Wednesday, July 27, 2011

July 27th

After Japanese class yesterday, I wanted to ask one of the teachers where I could buy a disposable camera. I need one for a really cool project my friend Kate is working on -
I wrote out, in Japanese, how to say "Today, where do I buy a disposable camera?" I'm pretty sure I got it write since we've been practicing using question words, verbs, and nouns in sentences. So, I walk up to Sensei, clutching my cheat sheet, and say "Sensei, kiyo doko de disposable kamera o kaimasu ka." She responded with "Sogo o kaimasu." which surprised me because I've been in Sogo and it is a very high-end expensive department store. The kind of place where I'm afraid to touch anything with my greasy fingers for fear some smartly dressed salesperson will make me now purchase what I dared to defile. Not the kind of place you buy a disposable camera. She then said "Quinn-san, doko de kasa o kaimashita ka." She was asking me where I bought my parasol. I answered and, before I could repeat my question, she asked me wear I bought my shirt. And then she held up her necklace and prompted me to ask her where she bought her necklace. It finally dawned on me that she thought I wanted to practice and was not asking an actual question. I shook my head and simply said "kiyo disposable kamera doko" today disposable camera where. Thanks to my utter disregard for what she's been teaching us, she finally figured out I was actually asking her a question. She then provided an accurate answer and I found disposable cameras.

This morning, while walking to the train station, I exclaimed "Wow" and then a second later "oh." Craig burst out laughing because he knew exactly what I was talking about. I can't remember if I've mentioned it, but I've gotten into the bad habit of talking about the people around me. I'm operating under the assumption that they don't understand me because I don't understand them. In tight places, like elevators, I confirm if they in fact don't understand, before saying anything about them, by adding, mid whatever sentence I'm saying at the time, "snake." If they turn their head I figure they understand English. If they don't, I'm safe. Generally it is things like - "Look at those shoes, they're super cute" or "put a mask on it" if someone coughs in my vicinity. Sometimes "Is that a boy or a girl?" as they are walking directly past me - the guys here are very androgynous. I bet you're wondering what made me go "wow." Well, you know how, on average, Japanese women are very tiny and lack curves. I saw serious cleavage for the first time since we got here. The "oh" was when I realized the woman was a gaijin, not Japanese. She was wearing sunglasses and had very dark hair so I had to get a better look at her facial features before I knew she wasn't a Japanese woman who had plastic surgery. Hopefully she doesn't understand English but "wow" and "oh" are pretty universal. Of course, if she's wearing what she was wearing, she was probably pleased with the "wow." In America, however, her cleavage wouldn't have been noteworthy. Craig thinks it would have been.

I made okonomiyaki tonight! It was as delicious as it looks. It's the Japanese style pancake I mentioned needing the egg for in an earlier post. It has flour, water, egg, cabbage, green onion, chicken, okonomiyaki sauce, seaweed flakes, bonito (dried fish shavings) and love in it.

After dinner, I heard crying in the hall. At first I figured it was a kid crying to her/his mother while walking down the hall past our front window. It didn't subside after a few minutes so I took a look outside. There was this elementary school aged boy pacing back and forth crying. I asked "daijobu ka" ok? He looks up at me with tears streaming down his face and starts telling me something in Japanese. I immediately called for Craig. Craig repeated the question and the boy once again started telling us his woes. He figured out pretty quickly we had no idea what he was saying and started walking away from us, still crying. Luckily, just at that moment a woman got off the elevator and took over. We felt utterly powerless.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

July 23rd and 24th

We didn't do any exploring this Saturday. I wanted to try out the 10:30am yoga class, had Japanese homework and we both spoke on Sunday and needed to finish up our talks. It was also nice not to go anywhere.

We did decide we were going to make a more advanced grocery list and go grocery shopping. This may sound silly but grocery shopping is very daunting. This is why we eat out so much and buy bentos (the preprepared dishes like seaweed salad or tonkatsu or sushi) so often. We searched the internet for easy Japanese meals, came up with three (we have a little tiny refrigerator so shopping for perishable items for more than three days at a time is tough because we just don't have room). Craig carefully wrote out the kanji we would need and headed to the store. We decided to buy stuff to make a noodle and veggie stir fry, maguro (raw tuna) and avocado rice bowls, and okonomiyaki (the pancake-style dish I posted a picture of a while ago). We wanted to get a specific sauce for the stir fry and had to ask a grocery store employ where it was - we were standing in front of it. We also couldn't find the maguro and asked a woman stocking the fish section and we were standing right in front of that too. We discovered you could by okonomiyaki mix and managed to find that on our own. Unfortunately the directions were all in Japanese, there wasn't even little pictures to guide us in knowing what needed to be add. Okonomiyaki has a flour batter that you mix shredded cabbage into and then top with whatever you want. We bought the sauce for it and was going to add some store bought fried squid, bonito (type of dried fish) flakes and chopped green onions. Looking at the mix, we were trying to figure out if we needed to add eggs. Craig knows the kanji for egg and didn't see it but we were surprised that it didn't need any so he asked "this use eggs?" to another grocery store employee. The answer was long but he thought she said no. This is foreshadowing.

Saturday night we made the rice bowls. They were really easy and rather tasty. We marinated the sliced raw tuna in soy sauce and wasabi for half an hour and then scooped brown rice into each of our bowls, layered the tuna with pieces of fresh avocado and were supposed to garnish with sesame seeds and shiso leaves (shiso is a common garnish, like parsley but it tastes nothing like parsley, I don't know how to describe their flavor except it is strong and that's why you just garnish with them). We forgot the garnish until after we were done eating - typical.

I don't think I've mentioned that we've managed to get a video rental card. It is so easy to feel hugely accomplished here. We managed to fill out a form with our name, address, and telephone number, and they were willing to trust us with a movie and we were high as kites over our success. I was actually only at ease once we started the film. We have to find films that have the original English sound track and, even if Craig claims that's what it says, I don't breathe a sigh of relief until I hear English. So we got to enjoy a home cooked meal and a movie on Saturday night.

Our talks went well on Sunday. I told Craig I was concerned with offending people. This isn't because I thought what I was saying was offensive, but, if I did manage to offend someone, it would be like offending a huge percentage of the people you see in a week since my circle is so tiny. I thought talking in front of a full ward of people is daunting but I think it is worse when there are only 20 people out there because you can more clearly see and hear everyone's responses. People laughed when they were supposes to and nodded their heads in agreement at other times, which was encouraging. There are 10 adult women in our branch and I discovered four of them are also adult converts. I don't know about the others, I'll have to ask. The funny thing is two of the four are from America and I assumed they would have come from Mormon families.

After church we skyped Craig's parents (shout out to Chuck and Welda and Dustin!) and I took a brief nap. During that time Craig decided to decipher the okonomiyaki directions. Turns out there are two different kanji for eggs and the woman must have been telling us yes. I made the stir fry instead. As most of you know Craig is usually the cook because he is better at it but he was engrossed in a Dialogue article and I was hungry, so I took the initiative. Here is a picture of the finished product. I am rather proud and the sauce was quite good. It was sort of like worcestershire.

My first week of Japanese class

Our more avid readers may have noticed that I didn't post anything all week. I'm sure you missed me :)

The reason why is that I finally started my intensive Japanese language class. We meet from 9:30am to 1pm every weekday for three weeks. Most free Japanese classes meet once a week in the evenings but, because it is the summer, some places are offering more time intensive options. If you remember, I took the placement exam awhile ago and felt like a complete idiot afterwards. Well, it turns out there are actually people in Japan who know even less Japanese than me. Crazy, I know. I placed into level 1. There is a level 0 class. There are also level 2, 3, and 4 classes to give you a feel for my actual level of knowledge.

The class is exhausting so my brain is mush by the time I get home. Not just because 3.5 hours is a long time to be paying such careful attention, but because it is ALL in Japanese. None of the teachers have spoken anything other than Japanese. The common language all the class members have is also Japanese, so even during the 5min breaks we get, if I want to talk to anyone that has to happen in Japanese. I come home and preface everything I tell Craig about my classmates with "I think" because I'm not actually sure I'm understanding what they're telling me. We are a very international group and I'm the only person from the western hemisphere. There are two women from China, two women from Nepal, one woman from Malaysia, one from Myanmar, one from the Philippines, one from Thailand, one from Burkina Faso, one man from Tunisia, and one man from Spain - I think he's from Spain, he started the class late so he didn't introduce himself and I'm going by the Japanese written on his name tag. We wear name tags with our names and countries of origin written on them in katakana. I did discover on Friday that the woman from the Philippines speaks English, we went to lunch together after class. I had had Craig help me write out "Everyone, tomorrow let's go eat lunch together after class" in Japanese and I read it aloud on Thursday. Unfortunately, a lot of them have kids that they have to go get out of day-care as soon as class is over (I think) so Gianel-san (the san is an honorific that's used like Mr. or Ms. but you only use it for other people, I would never say Quinn-san whereas I could sign something Ms. Quinn) was the only taker on my offer.

The teachers are very animated, which especially helps around noon when everyone is tired and starting to get a little loopy. They are all volunteers and I've decided that when I get back to the states I am going to try and volunteer as an ESL teacher because it is so hard moving to a country where you don't speak the language and I am greatly indebted to everyone willing to offer free Japanese classes. I'm not only going to be taking this one. Most evening classes start up in September and I'll sign-up for one of them. Also, and Craig is already doing this because his Japanese is much better than mine, you can sign-up through one organization for one-on-one two hour conversations once a week. Craig has been meeting with an older, recent empty-nester and learning about her kids and dog. Once I can put together a sentence and my vocabulary reaches that of a toddler I want to sign-up.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Language ineptitude moment

When people are leaving work for the day, their co-workers will often say "O-tsukare sama desu" which translates literally to "you must be tired." The point is that you're recognizing your co-worker's hard work that day and thanking them for sticking it out with you. The person leaving can respond to this by saying "O-saki desu." This literally means "is earlier" and you say it to point out that you're the one leaving earlier, so you're complementing your co-worker's industriousness and apologizing for abandoning them at the office.

Somehow, though, when the actual occasion to use these phrases comes up, I draw a total mental blank on "O-saki desu." Today I tried twice; once it came out "O-sake" (alcohol) and the other time it was "O kami" (oh God). Either one could be an appropriate sentiment to express upon leaving work for the day, but not exactly what was expected.

So it turns out Marine Day is a real holiday...

I'd never really heard of Marine Day before. It was yesterday. According to the Wikipedia page, it was created in 1942 to commemorate an imperial boat trip in 1876. Maybe it was a wartime PR move to talk up the navy; now it's an excuse to go to the beach. Either way, the brevity of the Wikipedia entry (the Japanese version isn't much more substantial) led me to believe that it wasn't a very important holiday. After all, it's dwarfed by the entry for the U.S. Flag Day, and when's the last time I took a day off work to celebrate Flag Day? So I decided to go to work.

My reasoning wasn't entirely Wikipedia-based. Really. When I started work at RIKEN they gave me a lot of paperwork to read and agree to, and it devoted a significant amount of space to how we need to maximize our productivity by not working overly long hours. Work hours are from 9am to 5:20pm, with a 50-minute lunch break. If for some reason you intend to work 8 hours or more, instead of the standard 7.5, you should take a 60 minute break instead of 50. If you want to work overtime or on a weekend or otherwise outside of normal hours there's a special form to fill out and you have to get permission to work extra. At the time, I was thinking this looked more like American stereotypes of France than of Japan. Then I encountered the fine print on the last page saying that professional research staff were exempt from those rules; as long as we show up on a given day we will be deemed to have worked 7.5 hours (and taken a 50-minute break) regardless of how long we were actually there. Once I actually started working, I discovered that there is not a stampede to leave at 5:20 -- I usually get in around 9am and am one of the first people there, but I'm also among the first to leave at about 6pm. Given how excited some of my labmates were when a 24-hour convenience store opened nearby, I suspect that at least some of us are fairly nocturnal.

So getting back to the original story, I figured that everyone would be at work on Marine Day. The weather was even lousy; there's a big nasty typhoon that's supposed to hit Kansai tonight and it was already overcast and rainy on Monday morning. The place was absolutely deserted. Not only were the lights off, they'd actually turned off the air-conditioning in non-lab areas in order to save energy. It made me wonder what kind of Marine Day awesomeness I was missing out on. I found I was actually unable to really focus on everything because the silence was so distracting.

So now I know. When Respect-for-the-Aged Day comes along in September, you won't catch me trying to go to work.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

July 16th

Started out the day going to the Kobe Stake Relief Society activity. A sister missionary provided translations of what was being said using the head set/transmitter set-up. Since she wasn't in front as a reminder, people were speaking at normal speed without bothering to pause to give her time to translate so her whispered voice in my left ear only covered about a third of what people were saying. The topic was temples and there was lots of tears and a video on the Tokyo temple which did have English subtitles. I left the activity early to meet Craig at the train station for the second adventure of the day.

We met up with people from RIKEN and went to Kyoto for Gion Matsuri. The Gion Festival has been taking place annually in Kyoto for about 1000 years. According to Wikipedia is started out as a purification ritual in the time of plague but the merchant class morphed it into a celebration of history (umm wealth) by adding a section to the festival where they open their front doors and put their family heirlooms (expensive heirlooms) on display for the riff raff to catch a peak at while they walk past. There is a parade on Sunday featuring big floats that are pulled by people through the Gion neighborhood. On Saturday the floats are on display and it is like a reverse parade, the floats stay still and the people walk past them. And there were a lot of people. Apparently 1 million descend on Kyoto for the event. We were warned in advance that it was going to be hot and crowded.

In Kyoto, in order for it to maintain an air of the old world, the wearing of yukata is encouraged. Yukata are cotton summer kimonos. The group we went with had gone yukata shopping the Sunday before so they were all decked out. The men looked like they had on cotton bath robes and they seemed about as comfortable, the women looked quite lovely but uncomfortable. The yukata did not appeal to me. The obi, belt, that goes around the middle is trussed up tight, almost like a corset so they complained of the ropes inside the wide fabric belt cutting into them on the train ride to Kyoto, difficulty breathing and, because of the bow in the back, the inability to sit back in a chair. Additionally, the kimono is wrapped around your legs so your stride is unnaturally shortened and the traditional flip flop style wooden shoes with the narrow horizontal lifts force you to set your foot down level with every step instead of a more natural rolling movement. None of them had on the traditional shoes but they all had to take the itty bitty baby steps. A lot of fashion is designed to make women less physically capable and the kimono is no exception. For my part I was wearing a long flowy skirt for the hopes of extra ventilation, a thin, flowy long sleeved top to keep the sun off and to keep cool, sensible shoes, and a big straw hat since I didn't think the parasol would be safe in such crowds. I screamed gaijin but if Godzilla had attacked all those yukata wearing women would have been tasty appetizers and I'd have gotten away :)

This is the gate to the shrine associated with the festival.

Here are some of the women from RIKEN wearing their Yukatas.

People were lined up to ring prayer bells at the shrine.

Unlike the Suma temple we went to weeks ago, this shrine had fewer statues and quiet places built for worship. This is one building with rows of lanterns.

Here are the women with their traditional paper fans.

There were multiple floats but to our undiscerning eyes they were all just about the same. The front and back had a wall of lanterns.
In the center musicians sat and played music. A large spire came out the top symbolizing the original floats, which weren't actually floats but halberd style weapons carried down the streets.
The sides were very ornate. They all seemed much more luxurious than anything at the Macy's parade.

This was the crowd at the train station when we were trying to get back home.
This is a crowd shot from the street that connected the shrine with the parade area. At one point we were literally shoulder to shoulder and there was some pushing but no complaining and everyone acted very calmly despite being packed in like sardines. Occasionally someone would try to push me, but since I've got 20 plus pounds on almost all the women, am about the same size as the men, and had on my sensible shoes people figured out pretty quickly I wasn't going to move out of their way. I set myself up as a barrier for the smaller, yukata wearing women in the group who were easily being tossed by the crowd. However, their slow gait and the insane amount of people were driving me mad and I eventually abandoned them and pushed my way out quickly to avoid a gaijin/Godzilla style rampage.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

July 13th and 14th or success and satisfaction

After all my hard work and rejection on Monday, I took a day to lick my wounds and then headed to KobeYoga on Wednesday. Craig actually found their webpage, which google translate sort of works on, and discovered they're actually pretty close. Craig, kindly and because he had very little choice, prepared me a conversation sheet with the phrases "I'd like to speak in person" "What time can I come by" and "I live near by" The website asks that people who are interested in trying a class call first and arrange which class they're going to visit. We walk past the studio quite often, it's on the way to most restaurants we go to, but the door has always been locked so I couldn't get away with just stopping in any way. I called, a man answered, and actually spoke enough English that he knew I wanted to talk in person and wanted a time. I think he didn't understand why I needed to talk in person. I say think because, despite using English, it wasn't great and his accent was quite strong so I still don't know if he was saying "why" or something else. He gave me a time to come by and, after grabbing some yoga clothes, continued on my quest for physical fitness. I got there about 15min before a class and the door was unlocked. The woman running the front spoke English too! I bought a 2 class trial pass and she showed me the changing room. There was no mention of tatttoos. Turns out she not only runs the front but is also the teacher so I think they lock the front door during the class so no wayward foreigners walk in while she's teaching. It was a pretty full class and, having not really done yoga in over 4 years, it felt good and bad all at the same time. One goal of yoga is to be present, in the moment and not let your mind wander. Well, let me tell you, it is very easy to stay in the moment when all the instructions are in Japanese (I decided I really need to learn the words for right and left) and you have to watch everyone around you to know what you're supposed to be doing. The instructor would come over and say some English while adjusting me if I wasn't quite where I was supposed to be. Over all, it was a good class and the instructor is awesome. She's got a more salt than pepper pixie and fantastic arms. She's skinny but she actually has muscle tone, a rarity in this land of extreme calorie restriction. I'm going back for a "suroohata" class this afternoon. That is supposed to be slow hot yoga and I really hope she's the teacher again or someone else with her level of English. Did I mention the studio is in the basement of the same building as the bakery where the extraordinarily cute animal shaped roll cakes are made?

Now for satisfaction and, yes, it is going to be about dinner. We went back to that little Indian restaurant nearish to our apartment. I already wrote about how great it is but I need to write more. We ordered a roasted eggplant curry and it was . . . magical. It had that slight smokey flavor from dry roasting the eggplants and enough spice to wake up your sinuses. I've decided that in heaven it isn't Brazilian style barbaque, but Desi Chai roasted eggplant curry you feast upon. We also had palak paneer, a perennial favorite which was also very good. To top it off the man gave us each a piece of actual dark chocolate on our way out. Chocolate is very, very rare here. I ate chocolate gelato once and Craig brought home a miniature snickers for me after one of his lab mates brought a bunch back from a trip he'd taken to the states, and that's the only chocolate I've had since we've gotten here. I began panicking, because I'm crazy, on the walk home that the restaurant might close (there was no one else eating there) and we'd never be able to have the eggplant again. I've made it my mission to tell every one I can that they should/need to/have to eat there.

Monday, July 11, 2011

July 11th

Yesterday, armed with a dictionary, a copy of their information pamphlet I spent over an hour translating, and a deep desire to go swimming I headed to Central Sports. They're a national chain of fitness centers. Things went very well, at first. The employee who drew the short straw sat down with me and, between hand gestures, drawings, the dictionary, and her occasional communications with other workers, we got my information form and health questionnaire filled out and I understood how much it would cost and my start date for going to the gym. It took us about an hour and 15min. Then came the final contract, which was in English, which explained, among other things, how much I was agreeing to pay, when I could cancel my membership and the rules I had to follow. This is when things turned south. The second point on the contract was that tattoos are not allowed and there is a financial penalty, and your membership would be revoked without refund, for having one. I pointed to the word tattoo and then pointed to myself. She looked very surprised. I then showed her the dragon fly on my lower back. She held up her finger in the universal "one moment please" gesture and headed to the office. She came back less than 30 secs later and said "sorry, no tattoo" this time crossing her forearms in the Japanese gesture for "NO." I managed to ask why and, eventually, she manged to communicate "tattoo scare grandmothers." So, then I asked if she knew of a fitness center or pool that allows tattoos. She wrote "fitness, pool, gym" "no" and "tattoo" on a piece of paper and then said "in all Japan." She did go and talk to some colleagues who think that, maybe but probably not, there is one gym in Kobe that might let me in with my tattoo. She seemed truly sorry about it all. We think it has something to do with tattoos signalling you're a member of the yakuza, organized crime, but I really doubt they're getting dragon fly tattoos. I suppose I could have lied and tried covering it up but I bet those "scared" grandmothers would have had no problem narking me out since it is pretty obvious I'm not a gangster.

A few people have commented on how food centric this blog is. I've got two responses to that. The first is, once you've ordered, food is pretty easy to understand. I can see it, smell it, taste it and not have to talk to it. The second is that Kobe is full of restaurants. Case in point, last night we went to a sushi restaurant with Naoko, our patron saint, and Hazuki, another woman from her office. I asked them what they do in Kobe when they have friends or family visiting. Hazuki is Canadian Japanese and has been living here for a number of years. All of their answers had to do with going out to eat. Finally, I said, "OK, you've taken your family to lunch, now what do you do in Kobe for the afternoon." They said there really isn't much except shopping. They recommended things to do in Osaka or Kyoto or Tokyo. So, since I don't have to try and communicate with my dinner and eating is a major thing to do here (despite all the women being malnourished) I will be writing about food.

We went to a little sushi restaurant that's been around for 80 years. The woman working there was second generation. The place had only 8 seats and was attached to her house. We sat at a bar facing her and she would prepare each piece in front of us and then set one on each of our plates. She would also tell us if we should eat the piece plain, use the soy sauce, sprinkle a little salt instead, or squeeze the lemon wedge over it.

The menu is the wooden slates on the wall with hirogana written on them. We were grateful for our Japanese speaking dinner guests.

We ate flat fish, bonito, mackerel (two kinds, one with the skin so fattier and one of just meat), tuna, grilled sea eel, salmon eggs, sea urchin, white fish, octopus, marinated white fish, and marinated mackerel. We finished with a traditional red miso soup. It was all delicious, although I don't like it when the eggs pop in your mouth. The woman working there was very impressed by our willingness to eat the sushi. I need to find the foreigners that have made Japanese people think we're all a bunch of food sissies and give them a talking to. According to Naoko and Hazuki is was also reasonably priced. However, I know I'm related to some of these food sissies and they made an excellent recommendation. When you come to visit, since you can't come all the way to Japan and not have sushi, we'll take you to kiten zushi restaurant instead. There, pieces of sushi roll pace you on a conveyor belt and you can choose what you want based on appearance. There are also more cooked and vegetarian options so you don't have to eat raw fish.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

July 9th or an exercise in masochism

Today I had my placement test for the Japanese classes I'm starting next week. As long as I have hirogana and katakana, their alphabets, memorized they'll take me but I had to take the test so they knew what level I'm at. I am at the imbecile level. The first hour was a written exam. The entire thing, including directions was in Japanese. I think there was a section on vocabulary, a verb conjugation table, and sections on particles. There is no English equivalent to Japanese particles. After that there was an oral exam. Two very lovely women asked me questions in Japanese. Once again, I think they asked me my name, where I was from, where I was living in Japan, something about TV and some other stuff. I just kept saying I'm sorry and I don't understand. So that started off my Saturday on a real feel-good note. One bright spot was I met some friendly foreigners. One Iranian woman even recommended an Iranian restaurant to me.

This all happened in Sannomiya, so after I was done I called Craig and he took the train in and we actually managed to find the Iranian restaurant and had lunch. It was a buffet and was delicious. One bizarre thing was the music in the restaurant. It was so we listened to church hymns while enjoying our shish kabobs. On Sunday we asked around and no one knew of members who own an Iranian restaurant. When you have to point at the menu to order you don't do a lot of small talk with your waiter so we didn't ask while we were there.

After lunch I started the second phase of destroying my self-esteem. We are going to Tokyo at the end of this month because a friend from Montana is conducting the Tokyo orchestra in a performance of one of her original pieces. She's getting us two free tickets and we're pretty excited. We decided we needed to buy some fancy clothes for the occasion. Craig wanted a suit and I wanted a pretty dress. While I was walking to my test I saw a pretty red dress that looked garment appropriate so I didn't think this shopping trip would be so bad. We found the shop and I tried on the dress. It was too small. I could zip it but I needed a bigger size. The store only sells one size. I discovered this is not unusual. We decided to find Craig a suit next. At the first place, he tried on the tallest suit they had and the jacket sleeves were three inches too short. The sales woman recommended a place we could try. We actually found it and he got a really nice suit. Even in Japan he was able to buy the fitted style. Suits here aren't very expensive either so that part of the trip was a success.

I should share some statistics. According to Wikipedia, I am two inches taller than the average American woman. I am four inches taller than the average Japanese woman. I weigh about 20lbs less than the average American woman. I weigh about 25lbs more than the average Japanese woman. I found a bunch of articles about how skinny Japanese women are and, apparently, how they're the only industrial nation where the women are getting thinner. Men and children are gaining weight. The government is concerned because the trend is unhealthily skinny; it is causing birth weights for babies to drop, disease and serious issues with eating disorders. It is also making it impossible for me to find a dress. Additionally, I am broader than a lot of women here. Hold up a hanger to your shoulders. Using a hanger we brought from America, my shoulders aren't quite as wide as the hanger. In the Japanese stores, my shoulders stick out over an inch on either side. This means buying a strappy dress and a little jacket thing isn't a possibility because I can't actually move, at all, in a little jacket thing. We browsed the Sannomiya area for about 5 hours. This is the shopping district for Kobe so we went through three malls worth of stores and then just walked the streets and looked so it wasn't like I wasn't trying. If I saw a dress I liked I would ask if they had "big" sizes. The majority of places only carry small or medium. I tried on two dresses at a place with large. If I pulled the sleeve over one shoulder it would bunch against my neck on the other side. I could zip the dresses over my waist but not over my rib cage or bust. If I wasn't looking for a fancy dress I probably wouldn't have had such a hard time but I'm not going to test that theory. I'll be wearing a church dress to the symphony for the sake of my psyche and just look under dressed.

July 8th

So it rained all night and there weren't any decorations. The legend says that if it rains the lovers weren't able to meet. It is cruel that the festival falls during rainy season. The skyline didn't darken either. Perhaps, since the lovers aren't able to meet, there is no point to try to see the stars.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

July 7th

Happy Tanabata! Happy Evening of the Seventh!
According to wikipedia the festival comes from a Chinese story about two lovers that are separated by a river of stars, the Milky Way, and once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month, they are allowed to meet. To celebrate people write their wishes on small, colorful pieces of paper that they hang from bamboo branches. They also hang other ornate pieces of paper in the shape of nets and fish in order to wish for luck in fishing and farming, and little bags to symbolize wealth. This is a picture of a bamboo branch with wishes set-up outside the Japanese gardens we visited on Saturday. I added a piece of paper and wished to be able to speak and read Japanese. Unfortunately, it rained all night and looks like it might rain all day so I don't know how decorating with paper works in this weather. I'll let you know. Also, we're supposed to turn off our lights between 8 and 10pm in an attempt to see the stars but that won't work with clouds either.

Here's a traditional song for the festival, courtesy of wikipedia :
The bamboo leaves rustle,
shaking away in the eaves.
The stars twinkle;
Gold and silver grains of sand.

On a personal note, I figured out why my offer to volunteer at an English conversation school was rejected. Apparently, and this is according to a woman who has lived in Japan for most of her adult life (so close to 30 years) and is married to a Japanese man, Japanese people like to keep everything even. If you volunteer then they owe you something and they don't like that. She once gave her neighbor some left overs from an Indian dish she had made and the next day her neighbor brought her cookies. The woman's sister-in-law told her she shouldn't have given the food away because the neighbor felt obligated to give her something in return. The tradition here is to give people money when a loved one dies but you shouldn't spend it because they are expecting the exact amount from you when one of their loved ones die. She learned this after her father-in-law died and her sister-in-law told her to keep the cards and money so she knew who to give what to when the time comes. She knew a visiting student who couldn't go home for Christmas and so decided she'd buy food and pass it out to the homeless in the spirit of giving. No one would take anything and she ended up throwing it all away. There are homeless people here but they never ask for anything - ever. There are soup kitchens they'll go to but they will often work at the kitchen in exchange for food. So, no more offers to volunteer from me - I want to get paid for my ability to speak English.

Monday, July 4, 2011

June 5th

Last night Craig and I celebrated our 7th wedding anniversary. It was actually on Sunday but, it being fast Sunday and us not having a method to cook food, decided to postpone the festivities to Monday. In the US we could have seen fireworks but the 4th of July passed by without notice here.
While we were still living in MT we discovered a blog run by gaijin which rates various foods/activities in Japan. They have a whole series on hamburgers and, in their opinion, the best burger in all of Japan is only a few train stops from our house.
We were a bit nervous because a while ago we had decided to try Mos Burger, a Japanese burger chain. We'd walked past it a bunch of times and never gave it a thought, we didn't eat fast food in America so why do it in Japan. However, we've been listening to a podcast series designed to teach Japanese and during their lesson on how to say you like something they couldn't stop talking about how great Mos Burger is and that if you're in Japan you have to try it. We're in Japan so we decided to give it a try. It is not very good and you do not have to try it.
That being said, we were worried that the bar for burgers is so low here that even the best burger in Japan wouldn't measure up. No need to worry, it was delicious. The place is a hole. I think the owner literally built an overhang onto the side of a building, hung plastic curtains from that to create walls, added a long bar with room for 8 chairs and declared the spot a restaurant. We wouldn't have known it was a restaurant instead of a storage shack if it wasn't for the blog. I brought the camera, with batteries this time, but the batteries died before a could get a picture, but we'll be back. According to the blog the owner has the buns specially made, cures and smokes his own bacon, and the beef and onions come from near by Awaji Island. The bar is built really high, sitting in regular chairs it came up to our shoulders, a brilliant design because the burgers are piled so high you can rest your forearms on the bar and barely have to lift the burger up to get it to your mouth. Just like the Indian place, if you come visit us you too can try the best burger in all of Japan.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

July 1st

We decided to explore Kobe's China Town. We went at dinner time and it was pretty quiet and uncrowded, to me a freakish state for a China Town. We've decided that Kobe is the city that starts getting ready for bed at 8pm and sleeps in till 10am. People leave for work early in the morning but most shops and restaurants open late and close early. We found a place with nice looking models and had gyoza, little dumplings filled with magic or pork, if you want to be accurate, and fried rice.

Afterwards we bought these cute little, what we thought were, desserts from one of the remaining food stalls. They turned out to not be very good in my opinion. They probably make them cute to fool people into buying them. In the square, a family seemed to be practicing for Chinese New Year. We think they were practicing because the dancers weren't going through a routine as much as trying stuff out.

July 2nd

Another Saturday, another day exploring Kobe. We started out heading into Sannomiya and walking to Sorakuen, a traditional Japanese landscape garden. It used to be part of the mayor of Kobe's private residence but was opened to the public in 1941. There were also some historical buildings but you couldn't go inside, you just got to see the exterior. Most of the buildings were destroyed during WWII but there remained a stable from the mid- to late 1800's. They had also moved a home from a different neighborhood to replace the mayor's mansion from the same historical period. They aren't note worthy for their age as much as their design, they were modeled on European architecture instead of Japanese. There were lots of little fountains and carved stone stuff. Some flowers but not many. There are 4,000 azalea trees so it is supposed to be quite the sight when they're in bloom.

After the garden we headed back towards the train station area to grab some lunch. We ended up at another Chinese restaurant. It wasn't anything special. Afterwards we decided to walk through China Town on our way to the Kobe City Museum. Now all the stores and stalls were open and it was a proper, crowded China Town. I wanted a “kokonatsumiruku” coconut milk boba smoothie, it turned out to literally be coconut milk, like from the can, ice and boba. They don't seem to do blended drinks. Those of you who drink margaritas would probably only be able to get them on the rocks.

The Kobe City Museum is dedicated to showing that cultural exchange between Japan and other nations has been going on for centuries. We really wanted to see the “southern barbarian art” Namban art. It is work with foreign subjects painted in Japanese style, it came about after the Portugease sent missionaries in the 1500's. Unfortunately that exhibit wasn't open yet so we just saw maps, letters, and artifacts from various cultural exchanges. They also had an exhibit about paleolithic Japanese cultures. There was a drawing of cave men in loin cloths and it was interesting because they seemed white to us. They had more facial hair and lighter skin then you would expect Japanese cave men to have. The museum went with a more western depiction.

Once we learned all about Kobe's cultural exchange history, well the 20% that was translated into English, we went to Meriken park. Apparently a popular date area there are public sculptures, lots of places for skate boards (the first we've seen in Japan), and a giant mall on the western edge.

This is a list of prohibited activities in the park. We could not figure out what "leaving a log in the park" meant. We even considered a clever attempt at translating "going to the bathroom" but in another sign it says "leaving a dog in the park." Some adolescent boy probably thought he was being funny scratching up the sign.

This huge fish sculpture was designed by Frank Gehry.