Tuesday, June 30, 2009

In Kanazawa with Keely

At the beginning of this month I headed up to Kanazawa to see my friend Keely. Keely is awesome and one big reason why I am here in Japan. We met at Georgetown, where she was two years ahead of me. We had the same group of friends, were in the same sorority, and I was very sad to see her graduate but totally jealous when I found out she had moved to Japan to teach English in Tahara.

Yup, that's right, she had my job before I did. Since this sister city ALT program is not very well advertised at the college, she is the only reason I even knew it existed and thought to look into it when I started feeling stagnated at Cintas. After she left Tahara, she went around the world on Peace Boat (the same Peace Boat I want to try and work on) and then came home and married a Mexican guy she met in a hostel near Mt. Fuji. They now live in Kanazawa where she works for the university and studies environmental science while he finishes up his PHD in computer science (he's being recruited by Google at the moment.) Basically, I want to be just like her and if I get on Peace Boat the only thing left will be to snag a Mexican computer science genius for a husband.

She's been to visit me in Tahara twice now but this was my first visit to see her and Kanazawa. Her husband, Jovan, was away in Tokyo so it was a girl's weekend. It also happened to be Hyakumongoku Matsuri, Kanazawa's biggest festival of the year.

Friday night we headed down to the river to watch hundreds of floating lanterns drift by. Each lantern was hand painted and each one was sponsored by a family, local group, or school. They had large ones, small ones, and even one shaped like Doraemon. We climbed down the flood wall and sat on the ledge, watching them go by. We were in the chaya district and the faint strumming of shamisen music floated down to us as we watched the lanterns.



We got a late start Saturday morning after talking late into the night. Our first stop of the day was Kenrokuen Garden, considered one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan. It was beautiful. For lunch Keely took me to the art museum, not to see any paintings, but to eat in the cafe, which boasts a world famous pastry chef. We had the most delicious quiche I have ever eaten. It was like a symphony in my mouth. We finished up with cakes and iced coffees.

Kenrokuen Garden

I couldn't resist getting a picture of this woman in her kimono sitting in the teahouse.

Kanazawa Castle. The wall and gate are all that's left. According to the Lonely Planet it burned down so many times that locals finally gave up on rebuilding it.

After lunch we wandered over to the castle and then down through town looking for the parade. We made a quick stop at the Museum of Modern Art to look at some of the free exhibits before finally finding the parade. We weren't interested in the brass bands, so we sat in a Starbucks until the acrobats showed up. They were totally worth the wait. Balancing on the tops of ladders, three men moved between death defying pose one after another.

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At the Museum of Modern Art

A dragon goes by in the parade.

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Tired of the parade, we wandered through the samurai district. Kanazawa was never bombed in WWII so there are still lots of these old neighborhoods around. We walked around, shopped a bit, and finally decided on some kaizen sushi for dinner. The sushi came around on a conveyor belt and we took what we wanted. Each plate is color coded with a price so at the end you call over a waiter and he tallies up how much you owe based on your stack of plates. I was really really hungry and the food was really really good.


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After dinner we headed back to the center of things to see 10,000 people do some Japanese line dancing. I've seen this in Tahara, but believe me it is a much different thing to see thousands and thousands of people dancing in the street versus a few hundred people. In Tahara they were in a single file line. In Kanazawa they were 5 people deep for almost a mile. Then we headed back to Kenrokuen because it was open later and lit especially for the festival. They also had a classical music concert. It was a lovely way to end the day.





After another late night gabfest, Keely and I headed out a little earlier on Sunday to see the chaya district near where we had been on Friday night. Clustered in this area are lots of traditional tea houses, which means of course geisha. We didn't see any dressed up but we did stop to have a bath at the local sento and we're pretty sure we saw one of the okasans of one of the tea houses. She was older and had her hair immaculately coiffed. I had told Keely we could tell people we had bathed with a geisha because she probably was one at some point in her life. Too bad she was on her way out as we came in.



Our private room at lunch. Very traditional

The food was soooo good.

Me and Keely

Lunch was at a small restaurant in an upstairs room. We had the local fish dish recommended by the waiter. And it was sugoi oishii (very delicious!) After walking around and shopping some more, I said goodbye and caught the train (3 actually) back to Tahara. Who knows when and where I'll see Keely next. Maybe this summer in America!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

And then it was just me

So they won't be replacing Nathan. And what's worse is that when I asked if we will change schools in September they told me it was possible. I don't wannaaaaa switch schools. I love my schools! Even the school with the crazy "will you come and record a listening test at 5:30 or maybe on Saturday" English teacher. And I especially don't want to leave Tobu ES whose has the nicest, genkiest, sweetest school nurse and head teacher who force feed me medicine when I'm sick and give me back rubs and insist on me going home when I am done with classes. And I love my fifth graders who write things like "It's always fun when Jennifer-sensei comes" and think chicken is the funniest word they have ever heard.

And I would hate to leave Takatmatsu ES where Urara in the fourth grade gives me a sheet out of her memo pad after every English class, (I have tons of papers and little origami creations from students tucked in all of my files,) and the third graders call me Jenny-chan. I would hope they wouldn't move me from Tahara JHS and Tobu JHS but they might and then I'd never get to see Miyu dance Saturday Night Fever or hear Nanami ask "what's up?"

I shouldn't really whine. It's unprecedented that I have stayed at these schools as long as I have. Before I got here the ALTs moved around every 6-12 months. This was mostly because there was one idiot ALT that none of the schools wanted, so they juggled everyone around so no one school was stuck with him long-term and eventually he wasn't allowed to teach in elementary school at all because of a slight overreaction to a playground kancho (where students poke you in the butt with their two index fingers.) And by overreaction I mean apparently he grabbed a kid and shook him pretty hard.

But he's gone now! And I'm here and my schools love me and I love them and I really see no need to change them. Nathan has five schools like me but two of them we share, so really that's only 3 elementary schools or 4 days a month to cover between the remaining 4 ALTs. Surely the schedule can be manipulated to where none of us have to switch. Now I know what Japanese teachers feel like every year in March when they aren't sure if they will stay where they are at or be transferred to another school. And it sucks.

I'm praying that I get to stay where I'm at. If I have to deal with being by myself all day with no other Americans to talk to after work other than Vanessa (who is often not around) then I don't want to have to do it with brand new teachers and students as well. It takes time for me to work up a real rapport with people, even longer when it's in Japanese. I keep trying to tell myself that next year is going to be just fine, but I'm not very hopeful. Nathan will be gone. My friends are too busy to see me. And now my schools might change. Ugh, ugh, ugh.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Erin in Japan Pt. 2

After three days in Tokyo, Erin and I escaped to the inaka of Tahara. By the time we arrived it was pouring buckets of rain and it wouldn't really let up until it was almost time for her to go home. But we didn't let that ruin our fun. Armed with umbrellas and smiles we headed to Irago where we caught a ferry over to Ise in Mie prefecture in order to see the most beautiful shrine in Japan according to my Lonely Planet guide.




We visited the Inner Shrine which is supposed to be prettier than the Outer Shrine. The rain added a mysterious aura to the place. I think I preferred it that way actually. It was very mystical. Of course, we couldn't see most of the shrine as it is off limits and surrounded by a huge wall. Apparently only the Japanese emperor and his contingent ever get the honor.

After the shrine we walked through the touristy area nearby and had lunch. I saw a man handing out free samples of dried squid, or squid jerky as I like to call it, and made Erin try some. She had liked the sashimi we had eaten for lunch so I wasn't 100% sure she would hate the squid. But still I was probably 99% sure she wouldn't like it, and really she should know better than to eat something just because I tell her. It's not like that's worked out for her in the past. (I am not the nicest big sister.) It did, however, make for an awesome photo op.

She didn't like it.

The Japanese people around her insisted that squid was delicious. "Oishii-yo!" one lady told her. She threw the rest in the gutter and we continued on our way, eventually finding something she did really like - taiko drummers.

These guys were amazing!

On our way back to the ferry station we noticed the Mikimoto Pearl Island. My mom has been joking with me about buying her pearls since she visited Tokyo and saw the Mikimoto Pearl store in Ginza. So we had to go. Although the whole time I felt really bad about not taking my mom there when she was in Tahara. I bought her some pearls to make it up to her, (the really small inexpensive seed pearls not the gorgeous and thus incredibly expensive pearls she was lusting after last year when she was here.) We learned about how pearls are cultivated (technique invented by Mikimoto) and harvested and then we tried on a very large and even more expensive pearl and diamond crown. Afterward, we headed outside to see the pearl diver demonstration from the luxury of the Foreign Visitor's Lounge.

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Erin and I learn about harvesting pearls.

I'm trying not to move in case I break it. It's worth about $10,000!

Every hour they had a pearl diver exhibition.

The next day the rain increased from occasional shower to a never ending downpour. Erin came to school with me and listened to some pretty embarrassingly bad show and tell speeches from my eighth graders. After the speeches they interrogated her with questions like "how much money do you make?" and "who is cuter, Mr. Nathan or your husband?" (Answers: none of your business and her husband.) Then we attempted to see some sights in town, but because of the rain we didn't make it very far before we were soaked and we retreated back to the apartment.

"I'm singing in the rain!"

Erin vents about the weather on my fridge.

Despite the typhoon sitting off the coast and trying to ruin our fun, we braved the rain and headed over to local karaoke place with Nathan. I learned a lot about my sister on this trip. For one thing, she eats slower than a sloth. And second, she has a crazy love for 80's music that I never knew about. She learned a few things about me too. I'm pretty sure she had no idea that I could rap, something that amused her to no end.

Still in my school clothes and rappin it out.

The weather finally broke on Friday and we were able to rent some bikes and head down to Long Beach and then because we'd already biked 16km and what was a few more, we headed over to Takigashira Park too. Then it was back to the apartment for a nap before a party held in Erin's honor.

Biking along the beach.

Erin, Me, Clinton, Bob, Sue, and Miwa

I put her on the train back to Narita Airport the next day. I was really worried she would get lost, something she excels at, but a few hours later she called to let me know she had made it all right. We had a great week together. If you want to read her account of the same trip you can find it here

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Erin in Japan Pt. 1

This post is a little late but better late than never. My sister came to visit in early May during the Golden Week holidays here in Japan. I took her around Tokyo, Kamakura, Ise, and Tahara. While we had fun sightseeing the whole week was really about having fun and seeing just how many crazy pictures of ourselves we could take.


We started out in Tokyo since that's where she flew into. We stayed in a ryokan in Asakusa just off the main street by Kaminarimon so that's where we started our sightseeing. We headed out really early due to Erin's jet lag so we were able to see Asakusa, Tokyo Tower, Meiji Shrine, Harajuku, and Shibuya before we came back and fell into our futons from exhaustion around 8pm. I had originally planned for us to go out to sing karaoke that night but since it was all I could do to keep Erin from falling asleep before 9, we decided to nix that idea. We did find plenty of geocaches while we were out though so we declared the day a success despite the lack of karaoke.

Our awesome room at the ryokan or Japanese style inn.

Erin is excited by Tokyo Tower.

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At a temple near Tokyo Tower.

At Meiji Shrine this old guy gave us cake and pictures and took a ton of pictures with us while his friend kept saying "hazukashii" which translates to "you're embarrassing me."

A traditional Japanese wedding procession at Meiji Shrine.

Random cuteness in Harajuku

Drinking coffees in Starbucks while watching people cross the street in Shibuya. This may sound boring but clearly you have never seen this intersection. It's insane!

Erin meets samurai!Col. Sanders.

Day two we got up early again (thanks again to jet lag) and headed to Kamakura to see the Daibutsu, or Big Buddha. We decided to get off the train at the Kita-Kamakura station and hike the Daibutsu trail. On our way we hiked over a mountain, saw a few shrines, including one where people wash their money for good luck, had lunch at a cute cafe on the side of a hill, and argued over whose dumb idea it was to walk so far.
Zeniarai Benten shrine is in a cave.

People wash their money in the spring inside the cave. They believe that when they spend the washed money it will come back to them several times over.

Hiking was all Erin's idea.



The guide said it took 90 minutes to walk the trail. We took 3 hours but we finally made it to the Buddha. After finally making it, we searched for a few more geocaches. Erin also got to try on a one piece kimono, which while it's true that it is easier than putting on a traditional kimono it still required quite a lot of maneuvering to get it on her. But she sure looked pretty in it.

Back in Tokyo we went to dinner near the hotel in a little streetside restaurant, where Erin wanted to play menu roulette by randomly pointing out some things on the menu. Luckily with the help of a kind woman sitting near us we were saved that ordeal and we ended up enjoying everything we ordered.



Our third day it started to rain but it didn't matter since our plan was to go to Oedo Onsen where after waiting in line for 45 minutes we enjoyed 17 different kinds of baths. Erin is a champion bath taker back home with music, candles, and cold cloths for her neck so she was in bath heaven. Even being naked in front of a hundred other women (it was Golden Week after all so the place was packed) didn't phase her for too long. After a relaxing few hours, we caught the shinkansen back to Tahara where our adventures continued, although unfortunately with a lot more rain than either of us wanted.

In our yukattas at Oedo Onsen.