Saturday, February 26, 2011

Learning Japanese: part two.

{It reads: Vivian I like you... from my lovely café in Marugame. Thanks, Shin!}

One of the perks of living in rural Japan is the amount of Japanese I learned in such a short time- fewer people can speak English there, and most signs are in Japanese only. Without really trying hard, anyone living in the countryside will ultimately build up a decent vocabulary. I surprisingly learned quite a bit while living in Kagawa, and I usually can understand/speak better than most foreigners who have only lived in a big city for over 2 or 3 years.

In Osaka, it can be challenging to maintain my level of knowledge, since most people can speak English, and even if I use my broken Japanese while ordering at cafés or with sales assistants, they immediately switch to English to make me comfortable. While I appreciate the gesture, I'm disappointed I don't get to practice and struggle anymore, and that's why studying harder is one of my goals while living in Osaka.

My favourite part of studying Japanese is Kanji- memorizing and deconstructing them, as they make so much sense but can be so frustrating. I've also been focusing on grammar lately, as it helps me formulate complete sentences instead of blurting out words I know. I have been looking at this fun website, Tofugu, which is filled with fun tips on how to study Japanese and different expressions.

I'm thinking I should prepare for the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), as it would be nice to have a specific focus for my studies. My new Osaka routine now includes evenings spent at a nearby café, with my studying material and headphones (to cover the awful generic music they play).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mid-week musings

On my mind this Wednesday...

... My latest obsession is the Hankyu Railway, as nerdy as it sounds. It's a train line that connects Osaka to the northern Kansai region (Kyoto, Kobe, and the like). I love its maroon cars, the faux wood paneling on the inside, and the aluminum window shutters, which give an awesome seventies feel. I especially enjoy crossing the Yodo river and seeing the mountains in the backdrop, while the train pulls away from the skyscrapers and Umeda building. Thankfully, this will become a part of my daily routine, as I'll ride the Hankyu line to my regular kindergarten class for the upcoming school year.

{Hankyu train. How vintage.}

... After listening to Discovery's Osaka Loop Line song on repeat for the last few months, I finally came to the realization that the main melody of the song is the actual jingle you hear over and over when you wait for the train on the platform. If you take the Osaka Loop Line regularly, you will know what I mean...

{I love this whole album, so upbeat and perfect for running.}

... How magical and ethereal is Sofia Coppola's latest work of art, for Miss Dior Chérie perfume part deux? Sofia Coppola is still and always will be my style and artistic icon, as everything she does is so beautiful and inspiring.


{I love every little detail.}

... I do enjoy my low-key weeknights, which are filled with home cooking (avocado salads, miso soup, tofu and eggplant stir fry, seafood salads or sashimi are my latest favourites), and sleepy time tea before crawling into bed at a very reasonable hour (or "baby o'clock", as my friend Mike calls it, as he misses our late-night chats on Skype... so do I, sadly). My city lifestyle is so much more balanced and healthier than it was in the countryside, as my packed schedule requires organization, planning, and frequent exercise to keep myself sane. More running = more chocolate, too.


{Organizing.... clothes rack courtesy of MUJI}

{Cooking...}

{Me and Mike, circa our Nagoya days. We're the only two left in Japan from our original group. We also both left the countryside for the bright lights of Tokyo and Osaka.}

Monday, February 21, 2011

The new me.

{Snapping pics on the train to Takamatsu... circa a year ago.}

So I met her tonight, the new 'Vivian'... my successor in Marugame.

A few weeks ago, I woke up to a friendly email from an Irish girl, telling me she stumbled upon my blog while looking up her new city, Marugame, and would I have any tips to give her. I immediately replied back, divulging she would be my replacement in Marugame, and that she would be getting my apartment and all of my students. We exchanged a few excited emails and I luckily got to meet her tonight, as she is training in Osaka for the week.

She is such a lovely, cheerful girl, and I think she will be so happy in Marugame, and without any doubt a great addition to my old stomping grounds. Yet, it was so odd for me to grasp the fact that she will be living in my little apartment, filled with memories... and biking through the same streets and rice fields, looking at the same sights, going to my favourite cafés, teaching my students I so dearly miss, and hanging out with my closest friends. I know she will shape a completely different life for herself there, and even though I told her all about the amazing things (and less exciting ones), in the end it will be her own experience. She told me how thankful she was for catching a glimpse of her new home through my pictures and writing, as I imagine it would be exciting.

It brought back such intense memories from my time in Kagawa, and it made me very nostalgic. I would never trade my life in Osaka and all the lightheartedness I've been experiencing, but it makes me realize how special Kagawa is for me now. It's this big chunk of my life that is so close to my heart, no matter how much I complained, no matter how many nights I felt lonely and cried. I only remember the good things, and I feel so proud telling my new friends in Osaka that I used to live on Shikoku island- I unfailingly get the same astounded reactions... which I very much love. I realize that living in the countryside has made me so strong and independent, and made me crave some alone time. Even though I live in the midst of neon lights and the best nightlife, shopping, and food I could dream of, I adore my quiet nights alone in my cozy flat, with my music and writing.

It's such a relief to finally be able to talk so fondly of Marugame, whilst feeling so pleased that I made it to my dream city.

{Gorgeous and soothing rice fields.}

{Percy @ Marugame station, train bound for Takamatsu.}


{Quiet night at Kotohira station on the Kotoden line. I'm so fond of those moments.}


{The epitome of happiness, sunshine, bikes, cafés and friendship. I miss you so much Isabel.}

Kagawa, I won't ever forget you.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Japanese Cooking


If you are looking for simple, basic Japanese recipes, I highly recommend this book, Basic Japanese Cooking by Jody Vassallo.

I've always thought Japanese cuisine was quite elaborate and complicated, but flipping through this book at my friends' house made it look a lot less difficult. All my favourite dishes (such as okonomiyaki, miso soup, eggplant salad, onigiri, sashimi, green tea ice cream) are included. They even have pictures of the ingredients' packaging, which makes it easier to pick up at the supermarket- for me at my local grocery store, since I cannot read everything, and for people back home at import shops.

I'm now excited to go to the supermarket to stock up on miso paste, seaweed and tofu and try my own miso soup... for starters. I love, love, love Japanese food!

The loop line takes you round and through.

Since I moved to Osaka two months ago, I've had visitors from Kagawa practically every weekend here, which was lovely and kept me in my comfort zone, somehow. This weekend was my first one on my very own, and I wanted to make it a typical Osaka weekend with my friends here, and it was so much fun.

On Friday night, I had dinner with my lovely coworker Anne and her boyfriend, who is an amazing cook. They also hail from Montreal, and it was so refreshing to speak French all night and it made me feel so close to home. We feasted on a delicious home cooked meal and apple tea, while musing on cultural differences between Japan and Canada. They just moved to Japan, so it was interesting to share our respective experiences. I had forgotten how comforting it is to speak in my mother tongue, and how different my personality is in French. I feel more strong-minded and passionate about things, it seems. They made me feel so close to my roots, which I had missed. It was such a lovely evening, I could not stop smiling the whole train ride back, while listening to the Arcade Fire. Montreal, I love you.

On Saturday I woke up feeling vaguely homesick and a bit lost, so I went for a run around my neighbourhood, as it was such a warm and sunny day. Running always helps me clear my mind and re-energizes me. I later headed to Shinsaibashi, to pick up a little birthday present for Eve at LaDurée (where else...). On my way back, I stumbled upon a trendy little area of Osaka called Orange Street, which is full of hip brands, vintage shops, design stores and stylish cafés. I gasped when I saw the gorgeous Marc Jacobs storefront, then heaps of shops all trendier than the next. This is officially my favourite area of Osaka, which is accessible from Yotsubashi station on the blue subway line.

I got dressed up then headed out to celebrate Eve's birthday, which was done in typical Osaka fashion: some bar and lounge hopping around Shinsaibashi, and of course some dancing. Sunday was spent in my pajamas, watching movies and drinking tea. This was such a perfect Osaka weekend... I am so happy here, I feel at home. I love unlocking the door to my cozy little apartment, I love the way it smells when I first walk in (a mixture of laundry soap, orange flower candle and Chanel Mademoiselle perfume), and I love how plush my bed and pillows are, and how warm my kotatsu is.


{Marc Jacobs store, Osaka}

{Enjoy Café on Orange street, Osaka. You can pick your own mug, each has a different animal.}

{Osaka makes me wear bold colours... I never really wore red before. Skirt, Zara. Top, Uniqlo. Lipstick, Chanel.}


Enjoy Café picture via

Friday, February 18, 2011

Kindergarten Love.



This pretty much sums up my life lately. I have been working so hard, but I love it so much. I'm a cover teacher now, which means I travel to different schools around Osaka and substitute for other teachers, so I get to meet all kinds of different kids and experience each level of kindergarten (in Japan, there are three years of kindergarten, from ages 3 to 6). In April, when the new school year starts (unlike back home in September), I will finally be settled in one school and have my own class, which I'm very much looking forward to. I'll spend a year with the same group of kids, watching them grow and learn on a daily basis.

This past month has been a bit stressful since it's a completely new job for me, a new way of teaching, and the traveling around Osaka has been quite exhausting. I really enjoy being busy though, which is a nice change from counting down the days (and having mini meltdowns) in the countryside. Back in Marugame, my working hours were so insignificant that my job was not really an important part of my experience there- which was good, as I got to fully explore my area, study Japanese and hang out with friends, but too much free time in Marugame is NOT a desirable thing in the long run. In Osaka, I'm crazy busy, yet I am loving it, and kindergarteners spread their love (as well as their germs) unconditionally.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentines... what?


In Japan, on Valentines Day, girls give chocolate to boys, while boys reciprocate exactly a month later on White Day. It's my second Valentines Day in Japan, and I've never actually followed the tradition (last year I was too shy, and this year.... well, I ate the chocolate already). I've always thought Valentines Day was overrated, but I am growing to love it more and more, as I realize it's the only day of the year I don't feel guilty indulging on tons of chocolate.

Sorry, boys in Japan. Eve and I ate all of the luxurious chocolate we picked up at the import food store, along with some Earl Grey tea and a screening of Pretty in Pink, while staying warm and cozy at the kotatsu. Japan has been cold and snowy, as for the first time in years Osaka has been covered by a white blanket.

The snow will probably melt tomorrow, but it's been a lovely reminder of winter snowfalls back home, which I surprisingly dearly miss.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

So please, please, please.

{Lost... in the city.}

Good times for a change
See, the luck I've had
Can make a good man turn bad

So please, please, please
Let me, let me, let me
Let me get what I want
This time

-The Smiths


All I will say about this weekend is how comforting it was to be around friends... my closest friends in Japan, without whom I would not have survived a whole year in Marugame. And friends who make this Osaka life more exciting. They know who they are. This weekend was a better escape than I could ever wish for.

{When Marugame meets Osaka.... at LaDurée}

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Blog of Asia

{Doing what I do best: mingling with deer}

I'm quite flattered and honoured to be featured on the excellent Blog of Asia, which is filled with useful information and tidbits about visiting and living in this part of the world.

I shared some more love for Osaka, you guessed it... read it here!

I'm also thankful to the wonderful team at Blog of Asia for offering me this opportunity to contribute regularly to the site.

{And kissing them. I'll get arrested soon.}

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Sunday in Kyoto

{Fushimi Inari, Kyoto}


My friend Charlie was in Osaka for the weekend (escaping rural Japan, what else...), and after a Saturday night filled with slices of pizza, shopping, wine and a sweets binge, we thought it would be fun to spend Sunday in Kyoto, to see different sights, and since it's so close to Osaka (a 25-minute train ride). It was Charlie's first time in Kyoto, and I got quite excited, seeing it from a fresh perspective.

I may or may not be the worst tour guide ever. I'm definitely fun to hang out with, but don't count on me for relating the significance or history of particular sights and attractions. I DO know several random bits of information and trivial pieces, but there is always a big part missing.

Our Sunday afternoon stroll among the exquisite temples and parks of Kyoto went as follow:

Vivian, getting all excited at the sight of a cherry tree in Maruyama Park:
"Oh, this tree is very famous!!! I'm not sure why.... might be the oldest... no, wait. It's the biggest!! Or maybe it's magical... I'm not sure... but it's famous!! Take a picture!! Other people are!"

{Turns out the tree in question is just a beautiful weeping cherry tree, and it's not magical... or perhaps it is.}

Hiking Fushimi-Inari mountain, through the neverending red tunnels, after being asked about the fox statues:
"Oh... the foxes are important for this particular shrine.... something to do with foxes running around... I don't know why exactly, but foxes are a big thing. Buy a fox souvenir!!!"

{Turns out the foxes were regarded as messengers}

We could not have picked a better day to visit this enchanting city, as it was a warm, sunny February day. We climbed Fushimi Inari shrine all the way to the top (those tunnels of red torii gates go on for kilometers, and it was the best workout to burn the calories from the previous night's candy binge.

We picked up portions of okonomiyaki at a food stall nearby, and sat in the sun for an afternoon delight of cabbage and batter goodness... and some cotton candy for dessert. I felt like a kid again, and it was such a wonderful thing (um, especially after spending all week nurturing kindergarteners). We walked around the little hidden alleys of Kyoto, soy matcha lattes in hand, soaking in the old city's charms and magic, before heading back to the Osaka madness.







I feel so lucky to be here.

Photos by Charlie Reeves. Thank you, thank you.

Camera: Canon canon Rebel xsi. Lens tamron 70-250 f/2.8.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Chinese New Year: Kobe

{Vivian and Eve, Kobe Chinatown}

Chinese New Year, also called Lunar New Year, took place a few days ago and it's a big celebration on this side of the world. In Japan, Setsubun (bean throwing festival) welcomes the arrival of the Lunar New Year, and each Asian country celebrates in their own way.

Nearby Kobe has a Chinatown area and a significant Chinese population, so it seemed interesting to head over there to see the festival and celebrations. Every time I go to Kobe, I'm reminded of how beautiful it is, and how many fond memories I've created there over the past year. Kobe is so special for me in so many ways I cannot begin to explain. Not only is it so clean and sophisticated and beautiful, but it has a strong European flair and loads of bakeries, cafés and sweets shops.

Last Thursday, Eve and I took the short 20-minute train ride to Kobe to meet my lovely Japanese friend Aki there, and we walked around the beautifully lit Chinatown, with its stone-paved streets and red lanterns. Most celebrations were over as it was a bit late, but we sat down for some tasty dishes: dumplings, spring rolls, and an amazing soup with a spicy broth (with cinnamon undertones) and very thick noodles. I wish I knew the name of this soup, but according to Eve it may have been Taiwanese. It was a short visit, as I had to hop back on the train to Osaka (not without a soy chocolate milk in hand).

Just like every Kobe trip, this one was also very special, and even though I did not see any upright dead birds, "new kind" zucchinis, fell into a big pile of stuffed animals, got accidentally drunk or soaked in the rain, I had the loveliest of evenings. I love how close I live to this wonderful little city.


{Trespassing}



{Vivian and Aki-chan}

Friday, February 4, 2011

Umeda

Umeda station (also known as Osaka station, little did I know first time I visited...) is still the scariest and most intimidating place for me in Osaka. It's such a massive train station combining all the different train (JR, Hankyu) and subway lines, and you can literally walk for half an hour and still be in the station, as it takes ages to get from one side to another. It's also the busiest station in Western Japan (Shinjuku station in Tokyo wins first place in the world), as close to 3 million people walk through it daily.

Every time I need to make a transfer at Umeda station I get a tad terrified, and to be honest I've had moments when I was on the verge of tears, getting so frustrated at being lost in that maze. Some of my Japanese co-workers and Osaka residents have told me they still find Umeda station confusing after living here for years.

However, those past few days I've been getting better at mastering Umeda station, and I can proudly say I don't get lost anymore, and it takes me exactly 5 minutes and 22 seconds to make the transfer from the Tanimachi subway line to the Hankyu railway. I don't hate it anymore, I am starting to love walking through it, as there is so much to look at and I can feel how alive Osaka is.

{Umeda station, from outside. I never really go outside to be honest...}

{Hankyu railway, at Umeda station}

{The Hakyu concourse has beautiful architectural details}

{From Umeda, you can get to Kyoto or Kobe in about 25 min}

{Tanimachi is my subway line. Every time I see this sign I'm always relieved I got out alive}

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Setsubun



February 3 marks the yearly Setsubun celebration, which is a bean-throwing festival. At shrines and temples across Japan, people can throw roasted soybeans to drive away evil spirits and misfortune. Traditionally, beans were thrown at a family member adorning an oni (demon) mask, but these days people head to local shrines.

Big, uncut sushi rolls (makizushi) are also eaten on this day, facing the lucky compass direction, which is related to the current zodiac year (2011 is the year of the Rabbit). Unfortunately I missed out on the sushi munching (and apparently ginger sake drinking), but I participated in the bean throwing events.

Today at kindergarten, the kids all sported their demon masks (the ones we spent countless hours making at arts and crafts time... oh finger paint and glue everywhere on my clothes...) and threw balled up newspaper at makeshift demon cardboard structures on the playground. The kids looked adorable and it was fun to take part in a traditional Japanese custom.

photo/flickr