Monday, November 23, 2009

Movie Theater

I saw my first movie in a Japanese movie theater today. It was a very interesting experience. First of all, a movie ticket here costs 1800 yen, more than $18 dollars American. And to think I used to complain about an $8 ticket. Next,you have to choose your seat, even though there were a total of about 5 people seeing this movie when I went. Coming to the states and having to scavange for your own seats must be such a culture shock for Japanese exchange students. I saw "Inglorious Bastards" by Quentin Tarantino and it was fantastic. Usually they dub movies into Japanese before they bring it over, but because this movie featured so many languages they just put Japanese and English subtitles (my preference over dubbing by far). Reading the subtitles was also hilarious. For example, they chose to translate choice phrases like "Well I'll be f$cking d@mned" to "すごい!" which means "Wonderful!"
Oh, Japan.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


It's amazing the kind of turns a simple morning can bring.

This weekend the JETs had a seminar in the city (boo).But my partner in crime, Alexis, and I decided to stay over at a friend's house Friday night so we could explore Matsue more the next day(yay!). Walking to our cars from her house on Saturday morning, we spotted a store that looked quaint and welcoming. Naturally we decided to pop in.

We were greeted by an intelligent looking, quizzical older man. "Hello" he said. "Do you like tea?"
And that's how our auspicious conversation began. He stoked the fire on his charcoal hearth and began making tea, explaining how he bought all his tea water from a special mineral spring up north for fifty yen a liter. He told us about his life- how when he was 24 he began working as a salaryman only to quit four years later, much to the chagrin of his wife. After spending some time as a bona fide beggar, he went back to college to study art and has been making a living as a woodworker ever since. His wife complains that he is a わがまま or an egoist, but he says she married him anyway because he was too handsome. Named 下柳田さん- Mr. Yamanagita (quite a mouthful if you ask me) he is sixty-five years old and from Nagasaki- young enough to have missed the worst of the aftermath of the bomb. He said he likes to watch customers very much and is good at observing traits about them, and proceeded to give Alexis and I a personality synopsis.
And the funniest thing was he just wouldn't stop giving us presents. It started out with tea- cup after tiny cup of delicious tea. Next came food. "Do you like kim chee?" he asked, and proceeded to give us two packages of home made kim chee. When I asked him about his art, because I had studied some woodworking in college, he pulled out two small stirring spoons and gave them to us, explaining that the wood was special in Japanese culture- believed to be protective to the bearer. I asked him about a small tea leaf holder that was a beautiful rich black color. I had never seen such a gorgeous wood that felt so light- usually dark wood has a lot of sap and is therefore quite dense. Yamanagita-san said that it was a special dark wood from the heart of a persimmon tree and that if I would use it he would give it to me for free. "It's a matter of pride" he said. "I cannot accept money. No customer wants this one because you can't see the figure of the wood. Plus, I just made it as a test for my other works." Now this is a beautiful hand carved piece of art. I'm sure it was worth a good amount of money. But he would not accept anything. He gave Alexis one too, saying "This one is missing its inner cover so I can't sell it either. Please take it." I tried to buy something else to say thank you, but he gave me a reduced price which kind of defeated the purpose. He showed us all his woodwork, explaining the different kinds of trees and materials. We even got a hand-written business card and many urgings to return.What was supposed to be a five minute stop to a cute store turned out to be a morning of conversation and friendship. Walking out of the store, presents in hand, I was completely happy. It's not often in the world that two twentysomethings from America can make friends with a retiree in Shimane, Japan. There is a a saying in Japanese, 機会があったら見つけてください that basically means "Take advantage of the opportunities you find". I am glad for the opportunity to have this one conversation.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

"We Will Bear It" (我慢します)

Autumn is quickly unfolding into winter here in the hills of Okuizumo- and with winter comes new adjustments for Natalie. Heating is handled very differently in Japan. When us Jets arrived we were informed that buildings were constructed to be cool in the summer- not to be warm in the winter. So the large glass doors and many windows I found to be so delightful in summer's heat are now becoming the bane of my existence. Japan doesn't believe in insulation or central heating, so making a building warm gets extremely expensive. And what do the schools do? They do without.

This is only a slight exaggeration. The teacher's nucleus is somewhat heated, and I am told that once it gets REALLY cold (as if the current highs of 12 degrees Celsius isn't low enough to warrent "cold") the classrooms will be somewhat heated too. But the hallways, bathrooms, and gymnasium will all be whatever the hell temperature it is outside. Heating is achieved largely by kerosene or sometimes electric space heaters. Such a situation is quite a shock for me, as I am a wimp when it comes to cold to begin with. I'm not sure if it's poor circulation or the lack of red meat in my diet, but I am literally always freezing. At first I thought I was going crazy-I wear as much clothes as possible and shiver while the kids run around in practically nothing and don't complain. In some classrooms (ones with carpet or tatami) we even have to take off our shoes, and the kids find this completely acceptable. It blew my mind. But then I realized that 1. Most Americans, when asked to sit outside on a 50 degree fall day without a coat, hat, gloves, or shoes, would naturally get cold. This is exactly what I am doing all day here, except that I'm inside. The outside and inside temperature is equal. They would find it strange for me to wear my outside goods inside but I am sorely tempted. 2. The kids are used to the cold. Most walk to and from school every day rain, sunshine, or blizzard- so a little fifty degree weather is nothing to complain about. Frankly, they are soldiers.

So what am I doing? I have bought a variety of long underwear (Uniqlo makes fabulously soft ones called Heat Tech- thanks again Uniqlo), I wear two layers of socks, and I bought some magic heat packs called ホッカイロ or hokkairo that I can use at will. I don't have a heater in my apartment so to protect myself against the 3 degree nights I rarely leave the comfort of my electric blanket. (Seriously. When I have to pee it's a definite conflict of interests).

But in the end I will just have to learn to bear it. Today before lunch at Takao, the secretary asked "It's a bit cold in the lunchroom- only 50 degrees; is it too early to turn on the heat a little?" "Yes, it's too early" replied the principal. "We will bear it." (我慢します)

My hope is that I will get used to it and not notice it so much soon. I was proud of myself today for not complaining about it too much during class, until afterward I realized I'd lost all feeling in my toes and had to run around to get blood pumping back into them.

Japan, I like you- but your schools have to stop abusing me with their wintry ways.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Last weekend my lovely friend Alexis came to visit me. Alexis is a Californian Jet with a penchant for cooking and art currently hailing from Gotsu. Gotsu is a town about three hours from me boasting an aquarium named AQUAS with beluga whales that blow "bubble rings of happiness". She was enticed to my tiny town by its promise of beautiful 紅葉 koyou or Autumn foliage. And although Okuizumo doesn't have happiness spouting beluga whales, we sure did find some koyou.
She arrived Friday night and we attempted to eak out sustenance. Which is hard when most of the restaurants and all of the grocery stores close at seven. But we found success in a place in Yokota called Takina. We even got to sample a curious beverage they called "Tampopo Coffee" which is a cross between tea and coffee brewed from dandelion roots. Strange but surprisingly good.

On Saturday we got in to the Autumn spirit by going apple picking. We went with my friend, Nozomi, who regrettably turned out to be one of the only unpunctual Japanese people known to mankind. She overslept and delayed us for over an hour. Sigh. Luckily the weather was impeccable- blue skies sunshine as far as the eye can see.

My town is actually only about fifteen minutes from the prefectural border to Hiroshima, so we ventured to a town in Hiroshima called Takano that has a place called Apple Road. It's as magical as it sounds. There is an entire road featuring many apple orchards where, for the price of 600 yen, you can enter and pick and eat as many apples as your stomach can hold. Now since a single apple in the store is not only 1. absolutely tasteless as well as mealy and 2. about 300 yen a pop, this place was great. Unfortunately, we ate too many apples and suffered stomachaches the rest of the day. A lunch consisting of three and a half apples is much too much fiber for a stomach used to rice and fish. Sigh. But darn it, it was worth it.

Yesterday I made applesauce in my ricecooker with yuzu instead of lemon peel so life is good. My whole apartment smelled like apple pie.

On Sunday,rainy rainy Sunday, we tread in to lands no westerner has tread before (or should tread again)- a Tokiwazu Concert. Now, for all of you who have never heard of Tokiwazu, and that is most certainly all of you (because a lot of Japanese people have never heard of it before) it's a combination of shamisen- a traditional Japanese intstrument kind of like the banjo but more "elegant", and traditional throat singing that sounds suspiciously like a meowling cat. Not only that, but the songs are of course all in Japanese. NOT ONLY THAT, but it is sung in Old Japanese, which is the equivalent of an ESL student trying to read Shakespeare; even great English speakers are not entirely sure of what's going on in Shakespeare because old English has little to no semblance to modern English. Same with old Japanese. The verb forms and kanji are all kinds of crazy. NOT ONLY THAT, but we had to sit in seiza the whole time on tatami mats in an unheated room in the mountains. It was a good cultural experience I'm sure, but . . . never again. We actually left the concert early to explore the grounds (the concert was held at an old Tatara museum) and search out some more koyou. We were not disappointed. Everywhere we looked there were red and orange and yellow trees stoichly waiting in the melancholy rain. I was glad Okuizumo put on its autumn best for my friend from afar. On the way home we stole persimmons off a roadside tree and reveled in our delinquency. After returning we decided to cook dinner at my apartment, having exhausted all three of the restaurants my town offers. We made creamy vegetable corn soup and grilled garlic fish with rice- a lovely meal for a grey day.

Autumn has always been my favorite season.

Special Thanks to Alexis for coming and for skillfully taking pictures for me to unscrupulously steal.
And thanks to apples for being so very tasty.