Wednesday, November 30, 2005

It finally happened

The day that I have been dreading for five years is finally here; my father passed away in his sleep last night.

I am flying to Saipan on the earliest possible flight. Alex is leaving Orlando on Friday morning and will take a flight from Tokyo to Saipan on Saturday afternoon. I am going to be on the same flight out of Tokyo with him.

I had to cancel my other flight (the one that left on the 17th) and buy a new ticket. The flight cost about the same as the one I canceled, but I had to pay a 30,000 Yen cancellation fee. Bummer.

We will both arrive in Saipan at 2 AM on Sunday morning. The funeral isn't until the following Saturday morning, but we will be attending rosaries and visiting with friends and family every day and night until the burial.

This whole thing is more than a little bit surreal. I'll be seeing Alex on Saturday night. It has only been two weeks since we said our goodbyes in Orlando; I wasn't expecting to see him again for another two years.

I'll have all day tomorrow to pack for a month-long trip to Saipan and to help Emily plan her trip. We are going to try to get her there in time for the funeral. We are not sure if she can get the time off from work, but as usual, we are forever optimistic.

Success! Finally!

Thank you, Greg in the Phillipines!

I finally managed to get some kerosene, which I have found out, is pronounced touyu in Japanese. An 18 Liter blue plastic container set me back 840 Yen and 18 Liters of touyu set me back 1,134 Yen.

$20 is a small price to pay for warm toes and a happy girlfriend.

But that's not all!

When I tried to vacuum today I found that the bag hadn't been changed in about 10 years. Gross. I went to SATY in the hopes of finding replacement bags at a reasonable price. There were four different types of bags to choose from and I had to figure out which one I needed by reading the hieroglyphics, I mean kanji, on the package. I may have mentioned before that I am a functional illiterate here in Japan. That's not true. I am just plain illiterate.

I picked the package that had a picture of a vacuum cleaner that vaguely resembled mine on it. When I got home and tried putting it in, it fit! Super Excellent Joyousness!

I also bought Emily a pink umbrella.

What a great afternoon!

Updated Pictures

I added pictures of our apartment and a video of our bathroom to the post about our apartment.

Click HERE to see them.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Toyama EnGrish

Posting pictures of English that doesn't seem quite right is probably going to be a semi-regular feature of this blog. It is called Engrish and it is everywhere. This is the first installment, taken while touring around Toyama. I don't think it will be necessary to add captions; they are pretty funny on their own.

My First Enkai!

Alright, so it wasn't really an ENKAI since I don't really work and this group of people were friends and NOT co-workers, but it is fun to pretend.

Emily and I were invited to attend a costume party by one of Emily's fellow JETs, Sarah. The party was hosted by a group of Japanese, who from what I could tell were friends who all had children that were pretty much the same age (they could have been co-workers, who knows?)

The party was held at a restaurant in Takaoka; I think it was an Italian restaurant, but I could be wrong (I probably am). We were told to show up around 6:30 dressed in costume and to bring a gift. Now Emily isn't really a detail person. Our apartment is spotless and she is definately into details when it comes to fashion, but as far as planning goes, she prefers someone else to do it for her. Combine this with our inability to comprehend Japanese language and culture and, well, you see where I'm going with this.

Emily dressed up as a naughty Christmas Elf and I bought a wig, donned my Red Sox jersey and claimed that I was Johnny Damon. We also bought two poinsettia plants, thinking that they would make nice gifts.

We met up with Sara and her boyfriend, Michael, outside of the restaurant and when we walked in we quickly realized that we had completely missed the whole point of the party. We were supposed to show up dressed as a CARTOON CHARACTER and we were supposed to bring a WRAPPED gift. Oops! Sucks to be gaijin.

As we entered the restaurant we paid for our dinners (4000 Yen each, ouch!) and took a seat at the Western table in the center of the room (there were several other tables set up for our enkai). Besides the hosts (Batgirl and Darth Vader), we were the first guests to arrive. We sat at the table and discussed how lame our costumes were (except for Sara, who was in a full body Pikachu outfit) as we watched the room fill with Japanese parents and kids dressed as characters from Disney movies, anime cartoons, and giant bugs. Most of the costumes were homemade, which really impressed me. The homemade costumes looked better than what a store bought costume looks like back home. By the way, I don't know what cartoon the giant bugs come from. Any input would be appreciated.

I think my favorite costume was worn by a little boy named Toyo who came dressed as Snow White. That's right, I said little BOY dressed as Snow White. His mom was dressed as the Evil Queen from the same movie. They looked great together, but I thank GOD my mom never did that to me (Toyo eventually won the award for Best Costume).

While we waited for everyone to arrive and pay for thier dinner, we sat around and socialized some more. While most of the kids were transfixed by the 42 inch plasma screen TV in the corner, we were able to talk to several of the parents in English. A typical conversation went like this:

"How long have you been in Japan?"

"Since Saturday."

"Soo desu ne! Do you speak Japanese?"

"Iie. Zen zen Wakarimasen."

"So you speak Japanese!"

"Umm..."

The dinner started when one of the Dads got up and gave a short speech in Japanese. Then one of the Moms got up and gave a short speech. During the speeches we all poured beer into each other's glasses. When the speeches were done, we raised our glasses, KANPAIed, and chugged our whole drink.

With that out of the way, we let the feasting commence!

I guess I should mention that you're not supposed to fill up your own drink at an enkai. You're supposed to fill up the glass of everyone else around you, especially the people that you want to show respect towards. In return, they fill up your glass. Everybody is supposed to know that. I feel lame having to write it.

The food was fantastic. We were served salmon, duck, pasta with tomato sauce, pasta with cream sauce and calamari rings, and the coolest dish that can be best described as a goulash served in a hollowed out toasted loaf of bread. It was all delicious.

This type of meal is called a tabehoudai, which basically translates into "all you can eat - but you have to leave after two hours." It is different from an American all you can eat. In America, you take food until you are unable to eat any more. In Japan, they give you food until you are unable to eat any more. It is a subtle difference.

Our dinner was also technically a nomihoudai, which, similar to the tabehoudai, literally means "all you can DRINK - but your drunk ass has to get up and move after two hours."

During dinner, Emily and I sat on the end of the table next to the cutest little Japanese girl dressed as Marie from the Aristocats. Her name was Chieko. Click HERE to see a video of Chieko singing the ABC song.

Halfway through our meal, one of the Mom's got up and introduced everyone in the room. I had the honor of being introduced first. I was introduced as "Sara's friend's boyfriend, Angelo." They made me stand up and wave to everyone. I don't know if being the first introduction is a sign of respect or a sign that I was considered to be the least important person in the room. I'm sure I'll figure out this whole Japan thing eventually. Emily was next, then Michael, then Sara, followed by each of the families and their children.

After the introductions we played BINGO!

It was a pretty fun idea. We separated all of the gifts into two separate piles: gifts for children and gifts for adults. Then we played some MAD bingo; it was really exciting. If you got to be one number away from calling BINGO, you had to stand up and say "richii." I don't know why and I don't know what it means. I just know we had to do it.

When somebody finally called BINGO, they got to go up front, select a gift, have their picture taken by 12 different cameras, and then sit back down. If there was a tie and two people called BINGO at the same time, they had to play janken, which is just the Japenese name for rocks, paper, scissors. We continued playing bingo until everybody in the room had selected a gift. Emily was just about the last person to win. Our poinsettias were the last gifts to go.

After bingo, we listened to another speech; this time it was a goodbye speech. We also had to take group pictures. We took one picture with all of the kids and then one picture with all of the adults. It was entertaining to watch a roomful of kids take pictures of the adults.

We finally left after saying a thousand thank yous. It is traditional for an enkai to be followed by a second party (remember, this wasn't really an enkai), but Emily and I had to get ready for a JET party being held at a Brazilian nightclub, so we had to leave our new Japanese friends behind.

I'm behind on my blogging

So sue me. I've got about 5 posts that I'm working on. I'll get them up soon. I just like thinking about them for a while before I post them. The first thing I need to do is to post the pictures of the inside of the apartment. I'll probably get around to that tonight.

In the meantime:

I had a fun day exploring Toyama City today. I don't want to spoil any of the details, but I will say that I finished my day with a fantastic dinner in a Chinese restaurant in a department store near Toyoma Station. I had the pleasure of dining with Emily, Josh, Carl, and Adam.

Here's a picture of Josh and Emily at the restaurant:

First in a Series - Japanese Park Benches

Have I mentioned that I love Takaoka Kojo Park? Just one of the many things I love are all the different park benches. You can't walk more than 50 feet without coming across a fun new place to sit.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Why does everything have to be so hard?

I don't think we're ever going to get kerosene for our heater.

We went to the gas station two days ago to ask if they sold the blue plastic containers that are used to store kerosene (ugh, kerosene, arimasu ka?) They didn't have any, but the attendant told us that if we came back today that they would have them.

I went back today to pick up my container and to buy some kerosene. Yeah right. I used my stellar grasp of the Japanese language to ask if they had kerosene and this time the attendent just stared at me like I was speaking a foreign language. Oh wait a minute, I was.

He had no idea what kerosene was, never mind the blue container.

What can you do but smile?

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Let's ALL go to the MOVIES

"I tot I saw a boy wizard!"
Emily and I went to see Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire yesterday afternoon. The movie theater where we saw it is very close; it is in the same building as SATY, which is right across the street from our apartment. I recently found out that "SATY" is the name of an enterprising Japanese family from Nagoya that has built a series of shopping centers in secondary urban centers. You can see just how close it is from the picture on the right; the picture was taken from our second-floor balcony (without the use of a zoom lense).

Actually from looking at these pictures, it looks like the side entrance of SATY is closer to our front door than it is the the front entrance of SATY.

(By the way, don't think that we're not DIE HARD Harry Potter fans. The movie was released in Japan a week after it was released in America. We saw it as soon as humanly possible.)

The name of the theater is Warner Mycal Theaters. If that sounds familiar, it is because it is. The Warner comes from Warner Brothers and the whole theater is decked out with Looney Tunes characters. I don't know where the Mycal part comes from, but I assume it is some type of Japanese partnership.

Going to the movies is quite an experience in Japan and it has sublte differences from going to see a movie in America. For example, before you even go see an AMERICAN movie in Japan, you have to decide if you want to watch it with Japanese subtitles (jimaku) or with Japanese dubbing (fukikae). Since my Japanese is limited to "I'd like two beers, please" (biru ga nihon onegai shimasu), we opted for the jimaku.

I walked up to the ticket window and grunted something that sounded like, "HARII PO-TA, zyu-ichi ji, ni, onegai shimasu (insert grunts, umms, ahhs, and errs where appropriate)" and handed over a fistful of cash.

If only if it were that easy. The cashier rambled off a few phrases that completely went over my head and I responded with my favorite phrase, "sumimasen, wakarimasen."

"Ah...", she responded, and whipped out a seating chart of the whole theatre.

Gotcha. Assigned seating. Japanese movies have assigned seating.

We just pointed at two seats somewhere in the middle of the theater and handed over more cash. Apparently the tickets cost 1700 Yen and not the 1200 Yen we had thought. Oh well, its just monopoly money anyways, right?

Some things in Japan are so similar to things in America, but so many things are so different. The snack stand was EXACTLY like the snack stand you would see in any American movie theater. They sold soda, hot dogs, popcorn, and nachos. You even have the option to get your drink in a commemorative King Kong cup.

Walking into the theater was completely different from America though. It was like boarding an airplane. A guy (or girl) in a sky blue uniform stands behind a podium in the middle of the lobby and announces that your theater is loading (boarding) patrons (passengers). Then you walk over to the entrance and hand him your ticket and he hands you back your stub.

The inside of the theater was spotless. That whole sticky movie floor thing does in no way exist in Japan. They made it clear that they intended to keep it that way, too. The slide show that was playing on the screen had NOT SO SUBTLE reminders that outdoor food was not allowed. Though that didn't stop Emily from chugging a liter bottle of Diet Pepsi and chomping on a giant apple throughout the movie.

We were subjected to 30 minutes of Bugs Bunny telling us not to talk during the movie in Japanese AND previews for every movie coming out in the next decade before our movie started.

The movie was amazing, but of course the book was better.

I giggled when nobody got up when the credits started to roll. I think it was because the Japanese didn't know the movie was over.

As we exited the theater, there was an attendant collecting everyone's garbage. Remember, we have to keep everything clean!

It was fun going to see an American movie with a theater full of Japanese, but I don't think I'll be doing it again any time soon. 1700 Yen for a movie is kind of a steep price to pay AND Hollywood movies just aren't that good.

You mean there's MORE!!!

I've never been a one blog type of guy; Right now, I'm actively publishing on three.

Livin' la Vida Takaoka is my main blog. The idea behind this blog is to keep my readers (both of you) up-to-date with what I'm doing while in Takaoka. It is going to be filled with exciting things like:

Is it raining today?
Am I still running in the mornings?
What made me feel like a stupid foreigner TODAY?

It is a fascinating read, I'm sure.

My second blog is all about food. It is called -CHOPSTICKS-. Over the last year it has slowly morphed through several different phases; right now it is ALL ABOUT JAPANESE FOOD. That's a pretty extensive subject, so we are going to limit our discussions to ANGELO and EMILY's experience with Japanese food. Laura is a guest blogger on that site, but she hasn't posted in months.

My third blog is a daily photo blog called Daily Pic. I know what you are thinking: What an original name! Trust me, I'm working on it. I'm expecting a new name to just come to me ANY DAY NOW. Using my fantastic new Canon S2, I am going to try to post pictures that I take on a daily basis. I am then going to accompany every post with a little background info about the photo and a little anecdote from the day. I've been posting for a WHOLE week; I really like the way it is coming along.

Click HERE to visit Livin' la Vida Takaoka
Click HERE to visit -CHOPSTICKS-
Click HERE to visit Daily Pic

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Running Tour of Takaoka

This morning, which was my third day of running, I decided to run through the neighborhoods in Takaoka south of the train station.

It was a fascinating run.

I ran through mostly residential neighborhoods, but I also ran past a fair number of busy streets, rice paddies, and vegetable gardens. I saw quit a lot of things. If I keep up this running in the morning business, I will have explored a good portion of the city within a month.

The reason I'm even mentioning the fact that I went running is because I think I found the Tomb of Toshinaga Maeda and Hankyuji Temple. You see, it has been really frustrating trying to figure out what the sites are in Takaoka. There are so many little things that are a mystery to me and since I can't read Kanji, it's not like I just pick up a paper or look at the writing on the building and figure things out.

I need more help than that! I could try my guidebook, but this is exactly what my Fodor's Japan guidebook has to say about Takaoka:

Takaoka, the southern gateway to the Noto Peninsula, is not especially worth
lingering around, though it does have Japan's third-largest Daibutsu (Great
Buddha), after those in Kamakura and Nara. It's made of bronze and stand
53 feet high. Also in Takaoka, a 10-minute walk from the station, is
Zuiryu-ji, a delightful Zen temple that doubles as a youth hostel. A
sprawling park, Kojo-koen, not far from the station, is particularly stunning in
autumn, with its red-and-silver maples. Takaoka is mostly known for its
traditions of copper-, bronze-, and iron-smithing and remains a major
bell-casting center.
That's it. That was $25 well spent. Basically Takaoka has a Buddha, a park, and a Zen temple. Thanks! I know there is more to do and see here than that!

I've found a couple websites that highlight some places to see (toyamajets.com is probably the best), but they never have addresses and the directions are usually limited to something like this:

Access: JR Takaoka Station, 10 min. walk.

I realize it's all really my own fault; If only I had listened to my Freshman Japanese instructor...

I can hear him now:

"BI-RA-GO-MEZ-SAN!!! WAKE UP!! You'll regret this later!"

Mr. BIG

I am in no way a big guy. I might be 5'10" and I weigh about 190 lbs. I don't really feel much taller than everybody else in Japan, in fact, many Japanese are taller than me. Thank God I'm not some huge 6'6" gaijin monkey that has to duck to get through EVERY door. That would be miserable.

Still, there are times when I feel like a huge ogre.

Our front door is about 1 inch taller than I am. Thankfully, I don't have to duck when I walk through it. If I ever wear shoes with a heel or a thick sole, however, I'll have to remember to lower my head as I enter.

While I might be short enough to not hit my head on the door, I AM tall enough to hit my head on the two hanging lamps in our apartment at least 20-30 times a day. I wish there was a way for me to get them to hang higher. Maybe I should just wear a helmet around the house.

Being this height is also tremendously inconvenient on cold nights. This country doesn't make blankets big enough to cover my head AND my toes at the same time. I get to cover either my head OR my toes AND then fight Emily for the covers.

One more anecdote and I'm done:

Emily and I had breakfast today at a restaurant with tables and chairs made for people Kevin's size. What do you do in a situation like that? Can you imagine trying to complain that the chairs are too small? In an ironic twist, this was the only restaurant that I've seen so far in Japan that has given us a decent sized water glass. Usually your water glass is about the size of a shot glass. What's up with that?

Friday, November 25, 2005

Useless Japanese Website (in English!)

Do you have a few brain cells to spare? Would you mind using them for something absolutely and utterly useless? No, I'm not talking about Emily's obsession with NeoPets, I'm talking about F*ckedgaijin.com.

Click HERE to see what the heck I am talking about.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Our Thanksgiving Feast

I think that deep down, Thanksgiving is every American's favorite holiday. It is one of the few holidays where you don't have to worry about giving gifts and it hasn't been taken over by some gimmicky mascot like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

I didn't realized that I would be spending Thanksgiving in Japan until I was literally spending Thanksgiving in Japan. I sort of woke up and just realized that Thanksgiving had snuck up on me.

It is not hard for that to happen in Japan. Thanksgiving does not exist here. Neither does most of the food that Americans like to eat on Thanksgiving. Yet, even with those obstacles, I still managed to somehow pull off a feast.

I spent the afternoon shopping and cooking. I did all of my grocery shopping at the SATY right next to our apartment. Then as soon as Emily got home from work, the two of us chowed down on our Japanese Thanksgiving dinner.

This is what it looked like:

Not bad, huh? Especially considering that I have no idea how to recognize most of the items in the grocery store. In the end I prepared 8 entrees, 2 desserts, and one drink.

See that jar filled with fruit? It is not just fruit; it is filled with vodka. I made it yesterday. If you want to learn more about it you can read about it on -Chopsticks-.

Click HERE to visit -Chopsticks-.

For the entree portion of our meal I made:
  • Braised Curry Pork
  • Teriyaki Chicken Legs
  • Wasabi Mashed Potatoes
  • Edamame
  • Tekkamaki (tuna sushi)
  • Pseudo-Roy's Poke (diced hawaiian tuna)
  • Chamorro Cucumber Salad
  • Smoked Salmon Rice Cakes
You can probably recognize that the only item that resembles anything from a traditional Thanksgiving dinner are the mashed potatoes. I made them from scratch. The only ingredients were potatoes, milk, butter, and wasabi. I simply quartered and boiled the potatoes until they were soft, strained out the water, threw in the rest of the ingredients, and mashed them with a spatula. Yes, a spatula. They don't make those potato mashing things here.

My other big item was the Braised Curry Pork. In the grocery store, which has miles of store space dedicated to meat and fish, I was looking for something resembling a ham. I couldn't find one, but I was able to find something resembling a pork roast. I bought it.

I knew I wouldn't be able to roast it, mainly because our kitchen only has two burners and no oven, so I thought I would try to braise it. I also knew it would need a sauce. Since the only thing I could recognize was curry, I decided to make braised curry pork. It only took me 20 minutes to pick out which packet of curry, out of the entire AISLE of curry, I wanted to buy.

I have never braised anything before, but I have watched the chefs at Roy's in Orlando braise short ribs. They cooked a whole bunch of huge slabs of beef covered in huge pots with what I think was some type of stock. I don't have any of those things in Japan, so I braised my pork roast in a frying pan with some water, curry powder, herbs, and what I hope was chicken stock powder.

After cooking it for three hours on low heat, I was able to cut it with a spoon. I took it off the heat, diced it up with a knife, threw it back in the pan, and added the curry sauce.

It ended up looking like a pulled pork dish, like from a southern bbq pulled pork sandwich, but with an Asian flair. When I put it down in front of Emily she inhaled the whole thing before she would try anything else on the table. It was that good.

I also made a very yummy tuna dish with cubed maguro, soy, lemon juice, onions, hot pepper, and ginger paste. It was probably my favorite.

The only other dish that required preparation was the Chamorro Cucumber Salad. I made it with diced cucumber, soy, rice wine vinegar, and some pepper. It was one of my favorite things growing up and it is so easy to make that I couldn't resist serving it.

Every thing else was prepared at the store and all I had to do was heat it up or put it on a plate and make it look pretty.

Dessert was awesome. I bought apple pie and vanilla Haagen Daaz ice cream. Emily liked the applie pie ice cream so much that she had it for breakfast this morning. We also had Japanese Christmas Cake. It is a white cake with strawberries and the most amazing white frosting. I can inhale that stuff; too bad it costs about $3 per slice.

After we finished eating we cleaned up and polished off the rest of the Winter Starburst Martinis. Don't think we're raging alcoholics though, there really wasn't much vodka in the jar; it was mostly fruit.

When we finished them we dutifully refilled the jar with fresh vodka. It should be ready in time for our festivities this weekend (whatever they end up being).

It was a really fun, romantic Thanksgiving, but I really missed having Thanksgiving back home. This was the first time that I only had one other person to celebrate with. That's just not right. This holiday is meant to be celebrated in groups of at least 10.

Maybe next year we will plan better.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

HAPPY THANKSGIVING

Emily had to work today. It was her first day of work since I arrived on Saturday night. I helped her get out the door this morning by making her coffee and breakfast. I also walked her to the train station. I think she likes having a house boy.

I am going to meet her at the train station tonight at 4:50 PM. As soon as she gets home we are going to have Thanksgiving dinner, albeit Japanese style. I'm still not completely sure how everything is going to turn out, but I'll be sure to let all of my readers (both of you) know how it went.

When I was buying the groceries earlier today it felt for the first time that I was definately in a foreign country. Without someone by my side talking with a steady stream of English it became much more appartent that I am definately in the minority.

I talked a little about the small things that I am going to have to learn ONE by ONE in my last post. I picked up another little lesson while at the grocery store.

When I finished paying for my purchases, the lady at the register put a plastic bag into my shopping basket, bowed, said "arigato gozaimasita," and then turned to help the next customer.

For half a second I was a little confused. Who was going to put my groceries in the bag? Well, I quickly figured out that I WAS.

Just past each cash register is a little packing table. I guess you are supposed to get out of the way and pack up your groceries on your own. So I did.

I wonder what I'll learn tomorrow.

Overwhelmed? Not Really

With the exception of my adventure in Tokyo Station, my transition to pseudo-Japanese life has been rather smooth. The only hiccup has been my JET lag, which has no end in sight.

The problem with the JET lag is two-fold: Over the last four months I have gotten used to sleeping less than 8 hours a night AND in Japan, by 5 PM it is as dark as the recesses inside George W. Bush's heart. By the time 6 PM rolls around it feels like it is the middle of the night. So I fall asleep. Then I wake up 7 hours later. It's a vicious cycle.

Everything else is great. Homesickness won't be a problem (famous last words, right?) because of the amazing technology found on my computer. I leave it on all day and I am constantly being bombarded with chat requests, blog comments, and emails. At the touch of a button I can turn on my webcam and watch live video of Jim, Donna, Alex, Kevin, Catie, Tiana, and Jumper Thunder running wild in the Ford Asylum.

Emily has really eased me into getting out and about. Now the park, I could have done that on my own. I can go to any natural place anywhere in the world and understand what is going on. Enjoying the outdoors is a universal experience. Buying bread at the grocery store and trying to figure out the grill at the okonomiyaki restaurant aren't - hell, trying to figure out what the hell okonomiyaki means in English is a chore in itself.

Those things can be very intimidating. If I had been here on my own, I would have probably just gone on a diet for a few days while I tried to decipher EVERYTHING. Just trying to figure what things are, never mind actually trying to eat them, can be an adventure.

Just yesterday I bought myself an onigiri. I talked about those a few days ago; they are the stuffed rice balls wrapped in nori. When you go to the store there are usually about ten different varieties to choose from. The wrappers all tend to be different colors and what I assume are the different flavors are drawn on the front in either Kanji or Katakana. Kanji is the character alphabet that has about 25,000+ characters. I know about 10. Translating those packages are going to require several taste tests. The rest of them are written in Katakana, which is the phonetic character alphabet that they use to spell out foreign words that are not in the Japanese language. Some examples are computer, cheese, and America.

I haven't had much chance to brush up on my Katakana since moving to Japan, but I do remember most of the characters from the Japanese classes I took in the mid-1990's. I was able to decipher one particular package. When you sounded out the characters, it sounded something like "SHIICHIKIN MAYONEEZU." My best guess was that it was some type of chicken with mayonaisse. Chicken with mayonaisse is chicken salad. Chicken salad onigiri sounded pretty good.

I bought it.

It wasn't chicken.

It was tuna.

I had just learned another THING TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN.

THINGS TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN #5: You need to read all of the characters when trying to translate characters into English. Just because a package says chicken, doesn't mean that it is chicken. It may be tuna.

My fatal mistake was to ignore the SHII character that came before the CHIKIN characters. The SHII sound translates into SEA. I was eating SEA CHICKEN. Chicken of the Sea. Tuna.

Maybe Jessica Simpson isn't as dumb as we all thought?

So you see, there are lots of little things that I am just going to have to learn ONE AT A FRICKIN' TIME. It helps to have my best friend here and it is exciting trying to figure everything out together. I also love having someone to laugh with when I buy a tuna onigiri thinking that it is chicken.

(It also helps your self esteem to have a tall, leggy blonde tell you that she loves you every five minutes, but I don't need to get into that.)

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Japan's Most Famous Zen Garden

This garden is very famous. It is hidden in Takaoka and very few people have seen it in person. I was lucky enough to find it on my first day in Japan.

Click HERE to watch a 48 second video about Japan's Most Famous Zen Garden. It is guaranteed to bring unity and balance to your life.

Day Trip to Kanazawa


Every day trip begins with a stop at the local convenience store to pick up a few onigiri, which are rice balls stuffed with something and wrapped in nori. Just like every other type of food that I've experienced in Japan so far, the possible ingredients for the inside of the onigiri is as limitless as your imagination. Emily picked out a few chicken and mayonaisse onigiri and I grabbed a snack made of rice and smoked salmon.

We stuffed our snacks into my bag, bought our train tickets to Kanazawa, and boarded the train, which was already waiting for us at platform 3. While we were on the train we ran into Lesley and Linda Parker, two sisters from Canada who had been in Takaoka for two weeks with NOVA (another English teaching program in Japan). They were looking lost and distraught and were having one hell of a time trying to get to their NOVA orientation and training.


I think they were pretty happy to run into us. Emily was able to help them get tickets for their connecting train. We chatted on the train and exchanged email addresses. It turns out that they live right up the block from our apartment. I'm sure we'll be seeing them again soon.

We arrived in Kanazawa after only about 30 minutes on the train.

It was raining, but do you think that stopped us? Of course it did! We ducked into the closest bookstore we could find. When we warmed up we walked for another 5 minutes and then ducked into the closest Starbucks.

We ordered a pair of grande cappuchinos, which were pronounced "grande cappuchino" instead of the usual "gurande kapuchino" that we hear whenever somebody utters an English word, and took a few minutes to warm up again and to look through my Fodor's Japan guidebook to see what we wanted to do in Kanazawa.

I like parks, so we decided to go to Kenroku Gardens.

The only problem was that it looked like it was on the other side of town. However, as we kept on reading, we discovered that there is a tram called the Kanazawa Loop Bus that encircles the city every 45 minutes AND it just happened to hit every main tourist attraction, INCLUDING Kenroku Gardens.


What a deal! We hopped on the next tram and took it right to the doorstep of Kenroku Gardens for only 200 Yen each.

Kenroku Gardens is the largest of the three most famous landscaped gardens in Japan. Quick, name the three most famous landscaped gardens in America: Um, Epcot....

Exactly.

I absolutely love Japanese gardens. Emily and I spent about four hours winding hand-in-hand through the parks innumerable trails and enjoyed watching the people as much as we enjoyed watching the changing of the maple and ginko leaves.

Kenrokuen (the Japanese name for the garden) gets her name because she possesses the six superior characteristics judged necessary for the perfect garden: spaciousness, artistic merit, majesty, abundant water, extensive views, and seclusion. The name literally means "integrated six park."

They should probably rename the place Kengoen because it isn't exactly secluded anymore. Walking throughout the park are roving bands of middle-aged Japanese being led by a tour guide belting out the history of the park over a megaphone. If you ever got tired of taking pictures of the trees and changing foliage you could turn your attention to amateur photographers setting up tripods to take pictures of thier friends and family flashing the peace sign. We didn't even experience the park at even close to capacity. We were there on a weekday during the day. I can only imagine what weekends and Golden Week or Cherry-Blossom Season are like.

One of my favorite parts of yesterday occured while we were sitting on a bench on top of a rather secluded vantage point in the park. We were just sitting and watching the people in the park below us and looking out at the city of Kanazawa beyond the borders of the park when an older Japanese man meandered up to where we were sitting. He initiated the conversation, which surprised me because we're told that the Japanese are very shy and do everything possible to NOT have to talk to a foreigner. He was very nice. Even though we told him that we spoke very little Japanese and he told us that he spoke very little English, he was able to tell us that he thought the view was very pretty and we were able to tell him that we were American (which is barely obvious, right?)

I also really liked the way they protect the ancient trees from breaking during the winter months. They tie a large pole to the trunk of the tree. The pole extends well over the crown of the tree. Ropes are tied to the top of the pole. The ropes reach down to the different branches on the tree and hold them up.

It is really pretty because they use all natural looking materials to tie up the trees. There are no plastics or metals involved (that can be seen, anyways); all you see is a tall bamboo poll extending from the center of the tree and lots and lots of rope.

It makes the trees look very graceful, especially in the parts of the park where there are several trees tied up this way in one place. I posted a picture of one such area in my post last night.

When we had walked through more than once and after I had taken more pictures of maple leaves than I care to admit, we decided to head back towards the bus stop and to find something to eat. We took the Kanazawa Loop Bus up to the business district and got off right in front of Gucci and Louis Vuitton.

Food could wait. It was time to go shopping! We didn't buy anything before dinner; We only went from store to store and up to the 8th floor of a department store with Emily periodically informing me of which dresses, jackets, shoes, and purses were beautiful, gorgeous, or simply "works of art."

Thankfully Emily cherishes food over shopping and her stomach eventually got the best of her. She took me to a little Italian place that was down a little side alley off the main drag. We sat down and looked at our menus, which were competely in Japanese and figured out that I wanted a beer and she wanted another cappuchino. When the waiter came over and took our drink order, he took up our menus and walked away.

Uh, we wanted food.

I whispered to Emily across the table, "I'm hungry, I wanted to get some food."

To which she replied, "Then you ask for the menus back."

It is little things like these that seem like monumental tasks when you first encounter a foreign language. You have to get over sounding like an idiot, because after all, as a foreigner, YOU ARE AN IDIOT.

"Well, how do you say menu in Japanese?" I asked.

"Menu."

When the waiter came back I asked, "Menu, onegai shimasue."

To which he replied, "Hai, hai, hai."

That wasn't too hard, now was it?

After dinner, let me just add that I still don't know what I ate, we did a little more shopping. This time we actually bought something. We both got matching fleece jackets that cost around $20. I consider it a very smart purchase, since I have no idea when my winter jackets will arrive.


We walked back to the train station from the shopping district, but not before stopping for donuts at Mister Donut. Our only other purchase was some fruit. I bought a pineapple, some strawberries, and some mikans at an outdoor market. I'm sure this outdoor market has a name, but it escapes me right now.

It started raining on the walk home. We didn't get too wet, but we got really cold. We were frozen solid by the time we got back to the apartment.

(By the way, I think the apartment needs a name. I guess we could just call it FISTA, but I'd like to think of a more exciting name for this place.)

I was so tired when I got back that all I could do was to post those pictures of the changing leaves and drag myself over towards the tatami to crash.

I woke up at 3 AM. Damn you, JET lag!

Kenroku Gardens

Emily and Angelo took a day trip to Kanazawa today. Angelo is exhausted and doesn't feel like typing a whole post right now. He'll probably wake up at 4 AM (again) and do it. Thanks, JET lag!

Angelo would also like to extend an invitation to Emily to write a post about our exciting day in Kanazawa on THIS blog. He's probably going to have a gibson martini and fall asleep, and he would be delighted to wake up and find that his beautiful girlfriend (who he would like to remind he crossed the globe to be with) wrote the post for him.

In the meantime, this is what AUTUMN in my little part of the world is like:

Monday, November 21, 2005

The View from Takaoka

Emily and I took a walk to AEON, the huge-ass shopping center South of her apartment. If you stand in the parking lot and look to the East, this is what you see:




Click on the image to enlarge it.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

A-PAA-TO

Our apartment is tiny by American standards; it is no bigger than my freshman dorm room at the University of Richmond. Click on any of the images to enlarge them.

The apartment building is about 100 meters east of the South exit of the Takaoka train station. On the night that I arrived, had Emily been a World Class sprinter, she could have run from her apartment to the station in 9.46 seconds.

The name of the building is FISTA. I have no idea what that means. It is a four story apartment building with several apartments on each floor.

There is a single entrance for all of the apartments. It is on the East side of the building. You walk under a little archway that has FISTA (and some Kanji) written on it and enter a covered foyer where you find everyone's post box and a glass sliding door. I find it interesting that none of the post boxes are locked. I guess they don't have a problem with identity theft in this country.

In order to unlock the sliding glass door you have to insert your key into a panel on the wall. The door automatically opens and automatically closes.

The hallways and the stairs leading to all of the apartments are all open air. Our apartment is on the second floor. The doors all look the same; they are all the same color and they are all really small. Emily has a postcard of Siesta Key on our door, so it should be easy to find us.

Opening the front door leads into a tiny room about the size of a bedroom closet. There are some cabinets to one side that we are currently using for storage. You are meant to take off your shoes and leave them in this room. Emily doesn't get that concept.

A door on the other side of the closet leads to the rest of the apartment. As I describe it, try to keep in mind that our whole apartment is the size of a large college dorm room.

The apartment opens with the tiniest of hallways. Face right from the front door, take three large steps, face left, and you can see everything our apartment has to offer...except for the bathroom, which is directly behind you.

Click HERE to see a video about the bathroom.

From where you are standing in the apartment you can look directly out of the double glass doors opening up to the balcony, which is on the far side of the room. Immeadiately to your right is a closet with a door. It is about the size of the shoe room, no bigger than a closet. Open the door, and instead of a closet, you find the toilet and 20 rolls of toilet paper stacked neatly in one corner.

From where you are standing, immeadiately on your left, just in front of the hallway where you just entered, is a small room with tatame floors and a double paperscreen door. That is our bedroom. It is very simple. It has a small mattress on the floor and some shelves and a little closet to store our clothes.

If you move so that you are sitting in our bedroom and look out while opening one of the paperscreen doors, you will look directly into our kitchen, which is only big enough to fit one person. It is separated by the rest of the apartment by a little counter, which doubles as a kitchen counter and kitchen table.

The kitchen has everything we need. There is a washing machine, but no dryer. We have to dry our clothes by hanging them on the balcony. Right next to the washing machine there is a small fridge, with an even smaller freezer. We keep a toaster on top of the fridge and a coffee pot on top of the toaster. There are some cabinets above and a few shelves to the side where we store all of our dishes, glasses, and food that doesn't need to be refrigerated.

The sink and the range are part of the counter. There is no oven, only two gas burners. There is a fan above the range. It looks like the fan you would have above your oven and range in the United States. On the side of the counter that doubles as our kitchen table we have two stools.

The rest of the apartment, what I would call the living room, is barely bigger than a King size bed. We have a little mat in the middle of the floor that keeps our toes from turning into little blocks of ice in the morning. On one side of the room, the same side as the kitchen, we have our TV and some shelves with books and photographs.

On the other side of the room there is a little bed that is so small that Kevin probably wouldn't be able to sleep on it. It is our couch. It has three big pillows and Emily's monkey on it.

We keep the yellow curtains covering the double doors leading out to the balcony closed most of the time. In the morning when the sun shines through the curtains it fills are small home with bright yellow light. It is very charming.

It may sound small when I describe it, but the apartment has everything we could ever need. Emily and I don't mind living so close together and, although I haven't asked her directly about it, I think we both prefer it that way.


Our view might not be the most majestic view in all of Japan, but we live in a great neighborhood. It is very convenient living so close to the train station and we are about a block away from the grocery store, which is like a Super Target, Big K Mart, and Super Wal Mart all rolled into one, complete with a McDonalds and movie theater. There are also literally hundreds of quaint little mom and pop restaurants EVERYWHERE. Best of all, we are a short five minute walk away from the most amazing park. We hiked through it yesterday and enjoyed the changing colors of the foliage.

It really is a fun little apartment and I'm really going to enjoy living here. I've only been here for about 24 hours and it is already starting to feel like home.

Now if I can only learn to read and write the language...

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Navigating the Trains

The flight was the easy part; I've been a transit passenger through Tokyo at least 20 times. Getting through Customs and Immigration was easy. The REAL adventure began once I stepped out of the airport.

The first things I did were to change some more money and to call Emily to let her know that the tail section of the plane didn't fall off and crash on a remote tropical island. I also learned my first of my THINGS TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN.

THINGS TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN #1: Change your money in Japan. The exchange rate in Dallas was 108 plus a $5.50 surcharge; the exchange rate in Tokyo was 116 with no surcharge.

I had been dreading this moment for months. I had to take the train from Narita to Takaoka. The signs for the train pointed towards an escalator off to the left. I did that thing where you hook the luggage pieces together, took a long deep breath, and dragged my 160 lbs of only-god-knows-what off in that direction.

Luckily there wasn't much walking to do because the train station is right underneath the airport. I walked up to the window underneath the huge green JR sign and asked the person sitting there if they spoke English. She did (thank God), so I told her that I needed a ticket to Takaoka station.

She knew exactly where it was. She printed out my train tickets and circled the departure and arrival times of each train. She told me that the first and third train tickets were for reserved seats and that the second was for an unreserved seat. The tickets said that I would arrive in Takaoka at 11:38 PM. She pointed me in the direction of the trains. I had to get moving; My train left in less than ten minutes.

That was the easiest part of my trip and I was about to learn my second THING TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN.

THINGS TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN #2: If you are going to use the train to get to your final destination do not visit while carrying 3 suitcases and a laptop bag. That shit is a pain in the ass.

I managed to get my luggage through the ticket turnstiles and down the escalator to the train platform. I couldn't tell if the train waiting there was my train by the name of the particular train line, the destination, the train number or anything like that. I just noticed that the departure time was the same time as the one on my ticket, so I hoped that it wasn't more than coincidence and hopped onboard.

The first train was an express train to Tokyo station. I had a reserved non-smoking seat. Each of the 10 cars are assigned a number and then each seat within each car is assigned a number and a letter (much like an airplane). Each car on this train had an entrance in the front and in the back with racks for your luggage. I put my luggage in the racks and then hoping that no one stole my stuff, found my seat.

An announcement came over the loud speaker in Japanese and then in English letting everyone know that this was an express train to Tokyo station. So I was right! So far, so good.

The train was great. First of all, it was spotless. Then once the train was moving a girl with a snack cart came around. When she entered the car she bowed and said something that I couldn't understand. Then she walked down the aisle selling snacks, sodas, and other drinks. A ticket-checker-guy also came around. He did the same thing where he bowed and said something that I couldn't understand when he entered the car. He took a look at my ticket, stamped it, wrote down something in a little notebook (probably "notify Department of Homeland Defense about this one"), and went on checking everybody else's tickets.

I was amazed that people were drinking beer. I don't know. I just didn't expect to see people drinking beer in such a public place.

It would take about 60 minutes to get from Narita to Tokyo station. Once I was there I would have about 20 minutes to find my next train. This was the part of my journey where I almost lost it.

Everybody got off the train at Tokyo station. I gathered my luggage and followed everybody up the escalator to the main station. I saw signs for six or seven other lines running and I had no idea which one I needed. I also didn't see any information booths where I could ask for help. Uh oh. Panic started to set in.

I just kept following the signs that pointed in the direction of the other lines. Luckily, they all pointed in the same direction, so I was pretty sure that I was at least heading in the right direction for now.

The long hallway opened up into a bustling train station full of shops, kiosks, and hurried people. It looked like it was about the size of a football field. I'm sure that in future trips it won't seem so big and intimidating, but at the time it was all I could do to not roll up in a ball, suck on my thumb, and start crying. I had absolutely no idea where to go, I was convinced that nobody spoke English and I didn't know who to ask for help.

At the end of the aisle of shops and kiosks I finally saw the ticket windows. Heaven was smiling on me. I went up to a window with a young Japanese girl, thinking that a young Japanese girl would be most likely to speak English and asked, "ee-go ga wakarimasu ka" in my best Japanese accent. She replied with something that I didn't catch, but I took it to mean "a little." I resorted to this universally understood phrase: "Ug, grunt, point."

She understood.

She wrote "20" on my ticket and told me "numbaa twenty." I understood that to mean platform 20. Great! Platform 20! One problem: Where the hell is platform 20? I asked her "doko de?" and she pointed in the direction off to my left.

So I went left.

There was a sign for platform 20 right around the corner. I put my second ticket through the turnstile and walked towards the entrance. One problem: There was no escalator. I was looking up a staircase that had to be at least two or three stories high. I had no other choice but to take my luggage in each hand and to drag it up the stairs a la World's Strongest Man Competition. Please refer to THINGS TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN #2 to see what this experience taught me.

Once again I was unable to tell if the train currently sitting at Platform 20 was the train that I needed to take. I reasoned from the departure time displayed on the board that it was. They weren't allowing people to board the train yet and people were queing up inside painted colored boxes on the ground. They were marked with kanji. I can't read Kanji, so I don't know what they said.

I tried looking around to see if I could figure the whole thing out, but exhaustion was making me more thick skulled than usual. They started boarding while I was still trying to understand this whole train thing. I just boarded the closest car, stuck my luggage in a space behind one of the seats, and sat down.

Turns out the car I chose was one of the reserve cars. Big mistake. I was about to learn my third THING TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN.

THINGS TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN #3: Just because YOU do not have a reserve ticket does not mean that the whole train is not reserved. Other people have reserved seats, just not YOU.

When the ticket-checker-guy came around he informed me that I would have to move to the NON-reserved car, four cars back. What was I to do? I had to move, but I wasn't about to drag my luggage through moving train cars. I decided to just leave my luggage where I had stored it. After all, if I wasn't willing to move it and I OWNED IT, it was highly unlikely that somebody would try to steal it.

The plan worked fine. Thirty minutes later, a few minutes before the train stopped at my next stop, I walked back up towards the reserve car and got my luggage.

I have no idea where I was when I stopped at this station. Maybe I'll figure it out once I orient myself, but as for now I really don't know. It could have been anywhere between Takaoka and Tokyo.

When I got off the train I asked one of the uniformed station men where my next train would be using the phrase I used at the last station ("Ug, grunt, point"). He told me that I needed to find "pratform one."

I dragged my luggage towards the exit and guess what? That's right, no escalator. I dragged my luggage down the stairs this time, which was only slightly easier than dragging it up the stairs.

Platform 1 was easy to find. I just put my third and final ticket through the turnstile and was on my way. The train was already sitting at the platform when I got down there (this time there was an escalator.)

I noticed it was snowing. All of my anxiety, nervousness, and fear just melted dreamily away. I had done it. I no longer had anything to worry about. I wasn't going to get lost on the Japan train system after all. Once I got on this train that would be it. No more changes. No more chances to get on the wrong train. Did I mention it was snowing?

This train trip took the longest; it took two hours. I was able to find the map of this area of Japan in my guidebook and I was able to follow along as we stopped at each train station. The anxiety that I was feeling earlier in the day (and week, month, and year) was finally being replaced by excitement. I was finally here! I just had to make sure that I didn't miss my stop.

I got off when the train stopped at Takaoka. I dragged my luggage up the stairs (once again) and then down the stairs (once again) and walked out of the South exit to Takaoka station. I also had one more THING TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN to learn.

THINGS TO KNOW WHILE VISITING JAPAN #4: Do not throw your train tickets away! They are collected at the end of your journey by the person at the gate. If you don't have your tickets you have to pay an extra fee.

I called Emily from a payphone outside of the station and three minutes later I was getting hugged by the girl that I crossed the globe to be with.

Let the party begin.

American Airlines Sky Cam

Clouds over the Pacific (off the coast of Japan)

Clouds over the Pacific (off the coast of Alaska)

Mountains of snow over Utah

More Mountains