A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: brendab

Hitching Holiday

Throwing caution to the wind, I discover a trusting, inclusive, easy-going Japan just by sticking out my thumb.

sunny 29 °C

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Since I was a kid I have listened to my father’s tales of traveling the open Canadian road into Alaska. My father chose the most interesting way to travel: hitchhiking. When we were kids and taking road-trips across Canada, dad would always stop to pick up hitchhikers if we had room. He always said, “As long as they look like they could camp right where they stand then go ahead and pick them up. They are obviously out there for the experience of it, but if they are carrying a gym bag just pass them by." Well, I have always wanted to follow in dad’s footsteps and give hitchhiking a try and this month I finally had my chance.

I heard some other English teachers were organizing a charity hitchhike in Kyushu, Japan’s southern-most island, during Golden Week. Golden Week is when three holiday days fall after a long weekend and if you take four days off work you can have as many at 11 days off. So I took the days off work and I jumped at the opportunity hitchhike in one of the safest countries in the world. Thankfully my best friend, Shane, was totally into it too.

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We left Okayama on a night bus at 10pm and were dropped off on the side of the highway at 5am in Mojiko. After wandering around the middle of no where for a while we found a convenience store and bought a map of Kyushu to start making our plans. Once we had decided on our plan for the day, we got out on the road and stuck out our thumbs. It felt pretty weird to do it the first time but it only took about sixteen minutes before we were picked up by a lone guy named Junpei.

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Junpei drove us for about an hour and dropped us off at a convenience store where we got our next ride from Hirutakasan who listened to the weirdest chipmunk music. The car smelled like B.O. but only when we were stopped. Took about an hour and a half and we were in Beppu where we found this statue at the station. Yes, that is a naked baby attached to that man's waistcoat.

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We wandered over the beach and fell asleep.

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After we rolled off the beach we wandered around Beppu for a while and had an onsen at the oldest onsen in Beppu, which incidentally is also the worst onsen in Beppu. I had a fight with a couple of ladies in there and eventually just through my town down and said, “Don’t worry. I’m leaving.” We waited for our new friend Doron who was in charge of the hitchhiking fundraiser, who had offered his place up for passers by who were in need of a place to crash. He fed us and took us out to an incredible hot spring in the mountains that night. It was just beautiful to look at the stars and sit in a natural hot spring. Thanks Doron!

We rolled out of bed the next morning to try one more of Beppu’s famous onsens: a hot sand onsen. It’s exactly like when your friends cover you with sand at the beach but the sand is hot and very heavy and you come out of it feeling like a million bucks.

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Oh, I forgot to mention that the day before we were looking for something to do so we hitched out to a place called Monkey Mountain where we were surprised to find hundreds of wild monkeys living in a community near the highway.

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We wandered around with monkeys running through our legs and tried not to kill the staff that were constantly nattering on into a loud speaker and taunting the monkeys with peanuts.

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From Beppu it took us a couple of rides to get to the Stone Buddhas in Usuki.

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Our driver, Aso-san, had picked us up an hour before and we were never sure if he was even heading in our direction. He decided to come with us to see the stone Buddhas and the forest walk.

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After that he offered to keep driving us. We finally decided he would drop us off in the next town after we had spent more than four hours with him and we were convinced he was driving us to be nice. But, even when we got to the drop-off point he was still saying things like, “have you seen this…?” and “ have you seen that...?" The guy just didn’t want to let us go. Shane said later he was starting to prepare himself for a tuck-and-roll out of the car.

After holding up our sign that said “In the direction of Sumie (or maybe Nobeyoka)," we got a ride from a nice older couple who were just out for an afternoon drive.

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They took us for ice cream.

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They too took us out of their way right down to the beach in Sumie though they seemed a little peeved about it by the time they dropped us off. Sumie was a little harder to find than they anticipated I guess.

Well, I would have to say our time in Sumie at Sun Beach was the highlight of my trip.

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The beach was so beautiful and quiet. We arrived there at 5 pm and all the little restaurants along the beach looked closed but the door to the last one was open and the man and woman there offered to cook for us. We sat around and drank a few glasses of wine before we discovered the man, Ryo, had spend some time in the States and could speak perfect English. Well, we finished that bottle of wine, and another one before Ryo tucked into his stash of sweet potato shochu (AKA: airplane fuel). We got good and drunk and discovered we all had music in common and it wasn’t but a few minutes later that we had been loaded into Ryo’s friend’s cab and were on our way into Nobeyoka to sing Karaoke at Ryo’s wife’s bar. Needless to say it was a very funny night and we slept like babies on the beach in our tent until dawn.

The next day was a lazy day of beaching and reading and just lounging about. We left in the afternoon to check out another beach we had heard about just five minutes up the road.

Kitaura had a rather large camping resort area with a big beach which we figured we could camp on. We were wrong. We inquired at the resort store with the woman working there if she knew of a good place we could camp for free. The manager of the resort basically told us to get lost but the woman took pity on us and told us we could stay at her house. We figured she would let us pitch our tent on her lawn. Without saying more than ten words to each other this woman walked us over the hill to a little fishing village hidden from the sight of the average passer by. The town looked old and worn out, a little like a slum. When we arrived at the woman’s house (we never did find out her name) she brought us into a little two room house and told us we could sleep there. So there we sat with out mouths dangling open at this woman’s trust and kindness and at our amazing luck to have been given a private house for the night. We couldn’t have asked for anything more. She even cooked us some fish and rice in the morning and served it up with a pot of tea. Fantastic! The only downside was that I suffered from allergies like I never have before in that house so it was a little bitter sweet for me.

We left Kitaura that morning with a guy we had met on the docks who noticed the sign Shane had made and offered us a ride with him. He and his mates had been sitting on the docks by the sea talking shit and joking about pig flu with us. They were a funny bunch. They reminded me of the folks my dad has coffee with every morning, just sitting around solving the world’s problems.

Our destination that day was the Takachiho Gorge, the birthplace of Japan.

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It took two rides and about two hours to get out to the gorge. We had an idea we would look for a place to camp in the gorge near the water but there was nothing to be found. The whole place was very touristy and suffered from the same yelling-into-loud-speakers problem that Monkey Mountain had. I got to say though, the gorge was amazingly beautiful!

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After a proper wander through the gorge with about three thousand other people we made our way out into the town to look for a place to stay. We attempted to look for a town park we could camp in and found nothing but a couple of overpriced ryokans (Japanese style hotels). After what seemed like and endless day of walking we went back to the gorge to find our bags where we had dropped them next to a restaurant. Shane started laying on the charm to one of the girls in the restaurant hoping we could get a ride. We didn’t get a ride but we did find out we would be able to camp at a highway rest stop on the outside of town. So, we did that. We camped on the smallest patch of grass right outside the restaurant window and when I went to the bathroom in the middle of the night I realized the whole parking lot was full of people sleeping in their cars and four other tents had been set up on the same little patch of grass next to our tent. That was a freaking cold night. We woke in the morning with children playing around our tent and when I got out of the tent I found all fifty people sitting in the restaurant staring out at me like I was a monkey in a zoo. Nothing new.

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Our next ride was a short twenty minutes with three guys Shane called "the boy band".

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They were quite young and all had brightly colored shirts and crazy hair. They had plastic bags with heads in their trunk. Hilarious! The one guy was a hairdresser. They dropped us off in the middle of nowhere at a grocery store. We were now in Kumamo, the old stomping grounds of my dear friend Krista from home (her stories have contributed greatly to my coming to Japan) and this time our sign read, “In the direction of Mount Aso,” the largest active volcano in Japan.

Aso was spectacular.

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I wasn’t really keen on going there at first but it was one of the places Shane really wanted to see so I was happy to check it out too. I’m so glad I did. Though we only spent a little while at the top of the volcano it was one of the highlights of this trip. It was like being on the moon (with dozens of other tourists). The landscape was barren and covered with random rocks and black sand. Shane and I built this inukshuk to make sure everyone knew which way we would be going next.

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This was the first inukshuk we had ever made and it looks pretty darn good doesn’t it?

By the time we were ready to make our way down Mnt. Aso it had started to rain. The traffic was crazy and we were hitching right by the edge of the parking lot so loads of people had to stop right beside us. We really got to have a look at the people who passed us by and we started to categorize them. There were the single women alone in there cars; they always pretended they didn’t see us at all. There were the people who were curious but once they saw us they would pretend they hadn’t. There the people who were very sorry that they couldn’t pick us up and would give us a sorry bow or shrug or even pull over to tell us they couldn’t give us a ride. Ha! Then there were those who would pass by waving their hands in front of their faces or nodding their heads side to side to make sure we understood as they drove past us that they wouldn’t be giving us a ride. We would have figured it out when they didn’t stop of course but I guess they just wanted to be clear. Finally a car with two guys pulled up and the one in the passenger seat was making strange faces at us and I was just about to give him the finger when they pulled over and offered us a ride. Lucky I didn’t quick draw the old middle finger. Those two guys were super cool. The one was a university student in Kumamoto and the other was his best friend visiting from Oita. They were great. We didn’t have much corresponding language but we were able to just relax with them and communicate quite freely. They took us into Kumamoto in a couple of hours, fighting traffic the whole way, and we all went to their favorite izakaiya restaurant where we had some of the best food in all of Kyushu.

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After that those boys marched us all over downtown trying to help us find some cheep place to spend the night and finally set us down in an internet café. In Japan it is not unusual for people to rent an internet cubical for 12 hours or so and spend the whole night sleeping there. There is a shower and your cubical can have a couch or a floor mat or a chair.

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It is very cheep and reasonably comfortable. Because it rained in Kumamoto the next day and we had not figured out what our next move was so we stayed two nights in that internet café. It definitely was a strange place. I woke up to go to the bathroom at 1:30 am and the entire lobby was full of people and I really couldn’t say what was going on.

While we were in Kumamoto trying to decide our next move we met Yukie, the girl at the information counter at the Kumamoto station. She spoke perfect English so for an hour I harassed her for phone numbers, addresses, opinions, and ferry schedules. She was great and really helped us figure out what to do next. When we were leaving the station Shane said it would be cool to hang out with her and I said let’s go back and invite her out. So that’s what we did. She didn’t know what to make of us but she took our number and said she would call after work. Then, as we were about to leave she said, “You’re not hitching me, are you?” Ha ha! So funny she thought we might be trying to hitch a ride off her by inviting her to come and have dinner with us. Anyway we met up with her again and had dinner at her favorite Italian restaurant. It was great, the food and the company.

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She was a free and easy conversationalist and she had spent some time in America as an exchange student so she felt pretty comfortable with us. She is getting married soon and will move to Tokyo so I will look her up the next time I am there.

Yukie told us the ferry from Kumamoto to Unzen was just an hour and only about eight dollars so we decided to go that way to get to Nagasaki. Shane had wanted to try the onsen in Obama town and we were both keen to take a ferry, so off we went. We caught a ride with a nice young couple to the pier and hopped on a ferry just a few minutes later. We were definitely the thing to watch on the ferry. Everyone seemed to be very curious about us and our sign. Once in Unzen we caught a ride to the middle of nowhere with another nice young couple. This couple had a little girl sleeping in the back seat. It was the first kid we had ridden with. It was also the first ride we had gotten where one of the drivers obviously picked us up to practice her English. We were expecting most of our rides would come from people wanting to practice their English but this was the first and maybe the only ride like that.

Shortly after that we were picked up out of that middle-of-nowhere spot by another lovely young couple. (It was the day of the lovely young couples.) They drove us the half hour to Obama town where Shane had heard you could try the hottest bathable onsen in the world. However when we got to Obama no one seemed to know what he was talking about. So, we stopped searching for it and decided just to have a regular old really hot onsen on the beach. The town had dozens of outdoor onsens on rooftops and near the beach but the one we went to was right on the beach. It was small and lovely and I had a nice bath while watching the waves roll up. However, our goal for the day was to get ourselves to Nagasaki before five o’clock so we couldn’t linger long in the very famous town of Obama where many signs and deserts have the face of Barack Obama planted on them. We did, however, find time to try the specialty dish of the prefecture, Champon. It was delicious, much like ramen but with more seafood and vegetables in it.

On our way out of Obama we caught a lift with two guys who had just been fishing all day. They moved their rods and tackle out of the way to make room in the car for Shane and me. They didn’t talk much (but at this point Shane and I weren’t very chatty either) and we rode along in their car watching the TV they had strapped to the dashboard. The two guys dropped us off twenty minutes later at a rest stop that had what Shane called a “fake church” in the parking lot. I have to admit it did look pretty fake, or perfect. Something about it was a little off. Anyway, a guy sporting a mesh vest picked us up a few minutes later. He told us that he made hats for a living so Shane called him the maddhatter after that. He said he would only take us part of the way to Nagasaki, but after a quick visit to his sister's house to drop off a gift, his mind was suddenly changed and he decided to take us all the way and visit his aunt in Nagasaki. So we sat back, relaxed, and enjoyed what we didn’t know would be our last hitch of the trip.

That night we bunked in a beautiful hostel in Nagasaki along a lovely river with stunning bridges. The whole feel of Nagasaki was quite different than other places I have visited in Japan.

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The people didn’t seem so curious about our presence, the atmosphere was relaxed and laid back, and the buildings had character and vitality. The hostel was great and the two people who ran it where very helpful apart from one thing: they highly recommended we go to Ioujima Island. They said it was great. So we went, and it sucked. We showed up thinking we could camp somewhere on the island so we set off on foot to the beach the guy at the hostel had recommended. After passing a strange catholic resort we found that there was nothing else, just abandoned buildings. When we got to the beach it was unsightly. There was no toilet or shower nearby. There was a park and a community area but they were all overgrown and locked up. So we wandered back to the ferry port in the hopes of renting bikes and checking out the other side of the island. As we went around the island we started getting a kick out of calling it Abandoned Land. COME! See the empty buildings, enjoy our dirty beaches and even pull some weeds at ABANDONED LAND! It was a strange place and the Japanese people were flocking to this island all day like it was a freaking tropical island paradise. Not so! With that said though, we did get to rent bikes and go around the other side of the island. Some of the views there were spectacular but the bikes we rode were old as fire. It might have been easier to walk it. At least then would only have to push ourselves along. We headed back at the end of the day, resolved to enjoy another night in the comfortable hostel in Nagasaki.

That night we hooked up with some friends from Okayama who had gone out to Nagasaki to go camping for Golden Week. They wanted to go out for some drinks so we wandered around the bar area of town and eventually stumbled into a place that appealed to my friend Katie. It was a hit! The room was all velvet and red and in the corner there were racks of costumes. There was a Karaoke machine and there were plenty of English songs. We were in heaven! It was a really fun time.

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The next day we took off for Fukuoka but not before visiting the A-Bomb museum and peace park.

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I liked the peace park in Nagasaki better than the one in Hiroshima. It was more quiet and enclosed and there were many beautiful statues donated by various governments.

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Once we were through at the peace park we headed up the road to try catch a hitch to Fukuoka about two hours away. There were two major problems. The first problem was that the holidays were over and there weren’t as many people using the highway and they were back to their nine-to-five mentality. The other problem was that the only way to get onto the highway was to take the center lane of traffic. Given that everyone heading to Fukuoka was in the centre lane of traffic and we were on the side of the road no one stopped for us. We tried everything from dancing and singing to pleading with drivers to take us with them. We tried hitching from further up the road in the hopes that someone may not yet have moved into the centre lane. After three hours we gave up and hopped a bus to Fukuoka. We were in a pretty cranky mood because we had hoped we could hitch all the way back to Okayama but our experience showed it might not be as easy as we thought.

So, we took the ride to Fukuoka and had a couple of hours there to kill before the night bus back to Okayama. We went and had the prefectural specialty tonkastu ramen in a crazy little restaurant where each person is separated into booths whether you like it or not. It is very private.

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There is even a curtain separating you from the serving staff. It wasn’t the best ramen I have ever had but the experience was certainly interesting.

We hoped the bus from Fukuoka to Okayama at 10pm and after about 7 or 8 hours of sleep--thanks to the valium I bought in Thailand--we arrived at 7am sleepy-eyed and disoriented.

We were in a bit of a rush to get back to Okayama because we had a Saturday morning Rugby practice. We were quickly approaching our second annual rugby tournament in Shikoku. This was the highlight of my year last year and there was no way I was going to miss it. This year Okayama was able to put together two teams instead of one so a total of 25 people went out to Shikoku Island this year including five supporters.

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The new team did a great job but our own team was not so fortunate. We were unlucky enough to have several bad refs. We played as well as we could but we really felt we were brought down by the reffing. Well, we all agreed the reason we went out there was to have fun and we absolutely did. We went swimming in the river and had a great BBQ in the most amazing campground with the most breathtaking mountains as a backdrop. Plus, I was able to spend some quality time with the many people who have become like family to me here.

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The rugby games were just a spectacular bonus. We even got to see the traditional Maori dance, the haka, performed by the winning team. This picture doesn't to it any justice, but believe me, the haka is an absolutely electrifying dance that will make all the hairs on the back of your neck stand right up.

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All and all another wonderful weekend.

Well, one month to go…Where should I go next?

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Posted by brendab 05:26 Archived in Japan Comments (7)

Spring Has Sprung

Coming out of the cold and into the cherry blossom season has never felt so good.

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I had a spring break recently so I made my great escape from Japan to the big and wonderful city of Seoul Korea. It was so wonderful.

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I met an English teacher who works for the same company as me at the airport and we happened to be going to the same guesthouse. It was actually great to have her around. As we didn't come together, we didn't feel obligated to do things together but we had a few meals together and had a few nights out together and she was good company. Anyway Seoul was wicked, just what I needed.

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Japan is so suffocating sometimes. There is no outward emotion, no dancing—unless they have been trained—and no craziness. Let me tell you, Seoul has all that and more.

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The first thing I saw was four drunken middle aged women fighting over a purse.

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That is how you know you are not in Japan any more. The clubs don't event get going until 3am but that doesn’t stop people from getting drunk at dinner time. I swear, half the population is drunk at any given time. There are people hugging and kissing and wrapping their arms around each other in the streets. I know it doesn't sound like a big deal but coming from Japan where there is none of that it was so refreshing! The whole place reminded me of a mix between Japan and Thailand.

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They are affluent and love fashion but it's dirty around the edges and far more laid back than Japan could ever be. All in all a successful escape.

Things are back to normal now though. It was my first week of school this week but I caught some kind of super cold in Korea and I'm taking a few sick days to get over it. I was determined not to be sick at all this year as I was always sick last year. I have been overwhelmingly unsuccessful having gotten seriously sick three times since Christmas. Any day now I’m hoping my immune system will kick back in.

But, I have been getting a little ahead of myself as there have been two significant events since my parent’s visit that are worth mentioning. The first is my trip to Osaka with my boys (all my best friends here, but for Thao, are boys) to see sumo wrestling for the first time,

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sleep in a capsule hotel for the first time,

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and eat ramen on the street for the first time.

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Well, I have seen it many times on TV and it seemed a little draggy. For example, the sumos seemed to be up in the ring for ages before anything resembling wrestling ever happened. Then they would only wrestle for about five seconds and then it was over. At the live event everything was different.

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First of all, there are tones of screaming fans. I didn’t even know Japanese people were capable of screaming like that. Well, except for the gym teachers at school. Also there is a lot of pomp and ceremony that happens around the edges of the ring that you don’t get to see when you watch it on TV. The referees look like priests, and actually, they might be. Sumo is a sport that is based in Shintoism and therefore comes with a lot of cleansing and prescribed behaviour. The sumos sip water to cleanse before the match and they throw salt to purify the ring.

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Then they raise their legs and stomp the ground hard to rid the ring of evil spirits. They make like they are about to fight by getting down on their haunches and starring each other down.

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Depending on their level they will do that three or four times before they actually fight. When they do finally fight it usually only take a few seconds and it usually ends with one of the wrestlers falling off the three-foot high ring and into the crowd. How would you like a sumo to fall on you?

The other thing that happened this month was the end of the old school year and the start of the next as the Japanese school year changes at the end of March rather than over the summer. I’m not sure why, and neither is anyone else but Japanese people often think that if they do something then it must be for the best, and they never question it. So with the end of school comes graduation. In Japan graduation is a huge deal and all the students—including the wee kids at the pre-school—who are moving into a new school have a graduation ceremony.

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This is a very solemn event when all the teachers wear black and the students are trained in the proper way to enter, bow, turn, sit down, accept their graduation paper, and wait. Yes, even the students who are not graduating are trained in the proper way to sit and observe the ceremony. If they are boys they must sit straight with their hands in loose fists on their laps and both feet flat on the floor.

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If they are girls they do the same but their hands are folded flat in their laps. Usually everyone is very composed until the student president gives the speech. Now, this student has a very important job; they must cry. If this student does not cry then the teachers and parents will have a hard time bringing tears to their eyes and if the parents and teachers don’t cry then they will be considered cold. So, you see, this student must cry so that everyone’s floodgates can open and everyone can save face. Now, I realize that may be a very cynical way of looking at it but I have to wonder why, in this society of people who NEVER cry or show any outward emotion, why they ALL cry.

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I have been wondering if this even is really as sad as everyone makes it out to be and I’m on the fence. On the one hand, my Japanese friends have told me that at graduation you must cry, especially if you are a teacher who is leaving the school (and every year there are always four or five teachers leaving) or people will think you didn’t care about the students. So, in this society where everything is prescribed I am not surprised to find that even crying is prescribed. But then, I have been thinking more and more about it lately and this is what I have come up with. Maybe, in many cases the crying isn’t just an act, maybe the emotion really is felt. I mean, the student teacher relationship here is quite different than at home. Their connections can me more like a parent/child bond than that of the western teacher and her students. Perhaps it is only natural that they should feel the need to cry. What I don’t understand though, is why it was taboo for my friend Krista to cry when she told her principal some dirty old man had flashed her behind her house but it is demanded that full grown men who have only taught students—part-time—for one year cry like little babies. Oh! And this! When the part-time teacher I am referring to started to cry and snot all over himself at graduation I offered him a tissue and he refused it. He wanted to make sure that everyone saw his tears. He told me so after the ceremony. ???

And, I simply must tell you all about the strangest thing in Japan ever. Firefighters.

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OK, how can I explain this? Firefighters seem to be similar to the army in that they are trained to take thirteen steps to get somewhere that should only take them four steps. They are the same as home in that they have both professional and volunteer firefighters but all firefighters here go through the same training. They all learn how to fight fires the exact same way: totally and completely inefficiently.

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I’m sure you have all seen on TV or elsewhere the regimented, stilted behaviour of line-ups of army men and women performing their, I don’t know what it’s called, routine? They spin their guns and march around and all the while you wonder why? How does that help them fight the enemy? It’s the same with firefighters. So, they have these completions to see which group of firefighters have their moves down the best and let me tell you it’s ridiculous! They won’t just do something fast—you know, cause they are fighting a fire—but they must do each move with precision. They wouldn’t dream of taking the rake off the truck without stopping, turning their head to the right, then turning their body, then slapping their hands to their sides first. Ridiculous! So I thought, OK this must just be for show. So, I asked my friend who is a volunteer firefighter and he said this is actually the way they fight fires.

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After he told me that I could only think about all the people who must have died in fires waiting for the firefighter to turn his head, turn his body, run thirteen steps, turn left, slap his hands down and then grab a freaking hose to put out the fire!

So, my Easter was pretty good. Right now is cherry blossom season in Japan and that's a pretty big deal. It is easily the most beautiful season here and it's a time for picnics and getting drunk before noon with as many friends as you can get together.

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I ran into one of my students on my walk the other day and she told me they would be having a cherry blossom party at our community house on Sunday so I went and it was really nice. My community here is great! So much like our own. Rugged, friendly, down-to-earth farmers and farmer’s wives who are happy to invite me in and make me feel welcome despite our language barriers.

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They are great people who love to have a laugh with me and their friends about whatever English they know...which is minimal. But they find a way to communicate and they are not shy, especially given all the beer and coolers we have whenever we get together. It reminded me a lot of home.

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It was a beautiful day; about 25 degrees and the kids were all running around with bubble blowers. I love me some bubbles. And the old people were eating some dried mystery meat. If they can't tell me what animal the meat comes from then there might be a need to worry. Oh! You know what? I think I just now figured it out. I think it must have been boar meat. It wasn't bad. A bit gamey.

So later I was telling my friend Namba sensei about how it was Easter and how usually at home we get together with family and she was like we are your family here. Nice! In fact she just came past my desk three seconds ago and poked me in the ribs and said "Yesterday" and gives me thumbs up. Ha ha!

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She's great. She has such minimal English but she is by far one of the best communicators of all my Japanese friends here and she is solely responsible for any and every situation that has made me feel like I belong here and am wanted here. She makes sure I know about every party and every thing that is happening in my community (or else I would never know). Other people are too shy that their English isn't good enough. Some people don't even say good morning to me cause they are afraid I might speak English to them. I think in any group that accepts me and feels comfortable around me it is because Namba sensei puts them at ease. She doesn't speak English, I don't speak Japanese but yet we are good friends.

So, I'm planning on leaving for Thailand again late in July. My best friend Shane and I are going to explore Southeast Asia together. We are both laid back but surely we will find something to clash over at some point. It's inevitable. In preparing for it though, Shane has been very agreeable. So I have high hopes. My concern is that only that he can be pretty hard-core: he doesn't mind discomfort in exchange for value. I am not that way at all. I like cheap but there is only so far I will go. I'm on vacation after all. I hate hate hate long bus rides too. I know a few of those will be inevitable but I'm going to want to skip a few of those and fly but I can already hear him telling me it won't be so bad. If I had a buck for every time someone convinced me to do something saying "it won't be that bad" I would be going around the world and not just to Southeast Asia.

I will return to Canada in late September and start a show at Celebrations Dinner Theatre at the end of the month. I am really excited about it. I always loved working there and singing and dancing for a living but I just couldn't bare the serving. Nothing is worse in my opinion. But now things have changed and the cast no longer has to serve so I can break the chains and go back for one more run. After that, I guess the plan is to find a good teacher's college and get my teaching degree. I guess I have been bitten by the teaching bug.

Posted by brendab 21:21 Comments (1)

From the Big City to the Big Mountains

The Boonstras Do Japan

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This month my parents came to Japan for their second visit, taking with them my cousin Jesse from B.C. They arrived on Friday and I went out with my friend Shane to meet them in Tokyo.

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I always love going to Tokyo. The hustle and bustle of the city is such a stark contrast to the lazy life of the Okayaman countryside. It is exciting and there is always something bizarre and interesting to take in. It is also where my good friend Masami lives, so it is the perfect chance to have a little giggly girl time with her.

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We love to sit in front of her computer and look up funny videos of our favorite Japanese TV stars.

So we did the typical touristy things in Tokyo: checked out the dancing greasers over in Harajuku,

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got our fortunes for the year at Sensoji temple in Asakusa,

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went to the Tokyo fish market to try out some melt-in-your-mouth sashimi (raw fish),

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and ate some great okonomiyaki.

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After spending some time in Tokyo, the five of us headed out to Nagano for some skiing in the Japanese Alps. I heard they were beautiful but I had no idea.

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It is absolutely lovely out there, and the pictures don’t even do it justice. The skiing was pretty good too.

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They were saying that this is one of the worst years for skiing out there but it actually wasn’t that bad at all, save for a few slushy patches near the bottom. But, the hill is so long that you really don’t even need to ski the bottom area until you want to come in for the day, so it wasn’t a problem at all.

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Then we headed off to Osaka but stopped in Matsumoto to check out the oldest castle in Japan. The town of Matsumoto is also very quaint and friendly so it was a lovely stop off on the way to the hubbub of Osaka.

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Unfortunately, that is where the story ends for me. I came down with a killer cold and headed home to recover. I left my family in Osaka to do their thing and they will come here Okayama in a few days to meet up again to do it up Okayama style, so stay tuned for the next installment of THE BOONSTRA’S DO JAPAN.

Also, as a side note, I have entered the GREATEST JOB IN THE WORLD contest, which I am sure you have all heard about by now. The job entails going to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef for 6 months and enjoying the Australian hospitality, and spending a lot of time swimming with the fish. They also ask you to take a lot of pictures and keep up a blog on your adventures. Sounds like the job for me. Out of the thousands of applications they will be narrowing it down to 50 on March 2nd and then a few weeks later they will make a short list of 11 people who will go to Australia for interviews. A 12th wild-card person will also be chosen by viewer response. That is where you come in. After March 2nd you will be able to place your votes for the best video so check out my video at this site and if you like it please give me your vote.

http://www.islandreefjob.com/applicants/watch/J17wSZm04eU

I hope you enjoy it!

It’s not too late for you to make your own video and enter. The contest closes on February 22nd.

Posted by brendab 04:41 Comments (0)

For Your Viewing Pleasure

Here are some videos from Japan. Enjoy!

Posted by brendab 00:36 Comments (0)

Taking on Thailand

This time around Thailand taught me about the home, the heart, and the hospital.

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As the holiday season rolled up on us, more and more Christmas decorations could be seen around town and there were more and more events to attend.

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One such event was held by the international club in Mimasaka about an hour and a half outside of Okayama. My friend Jeff lives out there and invited us to come and participate in the club’s first annual Christmas dinner party at his high school.

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Though it took us several hours and several wrong turns to get there, it still turned out to be one of the highlights of the season for me. All the people in the club (mostly students and a few teachers and people from the area) were very curious about us and our holiday traditions.

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We sang songs, watched The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and ate and awesome meal.

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Afterwards the organizers of the club brought us foreigners out to a really hip little Thai restaurant in Mimasaka where the English conversations continued with me wowing them with horror stories of minus 35 degree Canadian weather.

One day, just for kicks. I showed up at one of my schools dressed up as Santa Claus. I remembered I had a Santa costume in my closet that had been given to me by one of the outgoing English teachers last summer. The kids went mental when they saw me. I taught three classes that day. The combined grade 5 and 6 class thought the whole thing was hilarious and they interviewed me with questions like, “Santa, what’s your favorite sport?” and “Santa, where do you live?” Can you believe they thought Santa lived in Norway? I had to draw a picture of the North Pole on the chalkboard. The 4th and 5th grade class thought it was really fun but they had one eyebrow raised the whole time trying to figure out why I was sticking to the charade.

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The 1st and 2nd grade class just went off their heads. They saw me in the hallway and told their teacher excitedly that Santa Claus had come to the school. After the class was finished I had lunch with the 1st and 2nd grade class, as myself, who proceed to drill me about my relationship with Santa and why we had the same shoes. They also wanted to know why Santa spoke English. Smart little cookies those ones!

And then the Christmas season was upon me and I had bought myself a ticket out of the cold classrooms of Japan and onto the warm beaches of Thailand.

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Unfortunately I, and my entire board of education, sat apprehensively on the edges of our seats watching the government protests unfold in Bangkok. A mere 18 days before I was to leave, protesters had closed the international airport in Bangkok. Small-scale violence had been reported in the news and so, in true Japanese fashion, my co-workers figured it was WWIII in Thailand and tried to persuade me not to go. I told them if the airport was open I would go and if not I would go to Okinawa in Japan. That seemed to relax them a bit, but in the end things settled down and the airport was opened in time for my arrival. Thailand was pretty quiet though, not like the last time I was there. The big touristy street in Bangkok, Koh San Road, didn’t seem the same throbbing lain of debauchery as the last time I had seen it.

I chose to go to Thailand for Christmas and New Year not only because of the nice weather and the cheap flight but also because my good friend Brad was living in Bangkok at the time, playing in a hotel nightclub in Bangkok. So when I arrived in bangkok I stayed for a couple of days in the amazing, five-star, Grand Hyatt Erwin hotel and soaked up some of the lovely perks Brad and his fiancé, Pam, enjoy.

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After that it was right off to Koh Phangan. Five years ago I had spent about a month on Koh Phangan and I have always wanted to go back. So away I went! The first couple of days the weather was gorgeous and I was able to take some beautiful pictures, rent a motorbike, and get out.

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After a few days though the weather dropped out and it started to rain from time to time. A few days before Christmas I met a lovely Irish girl and we planned to do a day long Christmas snorkeling adventure to the marine park a couple of hours out into the ocean.

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On Christmas Eve, though, I started feeling a little sick and by Christmas morning I was fully down for the count. I couldn’t move; my muscles were too sore. I was hot, cold, nauseous, headachy, and restless and the only thing I had to read was Trainspotting by Irving Welsh, which is all about sick people with Scottish accents. It was horrible. Not the way I had imagined my Thai Christmas adventure to turn out.

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After hours spent in my bungalow I had to get out so I grabbed my sleeping bag and wandered over to the restaurant. It was empty, as it had been ever since I had arrived (as I said, things were pretty quiet after the airport closed). I built a little nest out of the Thai pillows and searched for an English movie on the TV. I wandered in and out of consciousness until the owners of the place came over and asked me if I was OK. They had noticed I hadn’t come out of my bungalow all day. I told them I was pretty sick. They asked if they should take me to the hospital but I refused saying I didn’t want to go to the hospital on Christmas day. So they nursed me themselves with water, orange juice, painkillers, and some crazy Thai pork soup concoction I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep down. By the time I went back to my bungalow, though, I was feeling much better.

I was renewed but not cured, and though I still felt terrible on Boxing Day I worked up the strength to get on my motorbike and get myself over to the hospital. I was worried it was going to cost a fortune because I hadn’t gotten any additional medical insurance on top of what the school gives me. In the end it took twenty minutes and eight dollars to be diagnosed with a throat infection and intestinal infection. The antibiotics were included. A few days later I was on the mend and I was able to fit in a little more time with my Irish friend before she had to take off for Australia.

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I stayed a total of 11 days on Koh Phangan and unfortunately the weather never really improved and I was miserably sick but I still had a lovely and unforgettable time on the island.

On New Year’s Eve it was time for me to make my way back to Bangkok to watch Brad’s band play and enjoy the New Year’s celebrations with them. I was worried about having to spend most of the evening by myself and the band would be on stage but luckily they had huge one-hour breaks so we were able to get out onto the street and really enjoy the crazy Bangkok scene. It was a really fun night!

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Thai people love taking pictures, so out on the street they had all these cut outs that you could pose next to and I found this one of Himeji Castle.

Two days later I found myself back in the Koh San Road area again. Looking around for something to do.

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I wandered around some beautiful temples in the area and then found myself on the main road feeling lonely and just jonesing for a bit of chitchat with someone interesting. So, in true lonely traveler’s style, I wandered up and down the road examining the people sitting in the sidewalk cafes for someone who looked friendly, or open, or just someone who might be looking for a chat too. So, three times I went up and down the street before I spotted this guy with fiery red hair just smiling out at all the people passing by. I also noticed he had two huge empty bottles of beer in front of him and one more on the way so I knew he was a perfect candidate. So I went over to the café and checked the menu which was right behind him and asked him if he had tried the food. He said he had. He said it was good. I said, what are you just by yourself? He said, I am. Sit down if you like. And that was how I met Niall. Later, I was telling someone how I met Niall and that person called me something of a stalker. I argued that stalkers usually had a specific subject in mind. The enlightened person reminded me that jungle cats don't care, specifically, who they stalk. Hmm. Jungle cats, eh?

So, Niall and I proceeded to chat about everything from pink leisure suits to the Irish social system. A few hours later he announced that he was going to go to Koh Chang and he invited me to join him. I had been planning on going to another island called Koh Samet with my friend Brad on his day off and it seemed the trip would be about three hours. Niall insisted that Koh Chang was closer so I thought what the heck, it sounds like a great idea. Then Brad could meet me there and I would have more time to enjoy the beach. I agreed, and Niall ran off to buy the bus tickets. We decided to meet up at 7 the next morning. Niall had drunk a lot and I was staying across town so all the odds were against us making that bus in the morning but we did it. I got back to the hotel and had to wait until 1 a.m. for Brad's set to finish before I could talk to him about "the plan" during which time I was accosted by a 70-year-old Israeli man who wanted to dance and would not take no for an answer. I gotta admit though,I had fun and he was a great dancer. And on the other side of town, Niall stumbled into another bar before heading back to his hotel. It is amazing we both showed up the next morning. Niall even did it despite having no windows in his room and no clock. He turned up in the morning with a lovely story about sitting bolt upright in his bed alarmed he may have missed the bus, and then wandering out onto Koh San Road at 6 a.m. to ask someone on the street what time is was. It's amazing either one of us made it.

The bus left an hour after we expected it to and we were both feeling the early morning crankies.

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An hour and a half after leaving Bangkok we stopped at a rest stop and Niall said he figured we were half way. But, about two hours later we stopped the bus and let people off who were destine for Koh Samet, the first island Brad and I had planned to go to, the one that was supposed to be farther away than Koh Chang where we were headed. After the bus started moving again they put on a movie, which I had seen on the plane and happened to know was three hours long. I knew at that point that we had a longer journey ahead than we first anticipated. What was worse, Niall had eaten something bad at the rest stop and was feeling pretty crummy. Indeed the bus ride took us six hours, the ferry ride 40 minutes and the taxi to the bungalows was another 40 minutes. The whole day was a full 8-hour journey and when we arrived we discovered there was only one bungalow with one bed. Well, we just had to laugh and luckily Niall was a perfect gentleman, although he had a strange habit of sitting bolt upright with a start at the littlest of noises in the night. It was delightfully comedic. He was a sick gentleman when we arrived though, so he went straight to bed and slept for 15 hours, sitting bolt upright about once every four hours. Needless to say, Brad decided to take a rain check on the whole trip to Koh Chang idea.

That night I enjoyed the sunset on my own again.

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With no one to talk to again, I struck up a conversation with a wide-eyed high-spirited young guy from New Zealand who was in Thailand with his uncle. I think he was starved for a little company his own age too, so we chatted away the evening and I invited him to come along with Niall and me the next day as we had planned to rent motorbikes and tour the island. So, that’s what we did.

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The three of us tore up Koh Chang on motorbikes all day long. It was great! We visited a couple of beautiful beaches and the weather had finally smartened up into the sunny Thai weather people dream about.

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The day was just spectacular. We chilled out, went swimming for hours, and ate the best Thai food ever and closed off the day with an herbal spa. Just what I needed!

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The day totally made up for my sicko Christmas and every other crummy day of weather I had had since I got to Thailand. That day was the best day ever!

It is amazing how if you just let yourself be open you can meet the most amazing people and have the best time with them. You may never see them again but they will remain your friends for life.

The next day it was back to Bangkok for some last minute shopping, and I had to pick up a suit I was having made that didn’t end up fitting right. Ho, hum!

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And then back I went to Japan, ready to start the year all refreshed. I came home to find my bike stolen so I had to walk across town, but that’s a story for another blog.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you lovely travelers I have met and to all my friends in Japan, and, of course, to all my friends and family back home. I miss you terribly!

Posted by brendab 03:56 Archived in Thailand Comments (2)

Fall Back

Autumn is a beautiful time to be in Japan, and good company and great food make it a dream come true.

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So the fall was, once again, a wonderful time to be in Japan. The mountainsides turned colours only ever seen in dreams and books. The earth finally cooled down after the summer months and I found myself getting out everyday to enjoy walks in the national park near my home. It is such a blessing to live in such a beautiful place.

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On the American Thanksgiving weekend, my dear friend Masami made the journey from Tokyo to Oakayama to hang out with friends and family over the holiday. (Though the Japanese don’t celebrate Thanksgiving they do have a three-day weekend). You remember Masami, she is the Japanese girl from Nimii who left to live in New York for 14 years and suddenly found herself deported last year.

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Well, I joined Masami for a couple days in Nimii, enjoying the opportunity to be a fly on the wall of a Japanese home full of people just being themselves. No bowing and posturing, just straight up homey goodness.

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Masami’s mother and aunt are stylists in a salon owned by Masami’s family. Being a stylist is a very busy job in Japan and requires real talent. Stylists are responsible for getting people in and out of kimonos for weddings, coming of age ceremonies, and any other time a woman puts on a kimono. One of the most beautiful and creative parts of a kimono is the obi. It is always studied, and it is essential that the obi is tied with care, creativity, and imagination. The obi is what makes the kimono.

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Anyway, it was a busy day for the ladies when I was out in Nimii as there was a wedding to prepare for and a coming of age ceremony. The shop was full of kimonos, wigs, curlers, make-up, and hairspray. When the wedding kimono was delivered to the shop we ooo’d and aaah’d over the intricate design and how it cost just under $3000 TO RENT for the day. That just left me stunned. It was at this point that Masami’s mother asked me if I wanted to put it on so I said, uh YEAH! We didn’t put the obi on, of course, but I put on the robe. I felt like a white whale in a Christmas tree.

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Only days later we had our annual American Thanksgiving lunch and football game at the home of some of my other English teacher friends.

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I would say about 70% of the teachers here are American, so I have quite a few American friends now and I am quite in habit, after two years, of celebrating Thanksgiving in November. Well, it was a feast! And this year our Japanese friend, who we call Georgie, had his wife and new baby with him. Having a little cooing bundle of giggles around is always a lovely addition to any holiday. I think our friend Andrew fell in love!

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There was turkey, stuffing, and good friends, everything necessary for an unbelievable Thanksgiving dinner.

After dinner, and a little time to let it settle, we headed off to the park for the annual American Football game. The biggest problem seemed to be dividing into teams, but once we got that out of the way we were trucking.

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Well, long story short, a good time was had by all and we rounded off the day with leftovers and a game of Taboo. What an amazing day! I am so thankful for my friends here. They have enhanced my time in Japan so much and they will be sorely missed when we all go our separate ways again.

Another important group of friends here in Japan are those of the Japanese persuasion. Despite my inability to express myself in Japanese and their inability to express themselves in English, they still invite me to every outing, every community volleyball tournament, and every house party. They have been overwhelmingly accepting of me and my differences. That is very hard for Japanese people. They like things, and rules, and people to all be the same. It is what makes them comfortable. Anything outside of this disturbs the Japanese “wa” and these friends of mine don’t seem to care how different I am. They love how crazy I am cause they are all crazy too. So, with that said, I was invited to the usual monthly party at my neighbours house in November. It was a bit of a pre-Christmas party, and, once again, a good time was had by all!

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I really can't say enough about how kind these people have been to me. I have decided that I will not be staying a third year in Japan, which means that very soon I will have to leave all these people behind. I cannot tell you how sad that makes me. These people, the ex-patriots, the teachers, and the Japanese friends, have dramatically reshaped the landscape of my life over the last 18 months and I will forever hold them close to my heart. You will all be sorely missed my friends, but let's make the best of the time we have left.

Posted by brendab 03:37 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Back In Japan

After a wonderful summer home it was great to get back into the swing of things again in Japan

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When I got back to Japan I met up with my friend Sol in Osaka and spent several days with him and his friend, Chris, exploring Osaka and Amanohashidate.

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Aminohashidate is called one of the top ten views in Japan and it is basically a tree covered sand bar that connects the mainland to the island where we stayed.

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In order to get the full effect of the view one is meant to travel to the top of a mountain and view the sandbar by bending over and looking through their legs. It’s hysterical. Here is Sol doing it.

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Here is what it looks like.

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Only in Japan would they have looked at the view so many different ways they would eventually discover that the best way to looking at the view is in fact through your legs. And it really is better. Unfortunately, all my pictures of this trip with Sol were somehow lost off my camera so I have have had to borrow Sol's pictures from the trip. All these photos are ones he took.

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A few weeks after my return to Japan I celebrated my 31st birthday. I decided to spend the week on a small island in the Seto Inland Sea, not far from my home.

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Unfortunately the weather was crappy the whole time and I decided to leave early. I did however have my first sailboat ride and a lovely birthday party before I left.

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I was also able to take many great pictures of the views around the island.

When I finally returned back to work at the schools in September it was time for the students to prepare for their sports days. Sports day consists of a variety of events such as relay races, beanbag tosses, dance and cheer contests, and various performances.

Two of my favorite performances are the Sorambushi dance, which is a traditional Hokkaido fisherman’s dance, and the pyramid building performance, during which boys create various human pyramids some of which end in choreographed collapse. It’s a full day, and all the parents (and I really mean all) and community members come out to watch the events. Many family members are also asked to participate in some of the events. I’m glad to report that the weather this year was much cooler than last year so it was a relatively comfortable day and better than last year when the students were dropping like flies.

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While I can't show you pictures of the student's faces, I can show you pictures of the party after.

Naturally, after a day like sports day, all the teachers go out for a party. This party had three parts. Dinner and Beer, Snack and Hard Liquor, Dinner and Watching the News. Great night. Actually it was a full moon that night and there is a special dish the Japanese eat on the full moon.

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I can't remember what it is called but it has the Japanese word for "moon" in it. Not as good as it looks.

September was also the time we English teaching veterans welcomed the new teachers to Okayama. Naturally there was lots of time spent in Karaoke bars and sushi houses in attempt to make the new teachers feel welcome in Okayama. My town of Kibichuo-cho said goodbye to Melissa who was here last year from Michigan, USA and this year welcomed Tina who is an artist from upstate New York, USA. One of the first things Tina and I did together was pick blueberries and go up to the local ostrich farm to have a look. What ugly birds! They freak me out!

A few weeks later we were invited to Yokota-san’s house for a soba making challenge. Soba is a flower that is dried and ground down into powder which they mix with water to make soba noodles.

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The noodles have a very earthy, grainy taste and are usually served cold with a dark sauce, wasabi, green onion and sesame seeds. The grinding of the seeds takes forever though and even with six of us grinding at top speeds we maybe only produced a half-cup of flower after a half hour.

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Yokota-san’s wife said it takes three hours to grind enough flower for a decent batch of soba.

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After the soba challenge we went down to look at the rice field we had planted in the spring which was not yet ready for harvest. We also picked grapes from Yokota’s vines and were sent home with enough grapes to fill a bathtub.

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It was another great day.

A few weeks after that, we were invited to yet another Ekaiwa student’s home. Tadao-san loves to make pizza, almost as much as he loves to brag.

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So after going on a tour of his home listening to him tell us how many things he made in it we started to make pizzas. Then we walked down the stairs that Tadao made and sat in the chairs that Tadao made and ate with the chopsticks Tadao made, all the while listening to Tadao talk about how great he thought all the things he made were.

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They are pretty great but they loose their luster when the he brags about it every five minutes. When we were finally all bragged out we headed home, once again, with a bathtub full of grapes.

So that brings me to last weekend when a few friends and I went to Takebe to enjoy the fall festival there. It is a very vibrant and colourful festival, as all the fall festivals are, and I had a wonderful time.

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And one week later, we found ourselves at another fall festival, this time in my town. The Kamotaisai festival is one of the three larges festivals in Okayama and it is really spectacular.

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Last year Shane and I went and had a great time so we went again and took a new English teacher from Scotland, Katie, with us. All afternoon we enjoyed the okonomiyaki and all the other goodies that the street vendors had to offer. We also took in some Japanese masked stick fighting, some shrine shaking, some priest bowing, some drum banging, some drunken fighting, some flute playing and some slutty teen parades.

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Just a usual afternoon at a Japanese fall festival and it was a great time.

But that wasn't the end of the fall festivals. Oh no! They love the fall festivals here. Every town and every village and every shrine and temple has one and the shrine nearest my house is no exception. My area, Yoshikawa, in fact has a very famous, well known temple and it's fall festival is equally as famous if not widely visited.

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Two boys are chosen from the town to ride up to the temple on horses with their gang of priests and samurai following behind.

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There is a lot of shouting and drinking on the way. Once the two groups have reached the shrine steps the boys are pulled off their horses and raced up the steps to the shine. They are set on cushions and fed all day long in two separate corrals. Several dances and ceremonies take place through out the day, and, as always, there are lots of vendors serving Japanese favorites such as sweet bean paste cakes and octopus on a stick.

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The next weekend a couple of friends and I went out to explore the Seto ohashi bridge. One of my friends lives very near the bridge so we drove up to have a look.

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The bridge is the longest two teared bridge in the world and is 35 km long. It's pretty cool but very expensive to cross in a car. I have gone over it twice now.

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This weekend we were invited by Yokota-san to go with him to Hiroshima to pick oranges on Ikuchijima island. The Christmas mandarin oranges are perfect right now. We drove about two hours out to a little island which is famous for the orange picking, the incredible temple, and octopus(s) (?) The weather was perfect and we were able to enjoy a lovely morning of climbing into trees and eating as many mandarins as we could. A one point a woman who hadn't seen me picking in the tree suddenly saw me there. She gave a little shout, turned to her friend and said, "There is a foreigner in this tree." Very funny.

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After the picking we went off to have our octopus lunch. I usually don't think that much of octopus (I don't mind it but I never order it) but this octopus was very tasty. One of my friends, Lauren, is a vegetarian and that always perplexes the Japanese mind. There are pretty much no vegetarians in Japan and they don't at all grasp the idea of not eating meat. They were very nice though and did their best to make some vegetarian stuff for Lauren. They did think she was very strange though.

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After lunch we went off to check out Kosanji Temple and museum and it was amazing.

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The temple had many sections and you could spend hours there just checking out all the nooks and crannies. The temple buildings were all very decorative and brightly coloured. They looked like new. There was an enormous 50 statue in the middle of it all of some female goddess.

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The best part by far was the cave. My pictures will do it no justice at all. The stones that lined the cave were brought in from Mnt. Fuji and there were hundreds of rock statues throughout. The statues lined all the walls and went right up to the ceiling. Every where you turned there was a beautiful little carved statue. It was amazing to see.

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Outside the cave there were beautiful gardens and an incredible marble monument called "The Hill of Hope" It reminded me of Crete in Greece.

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So now, here I sit on Monday afternoon, trying to choke down what I affectionately refer to as spit salad, wishing I were back on the island chewing on BBQ octopus.

Posted by brendab 17:55 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

There and Back Again

A trip to Canada, a culturally maimed BBQ, and a fall full of festivals. It's been a great three months.

overcast 16 °C

So! Here I am. I have not perished in Japan but am in fact living out a very happy and healthy life. Dad has been hounding me to put something on my blog for months and I have to admit I have been neglecting my blogging responsibilities for some time now. So, for those of you who are dying to know what is going on with me, here is an update.

Three months ago, when last I left you, it was springtime here in Japan. My friends and I enjoyed planting rice in a friend’s field, a rugby tournament in Tokushima, and an exciting trip to Tokyo. The last three months have been just as exciting with my trip home to Canada being the highlight of the summer. It was so great to get home and see my friends and family and spend some time at the lake. The best thing was seeing my niece and nephews and meeting the newest little addition to the Boonstra family, Liam. Liam was born in the spring and it was strange to know that there was a new member of my family across the world who I had not yet met. The time I spent with my brother’s kids was defiantly the highlight of my trip home. Just look how cute they are.

Before I left Japan for the summer, however, there were a few interesting events that are worth mentioning. The Sayonara Party to say goodbye to all the English teachers who were heading back home after their time in Japan was up. The AJET organization I volunteer for rented an old samurai house at the top of a mountain not far from the city. The views were spectacular and the party was a raging success.

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Overlooking the valley
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Checking out the view
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Enjoying the entrance
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Many beautiful views
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Spring flowers

Another event was the Ekaiwa BBQ. Ekaiwa means adult English class in Japanese. I have been teaching the Ekaiwa class since I arrived in Japan last year. I really enjoy meeting with the regular class members, as they are a great source of information for me about the community and about Japanese culture in general. I find that Japanese people don’t always get me and many don’t try. They often see me as strange and rude but the Ekaiwa people are usually very open to understanding me and the reasons why I think and do things the way I do. Still, despite their openness to me, there have still been some cultural bumps in our road. The Ekaiwa BBQ was one of them.

To begin with the BBQ wasn’t supposed to be a BBQ, it was supposed to be a simple bonfire with wieners and marshmallows. It came up because Melissa (the other English teacher in my town at the time) and myself had been lamenting to the class about missing campfires like we had at home. We explained it to them and they said there was a good place to do it at a local park. So, we started to plan. By the time the next Ekaiwa class rolled around the students had taken the simple bonfire and Japaneseized it. They turned what was supposed to be a simple evening of conversation and relaxation into and evening of hectic food preparation and prescribed behaviour. They can’t help it. It’s what they do. But, there was no way to stop the rollercoaster without inconveniencing some class members who had already taken it upon themselves to buy food.

So, on the day of the bonfire, one of the members of the Ekaiwa class and his wife went to the campsite at 4pm to start preparations for the 7pm BBQ. When I turned up at seven I found all the members of the Ekaiwa class there deep in the throws of chopping vegetables and fruit for various Japanese BBQ dishes. The majority of them had been there since 5pm. I was worried they wouldn’t know exactly what an actual campfire was but I was pleasantly surprised to find a lovely roaring fire when I turned up. What I was not overjoyed with was the two floodlights they cast on the fire so they could keep a close watch on the cooking. On top of the Japanese food that had been cooked, one man brought his wife along so she could BBQ meet for us. This is such a ridiculous Japanese male thing to do, to drag their wife places to do things for everyone else while the men enjoyed themselves. It ticks me off more that the women do it. So, there she stood next to a roaring fire, under two flood lights, cooking meat over a portable BBQ while us foreigners struggled to distract the people from their busy-bee absurdities in order for them to practice English conversation with us. Once the food was all finished, the Japanese people started cleaning up. They literally took their last bite of food and instantly started on the task of cleaning the whole thing up. So there they went, busy again.

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Once everything was cleaned up they announced, “OK, we’re finished. It’s time to go home.” But the fire was still roaring and it was only 9pm. So we said, ok you can do what you like but we are going to stay. They didn’t get that at all. They do everything as a group in Japan and they can’t really handle people breaking away from the group so they all decided to stay, which was great. So we all sat around the fire and told some ghost storied and talked about a variety of very interesting things. Then it was 10pm and they said, OK, now we are finished. Once again we said you can do what you like but we are going to stay and enjoy the fire. There was lots more wood and it was a Friday night. We explained that at home we would likely stay until enjoy the fire and have conversations until late at night. They said that some people were tired and wanted to go home. We said, you don’t have to stay, please go home if you wish. Please stay if you wish. They said they needed to put out the fire. We said we could do it. They said Yokota-san was responsible for the campsite. We said we would take responsibility for the site and the fire. All the people left reluctantly and rather uncomfortably but Yokota-san stayed. He simply could not handle passing off the responsibility of the campsite to us. We stayed until 1:30am. Yokota-san stayed too. Yokota-san incidentally is the same man who dragged his wife along to suffer through cooking meat.

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After the BBQ, the next major event in my life was the celebration of the Fourth of July. I find myself celebrating many American holidays here in Japan as so many of my friends here are American.

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So this time it was American independence. Of course the whole thing is not a lot different than the Canada Day celebrations with the food and the friends and the flags. It might be an American holiday but it sure reminds me of home.

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Then came my lovely three week vacation at home in Manitoba.

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Certainly the highlights were the BBQ my folks threw for me with all my cousins when I got home, the camping trip with the extended family in Ontario, and the time spent with my niece and nephews. I also spent a great deal of time with friends as the Winnipeg Fringe Festival was on at the time. The Fringe of course draws all my theatre friends from all over Canada to Winnipeg, which means I got to see a pile of old school friends.

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It was a wonderful and much needed vacation home.

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Posted by brendab 00:12 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

A Golden Time

Golden week is the start of a season of great memories.

sunny 23 °C

Once again the seasons have changed here in Japan and I am gratefully enjoying the most beautiful spring of my life. In Canada in the spring things are always so gray. The city always has that thick layer of dust and garbage coating the streets. When the grass has not yet turned green and the trees have not yet begun to bud things can be very ugly. Japan, however, does not have to deal with winter graters or freezing temperatures so the spring comes in the most beautiful way.

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In fact, the winter is mild enough for the locals to continue growing gardens. They even plant fresh plants in the fall. So you can imagine that when the warm weather starts coming in things get very colourful very quickly.

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Not too much has been going on lately. In recent months I haven’t been doing much traveling as I’m trying to save up some money for a trip home. All my friends out here have gone home at least once since arriving in Japan but not I. I have been on a marathon stretch here in Japan and while I love living here I am very excited to come home to see my friends and family.

So let’s see…why do I love Japan so much? Let me count the ways.

- Onigiri rice balls at the convenience stores: they are filled with tuna and other goodness and make a much better snack than a 7-11 hot dog.
- The weather: Strolling by the ocean in a light coat in January. That can’t be beat!
- The flora: there are flowers everywhere all the time and I just love all the rose bushes and the flowers on the trees.

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- Not speaking the language is a constant out for anything I don’t want to do. If someone asks me to do something I don’t to or wants me to eat something creepy I just fake mass confusion and find my way out the other side of most problems quite easily.
- The kids are so cute and respectful. I have thought about becoming a teacher back home but I have my doubts they would ever respect me like they do here.
- The gas station attendants: when you roll into a Japanese gas station the attendants really do jump to the pump and they always have a smile on their face. They stand in the lot waiting for customers and when you come in they guide you into the spot they want you and then three more attendants come running out and while one fills your car the others happily wipe down your whole car. And, when you leave they stop traffic so you won’t get hit on your way out. I love the gas station attendants.
- Wheat and popcorn flavoured tea.
- Onsens: I don’t know how I’ll live without the onsens when I come home. I know getting naked with a bunch of other people is not the kind of thing most Canadians see as relaxing but the experience really is lovely, especially in the winter months when you have been hiding away in your house and you just want to get warm. So many onsens have beautiful outdoor sections with amazing gardens and rock pools. I will defiantly miss the onsens when I am gone.

Ok, I guess to keep it balanced I should throw out a little of the downside of living in Japan.

- Never knowing what the hell you are eating. Sometimes it’s a hit and sometimes it s a big fat fishy miss.
- The bugs: they have some real monsters out here and while I have successfully managed to keep my house relatively bug free I am aware that they are out there: spiders and centipedes and cockroaches, oh my!
- Little dogs in even littler cages: everyone in this country wants a little dog so the pet shops have dozens and dozens and dozens of teeny tiny cages holding as many teeny sad little dogs. The dogs are stupidly expensive so they take months and months to sell. I keep going to visit the little things but it is so depressing to watch them sit in those tiny little cages for months on end. And while I’m on the animal thing. I should say that nearly every school I go to has a cage of mistreated animals behind their school. The little kids go in and terrorize the chickens or the bunnies and I can’t stand it.
- Not being able to understand anything: because I can’t speak Japanese most of the people here assume I don’t know how to do anything. Yesterday a little kid at school was showing me, in a very specific way, how to wring water from a washcloth. This is the kind of thing I deal with all the time. They assume because I often do things differently that I don’t know how to do anything at all. If I could speak to them I could tell them that it’s not that I don’t know how it’s that I do it differently.
- Wa: wa is the very essence of being Japanese. It has something to do with peace and it is a crime to disturb the wa. So, at times it seams as though Japanese people are floating around in a personal mist oblivious to what is going on around them. They call it wa I call it spaced out.
- Sweet bean curd…kill me now.

Ok, now I’ve got all that out of my system I can tell you about what I have been up to and the best way to do that is to go back and look at my pictures.

During sakura (cherry blossom) season, a few of my friends and I went off to a tiny Okayama town called Mimasaka to visit another friend who lives up there. It’s a little way off the beaten path so none of us had gone out to visit there yet. We went off into the mountainside to enjoy the last days of the sakura and to stretch out our legs after a long winter.

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Recently, I found a lovely forest park a mere two-minute drive from my house. Being that it is in the forest I didn’t even know it was there. My usual bunch of buddies came for a rare visit to my house (I too live way off the beaten path) and we explored the area.

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Golden week in Japan is a very busy time. Usually there are a number of public holidays all strung together and the whole of Japan goes crazy with travelers. This year, however, the holiday was split by one non-holiday day and it kept many people closer to home…but not me. I took off with my friend Shane to Tokyo to visit my Japanese/New Yorker, Masami. Masami was the girl I stay with in Tokyo the first time I went at Christmas. Anyway, this time around we did less traditional things and instead spent some time exploring museums and other interesting exhibits. We also went out to the Toyota showroom and museum with was quite enjoyable despite not knowing anything about cars.

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As always is the case in Tokyo, my favorite place to visit is Harajuku just to look at the crazy outfits and go shopping. Harajuku never disappoints.

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Back in the countryside a week later the process of prepping and planting rice fields was in full swing.

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I have become quite close with many of the members of my adult conversation class and one of them, Yokota-san just happens to have a rice field and he invited Shane and I to come plant some rice with him.

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It was a lovely day, not too hot, and we got to experience first hand the process of planting rice in Japan. I was curious about how much they produce and who they sell it too so I asked Yokota-san. He said they only grow a few acres of rice and they don’t sell it. They dry it and spit it with the neighbours and eat it themselves all year. They were shocked to hear that we don’t eat a single thing we produce. Food is quite expensive in Japan so most people who have any land at all are strictly growing food to feed their families.

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So, for lunch we had…you guessed it, rice, and cooked meat and at the end of the day Yokota-san’s wife gave me a yukata which is a summer kimono. It was a lovely present. We are planning on going back soon to make some soba with them.

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Recently one of my Japanese friends moved away our badminton team had an enkai (party) for him. These enkais always start with a draw for seats. When the seating arrangement dust cleared there were two non-English speakers sitting at the very end of the table nest to me and another English speaker. They were trapped far away from the Japanese conversation. So they did what they had to and got rip roaring drunk and pretended to be able to speak English. It was hysterical. It showed them how we use burned cork as stage makeup and they couldn’t get enough of it. No one was safe from the burned cork and everyone went home with a black face.

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Perhaps the thing that has been consuming the greatest part of my time lately is rugby. The New Zealand couple who came over with me and who have become my dearest friends took on the task of forming and training a touch rugby team.

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The goal was to sign the team up for an annual rugby tournament held every year on the island of Shikoku. Needless to say, training a bunch of flabby foreigners who think a rugby ball is a football is no easy task. So, we had been getting together every weekend to learn the sport in the hopes of actually winning a game in Shikoku. Well, last weekend was the big tournament and the team of 12 and three supporters drove the two hours over to the tournament grounds.

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The grounds were located next to a big and beautiful campground where cozy little tents were already set up and waiting for us. Unfortunately, the first day it rained making things a little uncomfortable.

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Nonetheless, we played with as much heart as any team out there and we brought home a win and a tie by the time we started the final matches. The very first team we played was made up of huge New Zealand guys so we girded our loins and did our best.

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The team after that was a quick and happy little Japanese team that really enjoyed kicking our ass. The benefit of playing two really good teams first though was that our playing improved literally by leaps and bounds with every play and when placements were announced for each pool we came out 1st on the C-side.

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While we did our best to fight our way into the semi-finals we just couldn’t beat that happy little Japanese team though we gave them a really good run for their money. I think they were really shocked at how much we had improved since the day before. The tournament was won by a Maori team from New Zealand (naturally) who surprised everyone by performing the traditional Haka war dance after the final game.

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I didn't get a decent picture of the dance because I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It was probably one of the most electrifying observances of my life and I felt extremely grateful for having seen it. In the end we had played seven games of rugby, three in the rain, and we walked away sore and floating on the cloud of one of the best weekends we have had here in Japan so far.

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Next up one solid month of rain so stay tuned for future rants about that.

Here is some Janglish for your amusement:

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Posted by brendab 06:00 Comments (0)

Blossoms and Buddhas

A little extra time off can go a long way

sunny 19 °C

So, I have been neglecting my blogging duties it’s true. They say that when you hear from some one too much they are probably lonely but if you never hear from them they are having fun. I am glad to report I am falling towards the latter these days and I have been having a wonderful time exploring Japan due to an unexpected increase in holiday time. The school board I work for recently decided that part of the purpose of my being here in Japan is to learn more about Japan so I can share my findings with all of you. So, they decided that I would be allowed to take “Japanese Study Time” whenever the students are away from school. That means I have more time to travel in Japan and experience Japanese culture and less time sitting in the teacher’s office doing nothing. So, that lovely change will start to pay off for the school board right now as I tell you all about my latest adventures in Japan.

When last I left you I was standing in sub-zero temperatures watching a bunch of naked men fight for a stick. I’m happy to say that I have officially turned off my heater and I am enjoying some lovely 20 °C weather. Come home you ask. Why, I ask. But I am getting a bit ahead of my self here. Let’s go back to February.

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I spend most of my time in February exploring little areas near my home. I made efforts to stop whenever the notion struck me and I was able to glean a few interesting pictures this way. I took an alternate road home from the city one day and found one of the largest graveyards in Okayama and an immense tori gate. I have been meaning to ask about how the Japanese are traditionally buried but I keep forgetting. I’m thinking that given the size of the tombs cremation might be the way.

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Also in February I went off to Bear Valley an hour away to indulge in my second attempt at snowboarding. The trip there was breathtaking along lakes and higher and higher mountain vistas. I loved the snowboarding too but at the end of the day it felt like I had been involved in several fairly brutal car accidents. Luckily it snowed like mad so it was more like violently smashing into pillows than concrete, which was good. It was also a great opportunity to spend some time with friends and get some much-needed exercise in the winter months.

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March saw the graduation of the third year junior high school students. This was an incredibly ceremonial event and many of the students took to fits of tears when they realized they would now have to work for their A pluses.

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I discovered a beautiful campground near my house in March. The scene was so inspiring I think I took a million photos. Here are a few of my favorites from that afternoon.

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I have been taking a Japanese language class every Wednesday night in the city and at the end of March we were treated to a lesson in Shuji (also known as Shodo or Japanese calligraphy). It was love at first character. I went out the next day and bought a shuji kit and have been covering my house with my creations despite their serious lack of talent.

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The shuji kit was purchased on a trip my friend Jade and I took to Nimi about an hour from my home. Jade and I went to visit a Japanese friend of ours who has made a name for herself playing tour guide. We had the pleasure of joining her on a tour of her hometown which included a trip to the Nimi caves and the very relaxing onsen. The day was capped off with a lovely visit to an Okinawan restaurant. Yet another reason why I have to go on a diet.

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So that brings me up to last weekend. It was right in the middle of spring break so a couple of girls I do dinner with every week and I decided to take a trip to the culture capital of Honshu, Nara. Nara is one of those lovely little cities that managed to escape the fire bombings during the war so many of the old temples and artifacts remain as they have been for hundreds of years. The highlight of course was Todaiji temple which houses three massive Buddhas. The town is littered with dear which the locals believe to be lucky. We were blessed to have great weather and the cherry blossoms had even begun to make an appearance as well.

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Yesterday was the middle of the cherry blossom viewing season. The Japanese go bonkers for them. They sit outside on tarps under the trees with their friends and family and get drunk. Wherever you find a cherry blossom tree you are sure to find ten or twelve drunk Japanese people under it. We didn’t want to be left out of this cultural experience so myself and a bunch of other English teachers gathered under the cherry blossoms yesterday afternoon and, well, I’m sure the rest is history.

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And here is a photo for your amusement.

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Posted by brendab 19:58 Comments (2)

Naked Men in February

These guys will do anything for luck!

-6 °C

It is essential that I make a record of last night’s events before the details start slipping from my mind. With that said, last night was a night I will never forget!

The festival is called Hadaka Matsuri in Japanese or Naked Man Festival in English. Here is the breakdown. Thousands of men dress in loincloths and Japanese booties and run around the temple grounds for a few hours. They repeatedly clean themselves in a fountain bath and purify themselves with the incense smoke near the alter. Then, at the stroke of midnight, priests standing above the crowd throw ten sticks out (two them are fakes). The men struggle with one another to gain possession of the sticks. Whoever goes home with the sticks is guaranteed luck for the whole year. The even goes ahead no matter what the weather. Last year it was -6 and raining, as I understand it.

Now here is what I saw. We arrived at 8:30 to catch the fireworks display. On our way into the grounds we were shamed by the idiotic displays of other foreigners who had clearly gotten hammered before coming and were just making fools of themselves on the way to the festival. Some days I wish I wasn’t a foreigner.

Anyway, when we got to the grounds we were surprised to see men already lapping the temple in their loincloths and dipping into the fountain while shouting “Whashoi!” They would enter the fountain in rows, arms over shoulders, and then start splashing each other. Eeek! The temperature was a nippy -5 and it was cold out there. The first groups of guys were carrying the littlest kids who were also nearly naked in their tiny little loincloths freezing their little asses off on the shoulders of their so-called “caregivers”. Shortly after, about eight women dresses in white cotton chest wraps and skirts where hustled through the fountain. In the past women have not been allowed to participate in the festival but the rule has recently been changed. However, the girls who did participate seemed almost ashamed of themselves because they had their heads down and they didn’t seem happy like the men. It just seemed like a bit of a spectacle and I never saw a single one of them in the scrum for the sticks but who can blame them. The battle for the sticks is crazy

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I went into the fountain area to get some video of the groups of men coming through the fountain. I also had a friend who was participating so I was hoping to catch him on camera. However my flipping video camera wasn’t working and I tried everything to get it to work. Just as I was about to chuck the stupid thing into the fountain it started to work. After a few minutes of filming I ran out of battery power but luckily had another battery in my purse. I fumbled through my purse for the battery and as I pulled it out I lost grip on it and it did a very dramatic bounch-bounce-bounce-gloosh straight into the fountain. Needless to say, I got very limited video footage of this event.

Anyway, we got some cheep tickets which allowed us entrance into the temple to see where they would throw the sticks from. The temple was AMAZING! I have seen many amazing temples and maybe it was the excitement of the event and the naked screaming men running by below but this temple was just breathtaking. It was very exciting to get to stand in that gallery and look at the crowds below.

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The crowds of people were allowed to freely wander the grounds until about 10:30 when everyone was asked to move to the viewing areas, only the men in loincloths were allowed to stay in the inner grounds. So we picked a spot and stood there for an hour and a half in order to hold onto them.

After 10:30 the groups of men marching in circles and dipping into the fountains began to increase in number until there were thousands of less-than-half naked men pilling around the temple. The numbers were becoming a bit overwhelming. Closer to midnight more groups of older men started to enter the area and also many men wearing bandages all up their arms and legs. You see, this is a very serious event in Japan and in the past many of the Japanese mafia try to come in and bully their way to the sticks by showing off their many tattoos. Now there is a rule that absolutely no tattoos are permitted. People are also warned about trying to cover up tattoos but many, many men seemed to have slipped past this rule because there were either a lot of men with some pretty serious upper arm injuries or there were some hidden tattoos around.

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Around 11:30 most of the men are trying to get a spot on the upper platform near where the sticks will be thrown out. There are thousands of men on the platform and we can see the men really start to push their way into the crowd now. All along the edge of the enclosure are men in white and men in blue. The men in white are emergency medics (last year a man died in the festival which is easy to understand when you see this frantic uncontrolled mob of men. The whole thing is quite scary even before the sticks are thrown. It is a wonder more people aren’t killed every year) and they are terribly efficient. Every few minutes hands would start waving deep in the crowd and the men in white would storm troup their way into the crowd. They would move in the most efficient way. They would go in and pierce the crown and then open up a hole for more men in white to come in and rescue whoever had been hurt and then exit again as quickly as they had come in. They seemed to do this every few minutes. Apparently a lot of men faint right in the middle of the mob because of the pressure and heat and exhaustion and cold and whatever…it’s not safe anyway. The problem with the men in white was that every time they left the scene there where men struggling to fight for a better position which would cause huge waves of men to start pushing which almost every time led to dozens of people falling down the stairs. It was really shocking to watch. It was at about this point that I really started to worry about my friend TJ who was participating.

Just moments before midnight the crowd was in a frenzy, Men were constantly falling off the platform in waves and everyone’s hands were in the air. Suddenly the lights in the temple went out (oh, did I mention the battle for the sticks happens in the dark?). The crowd erupted into thunderous noise while the onlookers gasped and winced and the inevitable injuries that would undoubtedly be sustained. Some of the wrestling moved out into the courtyard and lasted for longer than ten minutes. Fights began to break out here and there and we turned around to find that a fight had even broken out in the crowd of spectators (not very Japanese like). Then before you knew it was all over. The pressure in the crown started to release and everyone started to exit the temple grounds. I have no idea who the lucky men are but I’d wager they are probably sustained some not so lucky injuries for their efforts.

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All and all I have to say the Naked Man Festival is the wackiest thing I have ever seen in my life.

Posted by brendab 15:33 Comments (2)

Riding out the Winter

After a magical Christmas I return to snow and satisfaction

snow 0 °C

So, after many months of just soaking in to my new life and neglecting my blogging duties, I am here to tell you that I am still alive and well in Japan, and I’ll try to catch you up on everything that has been going on here lately.

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When last I left you I was fully enjoying the fall weather which was beautiful and mild and lasted right up until the new year. However, it was cold. You see the homes in Japan are not insulated which means that even though it is still plus four out side and it’s lovely it is the same temperature in your house and that is not so lovely. I have managed to adjust to it using a series of carefully placed kerosene heaters in my home. I always took advantage of heat at home and enjoyed the benefits of simply turning a knob and having heat suddenly appear but here in Japan I have to take my two twenty-litre jugs to the gas station and buy the fuel that will heat my house for about a month. It’s a little like finding out milk comes from cows and not the grocery store.

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December was a bit of a rough month for me. I was cold, I was feeling homesick and I wished I could be home for Christmas but that wasn’t in my budget. But I really didn’t have any plan for Christmas and the idea of being alone on Christmas in a country that didn’t even celebrate Christmas was hard to take. Then my good friend suggested a few of us go to Tokyo for Christmas and all my problems were solved. We took the cheepo local trains, which were on sale for obvious reasons, all the way to Tokyo in a mere 11 hours. Whoot!

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What can I say about Tokyo? Well, first of all, I was completely intimidated by the subway system as it looks something like a rat king (if you have never heard of a “rat king” look it up and be completely disgusted). As it turns out Tokyo is totally English friendly which defiantly can’t be said about all Japanese cities. The subway and all other necessities were a snap and I was able to wander the city as I pleased with very little help although there were plenty of people in Tokyo who were willing to offer help.

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As I’m sure you can guess, Tokyo is filled with lights, noise, crazy fashions, great food, fabulous people and amazing temples and other sites. There was no shortage of things to do or see and I tried my best to do it all. My top three would have to be checking out the rockabilly dancers in the park at Harajuku, running out into the busiest intersection in the world (Shabuya) on the stroke of midnight 2008, and visiting Tokyo’s most famous temple (Meiji-jingu) with over a million other people to pray on New Year’s day. We also had the great fortune being able to visit the imperial palace on one of the two days a year it is open to the public.

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After Tokyo I headed for Osaka where I picked up my parents and we continued Touring Japan. They wanted to drive on the coast so we headed up to the San-in coast and spend a bit of time driving on that beautiful side of Japan. Unfortunately, my camera was out of juice by this time so I don’t have any pictures of the coast but stay tuned for a video I’m producing.

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We also went to visit Hiroshima which is a beautiful and vibrant city despite its horrible destruction during the war. We went out to Miyajima Island (AKA: deer island) so see one of Japan’s three greatest views and we were not disappointed to find it was a wonderful place to visit.

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After Hiroshima I sent mom and dad back to Osaka on the bullet train and headed back to my little hometown of Kibichuo to find snow. Something about the snow and the vacation and the kids that greeted me when I got back to school renewed my spirit. I have decided to stay in Japan and to run on and see what the future will hold for me here. I signed the contract again so I am officially here until August 2009. Whoa Nelly! It's gonna be quite a ride.

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Posted by brendab 22:58 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

Right Under My Nose

There is a lot of joy to be found right out my back door.

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Until now I have only experienced two seasons in Japan: the repressive and painfully hot summer and the glorious and oh-so-pleasant fall. I can’t imagine the other two seasons possibly measuring up this marvelous season. The mornings are breathtaking: misty and cool. The afternoons are warm and sunny and the evenings smell of burning leaves and tilled soil.

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While I find myself completely broke (I have put myself on a strict debt-reducing budget) I have still managed to get out and enjoy some loveliness closer to home.

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Despite Japan’s lack of proper Halloween festivities, the schools encourage us teachers to give the students a little taste of Halloween. I wrapped most of my students in toilet paper and called them mummies. I have also been toting around a big bag of Halloween costumes for the kids to try on. I think the kids are dying to try out trick-or-treating.

Speaking of the kids, you may or may not notice I have taken down the pictures of my students. It was recently brought to the attention of all teachers here that we could get in trouble for posting pictures of the kids. So, while I would love to show you all how cute they are wrapped in toilet paper, you will just have to use your imaginations. However, I can still post pictures of the staff. In this picture is the school nutritionist (left), the principal, (center), and the school secretary (right). They got right into the Halloween spirit.

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This same day I was invited to join some of the children (I think I can get away with this picture as you can’t see his face) to learn how to perform a traditional tea ceremony. I was asked to perform the guest duties first which, as it turns out, are just as painful as the host duties. Every part of the tea ceremony is choreographed; the host and the guest perform the ritual together. Not a single movement is wasted. As the guest I enter and get into seiza (sitting on your knees). I place my fan before me at a very specific place on the floor and I bow. I rise and take very deliberate steps to a flower arrangement which I examine from top to bottom and I bow again. Then I will sit in seiza for what feels like a lifetime. During this time I will eat a chalky cookie and drink some weedy tea. It might all taste better if my ankles didn’t feel like they were being bitten by fire ants the whole time. On the hosting side of the tea ceremony there are a lot more moves to learn. Very specific ways of folding the napkin and stirring the tea makes the hosting job a hard one to master. It is easy to become entranced by the motions and forget the pain in your legs. Actually my legs fell asleep so I couldn’t feel them at all. I also couldn’t feel them when I tried to gracefully get up to bring the tea away. There was a lot of giggling I tell you.

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We did actually have some festivities just before Halloween and I was pleased that nearly everyone had an awesome costume. The music and the venue were great; it almost felt like home.

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My new and delightful friends Shane B and Laura H (both American), and I, have gone on a few low-cost adventures recently. The first was a lovely sleepover at Laura’s mansion. I’m just barely overestimating the reality) followed by a day in Tsuyama. We made our way to the Tsuyama castle, which was nothing if not positively breathtaking. I’m told it is even better in the spring when people come from all over Japan to view over 500 cherry trees in bloom.

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As we left the castle we stumbled right into a full-on festival so we followed the crowd and took dozens of pictures. It was a great day.

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The next weekend the three of us headed off to Kurashiki where there is a great little old fashion touristy area near the station. We wandered around and soaked up the beautiful weather, the unusual shopping, and the delightful food.

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This weekend I was not only given an electric blanket by one of my teachers, Kobara-sensei, but I was also treated to a day of relaxation and great food. Kobara-sensei wanted to show me some of the onsens in my area. Onsens are public baths which dot the entire country of Japan. They bring much needed warmth when the seasons cool down. We first went to an onsen close to my house which was inside of an old hotel. It felt very much like stepping back in time. Before the visiting the second onsen I was treated to lunch at Kobara-sensei’s mother-in-law’s house. She made a feast. If I had even coughed I would have splattered all over the place. Kobara-sensei’s father-in-law even treated me to a great performance of traditional Japanese mask dance. All this was followed up by a visit to a full-on onsen resort with hot sand baths, saunas, and six different baths to soak in. it was an absolutely wonderful day.

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As my budget has kept me close to home recently, my darling friends came to me this past weekend. We took a hike though the forest near my home and discovered a surprisingly beautiful and challenging trail to consume our afternoon. Later we walked around my little town and took in the shrines while Shane unleashed his wild side.

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They say that the three to four month mark is a time when teachers typically start feeling very low and homesick. While I have been warding off homesickness very well (thank you Skype) I have had my down days. Communicating is always a tough road and people are very shy and embarrassed to speak to me. Thankfully there are still a few who go out of their way to make me feel at home here and others who just go out of their way. One way or the other I am glad and grateful for those friends who make life in Japan that much easier.

Posted by brendab 03:02 Archived in Japan Comments (3)

Finding Uphoria in Food

Tasting all Osaka and Kyoto have to offer

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What a weekend. Where should I begin?

A few weeks back a few teachers asked me if I wanted to go on a trip with them to Osaka and Kyoto. As they were places I had hoped to visit anyway, and, as I was quite drunk at the time, I shouted out, “Yes! I would love to go!” A few weeks later I found out the trip was going to cost $440 for one night and two days so I was wishing I hadn’t been quite so eager in the first place. Well, I had made my bed and then I had to get comfortable in it. I know at home I would have said, “No, that’s too much. I’m bowing out,” but here there’s an obvious communication gap and bowing out could mean offending the only Japanese friends I have. So, instead of worrying about the money I decided it was going to be a great time and worth every penny. I didn’t know at the time it would be worth so much more.

The two girls in charge of the trip handled everything. We chartered a bus that picked us up early Saturday morning from the school behind my house and drove us an hour and a half to Kobe, the site of a 7.9 magnitude earthquake which ripped apart the city on January 17, 1995. The earthquake killed over 6,000 people in Kobe and had an impact on nearly every person in the city. We visited the Disaster Reduction Museum which stands on the site of the hardest hit area in Kobe. The exhibit itself was not only creative (a jagged screen showed a 15-minute representation of the earthquake) but deeply moving (a young girl tells the story of how she watched her sister die in a fire before she could be rescued from the rubble and how the volunteers gave her hope to start again). There were dozens of miracle stories and thousands of pictures documenting the event but the best parts of the exhibit had to do with recovery and the quest for renewal. As its name suggests, the museum also had many areas dedicated to disaster reduction which also made for some pretty interesting information which I value deeply now that I’m in earthquake country. I’m sure this is one of those places I may not have visited if I hadn’t had some Japanese people take me.

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Next on the agenda was a bit of shopping and a visit to the Osaka aquarium where I enjoyed a number of animals I had never seen up close before. It reminded me a lot of my scuba diving experiences in Thailand and made me want to go back. It seems that when you are under water all the problems in the world, all the worries and all the stress, just gets washed away.

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After the aquarium we hurried off to enjoy the latest Imax film in 3D. It was wicked!

After loading the bus again we drove about thirty minutes to our hotel in the heart of Osaka’s busiest district. With three hours to wander around I was able to buy a new camera take some pictures of the very busy Osakan sites.

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When dinnertime rolled around we met back at the hotel and walked through the mobs of people to a quiet little shabushabu place. The twelve of us sat in a bare room on the floor and we were served the dish by kimono-clad women who were probably the best servers I have ever seen. It was so enjoyable I could have burst. Our main serving lady entertained us with a few English phrases and we ate the most delicious meal. Shabushabu is a broth that is boiled in a clay pot on a burner on your table. First the serving lady adds some meet and a few vegetables and then serves us in small bowls lined with ground sesame seeds. She then returns every few minutes to add different vegetables and meats to the pot and serves us again. It goes on like this until there is nothing more to add to the pot. At this point she brings in udon noodles (the really fat ones) and adds them to the tasty broth and serves it. Of course there is a pallet cleanser and a bowl of rice after followed by a lovely orange mystery desert. Add a few glasses of wine and sake to the mix and I was full to my eyeballs. It was a wonderful time.

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After dinner we took some photos in the silly photo booths and played some Japanese video games. I had no clue what I was doing with most of the games but I know I kicked ass at air hockey.

Later we went to like a late-night Japanese old town where we ate some more food (the Japanese really like to eat) and played old fashion games. It was like Lower Fort Garry meets Tinkertown. Good fun.

After some much needed sleep at the hotel and a breakfast buffet to get us going again, we headed off for Kyoto and what has been hailed as one of Japan’s most famous rock gardens. It was something I had never seen before. Fifteen strategically placed, moss-covered rocks in a sea of carefully raked stones. It really was quite exquisite, and the buildings and gardens surrounding it were also very inspiring in their own ways.

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After a few hours of shopping in the tourist area of Kyoto and picture with a Geisha, we headed off for another totally fabulous dinning experience.

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This time it was called Bento, I think. You get several different kinds of food ranging from one little perfect white potato to tiny little bunch of mushrooms tied together with some sort of radish string. You only get one of everything but there is a lot of variety. In this place we were given an extraordinary room with sliding glass doors that gave a perfect view of a little garden. Once again a woman in Kimono served us. It may sound like this is the norm here but I’m sure it’s not. Remember, we paid a small fortune for this trip.

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After lunch and a bit of lounging around time we headed off for the last stop—calligraphy. I was surprised to find that we were taken to a temple and practiced calligraphy while a priest prayed and banged a gong. The room must have been filled with a hundred other people all there to practice calligraphy and meditate. It took me forever to finish but finally finished some thirty or so lines of Japanese Kanji characters. We complimented our time at the temple with a short walk around the temple garden, which is famous for the thick green moss that grows so perfectly in the forest around the temple.

Back on the bus we enjoyed the views and a live comedy show that reminded me of a television sitcom. I couldn’t understand it but I still thought it was pretty funny. A few hours later I was back home wondering when I would next have the chance to do it all again.

Posted by brendab 07:10 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

Kibichuo-cho Festival

An afternoon out on the town.

-17 °C

A few weeks back I was told a festival would be held in Kibichuo-cho, my home town. So far festivals in my town have been small with a little bit of music and four or five food stalls so I didn't get too excited about it but I thought I would check it out anyway. Well, as I approached the grounds in my car I realized this whole thing was going to be a lot bigger than I thought. The cars were parked miles in every direction and people still swarmed the sidewalks hours after the event had started.

The festival was held a few miles from my house on the grounds of Kibi Plaza which is where the board of education is located. I have been there dozens of times but it wasn’t until today I realized how big the grounds around the Plaza are. Little streams and waterfalls seem to drop over dozens of small hills and even with thousands of people around one could still find a beautiful and quiet little corner to eat their lunch.

Oh, and what a lunch: grilled corn, weird fish, amazing noodle dishes, egg rolls—not the kind you think. This was literally fried egg rolled up. There was all kinds of soups and vegetable dishes, crepes, ice cream and of course half a dozen things I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.

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There was lots to look at and games to play. There was loads of live entertainment and I even joined the Japanese army.

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All and all, it was a pretty good day.

Oh, and just for kicks (it may only be enjoyed by those who where there) here is a video I made after the JET orientation session in Okayama city.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nFUgQ1QluI

Posted by brendab 02:52 Comments (0)

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