Thursday, December 28, 2006

From Cambodia to Vietnam

Well, here we are, sitting in the back of a non-profit cafe called Sozo using their free Internet (on a Mac, Mattoto, you would be proud) and waiting for our desert to be ready.

Our final 2 days in Cambodia were sobering, heartwarming, heart wrenching, horrifying, amazing... it is hard to describe in words what we've witnessed, I hope my photos are able to convey more than my words could. Our guide was absolutely fantastic, though a little long winded at times. He changed the itinerary a bit so that we would hit the Killing Fields and S21 prison first instead of last, which was a great idea. After a tour of horrors which left me numb and just wanting to get away, we visited the better sides of Phnom Penh with the Royal Palace and museums downtown. Since we had time left over before our flight, he took us to an orphanage\culture center. This place was the highlight of our time in Cambodia. They take orphans and some street kids from the area and teach them traditional khmer dance. We got to sit in on their practice and then the kids came to get us to dance with them. I suck, but the little 5 year old girl who took me by the hand tried her best to make me learn. When I finally gave up, she gave me a little flower and started climbing all over me. Fantastic work being done there, very cute kids... I want one!

We have now survived a full day in Saigon, which is quite a feat considering all of the crazy intersections we crossed. Our hotel is very well situated in a backpacker area about 10-20 minute walk to the downtown core, the atmosphere around here is great! Spent some times in the markets and Yoshiko is finally starting to feel comfortable in the dirty, poverty-filled city that is Saigon. I have yet to feel unsafe here, though it is always a good idea to keep one's hand on one's wallet.

Nothing too too concrete in the way of plans for the next few days, just hanging out, enjoying the atmosphere and the great Vietnamese cafes.


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Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas from the Kingdom of Cambodia

Were I to be asked to sum up all the thoughts in my head at the moment, I couldn't. I'll have to wait until I get back home, sort through my pictures and work my way through the trip day by day. As a primer, some things I have learned/observed since arriving in Cambodia 48 hours ago (it feels soooooo much longer than that!).
  1. Cambodia is a beautiful country, with strong and beautiful people. These people are at a crossroads where decisions which are made today will have repercussions for generations to come. I wish them the best in the future, they've been dealt a pretty shitty hand in the last couple of decades.
  2. The kids here are very cute, and staggeringly poor. For the most part, they seem happy, laugh easily and can carry on very good banter in English. It is difficult not to fall in love with every smile you encounter.
  3. The people I have met in the service industry so far are amazing. The Khmer hospitality which comes naturally to them is bar none the best I have witnessed so far.
  4. Japan is making a difference here. Whether it be by building roads, training people or refurbishing temples, you see the impact of Japan on the area.
  5. My hotel has a Cambodian version of Ray Charles sitting behind a piano belting out Christmas music. Last night during the Christmas party, he surprised me and made me laugh out loud when he started signing Country Roads, reminded me of Scott at the Hanami party last April.
  6. No matter who or where you are, a Caucasian person should not wear one of those Asian rice picker hats... looks dumb.
  7. Lots of people speak English here, more than I've heard in Japan in the last 2 years. From rickshaw drivers to kids selling postcards, their command of the language is great.
  8. I have yet to see a firearm. in Cambodia... not on any of the police officers, guards, nothing.
  9. Oh yeah, and today is Christmas, I keep being reminded of that every once in a while, like now when I realized what I just types in number 5 above.
So far, we have spent two days climbing all over multiple temples in the region, including the huge Angkor Wat, and generally just in awe at the scale of the buildings here around Siem Reap in the North of Cambodia. Tomorrow morning, we hop on a boat for the 5 hour boat ride to Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh. Our afternoon will be spent exploring the museums and national treasures in the city. The next day will be a sobering one with a visit to the Killing Fields to learn about the atrocities inflicted on the Cambodian people during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Then it's off to Vietnam, with no plans made as of yet.

So that's about that, we are still safe and sound after many legs of our journey and the rest of the trip should be smooth sailing. Merry Christmas!

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Cue the music...

As the song goes, all my bags are packed and I am once again ready to go. In about 28 hours, we'll be leaving Utsunomiya and not stopping until we reach Siem Reap, Cambodia! After spending a couple of days there, we're boating down to Phnom Penh, staying for a couple more days before making the hop by plane to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam where we will have a mellow 5 days before returning to Japan on January 1st.

Quite a trip ahead of us. We have to take a taxi, a bus, 3 planes, and a car, traveling through 4 airports in 4 countries before we find ourselves safe and sound in our hotel for the night. The good news is we won't be arriving too late and will be able to get a good night's rest before embarking on our trek through the temples of Angkor.

Got pretty much all my packing finished up tonight and I'm quite proud of the job I did. I opted to go with my backpack for this trip, and looks like I made the right choice. I'm sure when Sherry gave me this kick-ass bag a couple of years back, she had no idea it would travel halfway around the world! Great piece of equipment to have, it has helped me out on many a trip into the wilds of Algonquin Park. So here she be, all packed and ready to go with the requisite Tilley hat of course.

And here she be in airport mode. I don't want any problems with the straps or getting the bag ripped and stuff so I got this huge duffel for 1000Yen in Ueno last time we were there. The duffel folds right up into this tiny pouch so I can store it easily. Notice the carry-on bag on the side, it's one of my favourite features from the backpack. The front comes off and converts to a little day pack, how's that for convenient!

So that's that for the trip. We've got our taxi reserved, our bus tickets to the airport purchased and I just have one day of work between me and a well deserved holiday.

On that note, I have just 2 months left with Aeon before my contract ends. We've started working on the paperwork and procedures for my departure and the hand off to the next teacher. Surprised at how it's kind of sneaked up on me, and those at the school as well.

So that's about that. I have no clue when I'll be back online so here's wishing you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. For those of you in Canada, see you soon!

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Merry KuRiSuMaSu!

Yes, it is that time of year again isn't it? Funny how the holiday season kind of sneaks up on you, though the signs have been around for a few months here. Christmas here is purely a commercial venture for a majority of the people around here, with New Year's being the big holiday this season. This year, our school decided to hold a Christmas party, though I must lament the lack of planning that went into it. Out of necessity, since no other arrangements had been made, it was held at the school, pot-luck style, and turned out to be quite a blast, thanks to our fantastic students who brought enough food to serve an army of English teachers and students. As far as the drinking goes, Matt and I had pre-arranged a separate bar for ourselves in one of the classrooms. Making sure to get smashed is a great way to ensure a happy party... :-)

We started with a couple of shooters right off the bat after classes, and then settled in to White Russians (Vodka, Khalua and Milk) for the rest of the evening. Just enough to get us going, not overly intoxicated at all... Just to be silly, we also went out and bought these outrageous bow ties and head thingies at the hyakuen shop, and they made quite a splash. Here is my evil-reindeer-enticing-others-to-sin look... lol

I was quite happy when my lovely wife decided to join at the semi-last minute. She donned Mattoto's headgear for long enough to have a couple of pictures taken. This was our first entrance into the world of AEON parties since we got married and everyone was quite happy to see\meet\talk to her.

Matt and I had thought we would be the only ones decked out in anything for the party, we were wrong. Yuichirou, one half of the crazy guys from the Halloween Party, showed up in a Mrs. Claus outfit, and his ears from the Halloween party as well of course.

I guess you could say we were all a little crazy at this point. We all took turns joking around with the Missus, much to the amusement of everyone around, including Yoshiko who turned beet red from laughing so hard.

Our head-wear made its way around the party, landing on many a head in its journey. Matt did manage to hold on to his bow tie pretty well. Here he is with Stacy, the third member of Aeon Utsunomiya's foreign contingent.

Having had a long day of work, I planned for an 11PM exit from the party, which was supposed to be the end anyway. We left at 11:30, though I have no idea what time the party actually ended. Matt left around 1:30 apparently, and it was still going. I did manage to stick around long enough to capture this series of photos from the event. The crazy Missus Claus had tape on "his" armpits to hide the hair... well after a bit of drinking he let some people rip the tape off... youch! And to top that off, he stuck more on just so it could be done one more time and captured on camera! Here is the sequence of pictures... notice the look on people's faces, especially Kei on the top right.

Camera was faster than the pain signal apparently, the tape is off but he's still in the same pose.

There is is!

Quite a fun time was had by all, even though it did turn a little bit silly near the end. But hey, in a country where devil outfits are sold next to Santa Claus suits in the Christmas section and a bar called "Lucifer" has the logo "Heaven's Cafe", how can one not turn to the silly side?

Sunday was spent recuperating from the evening's festivities, we didn't even get out of our pyjamas or leave the house for the entire day. Watched The Fugitive and Wild Things on DVD, and generally lazed around.

Today, the plan was to get some more of our trip stuff sorted out, so after breakfast we headed down to the bank to acquire some travellers cheques and cash for our trip. less than five days to go!

Afterwards, we took a drive out to Mashiko to pick up some pottery Yoshiko and my mom had made back in October when she visited for the wedding. Both Yoshiko's cup and my mother's bowl turned out fantastic. Since we were in the area, we decided to stop by the rest stop near Motegi for their wonderful strawberry ice cream. On the way there, we spotted these strange things in a field and I learned about Dondoyaki (or Dondonyaki) from Yoshiko.

This pile of straw and bamboo is used in a ritual following the New Year's holiday where one burns the decorations, charms, dolls and other stuff which was used to protect one's home for the previous year. Shrines and other public places offer this all over Japan and people come by
throughout the day to toss their items in the flames, interesting ritual. This community apparently opted to also have a child's version off to the right of the big one, cool idea!

Short week ahead, I have taught my final busy Saturday of the year, for which I am quite glad. I am now able to count the remaining ones (7) I have left to teach using just my fingers... which is totally cool.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Back to cooking! Woohoo!

It has been a loooooong time since I took the time to prepare a proper meal. The maple pie for thanksgiving a couple weeks ago is the closest I've come... so this weekend we decided to stay in and prepare a nice meal, from appetizer straight through to dessert and wine.

This morning when I woke up, I noticed these thick house robe looking things hanging on the neighbour's balcony. When I asked Yoshiko about them, she confirmed my suspicions that they are used to stay warm while in bed. I'm sure they do, wouldn't mind getting one myself if I were staying here for a while longer.

After a quick run to Apita for supplies and Yamada-denki for a gift for my mother-in-law's birthday, we headed back home and started cooking. First on the list was a strawberry mousse, which I prepared. To do this of course, one needs to separate the egg whites from the yolks, which I did by rigging up a little thingamajiggy. Here I am rejoicing in my ingenuity.

One of Yoshiko's contributions to the meal was a cream of broccoli soup. I caught her being all like domestic and stuff... ha!

My second contribution to the meal was veggie stuffed peppers. While I looked at a bunch of recipes, I ended up going with a mix of a few of them. Since this was a side-dish/appetizer, I didn't want it to be too heavy so I made it meatless. Instead, these were stuffed with Croutons roasted in garlic, a little rice, some onion, some tomatoes, fresh basil and parsley. Quite yummy!

Here is the first course of the meal, my peppers and Yoshiko's soup... both excellent of course.

Our next course consisted of pan fried chicken and garlic-bacon roasted potatoes. Also very good.

And finally, the strawberry mousse with homemade whipped cream. Unfortunately, the recipe I followed made this way too sweet, I would cut the sugar at least by half and let the berries do the sweetening next time. Oh well, it still looked lovely.

The whole thing was topped off with a nice bottle of Bordeaux. A lovely meal with my lovely wife. Nice to spend some alone time together.

Less than 2 weeks until our departure for Cambodia and Vietnam, will have to start thinking about packing... tomorrow, we will probably make a run out to Imaichi to see Yoshiko's mother for her birthday, and may try to get the immigration paperwork finalized.

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Friday, December 08, 2006


Wow, a mid-week post! Strange. I've kept ol' SushiandMapleSyrup on a steady diet of weekly posts lately, only blogging after the weekend activities have been completed. This is a huge change from when I first came to Japan and everything was new and exciting.

I've really noticed this change of pace in the last few days as I have been going through each and every single post I've made so far and tagging them for cross-referencing so I can more easily find things I've talked about. For example, a post about a day at the Oyama Fireworks Festival would be tagged with: Japan, Oyama, Fireworks, Train, Cooking, Photography... or something along those lines.

So far, I have reviewed my first 5 months in Utsunomiya. The last post I tagged tonight was one I posted in the early hours of October 2nd, 2005. Little did I know that the day ahead would be of such importance to me. That night, I blogged about my bicycle being stolen and promptly returned by the police, I mention my first dinner at Source which was really quite tasty and I comment that I'm finally heading up to Nikko with some students the following day. That was of course the day that Yoshiko caught my eye. A year and a couple of months later, here we are happily married, and filling out paperwork for our move to Canada which is fast approaching. Amazing.

In the 5 months of blog posts I have sifted through so far, I have noticed many an interesting thing. First, my typing\English skills have improved drastically... just by skimming the posts looking for content, I was picking up mistaks all over the place. (that one was left there on purpose by the way, lol) I can also clearly see my progression from the wide-eyed (though not as wide as some) newbie to Japan to the more realistic, grounded gaikokujin that I am today. I think that has always been a big part of who I am. This has been one hell of an experience, one hell of a ride, and I am happy not to have gone through it all only looking at the positive, "politically acceptable" sides of Japan.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that my experience here kind of plateaued for me quite some time ago. Having Yoshiko has really been the driving force for my staying in Japan for so long. I've reached a point in my Japan experience where I find things to be relatively stagnant from a Japan-related perspective. Quite some time ago, I found the safe middle-ground where I could go on about my daily life very smoothly, and have thus had very little motivation to try and advance my situation, whether that be by studying more of the language of attending community\social\work activities. I've been taking the middle road lately, which is great because it's easy, but certainly not all that exciting.

The feeling I will be left with when I leave Japan is that Nippon and I enjoyed a love-hate relationship. You see, realism has always been at the core of who I am. Japan, with it's bronze-covered concrete telephone poles, concreted rivers, islands in the ocean built by blowing up mountains ranges, artificially created lack of space, salarymen in suits walking around with pink teddy bears hanging out of their pockets, is far from the reality I am used to.

While I have an amazing wife, enjoy teaching, have fantastic students, have a good employer and have been able to experience some amazing things, Japan has also been somewhat of a disappointment to me. Outdated business practices that people obey without question, the constant string of people telling me how unhappy they are with their work/school/relationships and yet no one able or willing to do anything about it, the people who feel they have to hold up some fake exterior lest people assume they are a horrible person/worker, I have a hard time swallowing all that. I especially find it annoying when people get on their soapboxes and try to explain the reasons for everything and how it really is the best way in some half-baked effort to justify their existence. If this is the life you have chosen to lead for yourself, all the power to you, but don't expect me or anyone else with half a brain to follow along and "gambatte" just because that is what society here expects us to do. The bottom line is that Japan is a fascinating place with a myriad of social, environmental and political problems which are amazing to study and learn about, but I am now at a point where I don't want to learn any more... and yet I cannot close my eyes to the things which surround me, nor really do I want to. Looking back on my posts from 18 months ago, do I miss those days of wide eyed wonderment? Kind of, but I wouldn't trade the experiences which have hardened me for anything in the world.

Thankfully, I have plenty to keep my mind off these issues. In a mere 2 weeks, Yoshiko and I will be heading to Cambodia. In January, I plan to start hitting the ski slopes as often as I can. In 2 months, I will finally be moving in my my beloved wife. In 2 months and 1 week, my contract will be over. In 3 months, my parents will be here and we'll be travelling West Japan together. In a little over 4 months, I will be back in Canada, building a new life for me and Yoshiko. Exciting times are ahead..... I say bring it on.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

December... wow

Quite amazing this whole "passage of time" thing. Just like that, it's December. Winter is settling in around us here in Utsunomiya, the mountains are capped with snow on a daily basis now and the heaters are running pretty much full on in apartments everywhere. Less than 3 weeks away from our getaway to Cambodia and Vietnam, 2 months and a bit until the end of my contract, 4 months and a bit until my return to Canada. Wow.

We've just about completed the Canadian Immigration forms, just need to get a few things translated and notarized and we're pretty much good to go! Next on the list is my resume... ugh.

This weekend was nice and mellow. We intended to go to Modern for dinner on Saturday night, but it was full. As a consolation prize, the staff there gave us this little guy, who is apparently filled with some kind of milk liqueur. Interesting choice for a container if you ask me, complete with a cartoon sperm on the label.

So we hit up Tsukunetei instead for a yaki-tori dinner, quite yummy. Then we settled down and watched The Exorcism of Emily Rose on DVD. While not terribly terrifying, it did give me the willies throughout, especially during "Emily's" fits when her body locks in unnatural positions and her eyes seem devoid of life... freaky. The format of the movie is interesting, told in flashbacks as the priest which performed the exorcism is on trial for her death.

We had a lazy morning on Sunday, not even bothering with breakfast and preferring to lounge around until lunch time. We hooked up with Matt and went to Fudan Cafe for lunch before heading for a walk on a rather brisk and windy but otherwise gorgeous Sunday afternoon.

We headed into Hachiman yama park where the leaves were still doing their changing. Koyo is just about over, but there's still a bit of time to enjoy it.

Gorgeous clear weather these days, here is the view from the suspended bridge in the park. The city isn't all that lovely, but you could see clear out to Tsukuba-san in Ibaraki from here.

We also walked by the site of last April's Hanami (Cherry blossom viewing) party, with the trees bare now, waiting for spring to come back to life. I am quite pleased that I'll be able to see another Cherry Blossom season, it certainly is one of the best parts of living in Japan.

One of my favourite things out here in fall is the ginko trees losing their odd shaped yellow leaves. I don't recall seeing any of these trees in Ottawa... though I may just not have noticed.

After exiting Hachiman yama, we headed to I guess what has become one of my favourite temples in Utsunomiya, partly due to it's location, partly due to it's plum and cherry blossoms and partly due to the funky collection of statues hidden behind the main temple building. Not sure the name of this big boy...

Here is one of the statues leading to the funky group.

As we were walking around and Mattoto was taking pictures, I snapped this shot of a nice reflection in a pond.

As anyone who's spent some time in Japan knows, the crows here are quite numerous. Seems we spooked a flock of them which were in the trees behind the temple with our talking.

This is one of the statues which are behind the temple. Some of them are quite old, weather beaten and moss covered, while others are newer and depict some modern activities. There's the ever popular salary-man taking a nap on his suit jacket, the guy on the phone, the one eating ramen and another one is drinking a nice cold beer. Quite interesting.

I've been doing more and more of these macro shots which I find pretty cool.

So all in all a lovely afternoon. However, walking around here in the fall also means you'll run into the victims of the crazy tree hackers. City workers go around town lopping off branches on the trees until nothing is left but a lifeless stump.

This ol' ginko got it pretty bad last year it looks like, so they gave him a reprieve this year. Sad really. Except for the token "showcase" roads like the road to Nikko and the one which links City Hall and the Prefectural office, this city really has no greenery. Even some parts of Tokyo I found have more green space than Utsunomiya.

After we headed back home, we popped in Munich, which turned out to be quite good. It's about the Israeli response to the PLO attack against their athletes at the Munich Olympics, which I guess was the coming of age of the Mossad. This mention of terrorist attacks reminds me of a new development in the war in Afganistan. The Canadian forces deployed in the region have deployed a new tool to combat the remains of the Taliban. A squadron of Leopard tanks from the Edmonton-based Lord Strathcona's Horse armoured regiment has been deployed to kick a little bit of ass. The Taliban have done a pretty good job of taking out soldiers standing around handing out food to civilians and candy to children, lets seen how they do against Canadian main battle tanks. This is the first combat deployment of tanks for the Canadian military since the Korean war back in the 50s.

Anywho... today we headed back to Round 1 Stadium, our friendly neighbourhood Amusement Center where we had a good time playing tennis, badminton, pool and baseball as well as the odd arcade game. We had the place pretty much to ourselves, which was nice. Lunch\dinner at Subway before I headed on home. A good weekend.