Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Break is almost over...

Sorry I've turned into such a bad blogger...

Anyway, this post begins with Vammy's visit. We had lots of fun though she was here too short a time, especially since one of the days she was here I got sick and had to go see a doctor. I sure know how to show my friends a good time. Thankfully the next day I was feeling better, probably due to the drugs I got from the doctor.

We went to Kamakura, Asakusa, the Imperial Gardens, Meiji-jingu, and Harajuku (Vammy also went to Ueno with Rachel while I was sick). Even though these are all places I've been before, I've got a few pictures for you...

This fountain is in the Imperial Gardens.

More at the imperial gardens.

Blossoms! Not many trees were blooming yet at the time.

Vammy in Kamakura. This bridge is at Hachimangu.

So as soon as Vammy left I had to turn around and pack for my trip to Korea with Rachel. That was an interesting feeling. Here I am living in a foreign country and I went on vacation to a different foreign country. Pretty cool right?

Anyway, the day we left started out kind of bad since it was super windy so there were lots of train delays and even some cancellations (I had an issue because of this). However, we made it to Narita just fine and luckily our plane was leaving from terminal 1 not 2 because there was a plane crash that caused several plane cancellations over at terminal 2 (the plane crashed because of wind in the early morning while trying to land). But Rachel and I made it out of Japan just fine (did you know Japanese security doesn't make you take off your shoes? It was awesome!)

So when we got to Korea, one of the first things we did was change some money. We decided that Korean money (won) looks a bit like Monopoly money and has far too many zeros (that blue 1000won bill is worth less than a dollar).

One of the first tourist spots we went to was a palace (there aren't going to be many place names in here by the way. Me and Korean words don't get along. Sorry). This palace was apparently partially destroyed at some point so much of the time we only saw pieces of it, but here's a picture of an intact bit. Korean architecture and Japanese have many similarities since they have a lot of shared history.

After looking at this palace, we decided to go check out a Buddhist temple that Watt-sensei (our resident director and expert on Asian religion especially Buddhism) suggested when I told him about our trip to Korea. You can get a free tour in English. However, the tour guides for foreigners were out to lunch so Rachel and I decided to eat then we went back. That temple was AWESOME in my opinion.

So here's a picture of me at the temple in front of what I decided is a super adorable Buddha. Behind me and to the left of the picture is the temple's great hall. Around the walls of the great hall are painted panels depicting the life of the Buddha. I took a bunch of pictures of these panels and was thinking of putting them up in order with a bit of narrative.

Also, behind me, hanging up are lots of very colorful lanterns. These were being hung all around the temple. The Buddha's birthday is coming up in a few weeks or something like that so those lanterns are being hung for that. It was awesome with all of the color everywhere.

As you can see in this picture, they even had them in the trees. Mostly I'm putting this picture up because I like it...

After visiting the temple we decided to try and find a park that was nearby though we had a little trouble and got a bit lost, but the park was worth it since it was really pretty and we got to go pretty high up so that we had some great views of the city.

This guy was not in the park. This was at some random street near the temple I think. I thought he was cute so I made Rachel stop so I could take a picture. I like that it looks like he's pouncing on the world, and he's got that smile on his face...

So here's one of the views from that park. I really love parks in big cities. You get such a wonderful feeling of escape.

This place had a tram that went up and down, but we didn't know that until we were already halfway up and I don't think you can just take it from the top down. I think it's only a round trip thing since we couldn't find a path leading to the station at the top.

I'm sure this place is even now starting to look really spectacular since there were a few trees blooming while we were there. Both Rachel and I really loved these flowers. I kept trying to get close ups of the blossoms, but my camera would just focus on the branch instead so the flowers were all blurry. It was quite annoying.

The next day we did a shopping expedition since stuff in Korea is pretty cheap. I had to buy a new bag anyway since the strap on mine broke in Narita airport (made it very annoying to carry).

The day after shopping we visited another palace. This one was not partially destroyed so there was a lot more to see. There were lots of pretty little paths and very ornate buildings.

Here is a pretty little path. And a very ornate building.

After going to the palace, we found a cute little restaurant that had great food for really cheap (seriously for 7000won you got soup, bread, a drink, and a huge entree. That's about $5.50 folks). Then we went to go see Nanta. This was the absolute best part of the trip, no contest. They do world tours so if you ever get a chance to go see Nanta (I believe the English title is Cookin' or Cookin' Nanta) DO IT. Basically, they use kitchen utensils as instruments and they have very good non-verbal humor so that everyone was laughing whether you were Korean, American, or Japanese. Since photos and videos were not allowed during the show, I've instead included a video from youtube.

The best part of Nanta for me was that it included audience participation. At one point, they make a soup (seriously, on stage while banging pots and stuff, they actually make a real soup) then they get a man and a woman from the audience to go up on stage and eat it. The "sexy guy" (that's the name of the role...and, in my opinion, the truth) picked me out of the audience. So I got to be led up on stage by a very good looking, very fit Korean guy then given yummy soup to eat. It was awesome. And the picture there is to prove it. This picture is actually up on their website (which is good because while I got a couple of photos from the Nanta people of me onstage, I don't have a scanner so I couldn't put them up here so I yoinked the one from the website).

As I said, best part of the whole Korea trip.

After the show, we still had time on our hands so we visited a Korean history museum (free admission!) which was pretty cool. Since I knew nothing of Korean history (except vague bits that I learned when I learned about Japanese history) it was pretty interesting.

This picture is of some cool looking totem type things that they had around the museum building. I think the plaque said they were to protect villages from demons or something like that.

Our last day in Korea was a bit more wandering around and buying souvenirs. We didn't have any real specific places we had to go, but we wound up entertaining ourselves at a shopping district then going to a university area (the university is apparently well know for its art programs so the area was pretty quirky). There I saw this cute mascot thing though I'm not sure what it was for. It saw me taking a picture though thus why it's facing me and posing.

We also went to a coffee shop in that same area called Coffee Prince. The shop is also the set for a very popular Korean drama called (in English) "First Shop of Coffee Prince". Rachel had seen a few episodes so when she saw that there was a bit about it in our guidebook, we decided to go. We got turned around a few times and had to ask directions (we did this in English since we don't speak Korean. Such tourists.), but we made it. Each of us got a coffee of some kind and a piece of cake. It was a kind of expensive place (though being the site of a tv show, I suppose that's understandable since they can get away with it), but it was also tasty so I didn't mind so much.

So here's my cake (rasberry cheesecake) and latte.

The next day, we packed up, left the hotel, and headed back to the airport and Japan. Once again, security and immigration and stuff were not that bad (I dread going back to the States to deal with all that airport crap especially since I'll have soooo much luggage).

And that's about it. Classes start on Monday and Kendra's coming to Tokyo Tuesday (actually Yokohama, but it's close). This weekend I'm going to a welcome dinner for Mami's parents host student who arrives this week, and we're also going to two different hanami (blossom viewing parties) I believe so you can expect lots of pictures of cherry blossoms soon.

So I may be a bit slow about the blogging, but I hope the sheer length of this post makes up for that.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

My Month Away: Part 4

So I realized that I really need to finish off my blogging about Minakami since Vammy's coming on Monday then right after she leaves, I go to Seoul with Rachel. If I don't get it all down now, it's never happening which I'm sure would disappoint everyone who reads this.

So here goes! With pictures!

This is a view of the lake that was right by my house. There were lots of beautiful shots, but the one time I remembered to bring my camera, the batteries died right after taking this photo. Every other time, my decisions to walk around the lake were spur of the moment so I'd forget to grab my camera.

The water was the most impressive thing to me. It was such a beautiful teal color.

This lake is actually there because of a dam. The river that they dammed to make this lake is the second largest in Japan and provides much of the water used in Tokyo. So when I turn on the tap in the kitchen, it's likely that water came from Minakami :D I thought that was a pretty cool tidbit of trivia.

This next picture is of me trying to climb a rock wall though I was not very successful (this was the harder climbing wall by the way). Lydia, Ian, and myself were given several cool activities where we mingled with Minakami people doing fun things. The wall climbing was one of them that we did with a children's sports club.

After wall climbing, we got to participate in another super cool activity. We helped make mochi! Mochi is a Japanese food that is pretty much flavorless so you can put it in anything and is very chewy and sticky. It's a traditional food to eat at New Years (though you can eat it at other times). As you can see, the process of making mochi is rather labor intensive when done by hand.

After making the stuff, we got to eat it. There was sugar and soy sauce and other flavoring to mix it with (obviously the sugar and soy sauce were not together).

The last picture I put here from that day is of Ian (from my program) and Takkun (from Garuni--the inn I worked at). Ayami-chan and I kept trying to convince Takkun to cut his hair because we both liked it better that way (he had short hair at their wedding--Ayami-chan showed me the wedding album).

The next activity Lydia, Ian, and I did was visit a high school in the area. We went an talked to an international econ class. In the picture is me, talking about New Mexico (in Japanese!). When Lydia and I walked in the classroom, several of the students said "Kakkoii!" which means "cool!" and that made us happy. They all really liked Ian too maybe because he's super tall...

They got to ask us questions and were told to try to do so in English so we got a lot of "what sports do you do?" and, of course, "do you have a boyfriend?" We also got several questions in Japanese because they were mostly pretty shy about their English. Actually shy in general since the teacher had to pick someone at random to ask the first question (that person then picked the next, etc.)

Except for the uniforms and the fact that everyone was Japanese, it was really a lot like high school at LAHS. Well, the class size was bigger too I guess... But the students acted pretty similar. Like teenagers.

After going to the school, we were taken to Takumi no Satou which is a village place where there's these shops that let you make crafts. Some are traditional Japanese crafts like making Japanese paper and some could be less traditional, like glass blowing. We decided to go traditional and paint omen (masks). Though I picked a cat to paint which isn't exactly a traditional one, but I like cats. Everyone else went scary.

The lady on the left is from the Minakami city office. Then there's me, Lydia, and Ian. Kobayashi-san (also from the city office) is taking the photo.

But wait there's more! Lydia and I got invited by Ian's host family to do a snowshoe tour! Ian led the tour though his host father also came with us. It was SO MUCH FUN!!! We went up to a really cool cave called Ooyu (Big Demon/Death or something like that, hard to translate the second kanji, but the big part is easy).

The first picture is of the Totoro tree that was near the path. We fit Ian, Lydia, and myself in there (anyone who's seen Tonari no Totoro will understand the reason for the name). We were trying to make a snow bunny but decided it looked more like a totoro so we put it at the tree's entrance. Cute yes?

The next photo shows Ian snoeshowing, Lydia biffing, and me snowshoeing. I also fell at the exact spot Lydia did. That slope was steep! Next to Ian is our destination. This cave was super cool!

We had lunch at the cave (mmm... udon and really good tea) before heading back down. Ian and Nori-san (his host-father) had brought little sleds so the down was super fun (and way faster than the up).

So behind us in the picture you can see what makes the cave so awesome. Those things grow like stalagmites except they aren't pointy. I thought they looked kind of like jelly-fish-scicles.

Next we have the last group outing. Lydia and I went to Takumi no Sato this time without Ian and made pottery. That was really fun though I was not very good at it. Here is me pictured with my pot.

After that, we met up with Ian at an onsen which was relaxing and very nice of course. And after the onsen we went to an izakaya (Japanese style bar) for a nomihoudai with some people from the city office. A very fun night though I won't go into details ~_^ All you get is this picture. I think Ian is trying to look cool, Lydia is imitating a guy that you see often on Japanese television, and I'm trying to be creative with my use of the peace sign...

I hope this helps to satisfy you guys and show you that I got to do many things during my time in Minakami. Certainly a month well spent. It was a really great experience. So much so that all three of us want to go back when it gets warmer and go river rafting!

I also hope there's enough pictures for you (we are visual creatures, I know). However, if not, let me add this video of me sledding down part of the mountain we snowshoed up:

I will have you know that everyone was super impressed by that 360 I did.

And here's a video of us running in our snowshoes (Minakami Baywatch Style!):

Wow, we look like idiots. It was super fun though.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

My Month Away: Part 3

Sorry this is taking me so ridiculously long. I've been surprisingly busy. Tuesday I went to lunch with Watt-sensei (our resident director) then went shopping with friends. Yesterday I was again hanging with friends (a shabushabu tabehoudai and karaoke in Shinjuku). Today I had to go to Shinagawa with Rachel so we could get our reentry permits for Korea. Because it would suck if we couldn't get back to Japan. After that we decided to wander around Shibuya, but apparently for us all roads lead to Harajuku so that's where we ended up (so of course we ate crepes). Anyway, I am now back at home having eaten a giant meal of Indian curry from the delicious restaurant from accross the street. And I've decided to sit down and blog.

So, Minakami:

The first evening I just unpacked and relaxed. The next day though I started to work. Now when I was working my schedule was something like this: wake up, work, eat, work, sleep, eat, sleep, work, eat, work, sleep (this time for the night). Seriously, I did a LOT of napping. However, sometimes instead of sleeping after lunch I would go for a walk. That first day, Ayami-chan and Takkun took me to see the lake right by the house and Ayami-chan and I bonded over her cat (the actual cat is very shy but Ayami-chan has a digital camera full of adorable pictures of her). I was also shown around the ryokan and introduced to everybody (though remembering names was super hard...) Since I first arrived on the weekend, my working schedule continued for a few days.

Hideko-san's husband (my host dad) returned from his business trip after a few days. They both love movies so the first day back, we all watched Hancock (mmmm....Will Smith). After that I would probably watch a movie every few days at night with Hideko-san and sometimes her husband (if he was around).

Another activity I got to enjoy on one of my free days was horseback riding. Once a week, Hideko-san gets a horse riding lesson and she took me with my first week there. It was lots of fun but also really cold. I thought my fingers would never be warm again. There also two very large, very lovable dogs there that I had lots of fun playing with and loving. I would also go shopping with Hideko-san, Ayami-chan, and Kyoko-san (Hideko-san's daughter-in-law/Takkun's older sister) when they went to get a change of scenery. Minakami has several similarities to Los Alamos including mountains, pine trees, and a lack of public transportation. Tokyo has completely spoiled me so not being able to go where I wanted whenever I wanted was hard.

Other things I did with my host family and coworkers included making Valentine's Day chocolate (which I then gave to my host parents since I had no boy to admire in Minakami), going strawberry picking (the strawberries were GIGANTIC and so sweet you'd think they were dipped in sugar except you know you just picked it off the plant), and I taught them to make guacamole. The guac was for a welcome party held for me and Kaori-chan and Kine-chan (two new members of ryokan staff). We all had to introduce ourselves (in Japanese...even me) which ended up being kind of funny because Kine-chan was way more nervous than me even though Japanese is his native language.

I did lots of other activities that were organized by Kobayashi-san (one of the city office members that helped get us Japan Study people to Minakami), but I think I'll save those for another post. As well as pictures. Sorry, but I ate so much today that I'm kind of sleepy and lazy.

Also, does anyone know if there's an actual word in English specifically for "gunk in your eye"? Mami and I were talking about it and she gave me the Japanese word (mekani?) and asked what it was in English. All I could come up with was "gunk in your eye". Mami really enjoyed the word "gunk" though.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

My Month Away: Part 2

So I was totally going to blog all about Minakami this weekend, but Mami, Su-chan, and I all went to Mami's parents house to hang. Sorry. Starting in April her parents will also a have an American student living with them so Mami promises we will all go there often to asobu (asobu is the Japanese verb "play" but is often used in a more "hang out"-like context).

Anyway, about Minakami.

Rachel and I took the shinkansen (bullet train) from Osaka to Tokyo where I had an hour and a half to buy a bento (boxed lunch) and omiyage for my Minakami host family before catching my shinkansen to Minakami. This seems like a lot of time, but it was really just enough as Tokyo station is gargantuan and I had all of my luggage to drag around.

I went to Minakami with two other ACM/GLCA Japan Study students: Lydia and Ian. I was very happy that Lydia was going since we're buddies. Anyway Lydia and I wandered Tokyo station together and got confused and finally found our platform.

At left is Lydia with our combined pile of stuff. And this is not everything I have here in Japan by any means. I often wonder how I'm going to get everything home.....

I believe our group was actually the closest to Tokyo (with the exception of Jazz who stayed in Tokyo) as our shinkansen ride was just over an hour.

We arrived and were met by a welcome committee of people from the town office (or whatever you call it, I hate translating that kind of stuff) and Watt-sensei and Michiyo. There was a little welcome gathering where we met what member(s) of our host family came to pick us up (for me it was just Hideko-san as her husband was away on business). From there Hideko-san took me to her house where she assured me that I would have no duties that night but would get to work the next day.

I will start by describing the kinds of things I did. Hideko-san and her husband own three ryokan (Japanese-style inn) all near each other. Hideko-san manages and works in one (called Garuni), her son and his wife manage the biggest one (Maruichi), and a long-time emplyee manages the third (Maiyote<--not sure of the spelling on this one...) So I worked in Garuni. The cleaning is done by a company that comes in once a day so I didn't have to deal with making beds or vacuuming or anything. I worked in the kitchen. At Garuni there's a couple that work there and take care of things probably at least as much as Hideko-san does: Ayami-chan and Takkun (his name is actually Takuhiko, but people rarely call him that since it's so long). They are absolutely wonderful people with whom I had a lot of fun. I especially loved Ayami. She's only a few years older than me (she's 25) and really sweet. Random fact: she and Tony have the same birthday.

Really everyone there was really nice. The best part was they were all willing to talk to me (with the exception of Kine-chan, who despite the feminine nickname is a guy, because he's super shy) despite my limited Japanese. It was also funny to see what English they knew. One of the high school girls who did her baito (part-time job) at Garuni knew the word "coordination" even though her English was super basic. So I had lots of conversations involving mostly Japanese with lots of gestures, sound effects, and the occasional English word thrown in.

Anyway, I wanted to explain what I actually did. Winter is the slow season for these three ryokan as they aren't really near any of the Minakami ski slopes (like Lydia's pension) so we only really had customers on weekends. This meant that I usually worked Friday morning cutting vegetables and preparing food and things we would need for the weekend that we could do ahead of time. Then Friday night, Saturday morning and evening, and Sunday morning (and sometimes Sunday evening and Monday morning) I would help put together plates for the guests (other people cooked, I just put things on the plates so they looked pretty then took them to the tables). After the guests were done, I was general on dish drying/putting away duty. This involved me standing next to the giant dish washer and drying each batch of plates, bowls, etc. as they came out then putting them away. Since the meals were pretty complex, this was actually quite the job (each place setting probably had at least ten dishes, multiply that by about 20 guests, sometimes more).

So during the week, I had a lot of free time, but you'll have to wait to hear how I spent that because I'm tired of blogging for now. Sorry for the lack of pictures, but I didn't take any of me working, sorry :P I really think this might take at least two more entries. Sheesh. So much...

Thursday, March 5, 2009

My Month Away: Part 1

Hello again! Since I've been gone such an incredibly long time, I've decided that one blog post is just not going to cut it so I'll probably split up the last month into three or four parts depending on what happens. So today I will begin.


Osaka is actually very near Kyoto so when Rachel and I took the night bus there we actually passed through Kyoto. Since we were only going to Osaka for a concert (Fall Out Boy, one of Rachel's favorite bands) and had to sandwich it between our religions final and my departure for Minakami, we were only there for two days.

The first day we got there started out kind of lame. We arrived sometime after 7am but couldn't check into our hotel until 2pm which left us with our luggage (especially me since I also had everything I needed for Minakami) and no idea what to do (we were sleep deprived). We wandered the area we were in a little (near Shin-Osaka station I believe), got a bit lost, and then finally decided to find someplace closer to our hotel to explore. So we ended up going on a giant ferris wheel ride which was extremely cool.

As we entered the ferris wheel, Rachel and I had our picture taken and as it was near Valentines Day, the background and props were hearts and flowers and lots of pink and red. Very coupley :P We both bought copies of the photo as it was just too funny. Unfortunately, I don't have an electronic copy to post.

The view from the ferris wheel was absolutely incredible. Osaka is a port city and the ferris wheel was right near the water so we got an amazing view of ocean and cool bridges and some really cool buildings too. Sadly I do not really remember a lot of the names of places I took photos of from the ferris wheel. It was a month ago after all. This picture is of a bridge I particularly liked so I thought I might as well stick it up here. I believe the land to the left is actually the island where our hotel was.

After the ferris wheel ride was over, we headed to Kaiyukan which is a huge aquarium that was right next to the ferris wheel. It's a really cool aquarium with one of its main attractions being a whale shark which was super impressive.

Since the aquarium was so close to the ferris wheel, it was actually one of the buildings that we got a really good view of. I thought the building was really interesting especially when you can see the whole thing from a distance. I'm pretty sure it actually goes underground a ways too. You start at the top and spiral your way down through around all sorts of tanks. There were dolphins and penguins and sea lions and octopus and really huge crabs.

Mostly it was really hard to get any kind of photos especially with my camera which has an incredibly slow shutter speed (for a digital camera, it's pretty ancient). However, I took a couple of videos and the one with the crabs turned out okay so here it is. These guys are really huge. They probably would have made it almost to my waste were they standing next to me. There were also fish in the tank that seemed very content to just sit still and get almost stepped on by these crabs all the time. It was really weird and kind of creepy really.

After we checked in to the hotel, we napped, showered, the went in search of dinner and entertainment. Osaka, however, is dirtier and sketchier than Tokyo so after dinner (okonomiyaki) and some wandering to go back to the hotel and sleep.

The next day we mostly spent hanging out by the concert venue so we could get a good spot in line. Photos inside were not allowed so I've got nothing for you there sadly. I had a lot of fun though and met a really nice Japanese girl named Yoko who was also from Tokyo and in fact lives somewhere on the Hanzomon line (the same line I live on). I got her phone info so we can make plans to hang out now that I'm back in Tokyo.

The next day I again got to haul my luggage accross Osaka so we could catch our shinkansen back to Tokyo where I then went on to Minakami. However, that will have to wait for later since I feel this post is long enough and I'm tired of typing for now anyway.