Archive for the ‘Events’ Category

On Thursday, I had my last ikebana class/Going Away Party with my ladies.  Although it was just one of the many “goodbye” parties I’ve had in the past few weeks, it was definitely the hardest.  We arrived early to do our flower arranging (Lilies, Okureruka leaves, and Kemurisomething-or-other, which translates to “smoke something or other”) and then cleared the way for a veritable feast.

Two kinds of tempura, three different cuts of maguro (tuna), hand rolls, fried squid!, tamago yaki (sweet egg omelet), chawan mushi (steamed, eggy custard), pickled veggies, and seaweed salad

My Sensei made the kanpai speech, and we ate for awhile, and then I was asked to say a few words.  Normally nervous in situations where I have to speak Japanese in front of a rapt audience, this case was different.  I spoke about how I had always wanted to learn ikebana, and how it was one of my main desires and goals this year in coming to Japan.  How I told this to as many people as possible, until someone finally took pity on me and introduced me to this group of ladies.  I talked about how, at first, I was hesitant to commit to a weekly class because of time constraints and prices, but how gradually, it became one of my favorite events of the week.  How on days that I was down or anxious (like Thursday), coming to class, working with the flowers, but more so, just being in the company of such women was a relief, and a respite.  How they welcomed me into their group, fed me tea and taught me bad Japanese.

Often, in Japan, I have felt a need to act a certain way; play a certain role.  This was exhausting, and sometimes resulted in an intense desire to hide from “Japan.”  Ikebana, however, was the one place where I felt completely at ease.  That there were no preconceived expectations of me, and that I was free and accepted to, in fact, be myself.  And in doing so, I weaseled my way into the hearts of these older Japanese ladies – my obateria.  Safe to say, they’d never met anyone like me ever before, and as strange and foreign a creature as I am, they accepted me.  And I think they even liked me, too.  There were tears when I said goodbye and drove away.  That next week, they will be meeting same time, same place without me, feels wrong and sad and lonely.  But so it goes.

The mango was placed there for express, comedic value


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On Sunday, I ran a race.  A 10k.  Which to many people is not a very far distance to run, but given that before the past six months of my life, I’d never run four miles straight, I’d say is pretty awesome.  I could focus on the fact that I wish I had been a minute faster, or the fact that I didn’t beat as many people as I wanted to, but I won’t.  I’d rather focus on the fact that I didn’t walk once, no matter how slow I decreased my speed to, and the fact that I worked through a significant amount of pain in my knee and kept my shit together.  (Running, as in climbing mountains, I have found, is as much about physical endurance as it is about mental toughness.)

Half-way through (okay, in the first 10 minutes), I started questioning why on earth I would sign myself up for this sort of torture.  But maybe akin to what I know about a bikini wax or what I’ve heard about childbirth (all those clever tricks your brain plays to make you forget the pain), even hours after the race was over I had this overwhelming sense of wanting to do it again.  But better!  Even my swollen knee, stiff muscles, and blistered feet aren’t discouraging me.

The race was held in a town a few hours south of Shimokita called Oirase, known Japan-, and now world-wide, for being the home to the Tallest Statue of Liberty in Japan!!  Hear that New York?  You have competition.  It was a small race, with only a couple hundred people (if that) in the 10k.  The route took us through some small neighborhoods, past rice paddies and farms, a couple kilometers of rolling woodland, and then back into town.  Having never ran a race back home, I don’t have much to compare it to, but I’m pretty sure that it was in classic Japanese fashion that we received a box of barley tea in our Registration Packet and a voucher for a free bowl of dumpling/noodle soup post race, which really hit the spot.  Yum.

So, on the same topic of running, here is a funny and spot-on post written by my friend, John.  While dated, and in a completely different part of the world, makes me realize that just because this Japan race is over, doesn’t mean that running – and training – for another one, elsewhere, is off the table.  Although a tempura lunch and an onsen soak might not be in the cards, I could always make due with a swim in the Dead Sea and some falafel – or a hot tub and a juicy burger and a beer.

Post-race gangstas

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Funori Tori

“Please come to school by 7:30 tomorrow.  And bring rain boots.  No, you don’t have rain boots? [Pause.] What did you do all winter? [Pause.] No, rain boots. They will get wet.  What size are your feet? Okay, we will arrange something. [Pause.]  Okay. See you tomorrow.  Goodbye.”

The phone rings again: “Oh yes, and bring gloves. Yes. Bring gloves, and dress like it’s winter.”

Everyone preparing to divide and conquer

Thus commenced my foray into the foraging of funori, a type of carageenan seaweed that is described as a “jelly seaweed” when googled.  It grows on rocks off the shore of northern Japan, and therefore is a specialty to this region.  As you can see from the photos, it varies in color from dark purplish brown to bright orange, and can be short and skinny or long and balloon-fat.  It’s particularly tasty added to a miso soup.

Lone little obaachan in the shallows

I arrived at school extra early on Thursday to get to the pickin’ site with the other teachers, and with enough time to set up a big fire barrel for the purposes of cooking our delicious ‘picnic’ lunch, and to wait for the students.  Every year, the elementary schools in my town have a funori tori (picking) day, where students and parents alike volunteer.  All the seaweed collected is cleaned and then either sold fresh or dried, with proceeds going to the school, typically raking in between $2-3,000.  Think bake sale, but not.

A close-up of some long, orange specimens

The day was cold.  In fact, it even snowed a bit.  (Hello? April?) But the weather here moves so quickly that we were able to enjoy a few moments of sunshine now and again as we tromped around the shallows, scraping the rocks bare with our gloved hands, and shoving fistfuls of funori into baskets or large sacks tied around our waists.

Look at this cool new friend I found!

Potato and pork stew on the beach for lunch

After a hearty and delicious, warm lunch, the kids and most of the parents were sent home, while the teachers and a select few of the funori tori veterans went on to the processing station at the port in my town.  There, we dumped in big cargo baskets of the funori into ice-cold water and washed it “clean” with rubber-gloved hands.  Post-soak and -strain, we picked through it manually looking for bits of other seaweed, trash, or errant snails.  In total, over the coarse of several hours, we harvest 350 kilograms of funori from the coasts of Kazamaura, destined for shops around the prefecture, and perhaps beyond.  If anyone fancies a taste, for a small fee, I have considered starting an exporting business to broaden the plump little reaches of funori fingers the world over!  And how delectable!

Washing/picking through the sea gifts

The end result

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This past week, and up until Wednesday, is Spring Break in Japan.  On Wednesday, the new school year begins.  Instead of taking paid vacation leave, I elected to stay in town and have a low-key, quiet week of work returning emails, studying Japanese, and preparing for the new semester.  Turns out, that was a pipe-dream.

1: Day off

4: Days at the Nursery School

There are few things in the world cuter than a Japanese little girl

3: Bloody noses to deal with on the first day

5: Kanchos* all week

14: Portraits drawn of yours truly

That's me, on the left

89: Times I’ve had to say “Please stop pulling on me.”

95: Times I’ve had to say “Okay, I’ll be right there.

15: Easter eggs dyed, decorated, and consumed

Easter egg dying with the Panda Class (pre-1st grade)

1: Time given a shoulder rub and kissed on the cheek

2: The total number of foreign people Gin-kun has ever seen

6: The total number of times I’ve been informed of this

12: Times I’ve thought to myself how amazing it is that these women have the energy to do this every day for work

8: Minutes during lunch time I listened to a 5-year old tell me how cool smoking cigarettes is (disturbing)

6.51: Hours of sleep I’ve averaged

16: The number of home-made gyoza I ate at a Gyo-Pa (Gyoza Party) with some of my fellow teacher lady friends from one of my Elementary schools

3 different types of gyoza: Regular minced pork & veggie, Minced pork with shiso & cheese, Minced pork with celery & shrimp

11: Hours of driving to see friends and go skiing (over the course of 3 days)

Last couple runs of the season at Mt. Hakkoda

60: Minutes of karaoke we sang at 1:30am on Saturday night

40: Minutes it took me to drag myself out of bed the next morning

13: Degrees Celsius that the weather topped out at yesterday (read: Spring has sprung!)

*A kancho for the uninitiated, means ‘enema’ and is a shockingly invasive attack on your rear end.  Kids will clasp their hands together, index finger pointed menacingly and aim at the unsuspecting victim whilst gleefully shouting “Kancho!” It’s real, and it’s happened to me.

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The preparation began weeks ago.  They met in the gym, row upon row of gangly, pimple-faced, dandruff-haired, smiling students.  And they bowed.  They bowed until they had it right.  The timing, the straightness of the back, the angle of the head, the perfect placement of the hands.  (Stuck to your sides, if you’re a boy; folded demurely on your thighs, for the fairer sex.)  They practiced standing in unison, sitting in one quick movement, like a military maneuver, like a drill-sargant’s dream.  They practiced the correct way to walk to the stage.  Which direction to turn first.  How to receive their diploma, fold it, place it under their arm.  The right loudness and clarity of response after their names are called forth.  And it payed off: Wednesday’s Ceremony for the graduating 3rd grade students unfolded without a hitch.

The gym, before the students bring in all their chairs

Parents attended (of which there were more mothers than both parents), as well as representatives from all the neighboring schools, and even one so distant as the Vice Principal of Kazama’s sister school in Kyoto.  The dress code was strict – black suits for everyone and light colored (white or silver) ties for men, unless as a female teacher, you elected to dress in traditional kimono and hakama, the ceremonial over-skirt reserved for graduation ceremonies, that was once worn daily by students and teachers alike.  For two hours, we sat, stood, bowed, and sang in the freezing cold gymnasium.  At the end, there wasn’t a dry-eye in the house.  The 3rd grade girls sniffled and wept throughout much of the ceremony, and I even spied some trembling lower lips and chins on some of the fellas.


The PTA, Graduates and Teachers After-Party just continued the waterworks.  Each student and his or her parent(s) were called forth, and the students had a chance to thank their parents for such things as raising them, ask their good favor for the coming years, and exchange a note from child to parent and a small gift from parent to child.  Not one trio didn’t mist over.  Oddly (and culturally) enough though, none but two of these heartfelt messages ended in a physical embrace.  In most cases, bows were exchanged and both parties crept off stage looking embarrassed. Where were the hugs?  Where were the reverse words of pride and encouragement?

My fan club, consisting largely of hormone-driven 15-year old boys

My girls are so kawaiiii

Throughout the day, though, I was struck with how good these kids are and how difficult transitions are for people everywhere.  Often, my time in Japan makes me realize the differences in culture, but it has also opened my eyes to many of the unifying themes of human nature – these themes that transcend country, culture, gender, education, religion, and language.  While in many ways, it seems silly to make such a big deal out of a Junior High School Graduation (they’re only 15 after all!), it makes sense in that this juncture is really the first time in which this group of young people will part ways.  While in America, our “moving on” chasm opens with the transition from High School to College, many of these kids will go far away for High School.  The small group of people and place with which they’ve spent the first fifteen years of their lives will soon be replaced with new and different people and surroundings.  So here’s to onward and upward to my graduating 3rd graders, and to transitions big and small in their lives, your lives, my life… And to Spring, which is on its way.

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Today, March 3rd, in Japan is Girls’ Day, called Ohina Matsuri.  It’s a celebration of girls and daughters, especially for their health, growth and happiness over the coming year.  In a country that is sometimes fingered for being a *little* misogynistic, I am happy to give credit and respect where it is due.

Seven-tiered Ohina-sama set - definitely the bigger the set, the more of a status symbol it is. Also, many Japanese homes are so short on space that only the Prince and Princess are purchased and/or laid out yearly

From the top: the Prince and Princess, Maids-in-waiting, Wise men/Body guards, Court Musicians

As a little girl, we had one of these beautiful sets given to my mother from her mother (as is the custom).  Unwrapping the delicate dolls every year, their porcelain faces each painted so differently from one another, their clothes so sparkly and tactile, I remember being mesmerized – and not a little unafraid of doing damage to their fragile hands.  They each came with their own miniature hats, musical instruments, kendo swords or archery bows, and tea ladles.  Like Christmas probably was – and is – to other young children, the house during March always seemed magical and festive.  I was happy to see the sets around here this year, and that my awe and general impression hasn’t changed much since I was seven.

To celebrate, last night I attended an Ohina-sama Party at the house of my ikebana sensei.  Presented in her beautiful and spacious genkan (foyer) was a gorgeous vase of peach blossoms, the official Ohina-sama tree.  (You might remember this from last week’s ikebana post.) Yet again, the youngest by about forty years, the ladies gathered to marvel at our Sensei‘s dolls, eat sushi, and drink ama-zake (sweet, unfiltered sake.)  The evening kicked off with everyone singing an Ohina-sama song and what ensued was general gossip, ruckus, and merriment, as at any ‘Girls’ Night Out’ the world over.  As I’m constantly reminded in small and unsmall ways, some things are different.  And some things are the same.

Ohina-sama Party crew! And check out the spread. Yum.

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On Sunday on travelgogirl.com, you’ll hear about the second part of my sojourn north to Hokkaido (a little ski resort called Niseko), but the impetus for the trek was the Sapporo Snow Festival, famous throughout Japan and also…the world!

While I can see Hokkaido from my little town, I had never yet set foot there.  But after an hour and a half ferry ride across the Tsugaru Strait, there I was, blowing caution to the wind, diving headfirst into the un-chartered territories of the wild and grizzly North, snowshoeing and bushwacking my way towards Sapporo.  Well, actually – hopping in Paul’s sweet Trail-X and watching snowboard DVDs on the dashboard console and munching on snacks.

After the super tough four-hour car ride, we arrived in Sapporo to catch the last two days of the week-long Yuki Matsuri.  Sapporo, in completely unclassic Japanese fashion, is a city organized on a straightforward grid pattern – imagine! In central Sapporo, on a street called “Odori” there is a long park-like avenue, which is where most of the Matsuri action was happening.  Gigantic three-story or more snow sculptures lined the park, block after block.  One block even showcased an “urban ski jump,” where skiers and snowboarders tested their mettle on sheer icepack.  To accommodate the sheer number of tourists in town for the festival, the pedestrian walkways on either side of the sculptures were both one-way, a fact I did not realize until I found myself swimming like a salmon upstream.

Jungle Animals

A smaller scuplture of a Japanese temple

Chibi Maruko-chan - a kid's cartoon character. The Dora of Japan.

I have yet to (and suspect I never will) understand Japanese humour. This man is a comedian, yet his act consisted of dancing around in below freezing temperatures, stripping to his rose-covered drawars, and singing in a cabaret type fashion. Not really that funny. Kindof depressing actually.

Across town, the other venue for the Yuki Matsuri was being held on a street in the “entertainment” district.  This is where the ice sculptures were showcased.  Blocks of ice intricately carved and sculpted into a variety of forms, lit up at night.  One personal favorite was the Ice Bar, an entire bar (stools and all) formed out of ice.  The dragon (below) wasn’t unimpressive, either.  All the walking around in the cold looking at snow worked up an appetite, however, and for dinner we participated in an all-you-can-eat and all-you-can-drink menu at the Sapporo Bier Garten.  Consuming all that beer (Sapporo lager, ale, or mix) and food (Genghis Khan yaki-niku – mutton and vegetables grilled on a pan that looks like Ghengis Khan’s helmet) was one way of fending off the cold, and it worked wonders to rally everyone for a late night karaoke session.  Which could only mean one thing: trouble.  The following day, nursing our beer and mutton hangovers, we stumbled to Sapporo’s quaint and clean (compared to Tokyo’s Tsukiji) fish market.  Wandering the aisles, sampling bits of crab, salmon roe, and sea urchin, I had a strong desire to live one day in a town with a fish market, picking up that evening’s fresh filets before the morning rush.  Does it get more romantic than that?  (Well – maybe if I also had access to locally grown fresh fruit, vegetables, and meat!)

Ice Dragon

Sapporo Bier Garten - where all the magic happens

Hokkaido is known for its King Crabs. Yes, this is a 15,800 yen crab. That's approximately $180

In the end, there’s only so much ice and snow you can see.  (I think I’m good for at least another year, thanks.) So, on Friday, we all piled into the two cars and caravanned south to get some epic skiing in.  Niseko-ho!

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