Monday, March 23, 2009

Pictures from Kansai GaiDai

This is "basashi", or raw horse sushi.
I am standing in the middle wearing the grey sweater and khaki pants. This is the Kamo River in Kyoto, and at intervals there are rocks like these which you can cross the river on. A lot of children were running across when we were there.
A group of Kansai GaiDai graduates.
Megumi, myself and Yui at the graduation.
The campus of Kansai GaiDai
The two girls who wanted to have their picture taken with foreigners.

A Japanese Graduation and More Raw Horse

This past Saturday, the 21st, I went to the graduation ceremony for my friend Yui with Adam and Kevin, my roommate and Yui’s boyfriend. Yui majored in Spanish at Kansai Foreign Language University, or Kansai GaiDai in the Japanese. Although my friends and I could not sit in on the ceremony (neither could the parents of the graduates), I was able to see Yui afterwards wearing a very expensive kimono.

The trip to Kansai GaiDai from Hikone took over an hour and three different train lines. Once we got out of Shiga Prefecture and into Kyoto Prefecture the trains and the stations uniformly improved. The difference in affluence is striking, and several of our friends who are not natives of Shiga Prefecture bring up the disparity when I gripe about Shiga. However, the suburban sprawl extends all the way between Kyoto and Osaka to for a colossal urban area whereas Shiga has plenty of nature. Kansai GaiDai is located south of Kyoto, and we went to the Nakamiya campus, which is in the city of Hirakata.

I arrived with Kevin and Adam a little after noon, and the bus and train station were crowded with young ladies in kimonos. The campus was full of students, and unlike my graduation in America, there was a distinct lack of families. The kimono were strikingly unique and after spending the week in drab Hikone seeing all the bright clothing was a real treat. About five minutes onto the campus a pair of girls approached our trio and asked to take a photograph with us. I think I speak for Kevin and Adam when I say the two girls totally won us over to Kansai GaiDai.

After walking around and texting, Kevin found Yui along with her cousin, Megumi, and a few others of their classmates. Once we had taken droves of pictures, Yui pushed us off on the free food offered in one of the cafeterias so that we would not meet Yui’s mother. At first, the food looked picked over, but with the help of Megumi, we located food at the back of the cafeteria and staked out a place near some tempura (fried) chicken and shrimp, along with assorted deserts.

Afterwards we left the girls to change into less constricting clothing while we grabbed a train to Kyoto. The weather on Saturday was clear and warm, and with a few beers in hand, we trekked along the riverbanks of the Kamo River until Megumi and then Yui showed up. For dinner we at an izakaya, a restaurant where everyone at the table shares appetizer-sized plates assorted Asian and Western food. I had raw horse sushi again, and I maintain that raw horse is the best tasting red meat ever.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Spring Pictures

A Korean depiction of the Buddha from the 11th century; considered to be the image which originated every modern image of the Buddha.
The collector, Morimoto-san.
Me holding an ancient shamanistic talisman from Pre-Han China.
Easily over thousands of years old.
Early Pre-Han animistic idols.
A decorative sword with early Chinese letters on the blade. This piece is an example of the origins of the characters used in Chinese and Japanese.
A tomb ornament with an example of the origins of Chinese characters, kanji, on the head.
A Tibetan thangka, a painted or embroidered Buddhist banner which was hung in a monastery or a family altar and occasionally carried by monks in ceremonial processions. This thangka is the largest outside of Tibet.
Another 11th century Korean depiction of the Buddha.
An old picture of me from the summer;
portraying the landing part of the Admiral Perry expedition to Japan.
A canal in Kyoto on a street that I enjoy walking on.
A view of Kyoto from the eastern hills, with the Kiyomizu Temple on the right.
A mobile phone charging machine on the grounds of the Kiyomizu Temple,
a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Plum blossoms blooming at the Kiyomizu Temple.
A view of the street leading up to Kiyomizu Temple on the eastern hills of Kyoto.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Day of Hiking Up a Hill and Listening to Celtic Music

This past Saturday, I visited the Kiyomizu temple on the eastern mountains of Kyoto. I have actually seen the temple in a few movies about Japan, so I was looking forward to going. A few of my Japanese friends, and my sensei, were surprised that I had not seen Kiyomizu temple yet; the temple is widely popular. Once I arrived at the base of the hill and began the slow walk up the ever-thinning streets towards the temple the crowd became noticeably denser. The street leading to the temple was full of colorful tourist shops selling stereotypical Japanese wares and other assorted junk. Adam came across a rug with a motorcycle, an eagle, and a Confederate flag as the design. One store was selling a mask of Obama and a statue of Colonel Sanders with the title ‘Uncle Sam’ on the base.

The Kiyomizu temple is a complex of buildings with the showpiece being a temple on stilts on the side of the hill with a promenade offering a view of Kyoto. On a clearer day, Osaka is visible to the south. The multitude of people moving around, and taking pictures, was astounding. There is an old tradition that if a person jumped off the promenade, a thirteen-meter fall, and lived, their wish would come true. Apparently, over eighty-five percent of the jumpers survived, and today the practice is prohibited.

After leaving Kiyomizu temple, we ended up walking north our current favorite bar, the Gnome. The bartender remembers us, and usually tells us when the weather in Shiga prefecture will be like when we are leaving. On Saturday, the Gnome had a band start playing right after we arrived. The Gnome is usually nearly vacant when we arrive, and having the bar to ourselves is certainly part of the draw for us. However, on Saturday the place was almost full for the concert. ‘Shanachie’ is a quartet of Japanese women playing the fiddle, harp, among an assortment of percussion instruments and a melodica thrown for good measure, accomplice by a singing in Japanese, English and Gaelic. I ended up buying a CD, and the band was happy that some foreigners had been at the gig; although I think at first, the band thought we were Europeans.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Nagoya: Castles, Wandering and Chain-Smkoers

Last Saturday I went to Nagoya for the first time. Nagoya is a small city by Japanese standards, and the avenues and side streets were much wider than in Tokyo and Osaka. However, since the main prewar industry of Nagoya was munitions, most of Nagoya was in ruins by 1945. Consequently, the new city is much less complex than most of the cities I have visited here.

Our group left early in order to make the most of the day, and I was up at seven to shower. I took two trains, and on the first train, office workers were drinking Asahi beer and Suntory whiskey at eight in the morning. I was fortunate to sleep away a good portion of the second, longer, train ride, which brought us into Nagoya. At the main train station, we jumped a couple of crowded subways to get to Nagoya castle. Like Kyoto castle, the construction of Nagoya castle occurred after the end of the civil war period of Japanese history. Therefore, the landscape architecture is grand; an entire park is contained within the outer walls of the castle. The war brought the destruction of the original keep, and the reconstructed keep debuted in 1959. The interior is a five-floor museum topped with an observation floor. I am glad I visited, but I think I like the castle here in Hikone better, as the original floor plan of the castle has remained intact.

After the castle visit, the whole group, now numbering twelve after Shigenori arrived from Hikone, moved to the Sakae district of the city. Sakae is where the main shopping and entertaining is to be found. The women broke off to do some clothes shopping while we men wandered the louder shopping arcades of the Yaba-cho district. The clothing is equally as loud in Nagoya as everywhere in Japan. Adam and I stopped in an army surplus store (of which there are more in Japan than America), to find Nazi SS pins being sold alongside Vietnam era pins. Shigenori lead us to an old shrine, outside of which we bought beer and drank across the street watching the people shopping. I have noticed that the Japanese do not walk and drink or eat, and that only foreigners do this. After talking about this at length with our Japanese friends, we have decided to temporarily curtail walking and drinking. Whether or not that will last is another story.

Once we met back up with the women, Shige tried to lead us to a restaurant that served Nagoya food. During that trip, we learned the Japanese word for wandering. I think that we likely wandered for half an hour, and I am certain we retraced our route twice. The restaurant we found was interesting to say the least; the interior was setup like an old Japanese house. We sat on the floor on pads around out table and ate a few different Nagoya takes on fried chicken and pork, all amidst chain-smokers. Towards the end of the meal, the Japanese man behind me turned around and offered me a drink of sake. When I finished the drink, the man loudly proclaimed to the restaurant that I was a foreigner who could handle his drink.

After the meal the group ended up wandering more, trying to find a bar. The girls were tired and I think not that into finding a bar. Nevertheless, I enjoyed wandering and talking to some of the new students who came with us. I am pleased that overall they are a cool group, pretty adventurous and amiable.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A Busy Thursday in January

On Thursday October 29, Kevin and I were interviewed by NHK. NHK is the Japanese version of the BBC, and has regional offices around Japan. The NHK film crew sat in on classes as well as interviewed students around the building. Over the lunch period, the film crew came into our room to film us eat lunch. After a short tour of our small apartment, I was filmed eating lunch and then participated in an interview. The crew questioned Kevin first, so I formulated an answer while Kevin was talking. Before the filming began, the crew chief made us remove down the Democratic Party of Japan poster that Kevin filched off a nearby building. Apparently, in Japan, political posters are not given to the public, and the crew did not want to film something that was clearly stolen. Kevin and I had a laugh with Tsuchiya-san, the student services coordinator, about the possible political leaning of NHK implied by removing an opposition party poster.

Later in the day, I joined Kevin for a run around Hikone. The usual route Kevin takes goes along the beach, then through part of the town. By the end of the run, I was in poor shape, but I made it and now I am sore from the waist down. I usually travel through the city rather quickly, so running around the city and beach was a nice perspective on the area.

In the evening, I met with my new conversation partner for the first formal meeting. Takyuki and I talked at the restaurant next to JCMU for around two hours. The meeting went well and I am confident that the relationship will be more beneficial for both of us than my last conversation partner.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

January Picture Update

My room for the New Years Party
Pictured with Ryoko, Shoko and Jenee
At the Shiga University Party; pictured with Masa, Ayako and Gereth.
At the Shiga University Party
The restaurant in Osaka where we dined for Kelly and Shige's birthday.
Pictured with Kevin and Shige
On the train to Osaka with Matt and Shige
At the restaurant. From left to right: Matt, Yui, Kelly, Shige, Adam, Kevin and I
At the bar "Rock Rock" in Osaka
From left to right: Back Row: Kelly, Matt, Kim, I, Jenee, Shige
Front Row: Yuuta, Andrew

Three Weeks into January

My life in Japan right now is going fantastically well; I think mainly because I comprehend much more in class than I was when I left in December. As a member of the returning students, the senseis have looked to me more often to answer questions and voice my opinion. In addition, at this point in my language learning I hope I understand better what I need to do.

The other day Kim, Adam, Kevin, and I went to CoCo Ichibanya Curry House with our friend Shigenori. The curry runs from level zero to ten, and Shige has never eaten level ten. As level ten veterans ourselves, Shige asked us to lunch with him and Kim graciously accompanied us as our photographer. In my opinion, curry is more painful than spicy. Since the spice here is not derived from a pepper, the whole pain experience is different. Shige ended up sweating from the spiciness.

The other day I went to the barber for a haircut. The process of getting a haircut here is fascinating. First, my hair is cut with scissors, then another employee shaves my face and forehead, then I am given a shampoo complete with a quick massage before a final check that includes a device to trim any hair on my ears. The whole experience takes about thirty minutes, uses four different barbers and assistants, and costs ¥1900.

I have been assigned a new conversation partner yesterday, and I have a good feeling about Takayuki. Takayuki is a 27-year-old insurance company worker who plays baseball on the company team. Since Takayuki takes English classes here on Monday and Thursday nights, our meeting time will be sometime after his class ends. I think the process will be a bit more formal than with Akio, since the time slot will be clearly marked. I think I will make talking points as well, to lead the conversation better.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Few January Weeks In Japan

The first few weeks in Hikone have gone by well. Japanese class has been a review of material that I have covered, but now the grammar is clicking much better. Overall, my Japanese is improving to the point where there is a bit of nuance. I still have a long way to go, but I am happy I am making progress.

My sensei switched this semester. I now have Kitasaka-sensei as the primary sensei, whereas Aizawa-sensei is the back-up or recitation sensei. The good cop/bad cop dichotomy works very well. Kitasaka-sensei is very methodical and Aizawa-sensei teaches in a rapid-fire style.

I am still not cooking. I still have curry and pasta in the cabinets, along with pounds of coffee and some of Kevin’s tea. Kevin has been doing most of the cooking, making a bunch of Japanese dishes that his girlfriend taught him over break. Yui bought me a fantastic coffee maker because she accidentally broke my old French press, so I am trying out different Japanese brands. Japan has as few major brands such as Ogawa Coffee and UCC, and when I get sick of that, I can just run to Starbucks and pick up coffee I am used to.

The first weekend back in Hikone, I stayed around the dormitory instead of get out of the city. I went to the city of Nagahama, about a ten minute train ride north of Hikone, for a nice dinner with my friends and a few of the new students. I took everyone to a nice restaurant I went to over the summer. The pasta dishes turned out to be very good, but the pizzas that the rest of us ordered were simply cheese melted onto toast. Consequently, at the bar we went to afterwards, “2nd Booze,” I had an order of fish and chips. The bar had a nice European atmosphere and a good number of the beers available were Belgian.

Last weekend the students at Shiga University and Shiga State University threw a welcome back party. Unlike the last two semesters, the students this semester do not seem to be as into partying and more into drinking. Consequently, the number of Americans in attendance was low in comparison to Japanese. However, we all had a good time and had the opportunity to speak to more Japanese students. After the party a group of us went to Mos Burger, a Japanese burger chain, for a meal and then to a restaurant for drinks.

The transition back to Japan was smooth, and I am pleased to be settling in so well.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A train ride across central Japan

The flight back to Japan was thirteen and a half hours. I fell asleep after an hour or so and spent the rest of the flight in some sort of semi-lucid state. I remember watching two of the films, and periodically reading. I ended up finishing one book and getting a third of the way through a second. Once we arrived in Tokyo’s Narita airport, I made my way quickly through customs and out of the terminal. Any concerns I had had about finding a train station were dispelled by the Japan Rail station in the airport. I purchased a ticket to Tokyo Station and then a Shinkansen (bullet train) ticket to Maibara, the city north of Hikone, for $150. I lugged my bags down to the platform, and found my seat in something of a haze. As the train pulled out of the Narita station, I promptly fell asleep again.

Tokyo Station has been undergoing construction since the first time I visited last summer. The current condition is of barely controlled chaos. I followed the signs for the Shinkansen up escalators and down a maze of hallways, continually carrying more bags than most of the Japanese seemed to think was prudent. However, once I arrived at my platform the train left promptly, and I found myself sleeping in another train car. Sleeping is the best active camouflage for riding Japanese trains. Part way through the three-hour ride from Tokyo to Maibara, I purchased a shot glass of coffee off the attendant for $3.

A ten-minute taxi ride from Maibara got me back to the dormitory. My friends who were spending the evening in the apartment I occupy with Kevin greeted me upon my return. Yui gave me a new coffee maker and Kevin got me a Starbucks tumbler from his trip to Kobe.

I am content to be back in Japan. Hikone feels like home just as much as Michigan does, and being back in classes and having a daily schedule is nice. The group of new students much more sedate and uniform than the last two semesters, but after talking to a few, I have met some interesting people. Kevin cleaned up the apartment and added quite a few posters. We now have two from a Kyoto club, one from the Israeli bar in Osaka, a political poster and a “Jesus Christ = Superstar” poster from when the Japanese version of the musical came to Hikone. Overall, I could not be happier with the state of the room. Now I just have to get to the store where Yui bought the coffee maker for me, as the handle broke off this morning.