If You Meet and Eat an Octopus

This weekend my friend Beth and I struck out for a day trip to Osaka Aquarium, because time is growing shorter and shorter and why be productive when you can go look at pretty fish.

After a forty minute train ride or so and navigating the veritable beehive of Umeda station, it was still early so we decided to take a look at Osaka Castle. We wandered out into the hot sun, shooting for what we figured was the right direction. Japan’s reaching some intense temperatures, and I felt my clothes start to stick to me as the heat radiated up from the concrete. I had already gone through a bottle of grapefruit soda and was looking for a water fountain when we rounded the corner and came upon a towering, gleaming cluster of buildings. If there’s one thing Osaka has going for it, it’s its futuristic architecture.

Image

There was also notably a lot of wide open space. In Japan that speaks wealth or history. We had to be getting close.

Round another corner and sure enough…

Image

…We found a moat.

It was an odd sight, towering palace walls, an ancient stronghold surrounded by a bustling vibrant city. As I walked across the moat, I couldn’t help but think of all the fantasy books I’ve been reading lately, and how dad gum difficult it would be to lay siege to this thing. It’s walls had more walls and its moats had more moats. It also boasted a huge amount of defensible space. The darn complex was clearly designed to withstand the most outrageously powerful assaults, and when we reached the actual castle, it was clear that it had.

Image

We gawked for a bit, but with the sun directly overhead and the entry fee, well, costing money, we decided to head for our original, watery, air conditioned destination. And after much walking aboard the train we went.

We came to this whole other section of Osaka seemingly designed for daytime tourist romping. I mean they had a huge ferris wheel. What’s not to love?

IMG_4406

More walking and following signs with cute sea creatures on them, we found it.

Image

Feeling more excited than all the little kids around me I forked up the cash for a ticket. We waved at the otters, squealed with the little kids chasing the dolphins and babbling in Kansai dialect, and when a walrus gave us a proper Japanese bow, we returned in kind. Then we came to the star of the show, the whale shark.

IMG_4426

Happily chilling in his three story tank, he was accompanied by all manner of fishy friends. Various sharks, rays, groupers, you name it swam around in the biggest tank I have ever seen. It was hardly real. I was so entranced I didn’t know there was an octopus tank behind me until Beth pointed it out. I went over and properly introduced myself.

IMG_4415

We met all sorts of different friends, fish and human alike, and when we finally got out we realized how hungry we were. We were in Osaka so nothing else would do than to grab some Takoyaki (balls of fried dough filled with octopus) on the way out.

In the late afternoon sun we sat ourselves down at a mom and daughter run shack and munched on the doughy octopus goodness. And older guy stopped by and ordered a jumbo size of them, then in the very not-shy Osakan fashion chatted it up with us. It felt good to flex my Japanese.

We headed home for some Korean cooking in our dorm, the sun glimmering behind concrete buildings as the train raced by. I was wiped out, but such an adventure, even a little one, I won’t soon forget.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Flip that Culture

Japan’s culture is incredibly broad and flexible, especially when you let your Japanese friends lead the way. I did just that this past weekend, and boy do I have stories to tell.

The adventure started with a trip to Kawaramachi (河原町) on Friday night with my pals from movie club. I had interviewed an Egyptian who owns a hookah bar in that area for my Documentary, which is decidedly going to be about gaijin experiencing life here. The movie club pals, being avid cigarette smokers as it is, decided it was something they had to try.

Image

ImageTruly a bunch of goofballs. We had a round of drinks and chatted away until it was midnight or so, at which point we collectively decided we were hungry. From there it was on to Japan’s famous drunken fare known as Gyu-don, literally a bowl of beef and rice with some onions and ginger tossed in there if you’re feeling fancy.

Image

It also helps that it’s outrageously cheap.

Gorged to our satisfaction we stood outside the Gyu-don place wondering what to do next. One of the gang piped up with a declaration of his desire to do karaoke.

Oh yes.

We wandered into the nearest place and signed on for an all-you-can-sing (plus melon soda) deal. And sing we did.

Image

My old-fashioned friend Danjuuro graced us with some Japanese traditional folk songs (with some improv). Being the character that he is, he whipped out his newly purchased tobacco pipe on breaks, and repeatedly went to refill our melon sodas. Image

The rest of the crew. We sang everything from old cartoon themes to Linkin Park.

We sang and sang and I’ve never consumed quite so much soda in my life. Finally with sore throats and smiling faces we decided we were tired and wandered downstairs to pay.

“Ah!” Exclaims one of the companions, “The sun’s out!”

Oh.

That’s right friends, we were all having so much fun that we didn’t realize it when it became, well, 6 am. Suddenly I felt a lot more tired. We wandered into the quiet morning with the other stragglers from last night, blinking blearily at the sun. I bid my friends farewell in jumbled sleepy Japanese and biked home (across town). Upon arrival I flopped into bed and did not get up until 2pm. And that was my Saturday.

Suffice to say I was partied out and ready for a more peaceful, nature-y adventure. And my lovely friend Yui delivered.

Image

Myself and my other friend Rina had been planning this trip for some time. I even mentioned it in a previous post. Our goal was this mysterious wonderful custom called Nagashi Somen (basically translates to flowing noodles).

In America when we think of summer what comes to mind is swimming, barbeque, and fireworks. Japan is ice cream, the sound of cicadas, and nagashi somen. So naturally a lot of people come out to have some.

Our nagashi somen destination was a famous place called Hirobun in the remote mountain town of Kibune. It really only exists for its summer attraction of super fancy traditional restaurants suspended above a clear and lively mountain river.

ImageImage

And comparatively cheap nagashi somen. Yui, myself, and Rina made our way into the the thick of it, surrounded by women wearing kimonos and gorgeous scenery. I truly felt spirited away with the way everything looked and the fact that for the first time at a tourist spot there wasn’t a gaijin in sight. Image

We were seated in our spot for somen. They basically sent the noodles at us in clumps down a stream of water, and we had to snatch them with our chopsticks and dip them in sauce before slurping them down gleefully. They were cool and tangy and refreshing, and a real blast to try to catch.

ImageImageImageImage

What an adventure! By far one of my favorite weekends. Next week is crunch time as I really get my documentary interviews rolling. I just had to tell movie club I’d finish it in time for our summer screenings. I’m really going to be busting my butt on this one. Catch you cats later!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Myranda Looks at Shiny Buildings

I started off this past week with an afternoon visit to the famed Kinkakuji (金閣寺), that golden temple reflecting into a pond that you’ve seen in any google image search for “Japan.” Well here it is.

Image

The reason I don’t sound so thrilled is because, well, it wasn’t really that thrilling. Here’s why.

I’m a gal who at this point in my journey has romped all over nearly every temple or site of interest in Kyoto I can get access to. I’m starting to know this town as well as I know say, Tuscaloosa. Kinkakuji is extremely close to campus, around a five minute bike ride, so I’ve put off going for some time. Last week I finally got off my butt and stopped by after class.

The first thing I noticed was the crowd. This little site was packed to the gills, and even more surprisingly, more than half were foreigners. This isn’t necessarily bad, but I hadn’t seen this high concentration of them before, and there are so many other, cooler, not tourist trap places they could see. But anywho.

After begrudgingly forking up 400 yen (about $4.00) we were herded into this gate, and into a very congested little area of people staring and taking pictures. A couple of girls asked me for their picture taken in broken English, and I, after having lived here for two months, responded in Japanese. Oops.

They were Korean, and had not a clue what I was saying.

It got weirder from there, the short crescent shaped walkway took us around the actual golden temple (though you can’t even go inside) and as we got behind it, a couple of high school girls asked myself and my friend Beth for our autographs. IMG_4214

At least they were Japanese this time so communication was accomplished. They were actually very sweet, and extremely shy. One wanted a picture with us, and I had to assure the other two in Japanese it was ok to take pictures with us too. I guess that’s what they call the celebrity effect.

We walked a few yards to a cluster of statues surrounding a bowl of coins. If you tossed a coin into the bowl it was supposed to be good luck. Guess we know where this place gets the money for the yearly replacement of the gold leaf. IMG_4217

Overall I gotta say the place was a tourist trap, despite the interesting nature of the thing and how pretty it is, it’s really not even that old. They replace the gold leaf yearly for goodness sake.

At least it makes for a good story, and the matcha ice cream was great.

What I was really looking forward to that week was Sunday. I had been planning for so very long to buy the next step in my repertoire, the nifty fifty.

Photo on 2013-05-26 at 20.26

Camera lens that is. Such a beaut.

I took off to go buy the lovely thing Sunday afternoon, taking a train to Kyoto Station (京都駅), the bustling center of travel and shopping. This includes technology. I weaved through the crowds to the goal, the giant department store that features one of the largest camera selections I’ve ever seen. Knowing exactly what I was after, I picked up a filter and asked the nice gal working there for my lens. We then chatted as I struggled to fill out the form for a 10% discount. Luckily she was nice enough to help me out with the kanji. And just like that my money went poof.

Prize in hand, and feeling like a pauper I decided nothing would do but to pick up a Starbucks matcha frappuchino. Cause I can.

I sat on a bench near the station proper and people watched for a while, and then I began to explore a little. Once I got in the station I was blown away, as I have often been, at how grand the place is. It’s more splendid than Tokyo Station.

From there I followed some signs to something called “Sky Garden.” A few escalators and ogling later I came upon what was really a garden, in the sky. Couples held hands on benches and tourists took pictures of a 360 degree view of Kyoto behind glass panels. I picked a cozy corner facing west and watched the sun go down over a city that is becoming more and more my own, however short my stay is.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Over the river and through the woods.

I’ve been bopping around cities and towns for the two months or so I’ve been here, it was about time I got out to the country.

Image

Good thing it was, you know, 20 minutes from my dorm.

This beautiful slice of greenery you see here is in an area known as Arashiyama (嵐山). Famous for the river, hiking, temples and the monkey park.

Image

Sunday morning we hopped off the train and were greeted by billowing clouds and chilly wind. The rain was coming, but we weren’t going to let it get us down. It was the day of the Mifune boat festival.

We got there early to see some sites, stroll through some temples and grab some food. That all sounds well and good except the sky looked like this.

Image

Well then.

We managed to get to a nice overlook (where picture one came from) and hike around, topping it off with Tenryouji (天領時) temple. We were weaving our way through the crowd toward the monkey park when the rain hit. It wasn’t a storm so much as very inconvenient globs of water that added to the already humid jungle-y air.

Image

We decided rain didn’t accommodate a proper monkey park visit so we strolled upriver to what was essentially a line of tables nestled on the riverbank. What mattered was that they had food. And a rather lovely view.

Image

Sloshing through puddles we met up with more friends to watch the boat festival. Huddled under the tree cover of the opposing riverbank we listened as kagura music played and the boats were floated gently in formation. They were lovely, and all those on board sported intricate traditional costumes. Quite the spectacle, despite how soggy we all were.

ImageImageImage

By the end we were all quite ready for a hot bath, but I had fallen for this place. It’s lush jungle like flora, the smell of wet earth in the air, just how very alive Arashiyama was reminded me so much of my beloved Appalachian mountains, and home. This place had been so near all this time and I hadn’t bothered to go. I couldn’t believe how wonderful it was. I’m so ready to go back and hike all over it. I mean just look at how very green it is.

Image

My adventures continue as I finalize my outline for my documentary. Filming starts in June but I really need to figure out exactly what I want and how much I want of it. This is on top of juggling classes, so things are about to get interesting. See you chaps next week. じゃっ!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

To build a home.

I’ve found that no matter where you end up shipping yourself off to, you kind of have to make a home out of it.

Image

Moving to Kyoto, even though it is rather short term, has been a bit challenging. Every day I’m kind of nervous stepping out my door. Who will I talk to today? Will I totally screw up my Japanese? Will I be satisfied with how much I’ve seen before I go home? Little nagging whispers.

One thing I’ve especially found difficulty with is the impossibility of ever really assimilating into this culture. I understand now how so many study abroad kids loose heart. I mean we are talking about the most homogeneous country on earth here. I was really lucky to end up in my international dorm, because when I need to rant, there are three floors of other gaijin here who feel the same way. (Even if they do speak English, haha).

Image

I was delighted to celebrate my birthday with the dorm friends yesterday. We donned pajamas, ate cake, and watched my favorite Japanese kid’s movie, My Neighbor Totoro. I was really blown away by everyone’s kindness in simply telling me happy birthday as I strolled about the dorm. I got some really cute Totoro towels, and sweets, and a couple bottles of wine. (I’m 21 now, after all). Just tickled and star struck by how wonderful the day was, I skyped Jared and crashed.

Life here is just like that. This dorm is like a big house, a big family that has to deal with each other and have fun together all at once (and you know, share a bathroom too). It’s nice to come in to Ihouse after a long day on campus or romping about Kyoto and be greeted by Mr. and Mrs. Yoshida (essentially our parents, the dorm caretakers). But one of my favorite hang outs is the lounge.

Image

An underground study mecha full of snacks, manga, and people to talk to. I’ve found myself to be really productive with the companionship down there, and it’s always nice to be able to ask higher level people questions. Taking breaks to play Super Smash Brothers doesn’t hurt either.

Image

But sometimes you gotta get out of the house.

To ensure I was actually using my Japanese, I joined the film club right off the bat when I got here. I hesitantly knocked on the door of their clubroom, and was greeted by what was more a closet than a room. Manga, old film equipment, and props were strewn everywhere. Snacks were piled in one corner, guitars in another, and endless stacks of film club fliers covered whatever desk space was available. A couple of members who were sitting in there kindly told me when the next club meeting was. From there I just started showing up.

It was tough at first. This is where the whole struggle with “I will never fit in here” comes in. Japanese are notoriously shy, and some weren’t sure how much Japanese they could use around me. I struck up conversation as much as I could, and kept showing up to hang out in the clubroom, but it just wasn’t sticking.

Finally after one club meeting I went to an Izakaya with them to celebrate the end of our film screening week. I chatted it up with all of them, alcohol makes it easier after all. They learned about me and I about them and I’m now proud to call them my friends. I show up to the clubroom and chat about movies, music, culture, or just play nintendo for hours. It’s also really fun to jam with them on guitars. Thank goodness for music breaking language barriers. Well, not so much a barrier anymore. As I’ve gotten closer to them, my Japanese has been gradually improving, so much so I’m surprising myself. I’m happy to say I’ve found a niche.

Image

Cause I’ll sure need their help once it’s time for me to film my documentary. Sheesh.

They aren’t the only ones. I’ve met some incredibly sweet gal friends in my Area Studies course who’ve taken me out to Izakayas and shrines and remembered my birthday (one of my Totoro towels was from the lovely Yui). We’re planning a hiking excursion in June that includes a gorgeous restaurant over this forest river that features some famous chilled noodles that stream down bamboo-canal things (I’ll take pictures, you can’t expect me to properly explain that).

And it’s not just my dorm or Japanese friends either who have made this place feel quite so home-y. Kyoto as a whole has become that for me. My true home will always be the States, but I really have formed a bond with this town. I’m picking up some Kansai dialect (the region Kyoto’s in) and I marvel at how beautiful it is here daily. It’s my favorite combination of city mixed with nature and beauty, extremely reminiscent of my hometown in Nashville, despite being a very Japanese version. I could not have picked better. I can ride my bike ten minutes and be surrounded by trees and grass, or all manner of shops and food and people. It’s whichever I choose.

Image

This week is going to be a haul. Six days of school in a row because Ritsumeikan believes in making up for days off. Therefore I have a kanji quiz to study for. Sure paid my price for that Tokyo trip. I’m off to the lounge! See you next week!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Capital T

I wasn’t really sure what to expect before going to Tokyo. Heart pounding I boarded the bullet train clutching the little bag of bento/dinner that I brought with me. I was striking out, finally traveling alone, doing whatever I wanted to, in a country that I have come to love. No one knew me, I was just that anonymous gaijin gawking out the window as more and more lights began to flash by.

Image

My journey began with finding my hostel, arriving a little later than I intended after having boarded the slow shinkansen accidentally (yes there’s really a slow one). The building was effectively a shack with one shower and toilet to serve a pack of weary travelers from around the world. I met three Israelis, a slew of Germans, British, one Moroccan, and of course a heap of Americans. They were nice enough, if you ignored the travel smell (which I acquired myself, shortly thereafter).

Friday was Akihabara day. If you don’t know what that is allow me to explain. It is essentially Japan’s mecca of technology, anime, and internet culture. The streets are lined with arcades, anime fan stores, electronics stores, and the sidewalk features someone dressed as a fictional character or a maid every few feet or so. I showed up early eager to explore and marveled at the intricacy of the arcades. My American friend Andrew, studying abroad in Tokyo, met up with me and the adventure continued. I ate the best ramen I’ve ever had.

Image

After we’d satisfied our nerdery with a maid cafe and browsing camera goods and crane machines, we met up with his school friends, proceeding to consume varies body parts of a chicken (heart anyone?) and taking me to my first session of karaoke. All in all a heap of fun.

Day 2, Saturday. I start out by heading to Kamakura to be treated to lunch by an older Japanese man named Kobayashi who worked in language. He was surprised at my speaking ability and complemented me numerous times. This of course pleased me, but there, as usual, was a nagging reminder of just how far I have to go every time I pretended to laugh at a joke I barely understood. After lunch we viewed a temple where his mother and grandparents are buried, and where he often goes to practice Buddhist meditation.

Image

When I arrived back in Tokyo for the afternoon, I hopped off the train at Shibuya (the big intersection, you know the one). From there is was solo roving. I hoofed it up to Harajuku, a district widely known for its fashion, great shopping, and people. I wandered up and down the narrow streets lined with stores, very aware of the shabby state of my clothing and the travel smell I was acquiring. Bought some clothes, stopped for cheap curry, and watched all the lights flicker on as the sun set. Weary, I finally made it up to Shinjuku (where all the tall buildings are), and I might have snuck into a hotel to get a stellar view to send to Jared. I later rewarded myself with wine and Earl Grey chiffon cake at a swanky cafe near the station and called it a night.

Sunday I showed up early to the famous Yoyogi park in Harajuku (basically Tokyo’s version of Central Park). I was going to meet some very dear Japanese friends of mine, but I took the time to enjoy the sunshine and a good book.

Image

It wasn’t all reverie, as some stylish young Japanese (one of whom, I presume, was wearing a sheet) began to blow bubbles at me, so I took time to talk to them.

I met up with my dear friends Megumi and Shiori, and also my friend Kelsey, who was another exchange student from Alabama studying at Chiba University in Tokyo.

Image

It was a day of frolicking and Japanese pubs (izakayas), and I was glad to see my friend Natsumi again later, who had studied abroad at Alabama.

Image

By the time Monday morning rolled around I was pretty burnt out on nights in the hostel and Tokyo’s expense (Keeping to bare minimum with about one indulgence, such as clothes, dessert, or drinks, a day I burned through about $400). I won’t say I regret it though. Tokyo was a strange new land that I’ve been dreaming of exploring my whole life. Surprisingly its sprawl isn’t all that condensed, with pockets of dense human traffic and other sections entirely empty and silent. I stepped on the Shinkansen (the right one this time) with a smile. I can’t wait to get back to Tokyo, but I decided that Kyoto’s serenity suits me better, and I was glad to be called Kansai-Jin. (Citizen of the Kansai region)

I know this was rather lengthy, but I saw so much and this version is rather condensed to highlights. If you’d like to really see Tokyo through my eyes and the places I just talked about, take a gander at this video I just put together an hour ago. See you next week. Click this to watch my Tokyo video.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

All Aboard the Struggle Basu

It’s not all mochi ice cream and ninja buffets here.

Image

Ok maybe it is.

This past week, however, has served to provide many “I just want to lay in bed and not think about it” moments. You know the kind.

As some of you may or may not know, I’m going to be making a documentary while I’m here. With the whole summer ahead of me to think about this, it was easy to shrug it off and have fun. However this isn’t a Myranda’s fun time documentary, this is an independent study. You know, for school and stuff. At least that’s what I was reminded of when I received an email from my teacher prompting me to write a paper on what I planned to make this sucker all about. 

Well then.

“I’ve got other things to do now, I can do that later.” I said as I scampered off to eat Yakitori (basically grilled bits of every part of a chicken you can think of on a stick). And so procrastination began.

My whole week wasn’t altogether a struggle though. Saturday afternoon I met up with a Japanese friend and went sightseeing at some gorgeous temple sites.

ImageImageImage

Yui~

Only after returning home did I remember my impending need for a decision. Seeking distraction I Skyped my boyfriend, Jared, and started telling him all my adventures. He was particularly intrigued by my story of going to an Egyptian restaurant and hookah bar. I prattled on about how cool the owner was. A middle aged Egyptian man who had moved here out of the blue with his brother. He’s only been in business for six months, but he blows my ability to speak Japanese away (cough been studying five years cough cough). I asked him how he studied, and he laughed and said, “Study? Why? I just live.” He then took a dismissive puff of his hookah and cheerfully went and made us drinks. He showed up later to give us free tequila shots.

“It’s just crazy how he ended up here and just picked up the language.” I gushed at Jared, “His bar is probably the only one of its kind here, and his attitude is entirely un-Japanese. Yet he manages to make life here work. How do gaijin even do that?” An intriguing train of thought that I tucked away for later.

I continued the skype call until my indecision for my doc came up. I frowned and stared off to the side, ashamed of my lack of ideas. Jared was unperturbed. “Just do it on gaijin life. It’s all around you. You’re living it. It’s incredibly unique. Interview that Egyptian guy, interview unique classmates of yours. What is it like to live in such a homogenous place?”

Image

Oh.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about all along. Coming here, in order to achieve some kind of sense of belonging, you need to either assimilate entirely or stick out proudly. At least that’s what I plan to explore. We’ll find out how it goes.

I turned in my paper last night after some kiwi ice cream. I clicked on the next tab in my browser, a map of Tokyo. That’s right friends my next adventure awaits. For Golden Week(end) I’m going to Tokyo all by me onesy. I’ll ride the bullet train, meet friends, and no doubt get hopelessly lost. Look forward to next week. Who knows what I’ll find there.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment