Kobein oneweekend (1)

Kobe In One Weekend

Sweet, bustling Kobe!
Oh sweet, bustling Kobe!

Keeping busy with work often makes taking a vacation look like a farfetched dream… And yet, snuggled between each hectic week is a much welcomed break known as “the weekend”. Ah yes, the weekend! Often, it seems like too short of a time to get anything done besides catching up on sleep. And yet weekends are perfect opportunities to travel. Enter “In One Weekend”, a series of posts where I will provide sample itineraries for getting the most out of your weekends based on my own travels. This post’s destination is none other than KOBEKobe is the sixth largest city in Japan, and it has its fair share of cultural, foodie, and shopping delights. Let’s visit Kobe In One Weekend!

Disclaimer: Because Kobe is surrounded by so many other tourist hotspot cities, many people choose to visit the city only transiently. You can have a good day trip in Kobe, provided you pick and choose what you are most interested in doing. However, spending a full weekend in Kobe does not disappoint either!

Day 1 

Morning: Ikuta-Jinja Shrine

Lions guard the entrance to Ikuta shrine.
Lions guard the entrance to Ikuta shrine.

A gorgeous, nearly 2000 year-old shrine that is nestled amongst some of the busier districts of Kobe, Ikuta-Jinja Shrine is a sight to behold. After purifying yourself and praying, you can go behind the main shrine area to find a delightful park, with ample shade and a small stream of water trickling throughout. You can be sure to find yourself relaxed and at peace in this quiet part of town. On some days you might be so lucky as to stumble upon a wedding or festival event.

Afternoon/Lunch: Sannomiya and Motomachi Areas

A sweet tray from Patisserie Tooth Tooth, one of the many bakeries found in Kobe. Also, what's up with the bakery's name?
A sweet tray from Patisserie Tooth Tooth, one of the many bakeries found in Kobe. Also, what’s up with the bakery’s name?

Sannomiya is the most bustling district in Kobe, where you can enjoy shopping, arcades, izakayas, and heaps of bakeries. Both the Sannomiya and Motomachi areas are great for passing the time, and absorbing the city atmosphere. One recommendation is to enjoy either lunch or some sweet treats at one of the many bakeries in this part of town. Also worth seeing is a small park dubbed “Tits Park”, which as the name suggests, contains mounds that resemble certain body parts… This park has become an unofficial meet-up place for many youngsters.

Dinner: Try Kobe Beef in Sannomiya!

Tender, juicy steak topped with fragrant garlic chips. Mmm..
Tender, juicy steak topped with fragrant garlic chips. Mmm..

Surely, even if you have never heard of Hyogo prefecture or know anything else about Kobe, you must have heard about the legend that is Kobe beef. Kobe cows receive daily massages and are beer fed to ensure development of relaxed, tender meat. Some say that the cows listen to classical music as they graze in pasture. As a result of such treatment, Kobe beef is said to be so tender that it can literally melt in your mouth… is this a myth? I’ve got news for you- it isn’t. But if you want to partake in the feast you must pay the (hefty) price. Though pricey, many Kobe beef set menus come with plenty of food to fill your tummy. Eat up!

Evening:  Harborland and Meriken Park

Harborland, beautifully lit up!
Harborland, beautifully lit up!

After stuffing yourself with beef, what better way to shake off the post-meal slug than by taking a walk alongside a harbor? Harborland and Meriken Park are located at Kobe Port, and provide gorgeously lit nighttime views. You can enjoy shopping and dining along the harbor, or you can even ride in a giant neon ferris wheel! Also in this area is Kobe Tower, where you can take in all of Kobe in one sweeping view.

 

Day 2 

Morning: Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum

A life size model of what it looked like to brew sake in pre-industrial Japan.

A life size model of what it looked like to brew sake in pre-industrial Japan.

The Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Museum is a tad out of the way if you are staying in the main (Sannomiya) area of Kobe, however, it is a worthwhile stop if you are interested in the subject matter. Though small, the museum boasts life-size replicas of brewery equipment and brewery worker figures. After circulating the museum you can enjoy free (FREE!) sake tasting, and even sample the museum’s very own brand of in-house sake. From the museum gift shop you can also buy and ship gift bottles directly to your loved ones. Convenient!

Kitano Foreign Village

An atmospheric jazz bar right nect to the Kitano district.

An atmospheric jazz bar right next to the Kitano district.

Kitano-cho is a unique area where you can visit various residences built by foreigners after the opening of the port of Kobe to the west. Many of the residences are former embassies, and they offer guests the opportunity to explore many different types of architectural styles and world cultures without leaving Japan. Kitano-cho is also filled with shops and cafes specializing in foreign goods and foods. Also in the area is the Trick Art museum and a number of art galleries.

As an added bonus, you can return later in the day or evening to try out one of the many live jazz bars in the area.

Afternoon option: Nunobiki Herb Gardens and Ropeway

Not too far from the Kitano area are the Nunobiki Herb Gardens, equipped with a ropeway from which you can see the Nunobiki waterfall, the Nunobiki Gohonmatsu dam, and various other beautiful Kobe sights. The area also boasts a number of specialty cafes, herbal shops, and even a herbal foot bath.

Afternoon option: Cat Café

A pensive Kobe Cat cafe' employee gazes out the window...

A pensive Kobe Cat cafe’ employee gazes out the window…

If the ropeway sounds exhausting to you, perhaps you would prefer to relax at a cat café. Though cat cafés are by no means exclusive to Kobe, they are one of the quirkier styles of cafes which can be found in the area. For an hourly fee, you can play with cats and order various café drinks or sometimes even parfaits and sweets. If you are not a fan of cats, this is not recommended. Also, keep in mind that many of the cats are sleepy and unless you purchase some of the available food, they may be very hesitant to play with you.

This cat cafe' employee isn't too thrilled about being confronted with a cat toy.

This cat cafe’ employee isn’t too thrilled about being confronted with a cat toy.

Ever wondered what the underside of a cat looks like while its sitting down? Wonder no more.

Ever wondered what the underside of a cat looks like while its sitting down? Wonder no more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dinner/Evening: Nankinmachi (Chinatown)

Momo manju- peach shaped bun filled with red bean paste in Chinatown.

Momo manju- peach shaped bun filled with red bean paste in Chinatown.

They say to save the best for last… and if you’re a foodie then Kobe’s Chinatown, Nankinmachi, is certainly amongst the best culinary experiences in the city. Nankinmachi boasts vibrant, colorful streets filled with street food vendors. Choose from Chinese style ramen bowls, Peking duck wraps, shumai (dim sum), cha han (fried rice), karage (fried chicken), and more. This is also a great area to buy omiyage, or souvenirs, and to observe beautiful Chinese décor and architecture.

 

Hopefully you now have some ideas about what Kobe has to offer. Just know that there is so much more out there for you to explore, so feel free to tweak this itinerary to your liking, and to remove or add days depending on your preferences. Happy weekending!

 

Fortunes at Ikuta shrine.

Fortunes at Ikuta shrine.

Sannomiya area streets.

Sannomiya area streets.

Shrine near Hakutsuku Sake Brewing Museum.

Shrine near Hakutsuku Sake Brewing Museum.

A Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Museum figure "hard at work" labeling sake barrels.

A Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Museum figure “hard at work” labeling sake barrels.

Meow from Kobe!

Meow from Kobe!

Beautiful gateway leading to Nankinmachi.

Beautiful gateway leading to Nankinmachi.

Vibrantly colored Nankinmachi.

Vibrantly colored Nankinmachi.

 

  Next entry: Osaka In One Weekend

The city of Ina

Nagano’s hidden gem: The city of Ina

For my first assignment for my new job as a National Relief Teacher  (traveling English substitute teacher) I was sent to the city of Ina in Nagano prefecture.  Ina itself is a small town…don’t know why they call it a city when its more like a village… But contrary to it’s size, it has an amazing amount of nature and scenery.

The beauty of Ina

伊那市

There are many bridges in the town with beautiful rivers flowing underneath.  Wherever you look, you are surrounded by tall mountains and with just a short drive, you can drive up and have an amazing view over the town.

During my stay, I taught at six elementary schools.  Five of the schools were in beautiful areas outside of the main part of town and one was so far up a mountain and isolated that it became my favorite school.

Ina school

Large mountain landscapes, forests as far as the eye can see and flowers and sakura trees surrounding the school.

My favorite school was about a 40min drive from my house and the drive consisted of going through winding roads with both sides covered with rice fields.  The school has less than a 100 students and only one classroom for both 5th and 6th students.  For the 5th grade class there were 11 students and for the 6th grade there were only 6.  It was very enjoyable and it allowed myself to get closer with my students and create more game filled classes making it more fun for everyone.

The school ground is surrounded by cherry trees in the spring, it is literally pink as far as the eye can see.  Unfortunately for me, the cherry blossoms season had just finished and I was not able to see anything more than pictures.

The great monkey Yakuza

monkey gangster2

The school also had a pack of wild monkeys that came down and raided their vegetable patch during the warmer months!  How cool is that?! Like a monkey gang! No…a monkey Yakuza!  I really wanted to see them (my obsession with Japanese maybe out of hand…) But again, unfortunately, because of the season, the monkeys were in hibernation or something and don’t come down from the mountains.  But I was happy just knowing that I went to a monkey yakuza school.

Food

Ina city also has two famous dishes: Roman a form of yakisoba and ….insects!  I had the pleasure to eat both of them.  Click on the links above to be taken to a more in depth review with delicious pictures.

Sooo good! Rivals even Osaka's own!

Sooo good! Rivals even Osaka’s own!

There was also a very delicious Kushikatsu 串カツ restaurant in Ina city called “Shiro Hige” (white beard), which was named after a famous character from the anime “One Piece.”  Shiro Hige served a cheap all you can drink and some of the best deep friend food I have ever had!  You could get a wide variety of different deep fried dishes from almost every meat and vegetable you can think of.  All the dishes were relatively affordable and the portions were not too bad for Japanese standards.  The staff were also really funny and friendly.  But no English menu, so if you have no Japanese speaking or writing abilities it may be a bit hard.

Here is their website: http://shirohige.jp/

Sightseeing

The healing area of Zero Jiba

There isn’t a whole like to see in Ina city.  However, one famous sightseeing sport in Ina has to be Zero Jiba(ゼロ磁場  ぜろじば).   This area is said to have the ability to cure any ailments you may have due it’s “zero” magnetic field.  It was feature on many Japanese TV shows and gets many visitors daily.  Even monks track up the mountain to get water from the springs.  Click the link above to read more about the spot and my misadventure getting lost in the mountains.

There were also some great temples in the city, one which was so secluded when I entered all I could hear was a few birds chirping and my own footsteps echoing in the surrounding forest.  So relaxing.

On the way to one of my schools I also saw a strange looking temple which appeared to be in the yard of someones house.  Upon further inspection I found out that the owner of the residence made the temple and the outer walls which had glass with wooden carvings in-cased in them!  It was probably one of the most impressive things I have ever seen in Japan that wassn’t listed in any tour book or asking for $4 entrance fees.  I also tried to go and talk with the man for an interview but no one was home.  Yet the gate to the entrance of the house was still open and people were allowed to walk in and enter the temple and look around.

Although Ina is beautiful it is also fairly close to other areas of Nagano.  Therefore, I ended up spending my first couple weekends going to Matsumoto prefecture and going to see Matsumoto castle,  Kamikochi and Zenkouji temple.

Final Thoughts

Over all in just 4 weekends I saw a lot of Nagano and made a lot of friends through my job and visiting the local bars and sightseeing areas.  In such a short time I was able to see a lot, not to mention some rare opportunities that I’m very lucky and grateful for.  I don’t get why, but I seem to just be on the Japanese gods good side and feel blessed in this country.  I hope you all can have such great experiences too.  Please leave a comment below and tell me some of your great adventures!

new car keys

How to Rent A Cheap Kei Car in Gunma (For JETs and ALTs)

After living in Osaka for a year I felt that owning a car in Japan was just stupid what with the ease of getting around with trains and bicycles. However when I moved back to Japan after graduating from university and getting into JET, that ideology changed once I moved to the green rolling mountain hills of Gunma prefecture.

Enter the inaka 

田舎

Photo courtesy of Great-Sensei.com

My idea that having a car in Japan is stupid quickly changed after I came to the “inaka” or “countryside” of Japan. Everything was spaced out and it took a 15 minute bike ride up hills to just get to the nearest train station.  I found myself riding my bike for a good hour everyday, traveling to go grocery shopping, to buy clothes, go the gym, etc.  Local sightseeing around Gunma was also a pain and many sights were simply not accessible by train.

My first car… in Japan

Luckily after only a couple months of living in my town I was able to fall in…love?  Or well I found myself a girly and after only a couple months of dating I then found myself being presented with a car from her dad at the low price of just $300!!!  It pays to be beautiful 😉

It wasn’t anything special, a 1998 Toyota Calidina with mileage through the roof, but it did the trick and helped me go on some epic snowboard trips.  However, after only about a year….

Bump, crash, bang!  My car!!!!!!

Unfortunately for me, only a month before I had to renew my insurance, I crashed my car.  It was a monstrous pain in the ass. You can read more about it here and how I was able to bounce back.

After I got my car accident all settled out it was time to decide whether or not to buy a new car or pay for the repairs and pony up for the semi-annual Shaken inspection.

A new car was going to cost me about  $3000- $5000 if I purchased one from a used car salesman I knew.  It included insurance and shakken as well.  Not a bad deal, but since I wasn’t sure where I would be working in the up coming months I hesitated to make a decision. After discussing the topic with my friend Albo, he informed me about a Japanese man that rents cars to English teachers in Gunma.  So I made a post on a facebook group for English teachers in Gunma about renting a car and I soon received a private message from a teacher who knew Ebachan.

The man they call Ebachan

IMG_5163

The man they call “Ebachan”.

I contacted Ebachan immediately and he was very fast to respond to my email and answer my questions.  He spoke very good English and I never had any issues with communication.  After I told him that I was interested in renting from him, he set up a meeting time and I met with him shortly after. For our meeting he bought me donuts and tea and brought them to my house to discuss the contract, insurance, how his rental system worked and so forth.  He clearly described what he needed from me (more info below) and how he could help me if I have any problems what so ever.

The cost

Japanese passenger vehicles are differentiated by the color of their licence plate: yellow and white. Yellow-plate cars have smaller engines and are generally cheaper to run and maintain than White-plate vehicles. Ebachan rents out both yellow plate and white plate cars. The yellow-plate cars cost ¥15,000 or $150 a month.  A white plate car  costs ¥3000 more at ¥18,000 a month.  Ebachan usually has both types of cars for rent.  Unfortunately for me at the time I was looking to rent he didn’t have any cheaper yellow-plate cars and so I had to get the more expensive of the two.  But a ¥3000 yen difference isn’t too bad for being able to fit a bunch of your friends and their snowboard gear.

IMG_5161

This was my white plate wagon… It got the job done.

Why get a rental car instead of buying?

If you are an ALT, the only reason to buy a car over renting one in Gunma in my opinion, is if you want to drive a sports car.  If that’s not you, then save your money.  If you think you’ll only be staying 1 or 2 years, it may end up being cheaper if you just rent a car. In addition to the upfront cost of buying the car and all the maintenance costs, you don’t need to pay car tax ($500 a year), insurance ($500 to 1000 a year), and shakken ($1000 for two years.)

The other plus of renting from Ebachan(something I wish he was there to help me with when I had my previous car) is that he will help you if you get in an accident.  Unless you speak fluent Japanese, if you get in an accident it can be a hassle, trust me I know…  Besides dealing with a potential hot head Japanese yelling crazy Japanese slang at you, or police investigating you as if you murdered someone, you also have to phone your insurance company and deal with all the keigo (polite form Japanese.)  Not with Ebachan.  You can let him handle all that mess.

Besides doing all the talking for you, he will also handle any repairs or maintenance to your car as well.  He also owns a toe truck and if your car ever breaks down he is willing to come pick you up… I don’t have any clue what I would do in Japan by myself if that happened.

Overall the number one reason to choose Ebachan and a rental car over buying a car is…Convenience.  You have to pay 2 months in advance (for me that ended up being about $360), but after that you have the freedom to cancel anytime.  You also have support and can call him anytime with questions, help and advice and he may even take you hiking and show you around Gunma (unfortunately I had to miss out on his offer but he’s pretty experienced and goes  a lot during the summer it seems.)

How to make a contract

fish-funny-handshakes-1781959-1200x773

To make a contract with Ebachan and get your own rental car you only need to bring four things to him!

  1. A photo copy of your international driving license
  2. Photo copy of your passport (only your picture is required.)
  3. Your bank book
  4. Your Hanko (name stamp/seal)  – This is used to set up an automatic withdrawal for the payment

Personal car insurance

So although you avoid having to pay the Japanese car check-up and insurance (called “shakken” in Japanese), your probably going to want a personal insurance that covers accidents with people, property damage, car damage, etc.  In my case I had help buying a cheap insurance for about $1000 a year that covered all my basic needs except for car damage, but I wish I knew about Ebachan sooner because he offers a great deal.

For people wanting insurance and the safety knowing your covered if an accident was to occur, Ebachan can introduce you to an agent of Tokyo Marine Nichido Fire Insurance, one of the biggest insurance companies in Japan and get you hooked up.

Don’t live in Gunma? No problem!

no problemo

Although Ebachan mainly helps English teachers with rental cars in Gunma, he also offers his services to English teachers in nearby prefectures that are not too far away (2 hours drive out of Gunma would be tolerable.)

Sadly if you live in another prefecture you will have to find another man.  However, the base cost for rental cars in Japan is about the same, your just going to lose the convenience of an English speaking Japanese helper most likely.  However, you can ask your boss, supervisor, girlfriend / boyfriend and they can help you get a rental car set up and with a little more hustling you can end up with the same good deal.

Before I found Ebachan I was looking into renting a car at another rental shop and had my girlfriend help me with translations and it ended up being quite similar to Ebachan.  However, Ebachan’s convenience, honesty, and English speaking ability made me decide to take my business up with him.

Contacting Ebachan

Email: ebachan32401579acupofbeer@yahoo.co.jp
Telephone: 027-283-5881
Shop: Ebachan’s Garage (“Tsurukiya Jidosha” in Japanese )
Location: 784-2 Kashiwakura, Maebashi-city, Gunma 〒371-0246

 

toto wide

The Ideological Structure of Japanese Toilets

[This is not a ‘how-to’ kind of post. Rather, this is a ‘why’ kind of post. If you need a jump-start on Japanese toilets, I found this simple Guide to Japanese toilet by the manufacturer Toto.]

“We have such a multitude of lavatory types because there is a traumatic excess which each of them tries to accommodate – according to Lacan, one of the features which distinguishes man from the animals is precisely that with humans the disposal of shit becomes a problem.”

 Slavoj Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies

In my previous post I mentioned the barrage of everyday objects in forms different than I’m used to, and what they say about Japan’s culture or vice versa. I didn’t mention toilets, but they’re an obvious example. I’m not the only one who has thought of this. Marxist philosopher and media theorist Slavoj Žižek has this to say about the differences in toilets around the world (if you can get through his lisping nose-scratching):

When he asked the designers from each respective country why the difference, each insisted that their country’s design had the most utility. It would seem that they couldn’t possibly all be right, but given the unspoken ideological assumptions of each country, each country’s toilets fit their assumptions with perfect utility. The utility of each toilet’s design depends on what its objective is with respect to the “…three different attitudes towards excremental excess: ambiguous contemplative fascination; the hasty attempt to get rid of the unpleasant excess as fast as possible; the pragmatic approach to treat the excess as an ordinary object to be disposed of in an appropriate way.”

Broadly construed, media is anything of human construction capable of conveying ideology. Thus, everyday objects and household appliances are just as much members of the media as anime or the internet. In other words, toilets are meaningful texts which can be read and understood, if only subconsciously. They are one of many mediums used to reinforce the dominant ideology of a society – just where you don’t expect it.

So what would Žižek say about toilets in Japan? Why hasn’t the washlet caught on in The States, and why is the squatter still a thing? What is the Japanese attitude toward excremental excess, and how do Japanese toilets accommodate this attitude?

I proceed on the premise that there must be an ideological reason for any major structural difference (and ignore the possibility that some differences or preferences might simply be random or due to other factors like logistics – but even if this is the case, resulting toilets will still convey ideology, even if difference in ideology didn’t directly effect their construction).

The Washlet

The Washlet® was born in the early 80s when the Japan-based Toto Ltd. (the world’s largest toilet manufacturer) combined a French bidet basin (a separate fixture from the toilet and sink for washing the nether regions), with a Western flush toilet and gave it an electric control panel with additional seat-warming, self-cleaning, deodorizing, and drying functions.

Žižek doesn’t mention the bidet, but it’s an important aspect of the French bathroom, especially in contrast to the Anglo/American. Bidets are almost as old as flush toilets, and they seems to fit the model of French revolution. The bidet reduces or eliminates the need for toilet paper. The Anglo/American, on the other hand, opted for toilet paper exclusively. Which might be more pragmatic, but in the long run how many more trees have been killed, how much more work is it, and how sanitary is this practice?

A guess is that the Anglos just wanted to distance themselves from a French practice. At first glance, it might seem that the washlet hasn’t caught on for the same reason the bidet hasn’t.

I posit that the washlet must be understood in the context of the standard bathroom-restroom setup of the Japanese dwelling (and in contrast to the Anglo-Saxon set-up). In most Japanese houses and apartments (but maybe not tiny Tokyo apartments or hotel rooms) bathrooms and restrooms are actually distinct and separate things. The restroom (お手洗い or トイレ) is little bigger than a closet – just enough room for you to slip on the toilet slippers, sit down, and close the door.

IMG_0209[1]

Cozy or claustrophobic?

This room has one purpose and one function only. Sometimes there might also be a small sink (that sustainably feeds into the toilet tank) exclusively for hand-washing. The vanity (洗面所) where you brush your teeth, shave, wash your face, etc. is entirely separate, and might be an extension of the bathroom.

The bathroom (浴室) is, aptly, for bathing. Usually there is an area to wash/shower yourself off before you get in the bath (as you would at an onsen). This ingeniously keeps you from bathing in your own filth. But the best thing about the Japanese bathroom is that it is a bathroom and not a toilet room.

Need I mention that bathrooms tend to get steamy? Why on Earth would you put the appliance you defecate on in the same room that you are supposed to clean yourself (including your teeth)? There’s an answer, and it’s ideological: Anglo/American pragmatism.

It’s simple. It’s not that the Anglo/American doesn’t care about maximizing hygiene, it’s just that it will always come second to practicality in the value system. (And by Anglo/American, I mean anyone who has inherited their ideology.) Put all the complicated plumbing in one room, take care of all your private business in one place, the thinking goes. And this brings us back to toilet paper and the washet. My hypothesis for the reason the washlet still hasn’t caught on in the Anglo/American world is that the washlet simply isn’t pragmatic enough. The washlet values hygiene over pragmatic simplicity. The washlet is a superfluous luxury. A nice idea, but not practical, so says the Anglo/American.

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The graphic icons are helpful

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Same toilet, different control panel, more buttons and knobs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All the buttons and gadgets can seem overwhelming. I admit, I’ve found it easier just not to mess with it, and use the washlet the old-fashioned way. Maybe this is just because I can’t read all the buttons in Japanese, or the idea of having a nozzle squirt my anus is new and radical to me. But I think there might even be a deeper ideological reason. The Anglo/American says get in, take care of your business, and get out. This ideology is best fulfilled by the old-school wipe-and-flush model. And I admit, I’m ideologically biased. I like the idea of the washlet, but in practice I don’t.

Japan, on the other hand, is very particular about the separation of the inside/outside realm of the clean/dirty. The Japanese concept of uchi-soto (内外) literally inside-outside usually refers to in-group/out-group distinctions. But it can also refer to indoors/outdoors (内 can also mean house or home). Clean and dirty are also viewed in sharp contrast. The word for pretty (きれい) also means clean, and the antonym dirty (きたない) conversely has many negative non-literal connotations.

Ritual cleansing, called misogi (禊), is important in both Buddhism and Shinto. Temizuya (手水舎), water basins with wood ladles, are located outside of temples and shrines. They are for patrons to wash their hands and rinse their mouths out before entering. (A relic of this is the Japanese custom of gargling water upon reentering the home.) The torii gate and komainu (the guardian lion-dog statues) also mark the separation of the worldly outside and the sacred inner space.

So it is no surprise that the semi-symbolic ritual of changing your shoes/slippers like Mr. Rogers anytime you go inside or outside is a big deal in Japan. It’s almost a religious rite. This also explains why the most offensive thing you can do in a Japanese home is leave the toilet slippers on after leaving the restroom: you just trespassed on the sacred with the profane.

The Japanese style restroom/bathroom achieves this separation. And the washlet, as ritual purifier, is central. It is so valued, because washing is valued at a religious level.

I haven’t mentioned or discussed the washlet’s feminine functions. Mostly because I have male parts and try very hard to avoid pushing those buttons. If you think I’m missing some crucial insight, however, please leave a comment below.

The Squatter

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The persistence of the primeval squatter seems to present a paradox when juxtaposed with the ultramodern washlet. In my view, the two present a tension that persists in Japanese ideology. The two accommodate separate attitudes toward excremental excess.

First of all, squatting itself has deep roots in Asian culture. Chairs are a Western invention (probably ancient Egypt). Which is not to suggest that the West had some sophistication Asia lacked. To be sure, chairs are just another form of ideological conveyance. (Thrones immediately come to mind.) And if nothing else, chairs are designed to elevate and separate you form the Earth.

For whatever reason, even after the introduction of chairs, sitting, kneeling, and squatting remains common. Indeed, the squat is a sort of rest position for Asians.

In China

South Korea

people squatting photo

Photo by Jrwooley6                                      Some Rights Reserved

Thailand

people squatting photo

Photo by Greg Walters                                   Some Rights Reserved

Vietnam

And, of course, Japan

To be fair, the squat is probably quite comfortable for those who grow up doing it, and weren’t taught it’s impolite or undignified.

The chair has made us soft. So naturally, we prefer to shit on toilet seats.

The reason we find the squatter altogether distasteful, is that it is so close to the ground. It’s a little too natural for our comfort. (Nothing unsettles the Western psyche quite like nature.)

But consider two very tangible benefits of the squatter:

  1. More hygienic.

The cool thing about the squatter is that you never have to make direct contact with the toilet. You can just hover above it. (Does a thin strip of toilet paper laid on the seat really do the job?) This is probably the main reason it is still so common in public restrooms.

2.  Better for your bowels.

Sitting, or not squatting properly can put unnecessary pressure on your bowels and make it harder to have a natural bowel movement. 2-minute video by Business Insider illustrates: Scientists have discovered that we’re going to the bathroom the wrong way.

I’ve got to hand it to Japanese intuition and longevity.  The only real problem with the squatter is that it’s so shallow, which means it doesn’t diffuse the odor very well, so Japanese public restrooms, especially in more rural areas, tend to stink more than usual.

Interestingly, the squatter (and by the same token, the Anglo toilet) seems to have had some cultural impact on how feces are depicted.

Take the emoji Pile of Poo. Though growing in worldwide popularity (it’s been incorporated into Unicode), Pile of Poo is Japanese. It is typical in Japan for poop to be drawn in a steaming pile rather than as a phallic-shaped turd like South Park’s Mr. Hankey. Turds are preserved by floating in a toilet bowl, not by hitting a dry surface. The way toilets handle and preserve our shit affects they way we think about shit itself. Make of that what you will.

The Japanese Urinal 

At first glance, there seems nothing special about the Japanese urinal.

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But having used my fair share of public restrooms in Japan, I’ve noticed they’re all basically the same. They all sit on the floor, but unlike other urinals that extend to the ground, the basin is still about a foot high with no puddle. This makes it a bit harder to piss on your feet, and I imagine it keeps the floor around it cleaner. Thus they reap the advantages of a one size fits all model (they’re kid friendly, with no minimum clearance), but avoid the pitfalls of other floor length urinals.

And the shape is kind of elegant, until you realize it’s just a vertical squatter.

They’re uniformly spaced slightly further apart than usual – which is nice since I’ve never seen any partitions for privacy. With more of a crowd culture, privacy isn’t as much a thing.

Finally, in restrooms with more than one or two urinals, there is usually one with handlebars. This is considerate for the elderly and handicapped, but it’s also super convenient when you’re drunk.

The Japanese urinal gets an all-around thumbs-up, but they definitely need a few partitions.

Origami

There’s a phenomenon in hotels around the world of folding over the last sheet of toilet paper into a ‘V’ to let guests know the room has been cleaned. I’ve noticed that in Japan this practice extends beyond hotels into all kinds of public restrooms. There’s something kind of charming and classy about it. And it makes me feel a little bad about disturbing that neatly folded sheet.

The last time I came to Japan I bought a toilet paper origami instruction book as a gift. It had everything from cranes to sailboats to neckties. A quick Google, and you’ll find all kinds of gems. I don’t really know anything about origami, but I like the idea of anonymously leaving an uplifting piece of art for the next person, in such an intimate space. Until it occurs to me that the artist probably folded it before washing their hands. 

Night Soil

Even before the Edo period, people that lived in cities or towns would collect their sewage and farmers would actually buy it from them for fertilizer. This practice even continued up to the Occupation.

More Begging Monks (near the "Honey Buckets") by John W. Bennett. The Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, The Ohio State University

More Begging Monks (near the “Honey Buckets”) by John W. Bennett. 
DOING PHOTOGRAPHY AND SOCIAL RESEARCH IN THE ALLIED OCCUPATION OF JAPAN, 1948-1951: A Personal and Professional Memoir. The Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, The Ohio State University

The barrels on the right were for collecting night soil. It was only after the industrialization of the late 50s and 60s that night soil was replaced by farmers with chemical fertilizer. Suddenly night soil went from being fertilizer to waste. That is, the attitude toward it went from reusable sustainer of life to excremental excess. Then came the problem of how to treat and dispose all that excess sewage.

Night soil usage is still around, however. It accounts for about 10% of the population, though it is treated at sanitation plants before being recycled as biomass. Japan’s night soil treatment system is proposed as a cheap, sustainable solution for developing countries.

(see History and Current Situation of Night Soil Treatment Systems and Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Systems in Japan by X.M. Yang, A. Morita, I. Nakano, Y. Kushida and H. Ogawa. Japan Education Center of Environmental Sanitation; Japan Environmental Sanitation Center. 2010.)

An Afterthought: The Taboo Isn’t Logically Necessary

Elsewhere in his discussions, Žižek mentions a scene from an old surrealist film: Phantom of Liberty, “in which relations between eating and excreting are inverted: people sit on their lavatories around the table, pleasantly talking, and when they want to eat, they silently ask the housekeeper, ‘Where is that place… you know?’ and sneak away to a small room in the back.” (The Plague of Fantasies)

We can imagine a world in which the norms are reversed. And there are different kinds of toilets with different ideological implications that haven’t even been invented yet. Everyone shits, but is that a problem?

I’ve just been shooting at the hip, so what do you think the cultural implications of Japan’s toilets are?

Also, if you’re Slavoj Žižekand I got you all wrong or you have other ideas about Japanese toilets, do drop a line.

OKI COver

Escape to the Oki Islands

If you ask the average Japanese person a question about the Oki Islands, they might say, “Where?” However, the Oki Islands of Shimane Prefecture have plenty more to offer to anyone who seeks them.

Located only a two hour ferry ride from Matsue and Sakaiminato, Oki’s four inhabited and 180 uninhabited islands are like no other place on earth. In fact, they are so geologically unique that they became a UNESCO supported Geopark in 2013. These islands are filled with a rugged natural beauty, created after years of volcanic activity, erosion and weathering. The four large islands are Dogo, Nishinoshima, Nakanoshima and Chiburijima.

Like the Greek-Irish travel writer Lafcadio Hearn, who explored Japan in the early twentieth century, my husband, Jesse and I were determined to go to Oki, despite threats of an imminent typhoon. The ferry left the harbour at Shichirui Port under cloudless blue skies. The Oki Kisen ferry was an experience. One staff member looked at our tickets and motioned us to the right. What we saw shocked us. There were no seats; only large, carpeted sections. Already, many people were sprawled out in every available space. In true Japanese fashion, we slipped off our shoes and sat on the floor. The air inside the air-conditioned cabin smelled of coffee, cola, peanuts and beer. Some passengers were already asleep, their heads resting on pillows that looked like brown bricks. Children were squealing, shouting, laughing, playing card games and colouring. The older folk chatted, read, slept or drank beers.  Soon, the floor began to rumble. The boat gently rocked to and fro as it cut through the ocean. I fell asleep, propped up against my backpack. Everyone else soon settled down for a nap and the noise faded.

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We disembarked at Hishiura Port, Nakanoshima (Ama Town) and headed to Oki Gyu Ten, one of the few places that serves Oki beef on these islands. Oki cattle are raised on the islands and feed on its lush, green vegetation. Oki beef is some of the best gourmet beef I have ever eaten. It’s tender, fresh and delicious. In fact, most of this premium beef is auctioned off in Tokyo markets and Oki calves are often sent to Kobe, where they eventually become the famous Kobe beef.

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After lunch, we rented bikes to explore the island. First, we cycled to Rainbow Beach, which is very close to Hishiura Port.  Then we climbed further inland to find Oki Shrine, which was built to honour Emperor Gotoba. This nobleman was one of many who were exiled to the Oki Islands during the Middle Ages. The streets were virtually empty. In the heat of the early afternoon, cicadas trilled unseen from trees and shrubs that sprouted from the nearby hillsides. A trio of junior high school boys passed us. “Konnichiwa,” they said. “Konnichiwa,” we replied, wiping the sweat from our brows. As we pedalled faster, the wind whipped up. We coasted up and down, past the deep blue sea, vibrant green fields, and white and brown houses. Oki Shrine was deserted. A bunch of hydrangeas greeted us, their purple heads drowsing in the heat.

We headed back to the port and climbed aboard the Amanbow underwater viewing boat. Our guide, Honda san, spoke mainly in Japanese. However, he included some English words to check that we understood what he was saying. Fishermen in nearby boats waved at us. One man was fishing off a rock in the middle of the sea. We approached three solitary rocks called Saburo-Iwa, or The Three Brothers. They looked naturally picturesque, perfectly arranged from the tallest to the smallest.

Amanbow underwater viewing boat

Later on, we descended the stairs into the bottom of the boat. Here we peeked through square windows cut on the boat’s sides. Schools of tiny fish swam past us. Tiny bubbles trailed across the windows. A single branch of seaweed glided away in slow motion. We pressed our noses against the glass of this giant aquarium. Rays of sunlight streamed through the murky depths, flashing on silver-skinned fish. Then, something amazing happened. The crew begin to drop round pellets of fish food into the water. A host of fish suddenly appeared: huge silvery ones, rainbow coloured fish, even striped fish. They darted to and fro, swooped above and below, their mouths open to catch any stray food.

Candle Rock Kuniga Coastline

After a couple of hours, we left Nakanoshima for Nishinoshima. Nishinoshima is the most popular of the Oki Islands. Its mountainous landscape is dotted with hundreds of Oki cattle and horses. As the afternoon waned, we headed to the Kuniga Lookout. Here, we saw the beautiful Kannon Iwa or Candle Rock gilded by faint yellow light. The dying sun slowly dropped directly above the rock so that it resembled a golden flame atop a candle.

fresh seafood

After sunset, we arrived at the retro-feel, family-run hotel Kuniga-so for dinner. The table was laden with everything imaginable: fresh seafood including huge Iwagaki oysters, white squid, and scallops, pickled abalone, fresh sashimi, hot fish stew, soba salad and sizzling Oki beef slices.

horses at Matengai Cliff

The next morning, we headed to Matengai Cliff. The car climbed and climbed further into the hills. Suddenly, we turned the corner. There were three strawberry blond horses nibbling grass on the hill. Simultaneously, they looked up and stared at us. The smell of horse dung hovered in the air. When they realised that we were harmless, they continued to nibble the shorn grass. Green mountains and blue sea spread behind them, creating a breath-taking, picture-perfect postcard moment.  The wind picked up, rocking our parked car gently to and fro.

On the top of Matengai Cliff, the wind was so strong that we forget the searing summer heat. Some cows stared at us, but we were armed with bamboo walking sticks to defend ourselves if they got angry. The coastline here was too beautiful; large pieces of green headland jutting out into the calm blue sea. I wished I had brought a book. It was the perfect place to read all day. Further afield, cattle and horses grazed calmly. It was so surreal that it looked like a painting.

Tsutenkyo Arch Kuniga coastline

Then, we drove back to the Kuniga Lookout.  Here, the strangely formed rocks or Tenjyo-kai (Heavenly Area) looked different under the late morning sun. The coastline here, also one of the top 100 walking tracks in Japan, is perfect for gentle strolls and dipping your toes into the ocean. One of the highlights of this coastal walk is Tsutenkyo Arch. The wind and waves have stripped the rocks into a dramatic, multi-coloured arch through which the ocean flows.

Yurahime Shrine

On the way back to Urago, we passed Yurahime Shrine, which honours Yurahime no mikoto, the goddess of fishing and maritime safety. Every autumn and winter, thousands of squid (ika) flood the inlet in front of the shrine. According to local legend, when the goddess was returning to Oki by boat, some squid in the area nibbled her fingers. She was quite offended so every year, several squid come back to the same spot to apologise for their terrible behaviour to the goddess. The squid story made us hungry, so we headed to a small but busy restaurant in Urago. At Asuka restaurant, Jesse ordered a steaming bowl of ika don and I downed a plate of delicious ika curry.

Mimiura Campsite

As the day lengthened, the heat climbed to an unbearable 35 degrees Celsius. We headed to the nearest beaches, Sotohama and Mimiura. Both were completely different. Sotohama was easy to find. It had a lovely sandy beach and a clear, wide bay perfect for swimming and snorkelling. On the other hand, Mimiura was a bit trickier to discover. Armed with our basic tourist map, we drove down a non-descript road off the main street and went further inland through a dense pine forest. Soon, the ocean peeked through the top of the trees and we came upon a hidden cove. Although the narrow beach was strewn with large pebbles and stones, the water was calm and aquamarine. Some kayaks lay on the shore and a few tents were perched along the beach.

As we surveyed the scene, a man ran up to us. “Hey!” He faced Jesse. “Handsome face!” he said. “You go swimming?” We shook our heads. “Chotto nihongo…jikan,” I said, pointing to my wrist. Not enough time. “Ah.” He pointed to his chest. “Eigo…sukoshi,” pinching his thumb and forefinger together. “Where from?” Karibukai,” we replied. He roared and shook Jesse’s hands vigorously. We wished we could stay but quickly hopped back into the car to catch the ferry back to the mainland.
For more information:

Nishinoshima Tourism Association

Ama Town Tourism Association

Photos: © Jesse Ramnanansingh

This post originally appeared in the author’s blog, Hot Foot Trini.

 

Why Nagoya isInfinitelyBetter than Tokyo

Why Nagoya is Infinitely Better than Tokyo

I just took a nostalgic 3-day weekend trip from Tochigi to Nagoya, and after being separated from the city I have really come to know and love, and spending the evening in Tokyo, I am going to ever so biasly declare as the title of this piece states: Nagoya is one of the best places to live in Japan.

Before, let me explain myself, seeing as I probably just ticked off about 30% of Japan (seeing as roughly that percentage of peope live in the Greater Tokyo area. 10% actually live in Tokyo-Tokyo, which is only 0.6% of the total land available in Japan. Point #1). I need to make a couple things clear:

1. I am clearly biased. Nagoya is the only place I have lived (traveling is a different story) in Japan for over a month, so obviously I know it better than, say, Tokyo, which I will henceforth bash unabashedly.

2. If you are from a place like Seoul or New York and insane urban sprawl is your thing, you can probably just stop here. This piece is most likely not for you, and I understand that. I, however, am from nowhere near insane urban sprawl, and therefore find it unattractive and unnecessary. I will henceforth bash it unabashedly.

3. My statement is that Nagoya is one of the best places to live in Japan. Every place has its merits, and, while I just said that I’m biased, I can actually be pretty fair (for example, while I do agree with the article in the first paragraph up there on the whole, there are a few things I don’t quite agree with). Tokyo does have some great qualities to it, and Nagoya has some points that don’t quite stand up to places like Tokyo (which, also can be a merit; see point #7 below). However, my purpose in writing this article is to be, as aforementioned, somewhat biased.

 

Now let me begin for real. I just incorperated point #1 into the above, so:

Point #2: Trains in Nagoya make sense. As with any move to a big city, you may look at the public transportation map and wonder if you will ever actually learn it comfortably. Come to Nagoya, my friend, and you will. You may not learn or ever need to go to every stop, but after living there for a couple months, someone will say, “Hey, let’s meet up at Higashi Betsuin and eat some awesome yakiniku,” and you’ll be like, “Hello my friend, Higashi Betsuin you say? Where is that? Oh, you know, it sounds familiar, and I’ve probably either passed it before or just randomly seen it starting at the subway map line waiting for the train,” and your buddy will say, “Oh you dare say? It is on the purple whirly loopamadoogle line (i.e. Meijo Line),” and you’ll be like, “Cool bro. I’ll meet you there.”

Nagoya subway map

Now switch this to Tokyo. Your friend will be like, “Hey, let’s go to 本所吾妻橋駅 and eat some yakiniku,” and you’ll be like, “本所吾妻橋? How do you pronounce that?” and your buddy will be like, “Lolz I don’t know, I’ve just lived here for a year,” and you’ll be like, “Sure, let me get out the Google because there’s no way I’ll figure out how to get there from here in a reasonable amount of time lolz.”

Tokyo subway map. Enough said.

My point is, even people who have lived in Tokyo for years (and I’m not just saying this, I’ve asked) still don’t know how to get to places they don’t normally go to in a decent amount of time. Do you transfer at the blue line or the green line or the pink line or the dark pink line, and will it take an hour to get to just to try out a new restaurant? Don’t even get me started on transferring lines in Tokyo.

Tokyo, let me just sit you down and tell you. Leaving the station, walking 2 blocks, and going down into a completely different and non-connected station is not a transfer. I don’t care if you’re a different color line. I’m looking at you, Kuramae. Also, Tokyo, what is up with you needing to leave the ticket gate to transfer? What? Just why?

No, Nagoya doesn’t do that. Often times, even if you’re switching companies, you don’t need to leave the ticket gate, much less the station itself–there are some where you don’t even need to leave the train (ex. Tsurumai Line of the subway to Meitetsu Line of the above-ground trains)! Plus, this depends on where you live and if you just missed the train or not, but often you can cross the city in about 30 minutes. Public transportation is extremely convenient in Nagoya, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a place that doesn’t have a station in a reasonable amount of walking distance, yet, it just makes sense.

 

Point #3: Nagoya basically has everything Tokyo has, just more portable. And by portable, I mean of course it’s smaller than what Tokyo has, but all the important parts are there, PLUS, again branching off the size thing, they’re all basically in one main place. Nagoya has 2 main downtown areas (Nagoya Station area to Sakae) that are pretty well connected (i.e. you can walk the span if you feel like it on a nice day) for shopping, eating, and partying. Nagoya also hosts one of the main sumo tournaments in the country and has a major baseball team.

Just your friendly, neighborhood Storm Trooper walking down downtown Nagoya.

Just your friendly, neighborhood Storm Trooper walking around downtown Nagoya.

Let me highlight:

Osu: A large shopping arcade that is basically Harajuku meets Akihabara and they have a teenager. Smaller size, all the sass. You want to see people walking around with giant pink hair or looking like a sexy vampire from the manga you’ve been reading? Done. You want to see a man on stilts juggle pins on fire in front of a gian maneki-neko statue? Done. You want to buy some awesome flashy jewelry that you’ll never find a chance to wear but is awesome anyways? Done. You want to go to a maid cafe? Done. You want to buy some electronics at a 7+ storey video game store that Akihabara also has? Done. You want to see a local AKB48 (in our case, SKE48) show? (You’ll need to go to a different part of Nagoya but) Done. Not related to Akiba or Harajuku because, you know, they don’t have this, but you want to eat some of the best pizza in the world? Done.

I don't even know why you're here, but I'm glad you are.

I don’t even know why you’re here (Osu), giant silver man, but I’m glad you are.

Sakae: Basically, this is Shibuya. You’ve got your high-end Coach and other places you’ll never be able to afford alongside your giant department stores, 1 of 2 major underground shopping malls, trendy nightclubs, Forever 21, Old Navy, and H&M/etc. popular fashion brands from home, as well as your 4 story Uniqlo.

Did I mention that Nagoya’s science museum has the largest planetarium in the world, and is also shaped like the robot from the Incredibles?

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Villan, or giant planetarium? Hmm…

Giant green Buddha statute? Also check.

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Tougan-ji near Motoyama Station

“But wait,” you say, “Kawasaki, just a stone’s throw away from Tokyo, has the Kanamara Matsuri, i.e. the giant penis festival. Beat that Nagoya.”

Oh let us.

Honen Matsuri in Komaki, just a stone’s throw away from Nagoya.

For those of you reading this in front of little kids or your boss, sorry for not warning you, but what’s done is done. Anyways, basically, there you go….but wait! There’s more! Not only is there a penis shrine in Aichi, but we also have a vagina-stone shrine! So yeah, take that Tokyo.

Oogata Shrine in Inuyama

You say Tokyo Tower, I say Nagoya Tower. Sure, you all got Sky Tree over there, I give you that, but I’m partial to Taipei 101 anyways.

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Nagoya Tower

 

Point #4: Despite being a big city, it’s so green! There are big parks and little parks everywhere, and even many of the streets are lined with plants, and trees are planted in random corners of downtown. Being from the Hoosier state and missing my bountiful cornfields, this is something that’s super appreciated. It has the feel of being a large city but without the claustrophobia.

Why hello random tree around the corner of a building downtown.

Why hello random tree around the corner of a building downtown.

More downtown Nagoya green.

More downtown Nagoya green.

See, from what I’ve observed, Tokyo barely tries. Places like Utsunomiya try. I think during my daily commute, I see a couple small trees surrounded by concrete and buildings. It’s trying in a 中途半端 way, but Nagoya actually succeeds.

Downtown Utsunomiya. If you look hard, you will find a bush.

Plus, if you’re really sick of the city life, you’re just a hop on a train away from getting into some good, refreshing countryside.

Taking a walk around Toyota City, right outside Nagoya.

Taking a walk around Toyota City, right outside Nagoya.

Point #5: It’s not as big as places like Tokyo or Osaka, but that doesn’t mean it’s measly and you’ll bore of it after a few months. Nagoya is home to just under 3 million people, with Greater Nagoya (Chukyo Metropolitan Area) rolling in at about 9 million (the 3rd most populous metro area in the country, and 50th in the world), holding about 7% of Japan’s population (thanks, Wikipedia). There are still so many areas, I’ve never visited, so many restaurants I’ve never eaten at, and so many events that keep things interesting. For example, although I tried, I have never yet been to Oogata Shrine because things just didn’t work out that day. Things stay interesting, but at a manageable size. Furthermore, it’s still a large, cosmopolitan city with a nice amount of diversity. You’ll have other foreigners to make friends with and means of sharing your culture with other populations, and this also means you’ll probably meet Japanese friends as well.

Have you been to restaurant Garuva yet?

Have you been to restaurant Garuva yet?

Point #6: “Why are you going to Nagoya? There’s like, nothing there,” one of my Japanese juku teachers questioned me in distaste while I was living in Taipei right before heading over to Nagoya to study for the first time. At the time, I wasn’t sure how to respond, but after having lived there for a while, I can now puff out my chest and state boldly as a reply: EXACTLY! Because it basically has everything that Tokyo/Osaka has, just slightly scaled down, that means there’s not much tourism in the city–which is actually a good thing! This means that most of the foreign (or non-foreign) people living in Nagoya aren’t stupid, obnoxious or demanding tourists–they’re people actually living there. This means you don’t get the stupid foreigner treatment you’d get in other places, like Tokyo or Kyoto. This doesn’t mean you don’t get foreigner treatment at all–after all, this is still Japan–but you’re not so much treated as a tourist, and you can really experience Japan much better this way. For example, I have rarely ever been handed and English menu in Nagoya, whereas I was balked at for requesting the full Japanese menu at a restaurant in Tokyo because, you know, why would the white girl want to look at the full non-English menu, and not just the English menu with only 30% of the selection in awkwardly-translated English? While this may be daunting at first if you don’t have much Japanese under your belt, it’s so rewarding because for one, you can increase your language abilities much more quickly by it being expected of you to some extent. And I mean extent, because after all, it’s still Japan, and even in Nagoya, I had people flip out in excitement once / give me the “hold the phone, I ain’t got no English ability to communicate with this here customer” look of terror before I said 2 sentences and then frustratedly commenced with ”日本語を9年間勉強してるんですから… (I’ve been studying Japanese for 9 years, so…).” In any case, to say it bluntly, you’re in their country–you should at least try to learn some of their language–and Nagoya is the perfect place to do so–not to mention there’s about a bajillion (and counting!) universities in the immediate area to do so at.

 

Point #7: It’s where the history is at. Do the names Tokugawa Ieyasu, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Oda Nobunaga sound familiar? If so, then congratulations! You at least know the very basics of core Japanese history, and these 3 important dudes were all born and based in the Nagoya area! Therefore, if you have any interest in history, Nagoya is chock-full of it, starting from its famous Nagoya Castle. Even if you’re not interested in history, it still means Nagoya has some super awesome festivals because of its historical importance. Furthermore, it’s right down the road from Inuyama, which has the oldest original wooden castle in the entire country (which, since Japan was facing internal wars for centuries and then thoroughly fire bombed during WWII, let me tell you, that’s no easy feat).

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Inuyama celebrating its 380th annual festival.

Not to mention Nagoya is also home to Atsuta Shrine, which is up there ranking in importance with the famous Ise Shrine.

Atsuta Shrine

Point #8: It doesn’t have everything, and that’s okay! I’ve kept saying that Nagoya takes the best of Tokyo and puts it into a bite-sized, giant hunk of a city. However, of course there are some things Osaka and Tokyo have that Nagoya doesn’t–but that gives you reason to leave the city every now and then and go out traveling! Why bother leaving Tokyo if you can just get the same thing in the city? It’s still exciting to go someplace new, and better yet, Nagoya has the perfect location to do so, being right in between the Kansai and Kanto areas, so you can just hop on a bus, local train, or bullet train, and in a few hours you’ll be in Kyoto, Osaka, Tokyo, or wherever else!

Nagoya=smack dab in the middle of Japan.

Looking to go somewhere a bit farther? Nagoya’s airport is located right outside the city, easily accessible by train, and hosts a variety of local and international air companies, including a large pick of low cost carriers! (They also have a Costco pretty close by, FYI.)

 

Now I can probably go on and on about this, but I’ll leave my main points at this. You don’t need to love Nagoya like I do, nor do you need to love my hyperboles (or are they?), but that’s okay. I love traveling Japan and would love to get more experience living in different parts of the country, but after living in very different parts of the world, to me, Nagoya will always be my beloved home in Japan (in case I didn’t make that clear enough).

 

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Overture: The Island

I’ve been keeping count of the number of days that’ve passed since I left behind a place so dear, yet so foreign to me. There was much uncharted territory left to explore and innumerable experiences that were left behind, unbeknownst to me. And yet, here I am, sitting in an office on the other side of the world wondering why I’m here.

It’s been 26 days since I’ve left Canada. These are 26 days that have been spent in a country that is a paradox: a country divided by an insidious conflict between the old and the new generations, and a country steeped in faltering traditions, yet possessing an imagination years ahead of other nations. It is a nation that is riveting as it is harrowing. My city is a mocking parody of what I used to know: the landscape, the cityscape, the population – everything is here, yet everything is not.
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During my second night in Fukuoka, I awoke from a restless and fitful sleep to a clock that read approximately 2am. Unable to fall back asleep, I began to remove Polaroids from the photo albums I’d managed to squeeze into my luggage. To others, these albums may have been a mere frivolity, but to me, they were a necessity. With a pair of scissors and a roll of tape in hand, I began to adorn my bedroom wall with photos of my friends from back home. And with every ensuing photo that was taped to the wall, I began to feel a bit more of myself become attached to this reality – a reality in which I was to stay in Japan to learn more about the world, myself, and others around me, and a reality in which I was to accomplish this of my own accord.

Days passed, during which I was met with people whose faces became familiar, yet whose stories remained clandestine. I found myself in crowds that brought life to places that would be desolate otherwise, and for that, I was thankful. But sometimes, it’s when you’re in a crowd that the loneliness starts to set in and you realize that you’ve been left destitute of all the saving graces that’d allowed you to make it this far.

On certain days, when I have no social or work commitments, I venture out into the city by myself in an attempt to familiarize myself with the enigma that is Fukuoka. On certain days, when I’m awoken by the sunlight that filters through my window, I go out and take photographs while finding solace in the chirping of the cicadas and the gentle morning breeze sweeping over an idyllic landscape. A fellow ALT once told me that I was brave for walking home alone at night when I’d only been living in my city for a short period of time, to which I’d replied, “Really?”

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The amount of time I’ve spent by myself would’ve frightened me when I was younger, but now, I find it calming. I realized now, more than ever, that I’d need to learn to depend on myself to forge my own path. In coming to Japan, I became painstakingly aware of how the choices of other people often played on what I believe is a universal fear of loneliness. Amidst the cacophony of drunken people shouting on the streets of Hakata and the revving of the motorcycles owned by gangs who’ve established dominion over the night, we all go to sleep alone, and in silence.

One day, a Japanese teacher asked me if I was feeling homesick, and I told him I was not. Frankly, I’m still not sure about the veracity of the answer I’d given him. I wonder what I missed from back home that I couldn’t find over here, and with the exception of friends and family, everything seemed to have its own sort of doppelganger over here. But I suppose that what I strive to find in Japan, more than any of the other places in which I’d lived thus far, is contentment in my own company. In the face of a world rife with mysteries and stories untold, we are all we are guaranteed to have.

Destination fuji

In Search of Goraiko: Destination Fuji (How To Climb Mt. Fuji)

The  beauty of the Japanese language, in my opinion, rests in the existence of a myriad of words used to describe very specific feelings that are often thought to be difficult to put into words. Let me elaborate. The Japanese word “goraiko” (ご来光) can be defined as the sunrise from Mt. Fuji, and sometimes as the overwhelming feeling you get when witnessing said sunrise. This feeling is often thought to be a sacred experience, as the sun is considered to be godly or god-like.

Of course this word does not exist in the English language, but I was still determined to experience its meaning. After all, how can we truly understand a feeling unless we have previously experienced it ourselves? And with that, I made the (crazy) decision to hike to the peak of Mount Fuji, a World Heritage Site and Japan’s highest mountain. At night. Oh my!

What will follow are general Fuji hiking tips mixed in with an account of my own personal experience.

No this isn't Shinjuku station- even the summit of Fuji is super crowded during the hiking season.

No this isn’t Shinjuku station- even the summit of Fuji is super crowded during the hiking season.

Preparation and the Great Fuji Myth

As far as mountain climbing is concerned, Fuji is by no means a difficult climb. Or so they say. Fuji is often advertised as being a mountain that anyone, regardless of level or age, can climb. This should really be taken with a grain of salt. After all, how easy could climbing 3,776 meters for 5-10+ hours be? Realistically, hiking Fuji should not be underestimated and you MUST prepare adequately. Only you can know your own limits, but if you have difficulties climbing up a flight of stairs (as I sometimes do) then you will obviously have difficulties climbing Fuji.

These hikers were well prepared, and they made it to the top!

These hikers were well prepared, and they made it to the top!

Fuji has an official hiking season, early July to early-mid September. This is when most people will climb the mountain, and this is also when I decided to climb. Outside of peak season, climbing Fuji is much, much more challenging, and only experienced hikers are advised to climb. Though it is considerably less congested, temperatures dip well below zero, and the rest huts along the trails are not open for business so you must be bring everything you need.

What you should absolutely have:

  1. HIKING BOOTS. Confession: I climbed Fuji wearing the wrong footwear. I was told that you can rent hiking boots at station 5 of the Fujinomiya trail, however I did not have time to rent any as the rental place closes at 3p.m. Be wary of this! Going up Fuji I was relatively fine with my definitely-not-made-for-hiking sneakers, but on the way down… absolute hell! So please, please, please make sure you bring adequate footwear!
  1. Water! And food! And yen! Yes, you can purchase things to eat or drink along the trail, but the general formula on Fuji is “as altitude increases, prices also increase”. You must keep hydrated as you climb, so it’s good to have plenty of water- as much as you are willing to carry but not less than 1-2L. As far as food goes, the usual hiking foods will do: trail mixes, protein bars, replacement meals, and the like. As for the money, you will need between 200-300 yen each time you use the bathrooms at the rest huts, so plan accordingly.
  2. Layers of warm clothing. It gets very, very cold! Even if at the bottom you are dying from hyperthermia, realize that you may be dying of hypothermia by the time you go up. So bring extra layers, scarves, gloves, hats, blankets, a heated kotatsu table (just kidding on this last one… maybe), etc.
  3. Flashlight, preferably a “head light”. I did not have a head light, but most people did. This will allow you to see while you climb in the dark with both hands free. Very convenient.
Remeber to bring a buddy! Or two!

Remeber to bring a buddy! Or two!

5. At least one buddy! So, you could theoretically climb alone. During hiking season the mountain is literally packed with people so you will technically never ever be alone, but it’s always nice to have someone with you who can help you if anything were to happen. Also my hiking buddies really helped keep me motivated. I am convinced that if I did not have someone with me I would not have gotten to the peak.

  1. Probably something else, but I forget.

Fujinomiya Trail-blazin’

There are four trails you can take to reach the peak. Varying in difficulty and location, each trail offers a slightly different experience. As I live in Shizuoka prefecture, I hiked on a trail starting from there (one trail begins in Yamanashi prefecture)- the Fujinomiya trail. This is a good choice for the less experienced hikers because it has plenty of rest stations along the way. The trail begins at Station 5, 2,400m along the mountain. The peak is Station 10, but this is a bit misleading because there are more than just stations 6, 7, 8, and 9 along the way. There also exists “Old Station 7”, and Station 9.5.

Hiking along the Fujinomiya trail alongside the clouds.

Hiking the Fujinomiya trail alongside the clouds.

During the hiking season, rest stations are equipped with rest huts where you can sleep if you choose to, but that will cost about 6,000 yen depending on the season, and you do need reservations. Fortunately, you do not need to sleep at the huts if you choose not to, and there is some floor room and benches outside of the huts where you can still pull out your blanket and rest for a bit. These rest stations also sell food, drinks, souvenir brand markings for your walking sticks, and bathroom access. It is advisable to rest anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour at any of these stations in order to adjust to the altitude and avoid altitude sickness. My group rested at station 5 for over an hour before beginning, and we spent about 20-30 min at each subsequent station after wards, with intermittent mini-rests throughout, as necessary.

Be prepared for breathtaking views!

Be prepared for breathtaking views!

My experience on the Fujinomiya trail going up was this: during the first 20 minutes I started out waaay too fast, and decided “wow, this is so hard, I can’t do it!”. Definitely you want to keep a very slow and steady pace when you go up… going too fast can really deplete you of oxygen, especially at these altitudes! Personal rule: I don’t always go slow, but when I do, it’s when I hike Mt. Fuji.

Please go at your own pace, drink lots of water, and when you feel like you want to give up (you may feel this a lot), please remember that something special is waiting for you at the top.

Nirvana!

Right before the sun rise...

Right before the sun rise…

...And there it is!

…And there it is!

There is a point on the Fuji hike where you will know that all of the difficulty was worth it- reaching the peak.

Watching the sun rise from the highest point in Japan is absolutely a moment you will remember and cherish for your entire life. No exaggeration. If there is a reason Japan is known as the land of the rising sun, this is it. I won’t describe this moment too much, but I will invite you to try and experience this for yourself at least once in your life.

Post-sunrise, the top of Fuji has much to offer. You can mail a postcard letting your loved ones know you are alive at the peak’s post office, visit a temple where you can purchase charms, walk around and enjoy the scenery, take a peek at Fuji’s very own crater (did you forget that this thing you were climbing was a volcano?), take a nap at the summit, or eat cup ramen at the tenth station.

It does get a bit congested, but I would recommend really soaking up the peak and looking at the volcanic landscape, the rocks, the tori gates, the views…

The Mount Fuji Descent: Descending the 9 Inner Circles of Hell

Beautiful yet deadly- the Mt. Fuji descent.

Beautiful yet deadly- the Mt. Fuji descent.

“That which goes up must also come back down.” – A Wise Man (also, a panicked realization of many people at the peak of a mountain)

Once you’ve reached peak, the only way down is… The way you came up from. Yes, you will have to face the tortuous trail once more! If you are on the Fujinomiya trail, you use the same path to go both up and down, so it can become quite congested during hiking season. You should factor this in with the estimated time it will take you to go back down.

For whatever reason, Fuji guide books say you can descend Fuji in as few as 2 hours. I think this may only be true if you literally jump off the top and fall to the bottom, because I found the Fuji descent to be much, much more difficult than the ascent (although it definitely does take less time). Remember that you probably have not slept in hours, and have just climbed up a mountain, so do not think you have to descend quickly. Take your time and be safe!

Climbing down gravely terrain means you should expect to fall on your bum at least once (or in my case, closer to one thousand times), so make sure you maintain a good pace as to not tumble down the wrong way and get seriously injured.

Yes, some people can run down Fuji and be done in just a few hours, but my guess is that they hail from Krypton and are thus super humans. If this sounds like you, then no need to worry too much about the descent.

Other than that, stay alert! And expect to hear many ohayo’s and konnichiwa’s from friendly hikers that pass you on your way up.

PFSD- Post Fuji Stress Disorder

It's been real, Fuji...

It’s been real, Fuji…

After Fuji you will be beat- in pain, exhausted, starving, and personally, I never wanted to even look at a mountain ever again… so, I fell into the deepest sleep of my life.

It was amazing.

And after that, you can do what I did and reflect back on what was accomplished- I just hiked to the top of Japan’s highest mountain! Check THAT off the bucket list!

“一度も登らない馬鹿、2度登る馬鹿” – “
You are a fool if you never climb it (Mt. Fuji), you are twice the fool if you climb it more than once”.

Seaside Style Imaihama Beach

Seaside Style at Imaihama Beach

(Imaihama Beach, Izu Peninsula, Shizuoka Prefecture)

It’s summertime in Shizuoka, and if you’re anywhere inside the prefecture that can only mean one thing: time to go to Izu. The Izu peninsula is located within Shizuoka prefecture, towards the east where it separates itself from the mainland of Japan as it dips into the Pacific Ocean. As you can imagine, Izu is littered with gorgeous beaches, but it is also home to many natural reserves, ecological parks, and to more onsen (hot springs) than you may think are necessary. It’s an obvious choice for a vacation spot.

Izu, a Peninsula Paradise

Imaihama Beach, located on the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka prefecture.

Imaihama Beach, located on the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka prefecture.

When I first moved to the Shizuoka I knew I pretty much had to visit Izu, but this isn’t exactly as easy as it sounds. How do you know what beach to visit when almost the entire location is a coastline? Well, to be honest the answer is that you don’t really know… Or rather, there isn’t one correct answer. With so many choices, the decision is up to you. You can visit a recommended or popular beach or you can be spontaneous and choose a more secluded one at random to explore (recommended, but risky).

My decision on where to go was made in the name of fashion, to attend a beachside t-shirt fair at Imaihama beach, in the lower portion of Izu- but more on that later!

Atami, a Literal Hot Spot

Scenic views abound on the southbound trains from Atami.

Scenic views abound on the southbound trains from Atami.

The easiest way for most people to get to Izu, regardless of provenance or desired destination within Izu, is by taking the Shinkansen bullet train. At a maximum operating speed of 320 km/h, this train is not joking around: it will get to where it needs to get… and it will do so quickly. There is a Shinkansen station at Atami, an onsen resort city located on the northern portion of Izu. This is likely where you want your Shinkansen to end up as it is located near the beginning of Izu, and from there you can take local trains further south along the peninsula.

Hot, hot Atsuo. Get 'im while he's atsui!

Hot, hot Atsuo. Get ‘im while he’s atsui!

Atami itself is a worthwhile vacation spot, by the way. For one, the city mascot is an older, balding man with fairy wings and a wand named Atsuo, which is strikingly similar to “atsui”, the Japanese word for hot. He can be found on anything from pastries to socks. Clearly this must be a sign of a good city, right?

Atami is well known for its onsen. Even if you are only stopping by for a short time in between trains as I was, you can enjoy a free dip in an ashiyu, which is a sort of mini-onsen for your fee. One is right outside the station! Also outside the station is a lively marketplace where you can purchase omiyage, or souvenirs. Popular Shizuoka prefecture omiyage include green tea, wasabi, shirasu (dried baby anchovy) amongst other things.

View from a local Izu train heading from Atami towards Shimoda.

Yaaas, view!

 

As Atami was not my final destination on this particular trip to Izu, I still needed to get further south by using a local train, which ran along the east coast of Izu from Atami all the way down to Izukyu Shimoda at the very bottom of the peninsula. If you run along the full course this trip can take close to two hours, but believe it or not, this is actually a good thing. The views from the train are breathtakingly beautiful. As you ride along a mountain’s edge, you can enjoy seeing the vast ocean, colorful towns, gorgeous green forests, and golden beaches. Geeking out is inevitable.

 

Imaihama, a Hidden Jewel

View from the Chitoseya guest house. As close to the ocean as you can get without needed a boat!

View from Chitoseya guest house. As close to the ocean as you can get without a boat!

It took about an hour and a half or so to reach my destination, Imaihama-Kaigan station. As I got off the train I was greeted by green mountains and salty sea air- at long last! My travel companion and I had a reservation at Chitoseya, a small guest house right on the beach and less than a 5 minute walk from the station. After being warmly welcomed by one of the owners and served a refreshing fruit juice, we were lead up to an adorable Japanese-style room, complete with tatami mat flooring,  shoji paper screen windows, and a futon closet where our bedding was located. The view from the room was not too shabby either!

 

Two D.O.C. specialties: heaven sent curry rice and the king of all jerk chicken. I still dream about these dishes sometimes...

Two D.O.C. specialties: heaven sent curry rice and the king of all jerk chicken.

Across from the guest house was a small restaurant called D.O.C. (Down on the Cave), which specialized in jerk chicken and curry rice and carried local Izu beer. The many kitschy-cool Americana posters and knick knacks that adorned the restaurant walls created a relaxed vibe that might even have been slightly nostalgic to the American within me. The food itself was shockingly good, and I’ll admit I had the jerk chicken not once, but twice before leaving Imaihama…

 

View of Imaihama Beach

View of Imaihama Beach and corresponding beach bums.

Imaihama beach itself is an incredibly small yet lively beach. On both sides of the beach you can see sprawling green mountains, and on the beach itself there is a rocky area where people can go search for shells or small aquatic creatures. One thing I did not realize about Japanese beaches is that you can actually have anything from ramen to yakitori while on the beach itself, so of course we proceeded to engorge ourselves on deliciously fattening and sodium-filled foods. And beer. All without any regrets.

ANAGURA, a Chill Cave with Chill Vibes

Stariway leading up to the unassuming BAR ANAGURA, featuring stray kitten-san.

Stariway leading up to the unassuming BAR ANAGURA, featuring stray kitten-san.

The small, seaside town of Imaihama closes down rather early, which can be a bummer if you’ve traveled from far away. However, I had come to visit BAR ANAGURA, which actually opens up around the time the whole town closes down. The unassuming bar can be reached after climbing up a shadowy flight of stairs and entering a cave- that’s right, the whole bar is inside a cave! The venue is cool, edgy, and quite literally very “hole in the wall”. I’d even go so far as to call it “grungy” if it weren’t for the whirlwind of bebop jazz that bounced off the walls. Ambiance game strong, ANAGURA.

During the month of August BAR ANAGURA hosted AT THE TAVES IN, a t-shirt fair featuring 13 designs from 13 individuals in various industries, from film to fashion. Japanese designers, actors, models, and artists developed t-shirt designs exclusive to this event. The t-shirts were exhibited in the back of the bar, and hung from clotheslines to clearly feature each design. I was very happy to be able to visit Izu while the event was ongoing, as it was a main motivator for choosing Imaihama. My personal favorite design was the “IZUFORNIA” print tee, which I found to be a hilarious play on words (this may only have been because I’m a dork now living in Shizuoka, though…).

Tees just waiting to be purchased. "Pick me! Pick me!", you can hear each design exclaim.

Tees just waiting to be purchased. “Pick me! Pick me!”, you can hear each design exclaim.

Though I may have come for the t-shirts, I stayed for the food (surprise!). ANAGURA’s menu is so varied and rich that you just have to try more than one thing, as we certainly did not hesitate to do. From the infamous jerk chicken and curry sausage to a perfectly seasoned and cooked sazae or “turban shell” (a sort of sea snail), I could not stop eating. The drink menu was far longer, however, and it featured such beverages as grapefruit beer, oolong sochu, a couple of ANAGURA original mixtures, and much, much more.

Closing thoughts…

Ah, the sea...

Ah, the sea…

After a long night of t-shirt buying, eating, and drinking, we spent the next day exploring the small seaside town, and then lazily lounging on the beach until it was time to head back to the other side of Shizuoka.

All in all, visiting Izu is what you make of it. You can visit anything from a Teddy Bear Museum in Ito, to a geological park in Shimoda, or just lounge around and have a low-key beach day while eating all your worries away. Whatever you may choose, I recommend visiting this beautiful beachy peninsula at least once during your stay in Japan. And better yet- if you choose to visit Imaihama beach don’t forget to get your fill of jerk chicken!

Happy exploring! Mata ne (see you later)!

SettlingIn

Settling In

Tokyo was a blur of networking, ‘cool biz,’ drinks with some fellow bloggers, and karaoke with a street-view of Shinjuku. – A long detour through Kofu, then finally to Kosuge-mura!

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Finally met my predecessor (wasn’t even sure if I had one before that); we went to the onsen on my request, and spent the evening drinking on the porch of my new home. We talked about Japan and Kosuge and literature and philosophy. Too bad he was leaving in the morning, I think we’d have gotten along. He left me a well furnished apartment, a large box full of books (including Wittgenstein, manga, and some books on Japan), and even his car – though due to its condition I will need another one soon, but it has been very convenient for the interim.

The principle of the jr. high spent a day driving me to the nearest mall in Tokyo (1hr 15min) and the nearest grocery store (30 minutes South). Very helpful to get a feel for where everything is.

On Saturday there was a festival at one of the shrines. It was very hot. It lasted pretty much all day and involved parading to different locations throughout the village so costumed lions could perform a dance. They asked me last minute without explanation to lead the parade by carrying a standard draped with paper flowers like a willow tree. Or a veil. I couldn’t really see from behind the flowers.

I had to lead the procession under some rather small torii gates. And that was a challenge since it was too tall to go upright, but if I titled it, all the flowers dragged on the ground and tried to trip me. After about the third station, I was getting really crank and I think I was starting to get heat exhaustion. I asked for water, but all they had was barley tea. I had to refuse. When you’re dehydrated, that stuff is worse than nothing. I tried to explain this – that I just need straight water – and all I got were puzzled looks.

Eventually I got some water from a vending machine, and someone gave me some ice packs from their house. But I felt pretty terrible, so I had to call it – went home and slept till the next morning. Then I was sick for the next two weeks.

This seems to happen every time I go abroad. So it was a slow start on the wrong foot. But no worries since I have few responsibilities for the first month.

Shock Factor

Culture shock has a long list of symptoms, but for me, it’s usually fatigue. And I don’t usually get fatigued. But when you are in such a new environment everything you’d normally take for granted suddenly comes to the forefront of your attention.

Architecture, landscaping, erosion control, kitchen appliances, door-handles – everything you have no interest in, and in a way has been invisible all your life, is suddenly visible and interesting. It’s kind of mind-blowing to see all these new forms of old objects. So even the mundane task of going to the grocery store is now an exciting cultural adventure. It’s an acute reminder of all the possibilia out there. There are so many other ways our daily lives could be. Life takes on very different forms around the world, even though all the objects are basically the same.

But different forms of life around the world is just an abstract idea I grew up with. All I had to go on is whatever media or objects from (or of) that country happened to find their way into my life. And even then, I experienced these in the context and spatio-temporal location of the United States/North America. But to actually experience these objects in the context of their country, is something else entirely.

Then of course everything in Japan is backwards. (Or everything in America is backwards). You drive on the left side of the road on the right side of the car. The windshield wipers and turn signal are swapped.

The beckoning gesture still gets me. When someone wants you to come, it looks like they’re shooing you away. (As in maneki-neko: the beckoning cat).

And then some things go both ways:

You read both vertically + right-left and horizontally left-right. Some books are left-right and some are right-left.

Names are often backward (family name first, then first name). This gets confusing because usually you’re supposed to call people by their family name. For example, I was talking with some people about a Japanese film director I like (Takashi Miike) and they had no idea who I was talking about, until one of them said, “Oh, you mean Miike Takashi!” But then it gets worse because some people switch it for me specifically because they know I’m a Westerner.

Everything is metric or Celsius, which make more sense, but still takes getting used to. And there’s also the monetary system, which usually works if you move the decimal point over a couple zeros.

These all take some effort to switch around in you head, and then double-check you’re not second-guessing yourself.

The greatest mental strain, however, is the language because it’s a language I’m actually trying to learn. If I was only going to be here for a few weeks, or I’d never studied Japanese, it would be easy to just tune out the Japanese and look for the English. But since I am trying to learn the language, and actively listening to everyone and reading everything, it’s another input overload and I find myself wanting to take mid-afternoon naps so my brain can map out all those new linguistic connections.

(I’ve gotten a lot better at listening, but everything has been so hectic this month, I’ve had little time to actually sit down and study.)

All this amounts to a bombardment of new information and raw sense data I now must deal with. Suddenly I’m asking big existential questions like “what does all this mean?” And from here also comes the disillusionment of all my false preconceptions.

Obviously, it’s not always going to be kawaii genki desu ne. But even though this isn’t my first time to Japan or Asia, I still have this idea of what Japan is supposed to be in my head, and it’s constantly side-swiping heads with reality. Part of that idea is formed by nostalgic memories of my last time in Japan. But obviously I didn’t get the entire picture.

So what is the entire picture? Just what is Japan or Japanese culture?

Whatever it is, I’m trying to unlearn everything I’ve ever heard, read, or though about it.

But the surprising flippy side to all this novelty is how fast everything becomes normalized. What once was completely new and foreign to me, has just become part of daily routine. There is something kind of sad about that, as the honeymoon fades away. I’ll never be able to experience Japan for the first time again. Now I can only experience Japan in new ways. Actually, that’s the fun of being here: I get to rewrite my old impressions. 

Night Drive 

The second most exciting drive in my life was the 3o-minute drive home by myself from the nearest DMV when I got my licence at 16. The most exciting drive was just over a few weeks ago. I drove for the first time in Japan over the mountain to the next village. At night. In the fog. On the steepest, windiest road in Japan. On the left side of the road. In a car that sounds like it’s about to fall off its axle. It felt great.

Inaka, the Real and the Surreal

The ALT from Tabayama (the next village over) and I had a good chuckle at orientation when people complained about getting assigned to a small town. “Only 30,000 people!”

Kosuge has about 700 people. Tabayama has closer to 600.

I’ve lived in big cities, small cities, and small towns. But this is my first genuine village.

After I’d been here for a few days, I met an American teacher who was here on a field trip with his all-English preschool from Tokyo. He made a comment that bothered me. “Man, it’s got to be rough, living all the way out here, a young single guy like yourself. I can’t imagine there’s much of a dating scene.”

I panicked a bit. Not over being single, but maybe he had a point. Am I going to be wasting my ‘prime’ years by myself in the middle of nowhere?

But then I’m reminded why I was okay with a small town/village in the first place. Because it is here, off the beaten path, where you get a more authentic experience. I have to speak Japanese. And I’m finding community. I live in a daytime community center for elderly people. It’s nice because old people love to talk and hand out, and they don’t speak too much slang, so they’re good to practice Japanese with.

The schools are so small, there is almost a 1:1 ratio of students to faculty. At the jr. high afternoon music class, pretty much all the teachers (the math teacher, science teacher, p.e. teacher, etc.) show up and have a jam session with the students on shamisen, koto, and taiko drums. And some of the teachers hang out with the students well into the evening, playing tennis or whatnot. The school environment is very relaxed, but dedicated and communal, and I’m not sure if that’s because I’m in Japan, or just because I’m at a very tiny school. But I like it.

There’s only one police officer here, and he’s the coolest guy. He doesn’t really have anything to do, so he does everything. I see him weed-whacking around the village. He leads aerobics exercises for the elderly. His door is usually open when I walk by the police box, and he gives me tea and shows me the funny English-pointing chart with cartoon pictures and captions (“I’m lost!”; “Where is the bathroom?”; “I was molested.”; etc.), and explains that he’s never had to use it. Figures like this fill the village, even though many of the teachers and people I work with aren’t from here originally, and some have only been here a few months longer than I have. 

I’m also reminded how well this place suits my personality. Kosuge might be small in population, but it is big in area. There’re lots of adventures to be had.

I think it’s the same reason I like slow-paced movies. Movies with a slow build allow things to happen – things that would never happen in a mainstream movie, where everything is plotted out beat for beat, like the urban lifestyle of the 9-5 where everything happens as and when it is supposed to, instead of unfolding as spontaneous improvisation. It’s where the genuine and unexpected are permitted to occur. It’s where the real meets the surrealThere’s a sort of quiet meditative quality to it. But it’s not passive either. In a slow-paced movie, you have to be an active observer. You have to do a lot more of the work. But it’s worth it. And in the inaka, you’ve got to find things to do and make things happen. But it’s worth it.

Yet I’m careful not to overly romanticize the pastoral, just as kids who grow up in a small town overly romanticize the city. The danger of The Village, is ignorance and isolation from the outside world. And I know small communities tend to brew feuds, though I haven’t caught any whiff of that yet.

My new home is bursting with life.

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The name of this waterfall is 雄滝, which means ‘big male waterfall’

I could see why, when viewed from another angle:

Protuberance is 10m high

How’s that for inaka vitality?

Late Night Talks

I visited Tabayama one night for a fireworks festival. After hanging out with Dalton (the other ALT) and his neighbors (from the Philippines), and snacking on some fried cheese-balls, his neighbors decided to call it a night. I was about to head back to my car, but Dalton remembered he made a commitment to meet the mother of one of the guys running the food stand. I didn’t have anything else to do, so I figured I’d hang out with Dalton until they closed the food stand down. Instead, the guy ditched the food stand right away, and I found myself tagging along down the back-alleys of Tabayama, uncertain if I was still welcome in this situation. It was after 10pm and a little late for an unannounced house call.

We went in; his mother clearly wasn’t expecting us, but she still seemed happy to see us. We sat on cushions in the tiny living room, and she served us some snacks and tea. Then she did most of the talking (in English), occasionally looking to us to prompt the right word.

She told us about how she lived in North Carolina 10? years ago. There she met an American woman whom she became dear friends with. But this friend’s father had bitter feelings about Japanese people because he was cut in the back by a katana during WWII (and it sounded like this left him semi-paralytic). So this put a strain on their relationship. Then one Sunday she went to church with them and somehow ended up in front of the congregation?, and didn’t know any hymns or much English or what to do, so she sang a Japanese folk song, which she also sang for Dalton and I. The lyrics were pretty simple, so I could understand most of it. I repeated some of them back to her in English, and she though I knew the song, but I didn’t. (I looked it up later, and the song is called Yuuake Koyake). It felt like I was right there in that church with her. She and the congregation were in tears, even though they didn’t know what the words meant. Her relationship with her friend’s father improved after that. She said this was a very precious memory.

My experience so far in Japan has been one unexpected anecdote after another. Every day there is something different. I may just be along for the ride, but the stimulation is refreshing.

International-ization

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad

Two days a week I work at the village NPO (Non-Profit Organization) office. It’s hard to say exactly what they do, but I found the cover photo of the Facebook page illustrates it pretty well:

NPO salarymen

Kosuge’s main industries are tourism and agriculture, so NPO facilitates these things similar to the way a chamber of commerce or rotary club would. So basically my job here is as a CIR: I’m writing and translating maps and brochures to encourage foreign tourists to visit.

But the NPO also works a lot with Tokyo-based schools and organizations to guide groups in all kinds of outdoorsy and educational activities. The signature activity is the river walk. We all get suited up in wetsuits, lifejackets, and helmets and we walk, climb, and swim up the river! We’ve guided groups ranging from  pre-schoolers to senior citizens. It’s a great way to cool off. The water is really clear and the rocks, mossy.

There are deeper sections where you can jump off boulders into pools. There are natural waterslides where the water has carved a smooth path through a rockface. And at the end there is another big waterfall you can stand under. It’s a lot of fun, but mostly because it is so fun to go with people for whom it is an entirely new experience.

One such group we guided was Peace Field Japan – a Tokyo-based organization that brings a small group of high schoolers from Israel, Palestine, and Japan to Kosuge for a week to learn about sustainability and teamwork. Really cool. I wish I could have done more with them, but I had to go to Kofu for prefecture orientation. I’m definitely going to get more involved in the next one.

This was a reminder that being in Japan isn’t just about interacting with Japan. Since I’ve been here I’ve met people from Canada, The UK, France, Jamaica, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Israel, Palestine, and China.

At the same time, I am the only foreigner living in Kosuge. And I’m very self-aware of my foreign-ness. What is my role here? I will never become a fully integrated nihonjin, so how extreme am I supposed to follow Japanese customs, and at what point do or let my gaijin colors flair?

It’s easy to forget about internationalization in the US, because it’s a melting pot. Japan, perhaps, is the opposite. It’s an icebox, just beginning to thaw.

I think I overestimated the level of English literacy in Japan. The Japanese language definitely isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And why should it?

As per concerns about cultural imperialism, I think Japan has a disproportionate stranglehold on the West. As far as I can tell, there isn’t a sub-cultural obsession with any Western countries in Japan equivalent to otaku obsession with Japan in the West. My impression is that Japan is somewhat indifferent to US popular culture. Not that it doesn’t engage with it, but it just isn’t emphasized. Japan has a strong sense of cultural identity – something the adolescent US still struggles with.

Finally, I remind myself I’m an employee of the Japanese government (here on their request), not a missionary. I have some misgivings about the push for English as a universal language, but I’m also learning Japanese.

All this talk of melting-pots and cultural exchange implies the question: what does ‘internationalization‘ mean, and what’s the point?

Internationalization was a buzzword at orientation, and in all the printed material. Japan is already gearing up for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

A former JET I talked to back in Los Angeles thinks the JET program doesn’t have anything to do with English – it’s actually a marketing ploy. JET participants will have such an awesome time in Japan, they’ll go back to their homes around the world and tell everyone how awesome Japan is. And maybe that will tickle into relations, trade and foreign policy.

Is the point of ‘internationalization‘ to turn the world into a melting-pot? Or even make language a melting-pot. Or, dare I say, the human race a melting-pot?

Perhaps for some, it is these things. But for others, maybe it is just the anti-thesis. Maybe the point is merely to resist cultural isolation.

Or maybe internationalization is just a process, a journey with no destination, for and in and of itself.

~ じゃ