Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Storm of a Lifetime
I left for work yesterday while Chikusei was boasting blue-grey skies and few clouds. Somehow, only ten kilometers down the road, these skies were engulfed by a pervasive blackness. It looked as if someone had taken a black felt pen to the horizon; the landscape was drowned in murk. After seriously considering the consequenses of returning to the amiable weather at home, I diligently carried on into the abyss. It was like I passed under a sheath and into a new world. At 12:30 pm I was forced to put on my headlights; street lamps were throwing visible pools of light. Then winds: gusts of winds sprang up and attacked my car so that I had to clench my fists on the wheel just to stay on the road. Fat raindrops began falling on my windsheild; antagonizing me, predicting the inevitable. The raindrops quickly turned into an onslaught of hail. The hail punished the road and my paint job until morphing into slick fist-fulls of sleet that slopped against the asphalt. Even at full-tilt, my wipers could not withstand the blasts. The sleet came down so frantically that it created veritable lakes among the farmer's fields and along the roadsides. Lakes that wanted to swallow my car whole. The low blackness was shooting bolts in all directions. Four and five at once, striking within kilometers, within meters, of my car. I had to get to work on time. Looking like I bathed in my clothes, I ran through the watery torrent and into the school; even the teachers seemed awed by this monstrous weather. Five minutes into my first class of the day, I asked the children the proverbial: "How's the weather today?" Upon consulting the window we all agreed, "Today is SUNNY!"
We don't have storms like these back home.
Not So Flashy
The Western World has called away another friend. Christopher Barzak is en-route to America, to Ohio, his home state. I was lucky to call Chris my friend these past months; he is an enigmatic old soul, an eclectic talent, and a great time. I hope to be able to diligently follow his (now published) literary career and witness his further successes.
This is my goodbye. Sayonara Chris! I was supposed to have attended his Going-Away-Karaoke-Bonanza on Friday, but found myself with a bad cold. I opted for rest that night, instead of a potential 8-hour karaoke-athon.
Saturday I cleaned my apartment (fun!) and watched three back-to-back episodes of Sex And The City with Trex. We also planned a Games Night for that evening. Riccardo came by after his softball tournament, war-wounds in tow. He is apparently a "National Hero" now for sliding into base (in shorts!) and bringing several players home to win the game. Too bad there is no skin left on his leg and he won't walk properly for a month! Boys!
Billy Chan, a fellow British Columbian (Vancouverite) and a friend from Utsunomiya came down Saturday night. The four of us were joined by Daichi for a BBQ dinner. Trex gave us all a scare with her (in)ability to "MAN" the grill, but dinner turned out fabulously (I contributed Greek Salad). Of course the BBQ experience was frequently punctuated by such phrases as:
"Look at me, I'm MANNING!"
Drew and Jen joined us after dinner and a debate ensued about which card game to play. Somehow we ended up with UNO. UNO!?!? Because I don't already play it 95128346 times per week with my students!! Worse, this time I was not playing with six-year-olds, and as such could not cheat my way to victory. Grrrrr.
Sunday Trex and I drove to Tomobe for the first staff meeting of our teaching careers. The meeting was held at the EAC Juku (like after-school classroom headquarters) and lasted about two hours. We discussed teaching methods and brainstormed ideas, made changes to the curriculum, and learned a new English program that we will be implementing come May. Afterward, our bosses, Cynthia and Hiro, treated us to dinner at a swanky French restaurant in Kasama. The four-course meal, plus two varieties of bread was delicious (espeically the dessert; the French definitely do that right!) but work social events are decidedly not the same without Angie, Brad and Neil.
As for my week, it seems quite light. I am still at half-workload, and we are all eagerly awaiting Golden Week, next week. Golden Week is the most celebrated Japanese National Holiday. Actually, it's not quite a week, only three days, but there are many plans in the works for our five-day break (with the weekend); perhaps including, but not limited to, getting my hair done in Tokyo (I found a stylist with 12 years experience cutting hair in New Zealand; his clientel is more than 75% gaijin). Fingers crossed that I can get an appointment.
Until next time...
Monday, April 17, 2006
Pre-drinking-post-drinking: HANAMI '06
I must have inadvertently showed the Weather Gods my boobs. Finally, the clouds parted, the rains dried and we saw sunshine. Damn Spring rains. Saturday was a beautiful day for Hanami: a traditional Japanese picnic under cherry blossoms. Cherry blossoms are revered for their fragility and at best last only two weeks... when it rains buckets during their bloom, as in this case, they last less than one week. We more-or-less enjoyed our picnic under cherry trees and on-top of blossom petals.
Understand that anything involving the words "Japanese" and "traditional" equate to intaking copious amounts of alcohol. So, Mom, the mid-afternoon drinking was not my fault and simply unavoidable. Actually, I limited myself to ONE bottle of wine over the 5-hour period as my 2-month semi-moratorium on drinking has significantly diminished my tolerance. My co-hanamiers (Tressa, Daichi, Drew, Anna & Dave) weren't so diligent: we were taking the train home afterall.
What you need to hanami: cherry blossoms, liquor, a blue tarp, lots of Japanese appies, some friends (or strangers), a guitar, some playing cards... We came prepared. And when we thought we didn't have enough of these things, we simply ran to the conbini (convenience store) around the corner or pulled up a seat along side some friendly strangers.
Our be-friending strangers started with a dare. The loser of our card game (Tressa) was forced to go introduce herself to a group of 8-10 fellow hanamiers and offer them biscuits (you know, life IS short...). To our disbelief, she had had enough to drink that there was no need for convincing; she simply walked over and chatted them up, which paved the way for our bombardment soon after.
Feeling rude that only Tressa had said hellos to our strangers (two of whom were gaijin), we all strolled over and were promplty asked to join their hanami. Good times ensued. Email addresses were exchanged. Hot Japanese boys were gawked at. Unlucky hanamiers were wink-murdered. Ok, so the last one is a little confusing...
We played a game where cards are randomly drawn and two of the crowd end up playing "murderers." They kill people by winking at them. The goal is to correctly identify the murder(s) before they wink at you. If you are winked at, you wait 5 seconds and then "die" in which case you say nothing to give away your murderer and are out of the game. Perhaps a little too much alcohol was consumed to follow these IMPOSSIBLE rules because halfway into the game Tressa yelled:
"HEY ANNA!! Did you just wink at me? Are you trying to MURDER me?!?!"
Um, Tress, honey, thanks for ruining the game!! HAHA
After stumbling back to Oyama station and catching the train back to Shimodate, we congregated at Tressa's for some post-drinking-pre-drinking. As it was Drew's birthday, a full night of debauchery was promised. Dinner at our favourite ramen shop, Enya, was followed by karaoke at Dream (did I mention how much I LOVE living in town and walking to these fabulous haunts?) At karaoke we were joined by Drew's wife Jen, Jody, Chris, Yoko, Nori, and Dan. Later I was (we all were) suprised by Riccardo's turning up! What fun!
Honestly, I haven't enjoyed a blissfully drunken night of karaoke with my dear friends in ages, but it was well worth the wait. Thanks everyone, for coming!
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
The Shogun & The Donut
We were supposed to enjoy hanami (a traditional Japanese picnic under cherry blossoms) on Saturday, but it rained so we cancelled. This left more time to begin a roadtrip!
Riccardo often travels to Nagoya for work, and on one such occassion he noticed an advertisement for Kankokyokai, a festival in celebration of a military training held at Okazaki Castle in Okazaki City, Aichi Prefecture when the capital of Japan was moved from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo). The festival involves a parade and a re-enactment of the training; the promise of large swords and gunsmoke was enough to produce a good bit of excitement in the boy, and as such, we were off.
Riccardo loves maps. He carefully plotted our course to the finest detail with a huge textbook-like map. We barely veered off course, though the drive was a little longer than anticipated. All the Japanese people we talked to about our plan urged us not to drive, but in the end we were both glad to have seen the sites.
Our course lead us along a pristine mountain road. The winding road saw us through many tunnels and over a breathtaking corkscrew bridge along the mountainside; at night this bridge was beautifully lit and very impressive.
The drama: At half a tank of gas there was talk of refueling. As we had completed more than half of our journey, we decided to wait. We failed to factor in that Japan closes shop at around 9pm, at least in any towns smaller than 100,000 in population. Our mountain rode was not only in the middle of nowhere, but sparsely populated. You can guess what happened...
My gas-light blinked on miles from anywhere. We became a little nervous after passing numerous closed gas stations and no hotels. We became more nervous after an hour of driving in these conditions. We tentatively discussed where to park if we ran out of gas. We pretended we weren't nervous so as not to scare one another. We finally came upon a 24-hour gas station and refueled. We celebrated and thanked whomever required thanking that we were not stranded in the Japanese wilderness.
The next morning we made our way to the parade grounds in downtown Okazaki. We wedged in among the throngs of JAPANESE PEOPLE and even climbed on top of a small metal fence to get a better view.
This man likes donuts. So said Riccardo in a running commentary of the inaudible conversation of the traffic control/security personnel. A snipit:
"Mmmmmm, chocolate donuts..."
"No, no, we should get cream-filled donuts."
"Mmmmmm, but chocolate donuts..."
"Chocolate is good, but really (rrriiirrriii), we should at least consider the glazed."
"I want chocolate donuts."
Guess maybe you had to be there. But doesn't he look like he's got an affection for donuts?
The parade featured numerous school bands; town celebrities (mayor, etc.); women dressed as geisha; an army of costumed actors ready to perform the re-enactment. At one point, Riccardo and I were as delighted as school children to have been spotted as gaijin (foreigners) within the masses by the "Shogun"(ruling lord?) who made a deliberate gesture in our direction.
We followed to procession to the riverside where the theatrical section was held: the training session. There was a galore of marching and gun-fire, all topped with fireworks.
We then visited the castle: a recreation of the original, which was destroyed in 1873/74. The recreation is based on the original design, constructed in 1455, relocated in 1531 and enhanced in 1590. The museum inside the castle showcased various swords, guns, military garb, scrolls, logs (of the book variety) and miniatures of the original castle and grounds. Among the sakura (cherry blossoms) the castle was magnificent.
After dinner at an authentic Sushi-ya, Riccardo and I hit the highway back to Tochigi (his prefecture). To save time, we carefully chose Expressways, which were not as costly as anticipated. Thankfully I was off work on Monday and I spent most of the day catching up on the sleep I lost over the weekend. Unfortunately Riccardo was not so lucky. Poor boy.
Cheers to my travelmate for planning and executing a fantastic trip, and for unwittingly donating pictures to this blog.
On One Year
I'm late. Well, late on this anniversary post anyway. My one-year anniversary in Japan was celebrated in style in Thailand; March 30th.
After one full year in Japan (half of my originally planned stint) I am left with a pervading sense of
What does this mean? I think I have been here long enough that some aspects of Japanese culture are beginning to grate on me. I am irritated to the point that I can still be ambivalent; hostility will follow perhaps by my second year...
What am I cynical about? I think the same things as I mentioned in my "On Six Months" post, but amplified. It is quite horrible that I found myself in a conversation not too long ago that involved discussion of my being happy with my employment and social situations, but that these would have to be moved to a more acceptable cultural climate for perfection.
This is partially my fault. I have allowed my Japan-experiences to fall to a disgusting level (or, as some put it, I tend to live in a peaceful Gaijin (foreigner) Bubble). Until recently I had made efforts to see little of the country (due to lack of time and the expense of domestic travel) and was not pursuing the language as wholeheartedly as I once was. Still though, I occasionally surprise myself at my ability to understand Japanese in new situations, or to read basic characters and understand them. And, with a new travel companion, I am seeing much more culture than before. I am proud to have made many Japanese friends with whom I (try to) spend time regularly; some of whom speak relatively no English.
There is talk among those who've been here a while that spending too long in Japan can change you: for the worst. It seems some who are here too long just snap, mentally, and begin behaving in ways that are uncharacteristic to them. I don't know if it's permanent. In any case, if symptoms of this are perceived on your end, please come rescue me.
Endnote: I am happy. Happier than I've been so far in this adventure. I am making a conscious effort to know Japan. I am playing with the idea of staying longer than just one year more. No need to worry, but need only to visit. ;D
All my love.
Thursday, April 06, 2006
Life Is Short, Eat Biscuits
A Thai cooking class is something I've always wanted to do. I have a couple token recipes up my sleeve that are either hand-me-downs from my sister, Rebecca's repetoire, or personally concocted variations of restaurant entrees, but nothing especially authentic.
Tressa and I lucked out with mild weather for our 5-hour stint in an outdoor kitchen with 5 other foreigners (4 Dutch and one Irish; we found a vast majority of European tourists to North American on Koh Chang). Lonely Planet named our class, hosted by the Blue Lagoon Resort, the best on Koh Chang. One of our classmates had participated in the course twice before and shared with us the evolution of the class: starting from a make-shift kitchen and an instructor that didn't speak a word of English, to a beautifully ceramic-tiled kitchen for eight, a now fluent instructor (the same woman, actually), and 4-5 sous-chefs/instructor's assistants.
My favourite thing about the course was how the sous-chefs presented the ingredients for each dish so artistically, but obviously eating our creations wasn't bad either. We worked in pairs and prepared 3 dishes each: Pad Thai, a soup, and a curry. We also watched the instructor prepare a dessert dish, bananas in sweet coconut milk. Everyone made different soups and curries and each classmember had the chance to try all the resulting plates.
Tressa and I made Prawn Pad Thai, Tom Yum Gai and a Paneang Curry. It was uberfun decorating our plates in the end, as presentation is KEY (don't you know?) We all received recipe books that feature numerous other recipes, and our instructor explained some simple replacements that we can use when Thai ingredients are not available.
We burned copious calories crushing homemade curry paste with a real pestle and morter, and definitely worked up our appetites, but after 5 hours of slaving over the stove, we left the Thai Cooking class with very full stomachs.
"You Girls Need Any Help In There?"
Our second day in Thailand we awoke at 6:30am to get back to Khoasan Road in time for a bus to the island of Koh Chang. Shopping around a little paid off and we ended up paying about $7.50 for the whole trip, ferry included. The travel agent promised that we'd be on the beach by 2:30pm... didn't exactly happen like that.
Our bus was "air-conditioned" but evidently too old or too run-down to blow actual cool air. As such, we suffocated in the heat for the entire 7-hour journey. Someone decided it was necessary to stop for not one, but two hour-long breaks because, apparently, no one was in a rush to GET THERE. ugh. We finally got to the beach around 7:30pm, safe and sound, at least.
Our first night on Koh Chang was improvised. We took accommodations at the first bungalow we found and B-lined it for the water (as was necessary to wash off the day's stench). We enjoyed drinks and dinner at the 15 Palms Resort and only when we got back to our bungalow did we realize what we had settled for. I'm sure compared to the various living environments of Thailand ours was a palace, but we weren't too impressed. In fact, we took a few minutes to chronicle our fright at the condition of our room... in the end it seemed that the ROOM had more reason to be scared of US!
The next morning we had some breakfast and immediately looked for a rental scooter. As it turned out, everyone and their dog was renting scooters; we didn't even have to present a Driver's License or wear a helmet! For 150 Baht, or about $3.50 per day, we scooted around the island. Our primary goal in this was to find Mam Kaibae Beach where my friends Jessica Parkes and Davis Brunt were staying. Kaibae is about 15kms from the more populous and touristy White Sands Beach, and was easy enough to find. A short walk down the beach lead me directly to Parker and Davis who were enjoying a morning swim.
Parker and Davis had already scoped out lodgings for us and we were happy to upgrade to a beautiful bungalow right on the beach. Though quaint and tasteful, the signage declared we were staying at none other than the Porn BANGalows. The Bangalows also featured Porn Restaurant and Bar, which was an outdoor thatched-roof establishment about 30 feet from our bangalow where we spent a significant amount of time.
Day one at the bangalow on Mam Kaibae started with a sunburn. Who knew you could get a burn while laying in the SHADE, with sunscreen on, for a maximum of 20 minutes!?!?! Anyhow, the sunburn ensured dollops of fun at bedtime; throughout the following nights Tressa and I were both heard whimpering and whining.
Jessica and Davis decided to rent a scooter as well and we attempted to tour Koh Chang... unfortunately apart from the relatively driveable terrain between White Sands and Kaibae, the rest of the island is circled by mountain roads. After nearly stalling out our scooter on the first major incline, in fact having to jump off as a passenger, and gaging the hairpin turns in relation to our well-worn brakes, we finally decided against the island tour and instead headed for the pub. Big surprise there.
Day Two was a snorkeling adventure. It's great how on Koh Chang you can decide to go on a day-trip and just GO; there are little travel agencies every two steps. We chose a day-trip that stopped at four islands in the area and featured an onboard BBQ and buffet. The snorkeling itself was fabulous; thank god we were warned to wear full clothing in the water or else we would have ended up with third-degree burns from swimming upside-down all day. After snorkeling for hours at Koh Rung and the other islands, we were more than willing just to veg at the bar and relax in the water at picturesque Koh Wai.
Our scooter wasn't in the best of shape, nor was it a precision model to begin with, so on Day Three we traded it in for a brand new fancypants scooter which we much preferred. We then scooted our way to Thai Cooking School - post to follow. After the class we met up with Parker and Davis (who had already taken a cooking class in Chang Mai) to shop. We walked up to Kaibae Village and bartered ourselves some deals, then took in a movie. I have to say, despite the inherent cheesiness of King Kong, I can't remember enjoying a movie more. The theatre was situated in a bar: dim lights, good sound system, warm, fresh air, great fish-and-chip dinner, plentiful jaggerbombs, good company, and periodic frogs and geckos passing by the screen... couldn't be better.
Tressa and I had struck a bargain that if she partook in the cooking class with me, I'd ride an elephant with her (which was against my better moral judgement, but it was THAI cooking! sheesh!), but by the time our last day in Koh Chang rolled around we weren't interested in anything as physical as sitting on an enormous beast for an hour. Instead we opted for Thai Massage: nearly three hours of bliss that cost me about $20, and was a definite high-point in our trip. Tressa and I debated about whether we could fit one of the petit Thai girls in our luggage and take her back to Japan with us... sadly, as previously mentioned, I brought only a backpack.
A lazy day of massage was topped with an exuberant night of partying (our first and last of the sort for this trip, actually). We met a girl named Jolene who was staying a few bungalows down from ours who was the epitome of Social Butterfly; eventually we had quite the following... young and old. We quenched our thirst with $2 vodka-redbulls at Angel's Pub in Kaibae: a grouping of thatched-roof bars with VERY repetitive music (Pattaya! Pattaya! will permanently be in my head) and feisty Thai waitresses (who were celebrating a birthday of one of their own). Jolene and friends tried to convince us to go to Sky Bar, the only nightclub on Koh Chang, but we were having fun at Angel's and couldn't be certain how we'd get home from Sky Bar, so we declined. Instead we met some interesting Irish backpackers with whom we enjoyed a 3am swim.
Just as we were heading to bed Jolene and friends got back from Sky Bar. Apparently there had been a huge brawl between some locals and the bar had been shut down just an hour after they had arrived. Quite the dissapointment. Jolene's "friend," Paul, evidently presumed that our night was as wasted as his, and intended to help improve it for us. Just as Tressa and I had laid our heads down to sleep we got a knock on our bangalow door. What with the heat, I was clothed only in tank-top and panties, and quickly wrapped a towel around myself before answering the door. I thought I was opening the door to Parker wanting some girl-talk... what I got was:
"You girls need any help in there??" ** suggestive and pervy successive eye-brow raising**
Let me note that this offer was extended by a 60-odd year old man. Ew. I mean, I have no problem being social with people who are older than me, but I'm not sure where or when Tressa and I gave this dude the idea that we were interested in getting it on with him. So, I tactfully replied:
"Um, we're good thanks, but have a great night!" Upon quickly closing the door in hopes of muffeling Tressa's hyena laughter I noticed that it wasn't locking properly. So there I was, in a loud whisper, freaking out because I couldn't get Tressa to stop her hysterics long enough to check the window to see if buddy was gone so I could re-open the door to properly lock it. Turned out that he wasn't because after successfully locking the door and heading back to bed in my own hysterics we heard inebriated muttering from our porch. Filtering through the wall were such token sentences as:
"If you girls ever stop giggling, let me know if you need some help in there..." (and I'm sure there was more pervy eye-brow raising from the darkness).
Apparently a little pissed that we were guffafing into the wee hours, our French neighbours at the Bangalows decided to implement a rude awakening at 7am. While the man yelled across the resort in French to his imaginary friend for roughly a half-hour, the woman he was with laughed to herself at his behaviour; I have a feeling we weren't the only ones they yanked from slumber.
Tressa and I squeezed in a short massage on our last morning at Koh Chang and then headed to the ferries up island. We had lunch at White Sands with Parker and Davis before saying our goodbyes and making our way to Trat Airport on the mainland. After the exhausting and painful bus trip to Koh Chang we opted for the slightly more costly flight back to Bangkok. By booking online we saved over $15 each (total ticket price was only $65, travel time 50 minutes) and enjoyed a generous and immaculate ride back to BKK.
How did we kill the 5.5 hours before our home flight at BKK??? - with Pizza Hut and more Thai massage, of course! This was a good start to a looooong night of travel; getting home took about 26 hours! Actually, though the flight to Thailand was 7 hours, the flight home was only just over 5, but because we were scheduled to arrive at Narita at 8:30am we didn't feel right asking a friend for a ride (they'd have to wake at about 5am to get to the airport in time). The train schedules I pre-planned didn't meet up because our flight was delayed, and so we had to wing-it. Winging-it is not good. It ended up taking us 6 hours to get from Narita Airport to our apartments - a trip that should take just over 2, by car. Ugh.
All-in-all it was a spectacular trip and a great ANNIVERSARY. Thanks to Tressa for being an amazing travel companion; I hope we have many more of these experiences in the future!