Monday, July 27, 2009

and then there were three

Three of our fish have died of mysterious causes. We're trying hard to keep the other three alive.

In other news, I'm going to explode soon if I don't buy some cute Japanese dresses and skirts. It's just ridiculous how cute some of the clothes are. It's even more ridiculous how unfashionable some of the clothes are.

It's like there's a spotlight shining on me wherever I go. No matter how much I try to just go unnoticed, I can feel the eyes following me. Judging me. Some people seem genuinely curious and friendly, but others just seem...well, how it must feel to be a Mexican or an African or an Indian in the U.S. Zack and I joke because we finally know what it feels like to be a minority (well, I sort of already knew what it was like, being a woman). We finally know what it is to be considered an outsider, even unwanted at times. No one has said anything mean or hostile, but that's not the Japanese way. I just feel...unwelcome sometimes. I really want to live in a bigger area where gaijin aren't quite so few and far between.

It doesn't help my unwelcome vibes that I feel completely useless at School 1. This is my third week going there and I still barely know what I'm doing. The school is a joke; the students are only being prepared for these stupid English proficiency tests that won't help them at all in the real world. The students can pass the test on a pretty high level but they still just stare blankly at me whenever I talk. It's becoming more and more of a chore to go there everyday but I have to keep my options open just in case...

I'm going up to School 2 on Friday to check it out. Then Zack and I are going to be part of their team at the Bon Bon Festival this Saturday. Apparently the point of Bon Bon is to dance until you can't dance any more. I can't wait!

Our American dinner for Tetsuya's family was really fun. We made garlic bread, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, orange-ginger tofu, lemonade, salad, deviled eggs, and mozzarella sticks. They liked the garlic bread the best.
"You put garlic and butter TOGETHER?"
They were amazed at our ingenious use of garlic and butter. They also didn't know why we put butter in practically every dish.
"That's the American way," we said.

I miss the variety that an American grocery store has, although the overall quality of food here is better. There are barely any pesticides or herbicides in use and all the produce is locally grown or imported from China (not too comforting, but they inspect all of it).

Zack and I are trying to plan a trip to Tokyo in the coming weeks because his vacation starts on Wednesday. I just have to figure out what my schedule is like. Then Tokyo, I'm on my way!

Zack's family is in my thoughts right now. His grandmother passed away last week after a long battle with dementia. Rest in peace.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

working for the weekend

I've spent a lot of time on trains this week. I've been traveling to and from Ina, training with what we'll call School 1. School 1 is the first place that has offered me a job, but it's a shitty time frame and I'd have to get a Japanese driver's license, which I'm finding out more and more is no piece of cake. And I'd have to drive in crazy Nagano winter weather, which is lots of snow and ice. Which is really scary to this southern Georgia girl.

But I had another interview this week with what we'll call School 2. School 2 is in Matsumoto, which is a pretty long train ride (about an hour and a half away), but the job is pretty sweet sounding. I would be teaching preschoolers (cute!), and by "teaching" I mean "immersing them in English." Jim, the guy who owns the school, has the brilliant idea of teaching kids English at that age by putting them into an English-only environment. So I don't have to know any Japanese whatsoever. My job would be coming up with fun activities to keep the kids entertained and doing some not-so-glamorous things involving kids going potty, but hey, every job has its downsides, right? I don't mind kids, especially at these ages: the kids would be from 1 to 4 years old. Kawaii!! So I'm going up to School 2 next week and the week after for a trial period and then Jim will let me know if I'm hired. If I am hired, I'll start work on getting a visa. Zack and I have decided that we would move to Matsumoto, too, which is a pretty big and awesome city. I'm so excited! I hope that this job works out. Did I mention the hours are awesome too? Like during the day so I don't have to walk through Miyada alone at night?

Meanwhile, School 1 is starting to put the pressure on me to get my visa and sign the contract. I have to stall for at least two more weeks to see if this other job works out.

I also had another semi-job offer from Zack's company. They said they could hook me up with a part-time paid internship type thing so that I could learn about teaching English. It's also in Matsumoto, so it would also mean city life for me and Zack. So now I have lots of options and I am very happy!

Monday, July 20, 2009

This weekend I:

*ate Nepalese food, which is kind of like Indian food (i.e. DELICIOUS).
*went to my first Japanese festival, the Miyada GION Festival. There were shrines being carried through the street, traditional Japanese clothes, music, and dancing, fireworks, and lots of chaos. I had a great time!
*won some goldfish at the festival. Zack and I are now the proud caretakers of five fish friends.
*drank a lot of Asahi, "the beer for all seasons."
*spent time with my favorite Japanese family, Tetsuya's.
*sang at my first Japanese karaoke. It was awesome! You get a little party room all to yourself.
*ate at Kappa Zushi, where you pick up little plates of sushi from a conveyor belt. They have all different kind of sushi, even hamburger sushi!
*took funny pictures in a photo booth.
*started re-watching all the Harry Potter movies with Zack. Whenever I have a job absolutely secured, we're going to celebrate by coughing up the cash to see the new one. Movies here are very expensive; I think almost $20 for an adult ticket.
*really wanted a $5 veggie delight from Subway. *sigh*

I realized over the last few days that I'll always be an outsider here, no matter how long I stay. I'm gaining a lot of perspective on what it is to be a foreigner. Zack, me, and a couple guys from the JET Program were discussing the "specialness" factor the other day. You don't realize how different you are until you see another foreigner. Being an outsider here is like wearing a big sign that says "I'm special. Look at me." In a place like America, where the culture is a big melting pot, standing out feels really good. Here, I just want to blend into the crowd some days.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

when it rains, it pours

It has been raining all day. Most days the clouds just sit and threaten rain, but never make good on their threat.

I've been going up to the language school that might offer me a job every day this week except yesterday. The job they want to offer me is a Native English Teacher, which means that I would be in charge of classes all by my lonesome. Zack works as an Assistant Language Teacher, which is really sweet because he just has to go along with what the main teacher asks him to do. That is the job that I really want.

I thought this week was training and orientation, but for the most part, "training" to them means "let's throw her in a class and see what she does." Only one teacher, a Canadian guy named Patrick, has really helped me out at all. And even though the hours are comparable to a day job, working at night is just somehow more exhausting. I've been getting home at close to 10 each night. And while this part of Japan is overall very safe--school children ride the trains alone--walking around at night unaccompanied is pretty scary.

The job isn't all bad. I would be teaching a variety of ages, from elementary schoolers to adults, and most of the students are really nice. And I'm actually excited about designing my own lesson plans, making handouts about grammar and such. (I'm an English nerd.) Since my only other lead at this time was through a guy in the JET Program who has stopped replying to my emails, I had pretty much accepted that this job is my only key to getting a work visa.

But hooray! Another opportunity came my way this week. I posted a classified in Ohayo Sensei, an online newsletter for teaching English in Japan jobs, and a nearby school actually contacted me! I'm going in for an interview next week. The job would be sort of the same as what I've been "training" for this week except I would only be teaching children and working during the day. I'm very happy to have another potential job so that I don't feel so trapped. Please keep your fingers crossed or pray to the deity of your choice that one of these jobs works out (but especially that I get a day job)!

Tomorrow there's a festival right here in Miyada called the "Miyada GION Festival." The main street in town has been decorated with red and white lanterns all week. I'm so excited about witnessing my first Japanese festival!

And in other news, my chopstick skills are getting better every day. Life is good.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

a writer needs help

I feel that, so far, this blog doesn't really showcase my abilities as a writer or my voice. I'll work on that. I've been writing practically every day, which is a blessing. A new place is what I needed to get me out of my awful creativity/writer's block slump. I've started a few new pieces. I'm so scatterbrained it's hard for me to sit down and "finish" anything. I've got the beginnings of two novels and a multitude of material for new short stories and poems. I think I'll start posting all the contests and journals I want to submit to. Then, if you really love me, you'll make me feel extremely bad if I don't submit. That's what I need here, people. Accountability! Once I get my feet wet I should be able to start submitting of my own volition. But please help me get out there.

Monday, July 13, 2009

an adventure in nagoya

It was another exciting weekend in Japan. It's important to travel while you're young so that you can really experience the essence of a place, get to know what makes it tick, keep up with all the energy around you.

I had an interview Saturday with some people that I thought were with the Board of Education in this area. Turns out it was really two representatives from a school called Zero to One English School. They offered me a job as a Native English Teacher, which means that I would be teaching classes all by myself. I'm fairly confident that I could be a good language teacher if given some materials to work with and if I can get off my ass and learn more Japanese. They offer private classes at various schools throughout this area so taking the job would mean commuting by train and company car. Which means I would have to learn how to drive on the left side of the road and get a Japanese driver's license. I would also be working from the afternoon into the night, maybe as late as 11 or 12. The contract is a little fishy-sounding, so I'm going to hold off on signing it as long as possible and continue my job search. It's heartening to be offered a job finally though.

Sunday was our trip to Nagoya. We spent the day exploring the Nagoya Noh Theater, which has a mini-museum about the Noh theater tradition. One of my favorite parts was trying on traditional Noh masks:

Next, we headed to Nagoya Castle. The castle was actually destroyed in World War II so most of what we saw was a rebuilt version of the original. I didn't realize how devastating WWII was on Japan. Toyo, a man who works for Zero to One, was telling about how almost all of the buildings in Japan were built in the 1950s or later because of the extensive bombing campaign throughout the country. There are very few buildings left that exemplify traditional Japanese architecture. Everything has a Western influence nowadays. I found that very, very sad. A few parts of the original castle were still intact, though, including a nut meg tree that is over 600 years old! We walked through the castle gardens for hours. Everything was beautiful and it was interesting to learn about ancient Japanese culture.

Our day ended with a sumo wrestling match, which is actually more of a foreigner's attraction than a Japanese one. The arena was insane. Half the audience was sitting on the floor on purple cushions and the rest were on bleachers. Pissed off audience members would throw their cushions toward the small stage in the center when their favorite wrestler lost. Many innocent spectators were hit rather than wrestlers. We saw an old man take a cushion to the head. Sumo wrestling is a very unique sport. The wrestlers have to be in tune with one another to know when to begin the match. When both competitors touch the ground with their knuckles and make eye contact, they know it is time to begin. If one looked away, they would get back up and smack their bellies and stretch. They also did a strange dance at one point in the match. I plan on doing some research to try and understand sumo a little more. Even if it is mostly a foreigner's sport, I love seeing an old Japanese tradition continue to survive the 21st century. Click on the pictures for more detail.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

why do i travel?

To hear a new bird singing in the morning.
To breathe air blowing in from the top of a mountain.
To look back on my life from far away, like it's a movie that I'm watching and analyzing and finding meaning in.
To communicate with people whose language I don't know, to feel a real human connection with my brothers and sisters in other parts of the world.
To know that there is some place different, a place better than the one I grew up in.
To dance and sing and stumble and laugh and learn that life isn't about being stuck, isn't about being trapped and stifled by where you were put on this planet. Life is about wandering, about getting lost and finding yourself again. Finding a new person standing in your place, a person stronger and more fulfilled than you ever could have been staying still. To stay still is to stagnate, to hinder growth and change. To let bad things fester, thoughts of hopelessness and boredom.
To stop waiting for something to happen.

Because I can.

the rainy season

They weren't kidding when they call it the "rainy season." Apparently the rainy season lasts until the end of July, so I came right in the thick of it.

I think the best part of living in a small mura (village) is that no matter what the weather looks like, it's always beautiful. Right now, the mountains are covered in clouds and mist.

I've spent this rainy week basically being a Japanese housewife. Cooking and cleaning and all that jazz. And barefoot no less (but everyone is barefoot in a Japanese home). I'm really trying to embrace the Japanese diet and learn how to cook authentic Japanese food. One of my projects this week was making tsukemono, Japanese pickles. All it takes to make tsukemono is vegetables, salt, and a jar. I also found the tofu shop in town. They sell tofu puffs, which are fried tofu pockets that you can slice up and mix in soup/sauce or stuff with rice and other ingredients. Yum!

Exploring new food is one of my favorite parts of being here. I was craving something familiar so I bought what I thought was peanut butter the other day. It is more like peanut jelly, sort of like that gooey PB concoction they serve in school lunches but better. Jam is also really expensive here, I guess because people don't eat it much on this side of the world. I can definitely see a European influence on the grocery stores here.

I have an interview tomorrow with the Board of Education in this area. One of Zack's coworkers told them my situation and they agreed to meet me to discuss helping me find a job. I'm so grateful! I hope my suit is professional enough. I think one of the reasons I get so many stares is because of my breastu, which are very large compared to the average Japanese woman's. I've had quite a few comments made about them in the last week and a half, all from women. I am dressing super conservatively tomorrow and wearing very little makeup. I'm starting to get an idea of what it means to look professional in Japan.

A kind of slow week but I'm still enjoying the adventure of being somewhere new, of seeing things I've never seen, of trying things I've never tried. We walked to Komagane earlier this week and explored a 100 yen store, which is a lot nicer than an American dollar store. Sunday, we're going into Nagoya to watch a sumo match. I can't wait!

My goals for the month of July:

*learn hiragana and katakana. I'm making pretty good progress!
*start exercising again, which will probably require me getting a rain jacket.

Monday, July 6, 2009


Wow my last post was really long. Thanks if you actually made it to the bottom of it! In other news, I have a job interview with GEOS. I'm excited except for the fact that it is in Tokyo on a weekday, which means that Zack wouldn't be able to go with me. I'm working on finding someone to go with me but the train to Tokyo is pretty expensive and long so it would be a big deal for someone to accompany me. Here's to hoping that it all works out and I don't get lost in Tokyo and I get the job.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Japanese weekends

Well I just finished off my first weekend in Japan. It's so nice to be in a new place with my favorite person. Everything is an adventure when you're in a place you've never been--buying food, finding your way around, wandering a department store. The novelty of being here hasn't worn off and I doubt it will any time soon.

Friday night we went over to Tetsuyah's house for my welcome party. We went with him and his two adorable kids to Bell Shine, a really nice grocery store/arcade in Miyada. It makes sense that the home of some of the strangest and most popular video games in the world would also have the craziest arcades. There were crane games with every kind of prize you can imagine--ice cream, beef jerkey, live salamanders in little plastic tanks, real fur dyed crazy colors (not a fan of that one). We took pictures in a Japanese photo booth, which has about 30 different options to make your photos as crazy as possible. After picking up some sushi and wine we headed over to the party.

Tetsuyah invited all the people that he has introduced Zack to so far. They were all married couples with children. It's so hard to tell how old Japanese people are because they age so well. We had a blast drinking with the men--Japanese women typically don't drink much--and comparing America to Japan. We taught them how to play "flip cup," my personal favorite drinking game, and they seemed to really enjoy it. They showed us the Japanese ball in cup game and noodle stream. A noodle stream is when they send noodles down a little shoot filled with water. You have to try and catch as many noodles as you can while they go down the shoot. Zack and I tried to catch noodles with the kids but my chopstick skills are really not up to par. I have to learn to quit being so sensitive because Japanese people love to make fun of foreigners learning to use chopsticks and speak the language. It's in good fun, but it can be hurtful when you're making a legitimate effort to try out their customs. Tetsuyah's family has really adopted Zack, kind of like an exchange family. The women were very friendly to me, too, even though I was holding a beer instead of a baby the whole night. They said we would go to the onsen (Japanese bath house) sometime. I can't wait!

Saturday we took our hungover selves to Matsumoto, a nearby city where we were supposed to go to a barbecue with some people from the JET Program. It rained on us for a while and of course we forgot to bring umbrellas. We sought shelter in this giant store called JusCo that puts Wal-Mart and Sam's Club to shame. They sell everything in there, even cars! We saw an older couple walking alongside a new car that some salesmen were rolling to the exits. Cars here are super small and efficient. There are laws and heavy fines in place to ensure that cars don't fall into disrepair, so often it's cheaper for people to trade in their old car for a newer one every three years or so. I haven't seen a car older than probably 2005 since I got here.

The girl hosting the barbecue didn't answer her phone and we didn't know who else to contact so we decided to hang out with Zack's friend Dirty Jerid and his wife, Yuki. We went to an Irish pub, this neat little dive bar called Elbow Room, and ended the night with an underground dance party (it was literally in a basement). There was a DJ playing awesome techno and house music. We danced like crazy and chatted with some hip Japanese guys and girls until 3 in the morning. It was so fun! I really want to go back to that club again. The next day, suprisingly not hungover, Zack and I wandered the city looking for Matsumoto Castle. Along the way we found a shop with beautiful and expensive Japanese antiques. We also found a crazy video game shop. We went to the castle, walked around but didn't go inside because we were running low on funds, and headed back to the train station. From there we went to this store called "Hard-Off" that sells new and used electronics. Like I said, they recycle everything here. We bought a keyboard and a DVD player out of the junk corner, which is where they keep electronics that are slightly or completely broken. You wouldn't believe all the old video game systems they have laying around--Nintendo, Sega Saturn, Super Nintendo, N64, Xbox--all for less than $10! We'll probably be going back there again really soon. The keyboard is really cool, although we just have to guess what all the buttons do since it's written in Japanese. We're going to try and make some 8bit music together!

After that, we were exhausted (Zack had been hauling around a computer monitor that Jerid sold him all day) so we hopped on a train back to Miyada. The train system here is pretty confusing so we had to switch trains a couple times to make sure we were going the right way. Luckily, people are really understanding and helpful to lost gaijin. We'll figure it out one of these days.

I'm so glad to have made so many friends already! We can't party this hard every weekend because it's tough on the wallet, but we definitely plan on having lots of adventures. Now that we've seen a bit of Japanese city life/shopping, we're going to start exploring some of the beautiful places in nature that are nearby. Zack and I want to hike up one of the smaller mountains soon so we're going to start working out. My running routine kind of fell apart in the last few weeks because of all the chaos in my life but now I'm going to buckle down and get back in the game. All this walking is giving us good exercise, too. Yay for being healthy!

It's become apparent that while Japan strives to live more in tune with nature than the U.S., their animal rights record is probably appalling. People leave dogs confined to small pens or tied to short ropes pretty much all day. I've also heard rumor of the Japanese eating animals that are still alive, like squid and fish, though I've never personally witnessed it. Whaling is also a controversial industry for the Japanese; many people see it as a right or necessity for the little island nation, but animal rights activists and environmentalists see it as a destructive, outdated tradition. Some signs for food companies feature dolphins, too. I'm not sure if it's just for design purposes or to indicate that they eat dolphins, but I'm doing some more research on the food industry here.

I'm going to be on my guard from now on to make sure I'm not eating whale or dolphin or supporting the fur industry. I feel kind of bad for eating fish because I respect them as a life form and know the toll that the commercial fishing industry has on the oceans, but until I learn more Japanese, eating fish will keep me from going hungry. I've been eating mostly ebi
I'm so grateful for the opportunity to live in a place so different from the U.S. but so inextricably linked. I can see how some traditions are surviving in our globalized world while others evolve or die out. This is a country that still has its own unique identity despite the world becoming more and more homogenized. I hope that being here will help me see my own heritage in a new light, help me appreciate my own traditions and culture finally.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


I'm getting used to living in this quaint little village. Our aparto is small but Zack and I can handle that. I've started venturing out and getting to know the area. I think I've find my new favorite writing spot, this little temple that's not even 10 minutes away.

The language barrier hasn't started bothering me yet. It's actually pretty hilarious because people could be putting a curse on me for all I know, and all I can do is smile and laugh in reply. I went up to Tetsuya's dad's shop (Tetsuya is a friend of Zack's) to buy produce today and ended up laughing and shrugging more than talking. A lot of people are really understanding, especially if you say Arigato gozaimasu when you leave their shops. I've only met one other person who speaks English in the town, this guy who works at a cosmetics place. I've been practicing hiragana, so that's a start to communicating here. It'll be nice to be able to understand what signs say instead of guessing what kind of store or restaurant the building is.

I love living in a place where I can be a pedestrian and buy fresh food every day. They also recycle like crazy here! There are no trash cans because you're not supposed to throw anything away, not even styrofoam. The only downside to their awesome recycling system is that Zack has yet to figure out where to drop off the recyclables. He accumulated surprisingly little trash in the three months he was here without me, though. The recycling center is also only open from 6-7 a.m., we think. So it looks like I have another quest for next week. I've been really hitting the job search hard so let's all hope that works out for me. My other option at this point is to try and get a student visa to study Japanese while I'm here. I'm going up to the little language school in town tomorrow to investigate that possibility. I could work part time on a student visa, too. I'm just trying not to stress about everything and keep my head up. Tomorrow night, Tetsuya is throwing me a welcome party! And this weekend we're going into Matsumoto to hang out with some lucky bastards who actually made it into the Jet Program. Yippee!

Miley Cyrus in Japan

My niece, Olivia, gave me one of her baby dolls to take with me on my adventures in Japan. Her name is Miley Cyrus. Here are some of the places that Miley has been with me so far:

On the plane ride to Detroit.


on the subway in Tokyo