"Brenda and Justin's Nihon ni Newsletter" September 10, 2002
Justin and I live in Chiba City, in Chiba prefecture. Basically this means that we are to the right and down a little bit from Tokyo. It takes us, oh, maybe 30 minutes to an hour to get to Tokyo by train. We have the same weather as Tokyo... this summer it has been really disgustingly hot and humid, but it has started to cool off a bit and has been raining for the past few days. (yay!) This really is umbrella country- every shop and restaurant has either an umbrella stand by the door or they provide little plastic bags for you to put your wet umbrella in. I guess the idea is for you to not get their nice shop all soggy!
We live in walking distance from two train station- one is a major JR line, called Inage Station. The other is a privately owned line called the Keisei line. It's pretty convenient to get just about anywhere, although sometimes I feel like we get really familiar with the areas around the train stations and then miss out on all the hidden areas! We are trying to explore more though. The closest city area to us is Chiba City Station. This area has been called, rather unflatteringly, the New Jersey of Tokyo... But we like it anyway. There is a nice Starbucks near Chiba Station, indistinguishable from its american counterparts except for their unique offerings of "Green Tea Frappucino" and the currency (yen). Justin's favorite place there is "Yoribushi Camera" which is a 4 story electronics store, with some of the most high tech, cool electronic devices modern man has ever seen. He is especially enamoured with a combination dvd-player, cd player, mp3 player, etc. etc. device sold there. We bought the coolest thing ever for our apartment there- a combination microwave, oven, grill, toaster oven, kitchen scale, cookbook that can actually connect to the internet. When you open the door, a little happy toaster man with wings appears and greets you with a song. It was, ironically, NOT the high end model, but the cheapest one!
This weekend the high school I teach at, Chiba Nishi, had a cultural festival. The down side was, I had to work saturday and sunday all day, the up side was, the school was buzzing with activity- each home room put on a play, video, shop, restaurant, or games room in their room. They performed such notable pieces as: Snow White and the 7 Buddhist Monks, Peter Pan (complete with cross dressing- two Peter Pans and two Wendys), Harry Potter, and a musical Lion King. The plays were written by students, and were very cross cultural presentations. On Sunday I was invited to participate in a formal tea ceremony- it was really beautiful. There was a grey misty rain outside, and we kneeled in the traditional tatami room, carefully eating a beautiful mochi cake and drinking green tea... it was a wonderful experience. My feet did however fall completely asleep... boy did they hurt afterwards!
I had both Monday and Tuesday off, since I had to work Saturday and Sunday from 8:15-4:15. Yesterday I cleaned our adorable apartment, with its 6 mat tatami room (organized clothes and folded up the futon bed to store in the closet), office/living room (which has our two computers on a glass top computer desk, a floor futon couch, and tv/vcr), the dining room (which has a nice small dining table with yellow chairs that we bought at Yoribushi Camera's 4th floor "Room Deco" store), and the kitchen ( which has a small dorm size fridge, our cool multifunction microwave/oven, two burners with a grill underneath, stainless steel counters and a big sink). Today I went to the post office, and also visited a tiny local tea shop. The saleslady at the tea shop seemed very pleased to see me, and offered me some green tea to drink in a nice ceramic cup. They helped me pick out some green tea, and were very helpful, despite something of a language barrier. I think I made some friends there today!
My students at the high school are very sweet, and excited to hear about life in America. There are quite a few more girls than boys, and they giggle and gossip just like high school girls back home. However, when I speak to them in English, they get really excited and even more prone to giggles, or shriek in delight over the whole exchange. The teachers are quite kind as well. My supervisor is a bit traditional- he works very long hours and is generally very serious. Sometimes though, he can do surprising things- for example, at the cultural festival he bought a silly plastic ring with a flashing light bulb.
We are really happy in our new life in Japan, though we have had to make some adjustments to living in a new culture. Japan is a beautiful, exciting place full of surprises.
Love, Brenda and Justin
"Brenda and Justin's Tokyo Newsletter" September 16, 2002
This weekend we went to Tokyo- Saturday afternoon we took the train to Tokyo station. At Tokyo station, we visited the international forum, an amazing space age building. We stumbled onto a kimono exhibition at the forum, and it was so gorgeous! nothing but incredibly beautiful embroidered fabric as far as the eye could see. Of course, we had to remove our shoes at the door- the entire exhibition was on a tatami mat floor. I hadn't been wearing socks with my shoes so I felt like an errant 3 year old, running around this gorgeous exhibition barefoot. Several artisans were there with displays- at one booth, I was urged to sit at a table with a rectangular plastic "sink" full of cloudy white liquid. I was confused- until the artist gave me a square screen and urged me to sift it through the water- he pointed to a few sheets of homemade paper drying next to the sink. Aha! Homemade paper! It was quite fun, really- I made my own piece of homemade paper and even got to decorate it with two pieces of paper thread. We watched a woman weaving kimono ties- maybe belts? using a loom- it was fascinating.
Afterwards, we went to the Tokyo tourist information center to find brochures on Tokyo activities- and then we took the train to Ueno, to visit Ueno Park, an area famous for its many museums. The park was a peaceful respite from the intense city scenery- many families and couples were walking in the park, enjoying the holiday weekend. We passed a cultural center, and then decided to explore a Shinto shrine in the park- it was very peaceful. We put a hundred yen coin into a machine to get a paper fortune- and then I tied my fortune to a nearby post. The wind is supposed to blow away any bad fortune. After that , we walked to the Tokyo Museum, but it was already 4:00pm, and since the museum was both expensive and closing soon, we decided not to go in. We left the park and went to find the subway to Asakusa.
The main reason I wanted to go to Asakusa was for the restaurant supply block. They sell all sorts of great things there- the plastic food you see in restaurant windows, all sorts of dishes, both western and Japanese, any kitchen appliance or kitchen device you could ever think of… Of course you can also visit specialty stores- we saw several shops that only sold one item, like chopsticks… It was a lot of fun. It reminded me of "Peppercorn", a kitchen gourmet's dream shop in Boulder… except there was a whole block of it, and it wasn't as expensive! We bought a few baking tins, which are hard to find in normal stores. We got a muffin tin, a bread tin, and a larger square baking tin. (Justin has been dying to make banana bread..) After window shopping, we were hungry, so we stopped at a likely area- one with lots of pachinko parlors, small sake shops, confectionary shops, and cracker shops. We went into a sushi restaurant, and ordered a small order of sushi, and some sake. Unfortunately, that particular restaurant was quite fond of their wasabi, so I did not enjoy the sushi very much. Wasabi is my downfall. No matter how hard I try, I just despise the stuff. It's not the spiciness I dislike, it's that horrid green plastic hot taste, both too pungent and flavorless at the same time. Afterwards, we were still hungry, so we went to McDonalds for some greasy fries. Hey, hungry is hungry! We always get strange looks here when we ask for several packs of ketchup…
After that, we headed to Roppongi, an area famous for having a lively nightlife and lots of foreigners. We went to a place called the Havana Café for an appetizer and a drink. This place could have been anywhere in the world- Jamaica, America, Mexico- anywhere with a high American tourist population! It was relaxing however, and a lively place with some pretty great "American" restaurant food items. Nice when "pizza" or a "hamburger" just isn't what you want. Fajitas, mashed potatoes, barbequed skewers of meat and veggies… the menu alone put me right at home. After that we visited a place called "Bar, Isn't it"- another bar that again, could have been anywhere in Boulder. The (taped in) music was pretty good- it reminded me of the Boulder theatre. The nicest thing there was that everything was only 500 yen. A plate of food- 500 yen. A drink- any kind- 500 yen. In Tokyo, this is a GREAT deal. Most drinks are more like 800-1000 yen. Afterwards, we decided to get away from our pre-determined plan and just wander in and out of places that looked interesting. It was later by then, so the bars were really much more festive and full of people. Here we got to see a younger Tokyo scene- college students just out to have a fun evening with their boyfriends or girlfriends.
We were getting tired by then, so we got on the train, this time to Shibuya, where we hoped to find a relatively inexpensive hotel. Once at Shibuya, we weren't sure which direction held the "hotel" area, so we hopped in a quick taxi and got dropped off in the center of hotel land. It was getting a bit late, so many of the hotels were full. At last though, we found one, and fell asleep instantly. It had been a long day…
The next morning we enjoyed a shower in the huge, walk in shower room, complete with large pink bathtub. Then we went out to explore Shibuya. The Shibuya area is a much younger crowd- there are many clubs and bars in that area. Imagine our shock to see, at 10am, some clubs still were playing music and had diehards dancing inside! There were
purple banners up alongside one major streets, and people in cotton outfits-( thin summer shirts tied together at the side, and short pants- decorated with either a temple or deity name ) clustered on the sides of the street. As we walked down the street looking for somewhere to have breakfast, music began to play. Soon, a large, golden portable shrine appeared down the street, carried by many young men in identical cotton garb. Motorcycles and cars followed
patiently behind. We watched the procession until it was out of sight, and then decided to check out a restaurant called "Royal Host." Just when I thought the only American style family restaurant in Japan was Denny's, Royal Host proved me wrong. I had a vegetable omelet, 4 little pieces of potato, and a bowl of rice. Justin had pancakes and bacon. The coffee was dreadful, but the food wasn't bad- sometimes boring, filling (inexpensive) food is
just what you want…
We walked out and saw two more shrine groups pass by.. each one in their respective costume. Shibuya brags about their new shopping megacomplex, Mark City- so we ventured inside. Though the outside was promising-with a high tech mirror sculpture walkway, once we got inside, it was nothing but long corridors, with the occasional shop on one side. It felt like a glorified train station, and we were a bit disappointed. After that, we took the train to Harajuku. Justin wanted to see Meiji-jingu, one of the most impressive Shinto shrines in Tokyo (and Japan?). It was built in 1920 in honor of Emperor Meiji and his empress. When we got off the train, the first thing we noticed was a press of people all going towards one street, Takeshita dora. We decided that perhaps some festival was going on, and went to check it out.
Imagine our surprise when it turned out, that the festivity was all centered around the street itself. Hundreds of small shops line the pedestrian mall, most catering to young people. Goth kids scampered through the crowds wearing outrageous clothes, and there were many shops catering to their aesthetic. We enjoyed browsing through several outrageous goth clothing stores- lots of black ruffles and flowing sleeves… shoe shops (I must return with money!!!)… keitei (cell phone) shops with all the latest accessories…cutesy stuffed animal shops.. but most of all, the people watching was really fun. We emptied out onto a cross street and decided to head for the shrine. As we crossed the street on a pedestrian bridge, we could hear rock music. We looked down, and there, on a cement square below, was an amateur rock band, and teenage girls wearing absolutely outrageous costumes. Apparently we had stumbled onto yet another unexpected cultural event… this one called "cos play zoku"-the Costume play gang. Apparently it used to be a tradition for rock bands to play at this spot on Sundays, but police put a stop to it. Some brave groups still show up though, and teenagers are there to listen and show off their costumes. Apparently many of these teenagers love "visual" type bands, whatever that means. They wear gothic make-up - white faces, blue lipstick, cartoon nurse costumes or fairy costumes or vampy black clothes… it's quite a sight. As we passed the crowds and moved toward the shrine, Justin said, "oh, I think the concert is
over…" and we saw two policeman waiting patiently next to the rock band. The band finished their song, and then, the party was over.
As we passed under the torii marking the entrance to the shrine, the scale shifted and we were in a huge garden park- with wide clean, white gravel paths stretching ahead of us. A gardener swept the path ahead, using an enormous, traditional straw(?) broom. We saw a large stack of old sake barrels to our right, and helped one tourist family take a picture. We walked for ages, it was a cool day, and the trees alongside the path made it very peaceful. We washed our hands in front of large wooden troughs, using long handled ladles to pour the water. Finally we entered the main shrine complex, only to see tourist abruptly move to the right- we followed, and watched a procession of immaculately attired people. There were women in kimonos, and men in elaborate suits. Several of the kimono women seemed quite elderly and were holding each other up. Parasols were held over the heads of the most esteemed group in the center. They passed by, and moved into a building on the side, and we went on into the shrine center. Booths along the sides were set up to sell lucky amulets- for scholarship, love, or health. Further on, large wooden boards hung on pegs, all with wishes and supplications written on them. If you continued into the main center, you could stand and gave over a peaceful courtyard. Justin threw coins into a long, wooden slatted box, for luck I suppose. We walked over to the wooden boards to read them. It was interesting to see how, at this shrine with so many tourists, many wishes were written in other languages, English, Chinese, German… just to name a few. The English ones wished for things like world peace, or the health and happiness of their children.
After that, we were quite tired, so we began the long walk back to the train station. Several train transfers later, we were home at Inage Station. We rented a few episodes of E.R. and went to the grocery store to pick up some food. We collapsed in front of the t.v., ate some prepared grocery store food, and then I did the dishes, and Justin made banana bread. It was a relaxing end to a long, long adventure.
"Snapshot" October 6, 2002
On Friday after school, we were both tired and frustrated. I had spent the day team teaching at Isobe High School, one of the schools I visit once or twice a week. It was a long, tiring day. During my last class, the principal and vice principal visited the classroom and observed me giving my "self introduction" speech and lesson. It was a little nerve wracking because they looked rather bored throughout the class, and at one point it seemed as though the principal or vice principal nodded off. The kids seemed far more interested! One silly high school boy asked, "Who do you think is more handsome, me or your husband?" Everyone laughed, and I diplomatically said, "I think you are BOTH handsome, but, my husband is my favorite." I really liked the teacher I taught with. We had an interesting conversations about silly English words like "yuck, yummy, guys, etc-" when you say them, who tends to say them, etc. After school, they had me tape record readings of some English speeches. In October or November, students at the high schools compete in an English speech contest. Then I sat at my desk and waited for it to be 4:00 so I could go home.
Once I got home, Justin and I debated about what to do. Finally, we went out to Starbucks to have a latte and then wandered around Chiba City, exploring different menus and seeing what there was to do on a Friday night. Finally we decided to go into a family style Izakaya restaurant. At this restaurant, they had lots of inexpensive choices and an "all you can drink" soft drink bar, or an "all you can drink FRUITY bar." (it took us a while to figure out how it worked, we had to ask a robust blond woman from Scotland who was happily enjoying the fruity bar. She jovially told us that she had lived in Japan for several years and taught elementary school, and that while this was not the Best restaurant in town, it was certainly cheap! And cheap restaurants in Japan are hard to come by.) The fruity bar had several types of hard alcohol, Cassis, Lichee, or Cranberry liquer, and several bottles of very cheap and very chilled wine. After much deliberation, we decided to order. I ordered a Spanish rice paella with seafood, and a small plate of mushrooms. Justin ordered a thin crust "oriental chicken" pizza, and French fries. And we also decided to try the fruity bar. Did I mention it only cost $580 yen? That is maybe $5.00 or so back home. Anyway, the food was reasonable and delicious! I loved my rice paella, and I enjoyed mixing the cassis liquor with club soda- it tasted delicious and fruity! After dinner we had a ice cream sundae (remember, portions are small here!) and enjoyed it very much. Then we walked to the train station and went home. It was a really fun Friday night!
On Saturday I got up and made pancakes, and brought Justin pancakes in bed. We ate breakfast, and then decided to go to Kamakura to see temples and enjoy Japanese culture. Kamakura is about two hours away by train. After an excruciatingly dull time on the train, we finally arrived. We got off at the stop before Kamakura to visit two temples, at Kita-Kamakura. We visited a Rinzai Zen Temple, Engaku-ji first. There were a lot of tourists, both Japanese and foreign, so it seemed less like a restful temple and more like an interesting weekend sightseeing trip. The complex was quite large, and there were many smaller temple sites that you could go to once inside. The most interesting thing there was a collection of 100 kannon (guan-yin) statues. Kannon is a Buddhist goddess of compassion, and one of my favorite deities. I noticed a lot of scary, tropical spiders hanging overhead with long spindly legs and ugly yellow bodies. I tried not to let it bother me, but I was a little concerned that while I was tranquilly gazing at the statues, one might swing down and attack me. Presumably they had already had enough American tourist blood for the day, so they ignored me. In one of the buildings, there was apparently a special relic- a tooth of the Buddha, ceremoniously presented to Japan by China. We did not get to see it- and actually were not sure which building held this treasure, but I understand that they hold special memorial services for the tooth on occasion.
After Engaku-ji we went to the Tokei-ji temple, which was a very restful, if small temple. In its early history, Tokei-ji was a nunnery, and women who spent three years there as nuns were considered officially divorced from their husbands. Now of course, it is no longer a nunnery. After paying our hundred yen admission (less than a dollar) we wandered around. The careful landscaping and tranquility of the entrance path impressed me. To our left, hidden behind flowering trees, a simply attired woman did some gardening in a carefully tended garden plot. She completely ignored the visitors as she swept the grounds. A temple building was on our right, and there were shoes set neatly by the doorway. At one point, we heard chanting voices coming from the building, and it was nice to feel as though the building was not only there for tourism, but also part of a religious community. Past the building was a long, shaded, tree lined cemetery. Steps led up to a maze of cemetery plots… We wandered through it for a while, but missed the bright sunlight and cheer of the other temple, so we decided to move on.
After that, we got back on the train and went to Kamakura. Little shops with omiyage (gifts), shops for old ladies, and touristy restaurants surrounded the station at Kamakura, which made me realize that Kamakura's main resource was tourism. At the kamakura stop, you must take a bus to visit the Daibutsu, or "Great Buddha". As we stood outside a bus, deliberating if it would take us to the Daibutsu, a nice elderly lady hopped out of her seat and said, "Daibutsu? Daibutsu?" We nodded and she waved us on. The area along the road to the Daibutsu was littered with quaint (and just plain plastic) tourist shops. Our nice benefactress told us when our stop was next, and told us to press the "next stop" button on the bus. We got off, and moved along with the other crowd of tourists towards the temple. As we walked towards the great Buddha, there were tourists everywhere! The steps were crowded with people having their picture taken in front of the Buddha. It seemed like, everywhere we stepped we were stepping in front of someone's picture! But the sight of the huge Buddha looming over everyone was amazing. Two metal flower arrangements flanked him, and right before him was a metal cage for burning incense. A nice live flower arrangement and bowl of oranges sat directly in front of the Buddha. We wandered around a bit, and then Justin realized that there was a line to go INSIDE of the great Buddha! We paid our 20 yen and went in. There was almost no light as we crept slowly up the stairs. Other tourists were leaving as we were coming in, and because they came out the way we came in, there was no room! Once you got out of the stairwell though, you were inside the Buddha and could see all the metal structures holding him together! Two screens in his back were open, letting some dim light in. We hopped down into the area where his feet were and stood there for a moment in the light, feeling more than a little foolish. It seemed unreal to be inside the statue- I will never see a picture of it again without thinking, I've been INSIDE the Buddha! We stumbled out into the bright light, wandered around taking pictures (difficult with all the people) and then left.
We did a little shopping at the nearby shops and then went to a temple called "Hasedera," a temple dedicated to Kannon, famed for a large installation of Jizo (a Buddhist deity charged with the protection of lost (aborted, stillborn, etc. children). This was our favorite temple! There were several large ponds filled with beautiful Koi, and beautiful landscaping. This place felt vibrant with life, and well cared for… We passed an American tour group, and were so glad to be on our own exploring Japan, with no timetable, no bus to catch, and no tour guide. I was especially excited to see the Jizo installation. Jizo lined the area, separated from the walkway by an intricate water canal system. Many of the jizo were dressed in bibs, or hats, or even little yellow raincoats. As we watched, several women purchased incense, lit it and stuck them into the large metal burner before the altar. They waved their hands and arms in the smoke for its purifying and blessing properties, and then rang the bell three times to alert the deity before praying.
Justin took pictures and I wandered around, just soaking up the atmosphere. Along the back of the temple area, against the hill, we found a cave area (the Bosei caves??). I was amazed at the collection of stone states carved into the walls. Some visitors bought candles at the entrance and placed them before their favorite deities reverently. Other visitors were less reverent- Families and boisterous children explored the cave pathways cheerfully. I got a little nervous as we went into the second section of the cave- it was a small, narrow passageway with very little light. We stumbled through it, and I suddenly remembered how common earthquakes are in Japan…. But, at last we broke out into the light. We wandered up stairs that went high into the hills and through a cemetery area, and then back down to the main temple level. It had a large stone cobblestone walkway, broken with areas of large white stones. You could see the entire city of kamakura from the main temple level. The architecture alone was so beautiful! There was a secluded area with a fence tastefully hiding a drinks vending machine next to picnic tables. The temple grounds even had a pleasant restaurant which sold toasted rice triangles, white mochi balls coated in a sticky tan colored sauce, and ice cream!
Next to the restaurant there was a temple building with a huge, spinning wheel that you could turn by hand… it was as tall as the ceiling and covered with intricate carvings. Next to the Wheel Room (representing the wheel of Dharma?) was a large hall holding an incredible gold statue of Kannon with many heads and eyes. We passed through the hall and went into a hall of "treasures" and passed by a cheerful Buddha statue that several people were rubbing "for luck". After our experience at Hasedera, we felt our trip to Kamakura was complete. Justin said that Hasedera was his favorite temple that we had visited… it was so beautiful, so well cared for, and felt vibrant and alive! After that, we browsed some of the souvenir shops nearby and walked back to the train station.
Next, we took the train to Akihabara, also known as electronics town. Akihabara is a crazy, futuristic, brightly lit place full of electronics shops. Justin needed some parts for his computer, and so we spent a while hopping in and out of computer stores, comparing prices. Shoppers were everywhere, and the alleys were full of people hawking used merchandise and handing out advertising brochures. Eventually Justin found the best deal on his parts, and we bought them, and decided to find somewhere for dinner. We headed to a 10 story building with a illuminated cow sign on the very top, on the grounds that it looked like every story had a restaurant, so we'd be sure to find something to eat. We got in the elevator and went to every story to check out the menus. There was a family style restaurant, a steak restaurant, and a sandwich and deli restaurant… but also, there was a "barbeque" restaurant.
Though we were a little skeptical, we went in to the barbeque place, because it advertised my favorite Korean rice, Bibbinba. (kim chi rice with vegetables and other things that you mix together in a heated stone pot). When we were shown to a table, we were amazed- we were seated along the window facing out with a view of the electric lights of Akihabara, AND it became clear that each table had its own grill! This was a restaurant where you grilled your own food! After much agonizing over the menu (the waitress brought us a special version with pictures), I got a seafood bibbinba and a plate of vegetables to grill, and Justin got a plate of beef to grill. My vegetables arrived first- two Japanese eggplants with the bodies cut to fan out over the grill, 2 small leeks, a slice of onion held together with a toothpick, two little green peppers (smaller than my little finger), and what I first took to be a slice of cantaloupe (turned out to be a slice of pumpkin). Our waitress turned on the grill and I started grilling my vegetables. Justin's arrived and he began grilling it on the right side of our (gas) grill. Then my bibbinba arrived! With the excitement of stirring the bibbinba (so the bowl cooks and crisps all of the incredients), my veggies got a good chance to grill- almost too good! But, they were delicious! And I really enjoyed my bibbinba (and so did Justin!) We had a lot of fun grilling our food and enjoying the view. As it got later, the building lights were turned off one by one, but we were ready to leave by then, so it didn't matter.
After that we weren't sure what to do… we had Tokyo day passes, so it was free to go anywhere in Tokyo, but where should we go? We didn't want to go to a bar, and were too tired to go dancing, and it was too late to shop. Justin came up with the idea that we go to the main intersection of Shibuya (the MOST HAPPENING, crazy intersection in Tokyo at night, millions of people literally cross the street at once) and get some coffee at the starbucks overlooking the intersection, and just watch everything pass by. So, we did just that! It was ridiculously busy, but Justin grabbed a table while I placed our order. I had a mocha Valencia, and Justin had a caramel macchiatto… our first table was not against the window, so we didn't have much of a view, but everyone around us was happily chattering loudly and enjoying their Saturday night, so it was fun just to be there soaking up the excitement.
Then, just as we were finishing our drinks, two people left the best seats in the house- against the window, overlooking the intersection. Rather guiltily, we snagged the seats. (People were waiting for seating). Justin went downstairs to order two drinks (surprise me, I said) because we felt bad enough taking up seating and would have felt downright evil without drinks in front of us. He brought back two cocoas and we settled back to chat and enjoy the view. I saw so many near accidents! Mopeds almost hit pedestrians countless times, but they never did. I saw girls in sophisticated skirts and boots, girls in casual clothes, men in suits, women in business attire, boys in loose fashionable clothes, a girl in a cute, fuzzy top, holding a stuffed snoopy dog like an accessory, all kinds of young people setting out on an exciting Saturday night in Shibuya. Justin and I chatted about his first trip to Japan with Semester at Sea- I wanted to know how Japan is living up to his expectations. A first trip, he said, is just a snapshot-only a shallow impression and now, we're getting to see the reality behind the snapshot….
"Irashaimasen in Japan" October 19, 2002
This is actually our story from last weekend (October 12-14).. Hope you enjoy it!
Friday I visited Isobe High School, and had a pretty good day. I only taught two classes, instead of 4, so it was a really low-key day. The teachers at Isobe are quite nice, and many of them are fairly young, so I enjoy talking to them. My lesson also went quite well- I had made up a kind of "Go Fish" game using greeting cards from the internet where the kids matched the covers with the greetings. The kids enjoyed it because they got to cut out the cards with scissors and play in groups with their friends. They also seemed to get a kick out of using English phrases to play the game. I made them say: "Show me a greeting" and "I must GO FISH", and it was just novel enough that they had fun with it.
My supervising teacher is quite kind at Isobe, and he knows that I am interested in temples. He collects picture postcards and magazines that feature different temples, and so yesterday he gave me an envelope full of picture postcards of a special temple in Chiba prefecture- as a gift! I thought it was very kind of him. Also, I had a nice experience. One lady teacher that I've been rather friendly with asked me some questions about word usage. I helped her and explained the nuances of several phrases she was puzzling over, and afterwards she made a really sweet speech about how she thought I was a really good Assistant Language Teacher and she was glad to get to know me! It was a good day. Sometimes it is easy to feel overwhelmed, and worry about if you're doing a good job, or wonder if the teachers are glad to have YOU as an ALT, or if they'd rather have some other person…. Today I felt like I belonged, and it was a nice, new feeling. I know there will still be frustrating days, but at last I'm getting into the rhythm of Japanese High School life!
I also had to hear two different groups of students recite a speech, and select a student to compete at the Chiba speech contest. I hate doing that- no matter how easy it is to judge, it's always hard because it means rejecting some students. I really don't want to discourage them just as they are beginning to get up the courage to use a foreign language. That night we decided to stay in and have a relaxing evening. Recently we got a bunch of boxes sent to us from Colorado- we were so happy. We got books (Gluten free cookbooks and language books), computer CDs, winter clothes, and some gluten free flours and pastas. Justin made pasta and we watched tv. It was the first time we'd had pasta since I left America- it was terrific!!!
On Saturday, we had a nice relaxing morning. Then we decided to go out and do some shopping. We are having trouble with our apartment- there is so little storage! First we took the train to Funabashi to try and find a store called "The Loft" - with hip and fashionable home accessories, but alas, we couldn't find it. Justin suggested we walk to the next train line, so we started walking. It was a pleasant, interesting area, with an "old Japan" feel to it. We saw coffeeshops and teahouses, and specialty shops selling clothes, futons, shoes, and tea. As we continued to walk, the area grew less interesting and more industrial. The train station was nowhere to be found, so we kept walking… and walking… at last, far off in the distance to the left, I saw the top of LaLaPort, a major mall. Because there are so many tall buildings next to each other, it is difficult to get your bearings sometimes. Conveniently, tall department stores and attractions always put a gaudy sign up on their highest floor, so that you can always find them. We started walking to LaLa Port, happy in the knowledge that the train station was nearby. As we walked along the freeway, I got the feeling that we were possibly the only people in the world crazy enough to walk from Funabashi to La La Port!
Finally we arrived, and decided to have lunch. La La Port is strangely like Flatiron Crossing, the new mall just outside Boulder, especially as you walk through their outdoor food court. We passed the Sizzlers, and a Starbucks, and a few other places, before heading into an "International Buffet" restaurant. This restaurant had intrigued us on earlier visits, but we had never gone in before. There was an interesting range of food- Japanese fried things, Mexican rice and tortillas, egg potato casserole, Daria? (rice in a cheesy white sauce), pasta dishes, an extensive salad bar with seaweed salads, several kinds of potato salads, greens, and (my favorite) a calamari salad with olives, capers, onions and olive oil. We enjoyed the food very much- it was especially nice to be able to have large portions and actually feel full after we ate!
Afterwards we went to Costco, and ran into two other JETs waiting for the bus. We had an interesting chat with them on the bus to Costco… but when we got there, we were dismayed to find that the Costco had just closed! However, since we only wanted to buy one thing (a hanging rack for our bedroom) we were able to covertly slip in through the exit door and purchase it after all. (shhh…) Finally, we went to an inexpensive store called Jusco (a Japanese depaato comparable to Walmart or perhaps Target). While we were there, we found several inexpensive shelving/closet pieces (each no more than $20) that will hopefully solve our storage dilemma in our apartment. At last, exhausted of shopping (and walking) we took the bus home.
On Sunday we decided to visit Yokohama, hoping to later meet up with our friends Elaine and Zach, who live on a nearby Army base. Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan, and so we were curious to see what it was like. It took us about two hours to get there by train… weekend trains don't come very often, and we had to change trains several times. At Yokohama, cheerful advertisements for Chinatown decorated the train station walls. Obediently, we headed towards the ornate gates of Chinatown, ready to experience yet another side of Japan. I was amazed when we stepped through the gate- it suddenly felt like we had hopped on a flight to Hong Kong and gotten off… People were jammed in the streets, everywhere you looked people were shuffling by in huge lines, carting babies and shopping bags and eating big sticky buns and talking… It was slow going. On the sides of the street there were tons of Chinese restaurants, Chinese grocery stores, Chinese trinket shops… It was the busiest Chinatown I've ever seen in my life. There were a few foreigners, but mostly it was packed with Japanese tourists.
Along the sides of the shops, venders had set up steamers and were selling dumplings stuffed with meats. People were CRAZY for them- they lined up for them and waited patiently… We didn't have the patience for it. Everyone loves chestnuts- it's a favorite treat in Autumn. Vendors were selling hot chestnuts too. After a while, we decided we were hungry, so we decided to go into one restaurant at random. We picked one with a little line, and slightly less expensive rice, figuring if other people wanted to go there, it must be good. We waited for while, just outside the door, and then crammed inside the doorway to wait, pressing ourselves against the door to let people out occasionally. We got to sit on a little set of chairs next to the cashier when it was almost our turn. The place was tiny- but apparently there was a big communal table up some steep stairs. Just as we were hoping to get a table, they announced this table was open, and about 6 people in line decided to go for it. We wanted a private table, so we waited. Finally a table opened up (there were only about 6 or 7 small tables) and we got to order. Justin had some rice and a sweet and sour pork, and I had some rice with crab in it. It was pretty good, but like many restaurants in urban Japan, a little pricey.
Afterwards we walked a bit further, and stopped in a trinket shop. I picked out a Yokohama Chinatown "Hello Kitty" charm (each area in Japan has a special hello kitty figurine) to tie to my cell phone. The crowded streets were starting to overwhelm us, so we ducked into a Starbucks at the end of the street and had a coffee drink while we decided where to go next. We decided to go to the Waterfront area. There is a nice park alongside the waterfront, but when we got there, we were amazed at how many people were there. Everywhere you looked, it was a veritable sea of people. Many of them were heading off to the left, so we decided to see what was going on. It turned out that there was a World Fiesta fair- vendors had sent up all kinds of booths, themed after different countries and cuisines. We saw several America booths, a Canada booth, a Spain booth (selling delicious looking paella- seafood rice), a Mexico booth… even and Iran booth. High School Choirs were set up in some areas, and were singing happy International music. Unfortunately, we weren't hungry, so we decided to move on (and out of the crowds). We wandered through the park, enjoying the waterfront atmosphere. At one point we stopped and sat in the grass, just looking at the water and cuddling.
As we continued walking, we saw the strangest brick buildings- they almost looked like warehouses, and had music vans set up out in front of them. We poked inside, and saw that they had once been warehouses, but now had been converted to a mall filled with trendy restaurants and shops. It reminded me of the Pike Place Market in Seattle, but with less fish. Our guidebook recommended an amusement park towards the train station, so we kept walking. The amusement park was amazing- We didn't go in, but walked alongside it and just stared. It wasn't that large, as far as land went, but what land they had was filled with tangled roller coasters, all interconnected and carefully designed to go around each other. There was a teal water roller coaster ride, a huge and terrifying pink one that actually dove into the water and through an underground tunnel, and another less memorable one. And of course, there was a huge, ridiculously tall Ferris wheel that SLOWLY rotated above all of them. Justin thought it surely would take an hour for the whole thing to revolve once. So if you found it scary, well, you'd be stuck in those glass cages for an eternity!
We kept walking towards the "Landmark Tower," which is famous for being the tallest building in Japan. Outside the tower there was a shiny metal sculpture of a nightmarish roller coaster straight out of Escher. As you approached, you could look down into a huge cavern, built deep into the ground to mimic the shape of a ship hull (or maybe a futuristic cave?). Some kids were playing a basketball game down there, accompanied by loudspeaker and cheering observers. The tower itself is a golden brown thing that made me think of a futuristic Egyptian pyramid. We went in and were suddenly in an amazing, ridiculously modern mall, all made of glass and metal. We rode a curving staircase escalator and then found the ticket booth. The elevator at the Landmark holds the record (in the Guinness Book of World Records) for being the fastest elevator in the world. We waited in a line forever, carefully managed by slender Japanese women in special tailored red skirt suits, and then got on. To my relief, the elevator did not have windows. We whooshed upwards, swallowing to keep our ears from plugging, and were at the top before we knew it. We walked around the observation deck, admiring the view.
One of the more Japanese features was a vending machine area with about 10 different drink vending machines. A café selling foods, ice cream, and coffee allowed visitors to sit and look out at the view. All of the visitors flocked to see a performance in the center of the floor- a comic had a trained monkey dressed in clothes perform tricks while he joked. The poor monkey stood maybe 2 feet tall, and was wearing a tropical shirt with palm trees on it. His leash, combined with the blank expression on the monkey's face, made the whole thing very surreal. Al of the viewers seemed amused- but to me, it just seemed undignified, and was painful to watch. I left the area and went and looked at postcards while Justin walked about. The sun was setting, so then we walked around and admired the new view at sunset. We actually saw Mount Fuji in the distance. It looked like a painting, with the swirling sunset colors surrounding its famous profile… it was breathtaking, but almost seemed like it wasn't real. After that we were feeling a little overwhelmed, so we decided to head out.
We had seen so many new things that all I really wanted was to go somewhere and have some dinner somewhere that would remind me of home. We decided to go to a British pub in Ebisu called "What the Dickens" that we'd seen in our guidebook. When we got off the train, we started to panic because we couldn't find it. We must have circled the block three times before I saw the sign, modestly written by hand and hidden by a street sign. We went up a tiny elevator, and a woman with a big guitar got on the elevator just as we got off. We still weren't entirely sure that we had found the right place, or if it was open, but we went through a door hesitantly, and suddenly, it was like we were in another country. Brown wooden tables and walls made it all seem very cozy, there was an English menu and English beers and ciders behind the bar. They had pleasant American music playing. We got some sautéed potatoes with ketchup, and Justin had a cottage pie he really enjoyed. They had one kind of hard apple cider on tap, so we tried that, and had another kind of hard cider in bottle, so we tried it too. It was delicious! I think I would like England. While we were sitting, enjoying the music and relaxed atmosphere, an American came and sat at our table with his Japanese wife. We started chatting with them and found that he was a Duke graduate who had lived in Japan for 13 years working with computers. The band started tuning up (seems like it took them about an hour to tune up, saying CHECK CHECK CHECK over and over and over), and then began to play. It was amazing- they were a Japanese band but played really incredible blues music! I loved it. We were getting tired, and needed to make sure we would make last train, so we headed back to Chiba.
We had Monday off of work, but after all of our adventures, we were ready to stay home and let all of our new memories sink in. One thing I'm finding is that the more we see of Japan, the more I realize that I had no idea what Japan was like. Every time we go somewhere new in Japan, it's a little like going to a new country. By the end of our time here, I hope that when I look at a map of Japan, instead of seeing place names I'll see a kaleidoscope of images and remember the sounds… the sound of a train approaching, the "bleep bleep" of a crosswalk saying it's safe to walk, the clang of a bell at a temple, the beat of taicho drums, and venders shouting "Irashaimasen" as you walk into their shop.
"Taicho Temples and Brenda the Orphan" November 9, 2002
Several Saturdays ago, we visited a teacher that Justin works with- at his Buddhist Nichiren temple! This teacher, Mr. Watanabe, is a Buddhist priest and lives at the temple with his wife- I love Japan! His wife served us green tea and adorable pumpkin cakes and rice crackers… and then they showed us the adjoining temple. Apparently the temple was originally built in 1440. Some of the pillars have been refinished, and I assume some walls have been redone, but the place had great atmosphere! A statue of the temple founder was on the far left, and the head of the Nichiren sect was placed in the very center. On the left, a lightning bolt mobile hung in front of a very interesting statue of a female deity- Mr. Watanabe said that if you stood in the middle under the mobile, you would be protected/ healed of various physical ailments. Every morning at 5am he beats a special kind of Taiko drum in honor of the deity. He said if he is away, his wife performs the ceremony. Mr. Watanabe's father was a priest at the temple before him, and his son just completed a strenuous meditation/ initiation seminar to become a priest. I was fascinated!
After visiting with Mr. Watanabe and his wife, we took the train to Narita. Narita is quite a tourist town, and has some very touristy areas on the way to a famous Buddhist temple. They sold all kinds of rice crackers, kimono, and other tourist goods. The temple architecture was very impressive, with very steep stairs leading up to the main temple area. Although the temple itself had been closed up (it was early evening), we wandered around and admired the buildings. Behind the temple, we discovered an amazing spot- a wall of stones … with deities hidden among the rocks. It was a misty, cool evening, and it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. We just stood and stared, feeling rather silly for being so impressed. But then, Japanese tourists came by, exclaiming, "SEGOI!!!" (wow) so we felt better. It was really quite beautiful.
Other less exciting news:
I got my hair chopped off into a cute and kinda funky Japanese style! It's now barely shoulder length, in layers so that the most full part is chin length with little tendrils down the the shoulders. I feel so stylin! Justin loves it. I think he feels like he has a new wife- my hair is no longer long and tangled and apt to chomp on things and get stuck under things (like his arm). Anyway, it's so easy to take care of!
We've been trying to put together a comfortable apartment- we ordered a red velvety couch in Shinjuku that should arrive next weekend, and are looking at a chair to match. And Justin has been obsessively collecting cool lamps and light fixtures. For a while we just had a dreadful flourescent dangling from the ceiling- he hated it. Creating "lighting schemes" is his new favorite hobby.
We also went to two internationalization seminars for students- one on Thursday and Friday, and the second on Tuesday and Wednesday. Japanese language teachers (JLT) and Assistant Language Teachers (ALT) went, as well as international college students from China, Taiwan, Korea, etc. It would not have been so bad, except that the rules of the seminars are geared towards high school students and are a little stifling. Justin and I went to the same location for the first seminar, Togane Youth Center. We took the train to get there and then had to take off our shoes and trade them for indoor shoes at the door. We sat through a "opening ceremony" (you need a ceremony for everything here) -the highlight came when they showed us a model of the dorm room beds and HOW to fold the futon mattress, two blankets and pillow after sleeping.
Then we were shipped off to cook over an open flame outside in the wilderness. They set up outdoor cooking stations for the kids to prepare Japanese style Curry and Rice. I enjoyed chatting with a nice Japanese University student from Taiwan. The students didn't seem to enjoy the cooking experience… The consensus was, cooking is fine, but my urban kids preferred to cook over a gas stove….. We had fun giggling over the smoke and brushing the ashes out of each other's hair. We left the rice pot hanging over the fire for too long, and burned some of the rice horribly. The cafeteria kitchen had prepared a gluten free meal for me that they brought down to the cooking area. Unfortunately, they didn't know I didn't eat meat, and so half of the plate was covered in slabs of unappetizing pork. I left it and Justin gave me some of his groups' rice to eat.
That evening, we met with groups. Each group had one ALT, one JLT, and students from many different schools. The students read an English essay on their school, and we asked questions. Then each ALT had to give their group some kind of presentation to do. I had my students act out a simple fairy tale- "Sleeping Beauty"- I narrated the story as they acted it out. There was only one male high school student, so he got stuck being Prince Charming. He didn't mind until he realized he had to interact with the princess! We compromised- he was way too embarrassed to kiss her hand (to wake her up) so I had him reach for her hand and pull him up beside him in a vaguely romantic fashion.
After our meeting, we had dinner. It was… cold tempura for everyone but me? I think…I was served a bowl of slimy bean sprouts, more meat and rice. (think school cafeteria food…) and then we met in the gym for a huge group game of charades (with English words) and group presentations. Justin's group decided to have an international student teach them a Chinese love song... and they asked Justin and me to dance while they sang! We pulled out our wedding dance and waltzed through the whole song, with dips and everything (despite the fact it wasn't really a waltz song, it worked out somehow) and the kids went crazy! They loved it! Everybody wanted to have their picture taken with us afterwards. hee hee.
After the performances of all the groups, we had free time (and time to shower- most Japanese people prefer to shower before bed, so you don't sleep dirty)- and the Japanese teachers held an Enkai (welcoming party) for the teachers and ALTs. We had one official "kampai" toast, (you can not drink before the toast, and you are not supposed to pour your own alcohol) and then were free to eat and chat as we like…My friend Angela was there, so we sat near her, and enjoyed eating potato chips, peanut brittle (which brought Angela happy memories of Wisconsin), sugar coated nuts, and sliced, fried sweet potatoes in syrup (yum!)… Of course, there were also more "Japanese" snacks- dried fish products, little rice crackers wrapped in nori (pretty tasty) and what looked like shredded tree bark (but smelled fishy?)…. We were all hungry after the horrid cafeteria dinner so we ate a lot.
Then afterwards, Justin returned to the men's dormitory and I returned to the women's dormitory. The sleeping area made me feel like an orphan- literally, white iron beds lined up next to each other, with bars on the windows and a bleak institutional feel. A small tatami space to the left of the door just confused me. The heater (there was a heater! And it was on!!!!) put out immense heat and made the room stiflingly warm. Angela was getting ready for bed, so she and I chatted for quite a while. We were hyper because we had drank a lot of caffeinated soda at the enkai (Angela doesn't drink, and I couldn't drink the alcohol they had there: chu hai -a lemony weak vodka drink in a can, and Japanese beer) so we ended up talking about all of our experiences in Japan- all the cultural shocks and pleasant things too.
After a while, we tried to sleep, but many of the ALTs and teachers stayed late drinking at the Enkai, and whenever one came into the room, our door would screech like a cat being murdered- for what felt like 10 minutes!!!… Students would also sometimes trample across the floor overhead, or run down the stairs giggling, but the adults were much louder. Actually, I was happy to hear the kids goofing off- Japanese society can be strict, and I think that many of the kids don't get many opportunities to stay up all night chatting with their friends. My little orphan bed was next to the window, next to the heater- so I opened the window to cut through the stifling heat a bit. I didn't sleep well, and the next morning, the Japanese teachers sprang awake and began making all kinds of noise as soon as the "loudspeaker alarm" went off. Our large, metal, trough like sink sounded like the Niagara falls when anyone used it- the water echoed off the metal bottom. I think one teacher must have been taking a sponge bath or SOMETHING… the water was pounding into the sink for what felt like an hour. We crawled out of bed and got dressed (after making our orphan beds according to the rules) and took our sheets down to the cafeteria.
We watched some of the students clean the youth center (for some reason there is no budget for janitors??) and then had an uninspiring breakfast. I had an egg in a metal cupcake tin that could have passed for plastic food. They also had a iceberg lettuce salad and little dead sausages, rice, and corn soup. This could be a successful diet program, really. Everything was so bad it was difficult to eat. They had planned a scavenger hunt, but it began to rain, so we were sent to the gym instead. One thing that drives me crazy is that although there is no central heating, the adults love fresh air, even when it is freezing out. They left all the doors carefully propped open in the gym, even though it was pouring rain and miserable outside. I kept sneaking over to the door and shutting it- everyone inside was shivering in their down jackets and scarves!!! The kids found all the play equipment and started to play their own games- badminton, soccer, volleyball, basketball, but just as Justin and I got in on a game of badminton, the teachers started a regimented game of volleyball. Five hours of mandatory volleyball later (Did I ever mention volleyball is my LEAST favorite sport?), we were released for lunch. Then we had a closing ceremony, and headed home after group picture taking.
We spent the weekend recuperating from the seminar- cleaned house from top to bottom with our newly acquired pine sol (thanks to Costco) and did some shopping. On Saturday Justin got a haircut- the people pampered him like crazy- for less than $30 he got a facial, his hair washed and conditioned and primped 3 times! and a haircut, and a shave, including a FOREHEAD shave and random facial hair plucking (don't ask) and a massage! He tried to give the barber a tip and he would not accept it! I think Justin has made a friend- the barber said he will practice his English for the next time Justin comes!
Afterwards we went out with Angela. We met her at the Starbucks near the Chiba City JR station, and went out to eat at this "daily table" restaurant- I always get their seafood Paella. yummy and cheap! Then we walked to a nearby mall (Parco) and Justin got a cream suede jacket with a thick lining.
Justin and I were separated for the next seminar- I went to the Togane youth Center again and Justin was sent across Tokyo. I brought my own food this time. It was just like the last one, except at mine, we went on a nature hike through nearby rice paddies and to a nearby Shinto Shrine, and then had Japanese handicrafts. I made a charm with a bell using little decorated origami paper, a shell, and some pretty string. It was actually rather fun, and I had some nice conversation with a 3rd year (Senior) High School student. That afternoon, they packed all the American ALT's in one room, and we gave three collaborative 20 minute presentation on America to groups of students. I told the students about Washington- the space needle, starbucks, and the Pike Place Market. They seemed to enjoy it. There was no party that evening, and actually, everyone was packed off to bed at 10:00 for "lights out." I stayed up chatting with some girls in the room for a bit, and then went to bed out of sheer boredom.
The next morning, Justin send me a message on my keitai (cell phone) to say that his seminar served NATTO (fermented tofu- very stinky and just as flavorful) and rice for breakfast- all of the JETs were apalled. Natto is an... ACQUIRED taste, shall we say. At my seminar, we had another outdoor cooking adventure for lunch. I chopped a little wood for the fire, which was exciting. And then we had a closing ceremony and a large group photo. I went home and watched some tv, waiting for Justin. When he got home, he said he had met some new friends and asked if I wanted to go to a movie tonight. I was really tired, but thought it sounded fun, so we went to see our first movie in a Japanese theater. We met his friends Elena and her boyfriend at the station, and walked to the theater. We got food (Cheese bibbinba, YUM!) and then got ice cream… and then we saw the movie "Prophecy" with Richard Gere. I thought it was an excellent suspense/ supernatural thriller.. with mysterious lighting and tension just like in the X-Files. Justin was not as impressed- he doesn't care for supernatural thrillers, but it was still fun to go to the movies. It was LADIES DAY so it was only 1000 yen for the girls' tickets, and since it was a late showing, it was only 1200 yen for the boys. (Tickets are usually 1800 yen EACH).
So, now you know what we've been up to… We've been insanely busy, but haven't been doing much of interest… hence the delay in newsletters. Never fear, we'll keep writing them… Hope you enjoyed hearing about our (mostly mundane) activities!!
"Article about My School in Japan" November 27, 2002
Hey all, I wanted to share this picture and article about students at the school I teach at, Chiba Nishi. Enjoy! Aren't they cute?
Picture of my students at Chiba Nishi (Link to be added)
[Click on the underlined text above to see a picture of my students!]
Students don kimono for that Kyoto experience
Students from Nishi High School in Chiba Prefecture visited Kyoto last week to take in the autumn scenery. Nothing unusual about that--except that they were all dressed in kimono.
The kimono were provided by the Kyoto Foundation for the Promotion of the Japanese Kimono Industry.
Early on the morning of Nov. 18, the students were shown the correct way to put on the traditional dress by instructors the foundation had sent to their hotel.
The boys wore kimono with hakama trousers--once a typical outfit for male students--and the girls wore kimono in an array of patterns and colors.
They then split up into groups and toured the Arashiyama district, known for its beautiful autumn leaves, and temples and shrines.
Yuko Tsukamoto, 17, first visited Ginkakuji temple with 10 other students.
The group was easy to spot among the other parties of visiting schoolchildren in their uniforms.
A spokesman for the foundation, which promotes the wearing of kimono, said the service had been available since 1995, but added that the Chiba school was the first to have all of its students dress in kimono.
"Operation Turkey Drop" December 11, 2002
As the holidays approached, it really felt strange to be living in Japan. At home, Thanksgiving would have meant holiday foods placed on the ends of aisles- cans of pumpkin, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, marshmallow creme and chocolate- all those strange and processed American ingredients for holiday recipes. The produce aisles would have been transformed as well- piled in orange, yellow, and green winter squashes and pumpkins. But here in Japan, the most notable transformation was the introduction of red and green Christmas bows in the shops as they skipped past Halloween and thanksgiving straight to Christmas. Holiday food here is packages of hard white rectangular mochi, sweet beans, soybean powder, and other ingredients that are an incredible mystery to me. And since the holiday, or rather, festival calendar is another mystery to me, I never know when to celebrate, or how. Justin and I were feeling like we were in a holiday void- we even missed the hideous paper turkey decorations and ridiculous pilgrims.
We decided, before we were overwhelmed with homesickness, to invite our friend Aaron (living in Nara, 4 hours away by shinkansen, bullet train) to Thanksgiving dinner with us. It would have been impossible to spend a Thursday together, since we all teach, so we decided to celebrate an American Thanksgiving on Japanese Labor Thanksgiving day. This Japanese holiday is held on a Saturday and in theory celebrates the working people, but actually, there is very little celebrating involved. But, close enough, we thought. So then we had to face our next dilemma: how to prepare our favorite dishes in Japan, when most of the ingredients are not sold in stores here. Every year I make a Portobello mushroom stuffed acorn squash as my vegetarian entree substitute for turkey. While I think no one else is especially excited about this dish, to me it has come to represent Thanksgiving. But- while portabello mushrooms are imported from Canada and sold at Costco (at about $10 for two of them, but we won't dwell on that), acorn squash is unheard of here. There is a strange, small, green pumpkin squash, but I did not think it would lend itself to being stuffed¡ And of course, Justin was heartbroken to miss out on his beloved turkey, cranberry sauce, etc¡ the staples of his Thanksgiving at home. So, I pulled some strings with my girls from my internet wedding message board¡ specifically, with one friend of mine who recently married a military man and lives on the army base near Yokohama. The army base has an American commissary which stocks all the inexpensive American foods any hungry army man could want.
Unfortunately, there was no time to meet on the weekend, so we had to go after work, but the commissary closed at 6! Since Yokohama takes two hours to GET THERE, there was no way we could make it. Luckily, my friend Elaine is a very kind person, and so she and her husband offered to go shopping for us, put the groceries in a backpack (Er, two backpacks) and meet us halfway in between in Shinjuku, all so we could have a thanksgiving dinner. The thing that made it an especially generous offer was that poor Elaine had bronchitis. She is a first grade teacher at the base, and the little ones are always getting her sick! Wracked with guilt, we accepted their offer and emailed them a list of our most beloved requests.. acorn squash, canned cranberry sauce, canned sweet potatoes, and of course turkey. Turkey was complicated, because Justin desperately wanted some, but most turkeys are too large to fit in our microwave sized oven. Well, we met our friends at the station, delirious with exhaustion after a long day teaching, and just about cried. They were both wearing backpacks that dwarfed them...they looked like they had just packed up for a cross continental hiking trip across the swiss alps. We put the food (including two small turkeys!!! And my beloved acorn squash!!!) into a coin operated locker and took them out to a well deserved dinner at an Izakaya, cheap appetizer and drink restaurant.
None of us were feeling up to drinking, but we thought at least we could have cheap food in small portions and plenty of variety. Elaine and Zach had never been to an izakaya, so we were excited to show them how fun they could be. Well, unfortunately, we happened to pick the worst izakaya I had ever been to. The bibbinba (my Korean kim chi rice dish in a stone pot) was- well, hmmm, actually inedible. Justin and Zach ordered some grilled meat kebobs that tasted more than a little old- and they also ordered what was affectionally referred to as -deep fried chicken gristle- Yum. Anyway, I hope next time we take Elaine and Zach out we are able to take them to a restaurant with good food- We wandered around a bit with them and then they headed back home to take care of poor Elaine.
Though it was getting late, it is expensive for us to go to Tokyo and so we thought we should explore a little. We wandered around Shinjuku towards the big Takashimaya mall, but alas, the stores were all closing. However, there was an incredible Christmas lights display set up around the mall! It was fantastical and beautiful, though I couldn't quite understand the circus theme- it was very romantic to walk beneath the lights. Many other Japanese couples were walking through the display holding hands, or holding out their keitai (cell phone) to take photographs of the lights. We found the nearby Starbucks and waited in line for quite a while before ordering our drinks. I got- a caramel macchiato and Justin tried their latest drink, a hot apple cider with whipped cream and caramel on top. We sat outside (the starbucks is quite cramped and has limited seating) and enjoyed the lights for a while before heading home with our Thanksgiving food goodies.
On the train ride home, I phone messaged Aaron to let him know that -"Operation Turkey Drop" had been successful. (We had kept him informed about our scheme and subsequent steps) When we got home, it was so strange to open those bags. For $50 we were able to get exotic American foods that would have cost us a fortune here, even if we--could have found them through a food importer. The sheer quantity of food for that amount of money was staggering to us.
"The never-ending Friday"
Several tiring work days later, it was Friday. A school that Justin visits had decided to throw him an Enkai (welcome party), generally a drinking party with tasty food thrown in just for fun. Unfortunately, you still have to pay for your own food and drinks, but you get to hang out with Japanese teachers and watch them unwind after work- Happily, they had generously invited me, so right after work I began the train commute to the station. Justin met me at the station and we made our way to the restaurant together. His teachers had reserved a long banquet table in a traditional tatami mat room, and we all sat on our thin pillows on the floor to eat. There was an amazing array of Japanese foods displayed on the table, all covered with plastic wrap. There was fresh sashimi and octopus (my favorite), an Italian style octopus marinated vegetable salad, burners set up with big bowls of stew waiting to be heated with all kinds of fish, tofu, and vegetables, gorgeous lobsters, breaded fried things, some meat platter- it was a feast for the eyes.
Once everyone had arrived, we gave the toast, shouting, -kampai! in unison and clinking our glasses. We sat at a table with the English teachers, while the Japanese language teachers sat at a table behind us. There were mostly women teachers, with one rather shy older man, and then a strange middle aged male teacher who radiated reluctant friendliness- As people ordered drinks, it was interesting to see what they ordered. The women generally chose sweet, light cocktails, while the men tended to order beer. The strange teacher began a rather convoluted conversation with us that got more convoluted, but strangely jovial, as he drank more beer. He apologized awkwardly for calling Justin at our house one evening (he began three times, and each time we hoped he would not speak any more, because it seemed certain he would say something unpleasant or negative) and explained that he had been worried, because they had previously had problems with foreign assistant language teachers in the past who did not ever visit their school as they were supposed to, but rather called in sick, then taking vacation leave, and then pregnancy leave for 6 months straight. (One day there had been a miscommunication about which school Justin was supposed to visit, and he visited the wrong one and then was late to arrive at the correct school). However, this teacher then said he had seen Justin present a lecture on team teaching and his mind was at ease and he felt that Justin was a very good ALT. It was an awkward conversation.
Then, he tried to convince Justin to say that he drank sake every day (which is far from the truth)- and then tried to get Justin to speak to him only in Japanese, while he would speak English. Though it was a peculiar conversation, at least he was trying to be friendly. The women teachers were enjoyable to talk to. One said that she was Crazy about Harry Potter and intended to go see the new Harry Potter movie on opening day, Saturday. Another teacher had recently gotten married. The other teachers asked her why she had gotten married, and she said, -"well, because he promised me that I would never have to do housework." I asked about her dress and she said she wore a long sleeved white dress, and got married at a hotel near Tokyo Disneyland. The food was quite delicious- I gobbled up the octopus/marinated fresh vegetable and sashimi salad- it had red peppers and a light balsalmic flavor. The lobster was good, and the sashimi plate was nice as well. As for the stew, well- I have to admit, I can't develop much of a taste for Japanese stews. Justin enjoyed turning on the burner and making it simmer. Our stew had a light dashi broth, with mushrooms and fresh tofu, and chunks of fish, and deep fried tofu pockets. I usually love deep fried tofu pockets, stuffed with rice and simmered in a mirin vinegar sauce, but these were stuffed with gewy, chewy mochi-it was as if it had been stuffed with slimy glue and I just couldn't eat it. We had to stay for the whole party, because it was a party for Justin and it would end as soon as he left.
At one point, it was quite uncomfortable because Justin left and our strange friend began harping on our age difference. He said it was very unusual in Japan for a man to have an older wife. Then he began rattling off some Japanese proverb which made no sense when he literally translated, but he explained it to mean something like -"an older wife is a precious, golden treasure." The other lady teachers were looking at him strangely and politely snickering at his drunken ramblings, but I was glad when Justin came back. Japanese teachers behind us were getting increasingly rowdy and loudly excited about some jokes they were telling. One Japanese literature teacher (who has Justin come to his class and teach English because he thinks it is fun) was getting particularly cheerful and red faced. He was quite adorable though, and Justin is rather fond of his good natured personality. The English lady teachers said, "Do you have a word in English, for a strange old drunken man?" Apparently there is some amusing word in Japanese for that concept. She said it loudly as a joke, to tease the older man. Everyone laughed. As Justin was sitting there, our cheerful friend said, Anytime you would like to switch, Brenda, you can come visit our school instead of Justin! All the teachers laughed and teased him for wanting a cute girl teacher to come to his class. It was all good fun though, and meant kindly. It was truthfully the first time Justin and I have felt like one of the group- not just the visiting outsiders but members of a group sharing jokes and even uncomfortable situations with other teachers.
Poor Justin got quite uncomfortable sitting on the floor. His long legs don't like to be folded up underneath him for too long of a time. He ended up slouching, and leaning against the wall after a while. It was a long party! Meanwhile, Aaron was coming on the bullet train towards Tokyo, and he phone messaged us to let us know when he arrived. Unfortunately, we couldn't really leave the party, so we called him back and asked him to take the train to Inage station where we could meet him. Not long after that, the party broke up and we hurried to the station to catch the train.
Oddly enough, though we separated, we ended up on the same train car as two teachers from the party- the strange one, and a nice English teacher. First we sat on opposing sides to them, but after the strange teacher got off, the nice lady teacher said, "I feel strange sitting over here all by myself," and scurried over to sit next to me. It was heartwarming, somehow. We had an interesting conversation actually. She bemoaned that fact that many Japanese men have trouble drinking alcohol, and don't have much tolerance for it so that when they drink they often say foolish or embarrassing things. It was interesting to get her perspective- and we enjoyed talking with her.
When we got to the Inage station, we had to walk to the JR train station in order to meet Aaron. And then- there he was, part of the crowd pouring off the Tokyo express train! We were so glad to see him. We walked back to our apartment, and showed him around a little and then dropped off his bags before we went out to grab some food. He was starving, and I was getting a little hungry again anyway, so we went to a nearby Izakaya and ordered some snacks. We also ordered a special wine that has just been released for sale during this holiday season- it's from france, and is called Bourselis or something like that. It was strange to be together again after we've all been through so many new things! We got to hear all about his romantic adventures and new friendships, and he got to hear about our life in Chiba. Afterwards we went back to our apartment and sat around and talked late into the night. He slept on our new, red, folding out couch, and the next morning we were happy to hear that it was comfortable.
"The First Thanksgiving"
On Saturday we all got up and I started to make bread for the acorn squash stuffing. Once it was rising, I mixed up some pie crust dough, which had to cool in the refrigerator for an hour before it could be rolled out. The guys played some computer games and we came up with a planned shopping list. Aaron wanted to visit Costco, because there are only two in all of Japan and one is near us. We got on the bus, then the train, and another bus, and at last we were in Costco. Aaron was overwhelmed to see huge blocks of cheese and salsa and refried beans after months of living without Mexican food. We bought mushrooms and fresh cranberries, cheese- all kinds of tasty things. But, we still couldn't get all our ingredients for Thanksgiving dinner there, so we had to go to the French grocery store, Carre Four. Then we came home and started to cook together!
I made my stuffed acorn squash, and Justin prepared his very first turkey all by himself. He found a recipe online and made a stuffing and everything. We had to send him out for some last minute provisions at Saty, the local grocery store. Then we made chestnut soup, mashed potatoes, a mushroom gravy, peas, sweet potatoes, pumpkin pie, all kinds of delicious things.
We all watched a tape of Star Trek Enterprise that Justin's dad had taped and sent to us- they were all new episodes, which is nice since all we see here are old ones. It was really hard to cook everything in our microwave size oven and on our two burner stove, but somehow we managed and got a hot, huge dinner on the table. We even had yellow cloth napkins that we'd bought cheaply at Carre Four. It was 1am by the time we got to eat it, but it was a memorable experience. Justin and Aaron were blown away by the turkey. Aaron dubbed it "the turkey of legends" because of how good it was. Apparently Justin's stuffing and careful glazing made it turn out perfectly. I was very happy to have my portabella stuffed squash. It was all delicious!
The next day, Sunday, we got up pretty early and all went to see the new Harry Potter movie in the theatre together, which was pretty fun. And then the weekend was over. Aaron went back to Nara, and we prowled around Makuhari near the theatre, doing some shopping before going home. It was a strange Thanksgiving¡ in Chiba city, Japan.
"Eight Courses of Tofu" December 15, 2002
'The second Thanksgiving'
I know what you're thinking- you already had Thanksgiving in Japan, how can you have another one? Well, several weeks before Thanksgiving we got an email inviting a limited number of JET participants to Thanksgiving dinner at the American embassy. We sent a request to attend right away, and were added to the list! So on Friday evening, which coincided with Thanksgiving day in America, I left school early and went home to get ready for our special party. I put on some Christmas music, dressed up in my best blue dress (the one I wore to our Wedding Rehearsal Dinner), and put on a pearl necklace and earrings. Justin got home, quickly changing into a sports jacket and tie, and we were off on a new
adventure! An hour later on the train, we got off in Tokyo and trekked to the American embassy.
When we got there, we saw a large crowd of other JETs waiting outside the wrought iron gate. A few minutes later, guards opened the gate, and we flashed our invitations to get in. I felt like I was in some strange garden maze as we walked through the landscaped path to the embassy. A huge house with brightly lit windows lay ahead of us… I had no idea what it would be like inside. I imagined that we might meet glamorous society diplomats in evening gowns and with long cigarettes- maybe talking to suave James Bond type spies- or perhaps stuffy old men in suits that would sneer at us all and talk about international incidents at a long, candlelit table… We went in and crowded into the coatroom to drop off our coats, and then got a name tag from the welcoming desk. There were golden and crystal chandeliers, a beautiful spiral staircase, sleek marble tiles on the floor- it was opulent and extravagant, we could have been in a southern mansion in Georgia… or maybe Washington D.C., rather than in the middle of Tokyo. The ambassador, Howard Baker, and his wife greeted us all with handshakes and small talk in a receiving line. Justin finally got to introduce me as his wife, which made him happy.
We were ushered into a room overlooking a landscaped and charmingly lit lawn, and had our choice of (free!) beverages- water, juice, red or white wine… Justin and I took a glass of wine and tried not to twitch nervously. Everyone around us was either a Jet, or a member of the staff. My dreams of meeting society diplomats, spies, or even stuffy old men, began to vanish… but I was still overwhelmed by the surroundings. I thought perhaps it wouldn't be so bad, to be a diplomat and live in such a beautiful house. The ambassador's assistant took charge of us and herded some of us into an adjoining room. "This," he said, "was the room where the emperor visited MacArthur at the end of the war. A historic photograph was taken of the emperor and Macarthur in front of Macarthur's desk- right over there." The assistant pointed to the far wall, now occupied with a piano and Christmas tree. A man sat playing holiday jazz tunes at the piano. A fire burned in a fireplace at the opposite end of the room- the only wood-burning fireplace in Japan is apparently this one at the American embassy. Someone asked the assistant what his job was. He answered, "well…I sit next to the ambassador during meetings. Afterwards, the ambassador asks me for my opinion, and I tell him. It's a pretty easy job." You could tell that he was used to fielding questions and entertaining guests- even ones as strange (and young!) as us. We had some cashews and nuts from candy dishes, and chatted with some other JETs while we waited for everyone to arrive.
Finally, the event began. The ambassador gave a weirdly patriotic speech, referred to George W. Bush as his 'boss' and repeated the Thanksgiving speech Bush had given this year. He called on our spirits as Americans and said we were 'diplomats' for our country, and a few other things… and then, after we applauded, his wife bobbed up and said she thought it might be fun to sing a Thanksgiving song. She told us some ladies had come over the other day and one had brought this Turkey song… wouldn't it be fun to sing a round? The piano man began plunking out a tune, and a lady came up to the microphone to try and lead us in the song… despite an utter lack of musical talent in the room, we all made an effort to sing along. I don't know that it would qualify as a musical ROUND persay, but you had to give Mrs. Baker credit for trying to get a crowd of recent college graduates into the holiday spirit.
Afterwards, they announced it was time to eat, and we shuffled into the next room, where a thanksgiving buffet had been set up. To my disappointment, there weren't any candlelit tables dripping with crystal and china, but there were some chairs on the sides of the room where we could perch and eat our food. There was a huge array of desserts… and a sweet potato gratin, steamed vegetables, all kinds of holiday foods. At the end of the room there was a "turkey station" complete with side dishes like mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry sauce. Justin happily dove into the turkey. I chased down one of the Japanese lady organizers and asked if she could tell me what foods contained wheat- she dashed away to ask the chefs and I was happy to find there were several things I could eat. I enjoyed the steamed vegetables, sweet potato gratin, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and some fresh fruit. Justin enjoyed
his turkey and all of the traditional offerings.
We chatted with some other JETs, and then got into an interesting conversation with the Ambassador's assistant's wife…. She told us all about her life. Her husband is quite restless, and has had many different types of international jobs, she said, and they've been living in Japan and other countries for years. Her early experiences in Japan were trying- they initially lived in the middle of nowhere and scandalized the neighbors when her husband hung out the futon in the morning (a job for wives). However, after a while, she came to terms with the fact that she would always be something of an outsider, and people were always quite kind to her- finding her American habits to be entertaining and eccentric. She told us that one of her sons is an artist, and having a gallery show in America. I had never thought about what it would be like to be the wife or child of someone with a diplomatic career . . .
Next we met the ambassador's dreadful college age grandson. He had a perfectly smarmy handshake and political charm- I wouldn't care to meet him in a dark alley. He said that he was visiting his grandparents, but going to college in Japan- he was having a great time. Apparently his college in American had been quite a party school- and I think the party was continuing in Japan. After the dinner ended, the staff turned the lights up and it was time to go. We slowly began walking to the train station, exploring the area as we went.
As we crossed a bridge, we heard strange, electronic bell music, and we looked down and saw a strange glistening light display. We decided to investigate, and found a Christmas light/ arts display, with unearthly chiming bells, and a timed light show that illuminated a metal Christmas tree frame (with shining, revolving disco balls inside it) and brightly lit metal wire angels. We sat down and watched the show, hypnotized by the revolving disco balls and flashing colored lights. It was like Walt Disney meets art installation meets hippie lazer light show meets Disco. Couples sat around the light display, gazing into each others eyes while lights flashed around them. Young women opened their large purses to let out little hairy dogs in sweaters- and then let them scamper around the courtyard. Wealthy yuppies sat in nearby restaurants and outdoor café tables, passively observing the light show while consuming gourmet meals.
We considered going to Shibuya, and maybe enjoying a Starbucks drink while watching the crowds, but we were so tired we ended up just going straight home and cuddling on the couch before going to bed. It was one of the most surreal evenings of our lives.
'8 courses of Tofu'
This week I attended the first year teacher's Year End enkai (party). They had made reservations for a fancy restaurant with Kyoto cuisine at the Chiba Chuo keisei train station shopping area. I took the keisei train and found my way to the restaurant. I followed another teacher into the restaurant, taking my shoes off at the tatami mat entrance. We were led through a long tatami mat hallway, and then they slid open a door with a low doorway. I went in and saw that about half of the seats were taken already by other teachers, but I did not see a single English teacher there. I nervously sat down, and happily, a minute later a very sweet lady teacher came and sat down next to me. Although she doesn't speak a lot of English, we have had several pleasant conversations in a mixture of Japanese and English. The banquet room was filled with a long table that had a lowered floor so that we could sit and dangle our feet. Several of the teachers were smoking. Pleasant Japanese music filtered in through speakers.
We began with a toast- everyone shouted "Kampai" and clinked our glasses. I toasted with my plum wine- it was sweet and delicious. Most of the teachers drank beer, thoughtfully pouring it for each other, because it is impolite to pour your own drink. Large wooden boxes filled with an opaque white liquid sat in the middle of the table, covered with saran wrap. Each place was set with an array of appetizers- a little cup with ume plum wine sat in the center. The little plates held: a sesame tofu square, several little unique appetizers, (asparagus wrapped in an egg sheet, a little piece of tofu covered in sesame seeds, etc), three dishes with various mystery sauces, and spinach with ginger. After a while a girl came in and turned on the heat for the wooden boxes- they sat on some kind of heating plate. The teachers explained they were filled with tofu liquid- a kind of soy milk. As the soy liquid heated, a skin formed on the top. The teachers showed me how to take large chopsticks to pick up the skin, and place it in a small bowl. Then, you add a gooey sweet sauce, fish flakes,sliced green onions, and fresh ginger, and eat it. It had the texture of melted glue, but it was delicious. The bonito fish flakes really added delicious, delicate flavor. Unfortunately, I had a cold so my sense of taste was a little impaired, but I still enjoyed the dish.
The serving girl and our main waiter came back as soon as we finished each small course, taking drink orders (I had oolong tea, because of my cold) and bringing new courses. The teachers were very kind and helped me explain to the waiter that I could not eat wheat- I can explain my problem in Japanese but it always helps to have additional help. The waiter crossed off the items on the menu I could not eat and told me when he brought dishes with wheat. I was able to enjoy a nice soup with vegetables and deep fried tofu, a sashimi dish (of kingfish?), and a fried rice dish with mushrooms- I did not care for the soup that accompanied the rice, but I really loved the dish of pickled vegetables. The teachers were concerned that I was not getting enough food, and so they ordered a special salmon roll (filled with an egg and vegetable filling). It was crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside- delicious! At the end of the meal, they brought out a tofu dessert (freshly made tofu with a little dollop of whipped cream and a leaf of mint) and added a small pitcher of magnesium chloride (?) to the tofu liquid, allowing it to finally become solid tofu. Then we each took some freshly made tofu onto our plate and ate it. This meal was amazing- each
course was more beautiful than the next, and I think my favorites were the skimmed tofu skins the sesame tofu, and the spinach. Each course was like a work of art- exquisite to look at, and subtle in flavor.
The teachers were very kind- for some reason, no English teachers came and so everyone spoke almost completely in Japanese, but a few teachers sitting near me tried their best to converse with me in English. The biology teacher told me about his interest in bird watching and botany. We also talked about Japanese appliances (refrigerators and washing machines), Japanese history, and the coming new year. Another teacher told me that this New Year will be the year of the ram/sheep. I tried to understand all the Japanese that I could, but most of the time I felt like my brain was leaking out of my ears. No matter how hard I tried to listen and understand, most of the time I just had no idea what people were saying to each other. I came home to my husband, and we cuddled on the couch and watched television in English while I tried to recover from Japanese overload. It was an unforgettable experience- one that I wish I could have shared with all of you in person. If only I could send flavors over the
Here's a little information on Kyoto cuisine:
Kyoto cuisine, known as Kyo-ryori, is linked to Kyoto's long history and to seasonal foods produced in the surrounding region. Among the various types of Kyo-ryori available, most famous are probably the vegetarian dishes, which were created to serve the needs of Zen Buddhist priests and pilgrims making the rounds of Kyoto's many temples. Called shojin ryori, these vegetarian set meals include tofu simmered in a pot at your table (yudofu) and an array of local vegetables.
"Wasabi Christmas" December 28, 2002
On Wednesday I got to play Santa at work. The Christmas season in Japan is really different. Generally only young children get gifts- once they stop believing in Santa Claus, their parents stop buying them presents for Christmas. A nice teacher at work, Nakai sensei, was debating about whether her youngest boy was too old for Christmas presents. Although he was having "doubts" about Santa last year when he was 11, this year he found the toy store advertising flier so enticing he insisted that he really still believed in Santa. His mother was not so sure, and decided (especially after he got a bad report card) that it was time for him to give up on Santa Claus.
Stores advertise hopefully, trying to get people to exchange Christmas presents, but I think that the "Christmas cakes" sold in bakeries are one of the few things people actually buy especially for Christmas. These cakes are often sponge, or a yellow cake, or chocolate cake, and are covered in icing and decorated with fresh strawberries, sugar santas, snowmen, pastel mushrooms, and holly sprigs. Christmas time is also like Valentines day- a bad time to be single. Young couples go on dates, perhaps exchange rings, and spend the night at each others houses. Anyway, although people don't exchange gifts, I thought it might be a friendly gesture to give gifts to some of the teachers. I gave my 1st year teachers' room a Colorado calendar, and a basket full of Celestial Seasonings tea and Christmas chocolates. I left it on a desk with a sign saying "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year" in English and Japanese, and when they came back from the morning teachers' meeting, they all found it there. They seemed really pleased and surprised. One teacher was celebrating his birthday, so I took the chocolates to him and offered him a "kurisumasu and tanjoobi (Christmas and Birthday) chocolate"- everyone in the office laughed. I also gave the lady teachers bookmarks with dried Colorado flowers and a chart giving the flower names in English- one teacher (one who had helped me at the Kyoto dinner party) was especially pleased. I gave the three main teachers I teach with small gifts as well- a small dream catcher, a small Colorado calendar, and another Colorado item. Everyone seemed very happy and surprised.
On Thursday evening my Dad, Mike, arrived at Narita airport. The few days before, we worked on getting our apartment clean and organized- we were a little nervous about fitting three people in our tiny little apartment. With our little live Christmas tree decorated with multi-colored lights and little red and silver balls, a little green wreath on the door, and blue and white Christmas lights on the window, our apartment looked quite Christmasy.
I had an interesting day at work, actually. I visited another school so I actually got to teach (with half days and exam schedules, I haven't gotten to teach for a while at my regular school- I just sit at my desk.). I taught a fun Christmas lesson where the kids put together English Christmas sentence pieces on the board with magnets and drew illustration of the scenes- and then we read through them, had the kids do an English Christmas crossword puzzle, and finished off by singing Christmas songs. I was very touched when a girl student gave me a little note after class- on cute "Monsters, Inc. stationary" that said- "This lesson very very fun. Thank yo very much."
We hurried home from work to tidy up a little more and then took the train all the way to Narita Airport. We hadn't been back since we first arrived in July, and it was a weird feeling to see the same fluorescent lights again- we felt like we should be flying somewhere ourselves. We waited at one international terminal exit for a while until Justin realized there were two of them- I waited at the same exit while Justin ran off to the other one. Of course, he found Mike at the second terminal exit. We exchanged his American money into the Japanese yen, and then waited for the train to Inage. He had two big suitcases and one bag- he had brought a lot of my special gluten free flours and pastas from Seattle. Happily, he wasn't even charged an extra baggage fee- he had to move two boxes of flour to another bag though, because it was two pounds overweight! Anyway, we dragged his bags home (good thing the only stairs were going DOWN at the Inage station!!!). He was amazed by how tiny our apartment was- He kept saying.. "it's like a DOLL HOUSE--- " to which my husband replied, "it's just Brenda sized."
After that we went out for some food. We decided to take him to an izakaya on the other side of Inage station, where they have lots of small appetizers and inexpensive drinks. We ordered some things, and I was pleased because I managed to ask the waiter (in Japanese) to leave off the wonton skin croutons off of this tasty wakami salad topped with potato salad… We ate squid, they had gyoza and fried things and a noodle salad… and then we toasted the meal with hot sake. It was strange to be the local experts for a change- we have really become comfortable doing things like puzzling out a Japanese menu (o.k.- they had a partially English one, but still), and ordering things in Japanese. At that point, Mike was so exhausted (After his long flight and traveling day) that he was seeing double, but he was still excited to actually be in Japan. I think it didn't seem real to him, that he could have crossed the ocean in a day and made it all the way to Japan. We went back home and all went to sleep.
The next day was Friday and we had to go to work. I was really surprised when the nice lady teacher (Kyoto meal lady) gave me a canister of my favorite "Lady Gray Tea" by Twinnings. She had asked me what my favorite tea was, but I didn't expect that she would buy me any! It was very thoughtful of her. And then Nakai sensei had a big gift bag for me, from her and the other English teacher (my grumpy supervisor)- I waited until she had time to see me open it, and then opened the little bags inside. She knew I was intrigued by the Japanese Christmas cake, and so had gotten me little sugar santas and snowmen and mushrooms for decorating them! She also got me little fragrant bath bombs (in interesting Japanese scents!) and a fluffy stuffed hello kitty Christmas tree. It was very sweet of her- I think, since she has three boys (two grown up) that she enjoyed shopping for a girl for a change!
I watched the students rehearse for their Christmas concert- the brass band played Christmas songs in the courtyard while some students casually watched. After that, I went home early and met Mike in Chiba. We went to Starbucks and I had a toffee nut latte (too sweet and hazelnut flavored, yuck), and then prowled around Chiba a bit before going home. I showed him Yodobashi Camera- and browsed the camera section. Mike was amazed by all the tiny little laptop computers, flat screens, and pastel colored appliances.
Justin came home a little early, and we decided to go to Shinjuku for dinner. We took the train and proceeded to walk through the crazy streets of Shinjuku, packed with people and lights and noise. It was all a little overwhelming, as Shinjuku often is. The Shinjuku station is the busiest train station in the world, so you can imagine. Mike took a picture of the crowds rushing towards and past us. We started looking for a restaurant and were unable to decide on a place for a while. Either there were long lines or a suspicious lack of lines or… we just couldn't pick a place! Finally we went into a building, and went up to the izakaya on the fourth floor only to find there was a 2 hour wait.
We found a grilling restaurant at last, and just went for it. This place was dark and atmospheric, and pretty busy. The hostess' English was very good, and she helped us with the menu. We each ordered different things- mike got a chicken barbeque, Justin ordered a seafood barbeque set, and I ordered a vegetable barbeque set. She brought us a clay pot filled with hot charcoal, fitted with a metal grill rack. The chicken arrived first, so Justin helped Mike put it on the grill. The skin kept sticking to the grill! Our table mates next to us, two girls and a guy, were amused at our attempts to turn the chicken. I think they wanted to be helpful but were unsure of their English. Justin's seafood arrived next- he had scallops, prawns, clams, crab and other seafoods to grill. The scallops were delicious! Last, my vegetables arrived- green peppers, pumpkin, shitake and feathery mushrooms, and onions. Because there was not much sauce for flavor, it was pretty plain, even grilled. But, it was quite an experience. After the restaurant, we tried to go to the Keio Plaza hotel sky lounge (the hotel we first stayed in upon our arrival), but they were full and would have been quite a wait. After that, we were tired so we took the long train home, and crashed. It had been a long day.
We were all tired after our adventures on Friday night, and when we woke up, it was raining miserably outside. Justin and I needed to do some Christmas shopping, so we decided to take the bus and then train to the LaLaPort Mall. We trudged through the rain with our umbrellas and scarves and hats, trying to stay warm and dry and only partly succeeding. As soon as we got to the mall, I dragged Mike and Justin off to Starbucks for my favorite Gingerbread latte. All the slender Japanese girls were out in their customary little skirts and tall boots and matching scarves, playing on their cell phones and sipping small frappucinos. Mike was shaking his head over how many pretty girls there were in Japan… and it's true, they really are beautiful. Justin needed clothes really badly, so we looked through the men's clothing- most of the young men's fashion is really casual, and usually too small for Justin. He doesn't really like the casual sweaters and English letter sweatshirts that young college boys wear… we tried, but ended up finding a bunch of stuff at the GAP that actually fit him. We both laughed, because we've never bought clothes at such a yuppie store in our lives, but the style suited him better. I made him go hang out outside the store while I picked out some things to get him for Christmas (after he tried on his favorites). I bought him two long sleeved, ribbed, turtlenecks, two ribbed cotton shirts with a short zipper, and one plain turtleneck. His clothes were falling apart!!!
We wandered through the mall for quite a while- and then went to a ladies "tea shop" called "Lucky Duck"- they served coffee and tea and fancy cakes and ice cream desserts. (They also have a salad bar and light meals). Justin and Mike had a fancy cake- mike's was like an apple pie/ cake, and Justin had a foofie chocolate cake. They were both wrapped in slices of silver foil. Meanwhile, I had a caramel ice cream banana split cup thing that was exquisite. After that, we went to a department store in the mall- Justin has bought some cute lamps there, but this time, he found a black, long wool coat. He has been getting tired of his cream suede "Colorado Mountain Man" coat that we bought out of desperation early in the year. It isn't dressy enough for his suits or even dress shirts, and this coat was a great price. He also had me try on some boots with wrap around laces, and sent me and my dad off while he bought "some presents." After all our shopping and people watching, we took the train home.
Later that night we took the train to Chiba City, and had some cheap, filling food at Saizeriya, a fast Italian food place that has decent risotto and a tasty, Thousand Island dressing squid or shrimp salad. Afterwards we went to an Izakaya on the 3rd floor in Chiba, and had snacks (my favorite are lotus root chips) and drinks. We all enjoyed some delicious plum wine, and I had a nice cassis liquor drink with soda water. It was fun being out, enjoying the atmosphere and watching other groups of Japanese friends getting together and enjoying their weekend.
On Sunday Justin came up with a terrific itinerary to really show off Tokyo diversity. We took the train (standing all the way! For an hour!) to harajuku, and watched the costume play kids in their freaky (but cute) costumes. There were lots of blue spiked hairdos (I mean, a foot tall and made of metal like a crown), long curly wigs (red and blue were both popular choices), people in goth costumes, several "brides", lots of fishnet stocking, frilly baby doll dresses and stuffed animals… if the kids could imagine it, they dressed up in it… It was crazy! We found a flea market that only occurs on the 1st and 4th Sunday of the month, and wandered through. They were closing up- and partly, flea market junk is the same everywhere… but there were some cool booths set up with things like used kimonos and obis, old statues, wooden models of Japanese homes… nothing tempted me enough to want to take it home or try and bargain for it. All of the listed prices seemed awfully high. As I told Justin, I'd rather buy it new at that price! It was interesting though, and filled with unusual characters selling their wares.
After those adventures, we took Mike to a more typical tourist attraction- the famous meiji jingu (Shinto shrine). We walked down the long, symmetrical paths to get to the heart of the shrine- and then were pleased to hear the drums rolling to announce a special procession. Imagine how excited we were to see a beautiful bride in full traditional dress carefully processing next to her new husband, surrounded by attendants! They wore elaborate white kimono and white headpieces that hid hair in an elaborate updo with flowers and other ornaments. After the procession, the bride was photographed with her family and guests. But that bride was not alone. While we were there we saw THREE brides and new grooms. Christmas time must be a wedding season here. The shrine was beautiful and tranquil after the craziness of harijuku.
After that we were hungry, so we went to the department store haven, Ikeburo, for lunch. We had somewhat standard lunch fare- I had a seafood rice pilaf at a teahouse lunch place. After that we prowled around the mega shop The Loft and then escaped to the Ebisu area to go to an English pub, "What the Dickens." We like their hard cider and tasty chips… and it also lets you take a break from Japan and feel like you're back home again. We left after a while, because their musical talent drove us nuts with their warm up. A bulky blond guy with goatee who seemed really impressed with himself kept barking "Test Test Test" into the microphone. Then, when his friend, a pale, tall, computer cuddling type- not your typical band member- showed up with a cute Japanese girlfriend, the blond guy started singing little sections of songs into the mic… he sounded like a watery Cyndi Lauper, crossed with Michael Bolton.. It was horrible. After that, we went to the Shibuya starbucks for a real taste of busy Tokyo.. we watched the people crossing the intersection below and just marveled at how many of them there were… We saw foreign men hassle the Japanese women below us and were dismayed- no wonder some foreigners have bad reputations here! After that, it was another long train ride home, standing almost all the way home.
On Monday we had planned to visit the Imperial Palace because it is supposed to be open, but when we called an English tourist office, they said that we would have needed reservations. Instead, we decided to split up and do some shopping. Justin and I went to Chiba City to look around for presents, and Mike went to Tsudanuma to do some of his own shopping. We had an enjoyable, relaxing, shopping excursion- had coffee at a French inspired Japanese coffee shop (filled with cigarette smoke and grumpy old ladies, but otherwise interesting), and looked at presents for each other. After looking at Yodobashi Camera extensively, Justin helped me pick out the camera he wanted- and we separated so I could get it as a "surprise." I got him a really incredible, credit card sized camera by Casio- it's digital and takes pictures at 2 Megapixels, but most importantly it's so small and thin that he can take it anywhere.
While Justin was shopping for me, I had a Starbucks drink and ran into two of my students. I was just sitting down when I heard excited cries of "Brenda san! Brenda san!!!" One of the girls said her name, pointing to herself, and (in case I didn't remember) said, "Chiba Nishi High School!!!" They asked if I was alone, and I said, "My husband is Christmas shopping.." They were very excited to hear that, and when he showed up a few minutes later, they beamed and made happy clapping motions.
We met up with Mike at home and then took him out on the town (to Inage.) We first went to a little grilling restaurant down the street from our house. We've gone there one time before, and it's a fun local place, usually with a little tv broadcasting some baseball game or other event, with small groups of people being loud and having a good time with sake and little skewers of meat. Unfortunately, their main room was full so we sat in their small tatami banquet room by ourselves. It was a little chilly, and the little floor pillows were pretty thin- but we ordered a few skewers for fun. Justin and Mike got chicken and I ordered shitake mushroom, onions, and tomato mozzarella sticks as well. Afterwards we walked through the Inage station looking for somewhere to have dinner. We decided on a new Izakaya on the other side of the station. The crowd was a little older, and it reminded me of a Perkins or Dennys. We had a nice marinated squid appetizer, Mike tried Soba noodles for the first time, and Justin devoured some garlic toast. An older man came up to us and chatted with us a little in English, asking us where we were from. Two elderly ladies sitting next to us also tried to be friendly, in Japanese, explaining the contents of their burner simmered winter stew to Mike. They were very kind and appreciated our efforts to communicate with them in Japanese, hand gestures, and simple English. It was a good thing that our Monday was so low key, because we had big plans for the next day!
Tuesday was Christmas Eve, and we got up at 6:30 to go to the Tsukiji Central Fish market. This is the place where all the fishing boats unload and sell their fish to distributors all over Japan. The Lonely Planet guide to Tokyo says that "2500 tonnes of fish are sold here daily, worth over US $23 million."(p. 90) Mike got the really authentic Tokyo experience of being on the rapid train to Tokyo with all the morning commuters- we all three stood in a row on the train, hanging on to the ceiling straps or (in my case) the pole, staring out the window for 40 minutes. We had to walk to the fish market, through bleak industrial Tokyo- and then, once we got there, we weren't quite sure how to get in! We squeezed around some cars, trying to avoid being hit by a truck, car, or electric car whizzing by. We didn't know where we were going exactly, but we knew the market was up ahead somewhere- we just had to get through the parking lot/ entrance alive! As I told Justin, it felt like we were trapped in a game of Frogger- we were the frogs hopping across the pond trying not to get hit by the cars!
At last we found ourselves in long, dark warehouse with stands set up in ordered lines- each one with an exotic array of the freshest fish in the world. Enormous frozen tuna lay on the cement like fallen tree trunks, and sturdy fishmongers swung Japanese fish axes, skillfully slicing off chunks of tuna steaks. Bright red octopus, so orangey red they seemed straight out of a box of magic markers, were clustered in big white buckets. White slimy squid lay in rows next to mussels and clams and all kinds of fishes. Big reddish orange fish, their big, shiny red eyes glimmering under the fluorescent lay on the wooden stall tables… In some areas, slabs of brilliant red tuna sashimi steaks were set out on cardboard like precious minerals, with crudely written prices next to them. It was a strange and disturbing landscape of the sea- all the sea's bounty arranged for anyone to see. But at the same time, it wasn't meant for the casual consumer. This place had a heartbeat, a frenzied pulse of human activity that surged and writhed… Everywhere in the market, people whose livelihood depends on the ocean harvest hurried from one place to another.. they guarded their stock, they poured creatures from one bucket to another or one carton into another, they chopped and sliced and hacked with the skill born of daily repetition and training. Old women. Old men, young men… they all wore overalls and work clothes, sensible boots for trudging through fishy salt water, not the high fashion you see on the streets.
Ominous gas carts, with flatbeds and impatient drivers vroomed around us through the main thoroughfares, narrowly scraping around each other and pedestrians. People rushing by pushed and shoved their way around obstacles, including us… but some people were kind, like a young man who offered to take our picture and asked if we'd seen the early morning fish auction. (we hadn't, it was before 5am) The ground was covered in water, but strangely, it never smelled fishy… not that I really wanted to get any on my clothes and find out for sure later. At last, after we'd all taken pictures- (Justin took some beautiful ones of the craftsmen working, and I became obsessed with photographing the patterns of sea creatures lying on the tables) we escaped into the external market, which sells things to regular people, not just restaurants and distributors.
Justin found us a little hole in the wall sushi place right next to the central market- it looked busy, and not tourist oriented- we sat down at the bar (there were only about 10 seats around the bar and that was it). The sushi chef had the waitress bring a menu with pictures and we ordered two sushi sets- and green tea. A workman sat in the middle, chatting with the sushi chef in a familiar manner, and the waitress stood near him, laughing at his jokes like they were old friends. We watched the sushi chef make each piece of our sushi- he was in no hurry, but each movement of his hands was precise and measured. When our sushi finally arrived, we were amazed. A Japanese couple had sat down near us and was really entertained by our enthusiastic reaction to the sushi. It was the freshest sashimi I had ever had- even things we don't usually like were exquisite. I normally don't like wasabi, but even the wasabi was good (in small amounts.) I had one bite that sent me diving into my green tea (and into Justin's as well). Our favorites were definitely the tuna… Mmm, it was so delicious my mouth is watering just thinking of it.
After that we wandered through the external market, an amazing bunch of little market stalls with pickled vegetables, seaweeds, nuts, dried Japanese beans, knives, dried fishes, fresh fish, vegetables, dried mushrooms, and bonito stands. The bonito stands fascinated me- in the back of the stalls you could watch the vendors taking the big, wood like chunks of concentrated bonito and feeding it through a shredder that produces different grades of peachy colored fish flakes. Bonito flakes and konbu (a kind of thick seaweed) are used to make dashi, Japanese fish stock. Little old ladies clustered in front of big bins of bonito of different grades. I lined up myself, trying not to be intimidated, and fished out some money. Of course, then I had to try and explain how much bonito I wanted to BUY… that was fun. The fish market was as crowded as any Hong Kong market- but strangely, I never felt claustrophobic, despite the people crushing all around us. There was just too much to look at!
Afterwards we headed to Asakasa to visit the famous Buddhist temple there- we enjoyed playing tourist and looking through all the tourist booths selling gift items on the "gauntlet" path to the temple. Justin decided to try these cookie pastries filled with bean paste shaped like a fish- he asked for hot ones and so they took them right off the metal press for him. He said they weren't as sweet as he thought they would be, and he doesn't usually like bean paste but he had never had them before, so… it was an experience. Mike was really impressed with the temple- it is a beautiful place and full of interesting deities and things to see. The pigeons reminded us of St. Mark's Square in Venice- they were everywhere and really hoping to be fed. Justin fed them some of his bean fish cakes and they got really excited to swarm all over him and Mike. I stayed out of the feeding frenzy, myself.
After looking through the temple, we went walking through the restaurant supply area. We admired the plastic sushi (a big plastic bowl of soba can cost $50 or more!!!) and enjoyed looking at all the gorgeous dishes. We bought a set of inexpensive western style blue and yellow plates that will go in the microwave! Mike found some cool Japanese dishes in a speckled gray and later I snuck back to buy them for him as a Christmas present. After all that walking, we were hungry, so we took the train to Akihabara, electronics town and the guys had Japanese Curry rice for lunch.
Justin needed to go to Yodobashi camera to find my Christmas present, but he was dismayed to find that there wasn't any in Akihabara. We went on to Shinjuku, so he could go to the Yodobashi Camera store there, and I had some inexpensive risotto at Saizeriya while they were shopping. After they made their mysterious purchase… Justin took us to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, where you can ride the elevator up to the top floor for free and see a great view of all of Tokyo. Lots of other people had the same idea- the floor was playing Christmas music and it was very festive. There were young couples on dates and families enjoying the sights of Tokyo.
After that, we were really getting tired, but I had gotten my heart set on seeing the Tokyo Millenario Christmas/New Year light display in Tokyo, so we took the train to Tokyo station. We got off and… I had no idea what I was getting us in for! It seemed like every other person in Tokyo had the same idea.. people were stationed all around the train station exits with signs, waving us in the right direction. Once we got out of the station, it was just like during the spring firework festivals, but colder- policeman were stationed at all the crosswalks to herd crowds of people across. We merged into the great, crowded glob of people and started walking… and walking… and walking. After a while we got to a whole street that had been sectioned off and then we were truly mashed into an enormous crowd. Little old ladies with sharp elbows and large purses muscled their way through the crowd, always just a little faster and a little pointier than everyone else. Businessmen walked, arm in arm with their girlfriends, until their cell phones rang and they had to conduct business in the middle of a crowd while walking. Glamorous young women in pointy toed boots walked sedately, hand in hand with their boyfriends, pretending their feet didn't hurt. All the tallest men in the city somehow magically ended up standing directly in front of me. And we still couldn't see any Christmas lights. We turned a corner with the masses, and saw, far off in the distance, what looked like a fairy tale Turkish castle, glimmering in 3-d twinkle lights. And we also saw millions and millions of people who all thought that going to see Christmas lights on Christmas eve was the best idea ever… their heads were like waves on a giant ocean of people. A few times we lost Mike in the crowd- he was amazed at the size of the crowd… and then found him again. When the crowd had to cross the street (the police were still letting cars cross at intersections) cross guards would carry streamers across to block off the cars and box in a specific number of pedestrians. The Turkish/ Russian light snow palace glittered ahead in the distance. Giggling young couples pulled out their keitais (cell phones) to take pictures of each other in front of the Christmas lights.
Finally we were there… we crossed under the first façade of lights and continued walking, passing each façade that gave depth to the image. It was beautiful. Christmas music echoed eerily from hidden speakers. You could see wire holding the light arches up… it was like being inside a magician's trick. Finally we passed through the last section of lights, and began the long trip home. I didn't know what to expect from Christmas Eve in Tokyo, but I could never have imagined that my Christmas Eve would include fresh sashimi, Buddhist temples, and a Russian palace of Christmas lights.
The next day was Christmas- we opened presents (Justin got a credit card sized digital camera and got me a Mp3 player- we got mike his Japanese dishes and a cast iron tako yaki (fried octopus ball) maker, among other things) in front of the tree and tried not to notice that no one else was celebrating a holiday when we went out… We made a Christmas dinner with turkey, spinach pie, mashed potatoes and gravy (didn't eat it until after midnight- that small oven gets us every time!)… and went to bed knowing it was only Christmas Eve in America. In the end I was left with the unsettled feeling of having cheated somehow, in practicing Christmas on the wrong day… at the wrong time… in the wrong place. And yet, the next morning, as we followed a Japanese tradition of making Christmas cake, complete with icing, strawberries, and sugar meringue santa- I thought that maybe making a new tradition was just as good. I don't know if I'll ever have sushi on Christmas Eve again, but I will never forget the taste of wasabi, creamy red tuna and green tea that morning. Maybe I can appreciate Christmas at home and the unique flavors of Christmas in Japan at the same time…
This link has some fun info on Japanese Christmas food:
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