Saturday, September 26, 2009

He is not mermaid

Ok, so to pick up where I left off, I go to dinner that night to a place called Robata. It was quaint and wooden and we ordered a sampler meal. We thought this would be a small portion of all their foods arranged on a plate or something. Instead, we were in for one of the longest and most delicious meals we had ever had. Food kept coming from the kitchen and we weren't quite sure when and if it would end. I had anything from a big red snapper at the end of the meal to jellyfish at the beginning. All of it was tasty.

We did the typical touristy things in Tokyo wherein I ended up burning myself on an incense pot outside a temple. New stigmata? We can only wait to see. Then after seeing all we could see of Akihabara, Harajuku, and Ginza, we left the city of Tokyo to an outlying national park area called Hakone. There we stayed in a traditional japanese lodging where all we could do was sit and wait for the dinner we would have there. It was a long meal served to us in our room by a lady in a kimono who laughed when I said I spoke a little japanese. Jerk.

Everything tasted like fish. And not good fish, but slightly old and putrified fish. Even the fruit tasted somehow of fish. My aunt ended up expelling some of it into a toilet and the meal lost a bit of momentum after that. It was cool but pretty gross. The breakfast the next day had a painfully similar tone to the night before. We even thought the crustacean carcass found floating in our miso soup bore a striking resemblance to the crustacean we had eaten for dinner the previous night.

Leaving Hakone took me back to JCMU in Hikone. My mom came for lunch on friday which was nice. I really appreciated seeing her. After lunch, she left back for Kyoto to finish what was left of her vacation.

All in all, it was a great vacation. I really enjoyed the time off from studying and I got to go to one of the coolest cities in the world. However, I still hadn't met a japanese person who wanted to be my friend and I had been in this nation for almost a month. This completely changed yesterday when I went to a barbeque in Minami-Kusatsu. I had signed up for this without really thinking about it and I was annoyed that I had to be at the train station at 8:30 on a Saturday morning. We were never told how long it was supposed to go or what we could expect when we got there, so most of us who had signed up started wishing we could take it back.

We went anyway and just thought if it got really bad we would complain a lot and it would make us feel better. Our mood changed a little when we asked the college student who was in charge and who met us at the station what we could expect. "Well," he said, "we get there and there will be game to know each other." I rolled my eyes at another damn icebreaker game. "Then there will be lunch and another game after with map and surprise at end. Then there will be bee-bee-queue with tequila." Every single person looked at Yoshi and asked him to repeat the last little bit. Yes. Tequila. They are just going to give us tequila with out meat. How japanese of them.

So we get to the university that is hosting this barbeque. There are lots of japanese college students there and they break us into groups of four or five. Each group only had one american student. We played a few little games while Eminem and American Boy echoed through the speakers of the student center. One of the first friends I made was called Toppo and he was a giant. 188 centimeters tall, he asked if he would fit in in america. Cooper and he bonded over the distress that they feel in Japan.

The games and the treasure hunt that we heard about on the train were surprisingly fun with all the new japanese friends I met. I learned that japanese people really really reeaaallllly love taking and being in pictures. I heard shouts of "SHASHIN!!" and before I could register what was going on, I found myself in a group or with one other japanese person holding up the peace sign and smiling at three cameras that were flashing around me. I felt famous.

I also helped Toppo learn a little american slang. He had learned "fuck you" from movies and I thought it would be wise to instruct him on the proper uses and variations of this phrase. I did it a little too well as he started calling all his friends "motherfuckers." I also told him of the phrase "badass" and he seemed to really enjoy that one. Any time he did something remotely cool, he asked me if he was badass. Of course I had to say yes. What is more badass than a 6' 4'' Japanese college kid calling his friends motherfuckers?

When it was time for the barbeque I was starving and really looking forward to some beef and chicken. They had all sorts of sliced beef, chicken, pork, and vegetables like carrots and corn. All of it was delicious. Everyone was quite excited about the prospect of tequila but before anyone could leap toward the glass bottles, two more college kids came around the corner carrying cases of beer and plum wine. I really didn't expect this when I woke up. By now, I had met at least fifteen new japanese friends and they all wanted my facebook, email, or skype name and took pictures with me. I could only use my camera for three pictures before my memory card was full which made me sad, but if they find me on facebook everything will be fine.

While waiting for the food to cook, the college kids I had met asked me about american drinking games. I smiled and tried to explain two very popular games called Beer Pong and Kings. At the conclusion of this explanation one girl shouted "I want to try!" and the other kids all nodded eagerly in agreement. I couldn't help but laugh and I turned to Toppo to hear him say, "that's badass."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

I feel your glance at my status symbol

I'm so sorry to everyone whom I have kept waiting with baited breath for my next post. Yes, I feel terrible to keep you waiting a week and a half to hear what I have been up to in Japan. Therefore, I will get you up to date now! First, some explanations of things.

1) Flickr has a preset limit of how many photos I can post in one month. The fourteen photos I have currently available are taking up 47% of my limit. Since I cannot possibly limit myself to thirty pictures per month, I have decided to only post the best of the best on Flickr. Everything else will be put into a Facebook album.

2) Secondly, with regards to the photos, I have lost my cable that connects my small digital camera to my computer! No worries though, I have another one on the way, but it may take some time for me to get it in the mail. I'm sorry, but just imagine the intense joy you will all have when I unleash fire in a week or so.

Ok, shall we begin?

As most of you have probably gleaned from my current Japan Facebook album, I went to Hikone castle last Thursday. I am taking a class here at JCMU called Comparative Social Organization and Control: Japan and America. Quite an intimidating class name should merit some degree of difficulty. Instead, we go on field trips on Thursdays. So we tour the Hikone castle and museum which makes me realize, "hey! Hikone used to be super cool and war-like!" Who doesn't love that? Anyway, I took 150 photos and posted many of them on FB.

That weekend marked the beginning of what is known in Japan as "Silver Week." Following the weekend there were three holidays: Monday was People's Day, Tuesday was Respect for the Elderly Day, and Wednesday the people of Japan celebrated the Autumnal Equinox. Sweet. This just meant no school for five days. After class on Friday, I took the train to Tokyo and met my mother and aunt to spend some time with them during the break. However, the train ride did not go quite as planned.

I would need to go to Kyoto in the west before heading south-east to Tokyo on the Shinkansen (bullet train.) I mistakenly got on the local train to Kyoto which would take a large number of hours that I was not ready to spend. I thought to myself, "No problem! I will just get off at the next rapid train stop and get on an express train." But, I screwed up. I ended up getting off at the wrong stop where only local trains came and I ultimately had to wait an extra 45 minutes to get on the same train I had just departed. No matter. I eventually board the proper vehicle and am off to Kyoto.

While waiting for the express train an interesting occurrence took place. A small, shuffley old lady wearing a floral shirt and a floppy hat came up to me and asked in a raspy voice if I was a foreigner. Slightly confused, I said politely, "yes I certainly am." She laughed at me and sat down, proceeding next to try to converse with me. Completely in Japanese no less. I could tell most of what she said were not questions and so I would just nod and smile. If she laughed, I would chuckle too, though she was just probably laughing directly at me and my failure to comprehend more than 2% of what she said. She did, however, ask if my parents were well; how old I was, which shocked her to find out that I was not 16 but twenty; if I had a girlfriend; and what I thought of her. I told her my parents are doing fine, I have a wonderful girlfriend currently in Germany, I found her to be quite interesting for an 85 year old lady and that she had quite a bit of spunk. She kept telling me that I was handsome and had a big smile, which I wasn't really sure what to do with. I would laugh and say, "no no no," which is what one should do in Japan, but she just kept pressing. Eventually she wished me well and we got on separate train cars.

The rest of my journey to Tokyo was rather unremarkable until I stepped foot outside of Tokyo station. Alone and mapless I was left mainly to my own wit and cunning to find my way to a hotel that my mother was in. I saw a white man on his Blackberry and I asked the nice english speaker which way was Ginza, the district wherein I knew the hotel to be. Well, he lied and pointed in the wrong direction. So here I was, wandering around Tokyo at night trying to find my mother. By some miracle, I found a map and looking at it for a while, noticed that around the corner was my destination! Win.

A lot happened over the break while I was in Tokyo and nearby areas. I will keep you tentatively wondering what they may be since my post is going to end here. Don't fret, tomorrow you should get another post. Think of this as a "to be continued..."

Monday, September 14, 2009

Who wants gyoza?

So I have taken a few pictures of silly Japanese things with my small, point-and-shoot digital camera and I was all ready to upload them for you all, but guess what I forgot. Yes, the tiny yet crucial cord that connects that camera to my computer. Don't fret everyone, I will get it soon but until that comes I thought I would recount a rather embarrassing and pathetic story about when I wanted gyoza. These are little dumplings that are quite fantastic and I had a great craving for some.

Keep in mind two things: this actually happened about a week ago and since then my confidence and ability to speak the language has slightly improved; also Japanese people don't handle bluntness well. Ok, let's begin.

So Cooper and I found a place on our map that was said to be a gyoza restaurant. We had trouble before looking for restaurants on our bikes so we decided to memorize the name of the place, write the Kanji for gyoza down and take the map with us just incase we still failed. With all these precautions, we still failed. There was no sign that said 'gyoza' nor a very clearly written name of 'Oshu.' There was, however, a pretty happening joint that we had passed earlier and we decided to head back and eat there.

Inside we see people all in the same black and white uniform rushing about very dramatically and the patrons were sitting at their tables or at the bar, stuffing food into their pie-holes and acting rather un-japanese-like. Sometimes one of the workers would fly over to a microphone, shout something quite abrasively into it in Japanese before returning to their missions. Cooper and I saw a small podium with some paper and a pen on it. Without thinking, almost instinctively, we walked over to it, wrote "Wilson" in Japanese, circled what we assumed was 'table' and 'two people,' and sat down on a bench to wait. Proud that we unquestioningly did what we thought we were supposed to do we felt our pride crushed as two people came in to the restaurant and struck up a conversation with the person behind the register! "What is going on?! What did we just do? Were we supposed to talk to the person behind the register instead of writing on that paper? What did we just sign up for?!" Our brief moment of panic was subsided when a man in uniform arrived quite abruptly and said, "WIRUSON-SAN!" Cooper leapt up and yelled back, "HAI!" Slightly frightened, this person nevertheless led two stupid white kids to a table.

Just as we were sitting down, he let out a flurry of Japanese words, one of which I thought was "sake." I did not want sake, so I said back to him, "mizu dake." This just means, "water only." That's it; nothing polite or humane about it. He looked at me confused for a moment before gesturing to the table and saying, "menu," very slowly. Then he slid a pitcher of water that was already on the table to me and cast me one last disdainful look as he turned to leave. He had left a sheet of paper on the end of the table with a grid and lots and lots of japanese words that neither Cooper, nor I could even begin to read. "Shit. What the hell are we supposed to do with this? Do we put our order on it? How do we know where to put it?" I had cleverly decided to spy on the family next to us to see what they do with it. Casually, I looked over and noticed the waitress was marking something on it. Thank GOD we don't have to deal with it!

We eventually decide what we want from the menu thanks to a few pictures of bowls of meat and stir-fried vegetables. I also noticed they had gyoza! What a victory! I put the menu back and we clean off the table, clearly ready to order. Well, not clear enough. Five minutes pass by and we wonder where our server is. After twenty minutes and wondering how to distinguish the wait staff from the host staff from the bussers, I make up my mind again to watch newly seated customers summon service. I watch two men walk into the place, get seated, pull out a menu, when all of a sudden food appears! Somehow food was brought to them when I clearly saw no one take an order! Thinking this is a fluke, I watched two more parties sit, look at the menu, and have food delivered! This happened three times and the mystery of how to order lingered on!

Cooper decided to man up and leaned over to someone cleaning the table next to us. "Excuse me," he said in Japanese, "we are stupid foreigners. How does food come?" The lady understood we wanted to order and she knelt down by the sheet of paper. We had noticed on the menu a slightly larger number next to the price of each item with a strange symbol next to it. Curious, Cooper tried to ask what the symbol meant. An avalanche of Japanese came roaring at us wherein we caught nothing. Not yet defeated, Cooper tried to rephrase his question only to be met with another onslaught of linguistic fury. While the lady was talking, I thought I should offer some help, but I didn't really know what I was saying. I leaned over the table, pointed to the price and said, "chigau!" This just plainly means, "wrong!" Realizing my error I looked up to meet the second face of confusion and annoyance at my existence. I sat back in my seat and slowly took a drink of my water that I so clearly demanded earlier that night. The woman turned her head from me and angled herself directly to Cooper, cutting me off with her shoulder. She talked one more time while Cooper pretended to understand what she said. Finally, we ordered two stir-fries and some gyoza. She left in a strikingly similar fashion the man earlier had done.

Later, a third person came and delivered our food. As she turned to return to her job, I noticed I didn't have my gyoza that I had so much wanted. I didn't quite know how to ask for it and in a state of panic I just shouted, "Gyoza!" And there was number three! This person walked back over to the rude, asinine gaijin who just shouted food at her, made a crude mark on the paper and got my gyoza. When she returned I tried to thank her as politely as I could, but that most likely just made things worse. Suffice it to say, that night was not one of my finer Japanese experiences.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Enjoy refreshing taste in relaxing time

The pouring rain in Kyoto, Japan caused me to seek refuge inside a McDonald's. Well, that, and I hadn't eaten in some time. There was a cardboard cut-out of a man holding a tray of food that was much too close for me. He is named Mr. James and he is the biggest nerd I have ever seen. His comb-over has to be the greasiest, most nasty looking hairstyle known to mankind. Mr. James' job is to promote a new sandwich; what a fulfilling life that must be.

I made it to Kyoto alone, completely relying on my own devices and when I saw the tall, needle-like tower that stands next to the station, a combined rush of excitement and pride flew through me.

My Japanese is slowly improving though trying to get control of the language is like trying to tame a wild grizzly bear. From my seat in the wonderful American restaurant, I could see a construction site across the street with a sign that read, "Kyoto Yodobashi Camera Project." Below this strange description were two small digital marquees with rapidly changing two digit numbers. Next to this was a chart with ranges of numbers and more descriptions all in Japanese. I was able to deduce that the numbers were decibels and the ranges were describing similarly loud situations from "jet engine" to "office room." It is the tiny victories such as these that keep me going.

Friday, September 4, 2009

One week down

It is currently Saturday morning at the end of my first week in Japan and I am not really sure where to begin. This first week has been largely orientations and meetings which have droned on and on due to the loud, rambling, reiterating, and slightly offensive Iga-san. However, now that it is Saturday, I think I am largely through with listening to her repeat herself on how we should attend everything we sign up for, we shouldn't assume the Japanese are like Americans, and we should park our bicycles in the bike rack. Despite the awful speeches she delivered, there was a little bit of excitement to be had on our own.

This glorious piece of machinery is my assigned bicycle. Its fabulous grey chipped paint, rusted kickstand, and distorted basket will be my wheels for the rest of my stay in Japan. It is old and weary but damnit, it has character. During our orientation several students from the local Japanese University led groups of us on a bike tour around Hikone, highlighting many important buildings and areas such as the super store, Hikone station, and the post office. The super store is called Cainz and it is like Meijer, but much larger and stranger. It has a few restaurants but they do not have the quality of food one would hope to enjoy on his first few days in Japan. This seemed to be my luck, though, when I tried to eat at my first legitimate restaurant here called Joyfull. From a distance and because of the font, I thought it was called Joyfun, which would have made the place more successful in my opinion. This food sucked too. So perhaps not.

But! With enough practice, I was able to find a better place to eat and one that was a little bit closer. It is called Chanpon and it is a ramen shop. Japanese ramen is so much more intense than American ramen! Here, the noodles are topped with meat, egg, bean sprouts, mushrooms; pretty much anything you think should or should not accompany noodles and broth. You can find a picture of Chanpon on my flickr, the URL is at the bottom of the page.

Twice, high school students came to JCMU and we were encouraged to meet with them. The first group was from a nearby school called Maibara. They came to practice their english. We were paired off two by two, grouped with two of the students, and made to talk. It was a little awkward at first when we didn't really know how to begin, but one student seemed to have quite a few questions for us and proceeded to drill us on our lives, habits, interests, and hometowns. It was actually pretty fun speaking english with these kids and they seemed to have a good time too. At the end, they asked for a picture and as I stood there smiling with them and holding up the peace sign, I was hating myself for forgetting my camera in my room.

The second group of students came from Zeze high school and they gave presentations to us about Lake Biwa. This time, I did bring my camera, but I thought it might add to the stress they already have about giving this presentation completely in english if I were to start snapping photos. These presentations were very scientific and I marveled at how good their english must be if I could follow whether or not the lake was eutrophic or if purification action was taking place on the inland lakes. After they were through and left, I decided that I maybe didn't want to go swimming in the lake now that I know it is filled with bad sorts of phytoplankton and is a little too dirty for fish to live. It is still quite beautiful though.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Touch down in the land of the rising sun

Waking up at 6:40 this morning made me realize both that my feeble attempts to ward off jet-lag have failed and that the sliding doors in Cooper and my apartment are far too loud. It is a great day in Japan: 72 degrees and sunny. The view from my window consists largely of telephone poles and bike racks, but there are great leafy hills off to my right and I can see Lake Biwa peeking at me between some trees on the left.

The flight to Japan went about as smoothly as one might expect a 14 hour flight to be. We were all rather excited to get going and this energy fueled us for the first four hours. Then, as the in-flight movie "Monsters vs. Aliens" began playing, we all realized that we were in for quite a lengthy stay in a cramped metal tube. My carry-on fit neither beneath my seat nor in the overhead compartment but instead found a spot exactly in the only area Northwest had designated for my feet. Suffice it to say, I was uncomfortable. Even with the 32 degree recliner seat, I had quite a difficult time sleeping. In the middle of my battle for comfort around hour six, I decided to pop half a Xanex into my mouth and put my knees up on the seat in front of me. If I was to be uncomfortable, I would be bringing the guy in front of me down too.

Once, while awaking from my Xanex induced coma, I heard someone shout for a doctor and lots of people were standing in the aisle only a few rows in front of me. A lady had collapsed on the plane and no one really knew what to do. The closest thing to a doctor was the stewardess who propped her up in an open seat. As the lady began recovering consciousness, I went back to my fight to lose it.

We touched down around 6 pm local time. The sun was beginning to set as we streamed off the plane. Customs went quickly since we seemed to be the only flight to arrive then. After everyone who would be staying at JCMU had gotten their luggage, exchanged currency, and used the potty, our point of contact in Japan decided to shepherd us all toward the shuttle. With a healthy dose of Shakira sprinkled with some Eiffle 65, I looked out the window at the passing cities and the illuminated buildings and tried not to think about how much I wanted my bed. Finally, we made it to JCMU. A brief speech in the lobby of the residential hall concluded with us receiving our keys, a bottle of water, and a cup of ramen noodles. I decided to hold off on my Cup Noodle and instead, collapse onto my firm bed for the night.