Sunday, November 28, 2010

Japan Cup 2010

Almost every Monday night, I meet with Hiroyuki, my drinking buddy and Japanese conversation partner. And almost every time, he tells me about his "keba," or horseracing results. He is a regular goer to the Japanese national horse track in Fuchi, near Musashisakai, and an avid gambler. He seems to win more than he loses, or at least he says he does...

Last week, when he mentioned that the Japan Cup, one of the largest horse races in the world, was happening this Sunday, I invited myself and Joan along for the ride. We arranged to meet at the south exit of the Musashisakai station at 2 pm and parted ways.

So, on a beautiful, sunny day, we met with Hiroyuki and took the Seibu train line to the Koremasa station. A short walk through a quiet neighborhood led us to an unremarkable entrance, where we bought a 200 yen ticket to get in. It all seemed rather unimpressive.

We walked down and through a long tunnel, which opened into the center field where it seemed most of the population of Tokyo was gathered, looking at betting reports and filling out betting slips. The track can hold more than 200,000 people. It seemed pretty full to us.

Hiroyuki explained to us how the process worked and showed his research into possible winning
combinations of horses. We decided to go with his plan and bet on five horses of the 18 to finish in the top five. It didn't seem to matter what position, only that they be in the top five. So, one 1,000 yen later, we had our tickets in hand.

Then it was off to fight through the crowds to viewing ring to see the horses prancing around on
parade. Everywhere there were people pouring over papers and notebooks, peering at TV monitors, and squatting down to scribble on their forms. It was chaos but very cool.

Next, we pushed deeper into the crowds to find a spot on the slope in front of the stands to watch the big race. The tension grew as past race highlights were shown on the enormous video
monitor on the other side of the track. The noise increased as the horses came out to warm up and then enter the starting gates. The crowd roared as the gates opened, and the horses surged out. At 2,400 meters, the track is quite long, and it seemed to take a long time for the pack to thunder past us.

The crowd turned its attention to the video monitor as the horses turned the corner to the far side, becoming small moving figures. As different rider jockeyed their mounts into position for the final stretch, the crowd rose back to its feet and began to roar again.

In the last, long straightaway, positions changed quickly as horses faded or were given a free rein to run. The crowd become even louder, and after the pack crossed the finish line, all the racing papers were thrown into the air.

The winner was the expected one, but the surprise was that second and third place were taken
by other Japanese horses. Of our five picks, three were in the top five. Hiroyuki seemed pleased with the outcome and indicated that we had won. How much, he wasn't sure.

After we waited for the award ceremony, we decided to head out and collect our winnings. I eagerly put my ticket in the payout machine and reached...710 yen. Yes, technically, I did "win." However, since it was less than I bet, it didn't feel to satisfying. I think I would not really make a good gambler...

However, we drowned our sorrows back in Musashisakai at the Niko Niko 250 izakaya with spicy kimchee nabe and flasks of hot sake. All in all, it was a good day.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Double party in Shinjuku Park

Today was a beautiful, sunny day, perfect for going to the park for a wedding picnic for our friend, Luke, and a birthday party for our friend, Delphine. It just so happened that they scheduled their parties for the same day, same time, and same park. And since they know each other anyways, it turned into a combined party on the grass in front of the Kyu-Goryo-Tei (Taiwan pavilion), built it 1928 as a resting house for the royal family.

Luke, an Australian, runs the non-profit,, that Joan writes for here in Tokyo. Delphine, a French woman, runs a catering business and teaches French cooking; Joan met her at a Greenz event last year.

It was a lovely day with lots of interesting people and delicious food!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


In the athletic building on campus, there is a decent gym that is free for staff and teachers to use. Being so convenient, I have been pretty good about going regularly. It is down on the basement level, and to get to it, I have to walk past the karate, boxing, kendo, and aikido training rooms.

All last year, whenever I walked past one of the aikido classes, I always said to myself that I should get up the nerve to ask the sensei (teacher) if I could join. Well, at the end of last semester, I did just that. I introduced myself and told him that I had studied aikido for a short time while in college and that I was interested in trying it again. He said that it would be fine and to come at the beginning of second semester.

So, we had our first real class last Friday. The first Friday class was just registration and an explanation about what the class would cover. I also arranged for Derek, a fellow teacher who also studies karate, to join the class, as well. Luckily, it turns out that one of our high-level students is taking the class, and he was able to translate many of the details for us.

Here is a brief explanation of aikido from Wikipedia:

Aikido is performed by blending with the motion of the attacker and redirecting the force of the attack rather than opposing it head-on. This requires very little physical strength, as the aikidōka (aikido practitioner) "leads" the attacker's momentum using entering and turning movements. The techniques are completed with various throws or joint locks.[3] Aikido can be categorized under the general umbrella of grappling arts.

First, the sensei explained the basics of what we would be learning and how not to hurt ourselves: many of the moves involve the "attacker" ending up on the floor.

Next, after some warming up and stretching, we started with a basic move where the attack grabs your left wrist with his right hand. With a pull, push, and a twist, the end result should be the attacker smoothly rolling backwards on to the mat - emphasis on "should be."

After about an hour of this, we were quite tired and sore from rolling (falling might be more accurate) to the mat and springing back up to do it again. As a bit of a break and a demonstration, the sensei had each of us come up and "attack" him in front of the other students, allowing us to more carefully observe but also to more carefully experience what it should feel like. He is a strong and powerful man with quick but careful movements. When he demonstrated the technique on me, it was a weird feeling of being completely out of control and just along for the ride. With just a pull, push and a twist, the next thing I knew, I was gently rolling backwards on the mat. It happened about ten times in quick succession.

A little more practice and then a stretching cool down led to the end of the class. It was a really neat experience and a bit of a dream come true: to study a martial art in Japan. I am looking forward to this Friday's class.

Also, hopefully, my butt will still not be painfully sore from rolling on it countless times...

Friday, September 3, 2010

Hokkaido Revisited (Part III)...

On day 5 in the park, the weather was glorious. Gone was the gloom of rain and mist.

Full of enthusiasm, we went for a day hike back the way we had come in the rain and mist, to see what we had missed.

While the hike had been ominous and a little intimidating in the foul weather, it was a completely different experience when you could actually see. The landscape was very dramatic, with barren, windswept, volcanic plains and steep slopes of colors from the sulfur and other underground forces. We had really good time hiking for most of the day, enjoying the sunshine and views.

That afternoon, back at the hut, two men arrived, one in his 30's and the other probably in his
50's. They were settling into the hut, when there was a cell phone call and a great deal of commotion. Then the young man threw on his pack and with some terse words, was up the trail and gone. The older man seemed quite upset and shaky. We were a bit worried about him as he went inside to take a nap. Awhile later, he came out to join us to watch the sunset and enjoy the fine view.

Through is bad English and our bad Japanese, we learned that his friend's young son had gone missing down below, and that was why he had taken off in such a hurry. So, we basically ended up adopting him, as he really didn't know how to operate his stove and had no real experience with backpacking and staying at the hut. It was also great Japanese practice.

Then later, another hiker showed up with a weather report. It was supposed to rain cats and dogs the next morning and for the next two days. Joan and I looked at each other and decided that was our sign to end the trip. We did not want to be trapped in a hut by bad weather again. We asked the hiker what time the rain was supposed to start, and he said, "gozen shichiji" (7 am).

We were about three hours of hiking away from the onsen resort that was our target, so we had
dinner, packed up our gear as much as possible, and went to bed early. When the alarm went off at 3:30 am, we got up, had a quick cup of coffee, gulped down a Cliff bar, and hit the trail by four o'clock. It was one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen. By 4:30, it was bright as day but windy. As we headed down the trail, we kept looking over our shoulders at the clouds that rolled in. We also worried about the older gentleman, who had said he was going get a later start and take a longer route back. He had not been comfortable going our direction - new to all of us.

Luckily, on the way down, we met a park ranger briskly hiking up the trail. He asked us about
the gentleman at the hut and said that he had been sent up to escort him down. We were quite relieved.

Just as we arrived at the onsen resort around 7:30, the heavens opened up and poured down. The ranger must have gotten caught halfway up the trail, poor bastard... It would have turned into a muddy, slick gully with all that water coming down.

At the onsen, we paid our fee and gratefully peeled out of our six-day grimed clothes. The hot, mineral water was wonderful. It was especially nice to sit in the half-sheltered outdoor pool and feel the rain and wind while warm and relaxed.

We gave Toby a call and arranged to meet him at a train station near his house. A pleasant bus
ride got us to the station, where we had time to make a cup of coffee under a bridge. Then it was back to six days of civilization.

Side note: a week or so after our trip, that area of Hokkaido had a huge rain storm which flooded all the rivers. The raging waters washed away roads and bridges, basically stranding the resort and other places. They had to use helicopters to evacuate people and bring in supplies

Monday, August 30, 2010

Hokkaido Revisited (Part II)...

Well, to put it mildly, the weather sucked on our hike from Biei-Fuji hut to the Kami-horo hut. We had hoped that the weather would break for this 4.5 hour, ridge line trek, but no. It pretty much was zero visibility fog, occasional blinding rain, and always dangerously strong and gusty winds. It was quite enjoyable. Really...

So, we struggled up a seemingly endless mountain, skirted around the top, and headed south
along the ridge top. The views, as we discovered later, were stupendous. After awhile, we entered a more volcanic area, fulls of sulfurous smells and black, loose lava/rock. That's right - the kind where you slide back down half a step for every step up. It was great.

At one point, we were halfway up a slope of never-ending, sliding lava/rock. We decided to take a break and eat some food, so we found a large boulder just off the trail, where we could shelter from the driving wind and rain. As we gulped down sports drink and wolfed some trail mix, we heard the jingle of a hiker's bear bell. Everyone wears bear bells in Japan - even hiking in the suburban foothills of Tokyo. Out of the mist came a day hiker, who we startled when we greeted him from the fog. He kept on chugging up and past us. A few minutes later, he came back down the path and handed us two little jello-like snacks, an "omiyage" (souvenir) he said. Then he turned around disappeared up into the fog. We love Japan.

After a few more hours of basically blind hiking, following the yellow paint marker splotches on rocks and footprints, we made it to the top of Tokachi-dake (mountain). "Yep, that's nice. Can't see a thing. Let's go," was our response.

Now, a faded yellow rope strung between thin, iron stakes led us down to the Kami-horo hut. It was quite welcome to see it looming out of the fog. We settled in with some other damp hikers and brewed up an even more welcome cup of coffee.

Joan struck up a quick friendship with our neighbor, Aiko, who was hiking solo. She shared some
of her food with us and peppered us with questions. Quite a character, she was. Every time she saw some of our high-tech camping gear, she loudly told the other hikers about it and told them to come look at it. Later, at about one in the morning, when she came back inside from a bathroom break, she loudly (and I mean LOUDLY) announced to the room that the stars were out and that we should all get up and go look. No one did.

The next day was foggy in the morning, and we just moped around. By lunch time, the sun finally
broke through and revealed that we were in one of the most beautiful places in the world! And it gave us a chance to hang up and dry our and the musty blankets in the hut. We spent pretty much the whole day just hanging out and taking little walks in different directions, exploring the immediate area.

We ate our dinner outside, for once, walking the distant mountain tops in the sea of clouds below.

To be continued...

Izakaya language school update

I went back to the izakaya (bar) last night after a few weeks off due to traveling. I had stopped by the week before, but Hiroyuki (my mentor, as I like to call him) had not been there. So, I only stayed for awhile and drank a beer, mostly listening to the conversations flowing around me.

I called Hiroyuki yesterday to see if he would be there, and he told me to meet him around 7 pm. After swimming at the Mitaka pool from five to six o'clock (a pleasant break from Tokyo's heat), we biked home and had a quick dinner.

When I got to the bar, I couldn't tell if Hiroyuki was inside; the glass on the door is hard to see through. However, I could see the "grumpy guy," the man I had a bad experience with last month, and it looked like the only open seat was next to him! Ahhh!

So, I waffled and hovered outside the bar, unsure of what to do. I berated myself for being such a wuss and that I should just suck it up and go on in. Yet, the grumpy guy experience had really bothered me, and I was really nervous about having to sit next to him. I considered finding a pay phone to call Hiroyuki to find out if he was actually in the bar.

Finally, I got up enough courage to peer closely through the glass, and I saw Hiroyuki in the corner, with an empty seat on the other side of him. Relieved, I opened the door and slipped in. Tabo, the owner, greeted me, as well as many of the other locals.

It was a nice hour and an half of biru, yakiniku (grilled garlic), and nihongo. We caught up with each other's lives and hopefully made plans to go to the Tokyo horse racing track. Hiroyuki is an avid horse race gambler and, according to him, is quite successful.

The nicest part of the night came when Hiroyuki and I left. After we stood up and paid our bill, we shuffled past the other chairs in the small space. Everyone said, "Mata ne" (see you next time), INCLUDING the grumpy guy who turned in his chair to face me, smiled, and said, "Oyasumi nasai" (good night). I guess it's true in Japan: whatever happens while drunk is forgotten/forgiven...

You may have already seen this photo; I took it back in May. However, it does capture the size
and atmosphere of the izakaya quite well.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Japan versus Kazakhstan

(Just a random blog post based on thoughts while walking back from train station)

I went to the train station today to buy tickets to Echigoyuzawa, where our rice farmer friends, Kevin and Tomoe, live. I had looked up the information on the Internet and had all the information about which train, times and costs. Every time I go to do something like this, I feel sick to my stomach...

In Kazakhstan, buying train tickets was a nightmare. You almost always had to take a a local friend to help you understand the intelligible Russian of the station attendant shouted through the thick glass of her booth. You never knew if there would be tickets available or what the cost would be. And if there were no tickets, you never knew why or when the next train would come. The prospect of having to go to the train station would make us nauseous...

After awhile, we learned to bribe a local friend with dinner if she would go to the station without us and buy the tickets. It was just easier without two foreigners hovering around in the background, and the cost was usually lower.

Then, there was the actual train journey. Once on the train, you never knew if the conductor had sold your seat to a passenger that had gotten on earlier without a ticket. Sometimes you would have to share the bench/bed in the compartment. Worse case, you had to stand in corridor until a spot opened up, often for hours on end. And the trip to the capital, our most common train trip, was 26 hours. Oh, the nostalgic memories...

I love Japan. I told the conductor where and when I wanted to go. He checked his computer, swiped my credit card, and handed me the tickets. No hassle, no fuss, no bribes... nothing.

People ask us, "So, how's Japan? Having any culture shock? What about Japan is driving you crazy?"

I say, "We lived in Kazakhstan. It was hard there. This is Japan: EVERYTHING works, and everyone is polite. There's nothing really to complain about here..."

Hokkaido Revisited...

Before they fade away into distant memories and the new adventure begins (bike touring in the Japan Alps in Nigata prefecture), I'm forcing myself to sit down at the computer and start working on this blog post.

As you probably remember from last year, we went up to the city of Asahikawa in eastern Hokkaido to visit Ryan, one of couchsurfing guests turned friend. Of the 18 days, eight were spent in the northern part of Daisetsuan national park; the rest were spent exploring Asahikawa and on train trip to Abashiri on the northeast side of the island.

During our first visit, we helped for a day and half on a (rice) straw-bale house project, hosted by Toby and Maiko. You can read more about it here on Joan's blog. Well, we had always wanted to see how the house would turn out, and Joan had kept in regular contact with Toby, so we finagled ourselves an invitation to come and stay with them in the finished project, and they had two cats!

Due to time constraints, we flew this time, and boy, were our arms tired! Sorry... Toby picked us
up at the airport and continued throughout the visit to be a superlative host. After few days of hanging out with them, helping them plan their yard/garden, and visiting their small town of Higashikawa, Toby took us to the southern part of the park and dropped us one early foot at the foot of a long, steep trail.

Ryan had recommended that we try the southern portion of the park, a little
smaller and narrower, but with very dramatic scenery. Another difference is that the three mountain huts are located so that you can explore the park and not need a tent, cutting down on pack weight. We planned on anywhere from five to seven days, depending on weather and other factors. Oh, the weather... But let's not go there yet.

On the five-hour hike up to the first hut, we randomly ran into Yuka, a friend of Ryan's we had met last year, coming down the trail with a friend. It is a brief but nice reunion on the mountain

Pushing farther, we made it to the hut by late afternoon and settled down in the Biei-Fuji hut.It turned out that the seasonal water supply had dried up, so we had to hike an additional 30 minutes to a small snow field/glacier to filter water for drinking and cooking.

As the clouds rolled in on the end of a sunny day, we had a beautiful sunset, the last we would see
of the sun for two and a half days...

The next morning, we woke to dense fog, the 20-foot visibility kind of fog. After some debating,
we decided to pack up and try for the next hut, four and half hours away. After hiking to the water suppy, we met some backpackers coming the other way. They warned us that the fog was really thick and the winds ahead on the narrow ridges were quite dangerous. Also, really bad weather was coming with heavy rains, probably by afternoon. After more debating, we decided to not risk it; we were also not in a hurry to get the other hut. It had just seemed something to do compared to sitting in the hut in the fog.

We followed the hikers back to the hut and set up camp again, cooking lunch, reading the one
book we had, and gazing out the doorway into the fog. That evening, the rain started. We probably could have made it to the other hut, but..."仕様がない!" ([shyoganai]"What can you do?" in Japanese).

And it rained like crazy! Then it turned into a thunderstorm that shook the mountains. The narrow, rutted trail ran in front of the hut, and the water turned it into a raging mini-river. It just rained and rained and rained.

The next morning, we again woke to dense fog, but the rain started to slacken. We couldn't take another day sitting in the hut and so decided to go for it. So we packed up, shouldered our bags, and headed out into the fog...

(to be continued...)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Hot time in the garden!

We are home for a few days before taking off on another adventure (probably bike touring in the mountains in Nigata on the west side of Japan). Joan has a million and one things she wants to do, and one of them was a compost bin at her garden. According to the farmers, the soil there needs regular additions of different things: chicken dung, cow manure, and store-bought compost. Store-bought compost!? So, of course, with their permission, we built a chicken-wire compost bin...

Yesterday, we rode to J-Mart, the big home and garden store south of us, to load up on chicken wire and other garden sundries.

Today, after a late start (just to let it get nice and hot), we headed out to the garden. We quickly
staked the chicken wire into shape using large green poles the farmers usually stake their beans, tomatoes, and eggplant.

Joan started a new lasagna garden bed and generally cleaned up and puttered about, filling
her new compost bin quite quickly.

I went over to the blueberry bushes to collect that last of a very bountiful harvest. The farmers have about 20 or so very productive blueberry bushes, but they don't want to harvest them: I guess the labor compared to the profit turned out to not be worth it. So, just like last year, they told us to have at them! And have at them, we have...

I am not sure how much we have harvested in total, but Joan made about 14 jars of jam, and we have eaten a lot with breakfast cereal.

Also, they are finished harvesting mini-tomatoes; the plants are not producing enough consistently and rain has split the skin of many of them, even though they are still edible. The Japanese grocery store shopper is very picky, and the fruit must be visually perfect. However,
there are literally 1000's of tomatoes still on the plant that are good to eat. With Takashi's urging, I harvested a boatload today; we will make sauce with them when we get back and freeze it for winter soups and curries.

And did I mention it was hot today? It wasn't too bad around 10 when we started, but by noon, it was almost 90 degrees, and with the heat index, it was well over 100.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Cool time in the mountains!

Last weekend had a holiday Monday, so we headed out for some camping to the Fuji 5 Lakes area with Liz (a fellow teacher), her husband, Hamish, and their two children, Finn and Maya. They had recently bought a car that had room for all of us and our gear.

After a hectic, hot and sweaty Friday night of packing and last-minute shopping, we fell into bed at midnight, only to awaken at 5 am in order to make an early connection to their train line. By seven in the morning, we were headed west toward Mount Fuji. We took a longer route to the north to avoid the holiday traffic on the main highway, winding through the mountains and enjoying the cooler temperatures.

After five hours of driving and without campsite reservations, we drove past the other lakes (Kawaguchiko, Saiko, and Shojiko ["ko" means "lake"]) to Motosuko and to the farthest campground from Tokyo.

We found a really nice campsite among the trees and spent some time on the beach. That night, we fell asleep early to the sounds of the RV campers partying it up with multiple Coleman lanterns and music; it was good to see that there are "those" kinds of people in campsites all over the world.

The next morning, we drove back around the lake to a viewpoint of Mount Fuji; he was out in all his splendor.

Then we drove to Lake Shoji to see what we could see: kayak races, in turned out! We stopped at a lakeside restaurant to have "houtou udon," a regional special with thick, wide udon noodles in a thick stew of vegetables and meat.

After lunch, we consulted the map and found that there was an old shrine just up the hill with antique cedars. So to stretch our legs and out bellies, we walked up the narrow road behind the restaurant.

As we climbed up the slope, a van came down between the houses. As it slowed down to pass, I realized that we knew the driver. It was Jacob, an American who runs an organic food cafe nearby. We had met him the month before at an event for the environmental organization that Joan writes for. He also restores old Japanese houses, and the narrow strip of houses we were exploring was one of his latest projects.

Some of the house had been renovated with modern insulation and new siding.

Another had been completely redone and transformed into a fusion of modern and traditional Japan. He gave us a tour of the house and told us about his experiences in the area. We hope to go back and visit him at his "Solar Cafe."

We headed back to the campsite to go swimming and cook dinner. As it got darker, Finn and Hamish started a small campfire with some leftover firewood and pine cones. It was actually cool enough that the heat of the fire felt good, and we all pressed close.

In the morning, we broke camp and went for a last swim, getting a nice little sunburn in the process.

Then, it was another long, slow drive back into Tokyo; the temperature getting higher and higher. When we finally got home, we opened up the windows to air it out, turned on the AC and sat on the front porch, eating ice cream until the apartment cooled enough to be habitable.

It was a really relaxing weekend, especially since the battery died on the iphone on Saturday morning. It is a sad reflection on modern life that two days without Internet could be so relaxing...

Friday, July 9, 2010

First real negative experience in Japan

So every Monday night, I've been going to this local izakaya (bar) to drink nihonshu (sake) and practice Japanese. After about two months of this, I've made some good friends there that have resulted in invitations and adventures outside of the izakaya.

Well, last Monday, I had a bit of a run in with one of the local guys. Probably it was just the alcohol and nothing more, but it was still rather disturbing.

I was talking with Hiroyuki, my "mentor" at the bar, and the new bar maid behind the counter. She is from China originally and was telling us her life story. She mentioned that she went to Musashino University, which is in our "city" (suburb) of Tokyo. I knew it was here but didn't know where it was. So, I had asked where it was located, and they were trying to tell give me directions.

Then, another regular, two stools down, leaned over to get involved in the conversation. He is a sort of rough, blue-collared guy, compared to the some of the office suits that come in.

At first I thought he was trying to help explain, but as his voice got louder and his tone angrier, I realized he was basically insulting me and calling me stupid to my face. I think he said something like, "You're a teacher at Asia University, and you don't know where Musashino University is?" Maybe he graduated from there...

In terms of behavior in Japan, which is usually very non-confrontational, this was really shocking. At one point, he was thrusting his open hand at my face, very close, and yelling, "Baka!" (stupid) In Japan, it is not often not the word that you use, but how you use it. This was a very extreme "use" of the word.

I also realized the other patrons in the bar and the staff were suddenly really embarrassed and were trying to distract him and diffuse the situation. I quickly stopped trying apologize and/or figure out what I had done to piss him off. I just looked straight ahead, drank my sake, and talked to Hiroyuki on my other side. The owner, Tabo, apologized to me quietly and discretely, saying the guy was "yopari." (drunk)

He kept grumbling and yelling at me for a little longer, but luckily another regular came in and sat down between us. He quickly realized what was going home and launched into a loud, "Boy, it sure it hot out there, huh? Man, I had a hard day at work!" routine that filled the void and let the bar regain some equilibrium.

It was a very strange experience. I felt a little shaky and nauseous. I honestly thought it might get violent, and as I've only been in one fight in my life (with the sister of a good friend, during college - don't ask), I wasn't sure how it would turn out.

I am definitely going back next week as I don't want the crew to feel bad about me having a bad experience. Maybe I'll buy the guy a drink! In Japan, usually whatever happens while out drinking is "forgotten" and never held against you...

Sunday, July 4, 2010

4th of July in Tokyo!

Wow! It was a hot one... When it turned into the 4th of July, I was still awake at the "reggae" bar down by station, watching Germany kick the crap out of Argentina in South Africa. It is primarily the reggae bar because the new owner of six years left all the reggae decorations and paraphernalia up on the walls from when it actually was a reggae bar. Now it is just another cool, very small bar. Luckily, they love soccer so it's a great place to watch the World Cup.

On the way home the night before, after watching the Netherlands take it to Brazil, I stumbled upon this passed out salary man lying in the middle of the road near our apartment. I stopped to check he was still breathing. He seemed quite happy to snore away with his shoes off, so I left him to the "noraneko" (feral cats).

After Germany won, Shuji and I went to Tsukiya, a 24-hour fast food "beef bowl" restaurant, where for about 300 yen ($3), you can get a tasty bowl of rice with meat and miscellaneous goodness on top. Shuji works for Asia University in the International Student Affairs office and has become a good friend. He studied for a number of years in America and is quite fluent in both cultures. We stayed up for another hour, talking about life, Japan, America, and everything in between.

So, you can understand when at 6:40 am, I was a little upset by the father who thought it was ok to play soccer/basketball outside our window with his young and loud son. I was sorely tempted to yell "urusai" ("noisy") out the window, but as Japan is usually polite....

Today was smokingly hot and extremely humid, so for the first time this year, we turned on the air conditioning. We just couldn't stand it. To get out of the house, we went up to Sesariya up the street, an Italian chain restaurant that has a 270 yen drink bar. You can get a table in air conditioning and drink all the tea/coffee (hot and iced)/soda/juice you want for as long as you want. Joan and I often go there to study Japanese, especially to get away from the Internet, which is way to distracting. We weren't the only ones with the same idea; there were many tables full of students and adults studying and reading.

The bike ride home was steamy and even more muggy from the 30-minute pounding rain storm that rolled through town. Our friend, Chris, had texted and asked us to pick up yakiniku (grilled meat on a stick) and potato salad from the grocery store as he wanted to celebrate the 4th like a good American.

We also had homemade edamame (boiled and salted soybeans in the pod) that Joan made from
loot she brought home from the farm.
And of course, a 680 yen "suica" (watermelon).

To finish it off, we went for a walk with Chris and Derek to get ice cream. All in all, a good day!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A little victory...

In my Freshman Econ 10 class 0f 22, it is mostly boys, and they are mostly "genki" - enthusiastic. However, of the three girls, Misato is painfully shy, almost pathological. She rarely engages with me or any other students, and when she does, it is barely a whisper. She almost never looks up from her desk. I worry about her.

A few weeks ago, after the bell rang and all the students filed out, she came up to me at my table and silently gave me a hand-written note. Inside, in careful handwriting and a surprising accuracy, was a brief description of her and her life. She mentioned that she likes English. And her last sentence killed me, "My trouble spot is boys..."

So, since then, I have been trying to make sure she is paired either with Hana or Yuki, the other two girls. I have also been meaning to write back to her. I wanted to recognize her effort and thank her for it.

Well, after far too long, I finally remembered to write a quick note, thanking her for writing and asking her if she liked the class and if she was ok.

Yesterday, I slipped it on to to her desk as she sat down at the beginning of class. She quickly looked at the only other student in the class and then back at me, with a worried face. I raised my finger to my lips and made a "shhh" sound and gave her a little wink.

The smile that broke out across her face was a wonderful thing to see...

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Language "school"

Happy to report that the third "class" at the izakaya (Japanese bar) went well on Monday night.

Hiroyki was waiting for me with his friend, Junko, a high energy, hard drinking lady. Whew!

We had such a grand time that we made plans for a different type of meeting. Next Thursday, Hiroyuki and Junko are going to take Joan and me out for sushi at a restaurant near the station. I don't think it is going to be the usual conveyor belt sushi but the real deal. I'm a little nervous.

Another good thing is that I remembered to bring a camera this time, so I was able to get a few photos of the izakaya and my new friends!

Hiroyuki is closest to the camera with Junko just past him. Ryoko, the multi-linugal bar help, is in the back right. As you can see, the izakaya is extremely narrow. The front door is right behind Hiroyuki, and the open back door is visible to the right.

Ryoko took this picture looking the other way.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Report card - "A maru!" (A plus)

So, I went back to the izakaya last night for another round of alcohol-assisted language learning. Again, it was a complete success!

One of the first words I learned how to say was 二日酔い (fu-tsu-kyo-ee = "hangover") to describe how I enjoyed the first class last week.

My new friend, Hiroyuki, the insurance salesman, was waiting for me, and we quickly started chatting. We were soon joined by Yoshimoto, another suit who works for a women's underwear company in Asakusa. As per usual, it was whirlwind of drinks and tasty fried food and two and a half hours of trying to communicate in Japanese.

I had learned my lesson from last time, so I just stuck to my one large glass of sake and only one glass of shochu and ocha (green tea) from Hiroyuki. I successfully resisted his attempts to keep refilling my glass, which is what got me in trouble before.

We talked about my recent trip to Yanaka, one of the few places in Tokyo that survived the American firebombings, which has many old temples and other buildings. I learned about their families; Hiroyuki has three grown sons: the eldest works for 7-11 in management; the middlest is a police officer; and the youngest is a "freeta" who lives at home and doesn't work. They asked me about the differences between American and Japanese universities.

Finally, exhausted, (did I mention I worked out before lunch and then played badminton for two hours with the club in the afternoon?), I dragged myself away and on to my bike. Not before, however, promising to meet Hiroyuki and Yoshimoto next Monday, same time, same place. Stay tuned...

PS I'll try to remember to take my camera and get some photos next time!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Language experiment!

I have been studying Japanese very seriously now for the last year. The first six months or so of our time in Japan was consumed with learning how to function in a foreign country, teach a new set of students, and everything else. Also, there were a variety of ways to study: different textbooks, classes, tutors, etc. It took awhile to figure out what worked for me.

I finally settled on Rosetta Stone, a computer based, immersion system. Both Joan and I find it effective, fun, and addictive. And along with the audio tracks to listen to while running or gardening, as well as a Iphone/Itouch flash card program to be able to review the material anywhere and anytime, it seems a perfect combination. We feel like we are learning boatloads.

However, all this formal Japanese makes me sound like a mentally disabled grandmother... "The cat is watching the fish." "They are reading a book in the library." And if someone tries to talk to me about something else besides what time the train arrives, I'm screwed.

So, I decided to take the plunge last night. There is a tiny izakaya (bar) up the road from us that we have been to a few times, a real hole in the wall. It is probably no more than 20 feet long, six feet wide, and has maybe 10 seats. They have always seemed friendly and entertained by the foreigner. My plan is to make it a weekly visit to drink a little sake or shochu and have to communicate in "real" Japanese for an hour or two.

Well, it was 110% of what I hoped it would be! Two of the locals made a spot for me between them and quickly poured me a drink from their own bottle. Within moments, I was struggling to explain who I was, where I come from, and what I do. Thank goodness for the photos on the Itouch! I quickly turned the tables and started asking them questions, which of course generated answers that I struggled to understand.

Hiryoki, an insurance company office worker, adopted me and made sure that my glass was never empty and that I was involved in the flow of conversation.

It helped that that woman working part time behind the bar spoke passable English, Spanish, and French, so she was able to help me out a little. If we didn't know the word in one language, we'd just through it in from another language, mid-sentence. My brain hurt, but it felt soooo good!

And this morning my brain hurts, as well as my stomach. Why? Because I learned that I should not drink shochu (Japanese rice "vodka") with Japanese business men at their pace. It'll kill me....

Hiryoki invited me to come back next Monday and drink with him. I'm going, but I swear I'm not going to drink as much shochu this time...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pass the sunblock, please!

While at K's House hostel in the Fuji 5 Lakes area, we saw a poster for one of their sister hostels in Hakuba, about 44 miles west of Nagano. It is located in the Japan Alps and looked like a good jumping off spot for hiking, snowshoeing, and skiing. With more vacation time to use up, we decided on another little mini-vacation. A friend of ours is coming in September and wants to do some hut-to-hut trekking in the Japan Alps, so it seemed a perfect excuse to do some "research," as we call it.

The night before, we had extremely strong winds which made the windows rattle and the building shudder. It also played havoc with the train system, shutting down and delaying almost all the train lines in Tokyo. Normally, everything runs like clockwork - it is an issue of national pride, I believe. This happened last year when a typhoon hit the city dead center; everything shut down. After living in Japan for awhile, it sort of feels like the end of the world. The electronic signs don't give any information or times about the next train. Everyone just stands worriedly on the platform, waiting for the next train. In the photo, everything is supposed to be green colored!

Well, we missed our bus. Luckily, the helpful bus station clerk in Shinjuku helped us figure out a way to get to Hakuba with only a loss of three hours, not the eight hours we thought it would be. After passing through Nagano, the road slowly climbed up into the mountains. The light rain turned to heavy snow, and soon we were deposited at a bus stop at the foot of the mountains. With sandals on (C'mon! It was warm and sunny in Tokyo) and iphone in hand, I led Joan up the narrow roads to K's House. The area really reminded us of Lake Tahoe or any other skiing tourism community: the same small hotels, cafes and gear shops tucked in the trees.

As per usual, K's House was fantastic, and the staff were super-helpful! The style/design of all the K's Houses is a sort of Ikea meets traditional Japanese; it makes for a very relaxing and pleasant atmosphere. After we settled in, I quizzed the staff about things to do and places to go. Luck was with us as the weather the next day was supposed to be perfect. So, we decided to go big!

The next morning, we got up early and took a train, bus, gondola, and finally a rope way" (cable car) to Tsugaike National Park at 2,000 meters about sea level. It had snowed about 30 centimeters the night before, which added to the already waist-deep powder on top of who knows how much snow.

We had rented snowshoes and poles at the bottom of the gondola, which we strapped on and headed out into the bright, sunny valley with mountains all around us. There were a good number of people with the same idea, primarily skiers and snowboarders, who planned on climbing to the tops of nearby peaks above the park and then carving down through the fresh, untouched snow.

Throughout the day, we would hear whoops and yells from above and quickly look up. Soon we would see a black dot that turned into an ecstatic, gravity powered, snow rider. By the end of the day, almost all the high slopes were covered with snaky lines of tracks.

We had a map, but there were no trails, so we just followed some ealier snowshoers for a few hours. After awhile, we struck out on our own, forging through the deep powder. We quickly realized, from the burning sensation in our thighs, that it was better to stay on the more established trails. However, one highlight of our wandering in the woods and drifts was a white show hare that magically appeared from nowhere and took off across the snow in a classic dash. We backtracked him and found the door to his snug little house under the branches of a low pine.

As the day wore on, it became warmer and even sunnier! Ah, the sun! It was great, until we realized we didn't have any sunblock/screen. Well, let's just say that we got more than a little sunburned. In fact, we got fried: "Yaki-Bailey" in Japanese.

However, we both agreed it was worth it. It was Joan's first time snowshoeing, and it was fantastic. Throughout the day, she kept declaring that we were "definitely going to have to buy snowshoes."

Over 10 hours later with a reverse repeat of transportation, we finally made it back to K's House, exhausted and parboiled. A quick dinner led to drooping eyes which led to bed by 9:00 pm. We want to do it again but with better preparation. We are also looking forward to returning for the trekking this summer!

If you want to see all the photos, click here.