Thursday, October 30, 2008

Rooting for Obama in Obama, Japan!

I'm spending the weekend in Obama, Japan. And I am going there for no other reason than to cheer on Obama the man in Obama the town.

Obama, a fishing village of about 32,000 people on the Sea of Japan, has gone Obama crazy. Local businesses are selling Obama headbands, Obama fish burgers, Obama chopsticks, Obama t-shirts and Obama bean cakes. All stamped with Barack Obama's portrait.

Even the town's pachinko parlour is getting in on the action by changing its name from "The President" to "The President Obama." But perhaps no one is more excited about Obama than the mayor of Obama (as evidenced by his enthusiastic fist-pumping in this awesome video).

Some local residents have created an Obama theme song and an Obama dance. I've memorized the lyrics to the song ("Laaa. La-la-la-la. O-ba-ma!") but the dance steps are a bit more tricky.

My friend Aiko and I are taking the first train to Obama on Saturday morning. I don't think I've ever been this excited about a weekend road trip ever! Laaa. La-la-la-la. O-ba-ma!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Adventures in Japanese cooking

One of the things I want to do while I am living in Japan is learn how to cook Japanese food. Partly because I love Japanese food but mostly because I want to dazzle friends and family back home with my mad sushi-making skills.

So I decided to borrow a Japanese cookbook from the library last week. Unfortunately, there was only one cookbook in the entire library written in English. And it was published in 1977. But I liked the idea of cooking and kicking it old school at the same time.

I tackled my first '70s recipe yesterday. I made "gomoku gohan." This may sound fancy but it was really just rice with vegetables and chicken. Also, it was the easiest recipe in the book. I figured I could whip it together in less than an hour.

It turns out I was only half right. The cooking part was easy. Figuring out what the ingredients were and trying to find them in the grocery store was maddeningly difficult.

The recipe called for things I had never heard of before, such as "dashi," "abura-age" and "burdock root."

So before I even set foot in the grocery store, I sat down in my apartment and googled each of the mystery ingredients. I learned that dashi is soup stock, abura-age is deep-fried tofu and burdock root is, uh, burdock root.

I copied down the Japanese translation and Chinese characters for each of the ingredients in case I had trouble finding them.

At the grocery store, I went up and down every aisle, slowly, painstakingly reading every label on everything in the store. It was good practice for my Japanese reading comprehension. But it was also incredibly frustrating.

I simply could not find burdock root or dashi. Of course, it would have been easy to ask someone for help.

All I had to do was pick up the tube-shaped vegetable that may or may not have been burdock root and ask, "Sumimasen, kore wa gobo desu ka?" (Translation: "Excuse me, is this a burdock root?")

But it would have been like standing in the produce section of Safeway, holding a cucumber in your hand asking people if the vegetable you’re holding is a carrot.

I'm tired of feeling like a half-wit in this country. So I decided to figure it out myself. And by figuring it out, I really mean that I just decided to dump burdock root from the recipe altogether.

I found the dashi by accident in the salad dressing section. Just to the right of the salad dressing was a small box with a picture of a fish on it and the words "katsuo dashi" written underneath. Dashi! I had conquered the last of the mystery ingredients. Victory was mine!

Two hours later, I finally started chopping and cooking. I wasn't too sure about the dashi. It smelled strongly of fish, and fishy tasting chicken didn't seem too appetizing. But I figured Japanese people know what they're doing when it comes to food so I added it in.

Fortunately, and I say this with all modesty and humility, the dish turned out awesome. It was hearty, healthy, filling and delicious. The taste was super wonderful!

The photo of the final product, however, is not so super wonderful. It looks like vomit. I am not lying when I say it does not taste like vomit.

Next week, I am going to attempt to master miso soup (baby steps, people, baby steps).

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Kyoto in pictures

Being a full-time student in Japan doesn't leave me with a lot of time to be a tourist. But I don't want to create the impression that my life out here is all work and no play. I make a point of setting the books aside and carving out time for myself on the weekends.

It would be a waste to live in a city like Kyoto and not be able to enjoy it. So every weekend, I hop on my bike and explore a different corner of the city. Allow me to be your tour guide on a virtual trip through this strange and beautiful place.

It will be a few more weeks before fall officially arrives in Kyoto. It's still too hot and humid to allow the foliage to be any other colour than a bright shade of green. But a few renegade leaves have started to change colour, hinting at the coming explosion of red, yellow and orange leaves that will soon blanket Kyoto.

Kyoto is a great place to explore on foot or by bicycle. There are many lovely streets.

And even lovelier alleyways.

Japanese food is amazing (although, over here they don't call it Japanese food. They just call it food). Even the convenience stores have good food at cheap prices. You can buy delicious bento boxes for $3.50 at 7-Eleven. Can you imagine doing the same thing at a 7-Eleven in Canada? Then again, maybe the bento boxes at Japanese convenience stores are considered the equivalent of those wrinkled, rotating hot dogs at Canadian convenience stores.

The plastic food featured in almost every restaurant window is much less appetizing.

There is a large park near my apartment. I discovered it by accident when I went out for a run. I took a wrong turn down a back road and suddenly found myself in the middle of a forest. I went back again the next day (on purpose this time) and discovered that it's actually a huge park with lots of trails.

I live in Northern Higashiyama, one of the most scenic neighbourhoods in all of Kyoto. Unlike downtown Kyoto, which is crammed with cars and concrete, Northern Higashiyama is a mostly residential area filled with trees and mountain views. The area is criss-crossed with shrines, temples and canals.

If you look closely, you can kind of see my apartment in the bottom right-hand corner of the picture below.

It may look somewhat remote and tucked away in the mountains, but it's actually just 15 minutes away from downtown Kyoto by subway.

I think this is what I like most about Kyoto. It is the best of both worlds. It has the concrete, neon and hyper-modern feel of a large Japanese city but it also has the quiet temples, secret alleys and wide-open views of a small Japanese town.

Kyoto also has a ridiculous amount of festivals. There is a different festival every week. One of the city's biggest festivals, the Jidai Matsuri, was held last week. It was a parade of more than 2,000 people dressed in costumes from the 8th to the 19th centuries.

The crowds lining the parade route were at least 12 people deep. It was almost impossible to see the parade so I wandered over to the area where the participants were cuing up, waiting their turn to march along the parade route.

Later that night, I took the train 30 minutes north of Kyoto to the village of Kurama to watch the town's ancient fire festival. Which mostly just consisted of bare-assed men carrying large torches up and down the main street. It felt like a witch hunt but with sexy half-naked men.

So there's traditional Kyoto and modern Kyoto. There's also quirky Kyoto. There's a lot of stuff in Japan that doesn't really make sense. Like the Rasta-themed menu at an otherwise nondescript ramen restaurant. I half-expected the waiter to ask, "Would you like a spliff with that?"

Should you ever be in the market for visceral organs, Heart-in is the place to go. Because they have a "heart" in their shop.

The cute.

The creepy.

The rest of the photos are on my flickr page.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Lost in translation

It turns out my Japanese is not nearly as good as I thought it was.

Let me give you one small example. Every day, on my way to school, I pass by a restaurant specializing in octopus balls (and by octopus balls I don't mean octopus testicles. I'm talking about chunks of octopus baked in a thick batter and shaped into balls. Trust me, they taste way better than they sound).

Anyway, there's a big ad for the octopus restaurant painted on the shuttered door of the adjacent shop.

The octopus is saying, "Hanpa ja nai ze!!"

I translated this to mean, "It's not perverted!!"

This was not a translation based on fact. It was simply a guess. That's generally how I translate phrases I don't understand. I had never encountered the word "hanpa" before but it sounded similar to "hentai," which means "sexually perverted."

Using deductive reasoning, I concluded that perhaps "hanpa" was street slang for "hentai." I mean, look at the picture. It is clearly about the forbidden love between an octopus and a tiger.

"It's not perverted!!" seemed to be a logical translation.

I was pretty sure I was right but I wasn't 100 per cent confident. So I decided to ask one of my Japanese teachers what the octopus was saying.

I took my camera into class, turned on the display screen and zoomed in on the words coming out of the octopus' mouth.

The teacher laughed.

"It is a kind of slang," she explained. "It means, 'The taste is super wonderful!!'"

The taste is super wonderful? I wasn't even remotely close. And I'm supposed to be taking graduate-level classes in Japanese in April? I have a long, long way to go . . .

Friday, October 17, 2008

Getting my nerd on

The problem with going back to school after having been away from the world of academia for a while is that you tend to forget what being a student is really like.

I'm so far removed from my undergraduate days that all I remember is how much fun university was. I thought going to grad school at Kyoto University would be like an all-expenses-paid vacation. I pictured myself kicking back in the quad, surrounded by my new Japanese friends, making plans to travel to Tokyo for the weekend.

Yeah. Not so much. Kyoto University is more boot camp than Club Med.

I feel like I've worked harder in the past two weeks than I have in the past two years. Classes, homework, reading assignments, studying, tests. The workday never ends.

It is a complete lifestyle change. Not that I'm complaining (well, maybe just a little bit). Despite the brutal workload, it remains an incredible opportunity. Studying Japanese full-time on someone else's dime? It's amazing, really. The Japanese government has been very, very good to me.

For the next six months, I am getting paid to do nothing but study Japanese at Kyoto University. I am in an intensive language course with classes five days a week, four to six hours per day. Of course, that doesn't include the additional two to three hours a day for homework, reading assignments and studying.

On top of my language classes, I am also taking a kanji (Chinese characters) class, a Japanese culture and society class and a conversation class about the Japanese economy (in Japanese, of course).

Before I can enter grad school in April, I also need to learn the fundamentals of Japanese language necessary for environmental studies. So, once a week, I have to take a science class. This is not a course about science. It is a course to memorize the Japanese vocabulary around science.

Honestly, I think I may be in over my head. I had a mini meltdown yesterday after meeting with my academic advisor for the first time. He handed me a copy of the grad school syllabus, which was entirely in Japanese. Not only is the syllabus in Japanese, but all of the classes are in Japanese as well.

Let me put this challenge into perspective. In order to read a Japanese newspaper, you need to know about 2,000 essential kanji. And that's just to read a newspaper. In order to read literature or to take a graduate-level class at a university, you need to know at least 1,000 additional characters. I know about 100 Chinese characters. One hundred. Out of 2,000 basic characters. This makes me functionally illiterate.

There is absolutely no way my Japanese will be good enough to function at a university level in six months. I'm not being hard on myself. I'm simply stating a fact. It takes years to master Japanese.

I have no idea how I'm going to function when I enter grad school in April (assuming I pass the language exam). So instead of kicking back in the quad, surrounded by my new Japanese friends, making plans to travel to Tokyo for the weekend, I simply sat down in the quad alone and cried.

After about two minutes, I pulled myself together. I just decided to say fuck it. If I fail, I fail. If I succeed, I succeed. This is my job now and I'll just do the best I can.

Besides, I'm not in it alone. There are 14 other scholarship students at Kyoto University. It is an incredibly diverse group of people and everyone is interesting and accomplished.

There are only two of us from Canada. The others are from Argentina, Bosnia, China, Germany, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Philippines, Romania, Spain, Thailand and the U.K. We are a veritable United Nations.

I have bonded with Nadia from Bosnia, Oneika from Jamaica, Elena from Romania and Seema from India. We eat lunch together every day and all of us feel like we're in over our heads. So the five of us are going out for dinner and (well-earned) drinks tomorrow night.

Of course, there have been moments of hilarity too. Like when two Japanese boys (anyone under the age of 24 is a boy to me) approached me on campus today to ask if I'd like to be in the school music festival.

They asked me if I could sing, dance or play a musical instrument. I told them no, no and no. But that did not deter them.

"Please join us," they said. "You can make Japanese friends. And there is a party after the festival."

They were so adorably earnest I just wanted to pinch their cheeks. I told them I would think about it. Encouraged, one of the guys gave me his cell phone number and told me to call him if I changed my mind.

I have also been assigned mandatory tutoring sessions. Every Wednesday afternoon, I have to meet up with Masahito, an ecology grad student, who is studying the behaviour of insects. I assumed this would be some sort of technical tutoring session but it turns out that Masahito's role is more of a life coach than a teacher.

As he explained in an introductory email, "my job is basically to help you in a variety of ways when you are in trouble. Since it is difficult to line a boundary between what I can do and cannot, you may ask anything at first. Please DO NOT hesitate to ask. My biggest happy is that I could help you to make the most of your stay in Japan."

So I have decided to ask him for restaurant recommendations. And where the closest swimming pool is.

As for my social life, I have been too busy getting my nerd on to have anything that resembles a real social life. I mean, I spent last Saturday night playing table tennis in the lounge with some Chinese exchange students. It doesn't get much more nerdy than that.

So there you have it. This is what it's really like to go back to school after having been away from the world of academia for a long time.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

My new favourite store

This store is conveniently located three blocks away from my apartment. It's nice to know there is a place to go should I ever need to purchase a mountain of liquor.

Perhaps I will pick up a bottle of sake to drown my sorrows if Stephen Harper wins the election tonight . . .

Monday, October 13, 2008

Japanese banks kick ass

Certain Canadian banks like to pride themselves on providing convenient, comfortable customer service. Well, I'm here to tell you that Canadian banks could learn a thing or two from their Japanese counterparts.

I popped into a Japanese bank the other day to exchange some money. Instead of waiting at the counter while the teller went into the back to change my Canadian dollars into Japanese yen, I was directed to a comfortable couch.

"Please sit," the teller said, bowing and gesturing to a soft blue sofa in the corner.

So I sat down. Next to the couch was a large-screen TV broadcasting an interview with a 75-year-old Japanese man who climbed Mount Everest earlier this year. Who knew banking could be so relaxing and educational?

There were a few other nice touches. Like the complimentary reading glasses next to the deposit and withdrawal slips.

I left the bank armed not just with Japanese yen but with rested legs, new information and better eyesight.

On the way out, I was showered with a chorus of "thank yous" and polite bows from each of the tellers. And just in case I wasn't sure how grateful the bank was to have my business, a computer thanked me too.

The voice came from a waist-high metal pole with a speaker that had some sort of motion sensor on it. Whenever someone passed it, the sensor was triggered and a woman's computer-generated voice chirped, "Arigatou gozaimasu!" (thank you)

Now that's customer service.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Hot wheels

Check out my sweet new ride. It is a sleek, shiny, single-speed, cruising machine. I think I am a little bit in love.

I bought it this afternoon. For the low, low price of 9,800 yen (which sounds expensive in Japanese yen but is a steal in Canadian dollars). It was the cheapest bike in the store. Unfortunately, bargain bikes do not come in inspiring colours. It was either black, white or silver. I went with black because the black bike was the shiniest and I like shiny things.

One of my favourite features of the bike is that the chain is entirely covered. This means no more tucking of pant legs into socks. Tucking my pant legs into my socks makes me feel like a dork. Now I can be fashionable while riding my bike. Not that I'm particularly stylish, but at least my pant legs can flap in the wind and my socks can remain hidden underneath where they belong.

As I was taking these pictures, I didn't notice that a Japanese woman was staring at me until her curiosity got the better of her.

"What are you doing?" she asked in a tone that implied complete bewilderment.

"I'm taking pictures of my bike," I said.

"Why?" she asked, sounding even more confused than before.

I told her that I had just bought it and I wanted to take some pictures to show friends and family back home. This explanation seemed to satisfy her. She told me it was a nice bike. But that if I was going to send pictures of it back to my friends and family, it would be better if I was in the picture.

"Give me your camera," she said. "I will take a picture of you with the bike."

I did as she asked and that is how this picture came into existence.

Back in my apartment, I flipped through the owner's manual to learn about my new bike. Unfortunately, the manual was entirely in Japanese.

However, the front cover helpfully reminded me that it's okay to have trouble understanding the manual. Because I am an alien. And bikes are different on our planet.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Hello from the land of heated toilet seats

It's hard to believe I've only been in Japan two days. It feels like I've been here two months.

Two days in and I've already:

- settled into my apartment
- opened a bank account
- registered at the university
- gone to the municipal office to get an alien registration card (awesome! I'm an alien!)
- enrolled in the national health plan
- visited three bike shops (I have my eyes on a hot purple cruiser)
- bought pots, pans, cutlery, plates, mugs and a knife that has "enjoy your cooking time" written on the blade
- figured out where the grocery store is
- made three friends (Oneika from Jamaica, Nadia from Bosnia and Theo from Toronto)
- scouted out public pools (haven't found any yet)
- mapped out a running route along the riverbank
- took a campus tour (the highlight was when the guy giving the tour stopped beside an impressive looking building and said, "This building has the cleanest toilets on campus." That's all he said about it. Maybe nothing more needed to be said)
- failed a Japanese language placement exam (I can speak Japanese. I can understand Japanese. I can read Japanese. But I can't write Japanese. I never bothered to learn how to write. I never really needed to. Unfortunately, the placement exam was a written exam. I left most of it blank because, apparently, I am functionally illiterate. So I am being placed in a lower level class. I don't know if this is good or bad)

Anyway, classes start tomorrow morning. For the next six months, I'll be studying Japanese Monday to Friday, four to six hours a day, plus homework and assignments. I'm kind of digging this student lifestyle thing. I especially like that I'm getting paid to go to school.

Kyoto University has put me up in their international housing complex, about 4 km north of the university. The apartment complex is a mix of visiting professors, researchers and students. It's not very social. The place is as quiet as a monastery.

Which is weird considering there is a huge sign on the communal bulletin board warning us to be quiet after 10 p.m. and that having the police come to the apartment would bring "great shame" to Kyoto University.

The only way the police would ever be called to this place is because it's so quiet that someone thought we were all dead.

In case you're curious what student apartments look like in Japan, here's a virtual tour of my new place.

The living room.

The kitchen.

The bedroom.

The (world's smallest) bathroom.

The study area.

The balcony. The balcony is enclosed by mesh netting. I'm not sure if this is to prevent birds from flying in or if it is some sort of flimsy suicide prevention measure.

My absolute favourite thing about the entire apartment? The washing machine. On the balcony! I have my own washing machine on the balcony. Who has a washing machine on their balcony? Doing laundry in the great outdoors is awesomeness personified.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Six seasons in Kyoto

I have some big news. Really big news. News that may or may not surprise you, depending on how well you know me.

I'm moving back to Japan. This time I'll be living in Kyoto, one of the loveliest cities in the world.

This may seem sudden and unexpected. It is and it isn't.

Back in the winter, I applied for a Japanese Government research scholarship to study at Kyoto University's graduate school of environmental studies.

The scholarship is for 18 months and includes six months of intensive Japanese language training. It is a fully paid scholarship (flight, accommodation, tuition fees, exam fees -- all of it is on the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs' tab). It also includes a generous monthly stipend.

When I applied for the scholarship back in February, I had to submit a research proposal, a thesis, writing samples, university transcripts, reference letters, a certificate of health and a 10-page application form. In typical Japanese fashion, there were lots and lots of hoops to jump through. But I put my head down and got it all done.

Two months later, I was invited to the Japanese Consulate in Vancouver for an interview, followed by a 2-hour Japanese language exam. The interview was tough. I was nervous. I spoke quickly. I answered questions without taking the time to think them through.

When they asked me when I first became interested in Japan, I talked about the Karate Kid.

When they asked me about the difficulties I faced when I lived in Japan, I talked about the cockroaches in my apartment.

I thought I had failed spectacularly.

So when the Consulate contacted me in August and said I had won the scholarship and had been accepted at Kyoto University, no one was more surprised than I was. I said yes right away. Getting paid to go to school in a country I love seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up.

I suppose that's why everyone keeps asking me if I am excited. I tell them yes, because I am, but the truth is more complicated. Am I excited? Yes and no. Had you asked me three months ago, I would have said yes, absolutely. Full stop.

But now my excitement is dampened by the fact that I recently started dating someone I really like.

It's not easy to pull up and leave just when I've met someone great. He makes me laugh. He makes me happy. He makes me want to stay.

So while I'm excited to go, I'm also a little sad.

I leave on Sunday.