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!