Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Husband in Japan

This year my husband, Mike, came over for our "Break Week" a couple of days early. He wanted to see where I live and teach for eleven weeks each fall. He made his way from the airport to Shinjuku by himself without a hitch, and was met by my colleague who brought him to Hachioji and Inume-machi near Kogakuin University where my apartment is this year.
My apartment in Hachioji
Kogakuin U campus
Mike loves the fact that I teach in Japan each fall, and why, you ask? Because he gets to come visit me, and with my skoshi language skills and knowledge of the train system, we can cover a lot of ground and eat some excellent food!
Riding the train in Tokyo
Mike loves fish, but sushi makes him squeamish. He’s tried it, and now he’s done. I love sushi, and wherever we go, I can get my fill of one of my favorite foods, and he can choose tempura, or soba, or udon, or any combination of things.
Tsukiji Fish Market
In Hiroshima we ate okonomiyaki, which is a vegetable and seafood type pancake, which may sound weird, but it is delicious, especially when you sit at a counter with the hot griddle in front of you and watch the chef make a dozen at a time for all the guests surrounding you with yours in the mix! At the restaurant we chose, there was even an English speaking chef who probably owned the joint, and he made his way over to us several times during our meal. He surprised his other guests who were all Japanese because he was practically fluent in English!
Oyster stall in Tsukiji
In Osaka, we stayed at a fabulous hotel with several wonderful restaurants on the twenty-second floor, one traditional Japanese, where I had sushi and Mike tempura. Another restaurant had Kobe beef, and we indulged! We may never do it again, but we decided to splurge. Mike got the Kobe beef dinner, and I got the Bunkyo beef. We joked that we were using our children’s birthday and Christmas gift money to pay for the pricey meal, so thanks kids!!
Osaka night sky
For the Kobe dinner, once again, our chef stood before us. A hot grill stood between us and a plate glass window, and the night-lights of Osaka glowed in the background. We had a maĆ®tre de and two waitresses serving us. We watched as our chef prepared vegetables, garlic oil, garlic chips from making the oil, meat grilled in the garlic oil before our eyes. He grated fresh wasabi that we used to flavor the tasty morsels he cooked, and we ate everything. EVERYTHING! I refrained from licking my plate, but just barely. Course after course was cooked, presented, and served, and I was thinking, “I could get used to this!”
Kyoto Silver Pavillion

We had noodles in Nara, rice bowls in Kyoto, and pastries in Ginza with the most delicious freshly ground coffee. We feasted and then we were off to the next site, palace, castle, shrine, or garden. The hardest part of this whole week was when Mike had to return to the states, and I had to return to the classroom. We did it, but we we weren’t happy about it!  The upside is we get to do this again next year, and we’re thinking onsen and mountain hikes. I can hardly wait!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Hiking in Japan

I've learned to see hiking in Japan as a group sport, especially on festival days or holidays. Then people flock to the mountains in families and groups of friends to hike and enjoy a day together. Many mountains are home to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, so these hikes are a meditative experience for many.

Along with the groups of Japanese hikers, visitors like myself come to the mountain trails, too. We join the crowds on the trails and make the flow of traffic up and down the mountain a challenge to say the least.

This past weekend, I was headed to Mt. Takao for a day of fresh air and exercise. It was a perfect sunny day, so I was pretty excited. Until I boarded the train for Mt. Takao with about 500 other hikers!! I’ve never seen the train that packed for a day hike up the mountain, so I did some thinking as I was pressed in on all sides by backpacks and shoulders, and decided to hop off the train in Takao, a city named after the mountain, as soon as the doors opened. My destination—the ruins of Hachioji Castle, which is usually much less crowded. On this particular day, it had quite a flock of visitors too.

I visited this site the previous weekend, and walked from the station to Hachioji Joseki grounds, which is over a mile. There is a bus, but on this particular day, I wanted the workout. I hiked through a cute little merchant street in Takao, then hiked into the ruins of the castle, passing memorials, shrines and little temples along the way.  Unlike Mt. Takao where there are huge buildings and clouds of incense, at Hachioji Joseki, there is only bird song and fresh air. I met several people on the trail, but I didn’t have to fight droves of people on the trail, and walked at my own pace, which is faster than many in Japan want to go.

I made a new friend on my trek, too, which is always fun. Kame-san is a guide at the ruins, and he pointed out the best shot of the bridge. He offered to take my photo by Hachiji gate then sat and visited with me while I ate my onigiri (rice ball) lunch. We parted ways, and I continued up a trail and got the workout I was seeking. When I hiked out, he was at a little maintenance building. When he saw me, he stopped me, ran into the building, and brought out a CD that he had recorded that told all about Hachioji Castle, the people, the war (16th c.), the haunted forest, and all the shrines. The only drawback is it’s all in Japanese!

It’s okay, though, because as I told Kame, I am going to use it to study the language, and that I would see him again next year. He smiled and waved, and I made my way back to the station and my apartment, after a truly relaxing hike. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Many people think of peace and quiet when they think of Japan. They think of tea ceremonies, bonsai, and perfectly landscaped gardens with waterscapes,  and tea ceremonies. I think of those things too, but what I experience most of the time is not Zen, and when it is Zen, it’s because I’ve learned how to make a space, or I’ve found a space that is quiet and peaceful.

Incence burning at Yakuoin Tample on Mt. Takao
One of these places is at a neighborhood Hachioji Temple near where I lived last year. The traffic roars by, horns honk, pedestrians chat, and dogs bark, but in the park-like setting near the temple, there are benches, and trees, and a waterscape that trickles a lovey little fall of water into a crystal clear pond. I went there more and more often last year after I found it.
Kyoto, Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion
I do not feel Zen on a daily basis. I feel stressed, trying to do my job without access to the Internet, or access to a printer, or access to a phone that dials out of the country (which my rental is supposed to do but doesn’t). That’s when I go in search of the temple. A student needs to print out a form for financial aid, sign it and fax it within 24 hours. Great! Except we have a field trip the next day, and there won’t be anyone on campus to help us until next Tuesday. Some how we get it done, then I run in search of the temple.
This is Dotonbori Dori in Osaka. I'm using it to represent chaos!

Zen is surprisingly hard to find here, but nearing the end of year two, I’m at least used to the roadblocks to serenity. I’ve found a few places where I can escape and take a breather, and this year my apartment was one of them. I can’t wait for next year, to do this all over again because Zen is really a state of mind, and I’m getting a lot of good practice. :)
Itsukushima Torri Gate on Miyajima

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Language Study

I’m studying language, Japanese language that is. It’s hard. I have never had any formal language classes nor have I learned hiragana or katakana, the characters used in Japan. I’m surrounded by this language, though, and I can pick out words as I sit on the bus or in a restaurant, and it’s satisfying to know that I’m picking up a little bit.
If I could read these characters, I could read my fortune!
One of my students this year came over with Mononucleosis. He didn’t spread it around or anything, thank the goddess, but he did require several trips to the doctor’s office at the local university hospital. I took him on five different occasions, ad he was finally given a clean bill of health. He had more Japanese than I do, but we managed to take taxis and get through all the reception areas in the hospital. They did provide an interpreter, but I think we would have been fine.
Or these shop signs, some of which are in interesting English. I can read those. :)
To make a long story short, he bought me a gift to show his appreciation. It’s a calligraphy-paintbrush-pen. It’s the coolest writing tool I’ve ever seen, and it came from Japan. I’m using it to practice my Japanese characters, and the brush really makes it fun because they look so cool and authentic with the brush!
This is not my photo. It's from an add for the pen my student gave me.
I don’t know how much language I’ll pick up over the next year, but I do know that since last year, I’ve doubled my meek and minimal vocabulary. Thank you Pimsler’s. I listen to their tapes on my drives to Portland or my drives to Seattle. Unfortunately my drives to work are only about ten minutes long, so I don’t get much studying done during the week.
I just ordered a tall and left it at that. Needless to say, it was delicious!

When I return home this year, I’m determined to keep up the habit of opening my Japanese textbook and studying vocabulary and sentence structures. Sound dry and boring? So desu ne! You’re right, but I will be returning to Japan in 2015, and I’ll have more to say, and I’ll be able to read the train signs—I hope!
This actually says, Tokyo. See I learned something!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Samurai Ancestors?

Last year I fell in love with Japan practically the moment I landed in this fair country. I went around my new neighborhood with a grin on my face calling out “Konichiwa” to everyone I met. What I finally realized, though, was that I lived in a neighborhood where people wanted to go about their lives without interruption by the middle aged American woman, so by week three (it took me a while), I noticed that although some people did smile and reply, not everyone returned my smile or even responded to me.

This year, I’m much more aware (or at least I think so). When I arrived in Japan, I felt as though I’d never left. I picked up my life here like a favorite garment, and I wore it with great content.

I settled into my routine immediately, but with a mind not to create waves or draw unwonted attention to myself. I don’t know if that’s even possible because I stand several inches taller than most Japanese women, and my hair is light, but with that in mind, I began my journey in this my second  year in Nihon-koku.

Now I pay close attention to my neighbors, and sometimes as I’m walking to the grocery store, I’ll meet one walking from the opposite direction. I’ve learned to respect thier personal space and keep my eyes down, not on them (I shudder to think of my enthusiasm last year!), and I do not to say anything. Sometimes I will catch a nod out of the corner of my, and I feel so happy. Sometimes they will say, Konichiwa, and I’m so glad as I respond, “Konichwa!”

The older men are tough, though. I think of them in terms of their ancestors. Which of these gentlemen might have samurai in their lineage? Many have the stern, fierce look of a samurai as they march down the street, their eyes never wavering, heads held high. The attire may be modern, but the bearing is regal! They have a steely frown, and I wonder if my deodorant has given out, or perhaps my eyes are still wandering too much, invading thier personal space.

I met a Japanese gentleman at Tsujiki Fish Market, and he asked me where I lived in Japan. 
         "Live,” I asked. (I hoped he didn’t think I could Nihon-go hanashimasu![speak Japanese!]).  
         “Yes,” he said. “You seem like a Japanese lady.” 
His words thrilled me. I really want to fit in, and I believe he was paying me a compliment. At least I took it as one. We chatted for a while, and I told him it was my second year in Japan, etc. etc. He had wonderful English, and when several students found me, he talked with them too.

I have come to the conclusion that many people know I’m probably American, and they’re afraid I’ll use English, and they will want to reply in kind, which is nearly impossible for many here, but they don’t know me very well. I too am afraid that I’ll exhaust my Japanese in the first ten seconds and embarrass us both!

That’s the way it is here, and why I love it so. The respect people have for each other and themselves transcends all other things. They truly care about how they will be perceived and how they can be a positive influence on others, at least that's how I interpret their behavior. I hope I bring these lovely traits home with me, a priceless souvenir. :)