About Me

maker, creative, living lightly, local, craft, minimalism, and taking joy in the small things

Friday, 25 April 2008

Oh Japan...

I get comfortable here. Early on in my stay here I tried to forbid myself for asking the question 'why'. Quite frankly, most days that question could be asked 10 or 20 times. The problem is, that when you ask a Japanese person 'why' they seem to assume you think that the current situation is bad, so then they try to change it - when really all you want to know is 'why' without implying that it needs to change!

However, as I have forbidden the question, I float through most days without really acknowledging how crazy Japan can be! But today two events occurred which almost shocked me into asking 'why'.

Firstly, I was in the photocopying room this morning and a 9th grade boy was having his eyebrows forcibly drawn on by the school counsellor. Apparently there is a minimum thickness of eyebrow required here!

Secondly, the 8th grade boys are currently on the concrete sports field, shirtless in the 15 degree weather, practicing sumo. Seriously, Japanese kids must be made of rubber - there are practically no injuries despite all their crazy sports that they play on concrete.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

The Results of Our Hard Work

Yesterday I went to collect Xav, Geoff and my hagi yaki masterpieces. When we left them about 3 weeks ago, they were not so attractive (Xav's is the one on the left), but it is amazing what difference some glaze makes!

Not sure if they would sell in any of the hagi yaki shops, but they certainly are great souvenirs. Actually I am sure I have presented my mum with many more hideous art creations than these ones though!

Monday, 14 April 2008

The New School Year Shuffle

I've been asked many times whether we have sakura (cherry blossoms) in Australia. When I say we do, and that they bloom in Sept/Oct people ask me if our school year starts at the same time. Apparently, the 'new life' the sakura represents is the same 'new life' of a school year! I suppose it explains why the school year doesn't start ater a long summer break.

However, the new school year has entailed a lot of changes. As I have already written about, my excellent and fabulous supervisor moved up, as did my 'chief' English teacher. But also, about half the teachers in most of my schools moved. When I arrived at the biggest school for the first time I wondered where everyone was! Seriously, I didn't recognise anyone's face!
The other shock was how the schools have been rearranged. To begin with the teachers change desks, and then the rooms change. Last year the 9th graders were up on the 3rd floor, and now they are down, the closest to the staffroom (because they are the naughtiest grade!) Now, I have to attempt to learn new teachers' names (even though it will never happen, there are just far too many across all the schools I go to) and sort out my new supervisors! Also, I have to try and figure out the new school layouts, I got lost twice today already.

I hadn't realised how comfortable I was in the staffrooms, even though I didn't know anyone's names. It was quite easy to slip into the staffroom, unnoticed, and just hang out until it was time to leave. Though I complain about having nothing to do, it is quite a relaxing life here, and I was beginning to enjoy it. I only commented the other day how I was glad to finally have a 'schedule' of sorts. Now it feels that I have sort of to start again - getting the non-English speakers to feel comfortable when I am in the room is the first, and toughest challenge. It's amazing how people will run away, leave the room or look the other way when I am near them. At least my new desk neighbour is a little friendlier than the last one! Seriously, it took 7 months for that guy to LOOK at me!

Of course there are plenty of new students. However, the advantage of teaching at practically every school in Hagi means that there aren't really new faces - rather old faces in different places. The downside is that the new teachers want me to introduce myself to the new classes, but the 'new' students have already tried vegemite so I have to avoid repeat self introductions.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Horseback Archery

Today I went to Tsuwano with some friends from Hagi. It's a little town, in the next prefecture up, and it's really beautiful. It's 'famous' for having more koi than people in the town - and that certainly seemed the case. Every little pond, no matter how shallow, was populated by over sized carp and outside most shops/shrines were little bowls of baby koi!

Every year there is a horseback archery display (Yabusame). There are 3 targets, probably about 100m apart. The aim is that the riders go along, fast, and shoot at each target. The targets are wooden, and if broken by the arrows, are sold as souveneirs.

Some of the riders were r
eally going fast, but there were a couple who barely seemed to be trotting! It was pretty exciting! There were a couple of riders who didn't hit any of the targets, but 2 managed to hit all 3 and got lots of cheers! Most of the riders were older men, but there was 1 woman, 1 foreigner and 1 High School student who also had a go. The costumes were pretty amazing. They obviously had to incorporate some safety features (chest protection etc) but looked beautiful and awkward to be wearing whilst doing any form of archery.

After the festival we went and explored some more of Tsuwano. We climbed up to a shrine (piddling number of steps compared to the mausoleum we climbed to in Kyoto), but the path was lined with orange tori (Japanese 'gates'), so it was a spectacular climb, and at the top the view was great too.

Tsuwano was crowded, because of the Yabusame, but I think that it is much like Hagi in that it is old and beautiful, and each day the town would be full of Japanese tour groups!

Bye Geoff!

It rained a lot in the last few days of Geoff's time in Hagi - which kind of made the bike he hired a bit useless! However, we still did some cool stuff. One night we went to a make your own okonomiyaki restaurant with Nicole.

We did try to get out and about - though Geoff looked like a bit of a doofus in his rain jacket!

Finally, it was time for him to leave, and it was finally sunny!

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Tokyo Town

After Xav, Geoff and I did our temple tour in Kyoto we jumped on a Shinkansen up to Tokyo. It was an uneventful 2h 45m ride, and of course Geoff had a nap on the train. We arrived at Tokyo Station, and negotiated the subway to the hostel. Actually, once we came out of the subway the hostel was super easy to find, and incredibly close. Literally less than 100m from the subway exit. We stayed at another branch of K's House - the second branch for the trip. The one in Kyoto is a little roomier, but the Tokyo one is so convenient, and quite frankly, you can't really expect to get the same amount of space when rent prices are so much higher.

Our hostel was about 10 minutes from Senso-ji, so on our first afternoon we dawdled our way up there, taking a fair bit longer than 10 mins. Senso-ji is a pretty amazing temple, huge, and crazily commercialised. All the streets leading up to the temple are filled with souveneir stalls, and people shopping!

The next day, Friday, we met up with 2 older Japanese people, whom I found through the Tokyo Free Guide service, and they walked us around Ueno, and after we separated for lunch, Shibuya.

Ueno-koen was more sakura/hanami. Basically tarps and beer and sakura. Then on the edges of the park are museums, and various national institutions, and of course more temples/shrines. The weather was really nice - definitely tee shirt weather, so the tarps were filled with people staking their places for the weekend!

The boys and I had booked lunch at La Rochelle, Sakai's (Iron Chef) restaurant on the 32nd floor of the Shibuya Cross Tower. Whoa. Nelly. So we were totally underdressed, of course, aside from some American tourists at another table. I forgot that Iron Chef finished on Japanese TV almost 10 years ago, so to most Japanese people it is just a nice restaurant, but to us it was an EXPERIENCE!

All the food was phenomonal - as expected. Notable amongst the dishes were the cold appetiser (bonito tartare), the soup (scarily green, but delicious) and the dessert wagon. Yes, a waitress wheeled over a wagon full of cakes, puddings, ice cream and jelly. We elected for the 'tasting plate' - a slice or spoonful of practically everything! My favourite was the phenomonal chocolate brulee.
After lunch we retired to the salon for tea - how civilised!

We caused some difficulties for the staff - the menu was written in French and Japanese, and the waiters were ok in dealing with the food in both those languages, but the introduction of English threw them a little! Actually, it was quite funny - they spoke to us in French/English, and their speech was punctuated by bows!

After lunch we met up with our 2 Tokyo guides, who led us on a short loop through Shibuya before they headed home.

We headed for Shinjuku, to ascend the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building - to the free 42nd floor Observation Deck. It was getting dark, and watching the lights over Tokyo was cool! Then we headed to Yodabashi, which Xav and I referred to as 'that camera store'. It really is 8 floors of electronics, many of which we haven't imagined in Australia! Afterwards Geoff and I ate dinner, and Xav did some night time wandering, then of course we hit the karaoke booth!

On our final day of the trip (Saturday) we went to Harajuku. I have been previously on a Sunday and experienced the madness, and while Saturday wasn't as crazy, it was still pretty great! We did some shopping - kiddyland (the ice cream of the future), tee shirts in transparent cans (UT shop) and bought some souveneirs for people who weren't lucky enough to join us on our trip. Then we had lunch - at a restauarant that seemed to have more English speaking waiters than Japanese speaking ones, and then ate a crepe. We were going to get 1 between 3, but then we saw them, and wanted one each! We enjoyed a lot of J fashion, just sitting outside the shops and watching people walk past us, while we attempted to take photos discreetly!

We went up to Roppongi that evening, supposedly a hip and happening entertainment area. Not really that fun, so we ate dinner and then eventually headed back to the hostel.

Next morning Xav went horrendously early to Narita Airport, and Geoff and I made our way to Haneda Airport at a much more reasonable hour, to be at my apartment in Hagi just after 5pm

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

The Golden Temple

I liked Kyoto – the karaoke was cheap, the food great, the sights impressive. We did have to use buses, rather than trains, to get around, and I always find that more difficult, but I handed that responsibility to Xav whom I christened ‘Mr Transport’. However, I still don’t know if I would want to spend much more time in Kyoto. I wouldn’t mind going back for a day, and a night, but not much longer. As Geoff said, it is a lot less accessible than Tokyo, or even Hiroshima, in terms of language. Also, it seemed that the night life was kind of limited to a smallish area (small in comparison to the size of the city, and its population).

We arrived, found our hostel to unload our luggage and then headed back to the train station. It’s the first train station I have seen listed in a guide book as worth seeing as a ‘sight’. It was definitely worth it, we probably spent a couple of hours riding the crazy escalators, hanging out in the sky garden, and wandering along the sky walk, before finding dinner in one of the food courts.

The next day we did the self guided walking tour, outlined in the Lonely Planet. We started the walk a few blocks before the LP start point, which resulted in us climbing 536 steps up to a Mausoleum. The old man at the entrance charged us 50 yen each, and because it was April 1st when we did this we later joked it was his April Fool’s joke on us!

Anyway, after that slight detour we followed the LP’s instructions, and hit the major sites of SE Kyoto – the temples were packed, and the gardens even more full of people enjoying ‘Ohanami’ – watching the sakura and eating and drinking, sitting on tarps underneath the trees! That night we went out for dinner and karaoke.

The following day we took on the bus system – and got excellent value out of our day pass. We went out to the Golden Temple, which was busy even at 9.15am, and to a textile centre to watch a kimono show, before doing some more cherry blossom spotting!

For our last night in Kyoto we slept in a temple, but of course went out for karaoke in downtown Kyoto before returning to the temple for bed. We took a tour of the temple the next morning, and it was filled with symbols of hidden Christianity, as it was built in the period when Christianity was banned in Japan. The tour guide – the vice-abbot – used to live in America, and had decent English. They have some seriously valuable artwork in the temple – and so in an attempt to conserve it the tours are only run in English.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Breaching the Defences of Himeji Castle

Himeji Castle is meant to be the best representative of Japanese Castles, and also supposedly resembles a white heron. So we decided to stop in Himeji, and view this castle, on our way to Kyoto from Hiroshima. The Lonely Planet recommends about 3 or 4 hours in Himeji, and that’s about as long as we spent.

It was a very easy walk, straight out of the station, up to the castle. We followed the crowds, and about half way down the road we could see the castle, so we knew we were heading in the right direction.

The castle itself is surrounded by 2 lots of gardens, and a moat (though in the olden days there were 3 moats!) So after coming through the first garden we paid our admission, and went into the inner gardens, before going into the castle (or as the boys said, breaching the castle’s defences).

All the sakura were out, and as you can imagine, there were tourists galore! As each floor in the castle gets progressively smaller we were lucky that the tour groups didn’t start coming in until after we left. Though, that may have had something to do with our early start that day, so we beat them!

The stairs inside the castle were so steep – I’m not sure defensive troops could have rushed up or down considering the armour they had to wear! Maybe that’s why there were little rooms on each level for soldiers to sit in, and pour boiling oil out the windows.

The first couple of floors had most of the artifacts from when the castle was in use, but as we climbed higher it was all about the view, which was pretty spectacular.

After reaching the top, we turned around and had to go down the stairs – which was harder than going up, given how steep they were. Then we had lunch, and watched some baseball before getting a Shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto.

One Day in Hiroshima

On Sunday morning we (Geoff, Xav, my ikebana friend Carla and I) met my ikebana teacher to go to Miyajima and Hiroshima. Kiyoko sensei (ikebana teacher) has a huge 6 seater car, although she lives on her own, so we all fit in, even with our luggage! The drive was fairly uneventful, I slept most of the way. However, it was raining, and continued to rain for the rest of the day, and into the evening.

We took the ferry over to Miyajima (1 of Japan’s top 3 views) – it was so windy, but worth staying outside to see the view across the shrine. Once we landed, the first thing I noticed were the deer – with their antlers shorn for safety. They just wander amongst people, looking for food really.

We walked through the shrine. Even in the horrible misty rain the bright orange still stood out! We even managed to watch a bride and groom having some photos taken in traditional Shinto wedding costumes. On the other side we went up into a hall, where some kids were playing taiko and singing and dancing, in honour of the girls festival (which I thought was only a one day event in March, so
clearly I was wrong).

After the performance, and lunch, we headed back to the mainland on the ferry – this time sitting inside, and drove the 40 minutes or so to Hiroshima. Once there we had to find a car park, near the peace park. The car parks in Hiroshima are funny – they lock your car into place until you have paid, but to get into them it sounds as though you are about to break something underneath the car, which is just a little disconcerting.

It was still rainy so we spent some time in the Peace Museum, before a brief wander through the park, and down the shopping arcade. Then we went to the station, and met one of Kiyoko’s friends for okonomiyaki before getting in a taxi to go to our hostel.

Monday, 7 April 2008

The boys are (back) in town!

Xav and Geoff arrived in Hagi smelly! They had been travelling for a while, so they were desperate to get changed! Once they had done that we went to have lunch, and go for a walking tour around the inner part of Hagi – the arcade, various residences/birthplaces/cemeteries for the Hagi luminaries of old.

Of course, along the way, we attracted a fair amount of attention. After all, 2 new foreigners are noticeable in a city where there are normally 12 foreigners. This meant that the kids stopped and stared, or gave us lollies, or wanted to take photos of us! The boys loved it, and I had to explain that it can get tiresome – especially when they tell you they saw you buying noodles and onions at the supermarket and want to know what you cooked!

I introduced the boys to Purikura (sticker photos), and we even did some with some students from one of my schools.

For dinner we had Korean BBQ (yakiniku) – totally appropriate for their first proper meal in Japan!

On Saturday we went to a Hagi Yaki (Hagi pottery) studio, watched a video which showed some handy techniques with the clay, and then we sat down for about an hour. The end results weren’t so attractive! Xav’s milk jug had kind of an awkward face around the spout, and Geoff called his mug Prince Charlesesque – so big that it needed to big handles if you were to use it.

We ate lunch in the park around the castle ruins. Some of the sakura (cherry blossoms) were out, and Xav climbed a mountain (a small mountain!) so it was a pretty good day.

That night we went out with a couple of my friends for dinner, then karaoke, then dessert. Xav managed to find himself 2 potential Japanese girlfriends – a friend of mine, and another Japanese girl who I see around a little bit. Not sure which one he is going to choose though!

This is Xav with girlfriend Number 1!