Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Third week, orientation in the city

It is so great knowing I can make people’s days simply by existing in a certain place at a certain time. And perhaps not frowning. This week I was on a “business trip” that is, I was going to the city to learn about typhoons and suchlike for three days. It was my first time taking the train alone so I was a touch apprehensive as I pulled up on my bike. A couple wee biddies were sitting out front. As I came closer, mentally rehearsing the words “Miyazaki-shi Miyazaki-shi” I saw one of them elbow her friend and do the granny head jerk in my direction. She then strained toward me as far as she could without actually leaving the bench and, after grinning toothlessly, said “Ko-ni? Chi-wa?” With a smile and a sailing konnichiwa I managed to secure for my listening pleasure the most delicious fit of little old lady giggles to fill me for my entire train ride with an overall sense of winning at Japan. Bless you just for being what you are.

Right, so. Memory is getting a bit hazy, I am 3 weeks behind after all. I think I met the other new Nichinan girls on the train. I know that we found an EXCELLENT shop near the station. By we I mean Muqing. It was full of knick knacks, frilly clothes, and shoes far too dainty for Kelly and myself’s DOUBLE LARGE feet, which is our sizing over here, sometimes extending to the triple.One thing I remember about orientation on the first day is that we were on TV. Not really the kind where you can call your mum and be like ZOMG record me tell all the aunties and uncles! But TV, none the less.

That first night in the city, we all went out for a nice dinner together, in which I bonded with Lachlan, an Australian. It has been the theme of most of my Australian encounters here to confess (loudly, probably leaningly) “You know, we all pretend we have this rivalry going and sling all this shit (oh wait? You don’t? Just me? Oh…) but when we’re overseas I see so much of us in each other!” And so on and so forth in some sort of vague we are all human kind of way. Anyway. Lachlan helped me find tap beer (again, we are not so different you and I) and this is where the general overindulgence of the night I believe began. By indulgence I do not even mean in a drinking sense. Food was so integral there was barely time for beer. (Conversation was also good).

Case in point: After dinner Kelly and I ate our way across the city. Pretty much every eating establishment from the restaurant to our hotel was hit up. I was so full I couldn’t walk in a straight line. But when you have made that sort of commitment you’ve got to roll (literally, if you have to) with it. Largely due to Kelly, who enables me to new heights.

After our horrifically satisfying eating escapade we all stayed at a nice cheapy motel together. I took the bunk bed, happy only to not be on the floor. I had to make it, which is fair enough, but I did not count on the cleaners (probably in the most well meaning way possible) unmaking it each day and folding everything back up neatly. I wonder sometimes if they laugh about us at smoko, if they know we are here to drink and stumble around with sheets over our heads trying to make hospital corners. I’m not going to lie, I probably would. After awakening, heavy with undigested food, we went down for breakfast. Breakfasts in Japan are dinners in Japan but cold. I had rice, chicken, fish, and a glance at the salad.

Today was more orientation. I remember something about filling your bath with water to drink for when there is a typhoon. We also received our notice of employment in an intimidating little ceremony. There is something to these. It’s like a normal action is suddenly made careful and slightly horrifying, but because of it it means all the more.

Tonight was the welcome party and possibly our first chance to meet each other under more relaxed conditions. By relaxed I mean my dress was of Wellington standards and I should really have done anything but. Before we got there though, we went to a Kimono store. All we did in this store was ask two questions about shoes and we were invited in the back for tea. This is how lovely Japan is. A boutique city store, inviting a group of potentially clumsy tea cup dropping crumb spilling foreigners into the back of their exquisite kimono designs for home made tea. (And, the best I have had in Japan). We (Kelly) got a good photo of this. I will steal it for your viewing pleasure.

Okay the welcome party was my first Nomihodai. This means you can drink as much as you like for two hours. The reason these work in Japan and not in New Zealand is that there are not many New Zealanders in Japan.

After dinner we went to (yet another) nomihodai. Anyone would have been like, okay, these are quite common, they obviously require a little pacing. Not so this Kiwi. The very first song of the night (this was a massive room with about 40 people in it) was selected by my good friend Sam, who convinced me to get up and help him. To our growing dismay we realized we knew none of the words and could only croon the chorus, “let’s get it on” at any given opportunity across the stage at each other. Was I put off for the rest of the night? Oh hell no. We also completed a rousing rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody, which I (unfortunately for all involved) know ALL the words to.

After this I recall the entire night focusing on me in another bar, staring at my new, full, drink. I look up from this drink and see Sam staring at his new, full, drink. I do believe our cognitive slaps of awareness connected as he looked up and over at me, and both of us realized it was time to go.

Hanging with other JETs is a whole new culture shock. It’s easy to think we’re all the same, because we speak English. Not so my friends. If anything, the culture shock is more disquieting, because it is so sneaky. Still, I am continually struck by how alike we all are. How human our impulses. It surely is a life assuring thing to realize people half a world away have the same worries, the same gratitudes. I can see how travel can become addictive, not to see differences, but to assure yourself of the world. Assure yourself that those people over there are indeed people as you have always known them.

In this vein we fare welled our new friends the experienced second years, and the friendly Irish voices of John and Matthew that give me nostalgia for a place I’ve never been. This could be echoes of the motherland or my unhealthy love of Micheal Flatley. Vacating the bar after securing contact details in my handy memory (A4 book of notes) next to a scribbled, scrawled, and progressively growing door code required for getting into my hotel, we got in a taxi and went there. I jumped into bed with Kelly (noisily) and let Sam deal with the quaintly folded sheets.

From the happenings of this party I think you can assume I was not on the best form for the last day of orientation. Being outdoors hurt. Being indoors hurt. I conjugated some verbs.

For the last entry of this orientation we will have to refer to my notebook. Being only just able to write what I had to and far less likely to write things I didn’t, it reads simply:

ill. Sunnies for all time. nice wee lunch – WASABI IN MY MOUTH

And that, my friends, was orientation.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Second weekend in Miyazaki -August 15th-ish

Saturday, I went to Miyazaki City with Devon. It’s about an hour away by train. It’s bigger than Wellington, but has the beachy, small feel of Tauranga or the mount. Also, there is no clubbing. People drink in groups, so they usually have areas to themselves in restaurants or karaoke booths. Enjoyable, but sometimes there’s the craving for a stranger.

Anyway, city. Went to a MASSIVE mall with Devon. Biggest mall I’ve ever been in. My feet hurt. People in stores are so so nice. Even in the city we are rare, and people want to talk about their favourite English singers, or point out the clothes we are wearing the same, anything to make a connection. I love it. A man even gave us free fans in a tea shop because we looked hotWhy are you so wonderful?

We went to see a movie, Inception. Great movie. We overloaded on movie food (fries and cinnamon sticks) and it was easy to forget you were in Japan. In fact I felt like I was in America.

All around Japan there are massive Pachinko places, which are like arcades in NZ, except they are also used for gambling. (Because actual gambling is illegal, go figure). There were whole families there, parents gambling, kids playing games, babies asleep in prams. Everything was flashing and making noises. We played a couple games of air hockey and drew a tiny crowd. I’m astounded how quickly I’ve gotten used to being in a cluster. I’m going to come back home and be like, guys look I’m special? Over here?

Of course we also did Purikura. (Sweet Japanese photo booths) They all claim to make you beautiful, and their idea of this was to make your skin lighter and your eyes bigger. I found that quite sad. Also a little bit hilarious because it looks like someone inserted glass doll eyes into my face.

Salsa party. Learnt the basic steps, and the basic panic that occurs when music happens and you are expected to do them. It is hard for me to know when barefoot is okay. I think I may be forced to operate under the assumption that it is NEVER okay. At first I was like, 21 years of cow hide cultivating, gone. I will never again walk a gravel path or dirty road (stumblingly, with heels in hand). New Zealand will be closed to me.

I have found with any culture shock I experience the best thing to do is research. I decided to apply this and uncovered something beautiful. Listen closely, children. Gather round. Take your shoes off, if you like. The Genkan, is the area we commonly call the entrance room, or foyer in a larger establishment. In Japan, it is lower than the rest of the house. (I never noticed this until I read about it). Now, Gen = the unclean, but also, the unseen. Almost with a supernatural kind of connotation. An idea that you do not know what physical (and spiritual) fragments you may have picked up on your excursion into the great outdoors. Kan = Barrier. So the Genkan, is the ritualistic buffer between the unknown and the known. You are moving from a place you cannot control, into a place that you only control. Something else I found interesting, (and you will too by God) is that you are not considered in the house until you have stepped up from the Genkan. You could have come in, thrown your crap in a corner, locked the door behind you, checked yourself out in your own hall mirror and still not be HOME. Once you have stepped up however, you are in the known, and furthermore any traces of your outdoor experience have been left in the genkan.

Isn’t that inspiring? Also, there is the whole thing about hygiene etc but it’s not nearly as melodramatic. And thus has no place.

Right. So. Salsa. I put my shoes back on. Had beers. Generally tried to avoid dancing. Thank goodness there were excellent people there. I met a girl called Makiko, who knew very limited English. With my very limited Japanese we managed to have a hybrid conversation that involved basic words reaching to a certain point, then a shuddering halt, an arm clutch and a resounding GANBATTE! (try hard) and resulting cackle. My friends, you can boozehag in any language.

Also met someone called Whiskey who I explained Santa in New Zealand wears sunglasses and stubbies and cooks a barbeque with a beer. I also danced with a wee youngster. Our entire communication went as follows. Do you speak Japanese? No. Do you speak English? No. Tiffany desu. Me too. Hai.

So sweet.

A bunch of new JETs also turned up, it was good to see them and share our first week feelings. I think the funniest thing I have heard that is making me laugh even as I type it, is that Noah can’t fit in his bathroom. He has to turn his knees to the side and keep the door open a little bit. I’m not sure if I’ll find anything that can out-hilarity that confession.

After the party we walked to get potato salad (I’ve been craving the shit out of potatoes man) and I had a sweet, sweet, standing, upright, hotel shower instead of squatting in a sheep dip tub holding the water over my head like some unclean monster.

NB: The only photo I had of this weekend was of that hilarious lift sign in a previous entry and a green tea muffin. So I have stolen Devon's.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A sweet hiking adventure (from I think the 10th of August)

I’m not sure if I’ve already covered this but so far I have eaten alligator, dried squid, octopus (which I actually love?) pickled seaweed, whole dried fish (as in, you snap the heads off and enjoy), raw fish of every description, natto (fermented beans) - apparently heaps of Japanese people hate this and are like ehhhHH! Little do they know I’m from a lentil family. More exciting foods to add to the list once I remember them!

An earthworm

Anyway, one of my coworkers invited me hiking on Friday, because I was going to be the only person in the office. It was so sweet, I have really got to get used to the invitation style here. I have found the best thing for me to do is be totally direct and gaijin and be like Yes. If you’re like, are you sure? Or, anything vaguely resembling doubt, shit hits the fan in a vague miscommunicative way. Anyway, this teacher, once securing my blatant yes I would like to come even before I knew that he had been trying to invite me, printed out pages of pre-information for our trip. He wrote an actual itinerary complete with names, times, description of activities. I have kept it, it was so awesome. Also, there were about 3 pages of maps in which he outlined our routes and travel times. Bless. When I think of all my interactions in Japan, all I can do is clutch at my wee overstimulated heart. Bless you.

The hike itself was fantastic. It was probably the first time I’ve been like, wow, I think I have a spirit somewhat kindred to Japan. My guide pointed out interesting plants, history, experiences, everything. Everything, that is, a "hiking enthusiast" who can't ride a bike or do any other physical activity involving coordination could want. I thought about telling him about Bushman’s toilet paper in NZ but thought I might save that for another time.

I nearly stepped on a snake! Of course I was shocked, and my guide was practically giddy for me and my first encounter. He was right, the rest of the walk I was in a (collected) delicious little thrill. It has soon become common (ish), I passed a dead snake on my way to school this morning but it’s still exciting and nothing matches the first time for anything.

We also saw a fox. At that point my guide admitted, "When I am hiking, I often feel things looking at me." It’s amazing that moments like that can be communicated in any language, can be transmitted between anyone in the world. Buddy, I know exactly what you mean.

He then showed me a photo he had of some deer he had come across. It was amazing. (He is a talented photographer and was often jumping off the path to take a photo of a oddly placed leaf) Of course being from good old NZ I followed up my appreciation and awe of the deer photo with - "so… is hunting very common in Japan?"

Sigh. One day I'll get it.

We saw many waterfalls and stopped for lunch by one. I felt totally comfortable. Apart from the spiders, and the conversation about poisonous snakes, bear attacks and marauding monkeys, that is. My guide has had a fight with a monkey. Who can say they have done that? But, like I say, totally comfortable. Considering this was my first really social encounter in Japan it is something I am grateful for.

Lovely hike over, when I asked what my colleague was planning for the afternoon. He said, "drink shochu." This was my first indication that I will make a life for myself here. A morning of hiking and beauty, an afternoon of shochu. I can feel you, Japan.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Second week. Yes I know it's long - again photos largely irrelevant

While sitting at my desk I have had time to research well, pretty much anything that takes my fancy. For starters, look how cool the Japanese national anthem is? It’s like an ancient poem. The English translation goes:


Thousands of years of happy reign be thine;
Rule on, my Lord, till what are pebbles now
By age united to mighty rocks shall grow
Whose venerable sides the moss doth line.

It’s such a rich sense of history and nature here. Like an observational awe. Nature is sort of revered, isolated and singled out for particular moments. It’s like, there is no need to apologize for urban development or mass guilt over construction, but the wee garden created in the midst is this holy, important place that would have just been part of the scenery if the whole amount had been allowed to stay. I don’t know why that seems to me to be better. A sort of way of focusing your attention. Of course that barely applies to me, I have an untamed jungle out my window. But, you do notice where nature has been focused. And, you’re supposed to. I can imagine how simple ceremonies and activities have developed to focus only on grace. You’re meant to notice it, and by noticing, cultivate a value towards it. Sort of like gentle propaganda.

A sweet shrine like a 10min walk from my house

Anyway, second week. There is nothing so helpful as making the unknown familiar. Even being comfortable with my bike route makes such a huge difference. There are so many contradictions for me to get used to. You must dress appropriately in suits, pantyhose, etc, but you can wear whatever you like on your feet. As I type this I am wearing bright purple socks and big fat berkenstock shaped sandals. Some of the teachers wear crocs. Basically, you have a pair of shoes that you ONLY wear inside. The emphasis is generally on comfort. Following on from this, when I go to the bathroom I must take my indoor shoes off at my foot locker, put on my outdoor shoes, walk to the bathroom, take off my outdoor shoes, put on the wooden toilet clogs, and then go backwards through the process once I am done.

Stairs to the shrine

So the second week was mostly (as you can see) me noticing things and thinking about them. Some concrete things that happened… I went for a medical exam with all the other teachers. Not understanding a word of Japanese, of course I had to get the entire form translated for me. Cue my supervisor looking up menstruation in his dictionary and me helping him with pronunciation. Bless his soul.

A massive tree halfway up the stairs

Omiyage. (Little travelling gifts of food) There was so much of it in this week. All the teachers were coming back from holidays, which meant awesome time snacks for Tiffany. Everywhere sells place themed candies. I even got a defense force biscuit!

On my first day walking I managed to get lost. By the time I got to my office, sweat was running down my face, neck and arms and into my handbag. I mean a steady stream. I don’t know how to convey to you the sweat. It’s like a rave, except you can’t go outside, and it’s all the time.

Shriney stuff

Slowly getting used to the spiders. (And well, everything). I think what I like most about this entire experience is that there is no choice but to man up. I am continually struck by what the human body can achieve when there is no other option. It’s good to know that you will adapt to whatever situation happens. Cheers body.

People write their wishes or prayers and tie em up. It's cute :)

I spent a bit of this week writing my speech for school. (In Japanese.) I wrote it with a dictionary and showed my supervisor. He said it was cute. I’m getting a suspicious feeling that bad=cute for foreigners. Ah well. At least it’s not the… “Would you like a fork?”


I came home from work partway though this week and all over the TV were typhoon warnings. Of course I was wildly excited, but there was a bit of rain and everyday since then there has been something about a typhoon. It’s just a favourite subject. Of course, when it’s bad it’s bad, but I have decided to treat it like the rest of my life and just wait to be told when it’s bad.

A hilarious sign in a lift

I had been craving English tea all week and finally found something amazing. It’s called milk tea, and is basically a bottled, cold, sweeter version of Earl Grey. I love it. Cannot get enough. Also, for the smoking followers, cigarettes are 300 yen a packet of taileys. That’s about, $4.50NZD. I believe NZ prices are up to about $20 a pack? Yeah. Visit me.

For the people who have seen the anti pirating video from the IT crowd: I came across this while researching. "In the UK, a pregnant woman can legally relieve herself anywhere she wants ~ even, if she so requests, in a policeman’s helmet." This is an actual law. Get pregnant and GO THERE

A green tea flavoured muffin. Yes it was delicious

Job-wise it’s odd being at the top of something. You’re trusted to do whatever you want. I’ve never been in a position of authority before. I do feel comfortable being back at a school though. It seems to always have been a good place for me. There’s something reassuring about the formula of desks facing a blackboard. Even though I’m on the other side now, I still feel like I’m going back to something familiar.

The tiniest beers in the world. I like to drink them and feel like a giant

Yes I know, again there is no narrative. Tryyyyyyyying to get up to date while also conveying the awesomeness of every moment!