Friday, August 31, 2007

Aug 5th & 6th: Dancing Queen

On Aug 5th I went to a town north of Amagasaki, called Sakasegawa, to check out the festival. Every town, city, neighborhood, etc. has their own festivals all summer long. You can go pretty much anywhere and find a festival going on. I met up with my pred, Chris, Emmy, Mukonoso-Dave, and Richard. This festival was mainly for the kiddos - games where you could win a giant blow-up Disney animal, goldfish, and other toys. The food was very interesting: giant hot dogs on sticks (didn't taste like our hot dogs), shaved ice, yakisoba, tako-yaki (deep-fried octopus dumplings, I haven't worked up the courage to try these yet). The kids are adorable all dressed up in their yukata.

For dinner we went to an okonomi-yaki restaurant. Okonomi-yaki is sort of the Japanese version of pizza; it's a savory pancake topped with cabbage, meat, mayo (of course), fish flakes, and some other things. At the restaurant, every table has a giant hot plate built into the center. You order whatever types of okonomi-yaki you want (mostly the sauces are different, but you can get garlic, kimchi, and a whole bunch of different flavors and innards), the cook puts them together in the back and then brings them to the table and puts them on the hot plate to cook. It's interesting to watch because the fish flakes are on top and while they cook they curl up and it looks like the food is moving...strange! It's very tasty (however, I don't recommend the take-home version from the grocery store - didn't turn out well).

On Aug 6th I ended up going back to the festival by chance. I had decided to sign up for Japanese tutoring at the International Center in Takarazuka (about 2 train stops from Sakesegawa) since a lot of the other ALTs recommended it. I met up with Richard, Chris, and Casey and they helped me sign up before their tutoring sessions. The tutors are little old ladies who volunteer their time (so they have someone to talk to, I think) and it costs only 500 yen (about $5)!! Afterwards, we walked back to Sakasegawa to check out some dancing - Casey's bf is a dance teacher and his students were performing. I guess I was expecting traditional Japanese dancing...what I saw instead was hard-core hip hop! It was like something out of a rap video! Apparently this type of dance is very popular and even really young kids like the "sexy dance."

After the "dance recital," we went to a ramen restaurant for dinner. You wouldn't believe all the types of ramen that are available - not just your regular Top Ramen!

We went back to the festival and I was so excited to see some taiko drummers setting up. I so was busy watching the taiko drums, I didn't notice the circle of grannies that had formed a circle around my friends and me. They started doing ban dancing, a traditional type of line dancing! I was thrilled! After the first dance, a couple of the ladies convinced me to join into the circle (but, really how hard is it to convince me to start dancing?) and I just followed along the best I could. I had a blast and the ladies were all so nice!

Well, it's time for dinner! I'm going to a spaghetti dinner at a friend's house (yeah, some ALTs actually get houses instead of tiny apartments! I'm a little jealous...).

Japanese phrase of the day:
Dansu ga suki desu-ka? Do you like to dance?
Hai, dai suki desu! Yes, I really like it! (~it's the best!)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Observations from Aug 2-4

I've been debating whether I should keep going in chronological order or write about more topical things...maybe I'll do both. I've also been wondering how I should deal with people's names. According to a friend, you should never use anyone's actual name in a blog (for various reasons), but considering my audience hasn't met the people I'm going to be talking about, nicknames might be a bit hard... I suppose I'll just stick to first names? Arg, the difficulties of writing a blog! :)

So, Aug 2nd, my pred, his friend Chris, and Chris's gf Emmy took me out to dinner. We went to a restaurant that serves Shabu Shabu. Like many all-you-can-eat restaurants, you pay by the hour. At every table is a giant pot of boiling water. The waitress brings you fresh vegetables and thinly sliced raw meat (we had beef and pork). Also at every table are several different types of sauces -- Japan has some of the BEST sauces I have ever tasted! First you put in all the vegetables, so the pot begins to look like a soup. Then you add the meat - and because the water is so hot and the meat so thin, it cooks almost instantly! Then you grab a bite, dip it in your sauce of choice, and enjoy! It's amazing and delicious!! Also at this restaurant was my first taste of ume-shou, a plum liqueur that is served on the rocks. Oh my goodness, it is wonderful. I will have to send some home for everyone to try!

After dinner we went to karaoke! Karaoke here is not like it is in the US. Again, you pay by the hour and depending on the level of karaoke plan (so-to-speak) that you choose, you get different drinks or food as all-you-can-drink/eat. (The 1st level is a-y-c-d chou-hi, a vodka-like fruity drink, the next level is beer, and from there the drinks get more fancy and food is in the picture...) You get a private room with booth seating, a huge tv, karaoke machine, a couple mics, song books (in English if you ask), and neat remote control thingys to chose your songs. There is also a phone so you can call the front desk and ask for more drinks/food, too. Basically, you pass the song book and remote control around and everyone plugs in their song(s) of choice -- as soon as the first song is put in, the singing begins! I have found that the most fun is had when you have a large group of people squished into the booth and everyone is singing along, regardless of who picked the song or who holds the mic. It was harder having only 4 people thinking of enough songs to sing to fill up our 2 hours... Anyway, karaoke is awesome and I am no longer shy about belting one out!!!

Some observations I had written down at this point:
1. Cicadas are the most irritating, ugly creatures I have ever come across. They begin chirping when the sun comes up and don't stop until they die, which is what 24-48hours later? So it pretty much doesn't stop!
2. Everyone carries around long umbrellas if there is even a hint of rain. You can't find the nice, small, compact umbrellas you can throw in your bag around here.
3. Women carry dark parasols all the time - it is fashionable for women to have very pale skin. So, they don't let their skin see the sun! It is very common for you to see women with a parasol, a visor that completely covers their face, gloves past their elbows, and long pants in 100+degree weather! I don't understand how they don't sweat themselves to fainting, but they don't!
4. Everyone also carries a handkerchief or small towel with them everywhere. This is for 2 reasons: a. because there are no paper towels in the restrooms, b. to mop your sweat whiles dealing with the heat and humidity. Women use designer towels/hankies - I've seen Vivienne Westwood, Anna Sui, Burberry, the list goes on... Quite expensive sweat rags!

Aug 3rd: Opened up my bank account, got my keitai (cell phone), and applied for my Alien Registration card. A nice thing about being a registered alien is that I get a driver's license-type card that I can carry instead of having to have my passport on me at all times.

Aug 4th: Fireworks festival!
The Japanese love fireworks and will come up with festivals just for the fireworks! Pretty much any weekend you can find some fireworks somewhere. This time we went to a place near Osaka, along the river (don't know the exact name). The fireworks were amazing! The show lasted nearly an hour and the fireworks were huuuuuuge!! The audience oohed, ahhed, clapped, and on the really big ones yelled sugoi! (fantastic!) It was strange being American and watching the fireworks because there is something inherently patriotic about fireworks for us. Someone else mentioned that they kept expecting a band to break out in the Star Spangled Banner because every round of fireworks felt like the big finale! It's true though -- we only see fireworks on the 4th of July and New Years. It was hard not to think about the 4th of July while watching the show, especially since it was just the month before. But I digress. Because it is a festival, everyone dresses up in their summer-style kimonos called yukata. They are much less complicated than kimonos... It's very cool to see huge crowds of people dressed up in yukata.
I just bought my own yukata this past weekend while I was in Kyoto visiting a friend of mine from high school. Her husband tied it up for me :)

For dinner that night (before the fireworks), pred, Chris, Emmy and I went to one of those conveyor belt sushi places. I think they wanted to take me "someplace new and exciting," but I've been to a conveyor sushi place before.

Something I've noticed about food: don't let people fool you into thinking that Japanese people eat sooooo healthy. Most foods are fried, covered in mayo, or both! I'm surprised more people don't keel over from heart attacks because their arteries are clogged with mayo! Yes, you can eat healthy if you eat at home, but most restaurants are not the place to go for health nuts.

I think this is where I will stop for today!

Japanese phrase of the day:
Oishi desu-yo! This is delicious!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

July 29-Aug 1st: Tokyo Orientation

I think I will start at the beginning; it's a very good place to start.

We left SeaTac around 4pm on Saturday July 28th and arrived in Tokyo around 6pm Sunday July 29th. The group from Seattle is one of the largest JET groups - we had about 60 people.

The fligh
t was very long, but had great in-flight entertainment. :) Every seat had it's own tv screen and you could choose what movies to watch - or you could play games, listen to music, all sorts of things. You could challenge someone sitting in another seat to a video game - crazy! I watched about 4 movies...I don't really remember which ones, but it doesn't really matter, does it?

When we got to the airport we were shuffled through security and customs and loaded onto a bus to take us to the hotel. We were the last group to arrive, so all the other ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers, to be used from here on) were freshly showered and ready to take on the town. I however, went to bed. Exciting.

The next few days were spent in a training conference. We covered all kinds of topics concerning the state of English education in Japan - all very thrilling (I will spare you the details). There were a few useful sessions about money management, travel, etc., but generally the time was best used meeting people and making connections (who's living in the next town over? who's living in a huge house in Hokkaido so when you want to take a weekend trip you can crash on their floor?)

One evening, a group of older ALTs from Hyogo-ken (that's the prefecture, or state, that I'm living in) organized a night out so we could meet some new and some old ALTs. We went to a theme restaurant, very common in Japan: the theme was Haunted Chinese Railroad. No lie. Inside, the walkway was down the center of the restaurant and looked like you were walking through and iron skeleton - the iron "ribs" went down on either side. Through the ribs you could walk to your table. The cashier was behind a cage like at an old train station. I wish I had taken pictures! Ah well...

Leaving Tokyo, the Hyogo-ken ALTs took the Shinkansen bullet train to Osaka. From Osaka we took a bus to an educational center in the middle of nowhere (nicknamed Yashiro Prison, this will come up again later). This is where the representatives from our base schools came to pick us up. There was a very quick introduction and very quick good-byes to our friends before we were shuffled off into separate cars an went our separate ways. (Side note: at this point it was very hard to keep contact with these new friends. We didn't have land lines or cell phones, we didn't have access to internet so email was useless, we didn't even know necessarily where we were going to be living. I think being so disconnected made me spazz out a bit...I felt like I had left my left arm at home!). From Yashiro I was taken directly my base school, Nishinomiya Kabutoyama High School. Here I met principal, was shown my desk, signed some papers, and was whisked off again, this time to my apartment.

I still have not taken any pictures of my apartment - mainly because when I moved in, it was rather scary. Now it's not quite so scary, but I'm still rearranging things and actually I just got a brand new kitchen cupboard this afternoon! So, I promise an apartment-dedicated blog in the future...

Back to the day that never seemed to end: my supervisor and my predecessor (the ALT that I am replacing) carried my bags to my place (I'm on the first floor, but the bags were extremely heavy) showed me around a bit (not that there's much to see) and took me out to dinner -- to an Italian restaurant. :) Later that evening, my pred took me out to an izakaya, a Japanese family-style restaurant, to meet some other ALTs that live nearby. Old ALTs, new ALTs, incoming and outgoing. It was nice to be around people. We weren't out too late, but I was dead tired, so I was escorted home, since I had no idea how to get back, and crashed.

There you have it: my first 4 days in Japan. A bit of a whirlwind, huh?

Japanese phrase of the day:
Tsukaremashita, uchi ni kaerimas. I'm tired, I'd better go home.

Monday, August 27, 2007

First blog post!

Finally! Internet!
I never thought I would be so happy to receive a package at 9:30pm - I had been waiting all afternoon for my modem! The JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) that I asked for help told the courier to come to my apartment at 10pm instead of 2pm like I specified.
I've only been here 3 weeks and this type of mistake doesn't surprise me anymore...but more on that later. I have quite a lot of catching up to do and I hope to do so fairly quickly. I've been keeping notes about my life to help my memory since pretty much everything is a completely new experience. But I can't start now - it's almost 11pm and I have to get up at 6am to make it to school by 8:25am because of the long commute (very different from my previous job!). I hope this blog helps to keep us in touch (yes, you), so please leave comments and send me emails.

Japanese phrase for the day:
Oyasumi nasai! Good night! (used when going to bed)