Wednesday, December 14, 2011

my last post about Japan. yep, I'm sad too.

I thought about splitting this post up into two parts for my last few days but instead, I'll just lay a super long MONSTER post on y'all.  You're welcome.

In the last post, I mentioned that I'd be cramming as much time with colleagues in as possible during my last week in Japan.  So, that's exactly what I did.  On Tuesday during the 3pm coffee break, my coworkers discussed going to Kyoto together to Arashiyama since I'd mentioned wanting to see this area at nighttime during December when the paths are lit up.  Bad description but you can click on the link for some nice photos.  After some Googling, we found out that the nighttime light ups didn't start until after I left Japan.  So I threw out the suggestion of Kobe since my coworker had mentioned it a few days before and I'd never visited this nearby city before.  After some more Googling my coworkers made a plan to go the next day (Wednesday) after work and see the Luminarie that is set up every year to remember the 1995 Hanshin earthquake.  

A group of four of us planned to take the train to Kobe and see the Luminarie and then meet up with three more colleagues for dinner.

Entertainment on the train was provided by my sunglasses and camera.  Topics that were discussed included Johnny Cash (nobody knew who he was; brought up because my coworker was wearing all black), ways for my colleague to be more popular in the office, love of the TV show Chuck, and traits that I find attractive in a man (in case you're curious, speaking English was my #1).

Our first stop in Kobe was Chinatown.

We had a bunch of "snacks" as we strolled through Chinatown.  I say "snacks" because really what we ate could have been dinner but since we had plans to meet up with other friends for dinner later... this pre-game food had to be considered snacks.  Pork filled steamed dumpling-like pillowy bread pockets (ha!), Chinese ramen noodles with shark fin, pork gyoza and the above little fried bunny rabbit shaped pastries filled with custard.  Great "snacks".  

Chinatown had a really busy, fun energy and there were a ton of people walking and eating.  I think the whole walking+eating thing is very un-Japanese so my colleagues seemed to enjoy this little trip into Chinese culture.  

After our stop in Chinatown, we wove our way through the crowds to get a glimpse of the lights of Luminarie.  The streets were all closed down and there were guards herding people towards the beginning of the walkway that would take them through the lights.  I think you sort of walked through a laid out path under the arches of lights.  We stayed on the perimeter of the action and just looked from afar.  None of us were really interested in getting into the crowds as there were SO MANY people.  Keep in mind this was on a Wednesday night, so I cannot imagine how much more crowded it would be on the weekend.  

After a quick bathroom break at one of the million Lawson's (just kidding there are only about 10,000) we headed to dinner to meet up with a few other coworkers.  

My colleagues had planned a dinner at a kushikatsu restaurant- where kushi means "wooden skewer" and katsu means "fried".  This was my first experience with do-it-yourself kushikatsu as I had only been served this premade.  We went over to a buffet area where all kinds of vegetables, meats and sweets were skewered on wooden sticks and laid out for the taking.  After selecting what we wanted (and making sure that we got enough to feed the entire table), we took our choices back to the table.  Next we dipped each piece in a flour/water batter and then panko breadcrumbs before dropping it into the vat of hot oil in the center of the table.  A few minutes later, the bitesized pieces of pumpkin, pepper, fried egg, sausage, pork, creampuff, or whatever else you decided to batter and fry, was ready to eat!

I'm not going to try and sell this is a healthy Japanese food option.  But it was definitely a really fun group activity and a memorable experience.  And I'm not sure that we will ever get to see this kind of restaurant in America as the whole vat of hot oil in the middle of the table thing might (definitely would) be considered a safety no-no.

On our walk back to the train station together, one of my colleagues suddenly started shouting something in Japanese and took a quick turn into what looked like a kind of gaming shop.  He ran around for a bit and then came back out and directed us down the street a few more shops.  What happened next was one of the most interesting only-in-Japan cultural experiences that I had during my trip.

I later found out that my colleague had been shouting "prikura" (purikura, shortened from purinto kurabu, translated from the English print club).  We went into this shop that was filled with big photo booths and a ton of young people.  Some were standing around waiting for booths to free up and others were rushing around doing who knows what.  We all jammed into this little booth and in a few seconds my colleagues were shouting for everyone to squeeze in and smile.  The photo booth took a few photos while we scrambled around and tried to make sure everyones face was in the shot.  I wish I had taken a photo of the inside of the booth but there were these four huge lights maybe like what you would see on a magazine photo shoot or something.  Oh look I found a photo for you.  So after the frantic photos (there was constantly a timer counting down and RUSHING us), we headed over to another area where you then had to edit the photos.  My colleagues spent another few frantic minutes (no joke, my friend was sweating from all that furious editing) adding speech bubbles, sketches and words to the photos.  I tried for a minute but I kept accidentally putting the little sketches over peoples faces and I wasn't really that good at making quick choices.  So I gave my editing pen back to my colleagues and let them work their magic.  

Intermission for my colleague's precious baby boy.  Do you remember him from the all-you-can-eat-bread trip??  He just gets cuter by the minute.  While we were busy editing, he decided that he wanted a few more minutes in the spotlight and photobombed some young girls' shoot.  So precious.

Here's the finished product with all of our photos.  SO MUCH FUN.  If you ever go to Japan, please make sure to ask your Japanese friends to take you to a purikura shop.  It's a super Japanese experience and their photo booths are years ahead of anything I've ever encountered in the US.  

On the train ride home, I was looking at the photo and asked my coworker what one of the Japanese speech bubbles said.  She told me, "I am the longest".  Keep in mind that this particular speech bubble was placed beside my male coworkers face.  Of course, I immediately burst out laughing at this great choice of speech bubble.  She looked at me kind of funny and then said, "Oh sorry, I meant to say strongest."  Maybe not as funny, but a hilarious mistranslation.  Sorry, Mom.  

My friend told me that in Japan, people generally have a hard time giving a straight yes or no answer.  She said that I also said "maybe" a lot and she wanted to find out what it really meant.  So I drew a scale from yes to no and some of the words in between.  Maybe can pretty much cover the entire scale between yes and no, so I know that it's tricky to understand sometimes.  I also taught the meaning of "wishy washy" and wrote out a few other words that reference a person that isn't giving a straight answer.  Very fun English lesson.

Here's my apartment the day before I left Japan.  I had begun stacking up my clothes to pack.  I had also drug everything out of my closet so I could have an idea of how much I was dealing with.  Amazingly, this all fit into four carry-on sized bags.  Truly a Christmas miracle.  

Friday was my last day in the office in Ibaraki.  It included the sale of my beautiful bicycle to a colleague, a few internal meetings with my team and a lot of on-the-verge-of-tears moments.  After lunch, my friends and I went outside for our usual outside recess and I was greeted by the manager of the company softball team.  He handed over a softball that had been signed by each team member, and may I add that it was signed neatly with the names lined up in little columns.  So sweet.  I told him that this was my favorite gift and I thanked the team.  Later another colleague told me that the softball team had been really happy that I'd gone to watch a few of their games.  So, so sweet.

Right before I left the office that afternoon, my friend Miho said that the guys downstairs had asked for me to come down to say bye.  They had framed a picture of our whole group that we had taken that morning and gave me the photo as a gift.  Again, so sweet.  This was definitely one of the on-the-verge-of-tears-oh-my-goodness-I-can't-believe-it's-my-last-day-in-the-office moments.  Since I knew that I'd see most of my colleagues that night at the going away party, I packed up desk pretty quickly and headed out.  I made sure to get everyone's business cards from my office and gave a few quick hugs before leaving.  My favorite security guard was at the gate when I left so I said goodbye to him before making the short walk back to my apartment.

The afternoon was spent packing, Skyping and prepping for the going away party.  My friend Miho picked me up after she left the office and we headed to her house to get ready for the dinner together.  I spent some time curling her hair so we could be TWINS.  But did we take any good photos together that night?  Nope.

The going away party was really nice and energetic.  There were a bunch of people so we were all split up into smaller tables, so unfortunately I didn't get to talk to everyone during dinner.  A few colleagues made little speeches about my time in Japan and they made me say a few words.  I don't even remember what I said but I'm sure it was really eloquent and heartwarming.  Not.  After dinner, we took a big (and cold!) group photo and then a most of the colleagues headed home.  A smaller group of my closer friends had made reservations at a karaoke place so we made the short walk to our next stop.

Since I'm sure you remember my first experience with Japanese karaoke after my welcome party, I won't rehash the details.  I learned my lesson from last time and stayed away from rap and the too-high vocals of Mr. Bieber.  I thought I was doing better when I picked out Respect for my lady colleagues and I to sing together only to discover that I don't know the verses (at all) and the whole R-E-S-P-E-C-T part (that I thought would be easy for non-English speakers) was super fast and super difficult.  Lesson learned.  What did work well was country music, since none of them knew the songs and they couldn't exactly hear when I was completely messing it up.  And country music tends to be a little lower pitched, which is good for my (super) limited singing voice range.  Ha!  

Towards the end of our two hour time limit, one of my friends said that they wanted to sing the US national anthem together.  All of my colleagues were humming it and I couldn't think of ONE LINE from the song since there was other loud music playing in the room.  Since I couldn't think of the words and thus come up with the title of our national anthem, I just typed "America" into the karaoke song database.  Well can you guess what I did come up with?  That's right, America the Beautiful.  So as one of our final karaoke songs together, we put our hands over our hearts and sang about purple mountains and fruited plains.  

Here is one of the few photos you will ever see of me singing karaoke.  You're welcome.  

From sea to shining sea.

There may have also been a little Titanic tribute happening.  That's just what happens when you hear Celine Dion.

After lots of hugs (and double hugs!) I got into a cab and headed home for the night.  Even thought I knew I'd probably see these friends again sometime, it was still a sad feeling to know that they wouldn't be a part of my everyday life anymore.

I spent a few hours packing on Friday night and then got up Saturday morning and finished things up.  Pretty soon, Miho came over to help me finish cleaning up and load all of my luggage into her car.  I also had a bunch of bags to give to her... filled with things that I had used in Japan but didn't really need to take home with me.  My frying pan, bowl, plate, half used bottle of laundry detergent, soy sauce... lots of fun things.  I came to Japan with three carry on sized suitcases and left with those plus the huge duffle bag that I bought at Donki.  It was a lot.  So I was really, really thankful when Miho offered to take me to the airport.

I have to back up a little bit for the next story.  On Thursday night, one of my sales colleagues had taken me to dinner in Ibaraki at a nice little European style restaurant.  Well along with the awesome food, I had also noticed that the chef was pretty handsome.  So of course my next thought was that this could be my friend Miho's potential husband.  So on Saturday, as my last meal in Ibaraki, we headed back to this nice little restaurant so I could get her opinion on the situation.

Practicing reading Katakana (and stuffing my face) from the menu.

Beautiful, beautiful dessert.

As we were leaving the restaurant, the chef and waitress walked out the door with us to say thank you and goodbye.  I asked Miho if she could ask the waitress to take a photo of us together before we left since this was our last meal together in Japan.  Well before I knew it, we were standing outside posing for a photo with cute chef.  I found out when we were back in the car that Miho had quickly told the chef and waitress (also probably his wife, ha) that this was my last day in Japan and that I had come here on Thursday night and wanted to eat again at my favorite restaurant in Ibaraki and could I please have a photo with the chef???  

So precious.  With the cute chef and my friends.  He probably thought I was crazy.  And the waitress (and maybe wife...), I don't even want to guess.  Miho promised that she'd return to the restaurant to do further research.  

Riding to the airport.

After checking in and getting rid of three of my four bags, we met up with another colleague and her precious baby boy.  He's really the star of this blog.  We sat down for some coffee and snacks before I had to go through security and head to my gate.

We may or may not have been watching karaoke videos from the previous night.  

And because I know he's who you're here to see...

I said the goodbyes as fast as I politely could to prevent too much sadness.  After I went through security I could see all of my friends standing and waving from behind a glass wall; and I was a waving thing until I couldn't see them any more.

I'm not going to talk about how sad I felt because you guys can probably already guess that.  So instead I'll show you some of the fun gifts that I mentioned above...

Softball!  So sweet.  And I love that they all wrote their names in print and in neat little rows.  So Japanese.

A beautiful serving bowl from another colleague... I wanted to bring home some Japanese made housewares so I was really happy to receive this dish.  I'm still figuring out where it will live in my house.  I think the softball might go on my desk at the office...

Here's the group photo that the guys downstairs in the lab gave me on my last day.  There were other fun gifts but I'm still sorting and unpacking back here in Atlanta!

I've been back in the Atlanta office for a few days and this morning I got an email from Miho letting me know that my gift for the Ibaraki office had arrived!  Originally I had tried to have it sent while I was still in Japan so that I could give it to them in person, but now I think it's better that it arrived after I was gone.

The original idea came from a conversation with my Mom.  We were brainstorming on ideas for gifts that would be good for the whole office.  We were Skyping at the time and suddenly I saw it on her face that she had this idea and busted out laughing because I knew that this gift would be perfect.  Last year for Christmas, Mom had ordered cardboard cutouts of my niece Annabelle so that we could all have her with us on Christmas morning.  So for my Japanese colleagues?  A cardboard cutout of myself, naturally.  Very silly.  Very ridiculous.  But also very Japanese.  And very funny.

So a few weeks ago, I drug Miho all over the Ibaraki office to take photos of me posing in my green jacket flashing the peace sign, of course.  I just told her that I needed a good photo of me in my "uniform" and she didn't seem to mind.  

Here's the photo that I sent in for the cutout.  And here's what they got...

I asked Miho to open the package after lunch during the safety meeting that is always held for the whole group.  Just so everyone could see it and laugh at the same time.  They obviously had some fun with it.  Or me.  With me?

Reenacting our awkward post-karaoke hug.  Only awkward for him.  Since Japanese guys don't really hug.  I guess.

Today I got an email from one of my colleagues in the office saying that he stayed late last night and that it was a bit strange to have me smiling from the dark corner of the office.  So.  Hopefully they'll move me to a spot that's a little less ominous. 

As you guys already know, I'm back in Atlanta and getting caught back up on life here.  I've packed this week out with plans to be with friends which has been really, really nice.  It feels very strange to go back to my office here instead of taking the usual ten minute walk to my office in Ibaraki.  There are also a few things that I've seen or experienced in the past few days that are not at all unusual, but struck me in a novel way since I haven't encountered them since before I came to Japan.  I've also accidentally answered "hai" for yes a few times and said "arigato" instead of thank-you.  Awkward.

I'll call this list, #thingsthatwouldn'thappeninjapan

Seeing a fat man in the Seattle airport... and then another and another.  The shower smelling like a public pool (no chlorinated water in Japan??).  Men that I don't know making eye contact with me and talking to me.  Non-awkward and unprompted hugs from my friends and coworkers.  Driving a car (it's been a while).  Grocery store cashiers making small talk and asking me questions.  Walking to the right side of the car to be a passenger.  Having my groceries bagged for me.  Sushi just not tasting quite as good.

I'm sad that this adventure has ended and that in turn, this blog will, too!  But it's been really fun for me to write about all of the strange and wonderful and funny and scary (and dangerous...) things that I've been through during this trip.  Hopefully it's also been fun for you guys.  Thanks for reading.  And the next time you go to Japan could you please invite me, too??

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

the cure for neurosis and murdered avocados

Welcome to my last week in Japan!  It's really difficult for me to believe that almost nine weeks have passed.  Life in Japan feels pretty routine by now and I'm sad to leave my new friends in a few days.

So of course, I've been cramming in as much time with them as possible in this final week!  Over the weekend, I got together with my German friend and some colleagues for an evening in Osaka and dinner at an izakaya.  Unfortunately for you, no new and strange foods to report this time around.

On Saturday, I spent the morning doing a bit of grocery shopping for my last week and poked through a few stores at the mall near my house in Ibaraki.

You can't make this stuff up.

I've been on the lookout for a shirt that mentioned Georgia or North Carolina, but I don't think I'll be purchasing this one...

Lunch (a sandwich!  it's been so long!) at a coffee shop in the mall.

On Saturday afternoon, my work friend Miho texted and asked if I wanted to do some shopping with her and have dinner.  This was really great since my alternative was to mope around my apartment and feel sad about missing my friends :)  We went to a big discount store called Donki where I bought a huuuuge duffle bag for my trip home.  I'm a little concerned about how much stuff I'm going to have once I start packing.  I've done a lot of Christmas shopping in the past two or so weeks and it's hard to judge how much space everything will take up.  I came to Japan with two smallish carry-on bags and a small duffle.  So my plan is to try and pack over the course of this week to have an idea of how much stuff I really have.  In reality, I'll probably put this off until Saturday morning before my flight.  And by that point it will be too late to buy any other luggage.  Just saying.  

Donki (short for Don Quijote) is sometimes said to be the "Wal-Mart of Japan".  If Wal-Mart was three stories high with each floor being roughly the size of a Kangaroo gas station and so crowded that you could barely turn around in the aisle, I'd agree.  But if you have the patience and iron will to brave the crowded aisles, you can find some pretty fun things.  Peeing boy, for example, was lovingly purchased at Donki.

Donki also has a great selection of these colored contacts.  Normally, colored contacts are nothing to get excited over.  But here, the contacts are actually designed to make your irises appear larger, not just a different color.  Here's a wiki link but there aren't any great photos.  

Last week when I had dinner with some colleagues at a Korean bbq restaurant, I noticed that the waitress' irises looked unnaturally HUGE.  But I figured that maybe her makeup was just really intense or something.  Turns out, she was just wearing a pair of these.  The intent is to make your eyes appear larger, similar to that of a Japanese anime character.  So interesting.

Miho and I hit up another chain gyudon restaurant for dinner- Sukiya.  I think Yoshinoya is still number one in my heart, though.

After some more shopping, we headed back to the same coffee shop that we had visited for the first time last week.  This is the typical scene at the table when we hang out... her Japanese/English dictionary, my Japanese vocabulary book and my cell phone with an English/Japanese translator.

Miho and two other colleagues from our office had invited me to Kyoto on Sunday for a day of hiking, eating and onsening.  We headed out early to try and beat the Kyoto crowds.  The city is really popular in the Fall because of the mountain landscape and gorgeous leaves.  

I'm still not sure why the train platform had video monitors.  But no judgement here.  Only tourist photos.

Once we got to Kyoto, we had lunch at a really traditional looking restaurant.  It was very small and simple but beautifully constructed with wood paneling and paper screens.

Next we headed out on our hike and spent a few hours checking out some temples and shrines.  And many, many steps.

A little bit of Willy Wonka pure imagination, anyone?  Okay.  Maybe just me. 

These little papers were fortunes.  The paper is blank when it's given to you and you place it in this little pond to let the words develop.  Pretty fancy paper engineering.

I couldn't read mine but with the help of my favorite translators, I learned that I should be patient in love and not rush into anything.  And also that my child bearing will be EASY.  And maybe a bunch of other things that I don't remember now.

The ladies I was with were tough and we powered through many, many hundreds of steps around the temples.  By the end of our adventure, all of our legs were shaky and spent.  Time for the onsen!

We took a train back to the town where the onsen was located and spent an hour or so relaxing in the hot spring.  Kurama Onsen has hot springs that are outside so you can enjoy the mountain scenery while you soak.  It was a really nice finish to all of that hiking!  I learned that this particular onsen is supposed to be good for treating diabetes, rheumatism and neurosis.   Who knew some hot, steamy water could do that much??  I'm not really clear on the technicalities of how that works but I'll take it.

As we were leaving the onsen, I noticed a girl speaking English with the receptionist and it seemed like she needed some translation help.  So I asked my coworkers to walk over and help and it turns out she had lost her wallet somewhere in the onsen building.  Luckily, someone had found it on the ground and turned it into the front desk.  The girl was an Australian college student who just got to Japan a few days ago and had ventured out to the onsen by herself.  She's studying landscape architecture and will be in Japan for a few weeks taking a kind of elective for course credit.  She ended up taking the train back to central Kyoto with us and hanging out for a bit.  The funniest thing was after we parted ways with her, my coworkers all commented on how fast we naturally spoke English together.

We headed back to Ibaraki for a round of Korean bbq.  I just can't get enough.

Great camera timer FAIL.


I asked if we could keep the window open even with the really cold weather because I was concerned for our health and safety.  Fire and smoke in a small enclosed room with no exhaust system sounds like a recipe for carbon monoxide poisoning to me.  But don't worry, we survived.  Could I have possibly found the dangerous thing at a Korean bbq restaurant??

If you can even imagine this, we decided after we were finished with Korean bbq that we needed something SWEET to finish our day.  So a few coffees, matcha lattes and donuts later, we were finally finished with our big adventure.  Such sweet ladies; so much fun.  

For my last week in Japan, there are still a few things that I want to see and do before I leave.  One sight that I've been meaning to visit is Osaka Castle.  I mean, two months in Osaka and I still haven't managed to see this place yet??  One of my colleagues recommended seeing it at night at its most dramatic.  I asked a friend from church to go with me and I headed over to Osaka after work on Monday to meet up with him.

There's a really large park around the castle and maybe four train stations within a twenty minute walk.  So during the walk to the castle, there are lots of nice views from a distance.  It looks absolutely HUGE but apparently used to be even bigger hundreds of years ago.

From the castle, you can look out over the moat at the Osaka skyline.  After seeing the castle, we headed to a nearby area called Kyobashi for dinner.  We had mushiryori which I think translates to "steamed food".  Lots of vegetables, fish and pork served with ponzu sauce.  So, so good.  

In other news...

Who wants to talk about what happens when you're running late for the bus and you're hopping around your apartment on one foot trying (unsuccessfully) to quickly pull on a pair of tights?

Innocent avocados die.  That's what.

Exciting things:  Going away party this Friday!  I've already mentioned this but I'm excited to hang out with everyone on my last night and take so many photos.  My colleagues are also planning a trip tomorrow (Wednesday) to Kobe with me after work.  And on Thursday, I'm heading back to Kyoto for dinner with another colleague.  SO BUSY.  Trying to cram so much into this past week.  Planning to sell my bike on Friday to a used shop.  Of course I wish I could bring my bike home but I just think the logistics of that will be too difficult.  Bike + excess luggage + small Japanese car = IMPOSSIBLE.

New words:  Muzukashii- difficult; hazukashii- shy or embarassed; wakare mashita- I understand.