Tuesday, October 28, 2014

I want what she's having

Oh my dedicated readers, how I must have disappointed you these last months.

Truly, I've been thinking of making a blog post at least once a week for the last half-year...but nothing interesting ever came to mind. I live in Japan, yet I couldn't think of anything interesting to say. So I said nothing.

But today, I went for a walk. Even though it was rather cold, I threw on a sweatshirt, got my reflective walking sash and my rape whistle (compliments to the traffic safety department at my local public office) and set out.

And man, I have been missing something great. There was always a good reason not to exercise. It was too hot, or I was too tired, or I deserved a break for working so hard. It was raining, or it looked like it would rain, or I had heard that it might maybe rain that afternoon and why risk it. It was too dark or too early. Or I would just admit my laziness to myself and cozy up inside with a show I've seen too many times to count (Gilmore girls).

Boy, were those days wasted.

Walking is invigorating. Every step I took gave me another ounce of energy. By the end I was practically flying.

Walking steadily down those narrow streets with the cramped houses too-close together, the bulbous white lights that lead to the Shinto shrine at the center of town, and the crisp air filtering deep into my lungs, I remembered what it was like to be in love.

To describe my infatuation, my absolute enchantment with Tateyama Town is like trying to explain why humans must breathe air. It's quaint, it's friendly; with super markets that close early and street lights that start blinking after nine. It's quiet, but lively; during the day kids are playing on playgrounds in small parks and the elderly work in the wide rice fields that dapple and surround the tiny, crooked buildings with their layered roof tiles and sliding doors.

And then there's the mountains. It is honestly painful for me to remember what it was like to not have a massive mountain range right outside my window when I wake up. In the morning it's a faint shadow against the horizon, an uneven cut-out taped to the sky. In the afternoon, the sun is high enough that you can see from one end of the range, low and unconfident, aaaall the way across the boasting ridges and gallant peaks, back down along into smaller leaps and bounds until your eyes rest on the sea, which glistens a deep blue separate from the sky even from a 30-minute distance away.

And when the sun sets, well, that's my favorite time. Pinks and scarlets dance across the surface of the range so that shadows bring out the depth of the valleys and summits, and the darkness creeps up from the rice fields that line the natural beast and crawls across its body until it's submerged in night, and the intricate details that have taken millions of years to form so perfectly have become but a plain, 2-d silhouette against the night sky.

And the stars come out. And they blink fitfully at you from above with such energy, these pinpoints of light some billion miles away, that you think they must be satellites, but you watch them long enough to determine that they aren't, and they really are blinking red and blue at you like that (or so I've determined). And it was as I was walking through these shrunken streets, filled to the brim with their old shops and houses, staring at those dancing droplets of light that I felt again what I had felt the first time I saw the coast of the main island of Japan from my airplane over three years ago.

Complete and utter enchantment with my environment. With the world around me, with the world I participate in every day. And it has become my everyday. I believe this is why it's been so long since I've posted; to post about my life seems mundane and narcissistic. And maybe it is. But the spell I am under has been awakened as I went on my walk this evening.

And how glad I am I went for a walk this evening.

I can get caught up so easily in what's going on in my life. I get wrapped up in my plans, in my friends, in my generally busy nature between my job and studying Japanese, between my social life and my activities, like Kyudo. But it's been so long since I've stopped to unplug from my phone, from my computer, my TV, my games, from my friends, my family, my repetitive thoughts, my schedule, my plans, to remember who I am and what I'm doing. To allow myself to submerge into the world around me instead of just gliding through it. To make things happen instead of letting them just happen to me. To feel my independence and confidence as plainly as I feel the cool air on my face and the wind in my hair and the ground beneath my feet. To be moved to tears by the way time passes and the world turns, indifferent to its countless passengers in life.

As you can probably tell, it was one hell of a walk. And I hope to take many more like it. You never regret going outside and feeling the wind on your face and getting a little chilled so that you can return to a warm house with a hot cup of cocoa.

So, I'll challenge myself by posting more, if you challenge yourself by going outside more. Because a single walk really can change your entire perspective on things and just feel...magical.

Until next time!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

AmeriCAN, not AmeriCAN'T

Before I get into a post I made a few weeks ago, I'd like to share this semi-unrelated infographic about some differences between Americans and Japanese people:

 Japanese Peoplee.YAmerican PeopleA Fun Comic Introducing some Interesting differences Between Americans and the Japanese.B *. A 1:7)1 'I  v'iA'The BASICSJapanAverage Height: 172 cmAverageHeight:158cmAverage Weight: 64 kgAverage Weight: 53 kgAverage Lifespan: 78 yearsAveragelifespan:86yearsAverage

Hope you enjoyed that. (Note: I have no idea how accurate it is and I have yet to find the source again.)
In other news, I made a revelation today. That revelation is, I’m not Japanese.

…Most of you have probably already gathered that. But please, hang with me here for a moment.

See, for years now I’ve taken a lot of pride in being tolerant and open-minded of other cultures, especially Japan. Since studying abroad here two years ago, I had decided to try everything; be it participating in a tea ceremony or eating seafood that was still moving. And I have. I have done a lot of those things. I have eaten cow tongue, cow organs, cow glands, raw eggs and raw horse meat. I have eaten fish eggs and fish semen and fish eyes. I’ve eaten all KINDS of animals I’ve only ever seen on the Discovery channel; squid, octopus, sea urchins, clams, some of which were still alive upon consumption; and some of which were entirely raw.

So then today at school lunch, these little fish appeared, mixed with some beans. This is not the first time they’ve made an appearance:


they're the ones on the bottom far left.

But here’s the thing: I just can NOT eat something that still has a face. I spent some time picking the fish off my plate, and the rest struggling to explain to my co-workers that I just can’t eat food that has eyes while they chow down on one of their favorite meals. I have tried the fish before, they taste kind of salty and fishy, probably as expected – but to think about those little eyes and sharp fins sliding down my throat inevitably makes me gag to the point that swallowing, no matter how much milk or drink goes with it, becomes impossible. Just looking at them on my plate or someone else’s makes me feel queasy, like I felt like throwing up.

I tried to chalk it up to it being a weak stomach, but fact is, if that were the case I wouldn’t have been able to eat half the stuff I’ve tried in this country so far. And it took me a long time to reason out what was happening. And my conclusion is this:

I am a product of my country’s culture.

Compared to Japan, our consumption of fish is pitiful. Maybe in Wisconsin we’ll have the Friday Night Fishfry at local restaurants; but you can bet if someone got a fish with its head still attached, there would be a complaint. In Japan, people eat fish nearly every day – often twice a day, because fish can appear at any time of the day, including breakfast (sidenote: going to a drinking party and staying the night at a hotel, having a wicked hangover the next day [I always feel it in my stomach, not my head] and coming downstairs to breakfast to find fish and raw eggs waiting for me…it wasn’t going to happen). We normally don’t eat food with the head still attached.

This just in: sources say that fish are friends, not food.

In fact, whenever it does happen that the meal I’m staring at is staring back, I always imagine cartoons from when I was a kid. Like, a cartoon character is cooking something, and it goes horribly, horribly wrong, or a character receives a meal he is disgusted with; it’s happened in lots of loony toon cartoons, but almost EVERY time there is a fish head, or some fish eyes in the meal that is being perceived as gross and inedible.

And that kind of mindset has been instilled in me since I was born, completely subconsciously. It’s only with hindsight that I realize that due to my American diet I’ve been raised to like milk and cheese, to eat meats for protein, to have cereal for breakfast. These realizations happen because in Japan, it is not uncommon for people not to like milk, which shocked me (Japanese people often eat fish for calcium); the meat in their diet is quite minimal compared to the States, and as a whole, nobody really eats cereal here (probably because they only really have unsweetened cornflakes as an option, and a sugary cereal doesn’t sound appetizing to most).

I have adjusted to an ENTIRELY new diet than the one I was raised on. The sweets have less sugar, I’m eating fish, rice, and soup nearly every day, and still there are days I find myself eating things and have no idea how to say it in English or even know what it is. And most days, I’m really okay with that because Japanese food is DELICIOUS.

But then today, those little fish with their little eyes staring up at me appeared at lunch, and I found that I was extremely frustrated with myself for being unable to eat them, for being unable to partake in Japanese culture, for disappointing my coworkers because the thought of eating heads and little bones and scales disgusts me.

It’s deeper than just culture or the fact that my food doesn’t usually have eyes; it’s that, any time I see a face, it is almost always a living one or representing a living thing. I have subconsciously created a relationship with faces and living creatures. And there’s that small hippie part of me that sees that face and instantly remembers it was alive, part of this world, that it felt pain, and there’s something super uncomfortable and unsettling about that. I’m sure most people, save for farmers, would agree that if you saw your dinner’s head while you were eating it’s body, you’d have a loss of appetite (which is why pig roasts never sounded appetizing to me, either).

On the other hand, I’m probably just too sensitive.

First world problems in  Japan - I WANT CHICKEN-FLAVORED FOOD   BUT I'M ONLY SERVED FISH First World Problems Cat
First-world problems in Japan

And then, as I was driving to work, I realized that I am American. There are lots of days that things I don’t normally eat appear and I eat them happily. But the fact of the matter is, at the end of the day, there are some customs that go entirely against my culture and the way I was raised, and if I keep fighting that and forcing down the little fish eyes while resisting my gag reflex, that eventually, I might come to resent fish, and then Japanese food, and soon I’ll resent all of Japan because I didn’t give myself that little space that I needed, space between me and the school lunch staring at me.

So I forgave myself today, and accepted that there are some things I just can’t do. I can’t keep trying to convince the people around me that I am practically Japanese (I get told that I'm more Japanese than  Japanese people a lot, with a love for and knowledge of Japanese culture and language, often participating in that culture and eating all kinds of Japanese food), because the blonde hair and blue eyes probably gives me away, anyway. But most of all, I have to stop lying to MYSELF. It’s one thing to enjoy a culture; it’s another to submerge yourself in that culture and prevent yourself from resurfacing and getting a breath of familiar air once in a while.

So there it is. Today, I learned that I was American. But that’s exactly why I’m here; to teach my native language, our customs, our differences, and to learn from them. Because since I was little, I always heard, “It’s good to be different.” It’s the way we become more open-minded, the way our tolerance grows, the way we begin to understand each other as people and not as nationalities or races. Although they appear to divide us, our differences strengthen us. They are fascinating. They make us question each other and ask “why?” and from there we can only get answers and learn more.

So, yeah. I’m not Japanese. I’m different.

And that’s a good thing.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Japan and America: Unsurprisingly, Not the Same Country

So, there are a lot of things that are different between America and Japan. Let’s talk about those things. Mostly because it’s interesting to get to know another culture; what seems bizarre to us is commonplace for another country in the world, and wouldn’t be thought of twice. I think one of my favorite parts about being in Japan is not only learning about the differences, but explaining the differences to my Japanese friends because they always seem to get a real kick out of it.

Besides the obvious differences, like how in Japan one drives on the left side of the road (thaaaaaat was fun to get used to), or the work culture (jobs are not often 9 to 5 – most teachers arrive at school here before 8 am, leave around 7 or 8 pm, and work Saturdays and/or also Sundays because they are also in charge of clubs, which the students meet for religiously. This is not limited to just schools; often businessmen work ridiculously long hours, leaving their wives and children at home as they win the bread, which has led to a disturbing trend in men in their 40’s and over. Known as “death by overwork”, men in generally good health suddenly have a heart attack and die due to stress and working too many hours. This happens to younger folk as well – only in those cases, the overwork often leads to suicide. If anyone wants to hear more about the work culture in Japan, I’d be glad to do a blog post on it – there’s way too much to say just between these parentheses).

Some differences are little. For example, when it snows, people in Japan use umbrellas. I remember seeing that for the first time in the winter in Nagoya; as I hurried down the hill from the station on the way to school and snowflakes began drifting down lazily from the sky, girls around me suddenly opened up their umbrellas and kept on walking. “It’s snow,” I muttered. “Not rain. It’s just a little snow!” At the time, I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of people using umbrellas to keep themselves dry from snow; I often just wear a hat or a hood to keep myself warm.

Some students in their uniforms walking home in the snow.

But in Japan, women also use parasols for the sun (often in Japan, being paler is considered attractive – whereas in America, tan is “in”), so maybe it wasn’t so strange after all. Yesterday, as I was about to leave my apartment to walk to school, I saw that it was snowing. 25 minutes walking in the snow isn’t so bad, but by the time I get there no doubt I’d be pretty damp…I ended up grabbing an umbrella on my way out. I’ve learned to accept it.

"I'm so pretty, oh so pretty..."

Another thing is the grocery stores. First of all, you will find no such giant grocery cart that we have in America (which no doubt subconsciously encourages more purchasing). They have much smaller carts in Japan - carts that are just large enough to hold a grocery basket. Refrigerators in Japan tend to be smaller than American fridges, and women usually go shopping more than once a week (or so was the case at my host families’ houses). You take a basket, put it in the cart, do your shopping. When it’s time to check out, you remove the basket with all the things you want to purchase in it and put it on the counter – there’s no conveyor belt, no hassle of hurrying to get everything on the counter, it’s all there in the basket.

Putting the food directly into the cart would become a hassle and time-eater later. This is simpler.

What happens next is probably weird to an American, though. The cashier rings up your items and proceeds to put them in another basket – and in a very neat, precise way – i.e., fruits on the top, boxed things on the bottom, organized to look good. Once you pay, you take the basket of things you just purchased and move to another counter set up on the other side of the register, near the exits.

You can kinda see what's going on here: The man's groceries have been moved from the now-empty basket from the left side of the cashier, to the right, where she's giving him a plastic bag to bag his own groceries. That's right - there are no "bag boys" in Japan.

This is where you take your reusable grocery bag (or the plastic bags you can buy for 5 yen, or 5 cents) and proceed to take all of the neatly ordered things and re-order them into your bag/s. So if the frozen foods you got are on the bottom of the basket, you’ll now need them at the bottom of your bag – so you have to rearrange the stuff in your basket to get them properly into your bag. That part can be kind of a nuisance, but as I often don’t purchase much, this usually isn’t an issue – it’s just ironic that with all of the care that a grocery store worker takes to make things nice and neat and pretty, you have to undo it all to actually, you know, take your food home with you.

This guy knows what's up as he packs his own groceries to take home.

And while we’re on the topic of food, let’s talk about packaging. How often does it happen that you’re trying to open a bag of cereal, or oatmeal, or a bag of chips, or anything with plastic, and before long you’re wrestling with the packaging trying to open your freaking Oreos, when the bag pops and suddenly there’s food everywhere and you want to scream in anger and weep simultaneously?

It has happened to all of us. But probably not as often to the Japanese.

That little black arrow on the left telling you where the opening is is printed on most all packages in Japan.

In Japan, the packaging is ridiculously convenient. This may seem like a weird thing to notice – but it’s actually not. For example, if there’s a plastic bag of little chocolates, of chips, of what-have-you, there will always be a notch to tear into and open up. If it’s a container of cookies, it will open wide in such a way that it can be shared with others (not good for those who don’t want to share, but in Japan you literally share everything when it comes to food). I buy these boxes of individual “café au lait” packets for my coffee every morning. The box can be opened from the top as one normally would, or you can tear along a perforated edge so that it stands on top of your counter and you can easily grab one from the front and be on your way.

And nearly everything is individually wrapped. Japan is incredibly eco-friendly (I separate my garbage into six different categories; glass, PET bottles [a kind of hard plastic], plastic [like plastic bags], paper, burnables [e.g. food leftovers, like banana peels], and non-burnables [batteries, bolts, etc]. Now this may sound annoying as hell – and that's because it is – but it’s very eco-friendly), but packaging ultimately becomes their downfall. If you grab a box of chocolates, it is not uncommon to open it up and find that each chocolate is individually wrapped. This goes back to the food-sharing culture in Japan; this way, people can grab one and not feel like they’re grabbing chocolate out of a cesspool of germs, because all the chocolates are covered in protective plastic wrapping.

And since we’re still talking about food, let me just say that there are no leftovers in Japan. When you go to a restaurant, you eat what you can and if you can’t finish it, you leave it. There are no doggie-bags, no extras to take home. I have tried not to let this sadden me over the years, and learned to plan around it.

And if you go out to drink with friends, you can expect not to drive or ride a bicycle back home. Japan has a no-tolerance policy on booze; getting caught breaking this policy (particularly if you choose to drink and drive) will not only be incredibly shameful for you, but it is very likely that you will lose your job (especially if you’re a teacher).

There are real good transportations services in Japan like subways, trains, and taxis (the latter being a bit expensive), but if you drive to a bar and end up drinking, there’s another service we don’t have in Japan, called Daiko. You call a Daiko service, and two men in a taxi come and pick you up. You get in the taxi, and one guy gets out. He takes your keys, gets in your car, and follows your taxi back home with you. It’s a reasonably priced service (often not more than a taxi) and pretty smart, really.

As for structures that America doesn’t have, surely the “love hotel” culture is on the list. Want to rent a hotel room in the city for a few hours? You can do that in Japan. Born from lack of privacy in Japanese culture, they are cheap places where couples can...hang out. I don’t know much about love hotels, so I did a little research for you guys:

Very informative japan-love-hotels.com says, "Love hotels in Japan are quiet cheap when you consider that the rooms are usually much bigger than a normal hotel room, often have large-screen TVs that can also be used for karaoke or video game units such as Play Station or Nintendo, have larger baths and showers, and - of course - have larger beds." It seems rooms oftentimes have themes, and are often similarly priced to much smaller, less decorated hotel rooms. i.e., they're reasonably priced.
I don't recommend sitting on the couch.

But you probably get the drift. We have motels for that in America; love hotels are cleaner and classier.

Japan also has onsen, which I’ve been dying to talk about. Onsen are public baths. You change out of your clothes in the locker room and walk naked as the day you were born into a bathing area. Before you get into the large, publicly used baths, though, you go to some shower stalls (which are not so much stalls as they are little chairs in front of a mirror and a counter of soap, shampoo, and conditioner, each counter/mirror area parted by a divider, so that you can see down the rows of stalls without much effort at all) and shower off. Rinse, wash, basically what you normally do in a shower. There are bowls that you can fill with water and pour over yourself, or you can use a removable shower spout.

Looks like this.

Once you’re all clean, you can go to the public bath and sit in some real hot water with others, strangers and friends alike. It’s like a really big hot tub, but without the bubbles, and you’re all naked. That’s right – girls call up their friends and say, “hey, wanna get naked and sit in a bath together?”…but probably they don’t phrase it that way. Groups of guys will go together as well (the word “gay” never even uttered), it’s definitely not exclusively limited to girls, and there are young (as young as just a year old) and old (UUUUP there, 80’s and over, so long as they are independently mobile) alike.

Hey, here's a helpful infographic to explain behavior in Japanese public baths! 

This is a culture that has been going on for thousands of years in Japan (this is not an exaggeration) – a practice that Americans might cringe over, but Japanese would think nothing of. The men baths and women baths are separated, of course – although it seems like there are co-ed baths (though I’m not sure why any woman would want to go into one, seems like an invitation for sexual harassment to me, but then I’ve never been to one – and probably never will). I am, however, a HUGE fan of onsen. I usually take trips alone, although I have gone with Japanese friends and host mothers in the past. I have yet to go with another foreigner, but I think maybe that’d be just too much for me.

I have to say though, going into an onsen is liberating, refreshing, and incredibly enjoyable. You shower beforehand so you know the bath water is clean (plus, Japanese people have a tendency to prize cleanliness – taking “cleanliness is holiness” to a whol new level) and there are outside public baths so that you can enjoy hot water on a cold winter day while it’s snowing. It’s one of my favorite cultural aspects of Japan.

Once you’re done sitting in water (some onsen even have TVs you can watch), you get out, rinse yourself off, and go back to the locker room to dry and brush your hair, get dressed, and apply lotion. A lot of people (myself included) will just put on pajamas and drive home – that was their shower for the day, and now it’s time for bed while you’re still all warm and red from the bath. It’s a great way to warm up in the winter, and no matter who you ask, all Japanese people will swear that taking hot baths keeps you from catching colds, because you warm your body thoroughly – and a reason why most Japanese people take baths nightly (that and because baths are awesome).

There are a million more things that are different from Japan and America, and although this is only a little window, I’m sure I’ll come back with more to report back. The difficult thing is that I’ve adjusted to all of the differences by now so I often don’t think twice about them – but every once in a while, I’ll be reminded of how things are different between countries (for example, there was just an election for Tokyo mayor, and one of the men running was someone who has been reported of saying that women aren’t fit for office because they menstruate. He ended up winning – and while idiots winning office in America is certainly not unheard of, I think most Americans [and damn, hopefully all women] would be outraged, insulted, and call that guy out for being a medieval dumbass. Gender equality is not so prevalent in Japan as it is in America [although there were several protests in Tokyo, mostly women-driven, in the streets against his campaign], and sometimes it feels like we’re still living in the 1950’s here. Wi-fi is impossible to find in public, is another example that comes to mind).

But I have written enough for today. Leave a comment if there’s a topic you want me to elaborate on more, if you wanna hear more about the differences in Japan and the cultural mindsets that drive them, or just to say hey. Thanks for reading!

Edit: Just thought of another one. A lot of people leave their cars on as they run into the convenience store for a few things. Can't do that in America without the fear of your car being stolen. Can do that in Japan (although I don't, 'cause I still don't think it's a good idea). 
Come to Japan; bathe your body and your soul alike.