Monday, December 15, 2008

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The end of this journey

I'm home. It's been over a year since I started this crazy adventure and I'm finally back. As some of you may recall, I'm not supposed to be home quite yet, I'm supposed to be in Thailand. Unfortunately for me and thousands of other people, there were huge dangerous protests going on in Bangkok right around the time I was supposed to fly in and they shut down the airport, so I cancelled my flights and my tour was cancelled right around the same time. As you can imagine, this was a bit of a hassle for me, I had to cancel all my flights, find new ones, and be put on hold more times than any normal person can handle (I am not abnormal, I just couldn't handle it). I was supposed to fly to Bangkok on December 4 and back to America on December 20, I ended up flying to America on December 8 instead. This of course meant extra time in Japan.

As some of you may have read in my previous posts, I was planning to spend the last week or so of November traveling and that's what I did. After that I stayed with my friend Eimilly for a few nights, I couldn't ask her to let me stay four extra nights, but I stayed one extra and then just did a little more traveling... works for me! I ended up going to the places I'd originally planned, Matsushima and Nikko in November, and then Hakone in my last extra days since I hadn't ended up having enough time to go there before hand. All three places were beautiful and truly made me appreciate up until the very last day how extraordinary Japan really is. This is what I saw while looking out the window on the way back from Hakone:

Matsushima, one of the three views of Japan, really was breathtaking. The islands there were just so cool and I took a cruise around the bay to see a bunch of them. They shot out of the ocean in so many interesting formations and had beautiful pine trees growing on top of many of them. I also crossed a long bridge and got to walk along the paths that filled one of the bigger islands. Matsushima also had amazing food, I think I mentioned this previously, but Japanese people tend to identify particular cities or regions with particular foods. Matsushima is known for its oysters, which my students had told me, and its cow tongue, which they hadn't. I tried both and they were both quite delicious, although I only liked the fried oysters, the steamed ones were not for me.

I spent what I thought were my last traveling days in Nikko. I stayed in what could quite possibly qualify as the scariest hostel EVER, it was on a back road, perched on the side of a cliff, run by a nice but slightly creepy old Japanese couple, and filled to the brim with junk, as an example I will present you with the masks hanging in the lobby:

Nikko itself was beautiful and beyond the cliff where my hostel was perched was a river with many flowing waterfalls, and beyond that were lovely snowcovered mountains. Nikko is known for some of its shrines and temples. The one it is best known for and that I decided to visit is Toshogu Shrine which is actually a large and very ornate masoleum. This shrine is also well known for having a stable that displays the carvings of the see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil monkeys that are still so popular today. While I was in Nikko I also visited Kogen Falls, a very high rushing waterfall on the top of a very cold mountain. Apparently there are supposed to be monkeys living on the mountains in Nikko but I didn't see even one and I was a little bit disappointed.

I spent two days in Hakone and then came back to Tokyo for my last day so that I could pick up my luggage and say goodbye to my closest friends. Ivan, Eimilly, Eimilly's boyfriend, and I had a picnic in Yoyogi Park to end my year. The park was filled with yellow gingko trees and just like when I went there last year, the foliage was spectacular. Eimilly and Yuki, her boyfriend, had made us really lovely japanese foods like onigiri (rice balls with fillings, e.g. tuna salad) and sushi rolls and other splendid things. We had a lovely time eating and throwing leaves at each other and being joined by a random drunken guy from South Dakota, overall, it was the perfect ending to an extraordinary year.

And now I'm back. I'm just now recovering from jet lag, it took 3 days before my ears unblocked from the pressure on the plane, and I haven't gotten up the nerve to try driving again because it's been raining non-stop since I got home. Still, I'm so so glad to be back with my family and now I'm just waiting to see my sister who is still at school and my friends who are scattered around various states. I will of course be job hunting some more, but right now it's nice to just relax and enjoy being back in a world where I fit in.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The top ten

I am officially done teaching English! It's crazy to think a year has gone by already, when it seems like just yesterday I was stepping off the plane feeling completely bewildered and lost. I don't feel lost anymore, but I don't feel like this is home either. There are some people who come to Japan and feel like they fit in here, like this is where they belong, but I don't feel that way. Living here for the time that I have has been so incredibly amazing, I've seen and experienced so many new and interesting things and I feel quite sure that I have changed as a person because of those experiences, but I think if I stayed here for too long I would lose the admiration I have for Japan and its culture. My highest level student wrote to me in a card, "You have adjusted perfectly, it seems to me, and have kept a good balance of working and playing. You are not a visitor, or sightseer. You have lived here. That's important." Her message made me really happy and I am glad that she does not just see me as a tourist, because I certainly don't feel like one. Some people have mentioned experiencing "reverse culture shock" upon returning to their home countries from Japan, but two of my friends have told me that it really doesn't take long at all before things that are different from Japan seem normal again. I don't think it will take me long to adjust back to the way things were "pre-Japan" but there are some things I will miss, these are the top 10:

10) The crepes from Harajuku

9) Standing to the left on escalators to let people in a hurry get by

8) Receiving omiyage (souvenirs/gifts) whenever people come back from a trip

7) Always removing our shoes at home and at traditional style restaurants

6) Hot cocoa in vending machines from October-March

5) Reliable public transportation, specifically, the trains.

4) The beautiful shrines and temples that are all over Japan

3) The random acts of kindness from Japanese people that I meet. Just two days ago an old man and his wife paid for my entire meal at my local sushi place.

2) My bike, Clementine. Yes... I named my bike. I sold her yesterday. Clementine, I will never forget you.

1) My amazing friends, whom I will also never forget.

I still have about two weeks left before I leave Japan, but if a year can go by so fast then two weeks will literally be nothing. But hey, a lot can come from nothing.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

All good gifts

I'm sorry I've been slacking on my blog lately, I haven't ventured out into the city much or done anything particularly exciting as of late since I want to try and save some money for my travels. I have 3 DAYS of classes left, YESSSSS!!!! I will miss my students, well, some of them (especially the ones who gave me presents!!), but I'm ready to move on to something new and of course I'm ready to see all my friends and family back home! I have been checking higher education job sites like crazy for the last few weeks and have applied to a few jobs already, so I'm hoping that getting a head start will help me to land a job not too long after I get back to CT, but heaven knows what could happen with the terrible job market these days.

For the time being I'll just focus on the more near and certain future which includes lots of packing and lots of traveling! I'm so incredibly psyched about my trip to Thailand and I'm also pretty excited about the time I'm going to spend just traveling around Japan a bit more. I'm going to visit Nikko, Hakone, and Matsushima, the last of which is another of the three views of Japan (in my post before this I spoke of Miyajima, one of the other three views). A few days ago I went over to Akihabara a.k.a Electric Town and bought myself a new digital camera which will be reimbursed to me as a Hanukkah present from my parents when I return. I am now the proud owner of a beautiful white Casio Exilim EX-Z77... looking back at this last sentence it sort of sounds as if I've given birth to a camera, well, you get the idea. So now I'll be able to take pictures of all the beautiful places I go without lugging around my 100 pound lump of metal considered by some to be a camera.

I mentioned in the first paragraph that some of my students have given me gifts. I should also mention that two of them have treated me to meals! One student took me to a lovely traditional style Japanese lunch at the Tokyo Dome Hotel. The meal had maybe 5 or 6 courses and each one was presented absolutely beautifully, which of course is the Japanese way, everything from food to gardens needs to be aesthetically pleasing. My other student and I went out for Thai food in Ikebukuro, we'd gone to the restaurant once before with Jenn, but Jenn could not come because she ended up flying home last month for surgery on her wrist and is currently residing in Georgia. My student and I had a good time together though, she is really a lovely person, I'm definitely going to miss her. In addition to my meals I've received a traditional Japanese bag that the first woman who took me to lunch bought for me, some lovely hand made stationary and paper holders, and today one of my students brought me a GORGEOUS hand painted ornamental fan. I'm seriously in love with this fan, I had been thinking of buying a nice one for myself but I just couldn't bring myself to spend the money on something like that, but now I'll have this one, which is so much better because it will have the memory of my student attached to it.

My absolutely beautiful fan:

This weekend I'm going to farewell parties for two of my friends and the next weekend is my party. Saying goodbye to everyone is going to be sad, but knowing I'm coming home to so many amazing people certainly makes it a lot easier. I am just counting down the days! One month and six days to go!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Photos that go with the previous post

The A-dome

Sadako and her crane

A crane of cranes

Just a few of the cranes

The Cenotaph

A beautiful mural at the Youth Hostel

YH Mural

Hiroshima YH Mural

In front of the torii gate

With my friend and a deer

Walking toward the shrine and torii gate

The gate at dusk

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Better late than never...

This is now my second (or maybe third) attempt at trying to finish this post over the past two weeks, it just seems that every time I sit down to finish it I am bombarded by distractions, these distractions go mainly by the names of Facebook and Youtube. I also happened to come across a great position as Travel Abroad Manager at one of the SUNY schools that will be opening in January, so I decided to apply for it, which resulted in the slightly more productive, but far less entertaining distraction of writing a cover letter and updating my resume. But that's all done now and I'm finally going to tell all of you about the trip I took about 3 weeks ago to Hiroshima and Miyajima. Of course, I've done more things since then, but nothing pops up in my mind as being blog worthy besides my trip, which was amazing, so I definitely don't want to hold out on my dedicated readers by failing to give details.

Since my memory is starting to fade a little, I'm going to look through my photos to help jog my memory... for once in my life I actually remembered to take my camera and to actually use it! So, first I took the Shinkansen into Hiroshima. When I left Tokyo it was beautiful out, but when I reached Hiroshima four hours later it was all crappy and rainy. I decided to think of the weather as "setting the mood" since my first stop was the A-dome and Peace Memorial Park. After getting off at the bus stop I immediately saw the dome looming over the trees. I walked over to one side of the dome to get a better look and came across a group of western students (American I think) standing in front of the fence. I decided to take advantage of English speaking people while I had the chance and asked one of them to take my photo in front of the dome. Immediately after she took my photo I was hit on by a weird Japanese guy. I thought this was incredibly inappropriate considering where we were, but he asked if I'd take a photo with him and I agreed because the girl who'd taken my photo a moment ago had done a bad job and I thought I might be able to crop out Creepy McCreeperson if this one turned out better. After he got his photo with me he gave me his contact information (I did not ask for this) and I gave him a fake number, which I normally would feel bad about, but in this case I just wanted him to leave me alone.

I continued on around the dome. The building itself was mesmerizing, I just could not stop looking at it and I think I took far more pictures than what was actually necessary. It's just amazing how a place can be beautiful and terrifying at the same time. In front of the building was a big plaque explaining what had happened, but if a picture is worth a thousand words, then the A-dome itself is worth a million. The dome is located alongside a river and I walked down the path and crossed a bridge into the peace park where the Children's Peace Monument and Memorial Cenotaph are located. I went over to the children's monument first. The monument is a giant bell with a statue of a girl standing on top with a folded paper crane rising above her. The statue was modeled after the story of Sadako Sasaki, a little girl who suffered from leukemia brought on by the radiation of the atomic bomb. Sadako believed that if she folded a thousand paper cranes she would get one wish, to be cured. She died, at age 13, before all the cranes were completed, but her friends and family continued making cranes and the movement spread. Now, children from all over the world send cranes to the peace monument and many of them are put on display in waterproof cabinets that surround the statue. From there I walked over to the cenotaph which is covered by a large arch. If you stand directly in front of the arch you can see the A-dome through the center and the peace flame that stays continuously lit. By this time my shoes were completely soaked because it had been raining the entire time, so I headed in to the Peace Memorial Museum to dry off. The museum, as I had expected, was not an easy thing to experience. I saw scale reconstructions of Hiroshima before the bomb and the very little that remained of Hiroshima after the bomb. I saw models of people with their flesh melting off their bodies and a stone step with a white body sized mark where a person had been instantly burned to death while sitting outside the library. I sometimes have difficulty imagining and fully comprehending the terrible things that have happened in just the last 100 years. Going to places like this, like the Holocaust Museum in D.C., Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and Ground Zero, make history real for me and they are what remind me of how important it is to remember what's happened in the past and to learn from those mistakes. It's a shame that not everyone has the opportunity to visit these places, I think maybe if they did then there would be greater motivation among members of society to enforce change in how things are done today.

After I left the Peace Memorial Museum I decided to head over to my youth hostel. I am a big fan of HI (Hosteling International) so I had booked a room with the Hiroshima HI Youth Hostel a few days before my trip. I had to take a bus and then walk up a big winding hill to get there, which was a bit of a pain since it was still raining, but the hostel was comfortable and on the first night I was the only female guest so I had a big room all to my self. I also had the bathroom to myself. It is rather common for hotels and hostels in Japan to have a public bath area, so, just like at the onsen, all the women bathe in the same room in front of each other. I've been to several onsen at this point so I'm not too uncomfortable with the whole nudity issue anymore, but I have never actually gone to one without a friend, and being the only gaijin in the room has the potential to be a little awkward, so I was quite happy that since I was the only female at the place there was no one else in the bathing area.

The next day I took a ferry out to Miyajima, a beautiful mountainous little island that is overrun by small friendly deer that come up to you if they think you have food. Miyajima is most famous for Itsukushima Shrine and its floating torii gate. The torii gate does not actually float, but it is built in the water so that at high tide it appears to be floating. The large orange torii gate with the shrine and mountainous backdrop really is quite breathtaking and has been designated as one of the three most scenic views of Japan. The shrine itself is also quite extraordinary because it is built on beams above the water. As I was standing on the boardwalk of the shrine taking pictures, something crazy happened, I heard someone say my name. As I was traveling alone and hours away from Tokyo, one can understand why I would be rather shocked to hear someone calling me. I turned my head and standing next to me was a friend from college who I had not seen since we graduated. I had known she was in Japan teaching for another big eikaiwa (English school) but I had no idea where she was living and we had made absolutely no plans to meet up, so running into each other on this tiny island was truly one of the strangest things I've experienced. She was there with her Japanese co-worker and I ended up spending the rest of the day with them and doing much more on the island than I ever would have had I not run into them. First we got lunch at a little restaurant that I never would have discovered since it was off the main route and then we decided to climb the island's highest mountain, which I was planning to just go up to via cable car. The view from the top was spectacular and there was a very old and very beautiful shrine at the peak that I really loved and would not have seen had I come up by cable car. The entire day was wonderful with great weather and great company. At the end we came back down the mountain by cable car which we had to sprint to in order to catch the last car in time. At nightfall we got to see the floating torii gate being illuminated, it was lit so beautifully that it seemed almost as if it were glowing.

On my last day in Hiroshima I decided to do one more thing before getting lunch and taking the shinkansen home. I settled on visiting the Hiroshima Museum of Contemporary Art because it was very easy to get to by cable car. There were some interesting exhibits and I actually just wish there'd been more to see because I got through the gallery a lot faster than I thought I would. As I left the museum and began walking down the path towards the road I stopped because I suddenly realized there were about ten cats meandering around the little area I was standing in. I'd noticed before that Hiroshima seemed to have a lot of strays but I hadn't quite realized the extent of the situation until that moment. Normally I absolutely love cats but being surrounded by that many wild ones is a little unsettling, on a side note, Hiroshima cats have abnormally short tails, so that was a little strange too. After getting some Indian food for lunch (Japan has absolutely amazing Indian food) I headed back to Hiroshima Station and took the shinkansen back to Tokyo.

I took the next two days off for Yom Kippur, which I spent a ridiculous amount of money on for tickets to services and a seat at the breaking of the fast, but I'm glad that I did. Living in Japan as a foreigner you feel exactly that, foreign, so sometimes it's nice to go back to what's familiar. One thing I've really come to be thankful for, especially since moving to Japan, is how being Jewish brings culture and tradition into my life. Japanese people have such an incredibly rich culture full of cherished rituals and festivals and it's made me realize that a lot of Americans don't have that. Luckily for me, Jews do, and I feel really thankful that I'm not missing out on the opportunity to feel connected to others by following customs that have existed for thousands of years and keep our identity as a people (the CHOSEN people) alive.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Go Fish!

Last Saturday evening I received a voice message from Jenn. I was expecting her to call me back about some plans for the weekend, instead she informed that she had fallen off the ladder to her loft, which is 8 to 9 feet high. Luckily, a friend of hers was there to take her to the hospital... unluckily, she broke both her wrists and got a black eye. I stayed at her apartment for the weekend to help her out, but she actually was/is functioning quite well despite having ridiculously limited use of her arms and hands. Since the friend who was with her at the time of the fall was actually visiting from America, we didn't want to make him just sit around, so we actually ended up doing quite a bit over the weekend despite Jenn's injuries. On Sunday we went to Shibuya for ramen from my favorite ramen shop (the one where I took my parents) and then we went to Harajuku to see the rockabillies and cosplay (the people wearing crazy costumes). That night we hung out with some people at Jenn's local favorite, K's Cafe, and while we were there we decided to stay up all night and go to Tsukiji Market first thing in the morning.

Tsukiji Market is a huge, famous fish market in Tokyo and if you get there early enough you can watch the tuna auctions. I had heard about it quite a bit before but I had never gotten around to going because frankly, I'm not a morning a person. Staying up all night was definitely a better idea and going with other people was good too. We left Jenn's apartment around 4:30 to 5 am and caught the first train. It took about 20 minutes to get there but finding the actual market was a bit of a challenge. Jenn knew the general direction of the place but not where the specific building was so at one point we stopped and I asked a woman, in Japanese, "Where is the big tuna?" because I didn't know the words for auction or market. She pointed us in the right direction and we knew we were in the right place when we had to start praying for our lives. Tsukiji Market has a reputation for being quite dangerous and rightly so! As we walked into the giant warehouse speeding fish carts of death came careening towards us from all directions, it was terrifying. We walked along, dodging the carts and following people who looked like they knew where they were going, because we still hadn't actually seen any fish. Eventually a man told us where to go and when we arived we were pretty surprised. In the guide books and excerpts online it is normally made to sound as if there is a viewing area set off to the side specically for tourists... this is not exactly accurate. There are actually just big open doors, like the giant garage doors at a car dealership, they have signs on the side of them that say DO NOT ENTER, we stood on one side of the door and the fish lay on the other side. We were kind of in the way but busy workers just ran and drove around us, apparently used to obnoxious tourists standing near their fish. Now let me tell you about these tuna... they were ENORMOUS. Picture an elephant, now a picture a fish the size of an elephant, that's what these tuna looked like. Okay, so I exaggerated a little, but seriously, these fish could eat you whole... if they weren't dead... It was amazing and we were standing right next to them, I could have the kissed one of them had I developed some abnormal fish kissing desire, or if it were my birthday (I apologize, only people who went to my camp will understand that). In another part of the market we also saw lots of other exotic varieties of fish and seafood, some of which were still alive. I used Jenn's phone camera to take lots of pictures since I hadn't brought my own camera and I will try to post some soon.

Tomorrow I leave for Hiroshima! I'm really excited about this, it will be the farthest from Tokyo I've gone since coming to Japan and I'm traveling alone so it should be an adventure! I'll let you know how it goes when I get back!