Thursday, December 22, 2005

First day back: Disorientation

After I got up around 4:30, I wandered downstairs to forage for some food. I walked into the dark hallway, past the suitcase, down the stairs, and got some food out of the kitchen. I chatted with my dad for a bit, wandered around downstairs in the dark for a bit, then headed back upstairs, past the suitcase and into my room. I sat down at the computer to see if anyone from Japan was up, but no dice. I wandered out of my room again, past the black suitcase, to the bathroom for a....wait a sec, black suitcase?

I was so out of it I'd walked past my luggage 4 times. I guess it'd arrived after I'd gone to bed the night before. So thankfully, I have all of my clothes and presents now. All that's left it to wrap them, which will probably take a while.

I got to drive a bit on my first day back, and I seem to have remembered how to drive a stick as well as which side of the road to be on. Since I never drove in Japan, I guess it's not that difficult to fall back into the old habits. Let's hope I don't pick up any of the bad ones again.

Back home again, in Indiana

So I arrived back in Indy yesterday evening, 7am Tokyo, 5pm local time. I'd spent 23 hours travelling and had a nice rest. Now it's 4 am and I'm sitting up completely awake. I went to bed around 10pm, so 6 hours of sleep isn't so bad. I'm just gonna need a nap during the day to keep me going so I don't collapse at 6pm.

I arrived feeling tired but good. Unfortunately, my baggage didn't. As far as I know, it didn't arrive at all. I made it to Detroit, picked it up and headed through customs. Because the flight from Japan was delayed, I cleared customs with approximately 5 minutes before my flight left. Some jerk DHS guy searched my carry-on because I didn't take out my computer or laptop, and proceeded to swab everything and put it through a chemical analyzer. Dick. By then I had 2 minutes to go. So I'm sprinting all the way to gate A55, dodging up escalators, knocking down the elderly who can't get out the way quick enough, and when I arrived, there was no plane.

I looked up at the board and realized I'd gotten the WRONG flight to Indy, that mine was actually leaving from Gate B2, which is all the way back to the hub, down the stairs, through this enormous tunnel with a disorienting light display, and back up the stairs. I arrived panting and saw the door was closed already, but the plane was still there. I pulled out the ticket and gasped, "I'm...on...this...flight!"

"Don't worry said the guy, there's a problem with the elevators and it's delayed. You made it." Let's hear it for chronic tardiness at Detroit Airport. So I arrived in Indy an hour late, but I couldn't find my bag. I feel like Greg Focker, I'll probably get the wrong bag which, instead of presents and things from Japan will probably have whips and leather or some fat lady's underwear and a clown suit.

So until then, I'm going to put my early wake up to good use. I'm gonna go pet the animals.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Terminal Man

So, I'm now at Narita airport. I've undergone 2.5 hours of train travel (1 of them standing, the remainder sitting on an overheated seat). I arrived, checked in, went through customs and immigration, lost my boarding passes (both of them), got them replaced, drank 2 bottles of nihonshu, and am now waiting for a flight that is delayed for another hour. And it's not even 3pm here.

So I thought I'd shell out a few yen (500 of them, to be exact) for the chance to use the internet and charge my computer. One complaint I have with Japan is that it's very difficult to find wireless LAN anywhere. I know this country is famous for being gadget-hounds and tech-savvy, but that's all using phones. You don't need a computer to email people from Doutor (or Starbucks) if you can email them anywhere using your cell phone. I guess it's just another difference between Japan and the US. At least now I've brought my chunky laptop out. If I ever get another one, it'll be an extremely small one for web browsing and email only, though probably won't need it til I return to the US (or wherever outside Japan).

So, peace be upon all you, and have mercy on my co-passengers when I take off my shoes! See you all back in Indy-land. I can't wait. Gonna make my folks drive me to Mexican food ASAP!

Monday, December 19, 2005


So, Japanese TV is strange, everyone knows that. This stereotypically quiet and reserved culture, once put in front of a camera, send their women off eating bizarre (even for Japan) foods while pudgy men compete in physical competition for the glory of their company.

Well, while lots of that may be true, this takes it to a new level. Meet Hard Gay (ハードげ), a man running around Tokyo in black leather biker wear with extremely short shorts. See videos here and here. He's a sensation all over Japan. It's been this way for about 6 months, but the pop culture cycle has progressed, and he'll be out of the limelight soon. But until then, everyone knows about him, even my students, ranging in age from 12 to 15. They think it's extremely funny. I laugh at everything, Hard Gay himself and the juxtaposition of him with the vision we have of Japan. The best thing is that this guy is on TV at all times, even during the weekend cartoon runs. I've never managed to catch him myself, my TV being crap and missing a couple of channels, but it's something you won't see on American TV, that's for sure.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Photos up and other stuff

So, instead of packing, I decided to organize a bunch of photos and such. So, all my latest photos are up on the flickr site (link at top of page or on sidebar).

I also found a site Google offers that allows you to upload your own videos so people can see them. I've uploaded some of mine, but they're awaiting verification, evidently, so you can't see them yet, I don't think. But I did find a couple that were entertaining. One is a "documentary" about proper sushi eating (via Octopusdropkick), and the other is a combination of two of my favorite things, video games and dancing. This even beats Nathan doing the "masochism tango." Aaron, you'd get a kick out of it.

The countdown to return

Only 3 days till I leave chilly Japan and head to frickin'-cold Indy.

So in the past two weeks, amid all the hard-charging partying to send off Ana & Damien, I neglected to get enough sleep. Now it's come back to bite me in the tookus, in the form of getting sick. Bicycling around in the cold and shivering in the classroom hasn't helped either. I'm going to spend Sunday quietly packing and cleaning (maybe) so that everything's ready before I go and I'm not doing a mad scramble on Tuesday night. Well, I probably will anyway, but just in case.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Commence the Preparations!

So I'm coming back in a week. In less than 7 days, I'll be winging my way home for the first time in over 20 months. It's all rather surreal. Indiana is like some 20-year-long dream that I can't quite seem to shake. I've got subarctic weather to look forward to, but for some reason it never seems quite as cold there as it does where I'm at. In both Japan and Spain, it's the coldest I've ever felt. I think it has to do with the lack of central heating in work and at home. Here at home, I use a kotatsu, a quite wonderful convention, and I've put the space heater in my bedroom because I can't figure out how to turn my aircon unit to heating from the cooling I used during the summer. Curse my poor kanji skills and lack of any manual!

School has been frigid the past couple days. I took to using the coat I'd been wearing to work as my indoor jacket as well. It's actually colder inside than out. The teachers have been having me do these 'conversation tests,' which involve me speaking to each and every student in the 2nd grade (our 8th grade) for 2 minutes apiece. Now, there's no way to do this in the classroom, so I have to do it in the hallway, where the windows have been left open all night. Yay. And to think the poor girls still have to wear the skirts of their school uniforms even in winter. I swear, these kids must be polar bears or something underneath. And the older students STILL insist on hiking up their skirts (it's the fashion). Crazy kids.

In other news, Ana left Hiratsuka this morning. She's been seeing her friends in Narita before heading to the airport tomorrow morning. I can't pretend to know what it'll be like for her. I've watched her say goodbye to all our friends, and I know that I'll still see her back in Indy in a week or so. It's all rather surreal for me. And I think that it's become that way for her too, saying goodbye to people more than a week before you're actually leaving. I think sometimes we say goodbye so much, to so many people, that we become numbed to it all and it loses any emotional impact. Good thing I can avoid that for a little while longer. All I say to people is, "See you later."

Speaking of which, I'm going to climb into bed now, after I take a nice hot shower to thaw out my lower body, which has been numb all day. I tell you, a good Xmas present is silk long johns. Keeps everything down there from losing feeling. Hope I can write more and post the last couple months of pics this weekend, in between packing for home. I don't really plan on bringing any clothes back, but I still have lots to stuff into the cases.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

That post that never quite seems to write itself

In the continuing saga of Jeremy not blogging because he's too busy out doing things, I've seen one of my good friends, Damien, off. He left last Thursday for Australia. I said goodbye to Ana tonight, though we'll see each other in Indy.

Damien, Julian, and I had the obligatory bowl of ramen from "The Ramen" restaurant (actually, it's 'Za Ramen' because Japanese can't pronounce 'th' sounds). Later, we proceeded to a really cheap 200 yen/beer happy hour and wobbled back to Ana's after to wait for her. In the meantime, we made these little Xmas ornaments/phone dangly straps. You just draw some sort of design on it and pop it in the toaster oven for a minute and it curls up and shrivels, looking about to burst into flame when suddenly it lays back down flat and has turned into a nice little ornament. Probably something 12 year-olds do (in fact I know they do it because my students love it), but also good for boozy 20-somethings with a fascination for arts and crafts.

After Damien left, I've been hanging out with Ana at every opportunity. One time we didn't was Friday when I went to a teachers' party with Julian and about 8 Japanese English teachers. We had an awesome 4 course dinner at an izakaya, then a few of us peeled off to sing karaoke. Turns out a few of them are regular drinking buddies, and typically go out with the math teacher from the school I'm currently at. I had no idea. So I proceeded to poke fun at him the past couple of days.

Saturday was nabe. For Xmas, I received a nabe pot from Ana & Damien. Nabe in Japanese means 'pot,' but the food is a stew of various vegetables and meat in this low, wide earthen pot. Nowadays, it's usually cooked in an electric pot-type thing. The fun part is doing it with all of your friends sitting around the table drinking and eating, with the nabe pot simmering in the middle. Even better was getting to use the kotatsu (table with a heating element under it and a skirt to keep the heat in) with it. Julian, Ana, Miwa and I had dinner in this style.

Sunday, Ana and I went to Kamakura. It's not a far train ride, and the temples are fantastic. We went to Hase-dera, one of the better-known temples, but one neither of us had ever been to since it's out of the way. It was great! The gardens were beautiful, and there was a library complete with revolving shelf storing all the works of Buddhist scholars over the years. The legend goes that if you turn the shelf round once, it's the same as reading all the sutras contained inside. I got real smart that day. There was also a small cave with carved statues of the 7 Buddhas. Each one is for a different aspect of life: money, health, luck, etc. After, we had a great Indian lunch near the station and bought some locally brewed beer that was quite tasty.

Monday was okonomiyaki night. We hit the one okonomiyaki place we knew near the station. The waiter was really nice, and Julian managed to charm him along with the table of ladies next to us that we each got a little phone strap reminder. It was a little bottle of Kirin beer that flashes for a while when you smack it.

The rest of this week won't be terribly exciting. Wednesday (tomorrow) is going to be an early evening. Thursday is evening lessons at the part-time school, Friday is a fish restaurant with a couple of old students from Nova, and Saturday is Xmas shopping with my pseudo-cousin Amanda. I finish work on the 20th, then I fly out the 21st. I'll get back and see all the people I haven't seen in ages. Finally. I've enjoyed being here, but it's been too long away from home.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Wiped Out

It's been a rough past few nights, what with all this socializing. I want to write more about it, but I won't have time until the weekend, probably. I took the Japanese Proficiency Test on Sunday morning, and it's been nonstop since. That evening was the going away party for Damien, who leaves Thursday morning, and Ana, who's still got another week to go. Monday was a Xmas dinner with various people. The highlight for me was getting a nabe pot. Tonight we went to a fire festival in Odawara City, the same one I went to last year. Cold, fun, cool drumming and chanting, and I got to go firewalking again. Tomorrow's the last day with Damien, we'll just hang out and maybe go eat a last bowl of ramen (I'm hoping).

More to come. Maybe I'll write at work some, if I have time.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

New photos site up

I've been playing around with flickr, and it seems like a good setup. A lot of people online also say it's quite useful, although the 20MB monthly upload limit kinda sucks. So I sprang for the pro and am currently uploading full-resolution photos. This should help act as a way of archiving and backing up my photos, just in case my laptop craps out on me. I've posted new photos also, at least all the new ones I have on my computer, which is up until about mid-October. I haven't been taking many photos lately, since I haven't been anywhere of too much note. And I seem to have misplaced my mini drive that I use to transfer photos (oops!). It's either somewhere deep in my backpack or I left it at the school I was just at. Hopefully it's the former.

Well, I've now spent the sunny hours of the day indoors, I need to get out and do some Xmas shopping. I realized yesterday that they don't sell certain items I wanted to get in this season, which pretty much ruins most of my gift ideas. Time to go shopping and take the practice test for the Proficiency Test in one week(!!!) . This evening I'm going to the house of a friend of Ana's with her and Dam-o for sukiyaki. Should be yummy!


So I found a new website called flickr, and I'm hoping it'll provide a better photo page than my yahoo photo page, which really hasn't been all that great. I want to be able to have subdirectories, and a nice setup. Hope it works. So this is what I'm doing at 2am on a Saturday night. Rather pathetic. And in a fit of recklessness, I bought a Japanese/English electronic dictionary, mostly on the advice of a friend of a friend. It cost me 30,000 yen, so it better be worth it.

Ok, time to crash soon. I almost wish it'd rain one of my days off so I wouldn't feel guilty spending the day inside trying to reorganize my photos and spending some time writing. December 4th is the Japanese Proficiency Test, so I've gotta buckle down and get working.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

What I've been doing the past couple weeks

Not much.

No, really. I've been a bit down, what with people leaving and feeling a bit frustrated with Japanese. It's all kind of piled up and has been a bit hard to beat back. I've noticed it before, some kind of depressive cycle where I, for no really apparent reason feel lonely or unwanted or something. Even though I know it's not true, it's still there and weighs on me.

December's a big month for me, what with my Japanese proficiency test coming up, Ana & Damien leaving, and me heading home for a visit. Guess it's looming a little large in my mind. But thanks to my dedicated friends I'm back on my feet and doing better.

Actually, right now I feel pretty woozy because I was out til 5am with people. Last night we decided to celebrate Thanksgiving, so we had a party at Ana's house. We bought a couple of those little game hens from a stall in Hiratsuka, and had a potluck dinner. It turned out quite well, even though some of the people couldn't get there until later. We played trivia games and chatted until about 1:30am, at which point a few of us left for a short karaoke session. We had 2 Australians(Damien and Ana's roommate Kelli), 2 Hoosiers(Ana & I, obviously), a Brit(Julian), a Canadian(Ana's other roommate Erin), and a Japanese(Miwa). Not bad overall. It started off with just 4 of us and snowballed from there.

Today's a national holiday, though I've no clue why. I oughta figure that out one of these days. Last weekend I wanted to get out and see the leaves change color, but to get to the prime viewing place is about $50 roundtrip plus food and such. I can forgo the expense til I have more time/money. I ended up going to Kamakura on Saturday with my workmate Julian, and we did a bit of light hiking.

Kamakura's known for it's temples and a giant bronze Buddha statue. I got to see a nice sunset (the winter sunsets are amazing from here because the sun drops down right beside Mt. Fuji and it's perfectly backlit. We had dinner at Kua'Aina, a Hawaiian hamburger shop in Kamakura. It's a chain that's cashing in on the popularity of all things Hawaiian (!?), but it has some amazing, though pricey, burgers. I had a 1/3 lb. burger with avocado and other toppings, the thing was about 6 inches tall with the bun.

Sunday was steak night, the final one for Ana & Damien, so I think I've overloaded on the beef. I'll have to cut down on my BGH intake.

So that's me recently. I oughta take advantage of the nice weather and go somewhere. I also should probably work on my Japanese. Eek! Wish me luck.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Photos, but not mine and other things

Via Ars, a science photo contest, elaborated on by yours truly. The National Geographic page has some great photos, one of my favorites being this wildlife shot. Nikon has some also.

I've been a tad bummed out lately. The changing weather has given me a sore throat and clogged sinuses, and on top of that, I've just been feeling rather lonely with a touch of homesickness. I don't usually get homesick, and when I do, it's nothing to do with missing home, it's more about something that happens here. But yesterday I chatted with my old roommate Molly, which cheered me up. I also decided to do something new and went to see the goddess of mercy, Kannon, in Ofuna. There's this giant bust statue that sticks up above the trees on top of this hill by the train station. It's visible from the train windows, so I see it often, but I've never been. Turns out that temple is commonly visited by foreigners, especially Asians, when they feel homesick, since Kannon is a ubiquitous symbol in countries with a Buddhist tradition, which is most of Asia.

Today I went to a festival in Oiso, the town just west (away from Tokyo) of Hiratsuka. It was a celebration of the Shubuku, or post station in the town on the old Tokaido road that ran from Tokyo to Osaka during the Edo period. Now it's been replaced by a highway and rail corridor, but some of the old wooden buildings remain. It was a typical festival, with the usual carnival foods and games and such. One interesting thing was stage which had different performers. When I first arrived, there was a Japanese guy in a Mexican getup playing mariachi music. I bought an onsen towel with a map of the 53 waystations on the Tokaido road. I was tempted by a really cool miniature garden about 5 inches long by 3 inches wide with tiny trees and mosses and a little tanuki in the middle. But I resisted temptation. Maybe some other day I'll get one.

Now it's started raining and it's cold, so I have no desire to go outside anymore, so I'll stay in the rest of the evening and talk to my roommate Tracey, who just returned from her trip to Thailand. She got me a couple souvenirs, the best being a carved elephant to go alongside my silver water buffalo from Vietnam.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


Well, after 5 nights straight going out and being busy, I've hit a national holiday and a day of rest. It's a good thing, too, I'm wiped out and seem to be getting sick. Seems everyone's got a sore throat and cough, must be changing weather.

It's been a couple months, at least, since I went to Yokohama, and all of a sudden I went there 3 nights in the past 5. Saturday evening I met a friend of Ana's from Narita in Yokohama, since it was sort of halfway. Sunday was a pseudo-pre-Halloween celebration with Miwa. We met her friend Luna, who she met studying in Indiana, for a bit of holiday merriment. We ate at this place called the "Hurricane Deck," a nice little restaurant and did the requisite print club photo shoot.

Yesterday, Wednesday, was my latest foray into the concrete wilderness that is Yokohama. I was going up there with the sole purpose of going with Ana, Damien, & Miwa to see a jazz concert put on by a co-worker of Ana's. But my school had a system-wide meeting so all the teachers took off after 3rd period, so I did too. I took the opportunity to shell out a goodly portion of my paycheck to finish paying for my plane ticket home and then I got a new pair of glasses, always a big deal for someone who is incapacitated without corrective vision. I found a relatively cheap pair of titanium frames and fairly thin lenses for a decent price.

The jazz concert was amazing. Michael Chesnick, the frontman and sax player, came here a little over a year ago. I guess he'd already studied a fair amount of Japanese, but his ability has skyrocketed since coming here. He formed his own band, the Michael Chesnick Quartet, and they've had a couple paying gigs over the past month or so. I guess business isn't enough to quit the EFL biz, but I think he's on his way. And he's pretty talented, which oughta help. According to Ana, who attended his previous gig, the piano player was the same, but the bassist and drummer were different. The musicians were funny to watch, each has his own groove he'd get into and physical ticks and habits.

In other news, I got to see Corpse Bride, the Time Burton spooky Halloween flick. I don't know when it came out back home, might've been last year, might've been last week. I enjoyed it for the most part. It was more for kids, I guess, but I was entertained. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a huge thing over here, so this one probably will be too.

I'd planned on going to the Tokyo Motor Show today, but nobody seems to have a desire to go and I'm under the weather, so I'll have to give it a miss. Maybe I'll go this weekend, the last one, if I can persuade someone. But better I rest and recover. Now that hte exciting week is done, I can go back to being a hermit.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Things Children Say...

My last day at this particular school was yesterday. The teacher wanted me to do a bit on holidays in the US, and she chose Thanksgiving and Easter (for some reason) as additional ones to Halloween. It was a listening task where I explained a little about each holiday and they students had to fill in the blanks in Japanese. My bits on Thanksgiving got some laughs, especially describing turkeys ('big chickens'), but Easter took the cake. I told the children that "two symbols of Easter are eggs and rabbits." One of the little girls couldn't fathom this, she kept asking me about why eggs, and then said she couldn't understand why we'd want to feed eggs to rabbits. Sounds pretty strange for a holiday activity. But just try explaining the religious meaning behind it. In the simplest words, I said that "Jesus Christ died and then was alive again." They couldn't understand the name, which was the answer for one of the questions, so they kepst begging me to repeat that bit. So I said, "this man, Christ, was killed, he died, and the next day he was alive again." The same little girl jumped up and shouted, "I know! It's Dracula!"

The first-years at this school really warmed up to me. Usually they stand there in awe of me, or run away like I'm some big, evil demon coming to get them. But these kids were full of questions and made every effort to speak to me. One of the boys would come to the teachers' room between classes and ask me questions that he'd translated and written down on his hand so he'd remember. There were also a pack of girls who'd hijack me in the hallway and beg me to take off my glasses or my shoes so they could try them on. Kids here seem so much more innocent and childlike, yet they're giving a lot more responsibility compared to kids in the states, or at least how I remember my schooling to be like. I'll try and write more about that later.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Stanford, meet Apple, Apple, Stanford

For anyone interested, looks like Standford University has put some content up on iTunes for free. Lectures, sports games, etc. I'm gonna enjoy listening to some of the lectures during my commute. I think we'll start with sleep disorders. Maybe there's something in there about me. link to ArsTechnica

Chicken Hearts and Japanese commodes

Last night I went with Ana and Damien to have dinner with some Japanese friends of Ana's. We went to an o-konomiyaki restaurant. For less than $30, we got a set course dinner and 2 hours of all-you-can-drink goodness. This kind of restaurant has a large grill in the middle of the table, with a wooden ledge around it for you to put your plates, drinks, etc on. You cook your own food and enjoy.

The first course consisted of two plates, one filled with veggies(pumpkin, sweet potatoes, carrots and eggplant) and meat(chicken hearts, beef, normal chicken and pork), the other contained seafood(a couple sliced up squid, scallops, and a big prawn for each of us) and a huge mount of bean sprouts. Plop it on the grill and away you go. The chicken hearts were pretty much the only thing I didn't care for, they were a bit fibrous and chewy. But the rest was fun, especially cooking the prawns because they changed color. At least they weren't alive like my last seafood encounter. Course 2 was that wonderful o-konomiyaki in a few different styles, the original Osaka style, the Hiroshima style which adds ramen noodles, and the Tokyo style called monjayaki. Course 3 was yakisoba, grilled noodles, cabbage and bean sprouts. Yum. A salad appeared somewhere in the middle of dinner and vanished just as quickly. So did the roughly 5 bottles of sake that I demolished over the course of the meal. The thing with paying so much for all-you-can-drink is, you feel you have to drink as much as possible in the alloted time. Unfortunately, I had to work the next day.

We planned it early because Ana's friends and I all work on Mondays, and Ana & Damien were headed to Disneyland the next morning, so I got to bed alright. But something, either the overload of meat or the sake got to me as I was on the train going to work.

Here's the thing. Most of Japan is alright when it comes to bathrooms. You can almost always find a Western-style toilet wherever you go. At my previous schools, there were always one Western- and one Japanese-style toilet in the teachers' bathroom. Then I got to this school. This one has only Japanese-style squat toilets. I can understand being in Morocco and all there is is a plastic square with raised footplates for you to stand on and do your business. It's a developing country. But in a junior high school in a big city in Japan, there are only squatters. Try this at home: stand with your feet about 8 inches apart, then squat down as far as you can keeping your feet flat the whole time. Now imagine being in a slightly nauseous state of being and using the toilet. That about sums up my day.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

WTF is up with me & organizing stuff?

I'm a conflicted person. I have a need for things to be organized, yet I'm too lazy to actually do it. Thus I lead a life of frustration and teeth-grinding that's gonna make my dentist a fortune. I've been working on the roughly 3GB of photos I've taken since I acquired my digital camera back in November 2003. I have photos from 3 continents and roughly 9 countries to organize. And it's a nightmare. I read a roudup of photo album software on ArsTechnica recently, and decided to try out Picasa, mostly because it's free and I'd installed it when I had to upload my profile photo for this blog. It's pretty decent stuff as far as organizing goes, but what I hate is the lack of subfolders in the albums. You have your collections, and inside that you get your choice of albums. So for me, each country I visit is a collection, but Japan's collection is giving me a migraine. How do you organize 2,700 photos using only one level of albums? If I want a subsection for trips and another for people, by golly I should be able to do it. And it's nice and all that Picasa doesn't change the actual location of the photos, but it'd be nice to have the option sometimes.

Anyway, this isn't really a post about much. I'm just whingeing about something because I'm putting off actually doing it. So here goes, hope it works. Btw, should have some photos posted soon from my B'day party back in September and the nightmare of a trip to O-shima. I guess I can take heart in the fact that I wasn't on the island when the typhoon past directly over the islands last week.

He's baaack!

Since it's gotten a bit cooler and the typhoon season has swept all the haze out to sea, the sky's become much clearer. The past couple days were rather blah, overcast and cool. But today's a bright, sunny day and Mr. Fuji is back with a hint of white snow starting to be visible. I've had the luck of being able to see the mountain from every apartment I've lived in. The best view was from the previous place, it being on the 12th floor and an unobstructed view. Now, I have to lean precariously over the balcony railing, but you can just see it between buildings and behind some power lines. So here it is, the first good view of Fuji this fall.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

New Technology Brings New Problems

If you check this site religiously (hi, mom) then yoy may have seen a few comments pop up only to get deleted. Seems somebody's figured out how to post ads into comments. What bastards. I log in and see that someone's finally posted a comment, only to open it up and see that some bastard wants me to refinance my nonexistent mortgage. Well, I've set comments so you'll have to be registered somewhere (either on the site or with blogger somehow) in order to post. Sorry to do it, but people taking advantage of the system cause problems for everyone.

Oh, and it's still raining. We'll have the 20th typhoon of the year brush by, but shouldn't be much beyond the crappy rain that gets to us.

Monday, October 17, 2005


Well, it's more than halfway through October, and I was hoping I'd have something fun and interesting to write about. Unfortunately, not so much has happened. I had the first 12 days of the month off, and headed out to O-shima with Julian. The weather was crap, we couldn't see anything, and I spent my last evening there pinning a live lobster to a grill in order to feed myself. Maybe tomorrow at work I'll write a little narrative about that trip.

The weather has been crap lately. I think Wednesday and Thursday we had decent weather, where it was cool and sunny, but besides that it's been raining and miserable. Right now it's pattering against the window, and Tracey just came home from work drenched after riding home. I'd like to go get another beer from the corner store, but there's no way I'm going out in this weather. That's about it, really. I've got no days off until the beginning of November, when we have a national holiday. Luckily, it's the day after a co-worker of Ana's is playing a jazz gig in Yokohama, so I'll finally get a chance to go out on the town there. I haven't gone out enough for living so close to Yokohama and Tokyo, two very large cities with a notable nightlife.

So that's it for now, it's 10pm and time for a shower and bed. I'm pathetic.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The vacation continues

So I'm on my still-unexplained vacation. There was a blank on our schedule and they told us not to show up. Go figure. But then they decided to call us and try and persuade us to help out with training for some new people. Julian wasn't fast enough on turning the company down (I said I had plans every day, and they didn't push it; I think my contract actually requires me to be available when I have vacation), so he had to work Monday and Tuesday, helping our gaijin boss in Yokohama (which necessitated getting up really early).

Tomorrow (Wednesday) he and I leave for O-shima, the largest and closest of the 7 islands that start just outside Sagami Bay and stretch quite a ways south. It's an active volcano for an island, I think it erupted 20 years or so ago, hopefully it won't make a repeat performance while we're there. We got a really good deal on a package: roundtrip ferry from Atami (only 45 minutes away by train), 2 nights in a minshuku, or Japanese-style inn, with dinners and breakfasts for roughly $170/person. Well, it's not all that cheap, but considering we'd probably spend that much just boozing it up in Hiratsuka, it makes sense somehow.

Sunday I went to my most recent JHS bunkasai (cultural festival). It was a lot of fun. Various clubs had presentations set up, the health club had a variety of physical ability tests to do. The students made me do it, and were suitably impressed (think juggling-circus-bear impressed, not wow-he's-good impressed), considering I'm twice their age. The only thing I didn't do well at was the flexibility test, which I failed miserably. The special ed class did a tea ceremony presentation, which was fun to see. The kids there are just adorable, they love to wave and say hello, and if I interact with them at all it seems to make their day. Gives me that warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

So after it was all said and done, I met the teachers at an izakaya for a drinking party. It was fun watching them all get pissed up, though most of them were light drinkers. The vice principal seemed a bit wobbly but in high spirits. The principal maintained his required level of dignity, ducking out early saying he was feeling under the weather. That left me free to persuade all these 40-something teachers to go do print club. Do you know those photo booths in shopping malls? The ones you always think are for passport photos but when you try it out you end up with a heart-shaped frame around it that says "Best friends forever"? Well, it's a phenomenon here, and while usually it's junior high school girls, foreigners and drunk adults (especially drunk foreigners) get into it too. So we crammed about 8 usually staid Japanese educators into a booth for photos. I've now got some good photo blackmail. After that was some karaoke, where I tortured them with some Billy Joel and the Beatles, and they sang some traditional enka songs. It's always funny to see people who are normally so serious and uptight really cut loose. One of the teachers invited me to his house to meet his college-age daughter and help her with her English. I think he was pretty smashed, doubt he'll extend the offer again sober.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Flying home

I booked my flight home yesterday. I've been worried about getting a decent price on a ticket home. It's impossible to get one for less than $1000, especially flying as close to Xmas as I am. So I'm taking a couple days off beforehand so I can fly back at a reasonable time and price. Getting home the day before Xmas wouldn't be so fun.

I fly out of Narita at 3:45pm on December 21st, and after a short layover in Detroit, I'll touch down in Indy a bit after 4pm the same day. If only it took 30 minutes for the flight. I'm sure I'll be going stir crazy after 14 hours on a plane. Going across the dateline is always weird that way.

Then I'll leave on January 7th in the morning and arrive in Tokyo after 4pm on the 8th. I'll probably get home around 7pm, just in time to go to sleep because I'll be so jet-lagged and then have to get up and go to work on the 9th. ugh

I don't think jet lag will be that bad coming back to Japan this time. Before, I would wake up completely wired and alert at 6am, but by 7:30 or 8pm I'd be crashing. Working for Nova, I wouldn't finish until 9pm, and since it took me almost 2 weeks to get through the jet lag, it was hell. But this time it'll be almost exactly like my normal schedule, so no big deal. I hope.

More vacation...already?

So after a 6-week summer break, and a string of 3-day weekends, the board of education has seen fit not to have Julian nor I work next week. So we'll have 11 days straight off. It'd be nice if we'd actually get a decent paycheck before they do this, but I'll survive. I can't complain much if they're gonna pay me anyway.

We're looking at heading down to Hachijojima, the 7th and final in a string of volcanic islands that are directly south of Sagami Bay where I live. I used to be able to see the closest and biggest one, Ooshima, from my apartment on the 12th floor downtown, but only on clear days. Hachijojima will be about 11 hours by overnight ferry from Tokyo. We'll stay a couple of nights in a minshuku, a cheap Japanese inn. The inn will probably be an experience, considering they don't get many foreigners out there. I hear tell there's an Aussie who moved out there recently and opened up a bar, but I'll believe it when I see it. I can tell you how it'll go: the innkeeper will only speak a dialect of Japanese we can't understand, I'll smack my head more than a few times on ridiculously low doorframes, and they'll serve us pan-fried whole fish with fermented soy beans and some sort of seaweed paste for breakfast.

All in all, I'm quite looking forward to it. Julian says the island is famous for a type of flying fish that is fermented in soy beans for months on end and comes out so foul-smelling that even mainland Japanese gag at the stench. Can't wait to try it!

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Travel galore

So, after coming back from a 6 week summer vacation, I've had 3 3-day weekends in a row. Next week will be my second 5-day workweek since sometime in July. Because I didn't work in August, I only get paid 60% of my full-time salary. Somehow a hole managed to work its way into my schedule, and I now end up with time off from Oct. 1st through the 11th. So the question is, what the heck am I going to do with myself. There are so many places I want to visit, but they all require money. Coincidentally, my crap paycheck arrives the day before I start my surprise vacation. Any suggestions? I'm thinking Thailand. I never thought I'd bitch about getting a vacation.

Monday, September 19, 2005

One Other Thing

Tonight I downloaded Google Earth. It's the coolest program I've seen in a while. I found my home back in Zionsville, the resolution was good enough that I could see the speck that is my derelict car sitting in my parents' driveway. (Btw, if anyone wants a used BMW, I got one for ya cheap) I also found my current apartment in Hiratsuka, Ana's apartment, and the radio antenna on top of the nearby mountain Shonandaira. I was able to spot my old apartments in Madrid, although these were more rough guesstimations since it's more difficult to assess exactly which part of the block it's in. All in all, really cool stuff and I highly recommend checking it out, if for nothing more than to see your house. Also, if you ask, I can try and send you the position of my apartment in Japan if anybody wants to see where I live.

OK, that's enough, I'm really going to bed now. I can't believe I have to go to bed at 10pm. I feel like a little kid.

Notes on Nothing

Well, a week without posting isn't so bad. I'm slowly getting back into the swing of things. Work seems odd now after so many weeks away. It's not helped by the fact that I have only had one full workweek since I returned. Three of my weekends in September are 3 day weekends. It would be great if I had the money to go anywhere. Basically I'm left to sit around and try not to spend too much.

Like I posted before, this month is the birthday month. Mine was the 7th, Ana's roommate Erin had hers on the 15th. Damien is this Friday and Amanda's is next Sunday. My roommate Tracey celebrates hers on the 1st of October, which for proximity's sake, we can add here. So that's a lot of birthdays to prepare for. And since they all got me nice things, I'm gonna have to scrounge up some sort of knickknack to give them. Giving presents always makes me nervous. I don't enjoy getting presents I can't use or consume. The worst are things that serve no real purpose, not even decorative, but will sit in the back of your closet or sit on display only when that person comes over. Since that's how I feel, I'd hate to give someone a present like that. Much better a good experience or something consumable. That's why I like giving bottles of wine so much. It's more enjoyable. Oh well, I'm sure something will come up. I just haven't decided yet.

And that's my note on nothing for today. Maybe I'll tap something up tomorrow. It's steak night, so I'm gonna plug myself full of steak.

Monday, September 12, 2005

A Brief Update

So I've been diving back into work and having my birthday, so I've been a little busy, and there just hasn't ever been time to write. Although I guess that happens a lot. So here are some highlights of my time.

I had my birthday on the 7th. Ana and Julian tried to organize a surprise party for me, inviting lots of friends along. It was good, though not really a surprise after Julian let it slip when they were still organizing it. I got some great presents, a box from home that my mom filled with microwave popcorn and a 1 gig memory card for my camera. Ana and Damien got me a recipe book and a bunch of kitchen utensils. I think it's a hint since I always go to Ana's for dinner but haven't had them up that often to my place. I got a photo book of Tokyo from my roommate Tracey, and Miwa gave me a book to help me study Japanese. I've applied to take the Japanese Proficiency Test in December - at the lowest level, of course - so I need to study more.

Work's been alright. There were four ALTs: myself, Julian, and this Canadian couple from Fujisawa's sister city. One of the couple finished his contract in August, so they both took off to Calgary and called from there to say they wouldn't hang around. The head people changed everything around and gave me completely different schools to go to. So I have to spend this month saying goodbye to all the students and teachers at the schools. Fortunately, Julian gets all of mine, including one that takes forever to get to, and I'm sure I'll hear about them all from him.

That's about it, except I haven't slept well this weekend (too much going out) and it's late here so I need my beauty sleep. I'll try to write more later.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Vietnam Photos Now Up

Just what the title says, though there's been a bit of a change. Because Yahoo Photos doesn't allow me to create subfolders, and I've posted around 250 photos, I'm using an alternate account to display them. So, please go here. The folders are in chronological order, starting from the first album, Saigon, through to Ha Noi. The photos should be almost entirely in chronological order within the folders, barring a few exceptions.

Now, I haven't had the time to put comments on all these photos nor linkified from my blog entries. The comments will get done eventually, but not sure about the link. So enjoy, and feel free to ask any questions in the comments here and I'll do my best to answer them, if you can't wait until I write more.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Back Home Again in Japan

I arrived back in Japan on the morning of the 23rd. I spent the day in Narita visiting my friend Yumi, then caught a late train back to Hiratsuka. I stayed at Ana's since the buses had stopped running and got to spend time with her and her roommates, as well as Damien. I've still got another week til I start work again, so I'm going to attempt a climb of Mt. Fuji and see all the people I haven't been able to see yet. Unfortunately, the typhoon that's blowing through today isn't helping, so I'm stuck inside unpacking and trying to organize all my photos. I'll hopefully post a bunch of them over the next few days and maybe write some more about Vietnam and my impressions after taking it all in.

Monday, August 22, 2005


I've finally arrived in Hanoi. I don't know what anyone else knows about it, but all I'd ever heard conjured up visions of American POWs and a city practically flattened by bombing during the war. Actually, Hanoi is a very European city, having been the capital of French Indochina. Within an hour of arriving I wandered down one street and ended in a plaza with a giant French cathedral at one end. I could've been in Marseilles or Nice were it not for the zipping motorbikes and conical hats. They also have baguettes here, I've bought three to savor during my flight back.

One thing that I definitely notice between here and the south is that the military fashion is still in. Olive drab is very popular, and you see almost all the men wearing the green hard helmets. The people are also a little bit cooler towards foreigners, and fewer people speak English. Another thing I noticed is that nobody here wants to haggle for anything, and if you don't like their (relatively) high prices, you can just fuck right off. A 1.5 liter bottle of water costs 4,000 VND (roughly 25 cents) in Saigon. In Hanoi, you're lucky to find one for 6,000. It's only about 12 cents difference, but it is a 50% increase. Maybe I'm just being stingy.

I didn't feel like doing much sightseeing, so I've been buying last-minute souvenirs and searching for the Thai/Indian fisherman's pants that are so popular with the backpacking crowds. I finally found a place, but the can only make 2 pairs for me. I've also spent my afternoons savoring the coffee seated next to the lake, watching the world pass by.

On the hellish overnight train from Hue, I met a girl going with her mom to visit her college-age sister. She gave me her phone number and told me to call her when I arrived in Hanoi. The three of us plus her sister's friend went to a village outside Hanoi to see how traditional ceramics were made, and I got to enjoy a motorbike ride in the finally cooler air. It'd been sweltering up until late last night when a tremendous storm blew in. I could hear the rain and thunder from deep inside the building. It finally quit right as we left town and it's been cooler ever since, though still rather humid.

Anyway, I'm off to pick up my pants and then head to the airport. I hate having to leave here at 6, my flight isn't until 11:30pm, but that's the last $2 minibus and I don't want to pay 5 times that to get a taxi, not for a couple hours sitting around the hotel instead of the airport. Funny to think in less than 24 hours I'll be back in Japan, which will feel like home compared to here. To tell the truth, I'm ready to go back to a safe place where you don't have to guard your wallet and the vendors don't charge you 400% the local price. It just costs that much for everyone.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Hello Hanoi!

Eventually I made it to Cat Ba island. Cat Ba is the largest island in the Halong area. Halong Bay is dotted with small, rocky mountains that jut up out of the water. Technically speaking, Halong Bay is only the open area of water by Halong City, but for our purposes it includes the surrounding karsks and formations. More than half the island is a National Park, with some small villages and one town that caters to tourists. Of course, I ended up in the touristy area. Everything there is expensive, at least by Vietnamese standards, and as such everyone is loath to pay for anything not absolutely necessary. I ended up taking a tour my first full day. I really wanted to go kayaking around the formations, and this guy promised it, albeit after a morning walk to see a hilltribe village. Sounds good. Well, the pleasant walk turned out to be a hellish hike. From the village we could either sit around and do nothing for 2 hours, or go on this hike. It was sprinkling a bit as we headed out, not that it mattered after a while - we were all soaking wet with sweat anyways. The so-called trail ended up being a stream at various points, then as it turned upward it became a mudbath due to the heavy rains the previous couple of days. After about 30 minutes hiking up the slick mud we hit the rocks, sharp and pointy with just enough slick, wet spots to make it very dangerous. I'd been told we'd go kayaking, so I was wearing my swim trunks and sandals. One poor German guy, Christian, was only wearing flip-flops as he had no idea what would be happening.

The view up was fantastic, though. We were able to see all the way to Halong City, and take in the view from extremely high up. Then came the best part, going down. Down is always more difficult, this path particularly so. A few Brits and I took the lead, not really waiting for anybody. We just wanted to get down and get cleaned up. I don't think anybody got back without slipping and getting either a bruise or cut someplace. I lost a couple layers of skin on my palm when I slipped and grabbed a rock. One girl managed to fall and land sitting on a sharp jut of a rock. Ouch! The nice part was stuffing ourselves with food back at the village and after a pleasant walk back to the boats we took a swim in one of the grottos. I met some really interesting people on the tour, particularly a couple of nice Austrian girls and Christian, the German. We ended up spending that evening hanging out, sharing stories, and going to the beach together the next day. I also rented a motorbike and drove to the far side of the island to see the beautiful scenery. It was great until I got caught in a downpour that made driving impossible. The beach near Cat Ba town had been damaged a few weeks before by the typhoon and debris was washed up all along the shore. But the waves were big and fun to swim in. We also got to witness a landslide that partly ruined the new landscaping of a hotel resort and reminded me that the Vietnamese aren't known for either their environmental awareness nor their capacity for landscaping. I caught an early morning ferry to Hanoi after my third night (yesterday) and have beeng wandering the Old Quarter looking for souvenirs to bring back to my schools. I fly out tomorrow, so I'll also have to stock up on baguettes and strong coffee that'll strip the enamel off your teeth.

On the Road

I've just finished a (for me) rather whirlwind series of hops, skips and jumps through various places. I wound up on Cat Ba island, just south of the famous Halong Bay, where internet is 3 times as expensive and works like crap, which precluded me from posting then. So I arrived in Hanoi yesterday afternoon, and I've steadily been trying to find all the crap that I wanted to buy for people before I go back. But as to how I got here...

Hue is a nice city, around 60 km north of Danang, which itself is about 30 km north of Hoi An. I wish I'd stayed in Hue longer, but it couldn't be helped. I stayed one night in a little hotel. Across the street was a place called "Cafe on The Wheels," unbeknownst to me a very popular hangout with the backpacker crowd and a good place to arrange a motorbike tour. My guide was quite friendly and drove me around to all the major sites, so I got to see the big things, but I didn't have the chance to enjoy Hue's main claim to fame, its cuisine. Ah well, there's always next year.

I'd tried to book an overnight train after my one night in Hue, but I wasn't able to get a sleeper car. Which meant I had to take an upright seat in a normal car overnight. This was my worst nightmare. I don't think I've ever spent a worse night, not since I got locked out of a hostel in Madrid and had to wander the streets until it opened in the morning. The guy sitting next to me was young Vietnamese soldier who spoke no english, but thought it'd be fun to try and jabber at me periodically and managed to buy the absolute loudest snack possible and eat it once the lights had gone out. I couldn't sleep squashed up against him and because the old lady behind me kicked my seat every time I tried to lean back, I spent about 3 hours trying to sleep sideways with that loud crunching sound in my ear.

Eventually I wandered back a couple cars and came across a couple of university students, neither of whom could speak English. We pantomimed at each other for a bit, then one lent me his foldout chair to set up in the corridor so I could get a couple hours of sleep. I was pretty exhausted by the time I got out at Ninh Binh, only to be assaulted by touts for hotels at the station exit. They wouldn't leave me alone, even following me when I sat down at a cafe to have some coffee and think. Eventually I gave up and rented a motorbike from one to head out to Tam Coc.

Tam Coc is similar to Halong Bay, except that instead of the dramatic rocks jutting up out of the water, they are surrounded by rice paddies and lakes. The drive out there was breathtaking, since the morning mist still hung around and obscured the tops of the karsks. At the park, you can take a boat ride past, between, and even under, via caves, the limestone. It was really amazing, breathtaking, until we got about 3km, at which point you turn around and come back. But before that, another boat will paddle up and then begins the hassling, in the midst of all this natural beauty, for you to buy something. Can of coke? How about some bananas or dragon fruit? It goes on and they're relentless. After little to no sleep and an aggravating morning, this didn't go down well with me. I ended up shelling out for a drink and told the guide to take me back. On the way back he tried to get me to buy embroidered crap, and when I flat out refused, he tried to drop me off 1km from the start and make me walk. All in all, not pleasant. Fortunately, there was a pretty Buddhist temple built in one of the mountains to take my mind off it.

Going through the caves behind the temple, or rather, the caves that house part of the temple, I came across this really strange guy. He refused to speak at all, just showing me particular formations that resembled an old man, and another that looked like an elephant. Then he led me up a small path I would've never found myself to a smaller shrine with a great view of the paddies and karsks from up high. He kept pointing at my Lonely Planet guide to show me that it was there that one of the photos was taken. Suddenly, he put his fingers to his lips and ran quietly and quickly into the brush, disappearing completely. Behind me some guy started yelling at me in Vietnamese. A cop or Party official was up there angrily gesturing for me to get down from there. I quickly followed his directions and went down, while he remained up there slowly looking around. I don't know who my mute guide was or what it was all about, but it was just another bizarre thing to happen to me that day.

Back at the hotel, I returned the motorbike and grabbed my stuff. The guy had told me he'd take me to Haiphong, but I guess what he really meant was that he'd take me to a street corner where I'd stand and hope a bus would come by and take me. A crazy local bus screeched to a halt and a guy jumped out, threw all my bags onboard and dragged me up. When I was halfway on, the bus took off and I had to pull myself up to avoid being trapped in the doors. He charged me about $2 to go the 90 km to Haiphong, and I sat down to enjoy the trip. The only memorable thing was watching a full-sized white horse eating garbage in a gutter in the middle of Haiphone city. Not soon afterwards, they stopped, threw my bags out and told me I was here and left. I had absolutely no idea where I was, if I was even in Haiphong, nor what to do now that I was here. I wanted to head to Cat Ba island, so I got some guy on a motorbike who'd been hassling me since I was crapped out the side of the bus, and he took me to the ferry station where I learned all the ferries had left for the day. A woman there told me she knew of a ferry leaving, but it was 3 km away. She charged me a quarter of a million dong (roughly $16) and told me that if I didn't like it I was welcome to pay $25 to stay a night in a hotel and then pay more for a ferry the next morning. Can't argue with that. So after handing over the money and not even getting a receipt, this kid (really, he couldnt've been more than 16) pulls up on a motorbike and she tells me to load all my bags up and get on. Now, vietnamese people tend to have trouble with numbers, especially, it seems, saying the difference between 3, 13 and 30. What she meant to say was that I would have to go 30km at high velocity precariously balanced on the back of a motorbike holding all of my bags (I picked up all my souvenirs in Hoi An). What she said was, "It very close, only 3 km. Thank y' for money. Bye-bye!" Next up, I'll write about Cat Ba.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Frustration Sets In

I've been here for going on 6 days or so now, and I'll be leaving for Hue tomorrow. I really like Hoi An. It has a tiny Old Quarter filled with tailor shops and artist-owned art galleries. I've managed to meet people here, too. The receptionist at my hotel in Dalat is from here and she was coming home to visit her family, so we made plans for her to show me around her hometown and hopefully see things the average tourist doesn't see. I got to visit her grandmother's house, a brand-new construction in a quiet neighborhood. It gave me a nice opportunity to learn more about the people here and for her to practice her English.

The town is lovely. But my biggest complaint is about all the people who want to sell you something and are annoyingly persistent in it. I can rationalize their reasons, economy and all that, and I realize that it's a touristy town, but you think I could walk out of my hotel in the morning without 3 people up and down the street calling out for a motorbike. Then, wherever I go, each street corner has either two or three guys laying on their scooters pestering me to take a ride or a small vendor's cart with old ladies constantly saying, "you buy something!" I don't think even in Saigon there's such a high concentration of touts and solicitors.

So enough whingeing(sp?). I've had almost an entirely new work wardrobe made, definitely a good thing since I've been alternating between two pairs of pants for over a year now and Japanese business shirts never quite seem to reach my wrists. I also got a couple traditional Chinese shirts made, which I was hoping would be cooler, but the one I'm wearing now is soaked through with sweat sitting as I am in a sweltering cafe, but I hope it looks decent.

I moved out of my hotel today and into a beautiful one that for one night costs almost as much as I paid for five in the previous one. But it's gorgeous and I can take some time to hang out and see it properly, and feel like I actually have a lot of money to sit around and sip coffee and eat delicious fruit. The previous hotel is a room with a passable bed and a bathroom that's not too dirty. That's usually enough for me. But every now and then it's nice to splurge a little. My problem is that I've been splurging a little too much, actually I've been splurging all over the city. I don't know if that last phrase came out as intended, but I'm late for lunch so it'll have to stay. Last night walking down the street, I ran into one Ricardo and Laura, the Spanish couple I'd met in Dalat. So I'm showing them a fantastic restaurant here and then heading off for the beach.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Important Things for Travel Update

I guess it behooves me to actually check the comments sections. I had no idea people actually wrote anything there. So for those of you still in total suspense as to whether I'd get things together to continue on, I did get my passport back the next morning, the hotel in Saigon sent it on the next tour bus. Guess that's my insurance bit from the $20 open bus ticket I paid for and will only use once. And Tracey, bless her, transferred my paycheck to my other account. For those of you not in on my absurd drama, I had to get a new bank account along with my new job. The problem is that I have an international ATM card only with my old account, and all attempts to get one for my new account (the one that had my paycheck deposited on the 1st) failed miserably. So my very kind flatmate (she's Scottish and roommate sounds weird to her) had to go and transfer money. What a headache!

But everything's all good now, and I'm set to blow this month's pay on cheap tailored clothes.

PS - thanks for the encouragement, Nancy! I wish I'd kept a better diary in Europe and Japan to compile stories better. Oh, well, guess I'll have to go back and do it again, darn!

Out of Touch, Into Hoi An

The one problem with a weblog is that if you're out in the middle of nowhere and want to post something, it can be rather difficult. So I end up with about 5 days of backlog to write about. But that'd be too long, so I'll have to summarize, I guess.
I took off from Dalat in the Central Highlands with my Easyrider guide, Trung Pagoda (I swear he told me that's his name, though I think these guys pick an alias for one part). Trung's a very knowledgeable guy, he learned English from his father, who was a South Vietnamese pilot shot down and captured during the war. He'd hoped to be a commercial pilot after the war, but due to his political feelings he can't hold any job beyond farmer. Trung spent 3 years as a lay person studying in a Buddhist monastery, one he took us to on a day trip around Dalat.
I did a 3 day tour from Dalat north to Buon Me Thout, then east to Nha Trang on the coast where we parted ways. Along the way, he took me to spend the night in a traditional Manong hilltribe longhouse, where I was awakened at 4:30 am when the sun came up and all the animals and people started making noise. The animals all sleep under the house, so my wake-up call was the pig 2 feet beneath me grunting for breakfast. The Manong tribe don't rely much on tourism, and what money comes in from tourists spending the night in local houses goes to the headman, who distributes it for the education of the children. For me, it seems a noble purpose; and a heck of a lot better than having kids pursue you up the road trying to sell you gum or photocopied books.
My guide's main interest is in showing people the Vietnam you don't see when you take a package tour, and he delights in showing off the local industries, such as the silk, bamboo, and rice wine-makers I saw on my day trips. I got to see a tea factory, coffee bean processing factory - both family-owned - and a pair of septagenarian (sp?) widowed sisters who make rice paper snacks to feed the neighborhood children breakfast. Quite a remarkable thing.
I arrived in Nha Trang on the 8th. It's a very touristy city with a very nice beach and boat trips out to the islands for snorkelling, diving and fun in the sun. I signed up for one, not really realizing that it's more of a drinking boat tour than one focused on nature. They can be fun, but when it's just you sitting there and everyone else with their friends, it can get a bit lonely. I eventually met the people around there and went snorkelling (where I realized my dream of getting certified for diving won't happen if I can't see anything underwater without glasses). We had a bit of excitement when a Korean girl panicked and inhaled seawater through her snorkel, briefly passing out. Fortunately, a Dutchman proficient in CPR was there and prevented the crew from severely damaging her when they attempted to rescucitate her. She recovered and was more embarrassed than hurt, but they still took her off for an examination. A fun part was the floating bar, which is what it sounds like, a small raft with wine and everybody has a rescue donut and floats/drinks.
Nha Trang is fun if you're on a honeymoon or part of a group of partiers, so I didn't stay entertained long, and caught a night train to Danang. I met (another) Spanish couple, Gerard and Marta, while looking for a fruit stand near the station. We decided to pool resources and split a taxi to Hoi An, a small, well-preserved town 30km south of Danang. They wanted to stop off at the Marble Mountains, which I'd not heard of, not being interested at all in Danang. I'm lucky I met them, since it turned out the be quite a nice sidetrip. There's a huge marble-carving industry, and as the Lonely Planet guide says, they'd make great souvenirs if they didn't weigh so much. I don't quite comprehend how the showrooms make any money, but they've made quite a lot of statues ranging from Christ to the Fat Buddha.
We arrived in Hoi An on the 10th ready for a shower and lunch. I stopped a random couple walking down the street to ask for a hotel recommendation. They, surprise-surprise, turned out to be Spanish also. Exhibiting that typical inclusive Spanish spirit, they offered to show us where they were I can't believe how many I've met on this trip. My first day in Hoi An I must've met at least 15, including 4 older ladies from Barcelona I'd met on my Mekong Delta tour. Small world.
I haven't seen too much of Hoi An yet, we spent yesterday just wandering and soaking up the culture. Marta's been having problems with the malaria prevention pills she's taking, which makes her skin photosensitive. I'm glad I didn't take anything, since the side-effects can be so severe for such a low-risk problem. Well, low-risk if you use mosquito spray and don't get bitten often, something I haven't managed to do yet.
Well, it seems to have stopped raining for the moment, so I'm off to see about having some clothes made. This is THE place for tailored clothes in Vietnam, so I'm going to see about a suit and maybe a few traditional Vietnamese shirts. Actually, what I really need are more pants. Both pairs I have are filthy, and I can only have one pair washed at a time, obviously. I'm planning on staying here for 4 or 5 days since the small-city atmosphere is so pleasant, and I got a good deal on a hotel room, so I'll post more on books and thoughts. I finished Robert S. McNamara's book, "In Retrospect," a must-read for anyone with a tangential interest in the Vietnam War or foreign policy. His conclusions are also extremely relevant for today, discussing limited war, involving the US in a politically unstable country, and being incapable of understanding the enemy. Next up is Graham Greene's "The Quiet American."

Thursday, August 04, 2005

A day in Da Lat

Well, today was my first full day in Da Lat. We'd met the Easy Riders, a group of independent guides who offer motorbike tours around the region, the day before and made an appointment to take a tour today. So we met up with them early in the morning and headed off for a day of fun in the off-and-on rain. The first stop was at the aptly-named Crazy House. It's a Gaudi-esque construction built by the daughter of a former Premier of Vietnam. The whole building seems to be organic and alive. It's actually designed as a hotel, with about 10 rooms now, and more under construction. It should be completed in another five years. Each room has a different name, which pertains to the fireplace in the room. My favorite was the Kangaroo Room with a giant, kangaroo-shaped fireplace and the opening for wood below where the pouch would be. The glowing red eyes kind of freaked me out, though. The garden around the hotel is straight out of Alice in Wonderland, with iron rebar spiderwebs and giant toadstools. All in all, it was a spectacular departure from the square, unimaginative buildings around Saigon. About this point, I realized that my camera wouldn't work, so I wasn't able to take any pictures today. I learned after the tour that it was the cheap knockoff batteries I'd purchsed that made it not work. Fortunately, the Spaniards I was with, Ricardo and Laura, and Inyaki and Pilar, took plenty of photos. I just hope they send them to me.

Afterwards, we headed out of town to get an idea of the economy of the region. The Da Lat area was populated by the Lat people, a hilltribe not related to the Vietnamese. In the 19th century the French discovered the area and found that not only was it a pleasant temperature year-round and a welcome respite from the mosquitos and heat of Saigon, but it was also ideal for growing flowers and coffee. So the major crops grown here are various flowers and coffee plantations, with each rural house having a small garden to grow squash, corn, cabbage and various other temperate vegetables they sell at market to supplement their income.

Really, the people around here have several small enterprises they run out of their homes, and they're all intertwined. The major industries here are silk, mushrooms, and bamboo. Some people weave bamboo baskets and lattices. They sell these to various locals who feed silkworms mulberry leaves in the bamboo baskets. When they're ready to spin their coccoons, the worms are put on the bamboo lattice. Once they've spun the coccoons, they're put back in the baskets and taken to the factory where they're processed to make silk, and the worms are boiled and taken to market to be sold as food.

Other people grow coffee on their land. They also tend to grow mushrooms, which use as a growth medium quite a bit of rubber tree sawdust. This sawdust is recycled after growing mushrooms as a fertilizer for the coffee plants. This ties with the silk in that the dried coffee bean skins are used as tinder for everything from the boilers in silk factories to the the small one-man rice wine distilleries.

I guess it's normal that everything has a purpose and a use, and poor rural folks won't waste anything, but I'm amazed by the complexity of the economy here that seems so simple on the surface, but seems to involve a very complex balance.

We also visited the Koho (sp?) hilltribe, one of the 50-odd ethnic tribes that populate the mountains of Vietnam. They have a fairly modernized way of life, in that they no londer wear their own style of clothes, live in their own style of houses, and are currently learning to speak Vietnamese more. We also visited a rather impressive waterfall, the Elephant Falls, which since we're in the rainy season was very strong and large. I'm thinking of doing a longer trip later that will see the 3 largest falls in the region.

Tomorrow we're off again on another trip, but minus Inyaki and Pilar who I think are ready to move on. So the younger couple, Ricardo and Laura, and I will head out with the same guides on motorbike to see some of the sights around town. We were thinking of doing an elephant ride, but that may have to wait. I have to say that at first I didn't want to see the hilltribes and the Mekong Delta tour wore out my patience for visiting various types of factories and such, but today I was fascinated by everything. We also got to view a bit of the Ho Chi Min Trail that was bombed heavily with napalm, and is just starting to regrow trees now. Incidentally, because of the use of Agent Orange around here, a Danish NGO has built of the first water treatment plants in the country here in Da Lat. So I suppose the water should be safe to drink, but I don't really want to risk it.

I found out there's also a university here with some American professors who teach English. I can't imagine what it would be like to live here and work in a university in this country. It seems rather crazy. Anyway, I'm off to sleep so I can be alert tomorrow on the tour. Hopefully I can post again tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Out of Saigon, into Dalat

The Mekong Delta in the southwest of the country was rather interesting, though the 3-day tour I took wasn't. It was nice because I got to meet plenty of people, though nobody who was going my way. The first day I met a group of 5 Spaniards from Madrid who invited me to spend time with them. It felt good to practice my Spanish even though I know I've lost a lot of it. The first night we had a variety of new foods, including fried frogs, grilled turtle still in its shell, and grilled mudfish. The frogs and mudfish were pretty good, but the turtle was awful. It smelled like sewage and I could hardly find any meat on it worth eating. Definitely don't want to try that again. I got to be pretty good friends with the people, and one of the girls wants to do an apartment exchange next summer, so I may have a place to stay if I want to head to Madrid for a month or so.

The Mekong tour felt like we were being herded from one place to another. Most of the things we saw were interesting, such as how they processed rice into noodles or paper for spring rolls, but after a while of that and floating up and down the river without having much context to put it in, I got bored and spent my time sleeping or reading. The last day was nice because we headed to a nice pagoda on a mountain that jutted up out of the delta and gave us a great view all around. The guide pointed out the Cambodian border, but that's as close as I got to it. Then we had to head back, which was a 2.5 hour trip by boat and then a 6 hour bus ride back to Saigon. I was exhausted by the time we got back, at nearly 9:00. I grabbed some dinner and rested up for another grueling ride to Dalat in the central highlands.

The ride left at 8 am and was supposed to be only 6 hours. With a stop for lunch and a gas break it took us 8 hours, plus another 45 minutes driving around looking for a hotel. The bus we took was from a tourist company, so they took us around to the various minihotels around the city. The problem is that everyone wants to see every one and decide, then they want to go to the next one and stay there. I wanted to just go to the one recommended by my place in Saigon, but it was at the end of the route. So I had to wait forever to find out that it was full and I'd have to find another. There were 4 Spaniards still on the bus by this point, so we all deliberated and decided to head back to the very first place. It turned out to be quite nice, except for the gutwrenching realization about that time that I'd never picked up my passport from the front counter in Saigon. So I had to call there and hopefully (cross your fingers) they'll send it to my hotel tomorrow by the same tourist bus I took. It sucks not having it because I think I'll be in very big trouble if I can't get it.

Off to sleep now so I can be fresh for my motorbike ride all over the place tomorrow. The 5 of us are meeting tomorrow to haggle with the 'Easy Riders,' a gang of motorbike tour guides that prowl around looking for fares. We'll take a tour around to see the waterfalls that dot the area around Dalat, plus maybe take in an ethnic village or two. Then tool around to see the sights here, which are rather numerous since it escaped damage during the Vietnam/American War, and off to Yok Don National Park where I want to ride an elephant. I'll try to write before I go and see what's happened. Brr, Dalat's actually chilly tonight since it's at a high altitude, which is a big change from the humid Mekong Delta and sweaty Saigon.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Illness and observations

So I've been here for 4 days now. I've seen the major sights, and I'm headed off tomorrow morning for a 3-day boat tour on the Mekong Delta. How much would you pay for transportation and hotel? How does USD14 sound? They don't cover my meals, but that's ok. I thought about going for the full-on 4 day tour with a 1 night homestay with a random family somewhere on the delta, but after wasting a day recovering from a hangover I decided I need to get a little back on track, there are more exciting adventures awaiting me further north.

I've been to a fair number of countries, and everytime I've gone to the more third world ones, like Morocco and now Vietnam, I typically last about 4 days before getting really ill. So, like clockwork, my stomach's been rumbly and I've not been feeling well. I'm a little worried since on my trips to Morocco I only felt ill in-country and as soon as I got back to Spain (only a few days), I started feeling a lot better. This time I've still got 3 weeks to go. I hope I don't feel bad the whole time.

When I was packing for my trip, I was pretty worried about what I would do with all that free time I'd have with no one to talk to. So I figured I should take a book to read and went out and spent quite a bit on a book in Spanish so it'd last me the whole time. Well, guess I wasted that money. Here, kids walk up to you on the sidewalk and try to sell you little, copied versions of various books. Just about ever book ever written on Vietnam is here, as well as almost the entire set of Lonely Planet guides pertaining to Asia. But they also have recently popular books like the latest Harry Potter and Bill Clinton's autobiography. Guess I didn't need to order those earlier, either. I feel bad about purchasing some of them, especially since I'm only choosing the most interesting books. I got When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, which I've finished already, and a couple other books I haven't gotten to yet. Heaven and Earth is a fascinating story of a farm girl who lived near the border between the two Vietnams and how she managed to keep herself alive and wrangle her way to a life in the US. It's very good because it's an honest view of both sides of the Vietnam War: the initially noble and idealistic Viet Cong, who quickly turned to terror in order to maintaing their hold on the village; and the corrupt and brutal Republicans. She also describes her experiences - both good and bad - with American troops. She eventually married a civilian contractor who took her to San Diego. The chapters of her life alternate with her modern tale of returning to Vietnam in the mid-80s to visit her family, completely unsure of what sort of reception she'd receive. It's uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time.

Yesterday I went to Cu Chi tunnels, a highly touristy attraction tailor-made for foreign tourists. First we watched this insanely propagandistic film about the heroic peasants who "held a gun in their right hand and a plough in the left," or something like that. Basically, it builds up their sacrifice without describing the tragedies that befell their families after they lost their relatives. Some families were completely obliterated, or reduced to one pitiful old woman. It's interesting to see the simple ingenuity the VC used to evade detection by the US troops, and a trip through a mockup of the tunnels was so claustrophobic I only did half of the entire 100m distance, and that tunnel had been built wider than the real ones. I couldn't fathom living or hiding down there.

Today was a visit to the "War Remnants Museum," Formerly called the "Chinese and American War Crimes Memorial," or something as unwelcoming to wealthy tourists. Guess they make more money this way. It's actually quite a well-put together exhibit, although rather one-sided. It has a great series on photojournalists on both sides, many of whom lost their lives to bring the horrors of war home to America. There's also an exhibit on the various Geneva-prohibited weapons that were used by the Americans, though I don't know how many of the weapons displayed really were prohibited. The section on Agent Orange and the horrors it still wreaks on the innocents, civilians who weren't even born at the time of the conflict, was quite gruesome. I couldn't stand it after a while and had to get out for a bit. Of course, they don't mention the atrocities committed by the Viet Cong, but it's still good for showing that war is brutal and should be avoided at all costs, and that the people who suffer most are the people who want it least - civilians caught in the middle.

I'm still forming opinions on Vietnam, and they alter with every account I read. My current book, Shadows Wind, is a rather negative portrayal of the Vietnam regime and seesm to comdemn tourists to Vietnam and just about anyone who's ever written a book about the country. The author likes to stand on his high horse and say no one's described the real Vietnam, and he will do that for us. We'll see. The next one I got was Robert S. McNamara's account of how we got into the war. After watching the documentary he made earlier, I'm very interested in delving deeper into it. I think it's something that will be pertinent well into the future, and something our current leaders would have done well to read. He describes the Vietnam War as a colossal and horrific misunderstanding. We saw it as a struggle to prevent the spread of Communism whereas the North Vietnamese saw it as just another fight against another race of imperialists (in reverse chronology, they French, the Japanese, the French before that, the Chinese, and probably some others I missed). So in failing to understand the adversary, a terrible wound was inflicted.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Arrival in Vietnam

I pulled into Vietnam last night at almost midnight. The guy was waiting to take me to my hotel, and I have a nice double bed for a pretty good price. The people there are friendly and all. I spent today just wandering around. Constantly people call out and try to get me to ride on their motorbike or taxi or to sell me something. After all day of it, it gets a tad old. I visited the Ho Chi Min museum and got a private tour from a couple really nice volunteer girls. I guess they go to college and do tours in order to practice their English. It was fun since I learned a ton more than I would've been able to glean from the signs. After that I stuffed myself with Thai food. It was ok, but not the best I've ever had. Tonight's dinner will be something Vietnamese. I'm gonna try and set up some tours over the next three or four days, to see the underground tunnel villages built by the VC during the French and American conflicts, and also to take a boat tour through the Mekong Delta. After that, I'll probably just head up to Dalat and go around there.

I want to buy a decent backpack somewhere here, and there are tons for sale, but I suck at bargaining, and they're marked higher than I want to pay. I tried my hand at haggling for a new change of clothes, but that didn't go too well. I got them down to about 55% of what they asked, but I think it was still too much. Oh well, guess they can have a nice dinner tonight.

I'm headed back for my afternoon siesta and then in the evening I'll head back out to check out the local nightlife.

PS - I tried writing emails to people, but the extraordinarily cheap cafe doesn't like the web-based emails for some reason. So most of them will have to wait until later.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

On my way, sorta...

After a rather rough last night in Hiratsuka, I'm heading off today to meet up wtih my friend Elaine and crash on her couch, since it's much closer to Narita airport. Better to do 2 of the 3 hours today rather than rushing and possibly being late/missing my plane tomorrow.

Last night I had dinner with Ana and Damien at one of our favorite (ok, at least my favorite) restaurant: The Ramen. Mmm, ramen. Then we went to a little bar to hear the sweet sounds of the band Green Shit. It was rather interesting listening to Japanese stoner folk music. I couldn't understand much except when the guy starting belting out "Pass the green shit-o," and "ganja." About half an hour was all we could tolerate, so we took off to watch Batman Begtins at the theater. Pretty good, I must say. It was much more plausible than the previous ones, although you can tell they're getting low on evil villians when they have to pull out the Scarecrow.

So after saying goodbye to them, I had a few drinks with my roommate Tracey, who doesn't go out very often, and Miwa. It was sad to leave Miwa since she just got back, but we said our goodbyes and we'll see each other soon.

By tomorrow evening I'll be in Saigon, and I'm looking at a trip to the Mekong Delta by boat for a couple days, as well as a trip to the Cu Chi Tunnels, an extensive tunnel system built by the VC during the war. I'll post before I leave Saigon to travel north and let you all know what's happening.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

...Not Only in Japan

Bizarre English translations aren't limited just to Japan. via some anime site I was checking out

Only in Japan

A good match of fake food and computing. Also available in thumb and duck (scroll down).

(via ODK)

A short respite

So I finished classes on July 15th, and I've had the past week off to enjoy some R&R before I get down to the hardcore R&R when I go to Vietnam. I spent the time doing mostly mundane stuff like cleaning the apartment - something I hadn't done lately and was probably driving my roommate Tracey crazy - and reading. I've been reading "My Life," Bill Clinton's autobiography. I'm into the 2nd volume of the paperback series, but I probably won't finish it before I go to Vietnam, which means I'll have to give it back to Ana and wait til I return to finish. He's an interesting guy, and seems a lot smarter and shows much more humility than we're usually led to believe from the media of the time. I also tore through the new Harry Potter book. It wasn't as good as the previous ones, I think the 4th one was Rowling's peak. But that's what that kind of pressure and expectation will do to a person. I wish they'd lay off her and let her work at her own pace, but that's not how the world works, I guess.

When I didn't have my nose stuck in a book or a grimy corner of my house, I spent a lot of time hanging out with my good friend Miwa, who's back from Valparaiso. She spent the last couple years studying at Ivy Tech there. She's graduated now and is looking for a permanent job. I hope she finds one around here since I enjoy her company and I don't relish returning to only chatting online or by email. Last night we went to the beach to watch the fireworks with some other random Hiratsuka gaijin. I went to a festival of floating lanterns at Enoshima island with Ana, Damien, and Amanda. Steak night was on the 20th, so a few of us went there also, where one guy tried to down a kilo of undercooked meat, which didn't sound like a good idea beforehand, and didn't look very pretty afterwards, either. On the way, we managed to stumble upon a gang of sweaty Japanese guys carrying an o-mikoshi (portable shrine) down the street in one of the myriad neighborhood festivals that go on throughout the summer. I also tried to make another trip up O-yama with my friend Kanako, recently returned from Vancouver for study. She had some trouble with the stairs, so we decided to rest and have our picnic at the shrine halfway up, until we were chased out by a gignatic bee that sent Kanako screaming and me flapping my hat around like a loon. So we sat in the restaurant up there and enjoyed tofu ice cream (which was pretty good, but didn't taste at all like tofu).

So, check out the photos page for some more photos from my week off and check out Damien's and Ana's pages for a different photographic perspective.

I'll clean up and pack, then it's off Tuesday for Vietnam for 4 weeks. It should be a good trip, although probably there will be some lonely spells since I'm going solo. I hope to meet some people and make friends along the way, but you never know what happens. I'm taking along Gabriel Garcia Marquez's autobiography, Vivir Para Contarla (Living to Tell the Tale), in Spanish. Hopefully it'll take me the whole time to read it so I don't end up lugging a book I've read as well as trying to hunt down a new one to read. I'll try to post before I leave with a rough itinerary of what I'm doing. I should be able to post from abroad, since internet cafes are supposed to be rather prevalent. Let's hope so.

Monday, July 11, 2005

A Tale of Two Festivals

This past weekend saw two very different festivals take place. First, in Hiratsuka, there was the annual Tanabata. I said I'd post some pictures, but there wasn't really that much worth putting up. I should've taken a photo of the garbage piled chest high on the street, but by that time my camera was out of batteries and I was exhausted and riding home.

On Saturday, Ana, Damien and I escaped from the festering piles of rotten food to go to Narita for the Gion Festival there. It's really funny to tell Japanese people you went to Narita for the Gion festival, because in the first place, the only conceivable reason to go to Narita is to use the airport. One of my friends, after I emailed her that I was going there for a festival asked me if I was also going to take a plane. The other part is that the name Gion is most famous as a historical area of Kyoto where the geisha were/are. So everyone, upon hearing I was going to Narita for Gion, would then ask if I was going to Kyoto. It got old, so I've given up saying where and why, and just say I went to a festival.

It's amazing the difference between the two. Tanabata in Hiratsuka is mainly a commercial affair, the streets jam-packed with food stalls and a few decorations hung along the streets. But Gion in Narita is magical. First of all, despite being known in Japan as only having an airport, and actually being infested with arrogant flight crews from said airport, Narita has a very historical part of town, including one of the top 3 Buddhist temples in the country, and the 2nd most visited at New Year's (all the more strange nobody seems to recognize the name of the temple unless it's used in the same sentence as New Year).

We theorized that Narita must've escaped much of the bombing during WWII (more on that subject in Hiratsuka some other time), and to this day retains an amazing Main Street, filled with old wooden restaurants and ryokan. One shop is filled with folk remedies, including ginger roots in glass jars, stuffed snake, elephant tusks and a polar bear skin (most of which is probably illegal to buy nowadays), while another building houses an eel restaurant. We stood and watched as the man would grab a live eel, slit it behind the gills on one side, and proceed to drive a nail through its head and fillet it, still squirming on the cutting board. Talk about fresh!

The festival lasted from Friday through Sunday. During the weekend, various neighborhoods compete (I think) by pulling out ancient and elaborate dashi and parading them around the city. Dashi are enormous portable shrines that are pulled on 4 wheels by dozens of people pulling on two ropes. The pullers are dressed up in traditional clothes and chant, while some guy runs between the two columns yelling hoarsely into a megaphone. This cacophony is accompanied by a group of drummers and flutists who ride in the dashi as well as a few guys who dance on top holding lanterns, fans, or parasols. The guys on top also have the uneviable job of making sure the statue on top doesn't hit power lines as they roll through the city. And at night, the dashi are lit up and roll through the streets like glowing beacons of revelry.

On Sunday, we were invited to a dinner given by some of Ana's old students from Narita, the Kiuchi's. Dr. Kiuchi and his wife Takako are a real unique couple. They completely defy the Japanese stereotypes. Kiuchi has a great sense of humor, and Takako is a lovely and generous hostess. Ana said they saved her when she was first in Japan, and I can see how those two could lift anybody up out of a bad experience. Anyway, this dinner was a full-course Japanese meal with 5 or 6 courses varying from amazingly tender roast beef to sea snails (which I ate successfully) and whole raw shrimp and prawns. All this was washed down, of course, with an endless supply of Japanese sake and beer. I was sad to leave early, but I had to make work Monday (which I did, though barely). The three of us were decked out in yukata and jim bei. We also met up with her former coworker, Elaine, and another former student, Yumi.

In other news, we hit a good conveyor sushi restaurant and I was the only one to actually enjoy eating raw goose meat. And nothing's more pathetic than a dog in a yukata. And you can buy anything from a vending machine. I'll write more later about my summer plans, I'm going to Vietnam for 4 weeks. Also, check out the photos I've posted from the weekend. Once I finish work this week, I'll try and get through the backlog of photos I have to post.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Tanabata is here again

So Tanabata is here again. This is THE festival for Hiratsuka, so people go all out. It's supposed to celebrate two lovers who were tragically separated and died, so they can only meet on the 7th of July. Or something like that. But the reason isn't important, it's time to have a party! There are lots of streamers and decorations up, and the whole place is packed with people and food and game stalls. And no festival in Japan is complete without a large animatronic dinosaur. This year it's an apatasaurus (sp?).

The downside is that it's all located around the station, which means if you're going anywhere (like work) you have to wade through the crowds and you can't park your bicycle anywhere near the station anymore. And like all festivals that go on for 5 or 6 days (this one ends Monday, I believe), after a while all that piled up garbage and food starts to smell pretty ripe in the hot, humid weather. I feel sorry for the poor sods who live around there. Most people from Hiratsuka don't really care for it because there aren't really any big parades or ceremonies, it just seems to be a way to get people to go out and buy outrageously priced food. Of course, I found a place last year that sells gyros, so I'll be there every day for dinner.

I'll skip out on the smelly bit, since Saturday and Sunday I'll be in Narita with Ana and Damien. We're headed that way for the Gion Festival, the largest in that city. There'll be huge omikoshi(portable shrines), so big that they'll be on wheels pushed by a couple dozen guys and somebody who has to stand on top with a stick to keep the power lines out of the way. Now that's a festival!

We all went out and got jimbei (a traditional summer thing, like a really short kimono top and shorts) and yukata, so we can walk around in style. I even bought some geta, those funny wooden shoes that balance on two vertical pieces of wood. I'm getting better at walking in them, and with the added height I'm a veritable giant here.

I'm taking it easy tonight. I had a ocuple late nights and I feel a cold coming on. Don't want to be sick in the middle of a party. I'll post up some pics of the fiesta soon.