Monday, 16 November 2009

Let's enjoy Osaka!

At the weekend I went to Osaka with Ed and Sean. I'm really glad that I managed to see Kyoto and Osaka on two consecutive weekends; the contrasts between the two cities were even more apparent to me. I think that Osaka lacks the sophistication of Kyoto yet more than makes up for this in other ways. One of the first things that struck me about Osaka was how friendly the people were. If I could choose a word to describe my brief encounter with Osakans, it would perhaps be 'earthy'. Yes, earthy is the word I am looking for. So many people were not only willing, but eager to help me out with directions and the like. It was a strange but heart warming feeling to be approached like that.

Lots of Osakans...

We went to see a Kabuki play in Osaka. Kabuki is one of the oldest traditional Japanese theatre forms. I'm glad that I went to see one but after about two hours, I wanted to leave the theatre. I kept thinking about all the art and interesting areas to explore. I spent the rest of the time nodding off and impatiently waiting for the protagonist to commit seppuku (a horrible Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment). Oh dear, how uncultured I sound...

After the play had finished, I wandered around Amerika-mura which is said to be Osaka's equivalent to Tokyo's Harajuku. It was the incredible. I have (sadly) become quite accustomed to clothes shops that cater for the over ninety fives in my town, so they made my heart glow.

some satisfactory America-mura shop assistants.

Ed and I found another thing which made me nostalgic for London. Oh, how I wish to ride the tube again!

That evening, we met up with some ALTs who live in Osaka, three of whom are Londoners.Here are some lovely British people; Roland and Dave. I want to make friends in every place as I visit;experiences are always more fulfilling when you know people in far flung places.

Ohh I must tell you about the hostel I stayed in. I left hostel booking to the very last minute and consequently, had very little choice left by Thursday evening. I ended up finding a really cheap place, just two stops away from Namba (where all the interesting things happen). Hotel Mikado was awful. My room smelt like the door hadn't been opened in thirty years and there were suspicious looking stains everywhere. There seemed to be a string of similar looking hotels along the road - I dare you to try one of them! How about Hotel Sweet? It's right next door to Mikado! Here is a picture of my luxurious Osakan abode...bleak...

Despite the uninviting atmosphere, I met a lovely man from Syria called Aladdin (ace!) who is travelling the world. He told me that I looked like a cabin crew member in my hat and coat. I have been compared to several things whilst wearing my hat and coat; Paddington bear and Madaleine. What do you think?

The next day, I woke up really early due to the pervasive desire to get out of the hostel. I went to see Osaka castle first, which was very beautiful, but I parted company with Ed and Sean to heaad back to America-mura. It was here that I met these three lovely ladies. They work for a street fashion magazine and asked if they could take some pictures of me for it. When this happens in London,a camera is thrust in your face, usually at the people crushing bend by Topshop (though I hear that the recently constructed Shibuya style crossing will dispel this, hooray!) and it makes for an unpleasant experience. Not in Osaka....the girls took me to a small studio, tucked at the very top of a building along America-mura and snapped away, it was lovely :-)

It just so happened that on the floor below the studio was Neko no Jikan; the cat cafe. I was so happy. I had planned on visiting the cafe but the directions I had were so vague that I didn't think I would ever find it. Ahh, I had the best time! I paid a very modest amount of money for one hour cat time, tea and cake. It was amazing and quelled the pangs of sadness I have been having at being without my Alfie. There were lots of couples there on romantic dates so at the end of my hour's cat time, I did feel very much like a spinster...amplified by the fact that I was covered in cat hair, and probably smelt a bit catty too. Owh, I hope this is not a sign of what awaits me later in life!

feeding time...

In Japan, each prefecture/city has a regional delicacy and I have made it my aim to try the culinary delight of each place I visit. Osaka is famous for takoyaki. Takoyaki is a dumpling made of batter,diced baby octopus, tempura scraps, pickled ginger and green onion. Osakans love food and are not precious about it, so there were lots of stalls dotted around selling takoyaki. I found it disappointing,it made me feel a bit sick. :-(

On the other hand, I have discovered what I think is my new favourite fruit; persimmons. They are only in season for a very brief window so I am making the most of them by eating several every day. I adore them. If you can try one, please do; they are truly sweets of nature! I am also enjoying pumpkin too. It seems that I like orange fruits and vegetables.


Recently, my colleagues have been asking me to spend time with them at the weekends which makes me feel happy. In a few weekends' time, Williams-sensei has invited me to her home for dinner and in the first weekend of December,I am going to go to a tea ceremony festival with Taoka-sensei and eat lots of Japanese sweets. I want to have deeper friendships with my colleagues, but I want to travel so much; it is through travel that I feel I can find the most happiness.

It is only four days until I go on my next trip to Beppu. Beppu is on Kyushu, the most southerly of the four main islands and is famous for its hot springs. I am going with eleven other people. I know a couple of people, Lorianne and Iain who I would like to spend more time with, but I only know Ciaran well so I am looking forward to making some new friends :-)


Thursday, 12 November 2009

Bad Week

I am really looking forward to this weekend as this week has been one of the most stressful I have had since coming to Japan.

On Monday, a strange thing happened to me. I was in my apartment writing some letters when someone rang the doorbell. I turned on the intercom to see a man with a scarf pulled up over his face. I didn't open the door but he persisted for forty minutes; ringing the doorbell and lurking around outside. He then went around to the back of my apartment and began throwing stones at the back window. At this point, I felt really frightened, so reluctantly, had to play the helpless female and call my friend Ciaran.

The man then came back to my front door again and once more, started to ring the bell. I turned the intercom on again to see that this time, he had taken the scarf away from his face; I knew who it was. It was Fujii, one of my third year students (who I have mentioned on this blog before). All the students in school have to wear a name badge on their blazer and Fujii began holding his up in front of the intercom saying 'Isabel, it's me Fujii. Please open the door, I want to tell you that I love you. I have a gift for you.' This is comedic in hindsight; next, he took out his electronic dictionary and began tapping away, presumably to find some more persuasive language.

It's against the rules for me to open the door to my students, rumours could spread quickly (illustrative by the fact that I've had some students asking me if I had enjoyed the persimmons they saw me buying at the supermarket...) so I just stayed silent. Fujii wouldn't give up, he kept calling through the door and holding up a big floral bag. At this point, Ciaran turned up and explained to Fujii that he shouldn't really be visiting me outside of school. Reluctantly, Fujii cycled away but returned about an hour after Ciaran had left to drop a note through my door which said 'Isabel, I love you very (spelt 'bery')much, is tall man your boyfriend?'

The next morning, I opened my door to find the floral bag sitting outside, inside which were the most ornately wrapped Japanese sweets, a love note and a hastily written note shoved at the bottom of the bag saying 'I am sorry for my careless behaviour, I will never see or speak to you again.'

I had to go and tell the school and I felt awful. Fujii and I talk all the time; he's a really great guy and I didn't want to get him into trouble. To make things worse, I had to teach his class in the first lesson. He usually sits right at the front; this time, he was right at the very back with his head down. I had to approach his group to help them out with a question and when I looked at him, his eyes were all puffy; he had obviously been told off and had been crying. This set me off too and I had to pretend to go and photocopy something.

Sometimes I find my job difficult. I am so close in age to my 18,19 year old students and they can often misinterpret my friendliness as something else. I was supposed to meet with Fujii and his form teacher that afternoon but Fujii didn't show up. He said he was too embarrassed to see me and didn't want to see me again. I've been thinking about the incident ever since. I feel such a bitch for snitching on Fujii but I was very frightened when I saw him with the scarf over his face. All I could think of were the horrible things that have happened to some female teachers over here. I feel upset that he probably won't come and talk to me again; we used to talk about music all the time, he is such a sweetie.

I took a day off on Wednesday as I felt unwell and exhausted. I went in today but when the teachers heard me cough, there was pandemonium. Before I could even sit down, I was whisked off to the hospital where I had to pay ten pounds for the doctor to tell me that I didn't have swine flu. My school is so neurotic. I wasn't allowed back to school incase I 'infected' the students so today was a duvet day. I have a lesson on debating tomorrow which I am not looking forward to. Japanese people are not confrontational, I am not confrontational so I cannot forsee an abundance of debating sparks flying...

I'm totemo tired.

sweet dreams


EDIT - Friday - today marked the turnaround of the so-so week I have had. The debating lesson went brilliantly because of my discerning choice of topics for the students to debate. What 18 year olds don't enjoy talking about romance? We debated the fun (albeit superficial perhaps?!) topics of 'is love more important than money?', 'Is it better to have a partner who is beautiful or a partner who has a good personality' and finally 'You have fallen in love with your best friend's girlfriend/boyfriend. What should you do?' I didn't have a very moral bunch. Lots of the boys especially said 'go for the girl! No regret please!'

What put my mind most at rest was that I spoke with Fujii and Naoi-sensei. Fujii said sorry to me and then asked Naoi-sensei to ask me if it was alright for Fujii to give me a 'sorry hug', ha. He clasped his arms around me for a long time which made both Naoi-sensei and I laugh. I'm so glad we are able to talk again.


Last week, I got paid so I decided to take a trip to Kyoto. Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years so it's the place to go if you want to be overwhelmed by shrines, temples and traditional culture. I had to go on my own as my ALT co-workers have either been here in Japan for a long time already and have seen Kyoto or, plan to stay in Japan for a long time so don't feel the urgency that I do to squeeze as much travel in as possible. I was a little nervous about going alone. In short, I can't read maps. To me, reading a map is as difficult as learning Japanese. I got mildly good at map reading when I temped in London ie. I reached the point where I only had to ask for clarification of directions once at the tube station, rather than return about three times to ask the station men to set me on my way again. Fortunately, Kyoto is one of the most tourist friendly cities I have ever been to and I didn't get lost once, I was proud of myself!

Here is a visual tour of the route I did by bus, train and on foot last weekend:

I caught a 5am bus from Takamatsu and arrived in Kyoto at 9am. My first stop was Fushimiinari Shrine, one of the most famous shrines in Japan. I think it appears in a film...nice bit of information for you there! Fushimiinari is dedicated to Inari, the Shinto god of rice, and foxes are thought to be his messengers. There were so many torii gates, they looked beautiful and it was so peaceful to walk through them at such an early time in the morning.

My beautiful new coat which will see me through the Japanese winter :-) It was a good weekend to visit; the sun was shining for the whole weekend but the air felt nice and crisp.

I like the photograph above; very Japanese eh?

the fox messengers...I think these looked nicer than the mean looking stone fox statues dotted about.

On the way back from Fushimiinari, I met this lady at the train station. Hanako told me that she is a singer and gave me four tickets to see her show in December; happy Christmas family! Back at JR Kyoto station, she made me pose for several pictures with her much to the amusement of the ticket inspectors...I like that she was wearing red lippy (I don't really see Japanese ladies wear a lot of makeup).

Next step was Kiyomizudera temple (the temple of pure water) It's in the hills of eastern Kyoto and is supposed to be one of the best places in Japan to view the turning of the leaves.

Just behind Kiyomizudera's main hall is a place where you can drink some spring water which is said to have special powers. If you drink the water on the right hand side, it is said to bring beauty, the water in the center is said to bring wisdom and drinking the water on the left hand side brings good health. I drank the water for wisdom. Look at the girl on the right hand side (our left), she is eager to become beautiful!

Next I went to Gion which is Kyoto's most famous geisha district. I went in the early evening so it wasn't very exciting. I was a little disappointed actually, probably due to my naive expectations of geisha running (yes, they have to be running. Everyone runs in Japan) around everywhere but there were none to be found. I decided to return after dark and in the meantime found lots of zakka shops (see last entry) full of winding staircases and shop assistants with asymmetric fringes and peg leg trousers to keep me amused for a while. When I headed back to Gion, I saw a geisha leading a salary man back to her teahouse! I spent too long rummaging in my bag to find my camera so no picture I'm afraid....

In the evening, I found the most beautiful vegetarian cafe (the first I have found here) and I had the best meal I've had since coming to Japan.I had vegetable gyoza and a mushroom ramen - lovely. My favourite part was the dessert; a Japanese herb style muffin with plump black bleans, mugwort dough, organic soy bean paste and mochie. Mmmm, t'was delicious.

The staff in the cafe were so lovely too and gave me cake for the journey home. I had to wait for a bus for ages and watched a group of about fifty university students play the biggest game of paper, rock, scissors I have ever seen. * Rock, paper, scissors is called 'janken' here. All my students play it in my lessons to decide who will speak first. I now have to leave aside some time in my lesson plans for 'janken time' since it is a reoccuring part of the lesson...they are lightening fast at it!*

Before tumbling into bed, I went to the twelfth floor of Kyoto train station to see the city lights by night. On the way up, I passed this beautiful Christmas tree. There were lots of couples sitting on the steps around it, they looked happy. I got a bit teary. I miss being around people I love so much. Mum, Dad, Oliver, I can't wait for you to be here with me this Christmas time. <3

The next day, I hung out with a lovely Dutch girl called Lucienne who I met in the hostel I stayed at. We went to a food market called Nishiki in the morning. Ahh, I can't wait to take Mum, Dad and Oliver here. Some of the things were truly works of art. I couldn't capture how colourful it was - I am such a poor photographer, forgive me.

Look, biscuits with flowers on them!

A snappy little machine that made pancakes :-)

Here is Kinkakuji; the Golden Temple. At the moment,I am reading a book by a Japanese author called Yukio Mishima about Kinkakuji so I was excited to see it. It fulfilled all expectations - it was really beautiful.

Lucienne and I...I think I look a bit creepy...

Lucienne and I parted company after Kinkakuji as she was catching the Shinkansen to Osaka. I really like chance meetings. It is unlikely that I will see Lucienne again but it was the most lovely thing to spend time with a complete stranger who turned out to be such great company :-) I only had a couple of hours to spare after Lucienne left so I went to visit Ginkakuji (the Silver Temple) but it was being renovated so it wasn't that great - I'll go back at Christmas time.

I forgot to book a bus ticket home so had to take the Shinkansen (bullet train) instead. If you ever get the chance to take the Shinkansen to or from Kyoto, you should listen to the album The Lemon of Pink by The Books. It was the most perfect thing to listen to on the journey home. I really enjoyed Kyoto, despite being alone. It is such a beautiful city with so much to see that I didn't get lonely (apart from when I saw the Christmas tree!).

This weekend, I am going to Osaka with Ed and his friend Sean. Osaka stands in stark contrast to the beauty and traditionalism of Kyoto. It is Japan's party city and Osakans are supposed to be very earthy and laid back kind of people. Being very commerce minded, legend has it that rather than Konnichiwa, Osakans greet eachother with the phrase 'Mookarimakka?'; are you making money? I am excited to see Osaka :-)


Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Zakka tour

For the past week or so, I have felt so happy, the reason being that I finally feel at home here. I shall do my best to explain.

Some time last week, something just clicked and everything seemed to fall into place. I think perhaps the feeling of hostility towards a new culture or environment that culture shock is said to often bring has passed and in theoretical speak, I am at stage three - 'acceptance and embrace'. Oh dear, I sound like a self help book, forgive me.

Since arriving in Japan in August, I've had some happy times here and there but for the most part, have felt utter bewilderment. Feeling bewildered can assume many guises and mine made me feel even more sensitive than usual;I feel I can be honest now and admit openly (where better than here eh?)that there have been many tears since August. I worried about everything. I felt tired and fatigued all the time. I found it difficult to recall my reasons for wanting to come to Japan. The thing that upset me most of all was that I felt I had lost my curiosity. What's more, all the other Westerners I know here seemed to be throwing themselves into life and really assimilating well. I felt so tentative and hesitant about trying to embrace things.

I have been having the best time ever lately, namely because I am filling my time with fun things. I have started Japanese classes and look forward to seeing Hanh and Hoi, my two Vietnamese friends there each week. They always cycle me home and we speak in broken Japanese all the way. My lessons at school have been going so well. I feel such an attachment to and genuine fondness for my students now. Instead of seeing a sea of forty blank faces, I can pick out names, faces and personalities from each class. I still have a few difficult classes - Japan is the land of the silent child, but I am learning to coax them into participating.

This is Yumi. I met Yumi at a party a couple of weeks back. Yumi likes arty little shops, making things, cake eating and stamp collecting. Today, we went on a zakka tour. Zakka is the Japanese word for very small and cute things and ya is the Japanese word for shop. Yumi is oozing with enthusiasm and she is the prettiest stamp collector I know.

I went to a Halloween party in Takamatsu last week. My camera ran out of batteries so I only got a few snaps. Here is Yumi, Ed and I.

Cat, an Obaasan (Japanese grandma) and witch

This weekend, I am going to Kyoto, so a more picture filled entry is on its way soon. Ahh, I feel so happy to be here! I am beginning to find some beauty in Marugame; I must take a picture of the trees by the castle. The leaves have turned the most beautiful shades of red and golden. I am so excited about all the trips I have coming up; Kyoto this weekend, Osaka the weekend after (I'm going to stay in a capsule hotel - google it!) and a trip to Fukuoka in Kyuushu in the next national holiday we have coming up. I'm not sure if seven months is long enough for my lovely new friendships to blossom and to see and do all the things I have planned :-)