Tuesday, July 31, 2008
Time in Tokyo
JET put us up in the very classy Keio Plaza Hotel in the heart of Shinjuku. The view is beautiful, and the food is equally pretty and tasty. Once at the hotel, 25% of me wanted to shower and pass out, but the other 75% of me wanted to shower and EAT. Clearly, the majority won, and I ended up meeting a group of boys from the UK on my floor and we headed to the streets of Shinjuku. I was a little worried about finding a place to eat for a large group of people, but a solicitor proved successful in getting our foreign group to try her restaurant out. This was also about the time I realized that my Japanese skills took a plunge in the past couple of years. I'm definitely going to have to hit the books and TV asap.
I didn't know that Tokyo was one of the cities competing with Chicago for the 2016 Olympics!! Seems to me like each city is an equally unlikely candidate, but we'll see?
Monday and Tuesday's orientations and workshops consisted of a lot of information I had previously learned in Chicago. While not totally informative, I did learn useful tips on subjects like what places to visit within Japan, obtaining a visa to travel outside of the country, who and what are a hit in Japanese Pop Culture, driving in Japan (be it a car or a bike), and tips on teaching adult conversation classes (which I was just informed that I would have to do in addition to the junior high and elementary schools).
On Monday night, a current JET from our prefecture took the Niigata-ken group to Shibubya (times square of Tokyo), and out Karaoke-ing. It's pretty funny to see how a little bit of alcohol and familiar songs can transform people in a matter of minutes.
Then last night we ended our sessions slightly early and were free to explore Tokyo. After walking around Shinjuku for a bit, and eating the most delicious udon (thick noodle soup) concoction in Shinjuku, a small group of us headed to Rapungi. I've heard that Rapungi's known for its night life and foreign atmosphere and had never been there so was curious to check it out. Well, a monsoon-type rain storm had hit hard, so instead of exploring the streets, it was more of a mad dash to the nearest shelter. This happened to be a sports bar called Lime, and it caught our attention with complimentary drink tickets for ladies ~ how could we resist?
Right now my stomach is screaming for breakfast and coffee, so I should probably comply...
Today is the day!! Today we’re done with Tokyo and on our way to our respective towns!! I’m a little sad to say ‘goodbye’ to some of the people I’ve met here because I know that I’ll probably never see them again. From Hokkaido to Okinawa, are being bussed, train-ed, flown, and shipped to all over this tiny country.
To Niigata Prefecture, there were roughly 15 of us. One by one, or three by three people would get off the shinkansen (bullet train) and were greeted by their supervisors and future colleagues. The majority of us got off at the last stop, Niigata City, but Geneva, Jess, and my supervisors quickly whisked us away to a van and took us to eat at a kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi) place. Since there were five people to pick only three of us up, I thought that everyone would be happy to see. Instead, it was one of the most awkward lunches of my entire life. There was no introduction, so I had no idea who my supervisor was, or who any of the other people were. Jess and I had the unfortunate luck of being seated closest to the conveyor belt in a booth that fit 6 people and therefore awkwardly kept an eye out for sushi that other people wanted. No one really spoke up, so we felt the need to keep on asking if anyone wanted anything without looking like pigs ourselves. I tried to make conversation once, but got a response consisting of nods and silence so just kept my mouth shut for the rest of the time. Jess made more attempts than I to crack jokes but every single one of them shot down due to the humor differences.
Once that awkward hour was over, we hopped back into the van and stopped first at the Board of Education office to get introduced to some top dog who we had no idea was. Everything was very formal and still awkward. Then we were sent into a room to sign contracts that bind us to this town for one year.
After that, Jess went on his way to the next town over to his new apartment, and Geneva and I were brought to an elementary school where we met with my predecessor, Sean. He first took Geneva to her apartment, and then me around town and to meet up with another ALT, Hannah. It was so nice to relax and actually understand everything that came out of their mouth, and be able to communicate everything I wanted to say. Then I was brought to the Travel Inn, my hotel room for the next two days.
Katrina, the Regional Advisor, was nice enough to take Geneva and I to eat and drink some and fill us in on life in Murakami that evening.
For some reason, I’m still waking up at 5:00 in the morning. With nothing to do until 9:00 AM, I didn’t know what else to do but run. From the maps I’ve been given, I know that there’s an ocean somewhere to the west. Once outside I looked for the sun, and ran in the opposite direction. I’ve learned from previous experiences that I am prone to getting very lost in new areas, so I decided to try to stay on the same straight road for as long as possible. What I thought would be a straight road quickly curved to the left, then right, and then I had to turn to stay on course to get to the ocean. The big road became a very little road and I could sense that the sea was just on the other side of the houses. Some of the houses cleared, and I couldn’t take the suspense anymore, so just walked across what was probably someone else’s property and BAM, there it was. It’s a good thing this was a quiet area because I just stood there gazing over the sea for a good 20 minutes before returning to the hotel.
Fuse-san (our supervisor) picked Geneva and I up and took us to get our alien registration cards, insurance, and rent all set up. Then Sean (my predecessor) was nice enough to take us to eat on his last day and warn us about the kids we’re about to teach and teachers we’re going to be working with.
After I was dropped back off at my hotel, I had some time to kill. I took a walk around town and really discovered what a beautiful place I’m about to live in.
That evening, Hannah (a 2nd year ALT in Murakami) took the new ALTs from the area, Jess, Geneva, and I to eat at a ramen place. She suggested a tan-tan ramen which was AMAZING. We learned about things to do in the area, and I’m getting more and more excited to start living life here!!
After two nights in a stuffy hotel room, my apartment was finally ready for me to move into. From what I’ve gathered, it’s the smallest of all the ALTs apartments: three-tatami mats, about the same size living room area, kitchenette, bath, and toilet. It’s at the foot of a beautiful mountain, host to the Murakami Castle ruins.
Address: D-Kasai Apartment House
12-41 Ninocho Murakami-shi
Home Phone: 025-453-5104
Murakami’s a small enough town where most everything in Murakami-Proper is within biking distance. Three of my schools will be within the actual city limits, but two will be farther away. I don’t really want to spend the money on a car, although every previous ALT in the area has. Either way, there’s nothing I can do for the next week or so that involves any sort of technological communication including internet, cell phone, or car, until my alien registration card comes in.
Though I was feeling slightly under the weather, it was nice to get out of unpacking and setting up my very own apartment. Geneva and I were invited to some sort of barbeque on the beach by our school work people for dinner. The setting was gorgeous with the sea to the west, city to the south, river to the north, and bright green rice fields to the east. I was really excited to see the sun set, but the clouds were to thick to see through. Either way, being by the water and seeing fishing ships on the horizon was a very pretty sight.
Geneva and the Sea. I wish I was bold enough to take pictures of the rest of the CRAZY night!!
The scenery was the only calm and soothing part of the entire night. In the beginning, a few people made an effort to talk to us about this and that, ask us questions about our hometowns (easy for me since I LOVE Chicago), and our hobbies (Cubs, Fukudome – always a hit topic, as at least 5 sentences worth of conversation can come from it). For the most part, everyone else shied away from us and sat at the ‘smoking table’ regardless on whether or not they smoked. There were a lot of awkward silences and giggles… and then the beer was served. I swear, all these guys needed was 2 sips of their Kirin beer before they started to turn bright red, howl with laughter, sweat, and start yelling across the table. Some of the people who were so scared of us just minutes before were inviting us to go watch people eat really long somen noodles later in the month, have their wives cook food for us, and teach English to their kids. I really didn't know what to make of any of it, and of course agreed to everything, wondering if any of the plans I had just made will ever go through.
I was so hungry, and couldn’t wait for the chicken, sausages, squid, pig intestines, snail, vegetables, and everything else to cook so that I could take a break from pretending like I knew what was going on to feeding my stomach. Finally, we were able to eat, but even during this time, we were getting questions thrown at us from all directions. At one point, I decided to try a humongous piece of squid. When I went to take a bite of it, I realized that I couldn’t bite through it with my front teeth and thought my only other option at this point was to put the whole thing in my mouth and hope for better luck with my back teeth. As soon as I went with this, some guy from the other side of the table asked me where I had studied abroad. Of course, this drew the attention of the entire table. I didn't know what to do, so I tried to answer with my mouth full but in doing that, half of the squid went halfway down my throat. I was a half of a swallow away from choking and went it to panic mode. All eyes were on me. If I spit the semi-chewed squid up it would be looked at as rude and would cause a scene. If I swallowed, I would choke and die which would definitely cause a scene. I was caught somewhere in the middle, as my gag reflexes were enacted and by burping a couple of times, people understood what was happening, and eventually encouraged me to spit the squid up. I apologize for being so graphic, but just to prove to everyone that I was actually choking, in order to spit all of the squid up, I had to reach in my mouth with my fingers to pull the squid out of my throat. Needless to say, I was beyond mortified, and it didn’t help that everyone was looking at me with the ‘you must be so embarrassed’ eyes. To bounce back, I quickly answered that man’s question: “I studied abroad in Nagoya for 4 months,” assured myself that everyone was too drunk to care, and swore off squid and large pieces of food for the rest of the night.
Once the meal was over, Geneva and I were exhausted from the heat and conversation and were under the impression that the bus was going to take us back home. The first stop was someone’s house, and the second and final stop was a karaoke place. Great. What else could we do but make the best of whatever would come of the rest of the night? The guys took turns singing Japanese Enka, or older songs where the singer makes their voice quiver, and Geneva and I sang ‘Rehab’ by Amy Winehouse. One of the really crazy guys, who used his whole body to talk, kept on ordering platters of food. The first of which was a normal appetizer dish consisting of french fries, fried chicken, and edamame. The next two were tako-yaki (fried octopus balls), and pizza. When they came, he made an announcement calling it ‘Russian’ something and passed around the platter. While I wasn’t at all hungry, I felt obligated to take one. Once everyone stuffed the entire tako-yaki into their mouth, everyone started looking around. People would make comments like “Mine’s ok,” and I too, thought it was an OK tako-yaki. Then, all of a sudden, one of the younger guys bent over, sqeezed his eyes shut, and muttered “it was this one, oh god this hurts.” Everyone else pointed at him, and erupted in laughter. He kept on muttering “I want to die” and it wasn’t until the guy who had ordered the food made another announcement before passing out the pizza that I realized that this was a type of ‘Russian Roulette’ game we were playing. Luckily, I could tell which slice of pizza had the spicy sauce on it, so was able to steer clear of that piece. The boss man for some reason took that piece and after one bite had his eyes squeezed shut and his head in his hands as well. A couple other fools wanted to try a piece of the ‘bullet’ and screamed that it was SO spicy. These guys were in serious pain and couldn’t get enough of anything to drink or ice to chew on. We would later find out that it was some sort of habanera pepper sauce, and all Geneva and I could think was ‘what if that was one of us!?!’
Thankfully this basically let to the night being over. They called a taxi and thank goodness I was the first one dropped off.
Even with the ten hours of sleep I made sure I got, I still woke up this morning feeling like miserable skunk water. My throat hurt, head was on fire, ears were completely plugged, and every joint ached from my neck to my toes. All I wanted to do was die, but I had made plans with some of the other ALTs from the area to go to Nagaoka to spend the entire afternoon outside among masses of people in the summer heat and into the night to see some pretty intense fireworks.
It took me forever to get myself out of bed and into the shower. I thought that if I got myself moving I’d feel better. Plus I had previously told Geneva that I would show her the way to the train station. On my bike ride to her place, I made up my mind: “there is absolutely no possible way, even in the most untouched depths of the sea, that I am going to Nagaoka today!”
After I showed her to the train station, I stopped at a nearby vending machine and stocked up on as many juices I could get for 1000 yen and fit into my bike’s basket. I immediately crawled into my futon and slept. I slept for the rest of the day, waking up only a handful of times, and then slept like a fallen redwood log through the night.
The presumed 18 hours of sleep I got yesterday was much needed for the day I had ahead of me today. I had made plans to go to Niigata City to see my grandma , uncle and cousin. They were nice enough to let me know what train to get on, and then meet me at the train station. I’m glad that my uncle and cousin agreed to go with my grandma because she even admitted to being totally clueless about that area and would have worried entirely too much about me (I love her, she’s so cute!!). I guess it’s only been three years since I’ve last seen them, but a lot can change in three years. Obaachan (grandma) looks smaller than I remember, Ojishan (uncle) mumbles more, and Eri-chan (cousin) got into the nursing school she so badly wanted to go to and will be done in the next year. Ojisan brought me an application for the Niigata Marathon Festival. There’s no way I’m in shape enough to run the full thing right now, but once I get over this illness I’ll start training for the half.
They took me to a very nice hotel for lunch, consisting of a salad and dessert bar with a spaghetti entre. Obaachan said that she wasn’t hungry, so ordered the cheapest spaghetti dish (thinking that cheapest equates with smallest) but then went crazy at the salad bar. She all but licked her plate clean of the salad, potato salad, French bread, fruit, pudding, jelly, and yogurt. When her spaghetti dish came she was really full and made my uncle eat her dish. I couldn't hide my laughter because she’s the same obaachan I remember from last time, always making Eric and I finish her ramen.
After lunch, I went to her house where we sat and talked for a couple hours. When it was about time for me to go, we went back to the station and went around to a couple of stores. She showed me what bus to take to her house, so that I know for the future: #7 or #8. The train ride from Murakami to Niigata really isn’t too bad. 1500 yen ($15) for an all day pass and only an hour 15 minutes on the train. Once I exhaust all there is to do in Murakami, I foresee myself going there a ton.
I haven’t really gotten the opportunity to go shopping yet, so I have absolutely no food in my apartment. I was pretty hungry, so I decided to ride my basket bike to Jusco to pick up a discounted meal (after a certain time, the price of certain foods gets cut) along with other necessities such as toilet paper, tissue paper, nail polish remover, and soap. I really had to limit how much I bought to how much I could fit in that basket on my bike. Even with only two bags full, the basket was still overflowing, and front heavy. It was night time by the time I left, and difficult to keep my bike steady while trying to dodge all of the giant bugs that come out after dark. I was so glad to get back to my apartment to eat the deep fried cabbage and meat whatever it was I bought, mayonnaise-flavored potato chips, and pineapple juice.
While the days can get unbearably hot and humid, the nights can be quite pleasant and breezy. Before hitting the sack, I wanted to turn the air conditioner off and open the windows…but…I noticed a HUGE cock-roach looking bug about the size of my hand on the inside of the window pane. There was absolutely no way I was about to let that beast into my home so I probably wasted a weeks worth of money by keeping that window shut and leaving the air conditioner on. But hey, I woke up alive the next morning so I’d say it was well worth it.
Seeing as it’s currently summer vacation for the kids, there’s not much work for us ALTs. On days where nothing is planned for me, I have what’s called ‘home study’ which is meant for us to go around town and get acquainted with the area. Though I’m still coughing and sniffling, I woke up this morning feeling gazillion times better than the past couple of days and wanted to get out and about. After waiting around all morning for the gas man to come and then an unsuccessful attempt at using McDonalds for their internet, I had one thing on my mind: beach.
All in all, it’s about a 26 minute ride, and on a clear day you can see the sun set over Japan. Seeing as I shockingly got there without even one problem, I had a couple of hours to kill before the sun set. I spent most of my time riding up and down the coast and was able to get some decent pictures of people doing their thang on the beach. Ever since Hawaii and our family’s crazy obsession with seeing the sunset at 6:58 on the dot every single night, I’ve really gained an appreciation for how beautiful watching the sun and all of the amazing colors that appear on the horizon can be. Once the sun set though, I jumped on my bike and hauled ass out of there to try to avoid the humongo bugs that rule the world once the sun goes down.
One thing that drives my CRAZY about biking here is that the cyclists actually obey traffic signals?! Even when the path is totally clear, and no car is within sight, bikers and pedestrians alike wait for the light in their direction to turn green. I thought that was one of the perks of being ‘green’ and riding instead of driving: that you could get to where you wanted to go faster without the monotony of sitting at an empty intersection at a red. Not only does jaywalking not exist here, but it appears as though it’s shunned upon. WTF??
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
1st day of Work Day
Today I was shown around to all five of my schools, some of the principles (one I had run into at karaoke and he seemed as if he was hiding his embarrassment), vice principles, and teachers I would be working with. Some spoke English, others not so much but all in all everyone seemed very nice and looking forward to working with a foreigner. I gave them all Chicago Frango Mint Chocolates, and as much as I LOVE them, I’m not too sure what the Japanese think about mint and really sweet chocolate.
After that whole awkward roundabout, I set out on a quest to find internet!! Once I realized that I had failed, I decided to make the most of the rest of my day and rode to the top of some mountain thing where there was a some kind of cemetery thing and really pretty orange gnarly flowers.