Friday, February 29, 2008

Ramen for lunch

For months I’ve been curious about the little shacks across the street from our school. I know they sell ramen noodles and stuff like that, and especially in good weather it’s always crowded there and all the outside seats are filled with people eating lunch. But somehow I’ve never felt comfortable trying out some ramen from those shacks.

But for some reason today Kristin and I felt brave enough to try some. We walked passed all the little wooden houses, and they all looked deserted (our lunch break started at 16:00) and kind of scary. We were already thinking about picking up some bentobox (lunch) at the konbini instead, because basically the sight of these establishments made us want to get out of there.

Yet, we went inside because we’ve been wondering about the ramen across the street for so long… It was now or never. So we chose now. The lady behind the counter was kind of interesting and she noticed (obviously as we’re pretty loud) that we spoke English but still ended up asking me specifically whether I spoke Japanese (Nihongo) or not. I wonder if she spotted the half-Asian in me… At home most people think I’m Chinese or something (they only see my Asian features) but here it’s the opposite (they only see my Caucasian features), some people don’t even believe me when I tell them I’m not all white.

We both ordered some BBQ pork ramen, and it wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great either. It tasted kind of bland, but then again that’s how ramen usually tastes to me anyway. So I think it’s safe to say that our little adventure across the street was a one-time-thing, and lunch will continued to be eaten elsewhere.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The MSN messenger architect

Every Thursday night I go online to speak to my sweet mother. She has her weekly day off on that day, so we can always talk to each other for a very long time about anything and everything we can think of. Occasionally other members of the family join in the conversation after they start coming home from work and school, but mostly it's just me and my mom.
We've tried using the very popular Skype, but somehow it always has a problem in combination with my computer, so now we just use MSN messenger, without webcams because that creates problems too. So these days we just use the phone option of MSN messenger and that works well.
And today my mother discovered another useful function on messenger. She was trying to explain which wall in their new house (they’re moving in 2009) she wanted to decorate with wallpaper, and I had no idea what she was talking about. Normally, she would have grabbed some paper and drawn me a little sketch of the floor plan, but the whole being on opposite sides of the world makes all of this a bit more difficult. But then my brilliant mother decided to use the drawing function in messenger, and with a little bit of effort she created these wonderful (albeit out of proportion) floor plans on the left. And her pictures, accompanied with her explanations and color coding, made total sense!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Funny Japanese

Monday, I went shopping with Yasu and Hiromasa in Amagasaki. The guys bought clothes and more and I assisted Yasu with his selections. As you probably know people in Japan like to take their shoes off before entering the home and many other places, and the weirdest place I recently had to do it was at the creepy doctor’s office. And Yasu had to do it before entering the dressing room at the clothes store Uniqlo, because the inside of the tiny enclosure is lined with carpet. Actually it’s not such a silly thing because you usually take your shoes off in a dressing room anyway, and the clean carpet makes throwing (discarded and selected) clothes on the floor after fitting them appropriate, as there is never enough room on the hooks anyway. Yasu certainly liked this option.

Later in the day Yasu and I headed to Osaka and we ended up in Yodobashi Umeda, a huge electronics store. They sell a lot of amazing machines and gadgets in this store, and they have everything in about a hundred different versions and colors from cheap to expensive. I’m actually shopping around for a printer-scanner, but they are pretty huge here much bigger than at home, and too huge for a shoebox sized apartment. But I did find some very interesting looking memory sticks:

They’re cute and they’d probably make a good souvenir, but they don’t look particularly practical as they’re big and lumpy. I even have problems fitting my super slim memory stick in the computer at work due to some annoying ridges, imagine trying to stuff in a huge piece of fried shrimp, an octopus ball or some tuna sushi.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Tsukamoto

Tsukamoto, my new hometown is really near Amagasaki (only 3 minutes away by JR). And yesterday on our way to Osaka we quickly hopped off the train to give me a chance to check out the vibe at Tsukamoto station.

Check out the sign, it’s right between Amagasaki and Osaka! Tsukamoto station looks a lot busier than the one in Inuyama, with a lot of restaurants (including hole-in-the-walls), shops, hotels, a nice karaoke place, and of course the ubiquitous konbinis and pachinko parlors.

But the best discovery was the Cospa Comfortable Sports Space. The night before training by on my way to Amagasaki I’d already spotted a long line of brightly lit treadmills in a building near the tracks. Some research online taught me that it’s a huge gym with a lot of facilities including elliptical trainers and steps classes. Unfortunately, the steps classes they offer are only level 1 (I used to do level 3), but for now that might be a nice way to start after a way too long break from steps and the fact that all classes are conducted in Japanese (which I still not speak nor understand). The next opportunity I get I’m going to check out that gym, which will hopefully be in biking distance from my new apartment.

I’m so excited about moving from the country to the (almost) big city. Inuyama has basically nothing to offer, especially in the fitness club area, but in Osaka Umeda (3 minutes from Tsukamoto) gyms seems to be omnipresent. We visited 3 different ones on Monday. A Gold’s Gym which is such a muscle factory that it made me want to run away. A Konami Sports Club which was nice but so extremely expensive (apparently it was some executive version) that it made my wallet want to cry. And a Tipness Fitness Club which was very impressive. It was definitely my favorite, but all the people (and there were a lot) working out there generated a temperature fit for a sauna, and apparently Japanese gyms don’t do airconditioning… I’m used to working out and doing intensive group lessons in heavily airconditioned buildings, that actually made me shiver before starting the bodily movements. Also, I’m used to pools in which you can actually cool down after a workout, not pools heated up to 30°C like they are in Japanese gyms. And I don’t particularly feel like doing a number of laps in a huge hot tub. The one time I stepped into a Japanese pool, I was shocked by the temperature and it felt kind of disgusting actually, so I got out after less than 2 laps. I realize that Cospa will probably also be sporting a temperature that makes me transpire before even looking at a treadmill, but you never know.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Kurasushi-go-round

I don’t really like sushi, I think it’s the vinegar they put in the rice because I really love sashimi and I really love Japanese rice so the only thing left that could make the difference in the vinegar. Yet, I still agreed to have lunch at a sushi-go-round named Kurasushi, it’s a kaitenzushi you know a place where the sushi revolves through the restaurant on a conveyor belt to be picked off by hungry customers.

At the beginning of lunch

Octopus and salmon sushi

Yasu, Hiromasa and I had spent the morning shopping on a light fruit breakfast so when we arrived at Kurasushi we were all very hungry. It’s a nice place and I was happy to discover that they also had delicious udon on the menu, which was great but it hadn’t been necessary because I was very pleasantly surprised by the taste of the sushi, I actually loved the sushi (or maybe I was too hungry to be picky).

Touch to get more food

At the end of lunch with 24 empty plates on the table

And this was a really high-tech sushi-go-round too, they had touch screen monitors where you could order sushi, in case you’re too impatient for it to roll on by itself or if it’s too popular and some of the other patrons have already snatched it off the belt before you get a chance. And instead of using a plate counting waitress to figure out the amount you have to pay for you meal they have a counting letterbox in which you dump your plates. And if you’re lucky his friend the gift machine on top will spit out a decorated ball with a cute cell phone strap inside. We got lucky:

The food was really great, and we ate a lot! In total the machine counted 24 plates, and most of them had had two pieces of nigirizushi (the non-roll kind of sushi) on them when we took them of the belt. And we also each had some noodles to go with our sushi so we were pretty stuffed after lunch. I can’t wait to go back to Kurasushi!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Shabu shabu at Mayumi & Minoru's new place

Today, I finally took a Shinkansen to Osaka again, it was the first time this year. Yasu’s uncle Minoru and aunt Mayumi had a new house built last year and they moved in just before Christmas. This was my first opportunity to visit them in their new place, so that’s were we headed as soon as Yasu picked me up at Amagasaki station.

Mayumi, Yasu, Minoru & Hiromasa (Yasu's brother)

Their new house is really big for Japanese standards, and very luxurious. It’s three stories and looks quite modern. I really liked it! They have their own elevator, a big movie theater screen, electric cat doors, huge flat screen TV’s everywhere, indoor garage, a rock garden, a Spanish-looking patio with a beautiful view of the stars, double paned windows (which is very rare in Japan) and my favorite is their huge kitchen with a super fridge and a super sink.

Mayumi cooked dinner for us, or actually she prepared it and we cooked it ourselves as it was shabu shabu. Which is dish named after the sound it makes when you shortly swirl the raw beef through the broth in the nabe pot (although I never heard that sound and I did it several times). After that you dip the beef in a sauce of your choice and then you eat. I was very grateful that Mayumi prepared this dinner for us because I’d been wanting to try shabu shabu ever since I first heard about it from them in 2004. The shabu shabu was good and cooking it a lot of fun, but it's not as tasty as yakiniku.

More pictures

Thursday, February 21, 2008

They cleaned up the Nova mess

Last weekend, they finally started breaking down the Nova school, almost 4 months after the Inuyama branch was last open for classes.

The staff just left after they were declared bankrupt and never returned to clean up inside or outside, understandably. Advertising sandwich boards had been in front of the station for a while, until someone dumped them in front of the vacated building. The huge Nova billboards, still visible in the picture above, are now huge white squares on top of an empty building:

It looks a bit sad, but it's a bit exciting too, because this empty building has a lot of potential. I wonder what kind of business is going to be run from this building now. Let's hope for Starbucks' newest Japanese coffee store. And please be quick, because I'll be gone in three months.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Visiting a Japanese doctor

It’s no secret I’ve got a debilitating fear of dentists, but I’ve never really feared doctors. At least not until I noticed I was running out of birth control pills and realized that the only way to get more was to pay a visit to a Japanese doctor. At home I would just call the doctor’s assistant and she’d write me a new prescription which she could even fax to my local pharmacy, where I could get it filled at my convenience. But how does one go about it here, in Japan? Yasu had no idea, so my best bet was just visiting a doctor showing her the box of my pills and hope she could prescribe me some Japanese medicine remotely similar to my Dutch one. But who knows what else they do in Japan?
The doctor’s office apparently was part of some small clinic or hospital, but it didn’t look reassuring at all. Everything looked very old-fashioned, shabby and dingy. We even had to take off our shoes at the entrance and put on hospital slippers. This made me more uncomfortable, because it’s hard to make a quick getaway (which I worried I might need) in a pair of tiny and ugly plastic slippers. I was glad Yasu was with me because a pile of Japanese forms had to be filled out and of course I was totally clueless. Even though the people were very friendly, the place reminded me more of some slaughter house that used to scare me in Belgium, than of a doctor’s office in a modernized country. When I get to Osaka I’m going to get a city doctor that practices medicine in a fancy and modern building, one that doesn’t creep me out. And if he or she could speak some English that’d be nice too, but may be too much to ask for though.

The doctor's office from the outside (I was a bit scared to take pictures inside)

The doctor talked a lot but Yasu translated a little, mainly because the doctor kept confusing him with too much information. I was already worried about them wanting to run scary tests on me, so I felt like passing out when the doctor started making weird gestures and started patting the inside of her elbow and her lower abdomen area. And my worst fear was realized when Yasu translated something like blood test and an examination for worm (?) cancer. I didn’t want to see or feel any needles! And what kind of weird diseases do women get here, I definitely did not want to be checked for any kind of worm cancer. Later Yasu spelled worm for me and it turned out that they were talking about ‘womb’ cancer and he just didn’t know how to pronounce it. Pfew, well at least that was less weird than I thought. But of course there was no way in hell that I was going to let them perform some kind of invasive examination in that creepy doctor’s office. But I did convince myself to get a blood test, because medicine in general scares me and it might be a good idea to let them check the hormones in my blood and make sure the new birth control isn’t harmful. I wasn’t happy when they put that needle in me and I squeezed Yasu’s hand to pulp, I am such a big baby!

The only picture I secretly took inside with my cellphone is of the room where they took my blood... How happy would you be if they stick a bllod-sucking needle in your arm in this room?

Anyway, I ended up with one strip of expensive birth control pills to try out for one month, after my Dutch ones run out. After that I’m supposed to come back for my blood test results and to buy some more pills (of the same or a different kind), which they sell at the doctor’s office instead of at a pharmacy. Well, it was another new experience in Japan, but one I’d rather not undergo again though. But at least Yasu will be there with me to protect me, like today.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Bon Jovi karaoke marathon

So today it was finally the day of the long-awaited Bon Jovi karaoke marathon! Actually it hasn’t been that long since we decided to do a 9-hour karaoke stint, but when you’ve been looking forward to it as much as I have it feels like ages. Why 9 hours of karaoke? Because at Shidax they have something called ‘free time’ in which you can sing karaoke for just a ¥1000 per person for as long as you want, with a maximum of 9 hours because it starts at 11:00 and ends at 20:00. For an additional ¥700 per person you can get unlimited non-alcoholic drinks, but I don’t really need that as water is my favorite drink and that’s totally free.

Last time Kumiko and I were there we tried to sing all the 66 Bon Jovi songs in the Joysound karaoke machine completely, but we didn’t have enough time (just 5 hours) so we had to rush and ended up singing abbreviated versions of the last 15 sings or so. This time we’d have enough time to sing all the songs from A to Z. We were joined by two other Bon Jovi fans, Kyoko (who also went to Hard Rock with us last week) and Yuko, who were as ‘serious’ about it as Kumiko and I were! We had a blast! We finished all 66 Bon Jovi by 18:10 and we could have called it a night by then, but we didn’t want to at all! Instead we all took turns in choosing our favorites and singing them one more time.

Yuko and Kyoko getting ready in karaoke room 109

The Joysound machine has four live versions of Bon Jovi karaoke, which means that instead of some background video of some American or Japanese city, you actually see Bon Jovi performing the song on stage and you can sing along with them.

Jon singing Always during the 1995 Wembley concert on our karaoke screen

Of course these songs were the most fun to sing. I mean all songs are extremely enjoyable but when the band itself appears on the screen something different happens:


Aren't my fellow Karaokeans cute?

The next time we want to try the UGA karaoke machine which has 123 Bon Jovi songs. But seeing as we only sang 88 Bon Jovi songs this time in 9 hours we might have a problem fitting in all 123 songs in… But this time we took several restroom breaks and a pretty long dinner break somewhere in the middle, so maybe if we cut those breaks out and fast forward the guitar solos in the songs, we might be able to do it? Well, anyway that’ll be our next challenge!

Before our 9 hour Bon Jovi karaoke marathon, still with that fresh morning look

The list of Bon Jovi songs we sang:
1) All About Lovin’ You
2) All I Want Is Everything
3) Always (LIVE VERSION)
4) Bad Medicine
5) Bed Of Roses
6) Bells Of Freedom
7) Bitter Wine
8) Blaze Of Glory
9) Bon Jovi Medley (You Give Love A Bad Name/It’s My Life/Livin’ On A Prayer/Born To Be My Baby/Everyday/Always/I’ll Be There For You)
10) Born To Be My Baby
11) Bounce
12) Complicated
13) Damned
14) Diamond Ring
15) Dirty Little Secret
16) Everyday
17) Have A Nice Day (LIVE VERSION)
18) Hearts Breaking Even
19) Hey God
20) I Am
21) I’d Die For You
22) If That’s What It Takes
23) I’ll Be There For You
24) I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead
25) In And Out Of Love
26) In These Arms
27) (It’s Hard) Letting You Go
28) It’s My Life
29) I Want To Be Loved
30) Just Older
31) Keep The Faith
32) Last Cigarette
33) Last Man Standing
34) Lay Your Hands On Me
35) Lie To Me
36) Living In Sin
37) Livin’ On A Prayer (LIVE VERSION)
38) Lost Highway
39) Miracle
40) My Guitar Lies Bleeding In My Arms
41) Never Say Goodbye
42) Next 100 Years
43) Novocaine
44) One Wild Night
45) Real Life
46) Runaway
47) She Don’t Know Me
48) Someday I’ll Be Saturday Night
49) Something For The Pain
50) Something To Believe In
51) Story Of My Life
52) Thank You For Loving Me
53) These Days
54) These Open Arms
55) This Ain’t A Love Song
56) Tokyo Road
57) Unbreakable
58) Undivided
59) Wanted Dead Or Alive
60) We’ve Got It Goin’ On
61) Welcome To Wherever You Are
62) Who Says You Can’t Go Home
63) Wildflower
64) Wild In The Streets
65) You Give Love A Bad Name (LIVE VERSION)
66) You Want To Make A Memory
67) Born To Be My Baby
68) These Days
69) You Give Love A Bad Name (LIVE VERSION)
70) You Want To Make A Memory
71) Have A Nice Day (LIVE VERSION)
72) Always (LIVE VERSION)
73) I’ll Be There For You
74) Livin’ On A Prayer
75) I Am
76) Undivided
77) Living In Sin
78) If That’s What It Takes
79) It’s My Life
80) Complicated
81) Keep The Faith
82) I’d Die For You
83) In These Arms
84) Bells Of Freedom
85) Bed Of Roses
86) Hearts Breaking Even
87) One Wild Night
88) All About Lovin’ You

After our marathon, not tired at all, but very excited and ready for more!

More pictures

Saturday, February 16, 2008

New Year's Party

Today after work we were hosting our New Year’s party. It’s a bit late, we know, but the manager hadn’t planned on having one at all, until one student kept nagging her about it! It worked, so Shinenkai ended up halfway through February!

Tired after a hard day at work, getting ready for the party

A lot of students, especially guys, showed up to the party at the Italian place (Al Centro) next door. We were served a lot of Japanese-Italian food and drinks, and it was a lot of fun to catch up with so many students. I hadn’t drunk alcohol since the fake champagne at actual New Year’s at home, so 3 glasses of (actually pretty tasty) white wine was enough to get me drunk! The party was really great and I was genuinely sad when Mayuka told us all to leave after just two measly hours.

Tipsy Lou with Al Centro's owner/cook Takahiro

Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to show my students on my blog anymore. Apparently, somewhere a student sued Aeon because one of its teachers posted a picture of him or her on a blog. I don’t know the details and although I don’t believe our students are particularly litigious, I’d better play it safe. So, I’ll just be taking more pictures of our staff (because that is still ok) from now on to illustrate my AEON stories. It’s a shame because several of my students read my blog, and not in the least to see the pictures I took of them accompanied with a story about them. And of course my blog has always been a nice way to share my wonderful students with the people at home and in other parts of the world. So, I’ll be hiding my students from now on, either by hiding their pictures on Flickr (you’ll need to be a registered friend or family to be able to see them), or by covering their faces like this:

Kristin and her rather peculiar-looking students

At the end of the party Mayuka and Takahiro surprised Kristin with a huge chocolate-strawberry cake to celebrate her upcoming birthday! And she blew all 28 candles out (almost) at once. Obviously I took many pictures of the students at the party, but if you want to see them you’ll have to register as my friend on Flickr and hope you’ll pass my severe security screening ;).

Thursday, February 14, 2008

They're coming to Japan!

I’ve lived in Japan for more than 8 months, and I’ve already signed up another year in Osaka so I’ll be here for a while. In those 8 months I’ve already been back home twice and just after I hit my 1-year-in-Japan mark, I head on home again for a third visit. But during this year’s Obon I’m staying put in Japan, because this time my mother, brother and stepfather will be coming to Japan to visit me!!!

Of course as the family travel agent, I was the one doing the searching for good airline deals (it’s a pretty expensive venture when you’re traveling with 3 people). Once I found a good deal I had problems actually booking it due to credit card limits and a slow computer. That was just a tat frustrating (ToT). But tonight I finally managed to book 3 flights with Emirates Airlines, which also flew me to Japan last year. After being in the air for almost 17 hours (with a short break in Dubai) they’ll be arriving in Osaka on August 8th! Unfortunately, they wanted me to book a return flight too, so they’ll be leaving on August 18th just before midnight. But maybe they’ll change their minds once they get here…

My Valentine sent me flowers

The Japanese love giving gifts and we our teacher’s room is often laden with chocolates and other edible sweets from our students. Now that it’s Valentine even more chocolates have been pouring in and one student even dropped off a box with specialized and yummy puddings. This morning just before my first lesson, a flower delivery person walks in and I remember thinking “Oh wow, a student has sent us flowers for Valentine, how sweet.” Except the flowers weren’t from a student, they were from my very own Valentine and they were meant just for me! That discovery startled me a bit, but it was a very pleasant surprise. I tried to be cool about it in front of the rest of the staff, but that was simply impossible, I was smiling way too much and way too happily.

Taking pictures with my cellphone in my classroom

And now the flowers are looking pretty in my apartment

Isn’t my sweet boyfriend romantic, sending beautiful pink flowers to my work for Valentine? They smell great and the bouquet contains huge pink roses and pink and white tulips, I just love them (and him)! But honestly they could have been butt ugly and I still would have loved them, because my cute boyfriend send them to me! And all I did was send him a lousy (but pretty) Valentine’s card, which never even arrived! And I also bought him a present (not chocolate), but I’m not giving that to him until he gets here this weekend… Actually, I’d decided not to blog about Valentine, because it’s wasn’t supposed to be a big deal. But when your boyfriend sends flowers to your work, you kind of can’t not blog about it!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Happy birthday Myra!

Today my stepsister Myra turns 13 years old. That’s right her birthday is on Valentine’s Day, so she’ll never be without attention, presents, postcards or kisses on this universal day of love, even when she has no boyfriend. So she picked a nice day to be born.

I sent her a little present, a Hello Kitty pen, which obviously is very Japanese. I hope she’s still young enough to enjoy the cuteness of Kitty accessories, so she can actually use her new pen instead of hide it under her bed or something. Anyway, I hope she has a great day and I wish her an awesome birthday all the way from Japan!

Congratulations Moem!!!

My mom has been working at a car glass company for quite a long time now, she used to be in a call center taking calls from customers. A while ago she changed positions within the company, and she got to deal with business clients and insurance companies instead of individual customers. Unfortunately, her new job and working environment didn't really suit her and she became very unhappy, work wise. And so the quest for a new job began. She has always wanted some kind of administrative job, she even went back to school in 2006 to get a special certificate to qualify her for such a job. But that kind of job apparently is very popular, so it hasn’t been easy for her. Even though any company would be really lucky to have her working for them...

But today she emailed me to tell me she’s got hired for a new job! She’ll be the sole administrative associate for a small orthopedics company which is just a 5-minute commute (by bicycle) away from our house! It’s just perfect and she’s been enthusiastic about this job opportunity ever since she found out about it. And the people there felt the same way about her, of course! She’ll be starting at her new job in April! I’m so happy for her and I'm really proud of my sweet mother!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Bon Jovi party at the Hard Rock

Yesterday, I went to the Hard Rock CafĂ© with Kumiko to meet up with some of her other Bon Jovi friends to have a so-called Bon Jovi party, which basically means lunch, drinks (just hot tea in my case, I’ve gotten boring recently) and a lot of talking about Bon Jovi. We took a train to Nagoya station where we met up with Akemi, Kyoko and Yumi, all Bon Jovi fans which Kumiko met in January (like me).

Akemi, Kyoko, Yumi, Kumiko & Lou

We took a cab to the Hard Rock on account of the large amount of bags Yumi was carrying. The prospect of the taxi ride was very exciting to me as it was my first time in a Japanese cab, but obviously it was quite similar to taxis in other parts of the world, except for the automatically opening doors and defect seatbelts in the back. It was good that the others knew where to find the Hard Rock because it is nearly impossible to discover at first sight, as the big entrance was somewhere upstairs at the back of some building.

Of course, the first thing I did when we were inside was check out the Bon Jovi display. Besides pictures, they had the custom-made jacket Jon wore at the 1989 Moscow Music Peace Festival and one of Richie’s guitars displayed on the wall:

It was a small Hard Rock, but the atmosphere was similar to its counterparts the world over. It was a nice place to have lunch for a change, especially when they played some Bon Jovi performances on the TV (at our request of course).

Once we sat down, people started handing out gifts (I had no idea this was going to be happening, so I brought nothing…) and Yumi even prepared some kind of lottery with prizes (more gifts). I decided she suffers from a Santa Clause syndrome, because she gave us way too many gifts, which were in all those bags that made us have to take a taxi earlier. We all ended up with a large bag filled with gifts by the end of the afternoon. We ended our 4-hour lunch with some purikura:

It was a lot of fun meeting these girls and trying to communicate with them, but luckily Kumiko was there to do some translating when needed. Next week we’ll be doing the 9 hour Bon Jovi karaoke marathon at Shidax in Komaki and Kyoko (and some other girl who I’ve yet to meet) is joining the madness too. Can’t wait!

More pictures

Sunday, February 10, 2008

White, wet and cold

That’s right it finally snowed! Actually I heard it snowed a little last week, but it happened when I was still asleep and by the time I got up it was all gone, so they could have been lying. Either way to me that doesn’t count. But what fell yesterday does count!

It started in the morning when I went to work, it was snowing very lightly but it was really annoying because it kept getting in my eyes and it stung, so I had to bike to work with my eyes nearly closed, which is very safe of course. When I glanced outside after my first class, I saw the snow was getting more serious. It had changed from small and irritating to big and beautiful flakes. People started using umbrellas to protect themselves, which really doesn’t mean anything in Japan, as people use umbrellas in any kind of weather here, even the kind without precipitation. When it was time for my break there was so much snow that it was irritating again. Normally I go home during my (slightly) longer Saturday break, today that seemed like an impossible challenge. It’s tough to walk on ‘dry’ snow with heels and slippery soles, and it’s kind of risky to bike through heaps of sleet but it just plain dangerous to bike or walk on snow that has melted and frozen again, otherwise known as ice. All the pedestrian areas (which is where we also bike in Japan) had turned into shiny glaciers, so the normally easy and quick trip home seemed like an adventure I wasn’t prepared to go on, when they’re expecting me back at work dry and without injuries.

It started to rain somewhere in the late afternoon, but when it was time to go home there was still more than enough snow, sleet and ice to seriously slow me down and have me riding my rickety bike on the (relatively snow free) main road instead of the sidewalk. Which resulted in me playing ‘chicken’ with a couple of automobile drivers, but I guess I must be pretty damn scary because they all got out of my way!

Friday, February 08, 2008

Happy birthday Gy!

Happy birthday to the sweetest brother in the world, my ‘little’ brother Gyano. He’s turning 17 today, that’s right he’s 10 years younger than me! I bought him some nice Japanese gifts, a Tonkatsu shirt from Harajuku and his favorite manga book in English and sent them home. I wish I could be there to celebrate his birthday with him but I’m sure my mother will do a great job handing him my gifts.

Sad piggies staring at Tonkatsu (Japanese pork dish)

One of the worst things of moving to Japan has been not being able to see my baby brother grow up from a teenager to a (soon-to-be) young man. I used to see him everyday and we shared a lot, even a bedroom, but now I only get to see him when I fly back home. And so much changes in his life every year, so every time I come back things are different, and I feel like I’m missing out. But I’ll see him again in May when I fly back home for yet another visit! And he and my parents will be visiting me in Japan in August for the Obon holiday!

KLM is taking me home again!

My job here ends on May 24th, my new job in Osaka starts on June 7th… hence, I have two weeks of time to kill in between! What’s my favorite pastime when I have a more time off than a weekend? That’s right traveling home! So on Monday the 26th of May I’ll be boarding a KLM plane that flies me straight from Osaka to Amsterdam and KLM will fly me back to Osaka on June the 5th.

I can’t wait to fly KLM again, we flew KLM on our way to the Netherlands last December and it was the best airline I’ve ever used. And the crew speaks Dutch, of course, as it is the Dutch airline! On our way back we flew AirFrance and it thoroughly sucked, especially compared to the excellent service and entertainment KLM provided. But this time, I’ve got 2 direct flights and they’re both on KLM! Yay!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Just another Monday in Japan

Today Yasu and I spent the day in Nagoya. I’m pretty familiar with the city by now, but of course there are still many places in that city that I have yet to discover. And as I’m moving away from this area in about 3 months, I’ve decided to do a fair amount of extra sightseeing. And poor Yasu will continue to get dragged along on my quest to see as many sights of Nagoya as I can.

So this time we headed for Osu Kannon temple, which is a huge Buddhist temple located in a busy shopping area in Nagoya. Having just done all the typical temple stuff the day before at Narita-san in Inuyama, this particular temple visit wasn’t very stimulating. We looked around a bit, sniffed up some revolting incense smoke, took some pictures and then we felt it was time to move on.

On our way to Osu Kannon we went underground, on our way back we decided to go above ground, so we went on a nice walk from Osu to Sakae (downtown Nagoya). Which was very interesting because we saw a lot of streets, buildings, restaurants, alleys and shops we’d never seen before. What surprised Yasu the most was a ramen-selling-vending machine. I wasn’t the least bit surprised to find a machine selling hot Asian noodles in broth here, I was already aware of the fact that Japan is extremely vending-machine-happy.

During our city walk we decided to go for some karaoke and a late-night movie. After some searching on the cell phone internet and a little bit of calling we found a Shidax in Sakae. Shidax has great karaoke rooms and they’re very cheap, and soon we were singing our already hoarse voices (courtesy of a fierce cold) even more hoarse. Near the end we ordered dinner, (they have karaoke-room-service), which was very good and not expensive, but the karaoke was way too distracting! It was a trade-off, do I want to feed my hunger or do I want to sing another song?

Imagine this, you want to enter the fancy Midland Square building (which is where the cinema’s located) but at the entrance there’s a sign that says you cannot take any foods or drinks inside the building, and you happen to be holding a Starbucks coffee. I didn’t want to break the rules in strict Japan, and I didn’t want to be kicked out by a rent-a-cop on my way to the movie theater. So I quickly downed the last of my Caramel Macchiato, but there was no trashcan around anywhere… So what is one supposed to do? This is what I did:

Don’t worry, I was adequately punished for my involuntary littering during the movie Sweeney Todd. That movie scared the crap out of me, and Yasu! I don’t want to give the story away so suffice it to say that after the first half of the movie my eyes were literally closed or covered by my arms about 50% of the time. And I saw Yasu protecting his eyes from the horrific visuals on more than one occasion too! Unfortunately, it was impossible to tune out the sound (except when I screamed myself), which was sickening enough for me. I will never watch that movie again!

Bean throwing festival

At home we like to light lots of fireworks at the start of the new year to chase away the demons and evil for the year to come. Well, that’s where the tradition comes from, actually we do it because it’s colorful, noisy and fun. Well, in Japan they have a similar ritual on February 3rd, the day before the Lunar New Year: Setsubun. The Japanese like to throw soybeans out of their doors or even at each other, especially people wearing Oni (demon) masks. The mamemaki (bean scattering) is to drive away evil spirits from your house, and eating your age in soybeans is the way to get luck in instead. I didn’t really want to throw soy beans out of my apartment front door, basically because I didn’t really feel like cleaning up heaps of beans scattered about. Instead of doing the throwing, I decided to get thrown at. So Aiko (one of the Japanese teachers at our school) and I went to the Narita shrine here in Inuyama, where priests and celebrities throw bags of roasted soy beans and presents at the public. And if you’re lucky you’ll find a lucky ticket in your bag of beans which you can exchange for some price.

The bean throwing occurred 3 times with 2-hour intervals, and we actually took part in the Setsubun Matsuri (Bean throwing festival) twice, simply because we were still hanging out at the shrine when they started throwing again. The first time I didn’t catch anything, but I did grab one bag of the floor, which wasn’t easy if you don’t want people to jump on your hands. I was too busy trying to keep my balance in the middle of hundreds of pushing, jumping and shoving people, which really took me by surprise. I’m not used to wild and crazy Japanese people.

The second time I was prepared for this temporary madness so I could focus more on catching some beans. The ‘easy’ way is to just grab bags of the floor, but it was raining so the floor was wet and disgusting, besides the floor was crawling with people already and I wasn’t desperate. So I chose to stand up and try and literally catch some, and I was pretty good at it! I caught a present (a shrine towel), which I held in my left hand while I caught 5 bags of beans with just my right hand, and most importantly it was fun! I didn’t get a lucky ticket, but Aiko did, she won a can of iced coffee.

In between all the bean throwing fun, we hiked up the many stairs to do some shrine stuff. Like cleanse your hands with water, which I did wrong (of course). I emptied the big spoon of water right back into the pool with clean water instead of the special huge drain in front of my feet.

We also tried to increase our luck and health. First we threw a 5 yen coin (which apparently is a lucky coin) in a huge funnel, which probably ended at some priest’s huge piggy bank. Next, we inhaled as much incense smoke (smelled pretty good actually)as we could because it’s supposed to bring health and intelligence. Aiko said I looked very eager to get smarter.

If you pay a hundred yen you can take a small paper out of a big box filled with small papers and it will have your fortune for the coming year on it. Of course it’s all in Japanese, but it did have one English pharse: ‘Not-so-good fortune’. To me that sounds pretty dooming, but Aiko assured me that it was actually a pretty good one and that I need to wait a lot for people this year (?)… Oh and pray more at the shrine.

I was going to bring the paper home for Yasu to translate more thoroughly for me, but you’re supposed to tie your tiny paper to some rope outside. So I did. Maybe it’ll help turn my not-so-good fortune into a damn-good one?

And we had some nice udon noodles at the shrine. Aiko’s were soaked in curry (which I’m not a big fan of) and mine were covered in fish shavings which move in such a way that it looks like worms are crawling about in your bowl. I believe this lunch gave me the strength that I needed to improve my bean-catching skills ;).

I haven’t eaten my age in soybeans yet, but Yasu is coming to Inuyama tonight so I’ll share my beans with him and we’ll both eat our age in soybeans. The beans smell good, and I hope they taste good too, because 27 is a lot of beans.