Thursday, December 30, 2010

Tomodachi Tourism

Tomorrow, M and I set off for our Winter Vacation Extravaganza. As I pack and clean and make lists and check my e-mail and prepare all the little things for leaving, I keep getting notes from people in different places.

Just got one from my friend in Malaysia saying he's looking forward to seeing me, even though we're only going to be able to stop in his town a little while.

M pointed out that although we are leaving on the 31st and returning the 10th, we're only spending like three nights in hotels (two by the beach in Penang, one in Singapore). The rest of the time, we are crashing with or imposing on various friends of mine (okay one night might be an overnight train to save us some time, but who is counting?).

Seriously. In Kyoto, in Tokyo, in Kluang and KL we have invitations or actual plans to stay the night with four different friends of mine.

Which would be impressive, except... I would probably not be traveling to these places if I didn't have friends there to begin with. I mean, Malaysia is awesome, and Kyoto and Tokyo too.. but why would you go, if not to see someone (or go with someone, which is essentially, to me, the same)? The awesome additional things you get to see and do (mobs of kimono-wearing shrinegoers on the 1st, Emperor in Tokyo, beaches in Malaysia, etc.) are nice additions, but for me, the backbone of a trip usually begins with my contacts. There are so many places to see in the world, I'll never see them all. So I'll settle for first seeing/exploring the ones inhabited by people I like.

It can grow bigger and more interesting from there, but that first kernel is almost always a person.

Welcome to tomodachi tourism.

I'll be out of pocket for a little while, though I might be able to grab an internet connection somewhere, I am certainly not lugging this laptop around with me. In SE Asia we will be packing "light and dirty." In the meantime, enjoy this itinerary I've cobbled together after hours of charting (literally) the options. The non-Malaysia parts all ended up being mostly accidental discoveries of awesomeness tacked on to this plan by my crack team of Guardian Agents who are determined that I should have a good time. Because I really couldn't have designed a better flowing plan if I tried.

31st - 9:30am bus to Kyoto, wandering and shopping, go stay the night with Nami.
1st - Traditional New Year Greeting visit to Nami's husband's parents, then to her parents, then to her home shrine. Depart for Tokyo, say 'what up' to Sumir, stay with Alejandro.
2nd - Stand in line for a while, see the Imperial Palace and maybe Emperor (palace is open twice a year, today and the 23rd of December), 11:30pm flight to Malaysia.
3rd - Arrive in Malaysia at the crack of dawn, hop a short flight to Penang, stumble into sweet splurge hotel (relatively speaking.. is $100 per person for two nights high end to you? It is when the other options are low as $16!) and go find a spot on the beach.
4th - Explore Georgetown, or maybe that sweet jungle park on the other side of the island. Or lie on the sand again.
5th - Morning flight to Singapore. Explore Singapore; they have a kickass zoo and also a night safari.
6th - More Singapore, get a bus to Johor Bahru or Kluang to meet my friend. Hang out in Kluang until the 1am night train, or stay with friend and take morning train.
7th - If we took the night train, we're in KL at 7:30am, if not, we're there around 2:30pm, either way we'll tool around the city, checking guidebook frequently until other friend is done with work.
8th - Do whatever we want in KL with friend and book as guides.
9th - KL morning, flight back to Tokyo at 2:30pm. Probably stay that night in Tokyo.
10th - Make our way back to our little (FROZEN) mountain town with our new tans freckles.

At some point this trip will include delicious stall food, walking tours, and hopefully cheap massages and reflexology, but I haven't nailed all that down yet. Some things are better picked up on the fly.

I'm already trying to figure out how to get back and I haven't even been yet.

That's the other perk of tomodachi tourism - you can [almost] always go back!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Christmas in Nara

Nara is like the poor man's Kyoto. ~somebody

Nara was the capital before Kyoto was the capital (which was before Tokyo was the capital) of Japan. So what's left there is mostly very old stuff, some temples and other cultural property from when Nara was the most prestigious place to be. It's a lot smaller than Kyoto, and the feel of it is a bit less pretentious. You can take it all in within about one day, whereas Kyoto requires a lot more time (and cash).

I had never been before this Christmas, which was the reason Osaki-san offered to take me. M joined up as well and the three of us used train tickets that function kind of as all-day passes. It was snowing very lightly as we left, and I worked on New Year cards on the train.

Our first stop was Horyu-ji, a very spacious temple area with a cool onsite museum full of historical art stuff. Horyu-ji is home to the oldest surviving wooden building in the world! Wiki-travel says to expect to wait in line to get in, but we wandered about at will in the chilly December wind. The grounds were very lightly populated with tourists, and a light snow continued to fall at intervals.

It was pretty magical.

From 2010_12_25

From 2010_12_25

From 2010_12_25

From 2010_12_25

From 2010_12_25

From there, we had lunch, tried to unfreeze our hands, and hopped a train the rest of the way into Nara.

There were deer everywhere, a thing for which Nara is known. I was told they would bow to passersby, hoping for a handout, like a dog that gets so excited when it sees you holding a treat it spontaneously beings doing all the tricks it knows, hoping one of them is the one you're about to say.

From 2010_12_25

They didn't bow much, but I figured that would change once I bought some treats. Later.

First, Todaiji.
From 2010_12_25

We went into the temple and wished Daibutsu (literally, Big Buddha) a merry Christmas.
From 2010_12_25

Inside the temple, Osaki-san showed me the pillar hole which Miriam said was the size of Daibutsu's nostril, and which was supposed to bring good luck for a year if you went through it.
From 2010_12_25

Osaki-san said she'd never seen it without a line before. So I thought, what the hey, when am I going to have a shot at doing this without an audience of strangers ever again? And I told her I believed that I could fit. This was a lie. I did not believe I would fit. I was going to try anyway.
From 2010_12_25

To my surprise:
From 2010_12_25

If you turn your shoulders diagonally, you can totally do it. Osaki-san never lies.

Then it was back outside into the freezing, beautiful day.
From 2010_12_25

The deer, they look so peaceful...

Who would even believe what people say about them?
From 2010_12_25

Yeah, except:
From 2010_12_25

Even more upsetting was that just a little further down the path, I encountered a deer which was perfectly civil and did bow to me, and I no longer had any treats to give to it!
From 2010_12_25

Next we went to Kasuga shrine, famous for its lanterns (of both stone and hanging varieties).
From 2010_12_25

As it got later into the evening, we made our way over to Nigatsu-do, famous for the Omizutori festival in March, culminating in a big event involving fire which Osaki-san pointed out had blackened the wooden beams.
From 2010_12_25

From 2010_12_25

After this, we walked back toward the station, enjoying the brisk (BRISK!) air and occasional snowflakes. We stopped for warm drinks in a place called Benten, where the very nice owners warmly invited us to visit them again.
From 2010_12_25

And that concluded our stay in Nara!
From 2010_12_25

(that deer guy is Sentokun, Nara's kinda weird mascot, who made an appearance [along with Santa Claus and our own town mascot] at my elementary school recently!)

Of course, we still had to ride back to Himeji (all covered under the seishun kippu) and drive home. We stopped in Himeji and by some stroke of awesome, found a Christmas special with half price yaki-niku. There was no better way to end the evening.
From 2010_12_25

The end!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


I like the Japanese tradition of sending New Year greeting cards. It's basically the same idea as Christmas cards, only non-affiliated to any religion, and if you don't know what to say, there are a bunch of sweet set formula phrases to use. Congratulations on the New Year. Please regard me kindly this year as well as last.

Last year I took a bunch of cards home with me to mail out as New Year cards in the US. I did this without realizing that some of the cards you buy already have the Japanese postage built right in, to save you the trouble of affixing postcard stamps. This year, I decided I'd be smart and just attach 20yen additional stamps to them, because 70 yen is the cost of sending a postcard international.

I just got word that the built-in-stamp cards are special and might not go abroad. I assured the bearer of this news that I had put my return address on my cards and they were totally not returned.

But I don't think I put my return address on them, come to think of it. So if you are expecting a card and didn't get one, the JPost might have eaten it for a holiday supper. I apologize. Those of you to whom I am sending late cards, well, yours will be fine.

Yoi o-toshi-o!

Update: I also managed to leave all my cardmaking material at school today even though it was the last day the building would be open until the 3rd. But by the 3rd I'll be in Penang, hopefully lying on a beach, and not back to Shiso until the 10th. At which point New Year cards are kind of moot.

I actually had my vice principal and Kam-kam collaborate to retrieve them for me.

So much fail. But so much kindness, too. I guess if I did everything right, I would have no call to feel this kind of gratitude that my boss and my fellow JET would go out of their ways like this for me.

Life is Study

As the lovable Kintaro, hero of Golden Boy once said, "Life is study."

And I often spend working holidays catching up on my studies. I've tried to stay on some kind of schedule, and to some degree I have kept up with things.. the problem is mostly that I'm doing too many different things and trying to maintain them all (alongside all that lesson plannin' and other stuff I do at my desk).

SmartFM has proved to be an excellent tool for studying Japanese vocabulary (and the countries of the world), and I try to do lessons regularly. The lessons go quickly and are kind of fun.

My kanji benkyo-ing has been going slowly. You might remember a time when I said I wanted to "nail down" the 508 I "knew" before moving on to the next lesson. Well, the process of nailing down those kanji, begun in the summer, has reached its.. um.. halfway point today.

And it's not that I've been slacking. My methods are just very.. methodical. I get confused by all this "kunyomi" and "onyomi" stuff, especially when there is more than one of either of them for a character, so I figured the best thing to do would be just learn some words for each kanji. Then I would get exposed to more vocabulary, and see how the kanji fit into the meanings of their respective words.

But writing a handful of words for each character is ridiculously time-consuming. It's working, I'm remembering, if not all the words, at least I'll be able to feel like I've seen that before... when I encounter them, and possibly even produce the correct sounds in reading the words.. but I'll get the meaning, and that's what is important.

I've been doing the kanji review quizzes regularly (the screen shows a word in English and I write the kanji on my scrap paper, then hit spacebar to show the correct kanji. If it's right, I type Y, if wrong, I type N. The N ones have to be redone and then they go into the box to be reviewed soonest and most often. Kanji work their way out further and further into the 2-times reviewed box and beyond depending on the number of times I give them a Y response. Every time, a handful of them make their way back into the first box because I've forgotten them since the last review.

As of now, though, the boxes are like this:
One review: 12
Two reviews: 25
Three reviews: 9
Four Reviews: 33
Five Reviews: 95
Six Reviews: 325
Seven + Reviews: 9

After a set amount of time, each kanji expires and comes up for review. On any given day, I can have just a couple, or 40-something. If I wait too long, a lot will have expired and I'll have to plow through a hundred or so. If I get a kanji right, it goes to the next box, and wrong goes back to the first. The first boxes expire at a faster rate, and I assume further boxes just get exponentially longer times.

But yeah. I'm at 254 "nailed down" and still sitting at 508 in process.

I'm also not too far behind in my grammar studies. I've persisted in scraping what understanding I can from the free books we get from the government as JET participants. Last year I failed to finish the 6th and final book, but they sent me a certificate anyway. ^_^ This year I'm doing the blue (advanced) set, and I'm on book 2, week 4, day 3, which is where I would need to be, exactly, if I weren't about to run off traveling and leave the books sitting on the table for two weeks.

I'm not allowed to do more than two days of CLAIRbook in any one day because it causes my eyes to glaze over and for me to pass out at my desk. I'm not kidding. I drooled on my kanji notebook once. I don't retain more than two lessons at a time, and even those I like to space out these days (so I'll do one of those, then some kanji or smartfm).

So this is part of why I do not have free time at work like other JETs might. I'm just not equipped for that.

I have also developed some kind of inability to study at home. I can write letters at home, and watch pirated American TV, and I can clean the house and do laundry and even cook a little, and I can write at home, and I can leave the house for my other extracurricular stuff, and I can socialize at home. But I find it very difficult to actually do "homework" there.

Tomorrow I'm expecting me to do some, though, so we'll see how that goes!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Himeji-Momiji PEPY Ride

At the risk of reaching too far back, I'd like to get this entry up now and be almost finished with my backward blogging!

The Himeji-Momiji bike ride was on November 13th, and it was a great success! We shortened the ride from the springtime because of restrictions on the daylight hours, and the way that the cloudy sky was making me want to take a nap.

But by and large, we had an awesome day, and raised 35,200 yen for PEPY!

PEPY is an organization which works with education in Cambodia. Education is an issue pretty dear to me, as I believe strongly that education of our children is essential for anything good to happen in the future. I sort of fell into working with PEPY (dare I call what we do "working with" PEPY?) because I want to take one of their bike-including tours of Cambodia one of these days.

Here is my post-ride report (edited for content/enhanced with photos for your viewing pleasure):

Team Name (prefecture): Hyogo

Team leader: EmLem, Chip Boles

Team members and nationalities: 19 people, American, British, Japanese, Canadian

Distance covered: about 25 km.

Date(s)/Time: November 13th, 2010, from about 9am to 5pm.

Amount raised: 35,200 yen

Cost per team member (travel to cycle route, bicycle rental, food, accommodation, etc): 500 – 1700 per person (bike rental 300, Shosha ropeway 900 or 500 or 0, depending on how much you like mountain hiking, 500 for entrance to Engyoji)

Please provide a description of your ride (including details of times, meals, weather, morale, sightseeing, anecdotes, anything else you feel we might like to know!):

Our ride this fall followed much the same route as the spring ride, although we had to trim some of the stops and activities because of the early sundown time.

We tried to time the ride to catch some momiji color on Mt. Shosha without conflicting with Hyogo’s mid-year JET conference.

We met at Himeji station at about 9am to introduce ourselves and sign waivers.

From Himeji Ride Fall 2010

After sorting out the bike rentals (14 people rented) and stopping to allow people to grab food for lunch if they didn’t bring anything,

From Himeji Ride Fall 2010

we were off to Sosha shrine, near Himeji-jo, where it just so happened to be 3-5-7 day (aka Adorable Children Festival), so we got to see a lot of 3, 5, and 7-year-olds dressed up in tuxedoes and kimono.

From Himeji Ride Fall 2010

From Himeji Ride Fall 2010

We moved on to Himeji-jo itself, which is almost invisible right now because of the restoration scaffolding, and took a group photo [note: still waiting on my copy of this damn photo], then headed for the Yumesaki River, which we followed north to Mt. Shosha. Some of us decided to hike up the mountain,

From Himeji Ride Fall 2010

while others took the ropeway.

We met at the top for our picnic lunches,

From Himeji Ride Fall 2010

then wandered around exploring Engyoji, the temple on top of the mountain.

From Himeji Ride Fall 2010

From Himeji Ride Fall 2010

It was the weekend of their momiji matsuri, so some of the temple buildings which are normally kept shut were opened up to public viewing.

From Himeji Ride Fall 2010

Also, the momiji were looking beautiful.

From Himeji Ride Fall 2010

After descending the mountain, we stopped for Taiyaki snacks at Marukura, where we gave the PEPY information and summary of how far we’d ridden and how much money we’d raised that day.

From Himeji Ride Fall 2010

From there, we returned to the station, then grouped off for dinner and later, karaoke.

From Himeji Ride Fall 2010

One thing that struck me as really fun was seeing the faces of Japanese children we passed along the way within the city itself. As the rear captain, I was the last foreigner they were seeing in a very long single-file train of them, and it was fun to hear their exclamations and remarks as we went by. It’s anybody’s guess what such a mass of foreigners would be doing on bikes in a city whose main tourist attraction is currently closed!

From Himeji Ride Fall 2010

The day was cloudy and a little bit chilly, which made us feel a bit lazier and had us moving a little slower (at least true of me!). This also meant it got dark as soon as the sun began to set, so we cut the last planned stop, “Bowser’s Castle” in Tegarayama park where we’d hoped to do a sort of Mario themed Easter-egg hunt activity. That, and Taiyo Koen, we will save for the spring!

Of our 19 riders, 7 had also attended the spring ride. A few were experienced cyclists and others expert grocery-store goin’ mamachari-ers. Everyone had a good time, and no one even needed a band-aid from my first aid kit! Special thanks to Miriam, who stayed in Himeji all day on-call with her car at the ready.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Apartment Sweet Apartment (aka, Better Homes and Gardens)

I mean, I never wanted a clean slate. I wanted a ragtag assortment of other people's junk so I could be creative with making it my own living space and then not feel too attached to it so that leaving it behind wouldn't be a big deal.

As you know, when I got here, there wasn't a lot of stuff. Over time, I accumulated stuff from leaving JETs and nonJETs alike, and bought stuff at the recycle shop because basically everything there is on sale. But my apartment was always kind of a work in progress, and I always kind of had the vague notion that I was going to do something with it, sometime.. or maybe I would never get around to it, but oh well...

But it bothered me, and I knew this when I spent an afternoon one day upon return from work measuring the rooms and furniture and cutting out scale models in graph paper so I could see what would fit where. I had gotten to the point where I had collected too much furniture.

Over the course of the time I've been here, I've also tried to make improvements to the "yard," as well as brought home lots of little houseplants to keep around. I've gotten compliments for being the only one to have anything alive in her house, and I always blame it on my mother.

Let us look at the photographic evidence: How Lem got her crap together.

Stage One: It Was Like That When I Got Here

The stuff: Bed, bookshelf, mirror, blue couch, end table, wire table, TV and stand. Fridge, table& chairs, and kitchen accessories (rice cooker, water heater).
The yard: despair

I really liked my predecessor, and so at first held to this strange belief, rather staunchly, that if it was good enough for her, it was good enough for me..! Not taking into consideration the fact that she really didn't live like this, with this setup and this furniture, not really. Since she was the only person leaving my year, she naturally would give her stay-another-year friends first crack at the household goods, and since they would not at that time be overwhelmed with all the furniture they could eat, I'm fairly sure everyone took something.

Still and all, the Spartan basics weren't so bad.

From Drop Box

I put a bunch of photos on the front of the fridge. Got a couple houseplants.

Laundry time

As for the yard, I had a strip of gravel and two dead trees. I remember reading the myth of Demeter and believing (it made sense to me, okay?) that the "barren season" of the year was winter. I mean, that's when it's too cold to grow. That's why harvest festivals are in the fall, etc. But actually, in Greece and other Mediterranean places, and in lots of places it turns out, sometimes the hardest time to grow things is the summer under that punishing sun. So far, my yard has always looked like crap in the summer, not only when I first arrived, but also after my first year. It's just too hot for many things to live out there.

I love this photo. Two dead trees and a PVC pipe.

View from the road.

Dead tree as seen from bedroom window.

AUTUMN 2009: The Recycle Shop is Your Friend

Acquisitions: desk, more shelves, assorted cute things (like the clock, sitting cushions)

Moves: bookshelf into living room, fridge to corner of kitchen, giant trashcans to outside

Yard: Let's Garden the Shit Out of It

Through the fall, I sort of settled down and collected a few things it was nice to have.

Here's the video walkthrough from that time.

October, I was proud of my ikebana, and this shows the clock on top of the TV.

More ikebana leftovers, but this is sitting on top of some of the new shelving I got for the kitchen. This means that by now (October 9th, 2009), I had moved the fridge and trashcans as well as put my dishes on this shelf.

The yard got its first dose of gardening one day when Julie and I made a hundred dollar trip to Agro Garden.

Post-Thanksgiving consumption of leftovers, 2009. You can see the bookshelf and fridge have been moved.

WINTER 2009-2010: Baby, It's Cold Outside. And Inside.

Acquisitions: Heaters (kerosene, electric, and hot water bottles). Odds and ends.

Changes: basically no

January, photographs of snow show yard unchanged. Still got dead trees, PVC, and a little garden.

February. Desk still in bedroom, but covered with houseplants.

February, my living room can still host the whole town.
From 2010_02_16

SPRING 2010: Dibs

Acquisitions: bicycle, more planters. Kotatsu and big white couch, lamp (George left Japan).

Moves: blue couch into bedroom

Yard status: blooming

George left Japan in the spring and I bought a bunch of his stuff.

More of the same. Garden still alive, PVC pipe finally moved, trees still dead.

In April, the tulips bloomed through the pansies.

The new/old kotatsu is my new source of happiness.

Couch, likewise.

To compliment the interior's new look, I improved other stuff too.

SUMMER 2010: The apartment feels brighter and more awesome this way.

Acquisitions: Heke's green chair, the promise of Julie's many planters.

Yard status: tomatoes, and pumpkin vine.. but then when I left for 2.5 weeks, everything died.

When we turn the kotatsu sideways against the wall, we can still have a million people playing games.

But when the old JETs were leaving and getting rid of their stuff, I managed to buy Heke's chair (and dehumidifyer), and I got Lana's spice rack. This meant moving the white couch to make room. I also bought a floor chair to go with the kotatsu.


I took this photo to show the little green frog, but you can see that the couch has been pushed to the window.

This was about the time I started looking for ways to rearrange or possibly get rid of something, since things didn't quite fit.

To Present:
Then, one day in the fall, we went to visit Lauren who had totally redone her apartment from the way it had been with her predecessor. She'd installed all kinds of mood lighting and arranged things in a way that fit her personality.

I went home and tore my place apart. It took me a long time to put back together, but once I did, I went to the recycle shop again to get lamps. I realized that my living room was set up to focus on the TV, which was stupid, as I kept telling the NHK lady, I don't watch TV, not even DVDs all that often, and there was no reason for that to be the most important feature of the room!

I inherited Julie's planters and slowly but surely spent a little time here and a little time there filling them up. My first dead tree fell down in a storm, so I kicked the other one down and tore it out of the ground with my gloved hands. I got a sweet olive tree (though very small) to put in the spot of the first dead tree, and a nandina to go in the spot of the second. I reinstalled pansies.

Now, my house looks like this! (click on it to go to the album and see them at your own pace)

The only difference being that since these were taken, I have expanded the ground garden a bit.
From 2010_12_22

From 2010_12_22

Here are my "Christmas morning snow photos" for that: