Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Happy birthday Moem!

Happy birthday to my sweet and beautiful mother! It’s her 45th birthday today. In real time it’s still yesterday in the Netherlands, but if she were in Japan she could already start celebrating her birthday. I’m sad I can’t celebrate it with her and toast to her birthday with nice bottle of sangria (like in the picture) but I’ll see her in less than a month so I’ll make it up to her then!

She actually came online a minute ago and my presents have arrived in Veldhoven, so she’s going to open them with me while we’re chatting on MSN. So we’re kind of celebrating it together anyway! Hope she likes my presents!

Christmas at school

Christmas has come to our little school in Inuyama, look at this odd, out-of-place and very-much-in-the-way Christmas tree:

But you can't help but appreciate Moe's efforts to bring some Christmas spirit into our lobby. In my opinion we should just decorate the whole school with colorful glass tree ornaments and strings of Christmas lights, then teach in candlelight while the students can admire their reflections in the shiny ball ornaments and the listening exercises can be replaced with sing-along Christmas carols. Am I getting a bit carried away here?


Sashimi is raw fish that you dip in soy sauce with wasabi before you eat it. That's right, it's very similar to sushi, I usually think of sashimi as sushi without the vinegared rice and mayonnaise (yeah for some reason the Japanese love mayonnaise on their sushi). The vinegared rice and mayonnaise are the reasons I don't like sushi, but I do love sashimi, especially salmon sashimi ;).

Then you see this picture and wonder what kind of fish is this? Well, it's not fish, it's raw horse meat... Very expensive and the quantity served is the bare minimum. It was interesting to try and less scary than the chicken (raw!) sashimi I have eaten by mistake before, but it wasn't very good. I think the chicken sashimi even tasted better, not that I will ever try raw chicken again, it just doesn't seem right or healthy. So sashimi actually isn't always fish, but I do suggest you stick to the fish version of sashimi because that is delicous, except for the boogers that call themselves shrimp sashimi.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Nagoya with Yasu

I did my Christmas shopping last week, but Yasu (who’s coming home with me for the holidays) still had to do his and he needed my help. So this weekend we spent two days in the streets of Nagoya, dragging our tired bodies from store to store… but of course we had enough fun along the way.
I’ve always thought Yasu knows too many people and he will almost always run into somebody he knows, even when he’s not on his own territory, which he’s not in Nagoya. But we haven’t even left Nagoya station yet and he bumps into an old friend who currently lives and studies in the States, but happened to be in Japan for just 3 days to attend a wedding. What are the odds?

After catching up with his old friend Yusuke and buying a truckload of expensive Shinkansen tickets for my numerous upcoming trips to Osaka and Tokyo, we were hungry. I have wanted to try Japanese udon (thick noodles) for a while so we searched for a hole in the wall shop, and found a pretty nice place (slightly larger than a hole) in Meieki. I had a bowl of tasty udon with beef and Yasu had some donburi (stuff on rice in a bowl). Apparently, the old lady that did the cooking at the udon place was so charmed by Yasu, that she gave him a free bowl of udon. Even though Yasu was already stuffed he ended up slurping away his udon too, after all it’s not polite to not eat your free food, right? That’ll teach him not to flirt with old ladies :P!

We saw too many shops during our shopping spree this weekend, but I always enjoy looking at the interesting food displays in the basements of fancy department stores (where all food merchants are gathered) the most. Real Japanese food is entertaining to look at but fake plastic Japanese food can keep me occupied for quite a while too. Sometimes the plastic food even looks better than the real thing. They have plastic food displays in the windows of most restaurants showing of their menus, which is great for us people who get a headache looking at Japanese menu cards. I can’t even count the times I’ve dragged a waitress out of a restaurant to point at the plastic version of the food I desire to eat. Now that the New Year’s holidays are coming up people can start ordering their osechi (traditional food for the occasion), and they can take their pick from hundreds of colorful boxes with beautiful plastic food like these:

Belgian waffles are popular in Japan too, and who can think of a better way to promote their food than using the famous little statue boy from Belgium who has been pissing away in an alley in Brussels for years? What a fantastic association! That’s probably why these waffles taste a bit funny. But it’s always great to see something European now and then, even if it’s Belgian.

Walking past Nagoya station we noticed herds of people waiting (camera in hand) for something in front of Nagoya station. Curious as we are, we move up the stairs to find out what’s going on. Right at that moment the whole station lights up with beautiful Christmas lights everywhere, hiding in trees, in flowers, in bears and on part of the skyscraping twin towers of the station. People don’t really celebrate Christmas in Japan (I mean it’s not even a day off!) but I’ve found more than enough Christmas lights all over Japan so far (even in Inuyama) to keep my Christmas spirit going until I get home to celebrate with my family.

Nagoya is famous for its tebasaki (chicken wings) and especially an izakaya named Yamachan is good at preparing those delicious treats. You can find Yamachan all over Nagoya and they are always packed and make you wait outside for about 30 minutes before they seat you. But you’ll find that the tebasaki is worth it, and so it was this weekend.

Then today walking on one of the more expensive shopping streets in Sakae (downtown Nagoya) again we noticed herds of people waiting for something. Hundreds of excited faces (mainly female) nicely kept in line by crowd control barriers and leading them around the corner into a less busy street. Still as curious as George we moved closer again and found out that there was a radio station hiding behind the high barriers curtained with black cloth, and that they were interviewing L’Arc-En-Ciel, a very popular Japanese rock band who’s been at it for 16 years. We kept hearing happy screams and excited chatters from behind the curtains, so I imagined that the groups of girls (from the enormous queue) being ushered into the area behind the curtains, all got to meet their idols there and for signatures and pictures. But when we were looking down on the scene from the second floor in the neighboring department store we saw this:

Once the fans finally got into that special area behind the curtains they were allowed to look at their idols through the window for a couple of minutes, while screaming, jumping up and down and frantically waving at the band for as long as they could muster. I wonder if the band kind of felt like the koalas we saw in Awaji?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Calling home

Even though I live in Japan, that doesn't mean I don't keep in frequent contact with the homebase, of course I do. These days, we're very lucky that we have Internet at our disposal and we thankfully use that to keep in touch. My sweet mother has a day off on Thursdays so we use that day to talk to elaborately talk to eachother on the calling function of MSN (Skype doesn't seem to work for us). Unfortunately, she was a bit busy yesterday so my brother and stepfather took over the reins and entertained me instead. And this is what they look like when they're doing that:

The laptop is on the kitchen table and Gyano is wearing the headset, but Guido is 'communicating' into the microphone part of the headset. Or in other words, he's nearly making me jump of my chair in Japan by yelling boo into the mic! Some things never change, not even when you move to the other side of the world :).

Shopping in Nagoya

Sure, I’m in Japan but somehow a lot of Dutch things still cross my path here all the time. For example, this display of KLM merchandise which I stumbled upon during my Christmas shopping last Monday. In the luggage department of the ‘Loft’, a cool Japanese department store mostly famous for its stationary, without any warning I found all this KLM stuff. It wasn’t like there was a display of merchandise for every country’s official airline, I couldn’t even find any kind of merchandise of the Japanese airlines. KLM doesn’t even fly to Nagoya Airport either, I have to go all the way to Osaka to catch a KLM flight home in December. They also had some mannequins wearing the KLM gear in the middle of all the expensive suitcases, but I forgot to take a picture of them.

Then there is of course ‘Nijntje’ or internationally known as ‘Miffy’. Dick Bruna’s rabbit is famous and popular all over the world, even in Japan. And I see Nijntje and her friends pop up everywhere, even in my own classroom. Problem is most people don’t even know she’s Dutch at all. I think many just take it for granted that Nijntje is one of many cute Japanese animations, or if they’ve figured that Nijntje is not Japanese they usually think she’s American. But when I was in the browsing the books at Takashimaya department store in Nagoya, I found this Nijntje display with a very clear (albeit Japanese) explanation and map of where Nijntje is really from: the Kingdom of the Netherlands ;). Honestly, I never really cared much for Nijntje, but when you’re so far from home you tend to be fond of anything Dutch.

Besides that I’ve discovered stroopwafels, jodekoeken, speculaas, Gouda cheese, Dutch chocolate in foreign supermarkets in Nagoya (and even in Inuyama), but my happiest discovery was Pickwick tea, a Dutch brand which I haven’t even seen sold in Belgium. I love tea, especially when it’s cold outside, but only Pickwick tea, all the others, especially English brands are too strong for me. After the sudden appearance of winter in Japan and my acquiring a severe cold last week, my tea supplies have quickly started to disappear and needed to be restocked as soon as possible, and now I can! They don’t have any cactus or rooibos, but for now the forest fruits will do just fine.

Something very Japanese that I love is the huge supplies of stationary in the department stores here. I used to be so addicted to pens and papers, that I’d buy notebooks, pens, markers, pencils, post-its etc. in every available color and size and then put them safely in one of my desk drawers because they were too pretty to be used. So everything was still pretty and unused when I decided to move to Japan and needed to get rid of anything that I didn’t need anymore, so then all that pretty stationary went from too-precious-to-use to useless. Now, I still love browsing the thousands of pens in hundreds of colors in the Japanese department stores, but buying them doesn’t seem important anymore.

Japan from above

I was going to take the Shinkansen back to Nagoya from Kyoto station, but when we got there I noticed the 131 meter high observation tower across from the station and convinced Yasu to go up there with me.

Although I’m afraid of heights, I love seeing a big city spread out below me especially at night complete with all its beautiful and colorful lights. I can just spend hours looking into the distance and imagining whatever may be going on in the exact spot I’m looking at.

But of course we had to head down some time and at the bottom of the tower there were some funny mirrors to provide us tourists with some more entertainment. It worked :).

After all that excitement we took a quick picture with this lovely Kyoto Tower mascotte, who was very shocked by the flash.

Kyoto station, across the street, is very entertaining on its own too. This 15-story place is laden with long escalators, leading you higher and higher into the outside air. You wouldn’t think much of the station when you’re outside of it, but once you start riding the never-ending number of escalators your opinion quickly changes. I know this picture doesn’t really capture the magic of the station, but be sure to pay it a visit when you’re in Kyoto.

Apparently it’s Japan’s second largest train station building, with Nagoya’s train station building being number 1. That quite surprised me actually, I thought Tokyo would have to house Japan’s largest train station. Anyway a week later we found ourselves observing the largest train station building in Japan and the world (!) from the 'Sky Promenade' on top of the new 247 meter Midland Square building in Nagoya. We went there on a whim so we didn't have a camera with us, except our cellphones of course and this is the best picture I could take of the train station's twin towers.

Walking the Sky Promenade is quite an experience! It starts with the elevator ride up... the elevators are on the outside of the building and they're made of glass! Didn't realize it until it was too late! Extremely scary but extremely beautiful too! The promenade itself is partially open to the elements so that you can enjoy the sounds, smells and sensations of being that high in Nagoya. Also the glass walls reach until under the walkway, which gives you that 'wonderful' feeling of walking on nothing at about 240 meters up in the air... great! Yes, I was scared but also awed by the beautiful view of Nagoya by night.

Kinkakuji temple

More than a month ago Yasu and I went to Kyoto. this was back in the day when my hair was still orange (as opposed to the black I’m sporting now) and it was still too hot to be comfortable outside. When we were there we visited one of Kyoto’s most famous sightseeing spots: Kinkakuji temple.

The name translates into golden building temple, which makes sense when you see the temple. The top two stories are covered with pure gold leaf. There is also a Ginkakuji (silver building temple) temple in Kyoto, which was inspired by this golden temple and supposed to be covered in silver but they never got around to it.

On top of the temple is a Chinese phoenix. That’s about all the information I have to share about this golden house. I mean of course it was a pretty sight and it was worth taking some pictures, but I’ve never really been interested in history. And most things you can do in Japan are admiring sights and buildings from Japanese history. I have seen quite a few already, they’re all starting to blend together.

Other things Japanese people like to do in their sparse free time: enjoy nature … Not really my thing either. Especially not since that activity is always paired with meeting many of Japanese most scary inhabitants: the terrifyingly huge (not exaggerating) bugs. This city girl really needs to get back to big city life… someday hopefully.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Naruto whirlpools

The island we could see from our hotel was Tokushima and the Onaruto bridge connects Awaji to that island. The Onaruto bridge crosses the Naruto strait, which is one of the connections between the Pacific Ocean and the Inland Sea (in between Honshu island and Shikoku island). In the picture of the Onaruto bridge taken from Tokushima, you can see a big white building (if you look closely) in between the Awaji mountains. That was our hotel.

The tide moves large amounts of water into the Inland Sea twice per day, and also removes large amounts of water twice a day. Due to the narrow strait, the water rushes through the Naruto channel at a high speed creating whirlpools. The current in the strait is the fastest in Japan and the third fastest in the world. See a quick video (not shot by me) of a Naruto whirlpool right here:

The whirlpools can be observed from ships, or from the Onaruto bridge spanning the strait, which is what we tried. There is some kind of observation walkway built under the suspension bridge, starting on the Tokushima side of the bridge and stretches until about halfway the bridge. So you’re walking under the hundreds of cars speeding across the bridge above you, and about 45 meters above the high-speed current of the Naruto strait. You wonder how we were supposed to enjoy the view of the whirlpools? Well they put observation windows in the floor everywhere… which to me seemed more like dangerous holes in the floor of a shaky bridge.

I have an extreme fear of heights and anything that doesn’t seem sturdy, so it was quite a challenge for Yasu to get me to walk across one of those holes in the floor. I know it doesn’t look like much in the picture, but in real life it is and looks really high, I mean we were 45 meters above sea level, a violent sea I might add. So Yasu was the first to try casually walking over one of those holes. He didn’t feel as casual as he tried to convince himself, but he did it pretty quickly, and soon actually felt comfortable sitting on air. Me on the other hand still chose to walk in big circles around those awful holes.

It took him a long time to convince me to step on one of the glasses covering the scary holes, but eventually I ventured on one with fear running through all of the veins of my body. Of course, I survived my little trip across the glass!

In the end I was still very nervous about standing, sitting, or walking on one of those observation windows, but it was also fascinating to see the sea from that view and I will try about anything for a good picture.

Unfortunately, we didn’t actually see any whirlpools because apparently they were pretty mild that day and too far away from the observation walkway. It was disappointing at first, but all the holes-in-the-floor-fun really made up for that!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Baruto no gakuen

Anybody seen the movie ‘Baruto no gakuen’ (a.k.a. Ode an die Freude, a.k.a. The Ode to Joy)? Well, I have… kind of. When I was flying home for Obon I flew with the German airline Lufthansa, they don’t have individual screens for all passengers so we were all kind of forced to watch the same movie. One of them was ‘Baruto no gakuen’.

A Japanese/German movie about a Japanese prison camp during World War I. I’m generally not interested in war movies, but tried to watch a small part, because basically, sitting on a plane for more than 12 hours tends to make you bored. But when I found out that the language spoken was either German or Japanese, I quickly stopped devoting my attention to it. But Yasu had seen the entire movie and he knew the location of the movie set, which happened to be very near Awaji in Tokushima, and only 130 meters from Yasu in this picture.

They’ve kept the movie set intact ever since filming the movie 2 years ago and temporarily opened it up to the public, as they are tearing the whole place down in a couple of months. They have pictures of the movie everywhere, so you can see the set in use, which was very interesting. I might have to spend some in the future actually watching the entire movie and recognizing all the buildings we’ve been in and around. And why not, it is supposed to be a feel good movie anyway.

Matsue, the guy that ran the Japanese prison camp in Tokushima, had been imprisoned himself and was intend on treating the German prisoners of war with dignity and respect. To make a long story short, these Germans prisoners had a good time in the camp and had a lot ways to spend their time enjoyably. The prisoners we’re running a bar, a bakery, a printer publishing newspapers, a public onsen with optional massages to make money and keep themselves occupied. But their favorite pastime was playing their instruments in their very own philharmonic orchestra. In the picture below you can see where the prisoners slept and kept their personal belongings, or in other words their bar less 'cells'. Compare this place to for example Alcatraz, which just gives you chill all through your body, and this place seemed more like a summer camp.

Afterwards we went to some German museum near the set, which wasn’t that interesting except for the letters of ex-prisoners of the Bando prison camp. Apparently, many look back on their time in this prison with happy memories and have actually been back to Japan to visit it with their families. It’s kind of a weird situation, so many people feeling homesick to their lives in a prison camp. Matsue ran a very special prison.

They had some peculiar prison guards in this prison too, just look at this friendly watermelon head person without legs. He doesn’t even have a gun to stop prisoners from escaping but he does have a huge cape…

But when they asked Yasu and me to be stand-in guards and keep an eye on the prisoners, we didn’t feel safe without a proper rifle to whip the prisoners back in line.

Even though this all happened during World War I, the Japanese already loved convenience back then. Vending machines in the middle of a Japanese prison camp, right where you’d expect it.

After our prison camp adventure we found a Deutsches Imbiss (German snack bar) near the German museum, with had not much German on offer though except for German bratwurst (sausage) on a bread roll. Unfortunately, their product didn’t even come close to resembling the real German Bratwurst mit Brötchen. The bread, the sausage and even the mustard tasted Japanese and it was a weird combination of tastes so most of it ended up in the trash…

Here's a trailer of the movie I found on Youtube:

Monday, November 12, 2007

Minami-Awaji Royal Hotel

Finally after a long day of driving an sightseeing we arrived at our hotel on the south (minami) of Awaji island. Yasu booked us two nights with meals in this fancy island resort. He got a cheaper deal through his father’s insurance, but only people insured there could take advantage of it, and neither Yasu or myself are insured with his father, so he booked the reservation under his brother and sister’s names. During check-in I made sure I was conveniently occupied in the restroom, so they wouldn’t discover the weird white woman who doesn’t speak a word of Japanese posing as a Japanese woman. We are such criminals...

Our room was absolutely awesome! It was more than three times the size of apartment, had carpet nice and soft carpet, beds with real mattresses, a comfortable bathroom, a desk with chair, two couches, a coffee table with two chairs, a fridge, a lot of closet space, a bedside table etc. All this furniture and still more than enough room to dance the tango (not that you’d ever find me doing that in any room). The only thing missing was a small kitchen, and mine is so tiny that it could have fit in any corner of that hotel room, twice. I only wish I had such a room to live in Inuyama!

We arrived when it was dark, so we were wondering what the view would be from our huge and clean balcony (as opposed to my small and very dirty one in Inuyama). We knew we’d be able to see the Naruto Strait and Shikoku island, but at night it was just a black pit with some lights here and there. Early next morning we woke to this breathtaking view:

For dinner we could chose Japanese, Chinese or French. Having had more than enough of Asian food since I moved here, I opted for French and Yasu joined me. Yasu was so delighted with the restaurant and the food that we went there again the second night. We were served a 6 or 7 course dinner with an unstoppable supply of delicious bread rolls. I was the happiest about the bread, because it was the first time I’d tasted bread in Japan that tasted European! I’m not a big fan of Japanese bread, so I was happy to finally have some tasty bread. Of course the rest of the meal was flavorsome too, and I even ate some of the sauces ans soup. I don’t like soup and sauces, especially anything with cream, and the cook served all my sauces separately so that I could try it out. Which had the tendency to make my plated food look rather comical, like this foie gras:

Because we returning the next evening, and they only had one set menu, they had to fashion a new menu for the second night. Because I’d been such a picky eater the night before (I also am, ask anybody that has been to dinner with me, I’m always whining about the sauces) the next morning the Maître d' enquired about my other dislikes so they could make sure I’d be happy with tonight’s menu. We already told him that any sauces didn’t need to be served on the side this time, because they were very stingy with the amount of sauce anyway so I could handle it and it would make the chef’s life a lot easier. Of course this was a great service from the restaurant, but it made me feel like a queen or something, it was too nice and too much, this rude Dutch girl couldn’t handle it very well.Naturally, the second dinner was very good too, and the delicious bread made another appearance, and they served all the food beautifully like the desert below.

Breakfast was served buffet style in a big hall and the food ranged from typical Japanese breakfast food to a Japanized version of western breakfast food, which was ok but not great. But they had plenty of cutup pineapple and oranges, so that and some baked fish as a side dish made for a tasty breakfast. All in all this was a very nice and fancy hotel, and it was a good stay. Good job booking it, Yasu!

England Hill

On the way to our hotel in the south of Awaji we made a pit stop at England Hill, a small attraction park based on the Lake District in England. Visitors to the park can try baking bread, making ice-cream, yoghurt, butter, sausages, pickles, pizza and pasta, but these two visitors couldn’t because we arrived only two hours before closing time. So we walked around a bit and enjoyed the scenery, like a field with thousands of flowers, the lake and some towers that made me feel like I stepped into a Harry Potter movie. Nature doesn’t really excite me very much, but the walk was pretty nice and the weather was sunny and warm, not hot Japanese style, so it was enjoyable.

We stopped for some (perhaps English but I doubt it) ice-cream, and there yet again we had to queue for at least 30 minutes! Impatient as lines make me I had to find something to do while one old Japanese lady tried to provide all the customers with ice-cream at her own slow pace. I haven’t really been studying Japanese since I got here, I intended to in the beginning but now I’m so busy so ‘mendokusai’ (I can’t be bothered). But living in Japan you hear and see the language everywhere and all the time, so you’re bound to pick up some stuff. So I spent the long wait trying to decipher the katakana characters on the menu. With Yasu’s help and bits and pieces from my own memory I managed to read (very slowly though) everything on the menu. But they don’t make it easy either, besides using their special Japanese code to write English words, they spell it phonetically and sometimes it just doesn’t make sense at all. For example, what on earth does ‘howaitouootaa’ mean? Well, if you say it quickly it sounds (just a little bit) like ‘white water’, which is a some kind of soda they sell all over Japan. So, it’s quite a challenge but it’s fun, it’s like a country with puzzles everywhere, and I happen to like puzzles.

They also had a lot of animals in this park, and the sheep in the petting zoo did seem quite English or Welsh, but most of the park felt more like an Australian zoo, complete with koalas, ostriches and kangaroos. The koalas were fascinating, they make frightening sounds (which we heard from a machine, because the live ones didn’t make any noises when we were there) and they love to sit dead still. Therefore it was very exciting when one of them started moving climbing into a different position on his branch so he could comfortably do his big business… After that he left the restroom and returned to his living room on the other side of the branch, and became motionless yet again.

Just before closing time we were hurrying to see the park’s rock garden, but were completely distracted by the kangaroos and their friends: the running ostriches, the loud duck-goose and the pelican who thought he was the king of the world. The lady that worked in that part of the zoo, tried to gather all the animals and put them in the right cages, but the animals had their own agenda. She managed to chase the ostriches into their homes first and that made the pelican feel like he won the running around in circles contest and prominently started flapping his wings on a wooden platform and yelling ‘I win, I win, I win’ (in Yasu’s voice).

After fascinatingly watching the lady trying to get all the kangaroos to enter the right doors, we gave up on the rock garden as it was after the park’s closing time. And who really needs to see a bunch of rocks when you can see kangaroos being all cute and hear an ugly duck-goose creature making the most loud and inimitable (believe me I tried) noises.