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".