Saturday, December 24, 2005

Coming at You from Taiwan!

So it's Christmas Eve and I'm feeling weird. Today I bought Chinese-style pottery in 20 degree (C) weather. Then Jeff and I enjoyed a traditional Taiwanese dinner with Rita and her family (we skipped out on the chicken's feet). And now I'm thinking of friends and family beginning their Christmas Eve day while I am half a world away. What are you up to today? We miss you guys. One Christmas away is okay, but two in a row gets tough. So here's a couple "Jeff and Kathy in Taiwan" pics to help you remember us! Display them on your computer while you celebrate this year... it'll be like we're right there with you :)

This is Jeff and I in a beautiful restaurant we went to with Rita's family. It was buffet style and there was live entertainment. It turned out it was her father's birthday! The spotlight suddenly turned to our table and the woman on stage started singing "Happy Birthday" to Rita's dad. They brought us drinks and cake. It was a great night.
Merry Christmas Baby! Hamming it up in a karaoke bar. We went after dinner with Rita, her sister Vivian and their friend Christine. Karaoke in Taiwan is very ritzy - even better than Japan! Each room has its own private bathroom! And the videos are much better... not all that cheesy, horrid repetition.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

And We're Off to Taiwan...

Tomorrow morning, at 5:55am (not my most spectacular hour by any means), Jeff and I will be boarding the "Maple Bus" at Ota Station. After a three hour bus ride, we will arrive at Narita Airport. And then, at 3:30 in the afternoon, we will be greeted by Rita and her family in Taiwan! YAY! Rita and her family will host us till we return to Japan on January 3rd.

We've been looking forward to this vacation for a looooong time. Last year, we joked that we needed to stay in Japan a second year so that we could spend the next Christmas with Rita in Taiwan.

But today, as I rushed around during my last day at work, I had a strange sensation of sadness. The past week has been filled with my own version of Christmas madness. I've tried to convey some of the "spirit of Christmas" to my students, and so I've made Christmas cards with and for students, been a daily "delivery service" of cards to classes, had Christmas parties and gift exchanges... And I've thought much of all of you at home, while buying, writing, and sending Christmas cards.

Jeff and I are both cutting out of work two days before the winter holiday officially begins. So today there were many people who knew I was leaving, and many others who didn't. I had four mostly chaotic Christmas-y classes, between which I wrote more cards and wrapped them in style. Throughout the day, 3 of my favourite students came and gave me the cards they had made in my classes, and with personalized English messages even! Then, at the end of the day, I gave each of the 6 English teachers and assistants their Christmas cards. And I gave one each to the principal and vice-principal. They were each written in typical Kathy-style... very "heartful" as one teacher said. (that is my all-time favourite Japanese-English word)! Life at our school has been very difficult the past few months, and I tried to encourage each teacher in their strengths and thank them for various ways they had helped or encouraged me. The three teachers I'm closest to just went on and on about the cards, the ribbon I used, the candy canes...

We said very "heartful" good-byes, and other teachers who knew I was going waved and wished me well. And I left.

And for some strange reason, I choked back the tears. I realized that one day I will say good-bye - to this school, to these people, to this life - and I realized I'm not ready. And I never really will be ready.

As I cruise around Ota every day, and greater Japan on the weekends, life often feels surreal. Here Jeff and I are, living our dream, with all its ups and downs. For now, at least, we have chosen the life of "traveler." In some ways, this makes life more intense, as we deal daily with a culture and language not our own. And in some ways this makes life more lonely as we struggle to connect with people here, and miss people back at home.

I'm not sure exactly what I'm trying to say here... I guess I was just struck by the power of my emotions today. Ya, it's been a rough fall in many ways, but I still often get the sensation that I wish I could just take a million mental snapshots every day. I'm afraid of it all escaping me. I don't want it to fade away. I can't even begin to explain to all of you the things I will miss about Japan. And the thing is, much of what I will miss is subtle, small, in a sense beyond explanation. I could tell you I'll miss Japanese hot springs... but what does that mean to you? Getting naked and soaking in piping hot water with a bunch of strangers? How can I possibly convey all the feelings that go together with this experience? I love sitting on the plastic stool and using the pump soap while I shower... I love the thick steam... I love watching three generations of family bathe together... I love the mix of modernity and peaceful nature... I love how soft my skin feels after I bathe... I love how good the bottled Kirin beer from 7-11 tastes after the bath, and the fact that I can sit beside Jeff and drink it while he drives! Do you get my drift?

So blither, blather... I guess I just needed to get out some of my "melancholiness". As Maria says, us introverts are easily overwhelmed. Each life experience has so much depth, and requires so much contemplation! It can really make life complex for us!

Just so you know, we WILL have internet access while we're in Taiwan, so feel free to email. And yes, we might update the blog a bit. Just don't get impatient if we don't update half as much as we have been!

Love you all. Take good care this Christmas season.

Merry Christmas, Japanland Style

So this year we did not send home any "two-toed" socks or chopsticks, or elephant boxers (ah, Nathan, we're still laughing). Instead, we sent a variety of ingenious Japanese style Christmas cards. As this picture illustrates, Christmas in Japan is all about Santa. And only Santa. And the occasional Christmas tree or reindeer. And so, you can find a strange assortment of cards with Santas doing just about any traditional Japanese activity you could ever think of. In this case, they are hanging out with the Kamakura Daibutsu. In other cards, they are hanging out naked in some hot springs, eating ramen, selling ramen, eating sushi, acting in kabuki theater, viewing cherry blossoms (an entirely different season altogether!) I wish all our Canadian friends and family could get together and have a Santa card party. Just so you could stare and gawk at the strangeness of it all.

I promise, there are other styles of cards (a few), but we really got ourselves lost in the Santa phenomenon. We hope you get a kick out of it too.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Hitachi Christmas Party

This is the group that I (Kathy) teach every Monday night from 5:30 to 6:40. Teaching has never been so easy. This group is so kind and so interesting. I can bring in just about any topic or any article, and we will go overtime talking about every imaginable tangent. Thursday night Jeff and I joined them at Furaibo, a yakitori bar in our city. We had a great time, and even did a North American style Christmas gift exchange. Merry Christmas, guys!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

Ah yes, Christmas is in the air. And there's nothing like the following scenes to get you into the spirit of the season...
Yes, an inflatable Christmas tree. The bonus is, it already comes with pre-wrapped gifts! Cool!
And an inflatable snowman to go with your Christmas tree. Better yet, it's double the size! And every possible Christmas light you could ever imagine, all shoved into one small corner of the store!
... the Love Boat... promises something for everyone... I guess this concept could work well at Christmas...
My personal favorite... pink pimp... who would've thought...

Monday, December 12, 2005

What a day!

what can i say? i took a bit of time off during the day today to go to the bank and get some money changed for our upcoming trip to taiwan. i rode bike like usual, and like usual, (some) people in japan don't check when they come out from side streets. every ALT that rides bike complains about it. there are so many stories i can't keep track. so this guy didn't really stop, looked the other way, saw an opening in traffic and plowed right into me.

normally those ALT stories include the driver taking off. i was lucky. he didn't take off. and as he asked me frantically if i was okay, i told him to call the police - just like i've been planning to do everyday as i ride to work through the gauntlet of stupid drivers this country so willingly offers.

the good news - it's always the driver's fault when a car and bike are involved. this guy probably got a pretty heafty ticket and a big fine if he's got a history of accidents. the even better news - i'm alright. no damage to me. the best news of all - he will remember to look both ways next time. check this out (i think it's from my elbow):

so my short break from school turned into several hours waiting for the cops to show up, going over details, and then going to the hospital to get checked out because the cops need a record and some form filled in. by the way, did i mention that when i finally made it to the bank they told me, (in typical japanese bank style) that they don't have taiwan dollars at the bank. i ask you - what the hell good are japanese banks anyways...

what a day.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Ah, the Company Christmas Party

Last night our company had its annual Christmas party, a night of cheap debauchery. It's Sunday night, and we are all still in various states of recovery. The night started at our company's new building. It was an informal affair, with good food, cheap booze, and a required sitting on Santa's lap (for promotional purposes, of course). We work with a great group of teachers. We just don't see each other that often cause we're all at different schools in different cities. So it was great to meet up and party.

The second party was held at a tiny, traditional Japanese karaoke bar. WOW. I have never actually been in one of these. But the owner of our company knows the owner of that bar, so it was all you can drink for 1000 yen. Basically 10 bucks. One of the *highlights* of the night was Brian puking outside, sleeping in our car while we were all still in the bar, and then deciding he would walk the 40km home since he didn't want to be a hassle for anyone and the trains were done for the night. We finally found him via cell phone (he had already been stopped by the police for walking on the train tracks). And about 3:30 Jeff and I finally rolled into bed. Ouch. I don't think one is supposed to do this kind of thing anymore after one turns 30.

Enjoy the pics below!
oh, yes, for a while we all thought we were models... me, Brian, Mikiko and Ayako.
Mikiko, Brian, Ayako, and Casey cracking up between "photo shoots"!
We love this one! Ayako and Scott (but Jeff likes to refer to him as Max Headroom).
A group from the first party...
The owner's daughter and granddaughter. So sweet!
Sing it, Casey!
Mugikura, the owner of our company, dancing away the night!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Oh, he got me good...

so last night Jeff and I were driving to pick up Mikiko. I was trying to fire off a cell text message to Ayako while listening to Jeff at the same time. He was telling me about some helpful stuff he was learning from a photography book. I heard him say something about helpful hints on how to take pictures of something, but then all of a sudden he said something about taking the train to Kyoto...

'Huh?' I says.

'Oh, so you're listening now... stupid girl...' says he.

It turns out that I really had NOT been listening well. I did not know anything was amiss till I heard the bit about taking the train to Kyoto. Here is how it really went:

'So, the book says if you want to take pictures of... (humph... she's not listening) ... your butthole, set it to 57,000, make it green, and take the train to Kyoto.'


I'm still laughing. Jeff is too, although begrudgingly. How on EARTH did I miss the BUTThole?? (he claims he didn't say 'ass' cause that would've been too obvious of an attention getter).

Monday, December 05, 2005

Our Last Day With Burrito :(

Sunday morning, we went to Kichijoji, two stops from Joanne's apartment. Kichijoji rocks. I mean, even the name rocks. Kichijoji. That's so cool. It's got great shopping. My favorite ring ever is from a jewelery store the size of a closet there. And it's got a fantastic cafe-lined street that leads to a beautiful park, complete with all the Japanese essentials: temple, pond, fountains, ugly carp, and even uglier swan paddleboats. It is THE BEST place I know of to go on a Sunday morning. You go to Starbucks and you sit outside amidst people and their spoiled dogs that are dressed better than you'll ever hope to be. And you people watch. There's a large number of young families. So you get to watch a lot of adorable Japanese babies. And if there aren't babies, there are DOGS. SO MANY DOGS. Most of them tiny, dressed in brand name labels, and absolutely coddled over by their owners. When we were there, there was a couple with THREE small dogs... all of them dressed, all of them on their laps, and all of them being fed Starbuck's bits. I kid you not.

And that was that. Coffee, stroll through the park, and bye-bye Maria... just for a little while longer though...
Hey, it's finally Jeff! Okay, he's stuffed in a locker, but at least you finally get to see him! We figured stashing ourselves in one of these could be a viable alternative to Tokyo's pricey hotels...
This is our favourite picture of Maria...doing an impromptu Starbuck's commercial.
No, none of us do, but it was a fun picture nonetheless.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Burrito's Japanland: Saturday

Wow! Saturday was the BEST day! We spent the day showing Maria all our favorite Tokyo spots. Tokyo was showing her finest colours that day, and even Jeff and I spent most of the day with our jaws dropped in wonder...(ya, I guess Ota is pretty hick for Japan). We started with Shibuya. Maria had to see the gaudy and overwhelming 109 building - THE center of ridiculously hip Tokyo fashions. And then we went to Starbuck's... to sip coffee while staring at the unbelievable Shibuya pedestrian crossing from the second floor windows. Jeff took this picture from the windows...that's my white shirt you see reflected ;) It's hard to really capture the scene. When the three D's were here, we all referred to it as "The War of the Worlds". While the pedestrian light is red, you watch the crowds pile up...from the station, the streets, on all sides of the road. Then, the light goes green, and hundreds of people move, en mass, in every possible direction. Our crossing advice? Don't make eye contact. Look down, walk confident. Talking or texting on a cell helps too. Then it's THEIR job to avoid YOU!

After Shibuya, we trekked down to Harajuku, where the fashion is cheap and fun. We dragged Jeff down Takeshita dori, all gothic chic. And after, we made our way to Yoyogi park, home of the "Harajuku girls" and the dancing Elvises. Unfortunately, it seems Sunday is their day, not Saturday. However, there were plenty of other wonders to fascinate us. We were actually astounded by the strange variety of amateur performers out that day in the park. Maria and I started this whole conspiracy theory. We figured that Yoyogi Park is actually the secret recruiting grounds for the underground Japanese circus... if you don't believe us, read the following list of "acts": guy practicing trumpet, guy practicing sax, ... oh, there goes a single relay runner, group doing stretches after soccer practice, three (or more?) separate groups practicing a variety of skits (one seemed to be a dress rehearsal), a group doing a circular dance with fans, oh, there goes another single relay runner, groups playing badminton, volleyball, frisbee, a group of jugglers, a few tapdancers, a group that seemed to be doing something wedding related ... kind of strange - there was a bride, in gown, but no groom... only women, but they all seemed kinda serious... bongo drummers, people doing "Labrynth" moves with glass balls, and our favorite: the percussion/flagging/stick twirling group.

No really, we figure this guy was the circus genius. He excelled in everything. Usually Yoyogi is full of people just strolling around, but for some reason the crowds were small that day, so we ended up being this group's only audience for awhile. But wow - did he ever put on a show! He could do it all - play the xylophone, play the drum - and really really well! ... oh, there goes another single relay runner... And he could twirl those sticks (sorry, don't know the "official" name for them) like no one I've ever seen! In this picture, he has actually twirled them under his legs while sitting down!

And as Maria noted, "look! the girl playing the xylophone! she looks like a midget! you always know it's a circus when there's a midget..." (yes, Kevin, another one to add to the books. The really funny thing is Maria didn't even know about your jokes!)

After leaving Yoyogi, we ended the night strolling the ritzy back alleys of Omote Sando. It was peaceful, due to a lack of cars, and yet people were still milling around everywhere, in and out of cafes and boutiques. It almost felt a little European...
Me and Maria being goofy tossing around leaves in Yoyogi Park. Jeff took so many pictures in a row you can view them like a video! haha... it's fun feeling like a model sometimes!
Jeff and I got a kick out of these "welcome" dudes on the steps outside a store while Maria was looking around in Omote Sando. Jeff took a ton of pictures of them. Maria thinks we need kids. Whatever! Who could resist these cute bean bag buddies?!

Friday, December 02, 2005

Burrito's Japanland: Thursday and Friday

Well, Jeff and I had to work these days. But Thursday night we went to Daidai, an AWESOME restaurant a two-minute walk from our place with Mikiko and Atsuhiro - a guy she met through work. After eating some amazing garlic bread and pasta, we joined up with Ayako at Yorube - a super-cool restaurant that has ladies night on Thursday nights - drinks half price. Yipee!

Friday night we headed to Tokyo. We finally ate dinner at 9:30 in a tiny restaurant in Shinjuku, Tokyo. good. After that, we enjoyed the crazy night life of Shinjuku till about midnight. And then, when we almost missed the last train to Joanne's place - our home for the next two nights, Maria quickly learned why Japanese nightlife often comes to a close so very early. Crazy trains. Midnight, and they were packed FULL.
Enjoying a beer while our sukiyaki is prepared for us... ooops - forgot about the fact that once cooked, you dip it in raw egg - sorry Jeff!
Maria and I enjoying the bright lights, big city of Shinjuku.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Burrito's Japanland: Wednesday

It was a national holiday. So we went to Kamakura. This seaside town is known as one of the best daytrips from Tokyo. It is full of a gazillion shrines and temples, but it also has the ocean. It was a perfect day, once again (the whole week had perfect weather) and the beach was fantastic. There was a group of people flying three large kites. They were obviously practicing some sort of routine. It was set to music, and they had a guy leading them with shouted directions. The sight was mesmerizing. I could have watched them for hours. I didn't know you could do such amazing things with kites.

After a late lunch, we headed to Hase-dera shrine. It's a massive complex, with some god that has 11 heads and apparently knows everyone's thoughts, and another god that protects the souls of unborn children... the latter one is what I remember from my last trip to Japan. When you go to this section of the complex, there are little statues everywhere representing unborn children... generally the souls of miscarried or aborted children. Many of the statues are clothed. It's very touching. The shrine also has an interesting (if claustrophobic) cave and some beautiful gardens. You can also get a great view of the town since it's halfway up a mountain.

We ended the day with a not-very-successful trip to the Kamakura Daibutsu, and then we had a long plod back to the train station. But we ended the day with a bang at a great tonkatsu restaurant in Ota. (check out the pics below!)
Ahhhhh... the sea... well, ok, it's the ocean, but after you've lived here for awhile, you start calling it the sea. We could've stayed here all day...
This is a shot from Hase-dera shrine in Kamakura. In the forefront is the incense burner. In behind are the many statues representing babies lost through miscarriage or abortion. Very poignant... many of the statues are clothed and flanked by flowers. And in the shrine, instead of the traditional offerings of oranges and other foods, there are teddy bears and children's snacks...
This is the Kamakura Daibutsu. He's very popular. And he's very big. I had never seen him before at night. Maria didn't like him. I'm hoping she posts some of her anti-Daibutsu photos on her site... they were pretty funny...
This is our second favourite picture of Maria from the trip! We're checking out the MASSIVE menus at the tonkatsu (breaded cutlet) place we went for dinner. I love this about Japan. Family style restaurants always have these huge, colour menus. So you just drool and point! Easy-schmeezy!