Thursday, May 12, 2011

Thailand, Part 1

Ever since coming to Japan for JET, Thailand has been on the top of my list for travel destinations. Up until this point, the only intra-Asia travel I had done was to Korea to visit Wallin, and let’s face it, I may very well have never made it to Korea had it not been for the added bonus of visiting my favorite emo-masochist. So shortly after arriving back from my Christmas visit to the states, I suggested a joint trip to Thailand to my friend Sarah. Unlike most of my travel ideas, this one actually came to fruition, and we spent just over a week in Thailand during late March/early April. We had grand plans of studying the language a bit before we went, but life/laziness got in the way, and we landed in the country with the phrases “hello” and “thank you” comprising our entire lexical arsenal. Thankfully gestures go a long way. Thailand is (I think) Southeast Asia’s largest tourist destination, and they certainly do a lot to put out that image, but there are certain aspects that make things more…difficult. The first, and rather unexpected, hiccup was the lack of immigration forms available at the immigration checkpoint. So this is how it’s going to be, Thailand? We ended up asking someone and they pointed us down to a far table where we managed to secure 2 of the last 3 forms on that table. And there were no other tables. Not sure how a tourist is supposed to get through immigration without forms available, but oh well. After that things went smoothly, thanks to the new Airport Link railway they had completed just last year. We simply needed to transfer to the subway at one of the stations and we would be at our hostel. Nicely done, Thailand. Hiccup #2, lack of signage at the transfer. There was a significant walk between the railway station and subway station, and while there was initial signage, it all of a sudden stops when you reach this giant busy street. We looked around confused, picked a direction that looked promising, and thankfully we were right. I was definitely impressed with the actual train and subway cars, which were both super modern, complete with LCD screens pumping obnoxious advertising the entire ride. I daresay ads in Thailand rival those in Japan for their nonsensical nature. We arrived at our hostel, collected ourselves, and then went for a random stroll in hopes of finding some tasty eats. We stumbled upon an open-air restaurant, where Sarah had an epic Pad Thai dish (which ended up being the best I’ve ever had) and I had a coconut milk-based spicy chicken curry/soup with rice. We both ordered fresh fruit shakes as well (smoothies, essentially), which became a recurring theme throughout the trip. With fruit being exorbitantly expensive in Japan, it was a welcome break to have cheap, fresh fruit in abundance.

It's in a boat!

The next day we had intended to go to the old capital city, Ayuttaya, but after riding the subway a half hour to where the bus stop was supposed to be, we found ourselves wandering around a giant park searching in vain for our phantom bus stop.

It was a nice park, so it was a decent place to get lost, and we even had a nice older couple stop and ask if we needed help. We tried to explain where we were trying to go, but apparently our pronunciation of the city name (and later, I found out, which syllable we put emphasis on) was completely off, so they had no clue what we were talking about. It was still early in the day, so we decided to bail on the old capital city for now and just do a day of sightseeing in Bangkok. We hit up the two big sights in Bangkok, Wat Pho (home of the reclining Buddha) and the Royal Palace. One thing I forgot to mention is that anytime we walked out of a train station, or even just when we were walking down the street, we would repeatedly be solicited by tuk-tuk (think moped taxi with room for two in the back) drivers with the phrase “Where you go?” Since Thailand is a society where you barter prices, this can often lead to an oppressive back and forth about the price, with it almost always ending in you getting ripped off. I don’t quite have the killer instinct to barter them down as low as possible, especially just for an extra $1 off the price. Still, neither Sarah nor I am a fan of bartering, so we often opted to walk to our destinations, much to the chagrin of the tuk-tuk drivers. Such was the case in heading to Wat Pho, which was maybe a good 40 min. walk from our hotel. And this way we got a better feel for the city of Bangkok, and its somewhat grimy streets and storefronts. Both Wat Pho and the Royal palace were absolutely breathtaking. The architecture is very unique, and they manage to do bright and overly ornate without being gaudy. It’s a fine line to walk, but they do it with style. The reclining Buddha as well was simply amazing. I’ll let the pictures do the talking since words just do not suffice.

A bit from the Royal Palace Grounds

That evening we grabbed dinner at the Hua Lamphong train station before we hopped on an overnight sleeper train to Chiang Mai. And one of the great things about Thailand is the price of food, as that dinner cost us maybe $3-4. I also discovered the oh so sugary, yet oh so yummy, Thai iced tea. I had it once before at a Thai restaurant in the states, and this was as tasty as I had remember (and about 1/5 of the price).

The night train ended up being rather eventful, thanks to a few random encounters. We ended up striking up a conversation with the lady across the aisle from us, who had apparently been working down in Antarctica not too long ago. We learned this after inquiring about how she had injured her shoulder (she was wearing a sling). It turns out she was a tour guide of sorts for these adventure trips to Antarctica, and part of her job was to drive some special land/water vehicle. When docking these things at the main ship, drivers have to release the safety strap that keeps them tethered to the vehicle. One of her crewmates accidentally put their vehicle in motion during docking and was sent flying into the cold-arse ocean. Our friend from across the isle also used to due Olympic weightlifting, so she just lifted this 200lb sopping wet dude out of the ocean with one arm. Yeah, badass. But apparently even Olympic weightlifters have limits, as that heroic act seriously screwed up her shoulder. She had six weeks with the sling and decided to do some traveling rather than waste the valuable time off work, so she came to Thailand. She also showed us her photo album from her time there. I’d like to see penguins in the wild, but Antarctica is a long way to go just for that.

We also happened to notice that in the set of seat behind us there was a group of Thai nationals along with one foreigner, who was spitting out what sounded like some impressively fluent Thai. After our Antarctic slideshow, a conversation with this mysterious foreigner coalesced organically and we found out that he was originally from California, but has been living in Bangkok for the past six years. While just stopping over in Thailand for a bit on his way home, he was offered a job teaching yoga in Bangkok, which he accepted on a whim. He apparently also does a domestic, homestay-based travel show for the Thai branch of The Travel Channel. All of his Thai buddies were the cameramen and crew. Meeting such random interesting people is one of the things I love most about traveling. It had been awhile since I’d had such an experience and it was quite refreshing.

After a surprisingly decent night’s sleep on the train, we were overwhelmed by taxi drivers upon stepping off the train in Chiang Mai. We took a taxi truck to our hostel and then walked around a bit, before hiring a taxi truck to take us up to Doi Suthep, a mountaintop temple a decent ways out of town. It took about 40 minutes to get there, with most of the trip being an uphill climb on extremely twisty mountain roads. Seeing as the back of the truck taxi is open air, it wasn’t too long before I started getting motion sickness, but I managed to hold it together thankfully. This temple had some nice views and neat murals to go along with the super ornate decoration. Outside the main temple area there were groups of younger girls performing traditional dances, so we sat and watched for a while.

Coming up next: Night market, elephant riding, and more!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Disaster in my second home

Just a forewarning, this is far from the slightly humorous posts I normally write, but it is a very important topic, and one I would like to address.

As you all know, the eastern coast of Japan has been struck both an earthquake and subsequent tsunami, and is now dealing with a sticky situation at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant. First off, I'm completely fine. I'm pretty sure everyone who reads my blog already knows this, either via facebook or by word of mouth. The situation is far from over, but I'd like to share my thoughts and observations regarding the events (and media coverage thereof) of the past few days.

We felt the earthquake, to be sure, but my officemates and I experienced, at worst, somewhere between a 3 and 4 magnitude quake. What does that mean? That means I could feel the building shaking a bit, the windows rattled, but nothing fell off my desk. Not even the stack of loose papers. We debated for a full minute or more as to whether to bother going outside or not. So not exactly a dire situation. After it seems to start to settle a bit, it got stronger again, which previous earthquakes I've experienced never did. Everyone else seemed to think that wasn't the best sign, so we decided to head out just in case. Thankfully, my office is on the first floor. I can get to an exit lickety splity, and even better, there is a large open green space on campus, so it's pretty much ideal. We even had had a little sensor go off (connected to an advisory network through cable TV) that told us a 3-ish earthquake was coming in 30 sec. Pretty cool. It has gone off before and ended up a false alarm, but it was pretty much spot on this time. It has since gone off a couple times in the following days, but those we didn't really feel anything in Ogaki.

We threw on the TV and found out it was a pretty big, with most of my co-workers talking about how it shook here, and looking at the TV footage saying, "dang, that isn't good" etc. But none of us (at least certainly not I) realized the scope of it yet, as the tsunami had yet to hit. We all went back to work, but left the TV on to stay informed. I realized the earthquake and subsequent tsunami had hit in an area where a good friend of mine lives, along with a couple other acquaintances. Cue an insatiable appetite for the latest information on what was going on. I went to capoeira practice, anyway, to maintain some normalcy. And I had previous plans with friends to head on a day trip to a microbrewery in the neighboring prefecture. We went ahead with them, quite frankly, because we weren't sure what else to do. Moping around wasn't going to help any of the victims, so we went, with plenty of guilt, to grab lunch and a few brews. We had a bit of fun, but there the air over our table was heavy, knowing elsewhere in Japan people were experiencing unimaginable devastation. We kept up on the latest via Twitter, Facebook, and other sites as to what was going on. We then headed back to my place to make dinner and play a couple board games. I'm not sure if this was the right thing to do. I'm not entirely sure what to do in this sort of situation. One really does feel utterly helpless. The best we can do from here at the moment is give money to the relief cause. It's not yet the time for untrained volunteers to head to the affected area. Supply chains aren't in place, they are having trouble getting enough food and fuel to where it needs to go. We'd just get in the way.

So far away, yet it feels so close. I'm extremely thankful that I live in an unaffected area, I also feel very guilty and helpless, more than I have before. I certainly didn't feel guilty for not living in New Orleans, I felt lucky. But I think at some point, unconsciously, the communal spirit of the Japanese society has at some level burrowed into my head. I don't think I've felt this personally involved in a natural disaster before. It feels so close, and it feels so personal. I don't have the luxury of sitting back and making insensitive comments about the tragedy on my Twitter account like, say, Gilbert Gottfried, does. I've only heard vaguely, and second hand, that there have been idiots on the internet in America who have compared this to Pearl Harbor, having the audacity and nerve and lack of human compassion to claim this is karma for that. I don't think I'd be able to control my anger were I to meet those people. But thankfully I don't have to meet them, and thankfully there have been many more who have expressed their concern for Japan. And I'd like to thank everyone who contacted me via e-mail, facebook, or whatever wondering how I was doing, it was appreciated. It's good to know people are paying attention. But then again, how could you not? The media inundates us with images and video almost non-stop.
I have been able to watch the Japanese news first hand, and not been subject to the usual overdramatic, sensationalistic western media outlets. As I'm sure you all know, one of the consequences of the tsunami has been severe damage to a nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture. In the past few days, this has largely overshadowed the human tragedy still occurring in towns devastated by the tsunami, and been blown largely out of proportion, to the point where people in the UNITED STATES are rushing out to buy potassium iodide pills, which only protects against a single possible complication due to radiation exposure. This is all absolutely ridiculous since I myself am out harms way here in Gifu. And yet there are some JETs in Gifu seriously contemplating returning to their home countries. I have talked with someone thinking of leaving, I have talked with other who, like me, don't even entertain the thought. This is where I live, I won't abandon it so quickly. I understand not every JET, or every foreigner, in Japan feels the same connection with this country as I do. Some are here for 1 year and had never had a passing interest in Japan before coming, so I realize for some it is easier to pack the bags and head home. One person I talked to kind of wanted to leave, but also mentioned not wanting to feel "deserter's guilt". Strong words, to be sure, but I am not staying due to guilt, I'm staying because I want to. With my lengthy exposure to their language and culture, and having lived here for 2.5 years (cumulative), Japan feels like my second home country, and I am not willing to abandon it at the first sign of trouble. For now, I call this place home, and I want to help. Leaving is the last thing on my mind. Japan has been kind to me, and provided me with experiences I couldn't have dreamed up if I had tried, the least I can do in return is show some solidarity.

I am not worried about my saftey, and am going about life normally. It does, however, seem to have gotten to my subconscious a bit, as I mistook the rumblings of a passing semi-truck as a potential earthquake. And I had a dream the other night where I was in the second story of a house, there was an earthquake, and the thing collapsed. That being said, I didn't wake up in a cold sweat, or afraid, or anything really. If anything, I am simply a bit more aware of the potential for earthquakes. I've thought multiple times, "okay, if an earthquake were to strike right now, where would I go/what action would I take?". But I really don't feel any fear or worry. If a big one comes my way, I deal with it when that happens. There has always been a potential for an earthquake here. The minute I entered Japan, there was a certain base risk. That risk hasn't elevated. Massive earthquakes, such as this one, are not connected to each other. There are sizable aftershocks, sure, but there is no greater likelihood of another massive one occurring.

I am more concerned about the story that isn't being reported as much back in the states, and that is the story of the hundreds of thousands of people in evacuation centers who are without sufficient water, food, fuel for heat, medicine, plumbing, gas, etc. This goes especially for the many elderly evacuees for whom the sub-freezing nights pose a threat to life. There have already been reports of people perishing at these centers, largely due to lack of supplies. Every day the news over here is reporting from these centers with people pleading for supplies. Some feel forgotten by their gov't, others are more concerned with the plight of evacuation centers around them than their own. In every case, though, the level of cooperation and selflessness is astonishing. Even when requesting supplies, it is very apparent in their language and mannerisms that their concern is for the group, and not themselves individually. The communal spirit, and the importance of group over self, which I have certainly found frustrating at times, truly shows its best side in how everyone has reacted to the disaster and pulled together to help each other. The word inspiring simply doesn't do it justice.
I have, in the only way I really can at the moment, helped out a bit, and that is through donations. The AJET group organized an event on facebook to pledge to give 10,000 yen to the relief effort. Over 4,000 of us took part to donate well over $400,000. Now I realize that most of you don't have nearly as strong a connection with Japan as I do, but I entreat you to please, please give to the relief effort, however large or small an amount. Google has made it extremely easy to do, and I'm sure there are many other websites and stores and other locations in America where you can donate, so please do. Japan needs your help.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Getting toasted at a UNESCO World Heritage Site? Check that off my bucket list.

So one of the new JETs this year was put up in Shirakawa village, a small community that has pretty much one major claim: it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Why? Well, this village features houses of the "gasshou-zukuri" architectural style, which features tall, steep thatched roofing that was designed to withstand and shed the weight of the heavy winter snowfalls. The houses look really neat, and I had been meaning to get up to the village for quite sometime. So when this new JET informed me of a sake festival there in mid-October, I made plans to head up. I grabbed a bus from Gifu to Takayama, where my friend picked me up and we drove 45min or so to the village. It turns out that besides the unique housing, Shirakawa village is also well-known for an unusual type of sake called "doburoku". When we drove into the village, there was already a procession heading toward the temple, so we hurried it up over there.

We caught an interesting lion dance, and then went over to buy the tiny little saucer cup that is necessary to participate in the drinking festivities. After that, they rolled out some tatami mats for everyone to sit on, and then we waited for the fun to start.

A bunch of the other JETs from Takayama also came up for the festival, so it was nice to get to see all of them as well. So then all of a sudden, a bunch of the temple ladies came down with kettles of this doburoku sake and made their made down the aisle, pouring everyone's saucer. For awhile, we were getting screwed, as the ladies would run out just before us, and not bother to start where they stopped when they came back with a fresh kettle.

Nothing like a big ol' kettle of sake.

Finally we got our first pour, and dang, that stuff was strong. My initial thought was "paint thinner!" and I'm sure I made quite the face. After that, though, I knew what to expect. And of course, the more I consumed, the better it began to taste. One of the unique things about doburoku is that there are still grains of rice in it, and it is an opaque white. Danielle, the JET from Takayama sitting next to me, and I didn't care as much for the rice in the sake, as it had taken on a rather odd, almost chalky texture from having sat in the alcohol so long. So we noticed with the kettles that all the rice, naturally, sits at the bottom, which means if you get a pour from a relatively fresh kettle, it's smooth with no rice. So we tried to time it where we would leave some sake in our saucer (and thus they wouldn't pour) if we saw someone coming who was pouring out the last dregs from their kettle. Despite our best efforts, though, we still we stuck a couple times with essentially a saucer full of alcoholic rice. I soon lost count, since I am a sucker for free stuff and they just kept pouring.

Kampai! (Cheers!)

After sufficient alcohol was consumed, we started to get friendly with our neighboring Japanese folk, who thought it was great that we enjoyed this stuff. One of the guys down the aisle a good 5 or 6 people thought it was highly entertaining to feed us some of the odd, Japanese snacks he had brought with him. A number of the other JETs just kept passing the stuff down, but I made sure to try each thing, and then give him a big thumbs up and say "It's delicious", if anything just to prove that we foreigners aren't so squeamish. One of the particularly disgusting looking things that was passed down had an equally disgusting texture and crunch to it, along with a vaguely "oceany" taste. I figured some sort of seafood, and later heard someone say those might have been octopus beaks...I didn't even know they HAD beaks. Not something I'd volunteer to go back for seconds on, that's for sure. Alack, alas, the drinking finally ended, and everyone in front of the temple was properly toasted...and it was only 4pm. I almost felt like I was back in Wisconsin.

As we walked up to rinse off our saucers, we ran into some random, trashed old Japanese guy who maybe had half of his teeth left and had the most random conversation. I could hardly make out anything intelligible, though. Old guy speak is hard enough to understand, let alone when they are smashed and happen to be missing half their teeth. It was a random experience, nonetheless.

Sadly, the Takayama JETs ditched out right away to head back for Takayama, which is a shame since I rarely get to see them and they are a fun bunch. Even more unfortunate was the face that the friend I was staying with got sick and went back to his apartment to lay down (despite the fact that he had maybe 2-3 saucers, compared to everyone else's couple dozen). He had another friend visiting, who just so happened to be some Japanese dude in his 40s. Not exactly someone who I have a ton in common with. So we headed to the one convenience store in the village to get a few things, and then just ended up chilling outside this store having incredibly awkward conversations filled with equally awkward silences, for what seemed like an eternity. We eventually headed back to our friend's apartment to wake him up for some school function related to the festival he had to participate in. We stayed at the apartment and ate dinner, along with more awkward conversation. When our friend finally got back, we pretty much ended up watching a bunch of Youtube videos until heading to bed. It wasn't exactly the night of drinking and debauchery I had mind when I first heard the words "sake festival", but oh well, you can't win 'em all.

The next morning we walked over the area with all of the neat houses and did the tourist loop, walking up an inclined path to where there is a rather nice view down onto the village. We walked through one of the houses that had been converted into a museum, so that was neat. Not too much else to say. The scenery was amazing, so I'll let the pictures do most of the talking. After that, I got a ride back to Takayama, in which we took the scenic way where there isn't a toll. I'd hate to have to drive them all the time, but mountain roads in Japan have some of the best views. From Takayama I grabbed the bus back home.

Something here doesn't fit with the rest of the atmosphere...

Random Observation: So this happened just this past week, which I might mention, has been super hectic at work. I put in at least 4 hours of overtime this week, which, to be honest I don't mind once in awhile, since it means the work I'm doing is necessary and at least semi-important to somebody. Upon leaving late one day, I was stopped by one of my co-workers about something they wanted me to do for them. They suggested I maybe leave some time on Friday to do it, to which I gave a quizzical "Friday??" since we had the day off for a national holiday. After realizing this, he responded "Man, this day off is a pain in the butt, isn't it? I've got a bunch of work I need to get done. It gets in the way, right?" I mechanically agreed with him, while screaming bloody opposition in my head. I LOVE that day off, and every other random holiday we get off. I feel like this is one major point where cultural differences are painfully apparent. The importance and priority given to one's job in Japan is, in my opinion, ridiculous. I want to be good at what I do, and I want to be motivated to do my job, but somebody slap me if I ever refer to a day off as "a pain in the butt". That is all.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Let's Do the Time Warp Agaaaaaain!

So...I've been lazy lately, and before that I was in America, and before that I was rather busy and before that I had an interpretation training seminar thingy. This had led me to to be extremely neglectful to this blog, as I am now approaching being 4 months behind...yikes. So get ready to blast into past...October 2010 here we come!

The next weekend in October was the subject of much waffling for me. On the one hand, the festival in Ogaki where foreigners get to participate and help carry a portable shrine was that Sunday, but on the other hand my friend Dan (from UW) was going to be in Tokyo visiting my other friend Alaina. With some added persuasion from Erica, who was promising a restaurant with real pie, I decided to screw the festival, take the Friday off, and have a long weekend in Tokyo. So I hopped on a night bus to Tokyo and arrived in Shinjuku bright and early Friday morning. There wasn’t really much of a plan, but I then got a call from Alaina telling me to meet them at Asakusa, which has a big famous gate with some god statues, a long arse touristy market, and then an impressive temple. We were all without breakfast, so we stopped at…Denny’s! Yeah, Dan’s big trip to Japan, and we take him to Denny’s. We are AWESOME guides. Denny’s in Japan pretty much does not at all resemble Denny’s in America in terms of their menu, but they did have French Toast, or something semi-close to French toast.

After our lovely breakfast, we strolled up and down while Dan looked for some souvenirs. We stopped at a place with a huge variety of soft serve flavors. I went with citron, and it was tasty. We checked out the temple a bit and then decided to go to Japan’s nerd/electronics mecca, Akihabara. We strolled up and down the street, popping into arcades and used game stores, while getting ads handed to us every half block by some female dressed in a maid costume. We then stopped by the Pokemon Center, which may as well have been a Mecca for Alaina and Dan, who are still big fans of the series.

As you can imagine, I didn’t buy anything from the store. Although the sight of a 20 or so people hunched over playing their DS’s did almost bring a tear to my eye (even if they were all just playing Pokemon).

We called it an early night (woot, what a crazy birthday, I know!) and I headed to Chiba to crash at Erica’s place. I stopped at a ramen place on the way from the station, and was surprised to find nearly the entire place taken over by some sort of work party/gathering. It was a stereotypical work party in that the beers were flowing and soon so was the bullshitting. But they were so overpowering that the people working at the ramen place kept apologizing to me and the couple others customers who weren’t part of the merry band. After arriving at Erica’s place, we were soon joined by another CIR in the area, Sami. As a bit of a birthday treat, Erica brought out some little single service cups of Haagen Daas ice cream, which was tasty. I also drank a beer that Erica was trying to get rid (not so tasty) of while we all chatted.

It seems a little...TOO obvious.

For lack of anything better to do, Dan, Alaina, and I headed out to Odaiba the next morning, and were joined by a old classmate of ours from UW. We did some mall crawling, stopped in at Muscle Park again where I once more horrendously failed at the Sasuke obstacle course. I can’t really even hold myself up on the cliffhanger, which is pretty embarrassing.

Salmon ladder FAIL

But oh well, I don’t really feel like devoting my life to the thing, quitting my job, and losing my family like “Mr. Sasuke” did (only expecting Wallin, Maria, Sarah and Jon to get that reference), so I think I can live with failure on an obstacle course. We stopped at an Indian restaurant for lunch and grabbed some Baskin Robbin’s afterwards. After killing a little more time at the mall, we went to Shibuya and killed some time at Mandarake, a chain of stores that carries used comics, CDs, anime, movies, and related merchandise. This particular location happens to be a good 4 stories underground, where no natural light can enter (perfect place for a nerd shop, am I right?). After spending waaaay more time in there I cared to (especially since their retro video game section was no longer existent), we finally left to meet up with Erica to head to Shakey’s Pizza for dinner!
Once there, we waited for Aaron (who also lived on the Japanese language floor of the dorms the same year I did). I hadn’t seen him in almost 4 years, so it was good to catch up. And getting to stuff my face with pizza wasn’t bad, either. Erica kept gloating that she was putting away more than me, but I blame it on the fact that the Indian I had for lunch was also all-you-can-eat, so I was still recovering from that.
The main plan that night was to take Aaron’s advice and go to a bar called The Taproom. As Aaron promised, the bar had lots of tasty microbrews on tap. I went with the darkest thing on the menu, and wasn’t disappointed. We sat around chatting some more over a couple of beers, and I heard about Aaron’s current exploits as a member of the localization team at the video game company responsible for such perennial series as Dynasty Warriors and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It turns out things don’t seem to be a whole lot different from my current situation in terms of general work environment and workload. Not that I was really considering working at a game company in Japan, but his description certainly wasn’t overly enticing. Aaron bid us all farewell once we left the taproom, but we were bound and determined to take Dan to karaoke, so the night continued on. This was part of our attempt to show Dan a true Japan experience (and maybe make up for Denny’s earlier), but Dan was not at all enjoying himself. I guess he’s not a big music person in general, so even when we sang “classics” he didn’t get into it. We managed to get him to help out on one or two of the songs, but that was about it.

Dan's Happy Face

On Sunday we took it easy and hopped on the train for a couple stops to visit a ginormous mall. Erica was busy clothes shopping and Sami was busy worrying about a date he had that night, so I ended up providing brutally honest counsel to Erica on her shopping purchases. We hit up a forgettable Italian place for lunch and later went to Cold Stone for dessert (the line was ridiculous!). Also, there was a store named Ducky Duck. Go Japan. Erica decided she wanted to go into a pachinko parlor, since neither of us had been. I have special bit of hatred saved up for pachinko and had never planned on stepping foot inside one of those places, but Erica was persistent and I figured justifying my hate wasn't the worst thing in the world. And yes, it was pretty much hell. I couldn't hear myself think for all the noise. I see the appeal for older folk since that is probably the one place they can take out their hearing aid and still be fine. The visuals were obnoxious, too, and the "game" nonsensical (you really can't control much of anything).
We then stopped at a gyoza restaurant chain for dinner and headed back to Erica’s place. We ended up watching Salt, which I had heard mediocre things about, but I’m glad Erica insisted, as it ended up being pretty awesome. I’m a huge sucker for the storyline where some badass gets wronged and then goes on a justified rampage until they make things right...or at least even. That would be why I love the Bourne trilogy, any of Tony Jaa’s movies, Count of Monte Cristo, etc. Also, apologies to Alexandre Dumas for mentioning his book in the same sentence as the Bourne Trilogy. (Although to be honest, there is far worse to be had than the Bourne Trilogy in terms of contemporary company to keep.) Anywho, so we finished watching Salt, and not too long after got a call from Sami (this is after 1am, mind you) saying that he felt horrible and thought he had food poisoning. (guess the date went well...zing!) Erica immediately went into mother mode and called a cab so we could take him to a walk-in clinic. So after a lightning quick change from pajamas, we are soon in a cab with Sami. The first place wasn't open, and after some consultation with the cab driver, we had a plan B. This place was open, but said they couldn't take him for whatever reason, and that we needed to go next door to the emergency clinic. We went over there only for them to tell Erica that they couldn't take him because he hadn't come in an ambulance. WTF? Really guys? So nobody is going to take him? I mean, he is hurling intermittently as we walk back and forth between these two establishments. I think he needs some help. After getting refused for a second time, Erica had had enough of the ol' run around, went back to the first place, and threw some chairs (verbally and politely, of course) until they agreed to see Sami. I sat down in the waiting area and after awhile they came out and Sami went to the counter to get his meds. He walked away with a couple pills, a couple powders, and everyone's favorite, a suppository. After a relatively uneventful cab ride back, we got to him back to his apartment and explained when and how he was supposed to take each medicine. (Yes, that's where you have to stick it! Did I st-st-stutter?!) With Sami seemingly on the road to recovery, we went back and promptly zonked out.

All hula-hoopers please stay to the left.

The next day we planned to go to Yokohama's Chinatown for lunch and grab some pie at a place Erica had raved about. (They have key lime pie!) So we went to some all you can eat buffet place in Chinatown, and boy was it tasty. Now this isn't crap sitting out on a buffet. This is made to order. You get a menu, and you tell them how many you want of what item. No limits. It's a beautiful thing. In particular, there was this spicy eggplant with ground meat dish that was quite frankly the most delicious eggplant I've ever had. I could've eaten just that. But there were dumplings and tofu and other goodies to try, so I made sure to be an equal opportunity glutton. There also happened to be a Japanese couple sitting next to us who I swear had the most bored expression on their faces and hardly spoke with each other. Now granted, it could have been an awkward first/blind date, but they were definitely a little on the older side and seemed a veteran couple who were simply not terribly interested in conversing with each other. I mean, where is the random banter and bullshit that (at least I think) is the base of any good relationship? Anywho, after lunch Erica wanted to get palm readings, which is apparently a pretty thriving business in Yokohama's Chinatown, since every five paces or so there seemed to be such an establishment. We picked a random one and sat (because, yes, there was a wait). As anyone who knows me a bit could probably imagine, palm reading isn't the first place I'd think to drop some cash, but I was somewhat curious since I'd never gotten one before. Thankfully, we got an older lady as our reader, and not the young twentysomething dude, complete with spiked Asian mullet hair, sitting at the table next to her. I'd have a hell of a hard time taking to heart life advice from a callow punk such as he. (To clarify, that was a deliberate use of the subject pronoun in the predicate for extra voice, NOT an English fail. That's just for those *cough*Maria*cough* who might call me out for that.) Anyway, the old lady did a solid job, and some of the conclusions she drew from the lengths of my various palm lines were actually rather spot on. Others, however, were somewhat off the mark. Still all things considers, she seemed to give seem relatively sage advice on all things paphian, academic, monetary and otherwise. Although when we had a chance to ask a question, she said I should go to grad school and continue studying, which at the moment doesn't look like it will happen. She did add the caveat that I should return to school only if there is something I truly want to study. I guess that's what I need to figure out. But lest I launch into prolonged ponderings of post-present possibilities (awkward alliteration for the win!), I shall move on.
I had planned on going to capoeira class in the evening with a guy from my group who lives in Tokyo. Sadly, time was running out so we had to bail on the pie restaurant Erica had mentioned and just strolled through a park area on the way back to the station. Near the park, though, there was a Happy Lawson! Now, Lawson is a massive chain of convenience stores in Japan, and sometimes they have sub-chains, such as Lawson 100 (think dollar store), Natural Lawson (a slightly snootier version with more organic products). I had never before seen a Happy Lawson, and this is the only one Erica has ever seen. Anywho, it had some different merch inside, including name keychain and loose mix n' match candy.

HAPPY LAWSON!!!!111!!!!!111

From there I grabbed the train to capoeira. It was just me and the one guy for most of practice, but during one of the "warm-ups" (and in retrospect, this was not exactly a movement that should be done as a warm-up, but I digress) I tweaked my neck pretty badly. I had limited range of motion the rest of class, which thankfully has improved, but sadly there is now a rather nagging, chronic pain persisting in my neck. Boo to that! After that it was a night bus back home (also a pleasure after the neck injury). I don't want to end on a whiny note, so a brief current update! I went to nearby smaller town today to go to their onsen (natural hot spring). It was snowing all day, but that made everything rather beautiful. Plus, I actually rather enjoy the simultaneous temperature extremes that are experienced when I'm roasty toasty in hot spring water but my head and shoulders have snowflakes landing on them. Woooo, poorly constructed sentence. Time to end the post.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Garish Galavanting in Gifu

Now venturing into October, the oppressive summer heat has finally given way to comfortable fall temperatures (and for Ogaki, fall temps are generally highs in the mid 60s-mid 70s). I didn’t have much planned for this weekend, as the rest of my October was booked up already, but I got a last minute invite from Naomi to hang out on Saturday in Gifu for the Nobunaga festival. We had plans to go to a Kimono show, but both Naomi and I showed up late, so we only caught the second half, but it was still cool. I particularly enjoyed one lady’s kimono that was a red base featuring black clouds with gold lining. There was also an impressive performance where a dozen or so ladies came out in their white under-robes and then did choreographed movements as they simultaneously and methodically put on their kimonos…by themselves. Dang ladies, kudos to you. After that we met up with Regina and her friend Eirik (from Norway) who happens to be traveling the world after graduating from university. We wandered around before finally settling on a place for lunch that Naomi used to frequent. They had a really solid “house bento” with little bits of everything: meat, fish, jellyfish, potatoes, salad, rice, miso soup, egg, konnyaku, and a few other things as well. We then strolled one of the main side streets (yes, I realize that phrasing sounds odd) and stumbled upon a trio getting ready to play some Brazilian music, so we grabbed some beers from a nearby street vendor and watched the performance.

For the last song, they brought in a singer. I assumed she was singing in Portuguese (it was supposed to be Brazilian music after all), but I couldn’t pick out any words and it didn’t “sound” like Portuguese. So I asked Regina, who is Brazilian, if it was Portuguese. She replied with “Isn’t it English?” Umm…no. WTF? What mystery language was she singing in? Despite Naomi’s insistence that it would be “rude” to ask, I decided to go up and get an answer. I made sure to butter her up with compliments before politely inquiring as to what language that last song was in. “Oh, it was Portuguese, couldn’t you tell?” I played it real stupid saying I’d never studied European languages and have no idea. Then I went back and told Regina the news. Needless to say, she was surprised. It can’t be a good sign when native speaker can’t recognize your pronunciation. This is also why, although I enjoying studying languages, I hate starting a new one up because I know I must sound absolutely god-awful to a native speaker, and I feel bad making them listen to me.

Eirik and I posed with this random old truck

We meandered further and ran into a shop that sells donuts with a potato based batter. Naomi recommended them, so we all tried one. Not bad, but there was no sweetening, and the batter itself didn’t have much natural sweetness to begin with, so in my mind, it was struggling to be a donut. At the same time, it perfectly fits the traditional (read: old people) Japanese palette, which tends to prefer a very subtle sweetness, rather than knock your socks off sweet as hell frosting and filling. At the same time, I see plenty of old ladies at Mister Donut. I just know I often hear people complain of things being to sweet, which is somewhat rare in the States I think. We made our way over to Yanagase, the struggling, one-foot-in-the-grave shopping district near Gifu station and I was surprised to see that, thanks to the festival, it was actually pretty packed with people. Apparently that was one of three or so days out of the year where it doesn’t look like a ghost town.

Naomi had mentioned a place that does handmade pork dumplings, and I have passed the place many a time (it has always been closed, or has a ridiculously long line), so I was eager to try it. None of us were too terribly hungry when we got in line, which was fine, because we waited over an hour to get in. And we had arrived right when they opened. With the initial rush in, the line shortened a bit, but then you have to actually wait for people to eat their meal. And with only 2 tables of 4 and maybe 8 counter seats, it was slow going. Like ramen shops, though, the rule of “the smaller the seating capacity, the better the food” applied here. We got to watch one girl making the dumplings through the window, although she seemed less than pleased to be at work. I imagine that has to get pretty dull and monotonous after a while.

I find her facial expression in this shot rather poignant.

When we got close enough to see into the entrance way, I noticed one table of 4 was taken up by a group of 3 ladies who had been there since the place opened. It seemed to them it may as well have been an episode of Sex and the City-chatting, giggling, sipping leisurely from their beers.

Now, nothing wrong with them having a good time, but they were completely oblivious/inconsiderate of the fact that there was a huge line of people waiting outside. Again, with so little seating, it’s like a ramen shop-you get in, you enjoy your food at a reasonable pace, and you get out. I was staring daggers into them as they ordered more food and we were still waiting just outside. Anywho, we finally got in, and yeah, those were some freakin’ awesome dumplings. The things squirted with yummy meat broth/grease when bitten into, and tasted wonderful. Worth the hour long wait? Close. Seeing as I wasn’t hungry when I started waiting in line, and the weather was nice and I could chat with friends, it wasn’t so bad. But I wouldn’t be braving the line myself or in winter anytime soon. The real kicker is that when we got up and left, that table of ladies was still chatting it up. They had even ordered dessert while we were eating. I remember seeing the single dessert item on the menu and thinking, “who the hell orders dessert at a place like this?” Looks like I have my answer.

We ventured out for a few drinks after that, and due to the other three people in the group, we decided to go this wine bar, which looked a bit fancy to me from the outside, but there was a sign outside for glasses of wine at only slightly exorbitant prices. We entered the place and I immediately knew we were in way over our heads. Thankfully nobody else was in the bar, and they surely would’ve been offended at having to breathe the same air as us riff-raff, especially me in my “Cake is Awesome!” T=shirt.

I'm pretty sure this is the epitome of being classy:

The dude working the place was super classy, and was very patient with our boorish behavior. We ended up sharing a bottle of the cheapest stuff they had (which still was not anywhere near what I consider “cheap”) and then were informed that there was a table charge on top of that. So much for the sign outside, geez. Now, to be fair, the table charge did include a couple snacks. Two paper thin slices of some fancy salami, and crackers with three pieces of cheese. Now, the cheese was amazing, don’t get me wrong, but totally not worth the table charge.

Okay, getting a little more classy...

When he brought out the cork for us to sniff, we all just looked at each other, deer in headlights, before starting to laugh at the absurdity of the situation we had gotten ourselves into. And again, the guy at the store was a total pro about it. We made a running gag about how we had to act “sophisticated”, with Eirik and I having a mock conversation about “the riveting polo game at Liverpool the other day” etc etc. In other words, we were failing miserably at our goal. Again, my T-shirt, and Regina’s baseball cap weren’t helping matters. I’m not sure I could ever be filthy rich. I hate uppity places like that. The awesomely delicious food I can get behind, but the atmosphere is suffocatingly stiff. We made it work, though.

We moved onto a more relaxed bar for a much cheaper drink and then hopped to one of Naomi’s favorite bar/cafes. I made the mistake of assuming the fact that I ordered “draft Guiness” from their menu to mean it’d be coming from a tap. Eirik’s eagle eye, however, caught the guy behind the bar pouring our glasses from a can and then using some tap-looking machine to top off the foamy head. Really? You’ve got to kidding me. I was a bit miffed, but Eirik was outraged. If he knew more Japanese, he probably would’ve given the bartender a piece of his mind. I, however, decided I didn’t really feel like making a scene in this otherwise chill bar. And then I had one of those “you’ve been in Japan for too long” moments. If some bar in America tried to pull that crap, I wouldn't this twice about "disturbing the harmony" to complain about the fact that I'm getting ripped off. That doesn’t quite work over here, sadly, and I don’t think those are the kind of international relations or cultural exchanges that the JET program has in mind. After that, we finally called it a night. I made sure to take a lazy Sunday since the rest of my October weekends were already booked.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Artsy Fartsy

The last weekend in September I didn’t bother planning any travel since two big art/technology exhibitions being planned by my school took place. I figured I’d have to work a ton, but it turns out they hired outside translators for it, so I ended up only having to go in a couple hours on Saturday. I’m not complaining, but if Gifu Prefecture is wondering why it has so little money, here’s a prime example. You’re already paying me, here’s a grand opportunity to use me, and yet you hire outside people. Now, I couldn’t have been everywhere at once, so some outside help was necessary, but I barely did anything during the five days of the exhibition. It worked out well, since my friend Erica was crashing at my place that Wednesday, and was now free to hang out a bit. She got to Ogaki in the evening, and we immediately grabbed a late dinner. While listing off possible places to eat, I mentioned the 50s Diner in Ogaki that has burgers, fries, shakes, etc. The minute I said shakes her eyes went wide “Shakes?! We’re going!” Okay, done and done. She seemed lost in another world when her Choco-banana shake came, and that point I realized how much I take for granted the fact that there is an old-school 50s burger joint right here in Ogaki. Although she is in a considerably larger city, no place serves shakes. An in general, for its size, Ogaki has a lot of Western creature comforts available. I can get taco spice and tortillas, along with Cherry Coke and A&W Root Beer at Kaldi’s (an import food store), there’s a Subway in the mall south of town. Not to mention the giant mall complex Loc City right by my apartment. So, in a word, I’m glad I got the placement I did. Ogaki is a easy town to live in, and when I need a shot of something nostalgic from home, there are methods available. Some, I realize, aren’t so lucky. That being said, there is still plenty I can’t get over here, Glass Nickel’s Fetalicious pizza being one of them, that I am looking forward to eating while back home.

After indulging in some Americana, we decided to hit up the game center, which, to be honest, despite being a 3 minute walk away, I hadn’t really played many of the games there. Sure, I’ve been dragged in for purikura (photo booth), and we hit it up back at the beginning before Street Fighter 4 and Tekken 6 came out on PS3, but this time Erica and I hit up a bunch of classics, including air hockey, hoop shoot, a couple light gun games (Time Crisis 4, anyone?), Taiko Drum Master, plus a crazy game where your throw plastic playpen balls at moving targets on the touch sensitive screen. The game has you competing against each other, so it wasn’t long before Erica and I just started throwing the balls at each other. You don’t get points that way, though, you just get weird stares from people.

Despite my decidedly intense game face, Erica whooped me in the Buzz Lightyear(!) themed air hockey.

Erica, gangsta as always. "Yo chief, can I hold my gun like this? It looks so cool!"

The weird yet fun playpen ball touch screen game. Have at thee!!

The next morning I took Erica back to the station and stupidly didn’t bring an umbrella. As luck would have it, the skies opened up halfway to the station and we got thoroughly soaked. Sad panda.

Due to my now soaking clothes and, more importantly, shoes, I decided to stay in most of the day instead of heading to the art exhibition (had the day off for Autumn Equinox). So it was a lazy day, I watched a good chunk of the sumo tourney coverage, and once that was finished, headed out for some special performances occurring downtown as part of the exhibition. Now I’ve never been the most artistically inclined person, and my ability/willingness to “appreciate” art is modest at best. Now, I’ve certainly enjoyed plenty of art in the past, but most of the time that is because it is visually interesting, or I can recognize the talent needed to create the work. One thing I have a hard time getting behind, and maybe I just haven’t seen the right performer, is interpretive dance. There was a trio of interpretive dancers accompanied by a violinist performance on/around the main stage. They were trying to be “modern” or “edgy” or something, as the violinist merely drew the bow once, and the note was fed into some electronic repeater. So the background music just consisted of a few cycled, shrill violin notes. One of the dancers especially I couldn’t figure out, as she just seemed to be writhing around like a fish out of water on stage at times. That was interspersed with other random spastic movements as she moved to and fro. If that’s all it takes, I could be a freaking interpretive dancer.

Anywho, I wasn’t exactly impressed with that, but I should have waited, as the next performance, by some of the students at the school, made less sense, and required even less skill. A dozen or so of them took the stage in some half-baked costumes probably designed by throwing crap from the closet at a wall and seeing what sticks.


I wouldn’t be so critical, but this is quite possibly the school’s biggest event, and this is a big performance event within that larger event. In other words, a time to put the school’s best foot forward. The school was/is in a battle to stay in existence. It needs to justify its importance to a cash-strapped prefecture and this exhibition was supposed be an important part of that justification. Instead, I saw costumes that would be laughed out of most Halloween parties, with each of the students in this group simply banging on random objects posing as instruments, and then screaming unintelligibly with no rhyme or reason. Guess what? If I was a prefectural bureaucrat, I would have just found some wiggle room in the budget. Harsh? Probably. Realistic? Absolutely.

To its credit, after this there was a taiko drum performance on the sidewalk by a local group, which was entertaining.

Then there was some little troupe of hippie performers that make music with bamboo instruments. It was a little mini-workshop where kids could participate and bang on the bamboo. A really solid idea, except for the fact that I couldn’t hear a thing thanks to the construction guys tearing down the metal stage. With pipes clanging against the ground constantly, and guys whacking at them to loosen them from the stage frame, I couldn’t help but concentrate on the noise and my impending headache rather than the neat workshop. Someone couldn’t have had them hold off? I imagine, though, that the stage builders didn’t give a crap and just wanted to get done and home. Yeah, I’d put money on that.

That Saturday I was supposed to help interpret for one of the foreign artists at the technology exhibition, so I headed out a little early and stopped by the art exhibition downtown to check it out. The school has a group that does TV programming for the local cable channel, and some of that was surprisingly funny/interesting. I didn’t get to see everything before I had to head to the tech exhibition. One of the foreign artist pairs had a table on the exhibition floor, and was supposed to be doing a workshop from 4-5pm. There was no actual workshop, so I just ended up standing around the table for 2 hours, occasionally helping people engage with the project, but mostly doing nothing, especially since there was another guy on duty, essentially doing the same thing.

The tech exhibition, though, had some cool stuff, so I returned (off –duty) on Sunday to just check out all the other tables. There was a bike that had LEDs built into the spoke area of the wheel, and when the wheel rotated, the LEDs formed an image or simple animation. Neat! There was also a series of live musical performances and workshops with unconventional self made musical set-ups. I checked out one such performance, and although walking in halfway through, I immediately got into the music. It was some solid techno, only made better (worse?) by the amount of Pikachu paraphernalia on stage.

I also stumbled upon a neat project where a pong game system is hooked up to a pair of jeans, and you move the zipper up and down to move your paddle on the screen up and down. It was definitely more difficult to control using the zipper, but my natural video game ability came through and I became the first person to actually win my match against the computer paddle. Woot!

There was some cool liquid art as well as a group of knitters with some impressively complex-looking creations. And I thought this thing was just plain neat.

One guy had built an Othello-playing machine comprised mainly of LEGOs.

Then I came upon a table with a project that is distinctly, and damningly, Japanese in nature. There was a waist and pair of legs (stuffed, I imagine) sitting in seiza sytle (knees together and bent) on the table. The legs were wearing a standard skirt from a school girl outfit. Then there was an iPhone with the picture of an animated school girl from the waist up. They had designed an app/system so that the iPhone is wirelessly connected with a fan/air burster hidden underneath the skirt. The harder one blows into the mic of the iPhone the more air gets shot up. Blow hard enough, and the skirt flips up, revealing the panties of these stuffed legs. Only in Japan.

I couldn’t help but think how much further ahead they’d be on the woman front if they had taken all that time they used to design this pointless system and actually used it to interact with the opposite gender. They tried to get some 10-12 year old looking kid to do it, but the kid was understandably wierded out and refused to. Good choice, kid.

I ended up getting roped into helping one of the foreign artists around the show floor, but I eventually got out of there and back home. Hakuho racked up a 4th straight undefeated sumo championship, and is on course to break the all-time win streak record come next tourney in November (starts in just over a week!). That should be exciting!