Sunday, October 25, 2009

Osaka by Night, Kyoto by Day

From Osaka and Kyoto 10.20.09
Ta Chan's sister, Yumi-san, owns a small okinomiyaki shop hidden in an older part of Osaka. The best way I can describe okinomiyaki is as a mix between a savory pancake and an omelet, with various meats, veggies and noodles prepared in front of you on a large griddle and served with a special sauce and dried seaweed flakes sprinkled on top. Ta Chan had the itch to take me there, and after our workout at the boxing gym yesterday we made the trek over to Osaka for this special treat.

It's a humble establishment with loyal clientele, good food and of course, karaoke. Yumi-san runs the whole place herself. It's early when we get there, and when we walk in there's only Yumi and one customer who is smoking in the corner. We take off our shoes and climb up to the tatami mats and Yumi begins preparing dinner for us. An older couple enters - they are here not only for the food, but also the karaoke and it's not long before they plunk down yen and start belting out what Yuki describes as Japanese "country" songs. Although I can't understand much of it, the conversation feels friendly and familiar and I'm keenly aware that this is a side of Japan that tourists would never see - and I'm grateful. This is what I want from traveling - not only sites, but people.

Everyone is curious about the unfamiliar American and I'm introduced. I can tell they are talking about me, and Yuki explains to them that I am studying Japanese. As if that was the key to the club, I'm instantly in, and I'm caught off guard when they begin urging me, "Shana - song? Shana song please." I would have preferred to turn down the offer, but I didn't want to seem impolite so I sang Alanis Morisette's "Ironic" - the only thing I could think of and easily find in the book. I guess it was a hit - or maybe they were being polite - but they urged for another. Norah Jones gets a turn with "Don't Know Why" and thankfully, my singing career for the night is done.

Wednesday we were off to Kyoto. Once Japan's capital, the city is rich with history stretching thousands of years. Full of temples and shrines, the city attracts vistors from all over the world. We started the day with Kiomizu Dera. This temple rests against the side of a mountain and you have hike up a narrow street, flanked by traditional Japanese buildings filled with wares and treats of all kinds. Tea and spice shops, souvenirs, mochi, green tea and red bean ice cream, swords, dolls - all distractions as you make your way up to the temple.

Autumn is on it's way and the little bursts of red and orange leaves let the cat out of the bag. I can hardly wait for kouyou - which is what the Japanese call the time of year when all the maple leaves are red. For now I settle for just a hint, which still makes for a beautiful backdrop to this ancient temple.

Next on the agenda was Kinkakuji - literally the temple of the golden pavilion. Fine gold leaf covers this temple that sits in the middle of a koi pond. The sun was just beginning to set and the golden temple was beautifully brilliant in the early evening sun. We enjoyed green tea under a bright red umbrella, the sun streaming in from through the maple leaves above.

Girls Night in Osaka

From Osaka at Night
Yuki is determined to have me, like it or not, try all the culinary delights that Japan has to offer. Despite my protests about the hazards of fried food (have you seen my hips lately???) she wanted me to try kushi-katsu. Kushi-katsu is an assortment of foods - anything from squid to asparagus - batter and deep fried on a stick. I was a good sport - and it was well worth it. Thank God I'm walking everywhere!

We started in Namba - a hot spot for food and shopping. Then we were off to look for a club for dancing. We struck out on that account because we were still hostage to the train schedule and things don't get going until after midnight in Osaka. Most young people actually stay out all night and catch the first train home in the morning. With the dance clubs not yet warmed up, we opted for an hour at the karaoke bar (we could pick our own music at least!) and headed home on the last train to Suma.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Tea Ceremony, Sake and Karaoke

From Japan 10.15.09
Like a mother ushering her child off to kindergarten for the first day of school, Yuki says goodbye to me at the front door. I'm armed with a custom train schedule courtesy of Yuki, keys to the house and a note in Kanji that I'm supposed to show the coffee shop clerk so I can purchase espresso roast with beans ground to a number three.

To travel the train you have to purchase a ticket at the kiosk. Above the kiosk is a map of that particular train line, it's stops and corresponding fares. It costs 180 yen to get from the Suma station where I change trains and hop on the JR line. Ten stops later I will change trains again - this one will take me to Rokko Island, which is where I was heading for the Tea Ceremony. The train sounds like it should be easy, but with five different lines plus the subway the chances of me getting my lines crossed, literally, are pretty good. I've given myself no room for error and one misstep would make me late to the Kimono talk. The whole evolution takes me just over an hour and I miraculously manage without incident.

I make it just in time and after being introduced to the teacher, Mizushima-san, we are invited to select one of the ten beautifully wrapped Kimonos displayed in front of us. Orchid-colored silk delicately wraps kimonos that have been carefully paired with coordinating obis, sashes, and cords. Kimonos in all colors with elegant designs and embroideries are revealed one by one. Rich reds, lustrous golds, and deep blues are accented by butterflies, flowers and beautiful details.

The first layer is a simple robe with a thick white color that will later just peak out from under the fine silk kimono. The kimono is next and Mizushima-san expertly pulls, tucks, cinches and ties in what seems like elaborate origami.

Tea Ceremony is a very meditative experience for both the guests and the performer. Contrary to what I had previously believed, Tea Ceremony was performed almost exclusively by men and even Samurai up until WWII. This act of service was done for guests to demonstrate the utmost humility. After the war, Mizushima-san explains tongue-in-cheek, "the women and the stockings got stronger in Japan."

Hidden in this otherwise modern building is a traditional Japanese tea house and small garden. As if you were entering a secret hideaway, you duck through a small square door on the floor. The small door was intentionally designed so that everyone must lower their head upon entering, leaving all rank behind and entering all as equal. "The tea room is an equalizer", she explains. Here we arrange ourselves in a semi-circle, all trying desperately to be even a tenth as graceful in our kimonos as our host.

Mizushima-san is not performing the ceremony herself today but rather her assistant, an elegant, beautiful woman who I imagine is in her early 40's. We are served Japanese sweets and Mizushima-san encourages us to watch all the subtle movements. She cleanses the tea making tools, prepares the tea and gracefully serves - every movement with a purpose. She prepares tea for one person at a time, each time repeating the process with the same dedication. Watching her graceful movements is hypnotic, not too unlike the feeling you get when someone is playing with your hair. Every movement is careful, giving the ceremony the air of a performance. And it was over all too quickly.

Friday I had my first Japanese lesson. Sensei explained to me that to understand English you must have a vocabulary of at least 1,000 words. To understand Japanese, one must have a vocabulary of 5,000 words. Even she admits that this is a difficult task, and I'd be lying if I didn't wonder for a moment just why I had chosen probably one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. It doesn't matter though. I'm committed to the task and will do my best in the time that I have.

After my lesson I opened my Kobe guidebook and discovered that not far from where I was there was a sake producing area. A short train ride and I was out exploring. Only once did I have to accost a perfect stranger with, "Sumimasen, (enter the name of a place here) wa doko desu ka?" (Excuse me, where is such and such?) I explore the sake museum and one of the breweries where you can see each part of the process in action from behind plate glass. Of course, I got to taste some sake too.

At four I met Yuki, Ta Chan and Hazu - we had a date for Karaoke and dinner. Karaoke in Japan is so different from in the states. In the states, most people wouldn't be caught dead signing Karaoke, but here in Japan it's the hot thing to do as evidenced by the numerous Karaoke bars all around town. Unlike in the states where there is one stage and only brave or really drunk souls venture up, in Japan you go with a group of friends and get a private room with a various array of high-tech equipment. Is the pitch of the song you are singing too high for your voice? No problem, with the click of the remote you can bring it down an octave. Choose from thousands of songs. Make the mic have an echo. You name it, they've got it. In short, we rocked out in true Japanese karaoke fashion.

Yuki and I are heading to Osaka tonight after our work out. I'm looking forward to that and will share an update later.
From Japan 10.15.09

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dreaming of Japan

From Japan
Once on the plane in San Francisco's International Airport I realized that all my diligent Japanese studies only served me the ability to identify that the machine gun-speed string of syllables over the intercom was indeed Japanese. Beyond that I could identify nothing. And as I carefully arranged my carry-ons under the seat I realized, not without hint of butterflies, that I was about to spend the next two months in Japan. What had seemed like a great way to both fulfill a long-time dream and keep my mind away from James being at OCS now sent a flood of thoughts through my mind about how I was about to leave everything familiar in exchange for something completely new. Excited? Yes. Nervous? I'd be lying if I didn't admit I was a little.

Only fourteen hours later I stepped off the plane at the Kansai airport and made my way down to the luggage claim where I was to meet Yuki (who had given me strict instructions not to leave the area even if she happened to be a few minutes late). Within seconds Yuki had found me and in a way that is distinctly Yuki (imagine exclamation points) she calls my name, runs toward me and gives me a big hug. I'm already aware that this display isn't what would be considered "typical Japanese", but Yuki is anything but "typical" and it's this personality that has kept us friends over the greatest of distances for the better part of eight years.

"Kobe is not a very big city," Yuki keeps disclaiming as if she feels I might be disappointed. The funny thing is, as far as I can tell, Kobe is big enough to rival most cities that would be considered quite large in the United States. She considers where she lives the "suburbs", but for the life of me I can't tell why. Kobe sprawls east and west between the Pacific Ocean to the south and Rokku mountain to the north. Glancing either way reveals only more of the same: ocean, city, mountain. The contrasts are spectacular.

My first day in Kobe started with a trip to the grocery store and market at Itayado - which I discover is really quite local as I am the only "gaijin" I see all day. "Gaijin" is what the Japanese call foreigners, and for better or worse, while in Japan, I am a Gaijin. Despite the fact that my size, rosey complexion and green eyes make me stand out like a sore thumb, always polite, no one stares. I had braced myself for odd looks or interest after my cousin who had traveled to Thailand recalled with horror how the Thai people, surprised at seeing such a tall women, would exclaim quite loudly how big she was and stare at her with disbelief. If it wasn't for how keenly aware of how out of place I was, I could quite easily forget that fact based on their reaction, or lack thereof.

The Daie (grocery store chain) is intensely bright and happy. Fresh lighting illuminates colorfully labeled products in every shape and size. I'm sure the things I would normally buy at the grocery store are hidden here somewhere, but alone I have a difficult time distinguishing even water, and end up buying a clear sports drink by accident. Japanese writing explains everything, but I am at a loss and I realize quite quickly how much we rely on this kind of communication in every day life now that I can't understand it. It's all, well, Japanese to me.

The market just outside stands in contrast with the modern grocery store. An indoor arcade of vendors, not too unlike a farmers market, showcases fruits and vegetables in crates and baskets. Handwritten signs denote that green peppers are six for 100 yen (a bargain!) and for 300 yen the man will dump the little basket of tomatoes into your shopping bag.

The train stations prove even further how lost I would be without Yuki on day two. Although the stations are conveniently labeled in Romanji not much else is and with the web of public transportation to navigate I was so lucky that Yuki spent the day teaching me how to take the train to Sanomiya - downtown Kobe.

Saturday night Ta Chan (Yuki's husband) stayed home with little Hazumi (three years old) and it was girl's night. Yuki took me to Sanomiya again. It was completely different at night and as far as you could see, brightly lit signs showcased the locations of bars, clubs, restaurants and shopping. I'm told that this is dim compared to Osaka and especially Tokyo, but to me this could give Times Square a run for its money in terms of how much electricity is being disposed of. It's exciting and intriguing and I try to be cool about it while I whip out my camera and snap some shots.

We had a meal in the style of izacaya - which is small, shared plates, not too unlike tappas. Japanese food is amazing. I'm not particularly fond of fish which is kind of a problem, but you can see the care taken with everything and even the most humble of ingredients is elevated by being served in esthetically pleasing ways. I find it quite beautifully done. I should also mention that Yuki is a wonderful cook herself.

Today we went to Himeji Castle. Built in 1346, the ancient stones and wood proudly and beautifully hold their shape, resisting time itself. To reach the main tower you climb a narrow maze of stone stairs designed to funnel enemies to smaller numbers as they approach the castle. Lookouts and defensive positions above would make the intruders easy targets. Finally, through a gate that I have to hunch to get through we reach the main tower. Upon entry you, like I imagine it was always done, you are asked to remove your shoes. My socked feet glide over smoothly-worn wooden beams and it's not difficult to imagine a time long ago when Japanese royalty and samurai inhabited these spaces. Another maze of steep wooden stairs takes you room, by room, each one growing small as you go higher until you reach the top. From here you can see artful tiles cascading down rooftops meeting a vast expanse of city, the mountains in the distance. From hear I imagine what the view would have been even just a few hundred years ago.

Yuki and Ta Chan have been such gracious hosts and I'm loving the experience of seeing Japan beyond the way a tourist would. Little Hazu is too cute and at three speaks more English than I do Japanese. And like any other three year-old everything is met with curiosity and questions, "Kore nani?" (what's this?). My questions far outweigh hers though, and I feel like I'm in a whole new world. Not just are the words for things different, but so many things themselves are. I'm fascinated by everything and my own childlike curiosity makes for good entertainment for Yuki and Ta Chan.

There's so much more to share, but since this post is already quite long I'll continue another day.

News From the Front - an update on James

As of today James has been at Officer Candidate School for just over 8 weeks. I was with friends the other day when I got a much awaited from phone call from James. To give an indication of what life at OCS is like, James told me to tell our friends, "hi from my dark cell." Life the first few weeks for him was not fun to say the least and when I missed a phone call from him and his barely audible message said, "I'm okay, I'm alive," it just about broke my heart. Squaring his meals and doing push-ups to a cadence contributed to him losing 8 pounds that first week.

The report is that things are better the last few weeks. I suppose these things are measured in the amount of yelling that takes place. James never loses his humor about it and as soon as he received e-mail privileges he included in his signature a quote that had no doubt been directed at his company. "You're all complete idiots and I don't want you as officers in my Coast Guard." - MKC Hillman, Guard Mount, 27AUG09.

I had to laugh.

The class recently completed their trip on the Eagle, the Coast Guard's tall ship. James enjoyed the trip and the ship as well as the slightly reduced numbers of instructors hovering over them.

James wrote from the ship, "Getting underway is an incredibly physical evolution. It's done the same way it's been done for hundreds of years.... climbing masts, furling or unfurling sails and a small army on deck heaving lines. The ship has a language of it's own, 'ready the mizzen royal!' 'Make off the main stay for sail!' - all being yelled from bridge to deck and vice versa."

He is doing very well in his classes and he's showing all the college grads there just how it's done. I'm really proud of him, but then, I've always been a fan. :)