Saturday, May 31, 2008

The somewhat surprise BBQ reunion

Today was BBQ day, and my parents got all the important ingredients like bread, potato salad, sangria wine and the all-important (at least when hosting a BBQ): meat. My favorite (and with me almost everybody else's) on the BBQ is bacon marinated with Indonesian satay herbs grilled nice and crispy (but not too crispy for me), so my parents made sure we had plenty of that today.

What I supposed was going to be nice and quiet BBQ with the grandparents, turned out to be a surprise reunion with a small selection of people. As soon as Minke gave me my heart attack of the day by unexpectedly showing up in front of my face, I realized what my sneaky parents were up to.

Of course, it was great to see everybody and catch up, not just with the Dutch people, but also with Dutch food and European alcohol (mostly Spanish and German). It’s great to have all the things you’ve missed while residing on the other side of the planet all together in one evening in one place. Thanks Moem & Gui!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Quality time with my mother and brother

Today I spent the whole day with my dear mother and brother… in Belgium. My mom arranged a surprise for me in the morning, which happened to take place in nearby Belgium, and the plan was to hang out some more in that country afterwards. The surprise was a visit to our old beautician for a nice 1-hour facial treatment, to make us all prettier and relaxed (it includes a nice facial massage). I used to go to this beautician too, but after we moved away from the country I decided I’d be in charge of my own beauty. My mom still continues to go there once in a while, and it was fun to see the women that still work there and catch up a bit.

We lived in Belgium for nearly ten years, and we never liked it, consequently we were very happy to move back to the Netherlands in 2006. But of course in those 10 years we did encounter a few things in that country that we did like: huge cinemas complexes and Belgian fries. And the plan was to stay in Belgium to enjoy those things after the beautician visit, but the movie didn’t start until hours later… It was lunchtime and we were hungry, but after a morning’s exposure to Belgium, and knowing we were going to spend a couple of more hours there later we felt it would be a better idea to have lunch amongst the Dutchies just across the border. So we did. Lunch was wonderful, we ate some delicious food, did a good amount of people watching, and most importantly we caught up on a lot of things going on in our lives and some juicy gossip! Living in Japan makes it harder to do that, especially with Gy because we don’t speak frequently speak to each other online, but me and my mom do, so she keeps me up to date.

After lunch it was time to return to Belgium for a movie in Hasselt. We chose a comedy named ‘Over her dead body’, which I found totally hilarious, I laughed so hard at times I must have embarrassed Gy and my mom. Of course, we ordered the obligatory nachos with cheese sauce and peppers to enjoy during the movie, which were lovely, but after our big Dutch lunch I was starting to get full. And we were still planning to eat a bag of Belgian fries after we saw the movie. Of course we weren’t really hungry after the movie, but we figured this would be my last chance to eat Belgian fries, as I’ll be going back to Japan next week and going back to Belgium again before then is just not done. We tried to postpone the fried potato eating as much as we could and bought the fries at the last possible snackbar almost on the border with the Netherlands. When they ladled the salty fries into the bag, I was reminded of how huge the portions here in Belgium are. I mean the portions in my own country are big compared to Japan, but in Belgium the portions are American-style: absolutely too big to consume. It’s true the fries combined with the Belgian lemon mayonnaise were really tasty, but with lunch and nachos still swimming around in our bellies we couldn’t really enjoy our greasy dinner and ended up throwing most of it away.

We ate so much today that we probably won’t need to eat again this week. But we had a great day with just the three of us, we had a lot of fun and I laughed so hard I think my voice is going hoarse. I wish I could come home more often to spend some more of this kind of quality time with them. Thanks for a great day!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Sushi & kushi party

After several exhausting hours of shopping in Eindhoven, we headed home because there was a sushi & kushi party on the menu for tonight. As soon as I arrived in the Netherlands Gui asked me to cook Japanese with him this week. Unfortunately, it’s pretty hard to find Japanese ingredients here, and I didn’t know about his wild plans until I left Japan, so I didn’t bring anything from Japan either. But luckily, Gy and I did manage to find panko crumbs, instant tempura batter, nori sheets, wasabi, shoyu, rice vinegar and sushi rice in that store where we bought the mussels earlier this week. So instead of Gui and I cooking Japanese we just had a small do-it-yourself party.

We couldn’t find any raw fish except of course raw herring (a Dutch treat), but that tasted pretty weird in a sushi hand roll. But the cucumber and surimi (fake crab) rolls tasted just like in Japan. The kushi were all very good, we cut up some meat and fish to be dipped in the tempura batter and next in the panko crumbs before being fried in the fondue pan. I especially liked the frikandel kushi, which is a very popular Dutch sausage made out of cow utters among many other trash meat things. Souns good, doesn't it?

Shopping in orange Eindhoven

Japan is filled with tiny and skinny people, so it’s basically impossible for someone like me to find clothes that fit me in Japanese stores. So when I’m home in the land of not just tiny and skinny, but also regular and oversized people, I want to go shopping! So today my mom and I went to Eindhoven to buy a truckload of new clothes and accessories for me. When we were there we found that the ‘Oranje-gekte’ (Orange madness) has already begun even though the European Football Championship hasn’t.

You might wonder what the Oranje-gekte is all about… Well, our national color is orange, because it’s the last name of our royal family. So whenever we need to be patriotic we like to dress ourselves and everything else up in orange. The Dutch soccer team is always dressed in orange, is nicknamed Oranje, and apparently had some kind of practice game for the Championship in Eindhoven today. Hence, all the orange decorating the city and the people. Did they win? I have no idea, I’ve never really cared about soccer.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Cooking mussels

One of my favorite dishes is cooked mussels. I live in an empire that seems to be built on seafood, yet it somehow seems impossible to find mussels here. On the contrary, in the Netherlands they are very popular and very easy to find, when it’s mussel season… Unfortunately, it is not mussel season isn’t right now. But Gy told me that the restaurant he works at still serves mussels, and a quick trip to their supplier provided us with about 3 kilos of French mussels! So tonight I did the fairly easy job of cooking mussels for dinner.

When I cooked them for the first time as a teenager, the fact that they’re still alive when you cook them freaked me out so much that I ignored mussels for at least 10 years. But even if you don’t mind your hands going through a bowl full of live sea creatures, they still look disgusting. They have moisture oozing out of their shells and ugly and creepy parasites on their shells, which try to crawl out when you’re cooking them. Doesn’t it sound absolutely delicious? Still, somehow when I got older I got braver and now I absolutely love (eating) mussels!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Baking Dutch pancakes

After visiting my mom Gy and I were sent home to prepare dinner. Because I live abroad and hardly ever get to enjoy Dutch food anymore I got to choose what we were having for dinner. I wanted pancakes, Dutch pancakes! So we went to Albert Heijn, my favorite Dutch grocery store, to buy the ingredients, and Gy prepared the batter and add-on ingredients when we got home:

Gy cooked most of the pancakes, but I also got to cook some and more importantly eat some, and they were delicious! Actually, I’m pretty sure they shouldn’t be too hard to make from scratch in Japan with some flower, milk and eggs, but I guess they just taste better when you’re here in the Netherlands.

Visiting my mom at work

In April my mom started a new job at De Vroom, a local orthopedist. She’s the administrative assistant there and so far she’s really enjoying that job. So Gy and I went to visit her at her new job today. Actually, we did more than visit because Gy and I both have flat-feet and we needed some insoles to make us walk properly. The specialist took a look at our feet from a specially designed cellar, concluded Gy and I have identical feet with identical problems. He stamped our feet in some mushy pink stuff to create a mold for our new insoles, which are due for pick-up next week.
Besides getting some serious foot help, it was also very much fun to see my mom at work. And I even got to help her out, although I’m not sure if I was very efficient or even very helpful:
Even so, I know my mom had fun showing me around and I had fun seeing my mom hard at work and enjoying herself while doing it!

Blowing glue bubbles

When I told my mom about the little kids blowing bubbles of glue in Komaki, she said she wanted me to take some of that stuff home so that she could try blowing some glue bubbles herself. And being a good daughter I did. So last night we practiced blowing our own glue bubbles through tiny plastic tubes. It wasn’t easy, and the first few times we blew so hard the glue exploded rather than formed a nice balloon shape, but soon we got the hang of it:

It was fun to play with the balloons (every adult still has a little kid inside), but it didn’t seem like the healthiest way to enjoy oneself. Every time we tried to blow up some glue we inhaled some of the fumes, so we all ended up with headaches. We concluded it’s fun, but it can’t be very healthy for kids.


Yesterday, my plane landed in Amsterdam about an hour before scheduled. My crazy stepdad picked me up from the airport and we were home in Veldhoven a couple of hours later. My mom had cooked us one of my favorite dinners and bought me some beautifully pink welcome roses:

Before dinner I distributed the many gifts I brought from Japan to my parents and brother, and after we ate a lot of delicious food we played with Japanese glue by blowing them into plastic bubbles. I managed to stay up until 11 at night, and got up around 7:30 this morning. So far so good. For breakfast and lunch today, I consumed the 3 Dutch products I'd been missing the most in Japan: milk, cheese and dark brown bread:

I still have a lot to blog about the last days in Japan and I'm sure I'll have more than enough to blog about my short vacation to the Netherlands and my upcoming training in Osaka, but I have no idea when I'm going to find the time to do all of that yet. So please be patient with this slow and behind blogger...

Monday, May 26, 2008

One year in Japan!

One year ago today I arrived at Chubu Airport near Nagoya to start my life here in Japan. A year later I’m at the airport again, this time Kansai Airport near Osaka. I’m flying home (again) because my training for the new job in Osaka doesn’t start until June 7th.

So I get to see everyone again and Bon Jovi happens to be touring Europe right now, so I get to see them in action one more time (European style) this year! I’m very excited, but I’ll have to survive a 12 hour flight first…

Saturday, May 24, 2008

My last day at the Inuyama school

I really had fun teaching at this school and my students are the most adorable people I’ve ever met. Naturally it’s quite sad to have to say goodbye to everybody, so I’ve been giving all my adult students little gifts. They weren’t much because I have a lot of students, but they all loved it. The little presents consisted of a Jip & Janneke (Dutch cartoon) magnet, a piece of speculaas (Dutch cookie) and a Pickwick teabag (my favorite Dutch tea). Of course, I’m not leaving the staff of the school empty-handed. I went to international supermarkets here in Inuyama and Nagoya and managed to collect a small batch of Dutch products. I got them Droste chocolates, peanut cookies, syrup waffles, Haagse Hopjes (coffee candy), Van Houten instant hot chocolate and a whole box of my favorite Pickwick tea (which I actually bought in the Netherlands during Shogatsu). I hope the staff likes it as much as the students did.

So today I’m teaching my last class here, I’m actually only teaching private lessons today because Sean, the teacher that is replacing me, is going to try the regular lessons today while I observe him. I hope he’ll treat my students well! And after classes today we will have a big farewell party at Al Centro, the Italian restaurant next door to the school.

The girl on the picture with the big nose, huge pink mouth and enormous thumb is me by the way, this is how Moe (the artist of this poster) sees me apparently! Unfortunately, only 30 students can attend because the place is quite small, but I know it’s going to be a great party! And we’re planning to do some karaoke after the Al Centro party, which I really don’t want to miss even though I have to get up really early tomorrow to move out of my apartment…

Thursday, May 22, 2008

My replacement

The new teacher arrived today, his name is Sean and he came all the way from California:

I spent the whole day showing him the ropes here at school, and in Inuyama, which was fun. His arrival did make me realize, for real, that I’m really leaving and that I won’t be here next week to teach my adorable students… sniff. I’m sure he’ll do fine and so far he really seems to like the school and the students. Tomorrow, he’s going to teach one lesson, so I’m curious how he’s going to do.

Message from my new school

Today, a letter from the Senri Chuo staff arrived welcoming me to the new school in Osaka:
And they also included a page with staff pictures:
It's sad to leave this school, its staff and students soon, but at least there'll be another school filled with students and staff waiting for me. The staff all sound and look nice, and I can't wait to meet them next month!

Bon Jovi hits Europe

Today the European leg of Bon Jovi’s Lost Highway Tour starts in Gelsenkirchen, Germany! If I was in Europe now, I know I would’ve gone there, as Minke and I have seen Bon Jovi perform there before... And Minke is actually going there today!

It’s so strange to see Bon Jovi without Minke in Japan and it’s so strange that Minke is going to a concert in Europe without me, because we are each other’s Bon Jovi concert buddies. I really missed her during the Japan tour, a concert just isn’t the same with her jumping up and down next to me. But hey, we’re going to one concert together in less than 2 weeks in Frankfurt!
Update (May 23): The band played Always live in Gelsenkirchen!! This is the song that instantly turned me into a Bon Jovi fan in 1995, and I've been wanting to hear it live for more than 13 years now... And it's not like I haven't been to enough concerts to increase the chance of hearing it live! Well, Minke I'm really, really jealous... But at least the song is on their playlist this tour and I can only hope they do that song one more time in Frankfurt! Can't wait to hear your stories about last night!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Happy birthday Casper!

Today one of my little stepbrothers turns 11. Happy birthday Casper! I hope you have a great day.

I'm bringing your present with me next week, so see you soon!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Happy birthday Gui!

Today, my crazy stepfather turns 43! I bought his birthday present more than 4 months ago in Tokyo and now it’s finally time to give it to him. Normally, I send birthday presents by airmail, but I’ll be home myself (by airplane) in 5 days… So no offense to our postman, but I’d rather present him with the gift myself. It’s just way more enjoyable when you get to see the reaction for yourself. Guido is a patient man, so I know he’ll survive a few more days without my present.

Gui & Lou at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley

Gui, I’ll be there soon to deliver your birthday hug, kisses and present! Have an awesome day today!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Last times in Nagoya

We did a couple of things for the last time in rainy Nagoya. Like eating a lot of popcorn at the movies in the Midland Square cinema at Nagoya Station. We saw a movie called The Bucket List with Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson and it was very moving, and the popcorn was very tasty. We also went shopping at the Loft in Sakae, drank some coffee at the almighty Starbucks and did some purikura to commemorate the occasion.

Although Yasu first introduced me to purikura in 2005, he is not such a great fan of it (he is not a girl after all). But he’s always a good boyfriend and humors me by going into one of those photo booths and making funny faces for the camera. And the best part about him not really liking purikura is that I get to keep all the cool stickers myself!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Doing the boat-thing again

My last weekend here in Inuyama… Yasu came here to spend it with me and first thing we did was shoot the Nihon Rhine rapids. I did it with Jeroen two weeks ago and it was so much fun I felt Yasu had to do it too. And he loved it just as much as I did!

This time the group was much smaller so we got in a smaller boat, and we were all facing each other. It’s a little odd at first to be looking right at a couple of strangers for an hour but the boat was actually way more comfortable, as we all got to lean our backs on the sides of the boat. The weather was not as good today as in Golden Week, but it was still good enough to not mind getting wet. And this trip down the Kisoriver was more entertaining too because one of the captains brought a bag of bread to feed the huge birds circling above us in the sky.

Sure, the trip down the river is a bit pricey but it’s totally worth it (even twice a month) and I recommend it to everyone who comes to Inuyama. And I’m probably going to do it a third time in Obon when I’m back here with my family.

More pictures

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Sushi with students

Tonight we had a do-it-yourself-sushi party with some of our students. Ayano picked Kristin and me up after work and drove us to Taka’s apartment in Gifu. Waiting for us there were Keigo and Takayuki who had prepared everything for us. They bought all the supplies and cooked a lot of sushi rice:

A little while later Yoshie joined us and Keigo taught us how to make our own maki-sushi from all the ingredients on the table. It wasn’t difficult, just slap some rice on a piece of nori, add a mixture of seafood and roll:

Of course the guys also made sure there was more than enough to drink in the apartment, kampai!

It was a lot of fun and it’s too bad we didn’t do something like this earlier, instead of a week before I move away. But we still have my farewell party this Saturday and we’re planning on some karaoke afterwards so that should be fun too!
(you have to be my Flickr friend of family to see most of these pictures because my students are on them)

Friday, May 16, 2008

Look who's back!

After treating its employees and students like crap for months Nova finally went broke last October. But now they’re back, in a new but smaller place on the other side of the station, even though their old space is still empty. I walk past this office everyday to work and I’ve seen it develop from an empty space into a carpeted school with slippers at the entrance and cubicles with hot pink walls. In the beginning I had no idea what they were building, but I jokingly thought to myself it might be a new Nova… turns out it is!

I wonder how they're planning to make money. After Nova being exposed as the fraudulent fiasco, you wouldn’t think any student would be dumb enough to trust this company with his or her money again. And apparently this is isn’t the only new Nova in Japan…

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Funny Japanese II

When the sun comes out at home, people almost run outside to expose their skin to the golden god in the sky. When the sun comes out here, people try to hide every single patch of skin from the golden devil in the sky. Western people love tans and we think it makes people look healthy and beautiful, Japanese people tans are horrible and adore super white skin. I came across this display of aids to hide from the sun in the 100 yen store next to my house.

Japanese women try to cover up everything and don’t mind looking silly in an effort to stay as white as they can, while I’m purposely wearing shirts that expose as much skin as decent to the sun, because I want a nice tan. Besides huge sun masks, long gloves and neck coverings, Japan goes a step further in their love of white skin: whitening creams. In Western stores you can find products to artificially tan your skin or speed up the tanning process while out in the sun. In Japan it’s almost impossible to find skin lotion or cream without whitener in it. So I can’t wait to go home and buy me some normal skin cream which won’t turn my skin even whiter than it already is.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Catching our own dinner

After all the packing excitement it was time for some exciting dinner. Kumiko picked me up and we went to a restaurant in Komaki where we had to catch our own dinner. The place is called Zauo, and it’s basically a huge ship in the middle an enormous fish tank. The boat is loaded with tables and cushions, and the tank is loaded with fish and water of course. There are also some aquarium rooms around the fish tank, but who wants to sit there when you can dine on the cool boat?

So you order drinks and food, mainly side dishes because the main part of the meal is still swimming around you in the tank. They start immediately bringing you the food and drinks, but it’s totally not interesting until you’ve caught an actual fish. They give you a flimsy fishing rod (which turned out to be surprisingly strong), some bait (tiny shrimp) and a fishnet, and then it’s up to you get your dinner out of the fish tank. They tell you to be patient, which is probably why they bring the other food so quickly so you don’t starve while waiting for a fish to bite. But it really doesn’t take long for a fish to take the bait:

We ordered a set menu, because it was economical but also because there’s always stuff in a set menu which I would never think of ordering myself. This way I get to experience new and adventurous foods. Here’s a selection from tonight’s side dishes:

There was one side dish that I wouldn’t just not think of ordering, but I would never be brave enough to order it. Sazae, or a turban sea snail, is the most disgusting-looking thing I’ve ever seen on my dinner plate. Here’s Kumiko giving you a closer look at the Sazae:

It really didn’t look like something that you ought to put in your mouth, it looked more like something you ought to flush down the toilet. Yet, I made an attempt to eat one of these snails, because apparently they’re very expensive and I'd set out to experience adventurous foods, so I really couldn’t let myself down:

Around the time we were finishing dinner, a waiter announced a game of rock-paper-scissors with all the patrons of the restaurant competing against him. The prize was a huge melon soda float, basically about a liter of bright green melon soda topped with loads of scoops of vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. Not really my kind of thing and way too much for Kumiko and me to finish but competing was fun, and of course we didn’t win anyway. After dinner we went for (just) 2 hours of karaoke for the last time at Shidax, but not before making a quick stop at a purikura machine:

We had an awesome time tonight and I was happy to find out that there’s also a Zauo in Osaka, so I can go fishing for great sashimi again. This was the last time I got to hang out with Kumiko before I move to Osaka, but I'm sure we'll still be hanging out after my leaving Inuyama. There are still Bon Jovi karaoke marathons to be held and Bon Jovi concerts to attend, and I'm going to need Kumiko for that!

Plenty of packing

I’m done with packing for the big move to Osaka! I know I’m not moving for another two weeks, but next weekend Yasu will be here to do some final sightseeing in Inuyama and Nagoya, and the weekend after that everything has to be packed and in the car before 11 AM Sunday morning, so this was kind of my last chance to do it properly.

Packing wasn’t easy this time. I had to pack for my trip back to Europe, pack a bag for AEON training which starts the day after I come back to Japan, and of course all my other crap had to be packed to be moved to my new shoebox apartment which I don’t get to move into until the end of June. And of course I have to live here for another two weeks too, so it was a bit complicated, but nothing that couldn’t be solved with a little organization on a Excel spreadsheet. I’m such a geek, but it sure made packing a lot easier.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Happy Anniversary & Happy Mother's Day!

One year ago today is when my lovely mother married her sweet and crazy boyfriend Guido. It was the most wonderful day, it was the day our two families joined together and Gui officially became my stepfather and I could feel comfortable leaving my mom with him while I moved halfway across the world. I was my mother’s witness (Dutch equivalent of maid of honor without the pink dress) and was in (happy) tears half of the day, but lucky for me Yasu was there to comfort me. I’m so happy they got married and I want to wish them a happy first anniversary! I love you guys.

Lou, Gui, Moem & Gy on the wedding day

Of course it’s also Mother’s Day today. Even though I won’t be able to spoil my mother with breakfast in bed, gifts, attention and kisses the whole day, I want everybody to know that she’s the best mother in the whole world! Of course I did send a her a small gift from Japan, and I’m confident that Gy and Gui will make sure her day still rocks. And in two weeks I’ll be home myself so I can show her how much I love her and appreciate her. I wouldn’t have been who, what and where I am now, without the support and love of my ‘Moem’. Love you, Moem!

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Playing with pencils

You probably know how it is, when you’re cleaning up or packing up your stuff for a big move, you always find some of your old stuff you’ve forgotten about and you can resist playing with your old toy. Well, I found a box with 45 Bruynzeel colored pencils, which I’ve had for more than 10 years but hardly ever used and still moved to Japan with me. I love stationary and especially the kind that comes in many different colors. So I really wanted to play with my pencils, and also with the 40 Staedtler colored markers and pens I found. So I decided to a little memento for my lovely boyfriend of the wonderful anniversary we celebrated together in Wakayama prefecture.

It depicts many of the things we did that day, and one of the gifts he gave me: a little stuffed Panda holding a heart named Tarepanda, which I officially renamed Yasupanda. He received the postcard today and I’m glad to say that he really liked it. The pencils and markers are now safely packed into one of my moving boxes, so no more time-consuming drawing for me. At least not in Inuyama.

Monday, May 05, 2008

A small farewell party

Today is a double national holiday for me: Kodomo no Hi or Children’s Day in Japan and Bevrijdingsdag or Liberation Day (from German occupation) in the Netherlands. Being in Japan I didn’t celebrate Liberation Day and being Dutch I had no idea how to celebrate Children’s Day in Japan, so I just admired the many koinobori or carp streamers swimming beautifully through the air.

Even though I didn’t celebrate either national holiday I did have a party today, a little farewell party at Maiko’s house. Maiko is leaving for a 3-month training session in Tokyo tomorrow and of course I’m moving to Osaka in 3 weeks. Maiko’s mom cooked up a whole bunch of food and I brought along a bottle of pink Cava (Spanish Champagne). Maiko and her dad couldn’t drink because they were still driving somewhere later, so mainly her mom and I drank the deliciously sweet Cava. So we spent an evening eating, drinking, talking and I met Maiko’s brother, Yoshi for the first time tonight. He’s very fluent in English and sometimes facilitated communication between me and his not so fluent sister and parents. I also spoke some Japanese tonight! An old friend of Maiko’s dad called and everybody got to talk to him on the phone, including me. He didn’t speak English, so I had to make due with my limited Japanese, but he understood me and I understood him and I impressed the hell out of Maiko and her family! Of course, we didn’t discuss anything substantial on the phone, just some low-level small talk but it was still fun.

We had a fun evening but farewell parties are always kind of a downer, so it was kind of a sad celebration, especially when it was time to go home. Maiko’s mom was crying, and I assured her we’ll be seeing each other again in August when I’ll visit Inuyama with my family, but that didn’t seem to comfort her. So I just hugged her until she couldn’t breathe anymore. And I think I saw Maiko crying too when she drove away from my apartment a little while later. All those tears made me feel like crying too, but I somehow I managed to keep my eyes dry, but it took some effort. I’m a real crybaby and leaving Inuyama and all my adorable students behind is not going to be easy. But I’m going to try and control myself as much as I can, by not focusing on what I’m leaving behind and instead thinking about the exciting things that are ahead of me.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Jeroen in Inuyama

The first thing we did after Jeroen was in Inuyama today, was check out my shoebox apartment. Apparently, Jeroen was under the impression that my room was even smaller than it really is, so he didn’t think it was that bad. Well, I still think it’s small especially compared to his luxurious multi-room apartment in Seoul, but it’s home and at least I don’t have a lot to clean. We also paid my school a small visit, which was closed of course, so Jeroen only admired the outside of the building. Still, he’s the first and only Dutchie to visit me here in Inuyama, so it was cool.

I decided it would be cool for us to take a small boat tour on the Kiso river, because what else are you going to do out here in the country and it was really hot and sunny, so it would be a great opportunity for us to get a bit of a tan. Our boating adventure started with a long wait for the shuttle bus, which wasn’t that bad because we got to catch up and start our tan in those 45 minutes. After we finally fought our way on the bus (too many people, too little space in the bus) it took the shuttle bus at least 30 minutes to get to the start of the boat tour, and once we got there we waited some more for the captains to finish their breaks and actually start the tour. But it was all worth it, because the hour-long trip over the Kiso river was awesome!

‘Shooting the Nihon Rhine Rapids’ was exciting and beautiful and not at all what we had expected. And we got wet (but the water was clear and beautifully green) and we got a tan, so what more do you want on a hot day? I liked it so much that I’m definitely going on the ¥3400 ride one more time with Yasu before I leave Inuyama.

Shooting the Nihon Rhine Rapids with some Dutch narration, but don't worry I subtitled it in English

After our thrilling boat ride, we walked down to Inuyama castle, which is Japan’s oldest castle in its original state and therefore a national treasure. It’s a tiny castle and hundreds of people wanted to see it today, so it was super crowded. There were even long lines to ascend and descend the steep and slippery stairs inside the castle, and the top of the castle was crawling with people. Yet, a tourist shouldn’t leave Inuyama without seeing this particular sight so we went. And afterwards I got to try sesame soft ice cream in the castle town, so that was worth it.

After our Inuyaman adventures we headed back to Nagoya for some tebasaki at Yamachan and coffee at Starbucks. And then it was time to say goodbye again. Even though Jeroen didn’t get to eat any kaitensushi, sing karaoke or dress up as a geisha (Kyoto is a bit too far from Nagoya), I think he did have a nice Japanese experience. And of course he did some sightseeing in Tokyo himself before and after his Nagoyan adventure, so I’m sure his visit to Japan was very satisfying!

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Jeroen in Nagoya

So Jeroen arrived in Nagoya this afternoon (he couldn’t get an earlier Shinkansen ride from Tokyo because of the Golden Week crowds), and after he checked in at his hotel, Maiko and I took him to the Midland Square building. First, we had some coffee and ice-cream at Dean & Deluca’s in the basement, because it’s seems impossibly hard to find a nice place to have a drink outside in the sun like in Europe. Then we took Jeroen to the top of Nagoya’s tallest building to admire the view of Nagoya from Midland Square’s Sky Promenade. I’d been there once before at night, and the lights make the city look very pretty, but during the day it’s more impressive because you can see more.

We wanted to give Jeroen a total Japanese experience in his short stay, so next stop was a temple in Osu Kannon. A temple is always a nice display of old Japanese architecture, which looks a thousand times better and more impressive than most after-war office buildings and houses. Jeroen threw a lucky 5 yen coin into the temple’s bank account and rung a bell, then Maiko helped him lit a candle before he made a wish and put it in the candle cabinet, and he also managed to burn some incense (with great effort) outside in order to inhale the smart-making smoke afterwards (still not sure if this is exactly healthy). It was a quick but satisfying visit to old Japan.

After old Japan, it was time for new Japan, in Sakae, Nagoya’s downtown area. We strolled around on Oasis’ water roof with a nice view of the imitation Eiffel Tower, under which we discovered actual chairs and tables to sit and enjoy a drink in the fresh air. Why this is such a scarcity here puzzles me, the Japanese seem to prefer inside and underground life, which is just way too claustrophobic to me, even though I’m a city girl and not a country girl. Anyway, Jeroen spotted Sunshine Sakae’s Ferris Wheel, and we went for a ride on it. I’ve seen it many times, but had never been on it before and it surprisingly high. Actually, I’m terribly afraid of heights, but the many glass elevators on extremely tall Japanese buildings have trained me to feel a little more comfortable with heights, so I can enjoy things like high Ferris Wheels and glass elevators now. After our purikura adventure, we went for dinner at Kushiya, the kushiage restaurant Yasu and I discovered a while back. It was another fun and great dinner, even though we all smelled like deep-frying pans afterwards.

Maiko and I wanted to take Jeroen for an hour of karaoke after dinner, but Jeroen didn’t really like the idea of singing out loud in front of us. I don’t blame him, the first time I went to karaoke, I also really didn’t want to and I promised the others I wasn’t going to sing, because who wants to hear my horrible voice enlarged on the sound box? But after observing Japanese people enjoy karaoke so intensely for about 2 hours, I couldn’t help myself and had to try it, and I’ve loved it ever since, in spite of my being shy. Maybe, I didn’t explain well enough to Jeroen, that he wouldn’t be singing in a bar but in a tiny room with just us… Well, too late now. Tomorrow, he’ll be visiting me in Inuyama where there are no decent karaoke opportunities anyway.

Purikura with Jeroen and Maiko

Jeroen and I used to live in the same building when we were still students of International Business at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands. After graduation I moved to Japan and he started working for a Dutch company which has recently sent him to work on a project in Seoul, Korea. Korea is very close to Japan (especially compared to the Netherlands) so Jeroen decided to pay me a visit this weekend in Nagoya! Maiko and I went to pick him at Nagoya station to show him around Nagoya. One of the most important things we introduced Jeroen to today was of course purikura:

The first time Jeroen had no idea what was going on and the machine we were using was in quite a hurry. But the second machine was way more patient and by then Jeroen really got the hang of posing for pictures and decorating them afterwards. We wanted to try it a third time, because by then Jeroen had an array of ideas for funny pictures, but we had to make our dinner reservation so there was no more time.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Checking out a Japanese IKEA

We came back from our Golden Week road trip yesterday, but my Shinkansen back to Nagoya wasn’t scheduled until today, so we had some more time left to do something fun. IKEA has just opened a new store in Kobe (only the third store in Japan), and IKEA has always been my favorite furniture store, it’s colorful and cheap! I was happy to discover that this IKEA is selling the same products as they do at home (I actually found the entire set of bedroom furniture I selected 3 years ago on sale here too, and I still love it, I just wish I could have taken it to Japan with me.

Yasu didn’t need anything, and I don’t want to increase my belongings just before I move house at the end of this month, so we weren’t going there to buy anything. Instead we thought it might be interesting to find out if our tastes for interior design match or totally clash, which will be helpful for when we move in together. Of course our opinions about what is beautiful differs, but not as much as I feared. Besides Yasu told me that when the time comes that we actually have to make these decisions, he’s most likely going to let me decide anyway. Good to know!
Tomorrow Golden Week is official for everybody in Japan, and apparently IKEA is expecting huge crowds, so it has already set up barriers to make people stand in an orderly Disneyland-like line. I couldn’t believe it, who wants to stand in line for hours just to see (and maybe buy) furniture? I mean I was already happy we weren’t really there to buy stuff today, because there were so many people there it made me nervous, and we didn’t line up at all. Imagine the chaos inside IKEA tomorrow and Sunday.
Check out the Golden Week line here, photographed by an Englishman in Osaka (edit on May 10, 2008).

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The World Heritage Koyasan

Yasu heard about this World Heritage site somewhere in Wakayama and he really wanted to visit it. Honestly, I couldn’t care less about yet another temple on yet another mountain (which is how he described Koyasan to me), but I’m really glad I let him drag me there, as Koyasan was definitely worth the long drive up there! Koyasan, or Mount Koya, is the headquarters of the sect of Shingon Buddhism, founded in 819 by a monk named Kukai, who became known as Kobo Daishi after he died. Danjo Garan is a sacred area on Koyasan, and is a complex of temples, halls, pagodas and Buddhist statues. The buildings are impressive and still very beautiful, I just wish the rest of Japan still looked this beautiful. There are only old style Japanese buildings in that town and they all are in great condition, and even the modern restroom buildings are built in such a way that they match the architecture of Koyasan.

Legend has it that Kobo Daishi is actually still alive and in an eternal state of meditation in Okunoin, and only the most important monks on Koyasan are allowed to see Kobo Daishi and feed him. We weren’t allowed to take pictures in the inner sanctuary known as Okunoin, which is Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum (or place of residence if still alive). But Okunoin is surrounded by a thick forest of massive cedar trees with an immense graveyard. The cemetery was fascinating. Sometimes it creeped me out and made me feel like we were part of some kind of Japanese Blair Witch Project, perhaps the Kobo Daishi Project? Sometimes it awed me with it’s beauty and made me stare and stop talking. Sometimes it made me laugh because they have very strange graves there, and it made me wonder whether the occupants of the graves were space rockets, television sets, cars, bottles of yakult, or cups of coffee… But apparently these weird graves were just company sponsored memorials for something, because marketing never ends not even at a graveyard.

There are also several mausoleums of famous Japanese people, like the one Yasu found of the samurai ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi. But of course the most important mausoleum is Kobo’s, and it’s beautifully decorated with hundreds of rows of lit up lanterns which really makes it a shame you can’t use your camera there. But before you enter the no picture zone, you get to meet 15 or so of Kobo’s friends who all patiently wait in a nice row for you to douse them! So Yasu and I entertained ourselves for quite a while with throwing water at all the Buddhist gods, even though it all seemed so unnecessary because of the rain.

Exploring the immense graveyard and throwing water at the Buddha gods

Today we also celebrated two firsts! I drove on the left side of the road for the very first time and it was much easier than expected and actually quite logical when your steering wheel is on the right side of the car. But I just drove in the country and driving in a Japanese city will be a whole different story I’m sure. But it’s a secret that Yasu let me drive, so please don’t tell anybody ;). And Yasu put gas into the car all by himself for the first time! When you want to get gas in Japan, you can just drive into a gas station, and some clerk does all the work for you, you never leave the driver’s seat not even to pay. But today we went to a do-it-yourself gas station because the gas prices were raised about 23 yen per liter overnight, and I taught Yasu how to get your own gas (which is the way we do it in Europe).