Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Visas, lists, and trains

Today was a pretty good day.

It started out with a train ride to Takamatsu, and the sight of my favourite train controller. Isabel and I named him "Percy" (although his real name is maybe Hidekazu), he's just the most delightful train station attendant, always smiling and so soothing.

{The Takamatsu-bound train arriving at Marugame station}

Today was one of those beautiful, crisp autumn days. I wore tights for the first time in a long time. And a scarf.

I spent a few hours at Starbucks (where else), writing god knows how many different lists.. "Things that I like about...", "Things that are wrong with...", "To do", "To buy", "Places to go". I hope no one ever finds that notebook, they would think I'm completely crazy (which I kind of am, but living in Japan on your own does that to you... in a GOOD way!). Writing down things makes me feel so productive, and helps me clear my head.

{Macchiato, lists, thoughts}

The reason I went to Takamatsu in the first place was to pick up my renewed work visa. To my surprise and delight, Japanese immigration granted me a three-year extension (instead of the usual one-year). It makes my life so much easier, as I feel like I have more freedom and time to think about what I want to do. I might not still be in Japan three years from now, but it's reassuring to know I have the option. Dealing with visas and immigration is the worst part of living abroad, so I'm happy this was all sorted out so simply and efficiently.

Oh Japan, you drive me nuts at times, but you are oh so kind to me.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Just another Tuesday night

Just another Tuesday night in Marugame, drinking Chuhai in the parking lot across from the supermarket. I really don't like Chuhai, it's too sweet and fruity, but tonight seemed perfect for an 88 yen can of sugary, alcoholized goodness. A long bike ride around the rice fields, and sitting in front of Halow's with a friend. Quiet and lovely.

September is coming to an end, and summer is definitely gone, thank goodness. September was quite a disastrous month for me, as many things fell apart in my Marugame world. How I managed to survive (almost) a year living in a rural area is somewhat of a miracle, if you ask anyone who knows me well. I love Shikoku island and I consider myself lucky to have been able to experience living in one of the most beautiful, rugged areas of Japan. Looking back, I had a wonderful year, filled with friendships and traveling and excitement.

Lately I haven't been smitten with too many things around here, as I'm growing tired of the small-town lifestyle and the constant gossip and everyone knowing about everyone else's private matters. This has been so stressful and it's been making my life here so difficult, as I hate feeling exposed and conspicuous. Living in this small community sometimes resembles high school, and I'm exhausted from all the drama. I've been shying away from big gatherings and instead spending quality time with close friends, which is such a refreshing change. I've been thinking a lot and making important decisions, and hoping for the best.

Evenings like tonight seem so simple and boring, but to me, they'll be the moments I remember most fondly when I look back on my life in rural Japan.

One thing I know, is that I don't want Japan to end.

And, I had forgotten how brilliant is Radiohead's OK Computer.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Tokyo Banana

Tokyo Banana is the most popular souvenir to buy in Tokyo. As I mentioned before, each region in Japan has a specific type of omiyage (souvenir) to bring back to families and colleagues when Japanese people take trips.

I received a Tokyo Banana as a gift. I was curious about it, and I wonder why they chose the banana as a filling, as bananas are not very Japanese. It's basically a sponge cake filled with banana custard. It's very similar to a Twinkie. I ate it for breakfast and it was quite delicious, not as chemical as I thought it would be.

{Do you like my nail polish? It's a kind of mauve, perfect for autumn. Thanks, Chanel.}

My other favourite omiyage is Yatsuhashi, a delicious sweet made of cinnamon, sugar and rice paste. It can be found in Kyoto, and that sweet alone is worth the trip. Please try the green tea kind, it's the most divine treat, paired with black tea.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Silver Week

This week marked another important Japanese holiday, called Silver Week. It covers a string of consecutive Japanese national holidays, just like Golden Week does. Many Japanese families travel back to their hometowns and visit ancestors' graves. It's a good time but crowded and stressful time to travel, as trains are packed, and hotels are booked, so I chose to stay around my area to relax, see friends, and enjoy the start of autumn weather. Here's what took place, in no particular order:

- I slightly drove myself crazy (what's new)
- Ate the best Gyoza with lots of beers
- Did some fun window shopping
- Tons of girl talk
- Late night Skype chats
- Veggie burgers take out (Hello, Mos Burger)
- Drunken train rides back to Marugame
- Baked a vanilla cake
- Long uphill runs at the harbour
- Planned my escape
- Dreamed of Tokyo and Osaka
- Had a business meeting in Okayama
- Got stranded in a rice field, with a bad map and a dead bird
- Lots and lots of Starbucks while in a real city
- Karaoke on a Tuesday night
- Jamaican food in Takamatsu
- Juice bar at the local Joyfull (a family restaurant chain)
- Wrote letters
- Watched silly Japanese game shows on tv

Found comfort in the smallest things. I've been feeling a bit lost and lonely lately here, but all this alone time has been very productive in so many ways, and has brought positive changes.

{My take on business dress code. Nice change from my teaching duds.}

{Strawberry milk I always buy at Takamatsu station for the long train ride back to Marugame. Tip: do NOT mix with beer.}

Monday, September 20, 2010

Bike Theft!

Hide your kids, hide your BIKES... there's a bike thief in Marugame!!


A few days ago I got off the train after work and walked to the bike parking area to pick up my bike, and it was gone! My beloved, buttercream bike. I had locked it and parked it in my usual spot, but it got stolen. Bike theft is probably the most common crime in Japan, a place that is otherwise so safe. You can leave your handbag or any personal belongings on a table in a crowded place, and no one will ever touch it. But bikes... they get stolen! Apparently, getting your bike stolen in a rite of passage in Japan.

My bike was registered so I went to the police station to file a report. This would have been a quick and simple process back home, but in Japan, and with my limited Japanese, it took over an hour. The policeman was very kind and patient, while I explained where and when my bike got stolen, even drawing pictures of the area and showing him pictures of my bike. It was cute and comical for the most part, until he insisted that I write my address in Kanji characters.

KANJI characters!!! Apparently it's a strict rule for police reports, and the policeman was not allowed to help me out. I can read about one hundred Kanji, but I don't know how to actually write them, with the proper stroke order and all. It's very complicated, and the characters from my address were very intricate. This is what PART of it looks like in Kanji, and that's half of it:


It took me over twenty minutes and I did a pretty bad job, even though the policeman kept congratulating me on my skills (probably just to be polite). I just wanted to burst into tears, which I did a little when the policeman was on the phone. It was such a frustrating moment, with the language barrier, and feeling so helpless, incompetent and illiterate. I need to practice my strokes more seriously from now on.

I miss my bike. Thankfully my friend Daniel let me borrow Isabel's old bike for as long as I need, so I'm now happily riding the blue bike (aptly named Betsy Blue). I hope the police finds my bike, but I don't think it will happen. It makes me so sad! Maybe it's a sign I should move out of Marugame?!

{Better days. Blair Buttercream, where are you?!}

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Dating in Japan

I meant to write about this a long time ago, and I feel like I've been here long enough to share my observations about dating life in rural Japan, and what to expect. This is just my opinion based on personal experiences, please share yours if you want!

*If you're a foreign girl, don't expect to find any kind of serious relationship, and don't expect any kind of attention. Japanese boys are VERY shy and intimidated by foreign girls, and while they are curious about us, not too many of them are confident enough to make a move.

*If you're a foreign male, you'll be in luck. Japanese girls are more aggressive and confident than their male counterparts. They're usually looking for serious relationships, and they think dating a foreign boy is quite exotic and cool. Sometimes they don't really care for looks, as long as you're a foreigner. Just sayin'.

*Foreigner males are usually into Japanese girls, and into having fun. I've seen a lot of foreign boys who got married to Japanese girls and started a family. The foreign boys who don't want serious relationships often date fellow foreign girls, because they know we're usually more open to casual relationships. It can be good AND bad.

*I find the lack of attention from young Japanese males to be a bit frustrating. They barely look at us. However, according to my Japanese friends, they fantasize over foreign girls, but are too intimidated to talk to us, let alone flirt. I know that some foreign girls have had success with Japanese boys, but they were straightforward girls. Personally I think many Japanese boys are very attractive, and I wish they were less shy.

*As a foreign girl you'll get TOO MUCH unwanted attention from older (drunk) Japanese men. It can get uncomfortable to get stared at, but I never felt unsafe or threatened. Japan is a very safe country.

*If you live in a small town, don't date other foreigners, unless you want to feel like a celebrity on the cover of weekly gossip magazines. Small town folks talk a lot and it can totally ruin the relationship, therefore put a damper on your experience in a rural area, and create awkward social situations. Although dating someone from your country can feel nice and comforting, it usually cannot lead anywhere, as Japan is a temporary experience for both.

*As a foreign girl you'll need a lot of self confidence to feel great about yourself- don't rely on male attention to make you feel attractive, because it's pretty nonexistent in rural Japan.

*Big Japanese cities such as Osaka and Tokyo are so much better for dating opportunities, as people seem less shy there, and well, the choices are less limited.

{Good luck. You'll be okay.}

Japan can definitely be a lot of fun, if you're not looking for anything serious and just want to have a good time. After all, living in Japan is like an extended trip, and it's kind of a surreal world.

Please feel free to agree or disagree to any of the aforementioned statements. Maybe some of them sound harsh and general. Those are just what I've experienced here, but I'd love to hear different opinions.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

My Japanese Apartment

I feel like I've reached a new level of geekdom tonight. I recorded a little video of my Japanese apartment, because I get many questions about it, and I thought it would be fun to show it. It's tiny, and I captured the video while walking around with my laptop, and oh, it's Saturday night and I'm a little bored... but not bored enough to actually go out in Marugame.


Friday, September 17, 2010

Vending machines

Japan has the highest number of vending machines per capita. You can literally find them on every street corner, even in rural areas like mine. Most of them sell drinks (iced coffee, soda, water), but some of them are quite interesting, like this banana vending machine in Shibuya:

Here are the most interesting vending machines I've seen around: beer and sake, rice (no kidding- you can buy huge bags of rice), ties and socks (for the salaryman in a hurry), tobacco, and sex toys (yes, that one is in the town next to where I live, it's pretty epic).

I found this fun article about the most bizarre vending machines in Japan.

Japan definitely is such a convenient place. But seriously, bananas? Why not...

Thursday, September 16, 2010

More, more Osaka love

I'm excited to share this article I wrote for the wonderful CNN City Pulse series... my favourite things about possibly my number one city in Japan... right now.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Osaka, I love you.

Osaka, I love you for being so far yet so close when I need an escape from the rice fields and a disastrous week.

A mini getaway to Osaka is exactly what I needed to feel refreshed and happy again. Meeting up with close friends I had missed. Meeting new friends. Dancing all night, and walking around Osaka until sunrise. Handsome Australian boys. Green tea and crème brûlée lattes at Starbucks on Sunday morning. Midnight snacks on the roof of my hostel. Cat Cafés. Make your own Takoyaki. Playing video games in an arcade. Shopping at H&M. Being stylish and sophisticated again. Riding the Osaka subway on a Monday morning, feeling at home.

{Osaka by day. Grimy and a little dirty, but that's why I love Osaka.}

{Me and my friend Mike from Kyoto, dancing until the wee hours. We missed the other Mike.}

{The cat café. You can have coffee and play with the cats. I'm not sure they really liked me, but they were cute.}

{My favourite youth hostel. Even though my poor bunk bed was left empty on Saturday night, it was good to have a place to shower, nap, change, keep my bags, and call home.}

{Takoyaki, or pieces of fresh octopus in batter. We went to this restaurant where you can cook it yourself: your mix the ingredients- batter, octopus, scallops, ginger, green onions, tempura flakes- and grill it at your table. The staff kept a close eye on us foreigners, worried we'd mess something up...}

{Do you recognize this video game? It was featured in Lost in Translation. Of course. I loved, loved playing it!! You just bang on the drums following a rhythm, while those little characters jump up and down and make silly faces. I love Japan.}

{Me and Charlie. Don't hate me for posting this pic! He's my new coworker, and we met up on Sunday. He's oh-so-stylish and intimidatingly cool. He's from NYC, and we both share a love for luxurious things, writing blogs, and big cities. Hello, new travel buddy!}

Thank goodness for Osaka. It was everything I wanted, and everything I needed right now. Three days was too short, but I'll be back again. いつも。

*Thanks Charlie for the amazing pictures! Go read his version here.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Japanese lesson #1

Daijoubu だいじょうぶ

Daijoubu is my favourite Japanese word. It means, "Are you okay", or, "Is it okay", or simply, "Okay", depending on the intonation. I like the sounds of it, and I like that it can mean a lot of things. I find it useful to ask my kids in class, "Daijoubu?" if they seem upset or hurt themselves. I also use it as a statement to confirm or answer a question.

As for myself, I think I'll be daijoubu.

Exactly a year ago, I made the decision to move to Japan. I was looking for an adventure, and wanted to do something that would make me truly happy. I guess I did not have specific goals in mind, mostly just wanting to pursue my love story with Japan, a country I fell in love with a long time ago.

Sure, things don't always work so smoothly in any kind of relationship, but it's all part of the adventure, right?

Japan, I do love you.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Love and Hate

Sometimes I hate Japan.
I hate it for not being an easier place to leave.
And sometimes I fear that I have fallen off the earth.
Maybe, when people fall off the earth, Japan is where they land.

-Will Ferguson, Hitching Rides With Buddha

Japan, I hate you a little bit today. I'm sorry.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A few notes on Japanese style

Long train rides give me plenty of time to partake in my favourite pastime, people-watching. Like I mentioned before, I DO NOT live in the most stylish place in Japan. To be honest, I probably live in the least fashionable area, but it's okay, because it makes me well-dressed most of the time. Ha.

Japanese style is puzzling. It's difficult to describe, as it's very eclectic, and I never know if it's outdated, or avant-garde. Anything goes, really. Track suits, orange hair and mullets are quite popular in the countryside. I thought it was only a rural phenomenon, but I do have the confirmation that the 'trashy look' is also present in Tokyo, yet it tends to be less noticeable among the über-stylish Tokyoites. Wherever you go, you cannot escape the trashiness I guess (harsh I know, but I don't know how else to describe it. Maybe it's fashionable here). Here are my latest notes on Japanese fashion.

Season v. Temperature
Japanese people dress according to the actual season, regardless of the temperature. For example, if it's officially Fall, they'll wear boots and sweaters, despite the weather still being insanely hot. Also, girls stop wearing tights as soon as March arrives, even though it's still freezing out. I do admire that, as I'm dying to wear tailored blazers and scarves because it's September... but I won't.

The shorter, the better
A few nights ago, I was hosting my first (lovely European) couch surfer. It was late at night and I told her I had to quickly go to the train station to pick up my bike. She looked at me in panic and said: "Is it safe for you to go out dressed like this?! I'm worried about your safety," I took a quick look at my outfit (tiny running shorts and a tee), and for a second I was confused. Then I remembered... oh yea. Short shorts.

In Japan, there is NO problem whatsoever exposing as much legs as you desire, no one will give you strange looks or stare. It's totally okay. However, don't dare showing your shoulders, as this would cause a problem. I would never, ever wear those running shorts back home (even for running, I'd get cat calls from passers-by), but in Japan, it's a normal outfit.

Footwear Fail
The Japanese sure love their Crocs. Sigh. Did I ever mention how much I HATE those? They're so popular here it's disturbing. Everyone from babies to teenage girls to grandmothers and fathers wear them. Whole Croc families. It's sad. I want to tell them how ugly their shoes are, and I don't believe they're comfortable. They're atrocious, dangerous and UGLY, and I have to stare at them on train rides, and in my classroom all lined up in the shoe area. Japan, I'm disappointed, I thought you knew better.

Anything Goes
Well, anything goes. And I LOVE that. I can wear whatever I please here, and not worry about my friends or people judging my fashion sense. Which means I take bigger risks here, and have so much fun trying out different things. I'm still quite conservative when it comes to style, as I prefer all black, white, and even (gasp!) grey for the occasional pop of colour... but Japan definitely freshened up my style. I started wearing red recently.

{Self-portrait taken in a Family Mart bathroom in Osaka. Near Dobutsuen-Mae. Just sayin'.}

That is all I can remember for now. This week has been killing me at work! I know I barely ever mention actual work, because I work so little hours, I love my students, and I never really have any issues worth writing about. Except for this week, which marked Parent Observations at school. This little event takes place twice a year, and it's the chance for parents to see a live foreign teacher in action. Must be entertaining for them, but makes me a bit nervous. I wonder what they think about me. The moms are usually very friendly and smiley, but the dads terrify me a bit.

Hello, Friday.