A Travellerspoint blog

2012 kicks off to a good start

overcast 8 °C

2011's Christmas was an, er, different but thoroughly enjoyable one. A reunion with the Acorn crew on the run-up was great. Christmas Eve saw us at Takeshi's aunt's house for some Japanese family fun and too many drinks leading to a hungover, 'unique' Christmas breakfast. After the long train journey back home we were stuck for a food option due to my refusal to eat anything Japanese or cook... amusingly we got Macdonalds!!! I never eat McDs so to be eating it on Xmas Day was funny. We opened our fabulous presents from each other and the wonderfully thoughtful people here and in England before heading to Shima's for a relaxed take-out pizza and beer party. After stopping off for a city cafe coffee and chatting to England, we rocked a three hour karaoke session. We finished the day with a few beers in a local friend's bar. Only in Japan.
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Our New Year trip was definitely one to remember. Using Japan's December (aimed at students) cheap train ticket we took seven hours of local trains to snowy Hida-Takayama. Oh, how beauuuuutiful it was! A small, historic town with great food. The second day, we took the bus to Shin-hotaka onsen town where we got the cable-car to the top of a freeeezing cold, snowy mountain for (apparently) spectacular views of the vast expanse of the Japan Alps. But it was snowing. We saw NOTHING. After a half way point rotemburo we descended and the skies cleared completely. Grrrrr.
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Cafe Moustache was great for a chill out and after a, not so great, free onsen we sadly headed back and cooked in the hostel kitchen. We moved on to world-heritage Shirakawa-gou the following day to see the snow-covered zassho thatched-roof houses. Breath-taking. Stunning. Just... wow.
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The locals 'mow' their rooves:
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Takeshi wanted to get closer:
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A local shrine was featured in the anime 'Higashi no Naku Koro Ni' so many fans flock there to leave manga adorned ema (wooden plaques with wishes or prayers) and these two guys had taken a doll to photograph there!!!
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We bussed to Kanazawa for a late arrival on New Years Eve to find that there was only one izakaya open to eat in. So eat we did before free soba noodles at the ryokan and a calm countdown in our room watching TV. NY Day found us in one of Japan's top three gardens- Kenrokuen- which was gorgeous. I was sad because there was no snow on the trees, which I had wanted more than anything, but it was still lovely. Then we wandered the castle site before the (mostly closed) chayamachi former-geisha area. Again, the only open eatery was the same as the previous night so we repeated the meal!
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Before heading back we hit the impressive 21st Century Art Gallery. The long journey home was fine due to our buzzing about the trip.
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And here we are in 2012, which is proving to be quite a huge year in the Kiki and Takeshi household. The preparations for coming to England are proving challenging and a rollercoaster but we are both very excited regardless. Unfortunately, the hideous UK Border Agency have decided that Takeshi won't be able to work in England for a while so we are planning to adjust to a more frugal lifestyle! Anyway, I should go and continue to plan.

My best wishes to you for a healthy, peaceful and positive 2012. I leave you with some J gems.

The joys of J medicine. They don't have tablets or capsules here. Why?
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The classic winter toilet seat. These things are so unhygienic. Don't get me started...
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A stellar error:
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A J toilet cubicle's changing mat (sorry it's on the side..):
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Posted by karenkiki 03:02 Archived in Japan Tagged living_abroad Comments (1)

日本語のブログ

semi-overcast 9 °C

さいきんは、週に5回日本語のべんきょうをします。日本語を話すのとき、いつもとてもはずかしいです。じゃ、今日はブログが日本語に書くと思っていました。たぶん、よくぬかります。ごめんなさい。でも、がんばります!!!日本人の友達とのぶこブラウーンさん:これはあなたのために書きました。

さいきんはばたばたした。しまさんとことねちゃんとみのおに行きました。大きいりゅせいがあります。こよを見たかった。でも、こよが少ないでした!ほんまに楽しかったので、がっかりしませんでした。
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岳と京都のおうはらに行きました。さんぜんじはすごいうつくしいです。プリクラをしました。でも、めっちゃはやかったから、3しゃしんしかありません。
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12月の一日から四日まではロラーダービのワールドカップでした。ロラーダービはしりますか。このスポーツが英国でします。あぶないです。でも、楽しいです。アメリカ はしょうしゃでした。 カナダはぎんしょうでした。英国 はどうしょうでした。すごいね!

アメリカ人はサンフランシスコからさいきんわたしたちのうちで泊まりました。チュラビスです。えいがを作るので、かれは日本に来ました。かれはやさしいとおもしろいいです。

先週わたしたちのともだちに「さよなら」と言っていました。いっしょにインドのレストランに行った。私の友達の友達はパーチによびました。おこのみやきのパーチがありました。みんあはしんせつな人。食べ物はおいしかったです。ありがとう!

今週はクリスマスです!東京で岳のプレゼントを買いました。今週も、も一プレゼントを買う。クリスマスの日はけんごくんとしまさんとよじさんとことねちゃんとすごす。わくわく!24日と26日に仕事をします。ざんえんですね。

私は日本に来たのは、去年の2月です。けんごくんは私をひこうきにむかえに行きました。ぜんぜんわすれません。来年の2月に帰ります。出発日は2月七日です。それから、タイワンに行きますかもしりません。2年間ちょうど日本にすみます。

じゃ、2か月間以下が日本を出る。ちょっとさびしいです。でも、帰るのはわくわく!帰ってすぎに、英国のサイダーを飲みたいです!2か月間べんきょうをするのはがんばります。英国でして行く。でも、たいへんです。

出るの前にたくさん予定があります。かなざわに行ったりパーチをしたりします。かなざわのところの中で何が一番すきですか。パーチはいえでかいざかやでするかどうか。どこでするかおしえてください。

英国に行きたいですか。来年に来たらどうですか。どうしても、来てほしい!!!

And in English, that was meant to say:

Recently, I have been studying English five times a week. When I speak Japanese I am very shy, so, today, I thought I would write my blog in Japanese. Maybe i will make many mistakes. I'm sorry, but I will try my best! To my Japanese friends and Fury- this one's for you!

I have been very busy lately. I went to Mino-o with Shima and baby Kotone. There is a big waterfall. We wanted to see the red maple leaves but there were only a few. We weren't disappointed though because we had fun.

I went to Kyoto with Takeshi. Sanzen temple is beautiful. We did 'purikura' but we only had three photos because it was so fast.

From the 1st to the 4th of December there was the Roller Derby World Cup. Do you know Roller Derby? I play this sport in England. It's dangerous but fun. America were first place, Canada second and England third place. Nice one, eh?

Recently an American guy from San Francisco stayed at our flat. His name is Travis. He came to Japan because he is making a movie. He is very kind and interesting.

This week is Christmas! I bought Takeshi a present in Tokyo and this week, too, I will buy him another present. On Christmas Day we will spend time with Kengo, Shima, Yoji and baby Kotone. I'm very excited. But I have to work on the 24th and 26th. What a shame.

I came to Japan last February. Kengo met me at the airport. I will never forget that. Next February I go home. My departure day is February 7th. From there, I will maybe go to Taiwan. i will have been in Japan for exactly two years.

Yeah, so it's less than two months 'til I go. I'm quite sad, but am excited to go home. As soon as I get home I want to drink English cider. I will study hard for the next two months. I'm going to continue studying in England but it will be tough.

I have many plans before I leave. I will do things like visit Kanazawa and have a party. Where is your favourite place in Kanazawa? I am not sure whether to have a party in my flat or at an izakaya. Tell me where you think I should have it.

Do you want to go to England? Why don't you come next year? I want you to come by any means!

Posted by karenkiki 20:26 Archived in Japan Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Just, Tokyo

rain 10 °C

Due to various factors, I didn't much warm to Tokyo on my first visit, which had upset me greatly since I had wanted to visit there my whole life. I was determined to revisit and try again and..... KASPLAT... SUCCESS! I LOVE TOKYO!

My time there began and ended with two overnight buses, which were actually OK due to the amazing pull-down hoods that cover your face making you feel more comfortable for sleeping.

After being chucked off at an unknown location in (business centre) Shinjuku I started my trip with a visit to Tokyo Metropolitan's Government Buildings, which offer a free elevator to the 47th floor to an observatory. This building is impressive- the design was based upon a computer chip- and is next-door to the 'Lost in Translation' hotel.
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From there I struggled with the confusing transport system to get to my hostel and then immediately to the, hmm, fair to middling Museum of Modern Art. In the rain, I then walked to and around the spacious Imperial Palace Gardens and was delighted that there were still some red maple leaves to see. P1020634.jpg
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And then, I metroed to Akihabara; the place I was most excited to re-visit. Akihabara is home to Japan's most famous electrical, manga/anime and maid cafe district. All of those images you see of modern Tokyo- they're from Akihabara (or Akiba as it's known to it's lovers).

I started with a trip to the hugely trendy (a word pretty much never linked with Akiba) 2k540 artisan street underneath the train tracks for some browsing and present buying.
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Following that, many hours were spent wandering around the manga stores marvelling at the cosplaying staff, the choice and the talented artwork. My head was spinning. I am not a hardcore anime geek, and know very little about it really, but I truly adore it aesthetically. I just can't get enough of those cute blue-haired girls and androgynous men. I stepped into a wig paradise- their selection was a rainbow of hues. It was so hard not to buy one (there's always the internet....).
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The streets are filled with girls dressed as french maids handing out fliers to male passers-by. They are so interesting you could while away a whole night just watching them. In case you don't know, maid cafes are where girls who are stunningly dressed will serve you at your table and chat to you as your best friend or your bratty sister, if you require. Considering the huge population of lonely men still living at home in their late thirties here, you can see why they're popular. You can play games with them and they will draw cats and personal messages on your food in ketchup. There're many different themed cafes, especially in Akiba.
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Fit to drop I headed back to my capsule for some rest.

The following day I had intended to visit the famous Tsukiji fish market but when I got to Ginza my feet were aching so badly already I couldn't face it so I studied in a cafe until things began to open (nothing gets moving til 10 or later here). Ginza was exactly what it says on the tin (highest level designer shopping area) and, therefore, thoroughly disappointing. But I had to go. Every piece of fiction you read set in Tokyo will mention Ginza and I couldn't leave this country without seeing it. Unfortunately the rain poured and the temperature dropped so shockingly that it briefly snowed and my impression of this grey, grid system of high-rises wasn't a great one.
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And so to the ultra awesome Roppongi where I was reunited with Louise Bourgeois' 'Maman'.
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Roppongi Hills -upmarket- shopping mall has a nice garden and the area around has a wonderfully international feel. So international they had Indian Tapas. I was, happily, led on a wild goose chase looking for an art gallery around the ultra-hip Nishi-Azabu area before metroing to Omote-Sando Hills (another upmarket shopping centre). Here, I visited the Vivienne Westwood shoes exhibition (YEE HAA) and then wandered down to Harajuku along another of Tokyo's high end designer shopping streets, beautifully dressed for Christmas.
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I met up with a large group of couchsurfers in Shibuya crossing (not the most intelligently selected meeting places since it is renowned for being the world's busiest intersection) at 7pm for a Super Mario meets maid cafe experience. The guy hadn't reserved a place so we enjoyed a measly twenty minutes in there but the maids were lovely and jumped on the trampoline for me.
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On Saturday, I returned to Akiba's 2k540 and waited to collect some presents in the funky Cafe Asan with hammock seats. The morning was then filled with more Akiba wanderings. Joy! My favourite part was browsing the doujinshi. These are manga comics and music CDs that are self-published by the fans. Amazing. It is so wonderful to see such a huge platform for amateurs to get their art out there. Talent in abundance. Another point of Akiba interest was surely the world's largest yet most relaxed sex shop. Six, yes, six floors. The interesting 'shichaku-wari' option allows customers to a discount as long as they allow a poloroid photo to be taken and displayed of them trying on any costumes...
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Then there's Super Dollfie. I've seen her on TV before and laughed along with everyone else at how 'unique' her fans are but meeting her in person I have decided I WANT ONE! She is a flexible doll who can be customised beyond your wildest imagination. I floated around Super Dollfie world looking at the gazillions of wigs and eye choices and clothes and and and. The world has scenes where you can take your doll to be photographed. Photos of people's dolls in various locations around the world are displayed. People SERIOUSLY love these dolls and they are actually amazingly lifelike. Crazy, but adorable. Oh, and prices vary widely depending on a number of factors but you're looking around the £350-£500 mark.
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And then to round off my trip I hit Harajuku but, as with my last trip, the Harajuku girls that stand on the bridge to show off their amazingly wild fashions had gone home. Harajuku didn't fail to impress though and the backstreets were a real pleasure.
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I wearily collected my bag and ended the three days terribly with a painful and panicked search around Ikebukuro for the bus station. But I got home safely and am still buzzing from my time in Tokyo.

I'll leave you with an awesome jacket that you can buy with pockets made to fit your manga collection. Genius.
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Posted by karenkiki 06:28 Archived in Japan Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Sisters doing it for themselves in Japanese theatre

Takarazuka Revue

semi-overcast 15 °C

We just came back from yet another unique Japanese experience: Ocean's Eleven by the Takarazuka Revue. If you're ever in Japan and enjoy theatre I definitely recommend it, regardless of Japanese language ability (although it helps to know the story).
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It is the only performance troupe in the world where all of the performers are women. There are five troupes made up of 'male' and female actresses that rotate the performances, allowing for a massive ten performances each year. The stars are ADORED by fans who are nearly all women. Women say that they become obsessed with the stars because they are so powerful in a male-dominated society and, also, because when they play male roles they are strong without male arrogance or roughness. The clear lesbian overtones have been the cause of much Japanese stress in the past and in the 1940s the actresses were banned from responding to love letters and when the women started to cut their hair short rather than just hiding it in a hat there was outrage!

The actresses come from an elite performance school attached to the theatre, which has been in action since 1914. The stage set is truly incredible. Because the theatre is used solely by them, they have really gone to town with clever stage effects including eight trap doors, a bridge out towards the audience over the live orchestra and three stage turntables. I couldn't believe the grandeur.

At one point I counted sixty women on the stage. So much to look at! And the costumes were stunning. At the end of every performance a huge twenty-six step staircase fills the stage and the stars have a solo song and dance before everybody joins them for a sayonara, making many of the audience members cry. Even though they sometimes wearing earrings and lipstick with a suit their training makes them amazingly convincing as men. To be honest, I would much rather date Takarazuka's Danny Ocean than George Clooney...

Any theatre lovers can find more information here:Takarazuka Revue

Since my last update I have been keeping myself busy. Kengo showed me around Nara's Heijoukyuu palace site with a bright replica of the palace and some nice gardens.
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I visited my friend, Shima, and her adorable baby, Kotone. We celebrated Hallowe'en at a fancy dress party with friends in Tsukaguchi. I battled hard and lost with the city's municipal tax office who force me pay for twelve months of city tax even though I only lived in the country for eight months (an extra £300) and visited a dentist after eating too many English sweets!

Takeshi and I did a day trip to Himeji- a usual must-visit location, famous for one of Japan's few original castles (most were ravaged by civil wars) that it is currently undergoing a five year renovation so is completely covered and looks like an industrial building. The Koukoen gardens next door were a real pleasure though.
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Whilst Taakun took an exam, I explored Kobe's second Biennale. This year's theme is kirakira, meaning sparkle. Kobe is a port city so they provided artists with storage containers to transform (however, following the earthquake this year they have no containers so provide container sized areas). There were also ikebana, pottery, calligraphy and local exhibits in an old, transformed shopping mall cum gallery.
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I visited a second site which blew me away. Under the railway lines are small, disused stores which now are exhibiting incredible art work bringing crowds to this usually empty path of sorry looking 'vintage' thrift stores. What a venue!
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We also went to watch Cerezo Osaka play at home against local rivals Vissel Kobe. I don't think Cerezo realised that the game had started until ten minutes before the end. Quite a disappointing show by them but the fans carry on merrily singing and smiling regardless.
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Looking back over the past five weeks it's no wonder I am so tired! Before I go, please enjoy this taster of Japanese wedding fashion:
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Time for some food... see you soon!

Posted by karenkiki 03:26 Archived in Japan Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

True friendships in Japan?

sunny 21 °C

This may sound controversial to anyone who hasn't lived here, or to some Japanese people, but to those of us 'gaijin' it's an everyday question. And a sad one.

I need your help. I have become hideously skeptical of people. Give me some perspective please.

How does a friendship start? Shouldn't it build up slowly? How would you feel about people who instantly want to spend time with you? Nervous? Pleased?

A woman (of about seventy) came up to me in the gym a couple of weeks ago and started a conversation with, "Where do you live?" I hid my surprise, forgave her for her non-native bluntness (I have to do this all the time... usually with FAR more personal questions) and answered. We chatted for about two minutes, even though I was mid-workout. I have bumped into her one more time and then again today when she said, "Hello Kiki. Will you come to my house?", gave me her business card and told me to phone her.

Now, she's lovely. Well, she seemed lovely in the three two-minute conversations that we've had. But would she do this if I wasn't English? Part of me feels like saying, "Excuse me, but most people pay me to chat to them..." That's horrible. But I have next to no time to breathe and I can't help but feel she just wants to use me as English practice. Please tell me I am wrong? I am special in this country. Everybody wants to talk to me and it gets wearing trying to work out whether they really want to know me or just use that sentence structure they studied last week.

I love people. That's why I am a couchsurfer. I want to welcome people into my home and show them kindness. You don't really get the opportunity to do that in everyday life. So maybe this woman just really wants to show some kindness and the fact that I am clearly different means she can break social norms. How do I tell?

I discuss this frequently with Takeshi and we have discovered that friendship just isn't the same thing that it is in our culture. I naively had not expected friendship to be something new to learn about here. Although wonderfully generous, the Japanese are generally uncomfortable, shy and lonely people. They don't go into each others' homes, as a rule, and like to keep their matters very private, even from close friends (of which they have one or two). Watch a group of new mothers with their babies sit together at a park's sandpit and you can't help but notice the painful silence. And it is far, far worse for men. Sad, but true: your typical, mid-life Japanese salaryman has NO free time. They work horrendously long hours and barely see their families. And if they do have a spare evening to see friends, they don't have much to discuss other than work because they have no time for hobbies. Commonly, they will easily part from their friends in life-changing events such as moving house or leaving university, seeing a natural end to their relationship. There's even a phrase for it. David Mitchell, though, would be thrilled to hear this. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B5javs0euqc He has a point...

I have heaps of friends close enough that I hold parties for them or buy them surprise presents and couldn't breathe without them. I can't help but pity people who don't but that's just my lifestyle and culture.

For anyone interested, or anyone who thinks I am being too negative, Debito Arudou has some useful insights in the cleverly titled The Loneliness Of A Long-Distance Foreigner here: http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20110802ad.html and here: http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20110913hs.html

Since my last blog, I have been busy so I'll update for my personal journal. Read if you want!

September was horrific work-wise but also saw us eating Mexican food in Shinsaibashi, camping on rocks in Shiga-ken with Paul and Yumi (expertly organised by Takeshi's brother) and visiting an Oktoberfest with Kengo.
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In October, we have been watching as much rugby as possible (it is not on TV- not that we have one- and sports bars are few and far between so it involves trips into the city). We went to a small music festival with some good local bands and held an English Chat Party for my private students with English tea and finger food. I escaped the concrete to explore the beautiful Kurama and Kibune, north of Kyoto. Takeshi and I went to Kyoto on Sunday to visit Kyoumizu-dera and Koudai-ji. Stunning.
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The weather has cooled significantly and we mainly have bright, sunny days. And my hair stopped shedding in October. The leaves are starting to turn red meaning my favourite few weeks in Japan is upon us. Lovely!

Here're a few J stunners:
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We had walked past this guy in Umeda as he sat outside Zara staring into the window. We laughed so hard. Imagine our surprise when we stumbled past him in Kyoto!!!!!!
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Posted by karenkiki 21:58 Archived in Japan Tagged living abroad Comments (1)

Beautiful Japan?

overcast 24 °C

Ever since my trip around Kyushu when I arrived I have been battling with a question in my mind: can you describe Japan as beautiful?

I clearly remember a fairly heated argument with a fellow French traveller who insisted it was as we walked under a wide concrete bridge carrying hordes of cars over our heads, glancing around at the pylons scarring the view. The reason for my outburst then was because I was in Beppu (home to billows of smoke and smells from the geothermal goings-un underfoot) and tell any Japanese person you're going to Beppu and they will, honestly, swoon. Ah, Beppu. It's sooo beautiful. You're so lucky. When you're told this by many people you believe it. Arriving in a city the size of Leeds with none of the attraction of Leeds is somewhat of a let down. Yes, you can escape this to a touristy area with some notable onsens and, really gorgeous, rotemburo. But the area itself was most definitely not beautiful. This same girl told me that she had given up on trying to take photos without electricity lines in because that's lying about what Japan really looks like. Too flippin true.

I have continued to search for untouched, natural beauty; continually believed those that tell me that it IS out there (Oh, you're going to ~~~? It's soooo beautiful..) and continually been let down by the visions of concrete that my stubborness about this issue refuses to ignore.

However, I mentioned the gorgeous rotemburo (outdoor hot springs). Ah, the gorgeous rotemburo. And there IS breath-taking, untouched scenery in this country in the form of the mountains (75-80% of the country is mountainous leaving a very small amount spare for habitation). And that is real beauty. And when I find it, I feel terrible for all of my former thoughts about Japan not being beautiful. Wash my dirty mouth out.

And then there is the incredible beauty that you find in the (natural, not the fake) Japanese people. Not only in their utterly attractive physical appearance but also in their manner. And the shrines and temples that decorate the landscapes. Oh, and what about kimono and Kyoto gardens. Oh, and the cherry blossoms and the red maple leaves. What was I thinking? Sorry. Yes. It IS beautiful.

But hang on, here's my big problem. The countryside isn't countryside. And I am English so that matters. A friend of mine once apologised when taking me to her family home for it being right out in the sticks. I was excited. Finally I get to see some 'sticks'. But, alas, no. A mass of roads and houses as close to each other as they are in my current second-city home separated by perfectly square, concrete-defined paddy fields with straight, concrete-defined rivers. My view is backed up in a great J-film (Kamikaze Girls- check it out 3.55mins in Kamikaze Girls) which starts with a 'country' girl longing to have lived in the Rococo period to enjoy country walks but instead she is stuck in 21st century Ibaraki with paddy fields, not countryside. Watch that film and you will start to understand. (I'm so annoyed because I took some useful videos to help this blog... but I still can't upload... hmmm).

So is it because so much of it is city? Can you ever describe a city as beautiful anywhere in the world? Well, anyone who knows me will have heard me proudly refer to my home, Birmingham, as a BEAUTIFUL city. Because it is. I'm not just saying that because I haven't seen it recently. I love that city. I love the combination of the open space with the compact; the juxtaposition of the old with the new; the evidence of arts on every corner; the history and the eyes towards the future and so on. It's beautiful. In my mind.

Recently, Takeshi and I climbed Maya-san and marvelled at the views of Kobe city connecting to Osaka city. The views are purely of buildings touching the ocean. They're good views. Takeshi described it as beautiful. I really couldn't see any beauty in it.

Many of Japan's cities have been rebuilt in recent years following nuclear destruction and calamitous earthquakes giving some cities a modern, architectural appeal but the inability to step back and look at these marvels or to find any room for cat-swinging along with the shadows of the towering buildings sadly makes things feel cramped and grey.

I escaped last week and discovered Kurama and Kibune in north Kyoto. Aaah. Now that was beautiful. Kyoto really is the Japan of your imagination and very soon the leaves will turn red and I will be in the Japan of my dreams again. I can't wait.

My conclusion? Japan is wonderful and the beauty is found in the people and in small areas. Hunting for can be very rewarding but you DO have to hunt. I truly welcome your thoughts and comments.

Posted by karenkiki 19:03 Archived in Japan Tagged living abroad Comments (0)

The difficulties for the Japanese learner of English

storm 25 °C

I feel sorry for my students. Learning this language is hard what with its bizarre, irregular spelling and grammar rules, its extensive vocabulary and its use of a and the (who knows when?!) to name just a few.

Then, of course, there're the well known difficulties that pronunciation presents them. Japanese mouths have never been required to create the shapes necessary for our sounds before. Trying to get tongues sticking out for a clear "lllllllll," or teeth bared for a strong "vvvvvvvvvvv," or "fffffffffff," is all I seem to do. Every single day. And "zzzzzzzz," is nigh on impossible; it just comes out as "jjjjj".

But the Japanese have been given an extra challenge. On top of the Chinese kanji characters and the Japanese hiragana system (composed of forty eight characters) used for writing, there is then katakana used for transcribing foreign words (again forty eight characters). But they are transcribed into Japanese sounds, often creating TOTALLY NEW words.

It's like our adoption of karaoke (ka-la-oh-keh) and karate (ka-la-teh) but on a much, MUCH wider scale. It's very fashionable to speak English so every product label or advertisement will use katakana. I seem to spend my life reading supposedly 'English' words and have no clue what they are. Japanese people will say something over and over and over to me and be shocked that I don't know what it is. "But, it's an English word!" "Is it????"

It's so unfair for them. If they have had to learn this new word anyway, why, OH WHY, not learn it as it SHOULD sound? Everyone here can read their ABCs.

Examples? Off the top of my head, try these:
ma-loo-chi-paaa-pa-soo マルチパーパス
zaa-e-n-doh ザ-エンド
ca-lo-li-o-foo カロリオフ

(That'll be multi-purpose, the end -found at the end of a book- and calorie-off, or low-calorie as you and I know it).

Then there are the words that have been transcribed and take on a life of their own. E-su-teh エステ = estee (as in Estee Lauder) or, rather, aesthetics. エステ means beauty salon services. パスタ = pa-soo-tah (more widely known as pasta) is used to refer to spaghetti (pretty much the only pasta form you'll find here).

There is no sound for 'u' (as in hut) in Japanese so when words with 'u' are transcribed it changes to 'a'. This means that most, including advanced learners, find it a real challenge to know whether to spell something with an a or u. The world famous Suntory drinks-makers don't help. From what I can see, their name started as katakana and then was translated into Engish. But translated differently, as a name that is going to be pronounced incorrectly somewhere. Who is wrong? Are we wrong saying sun as in, well, sun or are the Japanese wrong with their santory pronunciation (which, as an aside, is too close to sanitary products for my liking).

In my opinion, it is time to reign in the mighty power of katakana. Yes, it is wonderful for us that more and more Japanese people have a wider understanding of English words but it is no longer a couple of 'loan' words. Now is the time to decide before this gets out of hand. Is the Japanese language turning into English? If so, why not use the global pronunciations and stop confusing everybody?! What's to stop people writing whole English sentences in katakana? Help!

On another language learning note, I am fascinated by this research into baby's brains. If you're one of my many friends in a mixed race relationship; want your child to get off to the right start in a second language or just interested, watch this.
http://www.ted.com/talks/patricia_kuhl_the_linguistic_genius_of_babies.html

My favourite quote: "Babies all over the world are what I like to describe as citizens of the world." Wouldn't it be great if they stayed that way? Any non-English listeners- check out the INTERACTIVE TRANSCRIPT on the right which has Japanese translation. Just think. If I could get this information out to the Japanese mothers here I could make a million by doing home visits to coo at cute babies all day!

Excuse me. I should do some studying...

Posted by karenkiki 23:22 Archived in Japan Tagged living abroad Comments (0)

Nippon Names and other intrigues

sunny 33 °C

It was a rocky return but life is settling into a pattern of work, study, gym and living and the routine, whilst mindbogglingly crazy, is suiting me. Unfortunately the work I do have is spread over six days so I only get Sundays to myself. And I am continually looking at the clock and panicking about time management. But it is going well.

August has been hot. Too hot. But not as hot as last year (a heatwave year), which is one blessing. The soaring 37s only lasted just over a week but the humidity throughout this month has been punishing. As soon as you breath a sigh of relief that the temperatures are cooling the mosquitoes are back to ensure you don't relax too much.

We've enjoyed some summer activities such as the Yodo River fireworks festival. It was PACKED- more people than you can imagine squashed together- but fun. The fireworks were spectacular and lasted for forty-five minutes (which was hideously excessive considering this country's current situation). We've watched friends play soccer, had a small Indian curry party at our flat and had quiet DVD nights.
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We also visited the Osaka Peace Centre, which I have to say is one of the few true PEACE seeking museums I have visited with little bias or blame or claim of innocence. This centre holds its hands up to the atrocities that the Japanese have inflicted as well as documenting those that have hurt them. Well done Osaka. It certainly wasn't like that in Nagasaki. The Peace Centre is in Osaka Castle Park and we spent a good hour or so watching the live rock bands that play in the park (every Sunday??? -they always seem to be there when I go).

Last Saturday was a beautiful baby-fest. We visited Shima and Yoji's eight-week old, Kotone (meaning the sound of a Japanese harp), and Seiichiro and Naomi's ten-week old, Anna (who has lovely kanji meaning flexible apricot tree). I have learnt that choosing a name in Japan is way harder than you can imagine. I don't speak from experience but I can guess that it is a huge challenge to get a nice sounding name in England. But here you also have the kanji to think about. It has got to look good but also have a good meaning. And then there is the number of strokes used to write that kanji to consider. The number of strokes for the first name, for the first and second combined and for the last of the first and the first of the last combined. People nowadays often take into consideration whether the name is fitting in Western culture too. A minefield!
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We stumbled across a festival in our shopping centre and were treated to the songs of three of the elderly locals bedecked in an array of white shoes, white trousers, spangly belts and jackets and one tremendous toupee. One still works at the bike park and another teaches karaoke at a local cafe. Yes, TEACHES karaoke. That was followed by stunning Japanese traditional Yosakoi dancing- a pleasure to watch.

As an aside, I often think about how difficult it is to imagine the homogeneity of the Japanese culture for English people coming from a nation that has little national identity. So I am sure sometimes people think that I am creating huge stereotypes or making sweeping generalisations. However, a film and then a book I just read backed-up one of my biggest frustrations with the female role in J society so I thought I'd share. The book has a female character whose Dad has died and at thirty lives at home (as you would if you are not married in Japan) so brings in the sole household income.

"Weren't my responsibilities exactly like those faced by men? But men have secret pleasures that they are able to enjoy. They slip off with their buddies for drinks, they play around with women, and they enjoy all kinds of intrigues on the side."

It is accepted that that is a man's 'role' here. These kind of 'intrigues' are often part of a man's JOB, encouraged to be enjoyed by your company in a bonding-with-customers manner and, whilst upsetting, are also EXPECTED by women. In the film a young man comes home and the wife asks if has been with another woman in a "Tut, tut. Have you smoked a cigarette again? You promised not to... " fashion. This is what is fed to this society by the media STILL TODAY. I am gasping for air at what I see all too often. Rant over.

I embarked on a 30 day challenge inspired firstly by this TED talk (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/matt_cutts_try_something_new_for_30_days.html) and also by a visit to Osaka's Museum of Art to see Daido Moriyama's impressive photography. I will take a black and white photograph every day to document life in Tsukaguchi. If you decide to do a challenge be sure to let me know!
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Most importantly, August 2011 saw our one year anniversary. I am the happiest girl alive to have had Takeshi in my life for the past highly eventful and exciting year and can't wait for the next one and one after that and fifty after that. He is my joy and my strength. He makes me smile and is always looking after me. I can't tell you enough how much I love him. So I won't try because words can't do it justice.

Yesterday I got Takeshi to admit that football is more entertaining than baseball after watching my J team (Cerezo Osaka) beat Urawa Reds 3-1. We had a great time along with 26, 246 others. It's getting very popular here.
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Til next time..

Posted by karenkiki 17:48 Archived in Japan Tagged living abroad Comments (1)

Niggles with Nippon

sunny 34 °C

I'm sorry but it's a bit of a battle at the moment. Job hunting and interview stress; 100% humidity; mosquito bites; severe hair loss; only understanding about 10% of what's going on around me; aircon sickness; buzzing cicadas; large, approaching earthquakes and soaring temperatures make me moody and everything is just that little bit harder to smile through. But I am trying. There may be some negative overtones...

I am remembering clearly now why I swore last year that I would never live through another Japanese summer. I am now the owner of a cute, black umbrella to try and give my hair and skin some chance of surviving. The Japanese have lived with these damp, cramped and expensive conditions for their whole lives and- admirably- just get on with it without question. In fact, every single one (bar those who have lived outside) are genuinely shocked that I won't stay here permanently, seeing no problems with their lot. I'm complaining like there's no tomorrow.

Recent goings on:

Embarrassment:
To follow on from the last blog (the bath interview): after teaching last week the parents were trying to talk to me. But there was a huge communication barrier. I understand, "Bath, now, come," with a beckoning hand gesture. I panicked. Maybe it's the done thing to share a bath with your students after a hard days work here? How do I get out of this one? I'm saying, "No, no. It's OK," but they were super persistent. In the end I had to apologise and tell them I have a lot of tattoos (in Japanese). They were confused. They were trying to get me to go to the changing rooms where a woman who spoke English could translate some questions for us. How embarrassing. And the poor translator had to do this naked holding up a tea towel in front of her.... bizarre.

Relaxation:
We had a nice BBQ last weekend at a park next to a Kobe beach (Suma). Takeshi had arrived at 9 to secure us a spot and we had a full day's eating and lounging with friends. Three people had cancelled so there was way too much food to go around! The beach, although pleasant, was little escape from the city. The small swimming area is surrounded by a concrete barrier and the water and sand is literally covered with litter. There's a no tattoos on foreigners ban (yeah, you heard that right) so I was expecting a fight but there was, thankfully, none. There is NO WAY I am wearing a burkh-ini on the beach.P1010457.jpg

Activity:
The previous week I was desperate to get away from the concrete so we climbed Mt. Maya; just a half-hour train ride away. It was super hot and I was exhausted before we started so reaching the top was an achievement! I had a Kung-Fu Panda moment looking up at a large set of stairs! The impressive views stretch a long way over the buildings to the sea. Being amongst the trees on the climb, listening to the birds, was a treat. We chose a pot-luck route down which proved to be quite a challenging but fun one!!!

Festivities:
The week before that we went to one of the events at Kyoto's Gion Matsuri festival. I had bought a new yukata and was desperate to show it off. It is very pretty and I feel like a princess wearing it. The festival has been going for over one thousand years and started as an offering to the gods to request that they stop sending floods, fire and earthquakes to Japan. The events happen over the course of a month with the highlight being a big procession of floats through the streets. We went to a night event, which was the parade of the mikoshi, a portable shrine, to be purified in the river and then be returned. We didn't really understand what was happening but there were many men wearing special white clothes and boots taking it in turns to carry the heavy shrine, bounce it up and down and spin it around. And a lot of wild shouting. Lots of fun. There was ONE woman involved in this ceremony and she was... wait for it..... walking behind the horse and shit-shovelling. Yeah, that sums up the standing of women here, eh?6P1010354.jpgP1010356.jpgP1010359.jpgP1010384.jpgP1010393.jpg3P1010406.jpgP1010408.jpgP1010416.jpg

A few grumbles to get off my chest:

Two OAPs on two separate occasions just shouted/rung their silly little bike bells harshly at me for walking along the edge of the pavement whilst they wanted it all to themselves to illegally ride along.

I resent that my safe haven of the gym has been desecrated by pensioners who seem intentionally out to ruin my day. Like the guy pushing ninety who has minimum five minute rests on machines to watch the TV and can take over thirty five minutes on one machine alone. Like the ridiculous need for people in the gym to reset the machines to some (agreed?) position that I am unaware of... they then get angry with me when I don't do the same. I suffer daily scowling faces and stares from OAPs in the gym. I don't smile at them anymore. I've wasted enough energy on that. I just realised that a month ago I was classed as 'excessively obese' on the 'clever' gym machine. I was pushing a size 12. P1010458.jpg

Oh, and there are no legalities to being an employer here so no-one feels it necessary to give me clear details of pay, hours, location etc but expect me to be on their full-time beck and call whenever they feel like using me.

Aaaand relax.

Anyway I should go and get ready. I hope, if you're in England, that your heat-wave isn't too suffocating. I shouldn't really complain- it's over 50 degrees in Baghdad now. Eash!

Posted by karenkiki 17:40 Archived in Japan Tagged living abroad Comments (0)

Nudity in Japanese interviews

sunny 32 °C

Now I'm not saying that all Japanese interviews involve naked people but I've had a very bizarre experience recently that I must share.

Last Friday. After responding to an ad in the foreigner paper I arrived at the station to meet a 64 year old woman. Lovely lady. Took me to a cafe and bought us tea. We got on like the proverbial house on fire. All was going well. I suffered the usual prying questions about whether I will marry Takeshi and how tall I am etc well. She got out a camera and showed me pictures of the other girls that teach for her and spoke of them as children. I like this rather posh lady, Momo (peach).

Then I asked how far the school was. She said it was quite far. Damn. I'd already travelled a far distance. Then she said 'public bath'. Er, excuse me? 'Public bath'. I didn't get the gist. Karaoke? Maybe that was her next teachers' party venue. Intriguing.

When she then puts me in a taxi and jumps on her bicycle and I am dropped off at a public bath I am slightly concerned but thought the school must be next door. We then walk through the door of the baths and sit on the seats in reception and I am beginning to panic. " Always expect the unexpected," is my motto in Japan but this was something else... When should I reveal that I am heavily tattooed?

After some discussions with the owners, doing my best to bow and smile politely without showing the nerves on my face, we are shown into a small room. A karaoke room. Ah, it all fits together. This is where I will teach. I had come prepared for a trial lesson however there'd been a mixup and there was no-one to teach. So, awkwardly, we sit and chat with the 65 and 70 year old who own the bath and who can't speak English. I am presented with a large punnet of (expensive) cherries and promised cheesecake next week. All the time I have NO idea what's going on. After more kind-hearted and, again, oft-times prying questions I am then ushered into the bath changing rooms with a super window to view the baths where there are seven naked pensioners. "Oh, right, yes," I manage to utter. I was put into another taxi to the station and she got into this one with yet another random pensioner- this one over 80- and gave me two hours pay and transport money.

I am not asked whether I want to work there. It is, as with all interviews I have been to here, expected I will take the job regardless. I do though. She was a lovely woman and the cherries won me over. It's a long distance but well worth it.

Posted by karenkiki 03:03 Archived in Japan Tagged living abroad Comments (1)

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