Saturday, March 31, 2012

Ikea and a Good-Bye Dinner

Yesterday, Ben and I went to Ikea. Neither Ben or I have patience for crappy beds, and for us, the futons here don't cut it. After hours of looking on the internet for non-futon beds that we could afford, we finally figured out that Ikeas exist in Japan. Now Ikea can be very cheap, especially if you have will power. I'm not sure who came up with the Ikea business model, but it is absolutely brilliant. The stores are massive, and they are carefully laid out so that you must walk through every section inorder to find your way out. Ben and I quickly found they bed we wanted (they were one of the first sections when you walk in), but we could not for the life of us find the way we came in, so we were forced to follow the signs to the exit, after nearly an hour, due to our lack of focus and the constant barrage of shiny objects, we did not find the exit, we found the food court. Some how the bright lights and Swedish gobbledygook convinced us that we were in fact extremely hungry, and nothing sounded better than Swedish Meatballs. After we were satisfied, we again pointed ourselves towards the exit, this is when we saw the solar powered lamps, for the first time... and the second.. and the third. It was like subliminal messaging, it knew we could pass it up the first time, it was harder on the second, by the third time we saw it we both thought, you know, this is a sweet lamp... and then we ended up buying it. I'm very happy with the lamp, and I'm glad we have it, but I still sort of feel like we were tricked.
Floor plan of our apartment.
Ben and I now know our exactly where we will be living! We love our apartment, and we are so excited to move in. The location is also perfect, within walking distance of the train station, and where both of us will be working. I will write more on our house hunting experience, and our apartment once we get situated.
Aren with Sakura Wine
Ben and I will be moving in the next day or so. So the Saitos took us out for Korean BBQ for a going away dinner. I tried a lot of new foods including cattle intestine, and raw horse meat. Although those foods sound like they belong on the menu of a horror movie, they are very good. I love Korean BBQ, it feels to me like a lovely blend of a campfire, and a restaurant, and the food is always good.
I am very sad to be moving out of the Saito house, they are an amazing family. They have had many exchange students before, so they know exactly how to help. It's extremely difficult to get constructive criticism in Japan, so your manners, language skills, and fashion choices are not easily corrected without being extremely observant. The Saitos realize that not knowing can be more frustrating than a gentle nudge, so they really helped me master my chopsticks, they helped Ben down the road of correct grammar and pronunciation, and they helped Ben and I with things like what we should look for in an apartment, what we should buy, and how to take care of a Japanese home. I feel like they made the transition to living in Japan much easier, and I am very grateful.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Raw foods and Man Holes

Raw fish is often seen as ubiquitous with Japanese cuisine, sushi being the most ready example. In Japan, very few foods are not eaten in a raw form. Eggs, fish, red meat, many foods that at home either considered to be unsafe for consumption in their raw state are eaten frequently here. The only foods that seem to be considered unsafe of consumption raw are pork and chicken. Japanese are aware that it can be an issue for foreigners, but they treat it like a phobia. I highly recommend giving raw foods a try if you are offered them in Japan, as the flavor profiles are very unique compared to their cooked counterparts.

Ben and I wandered around Saitama today. Our lives here have been a lot of hurry up and wait. There are a lot of things in progress that Ben and I can’t really do anything about so we have days with no obligations, and then days that are pretty insane. I took pictures of nearly all the manholes we passed on our walk.
There are a lot of types of public art.  But the artistic detailing found on the ground here is really fun. There are little tiles, patterns of bricks, tiny paintings on tiles, painted lines on the ground that only make an image if you look at them from a distance. It feels like you are in a constant game of eye spy. 



Umbrella vending Machine.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Courtesy and Culture

There was more training today.
The session was about living in Japan. It covered logistics and culture. I found the logistics part to be very helpful. They told us where we can go to get our alien registration card, how to buy cellphones, how to sort our trash, and many more things to keep you out of trouble, or manage your life. Ben and I had no Idea for most of them, so it was really helpful.

The cultural part was frustrating, and for me ineffective. I would have liked to know things like when you go to a party, what it is customary to bring, how do you invite someone to your own birthday party, and other nitty-gritty specifics of Japanese culture. Unfortunately, I thought their training would have more aptly been deemed “the universal basics of human interactions.”  A lot of foreigners who come to Japan have a very limited media from which they have come to know Japan, i.e. anime and video games. They are often quite socially awkward in their native culture, so a very formulaic breakdown of Japanese cultural dos and don’ts may have been very useful. I mostly found it tedious, and although I have only been here a short while, nearly all of the things covered are quite obvious. There were so many things that they deemed unique aspects of Japanese culture, but in fact they were just basic universal etiquette.

One of the things they portrayed as a Japanese cultural nuance was that, in Japan, someone who is your senior will often give you unsolicited advice. It is customary to say thank you, and then use what is useful to you. I have never lived in a country where this wasn’t the case. People who are completely unfamiliar with the task you are going to undertake often tell you how you should do something. When Ben and I were getting ready to move to Japan nearly everyone who knew about our move gave us some form of advice, from the people who loved us it was a way of telling us they cared, from those who didn’t even know us, it was a way of keeping a conversation going. 

We were told that it is considered very immature here to get angry easily, especially in the work place. I cringed inside when they said this. If by the time you graduate from college, this is not clear, I’m not sure how to catch you up with social norms.

I found it a bit worrying that this was the sort of training necessary. Social norms rarely take the form of rules. There are local customs for manners, and different cultures set rules to emphasize different social values, but when you speak about any culture in terms of their values, they all boil down to the same things.  I was so glad Ben was there with me, his knowing glances, and suppressed giggles made me feel like the world still had hope. There was at least one other foreigner who might give the Japanese a good impression of Americans.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lovers and Frog Slime


Today was devoted to Mount Tsukuba. The Japanese refer to their mountains by calling them Tsukuba-san, or Fuji-san, which translated into english roughly means Mr. Tsukuba or Ms. Fuji. It makes the mountains seem very friendly. The mountain treated us very well, and I appreciated his hospitality. 

Ben wanted to climb the entire mountain, but I wanted to stay behind and watch the monkey show. Luckily Akihide, Ben's friend, was up for climbing the mountain, so we both got to do what we wanted. The hike up took them about 70 minutes, and it was apparently very steep. I had a lovely, peaceful day all by myself.
I am so glad that I watched the monkey show, it was really funny. The monkeys did magic tricks! The monkeys also had very good manners, and would bow every time the trainer would say arigato (thank you).

Frog Slime Salesman

I met many interesting people today. People seemed to find me very approachable. There was a frog slime salesman, who told me that Sakura are very exciting because they come only for one week, although the plum blossoms are very beautiful, they are not as fleeting, so they are not as celebrated. I am now thoroughly amped up for the sakura to blossom, I'm excited for the blossoms themselves, the festivals, and the warm weather.

Tsukuba-san is a unique mountain in Japan. Unlike most mountains in Japan which were formed from volcanoes, Tsukuba-san is made of non-volcanic rocks, this makes the 
plant life, and geology unique, and looks more like the environment of Colorado.

Tsukuba has two peaks, one is male, and one is female, together the peaks are considered a loving couple, and ascending the mountain with ones spouse is supposed to bring marital joy, and conjugal bliss. This couple are the gods that united to give birth to Japan, and many other gods. (Check out the shinto creation myth.)

Near the beginning of the world, a deity descended from the heavens and asked Fuji-san and Tsukuba-san if she could spend the night. Fuji-san with her great summit, perfect cone, and lovely skirt (the clouds surrounding Mt. Fuji) refused, she believed that she did not need the deity's blessing. Tsukuba-san, welcomed the deity, and offered her food and water. To this day Fuji-san is barren, and bears no fruits, while Tsukuba bursts with vegetation, and the colors of the changing seasons.

Tsubasan's beautiful changing seasons.
Tsukuba Shrine
Tsukuba has a shrine that is centuries old. A monk, in the 15th century, named Koyo-shonin used the grease from toads to cure the injuries and wounds of the warriors, who were frequently at war in the area. It has recently been chemically proven that the ingredients of toad's grease are effective for injuries. They are now found in some main stream medications. 

Washing station
Daffodils on the mountain.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Botanical Gardens and Fish Market

Plum Blossoms
Yesterday, Ben and I made our way up to Ibaraki prefecture. We are staying with some of Ben's friends, and we're having a blast. After arriving at the Tsuchiura station around lunch time, we were treated to conveyer belt sushi at the restaurant where the youngest son works at. It was delicious, we really enjoyed it. 

After lunch, we were taken to the Ibaraki sea side garden. It was beautiful. At the entrance way their was a theme park, with roller coasters and a giant ferris wheel. The fair grounds had little robotic animals you could ride around. 

Spring is nearly here in Japan, and the most eager flowers have already started to bloom. Plum trees are covered in blossoms, johnny jump ups, and daffodils are plentiful. The park was very big, and although very few areas had flowers in bloom, the whole park was amazing. Ben and I found it very refreshing to not be able to see any skyscrapers. The air smelled fresh, and there was a constant breeze from the ocean. Ben and I loved it there.

Daffodils are my favorite flower. I think they look a goofy, energetic, and very beautiful. There was a field of daffodils that absolutely took my breath away, I had never even imagined such a place was possible. The daffodil viewing area was perfect, all around the daffodils were plants that thrived in march, so there were plum trees, and rapeseed all around. The air was impossibly fragrant. The ocean breeze mixed with all the blooming flowers was pure ecstasy. I was almost in shock from finding my own personal slice of heaven.

This is what I think heaven looks like. 

Ocean view.

After the seaside garden we went to a fish market. I personally do not have flattering words to describe a fish market. For most of my life, I had a deep seeded phobia of all things fish related, and that part of me was yelling at me. Five year old me cried and ran as fast as she could, but 24 year old me actually really loved the energy and vibe of the whole situation.
The people were really fun to watch and interact with. They looked at Ben and I, and would throw english words at us, they often had nothing to do with the situation.
I like the leaves over the octopuses, I feel like it makes them look modest.
There were so many types of fishermen, with so many different attitudes. Many were the result of the hard job, they had gravely voices, skin like leather, and let their fish advertise themselves. Others were quite chipper, and very funny. My favorite interaction was with a man who said with much enthusiasm that he could tell that Ben was an American because he had an enormous nose. He did this while miming the honking of a clowns nose. I could not stop laughing, neither could Ben.

Money is made from the bark of this tree.
Ben and I spent the day at Tsukuba botanical gardens. Yesterday and today were beautiful sunny days. It was nice to spend sometime outside, out of the city. It is still very cold, so Ben and I really enjoyed the green houses at the gardens.

Plum Blossoms

In Japan, at sites for tourism there are stamps for you to put in books, or on what ever you want. The gardens placed stamps throughout the grounds, and as an incentive to get all of them, there was a prize, stickers. Although we didn't need an added incentive to see the whole gardens, it was a fun touch.

There was an entire greenhouse devoted to water plants, I had never seen anything like it. There was also an outdoor watergarden with carpe, but it was still too cold for things to be growing.

We saw and heard a lot of birds today.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Itohs and Cherry Blossom Tea

Ben and I went up to visit old friends of his today, the Itohs. They are an incredibly lovely family, and I am so glad we got the chance to visit them. They made us feel so warm and welcome in their home. They took us to a beautiful garden, and fish market, which were fantastic experiences, unfortunately I am incredibly tired, and worried that I will not be able to describe them with the gusto they deserve. 

Today as we were winding down from our amazing day, and after the third bottle of sake was completely empty, Yoshie, the mother of the house made a gesture that was beautiful and very touching. Sakura (cherry blossoms) are a symbol of spring and celebration. There are festivals devoted to the viewing of cherry blossoms, and the whole country seems to be waiting with baited breath for the cherry blossoms to bloom. Yoshie brought out some Sakura tea, which she said is traditionally given to an engaged couple to celebrate their engagement, and wish them good luck. I was very touched. Cherry blossom tea is very beautiful, and it seemed that when she poured the water in the cup spring suddenly came to life before our eyes. The tea smelled like blossoms, and the flavor was very reassuring. I am very grateful for the gesture, and the experience.
Cherry blossom tea.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Training and Train(ing)

Today was the first day of training for Ben and I. We still don't know exactly where we will be placed, but we should find out on monday. Overall, the whole day was very reassuring, we met lots of returning RCS members, learned techniques for being and assistant language teacher (ALT), and learned about what we can expect. The frightening part of the day was how much time was devoted to sexual harassment training. Apparently many male ALTs (not just from RCS) get sent home for sexual miss-conduct. Parents and teachers who are already often dubious of foreign teachers are on the look out, but it seems that this has lead to more scandals, and many instances of teachers being sent home even though they are not yet assumed to have had any type of inappropriate conduct. The male teachers-in-training today were told that the only circumstance in which they should ever touch a student was to break up a fight, but even then to give many verbal warnings, and to only touch the students with the back of their hands. The fact that this has become an issue, is disheartening. The sexual harassment in this country is rampant, there are frequent signs to watch out for up-skirting, and many systems for dealing with groping on trains, both women and men suffer from this situation, as both have become quite wary of each other. Many men who have been accused have had their accuser confess later that it was a lie, and women preyed upon are faced with the choice of either not doing anything, or going to authorities and then themselves becoming a pariah. It is a very unfortunate situation.

Ben and I also learned a few new cultural nuances that I never even would known. Schools in Japan were originally founded on buddhist grounds, so many buddhist practices have carried over and are observed as part of daily school life in Japan. It is essential that you have a pair of shoes for use only inside the school, it is important to participate in the cleaning at the end of the day, and it is very taboo to wear the bathroom slippers anywhere but in the bathrooms. You should avoid showing the bottoms of your feet to someone, and sitting positions such as crossing your legs while sitting are not acceptable because someone might have the bottom of your foot pointed at them. All of these practices are carried over from buddhism, and although religion is a strictly forbidden topic in class, many of the rituals are still observed. 

I was glad to learn that nutrition is very emphasized here in Japan. Foods not considered healthy are not allowed on campuses by teachers or students. Even fruit is considered a sometimes treat, and is not to be brought in as a part of your meal. It is not encouraged that we bring in any outside food or beverages, and coffee should be at home only. 
Overall the day was very informative. We got to meet a lot of exceptional people. I am really excited to get started.

Trains are the blood stream of this country. Cultural epicenters are based around stations, directions are based on distances from the stations, and transportation is generally by trains. The culture about the trains is very different than any metro I have been on, the most noticeable thing being that they are very quiet. It is forbidden to talk on your phones on the trains, people talk in quieter voices to each other on the trains, and even the trains themselves are much quieter than anywhere I have ever been. They are also one of the few places with heat control. This creates a perfect place to fall asleep. I would say about one out of four people sitting on a train are asleep. Ben and I have also been very impressed by people standing up, but asleep. It is not a taboo thing here at all, all types of people are asleep on the trains. I'm not sure how Japanese people are ever on time, I have no idea how they don't miss their stops. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Rainy Day and Eating Manners

We bought shampoo and conditioner.
 Today is a rainy day. Ben and I were not feeling particularly creative in our endeavors today, so we decided to walk around the town, and just enjoy being in Japan. We also ran a few errands.

Ben and I are from a dry climate, so were not sure if this is a Japanese thing or not, but most stores have little stands with bags to put your umbrellas in to keep them from dripping on the floor.

I'm starting to get the hang of eating manners here. I have so far only been in fairly casual environments, but I have tried to pick things up from TV, eating in restaurants, and eating with the Saito family. Manners are very important to me, and I relish learning new customs and practices in different countries.
Here are my observations so far, these are coming from a female perspective. It seems to me that men are held to the same rules, just much more leniently, and generally the rules surrounding their practices are more influenced by a need to show appreciation for the food.

I would say the rule to base all rules on here is do not let food go anywhere but in your bowl, or in your mouth, food should not be found on the table or on your clothes. Although this seems to be enforced in all countries, it seems to me that most eating practices here are based around this rule.

It is important to know when to pick up your bowl. The general rule is if it is small enough to be held in one hand, it is acceptable, and generally encouraged to pick up the bowl and bring it closer to your face. If it is a food that is more difficult to eat, the bowl should be held very close to your face. The exception to this rule is if you are using a bowl for food that is shared, even if it is for your own personal portion, for instance for fondue or during shabu shabu. When holding the bowl your fingers should be as strait and together as possible, which is much easier for small bowls.

The practice of slurping is going out of style, women do not slurp for the most part. It is acceptable to slurp in ramen shops, but I would say that it is neither encouraged or discouraged. Most other places it seems to be generally discouraged.

It is ok to talk with food in your mouth, but only if your hand is covering your mouth in some fashion. Women often hold their hands in front of their mouth whenever they are chewing.

You should hold your chopsticks as far back as you are comfortable with. Do not clench your fist while holding them.

Pour drinks for other people, do not pour your own. If you are done drinking leave your glass mostly full. 

There are many more rules, especially about the things you say, but unfortunately I am having much more trouble with that part. I try to say delicious and thank you as much as possible, but I know that I'm missing many nuances. There also seem to be a lot of facets to the host/guest relationship that I do not understand yet either. I hope that I am not offending anyone, and they understand my gratitude.

Yasakuni and Sensoji

Water where you cleanse before entering the shrine area
Ben and I had a very beautiful day, we went to one shrine (a place of shinto religion), and one temple (a place of buddhist religion), both of which were incredible. 

Yasakuni shrine is dedicated to the soldiers and souls who died on behalf of the emperor of Japan. There are statues and memorials for most of the wars, but most prevalent are those for World War II. Foreign tourists are asked to be cautious here because the shrine harbors some controversy. After World War II, the souls of Japanese war criminals were enshrined as kami at the temple. This fostered international resentment especially from China, because one of the souls was of the general who lead the massacre on Nanjing. Although Japanese officials stated that their intent was not to condone the actions of the war criminals, but instead to remove the lingering essence of their spirits, controversy still surrounds the shrine. The Japanese group, the far right, who are known for protesting against pro-chinese, or more generally pro-foreigner, agendas have often taken to the shrine to tout their propaganda. Unfortunately, the far right are known for resorting to violence. Police officers stationed at the shrine will caution foreigners to stay out of the groups way for the safety of everyone.

The shine was very beautiful, but more beautiful in my opinion were the surrounding gardens. There were koi ponds, gravestones, and statues along beautiful paths in groves of trees, some of which were blossoming. There were vending machines for people to buy food to feed to the carp, the sound they made was really fun, it almost sounded like little kisses. The whole area was green and alive, it was very refreshing.

 After Yasakuni we went to Sensoji Temple. There were thousands of tourists, which was an extreme change of pace from earlier that day. Along the path to the temple there were dozens of little stores selling souvenirs and tasty treats.

Built in 628 AD, Sensoji is Japans oldest temple. It harbors Kannon the goddess of mercy.
This is the thunder gate that leads to the temple.

Nearby Pagoda
For a history of the temple check out this site

Today on our way home Ben and I went on a women's only car on the train (it was ok for Ben because it was not during the women only hours). Groping on crowded trains is a large problem in Japan, and in order to give women a secure area where they do not need to worry, women's only cars are offered.

Things were much more feminine on the car, even the "be careful not to smash you fingers in the door" signs were little hello kitties.
Be careful not to smash your finger ^-^

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Harajuku and Akihabara


Yesterday, Ben and I went to Harajuku. It was quite fun. It was another shopping district, but this one had more street venders, and smaller, much less expensive shops than Shinjuku. It was very crowded despite being a weekday, which I found very exciting. Luckily for Ben and I, we both really stand out in a crowd here, so it's not hard to find each other if one of us looses the other.

There were about a dozen sock stores along the strip.

Ramen vending machine

  Ben and I had a really fun lunch. We went to a sort of ramen bar. It would be absolutly perfect for a quick bite during a lunch break, or for any time you wanted good food, but didn't want to socialize. The proccess of the meal was really fun. First you buy a food ticket at a sort of vending machine, you choose ramen then any special contents you want such as egg, green onion, or nori. You then seat yourself in a little personal cubby, which has its own water spout, cups, chopsticks, and what ever else you need. There are little buttons inside the cubby for you to call the waiter. A little hole at the front of the cubby was where a waiter comes to take your order, and pass your soup through. The ramen was quite exceptional.

The whole area of Harajuku smelled like crepes, so by the end of the day Ben was nearly salivating every time we walked by a crepe stand. Just before we headed home we bought one for him, it was filled with strawberries and chocolate ice cream.

The general rule for eating on the streets of Japan: Don't. The Japanese seem to feel really awkward about it. You will never see someone eating while walking, and if someone is forced to eat on the streets they are very discrete about it. Generally they try as hard as possible to hide it. Ben ate his crepe where everyone else was, in a little back ally way out of the way.

Today Ben and I went to Akihabara, the electronics district. It was a very interesting experience. Akihabara is also the "nerd" district, so anime, video game, and manga aficionado are quite catered to. I have to say the whole area was just a little creepy. There were a lot of a adult shops thrown into the mix, and many stores had adult sections or content. There were at leaste a dozen maid cafes. Anime culture is just as much of a fringe activity in Japan as it is just about everywhere else. Anime enthusiasts also seem to be considered just as nerdy as back home.
Gundam Cafe: Let your nerdliness shine!
One of the many maid cafes.
 Ben and I ate ramen again today... good thing we're eating healthy breakfasts and dinners. It was really good. For some reason they gave Ben a bib, but not me. I promptly dipped my hair in the soup to make sure they knew they had made a mistake... oops.

Even the statues here are cold?

 Near the house we are staying at is a little shrine. I really like it. There is a playground, a cemetery, and a cemetery on the grounds as well. The whole place really gives you a feeling of the circle of life. There are so many flowers placed on the graves, and blooming on the trees that the whole place smells like spring, despite the fact that it is still pretty cold. It is quite refreshing in the big city