Thursday, January 27, 2005

New Apartment

I'm going in tomorrow to put my John Hancock on a new apartment contract. This will mean the first time I've signed my life away in Japan to a 2-year lease. Basically, this commits me to living here for an additional 2 years, which is something I've thought long and hard about, and have decided it's something I want to do. That doesnt' mean I won't be back for a visit, I plan on it either around Thanksgiving time, or perhaps for Christmas, depending on the job situation.

I'm taking a 3DK here in Hiratsuka. Japanese apartments are measured by the number of rooms involved, plus some measurement of what the dining room/kitchen involve. My 3DK could be construed to be a 3 bedroom, but then again, so could my first apartment, where my 'bedroom' was a tiny storage room with no closet. There are 2 tatami rooms of 6 mats each, plus another roughly 6 mat carpeted room with a tiny sunroom-type place for drying laundry in bad weather. The area isn't as nice as my previous apartments, there are no views of Fuji from my bedroom window, but then again, I'll be paying half the price, with my choice of one roommate.

It's located NNE of Hiratsuka station, just north of a big Nissan R&D center. Lots of my students work there, I guess. It's not a difficult ride, about what my first place was. It runs about 66,000 yen (a bit over $600) per month plus utilities. The price isn't too bad, considering what Nova teachers pay, but the up-front costs are insane. I've ranted before in emails about the living situation. Basically, you are expected to shell out roughly 4-5 times the monthly rent for the 'privelige' of renting the space, and that usually doesn't include the first month's rent. I've managed to negotiate with the realtors, through some Japanese friends, who will give me a slight break, and will allow me to include my first month's rent in the up front fees.

There's a thing called reikin that translates as 'key money,' or a gift to your landlord for their graciousness in renting the space to you. It's more or less against the law, but lots of people still do it, and many realtors find a way to slip it in under other fees. I looked at one place that wanted to charge me no deposit or key money, but over $1000 in 'cleaning fees.' Talk about crazy. This place should be better. I'll have a roommate, one of my co-workers who's leaving in August. She has the complete furnishings for an apartment, down to the light fixtures (no, apartments in Japan don't come with light fixtures or light bulbs). I'll buy them off her when she leaves, and I'll inherit a fully furnished place. I'm happy because this means I'll be paying nearly half the rent I pay now, and will allow me greater freedom, i.e., I can quit working for Nova and take another job and not have to worry about being thrown out of my house. All in all, not bad. Wish me luck, moving day is March 1st.

Kyoto Trip photos are up

What the title says, the Kyoto trip photos are up. I wish I could embed links in my posts to photos on my yahoo account, but I don't think it'll work. I might give it a shot, though, see what happens. Anyway, they're all up, so you can now do a read-along with my post from way back when. Look at it this way, I've gone from 3 months between photos and posting to merely a month. Ain't technology wonderful?

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

A Tale of Two Mondays

One of the amazing things about Japan is the schizophrenic culture here. Like the buildings here, everything is either brand new neon, pastel and tacky; or it's very old, traditional, and musty. I experienced this firsthand over the past week.

Last week, Ana, Damien, and I went to Tokyo to visit a place called 'Cats Livin.' It bills itself as a 'cat theme park.' Basically, you shell out cash to go into various themed rooms and play with cats. There are about 20+ cats running around the place at any given time. Others are on display behind glass cases and brought out for periodic shifts. Now keep in mind, these cats don't always want to be petted. Nor do they always get along with the other cats. One cat was brought out and tethered to a table leg so that customers could pet it and coo over how kawaii (cute) it was. It squirmed, yowled, and generally didn't want to be touched. And for some reason it was named "Caribou." Go figure. And there was the obligatory little boy who'd pet the cats and then suddenly clap his hands loud to try and freak them out.

Afterwards, we hit the top of the Tokyo Metro Government Building, which has a free observatory that has to be the best observatory I've seen in Tokyo. The day was crystal clear and from the 48th or so story you could even make out Mt. Fuji in the setting sun. It was really good to see.

So that was the kitschy, cute side of Japan. Last night I saw one of the older sides still set in tradition. I've wanted to do something for a long time that would force me into using my Japanese and increase my knowledge of the Japanese culture somewhat. All I know of it now are an obsession with cute animals and Frog Style.

One of my students told me about a community kendo club at an elementary school in Hiratsuka. They meet on Mondays, and I dropped by to see what was going on, what it was like. I arrived a bit late, I guess. I walked into the gym and was completely lost. I was on the complete opposite side from the spectators (mostly the parents of the kids practicing). I stood in the doorway for awhile before I decided to dive in with my crappy Japanese. One of the instructors approached me and used his few sentences of English to tell me that he climbed Mt. Rainier in Washington last year. He invited me to watch, so I sat down next to one of the parents to watch what was going on. Evidently though, they thought I should jump in. The head instructor lent me the use of his shinai (bamboo sword) to practice with and sent me over with the tiny kids to practice. I ended up taking turns trying out various attacks on a dummy with a number of 7 year olds who would just stare at me when not galloping towards the dummy or pretending their shinai were rifles and shooting at each other.

Towards the end, the head instructor brought over his katana sword to teach me how to grip the handle and swing the sword. He cleared the area behind me, but everytime I swung back, I had an image of swinging back and lopping off a little kid's ear or something. It was pretty cool to see and try out, I'm definitely going to go back to see if I can learn anything. I have a feeling I'll be put with the little ones again, but since they're about at my level of Japanese I might be able to carry on a real conversation with them.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Quick Update

Hey all, I've been distracted this past week by a video game. It helps me save money by not going out and spending a ton on alcohol. But it's also prevented me from posting anything up here and getting that mountain of pics from Kyoto sorted, not that I've had anything interesting going on anyway. It's just the same old routine lately, now that we're back from New Year's break. I got sent off to Yokohama for half a day for Chibiko training. Basically, that means that after a few hours of singing and dancing, I'm now qualified in the eyes of Nova to teach 2-3 year olds. Kinda scary. But at least they're required to have a parent or guardian present to keep them under control and clean up any messes.

I can't believe that I've been here for 9 months already, it's kind of strange, it doesn't feel like that long a time. But I guess it has. Like you know, I'd planned on staying for 2 or 3 years. Which means my contract renewal time is coming up. Unfortunately, Nova likes to keep things in suspense, so they'll do the end of contract lesson observation in February, but they won't actually offer or decline a contract until exactly 3o days before my contract's up, leaving me almost no time to find another job. They've done that in the past to lots of people. I guess they do it so that when they offer you renewal, you're supposed to feel so grateful that you won't mind them not bothering to give you a raise at all, even though you've worked hard, and certainly are more capable than others. Many Japanese companies are known for standards of the lowest common denominator, and I guess this one isn't too different. So I'm keeping my options open. I've applied to be an ALT, which means teaching in a public school, or several to be exact, in my city. The interview was Tuesday, I think it went well, we'll see where it goes. I'm keeping my options open at the moment.

Anyway, if anyone who knows about html knows how to create a links sidebar, I'd be most grateful to figure out how to do it. I want to post up links to other pages, photo blogs set up by friends, that sort of thing. Until then, here's a little something to tide you over, the Engrish website

Good day all, off to work now!

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Happy Bags

There are minor phenomenons that I see in daily Japanese life that are odd or unusual or strange to my way of life and/or thinking. And I always mean to expound upon them here. But doing so can be time-consuming, especially when I'm trying to live a life here. So I haven't had much opportunity to write about my experiences all that much. But one thing I saw over the holidays were Happy Bags.

Happy Bags, or Fortune Bags, Lucky Bags, or Pleasure Bags, are basically grab bags put out by Japanese retail shops after the new year. Since there's no big shopping day between Thanksgiving and Christmas as in the US, I guess most of the sales happen over the New Year's holiday, which basically begins after Christmas and runs until about the 4th of January. But these aren't the standard $2 grab bags you see all over the States. Some of these bags can cost you over $150. Clothing stores, boutiques, and even jewelry stores offer Happy Bags. And you never know what's in them. Obviously, most clothing stores post the size of clothing on the outside of the bag and they keep it uniform for gender, so you don't end up buying a bra for a guy or something like that. Well, usually.

These bags are also nice in that the value is usually a minimum of 3 time the price of the bag. Ana, Damien, and I bought Happy Bags from a boutique/hippie shop in downtown Kyoto. The girl there gave us options of various kinds, so Damien and I took the curtains, and Ana took one with a bag or purse thingy in it. When we got home, we were in for quite a surprise. The contents of my "men's clothing and curtains" Happy Bag was this: one tiny ladies' print shirt with leaves and little elephants, a ladies' scarf, an ashtray, a tiny leather purse, a small belt or waist thingy made of string and seashells, and some curtains. Oh, and a funky day-glo Indian sticker. It only cost me about $10, and the curtains alone went for 3 times that price. So I made out ok, but I have all these girl's clothes, and the shirt doesn't even fit me. Damien and Ana both got girls' pants, complete with a flowered skirt sewn onto the outside. Surprisingly enough, they fit Damien, so they dressed up and we went to the convenience store near the hostel for some drinks. The cashiers couldn't help laughing and staring at Dam-o and his flowered skirt/pants.

A friend of Ana and myself came out much better. For about $100, he got roughly $400 worth of clothes, and all of them fit him. I'm debating the purchase of another Happy Bag, but this time from a shop I know and trust not to give me a bra or something this time around.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Welcome to the year 2005!

Happy New Year, everyone!! I got back on Sunday night from western Japan. I went with Ana and Damien to visit Kyoto, the old Imperial center and spiritual home of Japan, for 5 days of crazy fun and temple-viewing. Kyoto has a huge number of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. We also visited the Geisha district of the city, and saw a famous teahouse where the geisha still sometimes entertain exclusive guests, like European royalty. We paid a visit to Nara and Osaka, also. New Year's was spent meandering around Chion-in temple to watch monks ring a huge bell, then to another few temples to see smaller ceremonies.

Japan, as Ana has pointed out, is a land of extremes. We saw the largest wooden building in the world in Nara (Todaiji Temple, which is only 2/3 the size of the original structure), the tallest extant pagoda in the world (Toji Temple), the longest wooden structure in the world (Sanjusangen-do Temple, which houses 1,028 statues dedicated to the Kannon, the goddess of mercy), the largest temple gate and the largest bell in Japan (both at Chion-in Temple; the bell requires 17 monks to ring it 108 times for the new year), as well as the largest lake in Japan (Biwa-ko). All of these are located in Kyoto, with the exception of Todaiji Temple in Nara, and all or most of them are classed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites (except the lake, which I'm told is about as polluted as Lake Michigan).

Travelling in Japan is pretty expensive. For the cost of a flight or Shinkansen (bullet train) ticket to the other side of the country, you could fly to Korea or Guam sometimes. But during the New Year's holiday Japan Railways offers a cheap alternative. Kind of a Eurail deal, you get 5 free days of riding trains over the course of about a month for about 11,000 yen, half the price of a roundtrip ticket to Kyoto. Unfortunately, you don't get to ride comfy, cushy trains, and everyone else is doing it, so it's crowded. It took about 8 1/2 hours to get to Kyoto, using about 5 different trains. And we didn't get to sit down the whole way, either, which was a pain.

The three of us stayed in a Japanese style hostel. We had the standard thin futons and comforter that you have to fold up during the day. The room was about the same size as my bedroom, and we pretty much occupied all the space to sleep. Our bathroom was a full bath shoehorned into a typical American half-bath-sized room. It was tiny, and cramped, but I liked it; the owners were very friendly, giving us travel tips and oranges for New Year's.

The 1st day was spent travelling, we got in in the early afternoon. We checked out the Gion district, which is the birthplace of Kabuki theater, and is the extremely famous Geisha district. We hunted around the backstreets hoping to glimpse a geisha, and Ana was lucky enough to spot one riding in a taxi, probably on the way to a gig. We ate in a rather pricey traditional Japanese restaurant, but the food was good overall, though I didn't care much for plain, cold, boiled eggplant.

The 2nd day was our daytrip to Nara and Osaka, which form a triangle with Kyoto that's not more than 45 minutes by local train in any direction. Nara was an ancient capital of Japan, back in the 8th century AD, but now it's a rather quiet city that has a major deer problem. We'd heard that the place was famous for deer, which are seen as messengers from the gods or something like that. What they are now is a menace. But they're a great tourist draw. You can buy a packet of deer food for 150 yen. Somehow they know not to bother the vendors for food, but once that little packet gets into your hand, they swarm. I bought one and was immediately surrounded by hungry deer tugging at my jacket with their teeth, and butting me with their heads. One little girl sat on her dad's shoulders crying "Scary!" as her dad tried to fend them off without losing his balance. Other parents bought the food for their kids, only to have their kids be chased around by ravenous, mangy deer. The main road to the Todaiji Temple is covered with deer and vendors selling T-shirts with pious sayings like, "No Fucking." (I had to buy one of those shirts.) Todaiji Temple, you recall, is a huge building, built to house a huge statue of Buddha. It's so big that his palm can hold 5 or 8 standing monks. He was built using revolutionary techniques in casting (well, revolutionary for the 8th century). One of the support posts has a hole cut through it in the bottom that's roughly the size of the Buddha's nostril. It's said that if you can fit through it, you'll have good fortune. Of course, I had to try, and miraculously fit through to the applause of all the Japanese who thought the big, silly gaijin would get stuck.

After wedging all of us through the nostril-hole, we trekked on to Osaka for some more modern experiences. The only real sight we visited was Osaka castle, a famous example of the huge castles built by the Tokugawa Shogunate. Like nearly every castle, it's a 20th century remake, but it was still pretty to see, and it made for a good picture. I almost forgot, we saw the largest stone used in a castle defensive wall in Japan. I believe someone named it the "Octopus Stone," though I can't imagine why. The main reason to go to Osaka is for the modern pleasures in life, such as eating, karaoke, and LOTS of neon lights. We ate at a nice Thai restaurant, which you can't find in Hiratsuka, and meandered about the main shopping and going-out district, Dotonbori. Nighttime was back to Kyoto in time to crash early for a very long last day of the year.

Day 3 was New Year's Eve. This day was our main temple-viewing day. It was also pretty foul weather. It'd been nice, clear skies up until then, although a bit cold. Saturday was rainy and cold, so not very fun. We made it to Kinkaku-ji (the Temple of the Golden Pavilion), and saw one of the most famous temples in Japan. Just after was saw it and were down the path to head out, the rain turned to sleet and then snow. They say the Kinkaku-ji is very pretty in snow, and we had to turn around and check it out. The sight was amazing, and it made me stop caring for a while how bad the weather was. The next stop was Kiyomizu-dera, another Kyoto staple. The temple is set up on a hill, with a magnificent view of the city. It'd stopped raining/snowing by then, so we were able to see snow-sprinkled houses with their beautiful Japanese tile roofs. There temple's known for a spring there that pours out sacred water. 200 yen gets you a commemorative plastic cup to drink with. We met up with an American co-worker of Ana's to go out for New Year's Eve. That's when we went to Chion-in Temple and stood in a huge, long line in order to file slowly past and watch 17 monks ring a giant bell. Eastern bells aren't the same as the ones we're used to in the States. The bell is rung by pulling a large log back and thrusting it forward to collide with the bell and make the noise. There's no clapper or anything inside. The tone is much lower, since the bells are much larger than Western bells. The bell's rung 108 times, once for every sin Man is prone to commit, according to Buddhist lore. We thought that the ringing would start at midnight, like any Western ceremony. But it started about 11:20 and we were through the line in 10 or 20 minutes, leaving us with lots of time til midnight. We wandered up to a smaller temple where the priests were allowing patrons to come up and ring the bell. The onlookers stood around one of several fire rings to stay warm. I think for the Japanese, New Year's is more about the whole night and the next day, rather than the countdown to the new year. So when the new year came, it was only when one person did a 3 second countdown from the middle of the crowd, not much else.

Day 4 was a slow day to recover from the night before. We saw Sanjusangen-do, a really cool but really chilly temple with 1,001 statues of Kannon, the 1,000-armed goddess of mercy. It was pretty cool to see. Each statue is slightly different in face and clothing, so they say that everyone can find one that resembles themselves. Pretty neat, although I didn't find mine. There's a famous archery contest there every year. Historically, they talk about a famous archer who competed in a 24-hour endurance contest. He supposedly shot 15,000 arrows over that time, or about one every 9 seconds. People do strange things.

We also visited the Inari shrine, dedicated to the fox gods that are supposed to protect the harvests. There are thousands of them all over the country, but this one is the main shrine. It has a path winding through it with torii gates placed every foot or so. So you end up walking through a vermillion forest, wondering when it will end. The Inari shrine does have some of the coolest shrine offerings around. You can buy miniature torii gates to put in your home shrines or have some sort of prayer or invocation painted on and then place it on the graves of your ancestors.

Day 5 was time to see Nijo Castle, a famous castle built by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the man who started the 400-year reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Then it was time to head home. It was just as long and exhausting as the trip to Kyoto, but in reverse. I'm glad to be home, even though I loved visiting Kyoto and have to go to work tomorrow.

PS - I took a few hundred photos, so I have to sort through them before posting, so it may be a little while.