Wednesday, February 19, 2014

V-Day. It's for the Boys

   Coming to another country, it's always fun to experience the different holidays the host country celebrates. More often than not they're completely different than from home, but that's part of the fun. Japan has a few of the same holidays we do in the U.S. but the one that might surprise you the most is Valentine's Day. I can see how Christmas made it over here, but I'm still at a complete loss on how Valentine's Day became a thing. In typical Japanese fashion, they have turned that holiday into something all their own.

   In Japan there are two love-related holidays: Valentine's Day and White Day. On Valentine's Day, women give men chocolate. On March 14th, White Day, men give candy, marshmallows, or sweets to the women who gave them chocolate back in February. They're also expected to give more than they received. So if I give Josh a box of chocolates for Valentine's, he should give me back an even bigger box of candy. If that sounds strange, it gets more complicated. There are three levels of chocolate gifts to give on Valentine's Day. There is giri-choco which is the chocolate you would give to male friends, co-workers, or just someone you are not romantically interested in. If someone get giri-choco, they are in the friend zone. These would be just plain chocolates anyone can buy in a bag at store. Then there is tomo-choco. Recently, girls will give other girls chocolates on Feb. 14th. As these are friend chocolates, I don't think it matters how nice they are. A teacher my age said 10 years ago tomo-choco didn't exist, leaving chocolate loving girls all over Japan heartbroken. But the really special chocolates are honmei-choco. These are given to people you are romantically interested in, so boyfriend, husband, or crush. If you give a honmei-choco to your crush, you will be hoping that in the next month he returns the gift on White Day because it means he is crushing back. This sounds like a personal form of torture to wait an entire month to see if a guy likes you back or if he'll even realize you gave him a honmei chocolate to begin with. If you want to show a guy that you think he's the bees knees, give him homemade chocolates that you slaved away for hours at home making. One of the first things I noticed here is the popularity of making your own chocolates. They set out displays for about a month in every store with melting chocolates, decorating pens, molds, and packaging. A guy here doesn't care much about how much you spent. He wants to know you almost broke your back in half, bending over to make tiny swirls on the chocolate hearts you just burned yourself making. That's true love right there.

   White Day seems to be a bit simpler when you forget about all of the broken hearts. Guys give girls mainly marshmallows and candy, which I think is crap if you like chocolate. Girls do not give other girls anything on this day, and when I asked about guys giving guys tomo-marshmallows, I got a lot of 気持ち悪い in response.

   This year I tag-teamed chocolate and cookie making with a friend. We made shortbread hearts, regular milk chocolates shaped like hearts and cats, and Southern Comfort ganache dark chocolate hearts. I love Josh, but I don't know if I love him enough to make him chocolates again. I think we were baking and making cookies for about 6 hours. My back hurt the next day from all the bending over. Yes everything tasted amazing, but still. Godiva makes some pretty good chocolates and it will take me only 5 minutes to buy them. I also made him a card this year that was so ugly I apologized in the message. That's love. And because Josh is Josh, he got me pink roses and a heart shaped box of Godiva chocolates even though he was supposed to wait for White Day. So maybe we aren't celebrating in true Japanese Valentine's fashion, but who said we can't do some cultural blending in our lives? Certainly not me when it means Josh still has to get me something on White Day. Because who doesn't want another day to celebrate love?


Monday, February 17, 2014

Arashiyama

   In another attempt to cram all the sightseeing I could do into one Autumn, I decided to book a night away in Arashiyama, Kyoto. I had been wanting to travel up there since I first got here but, since it's a bit out of the way, I just never managed to visit. I kept saving it for a time when the seasons would be just right because you always hear about how gorgeous it is in the fall and spring. This had to be the year since we hadn't made up our minds yet about staying here for a fourth year or not. I knew it would be popular, but I wasn't expecting almost all of the hotels to be booked in October for almost every single weekend in November. After a bit of searching I found Musubian, which was still expensive, but much less so than the 2 other hotels that were still available. Looking at the website, it looked gorgeous and traditional, which are all good things.

   The weather was gorgeous and brisk when we stepped off the train, along with the hundred other people riding with us. After a few minutes walk to the main area of the town, we came across a river with this long wooden bridge stretching across to an adorable stretch of street filled with traditional Japanese architecture and fantastic shops and restaurants. There were stunning mountains covered in red, orange, and yellow everywhere we turned and with the last dim rays of afternoon light the place took on a magical quality. Initially I was so taken by the beauty of the area, it was easy to forget that there were thousands of other people sharing this with me. Shuffling across the bridge we made it over easily and found the restaurant we were looking for, Yoshimura Soba. While it was too crowded to sit in the main restaurant and look over the water, they had room for us in their small tofu restaurant. Sometimes I'm afraid really famous restaurants end up being only that, but this place was fantastic. We walked barefoot across tatami floors and ate in a very traditional room with paper sliding doors and windows facing a garden. The sets were not badly priced for such a famous restaurant, maybe about 1700 yen? And the food was fantastic. I think the only place I've had better soba was in Gifu. The tempura was cooked to perfection, the soba slightly nutty in taste, and I've been craving their sansai soba for almost 3 months now. We loved their soba tea so much, we bought some for home. We ate at a couple of places in Arashiyama and this was definitely the best restaurant.




   After a walk around some of shops, and the purchase of a very expensive fan I can't use for another few months, we finally decided to check in to our hotel. I'll just go on and talk about this place for a second because there is almost no info in English at all, or Japanese really, and I was kind of annoyed by the whole thing. This place is very cute. It's basically a reconverted house and it's a very expensive do it yourself ryokan. You make your own futons, nothing is provided, and there is a lights out at 11 p.m. None of that bothers me at all. However, the rooms are not heated or air conditioned at all and they have paper sliding doors that don't reach the ceiling. This meant that the large group of girls, who shrieked until 11 in their room, kept us up. There was also a couple who decided to go into the common room and turn on all the lights, the t.v., and slurp cup noodle until after midnight. They kept us up when we wanted to go to bed at like 10. And then everyone woke up at 6:30 and continued to loudly talk and shriek all morning. The man running the inn was very kind, but he didn't try to enforce any of their rules at all. And the onigiri we ordered from their cafe had hair in it, so yeah I don't think we will stay there again. 

   After a restless night, stepping out into the cold morning air was refreshing. We made our way over to JR Arashiyama to take the famous Sagano scenic railway. Although it was before 9 a.m., Arashiyama was already slammed with people and the charm the place held the night before quickly melted away when I realised truly how touristy this place was. I thought getting to the station an hour in advance would be plenty of time to buy a ticket, but they were already sold out for the next 3 hours completely. Turns out you can make reservations for tickets, something I did not know even though I researched the website very well. With our morning ride now shifted to an afternoon one, we went over to Tenryuji Temple. That turned out to be a mistake unless you enjoy standing in line 15 minutes to buy tickets to get inside a temple and then having to step around the hoards of people taking pictures. It was really difficult to enjoy the gardens at all. We took the back exit into the bamboo forest but decided it was too crowded to enjoy properly and just made our way back to the railway.







   The train isn't too difficult to figure out. You stand in a line based on what train car number you are and if you reserved a seat you get to sit down. Being cheap, we had to stand up the entire trip but it ended up being worth it. We could easily switch to the other side of the train to see the views and it was easier for me to lean out of the window to take pictures and give Josh a heart attack. That 30 minute ride was easily the best part of the trip. The maples surrounding the tracks were just the right shades of intense yellow and red and the back drop of mountains cut with turquoise water was awe inspiring. The tourists in boats on the river would wave as we went past, making me wish we had booked a boat tour as well. It felt all too short a ride when we arrived at the last station in Kameoka. By the time we arrived back in Arashiyama it was time for lunch so we tried our luck at cafe facing the river. I honestly can't remember the name because the food was pretty mediocre and the crawl of people going over the bridge like ants was mesmerising. Somehow during the time we had been on the train, Arashiyama had become a mad house with almost no room to breath. People were getting shoved into the street at red lights because there was no room for them to stand on the side walks. Although it was only like 2 or 3 p.m, Josh and I decided to go home because we just could not handle the crowds anymore.








    It might sound like I'm burnt out on traveling here with my last few posts, and in a way I am. After our trip to Gifu this past summer, I've had a slight shift in how I feel about trying to experience culture and beauty but getting stuck in what feels like a trap of going to place X to take pictures along with every other person who had the same idea. On one hand I feel like I am doing exactly the same as all other tourists around me. Everyone is wanting to see beauty and experience something new while creating memories. On the other hand I look at those around me and I wonder if we're all just collecting pictures and postcards and not really seeing past a veneer set up to impress the tourists and take their money. Are we truly seeing and experiencing anything wonderful or ruining cultures and landscapes who are desperate for income? The last few trips have been hard for me to see past the crowds and the telephoto lenses to the real reason I came to these places to begin with. I need to redefine what being a traveler means to me because traveling is something that rests my heart like nothing else. Any time I think of laying my head down in one place and a desire to set roots starts creeping up, a stronger fear of never moving my feet again across lands unknown whenever I please stamps those desires out faster than I could blow out a candle. It may just be time for me to dig deeper when I go to a new country, new prefecture, or just new neighborhood to find what's real behind the tourist facade. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Minoh Falls Round 2

   I'm really torn between fall and spring as the most beautiful season here. I might love summer best, but when you want your normal walk to school to be transformed into a natural wonderland, spring and fall reign. While spring is ethereal, with slow warming days covered in pink and white wisps of flower petals, fall is that last colorful burst of life before it all fades into darkness. Every fall I love it best, but every time I see a cherry blossom tree about to burst open, I feel my heart fill with gladness.

   I really thought this might be our last year in Japan, so I made as many trips as I could to see the leaves. When the local AJET group took a trip up to Minoh in November we decided to join, even though we had been there the year before. On arrival I was startled by the massive crowds. I knew it would be busy but it seemed like twice the amount of people than the year before. I immediately grabbed a Minoh beer and a yuzu croquette even though it was only 1 p.m. One thing I love about Minoh is the yuzu flavored everything they sell. They have yuzu ice cream, yuzu pudding, and even yuzu sausages. Can you tell how much I love yuzu? The other great thing about Minoh is that the entire path is lined with food stalls selling things like sugared yam fries, sasebo burgers, and grilled mochi. Come hungry if you decide to visit.






   While still gorgeous, it was hard for me to enjoy the beauty of it all like I had last year. Going with a big group of people changed the dynamic a bit, so it was harder to stop for pictures, or just to absorb it all when trying to keep up in conversation. I think this was also the first time I realized I don't enjoy crowds much anymore. It's incredibly hard to appreciate anything when you're being jostled by hundreds of people all trying to see the same sights and capture the same moments that you are. I've always been aware of the zoo that popular places in Japan become, but the artificiality of it all is starting to wear on me. I did enjoy myself and I hope you still go to Minoh if you ever get the chance, but it might be nicer to enjoy it off season. I imagine the waterfall, the forest, and the small shops are lovely no matter what time of year.

Music Help

   I'm kind of embarrassed to admit this, but after living here for 2.5 years I still know very little about Japanese music, television shows, or movies. When you initially search for Japanese music, it's really hard to find anything outside of AKB48 and Japanese boy bands. I don't actually know if good plus Japanese television show can exist in the same sentence and besides studio ghibli movies and a few other animes I can't find much in the way of movies either. Talking to friends, I think this may be an area that's really hindering my Japanese level because almost everything I input outside of work is in English. 

   So friends who are in the know, please give me any recommendations you have on these things! I'm not stuck in a genre when it comes to music I like or movies. I've got a few bands that I really like from here such as Mongol800 and Happy End, but I definitely need to expand. Help me! 

If you suggest this or any other Johnny's bands, we will not be friends anymore. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

All the Feels

   First off I just want to mention that is it raining and I do not have an umbrella. I also happen to be at the school that is a 20 minute walk from the train station. Joy. It is also cold again after a few days of almost spring like weather. Thanks for trolling us winter.

   I just wanted to tell everyone thank you for the many kind comments and messages sent to me. I really was not expecting them and I was a bit surprised by how many positive thoughts you sent my way. I can't say I believe you all and it is bit awkward to get those type of messages because I do not know how to appropriately respond, but thanks for the love and words of encouragement. They mean a lot.

   I am still trying to figure out exactly how to work on some of these issues...I don't really know how to begin on some of them. I've been following a meal plan the last few weeks and working out 4 or 5 times a week which is helping. I actually have already lost the weight I gained over the holidays plus some. I just started a coursera course on Finance that will hopefully give a deeper understanding of how it works. That is one of those life skills I feel I should have as an adult. I also need to learn how to say no to going out to eat with people more which is my default hang out idea. Now I just need to actually get the will to take a large chunk of money out of my paycheck and put it somewhere I can't touch every month. After a two month hiatus, I'm starting my tutoring again, which I have mixed feelings about. I really need someone who is more of a teacher, when I really just have a conversation partner that teachers me random grammar I need to know for a particular sentence.

   There are many things to look forward to the next few months which is motivation to keep going with all of these things. Rachel is coming back to Japan! Which means Okinawa trips with fun people, an ryokan girls weekend, and finally we are going to see Sumo after two years of trying. We also might go to Shikoku with a few friends coming in from Tokyo. Josh is applying for new jobs which might mean we get to move in the next few months! I am really unhappy with the area we live in and our apartment. I want an upgrade in a more central location.

Yay for happy things! Anything you are particularly happy about or looking forward to in the future?
Also for those people in Japan, do you have any ryokans that you would recommend? There are too many to choose from!

Suuuummmooooo

Monday, February 3, 2014

Cafe Cafe Cafe

   For my birthday last year, I got to do what I like to do the most. I dragged Josh around to cafes and an art exhibit. Fortunately Josh is a pretty good sport and enjoys cafe hopping almost as much as I do, but secretly. Unfortunately where I live is lacking in the cafe department. There are a few great ones but they're all at least a 20 minute walk away. Even traveling into Osaka doesn't help much as the cafe culture is not as developed as Kobe's, Kyoto's, or Tokyo's. I usually have to make due with Starbucks or another various chain coffee shop. I had been wanting to try the slightly infamous TRUCK's bird cafe, but since it was over an hour and half away in an obscure party of the city, I've held off on going for the last few years. When I found out that one of my favorite florists would be hosting an exhibit along with a fantastic Kinfolk photographer, I knew the time had finally come to go. 

   The day got off to a rough start when Google maps took us to a completely wrong location. Not just a little wrong, we were in the wrong part of the city on the wrong train line. Around the time it started raining, it crossed my mind to give up but the discovery of an adorable cafe soothed all frustrations. Cafe Noto is a great place to grab coffee, lunch, or dessert if you ever find yourself near Tamatsukuri station in Osaka City. I'm genuinely sad this place is a bit too out of the way for us to go to more often. You can choose your blend of coffee and how you want it prepared. I can't remember the blend, but I got an aeropressed cup of heaven. Josh's iced coffee served in a mason jar with a straw was worth going back for. Not to mention I was ready to redecorate my entire apartment to look like that place.  



   After finding the will to press on, we finally managed to find TRUCK and bird. The Overgrowth Exhibit by Erba Florals was in a beautiful showroom run by very kind people. The pictures were gorgeous, but I kind of enjoyed the floral arrangements and plants scattered all over the room the best. I really wish I could have made it out to their workshop. After a quick browse through TRUCK's furniture showroom, we sat down to lunch at Bird. I got a Bacon and Avocado sandwich which was ok to be honest. Josh's croque madame was great though and the sangrias we got were the best I've had in Japan. I would really love to come back again early enough to catch their lunch specials which sounded fantastic or late enough to do dinner. I still need to try their coffee. It's exactly the kind of place that makes you want to curl up with a book or pen a novel. 








   I keep dreaming of a day where we might move and I get to be closer to these things. It'll probably never happen, but a girl can hope right?

Cafe Noto
Address: 大阪府大阪市中央区上町1-6-4
Phone: 06-4304-2630

Bird Coffee
Address: 538-0054 大阪市鶴見区緑4-1-16 
Phone: 06-6958-1616


Outdated

   Today I decided to try to use the brick they call a laptop at my school today. It failed to do anything I wanted. I had to shut it down at least once and almost every website said it couldn't run on the browser I was using. Turns out the browser the computer uses is Internet Explorer 6. Not only does the school still only have Internet Explorer, but then they can't even keep it updated. I tried logging on to my Coursera account today only to have it say please update to a modern browser. I couldn't help but suppress a giggle and a sigh. Anyone who thinks Japan is this ultra techy society is wrong. Japanese websites are terrible with most still using flash and heavy on garishly colored text. Even the Japanese versions of foreign companies are less user friendly than their English counter-parts. ATMs actually close at night and the fax machine still rules supreme. There are things here that are amazing like super fast internet and fun gadgety things like toilets, but trying to do a basic worksheet on my school computer feels exactly like what I imagine banging my head against a wall would feel like. All of this resulted in a very long morning on my phone and making sample Valentine's cards for a special Saturday class because 3 out of my 4 JHS lessons were canceled today.



   Speaking of outdated things, I own a six year old Macbook. It works fine, but it seems like no matter how much we clear it out there is never any storage left. It's two OS systems behind so it's just running slower and slower and slower. So it's very exciting to both of  us that we have a brand new MacBook Pro coming in the mail. It's going to be so pretty with the shiny metal case and retina display. We're both kind of freaking out. We had to have it shipped in because Apple Japan would not take the 120,000 yen in gift certificates we had to use which forced us to spend about two days trekking across Osaka to find a place that would take them. Things we learned: Apple will let you get the teacher discount if you have anything that says BOE or Instructor on it, Yodobashi Camera does not sell English Macs and cannot order one for you and will be rude about it, Bic Camera does not carry them, but will order one in a month, and Sofmap will order one for you and send it to your house within two weeks. We went with Sofmap. One more week until we get our new shiny baby! Now if only I could convince Josh to let me get an Ipad.