Monday, May 30, 2011

The Screams

Earplugs.  I wish I could wear earplugs.  Some of my students will. not. stop. yelling.  They are driving me insane.

My poor nerves! (Pride and Prejudice, anyone?)

Recently the number of unreasonably loud classes has risen exponentially. While “genki” students can be wonderful, dealing with many yelling children is tiring.

Some teachers are great in these situations, some are ok…some are…let’s say passive.  This is difficult for me, as discipline is not something I am supposed to do.  It would be similar to disciplining a child with their parent standing right there…inappropriate and awkward.

Although I enjoy genki students…it can become problematic if they get so wild that no one can hear me.  But I can cope with most situations.

What I can’t cope with is a room full of thirty 4th graders not listening, talking to their classmates or just screaming. In this particular class, there are (thank God) two good students.

The educational systems of Japan and America vary drastically.  There is hardly anything the two hold in common.  One of the biggest differences is that-even though it is illegal-some teachers still use corporal punishment.

I knew this was true, but had never witnessed it nor did I think I ever would.  I was wrong.

I don’t believe corporal punishment is ever appropriate in school.  From what I have seen, it makes the students behavior worse.  And it certainly doesn’t help them learn respect. But in these situations, it doesn’t matter what I think.

All I can do is stand by and watch. 
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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Photosynthesis to the Rescue

We all have things that we need to work on and improve within our lives.  One thing I try to be aware of is uncalled for complaining and not taking anything for granted.  I realize how incredibly fortunate I am for my current circumstances.  I count my blessings everyday!

But… I really miss having a yard.  A lot.

All through college I lived in dorms or apartments.  I think I moved a total of five times during college…it was a lot.  The only time I had a yard was when I briefly moved back home to save money during my first senior year (I was on the five year plan).  But even then, it seemed like I never had time to enjoy it. 

I really love green things.  If I could conjure up a genie I would ask for: 1) A yard. 2) A greenhouse. 3) A grand piano.  (That last one I would want to be black though.)

Alas…I have a blacktop parking lot. 

But when life gives me lemons, I make lemonade. (Or lemon chicken. Or lemon bars.  I like lemons.)  Fortunately, our apartment has lots of windows and a balcony that faces the southern sun.  The balcony is primarily meant for hanging up laundry.  (Nobody has dryers, only washing machines.)  But I have sneakily usurped the space for a container garden-we hang the laundry up inside now.  It works.

Around a month and a half ago I decided I was going to plant a container garden.  So I got right to researching.  I discovered that the zone we are in is excellent for growing peppers and tomatoes.  Hooray, salsa!  Unfortunately, the Japanese don’t really do cilantro as a spice for food.  So I will have figure out some way around that.  

The tomato and pepper plants in mid-April

 I have three tomato plants, three pepper plants, two parsley plants and a basil plant.  Plus some flowers.  I planted them about a month and a half ago now.  I am taking advantage of living in zone 7, and got started early.  I am hoping that I will get fresh tomatoes all through the summer. 

And then, they were giants. 
Inside, I have a couple bonsai trees, orchids, and other standard houseplants.  It always amazes me how much more livable a space is when you have plants.

So for now, I am pacified. 

Except for that grand piano thing…
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Vending Machines

Good morning!

This is a perfectly normal thing to hear in the morning.  In fact it had never occurred to me that I might be surprised to hear this during the morning.  But yesterday, I was.  And that is because of the “speaker” from which it came.

A vending machine.  I was greeted by a metal box full of drinks. In my own language. In Japan. 

As I exiting Hachigata train station, I noticed some vending machines and decided to get some water.  In my somewhat bleary state I scrounged around for some change and proceeded to shove it into the machine.  As soon as the first ¥100 clinked down through the machine, a chipper little voice proclaimed: “Good morning!”

I stared at the vending machine. I know technology is advancing at a fast clip…but being greeted early in the morning by a vending machine will take one by surprise.  Especially because it was speaking English in Japan. 


When my water dropped down, the vending machine thanked me for my business, wished me a nice day and asked me to come again. 

I have purchased many a drink from vending machines in many different countries, but this was the first to talk.  I also know that stranger things have happened.  But sometimes Japan really is just…odd.  Odd to my North-Midwest American raised brain, that is. 

A bit more about the vending machines in Japan.  They can be very odd.

When we were last in Tokyo, we ran across a vending machine full of whole bunches of bananas.  Right outside a bookstore.  Japan is, in fact known for having bazaar contents of vending machines.  Check this out.  They have everything from eggs to umbrellas.  Also, if you have heard about the alleged "panties" vending machines in Japan, it's no lie according to Snopes. 

Besides the bananas, I have only seen the occasional strange drink.  Like pancake flavored drink.  Please don’t ask me why this drink exists.  I haven't the foggiest idea who actually purchases these things.  It's a mystery. oh-I have also seen beer vending machines. This one here is about a five minute walk from our apartment.

 Living abroad and experiencing the roller coaster of culture shock (and reverse culture shock when you move back home) can make a person feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland.

Curiouser and curiouser. 
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How about dinner in half a minute?

Man.  She really isn’t kidding either.  Watch this.

Since I finished reading Julia Child’s memoir, I have been obsessed with watching videos of her on YouTube and learning how to cook French food.  I realized that I have made lots of different ethnic foods before: Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Mexican, German, Italian, Indian, etc.  But my cooking had never before ventured to French cuisine.

I wish I could get my hands on a copy of her first book: Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  I would go nuts.  Oh well.  At least I have the internet to search for websites devoted to information about French food.  Fortunately, some kind souls have uploaded videos onto YouTube of some complete episodes of The French Chef.


So I tried the omelet.  Not bad…definitely room to improve, but delicious all the same.  

I also found and tried a recipe for French fish soup this week.  I found it here.  It was good.  I tweaked it a bit by not adding scallops and using milk instead of cream and it still turned out fine.  It was very tasty, in fact. 

More cooking adventures coming soon!

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Treasure.  That is what is felt like. 

My Grandma Minor’s back room in her little house on Elm Street was f-u-l-l of books.  She figured she had somewhere in the neighborhood of 2000 books in a room the size of a modest bedroom.  It was like a giant treasure chest. 

Sometimes, Grandma would let us go back there and pick out a book to * gasp * take home!  This was an exciting thing.  One thing my siblings and I have certainly inherited from our grandmother is the love of books and reading.  I remember living for the day we went to the library.  I would pick out the allotted number of books set by Mom, (she couldn’t let us get too many-it would have been crazy.) bring them home, and devour them like watermelon on a hot summer day. 

Last weekend, Karl and I found a treasure chest akin to my grandma’s backroom: a used English bookstore in the heart of Tokyo.

We had just hit the jackpot.

At least that is what it felt like.  We were thrilled and spent waaaay too much time and money in there.  But we didn’t care.  We perused the overflowing shelves of books in search of gems.  And boy did we ever find some. 

We found (and bought) novels, guidebooks, dictionaries, how-to books, and more.  It was like Christmas. 

To keep the book love flowing, I and thinking about setting up a monthly brunch/book exchange. 

Now if I only had more time to read…
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Welcome to enjoy space!

One of my favorite things about living in Japan is Engrish.  It is a constant reminder of why we are here teaching.  Plus, I find it absolutely hilarious.  Not in the sense of teasing or making fun, but in the sense of amusement, encouragement and delight in how hard the speakers are trying to communicate. 

English and Japanese are completely different in just about every way.  I realized a long time ago that I had to stop trying to learn Japanese literally.  I needed to start approaching Japanese as the language-not the individual words. And get over the fact that there just isn’t a Japanese preposition list for me to memorize. Sigh.  (Seriously, learning German was a snap compared to this.)

 There are so many things about Japanese that simply do not exist in English and vice versa.  When literally translated, Japanese and English hardly make any sense at all. 

But the results can be hilarious.

A few of my favorite examples with explained context:

Recently at a teacher’s party, Karl and I were talking to one of our Japanese friends. He has a reasonable grasp of the English language.  I can’t remember the exact context, but it was about Karl somehow or another.  The sentence that made us both laugh so hard was, “Mr. Karl, your husband points are very minus.” 

Another time the same Japanese friend was driving Karl home and they were late.  Karl wanted to hurry. It was raining do our friend said, “But Mr. Karl, car action is very danger!”

A few weeks ago we were at a party with all of Karl’s Junior High School coworkers.  This same friend was there.  The restaurant we were at was the traditional Japanese style.  We were all sitting on cushions on the floor at a short table.  While this can be fun, it does get uncomfortable.  People are constantly shifting.  Our friend suddenly said to us, “Excuse me, but my leg is very vibrate.” Then he got up and cautiously walked around for a few minutes.  Our best guess was that his leg had fallen asleep.

Karl and I both love talking to this friend of ours.  He is so funny and good-natured.  We love that he tries so hard.  Our conversations are a fun mixture of Japanese and English.  I am sure Karl and I sound just as funny to him when we speak Japanese.  I am positive, in fact.

Unfortunately, Engrish is not funny all the time.  Sometimes it is downright frustrating.

Getting any kind of driving permit in this country is a nightmare. ( We know people who have   Really.  We have our one-year international driving permits, but no car with which to use them.  We do have an old (and I mean old) scooter that the Board of Education bought for Karl’s predecessor and is now Karl’s to use.  Unfortunately (Or fortunately, as I see it. I really don’t trust that scooter.) the international drivers permit is not valid with the scooter. 

Karl went to take the scooter test a few months ago.  This was a written test.  In Engrish. 

He failed. 

He explained that the test was multiple choice.  There was no reason he should have failed…he had studied hard and knew the answers.  The problem was that he couldn't decipher the questions most of the time.  So it really wasn’t his fault that he failed.

Most of my conversations these days are mixtures of Japanese and English. I have also become really good at body language and describing things is countless ways. 

Communication is the goal.  There are many, many different ways to achieve that goal.  Sometimes the process is frustrating, sometimes hilarious and nothing if not fascinating. 
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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Trial and Error

“Are you a good cook?” 

This is a question I have been asked a lot recently, mostly because of my new adult English conversation students.  We talk about hobbies and interests.  One of mine-as you have possibly deduced from my previous blog posts-is cooking and baking. 

So am I a “good” cook….? 

I recently read a wonderful book: My Life in France.  This book is Julia Child’s memoir.  If you have not read this book, do.  It is very interesting and just as funny as watching her antics on “The French Chef.”  Watch this video and you will see what I mean. 

Julia Child’s story is inspiring.  The way she wrote about her learning experiences with the language and Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris is amazing.  She takes you through her experiences with vivid descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells. 

I could not put that book down.  Karl had to force me to go to sleep at a reasonable hour every night until I finished it.

At the end of the book, Julia says something that really sums up what cooking is for me: “This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook-try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!”

This is so. true.

Trial and error.  Sometimes I make great food. Sometimes ok.  Sometimes inedible.  Cooking and baking is truly an ongoing learning process.  But that is what makes it so much fun.

A few months ago, I was dying for some good homemade bread.  Now, I can make bread.  However.  We have a small convection oven/microwave.  And thank GOD we at least have that.

I had a thought.  Bagels! I can make bagels.  So I found a recipe and got to work. 

Things were going along marvelously…until my own stupidity got the best of me.  I wish this was a better, more exciting story.  But no.  It’s not. 

Have you ever made bagels before?  This was my first time.  For those of you who have not attempted this feat, I will briefly explain one of the steps.  After you have shaped the dough into your bagels and they rise for a bit, you are supposed to place them in a pot of boiling water and then put them into the oven to bake. 

Before disaster/my own stupidity strikes, the bagels happily rising.
 Everything was peachy until I misread some directions.  You are meant to boil each bagel for one minute per side.   

I didn’t do that.  I boiled them for ten minutes. Per side.


The bagels on their way to disaster.
 So basically what happened was they disintegrated.  After I realized my mistake, I tried to plow forward with the recipe and bake them.  Ahahaha…it sooooo didn’t work.  But it was worth a try, right? 

No. Not really.  The bagels were gooshy masses of dough that just sort of flopped across the baking pan. 

The moral of the story-read and reread every recipe BEFORE you start cooking or baking. 

As I read Julia’s memoir, I was reminded of my bagel episode.  And how interesting human failure is.  As my father-in-law always says: “Failure is intensely interesting.”  It’s true.  Failure certainly gives life some flavor.

There is always something to learn from mistakes.  But sometimes, the mistakes can still be delicious. I am not sure about you, but I have certainly had my share of “burnt” cookies. ;)

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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Mushrooms and Natto-or-Tolerable and Intolerable

I love to cook and bake.

Well, the truth is…I love to eat.  Fortunately, I also enjoy making the food I eat.   I love the process.  I wish I had hours everyday to cook and bake.  But I don't. 

I have never received any type of formal training in cooking and baking, but I started learning when I was quite young.  My family life was unique: I am the second eldest of nine and we were/are all home schooled.  One of the things that my mom made sure we all knew how to do was cook and bake.  I even learned how to make and can things like salsa and jam. 

And I loved it.

My siblings and I were also fortunate enough to be raised in a house were we didn’t always have the stereotypical Midwestern food of meatloaf and hot dish (or casserole, or whatever else you call it.)  One of my dad’s favorite things to do was (and still is) cook Chinese food.  One of his college roommates was from Hong Kong.  My dad still talks about how much they cooked Chinese food together.

I remember going on trips to Asian grocery stores and being so excited to gets things like canned dace with black beans.  Basically you just open the can and eat the fish as is, bones and all.  And it’s delicious.  Salty, oily and amazing.  I think it is fairly safe to say that most kids would have turned up their noses at that.

Another benefit was learning how to use chopsticks.  I was so young when I learned this that I honestly don’t even remember learning.  My Japanese coworkers and students are constantly impressed by my proficiency in chopstick use. 

One thing I didn’t like about Chinese food nights were the shitake (after being corrected numerous times, we have learned the proper pronunciation is shi-ta-keh) mushrooms.  I hated the rubbery texture.  In fact I didn’t really like mushrooms at all-of any kind.

Then I moved to Japan.  And I got over it.  Fast.  Because in Japan during lunchtime at school, you eat what you are given or you starve (in addition to being rude.) Plus mushrooms are a staple of the Japanese diet.  They are everywhere.  All shapes and sizes too.

I never really considered myself to be too much of a picky eater.  If I was, I am definitely not now.  I don't like certain things, like liver and other “innards.”  Yuck.  But, if I have to eat them, I will.  I am fortunate to not suffer from any food allergies either. In other words, I am an excellent candidate for eating Japanese school lunch. 

Usually school lunch is perfectly normal (albeit interesting at times): curry and rice, salad, rice, ramen, milk, bread…I think the strangest thing I have ever eaten in a school lunch are little packets of dried minnows shrimp at almonds.  I am not particularly fond of them, but they aren’t bad.  They just taste salty, fishy and are crunchy. 

There has been one instance where I refused to eat something during school lunch…that something was called natto.  If I haven’t before described natto, I will now.  They are fermented soybeans.  I don’t know the process of the fermentation, but the finished product is positively revolting.  The beans are stuck in a stringy, slimy sort of goo.  You are supposed to take your chopsticks and stir the natto to try to free some from the goo.  Most people eat it with rice. 

I don’t eat it. Ever.

From what I have learned and observed, natto is either a you love it or you hate it item.  And the general public seems to be split right down the middle on the issue.  This is good, because then I don’t really look bad when I refuse to eat it during lunch! (I gave mine as to a student who loved it.)

Don’t think I am knocking something I haven’t tried, because I have tried it.  It’s just that once really was enough. 

There are many other opportunities to be challenged with in regards to food here in Japan.  Including raw liver, intestines and (perhaps the most shocking) raw horse.

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Friday, May 20, 2011

Pure Delight

Last Friday we planned on heading into Tokyo to further investigate the wonders of China Town.  I checked to see how long it would take to get there by train: two hours and twenty minutes.  Bummer.  We weren’t much for riding the train that long…so I started poking around for other ideas. 

Amid the plethora of places to go and things to do, one option rose steadily to the surface: a trip to the famous Ueno Zoo.  I love zoos.  Fortunately (and amazingly!) I realized that Ueno was a mere hour and fifteen minutes by train. 


Ueno is a district in Tokyo that is positively brimming with things to do and see.  There are at least four museums, performance centers, the oldest-and most famous-zoo in Japan, parks, gardens, restaurants…So much culture to be absorbed in one place! It instantly became one of my favorite places to be. (If you don’t know this about me, I LOVE museums and zoos.  I also fully admit to being a gigantic nerd-and I embrace it every chance I get.) 

When we got to the park, I felt like I was walking through a time machine back to when I was a little girl…every year my Grandpa White and Grandma Maria would take me and my siblings to the zoo.  We would have treats and walk around looking at the animals all day before going to Dairy Queen or Old Country Buffet.  My favorite part about those trips was the Sparky the Seal show.  I was in little kid heaven.

Alas, there was no Sparky the Seal in Ueno Zoo. But! There was Shinshin and Riri.  Two giant pandas.  So. Cute.  

I pranced around the zoo in a state of utter delight.  It was an absolutely marvelous day.  The sun was shining and it was warm.  The zoo is so old and big it really felt like you were walking around in a jungle of South America or on a safari in Africa.  Our surroundings were lush and beautiful.

The elephants were eating lunch. The tiger was running around trying to catch teasing little birds.  The gorilla family was playing with the baby gorilla. (It was soooo cute!) The toucans were looking at us inquisitively.  The giant pandas were taking a nap.  

We had already spent several hours at the zoo and only seen half of it.  Because it was so cheap to enter the zoo (only ¥600, about $7) we decided to save the other half of the zoo for another day. 

Earlier, when we were walking into the zoo, we passed by one of the many museums in Ueno Park, the Tokyo National Museum of WesternArt.  My nerd radar went off immediately.  There were big signs posted outside the museum proclaiming an amazing special exhibition on Rembrandt.

I love Rembrandt. 

So off to the museum we went.  It cost ¥1500 to enter, and was definitely worth it.  The exhibition focused primarily on the etchings from Rembrandt vast oeuvre of works, especially pointing out his use of chiaroscuro.  The etchings-and handful of paintings-were stunning.  So much detail.  Karl and I were both very impressed. 

We would have like to purchase a print to hang up in our apartment, but alas, our favorite one was not for sale.  Zannen. (Too bad!)

By this time, dinnertime was fast approaching.  We stopped to have a cappuccino at a café before heading back towards Ikebukuro to find something to eat. 

The more we explore Tokyo, the more we like it.  One reason is that you can find decent Mexican food there! We stumbled across a Mexican restaurant in Ikebukuro…how could we resist?  Once we saw that they served Negro Modelo beer, there was no question.  In we went.

The food was incredible-save the fajita platter (the “steak” was 98% fat-gross!)-and we ate a lot of it. 

We caught a special “TJ Liner” train back to Ogawa Machi and were home in an hour.  Another successful and fun day exploring Japan complete.

More Tokyo adventuring coming soon…
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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Biting off More to Chew

One thing I have always been able to accuse myself of is biting off more than I could chew.  This seemed to happen during every semester I was in college.  As a music major, with minors in German and English, this was unbelievably easy to do. I have always had a deep desire to acquire knowledge.  And sometimes, my sleep schedule suffered for it.

Despite my crazy class, rehearsal, practice, work, and teaching (piano lessons) schedules, I somehow (miraculously) managed to graduate Magna Cum Laude.  Whew.

Life is far less erratic now.  I have a regular 8-4 schedule, and I love it.  Karl and I have all of our weekends and evenings free to spend together.  It’s wonderful.

That is, we did…until this week.  I was contacted several weeks ago by a koto sensei looking for an English teacher for small adult classes at a community center near our apartment.  She was looking for someone to teach classes on Sunday afternoons and Monday evenings. 

I was not thrilled about the idea of giving up free time that I was now accustomed to having.  Especially on Sunday afternoon.  I eventually agreed to the Monday evening session.  This past Monday was the first lesson. 

I loved it.  It was a class of seven adult students.  They each had their own personal reasons for wanting to learn English ranging from wanting to watch movies from America without sub titles to traveling to simply having it as a hobby.  They are so much fun!

Because of how well the Monday class went, I agreed to also teach the Sunday afternoon class.  The koto sensei who organizes the classes told me that someone else had applied for the position, but she wanted me.  Plus she told me there would be cookies and coffee.

How could I say no?!

Even though this is technically a job, it doesn’t feel like a job.  I was pleasantly surprised by how well the students already spoke English.  There is no preparation required because it is a conversation class.  That basically means we sit around a table and talk. When they have questions or need help, they ask me.  It almost feels silly that I am getting paid for this.  Besides my time, skills as a native speaker of English and a good attitude, this job requires nothing of me. 

But even if the pay was far less-or there was no pay at all-I would still do it.  I know that I will be learning just as much from them as they will be learning from me. 

Even though I am biting off more to chew and giving up some of my free time-I am looking at this as a great opportunity to further immerse myself in the Japanese culture.  This is not something that comes along everyday. 

If by the end of our time here in Japan I had never taken such an opportunity as this, I am sure I would have felt regret.  We are living here to learn about and experience the culture.

I know it’s clichéd, but the saying really is true: “Carpe diem. Seize the day!”
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Thursday, May 12, 2011

Sunday Part 2: An Unexpected Ritual

As we sat on a rock resting after our big hike, we wondered where everyone was.  Some people were with us in the place we had met.  But the teacher, Matsumia Sensei, we had come with was nowhere to be found…and he had left the top of the mountain before us.  Curious.

We told another teacher this and he called Matsumia Sensei.  We learned that he was at a small festival going on a little ways up the road.  We hadn’t been told anything about a festival… There had been some very loud noises as we were hiking down the mountain.  It turns out they were fireworks from the festival.  So of we went to find Matsumia Sensei. 

When we got there, we instantly realized naps were out of the question. 

It was a Shinto Festival. There were a few dozen people gathered outside a small Shinto shrine.  A priestess was inside dressed in some fancy official looking garb.  She was chanting something as she bowed repeatedly in front of the alter.  When she finished, certain people were invited to come forward, offer a tree branch and say a prayer.  

 We had no idea how long this was going to take.  So we gave up our dreams of slumber land and resolved to learn something and enjoy the situation into which we had been placed.  There wasn’t much we could do about it anyway. 

When the praying and bowing were finished, little old Japanese men started handing around cups and filling them with sake.  They also handed around pickled Japanese vegetables.  It was difficult to say no.  Refusing hospitality (especially as a foreigner, I feel) is very rude. 

So we drank some sake and had some pickled daikon. 

The drinking and snacking continued for at least a half hour.  As the next part of the ceremony revealed itself, we realized quickly that we would be participating instead of watching.  This part of the ceremony included everyone each carrying his or her own small bamboo tree with a sign tied to it.  

 We all processed down the road in a line, stopping at a couple more shrines to pray and place small offering one each alter.  Our final destination was a large rock next to a river.  The small vessel that two men were carrying and all of our bamboo trees were set on the rock.  

 Even though we were missing our naps, we managed to have a wonderful time.  A bunch of Karl’s students were also participating and it is always fun to see the students outside of school.  They are particularly interested in me (Karl sensei’s wife).  We they were asking me all kinds of questions, picking me flowers and being really cute.  They are the sweetest kids!

We finally made it home…about two and half hours later than we originally thought.  And even though we really just wanted to go to sleep right then and there, we forced ourselves to do some cleaning and laundry.  We did give ourselves and break and go out to eat though.  One of our two favorite restaurants: Raj Mohan.  An absolutely incredible Indian restaurant.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Sunday Part 1: A View

Ogawa Machi, Yorii Machi and Higashichichibu Mura are all right next to or within the Chichibu mountain range of eastern Japan.  In fact, our apartment is right next to a mountain.  With the little river that runs behind our apartment, it really is a picturesque place to be. 

Every week Karl and I see hiking clubs on the trains and buses heading towards the mountains.  They are always well equipped with their sturdy boots, backpacks full of supplies and extendable hiking poles.  (Which, by the way, are so nice. We used them on our two-week honeymoon in Glacier National Park.  Such a difference.) 

When we arrived here last summer, we were very excited to be so near to such excellent hiking areas.  Unfortunately, the oppressively hot and humid summer kept us indoors with the relief of fans and air conditioning.  It was simply too hot to hike. 

When autumn came, we had yet to go hiking.  This was primarily because of my horrendous work schedule at Saiei International.  Working from either 1-9 or 2-10 five days a week (including every Friday and Saturday) really put a damper on life. 

Winter approached.  I quit Saiei after three months (Karl and I simply could not take the rotten schedule and commuting so far anymore).  We don’t get any snow (to speak of) in our area, but it does get cold here.  Despite that, we finally went hiking.  Once.

This last Sunday, we were invited by Karl’s elementary schools to attend their annual hiking party. One of the teachers-who speaks English-picked us up and we drove together to the starting place of the hike.  It was way up in the mountains of Higashichichibu Mura, past all three schools at which Karl works.  We met at the old West Higashichichibu Elementary School.  Man.  We thought Karl’s current schools were small-that building was tiny.  

 For some reason, I had assumed this hiking party would be somewhat small in terms of number of people.  I was wrong. Teachers came, the principals, the vice principals, a hand full of the board of education members (including the superintendent), lots of students and (most impressively) lots of parents!

Before we started on our journey up the mountain, the board of education superintendent greeted us.  (There is always procedure in Japan-no matter the scale of event.)  After that another board of education member stepped forward and led us in a series of stretches.  Then we all trooped over to the other side of the lot where teachers were handing out bottles of sports drinks, water and green tea.  They were really taking care of us.

Finally, we were off.  Up the mountain we went.  One of the school principals told us it was between seven and eight kilometers to the top of the mountain where we would stop to eat lunch before turning around and heading back to the foot of the mountain. 

It was a beautiful hike.  The weather was perfect.  Warm with a nice breeze.  But it was not an easy hike. It took about an hour and a half to get to the top.  Which really isn’t bad…it had just been a while since we had been on a big hike so we weren’t used to it. 

 On the way up the mountain I saw something I had never before seen or ever thought I would see for that matter.  A couple of guys were mountain unicycling.  That’s right.  Unicycling.  They were covered in protective gear: shin guards, knee guards, elbow pads, forearm pads, helmets.  They obviously knew what they were doing.  I just had no idea that such a sport existed.  You really do learn something new everyday!

We made it to the top of the mountain and sat down to enjoy the scenery and view a bit before eating lunch.  You could see little farms, houses, and whole towns nestled in the valleys between the mountains.  It was beautiful. 

As we finished eating lunch, the students ran about handing out candy.  Their parents train them in the ways of omiyage giving at a young age.  Omiyage is the Japanese word for small gifts that you give to your cowrkers or friends.  It really fosters a culture of sharing.  Omiyage is typically expected of you after you go on a trip, for example.  There are frequently little rice crackers, sweet bean cakes or other such snacks sitting on my desk when I get to school.  (Karl and I made homemade cookies as omiyage once-it was a huge hit.  The fact that we actually took the time to make something ourselves and then share it meant a lot to them.)

The hike back down the mountain went off without a hitch.  We reached the bottom around one o’clock.  The whole excursion had taken around four hours.  We were beat and ready to go home, shower and take a nap. 

No such luck.

We were swept along to something completely unexpected…
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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Carpet of Flowers

Last Thursday, May 5th, was the final day of Golden Week.  Even though we were a bit tired from the trip to Tokyo and just wanted to stay at home, we rallied.  Taking advantage of a holiday together, we pushed ourselves out the door and on our way through the Japanese countryside.

As I have mentioned before, Karl a part of the JET program.  There is a great lady in charge of helping out the JET ALTs (assistant language teachers) within our prefecture of Saitama.  She sends out a “Memo Random” (haha) every couple months full of useful information and articles.  In the most recent volume there was a list of things to do and festivals to see during Golden Week and this is what I found:

● Shibazakura Festival (芝桜まつり, Shiba-zakura Matsuri) Now through May 8 at Hitsuji- yama Park in Chichibu-shi. If you‘ve been in Saitama for five minutes or longer, you‘ve seen photos of the expansive hillsides covered in bright shades of mountain phlox. Grab your camera, take in the sights, and check out some of Chichibu‘s other locales as well. Some matsuri events will still take place . Access: 1.5 km from Chichibu (秩父) and Hanabatake (花畑) stations on the Chichibu Tetsudō (秩父鉄道) line. Open 8:00-17:00, admittance free. More Info at index.html (Japanese, but automatic translator button can be used at your own risk/ amusement).

So we hopped on the train and headed to Chichibu. (To my musical friends: notice that Chichibu was the original setting for Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. Cool!)  It’s roughly an hour away.  We had one transfer and even though we ended up having to wait for a half an hour for the next train, we had fun waiting.  There was an うどんとそば (udon and soba) shop right there on out train platform.  So we shared a bowl of 天ぷらうどん(tempura udon).  It was delicious!

When we arrived in Chichibu, we got off the train and simply followed the crowd.  (We didn’t know exactly how to get there, but figured we would find our way somehow.)  Most people walked to the park right from the train station.  We picked up a free map and off we went.

This event is basically another 花見 (like the sakura events) viewing festival.  People brought picnics, there were food vendors, farmers selling their goods, a little petting zoo… It was lovely.  Although we had already eaten udon at the train station, we partook in some Japanese fair food.  We bought sweet potato fries. Tasty!

Japanese fair food is every bit as unhealthy as American fair food-but completely different.  Instead of fried candy bar/cheese/hot dogs on sticks, there are squids and whole fish on sticks.  Instead of cheese curds, there is takoyaki (fried balls of octopus) and yaki soba (fried noodles with pickled ginger).  It is definitely an experience to be had.

As we munched on our sweet potato fries, we wandered about the field of flowers taking in their beauty.  The air was gently scented with their delicate perfume-just strong enough to be noticed. The flowers stretched out in a little valley.  Although we were there towards the end of the season and the flowers were a bit sparse in places, it was still an incredible sight to behold.  

 The park is nestled at the foot of a big mountain.  It was a hazy day; the top of the mountain was shrouded in mist.  Although the sky was threatening, it did not rain.  

 When we had had our fill of 花見, we slowly made our way back to the train station.  We were very happy we had dragged ourselves out of the apartment for the day.  How fortunate we were to be surrounded by such beauty in the midst of such turbulent times. 

Japan is an incredibly beautiful country.
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Sunday, May 8, 2011

東京 Part 5-And the Crowd Stretched On

"I'm fascinated by the Japanese fashion scene
Just an American girl in the Tokyo streets-

Harajuku girls, you got the wicked style
I like the way that you are
I am your biggest fan"

-Harajuku Girls, By Gwen Stefani

For anyone who has visited Tokyo, there is a good chance you have been to-or at least heard of-the Harajuku area.  It is the place to go to shop, or just people watch.  As the song suggests, there is some pretty incredible fashion to behold at Harajuku.  Before we headed back home to Ogawa Machi, we stopped by Harajuku to see if we could find any gifts to buy for some family members.

Boy, were we wrong.

First of all, the tremendous influx of people entering and exiting the Harajuku Yamanote line station was positively insane.  Hundreds of people per minute. At least. There were several cops there directing traffic, which worked marvelously well.

When we finally emerged from the station, we were greeted by a wall of eager shoppers.  A wall.  I kid you not.  You basically just had to let yourself be carried along by the crowd.  If you are claustrophobic-don't ever go there.

We miraculously got through this street to the other side where I was delighted to see a Godiva Chocolate Shop across the street.  And by Godiva Chocolate Shop, I really mean oasis.  We indulged in some scrumptious dark chocolate ice cream blends to restore our sanity to functional levels before we braved the crowds to get back to the station.

As you have probably figured out, gigantic crowds are really not our thing.  I need space to shop properly.  But at least we can say we had the experience, right?

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東京 Part 4-Lemons and Lemonade

Day two.  We broke out the map and made a game plan.  Not sure when Yuma would call us (and not sure if he had to work or not), we charged onward by ourselves.  We hopped on the Yamanote line and were whisked away to Tokyo station were we planned to explore the Imperial Palace.

Alas...our plans were met by locked doors. 

As I found out later, you must make reservations for guided tours in advance.  There were also signs posted everywhere saying something in kanji about the 大地震 (okiijishin-big earthquake)...anyway, it appeared to be closed.  残念!(zannen-Too bad!)

We were still able to explore a bit outside the walls.  This is what we saw:

Isn't it lovely? I look forward to taking an actual tour of the inside of this place! We were disappointed, but we pulled out our Tokyo tourist map and hunted down something else to do.

We proceeded to adventure to a big park across the street.  The park was many city blocks long.  The whole place was bustling with action of one sort or another.  In one corner a wedding was taking place, live music in another, tennis courts with full of the athletic, painters had situated themselves all about to take in and interpret the scenes around them. 

This part of the park was full of turtles basking in the sun.
We wandered around until we found a charming outdoor restaurant.  We stopped.  It was an Italian style place.  Karl and I both ordered risotto soups.  They were absolutely wonderful! They were served in little cauldron looking vessels.  Original. 

There were lots of stray cats in the park.  They were funny little things.  They stuck their tongues out.  They weren't panting...I couldn't figure out what the deal was.

We also found this-a solar powered clock.  Neat!

After leaving the park, we we walking back towards Tokyo station and happened upon an interesting Museum.  We stopped in to take in this exhibition.  It was very interesting.  Unfortunately, all the information was in Japanese and French.  Hooray.  I pooled all of my collective knowledge of language (which is not nearly enough) and tried to figure things out.  Fun!

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Friday, May 6, 2011

東京 Part 3-China Town

After our visit to the temple and shrine, we caught the subway back to Shibuya and joined Yuma’s parents.  They were in Tokyo visiting Yuma and his sister during the holidays. We learned right away that Yuma’s father is a big connoisseur of spicy Chinese food (Szechuan style).  That meant we were going to China Town. 

Tokyo’s China Town is the biggest China Town in the world, besides China itself, of course.  On the way there, Yuma’s father was on line in his iPad looking up and reading the ratings of restaurants that specialized in the spicy foods he loves so much.  He loaded up a map when they found one that looked good.  

When we got there, we scurried through the narrow, brightly lit streets in search of the restuarant.  It had stopped raining, but everything was still damp.  There were Chinese performers banging on drums, playing flutes and dancing underneath those big Chinese lion dance costumes.  The wet air was full of the most incredible mixture of scents.  Street vendors were cooking right there on the street.  Steam billowed out of the containers that held pot stickers or other tasty items.  

Yuma trekking through the streets in search of the restaurant.
After back tracking a few times, we reached our final destination.  We sat down at a circular table and Yuma’s father ordered.  For those of you who have been to an authentic Chinese restaurant, you will recognize the set up here.  There is always an enormous lazy susan in the middle of the table.  When the food comes, it all goes on the lazy susan and everyone has little dishes they fill from the shared food.  

Karl and I with the delicious food!
It was soooo good.おいしい!(oishii-delicious)

Our party!
I don’t even remember the last time I had such incredible Chinese food…probably when I was in China a few years ago.  My absolute favorite was the gyoza (pot stickers).  Just incredible.  I think I died and went to Heaven. 

We also tried some Chinese sake.  It was served at room temperature and you stirring in some sugar to make a bit less painful.  It was an experience.  We also had some hot Japanese sake.  That is some strong stuff. 

It was a very fun night-I really look forward to exploring Tokyo's Chinatown again soon!

Standing at the entrance to Chinatown

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