13 February 2008

My Adventure

AKA: Be Careful What You Wish For.

On February 9th, I did something that I had been avoiding due to pure terror.
I got a haircut.

Now, haircuts aren't usually a big thing for me. Still, add the language barrier and the fact that my hair is different from Japanese hair and, well, count me terrified. Still, that particular Saturday, I finally went out and got it done.

The cut was amazing, as was the place - I don't normally go to salons back home, as I'm a cheap bastard. This place was great, close to home, and cost me some $30 for at least an hour and a half attention to my hair. And, of course, it's one of the better cuts I've ever had.

The following Monday was a holiday, so Caitlin and I decided to go to Kamakura on Sunday to see the Big Buddha ("Daibutsu"). This guy is aptly named. He looms over the area, calmly and serenely watching over the town. He was quite a wonderful sight.

20 yen (around 15 cents) buys you entrance inside the Buddha, and I don't think I've spent a better 20 yen since. While it was cramped inside, being absolutely packed with tourists, there was an odd peace in being inside Buddha. Not to mention the fact that being inside a sculpture gives one an interesting view of the sculpture's details.

Caitlin and I also visited the "money washing shrine," Zeniarai Benten Jinjya. We took the long route, going over the mountain side, which was tiring but beautiful and, in retrospect, well worth our time and effort. This shrine is famed for a small river inside a cave; legend has it that any money washed in this river will be doubled, a beneficial thing that I was more than happy to put my hopes on as I washed my 1man ($100) note and a 500 yen ($5 ish) coin. Being inside the cave felt very primitive and quiet...well, as long as one could block out the sound of tourists and clicking camera shutters.

In Kamakura itself, we also did a little shopping, and I found one of the highlights of my shopping career here in Japan - a Studio Ghibli store. I could have spent hours in that very, very small store, looking at everything, but had to content myself with a short visit that still parted me with quite a bit of money (which was OK, as I had already ensured that my money would be doubled).

Caitlin and I left Kamakura and went to meet up with Clarissa and Aaron in Yokohama, a mini-Tokyo famous for its China Town. Now, throughout the day, Caitlin and I had talked a bit about roadtrips in our past, and I had lamented the fact that I had few memorable roadtrips or adventures. Clearly, this was a moment in which the phrase "be careful what you wish for" is ever so appropriately applied. The four of us ate dinner in Yokohama, staying a little later than we intended, but we were fairly sure that we could get back to Ota without problem. However, our arrival at Kuki station prophecized otherwise, as we watched the last train to Ota pull away just as we arrived at our platform.
Cue Leslie to spend a frenzied hour or so attempting to figure out how we can get home, if we can get home, and who we could possibly stay with in Tatebayashi, the closest city to home we could get to that night. Fortunately, a friend of mine was in Tatebayashi and was able to put the four of us up for the night, giving our little adventure a very fun, sleepover ending. Still, for a few moments, the prospect of livening up my "adventureless" life by spending the night in a train station seemed less than appealing.

The next morning saw me home, safe and sound, with a worried cat and several new adventures to occupy my thoughts.

A Busy Weekend, Indeed.

AKA: Leslie's a Mommy!

I got up early on the 19th of January, a Saturday, and got dressed in business attire. No normal Saturday, this one - I was going to judge an English speech contest.

Having gone through the speech contest on the student's side, it was both interesting and hard to be on the other side of the fence. I knew the pain that these kids had (likely) gone through to write their speech and then practice it for weeks, but I also had no sentimental ties to cloud my view of their performance. It was also somewhat horrifying to be in the "judging room" afterwards and hear how we decided the winners: giving our numeric ratings, then deciding that the numeric results didn't "feel" right and changing them. While it makes sense (we had different rating tactics, at the very least) ... it was awfully subjective, and it was hard for me to think that my 3rd years had been treated like that, way back when.
Then, I was returned to my apartment, some 6 or 7 hours after I had left it, with 5 more hours of vacation time to my name and the feeling of a somewhat wasted day.

I have to mention it, because he was just so wonderful and we couldn't give him a placement: one boy, Dimo, had a wonderful and inspiring speech about his name ("Democracy" ... no joke), his home country of Myanmar and its current political climate, and even his cute girlfriend...but he was extremely nervous and botched the whole speech. Oh, oh Dimo. Forever, your name will remind me of valient efforts that nonetheless are not enough to get final prize.

I woke up early the next day, Sunday, as well, completely ruining my weekend of rest. I cleaned furiously and then left my apartment at 11, to return some 6 hours (and lots of angst-inducing public transportation uses) later with my new bundle of joy: Miyuu, the (then) 8 month old kitten.

Now, technically speaking, I'm not allowed to have a pet in my apartment. I justify Miyuu's presence to myself with ease, however: my two neighbors get to have small children around, and I consider them worse than most pets when it comes to potential damage to the apartment.

Miyuu's been with me now for a little over a month, and she's a dear. I've never owned a truly loving cat, and the experience is a pleasant one for me. Every time I take her to the vet, they remark on how well-behaved she is, and I beam like a proud parent. She's not always an angel, but as of late I've found myself treating her antics as one would the destructive nature of an energetic child. I sometimes note my patience with her with amusement, usually hearing my mother's response to my saying, a long time ago, that I didn't know if I'd be able to deal with children of my own, given my level of patience around the children of others: "It's different when they're yours."

In short, Leslie is a very indulging and proud mommy! :)

Winter Travels

I've been remiss on accounting my traveling as of late. I delay in recounting these experiences mostly because it takes so much effort to remember all of the things that happen during a trip, especially a good one.

So, two of my winter trips:

On the 22nd of December, I caught a train and started my long trip to Nikko. What was originally supposed to last 3 hours took me an extra 2 to accomplish, mostly because I wasn't completely comfortable in some of the transfers I had to make. Still, I took this as half of the fun of the adventure, and arrived in Nikko happy, albeit tired.

While in Nikko, I stayed in a ryokan - a Japanese inn. While this is usually a costly affair, I found a wonderful place that was not only affordable, but was run by an amazing couple who treated me extraordinarily well during my stay. The inn itself was just the house next to the one in which the couple themselves lived, but was converted to the purpose of housing several groups of people at once. The innkeepers themselves spoke some English, more than I can manage in Japanese, and yet they delighted in my attempts. I managed to translate for them a bit when their spoken English went below my level of Japanese comprehension, and offered to write down a warning about the kerosene heaters they use so that they could give them to their future guests rather than risk a communication barrier. For this small task, they gave me a present of a beautiful necklace, one that has never failed to earn me compliments when I wear it, and this is by far the best souvineer I've ever received.

Nikko itself is hailed as one of the most beautiful places in Japan, and I have a hard time discounting this opinion. To begin, the town is home to some of the most magnificent temples in Japan, having won the favor of the first Shogun of Japan, Ieyasu Tokugawa. He requested that his ashes be enshrined there, and his grandson not only followed these instructions, but made himself a shrine for his own ashes, making Nikko the "Mausoleum of the Tokugawa Shoguns." Nikko is also known around the world for one particular carving: the three monkeys, known in English as "Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil, and See No Evil." These are carvings featured on the horse stables, and were (along with the other monkeys carved on the building) to be able to protect the horses from harm.
Along with the beautiful shrines is the beautiful scenery. Nestled into the mountains and surrounded by tall ceders and beautiful maples, it's hard to beat the scenic surrounds of a place like Nikko. On top of this, the river running through the town is a blue-green I have only seen before in the Mediterranian. In short, Nikko is truly breathtaking.

Unfortunately, the breathtaking scenery was hard to see past the mass of tourists that constantly clog Nikko's paths. My favorite spot, by far, was the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, a pathway along the river featuring many jizou statues, and I think the great appeal of this walkway was the utter lack of pressing tourists along the way. (It helped that I liked the jizou themselves; the story goes that Kanmangafuchi looks different every time you visit, as the statues move when one is not looking.)

I spent 7 hours walking around on Sunday, enjoying the scenary and the sights, and it was well worth the expense of the weekend (which I considered a Christmas present to myself). I won't make an account of everything here, as it'd be entirely too long, but I'm very glad I went and experienced not only the sights but the company of Nikko.


On 12 January, the 6 lady ALTs of Ota set out for Kusatsu, a small town in the north of Gunma that is one of the most famous places for onsen. Onsen, natural hot springs, are loved by the Japanese as a way of relaxing, but are somewhat frightening to a foreigner as they are generally public bathing areas. As foreigners stick out like a sore thumb most everywhere, the ante is only upped by the naked factor. So, we braved the dangers in true girl fashion: traveling in groups.

Getting to Kusatsu took most of the day; trains for hours, followed by buses, followed by walks. It was a scenic trip, going through mountainous areas and into a thickly falling snow, but a long one, and we were all a little rough around the edges when we arrived at our hostel. Of course, the best way to recover from a long trip is in an onsen, so we packed our bath things and made our way to the Now Resort Hotel, a few hundred meters away from our hotel.

Resort spas are amazing places. After paying for entry into the spa area, we went downstairs and disrobed. There was a lot of naked flesh around, most of it middle-aged or pre-pubescent. The rule in onsen is that one walks around with a small towel, about the size of a dish towel, which one can use to hide under (somewhat) and then use to keep one's hair out of the water of the onsen. Many of our group, who were not fortunate enough to have tenure in "hannah's School of Flesh Desensitivisation," used this protective towel as they could, while Reina (who was born and lived her early years in Japan) and I were pretty well all out there from the start.

Onsen-ing is a process. First, you shower to rid yourself of any dirt that might be brought into the bath. (This is a common practice at private baths, too, as the practice is for the whole family to soak in the same bath of water in succession so as to save water and heating for the water.) Then, you soak in the onsen itself, moving from warm pools to cooler pools and back as the fit strikes you, and then showering once your done. While this whole process normally takes around an hour for the average Japanese person, we were not to be outdone, and ended up staying for three or so hours before we left for the evening.

The spa onsen hosted one thing I can't continue without noting: an outdoor onsen, which allowed us to enjoy both the hot water and the snow while we soaked. It was one of the highlights of the trip for me, to sit up to my shoulders in hot water and watch the snow fall while enjoying the company of friends.

The next day, after an early wake-up call for breakfast and a random wandering around the area of the hostel, the girls and I went into the main of town and tried out several other onsens - the town is full of them, and one could literally stumble upon them at the oddest of places. I got naked in front of more (somewhat scared at the number of foreigners) Japanese women than I can number, but it was all in good fun. We did a little shopping, too, as we walked, sampling the wares of the onsen town, and ended our day in true fashion - back at the onsen in the resort hotel. We made our way back on Monday (a holiday) in high spirits, relaxed and wishing that school were not nearing ever so steadily once more.

These are abbreviated accounts, to be sure, but the highlights are there. Pictures are up on my facebook profile, too, so you should take a look at those as the notion strikes you. In fact, I recommend it! ^_^

08 February 2008

Leslie and the Big, Bad Kanji

One of the biggest hurdles to my being literate here isn't a lack of vocabulary, but instead an inability to read kanji. Kanji are characters stolen from the Chinese system of writing way back when the Japanese were absorbing everything Chinese (much as they were later to absorb everything Western). Kids study kanji up through 9th grade, and it's understandable as to why: you have to know some 3,000 just to be able to read a newspaper.

In some ways, kanji are evil. For example, each kanji is likely to have anywhere from 2 to 5 readings (sometimes more, hurray!). The "On" readings are the Chinese pronunciations, while the "Kun" readings are Japanese. Thus, the character for 3 can be pronounced "san" (Chinese) or "mi" (Japanese). The word for "3 people" is "sannin," while the word for "3 (of something)" is "mitsu."

In other ways, though, kanji are awesome. These ways tend to be the things that have me forever labeled as a consummate nerd.

1. Kanji are the ultimate Latin roots.
If I know the meaning of a kanji, I can usually puzzle out the meaning of the word. For example, the word for "train" in Japanese is "densha," which is made from the kanji for "electricity" and "car." In short, figuring out what a word means is like a really awesome puzzle.

On top of this, kanji build on themselves. For example, if you combine the kanji for "sun" and "moon" into one character, you get the kanji for "light" - makes perfect sense, as the sun and moon are the big sources of natural light. Stick that kanji next to the kanji for "sun" again (which also means "day") and you get the word "ashita" ... which means "tomorrow" (because it's a day that is a cycle of the moon and sun away from today).
It's not always that simple, and it doesn't always make that much sense, but when it does, it's pretty awesome.

2. Kanji are the ultimate shortcut.
Think of a word. Let's say "big." Now, think of some synonyms: "large," "enormous." Now, in Japanese, these would all be written with the same character for "big," as well as anything that had the meaning of "big" - "college," for instance, which is the biggest of the schools, or "adult," the big person, or "flood," the big water.
Now, Japanese doesn't have fewer words for "big" than we do in English - they just have fewer ways to write it. Thus, while it's frustrating to know that there are several ways that the kanji "big" can be pronounced, it's awesome to know that the number of ways to write these things is easier.

3. Kanji are their own spaces.
Japanese has three "alphabets" - two phonetic (one is for Japanese words and the other for foreign ones) and Kanji. Japanese does not, however, have spaces or other indications of separation between words. Now,whileit'snotimpossibletofigureoutwhatImeanwhenIdon'tusespaces,it'sstillsomewhathardtoread,evenfornativespeakers. To make things even harder, Japanese has particles, or characters from the phonetic alphabet used to mark words for their grammatical meaning in the sentence. Add to that the fact that these particles are not always pronounced the same way the characters are when used in a word, and you have a right troublesome time.
For example: "I spoke" is "watashi wa hanashida." If it's all written in the phonetical alphabet, the "wa" character is the same as the "ha" character for "hanashita" ... and "haha" means "mother." Confusing, right?
But it's not written that way. Instead, the kanji for "me, I" is used, plus the "ha" particle, plus the kanji for "to talk," ("hanashi"), plus the phonetic character for "ta" (which can in this sense be thought of as a past-tense particle). So it doesn't matter that you don't have any spaces, because the changing between kanji and the phonetic alphabet clearly shows the break between words.

So, while I'm frustrated at how little I can read on a regular basis, and how few kanji I know (about 100), I actually like studying them on the whole. They may be needlessly complicated to pronounce and impossible to master, but the driving principle behind them is something I can appreciate and support. I'm sure the Japanese language, on the whole, is glad for this gaikokujin's ("foreign," "country," "person") support.

03 February 2008

A Somewhat Belated New Year's Account

While thinking of how to write a recounting of my New Year's, I couldn't help but remember the following quote:
"Start at the beginning, and when you get to the end ... stop."
- The Mad Hatter (:Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:)
Well, we're here at a new beginning, so I find I have to thwart the Hatter and, instead, start at the end.

I've been looking forward to New Year's ever since my lackluster Christmas. Now, Christmas was lackluster for me because it was so...minimal. I spent a lot of time playing up Christmas in class for my students; heck, that's all I taught about for the last week of the winter trimester. So, when my gifts for my teachers on Christmas were met with looks of confusion, and the most conversation I had about the holiday was whether Santa-san would bring presents to this teacher or that teacher, I have to admit that I felt a little let down. New Year's, though...that's a big one around here, arguably the holiday that best embodies everything I think about when I think of Christmas - traditional foods, activities, decorations, rituals, religion...all in one. There was no way I would pass as quietly.

During the week before Christmas, Saito-sensei (who you should all know by name, at this point) invited me to join his family in making mochi. This is sort of like being invited to make Christmas cookies; it's a family affair. I was happy to accept, and Sunday found me at the Saito residence.
Mochi is usually translated as "rice cake," but I find this to be a horrid accounting of it. "Rice cake" makes me think of Quaker Oats diet food, and that is at the polar opposite of the connotation spectrum from mochi. It is, instead, rice that has been pounded until it becomes a uniform sort of paste or dough, which is then made into little rounds or cut into squares and eaten in various ways, from being a part of appetizers to straight up desserts on their own. It's sticky and goey, often being the cause of many elderly and young person's deaths through choking. Perhaps it's the danger of it that makes it so delicious, as I must say that I love mochi beyond all logic and reason.
When I arrived, the first batches of rice were almost finished cooking. They were being steamed above two metal chimneys, which were carefully maintained so as to be constantly loaded to the brim with firewood. (I missed the smell of a good fire...) After this, the rice was thrown into a large, wooden stump what resembled a 3-foot-tall mortar bowl. Then came the "mochi dance," as I will now call it: Saito-sensei's son pounded the rice with a huge, wooden mallet, while the sensei himself reached in to "fold" the rice-paste-dough between the hits. Saito-sensei and his son were clearly very practiced, as there was only one near accident that I saw.
The paste/dough was then taken into the house, and my role as spectator quickly changed to Maker of Mochi. Sitting with Saito-sensei's daughter and mother, I made round mochi with sweet-bean paste centers, made roundmochi sans centers to be offered to the kami (nature spirits), and helped cut hardened slabs of mochi into rectangles to be stored for later recipes. Apparently, with one major exception, I did a good job. :D A few hours (and lots of food) later, the Saito family sent me home with mochi, a bottle of wine to start the new year, and a lot of fun memories.

The turning of the clock itself is a quiet affair in Japan. There are only a few sounds at the stroke of midnight: a few fireworks, and the literal ringing in of the year with large bells at temples. These are rung 108 times to drive away the 108 sins of man held to exist by the Buddhist tradition. Outside of these sounds, all is quiet, ensuring a peaceful year. Traditional foods are eaten for the first meal, and every one dresses up for the first visits of the year to the shrine and temple. The next three days are spent at home, enjoying time with the family...well, traditionally speaking. Now a days, more and more people spend less time at home and more time with their friends, traveling and enjoying the long span of national holidays.

Of course, it wouldn't be Japan if there weren't intense displays of politeness. Friends send one another New Year's cards, thanking each other for the past year and asking for continued good relations in the upcoming one. These have to be mutually received; if you get a card from someone to whom you did not send one, you had better hurry to the post office or risk giving offense.
It doesn't stop their, either. The first time you see someone in the new year, even if it's weeks after the year starts, has a set exchange of pleasantries along the same lines as the cards sent - thank you for last year, here's to this year. It makes the first day back at the office a rather complicated affair, especially for those of us clueless gaikokujin who haven't learned the proper forms. I muddled through, and no one seems to have shown offense.

All in all, it was a wonderful experience and, though I missed my friends and family during the holiday season, I'm glad I got to experience this holiday first-hand.