Friday, November 28, 2008

This ain't Tokyo

To be honest, I wasn't entirely convinced going back to the town where I used to live was a good idea. I regretted my decision to leave Japan for a long time after I returned to Canada. I was on the brink of despair when I left and it took almost a full year for the feelings of loss and longing to finally fade away.

Saying goodbye the first time around was traumatic enough. I was worried I would go to pieces and never recover if I went back and left a second time. Part of me thought maybe it would be better to never go back at all.

During the past year, not a day went by when I didn't think about the town where I used to live. I missed the people, the scenery, the mountain roads, the rice fields, the food, the river, the schools, the kids. I wanted to go back. I didn't want to go back.

I was torn. But in the end, I decided to go. Even at the risk of reopening old wounds. It seemed worth it.

When my train pulled into the station on Friday afternoon, many of the same people who had seen me off more than a year ago were there waiting for my return. They were smiling and waving, welcoming me back with open arms. It felt as if I had never left at all. The time and distance between us evaporated.

A few of my former students also came to the train station to see me. Even the brooding kid who was suspended for biting a teacher last year was there. I was touched, in a weird kind of way.

I ran into many of my former students during the course of the weekend (yes, the town really is that small). All of them seemed surprised to see me. But they all remembered me. I was worried they would have forgotten me but they didn't. It may seem like a small thing but it made me deliriously happy.

The whole weekend was kind of like that. Nothing extraordinary happened. I simply spent five days with people I missed for the better part of a year. We went for walks together, ate dinner together and just sat around doing nothing together. But I couldn't have been any happier.

And while I did experience a little bit of sadness and longing while driving through the streets that used to be mine, I also felt a sense of relief. I was waiting for a flood of emotion to drown me in sorrow and regret but it never came. Nothing had changed. Nothing had gone away. Everyone was just as happy to see me as I was to see them.

The volleyball team I used to play on even held a party in my honour.

I stayed with the PE teacher and her family on Friday and Saturday nights. I stayed with my former supervisor on Sunday night. And I stayed with my friend Sachi on Monday night.

The PE teacher, her friend and I went on a little road trip on Saturday. We drove to the top of a nearby mountain and went for a long walk. We were so high up that there was snow. Not much but enough to make a mini-snowman.

My supervisor roped me into doing a 10 km race with her on Sunday morning. My time was slow (54:17) but good enough for second place in my age group. My age group, by the way, was "12 to 39." In what world is that a fair age group? I would have placed first if the age groups were a little less broad. Instead, I suffered the indignity of being beaten by a 13-year-old girl.

Because prizes were given out to the top three finishers in each age category, my second place finish meant that I had to go up on stage during the awards ceremony. I was presented with a medal, a case of juice and an official certificate.

It was all very formal. You have to bow when the guy hands you the certificate. He bows and you bow. You bow when you get up on the stage and you bow again when you get off. There was a lot of bowing. I showed the 13-year-old punk who beat me how it's done.

The next morning, we woke up to pounding rain but my supervisor simply looked out the window and said, "Let's go hiking!"

She threw her 9-year-old daughter and the family dog into the back of the truck and off we went.

I spent Monday night with my friend Sachi and her family.

Sachi's niece is only two years old but she can already pose like a pro.

When I went to the train station on Tuesday to head back to Kyoto, I felt some of the same emotions I felt the first time I left, but on a much smaller scale.

The first time I said goodbye, I was on the brink of despair. I knew that as soon the train left the station, my life here would be gone. I could visit but it would never be the same. I would never be able to return to the life I once had here. I was inconsolable.

Leaving this time was different. I was a little sad. But I knew that Sakawa was never mine. Even if I had stayed an extra year or two, I would have had to leave eventually. My time here was never permanent. I have come to terms with that now.

Saying goodbye this time was easier. I know that I'll always be welcome in Sakawa and that I can return any time I like. It will never be just a vacation. It will always be a trip home.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A return to the place I used to live

Kyoto University is hosting a massive, multi-day festival starting tomorrow and, as a result, classes are cancelled until next Wednesday. So I have decided to spend my five-day weekend in the place I left more than one year ago.

I'm going back to Sakawa, back to the town where I used to live. It feels like I'm on my way home.

Word has gotten around that my train arrives at 4:10 p.m. on Friday afternoon and I've received a flurry of emails from friends who want to meet me at the station. When I left Sakawa to return to Canada, the whole town turned out at the train station to see me off. Now that I'm on my way back, the same group of people will be at the train station awaiting my return. It will probably feel like I never left at all.

My Japanese friends have taken it upon themselves to plan my entire weekend for me. My former volleyball team is hosting a party in my honour on Friday night. I will stay with the PE teacher and her family on Friday and Saturday night (I don't think she's given up on her dream of marrying me off to her son).

I have been roped into running a 10 km race with my former supervisor on Sunday morning (is it possible to run a 10 km race without actually training for it? I will find out and report back.) She and I will spend the rest of the day together and then I'll sleep over at her house Sunday night. On Monday, I will spend the day with my friend Sachi and stay over at her place that night.

If I have time, I hope to squeeze in a visit to see my tea ceremony teacher, some of my students, the lovely young woman who replaced me and, of course, the vice-principal.

It will be good to go back to the place I used to live. These are the kind of trips I like best.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Only in Japan . . .

Guess what I found on sale at the grocery store last night? Hello Kitty toilet paper!

I bought four rolls. But it's almost too cute to use. I think I'll save it for when I have guests over. They will be rationed two squares per day.

Is it just me or is there something slightly subversive about slapping the Hello Kitty logo on toilet paper? The company that owns Hello Kitty has very strict rules about what kind of things it will and won't endorse. It's not okay to use Hello Kitty's image on cigarettes, hard alcohol, guns and "sharp objects." But it's okay to use Hello Kitty's image on a product you wipe your ass with?

Speaking of awesome finds at the grocery store, I also discovered single-serving size boxes of sake for sale. Just like a juice box, the sake box comes with a little straw glued to the side and a hole on top. Perfect for school lunches!

They only cost 100 yen ($1 Canadian) each. Boxed sake is cheaper than bottled water. The mind boggles.

If drinking cheap sake out of a box isn't classy enough for you, you can always pour it into a porcelain sake container and pop it in the microwave for a more sophisticated drinking experience.

Do not scorn the microwave. Japanese microwaves can do magical, mysterious things like bake cakes and toast bread. In Canada, microwaves have automatic settings for popcorn. In Japan, microwaves have automatic settings for sake. (Take a close look at the second button on the microwave panel below. That is the sake button. Cheap, cold sake goes in the microwave. Delicious, hot sake comes out. All at the press of a button. It is a magic machine.)

The more sake you drink, the more you have to go to the bathroom. The more you have to go to the bathroom, the more Hello Kitty toilet paper you use. Forget the Lion King. This, my friends, is the real circle of life.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Autumn in Kyoto

Fall has almost, almost, arrived in Kyoto. It's still warm and muggy during the day but when the sun goes down, the temperature drops too. The nights have been cool enough for long enough that the leaves have finally started to change colour.

Fall and spring are arguably the most beautiful seasons in Japan. It's impossible to chose one over the other. Red maple leaves or pink cherry blossoms? The crispness of autumn or the warmth of spring?

Personally, I prefer winter. Cold, quiet and stark. It's also the only time of year when there are no cockroaches in Japan. They should put that in their tourist brochures.

Despite the disturbingly large number of cockroaches seeking warmth inside my apartment these days, fall is truly a lovely season. The yellow, orange and red leaves are dazzling.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Misadventures in video store membership

I scored 100 percent on my Japanese midterm exam last week. I say this not to brag, but to illustrate how completely useless written tests are as a measure of competency in a foreign language.

I may have gotten a perfect score on my midterm exam but I failed spectacularly when I put my Japanese to the test at the video store the other day. (Although, technically, it's not a "video store." It's a "culture convenience club.")

All I wanted to do was get a membership card and rent some movies. Sounds simple enough, right? Simple for a native speaker, yes. Simple for a foreigner trying to muddle her way through the language, not so much.

I walked up to the counter and explained (in Japanese) that I wanted to get a membership card.

So far so good.

The kid behind the counter understood exactly what I said and pulled out a laminated brochure and placed it on the counter between us. The brochure contained two photographs of two seemingly identical membership cards with two very long and very detailed explanations written underneath (all in Japanese, of course).

In rapid-fire Japanese, the kid explained the vast and varied differences between these two identical looking cards. After his long-winded speech, he asked me to choose a card. The only problem was I didn't understand a word he had said. I looked at him with a blank expression on my face.

My reaction caused him to be completely embarrassed and flustered. Instead of responding to me, he simply bowed his head and refused to make eye contact with me. There was at least a minute of complete silence between the two of us. Unable to stand the awkwardness any longer, I told him in Japanese that I didn't understand what he had said and asked if he could repeat himself.

So he did. Afterwards, he gestured to the brochure and asked me once again to pick a card. I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders, and told him I still didn't understand. I apologized profusely.

He grew quiet again. He bowed his head, keeping his eyes glued to the floor.

I studied the brochure to see if I could find any clues as to what he might have said. But the only thing I could understand was that one card was free and the other card cost 200 yen. A minute of silence ticked by. Two minutes of silence ticked by.

It was more awkward and uncomfortable than two stiff-armed teenagers attempting to slow dance. I asked him to repeat himself a third time. And a fourth time.

The fifth time around, two words in his speech finally jumped out at me: "credit" and "rental." A light bulb went on above my head. Maybe one of the cards was a credit card and one was for video rentals! I tested my theory on the kid behind the counter and he crumpled with relief.

"Hai!" he said.

I told him I didn't want a credit card. I just wanted to rent movies. He handed me an application form and told me to go over to a nearby table to fill it out.

Assuming the worst was over, I walked over to the table, grabbed a pen and was about to fill out the form. Until I actually looked at it.

Here we go again, I thought. I was tempted to run back to the counter and tell him I couldn't actually read the application form but I wanted to give the poor kid a break. So I decided to pretend I knew what I was doing.

I assumed they wanted me to put my name and address somewhere on the form. But I wasn't sure where they wanted me to write those things exactly. I put my name in the top box and my address underneath. It seemed like a good guess. I wrote the date in the right hand corner. And then I gave up.

There was a line-up at the counter and I joined the queue. As I got closer to the front, I could tell the kid was hoping not to have to deal with me again. He seemed to take an extra long time with each customer, stealing a furtive glance at me every now and then.

By the time it was my turn, another barely-out-of-high-school kid had the unfortunate pleasure of serving me. I handed him my (incomplete) application form and told him I couldn't read the Chinese characters.

He asked me something in rapid-fire Japanese. I didn't want to have to go through the awkward language dance all over again so I decided I would just fake it this time around. I assumed he was asking to see some sort of ID so I handed him my alien registration card. It was a guess but it was the right guess.

And then he asked when my birthday was. Except he didn't want to know what year I was born in. He wanted to know what era I was born in. Umm . . . era? Yes, era.

[Note: In Japan, they count years based on an emperor's reign. For example, the current year is not 2008. The current year is Heisei 20. That's because the current emperor has been in power for 20 years. I was born in the 49th year of the Showa era. I know that now thanks to the magic of the internets. Unfortunately, I did not know it at the video store when I actually needed to know it.]

I told him I had no idea what era I was born in. At this point, I noticed the large beads of sweat trickling down the kid's face. And the way his hands were trembling.

I apologized some more and prayed for this epic ordeal to end quickly. I wrote down the year I was born and asked him if it was okay just like that. He nodded his consent and, finally, handed me a membership card.

But it wasn't over yet! He had to explain the pricing system. The late fees. The cost of a new release compared to an old movie. I nodded my head and pretended to understand. I wanted this to be over more for his sake then for mine.

In the end, I walked out of there with a membership card, a DVD and a headache. I suppose I technically succeeded. We communicated only in Japanese. No English was spoken. Not by me. Not by the employees. But they were able to understand what I wanted and I was able to understand what they needed from me in order to get what I wanted.

If it had been a test, I would have gotten 50 per cent. A passing grade, but just barely.

It kind of puts the 100 percent I got on my midterm exam into perspective.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Cute overload

In Japan, cute is the lubricant that keeps the economic engine running. Cute is used to sell absolutely everything here.

Hello Kitty's image is stamped on everything from airplanes to electronics to toilet paper. You can buy Hello Kitty stationary, Hello Kitty candies, Hello Kitty clothing, Hello Kitty school supplies, Hello Kitty alarm clocks, Hello Kitty guitar picks, Hello Kitty golf caddies, and even Hello Kitty sex toys.

The only things banned from carrying Hello Kitty's image are hard alcohol, cigarettes, guns and "sharp objects."

In Japan, people of all ages and genders are obsessed with cuteness. You can see it in all aspects of Japanese life. From the businessman who has a Snoopy charm dangling from his cell phone to the cartoon characters painted on the sides of trains to the hordes of adults who bury their noses in comic books while riding the subway.

None of this is at all weird.

I spent Saturday afternoon in a shopping mall in Kyoto where I nearly overdosed on cute. It was like walking through a cartoon world. All that was missing were sparkling rainbows, dancing unicorns and baskets of fluffy kittens.

The vast majority of stores were shrines to cuteness. It was impossible to find non-cute things. Even the socks were cute. (These socks, by the way, are for adults.)

And in case those socks aren't cute enough for you, you can buy socks with happy doughnuts and bumble bees sewn onto them.

There are no plain bobby pins for sale here. If you want to tie your hair back, you have to do it with pink bows or farm animals.

The clothing stores are filled with sweaters adorned with ruffles, bows and lace. In Japan, cute is sexy. Flip through any women's magazine and you'll see what I mean. The models are doe-eyed, sweetly smiling girls. They are pretty and nonthreatening.

I don't know what it is that makes Japanese people gravitate so fiercely toward cuteness. I mean, I like cute things simply because they make me happy. Maybe it's not more profound than that.

Or maybe this love affair with cute is way to escape from the serious social problems plaguing modern Japan -- economic recession, increased unemployment, homelessness and crime, as well as the rapidly aging population and the sharply declining birthrate.

Of course, not everyone worships at the alter of cute. Cute culture has been sharply criticized for being juvenile and infantilizing. Others worry that cute culture will displace traditional Japanese culture. Garish, saccharine cartoon characters are the antithesis of the restraint, minimalism and discipline featured in traditional arts such as tea ceremony and karate.

Is cute culture harmless fun or the sinister harbinger of doom for traditional culture?

I'm not sure. I like Japanese tea ceremony but I am also powerless to resist the cute. Perhaps I will contemplate this question while washing dishes with my cute new soap dispenser.

Or maybe I'll write some of my thoughts down in my cute new memo pad.

If those ideas are no good, I can throw them out in my cute new garbage can.

Perhaps I'll save the deep thinking for the bath.

After a long hot bath, I can change into my Snoopy pajamas and wrap myself in my cute new fleece blanket.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Welcome to Obama, Japan

If Barack Obama wins the U.S. election tomorrow night, there will be few people more excited than the people who live in Obama, Japan.

They have embraced Obama with the kind of gusto, entrepreneurial spirit and quirkiness you can only find in Japan.

I spent the past weekend in Obama, and awesome doesn't even begin to describe how awesome it was.

Obama, a fishing village on the Sea of Japan, has transformed itself into a hotbed of Barack Obama activism. Although, I suspect the people of Obama are rooting for Obama not because they like his politics, but because they like his name.

The charming portrait of Obama featured in the flags and posters that line the town's main street looks like it was sketched in about five minutes.

Do Obama's ears really stick out that much? What's going on with his left ear? And why does he have stubble for hair?

A local plumber was commissioned to create the statue of Obama that stands outside the town's department store. At least I think it's a statue of Obama. It's either that or a bust of a very tanned Japanese guy out for a night of karaoke.

Whatever it is, it is clearly a very special statue, as evidenced by the fact that someone went to the trouble of roping it off. Don't touch! It's art!

The entire town has gone Obama crazy. Souvenir shops are selling Obama t-shirts, Obama headbands, Obama chopsticks and Obama bean cakes.

My friend Aiko and I even met a local celebrity. Seiji Fujihara, secretary-general of the Obama for Obama Support Group, introduced himself to us after he saw us taking pictures of an Obama poster. He said he hopes to go to Washington for the presidential inauguration if Obama wins.

Mr. Fujihara also told us that the members of the support group recorded a theme song called "Obama is Beautiful World." You can find copies of the CD for sale in the lobby of the Hotel Sekumiya.

Mr. Fujihara played the CD for us. Let me share some of the lyrics with you: "The sea spreading far out and the bright sunshine reflect the future of your country, America. / Laaa. La-la-la-la. O-ba-ma! / Obama is beautiful world! / Obama is Number 1!"

I was so inspired that I filled out an application to join the Obama for Obama Support Group. I hope they accept me. I've got Obama fever and I need a support group to help me recover.

When we weren't meeting local celebrities, we were treated like celebrities. Two elderly men spotting us walking down the street and begged us to join them for tea. So we did.

For some reason, Japanese men over the age of 70 find me irresistible. They love me. Especially the drunk ones. Why can't I have the same effect on men my own age?

Over cups of hot green tea, we learned that they ran Obama's volunteer tourism office. They told us they hoped Obama would visit Obama if he won. And then they asked if they could pose for pictures with us. I felt like a rock star. With octogenarian groupies.

Despite its famous name, Obama isn't a tourist hotspot yet. Everyone seemed genuinely thrilled to have us there. I don't think I've been on the receiving end of so many deep bows in my entire life.

Locally, Obama is well known for its lacquer chopsticks and fishing industry. But there aren't many tourist attractions. So it is impressive to see this little town reinvent itself into a place that is attracting worldwide media attention.

Another highlight of the trip was meeting Taako, who runs the Guesthouse Nima just outside of town.

Taako left a career in teaching to set up a hostel after a life-changing trip to India. She is the hostel's only employee. She is cook, cleaner, manager, owner and host extraordinaire. And she does it all with a warm smile. If you are ever in Obama, I highly recommend staying at the Guesthouse Nima.

If that's not enough to tempt you, perhaps the beach behind the guesthouse will provide more incentive to make the pilgrimage to Obama.

The flipside of its remote location is that the hostel is somewhat difficult to find. Aiko and I almost never arrived at all. It was our own fault. Neither of us bothered to print a map. The directions on the website simply said to walk with the ocean on your left side for about 10 minutes.

It seemed clear enough. Except it turned out that there were many different streets where the ocean would be on your left side. After walking around in circles for about 25 minutes, we decided to wave the proverbial white flag and ask for help.

The only problem was that there was absolutely nothing around. No convenience stores, no restaurants, no gas stations. Nothing. We were literally in the middle of nowhere.

Eventually, we spotted a guy walking down one of the side streets. We ran over to him and asked him if he knew where the hostel was. Fortunately, he was also heading to the hostel. Unfortunately, he was also lost.

He also spoke no English. However, in times of emergency, I can magically speak and understand fluent Japanese. I told him that I had written down the hostel's phone number and asked him if he had a cell phone so that we could call the hostel to ask for directions. Luckily, he had a cell phone (I'm not sure why he didn't think of calling to ask for directions himself). Had we not run into him, we probably wouldn't have found the hostel at all.

It turned our Japanese saviour was a fellow Obama fan. He traveled from Osaka to Obama for no other reason than to buy a t-shirt. Back at the hostel, we all decided to put our t-shirts on and pose for pictures. You can see our little photo shoot on Taako's blog (hi, mom. I'm famous in Japan!).

I hope Obama wins the election tomorrow night. President Obama will be good for America, good for the world and, most importantly, good for Obama, Japan.

(The rest of the photos are here.)