Saturday, March 7, 2009

March Meadows

Saturday, February 7, 2009

February Takoyaki

How time flies. It seems that I always have a million things to do and nothing ever gets done, at least without sacrificing something else for it. Sorry for the lack of updates recently, but hopefully the amount of information contained within this post will offset that a bit. As well as detailing a few of my adventures for this month, I included some Japan-related questions and answers from a recent thread I was hosting. Informative? Of interest? You decide!

...I see you...

Shadow me!

The following pictures are from a day when I decided to take a bike ride around my area and see what there was to see. As well as finding myself closer to the center of Nagoya I perused some interesting residential streets of Japan and found quite a large park. Japan is strange in that you can turn corners and never know what to expect. The residential suburbs and commercial streets seem so randomly mixed, and even the back streets have small businesses like hair dressers or fruit and vegetable stores. Typically the main streets have the chain businesses and the residential streets have the family-run businesses, I guess. Makes for interesting exploring.

A look back at where I came from.

Types of bushes and grasses regularly found by the roadside in my area.

A walk spanning the length of the park.

Houses nestled in the centre of a large park with an open green space. It seems a quiet haven.

Looking down the hill at a suburb of Nagoya.

Having no school on a Thursday due to some sort of holiday, I overheard plans for a takoyaki party at a classmates house. Because I was unsure of the location and the classmate seemed to have trouble drawing me a map, she agreed to come meet me at a store nearby my house so we could proceed to her villa by bike. Her house turned out to be up and over a huge hill which in the past I had only traversed by bus. While the way up was tough, the way down was a lot of fun, and aside from the rather imposing obstacle our houses wouldn't have been far away at all.

The takoyaki party/actual Japanese school girls.

We also rode down to the station to pick up some other girls who were coming by train, including Louise, the German exchange student. I'd never seen Louise out of her school uniform before, but she seems to have picked up quite the Japanese fashion, replete in tights, shorts, and an interesting assortment of colours.

Takoyaki cooking. Also contains wieners, cheese, shrimp, or a mix of all. I felt rather sorry for the poor octopus, fascinating creatures as they are. Even their curly cold tentacles are beautiful.

We cooked normal takoyaki (doughballs filled with octopus) in special takoyaki hot plates for lunch.

Delicious dessert... Takoyaki batter with yummy stuff in them. Chocolate and marshmallows, anyone?

Later made some sweeter dessert-type doughballs as well as stuffed ourselves with convenience store chips and candy.

Everyone contributed to the snacks.

Japanese sweets can be quite different from typical North American stuff, including aloe vera juice, a million varities of tea, shrimp-flavored chips, sour plum snacks, blueberry-filled marshmallows, and a million other strange things all with their packages covered in Engrish.

A park.

Random shot of me.

Oasis 21, an area in Sakae where outdoor performances like magic shows are sometimes held. A Pokemon Centre store and Ghibli shop are also here.

As for other random adventures, I also met some of the foreign students (mostly Americans) studying at the university nearby my school this February. Some of them were having a Dissidea tournament, the FF7 battling game, and after a party for one of the students who was leaving due to a shorter stay, but sadly I didn't get to go to the latter because of a lack of way home after 5:30.

Palm tree? For some reason there are a lot of these in Japan.

One day, after spending the afternoon working on things at home, I decided to bike down to the vending machine near my house so I could get a Coca Cola Zero and have a hill to climb for exercise, even if it was only 15 minutes all together. (However, apparently one can't even go that long in Japan without running into something odd.)

Mission accomplished. I was biking back up to my house when I decided to take a path less trod for change and fun, and when all of a sudden I heard a crowing "Cockadoodledoo!!"

Following the sound, I came upon a chicken and some sort of budgie in a cage at an elementary school near my house. Turns out I live less than 10 minutes from a very vocal rooster.

Good to know.

Questions and Answers

Do the Japanese often use instant messengers?
Japanese tend to text with their cellphones and rely on that for instant communication. Cellphones aren't limited to younger people and most adults have them, with the exception of some seniors. Not a lot that I've met use instant messengers, but of course there are exceptions. A cellphone is basically a must here and you'll be lost, confused, and out of the loop if you don't have one. They don't usually text using phone numbers either. Each cellphone has a personal email-type address that you can use to send and receive messages, files, and pictures from computers as well as text other phones. As for personal profile sites like Facebook, they use, though it requires an invite from an existing member to join.

How long did it take you to become fluent in Japanese?
I'm not yet fluent, but I can hold normal conversations and watch TV/play video games/read comics without a dictionary. To get to functional fluency and literacy, it's taken me 4 years. I first studied Japanese for a year in high school. I spent my next school year in Japan, but at first when I arrived in Tokyo I could hardly speak the language at all, I just knew basic grammar, vocabulary, and sentences like "I will go to school." When I returned to Canada from Japan the first time I took up translating game material as a hobby and that really improved my Japanese. Now that I live in Nagoya I've polished my speaking so I don't hesitate to say things or grasp for vocabulary and I can think in the language without a lot of trouble.

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, so why do you like Japan?
The different culture, the kind people, the unfailing do-your-best attitude, the history, the different sights and sounds, the language, the atmosphere, etc. Japan obviously has its problems and incredibly frustrating aspects too, but for me it's a different country and I'm not sick of it, so I'm happier here than North America.

How many foreigners have you met there?
I've met some friends from online, I've met a German exchange student attending the same school as me, I've met some students studying Japanese at a nearby university, and I've met two foreigners teaching English at my high school. Maybe 15 in all?

What are your favorite places in Japan?
Kyoto and Tokyo. Typical choices, perhaps, but Kyoto's gorgeous, and Tokyo has that big city vibe and cool atmosphere combined with a lot of weird things you wouldn't find elsewhere. You can walk around the popular districts and busy places, and then turn a corner onto the backstreets and suddenly find yourself in a quiet residential area with a lot of little houses, nice gardens, and family-owned laundromats.

I haven't travelled much since I've been attending school, but Takayama is a really nice city (quite small) in a rural area of the Japanese alps. Nice views, a picturesque city centre, and a feel for the countryside.

I've never been to the Ryukyu islands where Okinawa is but it looks gorgeous.

Do most Japanese people listen to Jpop or do they like other music?
It's the same ratio as people who listen to the radio's top 40 hit list in western countries, I'd wager. Of course there's different stuff, and of course a lot of people listen to what the stations decree "popular".

What's the weather like?
It's different all over Japan, the north can be cold and snowy and some areas are tropical, but where I am it's quite mild and we haven't had any snow this winter. Most days it's about 15 degrees celcius, sunny and quite warm, and it occasionally rains. Summer is really humid, though. It can be a cloudy day and you'll be sitting there sweating.

Do you go clubbing?
No, I'm not old enough to go clubbing here as the drinking age is 20 (though I guess the US is worse), but I'm sure I could get in as foreigners tend to look more mature to Japanese eyes and no foreigner I've met has ever been ID'd.

Do you drive?
I walk, take the train, bus, and go by bicycle. Driving age here is 18 and I don't even have my license in Canada, though you'd probably have to get a special international one to drive here or take the Japanese test. I've heard it's quite expensive in Japan and because of the convenience and reliability of public transportation some people don't bother to get it.

Any advice for learning Japanese?

This site is really useful and goes from the very basics all the way up to more advanced grammatical stuff. #japanese

Friendly chatroom filled with Japanese people seeking to learn English and foreigners seeking to learn Japanese. Really good place to practice/make friends/ask questions.

James W. Heisig's Remembering the Kanji

Best thing you can ever do for yourself in regards to learning kanji. You can learn like, 30 characters in an hour and only write them once. You'll remember them forever. The link above has the first 125 pages as a PDF in the links section, take a look!

My advice for you is to find a way to practice and improve your Japanese in a manner that you enjoy and can do for recreation.

For example: Find a conversation partner, chat online, watch movies, read manga, play games, anything you wish. There's a whole world of options out there and don't limit yourself to studying from a text book.

With anything you do, keep a dictionary on hand and look up any word you don't know, then write it down as well as its meaning. This method will go slowly at first and you'll often have to look up the same word many times before it will stick in your head. However, you'll eventually be able to understand the whole thing perfectly and things will just get faster from there when you move on to something else. I played Chrono Trigger this way, it took a long time to get through the game but now I can play just fine. I learned many words and grammatical constructs that have appeared in other things I've played and read since then.

Good luck!

Are kids in Japan happy to attend school, or is it more of a chore?
The kids here work way too hard studying, school and homework take up so much time that they almost don't have a chance to develop passions and pursue them by themselves. It's unfortunate in that regard. Everyone treats school as very important, and while students work their asses off usually resulting in lack of sleep, failing a class or dropping out is almost unheard of. Basically, while it's hard work and school sucks, it's just like western countries in that there can be fun things about it too. Seeing your friends, experiencing school life, doing something cool, etc.

When you turn on Japanese TV, how many foreign faces do you see? Is it all Japanese people?
Mostly Japanese faces. There are very few foreigners who make it on to prime-time television as part of Japanese programs, though it occasionally happens. You can see some half Japanese people too. The ratio of foreigners to Japanese in Japan is very small, thanks in part to xenophobia, cultural and linguistic barriers, and strict government policies.

Any more photos?
You can see photos of my first stay in Japan at under Photos on the right link bar.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

January in a Nutshell

Long time, no update. After the busy-ness of New Years, I had nothing to report on for the start of January as I mostly spent my days at home translating and working on my website. Once things started happening I got quite busy and as such I've been rather deprived of sleep for the last little while. Hopefully this post doesn't reflect that too much (except that I just wrote "two" instead of "too," oops).

At the tail end of winter vacation I visited my host parents' friends' house, the Furuyas'. We went over for lunch and I met the family's son, a 22-year-old fellow with intentions to travel to Australia on exchange in April. I chatted with him for a bit while we made homemade pizza, the choice of ingredients provided being corn, mushroom, sausage, cheese, tomato sauce, and crab. Two pizzas were made, with one being a corn, mushroom, sausage, tomato sauce, and cheese type, and the other being crab, mushroom, tomato sauce, and cheese. Definitely not my first choice for pizza, but corn is actually not a bad topping. The house also had 5 dogs, including 2 corgies, one scottie-looking-thing, one dachshund, and a tiny little who-knows-what. Corgies are a strange blend of proportions, with huge heads and ears on relatively stubby bodies. Cute, though. Like a dog army. They also had a piano, so I got the chance to play a little bit, rare these days.

Upon my return home, I heard that my host father's business associate was coming to dinner. Expecting an older man, I was surprised to find that the manager of the company is only 27 years old, and quite a young and fashionable-looking guy. He was interesting to talk to as well, and we discussed various hair salon conventions around the world, such as the Japanese inclination to never close the shop if there were still customers coming, whereas English or North American salons would just apologize and say they were closed, shooing you away.

I also met up with the Canadian guy from the chatroom, Brian, his Finnish friend who was visiting, and an American fellow also living in Nagoya. We went to a restaurant near the station for dinner and hit up a cheap karaoke place. Though it's definitely not my first choice for non-embarrassing entertainment, it was okay, and fun to hang out with some other English speakers. I was asking the regular questions of the American student about how long he'd been in Nagoya and what have you, and he told me he was taking Japanese lessons at a university with a number of other exchange students, mostly Americans. It took awhile to register, but all of a sudden I realized that he went to school on the same campus as me. It's nice to know there are some other foreigners close by.

Speaking of foreigners, I met up with the cousin of a friend from Kelowna who was living with two other girls near Nagoya since I think September on a program through Capilano College. Sadly, she's returning to Canada now that it's February, but it was nice to have a chance to share our experiences. We went to a nice pizza place for dinner and had Italian-style margherita and basil mozzarella parmesan pies. Delicious! I miss cheese.

I've learned that my host father owns a series of restaurants as well as his hair salons. My grandparents took my host sister and I there for lunch one day, a slightly upscale place with traditional Japanese food. I had a lunch set of beef on rice, miso soup, sashimi, and apple sherbet, all presented very nicely. I walked home as the restaurant was not far from my host and the others were going grocery shopping.

Since school has started I've had many days off because of the students studying for exams. I've been going by bike since winter break ended, which is about 40 minutes and includes walking up steep hills. It's quite a lot of exercise for the early morning and if I go too quickly I feel sick. Yay Nagoya. I've also been practicing a dance routine for gym class with the girls at school and getting better at Chinese as the class plods its way through one textbook (they're on the 4th chapter and they've been studying since April). I'm learning, but I still don't have a handle on pronunciation.

As for other activities, I met up with the Furuya's son Shunsuke again to go see K-20, a sort of silly Indiana-Jones-style comical-but-kind-underdog-becomes-hero Japanese adventure movie. It was at a really nice theatre in what used to be an airport, now a mall beside a smaller army base airstrip. The building retains its airport-like style and it's difficult to believe it isn't one anymore. Japanese cinemas are very comfortable and well-kept, with wide aisles, spacious comfy seats, clean floors, and a polite audience.

I had recently finished the two fantasy books from the same series that I'd brought to Japan, and was despairing to the Australian English teacher, Carone-sensei, about how I wouldn't be able to continue them. She told me about a small second-hand store in Nagoya that also had an English book section. As she was going there soon she offered to look for some of the series for me, but I asked her if I could go along. It was such that we arrived in the fairly out-of-the-way place packed with all sorts of interesting things and started browsing through the racks. The owner, apparently a very nice man on good terms with my teacher, came up to us and said that a television crew was going to come by and do a segment on the shop since second-hand stores are rare in Japan, would we mind being interviewed? I said yes, and we browsed books until the crew arrived. I wasn't really certain what they expected of me, but they put some books in my hands and sent me in through the door again, looking as though I was just coming into the shop. Since they gave me a false premise, I ran with it and pretended that I came to the shop often, answering factual questions truthfully but lying about my own experiences on camera. It was strange, but they didn't seem to have a problem with this when I told them after since I hadn't known what to do. They also wanted me to pick out books on the spot and I wasn't sure what to choose, so I just made up reasons why I had picked them when the interviewer asked me. Funny business, news. In the end, the final program cut most of the interviews the customers had done, but I was there for a question or two about why I was in Japan and whether bookstores were common in Canada or not, the studio audience (made up of celebrities) said "Oh, a female high school student..." and that was about that.

Anyway, that was my January.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Christmas and New Years

UPDATE: Pictures! And more paragraphs.

I've been really busy for this entire holiday, starting with just before Christmas when I caught a horrible cold and was out of it for 3 days. I don't usually get sick very easily, but before when I was living in Tokyo I managed to catch a strange bug several times that had me throwing up for about 24 hours straight before vanishing just as mysteriously as it had appeared. I could never figure out any variations in my diet that might have caused a reaction or food poisoning to explain the affliction away. Maybe it's just that I'm not used to the bacteria here yet.

A pond in a big park near my house, beside a bread cafe that my host mother enjoys bringing her dogs to.

Christmas isn't that celebrated in Japan, and the event goes by more or less uneventfully. It's more of a couples' holiday, so unless one has a significant other to go and do romantic things with like wait in line with 200 other couples to ride a ferris wheel or walk around a pretty indoor shopping mall and admire the lights, one probably isn't missing anything by staying in. However, Christmas lights, called "illumination," are a big deal here and extremely showy and ostentatious displays (at least to my eyes) attract oohs and ahhs from the Japanese folks who drive by them in their cars. As well as lights decorating the downtown district and a grand and very eye-caching display above Nagoya Station, neighbors in suburban districts seem to compete with each other for the most colourful display. Often a house will be completely decked out with lights, and then a few houses down a competing abode will flash and flicker with animated reindeer and Santas, not so far away from another glitzy maison.

I spent my Christmas in front of the kitchen table television with my host family and grandparents, eating sushi and Mos Burger fried chicken (similar to Kentucky-style) followed up with Christmas cake.

Delicious sushi.

My host father and his mother.

My host parents.

My host grandparents who live in the attached house next door and frequently feed me and my host sister when my host mother isn't around to.

Aforementioned Mos chicken, apparently a Christmas tradition for the family. (Mos Burger is a fast food outlet like Wendy's.)

Christmas cake, vanilla with strawberries and whipped cream icing. Much better than fruitcake, amirite?

Edible sugary snowmen. This one was shortly consumed headfirst.

People keep asking me what the "daily food" is in Canada, or what sort of rice-equivalent thing we eat every day. I don't really think we have one, or at least with my weird dietary habits I can't remember having the same thing at every meal. I usually say it's bread, since bread isn't so common or popular in a culture that makes mini-dinners for lunch boxes instead of sandwiches. That is to say, meatballs and scrambled egg and sausage along with the obligatory bottom half full of rice. I've started to joke that the Japanese shushoku is cake, since in the past two weeks or so I seem to have eaten it every day. People always bring over cake as a sort of housewarming gift for inviting them over, or we bring it to other people and all take part in consuming said treat. The Japanese have really good pastry, though, and the cake usually comes in various types of slices like melon or tiramisu, all fancily decorated and what you'd expect to find at a high-end pastry shop. Anyway, I'm trying to limit my sweets.

As I began to get better, I took a walk around the neighborhood and bought some new makeup at the nearby drug store just to get out and about. Japanese residential areas and business areas are weirdly mixed, so even though I live in a suburban area, I'm never far from a slightly bigger road with a variety of shops and stuff. There's a CAT bulldozer rental business and a Yahama store that sells pianos within a 10 minute walk of my house.

Street beside a baseball field. Entry prohibited except for the high school teams that play there.

A busier street with CAT rental shop to the left.

Houses and random empty fields, there seem to be a lot of these. I don't know if they're farms in the off season or just places where nothing's been built yet.

Whyyy is it yellow?

Another field near my house. It's not like it's a park, there's a fence all around and the middle is overgrown. Who knows?

A small park with a playground. Japanese parks don't have grass, only the big ones. Usually the ground is gravel or dirt.

I live on top of a hill. Yay clouds!

Just before New Years I ended up visiting Kyoto for the fourth time with my host mother Tae-san, my host sister Hana, my host mother's older sister Fu-chan, and Fu-chan's calligraphy teacher friend. We took the Shinkansen in the morning and ate breakfast at a Lipton cafe, the same brand that sells all the ice tea products. It seemed an okay enough place, though I was surprised to find one existed. The European-style cafes I've been to here are all very nice places that serve various meal sets that allow you to choose between drinks and main dishes with salad and things on the side. The lunches make for very light meals, and there's usually more cute little pieces of cake on display up front.

Just in front of Kyoto station, near the busy part of downtown Kyoto proper.

We took a cab to visit Sanjugendo. Having visited previously with my real mother, this was my second time at the temple holding hundreds of golden statues and various wooden carvings of Japanese gods, as well as a giant Buddha. Oddly enough, I noticed the information signs about the gods were different, the English version not being a direct translation of the Japanese. I couldn't read the Japanese well enough to know what was being said for sure, but there were a lot of things mentioned that weren't included in the English version below. For example, I saw a mention of the Italian Renaissance that simply wasn't present in English. As well, the English signs had a lot of information about the mistakes the Japanese had made when adopting the Buddhist deities from China and India, such as gods that had erroneously been combined together or had their names mistranslated and thus their appearances skewed. I wonder if the Japanese signs lacked this for fear of offending somebody?

Sanjugendo's garden.


We also went to some sort of small out-of-the-way female temple where the others prayed for good luck and bought fortunes, but I just took pictures and kept out of things.

A traditional-looking result of my photography.

A visit to Kyoto always includes a visit to Kiomizu Dera. As I've probably mentioned before, the the way up the hill towards the temple is lined with little shops, and I bought a pretty blue necklace from Kyoto Glass Works and a Japanese bag, one of the first and only times I've allowed myself to spend a bit since coming here. We didn't go into the temple itself after having been there so recently, but we did have lunch at an Italian restaurant on the way back, spaghetti and pizza and mango juice, the latter of which is delicious and readily available in Japan.

A steep path leading up to a restaurant on the way up the hill to Kiomizu.

We also walked a bit in the main part of the city on our way back down. I've been here with my real mother as well, albeit in the evening with pretty red lanterns present along the water.

That evening we stayed at Ichinomiya, a place outside of Nagoya that the Japanese classify as the countryside. It does have many farms scattered about, but compared to my Canadian city, the station area, at least, seemed downright urban. This is the home of my host mother's older sister Fu-chan and her father Ryuuji. The house is 43 years old and thus not heated at all, with very thin walls at the entry way. The front door isn't much of a barrier to the cold, and the temperature is comparable to outside. Individual rooms are heated by space heaters as you are using them, and thick blankets are used to keep you warm at night. One of the exchange students that went to Tokyo with me lived in such a house along with his host family who I became close with, so I've had experience with it before. However, out of all the modern conveniences that I enjoy in Canada, I'd say heat is one I've usually taken for granted. I hadn't been feeling well due to lack of sleep from the night before, so I passed out around 9 pm and didn't wake up till 1:30 the next day. I took the opportunity to play the piano, though unbeknownst to us one of the pedals was depressed, resulting in little sound and apparently broken keys. Luckily my host mother discovered this quirk, though I didn't get another chance to play after that as we were leaving.

That afternoon my host sister and host mother and I returned to Nagoya, where we spent the night and cleaned the house the next morning. My host father was working that day, so we went to the hair salon with the dogs and he was kind enough to cut Hana's and my hair. I didn't change my hair style, but I got it trimmed and thinned. One thing about asian hair is that it's very thick, so hairdressers here tend to go wild with the thinning shears. It feels really nice to have hair that's light and easy to dry without being so unruly. I always beg North American hair stylists to do the same when I'm getting my hair cut, but they're never quite enthusiastic enough. My host father also used heated curlers that curled my hair in less than 5 minutes and achieved quite a nice effect. Apparently they're only $40 or so, so I may have to resist the temptation to get some for myself.

Yay new hairstyle.

I once told my host father that a lot of male stylists in Canada were gay and it was rarer to find a male stylist working in a salon. He seemed rather amused by this, since he told me that in Japan the distribution of male and female stylists is about equal. He has since happily relayed this Canadian fact to the other stylists he works with, with the reaction usually being "not me!" and a sort of put-out bemusement.

My host mother and sister and I waited at the family's older house in Kasugai for Katsu-san to finish work. When he arrived we drove with the dogs to Ichinomiya, getting lost and ending up in nearby Gifu-ken.

Upon arrival I got the chance to play the piano again, now with full sound capacity though rather out of tune. For New Years we watched a music special on TV, ate a very traditional Japanese New Years dinner, stuffed ourselves with chocolate, and waited until midnight. A news broadcast informed us that the phone service would cut out around midnight from so many people calling their families and relaying New Years messages to their business associates and acquaintances to express the desire for good relations throughout the coming year.

New Years feast, though all Japanese meals have a million dishes.

My host family as well as my host mother's father and sister.

Annoying but irresistibly cute doggie Mocha.

The household shrine. My host mother's mother died when she was young, so there's a picture of her above the alter. Her father also made an offering of rice, though I'm not sure if that's regular or just a New Years thing.

I was pretty tired by the time it hit midnight, so I looked outside at the stars before going to bed and was surprised to see a considerable amount of cars and people. I assumed they were heading back from somewhere, but I was informed by my host mother and her sister that people often go to shrines after midnight to pray for luck in the New Year. I fell asleep shortly after, my New Years messages failing to reach their intended recipients.