Sayounara!

Our last month in Japan may have been our best.  We were showered with goodbye parties, gifts and even new experiences.  Andrew worked like a mad man to try to finish up a bunch of experiments and I packed up our apartment, finished teaching at the school, and got us all ready for our return to Canada. 

One of our highlights from September included VIP service at a whiskey bar where Andrew drank whiskey from the year he was born, as well as we had some that had been made in the lovely Calgary Alberta if you can believe it!  We had a ton samples–mostly which I could only comment on by remarking “yep, that one is also really strong”.  But it was an awesome night with our friends Kensuke and Hiromi.

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That same night our friends took us to a “Oden” restaurant that cooks everything in Red Miso–which Nagoya is famous for but which he had never actually tried yet.  It was a tiny little hole in the wall restaurant which we felt everyone was staring at us and we felt really out of place but of course we got the restaurant talking and everyone practicing their English and one couple even told us all about their travels to Canada.  Coming back to Canada has definitely been an adjustment because usually when I go into restaurants back in Calgary most strangers aren’t quite as interested to chat with me!

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We also went to a “Showa-era” restaurant which was like going back in time! It was in this old Japanese style building but intsead of the calm quiet artistic atmosphere of most Japanese style restaurants this was a hustling bustling joint with people yelling and drinking and laughing.  It was such a cool atmosphere –wooden tables and tatami, smokey and intimidating, but our friends took care of us and showed us how you just grab whatever food you want off of a counter by the kitchen as if you were at a buddy’s house for dinner, and you could get sake from these giant wooden barrels with tiny silver spouts.  It was a really cool experience for sure, and I felt like it was the kind of experience I’d been searching and hoping for from day 1.  It seems Japan has some really authentic experiences for us, but it took about 10-11 months of looking for them and then leaning Japanese, making friends and studying the culture before we could enjoy these things!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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We also had a sushi party at our friends place, and they have a new baby (her name is Yui) who is a couple months old and is an angel baby that never cries. She even let Andrew hold her!

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Yui’s mom Ryoko who helped me with everything early in the year and hosted a party for us on our last night in town.IMG_4574

This is Yui’s Dad, Yuki, who worked with Andrew and also helped him out tremendously in the lab.  They were great friends and we miss them already!!!  IMG_4569

We went to a cool Japanese restaurant for Andrews Lab going away party (I told you we had so many parties!  We were definitely feeling lots of love).  I think my favorite part was when one student awkwardly tried presenting Andrew with a gift on behalf of the lab but got nervous and didn’t know how to express herself in English so handed the gift to another student sitting next to me who then also got confused and just started opening the gift himself! Then he just handed us the opened gift which was an awesome sake set with cups. Awkward delivery, but amazing gift!! This night we also were convinced to eat Fugu which is blowfish and if it is not prepared special you can actually die from eating it! But we were told the bacteria that is poisonous is only found in the ovaries of adult fish and we ate baby ones so apparently it’s not a problem.  Also apparently if the fish are farmed they can prevent it being exposed to the bacteria that is toxic to us.  Regardless, we felt wild and crazy for eating it.

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My Ikebana teacher Hideko dressed up in her Kimono and wrestled me into one of her Kimono’s as well on my last day and we had one last tea time.  I was so sad to leave her.  I realize it might be weird that I was close friends with a 62 year old woman, but we honestly had a riot together and she really took care of me–she always had different recipes and food to give me, tickets to shows, art exhibitions and of course helped me appreciate Ikebana and the tea ceremony.  She was really awesome and I already miss spending Wednesday mornings in her strange little apartment arranging flowers and drinking matcha.

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I had to say goodbye to all my little students as well! Nana and Eito’s parents took Andrew and I out for amazing dinner during our last week too, and Nana started speaking full sentances of English by our last week! It was so rewarding, although on our last lesson just when I was actually reminiscing on how proud of her I was she said to me “I am Nana bathroom” and ran out of the room to the bathroom.  There’s obviously still some work to be done.  I’ll miss those little guys!IMG_4519 IMG_4518

Some of the kids from the school.  Rascals!IMG_4516 IMG_4500 IMG_4497

 

 

 

 

One last sushi party:IMG_4490

 

Andrew mixing up the rice–in Japan sushi generally refers to vinegared rice.  He’s cutting in the vinegar mix with our friend Hiromi.IMG_4488

 

IMG_4486I think it was a great time to leave Japan.  I didn’t want to and didn’t feel ready, but I think it was better to leave in that mind set rather than wait until we were so homesick and tired of our life in Japan that we just couldn’t wait to leave.  I will definitely miss many things, such as seeing elderly people with subtle green or bright pink hair, sweet beans and obscenely cute food.  I think I will always feel Japan when I smell that incense that is always burning in temples or drink green tea from a ceramic cup. I will always appreciate the punctuality, precision and attention to detail that we experienced over the last year.  I think I will miss all the rice based and soy based food, as well as being welcomed into the homes of strangers or mere acquaintances and given food and gifts.  The thoughtfulness and hospitality of friends has been overwhelming, the kindness of strangers we will be forever grateful for.  I’ll miss holidays that we celebrated like the one where families throw dried beans at their father figure dressed up in a devils mask, or the holiday where you use a chopstick to make legs for eggplants and cucumbers so they can act like vehicles to transport ancestors to your home.  Or the practice of having a one eyed, armless, legless dharma to wish for something on, and when your wish comes true you pain the other eye on…why? you may ask. No one seems to know! Or people tell us it’s ‘Japanese culture’!!  I will miss socks playing a role in fashion and in major part of ones outfit. I’ll miss always sitting on the floor and having tables and chairs and everything closely oriented to the ground.  I’ll miss the country where fireworks, cherry blossoms and trains are appreciated and celebrated with enthusiasm, where mushy and slimy food is favoured.  I’ll miss this country that is at once so diverse and contradictory that it can never be generalized or summed up.  It was an amazing unique and personal experience, full of miscommunications, hilarious translations, incompetence (mostly on my part!), new tastes, flavours, textures, words, perspectives, experiences, and worlds tiniest and most efficient uses of space.  We had to trust a lot in other people and let go of trying to control anything.  I have to say though it somehow worked out for us and we are leaving the country carrying new components with us.  Just as I have my roots with me everywhere I go, I am certain this year of tsurumai, sakura and the sound cicada is written in my heart forever.

 

Here we are home safe and sound in Calgary relishing in the closeness of family and loved ones.  It feels good to be back!!

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Andrew just arrived in Florida yesterday, and I’m headed down in a few weeks, so if anything exciting happens to us I will definitely try to keep the blog going, which I definitely hope will happen since we are moving to a state riddled with sink-holes and pythons, and where not so long ago a man’s face was eaten.  I’m positive we will have things to write about :)  Until then…Sayounara!

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Gero and HEAT

We went for a relaxing weekend up in the mountains a few weeks ago since we thought it was hot in Nagoya.  Little did we know it would get insanely hotter.  Today with the humidity it was 49 degrees C.  Nagoya has so much concrete it just acts like a heat sink! Yesterday I saw a man red and blotchy in the face, sweating through his shirt and hair, eyes glazed, staring at a fan he was holding in his hand as if he didn’t now what it was or what to do with it.  All I could think was how much I empathized with him.  Then the train came and blew warm air on us and he sort of snapped out of it, but wow it is melting temperatures here.  The wind is hot.  When Andrew breathes on me I actually feel like he is a dragon with hot breath running over burning coals in his lungs before heating me.  Can you understand how hot it is?! :)

But anyway we stayed in a bed and breakfast perched on a mountain side  just outside the hot spring town of Gero.  The owners grew their own vegetables, had chickens and a goat and we ate trout from a nearby river with mountain vegetables and things from their garden.  The house was an old traditional Japanese house I.e. sort of like a treehouse, and the entire time it absolutely poured with rain.   This made it so lovely to be inside the cabin with the sound of the rain and the quiet of the countryside. It was like luxury camping!  Andrew said it really reminded him of his old cottage. We played cards and games and chatted and relaxed and slept.  It was amazing!!IMG_4064

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The owner had 2 awesome kids that killed a giant spider for us and found frogs and snakes and lizards and all sorts of things to show us before we headed home.  IMG_4116

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We took a ‘wide view express’ train to Gero which is a scenic train.  It was  a great way to escape the concrete jungle of Nagoya and the views were pretty amazing.IMG_4163

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I’ll keep it short in sweet, except to say that we haven’t been on any trips since Gero but we’ve been making some great friends and spending lots of time with them doing fun things in Nagoya.  Our one friend is a bit like a superhuman and has been taking us to cool hole-in-the wall places and introducing us to new food and drinks and friends and despite being a neurologist, doing research with Andrew and knowing what seems like everyone in Nagoya, he plays violin in a string quartet!  We went to one of his concerts and it was pretty amazing.  Otherwise Andrew has been trying to work hard and stay focused for the home stretch.  I’ve been continuing with Ikebana and actually am somehow improving–I wowed and amazed my teachers and the other students last week somehow…if only I knew how!  Other than that I’m just trying to live in the present and enjoy my favourite things about this crazy country while I can, although it’s getting incredibly hard since we are heading home so soon and onto new adventures, it’s very easy to start planning everything for the future.  Anyway we are planning a few wrap up trips before we leave so I will be sure to update the blog then for my few faithful followers :) Until next time!

Rejuvenated–Hirayu onsen village and Kyoto

Hello everyone!  I know its been a while, but here we go with some updates! In May we did a lot of stuff since we were trying to capitalize on the weather before the rainy season of June set in, and before the sweltering heat of July and August took hold.  It was incredibly hot and humid in May so I was dreading the summer big time, but June has had cool days and comfortable weather, so we might survive yet!  Anyway one of the cool things we did was head to the mountains north of Nagoya and went to some villages built around hot springs.  This is what I have searching for since day 1 of arriving in Japan–outdoor, natural, beautiful hot springs.  Not a concrete public bath house or mega complex like the other ones I’ve been to.  The drive up to the mountains was great and for the first time in a long time I felt like I was in some nature and was breathing clean air.  It was really REALLY nice.

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Andrew making use of this unusual mountain bus stop.

At the Ryokan we stayed at they had a nice hot spring in a japanese style garden as well.  But my favourite part was the breakfast.  It is  a local speciality to have meat or vegetables cooked in this dark miso on a leaf–like shown below.  It’s a lovely tasty (and salty) start to the day!IMG_3203

Breakfast was eaten in a common room, on the floor around a hearth (used in the winter I suppose).  We felt very communal and Japanese indeed.  The traditional Japanese breakfast was also served with fish, pickled vegetables, rice and miso soup as well as green tea and salad.

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These are our friends Nikita and Julia and their little guy Dima who came with us.

Some more scenery from the surrounding area…
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And here is our first onsen!  Now THIS is more what I’ve been searching for.  It was sunny and bright out but not too hot to still be able to enjoy the hot onsens.  Each tub had something a bit different to it, mineral content or what not, my hair and skin felt so smooth afterwards, and of course my muscles were all mushy and relaxed.DSC_0833

Both the places we went were mixed gender although I prefered this one where it was mandatory to wear a towel.  Japanese people have told me that the only way to truly relax in a onsen is naked.  It’s so funny how culturally different we are, perhaps some North Americans would disagree with me, but I felt so much more relaxed being covered up.  Maybe it would have been different if I was alone, but in front of men and kids who blatantly stare, I was way more relaxed being covered up.  Anyway it was lovely nonetheless

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The hotel gave us these robes that everyone wears around.  I know I know, we looks stylish.DSC_0633

I just had to post this photo of Dima in his kids kimono.  How deceivingly cute! I luckily snapped a photo in the few seconds of the whole weekend where he wasn’t screaming and whining.

So the mountains were a successful, relaxing reprieve from the city.  With only 3 months left in Japan, I think Andrew and I are both finding ourself looking forward more and more to the day our flight takes off.  I hate to admit it, but definitely more and more we’ve been feeling this way.  However, after my trip to Kyoto I think I am fully committed to enjoying the last 3 months 100%, because you can bet I will be complaining about all the things I miss about Japan shortly after  I get back to Canada.  Part of the reason for this change of heart is lucky (i.e. because a few things worked out in my favour in Kyoto and I had an amazing time) and part of it is perspective.  In Kyoto I felt calm and like I could appreciate the serene and artistic gardens, I went to tea houses where I drank green tea and matcha, I went to mountainside restaurants in gardens and away from crowds and ate fresh Japanese food and just felt good.  And realized I need to capitalize on all these good things in Japan while I can.  Recently I’ve been feeling disheartened by all the not so good things, of which every country has of course.  I was feeling really tired of feeling like the predominant vibe of my life in Japan was this:

Which it most definitely does feel like a lot of the time, especially on monday and wednesday when I got the main train station to work at the school.  I feel overwhelmed by noise and insincerity and superficiality a lot of the time.  I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me “Maybe we don’t know why, but we just do it.” This is a common response I get from students when I try to ask them anything deeper about things that motivate their culture, or even why they went to a certain place on the weekend, or what they like about a movie or their hobby.  Part of it is likely a language barrier and its hard for people to put into words something like motivation, but regardless it means I’m constantly having really basic conversations where I am only learning peoples hobby and favourite movie actors, or what they did last weekend but not why they did it.  There are just so many cultural differences that are not congruent with our way of thinking and although we feel we are coming to understand this better, it still feels far away and it is still foreign to us, no matter how much we understand the differences, I feel we are inherently Canadian and despite the little Japanese things we might adopt, our core being is Canadian and constantly fighting that feeling, or trying to suppress it in order to fit int his society becomes heavy after a while.  The other things wearing on me have been having every thing wrapped in copious amounts of plastic-including individual bananas, apples, or if you buy a 50 pack of cookies each cookie will be individually wrapped inside the bag.  The overwhelming amount of processed food–sometimes I am trying to look for a bite to eat while I’m out and I literally can’t find anything remotely healthy or that has an expiry date within the next decade.  Anyway enough negativity, the point being I learned I need to keep getting out and doing as much as possible while I can while I’m hear.  Kyoto was a major success–and I want to take Andrew back as soon as possible.  It reminded me how one thing Japan has successfully accomplished is creating pockets of peace and beauty within chaos.  And even though their nature is beauty in a structured, artistic way  instead of wild and natural and vast like in Canada, it can still have the effect of clearing your mind and quieting your heart.

One of my stops was the ‘internationally famous’ rock garden at Ryoan-ji.  The garden itself is really not that impressive for someone like me with no real knowledge of rock gardening, but apparently its a masterpiece.  I tried to think about how it made me feel instead of just be confused at how people thought it was amazing since it looks so basic, and concluded it conjured up feelings of attentiont o detail and precision. Exactness.  It made me feel nothing in a way, in a good way, that there was nothing to understand.  Just feel simple, organized…things just in their right place.

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Lunch at the teahouse in the garden was nice, but it was literally more tofu than I’ve ever eaten in one sitting.  One criticism I usually have about the casltes and temples and historical places we go is that usually there is either no english translation available, or the english translation that is available is so poorly translated or so vague and void of useful information it is difficult to put what you are looking at into context. It is hard to know why something is so important or special.  When I travelled in other places in Europe or even in US or Canada I feel like I was able to grasp a better context and learn something usually about the places I visited. I often leave sites in Japan with information like “it was built in this year, it was burned down in this year, this guy owned it then passed it on to this guy. The building measures this many meters by this many meters.  It is made of Japanese cypress.  It is now a national treasure.”  This was also sort of the case with the rock garden although one thing I read in the pamphlet that I liked and will hold on to is from an inscription in a stone wash basin.  The pamphlet tells me the translation is ‘I learn only to be contented’ and goes on to say ‘He who learns only to be contented is spiritually rich, while the one who does not learn to be contented is spiritually poor even if he is materially wealthy’.  Okay pamphlet, nicely said.2013-06-30 15.03.45
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Some more views of the surrounding temple area…

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You can buy a candle to light that matches the wish you want to make.  I thought ‘a got of marriage’ sounded funny, but I already got a marriage!  People don’t hesitate to buy these as well as more expensive techniques of accomplishing the same thing–making a wish for something.  You can pay more money though for I guess maybe a more serious wish or for it to work better.  You can also pay to ring a bell (to get the attention of the Gods) or to get your fortune.  This temple was busy and people were making all sorts of wishes.
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Next stop was Kinkaku-ji, where I was interviewed by a school group for a class project, which you can it was obvious they were forced to speak to me against their will by looking at the expression of some of the guys faces.2013-06-30 12.16.31

Here is Kinkaku ji, which was impressive to see, although extremely difficult to get a  decent photo of due to tons and tons of tourists.  Tons of foreigners come to Kyoto since its definitely one of the hotspots, but Japanese people in general love Kyoto and love visiting, so I think its almost always full of visitors.2013-06-30 12.10.17

The temple originally belonged to a statesman who wished for it to be converted to a temple after his death, which it was.  The landscaping is an example of the Muromachi period design which emphasizes incorporating the building into the garden.  The pavillion houses relics of the Buddha.  Originally built in 1397, the current building was restored last in 19552013-06-29 23.23.05

That night, despite being tired I went out to Gion, a famous area known for many traditional houses and restaurants and preserved historical streets.  It does have these things if you have the energy to look for them–otherwise you could walk around the area never knowing it was anything but a major modern busy street.  The night was warm and humid and perfect for a stroll along the river.

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Also everyone tells you to go to Gion because ‘you can see a maiko!’.  The tourist office INSISTED I visit GIon if it was the only thing I had time for.  It was my second time in Gion and I really need to emphasize how small ones chances are of seeing a Maiko (their word for Geisha).  It would be cool to see one, but I feel sort of bad for them because tourists go a bit crazy snapping photos and its really rude to take a picture without asking permission, although apparently if you ask they will request that you not take a photo anyway.  I feel a bit mixed about it, but anyway I didn’t see one which I wasn’t expecting to, and I was happy I went to Gion anyway and did find some rustic vibe–although my photography skills dont’ show it so well, I tried to capture some shots that show this.
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The Machiya I stayed in was a building over 100years old that has been converted from a traditional family business of Kimono production where the family works on one stage of the kimono production process in a workshop in the bottom part of the house and lives upstairs in the top part.  Now its been converted to a hotel since most families don’t live like this anymore since many business no long operate on such a small scale, but apparently this used to be the common way for many businesses and was how many families worked.  You always inherited the job of your parents in this way.2013-06-29 17.29.50

Another stop was Zanzen temple which is sort of ourside the city in the mountain area which was pleasant because although it was busy it wasn’t overly crazy busy like some of the famous temples in the heart of the city.  There was a pleasant walk up a hill along a river to get the the temple.  This temple was founded in 804, and is one of the only temples whose head priest was a member of the imperial family.  It is part of the Tendai sect of Buddhism.  There are little stone heads and mini statues popping up here and there–and I couldn’t find any information about them except that they were ‘laughing buddhas’.  People were saying “Kawaii!!” and taking tons of pictures of them which means “cute!!!” but I couldn’t find out their significance…maybe there was none! It’s just a bit unusual to have stone heads popping up out of the lawn.

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Here is the garden area where lots of people were just chilling and enjoying some shade from the hot sun.2013-06-29 16.51.42

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Tokyo station’s artistic dessert shop!2013-06-29 13.29.21

This is a section of tokyo station with food and souvenir shops…This ‘asty’ conjures up images of ‘tasty’ and ‘nasty’…I’m not sure which they were going for.2013-06-29 12.40.33

The amazing super efficient bullet train–I cannot believe how many people are constantly moving around Japan.  This train is huge and one like it runs about every 2 minutes every day between Tokyo and Hiroshima.  And this is highspeed only, there are 2 slower speeds too.  Anyway it made travelling to Kyoto a complete breeze and even though its expensive its so convenient and comfortable I think I might never bus to save money again.2013-06-29 12.40.10

Anyway I can say with confidence that after Kyoto this is more my vibe of Japan:
Not completely…but I’m working on it!  Also one last thing for those of you who don’t know yet I’ve started a used Kimono shop on Etsy just as a fun hobby which has so far been really fun and satisfying.  You can check out my facebook page here:
and you can check out my Etsy store here:
I’ve even managed to make some sales (to strangers even–not only my mom :)  I have some new styles I hope to put up by next week!
I think that’s long enough for this post! Andrew is back from Los Angeles and recovering from Jet lag, so hopefully we have some more adventures to share with you soon.

Farming and Nara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So it has definitely been getting harder to find time to blog.  Both of us have had our hands full during the week and have been trying to get away on the weekends. Andrew has been super busy working on his project here as well as his manuscript from the Vancouver lab as well as trying to keep up with lab duties here like lab baseball tournaments, welcome parties and weekly 3-5 hour long lab meetings all in Japanese that everyone sleeps through.  We had “Golden week” which is a big holiday here where most people get the week off, so I had a break from teaching at the school and most my private students took the week off from lessons as well so I took the opportunity to head to Tahara city and work on an organic farm for the week! This was a really cool experience although hilarious in so many ways.  I met 2 really awesome German girls who were also working there and thank goodness we had each other to laugh with.  The head farmer was probably the clumsiest person I’ve ever seen but so relaxed and laid back and some how managing this huge operation of a bunch of different vegetable crops, pigs, chickens, goats, a farm school for adults, a farm camp for kids, and a bakery.  He spoke no English but wanted to ask us all sorts of questions, of which he would get his wife to translate for him.  His wife spoke a VERY tiny bit of English but he was so interested in us he kept asking us more and more complicated and deep and philosophical questions.  His wife had a dictionary that would translate words for her but she would think about what he was trying to say for so long and then just show me her dictionary with some arbitrary word like “sovereign materialism” and then they’d both look at me with hope and excitement.  She did this multiple times, just coming up to me in the middle of the day showing me random words out of context and waiting for me to respond.  There were a lot of things I really didn’t like about the farm (such as the fact that they had 5 dogs all of which were untrained and needed to be tied up and walked on leashes…on a FARM!), but it was a great experience to be around animals. They raise pigs for meat, and I cannot believe how completely adorable baby pigs start out and how disgusting and morbidly obese they become in 6 months. The other thing that was unfortunate was that most the time we had to work under his farm hand Yoshi, who was a complete jerk! He really hated the three of us for some reason and the week was a constant game for all of us to try and make him laugh or smile.  We never succeeded.  He totally let me make a fool of myself too, on the weekend they have kids camps where all these 8 year old kids from Nagoya come out to spend the weekend on the farm outside playing with animals and do farm stuff…actually one activity we all participated in with the kids was burning a field.  What a great activity, an uncontrolled huge fire spreading rapidly with a bunch of 8 year olds running around feeding it and playing around it.  Especially considering the clumsiness of this farmer let’s just say I almost had heart failure.  Somehow no one was burned, but anyway what a strange activity to have as part of a kids camp.  ANYWAY after playing in the mud and burning fields and planting rice with the kids were all filthy and they have a giant metal tub that you can light a fire underneath.  Apparently it is the type of bath that in ancient times was used to burn people alive.  I’ve read about this happening and a 8 year old girl (the only one who spoke english) translated it for us from the farmer who was gleeful to tell us this.  All the kids jumped in to the big hot bath with their clothes on and so did Yoshi, I thought we were all seizing the moment and being crazy and just having a hot tub on a whim in our clothes.  And since Yoshi is a jerk and refrained from trying to explain anything to me and besides his English isn’t so good, I jumped in wearing my clothes too.  I tried my best not to think about contacting some weird fungus from a metal bath that is ages old and probably never cleaned, and we all played and had a grand old time.  Only when kids started getting out of the bath and changing into the change of clothes that they had all brought with them did I start realizing that I would have to spend the rest of the day sopping wet until Yoshi would drive us back to the house, a 20 min drive away. It was uncomfortable and I felt like an idiot dripping wet for the rest of the day.  At least I had a towel but still.  Anyway the farm let me do a lot of thinking and it was great to get out of the city for a bit and meet some cool characters.  Unfortunately my camera died so I didn’t get to take that many pictures.  Here are two anyway.  I was excited to be near the beach on the farm but unfortunately it was completely covered in garbage and was a bit disappointing.  It was a good sunset anyway!

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Every week we are getting organic vegetables delivered to our apartment from a farm in Gifu.  The farmer and his wife (and their three kids) held a workshop one weekend on how to make homemade miso paste so we both went out to see their farm and make some miso with them.  They were such an adorable family and made Andrew and I want to move to the country and start our own farm!  Making miso was so easy, the hardest part is growing the soybeans and the farmer did that for us! Wouldn’t you believe it though, after you mash the soybeans with salt and fermented rice and press it into a container and cover it with a weight and seal it you have to leave it for 6 months to ferment before you eat.  How convenient, we will be leaving in 6 months from now.  Looks like we are either smuggling 5kg of miso back to Canada with us or else having to eat ALOT of miso the night before we leave Japan.  Anyway it was a really cool experience to see where our vegetables are grown and meet the farmer and his family and learn about how easy it is to make delicious amazing miso by hand (we at least got to try some of the batch they had made 6 months ago).

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We also spent a weekend in Nara, which was one of the most beautiful, interesting and traditional places we have been yet.  It is an ideal place to spend walking around and strolling in their huge beautiful park speckled with deer who are considered sacred and wouldn’t you know it, it was monsooning with rain and we got completely drenched and really didn’t feel like we could fully enjoy the beauty of the area since it was raining so hard.  Now we have to go back!  Nara was the capital int he 8th century and is where Buddhism was established after being brought over from China.  A lot of the buildings have been preserved or rebuilt to reflect this time and a lot of the museums have really amazing artifacts and sculptures from this era.

We went to Todai-ji, which claims to be the largest wooden building in the world.  We were skeptical until we actually say it and we had to admit, it was enormous.  Here is a googled image since it was raining to hard for us to take our camera out:

Despite the rain there were about 50,000 more people here than shown in this picture. Once inside the temple we were really amazed by the Daibutsu, the largest Buddha statue in japan and one of the largest in the world.
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This structure was originally built in 726A.D. to speed the recovery of the ailing Empress Gensho.  Since then it’s been rebuilt due to fires etc. but the current structure dates from 1415.  This giant Buddha is known as Yakushi and is known to have healing powers.  Whether or not building all this stuff for the empress worked in terms of curing her wasn’t mentioned anywhere, but anyway you can’t say they didn’t give it their best shot!  Also, there was a giant hole in one of the pillars of the building and everyone was lining up to crawl through it.  We later learned that the diameter of the whole is the same diameter as the buddha’s nostril and to crawl through it brings good luck.  We didn’t crawl through it but we took the opportunity to laugh at all the people who were trying to and almost getting stuck.
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We sought refuge from the rain in a little tea house in a Japanese garden and tried to appreciate and enjoy the garden from inside while dried off a bit.
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I’ve been reading this book that one of my students recommended to me called the Chrysanthemum and the Sword.  It’s written by a native English speaking cultural anthropologist and it is about the japanese character and personality.  I can hands down say that this book has revolutionized my experience here and made so many things click.  I’m only halfway through it but it has been the key to unlocking so many questions and incongruencies and things that have made me befuddled and left me feeling like I’m living on mars.  If anything I feel like I’m living on mars more than ever since this book is making me realize just how different the way of thinking and mentality is here.  I wont’ go into details since you can read the book on your own if you want but it has applied directly to me in answering questions I’ve had about why people have been so against receiving small gifts of appreciation from us, why married couples seem to be in partnerships rather than in romantic loving relationships, why the other students in my ikebana class feel it necessary to get down on the floor and profusely apologize and excuse themselves repeatedly to my teacher at the end of every Ikebana lesson before they leave, and why Andrew’s secretary felt in necessary to get down on both knees and hold the microphone over her bowed head in a gesture to ask her supervisor to sing one more song at Karaoke. Anyway it has been a fascinating book but instead of feeling like the longer I live here the more normal it seems, it really is the opposite. The more I am gaining insight into this culture the more I’m realizing how drastically different the mentality is.  It is so incredibly fascinating and this is why we came to Japan anyway, to experience something drastically different that in Canada.  I have to say I am quite relieved to be getting  a new perspective.  There’s a load more I want to share but I’ll spare you for now.
This weekend we are heading to the mountains to check out some onsens located in nature in the mountains.  We are going with our Russian friends who I babysit for.  They initially wanted me to babysit so that their son could learn some English but without a doubt I am learning a lot more russian than he is learning english.  I know ‘ne delayu’, ‘net’, and ‘Otpusti menya’, which mean: ‘don’t do that’, ‘No!’ and ‘put me down.’  Anyway hopefully it’s not as hot as it has been recently, I’m not sure how comfortable it will be to sit in a hot tub when it’s 32 degrees celsius out, but I guess we will find out–cross your fingers for rain this weekend!

Sumo and Sakura

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So we headed to Osaka and arrived at the Sumo venue at 8:30AM  as this is when the tickets said the doors open.  Not wanting to miss anything important we showed up and grabbed our seats in an almost empty auditorium.  The place was dead except for some cleaning crews and a handful of other foreigners.  We waited until 10:30 when the lower divisions began competing.  These were amateur sumo fighters that were of all different sizes, some older morbidly obese ones sometimes matched up against smaller young skinny ones who looked like they hadn’t hit puberty yet.  The place was still pretty empty until about 2:00 when we left to get some lunch and realized everyone was outside at the entrance, camera’s ready to catch the highest division sumo wrestlers as they entered the stadium. Most of all everyone was waiting for the Yokozuna, the highest ranking anyone can ever achieve in sumo wrestling.  In order to become a Yokozuna a wrestler must prove that he has enough power, skill and dignity/grace to qualify.   In order to be promoted as a Yokozuna you must win two consecutive tournaments whilst being in the rank of Ozeki (the rank below Yokozuna). There is no set quota: there have been periods with no wrestlers at Yokozuna rank, and there have been periods with as many as four simultaneously.    Currently there are 2 Yokozuna, both Mongolian.  One of the current Yokozuna, Hakuho Sho, has been Yokozuna since 2007 and he is a big deal.  He broke  records in 2009 and 2010 for the most wins in a calendar year.   He became Yokozuna at the age of 22 and he is still dominant, strong and largely unbeatable.   During the 15 days of each tournament (of which there are 6 per year) each sumo wrestler plays once per day, and in doing so plays everyone else in his division once per tournament.  After each tournament everyone is re-ranked based on their performance either being demoted or promoted.  However the Yokozuna can never be demoted.  If he does poorly and continues to do so he is expected to retire.  The wrestler with the most wins in wins the tournament championship for his division. In the past three hundred years since the title of Yokozuna was created, only 69 have been so honoured.

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These are all the wrestlers in the highest division participating in the opening ceremony.  By this time the stadium had filled out completely.  These elaborately embroidered silk aprons they wear only for the ceremony and not the actual wrestling.    These aprons cost anywhere from 400,000-500,000 Yen, or the equivalent of about $5,000

Below is the Yokozuna performing his ring entering ceremony.  Sumo is very connected with Shinto and is full of ceremonial pomp and elaborate rituals and symbolism.  The ring is considered sacred and rituals are performed with every match in order to attract the attention of gods and spirits and banish evil.  The Yokozuna is identifiable by this thick white rope, which weighs 35 pounds which also have shinto significance, it mimics the religious symbols found in shinto shrines, although I wish I could tell you why that’s significant.

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The two wrestlers on either side of him are his assistants.  The Yokozuna claps his hands together to attract the attention of the gods, he extends his arms to the sides and turns the palms  upward to show he is concealing no weapons. Then at the climax of his performance he lifts first one leg to the side high in the air and then the other, bringing each down with a resounding stamp on the ground symbolically driving evil from the dohyo (the platform where they wrestle).

 

We researched a bit about sumo training before going, and apparently some of them eat only twice a day but in those 2 meals they eat 10 times the amount that an average human eats (20,000 calories per day).  They wake up and train for 6 hours on an empty belly in order to encourage the body in to ‘starvation mode’ so that it will store fat, then they have a huge meal where they gorge on ‘sumo soup’ a high energy and high protein and high fat soup.  They also eat tons of rice and drink tons of beer for the calories.  Then they go have a giant nap right after eating sot hat the body stores all that fuel as fat.  Apparently many people are interested in studying sumo diets and weight because they provide really interesting insights into obesity.  Unlike North American obesity however, because sumo wrestlers are really physically fit (they are incredibly strong, flexible and athletic) and because of their training and what they eat (a relatively low processed sugar diet) most of their fat is actually subcutaneous fat and not visceral fat stored in the organs like typical obese people.  This means when they stop this intense regime they often very quickly lose their fat and return to normal.  The type of subcutaneous fat that they have is readily available to be used as energy and is quickly used up when they are trying to slim back down. However they still experience higher rates of diabetes and other chronic illnesses as well as on average they die 10 years before the average Japanese person.

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The guy in the lime green kimono and black cap is the referee and throughout the match yells words of encouragement to both of the wrestlers apparently!  We could here him yelling although could never understand him.  Usually the outcome of a match is very clear.  If any body part other than the feet touches the ground or if one is pushed out of the ring, the match is over and that player loses.  If there is any debate there are also 4 judges, one on each side of the platform that will gather and deliberate and can override the referee at any time.  The referee is a bit arbitrary but he looks cool anyway.  Before the matches start too there is a little man that comes to the center of the ring as the opponents are preparing and announces their name and where they are from in a ‘specially trained high pitched voice’.  It was high pitched that’s for sure and nasal and sort of made my ears bleed by the end of the day.  He’s the guy in purple below

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Waiting for the match to start is the most exciting part.  After entering the dohyo each wrestler goes through a series of symbolic movements.  To cleanse his mind and body, he symbolically rinses his mouth with water, the source of purity, and wipes his body with a towel.  Certain motions are repeated from the Yokozuna’s dance such as clapping and foot stamping.  In addition each scatters salt in the ring to purify the ring.  This is suppose to protect the wrestlers agains injuries as well.    Only the higher ranks have the privilege to throw salt though.  Next the wrestlers squat and face each other (as above), they lean forward and glare at each other very seriously.  This is part of the ritual  and is thought of as ‘cold warfare’.  They then go back to their corner and repeat their clapping and stamping and salt throwing until they sit back down and glare again.  They used to be able to do this indefinitely but now there is a time limit on how long they can repeat these steps for.  We could never quite figure out exactly who decided when the started but there is definitely a lot of strategy involved in the first contact.  Theoretically they wait for the psychological moment when they both feel ready.  During this prep time they are working themselves up and the suspense in the crowd is growing and growing.  It was so incredibly exciting, the tension would be so high and then they’d suddenly start and the match would be over in  sometimes a matter of seconds.  This whole experience was extremely entertaining, and had us on the edge of our chairs, clutching our hearts, gasping, screaming and cheering.  It was especially exciting to see crowd favourites, as the crowd got really riled up for certain wrestlers.  Anyway, it was an incredibly unique experience and I want to go again when the tournement comes to Nagoya, although I will definitely head to the stadium around 2pm instead of 8:30am. Surprisingly though we never felt bored the entire time.

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We spent another day in Osaka exploring the castle and the Umeda skybuilding, but the next weekend cherry blossoms or Sakura in Japanese were in full bloom.  There is so much hype about this time of year, they make predictions and forecasts on when the sakura will be at their peak, and the time of year is approached with anticipation and excitement.  People plan ‘hanami’ parties which is when you go for a picnic and apparently drink a lot of sake and alcohol under as many cherry blossoms as possible.  I have started working at an English school just outside of Nagoya and the school organized a Hanami party, although minus the copious amounts of alcohol. Everyone has their own opinion of the best place to go to see the Sakura, where I went was pleasant but nothing too crazy.

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But Andrew went to one of the most popular places in Nagoya to see cherry blossoms.  He said in fact there were a huge number of them and it was really awesome but because people love them so much every square inch underneath every tree was crammed with people trying to have a picnic.

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We also spent a day together at a small shrine by our house (the same one were we spent New Years alone), which was really peaceful and beautiful even though there weren’t an obscene amount of Sakura.IMG_2697

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The funny thing to is how much people love the Sakura but how many people have horrendous seasonal allergies.  It seems everyone is wearing masks lately (a popular and common practice year round here but even more so lately) in an attempt to prevent pollen exposure.  Luckily it doesn’t seem to be affecting Andrew or I very much.  Also last week we had another earthquake! Although we would have been ignorant about it if people hadn’t filled us in the next day.  A big one (6.0) shook south of kobe a few days ago at 5:00Am.  People told us they felt a minute of shaking in Nagoya, but Andrew said he thinks it maybe have been a soothing rocking motion that the ground was shaking in because we slept right through it.  Probably for the best, I’m sure I would have had a panic attack.

This month we are heading into the mountains to take a workshop on making miso (fermented soybean paste) and might check out some more stuff in the area, as well as I am heading to the coast to work on a farm for a week in the last month of April. So hopefully we will have lots of exciting things to write about soon!

Tokyo and Okinawa — A Bad Fortune Trip


We finally made it to Tokyo! And we made the 350km trip in an hour and a half on the ‘Superexpress’ bullet train, which in itself was exciting. It was great that my brother James met us in Tokyo and is spending time on and off with us over the month.

The week before we left for Tokyo Andrew took a trip with his lab as a sort of team building experience.  He went to Ise, which we’ve been to before but he got to stay in a fancy ocean front hotel and got served gourmet food (one dish of which was abalone–grilled alive ! Andrew took a video of it squirming away from the grill it’s on but I can’t put it on here it’s too cringemaking), got to sit naked in a clear water bath with his coworkers and then sing karaoke and play mahjong all night.  Here is a photo of the traditional style Japanese room he stayed in with Tatami floor and where you sleep on the floor and everything is oriented very close to the floor.

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It doesn’t get more Japanese than that! He also told me they found this little ice cream cart with all kinds of wild and crazy flavours of ice cream, one of which was onsen flavoured.  I asked him if t tasted like a sweaty old man and he said sort of sweaty old man mixed with cedar.  Anyway I think the trip did it’s job of bringing everyone a bit closer.

Our first stop in Tokyo was Asakusa temple:

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This is Tokyo’s oldest temple.  The legend goes that in the year 628, two brothers found a gold statue of the goddess of mercy in their fishing lines out on the Sumida River and even though they put the statue back in the river, it kept returning to them.

The temple (related to the Buddhist religion) is joined in the same complex as the shrine (related to the Shinto religion).  Part of the process of visiting the shrine includes symbolic purification prior to approaching it.  It’s hard for us not to look like huge amateurs but we did our best to look like we knew what we were doing.

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A common thing to do at a temple is to read your fortune.  Lots of people do this on New Years but since I never got a chance we decided to do it here.  You shake this box and take out a stick with a symbol on it, then match the symbol to one of the drawers, and  the fortune inside the drawer is yours!
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We explained this all to James and he went first, to our surprise this was his fortune:
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We were a bit shocked at the bluntness of this fortune! I knew it was possible to get a bad fortune but my friend had told me you just pick another fortune then (I guess people don’t loose too much sleep over a bad fortune!), but I didn’t realize how bad the fortune could actually be, especially considering in my experience Japanese tends to be very indirect and passive.  The part about starting a trip being bad was a bit concerning for James but we just laughed it off.
Tokyo is really into observatory towers.  They have the Tokyo tower, the newly built Sky Tree, a view from the top of the government buildings, as well as observatory decks at the top of multiple skyscrapers.  We went to the viewpoint at Roppongi hills.
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It was a clear day but still felt hazy.  I was raving on and on about how clean Tokyo felt compared to New York and how much spacier it felt. It’s not really a fair comparison since NY is so much denser crammed on an island, whereas Tokyo sprawls an unbelievable amount.  Not only was there no end of development in sight from the top of Roppongi hills, but when I took the train between Nagoya and Tokyo there was literally no ‘country’.  There were buildings, houses, settlements, car-parks, warehouses, etc the entire way.  Of course it was speckled with small plots of greenery, rice and tea fields, but there was no stretch of just unused space.  Tokyo doesn’t reach all the way to Nagoya, I have no idea where they arbitrarily cut it off but it is the largest metropolitan area in the world.   I stopped raving about its cleanliness when all of a sudden the wind picked up and everything turned into a dust storm.  When we got home after a day of biking around we literally had black grit in our hair, ears and my skin felt coated with grime.  It wasn’t pleasant.
We headed across the Rainbow bridge for an amazing sunset over the Tokyo Bay
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One crazy area we spent time exploring was Akihabara, which is famous for electronic shops.  From what we understood this was a place the showcased the latest in technology, top of the line stuff that we could explore.  Instead it was more of a practical place to go if you needed computer parts or adapters or something.  But meshed in with the electronic stores were giant gaming centres.  We’ve seen these before but never so many all together and so big.  Here are some shots of the street:
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We went inside one of the multi-floored gaming centres and it was full of people playing games faster than I thought humanly possible.  For those of you who know James you will relate to his Guitar-hero/Rock band skills which I would have said were pretty advanced.  Well, in Japan he’s considered a beginner a think.  Here was his attempt:
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Here is what he was up against.  I couldn’t believe these people were playing so fast.  What’s crazier is we saw an old lady playing a similar game on her iphone at similar speeds on the train home.
Still searching for the alleged electronics mecca, we found the Sony building which had a show room that was actually pretty cool.  Top of the line speakers and cameras and sound systems.  We couldn’t resist trying out the virtual reality car
racing game.  I actually felt car sick after.
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Lights and chaos in this crazy city where you can go to a restaurant and watch robotrons fight (which we didn’t do), eat fresh sushi at the worlds biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world (which we did do!), get confused by the giant replica of the Lady Liberty in the Tokyo Bay, or order a drink of coke, tea and milk, served mixed up together and apparently called a delicacy.  It’s a city with a lot of weird stuff, and this first trip was a great introduction to it’s different areas and we did a lot of milling around, but my next trip I want to make an effort to do as many obscure and weird things as possible.
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Despite a million and one things left for us to explore in Tokyo we happily took the three hour flight to the main island of Okinawa Prefecture.  There are a handful of outlying islands that look amazing to go to, secluded and pristine but alas we didn’t have time to do everything.  We explored the main island which although is quite developed, has it’s fair share of beauty, isolation and nature.  The people and culture in Okinawa is very different than Japan, and apparently their dialect is so different some people can’t understand them.  Okinawa evolved as it’s own entity known as the Ryukyu Kingdom until 1879, playing a huge role in terms of maritime trade with surrounding countries.  They developed their own mishmash of traditions and cuisine that are heavily influenced by the places they traded with.  But I’ll save that for next time!

Surviving Norovirus with sweets, cats, octopi and other strange things

From a deep and peaceful sleep one night I was awoken to the unprecedented retching of Andrew at 4:00am.  Without warning this crazy intense virus took hold and Andrew was sick basically every hour on the hour.  What a great opportunity for me to to learn how to navigate the Japanese healthcare system! Let’s just say I’ll be happy to never have to try to explain vomit and diarrhea in Japanese again whilst being in a clinic full of other people with all the same symptoms where nurses don’t believe in gloves and beds aren’t changed between patients and hand sanitizer was no where to be found! Japan is supposed to have one of the highest levels of healthcare in the world apparently, but their infection control was such that I ended up getting the virus almost exactly 24 hours after our visit to the clinic.  Anyway we’ve survived although it was an exhausting and scary experience to be so sick in a foreign country.

So this month we have been laying low.  I’ve been challenging myself to continue buying and trying new things despite the winter months that are seeming to affect us both a bit.  We have both been missing comforts of home and have been getting frustrated with things we found funny before.  More and more I find myself craving foods from home and good deep conversations with people who can speak and understand english as well as us and feeling less motivation to go out and try new things.  My parents generously mailed us some peanut butter and I actually felt emotional about it when I finally received the packaged and smelled the natural peanut-y goodness.  Being sick didn’t help either as when you’re sick usually all you want is your ‘go-to’ comfort food like mac and cheese or ginger ale and soda crackers.  When we finally started eating again after our stomachs settled all we had in the house was soy based products and rice.  “I HATE white rice!!” was all Andrew yelled before putting the pot on to boil a pot of it.  We just finished off a 12kg bag of rice.  12kg of white rice in 4.5 months is saying something.  We never even used to buy white rice ever in Canada.  We are also on our 4th 1L bottle of soya sauce.  This is mind boggling to me since I felt like I never got through that single bottle I bought in undergrad when I first moved to Vancouver.  I felt like I just chipped away at it every once in a while, moving it with me through all the different places I lived over the 7 years I was in Vancouver, only to throw it out 3/4 full when we left Vancouver for good.  Slimy is also another feature of much Japanese food.

“Slimy is so good!” my friend Ryoko tells me.  Well here is a picture of natto, another soy bean product that looks like it is covered in mucus.  If I close my eyes it actually tastes pretty good.  Andrew loves it to no end.  It’s apparently really healthy for you and it’s very cheap and controversial here.  There are two schools of thought–people originally from Eastern Japan love love LOVE natto and people originally from the West of Japan abhor it.

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You’re probably thinking this is how we got so sick, but in fact it is not.  There are tons of slimy foods here, okra is cooked specifically to make it as slimy as possible, as opposed to the way it’s cooked in Southern (USA) cooking where the sliminess is minimized as much as possible.  IMG_2036

This is another slimy favourite.  I don’t know what it’s called but i was served it as a side dish one time and it is the consistency of phlegm.  It’s actually really tasteless if you can get past the texture, but I’ll be honest it’s not my favourite.

I went to the Nagoya fish market the month and bought fresh octopus, fresh squid, fresh baby clams and scallops  as well as mussels.  All for ridiculously cheap prices.  The only downside is having to clean and prepare them all myself.  I screamed bloody murder when I went to scoop out the scallop from its shell and it clamped down on my knife with the unnatural force of some satanic being.  I didn’t feel any better when they’d randomly move as I was ripping the guts out.  It took a lot of deep breathing and telling myself I needed to embrace fresh local food.  It tasted amazing but I think I’m going to take a break now and go back to tofu.

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I googled how to clean the squid on You tube where I watched multiple videos that honestly make it look the most fool proof easiest thing a person can do.  In all the videos the head just easily slides out with all the guts and insides and you just throw it away no problem.  Not mine!  Maybe it’s because these squid were about 15 times bigger than the ones in the video I watched, Im not sure but again the heads were attached by a force stronger than me and I ended up rupturing one of the ink sacks and spewing black ink all over and again screaming bloody murder out of fear and shock while the squid’s big black eyes kept staring at him.  It was horrifying and I’m sure our neighbours think I have an anxiety disorder.  But I ended up with some calamari after extensive swearing and oil burns from trying to deep fry these suckers.

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We’ve tried another Nagoya specialty, miso-nikomi udon. This is a great winter dish because it’s so heart and warms you up. It’s served in a clay pot scalding hot and still boiling.

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Post illness we tried another onsen and are practically experts now :) We also went to this really random place called “Sweet Castle ” which although it might be obvious to some that this is a place for children mostly, all I heard was this place calling my name.  It’s a castle where they have art sculptures and exhibits all made out of sugar, like confectionary art.  You can go and make cookies and cakes and donuts and there is a sweets buffet where you can have all-you-can-eat sweets!!  I actually had trouble sleeping the night before I was so excited.  It was strangely juxtaposed in an industrial area and there happened to be an anime convention on the day that we went so there were all these people dressed up in crazy costumes which seemed even weirder being hyped up on sugar and being surrounded by kids who were in the same boat.  Walking through the industrial area we felt like we were in the movie “Spirited Away” as the route google maps told us to take led us along narrow paths between  buildlings that became more and more treed and forested until the path actually disappeared and turned to grass and bushes and we thought we were heading to an alternate world when bam! The castle appeared.  It was weird.

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Here’s a replica of the famous Neuschwanstein castle in the Black Forest of Germany, made out of a an obscene amount of sugar and other random baking ingredients.


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Here’s the sweet castle, picturesquely located between factories.

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Crazy people dress up as anime characters for fun–everyone had these startling eyes.  We tried looking up some of the characters when we got home but couldn’t recognize any of them.

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Yes this is all made out of sugar.


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I can’t say that we have learned to appreciate anime although we have tried a bit, if anyone of you already has an appreciation for it, I’d love to hear from you so you can help me relate to this popular Japanese phenomenon.

On another day of clossal failures I spent the day photographing Nagoya and finding a random place called a cat cafe where you can have a nice drink while cuddling with cats.  Any of those who know my childhood obsession with cats will know how thrilled I was.  But this is also an experience I will not be repeating.  As soon as they led me into the cat room I became immediately uncomfortable.  None of the cats seemed to want to be pet.  A couple hissed at me when I approached them and then just glared with hostility at me.  2 cats got in a fight at one point and when one started making this weird gutteral noises and coughing up a rat sized hairball I suddenly felt very hot and sweating and like all I could smell was cat pee.

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Andrew and I also tried going to one of the big beer factories here.  We rode our bikes since it was beautiful and sunny out only to be told that since we rode out bikes unfortunately we couldn’t be served any alcohol. There’s a zero tolerance drinking and driving policy that includes driving your bike.  They then proceeded to give us nice name tags with a picture of a bike and then a picture of a beer with a giant X through it.  What made matters worse is that if you walk or take a cab then after the tour you get 1L of free beer to drink while you are there, and you are given 20 minutes to drink it.  What the heck!? Why couldn’t we just have had a couple sips of each type of beer and responsibly and safely bike home.  Nope. You have to get intoxicated and take a cab or stay completely sober and bike or drive home.  Sheesh!

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Can you see our nice name tags? Apparently most of the barley for the beer is imported from Canada and Australia.  Also they have testers at the factory whose job is to sample beer all day.  I’m assuming they are walking to work everyday.IMG_2056

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was just a funny sign I saw at a train station.  I think it is targeted at all those people that took the Asahi brewery tour and then got to drink their 1L of beer in 20 minutes and walk home.

Here are some shots of our big city.

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This is the main train station in Nagoya.  These giant cylindrical towers make this train station the largest station by floor area in the world.

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This is on the 15th floor of one of the towers in the station.  People are always just chilling out here checking out the view.IMG_2033

This is the view from even higher up on the 51st floor.  There’s a cafe here I finally got to go to. The clouds reflected off the glass table I was eating at to make a cool picture.

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Downtown parking can be tight.  I’ve already been ticketed once.

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A giant ferris wheel downtown.

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My latest Ikebana with one of my 4 kimono’s that I bought at a second hand store.  I couldn’t resist I actually was overwhelmed how beautiful some of these Kimono’s were and they were incredibly cheap, like from $1-$10.  So I bought 4 thinking I couldn’t go wrong.  My Ikebana teacher though has informed me that my arms are too long and that I can’t wear a Kimono properly because they don’t make any my size.  There’s all these undergarments and belts and clips and pads that need to be worn under a Kimono if you are to wear it properly and then you get fastened with this big belt and more cloth.  Apparently I won’t be able to have this experience though because apparently I have  obscenely long arms.  Oh well guess I have 4 new dressing gowns. Andrew says I look like a wizard but I’m not bothered.

Also I apologize if any of you have been receiving notices in your email of a new blog post only to find I’ve not posted anything.  I’m still getting used to blogging and I seem to somehow end up doing something that sends out these false alarms.  Anyway sorry!

Until next time! :)

Hatsugama and Kanazawa

Hatsugama is the first tea ceremony of the year, and although not everyone celebrates this, we were lucky enough to get to.  This was a really amazing experience and something we feel very fortunate to have been invited to.  The Tea ceremony was originally adapted (or “Japanized” as one of my students always says) from China in the 9th century when it was brought from China to Japan by a Buddhist monk.  Matcha tea eventually replaced  the tea that was popular in China and Japan at that time, and although originally the ceremony was part of Buddhist rituals, it evolved further into a luxurious status symbol of the warrior class.   I think it was also important in terms of negotiations for samurai as to participate in the ceremony they had to leave all weapons outside the teahouse, and the entry to the tea house required everyone to duck their heads down low to get through the small door of the teahouse.  In this way, even high ranked officials were made to bow their heads in ‘respect’ and in a symbolic way they were all thought to be on equal footing while sharing tea.    Tea was always of the highest quality, as was the equipment used, some of which we have seen in various museums.  Beatiful gold plated and lacquer-wear, silver, delicate bamboo, and handmade pottery.  The lacquer wear is actually wood coated in lacquer which is poisonous black sap from a lacquer tree, a technique learned from the Chinese in ancient times.

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Now, the Tea Ceremony is still a highly regarded art-form, that requires a lifetime of practice to master, but is enjoyed by many as a hobby for the love of tea!  There remains a spiritual component to the ceremony, in terms of it being a meditation and a way of valuing and appreciating the tea as well as the surroundings.  In addition to the high quality special equipment, the tea ceremony takes place in a special room with tatami flooring where everyone kneels on the floor, and a hanging scroll and flower arrangement are found in a nook in part of the room.  The flowers and scroll change depending on the season and the guests to attend the ceremony.  The room itself is part of the art of tea ceremony as are the tools and the way it is served and drank.

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There are (what seems like) hundreds of meticulous exact steps that must be taken with precision and without haste for the master to prepare and serve the tea, but funnily enough once served the tea you’re expected to gulp it down quite quickly.  Hatsugama was a special tea ceremony though because we were also served a huge meal of high quality, amazing, traditional, fancy Japanese food.  I was actually pretty nervous about walking blindly into this event where I’d be eating a plethora of food that I had no idea what it was or if I could stomach it.  From experience I know that Japanese food can be pretty strange sometimes.  I plan to write an entire blog on slimy Japanese food that is basically a food group on its own here.  But surprisingly there was only one thing that was “so-so” (which is the Japanese way of saying I was deep breathing to keep my gag reflex from acting up). Everything else was really amazing, we had great sake, amazing sashimi, all sorts of vegetables we’ve never had before, soups, lily root, seaweed, dumplings, duck, black beans, chestnut paste, miso, and more fish eggs than I cared for…so much stuff I really don’t know how Hideko prepared it all for such a big group of us.

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You can tell from the Camera angle, Hideko took pity on us and gave us stools to sit on because she knows that as foreigners our ligaments are tight and we can’t kneel for hours on end like everyone else in this country, so we ate on tables and chairs like kings looking down on our peasants.  It was awkward but she insisted and I was secretly happy to be free of pain.  After the food, we shared in the drinking of ‘koicha’ which is a type of thick tea made with the highest quality matcha, and is like drinking bitter green paste.  Then we had plain matcha and sweets after.  We tried our best to accept the tea appropriately but lots of Hideko’s friends who were there said they come every year and still can’t remember how to do the ceremony properly, so we didn’t worry too much about doing it wrong and offending everyone.  Mostly people helped show us how to drink it, how to examine the pottery afterwards and where to place the bowl after drinking etc etc.

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Here is Hideko preparing the Koicha for us

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Because it was a special occasion everyone was wearing Kimonos.  I wish that I owned one so badly, but I can’t really justify buying one for the price, considering I’ll probably never be invited to another tea ceremony again, but there were so many beautiful silks there.  I love the cranes on this one.

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And here is Andrew and I with Hideko and 2 of her lovely friends who babysat us through the whole ordeal.  Notice how big Andrew and I look next to them…that’s saying something!

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Our latest excursion was to a town called Kanazawa, about 4 hours north and along the opposite coast from Nagoya.  We got a taste for the old Japan which is what I feel like I’ve been desperately trying to learn about but having a much harder time that I thought I would.  Japan is just so much more industrialized and developed that I had imagined.  Andrew keeps reminding me that it’s a first world country.  Part of me thought that its old traditional culture would be much more obvious, but I personally find it really hard to find authentic, historic Japanese culture that isn’t completely touristy, or that is in some form of English.  But Kanazawa was our ticket, although it is also like most other major cities here (very modern and developed…because of course it’s  first world country despite whatever image I have in mind), it has well preserved cultural pockets, at the same time it wasn’t flooded with tourists like Kyoto was when we were there, so we could actually enjoy our surroundings.  We arrived and went to the fish market for lunch.  Being right on the coast it has excellent seafood, and crab was in season.  I’ve never seen so much fresh fish or felt so compelled to buy crab.  We held out though and ate a restaurant in the market and got to enjoy crab and sushi there.

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The crab ranged in price from about $15 – over $300

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At first I thought this huge head outside of a restaurant was fake, but it most definitely was not.

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Octopus and squid are also very popular here

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I see these in the supermarket in Nagoya as well and can only assume they are intestines although I’m actually not sure and I’m scared to ask since I’m not ready to try them yet.

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There were fish in every nook and cranny of the market place.

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Next we headed to the old Geisha district, where a few of the old Geisha houses have been preserved.  After getting pelted with snow on the main street of the old pleasure district, we went for a tour of one of the Geisha houses.  Although we couldn’t take pictures, it was amazing to see all the beautiful jewellery, combs, musical instruments and tea ceremony equipment that was used to make these women living works of art.  There was a market for this expensive accompaniment since Kanazawa was a very rich city under the Tokugawa Shogunate, due to it’s wealth from rice cultivation.

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The front of the Geisha house

Next we headed to one of the most famous landscape gardens in Japan, Kenrokuen, which means ‘Garden of Six Qualities’.  It exhibits the six superior characteristics  judged necessary by the Chinese Sung Dynasty for the perfect garden: spaciousness, artistic merit, majesty, abundant water, extensive views, and seclusion.

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All the trees had these big poles holding them up as they are sculpted a certain way and can’t loose their shape during the winter when heavy snow can weigh down the branches.

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A nice view from the edge of the park

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I have to admit how much I feel like these pictures don’t capture the elegance and beauty of the park, but hopefully you can use your imagination a bit.  It was really lovely.  And since we are crazy about Matcha we had some tea in a quaint little teahouse on the pond with a great view:

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After strolling around the gardens we headed to our hostel and then out to dinner. We went to a small Izakaya, or ‘sake shop’ which is really just like a little drinking establishment that also serves food. We were blown away by the hospitality and generousity of the owners and other patrons! At first we were a bit hesitant to enter since it was really small and cramped but we sat down and the owner said ‘Sushi ok?!” and handed us plates of sashimi and big glasses of sake and the rest was history! We had a riot trying to talk with them, and the food and sake just kept coming.  I’ve since learned that Izakaya are often all you can eat and drink (for a set period of time) and are so cheap because they are either chains or deal directly with the fisherman at the fish market and get their products really cheap.  We started sweating a bit 3/4 of the way through our meal wondering if we were in for a huge bill, but we were flabbergasted at how economical it was.  Not to mention the owner just threw in a bottle of his own homemade sake for us.  Some other people there bought us some sort of chewy snails.  One woman was in love with my blond hair and kept saying ‘pretty pretty!’.  Her husband and her where quite intoxicated as the night went on and had about 10 english words between them that they knew, yet continued to try talking to us.  After the woman commented on my hair, the husband looked at Andrew and said “Skin Head!!…..NICE!” We killed ourselves laughing because of all the vocabulary he could have known, why he knew ‘skin-head’ is a mystery to us.  Some of you may know, Andrew had an unfortunately shaving accident involving the guard falling off and him shaving a big patch of his hair right down to the scalp.  He regrettably shaved the rest down to the scalp so it would blend in.  I think its turned out well though and I like his new cut. Anyway we ate tons more of new food, including ‘Buri’ or yellowtail sashimi, cod roe, sardines, daikon and mackerel.IMG_1851

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This was such a riot and we were completely stuffed.  We also got to practice our Japanese a lot which was hands down the most entertaining way to practice speaking Japanese.

The next day we took a tour of Myoryu-ji, a buddhist temple that was built under Toshitsune, the daimyo of the area and he built it with escape in mind in case of invasion.  In the Edo period, the Tokugawa shogunate demoted local lords and integrated them in order to unify the nation.  The shogunate imposed multiple restrictions that made it extremely difficult for any one of the daimyos to gain power.  One of the things Toshitsune did to counter this was build this temple to protect himself should there be an attack.  This temple is full of trap doors, secret passageways and hidden staircases.  This temple violated regulations  set by Tokugawa but it doe so in a hidden, way using complex architecture and has a really confusing layout.  Viewed from the outside it appears to be a two-story building but it actually is a four-story building with a seven-layer internal structure.  It also has a deep water well that apparently tunnels all the way to Kanazawa castle (a couple kilometers away). It also has a secret ‘seppuku’ ritual suicide chamber, where the lord could go to commit suicide if capture was inevitable! We took a tour of this crazy temple and got so turned around in the process it was easy to see how an intruder could be tricked.

IMG_1865The outside of the temple.

Next we went to the Yuzu Silk Centre were we learned about the intricate artistic process of hand painting silk kimonos and the process that goes into creating an appropriate design.  Rice and soy are used for everything it seems here, in fact even part of the painting process used for kimonos!  We also saw a bunch of impressive hand painted kimonos on display.  Multiple people are involved in the Kimono process as each step is such a specialized skill that requires decades to master, no single person can possess all the skills necessary to complete the project single handedly.

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Next was the remains of a samurai house.  Many samurai houses were destroyed when the feudal system broke up.  Although a lot of this house was rebuilt to resemble old times, parts remain authentic and it is an experience to see what type of house one of the wealthy samurai lived in.  The garden was stunning and the house was large and well made but the simplicity and almost bareness of it, like other Japanese houses we’ve seen, is surprising.  They always feel a bit like tree-houses, made out of wood and with paper windows, little to no furniture, and as usual, no heating.  You sit on the floor at low tables and futons are rolled out of closest where they hide during the day when you want to sleep.  It just seems so empty and basic it’s strange to think it is the house of one of the wealthier samurai.  But it was speckled with valuable lacquered objects, pottery and artistic Ikebana.  The sliding doors have been protected with plastic, but the artist who was commissioned for the walls of this samurai house was considered one of the most talented at the time.  The glare from the covering made it hard to photograph though, sorry!IMG_1886

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The samurai district

Lastly we walked around the impressive castle grounds, which are built up on this big plateau, giving the whole castle and surrounding area a nice view of the city.  This castle was definitely bigger and fancier that one’s we’ve seen elsewhere but I think this again speaks to the wealth of the city in times past.

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That’s all for now, until next time! :)

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Christmas, New Years and Takara Utopia

For Christmas we headed to the mountains in search of a Christmas-y atmosphere to stay at Hakuba ski resort.  Our first stop was Nagano city, home of the 1998 Olympics and yes, they are still riding the ‘We hosted the Olympics here!!’ wave.

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We went to the town’s main temple which was for once a peaceful reprieve.  Usually we don’t appreciate the beauty or significance of the shrines and temples we go to because (well besides we aren’t Buddhist or Shinto) usually there are so many people and it’s really busy and crazy and requires standing in line-ups even to get to the front of the shrine.  But Zenko-ji temple  was impressive architecturally and surrounded by very quiet, peaceful gardens, void of hustling bustling humans.

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So we enjoyed walking around and even did a ‘cleanse’ of sorts which involves giving a donation and then taking a bundle of incense sticks, lighting them and then tossing them into this big burning incense pit, then smoke pours out of the top, which is this monsters mouth.

 

IMG_1658 Then you are supposed to rub the smoke that comes out all over your body.  We just copied other people doing it and it smelled nice but seemed really funny to being patting ourselves down with smoke as a symbolical cleanse. It is also supposed to bring good fortune and health.  Anyway the temple is known for being the final destination each year for millions of religious pilgrims.  Since the 7th century it has been a ‘non-sectarian’ Buddhist temple and has accepted believers of all faiths and admitted women when other temples forbade it.

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Next we jumped on a bus that was supposed to take us to Hakuba within an hour.  After about 40 minutes we came across a semi that had jack-knifed and was completely blocking the road.  This delayed us an additional 3 hours and those extra 3 hours involved crying and the ruining of Andrew’s Christmas surprise by me.  Not me at my best or most mature, but sometimes the fact that 90% of things I try to do in this country don’t work here for some reason or another, sometimes I just feel like exploding at feeling so incompetent.  We were suppose to arrive with plenty of time in Hakuba to get settled and then find the base of the mountain because we were going on an evening snow shoe tour and it was supposed to be Andrews surprise Christmas present.  After 1 hour of waiting behind the stuck truck, the bus put on some chains, turned around and started heading somewhere completely unknown to us at a painstakingly slow pace. I assumed we were doomed and that I’d loose my 100% ‘deposit’ I had paid on the snowshoeing.  I wept that everything was ruined because we wouldn’t make it in time.  So I spoiled Andrews surprise since I assumed it was hopeless, which guaranteed that we arrived with 15 seconds to spare and caught the snow shoe group before they left without us.  It was a beautiful clear night for snowshoeing and was quiet and peaceful in the forest.  We spent most of the time eating chocolate fondu deep in the woods. It was awesome.

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The next day was Christmas, although it honestly felt pretty much like every other day except we called our families and missed them lots because they were having fun being together without us.

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We went skiing which was great, and the funny thing was the ski hill was full of Australians.  Lots of the employees were foreigners as well.  Leave it to Australia to infiltrate and take over any ski hill anywhere in the world. It’s actually really awkward running into other foreigners here.  Well, especially in Nagoya, mainly because there are so few of us, but also because we are so visibly identifiable.  Whenever I see someone else that’s white, I sort of have this reaction to go hug them and say “Hi! Isn’t it crazy living here?  How are you finding things?”, but when I smile at other white people, generally they are really unreceptive. I feel like they glare or quickly avoid eye contact.  My guess is that I get this response either because they are thinking A) “why are you smiling at me? Just because I’m white?!   You don’t know me!” or b) “I’m supposed to be a minority and a precious rare specimen stop cramping my style, I came to this country to get away from you.”  Its a bit weird and I’ve opted for ignoring people and avoiding eye contact, although sometimes it gets the better of me and I can’t help smiling as if I’ve recognized an old friend.

Anyway, we had a great day in Hakuba, it just felt so strange not being with family and at home or around anyone that we knew.  We tried to celebrate a bit and our hotel made us a ‘special’ Chrismtas dinner which included tripe and beef cheeks, both firsts for me!

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As well as this crazy desert that our host whipped up.

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Our hosts were this adorable Japanese couple that tag teamed everything at the bed and breakfast.  The woman was so tiny and friendly.  Her husband told us she is known in the area as the ‘onsen Yokozuna’, Yokozuna being the word for the ultimate sumo champion, the highest rank in professional sumo.  And there can only ever be one Yokozuna… Onsen is the word for natural hot springs.  She holds the title because she never gets hot and can soak for hours.  Crazy little lady! We had an onsen (well we thought it was an onsen…I’ll explain) in our room and spent a lot of time in it, it was such a lovely way to warm up.

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However despite Hakuba area being notorious for being rampant with onsens and myself book this specific hotel because I thought it had a private onsen, we found out it was just a fancy hot tub and the water was heated by gas like all other normal water in Japan and not from natural springs.  Ace Kels!   Hakuba is much colder than Nagoya, but I was warmer in Hakuba the whole time since they had figured out a bit better how to the heat the building and stay warm.  The tub was made of Japanese cypress which is a traditional type of soaking tub, popular because it’s supposed to provide a luxurious comfortable soak and give off a pleasant aroma.  Its also an ideal wood because he has natural bactericidal agents and therefore resists mold and insects and does not rot so it lasts a long time.  Despite feeling a bit jipped about the water not being natural hot spring water, it felt amazing to soak in the tub with a beautiful view of the mountains after being outside.

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Last stop on our Christmas trip was Matsumoto, which is supposed to be really great but besides the castle we were a bit underwhelmed.  The Castle was impressive though, built in 16th century, it is one of the National Treasures that maintains its original wooden interiors and external stonework.

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During the Meiji Restoration, many former powerful castles and household items were sold at auction for redevelopment, but this one was one of the few that was saved.  It was the first castle we had been in that I felt that strange feeling of being in the same room where something significant had taken place centuries ago.  I could imagine samurai had run down the halls during battle and peered out the same windows, and ate and drank and slept in the same rooms we stood in.  I felt the preciousness of the history here like I have felt before in certain castles in europe, but this is the first time here in Japan.  You could tell how strategically the castle had been built for defence, with sweeping views across the valley to see oncoming attackers, and behind mazes and moats and with well positioned windows ideal for attack and at the same time protection.  There was also a ‘secret floor’ hidden to the outside that could store things and potentially hide things.  It was a great trip.

For New Years we made every attempt to celebrate the way Japanese people do, which is difficult since most people tend to return to the house they grew up in and and spend time with family.  But we attempted some of their other traditional things.  However, due to what I can only assume is things being lost in translation we botched New Years a bit.  From what I understood (from asking multiple people) we needed to go to  shrine for midnight on New Years eve and there would be a huge celebration with a big fire and drinks and food and many people.  Maybe this is the case at some shrines, but we went to a shrine by our house and got to bring in the new year in complete darkness and isolation! There were none of the festivities or people.  Just us.  So we messed up big time, I guess only some of the major shrines have this type of party, but even now I’m not sure if its on New Years eve at midnight or during the day or the days following New Years.

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We also missed getting our fortune  (which you buy from the temple) which is a common practice to do at the beginning of the year, as well as we missed ringing the temple bell (108 times, each bell ring to signify one of the 108 earthly temptations a person must overcome in order to achieve Nirvana.  Its also mainly become a main symbol to indicate the ending of an old year and the brining in of a new year). Also because everything is completely closed pretty much for the week of the New Year, a tradition of food has evolved. Traditionally women did a complete clean of the house and cooked relentlessly in the days leading up to New Year to make enough food for the whole family for the week that everything was closed.  Since that’s an obscene amount of work, it is rare anyone does all the cooking anymore, and most people buy their new years food, called ‘osechi ryori’ from the supermarket.  There are tons of different osechi ryori and they all are symbolic of different things and are eaten only at this time of year.  Funny enough most people I talked to don’t particularly like osechi ryori, it’s just a custom and I guess the easiest way to feed everyone over the holidays.  I went shopping for osechi ryori and a couple of other things to get us through this notorious week and I went the day before everything closed and the supermarket was a nut house.  What made matters so much worse was that the place I normally go to get groceries is this sort of warehouse type place that sells things in bulk (but nothing like costco, but you can never buy a single item, you always have to buy at least 2 lemons or 3 garlic bulbs or whatever) and the store marks down the prices of their products every hour, so near the end of the day things are getting cheaper and cheaper and people are getting crazier and crazier.  Also, it’s mainly me and ever Japanese senior citizen on the block fighting for deals and to top it off, for some reason, really loud North American pop music is always blaring from loudspeakers that no one except me seems to hear.  I hear ‘Call me maybe’ literally every time I go into that place regardless of what time or day I go.  Here is the link  for those of you less pop-culture savvy readers (Dad) so you can understand and visualize the ridiculousness of these lyrics blasting in this incongruent environment.

ANYWAY, I bought some osechi ryori at random (I couldn’t read any of the packaging but I could tell it was new years food), and ended up with 2 of the same thing (kamaboko–which is the stuff that imitation crab meat is made of, fish paste basically, or the white fish version of ground beef.  Random fish pulverized into a block.  Yum.).

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The third thing I bought was very similar to the other two (a sweet egg and fish paste roll).

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We were trying to embrace tradition and culture but we both were sitting in silence chewing on tasteless rubbery fish paste-y stuff after our failed celebration at the shrine and were both thinking it but finally Andrew said ‘This is what they eat to celebrate!?!?’  It wasn’t the best, but, when in Rome right?  We did do some things properly, I had New Years Ikebana which rocked, and we will be going to something called Hatsu-gama which is the first tea ceremony of the year later in January.  We also got up and watched the first sun rise of the year which is a common thing to do.

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Lastly I’ll mention that we finally went to an onsen near Nagoya.  A public onsen might I add, since I felt I didn’t get the real thing on Christmas after thinking we were in one at our hotel but actually weren’t.  There are many different types of onsens, some are in beautiful scenery outdoors in a peaceful environment.  Others are known for their impressive architecture or old age or special soothing powers, some are privately owned, but many are public as onsens traditionally functioned as communal bath houses back in the day when having bathing facilities in one’s house wasn’t as common in Japan.  Also it is absolutely necessary to be naked and inappropriate to wear a bathing suit as it is thought that this is the only way to relax completely.  Anyway, what appeals to me about the onsen is their historical significance and their  constancy through time as well as this natural way of relaxing that people have done since as far back as documentation has been possible.  It conjures up quaint, beautiful, precious images of rustic onsens in beautiful settings, but the one we went to was just what I found when I googled ‘onsen closest to Nagoya’, and it was similar to a….I really don’t know what.  Like a multiplex game centre I guess.  There were 30 baths, each with different properties, but the centre also had 4 or 5 restaurants, an arcade room, a movie theatre (specifically for hot spring users that filmed free movies that you got to watch in the special pyjamas that they make you wear the whole time you are there), a relaxation room literally for  people to nap in, a massage room, a library, a kids room 6 sauna’s and a steam room.  As we were leaving Andrew said ‘gee, I really wish they had a stretching room’ as if they didn’t have enough crap there!  So we got changed into our Pj’s and we knew some of the etiquette around bathing but were nervous since it was our first time and we were hoping (naively) that there might be some english guidance since the onsen (called Takara Utopia!) was connected to an international hotel.  But there wasn’t.  All we knew was there was some serious etiquette and we weren’t quite sure exactly what it was. An excellent position to be in before you strip down and get in a bath with a bunch of strangers.  We had to split up, men and women always bath separately (although I think there might be a few rare onsens somewhere in Japan with only one bath that both genders can use but it’s really uncommon) in different parts of the building.  The women’s side was so steamy you could hardly see anything, and thank goodness because I was blatantly staring trying to copy people.  You have to thoroughly and rigorously wash yourself from head to toe before you get in.  This washing step is done in a tiny cubicles that you have to sit at and it’s in full view of everyone soaking in the tubs, no curtains or anything.  After I had finished doing this about 4 times the lady I was trying to copy was still scrubbing away.  Finally she finished and rinsed and then went to one of the pools.  Each pool has something unique, like a different temperature, or ion or mineral content, one was red I have no idea why.  Andrew conveniently unknowingly chose the pool with the electric current in it to start with.  He had no idea what was going on when he put his foot in and felt it zap and throb after he took it out.  When he told me about it I remembered having read something about an electric pool but had completely forgotten.  He said he was pretty sure the men in the pool next to the electricity pool were cracking up at him (no one was in the electric pool surprise surprise).  Nothing to make yourself stand out more than you already do in your blaring white skin than electrocuting yourself in front of everyone whilst being naked.

Anyway I feel like there’s lots more to tell but this is ridiculously long.  For those of you I haven’t emailed back I promise I will as soon as I can.  Take care everybody!

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