Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Last Straw and the Nail that Sticks Up

My boss gave me some good advice the other day. She told me to write down as much as I can remember from Japan through the next few days as stuff comes to me, or I might forget it. It's true there is much that I'm remembering only just now, and I'm sure little flashes of things will come to me with time, reminding me of a specific event or memory, especially as I rifle through all our pamphlets and receipts.

So above, I would like to introduce you to Straw-san! Almost from the moment I entered the country, Straw-san was my constant companion. Remember how I mentioned on our first night, we went to Family Mart, the convenience store inside the hotel? Well, I bought a small carton of coffee-milk while there. I didn't drink it that night, but the next morning as we hustled to the shuttle to the station, I popped it in my purse. On the bus, I was drinking delicious sweet coffee beverage, but I'm an adult, so I never used the straw. It had, in fact, fallen off the carton and into the depths of my purse.

Suddenly Straw-san was everywhere. Every time I took out my camera, or the map, or the english/japanese dictionary, he would be stuck to it! The refrain was always "Haha, do you need a straw for that?" But as silly as it was, I couldn't bring myself to throw Straw-san away. He seemed so eager to help. Eventually his little piece of glue came off, so he stopped sticking to everything, but I made sure he stayed in my purse no matter what. And when I cleaned out my purse at my house back in America, he was there too. Who would think such a little straw would make such an incredible journey?

Another thing that I remember about Japan was Kyoto tower. The tower is basically a Seattle type space needle looking thing, only not nearly as tall. It's right next to Kyoto station and was a reference point for us whenever we got lost. There are a bunch of business places inside, mostly for tourists, but we saw a lot of people there, including a bunch of school kids.

The thing about schools in Japan is they go a long way to make every child look the same. Uniforms are strictly enforced, with children not even allowed to use different types of socks (even if they are the same colour). Conformity is held in the highest regard on all levels. So when I saw a girl in a crowd of highschoolers who was obviously half Caucasian half Japanese, I was taken aback.

I am ashamed to say I stared at her, because it was something so rare and unique that I couldn't look away. Massive crowds of asian faces with only slight variants, laughing and jabbering, and she stood in the middle of it, quiet in the tumult. She looked adorable in her uniform, but as soon as she saw me, we locked eyes. I don't know what mine said, but I know what hers did. "Go away, I'm trying to fit in. Leave me alone."

I could tell that school life for her must be hard. She wasn't talking to anyone around her, and didn't have a phone in hand like half the students there. She was probably being excluded from certain social groups and functions, likely only had a couple of friends. I wished she could know how much she and I had in common, and not just because she too, was an accidental gaijin in Japan.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ja Matte, Japan

Yesterday was our last day in Japan. It was a dismal rainy day with no sun whatsoever. Our plans were mixed but our general direction was toward the Nara National Museum and the deer park where it was situated.

The museum wasn't open yet, so we decided to feed the deer. There are about 1200 deer in Nara Park and they are sacred. Hundreds of years ago, the people believed the deer to be forest spirits and were therefore never hunted. In fact, the deer were actively fed and cared for by the locals. Because they are sacred animals, the Japanese bow to them before giving them a cracker (sold by fender in the park for an inflated price, of course). The deer learned this behavior and have started bowing back, knowing they will get treats if they do. Because of this it has become quite the tourist destination

I have wanted to see the deer for a long time, ever since I found videos online of them bowing and following people. I expected them to be cute and persistent like goats on farms or something. When we got to the park, there were several deer sitting around and we fed them carrots. Down the path a bit was a vendor, and a bunch of kids going to school. They were messing with a group of younger deer, feeding them crackers and petting them. The deer seemed a little more aggressive than I was expecting. I bowed to them and handed them crackers, which they ripped from my hand. We started moving away from the group but one of the deer bit me in the butt! Luckily I was wearing jeans so it didn't hurt me as much, but Bobbie got bit in the side of the stomach. No blood, but a definite bruise. The kids didn't seem fazed (I actually think they were laughing at us) so we threw the rest of the crackers at the deer and left quickly. All in all, not a very positive experience, re-enforcing my belief that Nara is a tourist trap.

The museum was nice, but nothing special. It was small and we couldn't take many pictures. However, while in the Buddah section, Bobbie discovered the statue she wanted to get for her grandmother's grave.

I'd suggested the idea a day ago, that a statue from Japan for Gram's grave would be a nice touch for the end of the trip. At the museum, we encountered the Amida Buddah, or the St. Peter of the Buddist pantheon. Bobbie thought it would be perfect for the gravesite.

It became a quest. We scoured parts of Nara, but no one seemed to understand what we wanted. We needed a statue of the Amida Buddah and we needed it to be stone or bronze so that it wouldn't disintegrate in the rain and weather. Everyone seemed at a loss, and the moment we mention “ohaka” (grave) we were shut out. The Japanese do not like talking about death or graves or anything like that. Heck, finding a cemetery to take a picture of was a near impossible task as they are completely hidden from public view.

Finally we looked at one another and said, “Kyoto.” Kyoto where the people understood us, or at least seemed to have some empathy and not treat us like stupid foreigners. On the train we went, 45 minutes back to the part of Japan that actually felt like Japan to me.

It took several shops, but everyone made a serious attempt to help us and then recommend another shop down the street that may be able to help us. Finally we stopped in a little shrine shop in front of a temple where a young woman welcomed us in. We explained our plight as best we could, as most of the Buddah statues were gold plated and meant for inside use. After much hand wringing and dictionary lookups, the woman explained that there were probably no stone/bronze Amida Buddahs that Bobbie could take home. But, you could get a small nice looking plastic shrine that would protect the Buddah statue inside (we are talking about something that is only about 6 inches tall). After thinking about it, we decided this was the best and most viable option. But it was still a question if they would even sell it us since the Japanese are very particular about their religious objects and it seemed sacrilegious to them to put it outside.

I explained to them as best I could that this was not for us, it was for Bobbie's “obaasan” (grandmother) for her grave. And it was as if I had said “open sesame.” The woman suddenly started nodding her head in understanding, writing down the price and then saying “but we will give you discount.” And it wasn't just some off the cuff way of making a sale, it was a connection. Quickly, her and another man who we think owned the store, packed the Buddah an the shrine with utmost care, including special wrapping for each item and wrapping the bag in plastic wrap because it was raining outside, then including specific bag holders that were more sturdy than the ones on the bag already. This wrapping process took about 15 minutes and when we finally gave them their money, the manager said, “special discount” and gave back all the coins we had also put down, basically knocking off another five bucks.

By this time Bobbie and I were unbelievably moved by what was happening. We bowed extra for our appreciation, and Bobbie hugged the lady who made the whole thing happen. I left the store with a renewed sense that Kyoto had been the correct city for us to choose to visit, as the heart of Japan was truly beating here.

Back in the hotel we sadly packed our things for the next day's trip. It would be a long stressful ride, as the typhoon heading into the country would shut down the trains and delay all flights the next day, though we didn't realize this until we left. Today we return to a country of English, but we both already miss the culture of convenience and efficiency, of service that goes the extra mile, of beer in the vending machines. And even though it wasn't exactly what I'd imagined it to be all these years, that was because I was thinking too small. There is so much more to this country than I realized, and there is more yet to be discovered. I shall return.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Uninvited Guests

I woke up around six like usual and I wanted to skype family and friends. The room was pretty full though, and most everyone was still asleep so I tiptoed out to the hall where our shoes were, intending to leave the room to call. As soon as I neared the shoe area, I saw something skitter out. I looked closer, then recoiled. Cockroach!

A flurry of packing and apologies, we made our way to Nara. We had a friend we were going to meet there anyway, in addition to the sacred deer I wanted to experience. Within an hour we were in a hotel, one nice enough they can pay the roaches to stay out.

The best thing about the hotel is there is a TV. I don't really like a lot of Japanese television because it's mostly reality shows, but my favorite parts are actually the commercials.

It's amazing what commercials say about a people. They are designed to have a laser like focus on their target audience, so what you see is exactly what the Japanese are interested in. A good example is a commercial for candy. In America, a candy commercial would have 1) kids 2)be on during the day when kids are home and 3) be a cartoon or have some kind of furry mascot. The only thing the Japanese commercial for candy had in common was the furry mascot. Otherwise it was an adult woman (acting like a little girl) eating the candy and saying things like “sugoi!” (cool!). Also it was on during prime time. So what did I learn about the Japanese? They like candy, even grownups!

Anyway, it's just another way for me to observe these people in their natural state. I feel like I could watch Japanese commercials for a long time, and maybe learn a lot of the language from it. However, I would probably end up with affected speech like the Japanese brothers who learned how to speak english from Howard Cossell's racing announcements in Better Off Dead (if you haven't seen that movie, you need to see it.)

About the city. Nara is...different. The strange thing is I can't really put my finger on why. It's got the same cars and buildings. But the people seem more closed. In Kyoto, I felt like a gaijin, but that the people were okay with that and I never felt like I couldn't go somewhere because of it. In Nara, we were told that as foreigners we would not be welcome in some places. I figured this is always the case no matter what country you go to (or even within your own country sometimes) but I'd never had this actually spoken to me.

We started walking up the street from the hotel, and it was immediately obvious that it was a place for tourists. There were many shops and restaurants, all with similar stuff. There were no residential areas or side streets like Kyoto had.

An interesting part of this walk was the arcade we saw on the side of the street. Walking in, it seemed to be full of crane machine games, which I'm not very good at. At the back of the room was a forest of photo machines which we tried out for fun. Apparently you can customize the photos and add lots of decorations to each picture, but we were unable to read most of what we could do, ending up with some pretty boring pics of the two of use acting dumb.

As we left that area, we noticed an escalator up to a second floor. Cool! Up we go. At first it looks like standard arcade fare, with tokens and games, but it is soon revealed there are no prizes. Also, playing games with tokens just lets you win more tokens. What gives? Bobbie stays on this level to play a horse racing game while I explore more.

Turns out there are two more levels. Level three is pachinko machines, though they are not packed with people as I've seen them. The third level is fighting games only, which is boring to me so I went back downstairs pretty quick.

After playing a seizure inducing round of pachinko, I head back down to see how Bobbie is doing. She hasn't yet been able to get a seat at the racing game. In fact, most of the seats are packed and there are few games we can play. And we are the only foreigners on any of the floors. Suddenly I am very uncomfortable and insist that we leave. As we go, we see a man with a bucket of tokens dump them into some sort of machine that has a fingerprint reader attached to it and I start to understand what is going on. No prizes? Fingerprint readers? No foreigners at all? I smell illegal activity. And as exciting as it is to be seeing a side of Japan that is hidden from the tourists, I am not interested in stepping on anyones toes with my huge American feet.

The rest of the day was uneventful until we met up with a Japanese friend from UMASS who was great company and an informative guide. Heading home, the hotel was nice and it was cool to just hop into bed and not have to climb up some rickety ladder to sleep. But I missed Kyoto dearly, I missed the tiny houses built right up against each other, the secret alleys and paths that lead to god knows where. But most of all I missed the people. I missed waking up in the morning and watching the students walk to school. Strolling the roads at night to see old women sweeping up outside their doors. I missed the life. As silly as it sounds, I paid a thousand dollar plane ticket to watch a group of people go about their daily lives.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Performance Art

A lot of history today.

The Tokugawa era of Japan is one of the better known ones. Tokugawa Ieyasu took over after the current daimyo Hideyoshi's death, decimating resistance from the other warlords and uniting the country under his rule. It was he who closed off Japan from the rest of the world for two and a half centuries, a fanatical xenophobe who's family forever changed the history of Japan.

The Nijo Castle was built in Kyoto after he became shogun in 1603. Though it has a moat and high walls, it was less a fortress and more a testament to Tokugawa's power and influence. Lavishly decorated and sprawling, each room has huge doors/murals of landscapes. Gold leaf is in a lot of it, and even the ceiling is carefully painted with flower designs, different ones for different rooms.

We had to take our shoes off before we could enter the castle, and it was nice to walk around in just our socks. As we went, the floors chirped pleasantly. The sound was nice, but it had a serious application. Intruders were a unwelcome possibility, and the nightingale floors were a kind of alarm system since you cannot walk on them and not make a squeaking noise.

Another interesting part of the palace was the guards doors. It was important that the shogun was guarded at all times, but keeping the guards hidden was useful for surprise attacks. Dotted around the rooms were doors with red tassels, and these were closets where the guards would sit keep on the lookout.

Unfortunately, I have very few pictures of the palace. They said it was because the flash photography would damage the decorations (the light would fade them) but I think it was so you would have to buy the pictures in the souvenir shop :P

For me, this palace was extremely exciting. I could just imagine servants and attendants rushing around, of the ladies and lords sitting in meeting or going about their business. This was a piece of the Japan I had come for. Unfortunately I was several centuries too late.

After that, we headed to Gion Corner where we knew geisha were. Geisha are half the reason I flew 22 hours to get here. Their grace and elegance is unsurpassed by years of training. But how to find them? You can see them on the street during certain times of the day, but many people wait for them also, and the whole thing feels vaguely like we are paparazzi. Other than that, all their festivals and public dances take place in August or May or January. And a private party with a geisha means spending upwards of 1000$ if not more, not to mention they won't take just anybody, least of all foreigners. You have to be rich and connected to see a geisha. Since I was neither, I called up Kyoto Tourist Information.

Me: “I would like to see some geisha, do you know where I can find some? I'm in Ponto-cho (a prefecture in Gion district where geisha often work).

Them: “ can't just go into their houses or anything.”

Me: (awkward pause)...No, I mean, I would like to see them doing their traditional dance or instrument playing or something.

I wondered what the heck this person thought, that I would just wander into someone's house like an idiot. I guess the information must get a lot of stupid tourists?

Anyway, I was directed to a theatre in Gion and we found it without much work. A note about Gion; it is quite beautiful and worth seeing even if you aren't going to any shows. It's packed to the gills with little restaurants, most of them traditional. We found a couple holes in the walls while we were there and generally found the people to be tolerant and accepting of us, not to mention extremely pleasant.

The show was amazing. It's was basically a compilation of several forms of Japanese theatre and art. Within an hour, we saw Japanese tea ceremony, ikebana (traditional flower arrangement), koto playing, kabuki, comedy play, traditional dance, and bunraku (puppet theatre).

The traditional dance was performed by a maiko, or junior geisha. I'm no expert on traditional Japanese dance, but I thought it was beautiful. Every move was practised until it was second nature, controlled to the point of perfection, not a hair or fold was out of place. I know this was a performance that was mostly for foreigners, but it didn't matter. This was as close as I was every probably going to get and that was good enough for me.

Watching all the artistic performances together was an eye opening experience in that it showed me what I believe is the heart of Japanese culture. With every act, the performer was in complete control of what s/he was doing, even when it came to the comedy. There was a set number of steps to what they did, and while to an outsider this may seem “unoriginal” or “stiff” to me it showed what was important to them. Life is itself chaos, and you never know what is coming next, no matter how much you plan. Perhaps to them this was a way of dealing with that, by putting as much stability in their lives as possible. Look at their gardens, every stone and leaf in place. Look at their face, a mask of neutral expression. They control what they can because who knows what may happen tomorrow.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Missing Something

Max showed us to a kind of fast food restaurant today, called Nakau. I'm not much into fast food, but we want to try everything so we went in (it didn't look that bad anyway). Inside was a counter like a Western fast food place, but there was also a machine with buttons and pictures of foods. We put money inside and pressed the button for the kind of food we wanted and on the other side of the counter a electronic message chirped to the attendant in Japanese that our order had been placed. In a few moments, delicious katsu-don was served to me and my friends, and it was absolutely great, with freshly cooked egg covered in soy sauce, fried chicken and rice.

I don't know if it's because I'm always excited or if the food here is just so different, but I have had little appetite and when I do eat, my stomach is always a little unhappy afterwards. I mostly get through this by immediately walking (because Kyoto is very much a walk-it city) to my next destination, which settles my stomach quickly. I am beginning to think that the food here is very rich because I need only consume a little of it to feel very full. It helps that I'm too frenzied or exhausted to eat most of the time, it's like I've turned off that part of my brain that wants food. Only until my stomach is growling loudly do I give in and get something to eat.

Afterwards was gift buying time, so I'm not going to say much about what we did, except that it was really fun finding everyone something they would like (or at least be entertained by)!

We ended up walking through a bunch of downtown Kyoto trying to find this soba place that Max said was really good. It turned out to be quite good (the soup part was practically pork gravy) and it was a really cute place with their advertisements for their one and only dish tiled across every wall, plus a commercial playing for the shop on a small tv nearby, constantly.

From there it was to the Heian Shrine for us. This is a shrine that was built in 1895 in honor the 1100 anniversary of Kyoto. It is a replica of the Imperial Palace (at one third size) of that era. On the way there we passed through a vegetarian festival (I know, this was confusing for me too, since most japanese are not vegetarian. Besides, PETA was there and that just made me mad). The best part of that was the praying mantis we found on the roof of one the the displays. He was swaying back and forth (“like he is drunk” Max said). I ended up picking him up and he scampered all over me. I wished I could have taken him home, he was the friendliest mantis, but I'm pretty sure customs would not allow it :P

Once we got to the shrine, I took a high resolution pic with my camcorder.

The shrine was beautiful, and I paid to get into the legendary gardens. Bobbie and Max stayed outside to sit and relax, and I found myself alone in the sprawling trails. The place was filled with wisteria, ponds (including catfish), and stone lanterns. Occasionally I would come upon some building or structure, usually a bridge or some stones that you had to cross to get to the other side. The gardens were meant as a place to relax and self reflect, and I fell into the process almost without realizing.

I realized I was becoming increasingly concerned about my complete lack of a connection to this country now that I was here. I still feel like I'm not actually “here” yet, that there is something crucial missing that if I find it I will click into the Japan I dreamed of for so long. It's kind of like when you go to get new glasses, and they try different magnifications. Right now everything is blurry, and I can almost see what I want, but I need to switch to a better lens. But how can I do that in a week? As a gaijin, I am completely cut off from these people, and it would take years for them to accept me into their world, if ever. And I have to wonder if the Japan I know even exists, or perhaps did (as I am fond of the older histories) and is now gone forever. I just don't know and the thought depresses me, but as the Japanese say I will try to “ganbatte ne!” or “try my best” to find what I'm looking for. It's too early to give up now.

At the end of our trip, we took the metro (subway) back. It's a very confusing system, and they seem to switch colors for tracks with wild abandon. We think we will be able to figure it out when we go to Nara tomorrow, but I miss Max. He had to leave to go back to school Sunday night and without him we feel rather lost and stupid. Neither of us have the energy to make a new friend so we will have to use our wits and charm to figure out what we want and how to get there. Speaking of getting there, my hands are permanently swollen from all the walking/salt. They practically breath salt here and we walk everywhere because the bus system can only get us to certain places. While I would love to spend an indefinite amount of time here, it will be nice to be home eventually. I miss my boyfriend and family and, you know, literacy.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Darkest Walk

The train on our way to Kyoto was some of the best and most comfortable urban transportation I've ever been on, really putting the commuter rail in Boston to shame. It had a vending machine inside the train, and bathrooms even though the trip is at most 2 hours.

Here's a video of us exiting the station. Look out anime characters!

We booked it to our hostel which was a cool part of the trip because we passed some very residential areas with that lived-in touch. Once situated at the hostel (with free wi-fi!), we met up with another guest, a Chinese guy named "Max" (his English name) who is in town for a couple days for school. Max has been a godsend with helping us get around and understand the area. He helped us find a restaurant to eat lunch at.

The restaurant was way cool (I don't even know the name though). It was traditional style, so we went in and they gave us a table that was a booth in a room all by itself. The waitress knelt before us when she took our order (I felt bad for her knees). The miso soup was so good and fresh, and the sashimi was delectable. I was really impressed by the quality and it wasn't even expensive.

We headed out to the Kiyomizu temple, but on our way there were geisha walking down the street! We were in a part of Gion so I wasn't surprised, but I thought I was going to hyperventalate with joy. Floating past us, they were gorgeous and sublime.

The temple itself was massive. There were tons of places to put prayers and charms. We bought a few and put them up, then prayed at the alter by throwing in coins and hitting the gong. We also washed our hands with the sacred water. Walking around, there were lots of places to buy fortuens and scrolls with Ametarasu. We picked up some omamori (good luck charm) for safe travel. Here are a bunch of vids of that part of the trip.

The highlight of the temple trip was the Tainai-meguri. None of us, even Max knew what we were getting into when we paid 100 yen to enter the basement of the temple. The monks took our money and our shoes and told us in broken english to "left hand hold." I thought they just wanted us to be careful on the stairs and hold the banister. Bobbie went down first, but stopped at the bottom. "Uhhh, Amanda?" She asked, staring into the pitch blackness beyond. The banister turned into oversized buddhist beads and suddenly they were the only thing tethering us to the world. Max grabbed the back of my shirt in a kind of panic and we shuffled forward awkwardly, calling to Bobbie who was ahead. After a minute, she stopped.

"Amanda, it's really close to me."
"What is?"
"Some....thing. In the middle of the room."

The "thing" was the womb of the temple, of the Bodhisattva Daizuigu Bosatsu. It was a stone mound with a sacred symbol on top. Supposedly we were meant to turn the stone and make a wish, but honestly the dark and strangeness of it all had us hurrying past as quickly as possible. We fled up the stairs. Our exit was probably supposed to represent birth, but for us it was escape. Maybe that's how all babies feel.

We also found a machine that makes noise when you put a can inside it! Vids to come

On our way back we bought a few things for the peeps back home. I'm looking forward to giving them all to you!

The most interesting thing is that I feel like it still hasn't sunk in that I'm in Japan. I think it's because this county has been such a fairytale dream for me for so long that it's difficult to wrap my head around the concept of actually being here. I do know that being in the minority is kinda weird, and when suddenly it's you who is the foreigner even weirder. I'm just glad I have several days to stay, otherwise I would convince myself I made it all up.

Tonight is dinner and pachinko. Apparently there is a parlor on every block just about. I'll keep you posted.

P.S. yes by now I've tried the japanese squat toilets. They're no big deal.

Friday, October 2, 2009

What a Long Strange Trip It's Been

I don't exactly know how to start this post. Yes, I'm in Japan. Is it great? Indeed. But I must temper my joy with some sad news.

Bobbie, my travelling companion and compatriot, got a call from her mother while we were at Logan that her grandmother was having chest pains and was en route to the hospital. While she was not at peak health, she certainly didn't appear to be declining and so when we got to Minneapolis neither of us expected to hear that she had passed on shortly after that call.

On such an exciting and happy departure, it was surreal to suddenly know that a person you had seen two days prior was no longer among us. I queried with the airline what would happen if we had to suddenly cancel, and the replies were not good (basically, we would lose our tickets and reservations, no refunds). I discussed with Bobbie that the next course of action was completely up to her and I would stand behind whatever she wanted. Bobbie replied that Grammie would not want us to be wasteful and not to stop having a good time on her account. We decided that the best way to honor Grammie's memory would be to continue on, but now the focus of the trip has changed. Our journey here has become a pillgrimage and our itinerary will be including many more temples and shrines for us to give prayer and offerings to Grammie's spirit.

We ended up staying in a hotel in Osaka for the night, we were so exhausted. Here is a video of my room.

The other highlight of the hotel was the 24 hour convienience store inside the hotel where we picked up all manner of goodies. We finally passed out around 2 am.

My japanese immersion is progressing nicely and much faster than I thought it would. I'm learning.

More to come!