Saturday, December 6, 2008

One ticket to Nirvana, please!

Some of you know that I took a trip to Kyoto and Hiroshima in early November, and man, was it BEAUTIFUL! If you don't have it on your list of things you must to before the inevitable, then please put KYOTO-AUTUMN on it right now. Seriously, put it on your list right now. It is an absolute must see. I did not know that trees had so many colors, and the intensity in which they display them is hard to describe, but is truly spectacular. I took about 250 pictures of leaves changing colors, and yes, they ALL look different. I learned from my Costa Rica sunset collection that even though at the time the sunset may look different, once the pictures are developed, not so much. About 100 sunset pictures later, they all are pretty, pink sunsets that sort of look like the previous 98 pictures. Anyway, this time, I really nailed it, and I am pretty sure that even to the most experienced picture observer, they epitomize variety!

Anyway, Kyoto is full of shrines, temples, geishas, obnoxious tourists, and a history so ancient, it's hard to believe. We walked on wooden floors that were constructed in 710 AD, stood in gardens that were manicured for Emperors, and fed free roaming deer that are supposed to be messengers from God. We even crawled through a hole that promises us Nirvana. Oh, believe it skeptical ones!

Behind the largest bronze Buddha in the world there is a wooden pillar with a hole in the bottom that is the same size as the aforementioned Buddha's right nostril. If you can fit through it, and boy is it SMALL, then you are guaranteed Nirvana. Much to my fellow Japanese tourists shame, I crawled through twice for good measure. You can never be too sure in this life. Nirvana, here I come!!

I also tried to pet at many deer as possible which is actually a lot harder than it sounds. They are not so much interested in being pet as they are being fed, and since I had no food on me, I spent most of the time chasing the damn deer around while everyone else was trying to get rid of them! All I wanted to do was pet them, and perhaps give them a message to take to the man upstairs. They are messengers from God after all, so I figured what the Hell! Between my crawl through Nirvana (twice, no less), and grabbing as many deer as possible, I am pretty sure I am covered-either that, or I have contracted Lyme Disease.

Hiroshima was also amazing in its own right. A city that was completely devastated by a human atrocity is now a flourishing, beautiful place that I highly recommend to anyone looking for history, peace, and good food. I think everyone should take a trip to the museum and peace park so you can see for yourself what detonating an atomic weapon really means. It was a shocking look at what humans are capable of doing to each other (twice, no doubt), but also of our resilience to survive. Both human and plant began to resume life about 3 months after the attacks. There is one picture in the museum that shows Hiroshima leveled to complete rubble, and amongst the dust and the wreckage, there is a plant with its leaves pushing through the rocks, beginning its life all over again. It is a moving and inspiring photograph. The picture was taken in the fall of 1945.

Next we went to Miyajima, an island off of Hiroshima that was a small piece of Heaven. Here you can find Itsukushima Shrine which was founded in 593 AD! These peopled were constructing incredibly beautiful and ornate structures and putting on Noh theater productions in 593 AD! What can you say you were doing in 593 AD?

The torii gate that provides the entrance to the shrine is built in the sea of the Sanyo coast. When the tide is in, it looks as if it is floating on the water. It is ethereal! The cool thing about Miyajima, aside from floating gates and really old stuff is that nobody is permitted to be born or to die on the island. The entire island is considered sacred, and sanctity has no room for the miracle of life or eternal sleep. The elderly that I did see living on the island did look fit as a fiddle I will say, even though they were probably 205 years old. They are doing all they can to not die just to save themselves from being evicted. That is dedication!

As in Nara, the ever important messengers of God, the deer, are roaming at will. This was obviously the high light of my trip. The whole experience was truly breathtaking.

Overall, our trip went off without a hitch. I was forced to use my shaky Japanese and managed fairly well, and as far as I know I did not insult anyones mother. Finally, our last day was upon us and we had to get up early, to get to the train station, to catch our bus, to get to the airport, to catch our's exhausting just writing that!

There is no airport in Kyoto, so you have to fly to Osaka and take a bus from there. Anyway, we woke up late and ended up in a mad dash to the train station. As we jumped out of the cab, I was a little panicked, but managing to keep my cool. I was feeling fairly confident, however, that my message sent via deer up to Heaven would prevent us from missing our flight.

We ran to the bus depot, and found the machine to buy our bus tickets, but everything was written in Kanji!! The founders of the Japanese language decided for some reason to not have 1, but 3 alphabets. Convenient? I think not. Anyway, I can read 2 out of the 3 and usually can manage with that, but this time, I was at a complete loss. The bus ticket machine was written entirely in the one alphabet that I cannot read. I found some attendant and asked him which ticket I needed for the airport and he showed me. We bought the tickets, but already something was strange. They had miraculously gone up in price since 4 days ago. But since our bus was leaving in about 15 seconds, we had no time to speculate and bought them.

To add insult to injury, it was pouring down rain, and the bus was moving slowly. We had about 2 hours to get to the airport which I thought was more than enough time, since it only takes one hour by bus, but with the weather like this, I was starting to get nervous. Finally, an hour goes by, and we are nowhere near the airport. Soon enough an hour and a half go by, and I am fairly certain we are about to miss our flight. Damn deer!

Finally, we pull up to the airport at 11:05am, for our flight that leaves at 11:15am. We run in, go towards the counter, and throw our itineraries on the counter, explaining that our flight is about to leave. The woman (let's call her Yoko),notices our turmoil, and speedily does whatever it is the people at airline counters do. After furiously typing something into her terminal, Yoko stops abruptly and stares at me. I stare at her. She then says:

Yoko: Why are you here?

Andrea: Um...we have to catch our flight.

Yoko: Yes, I know, but why are you HERE?

Andrea (looking around, briefly wondering where HERE is): Isn't this the airport?

Yoko: Yes, but why are you HERE?

Andrea (I don't have time for an existential debate on why anyone is here-I need to catch my flight lady!!): Um....

Yoko (staring at me like I am a particularly daft zoo animal): You are in the wrong airport.

Andrea: Wrong airport? We are in Japan, right? (Did I fall asleep on the bus for hours?)

Yoko (patiently): Yes, but you have to go to Osaka airport!

Andrea: Where am I now?

Yoko (less patiently): Kansai airport!

Andrea: Isn't that in Osaka?

Yoko (heavy sigh as if explaining things to a 3 year old): Yes, but there are 2 airports in Osaka, and you are in the wrong one.

Andrea (sheepishly): Oh. So where is Osaka airport?

Yoko: About an hour away from here.

Andrea (trying to lighten the situation): Hmmm, that will make it difficult to catch my flight then that leaves in 3 minutes, ha ha.

Yoko (the light hearted attempt failed-then her very serious response): Yes, it would.

Andrea (sheepish tone returned): What should we do?

Yoko (very large sigh): Just a moment, please.

Yoko then walks off. Most likely, to either hit her head against the wall, or to laugh uncontrollably at my complete and utter stupidity. But let me put this into perspective for a second for all of you judging me at this moment. First, my itinerary is written completely in Japanese and in Kanji no less, making it impossible to read. It does say the Osaka airport on it, but I can't read it! My friend booked my tickets and she speaks Japanese, so this is an irrelevant point to her. Second, I had no idea that there were two airports in Osaka. It didn't even occur to me to ask about it. As I am pondering this dilemma, thinking that we are going to have to buy new tickets, get to Osaka airport which is God knows where, spend more money than I even have, I see Yoko come running over to us with a huge smile on her face. From bitter experience, I have learned about this smile, and my stomach drops.

Yoko (sighs, pauses, then sighs again): Why are you here again?

Am I in the twilight zone? Didn't I just have this conversation?

Andrea(exasperated at my own mental weakness, and the incessant, pointless questions) : Um, I don't know. I have no idea why I am here. I can't read the damn Japanese, and I didn't know that there were two airports in Osaka, and I don't know. I just don't know why I am here, I don't KNOW!....

Yoko (triumphant): Well, we will let you fly out of Kansai on a flight that leaves in one hour.

Andrea (shocked): Oh! Thank you so much!! So, so much!

Yoko: But, on one condition.

Uh-oh. I am going to have to hand over my left kidney, or my pinkie finger, or relinquish my trip to Nirvana, or....

Yoko (like a school teacher scolding a child): You can never do this again. Never, never again.

Andrea(smiling and laughing a little): Uh, don't worry. But really, I can't believe we are the first people to have done this, I mean...

Yoko (with no trace of the huge smile that she had a second ago): Yes, you are.

Andrea (with that familiar sheepishness I recently adopted): Oh, well OK. We're off then. Thank you again, really...

With that, we quickly walked away before she could change her mind. I am pretty sure that my picture is up in the Kansai airport next to pictures of wanted terrorists and infamous hijackers. Most likely under the heading of "Japan's most dim witted gaijin."

Overall, it was a great trip. I took close to 700 pictures in 4 days and wore poor Nick out. I give him credit for keeping up with me, as it is no easy task. I put the energizer bunny to shame when I am on vacation, as I truly believe in leaving no stone unturned, no shrine unseen, no deer unpet, and no second wasted on silly things like eating and sleeping.

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday this year. Be safe, silly, and adventurous, and if you get the chance, climb through the nostril of Buddha. It will serve you well-even if you do end up in the wrong airport!

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Buon Natale, Feliz Navidad, Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu, etc. HAPPY NEW YEAR to EVERYONE!!!!!!!!!!


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

On a Sunday afternoon, in the mountains...

I do realize that blogging is supposed to be done with some frequency, and I am clearly not living up to the typical blogging world standards. I started this blog a month ago, and finally finished it tonight. It is from October, so I am no longer sick. Thank you for your concern if there was goes...

I have been sitting at home for the last couple of days due to a nasty little virus that has invaded my body. Being sick is no fun in any country, but it is a tad worse in a country that is not yours. You don't know what to buy, where the doctor is, AND I have no television to simply absorb myself in. But I will say kudos to my Japanese friends here because they have been incredible.
It all started last Tuesday. I tried to be a hero and went into work, but the damn virus won, and sent me home packing. Before I retreated however, Yoko, saw the pale look on my face, and instantly ran out and bought me hot green tea, something for my upset stomach (God knows what it was), and udon. She then sent me home.
The next day, I thought I was better and once again went into work. I made it through that day and the following, only to be brought to me knees again on Friday. I texted Yoko and told her that I didn't think I could leave my apartment, and within 5 minutes, she texted me back telling me to stay where I was (Uh, don't worry), and that she was sending someone to take me to the doctor. I hadn't even gotten out of bed yet, and already there was a personal ambulance on the way over. This epitomizes Japanese efficiency.

Within the hour, my friend Tomoko appeared at my door, and escorted me to the doctor. I want to mention that everywhere in Japan, you must take off your shoes before you go inside somewhere. Even the doctors office was equipped with slippers to change into. In my delirious state, I found this endearing, and thought I would share.

Anyway, the doctor was brief, efficient, and an ambitious student of medical English. It was limited, but correct. During the ultrasound, I think he enjoyed pointing out my organs just so he could say them in English. Every time he found something new, he would say "gallbladder!" then look at me and smile. "Kidney!" then smile. "Liver!" then smile...until he found my "small intestine!" no smile. Instead he simply said "not normal."
After the "not normal" comment he spouted off a whole bunch of Japanese, which naturally I didn't understand, and made my "stomach!" lurch, but as it turned out I was only afflicted with acute viral gastroenteritis. In other words, my small intestine was "not normal."

He gave me some medication along with a bill. I was very nervous about the whole payment thing, since I am living on a shoestring. So as they wrote up the ultrasound, the consultation, the English lesson, and 3 types of pills, I cringed. As they handed the bill over to me, I sucked in my breath and looked down.
2,940 Yen-the equivalent of $30. He told Tomoko as we left that he gave me a big discount...Why? I am not sure. But I'm pretty sure I heard him say as we walked out the door, "large intestine!" but I can't be certain.

It just goes to show that the Japanese hospitality does go above and beyond. I have had numerous phone calls to see if I needed anything, or if I am feeling better, etc. It is very nice considering there are still so many things that I don't know how to do. At least I know that I am not alone.

The week before I was "virusized" I went driving with two friends, the aforementioned Yoko, and another friend named Tomoko (yes, its a very common name here). Yoko was all excited about driving to the sea shore, and wanted me to come along. I needed a break from med school apps, so I went. I was a little surprised that Yoko wanted to drive, since she has a fear of cars. My previous conversation with her about driving was before my Mt. Aso trip and it went something like this: (in no way is this an exaggeration)

Andrea: So, how are we going to get to Aso?

Yoko: We should drive.

Andrea: Ok. Do you have a car?

Yoko: Yes.

Andrea: Great! That's settled. You can drive us.

Yoko: No, I can't drive!

Andrea: Ah, OK. Mikuru can drive then.

Yoko: No, she can't drive. It's too dangerous.

Andrea: OK, then we should take the train.

Yoko: No, we can't take the train.

Andrea: Um....then I guess you should drive.

Yoko: No, I can't drive.

Andrea: But, Yoko..isn't it your car? Can't you drive it?

Yoko: Yes.

Andrea: So, then you can drive us, right?

Yoko: No.

Andrea: Then, we'll take the train.

Yoko: No, we can't take the train.

Andrea (looking for the candid camera somewhere and wondering quite seriously if I was in the Twilight Zone): Then, Mikuru can drive.

Yoko: No, she can't drive.

Andrea: So, let me get this straight. You have a car, but won't drive it. And Mikuru can't drive it. I can't drive it. But, we also can't take the train. Is that correct?

Yoko: Yes.

Andrea: Uh-huh. So, how are going to go to Aso?

Yoko: We'll drive!

And so it went on for about another 10 minutes of complete and utter nonsense which left my head spinning, and to this day I still have no idea how I ended up in such a backwards conversation. In the end, we (she) deemed that driving was too dangerous, despite her ambition to drive, or not to drive, I am still not sure, and we all ended up taking the train.

Anyway, we took another road trip to the coast this time. A beautiful little jaunt to who-knows-where. I was told that we were going to drive into the mountains and then along the coast. This sounded wonderfully serene.

So here we are in Tomoko's car, eating rice balls and strange potato chips (at least, I think that's what they were), and I notice that we have veered off the main road. When I asked where we were going, the answer was simply, "into the mountains."

Sure enough, the road became thinner, the trees became more abundant, and little by little, we left civilization. I didn't ask too many questions because I was enjoying the peace that comes with sitting idle in a car that you are not driving, but when the road became one lane instead of two, and the traffic had decreased to us and us alone, I started to wonder. As we drove further and further into isolation, I finally decided to ask again, fearing the pointlessness of my question beforehand.

Andrea: So, where are we going exactly?

Yoko: To the mountains!

Andrea: Ok, far into the mountains?

Yoko: Not too far.

Andrea: This sort of looks like the mountains now, Yoko. Do we have a destination?

Yoko: Yes, but we are not there yet.

Andrea: Yes, I figured as much, given that we are still driving.

Yoko: Yes, ha, ha.

Andrea: (again) So, where are we going?

Yoko: To a salt shop!

Andrea: Uh....Did you say a salt shop?

Yoko: Yes!

Andrea: (shaking my head, because obviously I had misunderstood) A salt shop, in the mountains. A place that sells salt?

Yoko: Yes!

Andrea: Salt that we eat?

Yoko: (a little exasperated with my dim wittedness) Yes...

If any of you think that this is in any way a normal conversation, or a normal destination, please enlighten me. I think I was too stunned to bother asking the futile question of why. At the same time however, it all made sense. Of course we were going to a salt shop, on a Sunday, in the middle of the mountains, in Japan, at four o'clock in the afternoon. What else should I, or anybody else for that matter, be doing at that exact moment? It almost seemed too logical....

Ah, Japan. It is a country where yes means no, no means yes, the mountains mean a salt shop, and the bigger the smile, the worse the news. A land of contradictions. Of many, many contradictions.

I miss you all!!


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Pickles, anyone?

I have turned the inevitable 30 years old. It is a strange experience, turning 30. I don't feel like I am 30, I don't look 30, I certainly don't act 30, and yet, I am 30. I feel like an impostor. The older I get, the smaller my apartment gets, the less I know about food preparation, and my life becomes more and more complicated. I thought life worked the other way around. Leave it to me to find a new path.

But, if one must turn 30, then why not do it a little differently? And that is exactly what I did. I scoffed at the traditional celebration of friends and excessive alcohol, followed by robust laughter and copious tears, and instead I stared down at a toxic combination of sulphur and phosphorus atop the biggest caldera in the world. Typical? I think not.

I ventured to a place called Mt. Aso, or as many Japanese call it "Aso-san" and a Mr. Aso it surely is. Aso-san is a volcano caldera that happens to be the largest active caldera in the world. It is a couple of hours away from Fukuoka by train, so it was the perfect weekend get-a-way. I had read about it a couple of months ago and decided that I wanted to go there for my 30th birthday. The guidebook describes it by saying "in 1979 an eruption of Naka-dake killed a woman on her honeymoon. The last major blast was in 1993, but the summit is regularly declared off-limits due to toxic gas emissions. It all depends on wind conditions-and just hope they don't change suddenly while you're at the summit."

Toxic gas? Off-limits? Killed on honeymoon from spewing, hot, gaseous emissions?

Perfect! I'm there!

And therefore, I went. You only turn 30 once, and you might as well do it by tempting fate for another 30, right?

So, I went. And guess what? The summit was closed due to toxic gas emissions.

Well, naturally. I expected nothing less.

But, do not fear. It reopened and up the mountain I went. How exactly they can deem it dangerous and off-limits one minute, then safe the next is a mystery I don't question. If you ask too many questions, you will never have any fun.

It was well worth risking my life and lungs over, let me tell you. It was spectacularly beautiful. Even though the side of the caldera was spotted with "safety shelters" that resembled beige smurf houses that wouldn't keep you safe from a rainstorm, let alone a toxic gas eruption, it was an amazing piece of nature.

The caldera itself is phenomenal. A gaping hole in the earth that holds an iridescent blue liquid that no crayola crayon could ever dream of being. From the blue, thick, white gas comes billowing out. I stood there for awhile taking a ridiculous amount of similar pictures and soon enough my head hurt. I like to think that it was my brain exploding from the magnificence, but the sign posted next to the caldera dashed those ideas away. Instead, it thoughtfully informed me of the toxic gas I was inhaling, coupled with a lovely flashing red light which probably meant that I should take cover in a nearby smurf house.

In all seriousness, it was spectacular. On the way up to the caldera are a series of smaller volcanoes that lie dormant and are covered with trees and grass. They resemble a set of rice bowls from a distance and are stunning. Pine trees, cows, and horses also dotted the landscape to make for a perfect postcard.

During the weekend, we also took advantage of the positive aspect of volcanoes, called hot springs (or onsens in Japanese). Many of them are outside and surrounded by bonzai and maple trees, and makes for a perfect, steamy atmosphere to deflate in. One of the evenings, we soaked our weary bodies in one that stared up at the stars, our eyes drinking in the glitter. The only sound we heard was of rushing water and crickets. It was amazing.

The whole trip was planned by my two Japanese friends, who also acted as tour guides. They did a great job, as it can't be easy to organize train schedules, bed and breakfasts, vegetarian meals, and sightseeing activities for 4 expectant foreigners. The Japanese are all about hospitality and making sure everyone is happy. The Japanese also never like to give bad news or let you know that something isn't possible. They dislike it so much in fact that they do it with a huge smile on their face to decrease the blow of the terrible news they are about to give.

An example I would like to share is not related to my trip, but rather my incredible journey on securing Internet service.

Andrea (to my friend Yoko, the translator): Good afternoon. I would like to have Internet service set up in my apartment.

Internet man (HUGE SMILE): OK. Do you have your alien card?

Andrea: Yes.

Internet man (STILL SMILING): Great. (now he takes my card somewhere and does something with the computer then comes back, asks me what type of service I would like, how to pay, etc.)

Andrea (I tell him the service I would like, then..): So, when can that be installed?

Internet man (SMILE WAVERING): Just a moment, please.

Andrea: Uh-oh (I wait for a few minutes thinking this can't be good, but then he approaches me with an even bigger smile than before, his eyes alight with hope and promise)

Internet man (RADIATING SMILE): 6 weeks.

Andrea: Uh...what? Six weeks for what?

Internet man (TEETH FLASHING SMILE): For Internet to be installed.

Andrea: Are you kidding me? Why?

Flustered Internet man (SMILE WAVERING): blah, blah, blah (whatever he said I didn't understand so that is how is sounded).

Andrea: Is there any way we can expedite the process? I can pay extra....

Internet man (SMILE WIDER THAN EVER-I FEAR IT MAY PERMANENTLY DAMAGE HIS FACE): No, that is impossible. Is that OK?


Andrea (NO SMILE): Ok.

Internet man (SMILING WITH SATISFACTION ON A JOB WELL DONE): Great! Let's get you set up, then.

This is just an example of everyday life here in Japan, and my wonderful Japanese friends here are no strangers to this behavior. More than once on our trip, exact details of information were simply left out of our conversations, like how many kilometers it would be to walk to somewhere, or that perhaps stores would be closed, things like that. Then, when it was discovered that 5 kilometers was actually 10, or all the stores were closed, the bad news was properly delivered with nothing less than a gigantic smile across their faces.

My favorite example was when we all decided to walk to this famous tofu restaurant that is surrounded by many souvenir shops. My friends claimed that the map said it was only a 15 minute walk, so I agreed to walk. Not surprisingly, 15 minutes go by, and we are in the middle of nowhere. The only things around us are trees, mountains, a threatening, gray sky, and humidity. 20 minutes was swiftly followed by 60 minutes, and we are still somewhere in Japan that promises no restaurants, no shops, and no civilization. At this point, I wonder aloud where we are.

Japanese friends (SMILING): Close, we are close.

I am skeptical. 60 minutes turned into 90 minutes of walking, and at this point, I am losing patience, and the ability to sweat since I have no more water in my body left. I look back at them, and they are sweating and panting as I am, but they are smiling at me as if this is a normal and enjoyable experience. They then start talking about how great the tofu will be and the shops should have a lot of things to buy and how worth it this beautiful walk is.

Two hours later, we see a flag that says something. Low and behold it is the
15-minute-away tofu restaurant with all of the surrounding shops full of souvenirs. We walked into the restaurant, removed our shoes, sat down on our tatami mats, ordered cold beers, and took in the breathtaking view of Neko-Dake, a craggy mountain that holds the restaurant in its shadow. After the first sip of my beer, I say:

Andrea: This is great! After lunch we can go shopping for some cute treasures. I hear there are great teas and traditional crafts that we can buy!

Japanese friends (SMILING): Oh, we can't go shopping.

Andrea: Uh....

Japanese friends (THE SMILING STRETCHES): No, the shops have all closed.

Andrea: Closed? But you told me about all the great shops that are here. What happened?

Japanese friends (SMILING): They are here, but they are closed.

Andrea (TRYING NOT TO LOSE MY PATIENCE): So, then shopping would seem impossible if the shops aren't open.

Japanese friends (SMILING EVEN BIGGER): Yes, exactly.

Andrea (A LITTLE DEFLATED): So I guess we can't buy anything.

Japanese friends (THE SMILE HAS YET INCREASED SOMEHOW): Oh, but you can! There is one shop open still!

Andrea (EXCITED AND RELIEVED): Oh, great! We can buy some souvenirs there then! What type of shop is it?

Japanese friends (WITH THE WIDEST SMILE I HAVE EVER SEEN-EVEN MORE SO THAN THE INTERNET MAN): It's a shop for pickles! Many, many types of pickles.

And that, my friends, was the end of my trip. I will say that the 10 kilometer walk to the tofu restaurant was exceptionally beautiful and the tofu was delicious. I am sorry to say that I did not make it to the pickle shop. I think I may have set fire to it if I did, so it was in all of our best interests to simply leave after lunch. By taxi, I might add.

Overall, it was a great way to turn 30, and I would highly recommend going there. I had a blast (fortunately, not literally). Mt. Aso is very beautiful and a fascinating piece of nature. Also, I hear it has stores that sell excellent pickles. Many, many types....

I miss you all very, very much!


Thursday, September 4, 2008

The moment you have all been waiting for....

Konichiwa minnasan!

Ima, nihon ni sundeimasu. Nihongo ga kakimasu, daijobu?

Just kidding. That is about all I know anyway!

So, yes, it has been awhile. How funny (not really) that in such a technologically savvy country, I can't get Internet for 6 WEEKS! How does this happen? They are wired underground in the trains, they have toilets that are heated, play the lovely sound of running water (for inspiration, I suppose??), flush automatically when it deems you finished, and probably serve you coffee if you pressed the correct button, but I can't get Internet for 6 weeks. Ah, the irony of it all...
Anyway, now I am fully connected, and do I have stories for you.

Japan is a cool country. Aside from all the strangeness, it is a beautiful, friendly, overly helpful country. It is almost too nice. Nobody yells, there are no fights on the trains, no obscenities being yelled randomly, it is so weird! What kind of society is this? No inappropriate outbursts, public urination, or shirtless, homeless men scratching their hairy backs with their spoons (before dipping it back into their ice cream)! I am not in NYC anymore, ToTo-san...

So, because it has been so long, I think I have to condense my blog with a list of the top 6 coolest things about Fukuoka thus far...

6. My washing machine that acts as my washing machine, my counter, my cutting board, my cabinet, my table, and my ironing board. Very convenient!

5. The cross walks play Nintendo-like music when the walk signal goes on. You are immediately brought back to the days of Super Mario Brothers and killer mushrooms.

4. The toilet seats are heated, cushy, and play the sound of softly running water as soon as you sit on them. Very inspiring.

3. The silver bugs that resemble a slinky that run across my apartment accordion style, greeting me as I walk in the door. I keep taking them outside, but they keep coming back in. Most likely they are life-threatening, but until I suffer from an inexplicable rash and can't feel my legs, I have dubbed them Bear and Morris II.

2. Everything in Japan is mini and packaged beautifully except one thing. The bread is HUGE. I think it could house a small population in the middle of the ocean complete with palm trees and bungalows. When I eat my delicious cheese sandwiches, my hands look dwarf-like. Bizarre!

1. The number one coolest thing in Fukuoka: the homeless guy living in a 2-story cardboard box, who also happened to take his shoes off before he went inside. His apartment was not only bigger than mine, but I think he even had nicer shoes! You have to see it to believe it. (But, he doesn't have a multi-purpose washing machine, so there!-actually, he probably does...grrr)

I know. You are all looking at Expedia right now trying to find the next flight out, but hold your horses. All in good time, my friends.

Since I have been here I have been tutored in the arts of Kyudo (Japanese archery), worn a Yukata (summer kimono) all throughout the city (and no, this is not normal for foreigners-hence the multiple stares and looks of bewilderment), found a yoga instructor, secured private Japanese lessons, painted pottery, visited two islands, played soccer with non-English speaking Japanese men (we lost), soaked in an onsen (Japanese mineral bath), learned how to pray Shintou style, and found time to go to work. What a whirlwind!

All will be explained in due time.

I miss you all terribly and hope everyone is doing well and on their way to Barnes and Noble to pick up Lost Planets' "Fukuoka on a shoe string".


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Training-Day 2-First Japanese student (poor soul)

Today was day numero dos of training. ONLY day 2. Last night was spent (aside from writing blogs and such), making lesson plans for our poor victims that we were going to inflict our English teaching methods on. So, after a quick trip to the ever elegant 7-11 next to my hotel, side stepping the hookers and boozers, and enjoying a delicious meal of frozen fettuccine microwaved to perfection with a side of Triscuits, I perfected my lesson. I had it down to a T. It was so great that I could deliver it flawlessly.

So, Tuesday rolls around very early (I swear time moves faster in BC) and we head over to training where they tell us all about this and that. They then send us off to the school where we will meet our unsuspecting Japanese students who have willingly signed up for a free lesson.

I am feeling good. Confident, even. This will be no problem. After all, I speak English and they don't. I already have one up on them, and that is the place a teacher should always be. One step ahead.

So, I proceed with my lesson. Now, being a New Yorker, speed is only an issue when someone is going too slow. Either driving too slow, talking too slow, thinking too slow, and we tend to fill in the blanks for them, feeling sure that our answer is better anyway. If someone can't make a decision, we swoop in and decide for them. If someone has not finished their sentence in 0.5 seconds, we finish it for them. It is what we do. It is expected, and therefore a way of life.

Apparently, the Japanese do not like this method. They actually like to think about the questions we ask them for about 8 seconds. They also like to speak their own sentences. I was unaware of this, and very efficiently filled in the students blanks, answered my own questions, and even had a conversation all by myself. But, I will say, it was ALL in English, and therefore, I did something right.

The lesson went something like this:

Me: "Today, we are going to talk about what you like to do after work, OK?"

Student:(no response in 0.5 seconds-still processing what I said-too slow).

Me: "Do you like to go to the park after work?"

Student: "Uh".... (0.5 seconds)

Me: (In my head-"why is she not responding, too slow, question boring, move on! Move on!") "How about going to the theater after work?"

Student: "Uh...theeta?"

Me: "Yes, theater, you know, comedy and tragedy, people on stage, costumes, no? You don't know? OK, what can I say about theater...Broadway, lights, actors, they sing. I saw this great show in New York about this farce on the president, God, America is a mess right now, with Nathan Lane. You know Nathan Lane? No? Well, he is great he...well anyway, that's another subject. So, where were we. Oh, yes activities. OK, how about going to the gym?"

Stunned Student: "Mm, I like to go to the g-"

Me: (cut off student-too slow) "To the gym, good, ok, how about...."

And then I proceeded to do the rest of the lesson in a speed that only light could follow. After all, my English is damn good.

My evaluation from my company was good overall believe it or not, except that I speak too fast, to myself, and for others, and in Japan, this is frowned upon. THEY like to speak for themselves and THEY need time (more than 0.5 seconds) to answer questions. What kind of country is this?

Tomorrow will be a better day. I promised to take a sedative before my lesson so I don't stun my student into an English stupor.

Love and miss all of my fellow fast talkin', fast thinkin' New Yorkers (and of course, all of you others that keep me on planet earth...)


Monday, July 14, 2008

My first blog this could suck

Hello all!

I am writing this blog to see how to do it. I have not used this fancy WWW tool, so I may do this all wrong.

Anyway, no, I am not in Japan. Not yet. I am in Vancouver, BC in TRAINING!!!!!!!!! It is a very arduous process, but I am sure important. I am not really good at sitting in a room all day talking about rules and regulations, so this is a challenge. I am more a "fly by the seat of my pants" kind of girl, so all this formality is a chore. Grrrrrr!

Anyhoo, Vancouver is beautiful! If you have not been, I highly recommend it. It is a city surrounded by water and mountains that are so close you feel as if you can touch them. It almost looks like a Hollywood set: pristine, lush, and fake. Of course the street my hotel is on is full of hookers, pawn shops, and pornography, but it makes me feel like I am at home in NYC. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder anyway, right? Ah, I miss New York....

My training has been fine so far. Nothing real exciting to report except what I have to look forward to when I move to Japan, namely earthquakes and TYPHOONS! OK, earthquakes I knew about, but typhoons? What the....? The company I work for now assures me that the island that I will be living peacefully on only experiences about 20-30 per year (20-30 PER YEAR??). AND, most of them are small, but that I may have about 5 big ones (BIG ONES???).

OK, what does that mean? Something about staying inside and boarding up my windows was the advice I was given. But then I asked about flooding, and the manager just says nonchalantly, "oh yes, of course..." Then she moved on to a new topic. That was the end of my typhoon discussion (FLOODING???).

Now, this may seem like it could be a trivial and perhaps a rare occurrence that won't infringe on my life and most likely, that will be the case. However, let me remind you that I am somewhat prone to natural disasters. Let me clarify:

1) In 2000, Seattle had an earthquake of 7.3 or so, one of the biggest in decades...where was I? In Seattle.
2) In 2001, NYC experienced 9/11....where was I? In NYC.
3) In 2004 (I think) NYC experienced the blackout....where was I? In NYC
4) In 2007, Costa Rica experienced a huge hurricane (the name escapes me)....where was I? In Costa Rica.
5) In 2008, Kyushu, Japan has a typhoon with 100ft high waves and torrential rain....where will I be? Kyushu.

I always hope for the best, but plan for the worst, then laugh because planning never matters anyway.

I miss you all so much already!!