I Think I'm Turning Japanese
 
Is it too early to be taking inventory of the things I will miss come August? Just on my daily commute alone, I have made a long mental list of all the familiar things that I will wish I could take with me back to America.

-The pink and purple "From the first train to the last" sign plastered on the floor of the Yamate-Seishinchuo subway platforms, indicating which train car is for Ladies Only

-The friendly chime that plays as a train approaches

-Nasal cries of "Irasshaimase!" coming from combinis, bakeries, and cafes, greeting the morning commuters and welcoming them into their shops

-little old ladies wobbling alongside the rushing crowd, making me feel like an 8-foot tall giant towering over their salt-and-pepper heads

-the friendly train station workers, who, I've noticed, seem to all wear black plastic-rimmed glasses. Is this part of the uniform?

I have surprisingly never protested against daily use of public transportation, not only because I really have no choice (seeing as how I can't afford a car, and I am slightly terrified of trying to figure out how to navigate through Kobe), but also because my commute affords me time to do many things: read, nap, obsess over my calendar, send emails. Unless I am wearing some uncomfortable shoes and forced to stand up, I quite enjoy the lengthy commute. I am not sitting in stop-and-go traffic, the trains are always on time, and the lady train always smells quite pleasant. I haven't had to worry about gas, toll, parking (and parking tickets... yuck), road rage, annoying radio commercials, lack of good music available. So, if given the option at home, I would rather have a one-hour stress-free commute over a half hour of sitting on the Bay Bridge or some bottleneck on 880.

Japan.
 
 
Last weekend I went on the Why Not? Japan ski trip. We all met at Kyocera Dome in Osaka and took off towards Gifu at 11pm. It was a long ride full of fitful sleep. I was sleeping against the window, which was freezing, but the other half of my body was sweating because the heat was cranked up so high. So my body was confused and I woke up every hour or so with one armpit frozen and the other armpit sweaty. Charming.

When we finally got to Gifu I shared a room with Misty, Cherrelle, Natalie, and Leah. We were fortunate enough to have an attached bathroom, as everyone else had to share the bathroom down the hall. Score! Cherrelle and I chose to situate our futons closest to the heater. It was quite comfy!

We started skiing right away. I learned my lesson from my Fukui ski trip, where I didn't have proper snow pants. I decided to wear my panda suit instead of a real snow suit. The reason for this was threefold:
1) It was warm.
2) I didn't want to spend a buttload on warm ski pants.
3) Everyone loves a panda.

Sure enough, I stayed plenty warm! I also posed for plenty of picture for strangers and got many a "Panda-san! Konnichiwa!" catcall from the ski lifts. Once or twice I almost crashed hearing someone shout "Panda!" With me craning my neck and my lack of peripheral vision, you can imagine the potential disaster that was!

While I had a ton of fun, there are a few things I could complain (slightly) about. The first was that my skis were ridiculously short. They said 150cm (I usually ski on 156), but they felt and looked more like 140cm. 

Second, they weren't exactly tuned. Someone had waxed the bejeezus out of them, so they were slick as all get out, but I couldn't get an edge no matter how hard I Ieaned, and the slippery little planks just flailied about beneath me. Needless to say, I did not ski my best all weekend. Also, the boots SUCKED. I have never seen adult-sized boots that only have ONE strap on them. And, the strap was up at the top of the boot near the calf. I am not what you called a small-boned lady. Only being able to strap around my fat calf meant that the rest of the boot was too huge and my feet were swimming in them. So, I had to exchange my boot sizes for a whole size smaller. It was a little too small, but at least I didn't feel like I was about to twist my ankle! I think they gave me a kids size because I had a white boot with pink and purple accents, much like my very first pair of boots I got when I was 11. 

So enough about the disappointing equipment. The mountain was much smaller than Skijam, so I went through everything within an hour and was chotto bored near the end of the day. If the snow was fresh powder, it would have been way awesomer, but it had started to get really slick and nasty by the end.

Also, another bit of unfortunate stuff happened. I was skiing with Fergus, who ran into his friend Jason. Jason was with his friends Joanne and Alistair. We had barely said hello to Alistair when we all went down the run, and Alistair had a terrible fall. Turns out he had some internal bleeding, and we had to get ski patrol for him. Fergus was gentleman enough to ride with Alistair, whom he didn't even really know, and act as translator as the ambulance rushed him to the nearest hospital an hour away. Alistair had to get some surgery to stop the bleeding, and I think now he is daijobou. But what a way to spend your first visit to Japan!

Anyway, by the end of day one I was tired but still smiling, and luckily not a bit sore. We all had a big yummy dinner in the dining hall, and they even put a fireworks show on for us.

After that we had an all you can drink party full of beer and chu hi. We drank ourselves silly, and Bridget and I even climbed into a cupboard and drank some more.

The next day it was quite the challenge to drag ourselves out of futon to catch breakfast. After breakfast we all napped for a little while longer, and then Panda and I ventured out alone for a couple hours. The snow had gotten icier since the night before, and my skis certainly didn't improve themselves, so I was only able to muster another couple hours of skiing before I called it a day and went in to pack.

Everyone was to be packed and ready to leave by 2pm, and in pure Japanese fashion, we were all on time and promptly loaded onto the bus. The rest of the ride back was tiring because most people were exhausted and sore, and this time we didn't have the luxury of darkness outside to help us sleep. I pulled my beanie over my face and tried to catch a couple hours before we got back to Osaka.

Luckily the ride back wasn't too torturous, but we were all so tired and still had about an hour more to travel back to Gak. By the time we dragged our sorry bodies into our apaatos, it was 11pm, and I was more than ready for a hot shower and a deep night's sleep.

Great weekend!

Zzzzz.
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Is it already nearing the end of February? Where did the time go? 

I am more than halfway through my time in Japan. The weather has already changed from being sticky hot in the summer, crisp and colorful in the fall, mind numbingly cold in the winter, and already it is gradually getting a degree or two warmer to fade into spring. I've also felt the change in mood, from confused and stressed, homesick and frustrated, to relaxed and content. I owe that to the fact that I have made some great friends here, and I've gotten to do some pretty awesome things, with only more awesome things to come!

I had a pretty amazing weekend. It was equal parts fun and relaxing, allowing me time to reflect on all the things that have changed since I have moved here. What a great way to spend a year and take the opportunity to gather my thoughts and reasses my career in teaching. I am convinced more than ever that I want to work with younger children. 

The weekend kicked off with the discovery of a great Hawaiian restaurant, Olu Olu, for Bridget's birthday. Not only were the food, drinks, and company awesome, but the restaurant itself felt like Hawaii and I got nostalgic for the days of living in my tiki-themed apartment. We had nomihodai/tabehodai, and rounded out the night with ukelele sing-a-longs with Bob and one of the waiters. Others decided to move on to Osake for some break dancing, but I had plans for the next day to play with little kids!

Sunday I had the opportunity to work an event at Kobekkoland. Kobekkoland is a wonderful preschool where children are allowed to go for free. There are all sorts of activities for them to participate in, and yesterday there was an international fair where kids and their families were invited to come experience different exhibits and play and interact with ALTs. I got to work in the "Movers and Shakers" group with Cherrelle, Romel, Bob, and Latoyaa, and we basically played freeze tag and freeze dance. The kids were much too young and tiny to play anything with more complex instructions. Most of the kids barely came up to my knees! I wore my panda costume, which got many kinds really excited and attacking me with high fives. One little girl came up to me and gently placed her hands against mine and told me her name in her tiny little voice. She was the sweetest little girl ever, and if her mom wasn't watching, I would have smuggled her out of Kobekkoland in my panda suit! I thorougly enjoyed having the tiniest kids coming up to me and joyfully exclaiming "Panda-san!" as if I was some kind of celebrity. Seriously, can I wear this panda suit every day in America?

Anyway, sorry, Mom, for slacking on my blog writing!
 
 
Starting March 18, I will be enjoying a very fun 6-week string of visitors: Kim, Dan M, Dan and Rick V, my mom, and Gina. And, this just added! The Walkers may be coming in July!

I am so excited to share my Japan wisdom and explore as-yet-undiscovered areas of Japan with everyone! It will be pretty awesome, but I must say the thing I'm looking forward to most is scuba diving with whale sharks in Okinawa with Dan!

It's crazy to think how quicly my year in Japan is going by, and I am so excited that my friends want to come over here and experience some of it with me! Break open your piggy banks, get off the couch, and come visit me, too! 

:-)
 
 

Today, it started snowing about halfway through 3rd period. It was a light, wet snow that didn't stick at all, but now it is two hours later and the snow has transformed into fat, drifty flakes that are fluttering to the ground and stacking themselves into neat little piles on the tennis court. From where I'm sitting at my desk in the staff room, I can see the squat little shrubs outside getting dusted gradually with more and more snow. It is certainly beautiful to look at, but I am dreading the walk home in two and a half hours! Today I managed to forget my gloves, and I consciously decided against wearing tights under my pants. :-( 

On a different note, it is Valentine's Day in Japan! Here, the girls are the ones that buy candy for the boys. There is a different holiday that comes later where the boys buy gifts for the girls, but today it is all up to us to give all the lovin'! I gave my staff little mini chocolates and stuck hologram heart stickers on them. It was the most energy/money I was willing to invest in a holiday that I find pretty hokey. 

Today also marks the day that I received my very first "boing touch." Many Japanese students can apparently get really forward with us ALTs (asking your cup size, asking about your sex life, and inappropriate touching), but I had always been proud that I worked in a school where that didn't happen. Well, today one of my crazy girls came up to me and kept saying "Six? Six?" I laughed at her for her mispronunciation, so she went "BOING!" and touched my boob. I have officially been initiated into the "ALTs who are sexually harrassed by their female students" club.

Once again, Happy Valentine's Day!
 

Skijam!

01/30/2011

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I just returned from an amazing day trip to Skijam Katsuyama in Fukui. I am beyond tired, but I promise a photo blog later documenting the awesome day. If you ever find yourself in Japan during winter, you can't say no to skiing. The snow is the most perfect snow ever. Tahoe is jealous.
 
 
Something strange happens around January when you're a JET. It is just after the long winter break, the weather is getting colder, and everyone is getting over some kind of gaijin epidemic that plagued each JET for at least a day or two. But none of those are the "something strange" to which I am referring.

The "something strange" is that sometimes you have to remind yourself that you are actually  living in Japan. Somehow, somewhere among the months of fumbling for Yen coins, gawking at strange cultural differences, and standing flush-faced at a cash register not understanding the rapid foreign language being fired at you, you quietly and stealthily slip into a comfort zone of assimilation. You don't have to think about it consciously, but there is something in the back of your head that knows: this is home.

Now, this statement might upset those back at my REAL home, in California, when I say this. Because to me, truly, home will always be where my family is. But for right now, this is my home, and not just a place I am visiting.

 You start to see little signs that everyone else has settled into this country we now call home. There are less pictures being posted of Facebook. Fewer albums being created with such awe-struck titles as "OMG, Japan is so weird!" and "Japanamania 2010 woooooo!" Instead there is the sporadic status update like "Getting tired of going to _____, who wants to try something new tonight?" 

You also come to realize that you've discovered shortcuts to get to places. To escape the cold outside, you've managed to navigate through the underground tunnels downtown and never get lost. Instead of taking the well-known path home, you've found a way that gets you there 45 seconds faster. Oh yeah, and you've come to realize that your microwave also doubles as an oven.

People are becoming familiar, too. The woman's face at the Y lights up when you walk in and you are greeted with a "Hello, again! Happy New Year!" And, it takes you a second before you realize she didn't say it in English. The drycleaner doesn't have to ask your name anymore; she just brings your your freshly cleaned and pressed clothes when she sees you approaching the door. The kids you teach once a month at elementary school see you on the bus and go crazy with waving and shouting your name.

There are still days when you long for a certain creature comfort from your REAL home, or you feel a quick pang of homesickness when you realize just how far from your loved ones you really are. But, for the most part, there exists a day-to-day routine that has become second nature. And until you are ready to return to your REAL home, you smile inside knowing that this is where you should be.
 

An oven!

01/20/2011

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Ladies and gentlemen, we have an oven.

I've always suspected there was something up with my microwave. There were just way too many buttons on it to just be a regular microwave. And why was there a metal turntable inside? Yet, even when I really needed an oven to make stuffing and sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving, I didn't want to be bothered with investigating whether or not I (and others who had suggested it) could have been right.

Until 2 days ago.

I was having dinner at Amanda's house and she was making macaroni pie. IN HER OVEN. That looked remarkably like my microwave. But wait! Hers is also AN OVEN. It's then that I couldn't deny it anymore. My microwave was capable of remarkable things.

Cupcakes. Quiche. Pie. Chicken. Baked potatoes. The possibilities are endless.

I went to the store the next day and bought 2 boxes of cake mix. And you better believe I quickly figured out how to use the oven feature of my microwave oven to produce 2 mildly flavored and mediocre-tasting Japanese cakes.

Now I know how Columbus felt when he "discovered" America.
 
 

I'm learning how to decorate cakes! Andy's ladyfriend Sophia is in town, and she is a trained pastry chef. This has been something I've been fascinated with for a few years, ever since I discovered Ace of Cakes and the wonders of the Food Network Challenge. So when Andy said that Sophia would be willing to teach some JETs how to decorate cakes, I got pretty excited!

First, I learned how to ice a cake properly. This is a huge deal, considering the extent of me icing a cake is taking a still-warm cake that is in its original pan, slathering pre-made frosting on it, and covering the whole cake pan in Saran wrap. But here I learned how to take the blade of the pastry knife to smooth out the frosting evenly, first on the top and then on the sides of the cake. Then I learned how to take a warm knife and smooth out any air bubbles and imperfections.

Next, I learned a couple simple piping techniques. I made flowers, leaves, and little decorative star-shaped dots. I may not be the best pastry chef, but I ended up decorating a cute little cake that I was really proud of!
Sure, this may not be a new career path. At the least, I've learned a new hobby whose outcome everyone can enjoy. At the most? I can become a famed self-trained cake decorator and win $10,000 on a Food Network cake challenge! :-)
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Well, this is just silly. Are we really expected to hike up this slippery hill every winter morning? Yes, the cold is bad enough, but the tiny mountain is no picnic  to climb in warm weather, so imagine what it must feel like when your lungs are screaming against the cold and you can't feel your toes. And what is with the girls wearing their skirts with no tights to protect their little legs! I watched them huff and puff up the hill with sweat on their brows, but goosebumps on their legs. Did they not read my last entry about Ninja Cold? To get a good idea of how blase the Japanese are about the cold and possibly abunai weather situation, read the following conversation I just had with one of my OTEs:

Yokoi sensei: "Was it hard to come up to school today?"
Me: "Well, it was just really cold."
Yokoi sensei: "You didn't fall?"
Me: "No..." 
Yokoi sensei: "Yes. Because some people slip. Some people don't slip. It is very dangerous."
Me: "So... do they ever close the school because kids can't climb the hill and cars can't drive up?"
Yokoi sensei: Looks thoughtfully at the ceiling... "I think maybe... no. No reason."

Okay! So, time to buy some ice climbing shoes...