Come Grocery Shopping with Me in Rural Yamaguchi?

•May 21, 2010 • 4 Comments

My first vlog! I recorded this months ago – probably six months or more. I’ve never posted it because it takes forever to upload videos to youtube… and because, to my ears, I sound wildly uncomfortable talking to the camera. I’m much more at home talking with my fingers on this keyboard. But since I’ve returned from China, my head has felt a little dead. I’m unfocused and distracted… and my writing is non-existent. China was an all-consuming, full-immersion experience, and I’m still dazed. The fuzzy haze around my thoughts is starting to clear, though, and by next week I should be doing some real updates on here. For now, this is a great excuse to unveil my first (and maybe only) vlog. So… come grocery shopping with me!

This is a video blog tour of my local grocery store, called Pikurosu (pee-koo-row-ss). I can walk there in less than a minute. In a strange way that’s probably not strange at all, my grocery store is one of my favorite things about where I live. I can’t speak very well to the (mostly) women that work there, but I know all of their faces and they all know mine. They even know what I normally buy. The first time I tried to ask if something had seafood in it (I don’t eat seafood), I stumbled on the new, still strange on my tongue Japanese so badly that the cashier had no clue what I was saying. It took me three or four times to not say exactly what I say in this vlog about beef (gyu – nan desu ka? = What is beef?) but instead ask is this seafood? Does this have seafood in it? Ever since that day, though, if I ever bring a bento to the front that has fish in it on accident, the person checking me out lets me know.

Sometimes I want to ask how his or her day has been, make small talk. Sometimes it frustrates me that I can’t. But most days I go in (I’m there 3 or 4 times a week), I’m okay with our limited conversation. They say the name of everything I purchase as they scan it, even though they know I don’t understand. They tell me the total, that usually I understand now. I pay, and I always politely decline the receipt and a bag – I’m okay, thank you. We smile at each other, and as I leave, there is the normal chorus of Thank You from every cashier. I always thank them back and head home.

There’s an infinite amount of comfort in this gentle routine, and I’ll miss it when I’m gone.

However, this vlog isn’t about my sentimentality with my store at all – it’s about how bizarre and overwhelmingly different a Japanese grocery store experience can be for a newcomer! Enjoy!

Side note: my car is there only because I had just come back from a run. I swear I’m not that lazy! …..most times. ūüôā

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MIA – The Commies Got Me!

•April 28, 2010 • 1 Comment

Just kidding… sort of. I’m going to be MIA for the next 2 weeks or so because I will be in CHINA!!!

I leave today (5 minutes… err, type fast!) for Shimonoseki, where I’ll take an overnight ferry with 5 of my friends to Bhusan, South Korea. From there we fly out tomorrow morning to Beijing. I’ll spend three days in Beijing, take an overnight train to Datong to see some famous awesome caves (no time to hyperlink sorrryyy). Then I’ll take another overnight train to Pingyao – the best preserved walled city in all of China (that also has an underground castle near it!). I’ll be there for a night, then I’ll take a day bus to Xi’An, home of the famous Terracotta Warriors. I’ll be in Xi’An for a night. Then I’ll take another overnight train (phew. I’m exhausted typing this!) to Shanghai, where I’ll meet up again with Tiffany and Alex (the other days I’m traveling alone after Beijing) for the WORLD EXPO!!!! I’ll do the expo for a day (definitely visiting the US building for American FOOD!), and I’ll spend a second day in Shanghai seeing the city. I fly back here on May 9. It’s going to be an INSANE trip and I can’t wait! It’s finally here!

May 9 reminds me – MOTHER’S DAY! Happy early mother’s day to my mom, the best mom of all the moms. Love you and miss you and wish I could send you myself!

Korea is my Seoulmate

•April 27, 2010 • 3 Comments

3.25.10

Five friends, four days, three-hundred feet from North Korea, two galbi dinners and one nude, spread eagle massage later, I am back from South Korea!

Korea is the Promised Land, at least after 8 months in (rural) Japan. It has more foreign food than I’ve seen in the last eight months combined. We left Friday night and came back on Tuesday. It’s a cheap flight from Fukuoka – about $250 roundtrip.

Here’s how it happened:

We step off the hour-long bus ride from Seoul’s International Incheon Airport into the heart of the city and see Dunkin Donuts, The Coffee Bean and Papa John’s Pizza all in the same 360 degree circle. It’s going to¬†be a good, good trip.

…too bad we¬†will eat¬†virtually none of it.

A 10-minute walk later from Hongdae Station, we arrive at Hong Guesthouse, in the Hongik University neighborhood in Seoul. It’s midnight.

Hong Guesthouse in Seoul

The hostel is as young and hip (and clean!) as the Korean man who owns it (we think he owns it). His English is perfect, and he’s kind enough to wait up¬†for us, give us a tour and get us acquainted with the area before leaving to hit a few clubs with other backpackers at the hostel.

Kris, Callie and I drop our stuff on our bunkbeds and convene around the computers in the homey “lobby,” which is more like a living room –¬†with a tv, stacks of board games and cards, couches and two communal computers with free internet. We begin planning our weekend then, at nearly 1am, and by 2:30am, we have to do a DMZ tour.

Because Korea is the Promised Land, the reservation line for the tour company is open 24 hours. What we didn’t bargain on was the agent laughing at our polite request for the 8am tour.

“You do know pick us is in,” pause, “Five hours?” He’s incredulous.

We are pretty sure he thinks we are drunk, which if we were, is the only way booking a tour to the North Korean border at 2:30 in the morning could be any more ridiculous.

“Yes, we do realize… we still want that tour.”

We can sleep when we die, right? Or… after the tour.

The full-day tour we want, which goes to the village of Panmunjom and lets you step foot into North Korea by way of walking around a peace table, is booked. We settle for a half-day one that promises an exhilarating amethyst factory tour! *facepalm*

Five hours later, we are on the bus. We go into the tour with limited expectations and by the end are rewarded with a contented lack of disappointment.

Freedom Bridge - notes for reunification line the end of it

The first stop is at Freedom Bridge, a symbolic structure that will be crossed by both sides if when a peace agreement is reached. The day is drizzly and gray, a perfect backdrop for taking in miles of barbed-wire border fences and slightly terrifying guards.

The second stop, the highlight, is at the Third Infiltration Tunnel, allegedly excavated by North Koreans as an attack route to the South Korea’s capital. My favorite part of the story is that the guilty party (I’m holding out for a giant South Korean government cover-up – “No one will ever suspect us with the crazy North Koreans right there!”) covered the tunnel walls in coal soot, as evidence to their explanation if caught that they were simply searching for coal and oops! did we cross the border?! But turns out there’s not coal anywhere near that part of either country. Good one, Kim!

Walking the length of the tunnel is surreal. I can imagine the blasts, hear the sounds and see the soldiers that¬†could have walked its length. We wear hard hats. We mock them as a fashion statement, but I’m glad I have it considering how many times I’ve banged my head on the low passageways (at least 12). South Korea (allegedly…..) discovered the tunnels (the first, second & others) using water pipes. I’m a little iffy on the “how,” but they’ve shown us the remaining PVC. When North Korea blew shit up, it would have burst the pipes… I think.

The third tunnel is the most notorious because of its proximity to vulnerable South Korean political bases. It’s also the tunnel that came closest to its goal. If a full-scale attack had ever been launched, a full division and its weapons could have traversed it at once (the second tunnel could hold even more – over 30,000 troops per hour!).

The tunnel path for tourists stops somewhere between 300-500 feet from the border. That’s where I am. I’m tempted to “accidentally get lost,” but there are locks and danger signs and maybe that’s one adventure I’d best forego.

Kris, Callie and me doing some inappropriately joyful posing at the DMZ!

We exit the tunnel, through the passageway and up a hill, and come out into the DMZ… gift shop. There’s omiyage (foodstuffs for co-workers) and snacks and souveneirs. To add to the glaringly ¬†inappropriate response to the DMZ, we take awkward, we-shouldn’t-be-smiling-but-we-are pictures and head to the next stop: the observation deck.

I¬†am most excited for this – peering through binoculars into North Korea and having angry guards yell, “BEHIND THE LINE!” I’ve always wanted to be a peeping Tammy on an entire country. But alas – the rain and fog have decreased visibility so much we can’t go. So it’s onwards to the Dorason Train Station.

This is cooler than I anticipated. Like the bridge, it currently exists as a symbol. But it is built to be and is capable of being fully functional. As soon as peace is reached, it will open and become part of the transcontinental railway; it will be the first land access from Russia/China to the Koreas.

After, Callie, Kris and I skip the amethyst tour (we aren’t in the mood to pad tour company pockets) and opt for coffee and a bagel (!!!!) at a cute shop next door.

All in all, we learned a lot about the history and current relationship between the Koreas and found the tunnel fascinating, but if you ever find yourself headed to SK, plan in advance and book the USO Panmunjom Tour. We’ve heard it’s worth the extra money and time.

Bibimbap and delicious, spicy soup

We are dropped off in Incheon, the most foreigner-friendly neighborhood in all of Asia I think. If we thought Hongik was paradise, this is blowing our minds. Coldstone, Quiznos, Subway and Outback and “big¬†sizes”¬†stores are only the first places we spot.

We eat bibimbap (rice with meat, a raw egg, kimichi, bean sprouts, veggies in a hot, hot pot).

Now here’s the difference between Seoul and Japan: Koean food and culture is so good you don’t need the foreign stuff. (And yet it’s the place that has it. ūüė¶ )

My favorite thing about Korean meals is that they come with 800 side dishes – chili paste, tofu, bean sprouts, greens (etc etc) and kimichi – spicy, fermented cabbage. It sounds awful, but it is – well, I could write country songs and poetry for the kimichi. It is poetry.

Can you spot MJ and Whoopi?!

After lunch, it’s nap time and then dinner. My friend Lindsey, a fellow Ms. magazine intern and wilderness adventurer extraordinaire, lives and teaches English in Seoul with her boyfriend Peter. They direct us to Hongik Sutbul Galbi, a galbi restarant – Korea’s famed self-bbqd meat. In Japan, it’s called yakiniku and it couldn’t be more different (it’s clean, galbis not).

Sutbul is a locals joint, complete with plastic tables and chairs, a menu on the wall and a painted mural starring Michael Jackson and Whoopi Goldberg on another. It’s a complete gem and always packed with regulars, it seems.

Lindsey and Peter meet us 30 minutes into the meal, so it’s up to us to order. Fortunately, a couple of British guys are at the table next to us and help (it seems there’s only one dish – galbi – and one drink – soju –somewhere between vodka and sake) us, before we could let the harsh, fast-talking, older Korean owner/waiter scare us away.

"This is how you cut the meat!"

The food comes out approximately 2 minutes after we order and we can’t fit it all on the table. There are dishes in chairs and pans on the floor. The old waiter gets our grill going with a fresh burning pot of coals and places a grill cover on top.

In Korean galbi, you bbq huge slabs of pork, then cut them into small pieces with shears before building lettuce wraps with them. The busy waiter learns we¬†speak Japanese (er, that Kris¬†and Callie speak¬†Japanese)¬†and turns from gruff to grandfatherly in an instant. As he speaks to us in nihongo, he skillfully cuts our meat and changes the grill in nearly a single motion – and shows us how to make the wraps: Lettuce first – make a boat – then meat, grilled onions, chili paste, kimichi, bean sprouts, greens – and then, try to fit it in your mouth. We are covered in meat juice and the smell of the grill and the entire experience is delectable. (It’s so good we bring our friends back the last night of the trip!)

The Yamaguchians + Grace and a new Korean friend, after we left MP2 in Seoul at 3:30am. We are throwing the "Yamaguchi" kanji 'gang sign'. We are nerds.

Linds and Peter arrive, and catching up with her is a highlight. After dinner, the five of us meet up with the rest of our group¬†– Ryan, Hozumi, Christina and Grace, at MP2, one of Seoul’s hippest clubs. Around 3am the packed club¬†quiets to listen to a man sing Brian McKnight’s “Keys to My Heart.” I decide I need to dance with him (I thought it was a good idea?). His bodyguard prevents this, and¬†that’s when¬†we decide he’s a Korean celebrity.

Kris makes best friend’s with our taxi driver on the way back, and I break a man’s heart when I don’t return his love after a few hours on the dance floor. It’s 4am when we get to the hostel, and as the Peas say, we’ve painted the town and shut it down.

Mystery, delicious pork dish

By noon, we are awake enough to meet up with Hozumi for lunch. We stumble into a restaruant that specializes in a dish we’ve never heard of or tried (or since found the name of). As I’m writing this,¬†the dish – simply pork, bean sprouts and chili paste – cooked by servers on our table grill – is like Atlantis: probably the best, most precious thing of all time and now¬†completely lost. I’ve searched for it for at least 20 minutes online, and not even google knows what it is.

Our server, a nice woman with great English, warns us it’s spicy, and that is an understatement. We should have brought a gallon of milk to calm the fires in our mouths. But it’s delicious and worth the pain. If I ever figure out what it was we ate, I will do everything in my power to recreate the magic.

palace

Lindsey meets us after lunch and takes us to Gyeongbokgung Palace, the largest and most famous in Seoul, dating back to the Jyseon Dynasty (I don’t know what that means either). It was the seat of power for centuries before 1592, when the Japanese (damn Japanese) destroyed it.

Speaking of Japanese-Korean relations, they’re strained (::understatement::). Besides a familiar language bond for some of the Koreans we have met (like the man at the restaurant), it’s a touchy subject. The Japanese have yet to formally acknowledge and apologize for their long occupation of Korea and mistreatment of Koreans, and Koreans understandably don’t take well to that.

Because Korea is the Promised Land, we arrive at the castle right as the ceremonial switching of the guards begins. After 8 months of living in Japan’s fetish world of gray, white and black, I am mesmerized by the bright, vast array of hues and patterns on the outfits and flags. Korean history is colorful, literally and figuratively. The guards march, drummers drum, flags wave, and we hungrily take it all in.

16th century, meet 21st

The Palace is restored but still reminiscent of its former glory. Most notably, a pagoda, unrestored in all its fading, transcendent appeal, rests on the grounds. It’s inaccessible on the tourist paths, making it all the more alluring. Then again, I have a thing for pagodas.

The Palace grounds are framed by rocky mountains to the north and a high-rise dotted skyline to the south. It’s a picture-perfect juxtaposition of past and present, traditionality and modern innovation.

From there, we step out of 16th century Korea and into 21st century, newly opened and highly lauded H&M in Myeong-dong, the premiere shopping district of Seoul. There is a line to get in and a man in a suit, nothing short of a bouncer, granting entrance. I shop like a holic, like it’s my first time in a store with clothes my size (it feels like it). I can’t find jeans – the sizes fit but the trendy, LA backstreets meets Asian fusion doesn’t, but I find enough skirts and tops to (over)compensate.

In the vein of our jam-packed traveling style, Callie and I have to run to meet one of her friend’s dads that lives in the city for dinner. He, along with his Russian, concert violinist friend, innocuously ask, “Is Italian okay?” and I have no idea for what I’m in store.

Antonio on the piano. (used from casAntonio Ristorante Italiano's website)

casAntonio Ristorante Italiano is as authentic as Antonio himself, which is to say – very. He quickly woos me with his thick accent, penchant for fine wine and expressive hands –¬†that touch his lips and reach for the air every time he calls me “bella.”

“Go on…”

I should move to Italy.

Fine wine, a ham and cheese appetizer that would be offended by being called “ham and cheese”, a homemade buffalo mozzerrella pizza appetizer, fresh baked bread and real olive oil later – it is clear that I am Julia Roberts in the scene in Pretty Woman when she goes to the fancy business dinner and feels utterly out of place and enchanted at the same time. (Where’s my Richard Gere?)

Callie’s friend’s dad, the Russian and Antonio know each other well, judging by their banter and Antonio’s chair pulled up at the table. There is a pristine grand piano in the center of the restaurant and Italian music playing softly overhead.

Antonio does not approve of us pouring over the menu – we simply must try the crab linguini and the ribeye wrapped in¬†bacon dipped in expensive something or other. So we do, and it’s as decadent tasting as his pronunciation of their names sounded. He tops it off by sending over a tirimasu for each of us – the single richest, most divine thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. I now literally understand the correlation between sex and food.

More of their friends arrive. Jong is a Korean-born, nationalized American who, we have heard, wins over young women at Antonio’s by playing the piano – because he’s a concert pianist. The night is drawing to a close, but before we leave, it seems Callie and I have passed Jong’s test, and he plays for us his favorite Russian classical piece. This inspires the Russian to dance a folk dance. She convinces the friend’s dad to join her and Antonio tops it off with an inspiring Italian vibrato.

It seems I’ve traveled the world in a single, delicious evening.

Kris, Grace, Callie and me outside the spa

Monday is our last full day, and it has been reserved as “girl spa day.” I’m… iffy… about this, but I’m in Korea, so why not? This decision is nothing short of the best I’ve ever made.

Dragon Hill Spa is the best in Seoul, the Russian told us last night. We’re here and struggle five minutes in with where to get naked.

“Maybe we leave all our clothes in these lockers.”

“Maybe we leave our shoes here and take off our clothes upstairs.”

The latter is correct and fortunately we realize it befor we commit to the former and walk through the public area of the spa disrobed.

We get nude upstairs, grab our towels and head to the bath room. There are dozens of different baths – massaging, sea water, hot, cold, long, short, big, small. We bath hop and then head for a massage.

“Full body Korean massage, please,” we point at our choice on the sign.

The masseuse, an older Korean woman who speaks no English, nods and grabs the bottom of her dress with both hands and

We thought these sweet outfits were to walk around the spa. We quickly learned they are for the sports courts.

throws it over her head. The other masseuses are brushing their teeth nude behind her and watching us. They spit, rinse and almost simultaneously pull on sheer bras and panties. They’re ready for us.

They direct us onto massage tables next to each other that heavily resemble pap smear ones – or maybe that’s the de ja vu of the last time I had my legs spread eagle with someone’s hands near my thighs.

First there is a scrub down. It’s exfoliating… and excruciating! I’m “OUCH!”ing at every scrape, and the masseuse is laughing equally loudly. Kris is to my right, Callie my left, and we can’t help but laugh as they spin, twirl, flip and rub us. Soon we are as familiar with each others bodies as we are our own.

The massage begins with the masseuses hoisting themselves onto the tables and walking the length of our bodies while¬†holding the poles in the ceiling for balance. She moves my skin like she wants to remove it, and she doesn’t miss a single spot. She’s very thorough. It’s an oil massage, and I feel lubed from head to toe.

The shampoo is next, and it’s a nice scalp massage, but I fear they use the same body oil as shampoo, and it may be stuck in my pores and follicles as a permanent souvenir. And then there’s the slapping. We are getting spanked. I don’t know what we did wrong, but our asses, thighs, backs and arms are paying for it.

For all the pain, it’s a wild experience that I wouldn’t trade. If you’re ever in Seoul and need a massage – Dragon Spa is the place to go!

Callie and me with our new best friend at the galbi restaurant! I'm not sure why I look so... intense...

As we leave the Spa, entertained if not relaxed, it is snowing. The city is beautiful covered in white. We make our way to Namdaemun, the traditional Korean market and spend the afternoon shopping… and freezing.

After, we retreat back to Hongik for a second dinner of galbi, this time with the whole group, and call it a trip. Of course, Callie, Kris and I make sure to get a picture with our new best friend – the waiter. This time he’s happy to see us.

In the four days we¬†have been¬†in Seoul, the only foreign food we have¬†eaten were bagels for breakfast at Dunkin Donuts. That’s how great Seoul is. Throughout the trip, we played the “how many puns on ‘Seoul’ can you make?” game, and Callie won with the last pun in this entry.

Korea is my Seoulmate and I hope I’ve Seould you on making your next trip there!

Lindsey, Callie and me at the Palace. I went into this trip imagining it was summer already in Korea. When it started snowing and all I had was a hoodie, I regretted that wishful thinking :/

Changing of the guards ceremony at the Palace

Modeling with one of the guards after the ceremony

We are the guards! I'm the smallest and Kris (who is like 3 feet tall) is the biggest.

The unreachable pagoda

Leave it to Kris, Callie and me to restore peace to an unstable region! (In the DMZ)

Getting the hang of galbi! Yummm!

Sakura: Japan is Pretty in Pink

•April 25, 2010 • Leave a Comment

“I wish the cherry blossoms lived longer than a week.”

“No,” she’s shaking her head, her brow furrowed in concentration. “Japanese people – we like them to fall as fast as they bloom.”

There’s food for thought.

“Why?”

She can’t explain it to me in English, but when she gestures towards the trees, lit up now by the lanterns hanging above, I think I might understand.

It’s late – 10:30 – and the Kudamatsu Park is nearly deserted. Nearly, but there are still 2 or 3 couples, holding hands and walking under the blossoms along the riverbank or picking up the remnants of a leisurely hanami. The sky is starless, but I only know that once we’ve driven away; the white-pink petals light up the night just the same.

Yesterday I hanami‘d in Iwakuni, at the Kintaikyo Bridge. I hear it’s the best place in all of Yamaguchi for cherry blossoms. I marveled at the crowds of people, Yamaguchi-residents, no doubt – but they took as many pictures as me. They see this every year, isn’t it average now? Not here, not for Japanese.

They call sakura a season, although it only lasts a little over a week. It always falls during spring vacation, and I doubt that’s a coincidence. Just like calligraphy, tea ceremony and flower arrangement, Japanese treat the blossoms as sacred – a traditional art. They revel in the beauty of spring’s pronouncement and take their time enjoying it.

Hanami, cherry blossom viewing, is its own word – a verb, a noun, a time, an event. On the lone weekend in a year when all the buds have burst and the country is sprinkled pink, everyone, it seems, pauses their busy lives, grabs a tarp and their favorite Japanese foods and drinks and sits under the trees. They celebrate beauty and nature with their time. Hanami is an homage to the¬† blossoms and to life, perhaps; it’s just as fleeting as the petals.

We are driving slowly out of the park. There are 2 more couples, both laughing and looking up into the snaking sakura trees. It’s rare to see such displays of affection and emotion here, especially by young people. It’s so relatable – their joy in the blossoms and each other, and that’s as refreshing as the spring air the blossoms welcome home.

Iwamoto-san is still lost in concentration, her face reflecting the inner battle with English words.

“I think I understand, Iwamoto-san. If something so beautiful lived any longer, it wouldn’t be as special. Hanami could be every day, and that’s not the essence of hanami at all.”

She nods.

There’s so much more to it that my simple explanation and understanding misses. The language and cultural barriers will probably always stand in the way of me knowing exactly what she meant. Japanese people – we like them to fall as fast as they bloom.

But the beauty of the petals, fluttering down as we drive like satin raindrops from a cloudless sky – that doesn’t need translation. If I had this magical week to look forward to every spring, maybe I’d only want it to last for an instant, too. But for now, when my time here is so short, I want sakura season to last all year long.

Iwamoto-san under the blossoms at Kudamatsu Park. She used to live right by the park and took me to her favorite sakura-viewing spot.

Callie, Tiffany, Alex and I joined the hanami'ing masses in Iwakuni at the famous Kintaikyo Bridge.

Tiffany, Callie and me

My Boulevard of Cherry Blossoms

We paid 300yen ($4ish) to cross the bridge - a small price for such beautiful views and photo-ops!

How the sakura see the bridge.

...and then Callie got shat on by a bird!

There was something majestic about this scene. The sakura are as transient as the temple is permanent, and yet both are inextricably linked to religion. Like the flowers, a Buddhist soul is regenerative. Beautiful.

At twilight, the lanterns light the path,.

Smyrna

•April 22, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I just met a man at the Post Office whose mad English skills took me by surprise. I even dropped the Engrish and talked at a normal speed. He’s Japanese-born but an American citizen, as he proved with a flash of that shiny blue passport that looks just like mine.

He lived in America for 30 years, and wouldn’t you know it, moved back to Japan in July, just when I arrived. Even more uncanny, he lived in Atlanta for a chunk of those years, in Smyrna. He knows Newnan, too, and pronounces it, “Newnaan”like the Japanese “a” and the delicious Indian bread.

He has friends in Riverdale and Marietta.

“Why did you move back to Japan?”

He took on a pained expression and motioned eating with hashi, chopsticks.

“I missed the food.”

One person’s steak is another’s sushi, I suppose.

I nodded my head empathetically, a fellow countryman, as it would be, that feels that similar pain.

But inside, I was shaking my head and thinking there are some cultural divides I’ll never understand.

The Karate Klutz: Belt Test Time!

•April 21, 2010 • 1 Comment

My heart is beating so fast and so hard that I can hear it in my ears. Like a tacky blond joke, I’m reminding myself to breathe in, breathe out, breathe in again. Eight months in Japan have led me to this moment, and I suddenly know how much time I’ve wasted, how ill-prepared I really am. I’m going to be an embarrassment to my senseis, to my club. I should turn around and –

“Kiotsuke!

My head snaps up, my feet pop together, my hands bolt to my sides. I’m at attention.

“Rei!”

My mind turns off. These are instructions, and my body has taken over.

At the waist, I bow deeply. My head is down, and after a pause there, I straighten.

“Hajime!”

And it begins. I pounce to the left, blocking an imaginary attack. Right foot forward now, I’ve thrown a punch. This is kihon gata, the first of my two learned karate sets. I’m halfway to the finish line in my belt test.

For all the self-doubt I’ve had this morning (I’m no natural), I’m surprising myself with each remembered step; I didn’t realize my muscles had so much memory. I can feel my body automatically correcting to the right posture. Unlike practice last week, I haven’t tripped, forgotten my steps in front of the entire class or faced the wrong direction. So far – so good.

Only once have I glanced to the others in my group for confirmation of the steps. That was in the warm-up series. Sometimes the names sound too familiar, and I question myself. But I had been right on, just like I am now.

Karate is an art of mind and body discipline, Head-Sensei will tell me later tonight and has told me before. In practices, I wonder if it’s working -if my mind and body are coming together in one disciplined, unified whole. As I stumble around the gym and misstep on the simplest techniques, I think certainly not. I’ve missed something or never connected with the art the way I should have.

But here int he present I’m on my second set now, and I’m faster and harder-hitting than I was in the first. My heart is still pounding in my throat but my body and mind are lost together on this gym floor – punching, kicking and blocking.

“HEY!” I yell, the closest word to the exclamatory grunt that comes with the last position.

Attention. Bow.

Now there’s a moment of calm, while I wait for the last two of the six people testing with me to finish their final set. The adrenaline rushing through my veins takes a breather, and I can hear my heart in my ears again. I’m shocked that eight months of training can’t calm my nerves. I haven’t been this anxious and nervous since the opening night of Peter Pan, the last production I was in my senior year of high school. I played the dog and got stuck in the fireplace – so needless to say, the nerves have negative (but humorous) conditioned training to them.

Now, the fight sequence. My favorite. My partner is in my club; I learned this sequence with him. My body overtakes my mind again.

“Chudansambam!”

Let’s fight. I’m the attacker, and I yell as aggressively as I punch my way through his blocks. The height difference makes it difficult, but I’m used to being a head taller and I compensate for it with smaller steps so he can adequately thwart my advances.

He’s on the offense now. As I get into position, I hear Umamoto-san’s voice, one of my senseis, in my head.

“Harder, Cyndi! You are too soft. This is defense!”

No problem, Umamoto-san. Today, he will leave with bruises.

One more round, this time with high punches – to the face – and we don’t miss a step.

“HEY!” we grunt in unison and step backwards.

Facing each other, we bow low at the waist.

“Arigato gozaimashita!” we thank each other simultaenously.

A moment later, the final pair finishes.

“Kiotsuke!”

Attention.

“Rei!”

A last bow to the judges, and we walk back to our line behind the next group. We sit in seiza, our feet tucked neatly under our knees. My feet go numb quickly, but the last group is almost done, and I think, “I’m a foreigner. I could move,” but today I’m not. Today I’m a Murozumi Karate Club member, so I’ll stay put.

The last group finishes, and the judges say a few words to all the students. I catch “karate” and “gaikoku-jin” (foreigner) and “ichi-ban” (best or first) and a few other random words. In my mind, he has said that this is one of the first times a foreigner has tested in Hikari, and I did well. I have quite the imagination. Egomaniacal or not, I’m moved by whatever he’s saying. He’s throwing the karate skills as he talks about them, and I’m privileged to see it. A final group bow, and the day is over for me.

Head-sensei and Umamoto-san come to greet me.

“Cyndi-san! You were so good! You have improved!”

I thank them, laughing at the word choice – it’s so true. They are genuinely excited (relieved?), I think, that I exceeded their expectations. I’m excited, too.

“They will say for sure next week, maybe,” Umamoto-san says to be quietly before I leave. “But I am sure you passed!”

I can’t wipe the smile from my face.

Later on, there’s a karate enkai – party. I’m congratulated, and I congratulate all my fellow club members who also tested today. Nobody speaks English but Umamoto-san, but we all communicate just fine over sake.

During speeches at the end of the night, the same head judge that spoke after the test, lifts his beer. I hear my name and the many of the same words I had heard earlier.

“He says you did very well today,” Umamoto-san translates.

“For a foreigner,” I chuckle at the subtext running through my own head.

“He says we all like your personality very much. You are very friendly!”

At least I passed one test for sure!

I sip my sake, a cheers to that, and Head-Sensei gestures for me to stand up and give a speech. I almost spit out my sake. Everyone looks eager to hear what I’m going to say, even if they can’t understnad it. “Me, too,” I think.

I lean over to Umamoto-san and ask her how to say something. I’m ready now.

“Karate ga ski desu,” I begin slowly. I like karate. Long pause.

“Murozumi karate curubu… et to… ga ichi-ban sensei desu!” Murozumi Karate Club, um, (particle) best senseis have. (maybe?).

“Imeqatigiitta!” Let’s drink!

This gets a round of applause and a lot of laughter.

Over the next hour, Head-Sensei and I discuss the (de)merits of The Karate Kid.

“When I saw it, I laugh very much!” he is laughing as he says it.

“I love that movie!” I gasp.

He laughs harder.

Karate, he teaches me, is not meant for combat or even self-defense. It’s meant to train, to discipline the mind and body. It’s taboo, he says, to use karate in combat, unless it is absolutely necessary.

Naturally, I use this as a segueway to ask him about samurais and ninjas. Turns out his ancestry is of a samurai line. I tell him we have something in comment, then, because I was a ninja in another life.

Another sake and a debate / lesson on cold versus hot sake and how they’re respectively served (I got served: hot is so much better!) later, and the party is winding down.

I’m commended again on a job well done, and I turn the praise back to my teachers once again.

“Oyasuminasai,” goodnight, and we all head out. On the drive home I think, accolades aside, they all know a movie could be made after me called, The Karate Klutz. I wonder if Head-sensei would like that parody more than the original. Somehow, I think he already does.

Today I reached a major goal of mine in Japan, and next week when it’s official I passed my test (fingers crossed!), I’ll probably trip over myself with joy. ūüôā

At the karate enkai after a long belt test and a few too many cups of sake!

Umamoto-san, one of my favorite senseis, and Firefighter-san. Firefighters are cute even in Japan, too! Her eyes are closed on this one... let's try again -

success! her eyes are open... and Firefighter-san is being crazy! haha (notice all the food I'm not eating?! Head-Sensei was nice enough to eat it all for me so I didn't look ungrateful!)

Everyone! Most all of the adult members of my club + karate senseis around Hikari City and judges from the belt test. Head-sensei is the one throwing a peace sign in the third row.

A fun shot. I should have done thrown the Crane pose from Head-senseis favorite movie! haha

Elephant Nature Park: Where My Dreams of Combining Ecotourism, Feminism and Mudbaths Come True!

•April 15, 2010 • 1 Comment

12/26/09

Lek Chailert at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand

The cities and the temples aren’t the magic of mainland Thailand – the rainforests are. I’m riding through the jungles to the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai. I’ve learned that 3/4 of Thailand’s rainforests were destroyed by logging. A huge number of Thailand’s elephants went with it. Seeing the beauty of what’s left highlights the travesty of the loss. This is breathtaking.

–I just saw an ox-drawn carriage. I am either in Oregon Trail or paradise.

–I just saw two elephants on their morning walk. We aren’t even at the reserve yet. Paradise, this is definitely paradise.

I haven’t been to other nature reserves in Thailand, but I know from my first sights of this one, that it’s unique. The founder and owner of the Elephant Nature Park is Lek – that’s all she goes by. I’m convinced she’s saving the world one elephant at a time. Her story and the plight of this Park and of the elephants left in Thailand is a story that deserves so much more coverage than it gets.

Lek fundraises for the elephants and land and petitions the government to be granted more land. She rescues abused and abandoned elephants. Tourists can come to the reserve and feed, bathe and observe elephants in their natural habitat. Here, we learn their stories, too.

Diva is a young elephant. She’s full of personality, like her name suggests. She’s fairly new here. In the past, she was employed as a street elephant – walking the streets of big, tourist-filled cities, earning her owner a living by just existing. She ate the spoils of city¬†life and the street food tourists fed her. After stricter elephant laws forbade elephant-street walking, her owner abandoned her. Lek found and rescued her, bringing her here to the Reserve. Now she’s learning to eat natural foods like fruit and vegetables, but she doesn’t know how to interact with the other elephants. Elephants form natural family groups, but she has been denied in all but one. One of the older elephants has adopted her. As the guides tell the story, even when Diva wanders away on her own, the family pulls her in, determined to make her one of their own. Elephants persevere like that, love like that.

The stories are endless, as is Lek’s devotion. Most remarkably, Lek doesn’t market elephants for tourists – she uses tourists to save elephants. She’s done the most¬†incredible thing of all –¬†found a way to channel¬†tourists’ natural curiosity and fascination with Thai elephants and rainforests to benefit the country. Her mission and vision are remarkable.

I’m sitting on a bench, looking out into the seemingly endless expanse of land that is Lek’s. I know it’s not as big as it seems, though. From here, the elephant hospital is directly in front of me, several hundred yards away, and I can see elephants queuing up for their check-ups and medicines. Volunteers are petting them, playing with them, as they throw their trunks bank and bellow into the wind. So many of their stories are sad, and they bear the scars of a previous life of abuse, but here they seem content.

We just finished the afternoon feeding. I reached into great baskets of fruit, pulled out banana clusters and fed it to them whole. You can’t be skiddish or nervous. You hold it out and let them wrap their trunks around it, sliming you up just a little and take it to their mouths. It tickles a little. They get greedy, too. The guides say that the elephants know exactly which basket is theirs, and if you feed another elephant from a bag that’s not theirs, the owner gets fussy and very upset. That said – they’re sneaky and will try to reach around you and grab out of the basket. They’re hilarious and personality-filled. It’s fascinating to watch. And for how huge they are, they’re remarkably gentle.

Before the afternoon feeding, we bathed them in the river. That was the highlight of the day. They came out in herds and mosied their way down into the water. Once there, they did nothing short of frolic. They splashed each other, rolled on their backs, shot water into the air and generally made a ruckus. We took buckets and scrub-brushes, jumped into the dung-filled, freezing water and joined them in the heat of the afternoon. We scrubbed their hinds and legs and backs and they sprayed water over us in approval. The baby elephants, they’re as cute as expected. They use their chubby legs to half-swim, half-leap under their mother’s legs. The effect is a mama elephant cannonball that soaks us volunteers even more, but we can’t stop laughing long enough to notice.

I would love to come back here to do a long-term volunteer stay. Some of the volunteers that are here now have been working here for a month or more. They’re building a new dormitory for the staff or preparing lunch for the daily volunteers or feeding the elephants night and day. I’d love to be a part of that.

It’s time to leave now. The bus drivers are calling us to the meeting spot, but¬†I can’t bear the thought of¬† moving from this perfect place. Lek calls the area right beyond my line of sight, where the forests meet this wide open land, “Elephant Heaven.” When an elephant is rehabilitated back into it’s natural habitat here, in the safe, watchful eye of Lek and the volunteers,¬†it’s taken to Elephant Heaven, where¬†the area is¬†more jungle and less protected. At first, the elephant just spends a few hours there. Then maybe a night. Then two nights. And on until the elephant is at home in its natural home, back in its heaven.

I can’t wait to make my way back here and see the sun start to set over the mud bath and hospital and river again, but mostly I can’t wait until Thailand’s elephants can call their country home again. With Lek at the helm, I believe that day will come sooner than later.

Note: if you visit Thailand and want to interact with their elephants, please consider an ecotourist option like the Elephant Nature Park. Whatever you choose, please do not ride the elephants. Many parks and tour groups utilize abusive training & reinforcement methods, and the elephants are often abandoned when they can no longer perform.

—–

**thanks to Alex and Tiffany for the pictures!!

An elephant family, meandering down towards the river.

Alex and me during morning feeding with the elephants.

Tiffany and me bathing the elephants.

Our new best friend. (Random sitenote: I wore these clothes for the next almost 24 hours, without showering..... be jealous of my night bus seatmate that night!)

I don't have enough baby talk in me to express how frikkin adorable this was!! Baby elephant group hug!

"I'll have a pina colada and a bigger umbrella, thanks."

My view to the right, sitting on the bench. I can't wait to go back.

Poop and Petals

•April 12, 2010 • 2 Comments

A day under the cherry blossoms,

my car is covered in bird droppings.

I’m chirping with happiness –

spring is finally here.

The first weekend of sakura (cherry blossom) “season” was two weeks ago. I say “season” with quotes because it really only lasts a little longer than a week – at the end of March through the very beginning of April – but it’s referred to as a season. As Callie articulated this weekend – “the blossoms are like a metaphor for life.” The blossoms bloom, and it’s all beautiful for a moment and then they’re gone, fluttering into the wind. Everything’s really only a moment in time, philosophically, but these blossoms are quite literally only a moment in time. Blink and you will miss them.

So this first weekend, before the blossoms were fully bloomed, I met up with my friends Kris and Eric in Iwakuni. It’s said that Iwakuni is the best place in all of Yamaguchi prefecture to see the cherry blossoms, and it was beautiful. (I went back last weekend when they were fully bloomed – and there will be pictures on the next post from that trip!) We hiked up a few trails, saw some of the shrines and took a ton of “Senior Photos with Sakura” pictures. These next few posts will be picture heavy. I can’t get enough of cherry blossom season! The entire country is pretty in pink.

I call it the Boulevard of Cherry Blossoms

I call it the Boulevard of Cherry Blossoms

let the senior photos begin! Eric was big pimpin, posin with all the ladies.

We rang the bell outside the shrine, and I put money in the, uh, box thing and took a fortune. With Kris and Eric's kanji reading powers combined, we think we have good fortune to look forward to! Here, Kris and Eric and tying the fortune on one of the cherry blossom trees so it will come true.

We found little trails as we walked up the mountain, and one of them led us to this serene park.

Forget writing, I'm destined to be a senior photo photographer... in Japan.

Kris and me. KIT! BFFs! Luv Always N 4ever!

Every trail we wandered down led us somewhere picturesque. This was right outside a small shrine that was hosting some sort of wedding or funeral. Nobody was there, but ceremonial relics were set up, and we took a peek in. It was beautiful. So was this scene.

My best owl face

Cheezu!

View from where we hiked on the mountain

At the kentaikyo bridge, the most famous spot in Yamaguchi-ken to see cherry blossoms.

"IT'S FINALLY SPRINGGG!!!!"

Things I Never Thought I’d Say: Spring Break Stinks

•April 12, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Today is bad. Today I want to go home. Today home is America and not my perfect apartment in my perfect little rural town.

I can’t handle the idleness that’s a central tenet of this job. I can’t handle the lack of a challenge. I can’t handle the hours multiplied by hours without a single task to do. I can’t handle the all-consuming boredom.

My mom hates the word “bored.” Saying “I’m bored” in that whiny, I’m-so-bored voice kids master early on was the easiest way to unintentionally spark her temper. We, my brother and I, should be able to entertain ourselves, she said. There’s always something to do.

He could, and still can – find entertainment in any simple object or his own thoughts, but I struggle. This job has tested that struggle – forced me to live in my head and not in my actions – find ways to keep myself occupied. I’ve done relatively well – a positive attitude is 3/4 the battle, right? – but I’ve reached my limit today.

It’s not the absence of entertainment that drives me insane, as it was when I was young. It’s the absence of a challenge. I could make 100 bulletin boards or come up with new card games for 13-year-olds to learn comparatives, but it’s all… busy work. And if there was anything I ever hated in school (let’s be honest, there wasn’t a lot), it was busy work. Tedious, dull, purposeless busy work. This job requires so little thinking I could do it in my sleep, if I could sleep standing. Sometimes I do feel asleep while standing, and that’s even worse than staring at walls while I’m sitting.

I wonder if I knew everything I know now back when I applied for JET, if I still would have taken the job. Most days, I’d say without a doubt. It wouldn’t be a question, it’d be a joke. Today, I’m not so sure. Today, I have no computer at my school – the 9th day without a computer, 10th day without anything to do in a row – and I’m fighting an urge to scream or run around the office stripping off my clothes – something that will be more than the nothing I have a monopoly on. I’ve made great friends and had unique, possibly once-in-this-lifetime adventures, but today I wonder if those are worth dreading going into the office every day and spending at least 5 hours every day wishing I was anywhere but where I am.

“How much did they pay you to give up your dreams?” George Clooney cheekily poignantly asks in Up in the Air.

For me – $36,000 and 15 days of nenkyu. I was an easy buy.

This is spring break in Japan, and I’m begging it to end already.

Overheard in Chiang Mai: A Love Story

•April 2, 2010 • 2 Comments

“Love is beautiful” – It’s engraved on a wooden plaque hanging above the tequila shelf of the bar where I’m having a jolly Christmas Long Island; Thailand is always out of egg nog.

As I stare at it, the background noise becomes the foreground noise, and the couple seated next to me is bickering.

“Has this trip been taxing for you?” she asks, but it’s more like a demand.

The man next to her looks to be about four feet shorter than she is, but I admit it could be the unusually small bar chair… or the condemnation in her voice shrinking him.

“Well, there have been taxing moments, like – “

“When?” she interrupts, another demand.

“How can you ask me that question?” He’s not being so careful now. “You know when. That night at the restaurant when – “

“That wasn’t taxing.” She’s shaking her head, telling him. I was excited to hear what happened at the restaurant, but the conversation is over.

This trip has never been taxing for him.

I take another sip of my mistake drink (I ordered a margarita and 5 liquors later got a Long Island) and look back up at the plaque with a smile.

“Yes,” I think. “Love is beautiful… from afar.”