Natalie Goes to Japan

40 year old very married blonde woman having a midlife crisis who heads to Japan alone to follow her dreams. Be careful what you wish for ... you just may get it.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Facing Down the Terracotta Army

The train pulled into Xi'an and I followed the hordes out into the front of the train station, where there was someone with a signboard that said "Natalie" on it. Okay, so it wasn't a fancy chauffer, but it's still a cool feeling. It was the hostel manager and we hopped into the cab and came to the hostel. This hostel is really great. Oh, the rooms are nothing special, but the courtyards are great, and there is a fabulous bar/restaurant/entertainment room/internet cafe where I am blogging from). I sat outside this morning and had an American breakfast in the sun in my short sleeved shirt and petted the resident beagle. Walked back to the train station and found the public bus to take me out to the Terracotta Warriors. Somehow I ended up hanging out with three cute male French college students thoughout the afternoon. And the warriors are really something. It's really cool to see them restored, partially restored, and still being excavated. I kept thinking my Mumsy would just love this place. However, only about a 6th of them have been unearthed. I have to tell you that we saw nobody actually doing any work on them either, and it seems like this first 6th of them have been done for years now. I really don't think we have to worry about the Chinese taking over the world. The French guys and I both think the Chinese only do as much work as is absolutely neccessary to survive and argue that they are being worked to death. Even the guys who were supposed to be washing the windows didn't do a lick of work the entire hour we were in the building, and one was even asleep. Got back to the hostel with a huge blister and an aching back. Nothing I could really do about the blisters, but for the aching back the hostel arranged for me to get a traditional chinese massage for the whopping fee of $5. Oh, and for dinner I had this fabulous dish called Fish Flavored Aubergines (it's actually vegetarian, the aubergines are cooked in a sauce frequently used to cook fish in) - very spicy, but so awesome. You gotta try it.

Mao Isn't In Right Now. Can We Take a Message?

Got in the taxi today and told him to take me to Tian'an men Square, and he took me to Dianmon instead. I knew half way through the taxi trip that we were going in the wrong direction, but decided to see where I ended up. It was near the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower, so I thought I would give them a whirl. Only slightly interesting, and pretty hard work to get up to them. Afterwards my book recommended a nearby temple, which I eventually found. But they wouldn't let me in. I'm still completely baffled as to why? There were other people in there. So I walked down to the lake nearby and ended up taking one of those bike rickshaw tours through the hutongs. But I didn't pay any attention to the one I chose. And he must have been a gypsy cab... his bike was a piece of crud, and I don't think it had any brakes. And he wasn't wearing the nice uniforms like the other guys andthis rickshaw didn't have the nice canopy that could be folded back, and I really could have used a little sun on my face. But it was interesting enough. And that part of Beijing is a real study in opposites. The lakeside is full of trendy bars and lovely pedestrian paths, and then just off the lakefront are more typical hutongs with local cubbyhole markets and laundry hanging in the streets, but a lot cleaner than the real hutongs, like the one where the hostel is. I caught another taxi who had no problem taking me to Tian An Men Square. It was big, but not particularly interesting. So, I sat and ate a Snickers bar and watched all the tour groups go by. Decided to go find the line to visit Mao's body but there was a tiny little sign saying it was being renovated from March to September. Mao refused to take my call, the snob! Found a little park on the map nearby so I decided to kill the rest of my afternoon there. But what looks little on a map of Beijing frequently isn't...including this park (Zhongshan). It took me quite a while to get through, and it was rather pleasant. And right at the end I found this lovely little teahouse, so sat in the sun and drank some sort of gorgeous flower tea. The day never got warm enough for me to take off my heavy jacket, but I didn't freeze either. I found another taxi to take me back. Got ready to check out of the hostel and realized my train wasn't until 9pm and not 7pm like I previously thought, so sat around and talked to the other people there. Turns out more than half lived in Japan and taught English and were on break between school years, like myself. Caught the train and got settled into my sleeper bunk. It was a long rough night. Fell asleep easily enough, but woke up soaked in sweat. It was boiling in the room and the air was so stale I had to get out. Found the bar car, I was the only non-employee there, and ordered a Chinese ripoff of Sprite and read my book. Eventually I had cooled down enough to try the sardine can again. Two of the 4 bunks were taken up with men, both of whom snored terribly. One snored the traditional cartoon snore that sounds like a dying dinosaur. The other one murmered and made sex noises, when not actually shouting in his sleep. I eventually fell asleep and woke to watch the dry dusty Chinese countryside going by outside my window. That's a pretty cool way to wake up, dontchathink?k

Monday, March 26, 2007

Another Brick in the Wall

Well, I got suckered into doing the tourist package to the Ming Tombs and Badaling with 2 other hostelers. And I was really disappointed with the Ming Tombs part. We didn't even see the Spirit Way, which was what I was looking forward to the most. And we had to spend 45 minutes looking at a Jade Factory before our lunch could be served. And the restaurant was bloody freezing. But the Great Wall part was pretty good and brutally hard. The big strongs guys on the tour only made it to the top about 10 minutes before me, so I was pretty happy with how I held my own. But it is amazing and completely surreal, when you aren't thinking you're going to die from exhaustion. We went to a silk factory on the way back, which was pretty interesting, though only the big strong guys got suckered into buying silk quilts (they weren't together, so they're not cohabitating decorators). We were exhausted when we got back, so we ordered in and nursed our blisters.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Forbidden No More

The Forbidden City was the first place on my agenda. It's great. Two of the most known and beautiful buildings were off limits and covered in scaffolding while under renovation, and that was a bit of a bummer. But it was huge and fascinating and now my feet hurt. I went with a guy I met here at the hostel. And we got dropped off by the taxi at the back end of the palace and we didn't realize that so we went to the park across the street by accident. And it was a very fortuitous mistake. The park was crowded with Beijingers doing all the crazy Beijinger things they tai chi en masse, and ballroom dance, and sing in great big groups, and play a sort of hackysack with a badmitten sortof hackysack, and write in water on the pavement. We ended up spending two hour there just watching the people. So we eventually realized that it wasn't the right place and climbed to the top of "Coal Hill" to get our bearings and realized our error. And by entering by the North Entrance we ended up doing it backwards. I don't recommend it. And the audio guide wasn't all that helpful, but very amusing. I especially liked the part about the symbols on a certain building; cranes, turtles, lions and crap. I'm pretty sure she was supposed to say carp, but who knows? When they tell you there is a Starbucks in the Forbidden City don't believe them. There are a couple of whole-in-the-wall places where you can buy a soda and some chips. But after 3 hours I was ready for some hot chocolate. And to get to the Starbucks you have to leave the Forbidden City and go into this tacky courtyard and have people try and sell you postcards and Forbidden City hats, etc. We never did find the Starbucks. Instead Pete and I walked down to the mall and found a noodle place to eat at. Turns out it was a Japanese Noodle place. I didn't really come all the way to China to eat Japanese food. Afterwards I came back alone to make some arrangements for the following days, including trying to get to see some Beijing Opera that night. Which I lucked out on, as you are supposed to give them more notice than an hour (more like 6 hours). It was only a little over an hour long, and they did two seperate pieces. It was good, but very odd. The acting and singing is very stylized and the costumes and make-up are overly extreme. But there are no props and no scenery. And it's not really opera. Think more like musical comedy with acrobatics. They did have subtitle screens and their spelling and syntax was atrocious and hysterical. But good fun. I think that enough for the first day, don't you?

Saturday, March 24, 2007

This Ain't Japan

The first day of the trip really only consisted of travel. Walk, train, bus, airplane, bus, taxi! Just need to add a boat and a bicycle and I'd have done it all. Checked in and walked up the boulevard to check out the locale. I stayed at a hostel in a hutong (old maze of allies), so this neighborhood is quite authentic. And this is so not Japan. The people are just so different. They're loud, and ready to argue (not to me of course, but with each other), they are also much more touchy feely (smacking each other, holding hands, playing with their children, etc.) and breaking any old rule, any old time they feel like it. Truthfully, I feel more like I'm back amongst real people. Much more like America than Japan. And the best part of the first day was ordering chinese food and having it delivered to the hostel. And it was soooo good.


I'm off to China, now. Tootle-loo. God, I love being able to say that in a casual, nonchalant way.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Last Classes

This has been the final week of classes according to the Japanese business/school year. So I've been saying good-bye to most of my kids. I just didn't realize last year how I was losing most of my kids, but this year I was more prepared...and just as sad. Like saying goodbye to Jidai. He's been in my class for nearly 2 years. He's not even 4 yet. So he's known me longer than he has memories. There's at least a dozen just like that. And in some of the older classes the kids have been in the class longer than I have, and I'm really going to miss them. And there's my 3rd and 4th graders. And they just wouldn't leave. They all insisted in helping me pack up, and making jokes and putting it all off. Finally we left enmasse. It was really amusing packing all of us in the elevator. And maybe worst of all are the 5 year olds. They've been with me since the beginning, and they get sad, too. The worst was Yuuna, she's as cute as she is wild. But she was so somber at the end of class, and kept finding reasons not to leave. And when she finally did, she just kept saying "Thank you, thank you". It was just so sincere and heartbreaking. I got quite choked up. Heck, I'm getting choked up just thinking about it.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Choose Your Own Caption

Oh, so many thoughts come to mind, I just can't decide on any one caption. What are your suggestions?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Funky Foo-Rin

I noticed this new Cafe/Flower shop in my neighborhood awhile back....say like October. But I only went to it for the first time in February. I have been there quite a few times since. It's quite funky, with mismatched furniture and a retro 70's feel to the atmosphere. And the couple who run it are adorable. They're practically children. And speak virtually no English. But we manage to have conversations none-the-less. They also have a big black lab, who hangs out in his crate behind the counter. The desserts are excellent! And they play pretty good music, too. I practically fell over dead when I heard Tom Waits there. From the land that loves The Carpenters it was quite amazing to hear something truly gritty. Everybody I have taken there has loved it and most have been back a couple of times if they live in the area. So, I've been good for business. And they have been good for me. A nice little, comfortable place to go hang out and get me out of the house. And close enough for it not to be a big deal to go. Hmmm, sounds good maybe I'll go hang out there now.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Little Bit of Everything

Headed off exploring in my usual fashion, by going to the conbini a block and a half away and buying an egg sandwich, Pringles, CC Lemon Soda and a Snickers bar and then heading in some vague direction with a vague plan. With my many, many maps sitting beside me and tootling thru town. First stop a temple in Inasa. I had a bad experience in Inasa (one that you really don't want me to share) and I was hoping to get that bad feeling out of my system. I had had various people help me translate my maps and I was looking for Iidani Shrine and Japanese Garden. I was smart enough though to look at the kanji, because sometimes there are no signs in English. And just as well bacause it wasn't Iidani Shrine and Japanese Garden. It was Iinoya-Gu and Ryotan-ji (a temple with a garden). I found it fairly quickly, even though there was no English signs and followed what few kanji signs there were. I grabbed my camera and put a few coins in my pocket for the prayer boxes and the fortunes. I was quickly assisted by a "shriner", who spoke very little English, but he handed me an information sheet in English and then chatted me up. Being a chilly Monday morning I was the only person he probably saw for hours. I made a prayer and bought my fortune...I'm not sure if it's just below average or just above average, but one of those. After nosing around the shrine for awhile, I continued down the path into the cemetery amongst the trees and then down into "the garden". It was really quite nice, the plants are only just starting to bloom, but it was still quite lovely in the morning sun. I eventually came to the temple, where there was a 400 yen entrance fee (thank goodness I had enough coins in my pocket). I was handed a nice glossy brochure this time, in English of course. The temple has a very large golden Buddha (probably 12 feet tall), and nightengale floors, and a couple of lovely gardens. I spent a lot of time poking around and taking pictures. By the time I was finished it was really too late to hit the road for anymore exploring, so my first stop ended up being my only stop. I tell you, I recommend this little setup for anybody visiting Hamamatsu. It had a little of everything - shrine, temple, garden, Buddha, traditional architecture - in one convenient location.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Hoighty-Toighty Sento

Last night the Suzukis and I tried the new sento (public bath) in town. And boy what an experience. Mikio had prepared me for the fact that it was a touch more expensive than your average 4 times as much! And Yoko and I decided to spluge and get the "Extended Package" which allowed us entrance up into the second level. Thank Gods that I hadn't attempted this place alone, because it was so complicated that even the Suzukis were confused sometimes. First we had to pick up our totebags at the front counter. Inside each totebag was a big towel, a little towel and a set of lounging clothes. Yoko and I had to pick up 2 bags each, as the special pajamas in the second bag was our entrance to the second level. So first you "sento" as usual. You sit on a little stool in front of an individaul sprayer, doing all your normal ablutions like soaping and shampooing, conditioning, repeat, etc, until you are clean enough to enter the bathtubs. All the pools have digital readouts so you know the temperature of the water within. I started with the long shallow, lounge-chair type pool with the jet bubbles, then moved to the big pool with the big bubbles, then we went outside and sat in the wood pool, then to the sulpher water caldrons (they look like giant cooking pots and smell like rotten eggs), and then to the superhot pool, then back inside to the carbonated pool (really!), and then a quick walk through the walking pool (much deeper and less warm). After that we changed into the special uniform and went upstairs. I really didn't know what to expect, but I was game to try everything. First we went into this aromatherapy room, which was quite warm (41c), where you spread your towel on the heated flooring and lie down and absorb all the healthiness of it. Yoko was sweating up a storm after we left after 10 minutes, so we went into the snow room. What a disappointment. The snow only falls in a small 2 foot circle over a giant pile that has accumulated, so you don't actually get snowed on. But the room did cool us down a bit. Then we went into the salt room. There it was even warmer (58c) and you lie your towel over salt the size and shape of that stone people use in their front yards when they don't want to bother cutting grass. Very weird. I think we only stayed five minutes in this room. Followed by another quick trip to the snow room. Then we attempted the bamboo charcoal room, where the temperature was 70c. We only stayed about 3 minutes here before returning to the snow room. Next was what I refer to as the Easy Bake Oven Room. There are individual long brick ovens you lie down in and turn on the big red light. Some sort of light therapy I guess. Then we went outside to the patio to cool off, but as it was windy we didn't stay long. Then we grabbed Grapefruite-Ade from the juice bar and put our feet in a pool of blue warmed rock marbles and watched some tv while sipped our juice. Finally we went back down stairs to bathe again. I don't think I'd bother going back again, but I had a wonderful once in a lifetime experience

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Magic Ball

I call this little thing my magic ball. It's amazing. Okay, it's just one of those cheap little balls made of suction cups. I don't know if it has a real name. But it's a life saver. I carry it around in my teaching bag, and should class end too early (a rare occurance) or I forget to bring something important (happens more than it should) than I pull out this ball and create some sort of game with it. I write a grid on the board and then write something in each grid. In older class I write tough words, younger classes either get easy words or just the lower case alphabet. And BabyKids can get shapes, or alphabet, or numbers depending on what they have learned. It's quite hysterical in BabyKids classes. Their throwing skills vary widely. And of course many girls throw like....a girl. But I swear it has really increased all my students abilities. Not only is it a magical life saver, it has magically educated the kids. It's magic!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Officially Excited!

My trip to China is just a week away and I'm am nearly giddy. I've noticed I'm very distracted throughout the day, and find my mind wandering. I do love this before stage, almost as much as the traveling. Researching and planning and dreaming. I've read the Insight City Guide to Beijing from cover to cover. And I've read quite a bit of the Eyewitness Travel Guide to China. I've been studying some rudimentary Chinese at Chinese Learn Online and can now say some basic phrases. But I'm pretty sure I speak Chinese with a Japanese accent. I'm so excited, and I just can't hide it...

Friday, March 16, 2007

Communication Problems

I haven't been able to use my Yahoo! email account in a week. I think my cookie went moldy or something. But it was driving me crazy. And I blame it all on Google. I don't know how, but I'm sure they read about me being mad about the blog thing and they poisoned my Yahoo cookie. I'm pretty sure they were behind Jimmy Hoffa's disappearance as well, but they cover their tracks really well. I wouldn't put time travel beyond them, so they could be responsible for many things.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Good Communist?

Carniola had a great post about his site being blocked by Chinese authorities. Which is a hoot, like most expat bloggers he makes fun of his adopted country, when not being it's cheerleader. His country is Slovenia. So why the Chinese have their traditional blue panties in a wad makes no sense. But there is a test site that lets you know if any particular site is banned in China. I must be a good communist, and didn't even know it. More likely they know I am planning a trip to their country in a few days (I had to apply for a visa, so they know I'm coming) and they want me to feel welcome (aka spend lots of money in their country). And then blog about what a wonderful experience I had...if I don't say all sugary-goody goody things, I'm sure I'll get blocked then. My pictures however on my blog don't come up. Lord knows that I have posted some seriously impure pics - like vegetarian sushi, Japanese macaques, and preschool crafts.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Out With a Whimper

A couple of weeks ago, while I was still really sick, we had the last Skyland class. Those classes have been a lot of fun at varying times, and I really like the students tremendously. So I was pretty hurt when I found out the classes were coming to an end. And of course, I don't really know why. Mr. M. gives me only the most basic information..."last Skyland class next week". That's it. No softening me up, no polite explanations (true or excuses), just "it's over". I know that profits are down there. And I think the novelty factor has worn off. And the fact that Mr. M. and the client agree on a course structure without ever asking the teacher (me). And they rarely pick the right book for the class. But of course that's all the logical part of me. Then there is the irrational/emotional/insecure part of me that blames it all on me and myself. Of course, it's probably a little of all of that. So the last class came and went with little fanfare. Actually, everybody seemed a little uncomfortable, and we all just plunged right ahead. 10 minutes before the class ended they brought out a cake and they gave me a little goodbye gift. It's a harmonica key chain/keitai charm (I pictured it next to an ichi yen coin, about the size of a dime, to give it some perspective). It appears to be a quality instrument, even if it is tiny. It's very cute. And then we said goodbye, and I walked away. The end.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Made in New York City?!!!

Remember those Pace Picante Sauce commercials with cowboys out on the range complaining that there salsa was terrible, and reading the bottle, only to discover there beloved Mexican salsa is made in that bastion of whiteness called "New York City". Well, I never understood that, as there are probably as many Mexicans in New York as wherever Pace salsa is actually made. (The commercials originally said "New Jersey", but New Jersy went crying to the teacher and said Pace was being mean, so it go changed.) Unbelievably YouTube doesn't have this commercial in their library. Well, Pace, I can beat that. One would not expect Japan to have really authentic Mexican food, and it doesn't. This is the brand of corn chips that I buy. And they are less than brilliant. But they are imported...from Belgium. Excuse me? Belgium? Made in Belgium? (said with the same incredulity as the cowboys). Belgium makes the best beer, best chocolate and best waffles in the world. But they are not known for their corn chips, and never will be.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Short-Timer's Disease

I had promised myself I wouldn't get antsy about leaving until a month before I left. No throwing things out early. No packing early. No letting my mind wander to the next stage. And most importantly, to continue to teach with as much enthusiasm as ever. But Mr. M's made that impossible. The need to get rid of everything in the aparto has made me crazy. I have trouble concentrating on my classes, and it actually makes it hard for me to sleep. So, it's official. I already have Short-Timer's Disease. I deleted all the bookmarks in my computer for teaching. I've quit listening to the podcast where I was learning Japanese. And I've just quit trying in general. It happens to everybody, I just didn't want it to happen months in advance.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Driving is Fundemental

For months I was confused by these magnets on peoples cars. The first ones I noticed were these green book looking ones that I swear are the symbol for the RIF (Reading Is Fundamental) program. But then I realized there were these orange teardrop ones. I decided it must be some sort of Us VS Them rival high schools or something. The first time I was riding in my car AND there was a Japanese person with me I asked them. Unfortunately that person was Yuriko, who is only 9 years old. And although I think she knew what they meant, she didn't have the English vocabulary to explain it. Months later Rinako explained that they are actually very cute WARNING symbols. The drivers of the cars with the green symbols are new drivers, so beware. The orange symbols mark cars of elderly drivers, so double beware. There are a hundred reasons why this sort of thing would never work in America, and yet it is the norm here. I was just happy to have one tiny mystery solved.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Google is Holding My Blog Hostage

Google took over Blogger awhile ago, and they have been slowly trying to get us all to switch over to the "New, Improved Blogger" which requires you to set up a Google account. Well, I'm not interested in getting the New Blogger. There are a few bugs, and old Blogger works for me just fine. Plus, as I leave Japan in a few months, the blog itself will come to an end. But Google is now getting more insistant, in a Mafia sort of way. Now, when I log in to Blogger a screen comes up that says something to the effect of "Hey, now would be a great time to upgrade. All you have to do is click here and sell your soul to Google". Which would be fine, but there is no way to get out of that screen other than "click here". If you have time, you can wait it out, and check back in half an hour or so and the screen might go away. But I don't always have time to do that. So although I have wanted to post a few times last week, Google was barring the door. I've gotten so pissed that I switched my search engine away from Google. I'm afraid Google is turning into Microsoft. What a shame.

Friday, March 02, 2007

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

A few weeks ago I called up this other foreign woman I had met at a party and asked if she wanted some of the novels I had finished. She said "Sure, let's go out to lunch, too". So we went out to lunch, I gave her the books and we chatted. In the course of our discussion I mentioned that I was leaving in July and she became interested in my job. Later that day she applied for it. 2 weeks later I was informed that she had been offered the job. Sounds wonderful, right. Mr. M. gets a local woman, who knows how to live in Japan and speak some Japanese. My aquaintance gets to work for a consistant salary. Everybody's happy. Not so fast there, pardner. I get screwed. I bought all the furnishings in the aparto from my predecessor for $250.00. Most of it would not be things I needed. But the idea was I could sell the lot to the next teacher. Not to mention all the things that I did buy (tv stand, bookshelves, curtains, heater, electric blanket, etc.) But now I don't get to, because the new teacher already has a fully furnished apartment. Crap! Now, I have to try and sell everything. They don't have flea markets here, they don't have garage sales here. I have to tell you this is really stressing me out! I should get used to it, I usually draw the short straw in any deal.