Sunday, October 24, 2010

Trip to the North

This past Monday we didn’t have school or work as it was, Health and Sports Day...God I love this country. I have not a clue what that means but I used my free Monday as an opportunity to go and visit my good friend Jessica up in the northern part of Japan, in Aomori Prefecture. 

While Japan is not that large of a country, especially compared to the US, travel within Japan can be quite expensive and require all kinds of vehicles. My trip to Jessica consisted of an hour train ride to get to Tokyo where I purchased my Shinkansen, bullet train, ticket. Once I got to the stop in Jessica’s town it was another 40 minute drive to Jessica’s apartment.

The Shinkansen alone was about $300. To add to the fun, there were no seats left and it was standing room only. So I bought myself a bento box, which I ate in the designated waiting zone, then headed to find my assigned train car and wait in the designated paint area until the train arrived. Everything in Japan is `designated` so really there should be no question as to where you need to be at any given moment.  

When I got on the train it was very clear where the standing room area was. I settled up against the far wall, plopped by bag down, then plopped down on top of it and opened my book. There was no way I was standing for the 3 hr ride. I really wanted nothing more than to sit for the next three hours and read, Eat.Pray.Love. But, no. There was a lady who was also in the standing room only section who kept smiling at me. I was exhausted and still don’t speak Japanese well enough to have a conversation, so every conversation I do have is exhausting in itself. Then at the next stop a young guy, about my age, came in the back area to join the awkward silence. He smiled when he saw me and asked in Japanese if it was okay that he sat next to me. I, shockingly, understood and said sure. I knew as soon as I answered that was a mistake. He then started talking to me in Japanese and I went to my next go to phrase, which is, ‘I don’t understand.’ He then reverted to perfect English. He cracked open a beer and told me he was from Nepal, but his parents lived in Sendai, which was his stop on this train. I explained my story a bit and then we turned to get the other lady involved. She spoke only Japanese and some English she learned in school. I found out she was 60, though she didn’t look it, and had just come from visiting her grandkids in Tokyo. She was sweet and so excited to talk to us. Meanwhile, I was still exhausted and finding it hard to be my usual `genki` self. I asked when the little food cart was to come around as I wanted, needed, a coffee. They both told me soon.

A lovely fall morning
We’re now about 45min into the ride and it dawns on me that this lady is still standing, while I and my other same aged friend have made ourselves quite comfortable on our bags. The conductor came up to her and told her that there now is in fact an available seat if she would like it, she must have asked when she got on. She politely said no, and looked at us so sweetly and said that she was having fun. Awwwww:) A few minutes later the coffee thing came around and she bought us all coffee. So sweet! Then she too plopped on the ground, smiling while she did it. This may have been one of the more rebellious things she’s done in her life. I can envision her going back to her friends and saying, `They were just sitting on the floor! So I bought them coffee and joined them.` Both my new friends got off at Sendai, two hours in to my 3 hr ride, and I had a seat for the remaining hour, which was lovely indeed.

I arrived in Jessica’s town with her waiting for me in the car with one of her lovely co-workers. Jessica lives in a small town about 40min from the train station. She also doesn’t have a car, so any time she has visitors or she herself wants to go anywhere, she needs to arrange a ride to and from the station. Her co-workers were so sweet and more than happy to take us. When we finally arrived at Jessica’s apartment, we caught up for a bit and then passed out, we were both so tired. God we’re old.

The next morning Jessica and I enjoyed our convenient store coffee, which was starbucks thank you very much, as we watched the only high school in town perform a traditional Japanese dance all the way down 
Main Street
. Apparently learning this dance is a part of their graduation requirement. They danced for about 2 hours and then were headed back to the high school to set up for a festival the next day, which Jessica and I would be attending.

High Schoolers Dancin
Jessica is working in Takko-Machi as both an English teacher and a liaison between this little Japanese town and her home town of Gilroy, CA. Gilroy and Takko are sister cities and garlic capitals of there respective countries. Fun fact: The two towns are located on the same latitude, the latitude where garlic grows best. Learned that little tid bit at the Gilroy Garlic Festival pretty cool huh?! Takko too holds a garlic festival in the Fall.  

Being that she is here as a liaison, foreign, and the only blonde in a 10 mile radius, Jessica is also a celebrity/diplomat. She is invited to just about every event in town and given prime seating. Then makes her rounds and has some chit chat with the officials. She too is all smiles all the time, saying hello to just about every single person that crosses her path.

Over the course of that weekend we were invited to the high school festival and parade along with the elementary school pageant. As for the rest of the weekend we simply ate our way through it, hung out in sweats, watched TV online and caught up. I, having no internet, was more than eager to get in touch with my American side, aka my American shows and movies that I have been missing out on. We had pancakes for breakfast, ate at the Garlic Center for lunch, and had a lovely dinner at Ikeda Farms which had the best beef I think I have ever had. It was SO good and went down so easy.

It was at that dinner that someone exclaimed, “Kate! You’re a real person!!” Indeed I am! Both Jessica and I are famous in each others towns as we constantly mention that we have another friend living in Japan. So when I arrived I think they were surprised to see that I was real!

All in all it was a great weekend! Getting to see a new part of this country and catching up with her was great!

Also, I have officially been accepted to go to India this Christmas! I will be going for a week, Dec 25-Jan 1 and can’t wait! I will be volunteering and building houses. It will be an experience like no other. I’m now off to fill out my visa info and work on Halloween lesson plans!

Until next time…mata ne!


Thursday, October 7, 2010

California Does Kyoto

For those of you who haven’t heard, I had a few visitors this past weekend!!! Renee, my friend and former roommate from college, and A.J. came to Japan to play! They came only for a week, and spent the first portion up in northern Japan with Jessica, my other good friend living here. AJ actually surprised Jessica, and I soooooo with we had video of that! The 3 of them then came to me for a night, before the 4 of us headed off to Kyoto. Still with me?

Jessica & AJ and his latest discovery,
vending machine coffee!!
Renee & I waiting for the ChooChoo     

Outside the Ryokan
Kyoto is about 4 hours away from me. It took us about an hour to get to Tokyo Main Station where we boarded the Shinkansen, bullet train, which was from there a 3 hour ride to Kyoto. My lovely guests brought Jess and I American magazines. While everyone else was sick of trains, I on the other hand was eager to read about how to “Win Anyone Over in 3 Minutes or Less”. Wise words Cosmo. Needless to say, I was stoked for the ride and my high quality reading material. It was my first Shinkansen, though I’m sure not my last, and I have to say it was pretty freakin awesome! It goes so fast, quite the SHOCKER since it is called a bullet train. By the way, in case you hadn’t heard, I believe that the bullet train is what just brought our lovely California governor over here a few weeks ago. Why Mr. Schwarzenegger couldn’t just have called and inquired about how Japan does bullet trains is beyond me, but who wouldn't turn down a reason to get out of the office?

We arrived at Kyoto main station and thanks to our lovely self appointed travel agent, Jessica, she pretty much steered us the rest of the trip. We hopped in a cab to take us to our ryokan. We wanted to make sure Renee and AJ got the most authentic Japanese experience possible while they were here. This ryokan was partly western, though that level varied between rooms. Jessica and I shared a room that was dubbed ‘half-western’ simply because it had a couch. We gave the traditional Japanese, aka couchless room, to our western visitors. This ryokan also provided hairdryers and free wi-fi, both of which I’m sure you could find at any ryokan in the early 1900s.

We walked around the town for a bit, hit up some temples and a convince store. The convince stores, here known as ‘convienees’ have EVERYTHING and are an experience in themselves. They are actually where I pay all my bills as well, no joke. Then it was off to Gion, or the Geisha district. We watched a Geisha show which included some other Japanese art demonstrations like flower arranging and tea pouring. Not exactly an action packed show but still beautiful. We saw some Geisha, or Maiko the step before Geishahood, walkin around, and yes they were real. Though for 100 or so dollars you too can become a Geisha! When we saw the actual accompanied ones, Jessica did exactly what you’re not supposed to do…took a picture right in her face. Though I have to admit that now that we’re home, I am pretty excited we have it. Well done J Brew :) 
Geishas, mid dance

We went to dinner that night and talked about this magical Geisha land. I am fascinated by them, just as I am the Amish. I don’t really think of myself as someone who is all about girl-power, but man I wouldn’t last a day as a Geisha. We joked that they would tell me to pour the tea and I would simply say, “no”. I do realize there is much more to it than that, trust me, I was Google-ing Geisha’s every spare chance I got, and I understand the art behind it all…promise.
After dinner and some Geisha talk it was karaoke time! In Japan you generally get your own private room, usually with some sort of drink deal involved, so it’s a flat rate making payment much easier on everyone.

Beautiful Renee, I look mad at the words.
Yes, people on the
street could see them...

Check it out!

Funny Story: So, during karoke, on the TV as the lyrics are rolling there are always these super cheesy videos playing in the background. During one romantic beachy one, a Hermosa Beach sign came up followed by a Redondo Beach sign! There were a few pictures of the pier and our little area, I was sooooo excited to see home! Pretty random, huh?

Wanna take a guess...
Sunday was our one and only full day in Kyoto and man did we make the most of it! Again, following guidance from our travel agent, Jessica Brewka, we took the local bus to see the golden pavilion, which is exactly what it sounds like, a gold pavilion. 

At the rock garden, it appears the
usual route is our only option, good
thing there was a sign. 
Then we traveled a little further south to see the land of 1,000 Torii Gates. Torii gates, pronounced like the name, Tori, are at the entrance
to every temple. Though usually there is only one, this time there were, I think, over 1,000 and they were all bright orange. If you saw the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, there are few scenes filmed here where the little girl runs through them. Which is exactly what I wanted to do. We walked and walked, and only went a fraction of the way into the path that is miles long, which, in case you are curious does actually lead to a temple, tucked inside the mountain. It was AMAZING and my favorite place in Kyoto by far.

For dinner we found an Irish bar, and I had pizza and beer. Needen’t worry, that American side of me is very much alive and well.

The next morning we took the Shinkansen back to Tokyo where we parted ways with Jessica, our friend and travel agent. She was headed to board another 3 hour Shinkansen back home and I was staying with Renee and AJ, playing with them for the afternoon in Tokyo. Renee works at the Four Seasons hotel in northern CA and gets a few comped nights at other Four Seasons, ergo, for their last two nights our round eyed visitors would be sleeping in luxury. I was just there to take advantage of some MTV, the hotel onsen, a fabulous shower and lovely dinner before I headed back home and off to work the following day.  

View from the room, very Thomas
the Train Engine isn't it?
Love those robes!

It was a great trip and soooo good to see them! I forgot how much fun it is to travel with a little group of friends. You end up with pictures that are WAY more fun and more memories than just the buildings you saw!

Love you guys so much! Miss you already!

Mata ne!

Japanese Class

I have signed up for a Japanese class once a week through an organization called KIFA. It’s an acronym of some kind and I know the K stands for Kamagaya, my town, but that’s about all I know.

Every Wednesday I go for two hours and ask and answer questions in Japanese with two other ladies. The class is taught only in Japanese, as not all of us are fluent English speakers. One lady is from China and one is from Russia. I’m endlessly jealous of the Chinese lady as she can read most of the Kanji, or Chinese symbols, making her two hour class significantly easier than mine. The other lady is from Russia and is married to a Japanese man. She has told me she doesn’t work which was apparent as she was quite eager to make friends. When I walked in for the first time, she excitedly asked me if I was also there because I too was married to a Japanese man…ummm no. I was so taken aback, I chuckled right out loud. Though did my best to stifle it so I wouldn’t laugh right in her face. Being married is just so far from where I am in my life right now I couldn’t help but laugh. Then we took a group picture and she ran over and stood next to me and linked my arm, she asked me how her make up looked and I could smell the alcohol on her breath. Again I tried to hide the laughter behind my smile for the photo. Later she asked for my cell phone number which I was non existent at the time...bummer. Should be interesting! 

I have been to three classes so far and am really enjoying it. I really needed some sort of consistent class to keep me focused. What kills me is when the teacher spits out a whole paragraph of information that ends with a question, and I understand and know the answer to the question, but she would like me to answer in a complete sentence. I HATE those complete sentence answers. Though, what is especially cool is watching the three of us take notes in our native languages. As cheesy as it is I want to try and get a picture of our notebooks all lined up with English, Mandarin and Russian as an explanation to this code known as Japanese that we’re all trying to crack.

Story for ya: So during one of my classes, I think it may have been the first one actually, I was trying to answer a question about ‘whose bag was over there’ which was taking all of my concentration, but to my left I could hear people talking about me. They weren’t speaking English but they didn’t need to be, and despite how polite the Japanese people are, they fail when it comes to being discrete about talking about others in the room. This has happened a few times before and it makes me smile every time. I want to tell them, “Guys! If you would just talk normally, I would have NO idea what you would be saying, but the whispering and glancing over is really giving you away.” Finally, a lady came up to me and asked if she could talk to me after class, I said of course. For a split second, I thought I was in trouble, and then I was like, Kate you’ve been in this class 20 min what could you have possibly done, and Kate you’re 23 does that even happen anymore?

After class I dutifully stayed after to talk to a lady I had never met. Long story short they were asking if I would be a guest speaker at a KIFA English event. This organization has many older members who are decent at English and have joined KIFA to help keep up their English. I was asked to write a 5 minute max speech on anything, preferably USA related. I told them that would be no problem, and they were SOOOOOO excited that for a split second I wondered what I had just agreed to. I went over it with them one more time, the lady who I was originally talking to had now turned in to a crowd of 5 ladies, all talking simultaneously. I managed to also learn that I was getting paid 60 bucks! Not to shabby. Though, all their excitement made me kind of nervous and I was eager to get home and call Ian to have him further explain what I had just signed up for.

Ian aka Big Bro
Ian, from the UK, is going on his 5th year in the JET program, and I have nicknamed him Big Bro. He is my go to guy for clarifications all things Kamagaya, JET and Japan related. Ian where is the post office? Ian my bike tire popped how/where do I fix it? Ian how do I pay for school lunch? Ian what did we just eat for lunch? Ian where do I get my haircut? Ian what is this bill for? Ian how do I pay rent? Ian why are these ladies so flippin excited?! He explained to me that he thinks they just have trouble getting people to agree to speak and they were excited that I had. That was probably the best answer I could have gotten. 

Since that class, I am reminded every class that I am to give a speech on Oct 17, yup got it ladies, I’ll be there at 1 pm don’t you worry. I met with one of the ladies last Tuesday night who took me to dinner, and was so excited that I was “so easy to talk to”, that she invited me to her house to cook and gave me pretty much everything in her purse. I left with origami, chocolate, skittles, Toblerone bars, a map of Hokkido, and these feet warmer things. She took them out to show me how cheep she bought them for and I simply said, “Oh, wow!” and the next thing I know she was forcing them into my hand. I also had already written my short speech, entitled “The Move” where I discuss my move to Japan and how impossible it is to find a job in education in California. I handed her a copy and she was so very impressed, which I think also added fuel to the gift giving.

She actually just emailed me earlier to tell me that the speech was great and she was eager to hear me say it.

I will most definitely let you know how it goes!

Mata ne!

My Job…Sometimes I Too Forget I’m Employed

School is back in full swing. I am getting used to have a regular schedule, school lunches, and biking in the rain.

I am teaching at four different schools, one middle school and four elementary schools.
Just to simplify things for everyone, here is my weekly schedule…

Monday-Gochuu (middle school) all day
Tuesday-Gochuu all day
Wednesday-Gochuu until noon then Chubu
Thursday-Gohon-Matsu all day
Friday-Gochuu until noon then Tobu

The middle school kids are by far my favorite, as are my co-workers there. I absolutely love the three English teachers I work with at Gochuu. Namiko, Taka and Keima (remember him, Hawaiian boy?! He has quite the plethora of nicknames now courtesy of me) have really made my experience what it is there. I got really, really lucky with my placement! We all get along quite swimmingly.

At Gochuu I team teach all of my lessons with one of the three teachers above. They mostly come up with the lesson and I am just there to be excited and add anything I can. I see each class once a week, effectively seeing all the students at the middle school in a week. And no I don’t know their names, there is no way. I am still trying to figure out what color shoes correspond to what grade, though I think I got it now. Also, in the middle school, the students don’t change classes the teachers do. There is a grade per floor.

The situation at the elementary schools is a little different. I pretty much go in and have the class to myself, most of the time. Every teacher is different, and no I don’t know their names either, teachers or students. If you’re wondering how I get by, I literally smile at everyone, seriously. Smiles for miles is a real thing. Some of the teachers completely step aside, others teach with me. The elementary school teachers vary in their English level, most speak a little, but this is where the little Japanese I do know comes into play big time. I also have to be careful to create lessons that I can explain in English only and with simple demonstrations.

What makes it tricky with the elementary schools, is that I won’t see each teacher each week. For example, at Chubuu I teach 5th grade only and there are five 5th grade classes. I am at Chubuu once a week and each time I teach 2 classes. It’s great because I can teach the same lesson 5 times and get REALLY good at it, though I have to be careful to take notes of what I did with each class so I don’t accidently repeat the lesson. Which is exactly what I did yesterday and felt terrible. The lesson was supposed to be another lesson on like/don’t like so it wasn’t that bad, but when I started to do the same game again, the teacher kindly told me in Japanese/English that we already did this game. I apologized profusely and she assured me it was ok, which I actually think it was, but I felt so bad. I promised her I would be ready next week!

School Lunches

Quite the production! We get about an hour for lunch and the meals are great! Hearty and amazingly balanced. Every lunch consists of whole milk, I just felt my mom cringe, I’m getting used to it. Then there is some  type of fish or some sort of protein, and either bread or rice, the carbs alternate days, there is also a little dessert like fruit or yogurt. It is a ton of food and naptime afterward would be great, but no such luck. I eat with the teachers, but the students eat in their classrooms and each class has designated jobs and the kids get dressed in these little white hats and coats, so they look like little chefs. Then they put on those SARS masks and serve the food. Seeing the elementary school kids do this is just precious. Today I was at the elementary school all day and a little guy came into the teachers lounge in his get up to ask for another meatball. It was too cute. 


That's how wet I got with the rain gear,
I may need to review how to get dressed.
I have to be the worlds worst biker. Seriously. And the whole occasional typhoon thing doesn’t help. I have waterproof black pants and a jacket that I wear over my clothes, but I still sometimes manage to get wet, I have yet to figure that one out. Keima and friends make fun of me when I show up to school, but I can’t blame them, I would make fun of me too. Especially because the pants were given to me by a guy so they’re pretty big to begin with, I look like quite the stud I must say.

I look like some type of wet rat,
and am clearly thrilled about it. 

The staying on the left side of the road thing also throws me off, and the unbelievably narrow bike lane I still find ridiculous. The other day I noticed myself literally holding my breath for the majority of my 15 minute ride to Gochuu, haha, wow Kate wow.

Oh! I just applied to build houses in India over Christmas break. I’ll let you know how that goes!

I think that’s all the big stuff for now. Hope you enjoyed it!

Mata ne!

Summer Splash Indeed

With the final week of summer fast approaching, my fabulous friend Mike found us one last hurrah before the cold settles in. Mike, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, is from NZ and discovered that Shapeshifter, one of his favorite bands from his homeland, was playing here in Japan. There was a 2 day, 1 night little weekend trip through the Tokyo Snow Club, of which I am now a member, to go and see this band as well as take part in some other fun outdoor activities. So Trey and I signed up and we were off!

Trey and Mike, one of these days
I'll show you their faces.
The boys spent the night with me on a Friday and we got up at the butt crack of dawn to make sure we made it to Tokyo by 8am the following day. Once in Tokyo, we hopped on board the bus and got comfy for the 3 hour drive to Minakami in Gunma prefecture. There were only about 50 of us on the bus and it seemed everyone immediately got to work making friends. By the time we arrived we all had plans to grab a snack together and explore.

We went for walks and played in a fresh water river, A-MAZINGGGGGGGG!!! Freezing cold but great! A few people bungee jumped, I was not among them though I did watch. Others went canyoning or mountain biking. That night was the concert, so it was back to our ryokan to shower and take a quick nap before going out.
Freshwater river, look how clear it is!

Ryokan & Onsens

Ryokan. We were staying at a traditional Japanese style inn, it was my first time though I’m sure not my last. I think the pictures tell all. We slept on futons on tatani mats and there were Japanese style toilets if that was of interest to anyone. I used it twice before finding the western toilet, thank god. There was also a little onsen in on the ground floor.

Room at the Ryokan
Here is the deal with onsens. For those that don’t know, an onsen is a Japanese hot spring. It can be either inside or outside, and it is lovely to go and sit in. Think fresh water Jacuzzi. I can only handle it for about 10 minutes, but when I leave my skin really does feel smoother and I feel more luscious all around. Rules of the hot spring; I can pretty much sum it up in two: 1) you must shower or rinse off before entering the water, there is a shower right outside the onsen itself. You sit on a bucket thing and rise off, in the girls there was shampoo and stuff if you wanted. And the kicker? There are no bathing suits permitted, you are in fact in your birthday suit. The fact that you’re naked can be a deal breaker for a lot of westerners. I was hesitant at first, but I thought what the hell, this is normal for them and the only reason it’s weird for me is because I didn’t grow up with it. So I dropped my yukata and went for it. It was quite lovely indeed.

At the had to be 2000 degrees.
Thought this picture was good for a chuckle.
That night was the concert and it was quite the good time! Everyone was looking forward to it, but Mike and the other Kiwi’s were beyond excited. By this point we were all buddies, and, I forgot to mention before, from all walks of life. The group was mostly made up of non-Japanese people from all over the world who were either living in Japan temporarily for work, or simply stopping off in Japan before heading back to their home country. I did manage to find another Californian who also happened to be from the LA area! I mention this only because, I felt surprisingly comfortable talking to him and I couldn’t exactly pinpoint it. Yes, he was from CA, and nice of course, he wore beachy clothes similar to mine, with brands that I realized I hadn’t seen in quite sometime, but that still wasn’t it. Finally, he said something, I can’t remember what, but it clicked, it was his speech. He talked EXACLY like I did; fast and with a CA accent. An accent that I was shocked to recognize at all, an accent I didn’t realize I had until I heard it on someone else.  

The following morning we were going on a long hike in the mountains then stopping off at a huge natural onsen, before driving home. I knew about this onsen trip beforehand, which is partially why I went in the onsen at the ryokan. Kinda like a warm up.

The hike consisted first of taking a funicular up the side of the mountain, then hiking about an hour up the mountain. At times it was quite treacherous and there were ropes provided that we had to hold on to so we legitimately wouldn’t slide down the side.  Despite the rain and slippery rocks, it was beautiful!

We got back on the bus and headed for the ginormous onsen. Upon arriving at the onsen, this time outdoors and co-ed, we were shown a huge map and basically given orientation as to the different onsens that were inside this one massive one. I managed to find a shower, inside the girls locker-ish room and did the traditional bucket shower. Definitely a new experience showering in front of 10 other naked girls, first time for everything I guess. Then I dipped into the onsen and did exactly what you do in them…sit.

From there we headed back to Tokyo. Traffic was so bad, we were all on our iphones looking to see if we were going to make our last train home. I did, thank God. We all exchanged information the entire ride home, and since I had gotten my iphone 4 (YA BABY!!!!!) only 2 days before, I was over-joyed to be able to participate in the cell phone number exchanging event.

I believe this group also does a winter trip, they are after all called the Tokyo Snow Club, and I’ll be sure to jump on board that one as well!

Mata ne!


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