Monday, December 28, 2009

I'm spending the week here

I'm spending the week on a tropical island in the Philippines. I leave tomorrow morning.

I'm going with some friends from school. Although, technically speaking, I'm not actually going with them. I'm just meeting them there. They left five days ago to tour around Manila before island hopping in the south. I wanted to skip the urban part of the trip and head straight to the beach. So I will fly into Manila and then hop on a small propeller plane flying 300 kilometres south a few hours later.

My friends will already be on the island by the time I arrive. It's hard to believe that this time tomorrow we'll be enjoying a drink on the beach after a sunset swim in the sea.

I'm looking forward to a week of rest and relaxation in a place where the most strenuous activity I plan on partaking in is snorkeling. All I want to do is swim, read and go for long walks on the beach. I don't even really want to do anything for New Year's. I don't like crowds and nightclubs so maybe I'll just ring in the new year by reading a book in bed. That might sound lame to you but it sounds alright to me.

I feel calm, happy and content for the first time in a long time. I don't need to do anything big to mark the passing of one year into another. I have a feeling good things are going to happen in 2010. I'm ready for a new decade to begin and I'm ready to start doing things right. I want to stop bending over backwards to please other people. I want to start putting more value on my needs. I want to be stronger. I suppose that's my New Year's resolution in a nutshell.

But for now, I'm just going to paint my toes and pack my bags. And wish you all a happy New Year. I'll be back in Japan next week.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Son of a ditch

My friend Sergey and I wanted to celebrate Christmas by doing a multi-day hike from Kyoto to Lake Biwa. The plan was to hike all day and then sleep for free at a 24-hour McDonald's.

But the McHike turned out to be a McBust after Sergey fell into a ditch and smashed his knee.

We had been hiking for eight hours before the accident happened. We managed to hike up one side of Mt. Hiei and down the other side without incident (well, except for when I lost my footing and fell backwards against a rock, cracking the face of my watch. The running joke after that? "What time is it?" "Half past a crack").

The first eight hours were a lot of fun. Sergey told a lot of strange Bulgarian jokes involving shady doctors. We entered a temple for free and illegally rang the giant bell. We lit some incense and made a wish. We took a lot of the same photos we took the first time we climbed Mt. Hiei. We laughed when we realized Sergey was wearing the same outfit he wore on our first hike. We cried when we found out the vending machines selling hot coffee at the top of the mountain were closed. We asked each other all kinds of stupid questions ("How would you rather die? Burning or drowning?"). We nearly twisted our ankles several times. We cursed like motherfucking sailors.

By the time we made it down the mountain, it was starting to get dark. We left the woods and entered the suburbs of Shiga Prefecture. The hike from here was pretty straightforward. All we needed to do was reach Lake Biwa, find a public bath, eat dinner and then settle in for a long sleepless night at McDonald's.

It was Christmas Eve but it didn't feel festive at all. There was no snow, no lights, no rampant commercialism. No one had the Christmas spirit -- not even the 7-11 employee forced to dress up as Santa Claus.

You wouldn't have known it was Christmas if it wasn't for the fact that every convenience store, restaurant and shop was playing George Michael's "Last Christmas." After hearing the song for the 10th time that day, Sergey snapped.

"I don't remember what happened to me last Christmas but there's no way I'm ever going to forget what happened to George Michael," he said.

We were getting hungry by this point but we wanted to find a 24-hour McDonald's where we could spend the night before going out for dinner (we didn't want to eat at McDonald's. We just wanted to sleep there). We were walking down dark roads hoping to stumble across a McDonald's but we weren't having any luck.

We were exhausted and dehydrated. We were about to give up and head to the nearest convenience store to ask for help when I turned around and saw a billboard facing the opposite direction we had been heading. It was a huge sign advertising a 24-hour McDonald's 1.5 km down the road. Sergey and I did a little dance of joy. Hikers call these sorts of serendipitous moments "trail magic."

With our accommodation for the night magically taken care of, we headed to a convenience store to ask for directions to an onsen. The nearest one was six kilometers away so we cheated and hopped on the train (we were too tired to walk).

We had trouble finding the onsen after we got off the train so we stopped at an electronics shop to ask for directions. Sergey is pretty much fluent in Japanese and I am pretty much not. So when we both understood the directions differently (I heard, "Cross the street, turn left, go straight and you'll find it on your right side" and Sergey heard "Cross the street, go straight and you'll find it there") we went with Sergey's interpretation.

We crossed the street, went straight and got lost for a good 20 minutes. We had to ask someone else for help and it turned out that I, the shitty Japanese speaker, had actually understood the original directions better than Sergey, the "fluent" Japanese speaker.

This was especially gratifying because of an earlier exchange when I asked Sergey if he wanted to speak Japanese with me.

"What for?" he asked.

"Practice," I said.

"With you?!?!" he said.

In your face!

We managed to loiter at the onsen for four hours. We had a bath and dinner and then we stretched out on the tatami floors until closing time.

At around midnight, we made our way to McDonald's. This is when I noticed Sergey was limping and appeared to be in pain.

He confessed that he had fallen into a gutter and smashed his knee when I wasn't looking. He didn't say anything at the time because he was too embarrassed.

The accident had happened a few hours earlier. We had been walking on dark roads with no streetlights or sidewalks. It was difficult to see where we were going. We were forced to walk along the narrow shoulder, with no more than a few inches of room between the cars on our right side and a deep gutter on our left side. The gutter was mostly covered over with concrete blocks but there were stretches where the covers were missing and if you didn't watch your feet, you could trip and fall in. Which is exactly what happened to Sergey.

He was walking behind me. But instead of walking on the narrow strip of paved shoulder, he was walking on top of the concrete-covered gutter. Because he wasn't looking down at his feet, he didn't notice that the entire length of the gutter wasn't covered. And so he stepped right into the open gutter and smashed his right knee on the way down.

He scrambled out of the gutter and didn't say a word to me. I was walking ahead of him at the time and I didn't see it happen. It was only when his knee began to throb unbearably that he felt compelled to confess.

The injury wasn't serious enough to require medical attention but it was painful enough that Sergey wasn't sure if he'd be able to continue hiking on Christmas Day. The fact that he had crashed his bike the day before and fallen on the same knee only made things worse. We decided to camp out at McDonald's for the night and see how things looked in the morning.

It was about 12:30 a.m. by the time we arrived at McDonald's. We found a table in the corner of the restaurant with two padded benches. We ordered a couple of drinks and some fries. We took off our shoes, opened up a bottle of whiskey and settled in for the night.

There were only a few other customers. A pair of girls in their early 20s, a table of drunk guys trying to sober up before heading home, and a greasy looking guy in his 40s reading comics (hereinafter referred to as "Chubby Comic Book Guy"). By 3 a.m., everyone had left except for Chubby Comic Book Guy. He would end up outlasting Sergey and I.

The two of us passed the time by talking, playing games and attempting to sleep. Sergey was starting to become a bit jittery because he hadn't had a cigarette in almost 24 hours. He had decided to quit the morning we started hiking because he was tired of me taking pictures of him smoking and posting them on facebook. (My shame campaign worked!)

By 4:30 a.m. I finally managed to fall into a deep sleep. But I was shaken awake by Sergey an hour later.

"Wake up," he said. "We have to go."

"What are you talking about?" I said. "It's 5:30 in the morning."

"I didn't sleep at all, I think I have a cold, my knee hurts and I can't hike anymore," he said. "I already checked the schedule and there's a train going back to Kyoto in 20 minutes. But first you have to buy me breakfast."

I didn't want to cut the hike short but there was no arguing with a guy suffering from sleep deprivation and nicotine withdrawal. Besides, he was injured so there was no other option but to return home.

We headed back to Kyoto at 6 a.m. on Christmas morning and slept until late in the afternoon. We wanted to have an unconventional Christmas but, ironically, ended up having a traditional Christmas instead. We stayed in and cooked chicken (the closest thing to turkey in Japan) with all of the trimmings.

Once we got over the disappointment of cutting the hike short, I think we both agreed spending a traditional Christmas at home was much nicer than spending a second sleepless night at a McDonald's in the middle of nowhere.

I'm actually kind of glad the McHike turned out to be a McBust. Sergey's knee injury aside, I wouldn't have wanted to spend Christmas any other way.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas in Japan = cigarettes + McDonald's

I won't be home for the holidays this year. Instead, I'll be celebrating Christmas with a chain-smoking Bulgarian at a McDonald's somewhere north of Kyoto.

The chain-smoking Bulgarian is my good friend and constant hiking companion Sergey. He wanted to go on a multi-day hike during the holidays but he didn't want to fork over the cash to buy a tent or stay in a hotel. His solution? Sleep at a McDonald's. (And by "sleep" he really means "sit in an uncomfortably hard booth between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.")

McDonald's is open 24 hours and you can stay all night for the price of a cup of coffee. This is an arrangement unique to Japan. When you buy a cup of coffee in Japan, you are not just buying a coffee; you are buying a piece of real estate. That one coffee guarantees you the right to monopolize a table for as long as you like. No one will give you a dirty look and demand that you buy something else or get out.

It was Sergey's idea to go on a multi-day hike and sleep at McDonald's. It was my idea to do it during Christmas. We both thought it would be fun to break with tradition. I mean, who spends Christmas morning waking up inside a McDonald's? It doesn't get much more unconventional than that.

At the same time, I told Sergey I thought it was sort of a sad way to spend Christmas. But he didn't agree. Born in Russia and raised in Bulgaria, Sergey never actually celebrated Christmas until after the collapse of communism in 1989. He grew up wearing a jaunty blue kerchief around his neck (the uniform of young communists-in-training) and called his teachers "comrade."

He still gets Santa Claus confused with "Jack the Frost." (Apparently, he also gets "Jack Frost" confused with "Jack the Ripper.") In communist Bulgaria, there was no Santa Claus. Just a menacing-sounding "Jack the Frost" who gave presents to children on January 1st.

And although he's no fan of McDonald's, Sergey used to think of the golden arches as a symbol of Western freedom and opportunity when he was growing up. He didn't know many of us in the West thought of it as a symbol of everything that's wrong with America.

There's something kind of poetic about the two of us -- Sergey who grew up under communism and me who grew up in a democracy -- spending a holiday that means nothing to him and something to me in a place he used to worship and I despised.

The McAdventure begins on Christmas Eve, when we will hike 15 km from Kyoto to Lake Biwa. The plan is to find a McDonald's somewhere along the coastline and spend the night there. We will wake up on Christmas morning, unwrap a couple of Egg McMuffins and continue hiking north along Lake Biwa until we find another McDonald's to stay at for the night. We will hike back to Kyoto on Boxing Day. Or maybe we'll be so comatose by that point that we'll have to take the train back.

And with that, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas (however and where ever you choose to celebrate it)!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Dinner with the President

A few months ago, I was invited to dine with the President. No, not that President. If I had had dinner with my boyfriend Barack Obama I would have bombarded the internet with stories and photos and creepy stalkeresque videos the second after it happened.

No, I had dinner with a different President. And it was a shameful and embarrassing experience. But it was also kind of funny.

The President in question was no ordinary in-control-of-a-country kind of President. The President in question was the President of Kyoto University, which makes him a rock star among presidents in these parts.

In education-obsessed Japan, the President of Kyoto University wields an incredible amount of power and influence. I say this not to elevate my status as someone who dines with important and powerful men but to give you a sense of the gravity of my idiotic behaviour.

Kyoto University and Tokyo University are the top two universities in Japan. They are the Japanese equivalent of Harvard and Yale. The academic standards at Tokyo University and Kyoto University are so impossibly high most Japanese high school students don't even bother to try to get in.

Unless you are prepared to spend your entire childhood studying your ass off, and unless your parents have the money to send you to cram school for an extra four hours every night, and unless you have the top grades required to get into a good private high school, and unless you graduate at the top of your class, and unless you ace the notoriously tough entrance exam, you don't stand a chance of getting into Kyoto University. (This has nothing to do with intelligence or social competence. But a degree from Kyoto University is a golden ticket to status and success in Japan.)

Drop the name "Kyoto University" in conversation with a Japanese person and you'll see what I mean. You will be treated with reverence. Like the time I was riding the train and my Japanese seatmate asked me what I was doing in Japan. I told her I was a research student at Kyoto University. Upon hearing this, she turned to her friends sitting across the aisle and told them where I was studying and they all burst into applause. And then they made me pose for pictures with them.

This celebrity treatment always makes me feel guilty and undeserving because the standards for foreign students are much less rigorous than they are for Japanese students (I mean, they let me in).

The point I'm trying to make is that Kyoto University is a big deal in Japan. And you don't get to be President of Kyoto University by being an intellectual lightweight. You get to be President of Kyoto University by being an outstanding scholar, by having a distinguished academic career, and by having a long list of awards and accolades from places like NASA behind your name.

This is the President I had dinner with. This is the President I embarrassed myself in front of.

The dinner was actually a thank you party for some work I had done for the President in the fall. I was part of a small support team contracted to do some writing for a science and technology conference in Kyoto. My job was to summarize notes from the conference, which would be compiled into a booklet for delegates. On the last day of the conference, the President was asked to give the closing speech and I was asked to help write it.

A week later, an email popped up in my in-box inviting me to a private party hosted by the President. He wanted to thank the support team for the work we had done during the conference.

There was no way I could say no. It was a huge honour and a great opportunity. But I'm not a big fan of Japanese parties. Mostly because "party" is a bit of a misnomer. It's more like a business meeting with alcohol. These so-called parties are structured events with all kinds of rules and procedures. Nothing says fun like enforced fun.

I arrived at the izakaya 10 minutes early (although, "10 minutes early" is technically "on time" by Japanese standards). The hostess ushered me upstairs into a private room where several men in suits were sitting quietly at a low table without chairs.

There were about 20 place settings at the table, which was strange because there were only four of us on the support team. We were joined by various professors and researchers, whose role in the conference is just as much of a mystery to me now as it was then.

Someone gestured for me to take a seat on the floor at the centre of the table. My friend Seema, who was also part of the support team, sat on my right and a whole bunch of Japanese people we had never met before sat across from us.

Everyone kept their eyes focused on their laps. No one spoke. No drinks would be poured and no food would be served until after the President had arrived. It was at this point I realized there was only one empty seat at the table and it was directly on my left. They had seated the President right beside me.

This filled me with both excitement and dread. Excitement because I was going to get one-on-one time with the President of the university. Dread because I had no idea what to say to the man.

Powerful people tend to have powerful personalities. They're more gregarious and friendly and confident than the average person. The President was no exception.

He walked into the room and immediately decided that the tatami floor was much too hard to sit on. He grabbed nine pillows from the corner of the room. Three for him, three for me and three for Seema. He demanded that we stretch our legs out under the table and get comfortable.

He filled my glass with beer for the first toast of the evening. So far, so good.

With the first speech out of the way, it was time for the self-introduction portion of the evening. I smiled and nodded as each person around the table introduced themselves but I didn't pay close attention to their names. What was the point? I wasn't going to see any of these people again. Besides, I'm terrible at remembering names. How was I supposed to learn 20 names in two minutes?

This was my first mistake of the night.

As soon as the introductions were over, the President turned to me and asked if I had heard everyone's name. I told him I had.

"Okay," he said, making a circular motion with his hand. "Go around the table once more and tell me everyone's name."

The entire table was silent. All eyes were on me.

I cursed myself for not having paid attention. But if I was going to humiliate myself in front of the group I might as well go down laughing.

"Well, this is Seema," I said. "And that's Kawa . . . Kawa . . . Kawa-something."

We went around the table like that, with the President waiting for me to butcher each person's name before correcting me. I masked my mortification with a smile.

We were about halfway around the table when I realized I had completely forgotten the President's name. If he asked me what his name was, I wouldn't be able to do it. I started to panic. There were only a few more people to go before we landed on him. I could handle the embarrassment of forgetting a few strangers' names but forgetting the name of the President would be social suicide. I would be shunned by the group and exposed as a fraud. They would probably revoke my scholarship. My heart sank when the one question I was dreading most finally came.

"And what's my name?" the President asked.

In a desperate attempt to charm my way out of a bad situation, I tilted my head, batted my eyelashes and said, "先生は京都大学の一番大切な人です!"

(This translates as, "You are the most important person at Kyoto University!" but it makes way more sense when you say it in Japanese because it's more respectful to call someone by their title, rather than their name.)

He laughed, and so did everyone else. But the President wasn't about to let me off the hook that easily.

He gave me a hint: "Matsu . . ."

"Hiro?" I guessed.


"You forgot my name?" he asked.

I hung my head in shame and admitted that, yes, I had forgotten his name. He made light of it for a bit and then turned away from me and started talking to the person on his left.

Everyone was looking at me with the same expression – one part amusement, two parts pity. I didn't feel judged, I felt dismissed. Dismissed as a frivolous, trifling person.

After 15 long minutes, the President finally stopped giving me the cold shoulder. Except, right at the exact moment he started talking to me again, I bit into a piece of fish and four bones got stuck in my mouth. I couldn't exactly pull the bones out of my mouth and stick them in a napkin while he was talking to me so I just smiled and nodded.

Except I was distracted the entire time. All I could think about was getting a fish bone stuck in my throat (it happened before and no amount of coughing and vomiting could dislodge it). I was terrified if I didn't pull the bones out soon I would swallow one and it would get stuck in my throat. I had to concentrate on not swallowing. But because I wasn't swallowing, a pool of saliva was building up in my mouth.

There were only two options: swallow and choke on a fish bone; or spit and offend one of the most important people in Japan.

Luckily, I didn't have to choose either option. The President, bored with our one-sided conversation, turned away again. The second he turned his back on me, I pulled the bones out of my mouth and swallowed. I also stayed away from the fish for the rest of the night.

My third attempt to make a good impression on him didn't go so well either. The conversation got off to an awkward start.

"Do you know what K-Y is?" he asked me.

I sort of blinked at him in disbelief. I wasn't sure I had heard him right so I asked him to repeat the question. So he did. Louder and more clearly this time.

"Do you know what K-Y is?"

Now, I know exactly what K-Y is but I also knew there was no way the President of Kyoto University was asking for my thoughts on personal lubricants. So I decided to play dumb.

He explained that K-Y was short for kuuki yomenai (which literally means "you can't read the air" and is slang for someone who is clueless). He said he has a soft spot for K-Ys and I think maybe he was trying to explain that he volunteers with mentally disabled children. Or maybe he was talking about me. It was hard to tell.

He speaks English fluently but he insisted on speaking Japanese with me. I can be charming and funny and (somewhat) intelligent in English. But in Japanese I come across as a bumbling half-wit. At best.

So instead of being able to ask him his thoughts on Japan's new Prime Minister or the economic crisis, my limited Japanese only allowed me to ask the really important questions -- like what his hobbies were. (Golf and magic tricks.)

I hadn't felt this socially awkward since high school. At least this time I was legally allowed to drink.

People were starting to switch seats so they could chat with someone new and I moved to the other side of the table to talk with a group of professors. I figured it would be better that way. If I wasn't talking to the President, then I wouldn't be able to embarrass myself further. I let Seema, who is effortlessly funny and clever in any language, charm the pants off the President.

Eventually, someone stood up and made a closing speech and we all clapped and, just like that, the party was over. And that was my disastrous dinner with the President. But I'm not beating myself up over it.

I know that if I had had dinner with my boyfriend Barack, it would have gone much, much better. I wouldn't have forgotten his name. And we probably would have eaten boneless chicken. And he wouldn't have made me speak Japanese. And talking about K-Y wouldn't have been awkward at all.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Five years gone

I've been blogging for five whole years now. To celebrate, I took a trip back through time and reread some of my older posts.

It's strange reading stuff written by your younger self. It's like looking into one of those magnifying mirrors that makes every pore on your face look as big as the Grand Canyon. It's not pretty.

It's difficult to peer into the past and get up close with the person you used to be. Mostly because it forces you to confront the person you've become. You're the same but you're different. Depending on what's changed and what's stayed the same, this can be a good or a bad thing.

I still share the same love of the absurd as my younger self. I still have the same adventurous spirit and playful sense of humour. I'm still a hopeless romantic. I still strive to be good and kind and honest. In some ways, I'm still very much the same person I was five years ago.

But in other ways, I'm very different from the person I was five years ago. I'm not as confident as I used to be. I'm not as optimistic. I'm not as light-hearted and unburdened and carefree.

A lot has happened in the last five years. I traveled the world, I completed an Ironman, I fell in love, I fell out of love, I quit my job, I went back to school, I moved to Japan (twice). I started a blog, I learned a new language, I broke my arm, I took a train across Russia, I rode a bike 600 km through the mountains (alone).

But while the people around me have evolved and changed during the past five years, I feel like I've stalled. My friends have marriages and children and homes they own. Their lives are going forward with a sense of purpose and direction. What do I have to show for the past five years? A string of failed relationships and very little money in the bank.

It's not that I'm unhappy with the path I've chosen. I never chased after material things. I never settled for a man who didn't make me happy. I picked a career that aligned itself with my morals and values. I am rich with experiences and adventures. But I'm starting to look back at my life and see something empty.

Bouncing around the world and refusing to settle down is not as much fun as it used to be. More than anything else, I want a solid, stable, happy, healthy relationship with someone who loves me as much as I love them. This is what I want the next five years to bring. I don't think it's too much to ask for.

I don't want to get more introspective than that. All I wanted to do was mark the fact that I've been blogging for five years and throw up some links to my favourite posts. And then I started reading the stuff I wrote when I was younger and it made me feel old.

But, dammit, I'm not going to let that get me down. I'm not going to mourn the passing of time. I'm going to celebrate it. And I'm going to celebrate it by posting 10 of my favourite stories from the past five years.

1. Ballots, bribes and high-class hookers: I love this story. It details my job as a deputy returning officer during the federal election. It could have been a very boring tale but the story gods dropped a jackass named Keith into my lap.

2. The Trans-Siberian Railway: I was trapped on a train for several days with aggressive Russian men and countless bottles of vodka. It doesn't get much better than that.

3. Four hours with George Stroumboulopoulos: I met Canada's boyfriend and made a fool of myself on national TV.

4. My 15 seconds of fame: I told the world I had a non-sexual crush on CBC weather forecaster Claire Martin. She then talked about me and my creepy stalkeresque blog on her national weather forecast. It was awesome.

5. Culture shock: I wrote this when I was living in rural Japan. It was an incredible experience but it was also a lesson in loneliness.

6. Chasing rabbits on company time: More from rural Japan. But a much lighter story. I wrote about the very quirky and very cute vice-principal I used to "work" with.

7. One hour of heavy petting: I went to a cat cafe in Osaka. It was kind of like a cat brothel -- you pay to pet cats by the hour. This post generated more comments than anything I've ever written. I guess people liked it.

8. Kochi to Kyoto by bicycle: My epic 600-kilometre Japanese bike trip. Up and down mountains twice as high as the ones in Vancouver. On roads that resembled coiled intestines. For six days straight. By myself. I still can't believe I actually did this.

9. Hot Rob: I can't talk about the past five years without talking about Hot Rob. The man who thought he was too hot to get a date. He went from douche bag to friend. This one comes in four parts: I, II, III, IV

10. And I thought you read it for the articles: I used to have the third biggest butt on the internet.

Here's to the next five years . . .

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Stationmaster cat gets a special Christmas uniform

I was watching the morning news on Japanese TV the other day. Sandwiched between a panel discussion on a philandering golf legend (yes, Tiger Woods is big in Japan) and an interview with a Hollywood star in town to promote a film already released on DVD in some countries (Johnny Depp's Public Enemies hits theatres next week) was a story about Tama the Stationmaster Cat.

According to the news report, Tama will wear a special Christmas uniform until December 25. Tama will greet commuters as they come in and out of Wakayama train station. His kitty-sized Santa suit is sure to fill passengers with the Christmas spirit, in a country where Christmas is celebrated by eating chicken and having sex.

And while we're on the topic of stationmaster cats, someone posted a Tama slideshow on YouTube. The slideshow is cute, creepy and completely absurd. In other words, it is magical.

It gets especially good around the 1:40 mark where a very important looking man wearing a business suit (the mayor, perhaps?) appears to be presenting Tama with some sort of medal of honour. He puts the medal around Tama's neck and then shakes his paw. (Update: My friend Jagna just wrote to say the very important looking man is actually the governor of Wakayama. But wait. It gets better. The title bestowed upon Tama by the governor is that of "Nobleman.")

The paparazzi descend around the 2:00 mark and there are photos of Tama being "interviewed" by TV journalists. By 2:30 he is awarded a prize for two years of service as a stationmaster. The video then moves on to photos of Tama's family, including mom "Miiko" and sibling "Chibi." The whole thing ends with an advertisement for a book detailing Tama's rise to fame -- from regular kitty to celebrity stationmaster.

Consider this an early Christmas present from me (via the morning news on Japanese TV) to you.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

As of late

Forgive me readers for I have sinned. It's been two whole months since my last update. I suppose I could just shrug it off and say I've been too busy to blog. It would be a lame excuse but one that's not entirely untrue.

There has been no shortage of stuff keeping me occupied -- classes, studying, Olympic weightlifting, hiking, karaoke, working, running, traveling. (Also, I have recently discovered that you can watch TV for free on the internet and, as a result, have spent way too much time binging on shows too shameful to mention.)

And while it's true that I have been busy, there's more to it than that. The problem is that I have been relatively happy. Of course, being happy is not a problem in and of itself but I can't write when things are going well. I'm just not motivated to write when I'm happy. Dealing with heartbreak, loneliness and the existential horror of it all is the spur that drives me into a whirlwind of creative activity.

I think we all feel a great yawning emptiness in our lives sometimes. And we do what we can to find something that steers us away from despair. We fill the cracks with things that make us happy or make us feel safe or, at the very least, distract us from the pointlessness of it all. These things can be religion or tennis or love or alcohol or work or friends or whatever. I fill the void with constant activity. And part of that constant activity is blogging.

I am aware that the vast majority of what I write is silly, insubstantial fluff. I am also aware that I am not a great writer (I'm not convinced I am even a particularly good writer. I think what I am is a competent writer. My writing was competent enough to get me a job as a newspaper journalist and, later, a job as a writer of press releases and other frivolous things. Compared to real writers, I'm nothing but a hack).

But I like writing. Writing makes me feel good when I am feeling bad. It is my escape from the existential horror of it all.

If you were to go back through the archives of this blog, you could easily measure my emotional well-being by looking at the frequency of my posts. Periods of sadness are marked by prolific posting and periods of happiness are marked by long stretches of silence.

I may not explicitly state what's going on in my personal life but it's there in the undercurrent that tows this blog along.

If you were to read between the lines right now, you could probably guess that there has been some emotional upheaval in my life that has spurred me into blogging again. All I can say is that I was dating someone and now I'm not. I never wrote about him because he asked me not to and I respect his privacy. We want to remain friends but it's hard and it's sad.

So I deal with it by not dealing with it. It's much easier to throw myself into a whirlwind of activity. Which half explains why I am blogging again.

The other half of the explanation is that I've missed writing. I like writing and I want to write more often. I want to become a good writer. But I know I'll never progress if I only use writing as an emotional crutch to steer myself away from despair. I have to learn to force myself to write when I'd rather be outside having fun. Or when I'm feeling fulfilled by other things. Besides, my younger sister Hilary has started blogging and I can't let that whippersnapper upstage me.

So I've resolved to write a little bit every day and post more frequently, even if I don't feel like it. Starting from today, I'm going to attempt to update this blog every Tuesday. It's a resolution I intend to keep. Even if it means I have to give up watching shameful TV shows on the internet in order to do it.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Confessions of a wannabe Olympic weightlifter

For the past six months, I have been trying to join one of the sports clubs at Kyoto University. I wanted to join the swim team but was told it was for Japanese students only. The long-distance running team welcomed me with open arms but it turned out to be more of a drinking club than a running club. I toyed with the idea of joining the karate club until I found out that having watched the Karate Kid, like, 10 times didn't count as "valid" experience.

But I'm happy to report the long search is now over. I have finally found a sports club at Kyoto University that has accepted me. I am the newest member of -- wait for it -- the Olympic weightlifting team. Yes, that's right. Olympic weightlifting.

Trust me, no one is more surprised by this turn of events than I am. Olympic weightlifting was last on the list of clubs I wanted to join. For me, Olympic weightlifting was synonymous with bulging muscles, big bellies and bad hair. I was worried I'd get a mullet and start dating women if I spent my spare time clean and jerking.

But all of that has changed. My preconceived notions about the sport have gone flying out the window. I no longer think snatch is a dirty word.

But maybe I should explain how I came to join the Olympic weightlifting team before I start busting myths and stereotypes about the sport. Here's how it all went down: A Japanese guy by the name of Yoshi approached my friend Javier at the Kyoto University gym back in the summer. Yoshi, who is a member of the weightlifting team, asked Javier if he wanted to join the club. Javier, whose arm is easily twisted, said yes. Javier asked me if I wanted to try it too. Javier is my regular workout partner and I didn't want to lose him so I decided to go along for the ride. I wasn't sure I'd like it but I'll try anything once (well, except for steroids and mullets. You have to draw the line somewhere).

The Olympic weightlifting team has its own private gym and there are never more than six people in it at a time. Although the guys who work out here don't call it a gym. They call it "the shed." I'm not exactly sure why but I think it has something to do with the fact that the gym is housed in a shed at the end of the football field.

The first time Javier and I met Yoshi at the shed, there were a couple of other Japanese guys working out at the same time. To call these guys "huge" would be an understatement. Their limbs and chests curved outward in cartoonishly exaggerated proportions. It was as if someone had cut open their skin, implanted slabs of concrete and sewn them back up again.

I immediately decided Olympic weightlifting was not the sport for me. I wanted to stay slim and feminine. This place, which was filled with the grunts and shouts of men attempting to lift staggering amounts of weight high above their heads before sending the barbells crashing to the ground, was the antithesis of femininity.

But I don't like to give up on things before I've given them a fair shot so I figured I would try it out for a month before deciding whether I liked it or not.

Yoshi spent the first few sessions coaching Javier and I through the basic techniques of Olympic weightlifting. Like anything new, it was awkward at first. I had to completely unlearn everything I thought I knew about weightlifting. The first misconception I had to toss out was that bodybuilding and Olympic weightlifting are the same thing. They're not.

Bodybuilding is about aesthetics while Olympic lifting is about function. Olympic weightlifting is a very technically demanding sport. You are not lifting the barbell above your head with just your arms. The lifts use every muscle in your body. You are using the muscles in your legs and butt to generate force. With the right technique, the explosive power generated in your lower body should cause your arms and the barbell to practically fly up over your head. It's not just about brute strength. It's about proper technique, concentration, speed and flexibility.

Bodybuilding, on the other hand, uses isolated movements (bicep curls, for example) that serve no real function outside of the gym. Except for maybe impressing chicks who are impressed by those sorts of things. Personally, I'll take big brains over big biceps any day. (I will, however, make an exception for my boyfriend Barack Obama, who manages to have both big brains and ripped abs.)

In addition to the snatch and the clean and jerk, an Olympic weightlifting routine contains all sorts of great strength training exercises. Squats, crunches, vertical jumps, push-ups and chin-ups are all part of the regular workout. I can't think of a better way to increase overall strength. Olympic weightlifting also develops tremendous explosive power, which can be transferred to other sports, like cycling and running.

The only downside is that I am the only female member of the club. I've had no trouble recruiting male friends like Sergey (now known as the Bulgarian Bodybuilder). But trying to get female friends to join the club is impossible. The women I've talked to want to work out on a stationary bike or do light weights. But the Olympic gym only contains barbells and plates. And most women assume lifting heavy weights will make them big and muscular.

But instead of giving me the shoulders of an East German swimmer, Olympic weightlifting has actually made me smaller. I've burned fat and lost weight since joining the club. Two months of consistent weight training has toned my legs better than years of running ever did. The best part is that I feel great. Plus, I can bang out a set of chin-ups, chug back a protein shake with the boys and still feel feminine. I have no desire to go on the juice or cut my hair into a mullet.

I had no idea I would enjoy Olympic weightlifting this much. It was the last club I wanted to join. But I have gained a whole new appreciation and respect for the sport. It's so much more than just bulging muscles, big bellies and bad hair.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Movin' on down

For the past 12 months, I lived in an apartment building for international students, researchers and professors at Kyoto University. It wasn't the lap of luxury but it had a few perks.

My sheets were laundered every Wednesday. I had a huge balcony, a kitchen with counter space, rent that was so heavily subsidized it was practically free, my own washing machine and friends on every floor (except for the fourth floor. I never met anyone who lived on the fourth floor).

But, like all good things, it came to an end last week. The maximum tenancy at Kyoto University's international house is one year. After that, you're on your own. You have to move out and find a "real" apartment. Finding an apartment in Kyoto is both easier and more difficult than you might think.

The easy part is that there are apartment rental agencies all over the city. You simply go to one in the neighbourhood you want to live in. You meet with an agent and tell them what you're looking for. They then search for suitable apartments in your price range and drive you around from apartment to apartment until you find one you like. They do all of the work and it is completely free. You can go to as many agencies as you like and view as many apartments as you like. It's all very polite, professional and efficient. There is no pressure to sign a contract.

The difficult part is that you have to do all of this in Japanese. You also have to sign a rental contract that is written in Japanese. So you may not know exactly what you're agreeing to if your Japanese isn't up to scratch.

The other sticky issue is that many landlords demand a lot of money upfront. Two months rent, a security deposit, plus "key money" (key money is basically bribe money. It costs around $1,000 and it's considered a "gift" to the landlord for allowing you to live in the apartment. You can ask for housing that doesn't require key money but this will limit your options).

I decided I wanted to stay in the same neighbourhood, which made searching for an apartment a lot easier. I live in the northeast corner of Kyoto, which is considered an undesirable area because it is 3 km from the university and 5 km from downtown. A lot of Japanese people consider these distances "far" and "inconvenient." So rents are a lot cheaper up here. Which is ridiculous when you consider there is a train station and a subway station nearby. Not to mention a huge park with great hiking and running trails through the mountains. There are lots of little shops, restaurants and grocery stores. It would be a highly desirable neighbourhood in Canada. It's the Japanese equivalent of High Park in Toronto or Kitsilano in Vancouver (but with less blond hair, breast implants and Lululemon).

The average rent for a one-room apartment in Kyoto is about $400 a month. And by "one room" I literally mean one room. You cook, eat, sleep and work all in the same tiny room. An apartment with a separate bedroom is twice as expensive.

I found a one-room apartment for $300 a month. The best part is that almost everything is included in the rent. I have free electricity, free wireless internet and a free rooftop laundry room. (The rooftop laundry room is awesome. I'm totally going to have a party up here.)

The apartment is clean and quiet (except for the dog across the street, who barks and whines incessantly). The only catch is that the kitchen is the size of a photo booth with absolutely no counter space.

And the toilet is a squat toilet.

And, um, there's no shower in the apartment. But there are shared showers on the other side of the building, past the bike parking area. On the downside, the showers are coin-operated. On the upside, I don't have to clean them. It's like staying in a hotel! A really cheap hotel!

The strange thing is, none of this bothers me. If I were living in a one-room apartment with a squat toilet and shared showers back home, I would probably be in the depths of depression. But only because I would be surrounded by friends who own houses or rent large apartments. I would feel "poor" by comparison.

But over here, everyone is in the same boat. All of my friends are on the same scholarship, so we are all forced to share the same standard of living. We all live in one-room apartments. We all pull in the same income each month. Some of my friends live in places where they share kitchens and toilets. I feel rich by comparison. It's all relative.

So here it is. My new home. (Can you spot the items from Ikea?)

I haven't met the neighbours yet. They live in a traditional-style Japanese house. With barbed wire. They don't seem very friendly. I'm starting to suspect I live next door to the yakuza.

My landlord, on the other hand, is incredibly sweet. He is a huge road cycling enthusiast and a former triathlete. I think a major factor in his decision to rent the apartment to me was the fact that we both share a love of bikes. We ended up talking about cycling for an hour when he showed me the apartment. One of his dreams is to ride across Canada. He saw a TV show about Canada once and has wanted to visit ever since. Maybe that explains the cute nameplate he made me for my mailbox.

It may not be as nice as my apartment at Kyoto University's international house. There's no laundry service and no friends on every floor. But I'm getting used to it. It's home. For now.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

IKEA in Japan

I went to Ikea for the first time last week. I didn't even know there was an Ikea in Japan. I'm not even sure how I found out there was an Ikea in Japan. Maybe I read about it online or maybe someone mentioned it in passing. Either way, I went to Ikea for the first time last week.

Ikea in Japan is exactly like Ikea anywhere else. This was somewhat disappointing because I was expecting it to be less Swedish and more Japanese. I thought it would follow the McDonald's model, which is to say import the original but add a few items on the menu that can only be found in Japan (like the shrimp burger and the egg burger, for example).

So I was expecting Ikea to be Ikea but with a Japanese twist. Futons instead of beds. Chopsticks instead of forks. Sushi instead of meatballs. But no. The Japanese Ikea did not deviate in any way from the Swedish original. Well, except for the smoking area. I don't remember seeing a smoking area next to the entrance of a Canadian Ikea.

Despite being located in an industrial area in the middle of nowhere (just like in Canada!), the store is extremely easy to get to (not like in Canada!). Ikea offers a free shuttle bus from one of the busiest train stations in downtown Osaka.

The bus was one big moving advertisement for Ikea. Inside the bus, there was an instructional video on how to shop at the store. I think the fact that there's a right way to shop at the store (following the arrows with your little pencil and piece of paper) partly explains its success in Japan. Ikea is already very Japanese. There is a correct way of doing things, there are lots of instructions and explanations, everything is very orderly and clean, there is a proper route that you have to follow. The store is practically a microcosm of Japan.

The bus also contained several ads featuring the Ikea cafe, which were meant to stimulate your appetite during the 25-minute ride so that by the time you finally arrive at the store the first thing you want to do is order up a plate of meatballs with lingonberry sauce. (Which is exactly what we did.)

The menu contained standard Ikea fare, except for the green tea lattes and Japanese curry. The rest of the Japanese Ikea experience was exactly the same as the Canadian Ikea experience. There were the same showrooms containing the same furniture. The same marathon floorplan winding its way through model living rooms, bathrooms and bedrooms. The same massive marketplace. The same airplane-hangar-sized warehouse. And, finally, the same long line ups at the checkout counters.

I picked up a few items for my new apartment (I'm moving on Thursday. But that's a whole other story). Of course, furnishing my apartment was just part of the reason I went to Ikea. I really just wanted to see if it was any different in Japan. And even though it wasn't any different from any other Ikea anywhere else, it was still very Japanese.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Stationmaster cats and goats

Regular readers of this blog may remember a post I wrote about a cat named Tama who was hired to be the stationmaster of a railway station in rural Japan.

Tama has an office, wears a uniform and greets commuters as they come in and out of the station during rush hour. The cat has become so popular that the railway had to hire a human employee to assist the feline stationmaster. Tama has drawn in thousands of tourists from across the country and has single-handedly boosted the local economy by 1.1 billion yen.

In an attempt to copy the success of Tama, other railway stations in Japan are jumping on the "animal as stationmaster" bandwagon. There are now several cat stationmasters and at least one dog stationmaster. (The dog is a Yorkshire Terrier by the name of Maron, who works at a small railway station in northern Japan. He seems much more agreeable about wearing a full uniform than the cats. The cats only deign to wear the hats.)

In an effort to one-up the kitties, the latest animal to be appointed to the role of stationmaster is a goat called Koma. Koma reports for duty at Uzen-Komatsu station. No word yet on how that's working out.

These animals don't just laze around the station or sleep on the job. These pets are put to work. They work six days a week, eight hours a day. They pose for pictures and entertain their fans. They give TV interviews and attend local events as VIPs. They're treated like real employees. They even have to go to meetings.

Some PR people recently arranged a meeting between Kotora (the feline stationmaster of Kichigahara station) and Bus (the feline stationmaster of Aizu Ashinomaki Onsen station). Unfortunately, the meeting didn't go very well. The cats hated each other.

Only in Japan!

Friday, September 11, 2009

A very Canadian summer

When I was back home for a visit a few weeks ago, a friend asked me what I missed most about Canada when I was in Japan. We were driving through the streets of Toronto at the time and it hit me that what I missed most about Canada was right there in front of me.

"I miss this," I said, as we drove through city blocks lined with tiny restaurants serving cheap food from around the world. Indian, Thai, Greek, Jamaican, Korean, Ethiopian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Lebanese. Ten different countries in two city blocks.

I miss being able to have a burrito for breakfast, a falafel for lunch and souvlaki for dinner. I miss Red River cereal. I miss blending in with the crowd. I miss being able to speak English with everyone I meet. I miss being able to read the cereal box while I eat breakfast. I miss Grape Nuts. I miss the wide-open spaces, the small big cities and the unspoiled wilderness. I miss George Stroumboulopoulos. I miss Tim Hortons.

Don't get me wrong. I love Japan. But I often feel like an outsider living on the fringes of a world I am part of but don't really belong to. I am not Japanese and I will never be Japanese. I am treated with respect and kindness by most of the people I encounter. But the polite smiles and deep bows only serve to highlight the distance between us.

So it was nice to get out of Japan and go home for a few weeks. I spent a little bit of time in Vancouver and a lot of time in Toronto. It's funny how you notice things that you never really paid attention to until after you've been out of the country for a while. Take the liquor store in Ontario, for example. The stores are nicely laid out with helpful signs for each section: Ontario wine, B.C. wine, Australian wine, South African wine, Chilean wine, fine scotches, Japanese sake. And then, the one section I had never noticed before: The Party Zone. Classy!

Of course, no summertime visit to Toronto would be complete without a trip to the CNE. I like the CNE for the atmosphere, the free samples and the mini donuts. I hate the rides. I do not look at the rides and see fun, thrills and excitement. I look at the rides and see nausea, terror and the possibility of serious injury or death. (I like the ferris wheel, though. Ferris wheels are nice and slow and you get great views from the top.)

My sister was getting frustrated that I wouldn't go on any of the rides (not including the ferris wheel. We rode it twice). So I made a deal with her. I agreed to go on one ride as long as I got to choose it. I looked around the midway and immediately ruled out anything that went upside down. I also nixed anything that was more than five feet above the ground and moved at a high speed. Roller coasters were out of the question. We were too tall for the kiddie rides. The haunted house was too lame. The only option was the tilt-a-whirl.

The tilt-a-whirl didn't look so bad from a distance. But appearances can be deceiving. I knew I had made a mistake when, just before the ride was about to begin, a greasy carny walked over to our car, gave my sister and I a pair of high fives and yelled, "ARE YOU READY TO GO FAST?!?!"

"No!" I said in a panicky voice. "We want to go slow!"

But it was too late. The platform started moving. We were going around and around in circles, slowly at first and then faster and faster. Parts of the platform were raised and lowered, which caused the cars to spin in different directions and at different speeds. The cars would swing and snap unexpectedly. Not only was the platform rotating in one giant circle, but our car was spinning wildly at the same time. I started to feel violently ill. I couldn't focus my eyes. We were being spun around and around and around and there was nothing we could do to stop it.

"Let me off!" I screamed. "I'm going to be sick!"

But no one listened. The ride seemed to last an eternity, with me struggling not to vomit all over my sister's lap. I can't believe people actually pay money to put themselves through this type of torture and they actually enjoy it. I almost wept with relief when it was over.

After the madness of the CNE, my family escaped to Georgian Bay for two days. We went to the town of Lafontaine, which is where my grandfather's side of the family is from. The Marchildons were part of a group of families from Quebec who moved to the area in the 1800s. It's still very much a francophone community today (it's also the only place in Canada where every second mailbox has the name "Marchildon" written on it). The lake is one of the most beautiful places in the country.

We drove up to Georgian Bay with my dad's canoe tied to the roof of the car (does it get any more Canadian than that?). I should explain that the canoe is my dad's pride and joy. He built it himself, out of wood and entirely by hand. The canoe is a work of art (he told me to say that. He also told me to put a picture of it up on my blog. Here you go, Dad!).

One of my favourite things about Toronto is the TTC. I love the way the subway stations smell. They have a distinctive smell. If I had to describe it, I would say it's a mixture of old newspapers, stale air, dirt and metal. You're hit with this smell as soon as you walk through the doors. The smell hasn't changed in 30 years. There's something comforting about it. It smells like home.