Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ho, ho, ho!

The second grade teacher at Tobu-chu likes to dress Nathan and me up. First it was witch hats at Halloween, then it was a doctor's lab coat and a Hello Kitty stethoscope, but this week took the cake. Who knew that the 100 yen shop sold full Santa outfits? Well they do and they are made completely out of felt and what appears to be cat hair. A rolled up t-shirt under the jacket and the look is complete - Ghetto Santa. He's just in time to teach the students some Christmas vocab and help them make some Engrish Christmas cards!

Luckily, I didn't have to wear the nasty itchy beard five times this week but I did feel sorry for Nathan. The worst part was he kept having to change because we would have a second grade class followed by a third grade followed by a second grade class followed by lunch and then another second grade class. He changed in and out of that costume today four times!

Evil Rumi-sensei likes to dress us up. Where's her elf costume, huh???

The students enjoyed it. We made them say good morning and goodbye Mr. Santa during the greetings.

Nathan reviews some truly horrible Christmas greetings for their Christmas cards. Happy Merry Christmas to you!

ALT no sensei Mr. and Mrs. Claus

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Thankgiving wrapup

I don't know what I was thinking when I decided to invite 12 people over to my not-so-big apartment for Thanksgiving. Perhaps I was trying to introduce a holiday that is the least commercial in America and thus less well-known in Japan. When Nathan and I told the story about the Pilgrims and Indians having the first Thanksgiving the teacher asked us if it was real. So it wasn't exactly as hunky-dory as the story we read made it out to be but anything more complex is beyond a second-grader's grasp of the English language, but that doesn't mean the first Thanksgiving wasn't real. So thus I set out to educate the small portion of the population that lives in Tahara and whom I spend my time with about the excellent tradition of eating more than you should and reflecting on the things that are good in our lives like friends, family, and turkey.

Of course it didn't turn out to be exactly all-American. We celebrated a few birthdays in addition to Thanksgiving and no one was too keen to say what they were thankful for. But we had a turkey...albeit a very tiny baby turkey so it would fit in my small oven. We also had mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, stuffing, and even deviled eggs. There was also lots and lots of sushi and fried octopus balls and even some guacamole. Because nothing says Happy Thanksgiving like some tako-yaki.

Marie makes tako yaki while Nagata-san looks on.

I even managed to impress Nathan with my turkey cooking skills. My Japanese friends said it was good, but they are known to be very polite and none of them had ever had turkey before. However, I figured if I could make the Americans happy then I had done an alright job. I was so nervous, considering it was my first, it was only slightly bigger than a chicken and my oven isn't exactly known for being very precise. I still haven't managed to successfully bake in the damned thing.

My turkey!

We ate, drank, talked and played several rousing rounds of "chopsticks" (a card game that usually goes by the name of spoons except that I only have two.) Everyone went home with some food and Marie even managed to make off with my salt and pepper, which she returned a couple days later. A good time was had by all. I might even consider doing it again next year.

My apartment full of people and not everyone is even in this picture. We had a few latecomers.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

So apparently full refund doesn't mean all of your money back it really means all of your money back minus 30,000 yen or around $300. No love H.I.S. Travel, no love!

We still canceled though and I have a ticket back to Cincinnati after a few near heart attacks. Why does the price jump up hundreds of dollars with multiple layovers in a day but when I check three hours later it's back to what I saw last night? Are you trying to make me mad kayak and orbitz? Because you're doing a pretty good job at it.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Hong Kong!

Hong Kong was never on my list of places to see before I die. (Someday I will have to actually write that down.) I went because that's where the Best Friend was having her Asia trade show and since I had a long weekend anyway, she extended her plane ticket a few days and I used a few of my vacation days and we ended up with three full days of fun in Hong Kong. It was great! I would recommend Hong Kong to anyone. Go! And if you don't believe me then here are some very good reasons why.


The Food

The food was amazing. And cheap. Cheap and amazing. Does it get better than that? The first night we stayed in hotel connected to the convention center on Hong Kong island. A pricey place paid for by the Best Friend's company. After I got there and she introduced me to her co-workers, so as to prove I was real and not a flimsy excuse to skive off the final company dinner, we headed out to SoHo where we promptly found a sidewalk cafe and ordered what looked good. Which happened to be what was on the table next to us. "We want what they have," we said. And that's what we got. Unfortunately because of that I have no idea on the names of the dishes so let's call it chicken with every bone and piece of gristle left (ok so that part wasn't great) in a delicious brown sauce and baby cabbages in a garlic sauce with free Chinese tea from a thermos on the table. If you are one of those people who is picky about hygiene (*cough roommate cough cough*) then this is not the place for you. But if you think that germs add flavor then you are in luck.


We went back to the hotel pretty early since I had been up at 4:30 to get to the airport but not before we stopped in at the hotel lounge where we listened to cheesy classics and ate dessert and drank port. It felt very Lost in Translation and I couldn't help notice the contrast between our two chosen venues.

The next day we ordered room service for breakfast (a trend the Best Friend had started earlier in the week and one we continued throughout the rest of our trip.) After we checked into our new hotel with a goodbye to swanky Hong Kong island and a hello to budget friendly Kowloon, we set out on foot to explore and more importantly find some food. We found a small diner with a great Mabou Tofu served by a cute little Chinese lady who tried to teach me how to say it correctly. We had Hall Fun from the diner across from the hotel for dinner. And then because it's true that when you eat Chinese food you get hungry an hour later, we found another diner where we gobbled down some beef brisquet noodle soup and more cabbage in garlic sauce. (I seriously have to find me a recipe for those!) Each meal only cost around $6 for the both of us since tea and rice came free of charge.

The only thing I had that I didn't like was the mango juice with the little pieces of jelly mixed in. The texture was oh so ewwww!

The second day I'll admit we cheated and had Burger King with dessert at the fancy Peak Top Cafe, but that night we tried a fancier Chinese style restaurant. Our waiter was adorable and kept coming over to our table with brochures and suggestions on where to go and what to see. We ordered an ostrich dish and beef in garlic sauce. (Yeah, I couldn't get enough of the garlic sauce!) Both were delicious and this time the meat was of a much higher quality. Despite the nicer place we still ended up only paying around $20 for dinner. Cheeeeaaap.

By the third day our poor stomachs were reeling from the grease that seems inevitable with Chinese dishes so we stuck to American things like salads and sandwiches ordered from room service. But even so the food was amazing overall. Definitely one of the highlights of the trip. I wish we would have eaten at more of the sidewalk cafes. Our last night there I headed out to the night market and happened across one that had its fresh seafood displayed on a table as an advertisement. The shrimp weren't even dead yet. I jumped when one flipped itself off the plate it was on. Moral of this story is if you like Chinese food there's no better place to eat it than in China.

The Shopping

We happened to be there during the sales period which would have been great if I was Asian woman sized. However even though I am considered slender by American standards I am still too large for most clothing sold in Japan and also apparently China. Too bad too. We did get some great deals though at the Jade Market and the Night Market, where we had to use our bargaining skills to drive down prices. It was okay for awhile and then I got tired and just paid what they asked. Man, am I sucker! But if you think bargaining is a great adrenaline rush and you wish you could find more size 00s in America (like my roommate back home who only weighs in at 90 lbs) then Hong Kong is for you!

The Sights

Day one: We set out for our new hotel on Kowloon and then from there headed down the famous Nathan Street to the Harbor. The view of the island we had just left was gorgeous. After some more wandering around we eventually found the jade market where we reluctantly haggled over several pieces of jewelry (and subsequently finished my Christmas shopping.) From there we realized we were close to the temple of Tin Hau so we ventured in. Chinese temples are different than Japanese ones. This one had these long spirals of incense hanging from the ceiling burning slowly and big gold garish statues of the gods and goddesses. Every surface was painted and decorated. A man kneeling in front of the main statue shook a can of sticks while rocking back on his heels while he prayed. Then he stood up, chose a stick, and then presented it to another man behind a counter who gave him a fortune corresponding to the stick he chose. Behind the temple in a small park, groups of old men gathered around to play mah jong. Yes, we were one of many tourists but I got the feeling that there were just as many daily visitors to the temple as well.



Later that night, we headed to the harbor to witness the Symphony of Lights. At precisely 8:00 each night the Hong Kong skyline on both sides of the harbor lights up in a fantastic ten minute light show that includes both lasers and music. The first night we saw it we weren't quite close enough to hear all of the music but our last night there we secured a prime position. So many things were happening at once, it was hard to know where to look . It was really really cool.


Day Two: After breakfast in bed, we took the Star Ferry across the harbor from Kowloon over to Hong Kong Central and then caught the Peak Tram up to the top of Victoria's Peak where we had a fantastic view of the city and the sea. I should mention that the Peak Tram is not for the weak of heart. In fact nothing about getting to top of Victoria's Peak is for those who don't like the thrill of getting up or down a truly steep peak. The tram going up made me nervous with its steep steep incline and quick pace up the hill. And the bus hurtling back down the less steep but necessarily curvy roads reminded me of rides at Kings Island. But the view was worth it. We even got to do a little geocaching while we were up there!



That night we headed out to the night markets. After my experience at the jade market I kinda gave up on bargaining, especially since I was only buying little trinkets like magnets. I did get a very nice piece of threadwork for about $7 and a painting on a silk scroll for about $5. They aren't masterpieces for sure but they certainly liven up my apartment. One of my favorite parts was walking along Nathan Street and seeing all the neon signs lit up. I believe that every city has its own personality and the hustle and bustle of street vendors calling out to people to get their business under the glow of the neon is what I'll always remember of Hong Kong.



Day Three: We left the hustle and bustle behind and headed out to Lan Tau island where we took a 30 minute cable car ride from the village of Tung Chuk up to the Po Linn Monastery, famous for the largest outdoor seated bronze Buddha statue in the world. I assume that if you remove even one of those adjectives it is no longer the largest in the world but even so it was still spectacular. I always assume these things are older than dirt because no one these days goes around building great big new cathedrals in Europe or America, but I would be wrong. Because Buddhists still like to show off their devotion by building large outdoor seated bronze statues honoring the Enlightened One. This particular statue was finished in 1993. And if I do say so myself they really chose a nice spot for it. The view from the top was amazing. The bus ride down was similar to the ride down from Victoria's Peak except this time the bus driver had to slam on the brakes because there were cows blocking the road. Truly away from the hustle and bustle.






We spent most of the late afternoon in the hotel since both me and the Best Friend were feeling sickly - her more than me. Our last night we watched the Symphony of Lights one last time and I ran back out to the night market to buy one last Christmas present. (My grandmother will never forgive me if she knew I had forgotten her!)

The next day we checked out and headed to the airport where we said goodbye until summer, except of course now I'm going home for Christmas so we'll get to see each other sooner than we planned. Next year the plan is to meet in Beijing!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Cancelled Plans

Protesters in Thailand have forced both commercial airports to close in an attempt to force the prime minister to resign. I don't usually follow Thai politics except that I have a trip planned to Bangkok and Koh Chang during the winter vacation. I wasn't worried last month when it was just some protests outside the government offices, but now that the airports are closed and there has been reports of violence (40 people injured and around 3 dead) me and my friend Marie have decided to cancel the trip with the hope of going next year. If we cancel by Thursday then we can get a full refund for the plane tickets. I still have to cancel the hostels and the domestic flight we have with Bangkok Air but I don't think we'll be out more than about $60.

So since Thailand is off I think I'm going home for Christmas. I already had money budgeted for a big trip and there are still tickets for about $1600, which is roughly what I paid this summer. And if I really feel like it I could probably convince my parents to pay part of that. Especially since they are off the hook for visiting me in Asia this year if I come home for the holidays. I've been trying to convince them to come and meet me in Beijing since they've felt like they've already seen Japan. Mom is crazy about that idea but Dad is the one who controls the finances so it was looking like it might not happen. The Best Friend though told me in Hong Kong that her trade show next year will be in Beijing so maybe we'll do a repeat of this year and I will meet up with her and we can tour some more of China.

I still really want to visit Thailand though. so I think I'll go next winter with Marie providing that the protesters have sorted themselves out in a year's time. Surely by then, right? And the two of us hope to visit Shizuoka for a weekend trip sometime in February to make up for our cancelled trip this year. I want to sit in an onsen and look at Mt. Fuji. And eat sushi made by Marie's brother who is a sushi chef.

Yeah, so those are my travel plans for the next year or so. If I don't go to Beijing for spring break I'll have to find somewhere else. I was thinking maybe Korea during Golden Week since it's so close. Maybe Indonesia? Any suggestions? I took this job so that I could travel, travel, and travel some more and that's what I intend to do!