Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Fall into Winter...

so yes, this blog failed in the end. the three months that I spent studying at ICU I did not write a single entry. well, thats how life goes sometimes. and now I am here, in the last leg of my journey, traveling with my parents and saying goodbye the country that I have called home for the past six months. I cannot believe it is already over. I love Japan. I really do. I never imagined that so much would happen in six months, that I would grow so much in such a short amount of time.

Thank you to everyone that I have met on my travels. To all of my new friends-Japanese, American, and everywhere in between. Thank you for the memories that I know I will never forget. For squeezing onto the last train or the first train the next morning after dancing your heart out to what Japan likes to call hip hop, for the trips to hair salons and tattoo parlors, for taking me out on dates in Yokohama, Hiroshima, really all around Japan [and Hong Kong] or simply Kichijoji, for letting me crash at your place because I could not get in at home, for lunches on bakayama and getting up from the warm spot in the grass for soft cream or waffle bars, for cramming for kanji quizzes because wasting the day wandering around Tokyo just seemed like the better choice, for every moment, thank you. Japan would not have been the same without you and I would not have had it any other way.

I love you all so much and cannot believe that I will be leaving you so soon. I have said all of my goodbyes now and am traveling with my American family to visit my Japanese family for New Years. I am so excited. Thank you Japan, for everything always!!!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

two months in the making

So I realize that I haven’t updated in a while… in a long while, almost two months. So here are the highlights (mostly in photo form) so I can get on with the present.

End of SCJ:
SCJ to Imperial Palace (August 2)
C-3 took a field trip to the Imperial Palace and endured Tokyo summer heat and humidity. I really loved my class and Senseis.We always had a great time while learning 新しい文法!

Ms. Higashi-Kogane Yukata Contest (August 7)
When George came to Japan went to an Obon-Matsuri in Higashi-Kogane and watched Laura compete in an amazing Ms. Yukata Contest. She went on stage in front of couple hundred people, introduced herself, explained her “point” or best feature, told a joke, and suggestively called one of the older male judges’ names—all in Japanese. She was amazing and looked beautiful!

Fuji-san (August 10-11)
Climbing Mt. Fuji was quite the experience—exhausting, aggregating, painful but one of the best things I have ever done. Sitting at the ninth station at four in the morning and watching the sun come up made the entire experience worth every drop of blood, sweat, and tear.

H-O-S-P-I-T-A-L (August 16)
Well, whether or not I really wanted to, I got my wish. I experienced a Japanese hospital. My body couldn't keep up with the constant pace of the end of the summer program so it told my mind to slow down. I learned so much in those six weeks and made many wonderful friendships and memories. Looking back, I have no regrets.

Summer Vacation
Row, row, row your boat
Sailed overnight to Hokkaido for summer vacation. Being sick on a boat, not the most fun thing in the world, but luckily I have amazing friends.

Hokkaido was the most wonderful experience. I had a fantastic host family that welcomed me as their daughter into their home. They were both really young, and amazing. The mom started her own company, which is still extremely rare for women in Japan, and continues to supervise it despite having a one year old. Instead, the dad took a year paternity leave to help raise his son, another huge rarity in Japan.

They were extremely generous and introduced me to another side of Japan I hadn’t realized existed. Everyday we went hiking in a different area—mountains, ocean shores, and countryside. We stayed one night in a cabin at the foot of a volcano and bathed in an individual onsen. The sky was always beautiful too.

We had a lot of fun exploring the city of Hakodate too. Rode in a rickshaw (人力車) all around the pier and tried on Victorian dresses in the old British consulate.

I also fell in love with Taiki-kun. When prompted, he would make a「僕大ちゃん」face and was the most well behaved 1½ year old I have ever met. He cried once during the entire two weeks and really likes tomatoes—so we were good friends.

Needlesss to say, I was really sad to have to leave Hokkaido…

Cory!! Here is a special shot out because you think I don’t care about you since you’ve gone. And well, you got it all wrong. I had so much fun hanging out and getting to know you this summer. Honestly, SCJ would not have been the same without you. Every time we pass Shibuya Lauren and I look at each other and try to imitate you imitating the announcements. Crepes will never be the same. I miss you. I love you. Come back.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Sorry everyone I haven't been writing recently...

Summer courses ended (with a bang) and I actually got really sick. like go to a Japanese hospital and take crazy pills sick, but I am feeling much better now. Not quite sure what it was but its mostly gone.

Right now I am doing my home stay in Hakodate, Hokkaido. Its a beautiful little town and I have an amazing host family so its been wonderful, although rather exhausting. I promise to post photos soon.

I really hate writing on Japanese keyboards because I keep accidentally hitting the disaster button that turns everything I type into Japanese. So this ends now.

I love and miss you all. once I get back to campus I promise to write more and catch you up on my life. Meanwhile, if you want to send me emails to my phone it would make my day. They are free to receive so you gotta keep em short.
monicamariko at ezweb dot ne dot jp


Monday, July 30, 2007

Zing, Zori, Zen

I got back not too long ago from another great day and thought I would share while it is still fresh in my mind. (procrastinator extraordinaire)

When it rains in Japan, it pours. But since we are out of the rainy season, for the most part anyway, it clears up and gets really nice between showers. The raindrops are huge! View out my window:

My super hectic workload this morning actually was rather manageable, I think I did well on both my quiz and test, and after a fun lunch at the dining hall, I went to a Zori Making Seminar!! From plastic rope, a few twisty-ties, and two dozen pieces of ripped fabric I’m making the most comfortable shoes! The entire process involves weaving the fabric in between the four strands of rope. I find monotony rather relaxing (think: knitting) but it was also really exciting. I have to go back for a little while tomorrow to finish up the back and attach the strap, but overall I am really happy with my 2½ hours of work.

Immediately after the Zori Making Seminar, I walked to the 99Shop (dollar store) and the base floor of Ito Yokado (department store) to go grocery shopping. Over this past week, I ate everything that I had stocked up on, so it was time for a refill. They were selling freshly caught (I mean shipped today!) eel for really cheap so I got a bento and ate it for dinner. I love eel. It just melts in your mouth. I might have a problem coming home and not eating fish/seafood products. We’ll see how attached I get in the next five months…

EDIT: It turns out that July 30 this year is Eel Day (hence all the cheap, amazingly fresh eel)! On 土用の丑の日, eel is eaten because it is the hottest day of the summer and eel is high in vitamins A and B as well as protein which is meant to restore stamina that's been drained from the summer heat. mmm... I sure feel good!

Straight from the department store I walked to the Zen Temple. Every Monday they offer meditation open to the public, so I think I am going to go every week. It’s the same temple I visited two weeks ago with other students from SCJ (Summer Courses in Japan—the program I am doing). We got there just in time, sat down on the cushions facing the wall in the lotus position (crossed legs with feet on your knees), and breathed deeply. It was amazing. After an hour of silent meditation followed by a ten-minute walking-breathing meditation, another half hour of silence and half hour of chanting, I feel at peace. That’s definitely the word for it: 平気. I was able to really clear my mind sometimes and work through things that had been bothering me other times. And although I had to change positions a few times, I never got extremely painful or stiff. This is exactly what I need. This is the Japan that I have been searching for in between wrappers from dollar store candy and Japanese maple trees. Of course it is sitting inside, waiting for me to open up and see.
The main thing I want to accomplish in Japan is learning how to just be.
座りだけ。Suwaridake. To only sit.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

and it’s Half Time!

This summer has flown by. I can’t believe I have been in Japan for almost four weeks now. But at the same time, I am beginning to realize how I am adjusting to living in Tokyo. The drive to read every possible sign that crosses my eyes has passed. Some I just glaze over, while others I simply ignore. I realized that I’m really tired. Reading, thinking, writing, studying Japanese all day long is exhausting. I deserve a break. But I must say the immersion experience, although exhausting, has done wonders for my speaking. I am feeling a lot more comfortable and secretly love having small talk with store clerks and grandmothers in the grocery stores. I have a few classic Japan stories that I will share sometime soon, but for the most part I can get by just fine.

Time just seems to disappear here. Class takes up the entire morning, but I’m not quite sure where my afternoons, nights, or weekends go. I keep busy (surprised?) and have had some amazing excursions these past two weeks.

Last week Friday, I went on a field trip to the Zen temple that is about a twenty-minute walk from campus. It was exactly what I needed. We had a short tour of the temple, followed by detailed instructions of how to eat as a Zen monk. There was a special plate set-up, with bowls arranged in descending order (rice, miso soup, and salad) and placed on the napkin that they were wrapped in. Utensils also were held in a specific hand, facing a certain direction (usually right). We were served a wonderful vegetarian meal and ate in silence. Every grain of rice and drop of water was consumed, not because it wasn’t enough food, but rather to value all life equally and not waste resources. The dishes were then washed with only a few tablespoons of boiling water. The inherent environmental qualities to daily life practices have made me question if the lifestyle I am living couldn’t be pushed further. Signs of environmental consciousness are everywhere—on train advertisements, signs for the beer vending machines, switch plates sold in local hardware stores. But it doesn’t match the plastic-packaged, pre-wrapped, combustible-disposable culture of waste I am also surrounded by. I find so much of Japan an oxymoron: Hot pink neon plastic signs border lush public parks of green; all garbage is separated down to plastic type, but half of it is burned. An extensive, fully functional public transportation system, that shuts down by 1:00 am. Polite society that will push you hard into the last train. Private, respectful, and reserved couched between porn ads on the trains and ‘salaryman’ passed out in the street, lying in their own vomit and urine outside all you can drink bars. And although all the chaos may balance itself out, I feel like I am swinging on a pendulum. I’m not quite sure where I’m headed next. Sorry for the tangent—I think I will actually write a few posts just on the extremes of Japan. After leaving the temple, I felt so grounded. We had meditated for about an hour—30 minutes silently facing a wall sitting in lotus position, then 10 minutes of walking silently, followed by another 20 minutes towards a wall. The temple offers public services daily from 5:00 am to 8:00 am, and weekly on Monday nights. I am for sure going tomorrow tonight, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get up that early in the morning. Maybe once the fall terms starts, but I doubt it.

Last Saturday was amazing too. After a restful morning of journaling and scrap-booking (I know, I know. I haven’t even finished a page though—so don’t give me too much crap), I went to Roppongi with Lauren where we acted very touristy. But it was kinda fun—drinking green tea smoothies, visiting ridiculously priced stores, and walking around a beautiful outdoor mall area. We ended up seeing Tokyo Tower—which for the record is the ugliest and most boring tourist attraction in Japan—and ended the day by meeting up with people in Shinjuku.

After getting back two nights in a row after 2:00 am, I woke up Sunday morning at 6:00 am to go peach picking with Lauren’s host family. They took us to the most beautiful nature preserves. One had a small trail that wound around eight narrow but deep lakes filled with water from Mt. Fuji. There was a small water wheel that powered a soba making press and the area was covered in green. We got to ride in a paddleboat around a wide lake and take in the magnificent views. Unfortunately it was cloudy so we couldn’t see Mt. Fuji, but it was still really amazing. After the nature preserves we went to a peach orchard and grape vineyard and stuffed our faced. I think we had three huge peaches each, which were really sweet and juicy. The farmers explained that the reason some of the skin on white peaches is red is because it gets sunburned. There is a huge silver tarp that is placed on the ground of the orchard to reflect the sun back towards the peaches. We then had a traditional Japanese lunch of Houtou, which is like old style udon with a lot of vegetables and served boiling hot. Of course it was already high 80s and humid that day, but it still tasted amazing—and was vegetarian. I’m telling ya, our ancestors knew what was best! It was a really exciting day that ended by climbing a small mountain to find a waterfall. I really appreciate being so close to natural environments. I forget how much I miss it till I am actually there again.

This past week, school has really picked up. It went from an hour of so of studying a night to nonstop for 5 hours daily. I wrote two essays, gave a presentation, had half a dozen quizzes, a chapter test, and an oral midterm. But I’m better for it, so I won’t complain. My dorm (Global House) had a game of assassins, which I ended up winning. It was a good break between studying.

There was a great lecture on Sho—Japanese “calligraphy”, which is actually a lot more than writing nicely. There is not such thing as being skillful at Sho or and the point is not to learn how to write neatly. Instead, it is much more important that the piece is “alive”. After the lecture and demonstrations we got to practice on newspaper and make our own final print. I wrote the character 美 (bi) which means beautiful, (ya know…).

On Friday I went to a pottery studio and got to make three small cups/bowls. I had wanted to make them fit one into the other perfectly, but we didn’t have enough time (I had to get back for my oral midterm). Hey, it’s a different Japanese aesthetic anyway. I decided to have the staff glaze them with the traditional colors as opposed to painting my own design in primary. We’ll see how they turn out next week. I stayed in the rest of Friday night: took a nap and hung out with friends. It was really chill and I’m glad because Saturday was just crazy.

We went to Ebisu—a smaller area not far from Shibuya. First we stopped at a photography museum, which was pretty nice. The gallery we saw was all portraits—“Heroes and Heroines” mainly of famous Japanese movies stars from the post WWII days and how entertainment/media was used to redevelop Japanese identity. I was surprised to see as many nudes as I did; it was well worth the couple of bucks. Then we went to a beer museum a half a block away. Alcohol culture is pretty prevalent here, I will write about that sometime soon because I find it pretty interesting. At first I blew it off as mainly for the tourists, but I am going to have to rethink tha some. There were a fair number of children (I mean like 5 year olds) playing at designated stations and funny attractions like light projections onto dioramas, which they called the museum. We wandered around the area a little more and came upon an Obon Matsuri!! The food was amazing (as always—overpriced but worth it: fried mochi in nori (I forget what it’s called), corn on the cob, shumai, mango smoothie, only the best festival food). There was a taiko performance in the middle of the street, followed by dancing. We stood and watched the older women in yukata gracefully flow around the street (and hot pink decked out stage) for a few songs before Lauren and I jumped in too. We got the guys we were with to join in on once dance, which of course ended up being really complicated. But we ended on the coal miner’s dance, which is the one my grandmother taught me at Manzanar Pilgrimages every year. It was really great to feel like I was dancing with my grandma again. Obon is actually a festival to reconnect with our ancestors and those who have passed on. I know she was dancing with me for a little while. I really needed it too, because for a few days I had been questioning what I was doing in Japan. Why I was still studying Japanese since it’s not nearly as practical a language for the work I want to do or in the United States in general. I first started studying Japanese to communicate with my grandmother, to feel more connected and restore heritage lost post camps. And it’s interesting that since she has passed, I am still studying for the same reason.

We left the festival and walked all around Shibuya, stopped at a cute café when our feet got tired and ended up at this nice restaurant where you order on a monitor at your table. We got back to the dorms pretty late, but I still managed to hang out with people until the sun rose this morning (5:00 am).

These past two weeks have been pretty amazing. Sorry for the super long post, but I just wanted to get you all updated! I have also had fun this past week talking to random people I love on skype. So, if you have a skype name, please add me if you don’t, send me an email so we can catch up. My s/n is aboucningball and school mail works just fine. I miss you and love you all.

all the best,

Monday, July 16, 2007

Mother Earth Speaks...

first, a haiku for you:

typhoon and earthquake:
natural disasters NOW!
will make people think.

whoa. while I was writing that I felt another tremor. (hence the "NOW!") That's my second earthquake ever! Actually, it probably was the same one? I took geology last semester (actually, it was an amazing class that I really recommend to science and non-science people alike), but I don't remember if that happens or not. This has been an interesting twenty four hours:

Yesterday: a typhoon hit Tokyo. winds were intense and so was rain.
Today: Earthquake registered at 6.8 but was in the 2 to 3 range once it got to where I was--sitting in class taking my first test. I thought it was some annoying kid behind me kicking my chair, until I looked back and there was no such kid.

but yes, I am fine. Thank you everyone for all the concerned emails and messages. I will write another post soon. I do want to write about environmentalism in Japan. Random acts of nature got me to thinkin'...

PS: I bought a shirt for 100 Yen. That's like $.84! It has apples on it.
PPS: The cheese, basil, and tomatoes that I bought off the street from a random vendor made a great salad. yummmm. but it could've used some balsamic vinaigrette dressing.
PPPS: I read the first chapter of the perks of being a wallflower. thank you Michael, it's a beautiful book. favorite quote so far: "We accept the love we think we deserve." and now I'm listening to the Smiths.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

school. fun. food.

So apparently I’m not as good as keeping up with this blog as I had hoped. Sorry! So much has happened in the past week…

School: I’ve officially finished my first week of school here. This past Monday we found out our placements and I am happy that I got into the third level (which is the end of beginning, so next semester I will be beginning intermediate). This is actually the perfect pace for me and I will get a really solid foundation before moving up. Class is four hours a day, every day. It gets a little long at the end, but for the most part I can handle it. We rotate teachers and study everything from grammar to kanji and vocabulary to reading and writing practice. They are also really big on repetition here, and although a little tedious, it gets the point across. We have had a quiz every day so far (actually, two on Thursday) and Monday is our first big test.

Fun: Wednesday a group of students from my program went to the Ghibli Museum , which features Hayao Miyazaki’s productions My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, etc. and other films like Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. Amazing if you haven’t seen any of these, you should. I bought two smaller notebooks with little characters on them and I think I’ll write you all letters from the paper because it’s so cute.

And then on Friday directly after class we ate lunch in ten minutes and went to visit the neighboring elementary school. It was so cute! We got to sit in two different fifth grade classrooms during some of their math lessons—fractions, everyone’s favorite—and afterwards were divided up into groups of six with 4 students from the elementary school and 2 from ICU. The kids then gave us a grand tour where we stopped in every classroom (1st grade, 2nd grade, 3rd grade…), gym, computer lab, music room, the roof play area and outside playground, as well as an inside play room with toys like tops, juggling bags and Daruma Otoshi (Daruma Tower). They sang us a short song and were so excited to ask about America—especially the scent. It was the first and last question they asked: what it smelled like in the US of A.

After the elementary school we went to a Kabuki theater performance at the National Theatre of Japan (in the heart of Tokyo). The color of the costumes and set design was amazing! The story was told not only by the characters in the play, but also by the musicians who framed the stage. They used long, stringed instruments called shamisen, drums of various sizes, and their voice to sing the forbidden love story. All of the actors were men in the modern style, even though Kabuki was created and developed by women. It was a great performance, and though it got a little long, I’m glad I’ve had the experience.

Food: The performance was over relatively early so we went to Shibuya and roamed the streets for a while before eating at this awesome restaurant that specialized in Okonomiyaki (sometimes called Japanese pancake or pizza). For 850 yen, you get a bowl filled with pancake batter, egg, cabbage, crisped rice, and your choice of meat/veggie (I got green onion) and are are supposed to cook the panake on the table in front of you. It was soo good, and really filling.

In general food is different here. I am still amazed by how few vegetables and fruit people eat on a daily basis. The cheapest apple you can find go for 100 yen, and a decent one cost more like 160 to 180. Peaches go for about the same, and bananas are really expensive too. So yes, believe it or not, I buy all my food at the dollar store.

Aren’t Japanese shopping carts cute?

Eating salad for a meal is unheard of. For breakfast every day I have been eating a bowl of frosted cornflakes, yoghurt, and a glass of OJ. The yoghurt is actually amazing. I was buying small individual containers for a while (they are about half the size of yoghurt in the US), but then I found a larger container (large, haha 500 grams) and I realized why it tastes so good. When I opened it up there was a packet of sugar that could be added. I tried the yoghurt without and soon realized it wasn’t really extra sugar. I’ve heard the strawberry flavored ones barely have a hint of the fruit taste. That’s ok because I like my plain just fine. Bread is also pretty good here, not bread for sandwiches, which is really Wonder Bread©, I mean, they cut off the crusts and everything, but bread from bakeries. It’s really fresh and is a great snack in between classes.

For lunch, I usually get a brick of tofu, a small salad with potato, carrots, and green cabbage, and a bowl of kabocha (a sweet squash) and sometimes rice depending how hungry I am at the cafeteria. It only cost 280 yen and taste pretty good. I think I may be sick of it by next week. It’s hard because there aren’t really any options without meat, and virtually no options without seafood/fish. I got chow mein the other day, and although it was only supposed to be shrimp, I found chunks of pork in the sauce. I’m glad I’m not that strict.

Dinners have been wonderful, the best meal by far. Master Chef Chatam cooks fairly regularly everything from eel-mushroom omelets to shrimp gumbo. I’ve gone out twice so far—once to a greasy, expensive Ramen-ya that had pork in everything and the other time in Kichijoji to a Chinese restaurant where we shared tomato-egg soup, tomato-egg salad, and a spicy spinach cashew dish. We passed a Nepali place that I’d like to go to, but otherwise there are rarely any restaurants that serve anything besides Japanese food.

All this food talk has got me hungry now. Today we are supposed to be hit by a big typhoon, and it has been raining non-stop for two days now but it seems to be lightening up. Maybe we will be allowed to leave the dorm after all! I do need to go grocery shopping, which people do about every other day.

I will definitely try to write in this more regularly. Time just seems to fly by here. I want to blog about environmentalism and waste and the crazy transportation systems here. But first, let me spend a special shoutout to my mom, so she knows that I still love her and think of her every day, especially when swimming. Thank you for helping me get here.