Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Naganooooo way!

So months ago Japan had two national holidays in a row, on a Sunday and Monday. Since life in Japan was starting not to feel like life in Japan anymore--it was starting to feel more just like life--some of my friends and I decided we better get off our rear ends and do some traveling.

We went to Nagano.

Nicole, Alana, Andy, and I hopped on a train Sunday morning. Four hours later, we arrived in Yudanaka, a station about 40 minutes from Nagano station, in the Northern prefecture of Nagano. Yudanaka was extremely tiny from what I could tell. We stayed in a little ryokan (traditional Japanese Inn) owned by an indescribably adorable old couple. I will attempt to describe them. To begin with, the man we called Mr. Yumoto, was very small and short. He spoke quite a bit of English, though in a very strange and robotic, sometimes Yoda-esque accent. Phone conversations never ended with a goodbye or a thank you. Mr. Yumoto preferred hanging up the phone at the moment when he deemed the conversation over, which may not necessarily have been the same moment that you found it appropriate to hang up on a person. Sometimes his end of the conversations consisted of simply one word:

Andy-san: Moshi moshi. (hello?)

Yumoto-san: Dozo. (go ahead)

Andy-san: Hai. (Okay.)

Yumoto-san: ... "click"

Then there were moments when Yumoto-san wanted to direct the course of our entire time in Nagano. You must go to Obuse, town with famous restaurant, chestnut restaurant, you eat good chestnut. You go to Sake brewery, drink good sake, must buy Sake. Must go to museum. Must buy souvenir, go to craft shop. Yumoto-san's wife and grandson were equally as cute and enthusiastic. When we went out for dinner the first night, when we arrived back at the room the light was on. We were freaked out thinking someone had broken into our room. When we entered, our slippers were all lined up, the table had been pushed to the side and our futons had been laid with care on the floor, all made up with blankets and pillows and little complimentary mints and toothbrushes on them. It was amazing.

The place was really fun because we stayed in a real tatami-mat style room where you do everything on the floor. We had little chairs that had no legs and a little table with a teapot and what seemed like an endless supply of green tea. We loved putting on the yukata robes (casual style kimono) and taking tons of ridiculous posed pictures of each other in our traditional Japanese clothing.

The next morning we were treated to a huge Japanese style breakfast. It was delicious: grilled fish, rice, japanese pickles, miso soup, salad, and I forget what else, but it was good and very generous.

We originally went to Nagano thinking we wanted to go to an onsen, but we decided some of Yumoto-san's recommended activities might be nice beforehand. The morning was wonderful, Yumoto-san drove us in his van to a monkey park where we saw live monkeys just walking around on a mountain, bathing in natural mountain hot springs, picking bugs out of each others hair, occasionally doing the unmentionable dirty deed, doing what monkeys do. Best of all, there were adorable little baby monkeys. It was insane because there were no fences or anything. We were just walking around with the monkeys. We could have touched them if we really wanted to. Though, they probably would have ripped our arms off.

Afterwards we probably should have just done the onsen (hot spring) thing, instead of following Yumoto-san's plan for us, as we of course got lost and then it started to rain heavily on us. But at least the famous chesnut restaurant had interesting food! Everything was, well, chestnutty..you know, made of chestnuts. They're kinda good, really sweet. After that, I'll spare you the part where we bickered about whether to return home early or still try to figure out where there might be an onsen. I'll just tell you that we decided to return home early and went back to Nagano station, ready to board the shinkansen. We saw a travel shop in the station and decided to go in and ask if they knew of any onsen's really close by that we could hit before returning home. We were tense and disappointed by a wasted afternoon. All we wanted was some hot water to get naked in. Luckily, there was one reachable by taxi.

Like I said, our original reason for going to Nagano was to enjoy bathing in an onsen (hot spring). We had made good use of the onsen in the Ryokan, but that one wasn't a real onsen. It was a good way to introduce Alana to the world of getting naked with your friends. Still, this was indoors, there was only one pool. Now she was introduced to the world of getting naked in front of everyone. She took it well though. She was a real pro, having worked at a health spa for a long time back home. The big, public onsen we went to in Nagano was huge. There were about six pools inside and then one large pool outside where you could look at a mountain side. It was very peaceful. Really relaxing. Just what we needed and a great way to end the trip. Nagano was a bit of a random choice, but I think ultimately it was pretty rewarding. I actually really recommend the Ryokan we stayed at, they were super helpful and accommodating and cute and hilarious and nice. There. Finished. Now for lots of pictures!

Monday, November 10, 2008

All My Children.

Well, don't ask me how it happened. I took great pains to protect myself from the possibilities of infection. I was afraid of them. I took great pains to avoid acquiring any kind of knowledge that might pertain to them. I took great pains to avoid developing any kind of understanding of them. I avoided developing the ability to feel any sort of comfort in their presence. To the disbelief and anger of my entire neighborhood, I rudely asked everyone to desist in requesting my services as a babysitter when I was in middle school.

I believe I had perfectly good reasons.

I hated it when they smelled bad. I hated it when they cried. I hated it when they complained. I hated it when they were small and I was terrified I was going to drop them on their heads and end up in babykiller's prison. I hated it when their parents expected me to somehow feed them. I hated it when they told me they were going to tell on me when their mother got home. I hated it when they insisted I lay down on the grass in their yard, in broad daylight, mind you, in front of the whole damn neighborhood, just so they could jump over me repeatedly, over and over and over, for hours upon stupid hours, while their ugly golden retrievers slobbered on my face and their saucy older sisters smirked and stifled giggles at my misfortune.

I didn't care how blond they were or how small they were or how chubby their damn hands were. They were scary. No, scratch that. They were utterly terrifying.

But I should have known.

I should have known when I accidentally fell in love with a pair of baby shoes once. I couldn't help it. They were irresistibly small. I should have known that I wouldn't be able to suppress my love of most things miniature forever. I mean, I once had a doll house. Didn't that tell me anything about myself? Who was I kidding?

But I said it. Many times. "I never want to work with kids. I probably don't want to have kids. I certainly never want to teach kids. In fact, I never want to teach anyone, anything, ever! So there!"

Well, here I am. I am in Japan. I am teaching, and I am teaching children.


You can't say I didn't try, though. I fought back for a long time. I almost made it 9 months without getting infected with child lover's disease. But in the end, I was fighting an uneven battle. I was teaching nine kids classes per week. Now that's tough. That's cruel. Screaming, crying, sneezing on you, trying to hide flashcards under my skirt (what a stupid hiding place, do they really believe that I won't think to look there?), setting timers to go off after 10 minutes while I'm in the middle of chorusing new vocabulary so it disrupts the class, putting bells on my cushion so I'll make a ringing noise when I place my dainty rear end upon it. The things one goes through. Honestly.

It started slowly, crept up on me without my noticing. It was Soichiro, the six-year-old troublemaker that slid into class on his stomach, wearing his shoes on his hands. He was always trying to do headstands, and purposely provided answers to my questions that were the opposite of correct, effectively confusing the rest of the class. What color is this? RED! No, it's blue. What number is this? 10! No, it's 5, (idiot). And the other kids had no clue. They'd look confused and then repeat his incorrect answer. uhhh oh, ok... RED! No no no. NOT red, BLUE! BLUE, I say!!

This was what I was dealing with.

But it was the day I realized he was the only one in the room who understood my sense of humor- understood me. He totally got me. When I pretended to eat a fake pineapple the way cookie monster would, he laughed so hard he fell over. When I jumped up and down like a monkey and made strange noises so the children would understand exactly what a monkey looks and sounds like, he was the only one who stood up and did it with me, laughing all the way. (I won't bother with the girl who simply sat there, pointed at me with a look of pure disgust and said, "baka," translation: stupid.) That was the day I noticed he didn't annoy me anymore. In fact, looking back upon that time, I understand better what I was feeling that day. It was the feeling of liking something. I actually found the little boy cute.

Then it was Shuu, the three-year-old boy who was so small, and so afraid to come into my class, even though the parents were there, too. It was the day he came out from between his mother's legs and shouted, "salami!" when I asked, "what's this?" Now that was cute: a little person just steaming with pure happiness, pure accomplishment, pure pride.

Then it really happened. Halloween arrived. I was dressed my little piggiest, so as to elicit the most number of "kawaiii"'s (cute) possible from the students. Well, wouldn't you know it? The damn children got dressed up for Halloween, too! Who do they think they are? One girl was a christmas tree (wrong holiday buddy, get with the program mom), one was a samurai, one was a king, one was knight in shining armor, one was a pumpkin, one was a skeleton, one was a I-have-no-idea-what-you-are-but-it's-hilarious, and there were plenty of pointy witch hats being displayed that week. Yes, that's right. Halloween was a week long this year. I dressed like a pig at work, five days in a row. I was subjected to helping little children make balloon ghosts and balloon spiders, and carve pathetically small, green pumpkins because the orange ones don't exist in Japan. They all looked so scared and uncomfortable in their costumes.

It was adorable...

People, the news is in: I'm hooked on kids, and I love teaching. Who have I seriously become?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Blazing Cranes....and wedding bands?

Folks, it's official. I am officially at an age where it is appropriate to be married. My God.

I seriously didn't think anyone I knew would get married until I was, at least, thirty. But sometimes, you just can't help how and when you fall in love. You never know when it'll happen to you. All you readers, beware, I say. It could strike at any moment. Don't think just cause you're in your 20s you're immune to this infectious disease. Back home, in New York, people are falling like flies.

I can't tell you how many photo albums of weddings I've seen on Facebook this summer. And this is just including the pictures of people I personally know. In all fairness, most of these people are in their later twenties, usually friends of my brother. It makes sense. I could deal with that.

But now, someone extremely dear to me, someone my age, someone who is essentially kind-of like my sister, is now married. EXCUSE ME? I still act like a five-year-old half the time. No one my age should be getting married.

That's right. Last week, one of my best friends got married. This past spring, in my insanity, caused by my love for my kind-of sister, I decided to purchase a plane ticket to New York and take four of my allotted 5 vacation days off. The decision was solidified after I found out that many of best friends, as well as my parents and brother would be there. Well, hell, if they got to be there, then I wanted to be there too!

On Wednesday night, the 10th of September, I returned home from work at about 10pm. I finished packing my suitcase and went to bed. Thursday morning, I woke up at 5:30, hopped on the train to Shinjuku, then transferred to the Narita Express. I got to Narita Airport at 9:30am. Caught an 11:45am plane to JFK airport. I arrived in New York at 11:30, 15 minutes earlier than I had left Japan. That really did my head in. How could I arrive 15 minutes earlier than I left, on the SAME exact day? Time is an amazing institution.

The first thing I noticed about New York was what a jerk the customs officer was. I walked up to the counter and put my passport and customs form on the desk. Little did I know, I had inexplicably become a ghost at some point while I was in Japan, because the guy didn't seem to have any clue that there was even a cloud of moisture in front of him. He was absorbed in what must have been a very interesting discussion with his buddy, and fellow customs officer, across the way. He waited a full minute before slowly picking up my passport, not bothering to wonder where this little book could have come from or what ghostly apparition might have placed it there, and gave it a careless, lopsided little stamp. He placed it back on the counter. I said in a brassy loud voice, "THANK YOU." I waited... Nothing.

Nothing. There was nothing! He couldn't hear me. Then it dawned on me... I really was invisible! My God! What had happened to me? Had I died and no one had bothered to let me know? I was considerably upset by all this until I walked into the terminal, and beaming unmistakably in my direction were my dewy-eyed parents. A smile broke on my face. I was alive!!! It was nice to see my parents, too.

After dropping off my luggage at the house, I set off on some important errands. I got a haircut, a manicure, and a pedicure, lulled to sleep in the salon chair by Norman the Hairstylist's gentle political rantings about Sarah Palin, the devil. Afterwards, I partook of the best Italian food I've ever eaten, at my family's favorite restaurant, accompanied by my parents and brother. I fell asleep at dinner, my head pressed against the cold, candlelit tile wall.

The next morning my family, a good friend of mine, and I set off in a cramped Subaru station wagon to foggy Martha's Vineyard. We drove 5 hours, ate McDonalds for lunch like good, patriotic Americans sometimes do, rode an American yellow school bus to the ferry port, took a 45 -minute ferry-ride to the island and were promptly picked up by the bride-to-be and her family.

Fast forward to the wedding. I really respect and admire Anne for the way she organized her wedding. Firstly, it was extremely small: mostly family and a small number of very close friends. It was also done very simply, locally, and inexpensively.

Before I tell you more let me just preface this next paragraph with an important bit of information: the bride has three Aunts, meaning her mother has three sisters, as well as a Great Aunt, who lives in Martha's Vineyard. Why am I telling you this? Well, just read for crying out loud!

Here we go. Her wedding dress was made by one of her aunts. All the vegetables were grown in another aunt's backyard. All the food was cooked and prepared by her aunts. All the food was served by her aunt's friends. Another Aunt's friend did all the flowers and wedding bouquets. To top it off, the wedding took place in the front yard of her great aunt's house, with a reception on the back porch, over looking the stunning beach scenery. What else did her aunts do? Well maybe that's about it, but I think that's quite a lot, now don't you?

I was amazed that literally everything for the wedding was done by someone who knew the family closely. Here are some more examples: The bride didn't have any makeup or hair done professionally. It was all done by one extremely talented bridesmaid... (no, not me, don't be so silly!). Really though, who needs professionals? She looked perfect, like a Gretian goddess. The photographer was also a friend of ours from high school who is currently embarking on a professional photography career. Her photos are amazing. Now, get this. This one I found really amazing. Okay. The bride and her husband were married by her mother's best friend. That's right, her mother's best, best friend just happens to be a minister. I just think that is a really nice thing, to be married by someone you know well, who is really close to your family. The woman is a really sweet lady too, with a good sense of humor. No one minded when she accidentally skipped a part, and started to repeat a part of the ceremony. She actually demanded that they remove the rings from their fingers and do it again. But no one cared. It was cute, it was hilarious. Everyone just laughed, which was a nice respite from all the crying that was going on. Because let me tell you, there was a lot of that. Even from the bride, herself. She was so happy, she could barely say her vows. Since it worked out that I was the bridesmaid standing closest to her during the ceremony, we had formulated a little plan where I would pass her a little lacy hankerchief with which she could dab her water-proof mascara-ed eyes. I can't remember the last time I was in a place so permeated by happiness before.

There's the bride-to-be, waiting to put on
that beautiful dress hanging in the doorway.

Everything was so quirky, so perfect. The wedding cake consisted of strawberry covered cupcakes made by a local Vineyard bakery. Even the insanely bright bridesmaid dresses, that had made everyone so nervous, ended up looking perfect. There were six bridesmaids in all, most of us in different colors. One wore pink, another blue, one green, two yellow, and I wore orange. Sadly, J Crew failed to convey through photographic evidence on their website that the colors of the dresses had obviously been precisely matched to the colors found in a pack of highlighters. All day we were herded around by the call of, "Okay, over here my little highlighters!" But, by the end, everyone agreed that it made the wedding much brighter and livelier. They were also incredibly photogenic. I was also delighted to be told by many that the color of my dress was decidedly less like a highlighter than the others, and was actually a fabulous color on me. Yippee. Perhaps I'll get to wear it again...

See how those tricky little dresses are deceivingly
not like highlighters when captured in photographs?

Anyways, the wedding was beautiful. I had an amazing weekend seeing my parents, brother, and many very important people and friends from my life back home, all who I love very, very much. Too bad I had to return the following Monday, which meant I arrived in Japan on Tuesday and then went back to work on Wednesday. But, I've decided it was totally worth it. The thirty minutes of that ceremony were probably the most intimate, personal, meaningful thirty minutes in earth's history. I'm not kidding.

Here's one of my favorite pictures, of me and my brother.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Blazing Cranes are Dead

So the other reason I've been M.I.A. from this bloggy land is that I was very busy practicing with my band, the Blazing Cranes. We had a live show a few weeks ago at a small bar in Kokubunji, a train stop away from where we live. Since Daniel is leaving Japan (forever) in about a week or so, the band as we know it, is dying. We decided to really give it all we had and a have a gig before he left. So during the months of July and August, we started having practices about two or three times week. A lot of practices were devoted to recording. We tried our darndest to get a good recording of each song so we could make an album to sell at the show. Since none of us are really very technologically or musically knowledgeable, it was quite the struggle. Tensions rose between all of us, and it became harder to play songs with the same kind of passion after playing them over and over again, stopping for even the tiniest little mistakes. But we persevered and were finally able to get recordings that we, at least, felt comfortable burning on CDs and giving to friends.

I bought a crappy used Casio keyboard for 1,000 yen, about $10, so I could practice by myself in my room. We tried doing acoustic practices in the guest house, but eventually we were threatened with eviction after our crotchety old neighbors in the next apartment building over were complaining about us. We took to waking up early and biking to the park to record songs on Daniel's laptop. Children paddled in the river and old men walked their dogs as we sang at the top of our lungs, the boys wailing on their acoustic guitars.

As the the date of the show neared, we got equally busier, more stressed, and more nervous. Our social lives consisted solely of the interactions we had with each other at practices. Daniel was assigned the huge task of mixing the recordings and making the CDs, while I was assigned the task of creating the album covers. We decided on the album title, Blazing Cranes are Burning Hands, which tied-in to one of our songs that was about hands. I didn't want to do an image that was too related to the title, because I tend to find that sort of thing disgustingly cheesy. I settled on using photographs I had taken at aquariums around Tokyo. I made a bunch of protoypes, then let the guys choose their favorite. We decided on a very simple CD case design. Each case was made out of one A4 piece of white cardstock. We folded the sheet around the CD into a square so that the cover image was printed on the front, and then the back flaps were folded back and tucked into themselves. The track list and acknowledgments were printed on the back flaps. I spent a lot of time playing with the design on photoshop, and then finally made the trek to Fedex Kinkos--yes, they have it in Japan--where I printed sixty covers. I bought a ruler and a handy paper scorer and went home to begin a week of meticulous folding. Every night when I came home from work, there was I was, folding, folding, always folding. I was still folding up until the night before the show. In the end, though, I was actually pretty happy with how they turned out. The front side of the final cover looked like this:

The hilarious thing was, at the show the next evening one girl I know asked me why we called ourselves the Blazing Cranes. I told her we just liked the sound of it. Then she asked me why I chose the image I did. I told her I chose it because I liked marine creatures and aquariums a lot, and I didn't want an image too related to the title. I liked how the sea weed in the image looked a little bit like a plume of smoke though, which subtly tied it to the words "blazing" and "burning."

Well, then she really gave it to me. She told me that the moment she saw the cover, she immediately thought of Hiroshima. She said the seaweed looked like an atomic cloud. The "Cranes" in "Blazing Cranes" made her think of origami paper cranes. Paper cranes are a famous symbol of Hiroshima because of a Japanese girl who organized some peace movement that involved folding thousands of paper cranes, but then died of radiation. So basically, we were horrible human beings. I was stunned. All four of us had been oblivious. We had completely failed to notice any of these connections. Why, in God's name, did we have to choose that design out of all the others? I was pretty upset at first, especially after roughly five other people provided similar sentiments about the cover later on. Luckily, none of them were Japanese, they were all foreigners. A few comforting comrades asserted that it was okay, because now it made us seem edgier. Still, I couldn't help wishing we had picked a different design. [See a couple of the other possible designs below. ]

Anyways, on to the show: we were pretty nervous as the show began, but as it progressed we slowly relaxed and got into the music. By the end, I was having a great time. We all made a bunch of mistakes, especially me. However, I'm proud to say we packed the place. Lots of English teachers, and even some Japanese school staff came, as well as a large group from our guest house. After the show, a lot of people told me my voice was "good," "fantastic," "amazing." Always a nice thing to hear, whether or not it's really true. I can't say whether people were sincere in their compliments to us, but I do believe that people in the audience had a lot of fun. They really liked it when we played a song from the video that everyone teaches in our Mini Kids classes. For an idea of what the song might be like, the age range in those classes are 1.5 to 2.5 years old. Anyone who could, sang along and did the corresponding actions that we do in the classes. We played about ten songs at the show. There were also about ten songs on the album, including a secret bonus track. [Ooh, aren't we fancy?] All in all, it's been a good, fun experience. Hopefully when Andy and I play a show with our new band, we won't be quite so nervous.

Here's me singing. Andy on the left, Daniel on the right.

Here's the band after the show, nice n' sweaty.
Daniel, Me, Andy, Leo.
They all look a bit dazed and beat up.

Since Daniel is leaving soon and Leo, the drummer, may be moving to a different part of Tokyo, Andy and I have been brainstorming our next moves. We've decided to recruit my friend Adam, who plays drums and is intensely interested in music, specifically good dance music. That will be a interesting new musical influence. Our other new recruit is Kate Sciandra who apparently plays saxophone, bass guitar, some piano, and can sing. Awesome. So, with the two of them, Andy, and I, we will have a complete group again. Andy and I are excited to incorporate new instruments into the mix and experiment with new music genres. We're thinking of trying something a little more danceable. We'll see where the new lineup takes us.

And now for a bit of traditional culture

My, it's been awhile since I've posted anything. The summer has been ultra busy. I guess it all started in early August when I had a two week summer vacation. My mother and grandmother came to Japan to visit me. I immediately whisked them off to Kyoto, which probably should have involved less whisking and more slowly stirring because it was super hot and my grandmother was super tired. She was a champ though. I felt kind-of bad for dragging them around to see everything, but I think it worked out okay by the end. If my grandmother really needed to rest, she could easily take a taxi back to the hotel.

We stayed for about 4 days, I believe. Our hotel was literally across the street from Nijo castle. We could see it from our hotel room windows. It was an amazing building, really old and wooden with elaborately painted walls, and also elaborately carved walls, too. I'm sure the walls were decorated elaborately in other ways, too, but we weren't allowed to get close to them, so alas I was denied the privilege of noticing. We were allowed to walk through the hallways and peek through the open doorways into the tatami rooms. The fact that they were hauntingly empty severely contrasted with the walls that had been lavishly filled to the brim with decorations. It occurred to me though, that perhaps there was never much in the rooms to begin with. Perhaps, back a long time ago, rooms were never cluttered with furniture and whatnot like they are today. In a traditional Japanese tatami room, you never wear shoes or set anything really heavy on the floor, so as not to damage the tatami mats. Everyone just kneels on the floor on cushions. Perhaps there people used to have small, low tables to eat off of or something. But that may have been about it. I could be wrong, but it occurred to me, what else would they really need to have in there? No one slept on beds either, just futon mattresses on the floor. Or maybe they didn't even have those back then, either. How curious.

Anyway, we saw lots of amazing beautiful temples. We saw most of the sights the day after we arrived because we had signed up for a day tour. It was a bit long, and a bit hot waiting to enter some of the places all lined up in the sun. My grandma went home after lunch, before the second half of the tour started again.

While I enjoyed Kyoto, and saw many old, beautiful, traditional Japanese places and things, I have to say I was surprised by how ordinary and modern most of Kyoto was. The actual city itself was rather bland and slightly unattractive, in fact. However, on the outskirts, in the mountains, and occasionally within the actual city, there were many isolated, but stunningly beautiful spots. My favorites were Kinkakuji, which was a small temple in the middle of a lake, covered in Gold leaf. Very shiny. Very pretty. My other favorites were the above-mentioned Nijo castle and Kiyomizu temple. Kiyomizu was at the top of a hill, leading into the mountains, and not only had impressive architecture but also had an impressive view of the city.

Kyoto was very strange, because I felt like it was clinging to old traditions for the sake of tourism. We went to Gion, the place that was a big entertainment district and famous for being the home of the Geishas, but during the day it was quite empty and felt a bit contrived. It was still interesting enough for me to become obsessed with taking pictures of it. Though, perhaps that is not a difficult thing to achieve.

When we returned to Tokyo, the following day we went for an adventure around Tokyo itself, guided by my boyfriend's mother. He came along too, of course. But the mother was the one who had planned most of the day for us. What a sweetie. She took us to the Edo-Tokyo museum, then for a boat ride down the Sumida river to Odaiba, a man-made island. It was a very strange place. It had a huge shopping mall and that seemed to be about it, as far as I could tell. Then we went to Roppongi Hills to climb the observation tower and watch the sun set over the extensive views provided of Tokyo. We got to climb up to the roof of the building where there was a helicopter landind strip. It was very strange, but beautiful.

It was a wonderful day, but the most memorable part seems to be the Edo-Tokyo Museum. [Tokyo used to be called Edo back in ancient times.] I barely got to see the exhibits because soon after entering, I happened upon a traditional dance performance inside the museum. I was totally enthralled by it for a number of simple reasons: 1) the costumes were pretty, 2) the music had a nice beat, 3) the dances were exotic and interesting and 4) there was one dance they kept returning to over and over again. It was the same dance that everyone had performed earlier this summer in the dance festival in Musashi Koganei, where I live.

That festival was such a great experience, because I was amazed by the large numbers of people that had come out of the woodwork to fill up the major street leading up to Musashi Koganei station. I've never seen so many people in our neighborhood before. There were tons of aged folk, families, teenagers, couples, small children daring to run and dance into the street every time there was a break in the line of parading festival dancers. It was amazing, there were all sorts of types of people dancing in the parade, too. I got the feeling the schools must have been involved in organizing and encouraging groups of children to participate because there were many large groups of children, all sorted roughly by age and size. Some of the children were so tiny they could barely dance, while some of the older ones were obviously very talented dancers. Others had probably never danced before in their lives, but that didn't stop them-- they certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves.

I just remembered being touched by this highly attended event that really conveyed people's sense of pride in, and love for their community. I imagined being one of those heavily painted, beautifully dressed, dancing children and the only thing I could compare it to was being in the high schools plays. Yet, somehow it just wasn't the same. I was quite jealous of those children. I wished my community had had something similar for me to participate in as a youth. It was also amazing how such a long parade of people could do the same dance over and over again, and chant the same songs over and over again, and beat the same drum beats over and over again and not tire of it. Everyone performed with such vigour and passion, it was utterly enchanting. There was a bit of a carnival air to everything, with food stalls selling yaki soba noodles, chicken on skewers, and lots and lots of cold beer. It was also hilarious because as I was standing on the side of the road with a small group of fellow foreign English teachers a really old toothless man with long gray hair and a long gray beard suddenly appeared in front of us. As he danced he started at us with an intensely ambivalent stare. After a while of us feeling a bit uncomfortable, he finally took the hand of one girl and began teaching her how to do the dance. It was pretty hilarious watching this very white girl doing this funky dance with an old man down the street along the edge of the parade. She actually got quite far down the street before she felt ready to turn back and rejoin our little group of outsiders.

Anyways, this was a very exciting, memorable experience for me. So when I saw this same dance being performed again at the museum, I literally fell into a trance. I watched them dance for about an hour. By the time I was done, it was almost time to leave and I had barely seen anything else. I was just so excited to see this dance again, to recognize it and be familiar with it. I was also glad to see that this dance wasn't just something that people did in museums, to give people a taste of what traditional Japan was once like. I knew, from my own personal experience, that this was a dance that people still did in suburban areas in the outskirts of Tokyo. It was totally still a part of the culture. It was finally something real, found in real, everyday life. And yet, it was very exotic, different from home. And I loved it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Go Go swallows!

Yesterday was a national holiday and so everyone at ECC had the day off. Since it was a Monday, I already had the day off, so it didn't really mean much to me. However, it did mean that I had more people to hang out with yesterday. And so, we went to a baseball game.

We went in support of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows who were playing against the Yokohama Bay Stars. I can't explain why we were Swallows fans other than that Chani got us the tickets and Chani's first ever baseball game was a Swallow's game. So she has a special soft spot for them, I guess. Sadly, the Bay Stars are pretty good and so our team lost. It was still loads of fun, though. I kinda got into baseball games after seeing the Cardinals a few times in St. Louis. It was pretty great how the community rallied behind them, exhibiting St. Louis pride. I'd never experienced that kind of local pride before, let alone taken part in it. It was intoxicating. I totally fell for it. Especially when the Cards won the World Series. Boy, was that exciting.

Anyways, at this Swallows game yesterday, there was quite a bit of organized chanting. But mostly everyone had noisemakers which consisted of two little plastic baseball bats attached by a string. All you were supposed to do was hit them against each other. Of course, I just had to buy my own overpriced set of "noisemakers." What was really hilarious was the umbrellas. Whenever our team scored a point everyone on the Swallows' side whipped out these tiny umbrellas decorated with little Yakult Swallows mascots perched on top of them. They'd open up the umbrella's and raise them up and down while chanting excitedly. I loved that there was absolutely no inclement weather in sight. There were also cheerleaders with umbrellas during the halftime show.

Another favorite part of the Japanese baseball game experience was the beer vendors. They were all cute young girls dressed in neon jumpsuits with big square packs on their backs, full of beer. The packs had big tubes protruding from them that were probably for dispensing beer, but they really made the backpacks look like some kinda high-tech ghostbusting pack. The combination of the backpacks and the jumpsuits just really made these girls look like ghostbusters.I couldn't get over it. I kept trying to sneak pictures of the beer vending girls all night.

Also, people don't eat hot dogs at baseball games here. They eat pan fried noodles! So there were quite a few differences. In addition, I agreed with the other two American girls in attendance it felt like we were at a high school football game. Somehow we all had that exact same feeling. I suppose it was because it was a rather small stadium. I expected something larger, higher, and much more imposing. Also, it just had that vibe: a high school football game vibe. Probably the marching band that played on the Bay Stars' side of the stadium had a lot to do with this feeling, as well. A lot of Swallows fans had also brought trumpets and other brass instruments to the game.

Afterwards, as our group was walking to the station, we saw a cool fountain on the side of the road. We stopped to look at it, and suddenly, a wall of water spouted up out of the ground and attacked Craig. He got quite a bit of a shock, as well as a soaked t-shirt. Then, since he was already wet, he decided to walk through the wall of spouting water to the other side. We thought he was crazy at first, but then he dared us to do it, too. We were soon all on the other side of the watery wall, and all extremely soaked. Quite a few Japanese people from the crowds walking back from the game had stopped to watch us. We were pretty sure we would soon get told off either by some public official, or a grumpy old lady, whoever showed up first. [I tell you, that happens a lot here. One time we got told off by a random old Japanese woman for sitting in an empty parking lot at night, eating some KFC because KFC had sold us food, only to tell us afterwards that we couldn't eat it there because they were closing. Since we had already received our food, we had to do take out. Oh, those evil Gaijin, always eating their KFC out in the open. Who do they think they are?] Anyway, the point was, we didn't get told off at all! Instead, a bunch of the Japanese people decided it was really just too hot and they wanted to have fun too! Soon we had about seven Japanese people join our ranks on the other side. We encouraged more people to jump through and gave them rounds of applause when they finally did it. We felt like we were showing them how to loosen up and have fun, break a few rules or something. Oh those bold and brave gaijin, paving the way of liberty. We were SOAKED when we got on the subway soon after, though. That's what we get for breaking the rules.

here's Craig behind the wall of water, daring us all to come over to the other side...

I still wasn't dry when we went arrived at an izakaya for a late dinner. Although it wasn't a Disgusting Tuesday yet, Adam and I saw there was horse meat sashimi on the menu and felt we had to take advantage of the opportunity. And so, we ate raw horse meat with garlic and soy sauce! And, it was actually quite tasty! I can't believe I ate horse, because I absolutely love those animals, but at this point I think I'd try almost any food. I don't discriminate anymore.

So there you go. What a day.

Also, here's a fun picture I took through one of my baseball bat noisemakers:

At least these expensive dudes were useful for something other than making noise. That's a Yakult Swallow's player you're looking at through the blue tube.

A band's life

Well the band is going well. We've been making a lot of attempts to record lately. Some of them are simply lo-fi, acoustic versions that we record on Daniel's laptop in his room in the guest house. But I think probably some people don't like the noise. Anyway, one night Andy, Daniel and I were all sitting in the lounge being social when we realized we really just felt like singing. We had all had Patti Smith's version of "Gloria" stuck in our heads throughout that week for some reason and really felt like recording our own version of it. However, it was about 1am and we were pretty sure we'd either get murdered by our neighbors that night, or kicked out of the guest house by management the next day if we tried recording in the guest house at that hour. The obvious solution was to go to Musashino park, about a 20-30 minute walk from the guest house. We decided that I should borrow this girl Ruth's bicycle so we could get there faster and we all cycled out to the park toting a laptop, a harmonica, and two acoustic guitars. We wandered the forested park until we found a nice picnic table that was too far from civilization to piss anyone off. We set ourselves up and proceeded to record three different songs, singing at the top of our lungs until 4am. We got eaten alive by mosquitoes and we forgot most of the lyrics to Gloria anyway, but we had an amazing time doing it.

Another hilarious story was when we were all riding the train home from band practice one Sunday night. We entered the train car to find three young, perhaps 20-something, Japanese guys sitting on each other's laps. Basically, the first guy sat on the seat, the second guy sat on his lap, and the third on his lap. We were pretty amazed because this isn't really something that most guys would do anywhere in the world, let alone in Japan. People are usually pretty reserved in Japan, and this was pretty out there. Many of the other Japanese people on the train were staring at them and whispering and shooting them disapproving looks. But, as crazy foreigners we of course, totally endorsed their behavior. We chuckled and gave them our little ECC thumbs up. The third Japanese guy, then motioned for Andy to sit on his lap. After a moment of hesitation, Andy accepted his offer. At this, a middle-aged man who was especially enraged by all this, stormed off the train. Well, that was it. Things got out of control. Next, Daniel sat on Andy's lap. Then I, of course, was obliged to sit on Daniel's lap. We made such a long chain that I literally reached the other side of the train car. It was just utterly hilarious. Our drummer, Leo, took a photo of us all sitting on each other's laps. It's taken me awhile to get ahold of this desirable photo, but here it is. Too bad it's a bit blurry.

Mt. Mitake

Today I went to Mt. Mitake, which is located quite a ways out west of Tokyo. From central Tokyo it takes over an hour, but from where I live it was more like 40 minutes because I live slightly west of Tokyo already.

I went with three of my buddies, Adam, Amanda, and Ben, all from my training group back in February. We didn't know much about the mountain or how to get to it really, or what it would be like. When we got off at the train we were seriously in the middle of nowhere. It was quite shocking. It was very still and quiet, except for the cicadas. Though, by the time we reached the top of the mountain even those cicadas had finally shut the heck up.

It turned out to be quite a walk from the train station to the actual bottom of the mountain. With a lot of guessing, and matching our unreadable Japanese fold-up map to other large, wooden, unreadable Japanese maps scattered around the area, we were able to find it. The walk to the mountain had some great views though. We followed a small path along a rather impressive-sized river. I've never seen a river so clear and so blue. I guessed that meant it was a very clean river, but I really have no idea why. Regardless, it looked gorgeous and refreshingly inviting. There were lots of locals fishing or sunbathing on the shores. There were also lots of little makeshift wooden bridges that I found quite novel and picture worthy. Every so often a little spurt of houses and shops would appear and then quickly disappear. It was all very country and quaint.

When we finally found the bottom of Mt. Mitake we were able to take a cable car up quite a large portion of the way. We stopped for a bit of a ramshackle picnic involving sticks of fish and processed cheese (really disgusting, please don't ever eat this), a block of 700 yen Brie Cheese which Amanda thoughtfully shared and spread upon Ritz crackers for the rest of us, an assortment of nuts, raisins, chocolate, and Calorie Mate, the energy bar that comes in an irresistibly vintage-looking box. We also had cans of Dr. Pepper from one of the many vending machines on the mountain. There are vending machines literally on every block in Japan, and mountains are no exception.

After our feast we took the chair lift the rest of the way up to the official viewpoint area. We couldn't actually see much. It was ridiculously hazy, but some photographs that we decided not to purchase informed me that you can see the Tokyo city skyline from the mountain. It's just too hot and hazy in Japan right now. I'm gonna say it was probably almost 90 degrees fahrenheit.

At the top of the chairlift, we also found a map that revealed the presence of some temples and a waterfall on the mountain,. We eagerly set out to find them. We wandered our way through the mountainside through charming little town-lets that were delightfully rustic and old-looking. We saw a lot of interesting new vegetation, impressive trees, old thatched roofs, old buildings, old machinery, old ladies, and a huge group of children all wearing identical little blue hats and devouring big slices of watermelon. I really wanted to steal it from them. It was also pretty much one of the cutest things I've ever seen.

That was, until we came across another huge group of children. They were sitting on the ground watching each other take turns trying to take a baseball bat to a watermelon. The watermelon was placed in the middle of a big blue blanket, and they had to attempt to smash it after donning a blindfold and being turned in a circle three times by some motherly-looking woman. It was quite an odd sight, especially as they were sitting in front of building that looked like an old temple.

After a long hike through bits of forest, winding cobblestone streets, and mazes of children taunting us with their watermelon, we found the temple. Well, you know the drill: the usual temple stuff. It was red, it was pretty. It had funny roofs. Lots of white paper fortunes were tied to wooden things. There were statues.

We soon started looking for the waterfall. We walked down a ridiculous number of wooden steps, thinking to ourselves we'd probably have to climb back up them again soon. Boy, were we painfully correct. The waterfall wasn't the most impressive, but I quite enjoyed it. I can't say I've really seen that many waterfalls, so I was pretty excited about it. I enjoyed it so much I even took my feet for a dip. Here's proof:

Then we had to make a mad, crawling dash back up those treacherous wooden steps that wound up a densely forested and brutally steep hill. We badly wanted to catch the last cable car down the mountain, so that we could then catch the last bus back to the train station. We were not about to walk all the way back to the station again. Those stairs nearly killed me. If I really want to think about climbing Mt. Fuji sometime soon, I better start getting more exercise. And I was even employing the ever-handy Rocky Mountain step I had learned from my superiors back in the day at camp. Supposedly it saves energy if you lock your knees at the end of every step. Well, it probably did work, but I just didn't have that much energy to begin with.

Anyways, as we boarded the train we were totally drenched in sweat and totally gross and totally proud of ourselves by the end. It was a very peaceful, refreshing trip to the countryside. I was really happy to get out of Tokyo for a day. And there were barely any tourists around. Absolutely none of them were foreigners, other than us, of course. It was quite a satisfying day, if I do say so myself.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Day in Shinagawa

Last Tuesday I went to an area of Tokyo called Shinagawa. Since it was a disgusting Tuesday, my buddy Adam was obviously there as well. He had read about the graves of 27 samurai somewhere in his guidebook and was slightly intrigued. As we had nowhere else to go, away we went.

It turned out to be mildly interesting. Shinagawa is not that exciting a place, but we found an English brochure which gave us more background on the story of the 27 samurai. I honestly don't remember it very well, but it had to do with some rebel samurai leader challenging the Shogun or someone important like that. He led a rebellion and was killed. His followers then carried out a revenge attack on his killers. They, in turn, were all executed and buried in this spot at a shrine in Shinagawa, all 27 of them. We took some nice pictures, but I was honestly more interested in Shinagawa's more modern architecture, which contrasted nicely with the shrine's. Here are some pictures:

After the shrine, we ended up at an amazing aquarium, also in Shinagawa. I initially found it amazing because earlier that morning I was sitting on the train watching the advertisements on the little TV screen. I saw an ad for some place called the Epson Aqua Center. I'd never heard of it, but thought it looked rather fun, seeing as it had a dolphin show. I didn't even know where it was located, but I filed its existence in the back of my mind, never actually expecting to go there. Later that day, now in Shinagawa, we came across none other than the Epson Aqua Center. I just knew we had to go there. It was a sign, or whatever you want to call it. I absolutely adore aquariums. This one was not that large, but it had a great selection of creatures- many things I'd never seen before. Most intriguing were these strange orange fish that have huge suction cups on their undersides. There were tons of them in this one tank that was filled with balloons tied to strings that were weighed down by sand at the bottom. The balloons were covered with these little suction cup fish. It was pleasantly odd.

The aquarium also had a big tank where you could stand in a tunnel and watch sharks and huge sting rays swim over your head. In that tank was also an enormous manta ray. I was honestly shocked. I didn't know they could get that big. They also had some of the biggest crabs I've ever seen. Again, I didn't know they could get that big. I mean these things' bodies were literally bigger than my head. Amazing. I couldn't help but think about how much delicious crab meat was probably vacuum packed inside that thing. I thought about how it would taste in a vat of butter sauce. It made my mouth water.

The best was yet to come. We saw a dolphin show, and that was pretty damn impressive. I won't say much more because we all know how smart and talented those dolphins are. We all know they are capable of doing fancy tricks and synchronized jumps in groups four and all that stuff.

Next was the best part: the sea lion show. There were two sea lions that crawled out onto the stage through a door. They did amazing tricks like balancing chairs on their noses, or a plate, a cup, and a ball all at the same time. They encouraged us to clap for them as they flapped their fins together. It was all very cute and impressive. But seriously, the next part just dropped my jaw.

After the show, Adam and I were wandering the corridors taking a few last peeks at our favorite creatures before we skedaddled. Suddenly, we came upon a large crowd in the hallway. We made our way to the front and found one of the sea lions sitting on the floor in the middle of the aquarium hallway, amidst all the tanks of fish. He was sitting there barking and clapping his fins together, trying to get applause. There he was without a leash, well-behaved, and thoroughly enjoying himself. Soon he decided to take a walk around the aquarium. He began to drag himself with those beefy fins down the corridor alongside the shark tank. So the other human visitors wouldn't slip on a wet floor, two aquarium employees kindly followed him, mopping up his watery trail. Eventually he stopped by the dolphin tank to pose for some pictures. The whole thing was pretty bizarre. Sadly, my camera died so I didn't get a picture of it.

On the way back from Shinagawa, we were rushing to get a spot on a very crowded train in Shibuya. We saw a car with a bit a space and made a dash for it. Suddenly there was a very pregnant silence in the car. Adam sniffed the air, smelled the overpowering presence of perfume and whispered, "Um... I think we're in the "women only" car." I looked around and realized that every woman on the train was giving him the evil eye. Some were just surprised, but some of them were utterly horrified, perhaps afraid he might try to grope them. We immediately shuffled off the train. As we exited, the doors began to close before we could get into another car. The train we had rushed so desperately to get on, left without us.

That was my first and only experience on the women only car. The trains in Japan have women only cars during rush hour times because apparently they've had problems with groping on the super packed trains. I can't imagine them ever being able to organize and enforce something like that in New York City, but here, people take it very seriously.

And now for my favorite picture of the day:

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Well. I'm a grandfather.

Last week I was hanging out in the lounge one night, eating my dinner. I was making an effort to try to talk to people I had never spoken to before, especially Japanese people. There was this really cute Japanese girl making funny faces for her friends, including a monkey face. So I finally joined in and did a monkey face with her. It turned into a face off and we kept trying to top each other's faces. That kind of ended when I revealed the infamous "old man face" that was once in such high demand when I was in high school. The Japanese girls pretty much couldn't get over it. They kept asking me to do it again, and trying to take pictures with me while I made the face. At one point, I jokingly pointed to myself and said "ojisan," meaning grandfather. Well, that did it. I dug myself a hole right there.

For the rest of the night I was "Ojichan." Everyone called me Ojichan and gave me hugs and requested the face over and over again. I'm pretty sure the name is gonna stick, too. The foreigners living in the guest house were not so opposed to calling me Ojichan either. One Japanese girl called me "Catojichan," which I found pretty clever.

All in all, I can't say I feel too upset about being called the grandfather of the guest house. I've made quite a few new friends and acquaintances in the guest house as a result. I really am starting to feel a part of the place. I quite like living here and think I may stay for quite awhile. Not only is hanging in the lounge a great way to socialize, but it's a great way to ensure that my Japanese improves. I have become very determined to learn as well as I can. It is probably my major goal of my time in Japan. If I have to stay an extra year or two to really get my Japanese down, I may do it.

Last night, my guest house had a big party because a bunch of people are leaving the guest house soon. Some are Japanese, but many of them are foreigners that have been studying Japanese as full-time students at ICU, an international University nearby. They have been here for a year and now they are all leaving Japan. Three of them are British and one is American. They are really nice people and I am sad to see them go. I had a great time at the party though. I got to practice my Japanese a lot, and it was fun to be at a party. I hadn't been to a party in ages. This one Korean guy who works at a cake shop, who everyone calls Kim Pan because he used to work at a bread bakery, made a HUGE cake for the party. It was amazingly huge and delicious. It was decorated with fruit in the shape of a British flag, cause most of the students leaving Japan are British. We ate through that entire thing with no problem. Well, I was impressed.

Oh, another nice thing earlier this week: I went out to dinner with three of the foreign students who are leaving soon. We went to this Okonomiyaki place where you make it yourself! It was tabe ho dai, which means all you can eat for 1500 yen! (Tabe is short for Taberu, the verb for to eat.) That's fifteen dollars, for all you can eat. And eat we did. We ordered a lot of food. We got traditional okonomiyaki, where you mix cabbage and egg and flour and meat together to make a sort of omelette pancake thing. Then we made yaki udon, fried udon noodles with meat and vegetables. All of it was really good, though maybe it didn't look that nice cause we were rather new to cooking our own okonomiyaki. At the end we made dessert okonomiyaki. They brought us a cup of butter, whipped cream, corn flakes, a whole banana, almonds, chocolate, and who knows what else. We dumped it onto the fryer and heated into a big gooey yummy mess. It was dee-licious.

The place was pretty interesting, too. The restaurant was in the basement of a building and it was totally packed. Half of the place was traditional Japanese style where you take off your shoes and sit on the floor. You huddle around a low table with a burner in the middle of the table, where you cook your food. We sat in the other half though, where we sat in chairs at the table. I couldn't believe how packed it was, though. And, literally EVERY customer looked like a young 20-something. It was unbelievably noisy in there. All in all, definitely a very interesting, new experience.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Non food news

Teaching is going alright. I can't say I'm a perfect teacher, but I do my best to teach the kids the best way I know how. I also try hard to make them like me, which means making them laugh a lot. Usually I'm pretty successful. It's not that hard. All I have to do is pick up a fake apple and pretend to gobble it up noisily like Cookie Monster would. Or, I can jump up and down like a monkey, making monkey noises and scratching at my armpits. It's gets them every time.

However, one little girl didn't like my monkey routine last week. Instead of laughing till she fell over like all the other little 6 year olds in the room, she sat there and frowned at me. Then, she pointed at me, which is apparently very rude in Japan, and yelled "hen," which basically means weirdo in Japanese. The little girl called me a weirdo!! What? She's like six, she's supposed to like this kind of ridiculous humor. What a tough crowd.

Here I am...

But I have no problem making a fool of myself if it makes the kids relax and laugh a little. Recently, in one class where the kids were maybe, oh say eight years old, I was teaching them parts of the body. In the lesson plan it said to sing the Hokey Pokey, dance moves and all. I was pretty sure the activity would fall flat with most of the students and we would have to move onto something else pretty quickly. Well, would you believe it, the kids actually loved it! They couldn't stop laughing. Honestly, I think they just enjoyed it because near the end you have to "put your bottom in, put your bottom out, put your bottom in, and shake it all about..." Yeah, you can imagine. They really got a kick out of watching me put my bottom in and out, and of course, shaking it all about. They liked it so much that they all stopped dancing just to watch me, in all my ridiculous glory.

Loretta Lynn

Let's see. The band is doing fine. We've been practicing together for about a month now, I guess? We practice for about four hours every Sunday night and we now have seven songs. Two of them are covers: the Loretta Lynn song, "Fist City," sung by me, and a song by Nick Cave, sung by Daniel. The rest are Blazing Cranes original songs. The last song is still a bit of a work in progress, though. Andy wrote the guitar and bass parts initially and then I tried to write lyrics and a melody on top of them. I've never written lyrics to anything before, so I don't know how good they are, but it was fun to try. Since I wrote the lyrics, I also get to the sing the song which is always fun. However, we all keep feeling that something is missing from the song. We keep changing things every week about it. It's frustrating, but at the same time it's nice to all be working on a song together as a band. The first line of the song is, "I wanna be as big as a pony..." That's all I'll tell you. I'm looking into buying a second hand electronic keyboard so that I can practice on my own between our usual weekly practices at the studio. I also think it would help me in writing more lyrics or melodies in the future. I am wishing I hadn't quit my piano lessons quite so eagerly back in middle school.

I've had fun being in this band not only cause I enjoy music and singing, but because I've enjoyed getting to know the other band members a bit. I've also been getting to know a lot more people in my guesthouse, which is nice. I've even begun talking to the many Japanese people that so intimidated me before. It was tricky cause most of them don't know much English and until recently I didn't know any Japanese. But my Japanese is slowly improving and I'm trying to practice by talking to more people. I started talking to some Koreans who live in the guest house, cause their Japanese is really really good and they're really friendly. I was amazed at how much I was able to say to them in Japanese. They were pretty surprised and impressed, too, I think.

Shimokitazawa ( i didn't take this picture)

A few weekends ago I went to a club in Shimo Kitazawa with Andy and Daniel from my band and another Japanese guy from the guest house named Shin. The club was having a 50s/60s night. So the music was all American 50s/60s style. It was all really obscure, amazing stuff. We couldn't stay very long because of how early the trains stop running, but we had an awesome time dancing our hearts out to the music. We did the twist, we did the-- well, I don't know the names of the moves, but we did them all. The place apparently filled up after we left, but while we were there we were the only people dancing. The walls were lined with awkward Japanese people dressed in 50s attire. Apparently they asked our Japanese friend if we were comedians from a TV show or something. They couldn't understand why a group of people would dance in public so vigorously and unabashedly. Crazy foreigners.

Anyway, Shimo Kitazawa is a cool place. Reminds me a little of the village in NYC. Here's a link to an article on Shimo Kitazawa: http://krax.typepad.com/krax/city_tokyo/index.html

Not much else. Recently made plans to visit Kyoto in early August with my mother and grandmother who will be visiting. Really looking forward to that. I also enjoyed using as much Japanese as possible to speak to the travel agent when I was reserving the package tours for Kyoto. She knew a lot of English, but still seemed to prefer speaking Japanese to me, so I just rolled with it. I understood quite a bit more than I expected to.

I also recently bought a plane ticket to attend the wedding of one of my very best friends in September. I'll be using four of my 5 paid vacation days available. I'm extremely excited. I get to be a bridesmaid for the first time. I get to wear a fabulous orange dress. I get to see my family, and her family, and a bunch of my closest friends from home. I get to be present at a very important day in a good friend's life. What's not to look forward to?

This week's food column:

So I did go to Disneyland back awhile ago and it was very strange because there were moments when I thought to myself, "Have I been here before?" The layout of the place was often identical to the layout of the Disneyland I went to in Florida when I last went in middle school. Of course, it seemed much more exciting back then. Most of the rides are the same as they were back then, but this time most of them seemed pretty tame. Luckily, I still like good old fashioned fun for children, so I had a good time. Space mountain was still pretty scary actually. More than once on that ride I was sure we were either hurtling into real outer space or a wall. Either way, I was fairly petrified. Turns out that rollercoaster has some wickedly fast turns. Woopee. We also had a huge buffet dinner for like 20 bucks. It was awesome. And it was served on Mickey Mouse shaped plates:

About a month ago I had dinner at my boyfriend's family's apartment. We had a fabulous home cooked meal provided by his mother. I hadn't eaten such good food in quite awhile. We had this one dish that was a bit similar to the kind of stew we'd make back in the states. In Japan it's called niku jaga, meaning "meat potato." Niku is meat, and jaga is short for jagaimo (potato). The ingredients were mainly beef, potato, onion, and carrot. But the beef was that thinly sliced beef that is so commonly found in Japan, that is not quite so common back home. The sauce was what really hooked me though: mirin or cooking wine, with brown sugar, and soy sauce. Amazing. Sweet, salty, and delicious. His mother told me how to make it and a few weeks later I tried it. I swear, I'm not a good cook but it was the best thing I've ever made, in the kitchen at least. I definitely plan to make it again. Perhaps we'll make a good cook out of me yet. Anyway, back to the dinner. It was a couple days before my boyfriend's birthday so we had cake, and jeez was it the best cake I'd ever had. I don't know how to describe it: light, fluffy, creamy, with strawberries on top. The cakes are really good here cause they aren't too sweet like desserts back in the states. Oh what a meal. I'm still dreaming about it.

Another recent food adventure I had, faithfully embarked upon on a Disgusting Tuesday, was eating escargot! I had always (never) wanted to try it, but lately I've been able to try almost anything. In fact, I am decidedly on the lookout out for new, disgusting, strange foods to try. So when my friends Adam and Amanda and I were trying to find a place to eat the other night, we happened upon an Italian restaurant chain called Saizeriya. We'd never been there and so we we peeked at the menu that had been helpfully parked outside on the sidewalk. I admit it was not a very impressive menu, but the moment I saw escargot on it, I knew we had to eat there. Here was an opportunity that I couldn't pass up. It came out on a round platter, with little craters in the dish, each containing a little snail swimming in a pool of garlic sauce. I don't usually even like garlic very much, but these things were surprisingly delightful. They had a pleasant taste and texture. I couldn't believe it. I'm sure escargot must be even better at a more expensive restaurant, or perhaps in a more appropriate place such as oh, I dunno, say, France?

Honestly, I shouldn't have been eating at such a boring, low quality food establishment. Personally, I think the Italian food in Japan is pretty bad. Or maybe it's not bad but it's just very different from any Italian food I've ever eaten, especially from the Italian food I've eaten in New York or Italy. It's just extremely Japanized in a way that I cannot appreciate, as of yet. In addition, I shouldn't have been eating at such a place because I was in an area called Shimo Kitazawa. In Shimo Kitazawa, probably any restaurant would have been better than Saizeriya.

I recently discovered Shimo Kitazawa in the past few weeks and I've gone back there quite a few times. It's a bit like Harajuku, but bigger and better... and less strange. Harajuku is the place where people dress like crossbreeds between Little Bo Beep and Marilyn Manson.
There are always tons of young people in Harajuku, and lots of interesting and exciting clothing shops, cafes, and restaurants. Shimo Kitazawa has less weirdos, and more vintage clothing stores and record shops. It also has lots of cheap, interesting, amazing, and delicious resturants, bars, and cafes. It also has a lot of live music venues.

I went back there again this past Saturday with my boyfriend and we found an old vintage toy shop that sold every toy imaginable from the past. It was wonderful. I admit I bought a few things. They had really nicely made figurines of literally every Disney character that ever existed. Even the unimportant characters that you never see toys made of. Like the owl in "The Sword in the Stone."

After that we had Okonomiyaki for dinner. It's a famous Japanese dish that I badly wanted to try. Usually you make it yourself, but at this place they cook it for you. It's basically a savory pancake made of flour, fried in a pile of noodles, egg, cabbage, carrots, other random vegetables, meat, huge delicious prawns, and some amazing brown sauce smothered on top of it all. It's just a big, gooey pile of goodness and they cook it on a big flat metal table in front of you. We ordered one plate and shared it between us, cause the servings were enormous. The place was a tiny crappy little hole in the wall, and it was super crowded. But, boy, was that food delicious. We finished the night with some Baskin Robbins ice cream (yes, they have it here. they have everything here, and more.) Again, I must relate the deliciousness of the ice cream. I ordered a new flavor called Blueberry panna cotta. Hot damn. If it's available in the states, I recommend you get over there immediately and try it.

P.S. This blog is becoming a bit like a food column in a magazine. I do apologize if you are not as into food as much as I am.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

If you don't wanna go to Fist City...

My Japanese class is going really well. Every Tuesday after class, there is another optional hour and a half of extra class where a bunch of volunteer teachers come in and split us into groups. I have had the same lady to myself every week and it's been great. We try to talk to each other using things I've learned, and then she teaches me new useful sentences. As we talk, I ask her how to say a lot of things in Japanese. Then she makes me write everything we say down in my notebook in hiragana or katakana. Only foreign words can be written in katakana. You must never write Japanese words in katakana, or foreign words in Hiragana. Which is annoying because you have to know two different characters for every phonetic sound.

Anyways, I really enjoy these optional lessons because I get to learn whatever I want and have real conversations with someone. I learned that my teacher used to live in the States for quite a few years. She's lived in New Jersey and California, I think. As a result, she knows some English, which helps when I don't understand what she's asking me, or I want to know how to say something. The really exciting part, though, was when we realized that her son and I both graduated from Washington University in St. Louis! He graduated almost 10 years ago, but he got a degree from the architecture school. He lives in Japan now. I thought that was an amazing coincidence.

This past Tuesday we had another lady sit in on our lesson. I think she is studying to be a volunteer Japanese teacher too, so she wanted to watch. We ended up including her in the conversations and she was also really nice. They taught me a lot of useful art-related vocabulary, such as art museum, painter, painting, modern art, sculptor, painting. It was fun. Afterwards, the lady who sat in on our lesson ending up walking with me back to the station. She was extremely cute and old, and literally half my height. I had to bend down to speak to her. She doesn't know much English, so I was trying to talk to her in Japanese. As we were walking, she asked me to have coffee with her. We stopped at a coffee shop where she treated me to an iced latte and we shared halves of a sandwich. While it was difficult and I'm sure I said a lot of strange things, we managed to have a conversation. We talked about our past travel experiences, where I wanted to go in Japan, what movies we liked. I told her about my plans to go to Kyoto with my mother and grandmother in August. It was quite fun to really try to have a conversation with someone who didn't know English. She seemed to really enjoy meeting me, too. I don't know what it is about the older Japanese ladies, but they really seem to like me. It's really cute. They're really cute.

In other news, I have started a band with three guys from my guest house. Our band's name at the moment is Blazing Cranes, but I'm not sure if that's the final name or not. All of us are foreigners. Leo is Asian-Australian and he plays the drums. He's pretty quiet, so I don't know him that well. The other two are both English teachers at the same company as me. Andy is from Glasgow, Scotland and Daniel is Canadian. The two of them switch roles back and forth playing guitar and bass.

Our first practice was last Sunday. We found a nice studio in Tachikawa, a few stops away from our guest house on the Chuo line. For about 25 bucks each, the four of us can rent the studio and all the instruments and equipment we need for four hours. Not bad, I think. We rented a full drum set, a guitar, a bass, amps, microphones, a fancy electronic keyboard, and maybe some other equipment too, but I don't know anything about that stuff.

Andy and Daniel had already written a few songs since we had first decided to form a band, so we practiced those. Since they had been practicing the songs in their rooms with their own voices, they decided to sing their own songs themselves. I played the keyboard and did backup vocals. However, as my strengths lie mostly in singing, I hope and expect to be given more of a singing role. I played piano as a kid and took lessons for a long time, but I honestly don't remember much. I never got very good cause I never wanted to practice. But at least I can remember what key is which note. I also have pretty good pitch so it's easy for me to match notes.

Anyway, I really enjoyed practicing with these guys. We seem to have similar tastes in music and all have quite a broad range of tastes, too. So far our music seems to have a bit of a folk, punk, post-punk, slightly country feel. Some of it reminds me of the Velvet Underground, Beat Happening, and... not sure what else. But I like it. I really enjoyed being able to improvise my own parts. They would play me the guitar parts of a song, and tell me what notes/chords they used and then I would come up with a keyboard part. It was all very simple, mostly ambient chords and such, but it sounded pretty nice. Gave the songs a richer, fuller sound. I also enjoyed coming up with some backup vocals for a few songs.

Since I don't really know how to write music, the guys suggested I come up with a cover song or two that I'd be interesting in singing. Last night we decided to do a cover of Loretta Lynn's "Fist City," at my own suggestion. I played the song for them and they really liked it. They tried playing it on guitar while I sang and it worked quite well so we are all very excited about it. I am pretty excited to be singing again, too. So we'll work on that this upcoming Sunday. The plan is to practice every Sunday night.