be living in a country that has a much longer and richer history than my own, the street that I’m walking down might have been built only fifty years ago. Which really makes living in Japan a totally different experience than Europe. Because that strange and off-putting combination of the old with new is completely foreign. And if you add to that the fact that, while many people in Japan study English, it’s very hard for them and most people don’t like using it. Topped off with a completely dense and indecipherable written language you have a country that is completely different.

This week I went to Akihabarah to buy an R4 card for my DS that allows me to download games for free. Which is amazing. I also went to a maid cafĂ© with my friends- which are these places where you pay a lot of money to be served crappy food by cute girls dressed up in French maid (Japanese style) outfits. Lots of bows, ruffles, short skirts, and knee socks. I bought an essentially 11 dollar iced tea and I played a ‘maid’ version of rock, paper, scissors. Which here is called ‘du-run-ke-n-po.’ I then went shopping and bought clothes. Finding clothes that fit is always an adventure.
And, like I said, today I took a mini-tour of Lost in Translation. Which turns out to have been set in Shinjuku. A part of Tokyo that is very ritzy and also is where the yakuza reportedly hang out. Mostly we went to the hotel the movie is set in which is the Park Hyatt, one of the tallest buildings in Japan. Everyone who works there speaks the best English because of the movie hype. The famous bar that Bill Murray always drinks in is on the top floor of the hotel and after 8 there is a 20-dollar cover charge to hear the lounge singers. We went at seven, which was good because we were already spending about twenty dollars a drink anyway. But the view was amazing and the experience was excellent. It was an expensive and interesting week but I will not be sad about coming home and settling down into routines that are cheaper and more relaxing. Every day in Japan is an adventure – which can get pretty exhausting.
As always- lots of love and another Happy Birthday to my mom from across the ocean. I heart you all (^^)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008



I just got back from a trip around the Kansai region in Japan –and it was amazing. Worth every bit of extra money I had to throw down. The Kansai Trip, as it is known to the JSP program, is an extra trip that is optional for all us JSP students. A lot of us went, but there were a few who opted for cheaper trips or to just stay home.
For anyone with the slightest interest I will now go into way too much detail about what I did.

Day 1: Water Temples

We all got to take the Shinkansen which is the Japanese bullet train- a train that shortens an 8 hour trip into three. It was like a road trip only no one had to drive and there were bathrooms included. Most people slept. At this time we met our trip leader whose actual name I don’t remember because my friends and I all called him by the nick-name he gave himself “Masa-kun.” By the end of the trip he had gathered quite the cult following because of his sharp suits, ability to produce tickets magically, and his efficient manner. =P
The first day we landed just outside of Hiroshima really close to the sacred island ‘Miyajima.’ The Island is gorgeous and marked as one of the worlds cultural heritage places – which means they now put that on signs and made a giant rice scooper in commemoration. The draw to the island really comes from the Buddist shrine that has been maintained for hundreds of years, and part of that shrine is a giant gate (I don’t remember the proper term) that stands in the bay and at high tide is surrounded by water. Also on this island there are a lot of very friendly deer. So we wandered around and ate the classic food of the area which is maple leaf shaped breads filled with red bean, cream cheese, and chocolate. They were delicious. The Island was beautiful. I took a lot of pictures.
After the temple and our free time we met back up to take the ferry and a bus back to our hotel for the night. The first night we stayed a sort-of traditional hotel. The architecture was all glass and sparkly lights but we slept on futons and ate a group dinner in our yukatas that the hotel provided. Also my friends and I braved the women’s Onsen (which is huge group bath). The dinner we had was complicated, involving a lot of candles and tiny iron pots and strange foods. The Onsen was a weird experience because you have to be naked in the onsen a lot, and naked with a bunch of Japanese women who were not very happy about a huge group of gaijin girls giggling all over the place. But it was relaxing. We all went back and slept on our futons in a group room and woke up the next day happy – but with sore backs.

Day 2: History Lessons

Wednesday was the depressing day with a trip to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum where I held back tears and sort of wallowed in what it meant to be a citizen from a country that dropped the deadliest bomb on a country that I had fallen in love with. The message that comes out of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial isn’t one of blame, and it isn’t about warfare. The message is that atomic warfare is terrifying, that anyone who experienced even a little of the mass destructive of an atomic weapon naturally wants that weapon destroyed. Instead, of course, the museum charts the growth and development of nuclear warfare. We sort of wandered through the peace garden and saw the ‘ABOMB Dome’ a shell of one of the few buildings that withstood the atomic blast and has been preserved to remind people of the devastation. From there you pass the flame that won’t be put out till all the atomic weapons are destroyed and then to the children’s memorial where people from all over the world send huge strands of paper cranes. Varying in all sizes and some used to make signs that say things like ‘peace.’ At the end of the park you reach the museum and you pay 50 cents to go in. I bought the additional audio track because I like torturing myself. So for the next hour I listened to what happened and the Japanese ministers desperate pleas to get the world to destroy nuclear weapons. The final part of the exhibit is the gruesome parts – where they explain the effects of radiation and have a section where mannequins show what victims of the blast must have looked like, children with their skin hanging off and clothes torn into pieces. The worst was the man with a hand that was exposed to the blast and whose fingernails started to grow in black on his mangled hand and the nails had blood-veins inside of them so that they would bleed when they were cut. They had a picture and a sample of these nails.
The group had gotten split up in the museum and I had made the voyage in relative silence so when we finally got out I couldn’t really talk. I get choked up about things like huge bombs being dropped on a very crowded places and black fingernails, but I don’t really cry until I try and talk about it. The same thing happened a few weeks after the world trade center was hit – I didn’t really cry about that until I had to talk about it at camp.
Thankfully we planned on eating lunch afterwards and so we all headed in the direction of the local specialty – okonomiyaki. A pancake of sorts mixed with cabbage and vegetables and other things depending on the region. In Hiroshima they included eggs, noodles and, in my case, cheese. A friendly okonomiyaki restaurant and good food made me feel better about the horrors of mankind.
After that one shorter shinkansen trip and we were in Kyoto.

Day 3: The Best Lunch Of My Life

This was the day of the bus tour around Kyoto, where we got taken to two temples, then to lunch, and then on a boat ride down a river. The temples were packed full of school trips and kids in various uniforms. Actually the whole trip was filled with kids in various lines of uniforms and bright strange matching hats. The high schoolers do not suffer the hat humiliation but they are all dressed identically. So not only was I a gaijin girl with blonde hair but I was dressed in street clothes. Of course all the places we visited were huge tourist draws so there were a lot more gaijin there than usual.
Anyone the first temple was big and on a hill and surrounded by huge forests that were big and magical looking. At this temple they had a lot of love charms and things you did for luck. Temples are places you pace five cents and pray, or pay five dollars and buy charms, or pay a few dollars and drink some water for love. Or walk between two stones with your eyes closed to pray for love. I went all out- drank some water, walked through stones, and then bought a charm. Desperate? I call that security. And also the prevailing superstition about these things that makes me wonder what will happen if I do not make such wishes. I am a sucker for luck.
The next temple was a Buddhist temple and was filled with a thousand statues of Buddha. Which we were all frustratingly forbidden to take pictures of. I guess taking pictures of sacred things is kind of sacrilegious. I bought a book of pictures instead and also more tiny charms and fortunes. The fortune I got told me I would have a late but happy marriage and that I had dry skin that I should keep moisturized.
After that temple the bus dropped us off at a buffet of every American food I had missed, some I didn’t know I missed, in a delicious form. I had cheese and crackers – and I mean real blue cheese and some strong form of cheddar cheese, and I had really good roast beef and prawns and curry rice and tiny cakes and bread. Everyone had about four plates of the buffet and by the time we were done everyone was ready to pass out. So the hour bus ride to our boat ride was definitely a kind of relief.

The boat ride turnout out to be a boat that was mostly pushed through the shallow water by a giant pole that one of the boat guides stuck in the water gondola-style. Only what this guy did seemed like a lot more work than any gondola ride I’ve seen. We were on the boat for about an hour and for a long time it was pretty much just a slow scenic tour of the Kyoto mountains and not that different from an American touristy thing. Then our boat turned the corner and another boat sidled up to ours and it turned out to be a store off sorts ready to sell us octopus legs they grilled, beer, sake, and oranges. It was fantastic. Japan is ready to sell you food and beverages at any moment. Even in the middle of a river. We actually passed another boat ready to do the same thing.
That night in Kyoto I met up with a friend from high school who coincidently happens to work in a high school around Kyoto. We went to the Gion district (or the Geisha district) and tried to find a restaurant. Which we did but with a little difficulty. Then we went out for drinks at a bar that is notoriously friendly to Gaijin people. It was fun and expensive. And afterwards we joined the native Kyoto teenagers drinking by the river near our hotel. It’s weird running into people from high school halfway around the world.

Day Four: I Play Tour Guide

Thursday was our free day and as a group we were let loose to do whatever we wanted to in the Kansai area. We were told to research what we wanted to beforehand and I had magically found a Japan guide in my room the weekend before. Which had maps and guides and trainlines. So I made a plan. And about ten other people thought it was good enough that they just joined me in my trip. We all went to Nara and Osaka.
Nara is famous for it’s deer- which you can feed. And so we took a lot of pictures of deer and people feeding them. And I pet one. I pet a tiny deer. Which is kind of weird to think about.
The other thing Nara is really famous for is one of the biggest golden Buddah’s in the world. And when I say big I mean really really big. Probably the size of a house. I kept taking pictures of it but none of them really conveyed how huge the Buddah was. In the picture below the butterfly you see is really as big as my head, if that makes things easier. Around the back of the Buddah there was a piece of wood with a hole cut in it to show the size of nostril and if you could fit through the hole you are sure to reach enlightenment. A lot of tiny women and children were squirming through the hole and my tiny friend Emily tried but apparently any woman with hips is a no go for enlightenment. The same goes to men with shoulders. One of the tall skinny boys managed to do it do the great enjoyment of the tiny women and kids standing around. We all ate lunch in Nara and then took another train to Osaka and headed for the giant aquarium and one of the biggest Ferris wheels in the world.

The Aquarium was amazing. It was basically a huge tank that you walk around and slowly spiral down. The reason the tank is so huge is because it encloses two whale sharks. Which are, as the name probably signifies, huge sharks. Again – pictures couldn’t really capture it. There were also giant stingrays and giant crabs and jellyfish. I love Jellyfish. We ate in ‘a traditional Edo-styled cafeteria where we could sample all of Osaka’s food specialties.’ We had gyoza. We capped the night with the Ferris wheel ride at night and watched the lights in Osaka. Overall everyone seemed pretty pleased with the day. And me and my guidebook take a bit of credit for that.

Day five: Going Home

The least exciting day – in which we went home on the bullet train. And I bought presents for people.

And that was my exhausting review of my vacation in my trip.