Sunday, February 27, 2011

Festival O' Snow

A few weeks ago, I headed to the very north of Japan with Jessica and a few friends to experience, Sapporo's snow festival. It was on my list of things to do while I was here in Japan, and man was that a good choice. The festival was spectacular and the group we went with made the trip that much more amazing! 

As Jessica was part of the group I went with, she too blogged about it in her fabulous blog, Adventures in Japan. She did such a great job writing about it, that I asked if I could borrow her entry for my own. 

Jessica wrote 90% of the following, I simply tweaked it a bit and added my own pictures. She's a great writer, enjoy!
I'm going to preface this entry by saying that I couldn't possibly begin to capture the essence of this trip through a blog entry or pictures. That would involve posting several one-liners and links to youtube clips that would only be mildly funny to you, the reader, and probably lead you to think that we went crazy being stuck together for so long. Quite the contrary.

The destination? Sapporo, Hokkaido. The crew? Ben, Michael, Kate, Whitney, Ikumi, Joel, and me. The itinerary? The Sapporo Snow Festival (and ridiculous shenanigans, of course). A trip made for success.

Our entire adventure began Thursday evening (February 10th, to put it into perspective). My dear friend, KEITO CHAN, was arriving from Chiba to join us! Already in the car were Ben (driver), Joel, and me. After swooping her up from the train station, we were off to the grocery store to buy dinner. Kate and I, being the two people that we are, were entirely predictable. Any guesses as to what we chose? If you thought crackers, cheese and are RIGHT! Also, throw in some Pringles and chocolate-covered almonds in there for good measure. My, aren't we healthy? We met up with Michael, who was already at Ben's house, and feasted upon our junk food while watching youtube videos (hence the reference to it above) and reading excerpts from a book called Tokyo Confidential. It's a must-read for anyone that has been, is in, or will be going to Japan. Shocking stories.
The book is seriously worth the investment.
Snack plate babayyy!

The next morning came early, with a 45 minute drive to Hachinohe train station to meet Ikumi and Whitney and a 10 minute cab ride to the ferry terminal. Let me pause right here...we are currently at seven people total in the group. The original plan until about a week before the trip  was to cram seven people into a kei car, take the ferry to Hokkaido, and then drive another two hours to Sapporo. With seven people. (By the way, a kei car is a very compact car that are common in Japan; they're very economical and I don't know what they're called kei cars). After purchasing our tickets, we jumped on the ferry, eager to begin the eight hour boat ride to Hokkaido.

Let me tell you, the ferry was nothing like I had expected! 

Aaw! Happy people! It turns out, we had a ton of room to spread out, there was an onsen to get all fresh and clean, and a restaurant (final verdict on the food: first ferry food= bad; second ferry food=good). A few naps, a lunch at the restaurant and a walk outside (Japanese air circulation is non-existent), we finally arrived in Hokkaido. Oh happy day! Our bus ride to Sapporo was uneventful and most of all, we just wanted to shower. Two hours later, we arrived in the awesome city of Sapporo. It's a large city like San Francisco nestled in the snowy mountains. The landscape was a beautiful contrast.

Our group had split up and reconvened for dinner not too far from our hotel in the Susukino area, which I later found out is a prime spot for partying. We found ourselves at a seafood izikaya, a restaurant offering a plethora of sea creatures sliced, diced and cooked at our whim. Sounds tasty, doesn't it? Well, we had a grand time. Michael's Australian friend, Matt, joined us along with his Australian friends, and because we're foreign, we got put in the back of the restaurant. Probably a good decision on the restaurant's part. Things got rowdy after the 3rd or 4th round of double whiskey shots and my camera was able to capture a few of the ensuing moments.

Whiskey shots...ew
Between departing from the restaurant and heading to karaoke, we lost half the group. The Americans got a bit too wild for the Australians, and they headed home. In reality, they had a big day of travel in front of them, but I think that some of them had one double whiskey shot too many and couldn't handle it. Well, the show must go on! So our smaller, but no less special, group headed to towards karaoke. Ben's friend from high school is not only doing JET, but was also in Sapporo with some of her JET friends. They already had a karaoke room reserved. Perfection. After finally locating the correct Big Echo (a nationwide karaoke chain), we quickly made ourselves at home, added our songs to the playlist and got to singing. The usual shenanigans ensued.
Sapporo's finest

This is what 110% looks like.
Because we were in a big city, McDonald's was the natural choice for our post-drinking meal, so off we went. Kate and I ordered our regulars (black pepper Shaka Shaka chicken and a Big Mac, respectively) and we all engaged in some pretty hilarious conversations that will never be recalled, unfortunately. You're all disappointed. We returned to the hotel, which would be a good time to show you how large our room was. We were able to fit five of us in there...pretty impressive.

The next morning we dragged ourselves out of bed at a reasonable hour, got ourselves a breakfast of champions at a convenny, and headed to the snow festival. Oh yes! The motivation for the entire trip. Essentially a series of snow and ice sculptures spread throughout the city, the Sapporo Snow Festival has been attracting people from all over Japan for over 60 years. We had seen a few the night before in Susukino, but today was totally focused on seeing everything. What we learned that day: the city of Sapporo and the vendors at the festival probably didn't take advantage of any native English speakers to proofread their signs; boots meant for rain are not insulated enough to be walking around in on snow and ice; going to the snow festival at the end during a particularly warm week in February probably isn't the best idea; Hawaii is a country, or at least is meant to represent the entire United States; Food from the Americas was represented by something called the New York Burger, which seemed to be your standard  cheeseburger with a fried egg...oh yea, I have that all the time.

It really is the little things in life.

After adding a few to the crew, we headed over to the Sapporo Beer Garden for some nomihodai (all you can drink/eat). This particular nomihodai was limited to 100 minutes, so it was the goal of all 15 of us to shove as much Ghangis Khan and down as much Sapporo beer as possible in that time frame. The food was your standard yaki niku, with all lamb. The place provided plastic bags (which we assumed were to bag your clothes so they didn't stink of lamb afterwards) and bibs, so the grease splatter from the pan didn't stain anything. Charming. I decided the best way to go about this was to pace myself with the person next to me, who just so happened to be Joel. We're about the same size, although being a guy I believe him to have a much higher tolerance than me. I kept up, even with drinking darks and half/half...but I did lose count. Kate suggested we do a throwback to college days and keep count with marking on our arm. No one had a marker. Damn.

When our 100 minutes were all up, there was talk of karaoke, but we migrated to another bar that was known for its something or other. To be honest, I wasn't paying attention. Upon crossing its threshold, I felt like I was back in America. The place was full of gaijin. There were JETs from all over the country and several military as well, mostly from Aomori prefecture. I'm not sure how much time passed while we chatted and drank away, but we soon found ourselves, once again, at McDonald's. Shocker. We all had our same orders, except Kate had managed to convert Ben to the Shaka Shaka chicken. Well, this caused quite the stir! While Kate and Ben were "shaka'ing", a foreigner (we took to calling her Russian girl...not sure if she really was) behind us made a few comments about quieting down. No one in our group heard except me, so, being the intoxicated troublemaker that I was, encouraged them to continue "shaka'ing" louder, if possible. Russian girl commented even louder this time, "I need it quiet in here!"...and that just got us all laughing uncontrollably. First of all, it was 3am. What the hell was this girl doing at Mickey D's at 3am if she needed quiet? Everyone knows that's the post-drinking/drunk food stop! Of course, her comment encouraged Ben to move his "shaka" performance from our table to standing in the aisle, much to the delight of a couple of Japanese girls sitting next to us.

NOTE: Had the woman who commented been Japanese, we would've complied with her was simply because this lady was a gaijin at a McDonald's at 3am on a weekend asking us to quiet down. Ridiculous? Yes, I think so.

The next morning, we dragged ourselves to the ferry station to board our nine hour ferry back to Aomori. Although not exactly thrilled to end the weekend and return to our "normal" lives, it was certainly a trip to put in the books. Like I said, I don't think I was able to properly capture the essence of the trip through this entry...

The trip really was amazing, and Jessica did such a nice job capturing it! Hope you enjoyed having a guest writer!

Excited to cross something off her Japan to do list, 

Monday, February 14, 2011

My First Winter

For those that don`t know, which is probably very few reading this, I am from Redondo Beach, CA. A beach town in the greater LA area and a land of eternal shorts and t-shirts. I grew up 4 blocks from the beach, my High School had a surf team, and as a child I was significantly blonder and tanner than I am now. I am a beach kid for sure. Winter to my knowledge has consisted all of a long sleeve shirt and occasionally a jacket.

I love where I'm from.
Redondo Beach, CA
Seeing snow and being in the cold has always come in 2 or 3 day chucks, it usually is accompanied by a 2-3 hour drive and a car load of people ooooing and awwwing as the snow appears. Pictures are taken, and we revel in the beauty of the white canvas before getting back in our cars and driving home to the land of year round sandals.

On my bucket list of things to do, is to live in a place with seasons, not necessarily forever, but I feel like it`s something I need to experience. Living abroad is also on that list, I`m killing two birds with one stone over here in Japan.

So as it has started to get colder in Kamagaya I started to get a little bit excited. It was new to have to wear two pairs of pants all the time, to roll over earlier in the morning and turn on the heater. I discovered that scarves have a real function and though it may feel less luscious, a thinner towel works best after the shower because it dries faster. I understand why people have a separate box for their winter clothes, a concept that was completely foreign to me before. Unfortunately I also now understand how easy it can be to gain weight in the winter. Needn`t worry, I joined a local gym with Sinapi:)

My neighbor Kim, from Wisconsin along with my parents, originally from New York and Pennsylvania, chuckle at all these little `discoveries` I have. All of the above have experienced real winter, where I have only experienced as much as a sweatshirt. I excitedly called my parents to update them on the fact that there was frost on leaves as I biked to school one day, then later to ask them if they knew what a difference hats made when you bike?!

My mom exhaled and my dad chuckled. Apparently they did.

When I called my parents again to inform them about another one of my revelations, that I now understand that good socks work wonders, my mom rolled her eyes and again exhaled. I think she feels like she failed as a parent. All my life college was the big priority, the ultimate goal, the carrot in front of the horse, who knew that maybe shipping Kate off to the east for a winter would have educated her in the ways of the world.

Kim was trying to grasp the fact that I`ve never had a white Christmas. Not even close. Our Christmas day generally consists of a walk with the whole family, and the dog along the beach, to get coffee and enjoy the weather.

Christmas in Redondo
The teachers at GoChuu for a while were still trying to understand that I don`t have snow where I live. When we had flurries here the other day, I was SOOOOO excited and stared out the window for the better part of the morning. Keima finally took me outside, like a child, to take pictures. He then had to call my name 3 times to pull me away from my enchantment when it was time to go to class. When we got to class, the students were pretty excited about the snow as well, though not nearly as excited as I, and Keima told them all that I had never seen snow. A blatant lie. But we then had a brief conversation about the weather in CA and how it doesn`t snow in LA. And now they know. Something I thought they may have known from movies, but maybe not.

It then semi snowed here another day, and all the English teachers I work with texted me to say they were thinking of me and how excited I must be, which made me smile.

Yesterday was Valentine`s Day and during our little girls movie night, consisting of wine and chocolate, it was apparently snowing. Keima texted me a photo to tell me that it had and I bolted to the window to check it out. When the movie was over we went outside to play. It was still snowing, like falling from the sky snowing!, and we made snow angels and a snow man, complete with a carrot and everything!  It was so fun, and I was loving every second, the wine and sappy movie probably helped too, but it was such a treat.

This is probably the most exciting thing that has happened to me lately so I thought I would share! Enjoy the pics!

As soon as the movie ended we bolted from the house to
play in the snow, wine and all!

The Morning After
Looking left from my front door

Looking to the right

The Morning After at school

Ohayooo GoChuu!

How I Keep Warm
a.k.a. Things I Didn`t Know Existed Until Now

These are just a few little things around my house that simplify my life and keep me warm during this first winter of mine.

Felt sticky seat cover that take the chill out when you sit.

Window shutter
Effective, but I hate how dark it is inside.

Kerosene Heater
This is from the teacher's room at school, it's directly behind my desk.
They are in every classroom as well.
And yes I too was shocked when I heard that was the type of heater they use,
especially because when it's on you have to open a window.
Counter productive? I think so. 

Stay warm everyone!


Valentine`s Day In Japan

It`s a little different here, which I didn`t know, so allow me to share.

U.S.                                                                             Japan
-February 14                                                              
-February 14

-colors are red and white                                                        
-colors are red and white

-give flowers, chocolate, cards or a surprise gesture

-only girls give chocolate to boys

-generally most of the responsibility falls on the guy, sorry boys
                                                                                    -There is what`s called `giri-choco`. What it really means is chocolate the girls are semi obligated to give to the boys they`re close too. For example, the group of 1st grade women teachers (our 7th grade) all put in money to get the male teachers chocolate.

If you`re wondering when it is going to be the guys turn to give to the girls, well that would be March 14. White Day.

I have yet to experience it, but as I understand it, Valentine`s Day is girls to guys and White Day is guys to girls. I`m not sure why we all can`t give things to each other on the same day, but none the less there are two days.

The following is from wiki explaining how White Day came about. It`s pretty interesting, read away…

`White Day was first celebrated in 1978 in Japan. It was started by the National Confectionery Industry Association (全国飴菓子工業協同組合) as an "answer day" to Valentine's Day on the grounds that men should pay back the women who gave them chocolate and other gifts on Valentine's Day. In 1977, a Fukuoka-based confectionery company, Ishimura Manseido (石村萬盛堂), marketed marshmallows to men on March 14, calling it Marshmallow Day (マシュマロデー).
Soon thereafter, confectionery companies began marketing white chocolate. Now, men give both white and dark chocolate, as well as other edible and non-edible gifts, such as jewelry or objects of sentimental value, or white clothing like lingerie, to women from whom they received chocolate on Valentine's Day one month earlier. If the chocolate given to him was giri-choco, the man, likewise, may not be expressing actual romantic interest, but rather a social obligation.`

This Valentine`s Day, as I had no Valentine or even a dollop of a love life, we had a girls night! Sinapi, Kim, Maya, one of Sinapi`s friends, and Yuki, one of mine from work, came over to Sinapi`s to watch the movie Valentine`s Day. Highly recommended if you haven`t seen it! There of course was wine and chocolate involved and other snacks.

Sinapi and our V-Day fiesta!

Kim & Snapz

Maya & Mizuho

Yuki! My coworker from GoChuu

Happy Valentine's Day everyone!

It was a great time!

Hope you all had a great V-Day!


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Doctor's Visit: "Your jaw is wrong."

Let’s take a break from India and come back to little Kamagaya so I can tell you about my trip to the doctor’s office.

For about a month now I have had a dull ear ache that comes and goes. It is in both ears at times, though significantly worse in my left. I have found that it hurts more when it’s cold out, whatever that means, and at certain pitches or volumes I find myself cringing. I decided that enough is enough. I had been putting it off, since I wasn’t quite sure what the doctors were going to do about it, but yesterday I decided I should at least try.

I asked Sinapi how I would even go about going to the doctor. She graciously said she would take me. So after school we walked down the alley, took a left at the train tracks and went to the little office next to the vending machine.

As we walked up the stairs, she told me this is where she came when she broke her finger, so at least we knew their was some legitimacy here. We walked in and up to the little counter, as a father and his son were walking out. The 3 year old did a far from subtle double take when he saw an American and Samoan waiting in line behind him. We waved. With his jaw still dropped, he waved back. CuteJ

Then it was our turn. We were now the only ones in the waiting area, and from over the counter, we talked to the two nurses. Sinapi played translator as we explained my symptoms. Through the counter window to the right I could see the doctor. He was leaning back on his desk chair, with his feet up on the stool next to him. The doctor was about 20 feet from the nurses who were simply working as a liaison between him and us. I wanted to scream, “Dude will you just get up and come look in my ear!” he could have done it over the counter if that would have been easier, since it seems the entire goal was to keep us on the opposite side of the wall.

In the end they decided to refer us to an ear, nose and throat specialist. One of the nurses drew us a little map. Sinapi and I walked home, map in hand, grabbed our bikes and headed down the street past the video store and left at Denny’s.

We found it no problem. Parked our bikes and went it. Took off our shoes and put on their slippers, and walked to the counter. Sinapi explained why we were there, and I handed over my health insurance card. After confirming that romanji would be ok I took a form to fill out. The office already looked a little more legit than the last place.  There were about 15 people in the waiting room, all with slippers on, and about 13 with those SARS masks. VERY popular here. Sinapi and I refuse to wear them. Gotta draw the line somewhere.

We hunkered down and flipped through magazines, talked about her upcoming wedding (yay!), and I tried and failed to read a children’s book in Japanese. After about 30 minutes, a man walked in who Sinapi recognized as one of the elementary school teachers she works with. She called his name and he wheeled around with and, “OOOOOOhhh Sinapi, HELLO!”

He took a seat next to us and we had a simple conversation about who I was, and why we were all there. He was such a sweet older man. Through his mask he explained that he had a throat ache, and was hoping to get some sort of medicine. “Ahhhh” Sinapi and I simultaneously responded. I said I had an each ache, well literally what I said was, “Watashi mo mimi, ittai!” Literally translated, My ear, ow!
I’ve been here 6 months, at this rate it could be years before I put together a real sentence.

He also explained that she was a good doctor. Sinapi and I didn’t realize it was a woman, but were both excited by that. He continued to explain that she was a good doctor because she, “found my nose cancer”. Without trying to offend anyone I wrinkled my forehead, as I tried to figure out if this was lost in translation or in fact was this exactly what he wanted to say. I turned to Sinapi. She had the same look. We clarified in Japanese, where he said the exact same thing. Hmmm.
Is there even such a thing as nose cancer? I mean I’m assuming this balding, rolly polly, 50 year old elementary school teacher doesn’t do any hard drugs. How do you get nose cancer? Seriously?

Anyway, he really was so sweet and offered to translate for us when we went in if we wanted. I said of course, and thanked him continuously. Then it was our turn.

“Bone-san!” We assumed that was Bohan. I stood and walked toward the nurse. As did my entourage. Meet team Kate.

-First up, the patient, Kate. 24 year old American, standing at 160 cm and complaining of an earache.
-Next up we have 25 year old Sinapi from New Zealand, healthy as can be.
-Last but not least, we have a 50 year old, elementary school teacher from Japan, complaining of a throat ache.

Got the picture?

The nurse greeted us as we walked through the door single file, and sat us on a bench just on the other side. I could see around the curtain that it was just one big room with one chair. I could see the doctor and her two assistants.

I felt like we were waiting to see the wizard.

Finally the person in front of us left and it was my turn. They told me to put my purse in a bin and have a seat. Before I sat down the chair began to move up. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz it said and I, along with Sinapi began to chuckle. Sensei chuckled too and nudged Sinapi not to laugh. Which of course only made us laugh harder. I tried to pull it together as the doctor picked up an old fashion medal instrument to look into my ear, all as my team stood by on the side lines, and the two nurses milled about. There were 6 people in that room, all to help Kate with her little ear ache. I tried not to think about it as I would start laughing, but it was getting more ridiculous by the second. And it was about to peak.

The doctor picked up the tool to look in my ear, and I swear to God before she even put it in my ear, said, “Anata no mimi dijoubu.” Your ear is fine. I understood that no prob, and before any of team Kate’s translators could say anything I said, “Honto?!” Really?!

She held strong with her decision, and as I was still thinking about it, she picked up some other tool. My mind ran through the possibilities of what it was or where she was going to put it. I opened my mouth. She shoved it up my nose. Sinapi started to laugh, and so did I. Now I was shaking with laughter in this chair that was zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzing up and down with and international audience. 

I sooooo badly wanted to take a picture. But there is now way they would have allowed that. Sorry.

She then did look in my mouth and saw the retainer I have glued to my bottom few teeth. She started to ask questions about it, I think mostly out of curiosity, but I thought if she’s gonna try and connect that to my achy ear, I’m going to have to question her medical school. I told her I’d had it since I was 13 and pretty sure it had nothing to do with my ear.

She then held my face as I opened and closed my jaw. It doesn’t usually crack, but this time I let it in the hope that she would give me something in some stretch of a connection. That was a mistake. She said something in Japanese, and the Japanese teacher, team member number 3, translated it. “Umm, she said, your jaw I wrong.” I shot Sinapi a glance, who immediately raised her hand to her mouth to stifle laughter. I was more thankful than ever that she was there.

“Okkkkkk,” I responded. Not really sure who to make eye contact with.  

Team member number 3 translated again, “She says you should see a dentist,” (not a chance in hell I thought) “do you know of one?”

I shot Sinapi another glance, trying to make sure we were on the same page, all the while keeping up the Japanese harmony in this situation. “Maybe Sinapi knows of one?” I said as sincerely as I could muster, while trying to make sure she knew that wasn’t going to happen.

She caught on real fast. “Yup yup, I do.”

Then we were done. We were sent back to the waiting room, so I could pay and get my insurance card back. I was clearly bummed. We waited for a bit in silence all pondering what just happened. Finally the teacher said to us, “Do you believe her opinion?” His wording made me smile. It was clear we didn’t. Sinapi and I just smiled and nodded.

My name was called to pay, it cost me 800yen, about 10 USD without insurance it would have been about 35 USD.  While I was up paying, the teacher and Sinapi were talking. When I sat back down, he said to me, “I feel sorry for you.” He said it so sweetly. I smiled and said, I did too!

Then it was time to go. We thanked just about everyone we walked by, changed our shoes, put on our gloves and walked outside, where we promptly started laughing hysterically.

Between laugher Sinapi told me that, the teacher had clarified with her, how to say, I feel sorry for you, and as soon as I came back he said it. Haha cute.

“Oh and for the record,” I added as we got on our bikes, “we’re not going to see a dentist, or any type of oral surgeon, which I’m sure is what they were hinting at.”

She laughed, “Ya, I soon as I heard that I was like awww hell no!”

We decided a Starbucks was in order. I treated, as I was so grateful for her visiting doctor’s office after doctor’s office with me and serving as translator, all the while keeping me from feeling like I was going crazy.

She mentioned that she knew of a pharmacist that might be able to help. So after Starbucks we headed there. I already liked him better as soon as we walked in, though I promptly was lectured not to use q-tips in my ears (IknowIknowIknowIknowIknow) and was given the full arm X when he described it. Got it sir. Though he did give me some antibiotics and another set of pills to take if the pain gets too bad. I was thrilled. We thanked him again and again, then I grabbed my stuff and headed to my Japanese class.

After class I was exhausted and my ear really was achey. I was encouraged by sources, that shall not be named, to call in sick today, which I did, and am relaxing my “wrong jaw” at home and taking my antibiotics before I head to the Hokkaido Snow Festival for this 3 day weekend with Jessica and friends. The snow festival was actually the real reason I wanted to go to doctor, if it hurts in the cold and I’m going to a snow festival, umm hello!?!!?!!

Ok now it’s time to shower and layer up before heading to the north. Hope everyone has a great weekend!

Newly q-tip free,


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