Monday, October 31, 2005

Headed North... of my neighbourhood that is...

Met up with Scotto at good ol' Tullys this morning, had a seat outside on what will likely be one of our last such coffee breaks until the spring. This morning, after sitting for about half an hour, I decided to head back home and put on something heavier... I am no longer in denial, cold weather is on it's way to Utsunomiya. Today was around 10 degrees in the shade, ok so long as you're wearing a sweatshirt...

So after about an hour or so, we headed out for what would turn out to be a 4 hour walk\odyssey through an area of Utsunomiya I had never walked around. I had driven through the area North of my place on Sunday morning, and found it to have an interesting character... so I suggested to Scott that we'd head out that way, and we did. Nice thing about having a sense of direction is not being affraid to venture out into unknown areas... and knowing the train track were East of us, we felt pretty safe wandering around aimlessly on our own... as we usually do on Mondays.

So we headed West, wrapped around the Tochigi Prefectural Office and then headed North into a rather classy neighbourhood. There were lovely houses with amazing gardens and old-looking Oya stone walls, quite a nice character to the 'hood. Unfortunately, we also came accross a gaudy marriage hall made to look like a church, while the back of it looked like some byzantine building... odd. It was well built, using marble and lovely materials, but just a nasty thing to have in such a nice neighbourhood. We eventually hit a main street and decided to head on East and try to reach the train tracks... on the way we stopped in at a cute little French bakery and had a quick bite, just to tide us over until lunch.

Here's a shot of the center of Utsunomiya seen from a couple of clicks up the Kinugawa river.

As we kept walking we spotted some rather obvious proof that Japan is lagging far behind other nations in it's environnmental\health and safety legislation. Right here, about 2 feet from the sidewalk and surrounded by commercial buildings, restaurants and homes was a poorly maintained building COVERED with asbestos insulation. There was even asbestos in the open-air rafters, quite disturbing, though not surprising.

Right around the corner from the carcinogen, this lovely flower growing in a community garden.

AAAAARRRRGGG!!! For the second time this week I see a beautiful car with no one to love it... how sad! The first was a BMW M3 sitting in a garage with 2 inches of dust on it. This time, it's this Mercedes sitting in a lot with all 4 tires flat and the insignia half bent off.... where is the owner??? If anyone knows, let him know I am willing to remove the car from the premises for a small payment of 200,000 Yen and will of course be requiring the ownership papers...

Kept walking in the direction of the Station and ran accross this amusingly named dog grooming place... American Dog Wash... just checked out their web site and other than the name... there's no English to be found... how American...

There was also this horrific use of the English language to try and persuade people not to let their dogs pee in and around the business... quite amusing. For those of you with bad eyes, the lower section reads: You must teachs your dog manners. Then we are dog lovers each other. Thank you." I think I'll take more of the Engrish pictures... last week when I was walking with Alex we spotted both a "Stone Reraxation massage" and a "Beauty Saron". Come on people, crack open a dictionary before you dish out thousands of dollars on your business signs!!!

We finally chose between Kumamato Ramen, Yokohama Ramen and Praktica for lunch... Praktica won hands down and we started walking that was. Lovely lion statue, unfortunately it guards the entrance of a garrish pachinko parlour/public bath thing...

Once at Praktica, we were of course greeted by our gracious hosts and took a seat outside in the sunshine. Not too many of these opporunities left, so we thought we'd enjoy the fresh air while we could. We both had their wonderful Vietnamese Curry and Rice... the rice isn't the typical white sticky rice, but a different variety... quite nice. Every time I go there, I am reminded of why I keep going there. Great food, great service, gotta love it... and I'm not just saying that because the owners read my blog... lol

Accross the street from Praktica is an affront to my psyche greater than both Pachinko and Asbestos put together. Many young Japanese girls these days are going to great lengths to change themselves into something quite frightening... this place is a temple to them... a tanning salon called "Blacky" and which promises "Hyper tanning" how nasty is that??? As Scott mentionned, in 30 years we will be dealing with a large segment of the population looking like Magda from "Something about Mary". (Click here for a reminder, and if you know anyone who goes into one of them shake-and-bake tanning machines on any kind of regular basis, have them watch the movie... for added effect you can replay the sequence of Madga topless multiple time.)
So after a great walk and a great lunch, we headed in to Nagasakiya, got some grub for our bare shelves and split off on our seperate ways. I watched Phonebooth (again) today and Matrix: Revolutions (for the first time) both of which I borrowed from Yoshiko. Thanks! Matrix Revolutions was better I found than the second one, which really disapointed me. I still think the first one was the best, and maybe I need to watch all three in close succession to understand all the intricacies of the plot... but I found the second movie just used too many stupid CGI scenes where actors could have easily performed the work. I was particularly pissed about a scene where Trinity falls off a building, completely computer animated. Come on guys! Actors have been falling off the buildings for hundreds of years! Make it look real and use the actual actor, not some CGI mock-up!!! Anywho, enough of a rant. I'm gonna stir up some dinner and get into Lonely Planet Beijing for a bit...
Plans for this week? 2 days of work, Source on Wednesday night, National Holiday on Thursday, 2 days of work, another weekend... woohoo!

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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Nikko... Take 2

Headed out to Nikko today to check out the leaves and we had a simply amazing day from the time I was picked up at 7AM to when I was dropped off a few minutes ago, everything pretty much fell into place, which made for a great day!

Before I delve into the intricacies (supported by photographs of course) of the day, let me digress into a quick word or 6 about crowds in Japan. One of the things which I expected to happen to me when I got out here in "crowded" Japan from the "practically unpopulated" land that is Canada is that I would feel constantly cramped, surrounded by people and unable to do anything about it. I am glad that is one of the expectations which ended up not being true. Of course, I am not living in one of the major centers (Tokyo\Kobe\Osaka) which are in fact quite busy, but life here hasn't been that cramped\crowded\etc. One of the times I do feel the most crowded however is when on any kind of excursion in Kanto (meaning, within striking distance of any Tokyo-ite with a car) to any kind of "famous" or "well-known" location. The moment you see the break lights of hundreds of cars stopped ahead of you as you try to head into the mountains early in the morning, you realize you are in fact in Japan... Today was no exception. With the Fall colours at their peak in the Chuzenjikido area of Nikko, we were greeted by the familiar line of break lights a full 22 kilometres from lake Chuzenji, and were promised a 2-3 hour climb up the mountain by a helpful toll both operator. While it didn't end up being THAT bad, only took us an hour to get up there and traffic wasn't so bad on the way back, it certainly serves as a quick reminder as to the sheer amount of people around here. Now, on with the day's events.

So after being rudely awoken for the second time this weekend at 6AM by the sound of exploding firecrackers (big ones, sound like rifle shots, no little pop pops) announcing some kind of event at Futara-san Jinja, I stumbled around for a while trying to get organized and headed out the door just in time to hop into my travel companion's vehicle. As we headed out, the day started to look like it was gonna be a beaut! After fighting a gaggle of traffic in Nikko, we attacked Nikko's famous Irohazaka Winding Road, which is essentially a series of switchback roads which take you up to Lake Chuzenji's 1.3Km altitude above sea level. Here you can see a chunk of the road taken from a rest stop along the way.

Here's a shot of yours truly, and you can see one of the 48 hairpin turns on the way up the mountains.

After winding our way (literally) up the mountain, we arrived at Lake Chuzenji, a much sunnier lake then when we were here last 4 weeks ago.

The first plan was to check out the grounds of what was until 1997 the official summer retreat of the Italian Ambasciatore to Japan, on the shores of Lake Chuzenji. As we parked, this is the view which greeted us, breathtaking.

We came at pretty much the peak time for the change of colours for this year. Most of the trees have changed, and some were bare of leaves so it was perfect timing!

On the way down to the Italian Embassy, I took this shot of this leaf overlooking the British Summer Retreat... just fiddling with the camera and focusing and such...

This is the dining room of the Italian residence... quite a nice shack!

Of course, like any lakeside retreat, the view makes the cottage... and this is a pretty damn nice view. You can spot some snow on the top of the mountain peak on the right if you look closely. Keep in mind this pic was taken at 1300M elevation, and these mountains climb up higher than that.

More view, this time from the front of the cottage along the lake.

This mammoth of a mount is Nantai-san, which rises to more than 1000 meters higher than Chuzenji to a height of 2484M over sea level.

Leaf caught in the middle of a change...

Lovely shades of red on the embassy grounds.

A last glimpse of the fantastic view of the lake, and then we headed out to Ryuzu no taki (Ryuzu Falls) for some Soba and some viewing of falling water.

These are Ryuzu Falls, essentially a river which splits in half and tumbles it's way down into a pool at the bottom.

The right side of the Falls, somewhere in there is a dragon's head...

LUNCH!!! Great big thanks goes out to Scott for his suggestion of the Ryuzu Falls Soba shop for lunch... this was great! Soba on the right and Udon on the right... topped off with some green tea, perfect for a cool Fall day and quite tasty!

After lunch, we decided to check out that foot onsen we went to last time and so we headed out past all the popular attractions and deeper into the mountains. When we arrived, we were a tad dismayed to find a tour bus had just unloaded a bunch of tourists and thus crammed up our free foot soak... decided to wait them out and headed to the side of a little lake and had some ice cream, best soft serve I've had in Japan! Funny thing, as we were sitting there talking, I kept glancing out onto the lake at some poor schmuck who was trying to manoeuvre a row boat out on the lake. Unfortunately for him, the rental obviously didn't come with an instruction booklet! He was propulsing the boat backwards, meaning the square stern of the boat was what was "slicing" into the water. To make matters worse, he was pushing the oars, instead of pulling them... and his rythm was all messed up... at least he was facing the right way! We eventually headed back out to the foot onsen and had our soak, tootsies are right happy at the moment! Driving back, got another view of Nantai-san.

We of course hit traffic again near Chuzenji but it didn't last long and only took us about 45 minutes to get down the mountain... another half hour and we were back in town. After fooling around a bit in Southern Utsuno, we headed out to dinner at Roberts and then headed on home. Great cap to a great day!

Tomorrow, hooking up with Scotto and possibly Alex and gonna have some more of the Kumamato ramen, possibly... or Indian... Oh and Thursday is a national holiday, which means this work week is comprised of two 2-day stretches... not too shabby... it's a hard life... really... stop laughing...

Also, this day was made possible by good ol' Alex-sensei who graciously accepted to work Sunday for me after I'd forgotten about the commitment and had made plans which I didn't want to break... YOU DA MAN ALEX!!!

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Saturday, October 29, 2005

Could it be? The best weekend yet?

Sure started off that way! Friday night was an absolutely amazing night... Saturday was the typical Saturday, lots of classes, lots of students, but it went by quickly.

After work tonight, the boys decided to check out a place called Kegon inside the Tobu Grande hotel nearby... looked like a kind of funky cigar lounge from the picture we saw... and it was amazing!!! Small bar, just two barmen\waiters run the whole show, it was nice and quiet and the guy will definately remember our names, which means we'll be back. We sat there to shoot the shit for about 2 hours, had 2 drinks each along with a lovely cigar courtesy of Alex... man, what a way to end the week! To top it all off, we headed accross the street to have some Yokohama-style Ramen at a SUPER busy shop... we were lucky to get three seats... shortly after we came in, the walls lined up with people waiting for a seat at the counter. That was the fastest I ever ate a bowl of steaming hot Ramen!!! The Ramen-master kept eying people who weren't eating fast enough... I'm sure he wouldn't think twice about kicking out some slow eaters. Coincidentally, this Ramen shop was where I had my first meal in Utsunomiya... Matt-sensei took me there on the Saturday I came in to town.

So far so good, and the weekend is just now officially starting! Tomorrow is a lovely trip out to Nikko to see the Fall colours, should be quite nice, and yet again, the company is what makes it good. As Scott has been saying, life just seems to keep getting better and better!

This week, I also took possession of my passport with my Chinese Visa securely pasted into it... woohoo! Today I also received my package from containing Lonely Planet Beijing and China as well as some movies, I'll start in on planning the nitty gritty of my trip on Monday.

So some more Nikko pics coming at you tomorrow... ceeyayo!

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Lost Japan by Alex Kerr

This morning, (12:30PM may be afternoon for some people but for me it's still morning) while sitting at Tully's, I completed my reading of Alex Kerr's "Lost Japan." Quite an interesting book. What is most interesting to see is the author's progression from "Lost Japan" in 1994 to "Dogs and Demons" in 2001. "Lost Japan" deals with Kerr's experiences over 30 years as he becomes truly intertwined with traditional Japanese culture. He buys and renovates a traditional house in the mountains of Iya, befriends Kabuki masters, artists and intellectuals while trying to understand the Japan that is changing before his very eyes. It certainly is interesting to see that in 1994 he still had much of that twinkle one gets in one's eyes when one arrives in Japan. While I will not go so far as to say that twinkle was gone when he wrote "Dogs and Demons" he certainly seems to have a more realistic approach to Japan in his later book. "Lost Japan" is lex Kerr's realization that some of Japan's traditional arts and culture have been lost... and that no one seems to care.

Quite a few of his writings struck a chord while I was reading and I'd like to share some of these with you now, along with my thoughts after each passage. I hate to preach, but I will anyway. I have a feeling I was paying more attention near the end of the book as most of the quotes which struck me are in that section of the book... I may need to re-read this one again...

The first thing I read which made me reach for a pen and paper was a haiku written in 1978 when Kerr left the Iya valley for Tokyo to enter the world of Kabuki. His solitary life in the mountains of Iya had been short lived due to the ongoing development on the region and the rapid disapearance of the traditional life he sought. It was written by the mother of a friend of his who lived in their small mountain village.
Powdered in snow
The morning mountains
Tug at my back.
page 54
For the unititiated, a haiku is a short Japanese poem, only 17 syllables arranged in 5-7-5 syllable lines and attempts to capture an intense emotion or scene of nature in a very concise manner. This particular haiku captures the feeling of Kerr's departure quite amazingly in the simple beauty that only haiku does so well. Looking back now, I can understand the feeling. Last Sunday morning on the way to the river for the BBQ, I caught a glimpse of Nantai-san covered in snow... and couldn't tear my eyes away.... mountains are a sacred and beautiful thing for sure.

The second passage which struck me was when Kerr was discussing the lack of crime in Japan, which in fact makes it quite comfortable to live here. Here is the quote, direct from the book.
"One of Japan's greatest achievements is its relative lack of crime, and this is one of the invisible factors which makes life here very comfortable. The low crime rate is the result of those smoothly running social systems and the envy of many a nation - this is the good side of having trained the population to be bland and obedient."
page 221
This is definitely something I have noticed here. Why is there little crime in Japan? Because the government\society\whoever says it's wrong. It's that simple. In the same way that the tea ceremony and flower arrangement has become largely scripted, so has the life of most Japanese people (and as I heard this week, that of long-term foreigners in Japan). And nowhere in that script is there room for such chaotic things as theft and violence. People do what they are told. Period. Why? Because they have been brought up in a very militaristic (right down to the Prussian army-style uniforms in school) system and have been formed into the perfect citizen, one who will "endure" the rigidity and high demands of Japanese life. So lack of crime is one of the good things, while general apathy towards politics and resistance to (fear of?) change are some of the bad things resulting from this indoctrination. Nobody asks any questions, it's just "gambatte", a Japanese word which perfectly coins both "endure" and "do your best" at the same time.

His next striking statement was regarding Japan's lack of internationalism, though that is THE one word one keeps hearing on an almost daily basis. (along with the excuse: "Japan is an island" to any questions about the lack internationalization) Kerr is writing about the transformation of anything foreign into a Japanese version of the same object. This is a long one, but here goes:
"Japan is like an oyster. An oyster dislikes foreign objects: when even the smallest grain of sand or broken shell finds its way inside the oyster shell, the oyster finds the invasion inteollerable, so it secretes layer after layer of nacre upon the surface of the invading particle, eventually creating a beautiful pearl. However, while pearls may vary slightly in size and luster, they all look very much alike. In the process of coating, not a trace remains of the shape or color of the grain of sand inside. In like manner, Japan coats all culture from abroad, transforming it into a Japanese-style pearl. The finished pearl is a thing of great beauty - often, as in the case of the tea ceremony, more refined than the original - but the essential nature of the original is lost. This is why Japan, which has hundreds of thousands of Italian and Chinese restaurants, has almost no genuine Italian or Chinese food. Ingredients are altered and watered down, and there is even a brand of olive oil which bears the label 'Specially Reconstituted for Japanese Taste'."
page 231
Goddamn but if I haven't tried to explain this to 300 people here in Japan. The closest I could get to Kerr's fantastic explanation was to say something along the lines of: "Japan has many good Itlaian and Mexican restaurants, but I haven't found any good Italian or Mexican food". It's usually at this point that I lose my conversation partner and have to blather on about my individual experiences with real ethnic food in Canada and its counterpart here in Japan. I eventually get my point accross, kind of... but damned if I wasn't amazed at finding this passage in "Lost Japan" which encapsulates exactly what I've been trying to say!

Kerr says that the hope for modern Japan lies in a specific number of people who have somehow formed outside of the mold. He has befriended many of the "luminati" and hopes that they can lead future generations to a better place. To show just how "different" the thinking of these select few is, he recounts this story about a mishap by one of these intelectuals' students during the tea ceremony. You must first understand just how intricately scripted the tea ceremony is to fully grasp the importance of his reaction. Every movement, every angle of the tea ceremony is precicely calculated and one must not diverge from it in any way... so a mistake is usually cause for great shame... or something... from what I understand. Having never seen the tea ceremony performed, I can't give a first hand account...
"The tea used in the ceremony is finely powdered green tea, carried in a laquered caddy called a natsume, which is shaped like an egg with a flat bottom and top. One day, a student failed to support the body of the caddy, taking only the lid in his hands, and the caddy dropped from the height of about one meter directly onto the tatami. The powdered tea puffed up high into the air in a cloud and tea settled in a green ring on the mat before our startled eyes. Everyone was petrified. In the silence, Sawada asked us, "What is the appropriate thing to say at a time like this?" Nobody could answer. He said, "You should say, 'How beautiful!' " And indeed the ring of powdered green tea on the tatami was beautiful. ..."
page 243
How cool is that? While everyone in the room probably expected for the student to be chastised for his failure to properly perform what was required of him, the Master instead saw deeper into the situation and saw a unique opportunity to gaze upon beauty created by random chaos. Quite interesting.

Finally, a quote in the book attributed to Tamasaburo, a great Kabuki master. The quote makes refference to the general concensus by some intellectuals that the following generations are nothing but 'blind mules' and thus not worthy of carrying on their work.
"The reason why people end up as 'blind mules', is that they are trying to succeed a genius. You never can. All you can do is to take a hint from their work, and create something completely new yourself."
page 261

Totally true... and I've been lucky enough to have some pretty damn good people around to take hints from in the past. I can only hope to use their tutelage wisely and carve my own path.

So with this parting quote I bid you adieu and head off to bed. Good week so far, plans for a return run to Nikko on Sunday will promise to make next weekend a great one as well. Cheers!

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Monday, October 24, 2005

Yamaya and Ramen and Temples... great day!

Met up with Scott today for our weekly Monday Tully's meet and greet where we discuss the weekend's happenings. This was an absolutely fantastic weekend, I am willing to say probably my best weekend since I arrived in Japan.

After coffee and salad at Tully's we headed out to Yamaya for our monthly resupply of beer\wine and oddball foods. On the way there we came across Anna and her friend Melanie (I think) and chatted with them for a bit, then spotted the girl that works at the Chinese restaurant AND a former student of ours... small town this is. Made our way out to Yamaya and I came back with some Khalua, Ketchup and Mayonaise... and while in the store it struck me that Kellogs must not have Trademark rights here in Japan... unless Temmy's is a subsidiary of Kellogs or something...

After our walk to Yamaya, we diverted to Utsunomiya Station and went down into the bowels of Lala Square to once more experience Kumamato Style Ramen at it's best. Quite simply put, this is THE best Ramen I have tasted in Japan. The broth in this kuroi (black) ramen is just simply delicious... not salty like most other ramen but just plain old tasty! Add to it the generous helping of vegetables and meat... and it's just a fantastic meal.

Here is the Ramen shop and staff who cook up this wonderful black magic bowl of goodness. The fellow on the righ, Hironori, speaks English and knows Scott and I by name... though I've only been there 3 times now. The last time we went he asked my name and almost 2 months later, he still remembers...

As we were leaving LALA Square, we bumped into Sayaka-sensei, heading in to do some shopping... again, small town. Beautiful weather today, temp around 20 degrees or so with great sunshine... nice day for a walk.

On the way back to my place, we took a different side street and stumbled upon this 15th century temple.

There was this lovely bronze statue and a large peaceful graveyard which we explored. It was interesting to see the progression in age of the grave markers from olden times to today. Some of the statues in the graveyard were so worn down by the weather that you could barely make out the carvings... wonder how old they are. In Japan, graves are not individual as in the West. The bodies are cremated and the ashes are placed within the family's grave in the patriarch's hometown. One grave marker often contains the ashes of countless generations.

The temple's carvings were spectacular.

So that's pretty much that, tonight I'm just gonna curl up to some South Park and maybe pop in a DVD or something... just chilling out after a busy weekend. Talk at ya later.

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

The mighty Kinugawa river...

Today was a fantabulous day, from begining to end. First thing this morning, made my way to our meeting spot to catch my ride out to the shores of the Kinugawa river for the big BBQ event of the year, attended mainly by our Frontiers (discussion level) students.

After arriving and figuring out where we were going to be making the grub, everyone set out to their tasks. I was quite pleased when I saw bundles of firewood being unloaded and realized we would be cooking off an open fire! Being an avid outdoorsman and not having cooked over an open campfire in 171 days (yes I counted), this gave me a nice shot of camping-ishness to tide me over through the Winter.

Here be the kitchen staff, at work over the section of rocks designated as the kitchen... notice the cutting board...

Of course, no BBQ is complete without outdoor furniture... this was to be someone's chair... they made me hold it a while until everybody whipped out their cameras and took pictures... lol

And the magic begins...

Add a touch of miso...

And voila! A wonderful Japanese soup\stew with many kinds of veggies, some tofu, pork and other stuff I'm not sure of.

The group forming a chow line... incidentaly this was my first use of chopsticks at a BBQ...

Something which did strike me as quite sad throughout the day was the destruction of the river system by damming... we were standing on rocks which used to be 30 feet under water... the Mighty Kinugawa is now but a trickle...

The group.

Great day 'twas... I'd like to extend a very public thank you to Arai-san for the prep\organization for this event, greatly done sir! Also a great big thanks goes out to Happy Motoki, without whom Yoshi and I would have somehow had to figure out which bus would take us out to the river... and of course thanks to everyone in attendance for a great day and a first introduction to Japanese style BBQ!

In other news, there has been a series of shakes and rattles in the area this week as you can see in the graphic below. The big square was a 6.5 quake on wednesday night, the one nearest Tokyo (5.5) was last Sunday and the one between Tokyo and Sendai was last night, also a 5.5, felt it at the party. Hopefully things settle down a bit now...

It has come to my attention that at least one person has recognized me on the streets of Utsunomiya (or more precisely, at Tully's) based on this lovely old blog of mine. Please don't be shy, pull up a chair, let's have a chat! I love how this blog thing has connected me with all sorts of people. I am now getting emails on a weekly basis from someone who stumbled accross sushiandmaplesyrup and either taught here in Utsunomiya, or travelled here or something and is thanking me for the trip down memoory lane... it's great!

Dinner tonight was faaaaaantaaaastic! Penne with a tomato\roasted garlic\pepper sauce along with some lovely wine... and of course as usual, the company makes the evening. THANKS!

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Saturday, October 22, 2005

Halloween comes early to Utsunomiya

Yes, that's right, as lucky as we are here in Utsunomiya, Halloween graced us with it's presence a full 9 days in advance! Halloween is quite simply put, just a fantastic excuse to act silly and let it all hang out so to speak. It's a great day, even though it isn't really recognized here in Japan. Our students certainly knew about it yesterday!

We had quite the bash, it was alot of fun. On an interesting side note before I go on to the pictures, I found it quite amusing to go out in public in full costume not once but twice! Why was this enjoyeable you ask? Wouldn't it be embarassing to be walking around with a mustache and beard painted on your face in public? Well You must of course remember that this is Japan, and in Japan us foreigners already rank a 12 out of 10 on the weirdness factor, so bumping it up to a 15 didn't so much as cause a ripple in the water. I went out to lunch as usual at 2PM, AND at 8PM we went into Nagasakiya to do some grocery shopping for the party... in a crowded store of course. And you know what the funniest thing of all was? Apart from the double-take we usually get just for being non-Japanese, nobody gave us a second look! It was quite interesting to say the least... and quite liberating in fact... And for the record, I was costumed as a drunk French teacher...

On to the pics. First here is a shot of Scott and I in full regalia upon our return from Nagasakiya. We even rolled the two carts all the way into the office after motioning to the security guard that we were just parked "down that way a bit" and would be right back... lol On the right is Airi, one of my private students, before the costume came out.

Here's a group of us, and yes that was in fact wine in that bottle... and yes I was drinking directly from the bottle.... not water, wine! And for those of you who tried the wine last night and want to know the name, it's Mission St-Vincent Bordeaux, and amazing white wine available at Cafe Praktica by the glass and Yamaya by the bottle. I recommend Praktica, the food is probably better than at your place... and they clean the dishes!!!

Couple more costumes

We even had a celebrity appearance in the form of Spider Man, who disguised himself as Groucho Marx so as not to be recognized...

Some headgear swapping... gotta love Master Yoshi's laugh, I think probably the most heartfelt, honest laugh I've heard in quite some time.

Here's something you don't see every day, Darth Vader having a seat on a Jedi Knight's lap...

So it was a blast, the games rocked, and of course my team won both games, without my help! Great job Airi on picking out Information, good job Mayu on spelling Mammoth with 2 Ms and good job Mitsuru on coming up with some great vocab!

After the party and a change of clothes, I met up with some of the stragglers from the party at the Lion's Head and had 2 beers before turning in around 2AM. Had to get up at 8 to clean the room and head out to the BBQ by the riverside, as organized by Arai-san.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

I'd recognize that accent anywhere...

Ah, the small joys one clings to when living in Japan. Went out to the Lion's Head with Takashi and Scott as is the usual plans on Wednesday night. After his one beer, Takashi-san ran off to get his train and Scott and I ordered our second (and last) round as usual accompanied with the weekly Tomatoe and Basil Pizza. Shortly after devouring the pizza, I headed to the can in the back of the bar and as I walked by a table with three young gents talking, my seventh-sense kicked in... Was that French? No no no, was that Canadian-French? Non non non, c'est impossible! Ce ne peut pas être un accent québecois-français, provenant de la région de Montréal ou même de la rive-sud!!!

Sure enough! After removing the beer from my bladder I stopped on by their table and there it was. My mother tongue in all it's glory! I hadn't heard a native French speaker in Japan since meeting those two girls from Rimouski in June. It was great to have a quick chat with them and I hope to see them again at the Lion's Head some time soon. They are engineers working for Honda, from Montreal but originally from the Laurentians and the South-shore of the St-Lawrence. It made my day to have a good ol' chat with them in true crass french... none of this refined stuff I have to use with others I speak with here!

So that was the high point of the day for sure!

In other news, the plane tickets to Beijing are purchased... I have to make my way to Narita for 6:55 AM on December 25th, which means I need to spend the night near the airport, which means I have to leave directly after work on Saturday the 24th. I may stay at a group hostel type place which has cheap beds for the night... or I may just say fudge it, take the latest train I can out of here directly to Narita and spend the night dozing on a bench in the airport... don't know yet. Another option would be to spend the night at Alex's place in Saitama and take an early train out to Narita... we'll see when the time gets closer.

Other than that, not much else going on... except for the quake we had a couple of hours ago... around 8:40??? 6.5 magnitude quake, situated off the Japanese coast line, maybe 100 km from Utsunomiya. I think it was the biggest I've felt so far, and some of our students got pretty freaked out by it... I was in the middle of a discussion on whether Robots would make humans irrelevant and useless in the future when Isao looked up and said "Earthquake"... shortly thereafter, I noticed the quiet rumble and it turned to a more substantial shaking and rolling and the building got creaking pretty bad... lasted for a few minutes before it quieted down. In true Japanese form, I continued teaching... lol This was the second "big" quake in 4 days... the last one was a 5.0 about 60 km from here... didn't rock so bad as today though, I was on the 8th floor of Parco in the book store when it hit... such is life in Japan I guess.

I've started reading Alex Kerr's Lost Japan, pretty good so far. I also have a BBQ\festival thing to go to on Sunday by the riverside. Yoshi and I will be joining Takashi and his friends for a yearly event which involves some kind of river-side cooking... not sure quite what it all entails but all I was told to bring was some beers... so that works for me! Following the BBQ, I need to run back down here to prepare dinner, so busy Sunday but no plans (yet) for Monday.

Am of course anxiously awaiting the care package which is making it's way from Canada to Japan, sent by Mr. Lewis himself... at great expense from what I understand... shipping is a bitch! Will be a great morale booster, just in time for Winter! You da man Smee!

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Monday, October 17, 2005

Locked and loaded...

Well ladies and gents, the trip is shaping up, I checked a few local travel agencies today and finally decided to call Number One Travel in Tokyo to book my flight to Beijing. While I didn't get the price quoted on their web site (as they say, the price is subject to change without notice... and that's ok) I still got a much better deal (anywhere from 200-600$ cheaper!!!) than any of the places I visited today. My agent is working on my itinerary right now, she'll send it to me by email and after confirming the details I'll give her a call back and make the payment. After that, I'll need to make a trip to a travel agency and have them deal with my visa application... then visit the local immigration office and get a re-entry permit so I can come back to Japan... then book my hotel in Beijing... figure out if\how I'm getting to Xian and book hotels for that as well.

Yesterday I headed out to a couple of stores to look for Lonely Planet: Beijing guidebook... they didn't have it. When I went to the counter at one of the places to ask if they had it in the back room or something, they didn't speak English so I had to use my rudimentary (read: mostly pointing and gesturing and writing on paper) Japanese to see if they could order it. Then to prove that Japan is a small country, I spotted Wasim (AEON teacher from Oyama, originally from Montreal) and ran him down to help me, he's practically fluent... turns out it would take 3 weeks to order it in, so I said daijobu desu, and did some shopping on last night instead. Quite the coincidence to see Wasim in there with Japanese GF just as I needed some Japanese assistance! Utsunomiya and Oyama are about 40 minutes apart by train and they were in town shopping... it's a small world we live in folks... So I bought both Lonely Planet China and Beijing for the price I would have paid just for the China one, and added some DVD's to the shipment since I was paying for shipping anyways... should be here in 5-8 business days then I can start planning the nitty gritty details of my trip. Woohoo!!! It's a great feeling to see an amazing trip like this starting to shape up! China! The Forbidden City! Great Wall! Birthplace of the oldest still-existing civilization on the planet!!! Should be an amazing trip.

As for this weekend, it was pretty mellow. Friday night I went out to Yatai Mura, an outdoor restaurant stall place, really neat... maybe 20 or so little individual restaurant stalls, seating maybe 4-10 people each... very cool. Here's a blurry pic I took on Friday, I should have stabilized the camera against a wall or something... but it's still a cool picture.

Yesterday, I did pretty much nothing but go to the bookstore and grocery shopping. Watched a couple of South Park episodes (Priceless!), checked out some of Robin Williams' standup on DVD and watched I, Robot again... Today, met up with Scott-o at Tully's for a coffee then we took a walk out to Tsutaya for him to pickup a book, dropped in to the travel places to check prices and then parted ways. Not much planned for tonight... Curry Rice for dinner, some music and a book or something... nice relaxing weekend. Here is an amalgamation of pictures I took today in my travels.

First on the list is another shot I took to try and prove I am in fact eating well in Japan, and no, I'm not eating just raw fish... Here's a quick breakfast I whipped up this morning, fried eggs, sausages, tomatoes and toast... mmmmmm. Next week I may splurge and buy Bacon!

Unfortunately I wasn't fast enough with the camera to catch the main event here... but this is just one example of the AMAZING service you get here in Japan. This elderly gentleman had exited Nagasakiya with his grocery purchases and was in the process of unlocking his bike and getting ready to unload his bags into his basket when this staff member came out from the store to: 1) dry off his bike seat with a cloth because it was raining 2)help him load his bags into his basket 3) take the cart back into the store for him. How cool is that!!!

On our walk, we came upon this impressive display of vending-machine worship... from right to left: Cigarettes, Cigarettes, Beer, Drinks, Drinks... impressive how many of these machines there are. Even more impressive is the fact that I have yet to see a vandalized beer vending machine. Can you imagine having one of these on a street corner in Canada\USA??? It would be broken into and emptied on an almost hourly basis!!!

Couldn't resist taking a picture of this "random-use-of-English-on-a-sign" example... Hair Make R Hearts... my kind of hairdresser...

This is I think one of the poorest apartment designs I've ever seen... looks like a prison for god's sake!!! The font doors to the apartments (which you can kind of see to the left of the pic) face each other on either side of a narrow hallway... looks like the typical design for prisons with cells on either side of a main hall!

This is a shot of an old church with Tobu department store parking in the background... taken from Scott's apartment building.

And finally some Fall shots to finish up... it seems some trees here are more susceptible to the cold then others. Some are already bare, while some are still perfectly green???

This is a picture of Kencho near my place, the tree lined street linking the Tochigi Prefectural office at one end with the Utsunomiya City Hall at the other. Every day, an army of these folks with brooms head out to collect the fallen leaves... an especially difficult job after a day of rain like we had today, with the leaves sticking to the sidewalk... god bless 'em for trying!

So that's about that for now, will keep youz all updated on the progress of my plans, and on the wonders of life from the center of Utsunomiya city, Tochigi prefecture, Japan, Asia, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way Galaxy, Universe...

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