Monday, March 30, 2009

My brother's new place

Only 22 years old, but already a home-owner, that’s my Belgian (he changed his nationality several years ago) brother Djamo. I’m still trying to figure out my life and my much younger brother has already gotten serious about his! Today my mom and Gyano visited him in Belgium to check out his new digs.
His house is huge, I hope he has enough furniture to fill it! I haven’t been there myself yet, but judging from the pictures my mom took, his smallest room is still bigger than my apartment. He also got himself some very yellow wheels, to move himself and all his musical equipment from practice to practice and gig to gig. Can wait to see more pictures from the next visit and to someday check it out myself.

The batting cage

Today was a lazy day turned into an active day. We had no plans and after sleeping in for way too long we decided to bike to Esaka to have some food at Volks, a restaurant chain we’d been wanting to try, and hang out at Starbucks (one of our favorite ways to spend time). Even though, sleeping in all morning, eating too much delicious bread at Volks, and dozing off at Starbucks (in spite of our caffeinated drinks) could be considered lazy, biking to pretty far-away Esaka (and of course back to Tsukamoto later on the day) could be considered exercise. But the most active and also the most exciting and entertaining was swinging bats at baseballs at the Esaka batting cage!
After yesterday’s game of catch turning out to be more fun than I could have imagined, Yasu didn’t have to ask twice if I wanted to try a batting cage. My arm was sore from yesterday, still I wanted to give it a try, and I am glad I did! Of course, I kind of suck at it, but I suck at singing too, and I still love karaoke! And the same is true for this, it’s really fun (and exhausting) to try and hit balls shooting through the air at 60 km/hour, which are actually called ‘slow’ balls but they’re enough fast for me! Yasu, having played many years of way too serious baseball, battled the 110 km/hour balls and I enjoyed waving my bat at the slow balls. And even though I’m positive my body will be sore for a week due to movements it’s never really made before, I can’t wait to return for some more batting action.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sukiyaki lesson

When I was still teaching and living in Inuyama, Maiko and I went to check out Tsukamoto once, just to see what I could expect. On the train there from Umeda, I kind of ran into Yasu’s aunt Akiko (it took a while for us to positively ID each other, because we’d only met once in January 2005), and she asked me to come over to her house one day. Since then I’ve moved to Tsukamoto, but Yasu and I never got around to visiting Akiko. Then two mornings ago, before catching the train to work I ran into Akiko again, this time at Lawson’s where I found her frantically waving at me (and again it took me a while to recognize her). And today we finally made it to her house for a visit! It’s actually Yasu’s grandmother Kyoko’s house, where Akiko and her brother still live, Akiko’s sister (Yasu’s mother) moved out a long time ago.
Kyoko and Akiko prepared a gorgeous meal of sukiyaki for us and Hiromasa, Yasu’s younger brother who also needed to be fed as his parents are on vacation now. I love sukiyaki and know it’s easy to cook, and I’ve wanted to give it a go ever since I bought myself an electric nabe, but I never really knew how to go about it until now. Sukiyaki is cooked at the table so I got to witness each and every step of the cooking process and will definitely be able to copy that someday soon, maybe before a movie night on the red couch! It was fun to visit Yasu’s family and catch up and eat such delicious food.

Yasu High

After we delivered the red couch to my place, we had some time left before returning the car and decided to drive to Nishinomiya to check out Yasu’s old high school, which was surprisingly far from his hometown Amagasaki. Even though the school is in recess now, the building was still open for students and their various club activities, and therefore also for old students and their girlfriends to just walk in and take a look around.
The school building is very impressive (it even had its own church) and much more beautiful than my high school could ever be, and it was fun to see where a young Yasu took classes and practiced baseball almost everyday for three years. He convinced me to play a game of catch with him, next to the baseball field, because I was too embarrassed about my non-existent baseball skills to play on the actual field. And even though I didn’t really want to throw a ball around in front of high-school students, I really enjoyed it, a lot!

Red couch

Yasu and I often go to the movies, too often actually, because a visit to a movie theater costs ¥1800. But we love movies and because I don’t have a comfortable place to sit at home to watch a DVD, we usually get our movie fix in one of those expensive cinemas. But that’s going to change because today we went to IKEA in Osaka to do some couch-shopping! I know my apartment is really too small to put in a couch, but after sitting on Ben’s couch together, we decided that getting our own couch would greatly benefit our comfort at home. After testing dozens of two-seater couches and sofa-beds at the new IKEA store in Osaka Tsuruhama, we finally decided on a reasonably-priced-and-incredibly-red Klippan couch.
It was huge and heavy, especially to carry (or rather push, shove and pull) up to the second floor of my apartment building, it required some assembly, and it cost some money but we’re happy. The couch takes up most of the room (it can actually fit more than two people) and I wish I’d chosen the black cover (even though it was more expensive) because it’s quite a lot of red for such a small apartment... But it’s just so nice to be able to relax on a soft but firm couch, instead of on the floor. Can’t wait to go to Tsutaya and rent some DVDs for a movie-night at home!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Nooduitgang

Every time a student comes in with writing on their clothing I want to check it out, because more often than not it turns out to be some funny Engrish, and today this happened again. The student took her jacket off to show me the whole text and I was shocked to find it was in Dutch!
Most of the time the clothing decorations are texts in weird versions of English or German, but Dutch was a first for me! And the text, ‘Nooduitgang’, was correct too, but still quite weird, as it means emergency exit. But who cares? I loved it!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Waving out of the window

When I still lived in Europe and people left our house we would always go outside as a group to the driveway or balcony (depending on the living situation) and wave them goodbye. Maybe we already missed the people leaving or we wanted to make sure they were really gone, in any case it was kind of the tradition to ceremoniously wave at people when they were going home. And these days in Japan, I like to open the window and wave my boyfriend goodbye when he bikes home. But some overgrown and blinding tree in front of my window has made this impossible, so I would just tell him goodbye because we couldn’t see each other when I opened the window. But this morning it was exceptionally light in my room, I opened the window and they finally pruned that annoying tree!
Now I have a view! It’s a very urban view, no beautiful mountains in sights just other ugly apartment buildings and lots of other uninteresting stuff. But that’s not important because now I can wave at my departing boyfriend again and open the window without any creepy-crawlies stepping from the leaves into my room.

Monday, March 23, 2009

iPhone continued

My first Japanese phone contract was obtained in Yasu’s name, because I didn’t have an Alien Registration Card at the time yet. So for almost two years, Yasu has been paying my phone bills and receiving refunds from me. And even though this was a reasonable solution, it would have been more convenient if Softbank would have just taken the money out of my account. So that’s why I wanted my new phone contract to be in my own name, but I wanted an iPhone and Softbank is not willing to let dirty foreigners sign up for an iPhone contract. But my desire for an iPhone was too strong, so we decided to let Yasu get me my new phone in his name as well, because he is Japanese and therefore ‘clean’ enough for Softbank’s iPhone contract. 
This time we went to another Softbank store, because the clerk’s pushy sales behavior at the other store made me feel very uncomfortable, last Friday. Even though he was a native English speaker, the Japanese clerk at the new store (translated by Yasu) was much more helpful and answered all my questions honestly. She let me make my own decisions and didn’t push me to choose an iPhone plan I didn’t want by making up things (we discovered his lies in the new store), giving me weird reasons (like “it would be nicer to your boyfriend if you choose the 8GB 26 month plan”...huh?), and withholding the actual information I was asking for, and sighing deeply when I insisted and he had to calculate what I wanted to know (and then giving me a much lower number than I got today from the Japanese clerk).
Anyway, today in the new store I chose the desired 14 month contract for the white 16GB iPhone, which Yasu signed for me. So the inconvenience of having to pay Yasu (which we often forget and then I end up paying several months at once) is going to continue. But what’s also going to continue is being able to call Yasu for free for as long as I want to thanks to Softbank’s Family Plan, because there is no family member closer to Yasu than Yasu himself. The calling-each-other-for-free-24/7 option has been used a whole lot in the last two years by the two of us and we’re definitely not going to stop using it. And I guess that’s worth more than the inconvenience. And of course I’m overjoyed to have my new iPhone!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Creative and mysterious cooking

This time we headed out to Ben’s place to enjoy dinner, and we were all pretty excited about it because we’d already learned what a great cook Ben is. And he didn’t disappoint us at all. Ben cooked us a delicious meal, huge garlic and ginger prawns in a pan, chicken parma in his tiny toaster-oven, and a chocolate ripple cake in his fridge. You’ve got to be creative when you don’t have proper kitchen equipment like at home, and I’d already heard of Ben’s legendary rice-cooker cakes from Enzo, but baking a cake in the fridge was plain mysterious. Apparently, there was no baking involved at all, he just covered a roll of Australian chocolate cookies in homemade whipped cream on all sides and let the cookies go soft in the fridge for 6 hours, cut the ‘cake’ at an angle: et voila!
We all loved the food and dessert (which Yasu joined us for), and I also enjoyed checking out Ben’s apartment. He’d been cleaning his apartment before our arrival and it looked great, especially with the warm lighting from his new Muji lamp. It’s similar to my apartment because it’s also a Leopalace, but his has a small balcony and a loft to sleep in, making his room very high. That huge open space above his living room gives his apartment a very roomy feel, and even though somehow we both have exactly the same floor space (something like 18.43 square meters) his feels bigger. Still, I’m happy I don’t have to climb up a ladder every night, and down it every morning.

Friday, March 20, 2009

iPhone discrimination

I want an iPhone, who doesn’t these days? And iPhones seem to be especially popular among foreigners here in Japan, as the Japanese prefer their own (more complicated) cellular devices. But guess who are banned from buying the iPhones? That’s right: foreigners. We are allowed to buy all the other (complicated, especially when you don’t understand Japanese) phones, but all I can do with them is call and text because the other options are pretty useless when you don’t understand Japanese. The only phone with advanced functions that I could understand is the one I’m not allowed to buy.
Apparently, a bunch of Chinese came to Japan to get their hands on iPhones and leave the country never paying Softbank the owed contract and handset fees, essentially stealing the phones from Softbank, according to the Softbank clerk. So those Chinese basically ruined it for all foreigners. But some foreigners are allowed to get an iPhone, those that have a Japanese credit card or driver’s license. Well, I could never afford driving a car in Japan, so I’m not willing to exchange my Dutch license for a Japanese one. And the bank wouldn’t let me have credit card, because... I’m a foreigner! It feels kind of like being dirty or something.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Be professional

Last Saturday, we already had a big farewell party with a large group of students, but today was the Australian’s actual last day at the school, and from Saturday (tomorrow is an official day off, but I don’t know why) the American is going to take over. So we went for a late dinner at Hokkaido (which serves loads of cheesy, potatoey and crabby foods) to say goodbye once more. The Welshman made him a special T-shirt with the manager doing the ‘Be Professional’ gesture, which was her special gesture for just the Australian, who really needed that occasional reminder. Unfortunately, the Welshman couldn’t give the awesome handmade (!) shirt to the Australian himself, because he’s currently on special leave due to a death in his family. But the rest of us made sure to remind the Australian to remain professional in his new Japanese life with the manager’s two-finger gesture.
It was a good chance to learn more about the new teacher too. Saturday the school is going to be a whole new place, without the Australian and the emergency teacher and with the new teacher and the Welshman will make his return too, which I’m really excited about because I’ve missed him terribly, and with me the other teachers and of course his students.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Farewell & welcome party

One of the native teachers is leaving us next week, and a new one has joined us to take over his place. To celebrate the Australian’s departure and the American’s arrival we had another party in Esaka, at the same restaurant we had our wild Christmas party ! The food isn’t that good but the drinks are. Unfortunately they didn’t have sweet white wine this time but they did have way-to-sweet fake sangria wine, which did the trick. Many students showed up and nearly everyone got drunk, again! It was another good party and we had a short (because we had to catch out last trains home) after-party at a karaoke place next door.
Next Tuesday, the new teacher will start working with us and the departing teacher will show him the ropes. Our school won’t be the same after the Australian leaves, and I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad thing ;). At least we had an awesome party!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Teacher of the month

Every month the head-office chooses a teacher of the month from all the schools in Kansai. I have no idea what the criteria are or how many nominees there are per month... But guess who’s teacher of this month:
Our manager nominated two native teachers from our school and we both won. Apparently, the price is a pen with our names engraved on it which will be ours to keep forever and prove that we were once teacher of the month. I just think it’s nice to know the manager is happy to have me around :).

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Hina Matsuri

Today, the third day of the third month, is Hina Matsuri or Girl’s Day in Japan. The Japanese celebrate their daughters, nieces and other female members of society, by displaying sets of ornamental dolls on several tiers of platforms and by consuming customary drinks and snacks.
Being Dutch I wasn’t even thinking about Hina Matsuri until one of my students announced it was Girl’s Day and presented me with cute Hello Kitty Hina Matsuri snacks as I am a girl. At which the other student in the room pulled out a container of homemade chirashizushi (rice flavored with sugar, vinegar topped with a variety of ingredients), which looks messy but tastes really good, and which his wife prepares only once a year, on Girl’s Day. Aren’t my students sweet?

Monday, March 02, 2009

Hikone Castle

Japan has four nationally treasured castles and Hikone Castle is one of them. The others are Inuyama (!) castle, Himeji castle and Matsumoto castle, and now the wooden castle in Matsumoto is the only left on the list that I still have to visit, maybe someday I will. After a very garlicky lunch (they fried the cloves of garlic whole and they were huge and super-tasty) at Big Boy we started on our hike up the mountain which houses Hikone Castle.
Hikone Castle is tiny and rather authentic (except for the renovated steps), just like Inuyama castle. It was a nice castle, but nothing really new by now, except for the plum blossoms we found on the castle grounds. Seems I need to give up hope for snow this winter, as spring seems to be just around the corner...
After our castle adventure Yasu entertained himself by feeding grass to two black swans, and his fascination with animals’ behavior (especially when he’s discovered he can control it) is entertaining to me. After we got back to Osaka, we had dinner at an okonomiyaki restaurant, which is pretty special because I’ve always disliked the Osakan food, but after my recent takoyaki adventure I wanted to give it another try. And it was pretty good!
It was a wonderful and enjoyable weekend. I’m going to share it with my students and hopefully inspire them to do something more enjoyable than work, study or clean.

Chikubu Island

We got up early today because we wanted to catch the first boat from Hikone harbor to Chikubu island at 9:30. It was a much longer (and colder) walk from our hotel as we initially estimated, so it’s lucky that we left the hotel at 8:30 due to my compulsion to always leave way on time, just in case something goes wrong. A little before departure we arrived at the dock area and bought tickets for the boat trip. There were only 3 other people crazy enough to take a boat on this cold Monday morning, so the familiar long line of patient Japanese was lacking. Yay! 
We spent most of the 40 minute boat-ride to the island on the boat’s deck, struggling to stay vertical because the extremely strong winds seemed to have one purpose, to blow us over. The beautiful mountain scenery, the movements of a boat speeding through the water, the wind on my face and in my hair (which created a tangled mess, which was very painful to comb afterwards) and the fresh air in my nose, made me feel alive and free.
When we arrived on the island we were two of only five tourists on the entire island, which made it feel wonderfully remote. Although the island is small (0.14 km²), it is high (197 m) and we had hundreds of steps to climb to explore the temples (including one of Japan’s national treasures) and shrines. The higher we went, the more breathtaking our view of Biwa Lake. We only had 70 minutes until our boat returned to Hikone, but that was more than enough time to leisurely check out all the island’s sights and relax a while on top of the mountain to enjoy the view.
On the way back from the island, curiously the wind on deck seemed to be non-existent, even though I was prepared for it now having tied my hair back this time. It was still a nice outside, but my tired/lazy boyfriend got cold lying down on one of the deck benches so we went back inside where he could take a proper and warm nap.
I hope he rested enough (maybe getting up early two mornings in a row is just too much for his system) because next on the menu is hike up the mountain to check out one of Japan’s most treasured castles, Hikone Castle.
Chikubu Island

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Cruising Biwako

The weather was really nice yesterday and I had my classroom window open as often as I could (it needs to be closed during lessons) and I felt a constant urge to go outside and hang around in a park or something (which is totally not like me). I was eager to learn all about my students’ weekend plans, and was disappointed time after time when they all reported less-than-exciting plans, like work at the office, study at a cram-school or clean at home. Everybody was happy about the weather, yet they’d all planned inside activities they’d rather not do. So inspired by my students’ uninspiring weekend plans I vowed to really make the most of the weather and the free time this weekend. And it wasn’t hard at all to convince Yasu to come with me, on a trip to Biwa Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Japan.
First stop Otsu, a city at the bottom of the lake and only 40 minutes by train from Tsukamoto. After a short walk from the station we already arrived at the lovely lake. For some reason, I really love to be near water, like lakes, rivers seas and oceans, the only thing I don’t like are garden ponds, because they are artificial, too shallow and usually filled with nasty fish and often visited by swarms of insects. After a brisk walk by the lakeshore we bought tickets for the Michigan paddlewheel boat that offered ‘cruises’ on Biwa Lake.
It was a boat with a very American theme, but still with a very Japanese feel. The people working on the boat were too polite and inflexible, guests on the ship were sitting on the floor instead of the benches, and the food they served were poor imitations of American food, mostly because they were prepared with domestically produced ingredients. Nachos, chips and cheese and even Coca Cola just don’t taste good here.
But all that didn’t matter so much, because the lake was beautiful, the weather was sunny but breezy and the air smelled fantastically fresh and healthy. We spent most of our time on top of the boat looking out over the lake and sometimes spying on the shore cities with huge binoculars.
They also provided us with an opportunity to play Captain of the Michigan by presenting us with costumes that didn’t even resemble the clothes of the actual captain, still it was fun. Except for the part where I took my sunglasses off to don a captain’s hat and forgot to take my adored sunglasses with me after the costume party. I knew exactly where I left them, but when I returned to get them, they were nowhere to be found. Someone else had clearly taken them, and being in Japan I assumed and dearly hoped they would have turned them over to the ship’s crew to be put in their lost & found, but to my extreme disappointment I seemed to have expected too much. My beloved red sunglasses with sparkling stones on the sides were gone.
After the cruise with a view we went for a train with a view. We were traveling north next to the Western shore of the lake to Omi-Maiko. A little beach resort, with white beaches and barbecue tables (which we weren’t sure were operating now, as it was very sunny but not very warm). But by the time we arrived at the tiny station of Omi-Maiko it had started to rain... The beach didn’t look good in the suddenly cold and rainy atmosphere so we wanted to catch the next train further north, to go around the lake, only that train wasn’t due for another 45 minutes! So we caught a train back to Otsu, and travelled on to castle-town Hikone with a transfer in a very special and tiny city named Yasu.
All the train traveling, although comfortable, made us tired so we found ourselves a decent and cheap hotel for the night. We’re going to get up early tomorrow for a trip to the second largest island in Biwa Lake and a climb up to Hikone Castle.
Cruising Biwako