Sunday, August 28, 2011

Kyoto – the first day

Craig has some mandatory vacation time this past week, RIKEN was closed Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday so the building could get a good cleaning, so we decided to take a stay-cation. Kyoto is about an hour and a half away by train and we've been told it takes two days to see all the sights so we went Monday and returned on Tuesday.

At the first place we visited a group of school boys bravely came over and asked us if we'd answer some questions. This isn't the first time this has happened. I can't imagine a teacher in the states giving kids an assignment to find some foreigners and ask them some questions but it seems like popular HW here. I got asked if I liked Japanese food. Craig was asked if he liked Japanese women. I answered that one for him.

I honestly can't remember the names of all the temples and shrines we went to. It was a lot. Kyoto is full of them and they're all old. Not as old as Nara because Kyoto became the capital after Nara, but most were established in the 1100 to 1300's range. Usually the buildings we were seeing weren't the original because the original had been lost in a fire but a reproduction built in the 1400's or some other time before the USA was even a country.

The first place we went to was Daitokuji Temple. The gardens were Zen. There was lots of moss and rocks. They don't do grass. We went to one garden were I wasn't allowed to take pictures. They had, in English, descriptions of what the rock arrangements symbolized.

Next we headed to the Golden Pavilion AKA the Kinkakuji Temple. It is literally a gold plated building. It was originally a retirement villa for a 12th century Shogun. The building was rebuilt in the 1950's after an obsessed monk burned the old one to the ground.

Ryoanji Temple was restored in the 15th century. The high point is the Zen garden that consists of 15 rocks in five groupings “in which nature is compressed and given abstract expression within the confines of a very narrow space.”

As is consistent with our experience in Japan, the last temple on our list closed at 4:30pm so we weren't able to see much. There were some very intricately carved wooden doors.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

August 20th to Nara we go

We decided to visit Nara. According to wikipedia (what did people do before wikipedia?) Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784 and has 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. That means those sites are of "outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity." We saw three of them so we will have to go back. The three we saw were in Nara Koen (park). The other big draw for Nara Koen is the deer. Wikipedia says it best:

According to the legendary history of Kasuga Shrine, a mythological god Takemikazuchi arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the newly built capital of Heijō-kyō. Since then the deer have been regarded as heavenly animals, protecting the city and the country.

Tame deer roam through the town, especially in Nara Park. Snack vendors sell "shika sembei" (deer biscuits) to visitors so they can enjoy feeding the deer. Some of the deer have learned to bow in response to tourists' bows. They nudge, jostle, and even bite for food.

Do they ever. One deer was totally chewing on my t-shirt, Craig got butted by a few and, when we got ice cream, one doe kept bowing to me so I shared my cone. We both bought some biscuits and the deer just swarm you. Once the biscuits are all gone the deer just move on to the next sucker. When I got mine this rather aggressive male with pretty big antlers was making it tough for me to feed anyone but him. The old woman who sold me the biscuits grabbed her deer smacking stick and gave him a good knock on his antlers to let him know he needed to back down. The deer know that you do not mess with old Japanese women wielding sticks.

We went to the Kasuga-taisha Shrine which was established in 768 and is famous for its lanterns, both brass and stone.

Did I mention the lanterns. There were hundreds of them leading up to and inside the shrine.
Todai-ji is a Buddhist Temple and the world's largest wooden building. The world's largest wooden building houses the world's largest brass Buddha. The temple was also established in the late 700's.
This is just the gate to the building.

This is the building. This one was actually built in 1709, the previous one was destroyed by fire, and is 30% smaller than the original.

The Buddha is 50ft tall and weighs 500 tons.

This guy was also on display. Usually statues like this are outside the temple protecting it, hence dude is standing on a defeated monster, but he got to be inside.

This is Pindola. He was a master of occult powers. His face is very expressive. Legend says that if you touch a part of his body and then the corresponding spot on your own then it will heal.

Here we are, respectfully, using the giant temple to give ourselves horns.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

animal or vegetable?

Yesterday I went to a cafe to study Japanese and ended up sitting next to two Americans. I've been going to an air conditioned cafe for at least an hour a day to study since my class finished yet I still have to order by pointing at the menu. Anyway, it was really difficult to concentrate when English was being spoken. I usually walk around in this comfortable little responsibility-less cocoon because people could tell me I was doing something wrong or ask me for something and I would have no idea. Craig joked that I should get a job for the yakuza as an enforcer because they could be pleading for their lives or offering me great riches to not put a cap in their umm.. knee and I would have no idea. The whole gaijin solidarity thing kicked in and one of the Americans commented on my book; sitting next to another presumably English speaker was too tempting to pass up. The one guy has been in Japan for 12 years and told me that the dentists suck. There was a story about root canals and pus and not enough antibiotics. Then the conversation went to how tough it is to clear up athletes foot - these guys were really charmers. Eventually they finished their drinks and wished me luck on my Nihon adventure.

Today I went to my first one-on-one Japanese conversation lesson. The Kobe International Community Center provides free, two hour, once a week for 6 months tutors for foreigners who want some help with their Japanese. They are not teachers and it is stressed that this isn't a language course. Basically, people volunteer to spend two hours talking to you in Japanese and trying to get you to understand and respond. They also answer questions and write out crib sheets. I forgot to do it today, but next week I'm going to ask my tutor, Sakamoto-san, how to say things like "I'm growing out my bangs so don't cut them" and "please cut my hair like this picture" so I can get a hair cut.

Tonight we had cold soba noodles and bento boxes for dinner. This is our go to meal. Craig picks up the bentos at the grocery by the train station on his way home and I make the noodles. Bentos are a great deal. They've always been good and are quite cheap. Tonight we tried something we'd never had before and, after eating the entire helping, still don't know if we ate animal or vegetable. We tried deciphering the kanji on the box but didn't get too far. I think I'll write it down so I can ask Sakamoto-san next week.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Nannystate Japan?

Just a quick thought tonight -- a couple of things today caught my attention as being very different from the kind of citizen/government relationship I grew up with.

A couple of days ago, we got something in the mail that looked important. "Important" means that it is addressed to me, contains lots of paper, and that I don't know what it is. I took it in to work to have one of the administrative assistants look at it. This isn't actually part of their job description, as far as I know; they're just cool like that. It turns out that it was from the Japanese government pension program -- their version of social security. If I understand correctly (which I might not), everyone is required by law to pay into this beginning at age 20, whether they're employed or not. If you're working, your employer picks it up, otherwise you're on your own. They want me to provide evidence (entry stamp on my passport) that I wasn't in Japan on a work visa for a while before my employer started paying, because if you're eligible to work then you need to pay into the pension system. This seems sort of odd to me -- a national pension system that isn't conditional on employment -- and I wonder whether people get some kind of reprieve if they're unemployed.

The other thing was during a discussion about a (female) lab member who had recently gotten married. Apparently, in Japan name changes upon marriage are required by law -- if the woman doesn't want to, the man has the option, but someone has to change. I don't see why this kind of thing needs to be regulated by law. Then again, it could be the kind of thing that is perceived as "strengthening traditional marriage" so that no logical justification is really required. I remember hearing about a similar law in Germany -- apparently they have a list of approved given names for German children and if you want to give your kid a non-standard name then there are a lot of bureaucratic hoops to jump through.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The wait is over...

So at the end of Quinn's post about our Tokyo trip, she promised that I'd post soon with pictures and excitement from my trip to Mt. Fuji. It took me a while to do so, not (only) because I'm lazy, but (also) because my camera was misbehaving and I had to rely on others to e-mail me their pictures.

After checking out of our hotel in Ikebukuro, I took a few trains to get to Gotemba, a little town right at the base of Mt. Fuji. I had a bowl of ramen (what else?) while waiting, and eventually my fellow climbers arrived by car from Kobe.
There aren't a lot of pictures from the way up, because we started hiking at about 6:30pm and it got dark pretty quickly. On the left is Paul Pratt; in the center is Mike Liechty. I know both of them from church -- Paul is going back to the UK tomorrow and Mike is an American. The picture was being taken by Corey, an American co-worker of Mike's. We're at the Gotenba 5th station, the furthest point to which one can drive with a car; from that point on up it's on foot.

The climb took us about 7 hours -- the idea was to hike up through the night and watch the sunrise at the summit. As it turns out, we left too early for that to go very smoothly -- we arrived at the summit station at about 1:30am and then had to wait about 3 hours before the sun rose. After being hot and sweaty pretty much constantly for the last couple of months, I was startled at how cold I was. I had a sweater and my winter coat, but had packed in a hurry and didn't think to bring a hat or gloves. Pretty much the longest three hours ever, standing on top of a mountain waiting for the sun to rise. It sounds much more poetic than it was.
Here's me with the sun about to rise in the background. It was more impressive in person. The sunrise, I mean -- I probably look better in the picture than in real life. The walking stick was something I'd bought at the base -- they sell these sturdy sticks that are engraved with some Fuji 2011 stuff, and then at the top there's a little shrine where they engrave people's sticks for proof they've been to the top. For a small fee, of course. If inclined, one could spend a lot of money on the way up Fuji. At one of the stations on the way up, we saw a sign that said that the restrooms were 200 yen and added "No sleeping in restroom. You will be charged 5000 yen."
This is looking down at the summit station from the volcano rim, which is slightly higher up. That's where we waited during the night. They have vending machines that sell hot drinks (genius) and around 3-ish they opened up the buildings and started selling soup and curry rice for the people who are hungry. During the night I kept hearing people taking hits on oxygen cans that they sold further down the mountain. That big crowd had all hiked up, mostly during the wee hours of the morning, and now that the main event arrived they're getting ready to head back down. By about 2:30am we could look over the edge and see a steady stream of flashlights and headlamps coming up the mountain.
This is a view looking down the side of the mountain; near the top of the image you can see the green where vegetation starts again; the upper part of the mountain is all just volcanic rock.
This is looking back up, as we were on our way down. I don't quite understand why all of the stations and similar things had torii gates since they didn't look like shrines to me. Maybe the entire mountain is a shrine, technically. The trails are different going up and down -- the trail up is (mostly) pretty solid and good for climbing, while the trail down is mostly loose volcanic sand, so that it's easy on the knees and you can basically run down. We made it down in about 3 hours.

So that's Fuji. Quinn wants to do it next summer -- I think the Gotenba route is a good way to go, but next time I'm bringing lots of warm clothing.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

August 10th bits and pieces

English on t-shirts is very popular here. I should say bad English and occasionally inappropriate English. I saw a t-shirt dress with words "BLACK JOKE" printed across the chest. A t-shirt for women had "Penetration into New Time Zone." written in curly-que script. Usually it is just a nonsensical string of words "Beautiful, Cheerful, Success, Pinnacle, Cute" with little animals dancing around the words. That shirt wasn't on a child. The best I've seen so far was an older woman, since she actually looked old to me she may have been in her 70s, walking around with "I Scored Last Night" on her chest. That one made me do a double take.

Sometimes I see the Japanese version of people I know. I saw the Japanese equivalent of my Aunt Jean on the train. I saw a guy who could be Bruce Campbell's Japanese twin, he totally had the chin.

I'm not certain that Japan will be good for my psyche. Firstly, I am bigger than the vast majority of women. Sometimes I feel like Andre the Giant. In my Japanese class I couldn't sit with my feet flat on the ground and my knees at 90 degree angles because the desks weren't high enough, the two guys in the class couldn't either. I bought some sandals yesterday and all of the trial sizes on the floor were a size or more too small for me, the sales woman had to keep going to the back room. Secondly, I feel pretty much dumb as a rock every time I leave the apartment. If anything changes from my expected routine I'm reliant on strangers' broken English. And thirdly, children stare at me. Seriously. I've heard in the country it is even worse and you might run into some adults who will too. Kids haven't learned to be polite yet so they'll stare right at you until you pass them on the street. Little ones, still in strollers, will sometimes even drop their jaws. Older kids, 5, 6 or even 7, will just stop mid-sentence and their eyes widen when they see you. It makes you paranoid that you've got a two inch booger hanging out of your nose or lunch smeared down your chin or, worse yet, you just look especially awful that day. It's really just because they haven't seen all that many gaijin yet. For Craig it is even worse. All that blonde curly hair and those invisibly blonde eyebrows can't help but draw attention. There is this little girl who gets pushed down our hill at about the same time he walks to work in the morning. I was with him one day, going to Japanese class, when her mom pulled up alongside of us waiting for the light to change. This little girl gave him this utterly disapproving look and stared at him during the entire light and then, when her mom started walking, the girl pulled herself up and twisted herself around in the stroller so she could keep staring for as long as possible. Now she just stares at the lights, she's figured out which one of her limited categories the yellow monster belongs in so he is just a curiosity now.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

July 29th to Aug 1st - our trip to Tokyo!

We headed up to Tokyo for three days. We opted for the less expensive overnight bus method instead of the bullet train for this trip. We left our apartment at 8pm Friday night, took the train to Osaka, and managed to make it to the bus stop with only a few wrong turns. The bus ride is about 10 hours. The seats recline and they have privacy hoods you can put over your head to block out light, although the overhead lights are turned off once the bus starts moving. I suspect they're there because, even though your seat is reclined, you're still sleeping sitting up and your mouth will eventually hang open and, in a culture where women wear 4in heels and pearls to go grocery shopping, drooling on yourself while your mouth is gapping open is probably something they want to keep hidden. At about 3am Craig woke up and pushed his back because his not-yet-morning-breath was starting to poison him. He was not alone.
We got to Tokyo at about 8:30am Saturday morning. Our hotel was only a 20min walk from the bus stop but, in our usual fashion, we got a bit lost and it took about an hour to find it. We couldn't check in yet but they did take our luggage and we headed out on our Tokyo adventure.

There are certain things that I've realized I took for granted in the states. Napkins and garbage cans top the list. It is very unusual for restaurants to give you paper napkins; fancier places will give you a damp washcloth to wipe your hands when you first sit down but I wouldn't feel comfortable wiping my mouth or blowing my noise with it. Garbage cans on the streets are even more rare. There is NO litter which amazes me because we usually have to carry empty water bottles or gum wrappers for half the day before we see a garbage. They're often in train stations, but even then, there might be only one and if you aren't walking in that direction you won't find it. The third thing is restaurants that specialize in breakfast. Our hotel did not provide a continental breakfast and restaurants don't usually open until 11am or later (even fast food places because we looked), so each day we had to go to a convenience store and buy some juice and individually wrapped pasteries because that's what was there and stand on the sidewalk and eat our breakfast. Remember, we were in Tokyo, not some little village out in the sticks, and we still couldn't find a place open early enough to feed us, except the hotel restaurant which was crazy expensive and we never even considered.

After our sidewalk breakfast we made our way to Yoyogi park. It is a big park in the middle of Tokyo. It was amazing because you turn off the side walk and suddenly you're in this quite, cool, peaceful, uncrowded place.
We checked out a big shrine. I believe people wrote out their wishes on the pieces of wood and then hung them on this thing surrounding the tree.
I don't know if the place was under renovation but lots of exterior walls were covered in tarps that were painted to match the decor of the place.

We also walked through a garden that was created in the 1800's for the then Empress. Apparently in June there are crazy amounts of irises blooming. This spring had a guard standing next to it. He said that everyday 1000 people visit it to dip their hands in for good luck. He's there to keep the line orderly and not let people drink from it.
I read about ramen in Tokyo and we set out to find an especially well written about restaurant for lunch. Now when I say ramen you're probably thinking about the little packs of noodles that you can buy 5 for a dollar. Well, in Japan ramen is a much more serious business. According to the article people will wait two hours to get a bowl if it is good. Often restaurants make the noodles fresh and the broth is different from place to place. Basanova was mentioned for its Asian fusion style menu, I got the Thai green curry noodles and they were delicious. The ramen restaurants are not fancy or expensive either.

While walking around we came across an intersection I had also read about. There are five streets that come together and when it is time to let pedestrians cross the street traffic is stopped in all directions and it is just a free-for-all.
The proper way to eat ramen is to slurp. We could hear the people around us eating. This place provided us with bibs which I took advantage of. Craig did not at first but he's also not very good at the slurping and opted for the bib after getting broth splatter on himself.

On Sunday morning we went to Roppongi to see Maman, a giant spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois. Once again, something I found out about from the interwebs. Some other tourists saw my fear pose and totally copied it once it was their turn to take pictures.

After that we headed back to the hotel to get all prettied up for Hsiao-Lan's concert. This is why we decided to go to Tokyo this weekend. She is a friend from Montana who composed the original music for my thesis film. One of her pieces made it into the Asian Music Festival and the festival flew her to Japan to conduct the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra in the playing of her piece. You might remember my traumatic shopping experience a while ago and my decision to wear a dress I had from my cousin Jilly's wedding, well it was all for naught. We were totally over dressed. We were really shocked to see people in jeans. We think it was because it was a festival and perhaps fellow musicians who were attending the whole two day event didn't see the need to get dressed up. No matter, I'd rather be over-dressed then under dressed. Her concert section had five pieces all conducted by the composers. Her's was the third piece to be performed. The music was east Asian inspired but written for a western orchestra. Afterwards we headed back to the hotel to get unprettied before heading to dinner with her and some other conductors.

Outside the train station in the area, Ikebukuro, where we were staying there were owl topiaries, children's drawings of owls as public art, and a local bakery had cakes decorated with owls. Once we got home and turned to the internet we discovered that the Japanese word for owl is similar to bukuro so owls are like the mascot for the area.

The next day we went to Asakusa, the oldest part of Tokyo. We visited a temple that has one of Budda's bones enshrined at the top of a five story pagoda. There were a lot of people. Many were praying but it was also the most tourist-y place we'd been to.
This giant straw sandal is a charm against evil and touching it is like making a wish to be a "goodwalker." I don't think in athletic terms but in terms of walking around and being good.

I totally thought this dragon was wearing glasses until I looked more carefully and realized they're his whiskers.
This statue is outside of a restaurant that lets you grill your own beef. In the background you can see the fire and raw, presumably, beef. What I find troubling is the inclusion of the dog.

Next we went to another giant park, Ueno Koen. There were tons of shrines, a lake that was so covered in water lilies that from a distance you couldn't actually tell it was a lake. It is the background for the self portrait above the face of Budda. The first Budda statue was about 10 feet tall and was destroyed in the 1600s in an earthquake. The replacement Budda was made afterwards. The face fell off the statue during an earthquake in 1923. The rest of the statue was seized by the government to be used to make weapons during WWII.

This is an "unboxing" video we made for a traditional Tokyo treat. Unboxing videos are popular on youtube, people film themselves opening up their latest gadgets. One of my professors at MSU has started making unboxing videos of food he buys and that's what inspired us.

On Monday night, after all the excitement, I got cleaned up, and Craig and I headed back to the bus stop. This time, thanks to good instructions provided by the really, really helpful information desk at the hotel, it only took us 20min. I boarded the bus at about 10pm and headed back to Kobe. Craig spent the night and then headed out on his own adventure. I didn't join him because I wanted to get back to my Japanese class. He hiked Mt Fuji with a couple of guys we've met at church. We will do it together next summer. The mountain is only open in July and August. He has promised to post on his adventure, so stay tuned.