Tuesday, December 27, 2011

(12/20) 1% of the cities have 99% of the shrines. Occupy Kyoto.

On Tuesday the 20th, we headed to Kyoto which is famous for having lots of history and beautiful shrines and temples. Our first stop was Sanjuusangendou (33 Ken Hall), which I had also been to on the 2010 May Trip. It was a long hall of 1000 gold colored statues of Kannon, a Buddhist sort-of deity ("sort-of" because explaining Buddhism in terms of Western religion isn't usually quite accurate). Unfortunately, there were signs everywhere in there prohibiting the taking of pictures and even ones that said they'd check your camera to make sure you didn't take any pictures, though I didn't see anyone actually doing that. Here's a picture from the internet:

Next we went to Kiyomizu Temple, which I had also been to before. It's a big temple with a nice view from a stage that sticks out from the side of the mountain. Apparently in the Edo period, people jumped off of this stage in order to have a wish granted if they survived the 13 meter drop. Because of that, now there's an expression in Japanese "to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu" which is like the English phrase "to take the plunge". On the way up to and down from the temple, there were a whole lot of gift shops along the sides of the road as well as places selling traditional Kyoto sweets and desserts. I got a good bit of shopping done there.

Next we were going to go to Nijo Castle but it was unexpectedly closed so we continued on to the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. It was very pretty and had nice Japanese landscaping/gardens all around it. One thing that made these traditional gardens look particularly nice and exotic is that the ground was just covered in light colored moss and there was no grass to be seen.

After that we went to Ginkakuji, The Temple of the Silver Pavilion. It also had lots of traditional Japanese landscaping and moss surrounding it with the addition of sculpted sand.

In the evening, we checked into our hotel and went to a fancy, several course, Japanese-style restaurant. There was also sake, which I didn't like much, and a small bowl of citrus sake which everyone including me loved.

After that we went to Kyoto tower and looked at the view which was pretty amazing with the free viewing telescopes which everyone was amusing themselves with by pointing them in creepy places that were watching people eat or do things in their hotel rooms.

Then we just walked around a bit and hung out. It was probably our busiest day on the Honshu trip.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

(12/19) Amazing Osaka

On Monday, we took the train to Osaka, which wasn't too far away. The first thing I noticed was that it seemed to have more litter and bad city smells but that it also seemed to have a lot of interesting places to go. Our hotel was the nicest one so far, but before we could check in we had to kill some time so we split up into two groups, the main group going to Osaka Castle with Mr. Nagashima (the other group ended up getting interviewed for the news about the death of Kim Jong Il at the place they went to). I went with the main group to Osaka Castle which was quite impressive from the outside. We even saw two guys with a giant video camera who we assumed were filming a documentary.

The inside of the castle, however, was nothing like a castle and entirely like a gutted out building turned into a museum. We checked out the museum and the view from the top of the castle, then went out to check out the gift shops and get some takoyaki (fried octopus), one of the famous street foods of Osaka along with okonomiyaki. While eating our lava-hot takoyaki, one of the people in our group noticed two people with backpacks running around being chased by a cameraman and sound guy.

Then someone in our group suggested that they might be on the Amazing Race, but I wasn't sure because I couldn't see any of the telltale red and yellow Amazing Race flags or bright yellow clues. But the possibility was irresistible so I ran after them to get a closer look. They seemed to go the wrong way once, then spotted their goal from the top of some stairs/a wall. My group was also leaving so on the way out I kept a lookout for any route markers for the Amazing Race and then saw a camera crew on a hill interviewing the team we saw earlier. Upon getting closer we were able to see the show's host and discover that it was indeed The Amazing Race. I got a picture and snuck as close as I could to get another one through the bushes before one of the show's crew noticed me and asked me to leave.

One of the people in our group asked if it was The Amazing Race, even though it was now obvious that it was, and the guy said he didn't know and that it was some Korean show, which I hear is what they're required to say when asked. It was hard to tell but I think the team we saw got eliminated. Maybe. Honestly I have no idea.

After returning and checking into our hotel, some of us headed out to check out the Studio Ghibli store in Osaka which we had assumed was particularly big since it was specifically mentioned on the schedule. In reality, it was significantly smaller than the one in Kobe and the one I went to in Otaru, but it was still cool. We also got some neat Harry Potter collectibles out of one of the many capsule dispensers and stopped at the Osaka Pokemon Center which ended up being quite big and fancy, with lots of people of all ages standing around playing DS and buying Pokemon merchandise.

In the evening, Dai and I ventured out to an onsen from a guide pamphlet and were able to find it and use it on our own. At the onsen, which was on the roof of a building, we removed our shoes, bought tickets from a machine for entry and towels to rent and then brought those tickets to the counter to receive our towels and continue in toward the changing room. In the changing room were lockers for putting in all of your clothes. Next was the same as on the International Camp trip: shower, then soak in any of the variety of hot baths, scented baths, cold baths, or in the sauna. Surprisingly, there was more variety than at the onsen we went to previously. After that we went back to the hotel feeling quite refreshed.

(12/18) Kobe beef, it's what's for dinner

The next day we went to Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima which is famous for its large red gate that is out in the middle of the water (when the tide is in) and also for its wild and friendly deer. It is one of the top three views in Japan. We had to take a short ferry ride to get there and then went with a tour guide to check out the area and take pictures of the gate and deer. We were also able to go shopping for souvenirs and there was a good deal of interesting stuff, though most of the stores had the same things. Also, on this day especially, there was always someone who was late, missing, or almost late so Mr. Nagashima and some of the students got pretty frustrated.

After that, we took a shinkansen (bullet train) to Shin Kobe, famous for its Kobe Beef. The bullet train was quite fast and comfortable and you could turn the seats around to face each other if you wanted to. Mostly I just walked around with Julia, Dai, and Mr. Nagashima and spent time in a touristy place with a ferris wheel, small rollercoaster, an arcade, and a bunch of stores. As usual, Mr. Nagashima and Dai spent a good deal of time in the arcade, but we also went to a Studio Ghibli store, rode coin operated animals, and found a restaurant that had relatively cheap Kobe beef. Unfortunately, the restaurant ended up being a little stressful because of food constraints, unexpected service fees, and not very good service. It still tasted pretty good for the most part though.

At the hotel, it had been a problem both this day, the day before, and all future days because we only had one room key between three people and the three of us usually wanted to split up and return at different times. We left the key at the front desk so that the first person back could get it, but if I wanted to go to sleep, there wasn't really a way to let people in unless I left the door open a crack. To remedy that, I left the door open a crack, put the TV on to make it obvious someone was inside the room, put a piece of paper outside the door saying "security device enabled" and put a metal trash can right in front of the door so that anyone opening it would hit and wake me up. It worked pretty well although I was still awake when Dai came back anyway. And we were just about to go to sleep when the foot light switched itself off and another light switched itself on and we heard a ringing alarm coming from out in the hall. Sure enough, there was a power-outage for some reason and none of the other lights would work. The elevator still worked though, so we stupidly took that down to the lobby to check what was going on. As soon as we got down, a guy said that he was working on it and would have it fixed soon but that we shouldn't use the elevator to be safe so we immediately headed back up using the stairs, to the 13th floor. It was more amusing than anything though.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

(12/17) Hiroshima

Our first stop on the Honshu trip was Hiroshima. We left from the college at 7:30 on Saturday morning and took a plane to Hiroshima, changing planes in Tokyo. On the way, I was able to see Mt. Fuji.

Once in Hiroshima, the first things I noticed were that it was significantly warmer than Sapporo and that there were more traditional looking buildings.

For the most part, my time in Hiroshima was exactly the same as the last time I went to Hiroshima which was with a class in May 2010. We went to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the statue with the paper cranes all around it, and the Peace Memorial Museum. Outside, there were a lot of people standing around collecting signatures as a petition to ban nuclear weapons. I wasn't sure how they were going to convince countries like China, North Korea, and countries in the middle east to stop developing nuclear weapons by collecting signatures, but it was a nice thought anyway.

The Peace Memorial Museum is not a particularly fun place to go to, but is very informative and surprisingly unbiased about the history of the atomic bomb and its use. The first half of the museum is mostly about the history and the second half to two thirds is dedicated to artifacts from the aftermath of the bomb and stories from various individuals. At the very end were guest books where you could write your name and thoughts. Since I had seen it before and read a book about for a class, I already knew how many people did not die in the explosion and died in agony with severe burns or radiation poisoning, and how survivors were often discriminated against. So because of that, I made my way quickly through the museum and relaxed on the bus.

In the evening, we stayed at the same hotel that I stayed at last time and went out to eat in several groups. After that, I wasn't really up for doing much else so I just walked around on the streets near the hotel with a couple other people and then returned to the hotel.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Honshu Trip Pictures

I haven't gotten a chance to write up the details of my Honshu trip so far, but here's some teaser pictures.

So far I've been to Hiroshima where I saw the Peace Memorial Museum and Itsukushima Shrine. Then Kobe where I had Kobe beef and a somewhat amusing experience with a power outage in the hotel. Today I've been in Osaka where I went to Osaka Castle where we coincidentally saw the filming of The Amazing Race at a distance and went shopping at some places. We're planning to go to an onsen tonight. Tomorrow we're going to Kyoto and the next day we're going to Nara. Anyway, check out the pictures and I'll write up details when I get around to it.

Friday, December 16, 2011

I Speeched

For the grand finale of Japanese class, all the students from each class prepared a speech to give in front of the rest of the students, host families, and Japanese teachers. For the most part, the level one class went first and continued in order through level five and the advanced class, but two advanced level people presented at the very beginning too. And actually, the first speech was about Japan's high suicide rate... so that was an interesting way to start. From then on, there were about as many speeches about "my time in Sapporo" as volcanoes at a science fair. There was of course some variety though, and it was cool to see the difference between each class level and how much progress everyone had made since the beginning of the semester.

My speech was about the differences between Japanese and American TV and was titled "Japanese TV is 'BS'.". That and the picture of King Leonidas I put up on the overhead projector seemed to get people's attention. As I mentioned in my post about Japanese TV, one set of channels on TV are labeled as BS, which I believe stands for Broadcasting Satellite. So I started by explaining why that and titles like "BS News" were funny to an English speaker. I was limited to four to five minutes, but the differences I covered were the big, silly, subtitles that they have on Japanese variety shows, the videos of the hosts' faces that they have in the corner of the screen on those variety shows, how cartoons in America don't typically have continuing stories like Japanese anime, and how in America there are only American dramas, unlike in Japan where Korean dramas are also very popular. At the end of each presentation, one or two people asked questions. I was asked something about Japanese commercials and I responded (or tried to respond) by saying they were mostly pretty similar to American ones and that the commercial breaks were put in at parts that make you want to keep watching. Except in Japan, sometimes what they do instead, since variety shows aren't actually that interesting, is just hide someone's face and have a big reveal of their face after the commercial break. So my reaction to that was basically "oo, we can't see their face. So what?" The other question I was asked was what my favorite drama was in Japan to which I replied that I don't really watch any but I like the fact that they exist.
(This video is missing the bit that explains BS and the questions afterwards. Now has English subtitles!)

Overall, everyone seemed to do really well with their speeches. Afterwards, we said our goodbyes to teachers and Korean students who we might not see again, got some pictures, and headed out with Mr. Nagashima and his wife to the restaurant he took us to at the beginning of the semester.

Now that classes are officially over, we're going to be leaving on our trip around Honshu (the main island of Japan) starting early Saturday morning. I'll probably be busy so don't bet on timely blog updates, but we'll see how it goes.
As of now, here's the "japlan":
Saturday (12/17) Hiroshima: Peace Memorial Park & Atomic Bomb Memorial Dome
Sunday (12/18) Itsukushima Shrine, Bullet train to Shin Kobe
Monday (12/19) Osaka, Studio Ghibli Store
Tuesday (12/20) Kyoto: Thirty-three Ken Hall, Kiyomizu Temple, Nijyo Castle, Temple of Golden Pavilion, Arashiyama, Traditional Kyoto dinner
Wednesday (12/21) Nara: Kasuga Grand Shrine, Todaiji Temple, Nara Park; Return to Sapporo
Friday (12/23) Fly home to America

Kids - Factory - Kids

On Wednesday morning I went with my host mom back to the Children's Hall to help put on a little Christmas show with music and a flannel board. Impressively, the characters and pictures for the board were all hand made by my mom and a friend and they looked professionally made, some with a front and back and others that had movable parts for dancing. Mostly I just took things on and off the board and made Santa dance.

After that, we were going to go to this Christmas event in Odori Park but on the way decided to stop at Sapporo Factory since I hadn't been there yet. As far as I could tell, it didn't seem to be a factory at all (though maybe there was one somewhere), but a huge multi-building shopping mall. I was really amazed by the niceness of it too. While there, we ate at a pasta restaurant and I checked out what a Japanese Toys R Us looked like (it was almost exactly the same).

After that we walked to Odori Park for that Christmas thing. From what I could tell, it was like a sort of German culture festival with shops set up that were selling various handmade Christmas items and food. In fact after googleing it just now, I found that it is in fact called Munich Christmas Market. So there you go.

In the evening, I joined in for the last cram school class I'll be here for. We played this old Japanese game where one person (my host mom) read chant sort of things from cards and then the rest of us had to try to be the first to grab one of 100 tiles that had the words from the last part of that section of the chant. It was especially challenging because the words on the tiles were written in very stylized old-fashioned writing, but even still I managed to get 3 or 4.

Afterwards, they surprised me with a really nice, hand-drawn, giant card with pictures and notes from everyone in the class. It was a really pleasant surprise. ^_^

Monday, December 12, 2011

Last Sunday in Sapporo

Last Sunday was my last Sunday in Sapporo and was quite eventful. In the morning, I went to the church at the end of the street one last time. We sang familiar Christmas songs in Japanese and I got a translated summary of the message from one of the people there. After the service, I had some good udon with most of the rest of the congregation and talked about stuff.

After that, I went out with my host mom to a children's puppet theater that she had just found out about that morning. Apparently she used to do puppet shows herself so it was rather nostalgic. I even thought it was pretty neat because it was really old fashioned style, with a crank powered record player thing, an accordion, and old marionettes as well as hand puppets. Afterwards I got a picture with the woman who seemed to be in charge who was 79 years old.

From there, we made our way to Susukino to ride the giant Ferris wheel in the middle of the city. It lights up at night and is probably pretty popular, but since we went during the day we were the only ones there. Having checked that off our list, we still had some time to kill before doing what we really came there for so we stopped somewhere to get something to eat. That took up enough time for it to get dark out so that when we went back outside the Christmas lights and illuminations were all turned on throughout Odori Park. I was definitely impressed by the bright colors and large scale of some of the displays. It was hard to get a good picture of it though.

From there we made our way to...

...the concert hall to see Hakase Taro!
Now there's a man whose hair people would pay to touch. He's a famous violinist in Japan and was backed up by seven others playing on piano, cello, guitar, drums, and sometimes flute and saxophone. I had only heard his music previously from my host mom's CD that she plays sometimes in the morning, but after seeing him in concert, I can definitely say I'm a fan. The instrumental music was right up my alley and only got better as the concert went on. The last five songs in a row were all fantastic and I wish I could find more of them on youtube to share here. I couldn't get any pictures in the concert hall or at the puppet show, so you'll just have to watch these videos that I did find instead:

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Making Soba

If you wish to make soba from scratch, you must first invent the universe. I didn't go quite that far, but I did make soba noodles with my host parents from powder and water on Saturday. We had a big shiny bowl and mixed up the powder/flour/whatever by hand and added water until it got doughy.

Then split it into two chunks,

kneaded it a bunch,

flattened it out,

folded it, and cut it into noodles that ended up being shorter and more brittle than they were supposed to be.

Then it was just a matter of cooking them up, throwing them in cold water, and then eating them by dipping them in a cup of some sort of flavorful liquid. They were definitely shorter than they were supposed to be, but they still tasted good. And that's about all there is to it!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Natural Curls

The semester is winding down. All I have left are tests and preparation for the end of the semester speech which everyone is doing in front of all the other students and host families next Thursday. If you've been keeping up with my Picasa Web Album pictures, you could probably follow the progression of time by observing the length of my hair, which is now a good deal longer than I usually have it before cutting it. My mom from home wishes I would cut it or at least do something with it, and I'll admit, it probably could use a comb once in a while. My host mom on the other hand has been watching it grow with interest throughout the semester and frequently comments on its thick and curly nature while tossing out theories about how it would grow if I let it get really long.

So with her interest in mind and the boost of energy from being almost done with classes, I had a brilliant idea: stand outside the cafeteria building and charge people 100 yen to touch my hair. I wrote up a sign on the back of a paper and headed over.

It isn't abnormal for people to stand there advertising club events or to hand out packs of tissues with advertisements on them, but paying money to touch someone's hair seemed to be a first. There were quite a lot of double takes as people gave a polite glance only to realize what exactly I was advertising, laugh, and then tap their friends on the shoulder to show them too. Some people asked me why I was doing it, to which I replied "Because it's funny" or "It's a part time job". Others took pictures, which I graciously offered for free. Every laugh and smile was almost as good as getting money. Almost. I wasn't sure if I'd get any money for a while but then it started to trickle in. Four people did it in the 50 minutes or so that I was out there, but the 400 yen and laughs were completely worth it (and I got another 100 yen from Mr. Nagashima when I got back to Kirari).

(thanks to Shutaro for this pic)

On Friday, I fixed up a new sign and was joined by Maggie and Hollande to try it again in Odori. Unfortunately, the majority of people walking around Odori were serious-faced adults who were not amused. We still got a few laughs, but significantly less than at the college and didn't earn any money at all. Perhaps I'll hang onto the sign and try again when we take the trip around Honshu starting at the end of next week.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Scotty Diagus (Concerning Bus Drivers)

I haven't really ridden enough buses in America to know how to compare them, but the Japanese bus drivers are a daily source of amusement for Nick and I on the commute to class. Actually, I think they are probably pretty similar to American bus drivers... But getting to the point, they say (or are supposed to say) "arigatou gozaimasu" ("Thank you very much") to each person as they get off the bus, but more often than not they mumble it beyond recognition. Usually they end up just dropping most of it and catching the end so it sounds like "moss" or "[mumble mumble] masu". Most people would ignore this or think "What did he say?" and then move on with their life, but not us. We make a game out of interpreting the bus drivers' garbled speech. From "getoffmybus" and "arollingstonegathersno-masu" to a duck's quack and things that sound nothing like the original phrase, as was the case the day our driver seemed to say "scotty diagus". There is quite a variety in our daily greetings from the bus drivers. Of course there are a few bus drivers who still enthusiastically and clearly thank everyone but I can only assume they're still new to the job. I also have to wonder how a bus driver's life at home is and whether their wife would grow accustomed to interpreting bus-driver-ese.

Well, at least the bus drivers aren't mean. They just seem very bored and dissatisfied with their jobs, but it's more amusing for us that way.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Maruyama Zoo

Yesterday and during the night it snowed quite a bit, but we still managed to go to Maruyama Zoo (but not Asahiyama Zoo). There's not a whole lot to say about it except that the paths were very slushy and there were a lot of animals there as you would expect. So with that being the case, here are some of the best pictures from the album of 87 that I took today.

The paths were slushy

This bird could say "Ohayo" (Good morning), but only that.


Also as a technical note, I tried adding Google AdSense to the blog, even though it's a bit late for it. I just have the ads below each post and as of now they're just empty placeholders until my account gets confirmed. If you want to disable your ad blockers on this site, I'll wave my arms for you. Otherwise I don't really blame you.