Sunday, June 24, 2007

Two Parties Definitely Make a Weekend!

Another amazing weekend, I can't resist writing about it! If I'm not careful, you guys could get pretty spoiled...

On Friday night, Taube organized a party for us to celebrate our old supervisor, Iizuka sensei. After six years, he recently changed jobs, and many of us are returning to the States, so we just wanted to say thank you. He worked really hard for us, and put up with a lot of baloney. Like Julian Friend said, Iizuka sensei was the bridge between American and Japanese expectations; he endured the stress and kept everyone connected.

As a token of our gratitude, we taught him the fine art of double-fisting:

David's about to order the next round. Yes, he is godlike in this capacity.

Hmm, fifteen people and... how many glasses?

It was a great party. Everyone's anecdotes made me realize just how much has transpired in the last year, and how little time we have left together. I was happy that the party theme continued through the next day, with the yukata matsuri!

Again, we were blessed with a break in the weather. It rains ceaselessly during a Japanese summer, which continues to baffle this monsoon-accustomed Arizona native. Every day, hour after hour, solid sheets of rain. But then you decide to do something outside, like go to the beach or attend an outdoor festival, and the sun decides it would like to be there too...

Himeji's yukata matsuri, the annual summer kimono festival, is rumored to be the largest in Japan. Then again, every city is famous for one thing, so it might be a bit greedy on our part if we had the best castle and the biggest matsuri... But it wouldn't surprise me if it truly were the largest because the city was completely transformed! The sleepy streets, numerous blocks in every direction, were lined with food and game stalls, and people were out in droves! The usual ten-minute walk from the station to the castle took the better part of an hour if you weren't fighting the crowd.

A lot of our Japanese friends don't regularly go to the matsuri. And if you ask about it, they say, "Oh, no... there's too many people." Which is true; it's absolutely insane how many people are crammed onto the streets. I guess it's similar to the mentality of those Pamplonans who rent out their apartments and skip town during the Running of the Bulls: If you've done it once, you don't need to do it again. But I think our newbie excitement rubbed off on some of them, and we all had a great time experiencing it together!

We had a party at the residence while everyone got ready to go downtown. Well, the guys just had to put on their pajama-like jinbe and throw back a few beers while waiting for the ladies to coordinate their outfits, style their hair, and figure out how to tie an obi and make it hold everything together.

And it was all just so people could parade their beautiful yukatas! Eiko, my ikebana (Japanese flower arrangement) instructor and professional dresser, told me the festival was probably designed to increase cotton sales and boost the economy during the Edo period. Obviously, the ever escalating battle between the police and the biker gangs is a recent addition to the tradition, but a fun one nonetheless! It was so much fun being in the thick of it!

There was heaps of good food, all the kind of food I would never trust at a state fair back home! The women were beautiful in their yukatas, and the children were adorable. Catching an eel (as a pet? to eat?) was a game I couldn't really justify spending my money on. However, I did have to think twice about getting a baby quail. And that's all the whole evening was: food and games and people watching, and getting dressed up just for the fun of it!

Tomoko and Eiko rocked our obis!

Allison, Michelle, and Yours Truly.

I got my yukata at Uniqlo, which is basically the Gap. (They make clothes that fit life-size people, so it's a part of my life here.) Surprisingly, I only saw one or two other girls with the same print. It was fun to squeal and giggle about it with strangers; there were no catty Prom fights that I'd anticipated!

Waiting for the bus.

"Everybody peace!"

And the party's just gettin' started...


Baby birdies!!!

Um, I'm full, thanks.

People watching.

Scoop as many toys as you can before your rice paper net breaks!

Because it just isn't a party without an ice sculpture.

This is Himeji castle in the Bond movie You Only Live Twice, which was showing at Mr. B's, the coolest new gaijin (foreigner) bar in town. Mr. B is a US military man; how could his bar not be cool?!

Kyosuke, Makoto, Lauren, Lucy, Marie, me and Tina outside of Mr. B's.

My feet were so swollen after walking around in my geta (wooden sandals) all night, but it was totally worth it. The shape of the geta and the restriction the yukata places on the movement of your legs make you shuffle your feet. With seemingly thousands of people shuffling along, it was one of the most prominent noises of the evening! I wish I could more vividly capture all the sights and sounds and smells for you. Anyway.

One of the best parts of the evening was when Tina, Lauren, Marie and I decided to walk home around midnight. When we were leaving dowtown, we crossed paths with a group of about twenty teenage boys who looked to be up to no good. Marie started freaking out, sure they were bent on harming us. I said, "Marie! Just step off the sidewalk, keep moving and don't make eye contact. We'll be fine!" Four pretty girls, and we didn't even get cat-called, although one boy did say "Hello!"

And that my friends, is why I don't think twice about walking home after a night on the town. This is Japan.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Shiraishi Island: It's Heaps Awesome!


This weekend we went to Shiraishi, a small island off of Okayama prefecture, about a three hour journey from Himeji. We stayed at the Okayama International Villas location there (the same chain we lodged with when we did onsen in Takebe back in January). It was so nice, and the weather was perfect; we got two sunny days in the middle of the rainiest part of the year!

Now I'm a few shades darker and couldn't be happier. I always get depressed as my tan fades during the winter, and this winter was particularly cruel and oppressive. Three cheers for beaches, and little Japanese junior high school girls who point at you and say "nice body!" when you've long been lamenting the fact that you can now play Chubby Bunny without the marshmallows...

All aboard!

Our SWEET view! That's me with Tina and Marie, sisters from Adelaide (Aussies are heaps cool).

Marie risking life and limb to pick weird Japanese apricots for us.

I actually thought this was a classy alternative to the floating porta-potties we kayaked by in the bay...

Cute boys swimming in their underwear!

It's okay. You can be jealous.

The 800 (vertical) meter hike pays off with this great vista! (That's a cemetery in the center; I think there are more dead than living on this tiny island...)

This is Lauren telling half the group to hike on, and that we'd rather go hit the beach or bicycle around the island...

And this is her on our, err... trip back down the mountain. She totally ate it coming around that last step, but landed just like this. Such grace!

This is Jodi and Jono about to tempt fate on The Slope of Death! (This hill was extraordinarily difficult to climb up after our evening beach barbecue slash beer fest. "Don't give up, Lauren! Go towards the light!") I'm excited to go to their wedding party in January! I'll try to leave Australia in one piece...


Cafe Moooo. Why should the fun stop with the previous night's tipsy Jenga tournament? Time for banana daiquiris!

It was a heaps cool weekend!

Now, as you can imagine, this is just one story in four months worth of adventure. I feel compelled to bring everything up to date when I write, so as more and more time passes, the thought of blogging makes my head spin. But I blogged today just to prove something to Jodi (I don't know what exactly, but will you stop making fun of me already?!).

Anyway, now that I've blogged again, I've realized it doesn't really hurt as much as I thought! So soon (maybe), I will get around to telling you about my journeys to Hiroshima, Miyajima, Kyoto and Osaka with my friend Joe; trips to Tokyo (Disneyland!), Nara, Takayama and Kanazawa with Mom and Dad; an escape to Seoul with my friend Will to see my old friend Andy from junior high.

Somewhere in between all that I turned twenty-three, made new friends from Delware, was unwittingly used as a pawn to garner support for a mayoral candidate in Nara, started working at a my new school, got taekwondo-pushed by a guard in North Korea, saw cherry blossoms for the first time ever, got hit by a car on my bicycle (and didn't fall off!), went strawberry picking, and taught Japanese kids how to make grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wish you could be here! If I don't write about all this, let's grab a cup of coffee when I get back in September; the stories are much better in person, anyway!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Mystery Meat

I should have known this day would come.

But I can't believe I was completely blindsided by it! I didn't even expect to be had! I just walked right into it!

This evening I went out for yakiniku with Toshi, a friend of mine. He's part of what my neighbor Gayleen calls "The Awesome Foursome," which is a group of super-friendly and generous community members who have made so much of Himeji life available to all of us at Shirasagi. Yakiniku is a Korean dinner, where you cook plates of raw meats and vegetables on a grill in the center of your table. I love meat.

For the most part.

But now, I question the term "delicacy."

After I watched it grill to it basked in the open flames, perfectly seasoned and lovingly bathed in a shower of fresh lemon...I popped it in my mouth. But it was tough and completely unappetizing. And the second piece didn't succeed in winning me over, either.

And Toshi said, "What do you think?"

"Oh, I don't know. It's not my favorite. It's kind of chewy."

"It's tongue!"


Augh! I've eaten raw shrimp that were still moving on my plate, and I've eaten chicken heart and chicken cartilage and practically every part of a chicken you can imagine, but at least I knew what all of it was beforehand!

I took no time to stop and question what I was about to consume because I had already slipped into the yakiniku pleasure coma! And now I have to live with the psychologyical ramifications of unwittingly ingesting tongue! To me, it's way more gross than brains or livers or anything. It's way too personal.

And as Theo Huxtable once said in the infinite wisdom of youth (and scripted humor), "I don't want to taste anything that can taste me!"

Sunday, February 11, 2007

I'll Take Tanuki for 800, Please.

Until the last few days, it has been a slightly uneventful month. Yeah, my wallet is still recovering from the year-end's nine consecutive nights of partying... Yes, Auntie, I do work! Sometimes. But now I finally have a few stories to share!

On Friday I went in for the requisite health checkup for Himeji city employees. And I thought the FIRST doctor's visit was fun! I was subjected to a litany of tests, all of which were completed in less than fifteen minutes...and it probably would have gone faster if I actually spoke any Japanese beyond "err, wakarimasen" (I don't understand).

When I first got to the office, I waited in line with other women for the session to start at 1pm. As soon as the second-hand was vertical, the line started moving. First, we all took a paper cup from a stack at the front of the line and made our way to the restroom. It was so funny because it was so contrary to the practice in the States, which is so discreet. Anytime I've done a urinalysis at home, you get a plastic cup with a lid, and when you're finished, you put it through a little door in the wall of the single-unit restroom. You never have to look the nurse in the eye!

Here, we had to pee in paper cups in a three-stall bathroom, and all the girls would set them down on the counter as they washed their hands, and then carry them back into the lobby and wait in line again. At the first table, we set our samples down and the nurse placed a little test strip in it while she looked over our paperwork. I nearly knocked mine over while placing my mental health questionnaire in the box. That would definitely have given me a complex...

Then I went to the next station, where a man measured my height and weight, and I couldn't figure out if he wanted me to take my shoes off or not. Obviously he wanted me to, not just because you don't typically get weighed with shoes, but merely because this is Japan, you know. I think I was just expecting to be confused! And then they tested my hearing, and I'd done that before so I nailed it! But then they tested my vision and I failed miserably...with my glasses ON.

Thankfully the test is conducted without using any of the three Japanese alphabets (that would be cruel). Instead, there is a black circle on a white background and it moves around and decreases in size, and you have to say in which direction a small opening in the circle is facing. But I didn't figure out how to take the test until they tested my right eye, so they probably think I'm completely blind in my left one! Anyway.

Then they took my blood pressure, listened to my heart and lungs, and took THREE vials of blood! Holy crap! Hopefully my test results will let me know my bloodtype, since I don't know it and everyone here always gives me a crazy look when I tell them that. It's practically the most commonly asked question behind "What's your name?" and "Where are you from?" And then I signed a waiver (that I couldn't read) before being given an electrocardiogram, which was also an event in itself. I think Mom and Dad should be happy to know that I don't understand "Take off your shirt" in Japanese. LOL!

So that was fun, and I got a half day out of it. Later that evening I got to go to a formal party with all of the other ALTs and our principals. We were required to entertain each other, so a few of the principals sang some really great songs for us. Then we shared some really important aspects of our culture, you know, like the Time Warp. Fortunately everyone had been drinking for awhile by the time we performed! It was quite an enjoyable night. They really take care of us here; it's a great program.

And today was wonderful. The weather is gorgeous, and it's been a day full of little things that remind me how much I love Japan. Once or twice a month there's a flea market in the park across the street from the castle, so my friend Michelle "Apparently I'm Not Aerodynamic" Gates and I rode our bikes downtown to peruse the merchandise. I went with the express intent of purchasing some locally cultivated honey, but of course I came back with more. I finally got a tanuki!

Check it out on Wikipedia: What is this girl talking about?

I see them outside of drinking establishments a lot here because they're kind of folklorically connected with good times and mischief. Taube and Julian have one outside of their room and I've wanted one since I got here, but the ones I've seen have been too expensive because they're usually ceramic or wood carvings. But the one I found today is ceramic and it was only eight bucks! And even though it's a little on the small side, it's a statue of a boy tanuki AND a girl tanuki, and it has a cork at the top, which means you can fill it with liquids! I'm totally going to keep my shochu in it! Don't worry, shochu is Japanese for "water" (um, but don't Wiki that).

I'm so glad I found one because it's just a little part of Japanese culture that will remind me of my time here. And the market was fun as usual. I always get to talk to a lot of interesting people. The honey lady, whom I've talked to before, and who knows I'm an English teacher and don't speak much Japanese beyond describing my profession, talked my ear off anyway. I love her.

The Chinese people who sold Michelle a vase taught us "shei shei," which is Mandarin for "thank you." Since I know how, I told them my grandmother is Filipina and they said they could see it in my eyes. Of course, the honey lady (who had long since abandoned her booth) agreed.

And then I talked briefly with a nice Peruvian guy (who thankfully put down the hat I was eyeing). We were talking about what languages we speak:

Chelsea: "Eigo shaberimasu ka?"
Mr. Peru (shaking his head): "Spango."
Chelsea: "Watashi mo! Poquito, porque Arizona-shu wa muy cerca de Mexico."

Chelsea: "[Japanese] Do you speak English?"
Mr. Peru: "[Japanese] Spanish."
Chelsea: "[Japanese] Me too! [Spanish] A little because [Japanese] Arizona [Spanish] very close to Mexico."

Yeah. There wasn't even a verb in that last sentence. That's pretty much my life here; I can't think in a straight line anymore!

Maybe I should lay off the shochu.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Onsen and Creepy Crustaceans! (Thankfully Not in the Same Room...)

On January 2nd, some friends and I went to a hot springs villa in Okayama, which is about a ninety minute drive from Himeji. It rocked!!! I was a little nervous getting naked in front of all my girlfriends, but by the end of the trip I was a professional speed-undresser (unfortunately, I don't think that will do much for my resume)! Being that nudity was the primary state of the trip, I don't have a lot of pictures.

But! Our rooms had the coolest bathrooms in the whole world! Japan definitely knows how to do small...

The toilet paper is underneath the sink; readily accessible when necessary, and duly protected from shower water. Yes! You shower in there too! See the hose running up the wall from the faucet? I don't know how you're supposed to wash your feet, but no space is wasted...

So after oohing and ahhing over our rockin' toilets, we enjoyed the night soaking in outdoor jacuzzis and cooking a meal together. We made nabe, which is a soup you cook in a big bowl on a hot plate in the center of the table. You continually add ingredients (such as cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, onions, and meat or fish), and as the soup cooks, everyone serves themselves. I love the communal aspect of cooking a meal together and sitting around the same meal for a few hours.

And now I will leave you with some food for thought, generously provided by our crab nabe:

Mmmmm...oishii, desu ne? (Mmmmm, delicious huh?)

Himeji Castle!

I live in a city built around a 398 year-old castle. HOW COOL IS THAT?!?! On December 16th I FINALLY visited it! I see it every day, and I ride my bike through its park every time I go downtown, but it still took me a solid four months to see it from the inside out. I went with Junko Doi, who is the mother of one of my first-grade students (remember, first-graders are the equivalent of American seventh-graders). Junko is so sweet; she brought a bunch of her friends, and she paid my entrance fee and arranged a private tour with Yoshiko Nakamura, who speaks impeccable English and knows all there is to know about Japanese history! And she does it on a strictly volunteer basis!

Unfortunately for those of you who aren't coming to visit and won't get the extra-special, historically informative live-action tour, my online version of it will be mainly photographic. There's a reason my stint as a History major lasted less than a semester...but here's what I can remember:

The castle was completed in 1609. It was not inhabited; rather, it was built as a testament to the power of the Tokugawa Shogunite government. In the event of an attack, all the samurai living within the castle complex were to defend the main tower from destruction. Fortunately it was never attacked, and because of its long history, American troops made a conscious decision not to bomb it during WWII. It was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1993.

As soon as you are inside the central complex, there is no direct route to the main tower. It is literally a maze to the base of the tower, and you are continually tricked until you reach the top. Ceilings get lower, doorways get narrower, and there is even a hidden level (visual trickery from the outside, achieved with the design of low eaves). So once inside, you're farther from the top than you think you are. And Himeji City still reflects this design to protect the castle. It is not built on a perfect grid, like Phoenix; the roads are narrow and they don't continue for any respectable length or intersect in any predictable fashion. You have to see it to believe it!

So this was our tour group. Junko is on the left in the front row, and Nakamura-san is next to me on the inside:

This is my view of the castle when I head downtown:

And this, I finally found out, is what my trip downtown looks like from the top of the castle:

[If you double-click this (and any) picture, it should open a larger copy in a new window so you can see it in greater detail.] The first picture, looking at the castle, was snapped right where the road wraps around the right side of the hill in the center of the photo. The view from the castle is looking relatively West-ish, and my apartment is Northwest-ish, near the base of the mountain in the background on the right.

And these are some of my favorite pictures from inside the castle grounds:

Oh! And in the event that the tour of the castle awakens any latent suicidal tendencies, they provide basement accommodations on your way out:


Happy New Year!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Watashi no Migi no Mimi Desu!

Can you say "doctor" in Japanese? No? Neither can I, but that didn't stop me from going today!

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving I came down with yet another cold, which explains but doesn't justify the lack of phone calls. Sorry! Happy Thanksgiving! Anyway, yesterday I finally realized that I have an ear infection. Although it feels almost better today, I decided I should go to a clinic for antibiotics like I normally do at home, just to nip it in the bud. Enami Sensei was so cool; she called her favorite clinic and told them I was coming and explained my condition, in order to make the language barrier a little less of a problem. There are English speaking doctors my friends recommended, but where's the fun in that?

Now I was just happy I found the place. Looking at a rough map and for a particular sign when you can't read is always an adventure. But the fun doesn't stop there! I walked in and handed the secretary my photo ID and my medical insurance card. Fortunately I do understand "denwa bango" (telephone number!), but "zero kyuu zero san roku ni san ichi ichi go hachi" is a bit of a mouthful when you realize you have no idea what you've gotten yourself into; so, unable to speak, I wrote it down for her. And then it was another jumble of mixed signals until I finally figured out that she was just asking me to take a seat and wait for my name to be called.

So I waited for about ten minutes, and then a lady came out with several files in hand and called out a few names, one of which was mine. We fortunate few, you guessed it, moved into another waiting room (which I had been staring into from the first one). In the second room, there were still some other people waiting, and we sat on a bench along one wall and faced a curtain that divided the room in half lengthwise. On the other side of the curtain were four dentist-type chairs and several nurses flittering back and forth between patients. One wonders why there was even a curtain in the first place, since the patients had no privacy from each other, let alone those waiting to be helped. But, you know, whatever.

So I waited for another twenty minutes, which isn't bad at all. I've heard nightmare stories about waiting all day for help since you have to bribe secretaries for appointments (not my words). I took a seat and waited a few more minutes for the ancient Dr. Fujimori to make his way over to me, and I sat in horror as I watched the other patients get their nasal cavities pillaged with obscenely long instruments.

Then Dr. Fujimori looked in my ears and apparently recommended a hearing test, so I followed the nurse to another room. I didn't understand one word she said to me the entire ten minutes we spent alone (a phenomenon I've become surprisingly comfortable with), but apparently I passed the test! I haven't done a hearing test since the fourth grade at Mt. Carmel, so I don't know what the kids do these days, but the one I took was way cool! They try to distract you by playing distracting noises in one ear while they test the other. And then the nurse took me upstairs and left me with another nurse who sat me in front of a tympanograph. It was like a tire gauge for my ears, and it even printed out a little graph of their respective pressures (all systems go)!

So I went back to the inner waiting room and waited to be seated again. And then Dr. Fujimori poked at my brain with the same nefarious apparata I had seen weilded on so many defenseless others. It sucked, and now I am more acutely aware of my ear ache, but at least I have meds! I also got to breathe through a nebulizer that reminded me of Harold & Maude's Odorifics, but it wasn't quite the olfactory banquet I had hoped for.

Still, it was a rather exciting day, and worth the two hours of paid time off I took to skip work after lunch!

PS: The title of this blog is "It's My Right Ear!" I can't be clever in Japanese yet, sorry.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Hey! Did you guys know that just because the sun is shining, that doesn't mean it warms up in the afternoon? And did you know that when you're riding your bike, pedalling faster doesn't warm up your muscles? It just makes the wind feel colder! Winter, man, I just don't know how the two of us are going to get along (and apparently it's been unseasonably warm)...

So it's been a solid month since I last posted, and of course I have about eight thousand stories to share. But I figure I should take this in bite-size pieces because spending hours in front of the computer can be a little mind-numbing. Lets see if smaller quantities yield more posts!

I went to three more Autumn festivals on October 14th (Oshio in the evening), 15th (Nada in the morning) and 21st (Aboshi in the evening). The first two wore me out on festivals because after awhile they all started to feel exactly the same.

That's me with Kevin and Mac at the Nada festival. I love it because we all look so epically dorky. We had the sweetest seats and we got free snacks and alcohol, though; it pays to be a city employee! But this festival was a lot like the Shinzaike festival a week before, with lots of guys carrying shrines above their heads, so it was hard to get excited.

However, the Aboshi festival the following weekend was really cool. All these guys get snockered and smash paper lanterns together. By the end of the night there's paper and wood scraps everywhere, and all the guys are bruised and scraped up from their moshpitting. I just realized I don't have any pictures...only videos (still trying to figure out how to upload them)!

Festival season is over. Whoo! But my friend Cecy is's good that we went to all of them because there are no more until April, and by then we'll be glad they're back. Plus, I realized that I ended up seeing all the local festivals recommended in the Lonely Planet Japan guide without even trying!

On October 28th, we put on a Halloween party for kids in our neighborhood. Due to a scheduling conflict, only about forty kids came (versus over a hundred last year), but it worked out great! We shuffled them around in groups of ten, and they did pumpkin origami, a few different games, and bag decorating for trick-or-treating. We also showed them how to carve a pumpkin! The kids had a blast, but we had even more fun when they left!

I dressed up as a Koryo Junior High School PE student! I told Enami Sensei I didn't have any ideas for a costume, and she told one of the third graders (eighth grade in The States) to bring me her PE uniform...white knee-high socks and all! It was too perfect.

Just add pigtails!

Julian, the Pumpkin Master.

Allison the zombie pirate trying to eat my brains!

But the best part was when a few of us moved the party from Shirasagi Residence to our favorite local pub, Hosannah. I saw one of my teachers there, and he was totally freaked out! At first he thought I was one of his students!

Ahhh, Katsura Sensei, always a good sport.

So, this blog wasn't all that short, but it wasn't near complete, either. Look forward to stories of food that still moves on your plate!

Over and out.