Friday, December 7, 2012


To my displeasure, winter has arrived. In my opinion there are only 4 good things about winter:
1. mikan- clementines, which are much more delicious here
2. kotatsu- the coffee table with a heating element under it
3. snowboarding
4. nabe

What's nabe? It's often translated as "hot pot." Basically, you cut up a bunch of vegetables (napa cabbage, green onions, carrots, daikon radish, etc), get some meat (pork, meatballs, rolled cabbage, etc), maybe some dumplings and noodles, and some nabe soup you bought at the store. Then throw all of these things in a pot and cook it. But it's not just any pot. It's a pot that is heated on a portable gas stove, which is sitting atop your kotatsu. Then you sit around the table with your friends cooking, eating and having a good time. It's the life.

There are all kinds of soups you can get:
よせ鍋 yosenabe - the general soup
キムチ kimuchee - kimchee
みそ miso - fermented soy (?)
ごま goma - sesame
豚骨らめん tonkotsu ramen
ちゃんぽん champon - champon is a seafood based ramen-like soup that is a Nagasaki specialty
and more...

nabe literally translates to "pot." My pot is special because it's split down the middle, so you can cook two different flavored soups at once. It's novel, really. When I tell people about it, they get really excited. Pots come in all different sizes from personal sized ones to ones that can serve up to 8 or 9 people.

I've already had 2 "nabe parties" and I can't wait to have more.


Last March I started taking karate lessons with two other female ALTs in my city. Our teacher is a really cool old man who is fluent in English and works on the US naval base. He's been all over the world and has many neat stories. He grew up in Okinawa where he started studying karate around junior high school. He's since achieved his 6th degree black belt in karate and his 4th degree in another Okinawan marital art called kobudo.

In the 1400s there were several forms of martial arts being practiced, but when King Sho Shin took control of the Ryukyu Kingdom, he banned weapons.  Kobudo uses household, farming and other tools as weapons. Think of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, those are the weapons used in kobudo. With weapons being banned, new forms of martial arts arouse, empty handed ones. (Karate or 空手(空: open 手: hand)).

Eventually three main forms of karate emerged: Naha-te, Shuri-te and Tomari-te. Each has it's own kata (choreographed pattern movements). From these modern karate was developed.

There are many styles of modern karate, each focuses on different kata and techniques. Further, mainland karate varies from Ryukyu karate. The dojo I practice under, 真券 shinken  ("true fist") is based in Okinawa and stems from Naha-te.

One main rule of karate, but especially Okinawan karate, is that in the real world, you only ever fight if it's in defense of youself or a loved one. Step one: Avoid fighting. Step 2: If you have to fight, end it quickly. Mainland karate usually calls for more hits, but in Ryukyu karate you want to finish your opponent in one hit, even if it's just a block or counter-attack. Pretty cool.

In October we passed our level 3 test, so we received our brown belts. Within the next year, we need to pass level 2 and level 1 so we can try for our 1st degree black belt. So far we haven't done much actual fighting, mostly kihon (basics- punching, kicking, etc) and kata.  We will have to fight for the black belt though, literally.

In our karate training we are also learning many easy but painfully effective self-defense moves. I personally think these moves are way cooler than regular karate. With just a small movement you can break a hold and have your opponent on the ground. It's cool.

Last August we started kobudo, the martial art that uses weapons. We are using only bo, but we've seen the other weapons in action and boy, do they look deadly!

Sorry, it's a picture of a picture. But don't I look mean?!
What I'm really trying to say is: you probably don't want to mess with me ;)


Every month seems to get busier and busier, sorry to have been out of the loop. Let's take it back a  couple months to my trip to Okinawa. I've made it a doozy.

Okinawa is pretty much Japan's Hawaii. It has the reputation of having beautiful beaches and a rich, unique culture. You probably know the name from the WWII Battle of Okinawa (sometimes referred to as "The Typhoon of Steel"). This fight, was not only the last major battle, but also resulted in the most casualties, nearing 200,000 in military and civilian deaths.

After the war, the US signed a treaty with Japan basically saying that Japan isn't allowed to have a military (only a self-defense force), but the US will protect them. This resulted in over 36,000 US military and civilian personnel being stationed all over Japan, known as the USFJ, United States Forces Japan (2009 figures). US bases really are scattered all over the country, we even have a US Naval base in nearby Sasebo City. However, about 70% of all USFJ bases are located in Okinawa.  While the post-war Okinawan community seems to tolerate the military, their presence is not necessarily desired, in fact many people want them out completely.

The woes of the locals regarding the military aren't completely unwarranted. Many of the air force bases are located very close to residential neighborhoods, but also the US military doesn't have that clean of a rap sheet either, when interacting with locals. (For example:

But anyway, back to my vacation. Well... not yet.
Okinawa, once called the Ryukyu Islands, wasn't actually even part of Japan until 1609 when it was invaded by a Japanese from the mainland. Being so far away however, they were pretty independent until they were officially made part of Japan after the Meiji Restoration, in 1879. Coming in so late in the game, Okinawa has it's own "dialect" which is actually more or less a completely different language and nearly incomprehensible to Japanese speakers. Mainland Japanese is taking over though, with Okinawan only spoken by the elderly and in traditional songs and performances. (I had no problem communicating).  Okinawan music and dance is also much different than that of the mainland, having more influence from China and other Asian cultures. These other cultures can also be seen in the unique architecture of traditional buildings.

Okay, now you know where I went, let's talk about what I did.

Last year I wanted to hold on to the last wisps of summer with all I had, so I yearned for an early autumn trip down to the still warm islands. However, I didn't want to go alone, so I ended up not going at all. After that I made the resolution that I was going to Okinawa with or without a friend the next year, so without even bother discussing it with my friends, I went ahead and bought my tickets. I was eventually joined by my good friend Steve.

The most sacred spot
The most southern spot
Day 1: We arrived around 11 and immediately hopped on some rental scooters and scooted our way around the southern region of the main island, Okinawa. We saw some cool things, such as the most sacred spot in Okinawa and the most southern spot. Those were cool and all, but the best part was scooting around the beautiful coastline with the warm sun on my back. Although it was my first time on a scooter, I didn't have much problem getting used it, but then we went over two very long, very elevated, very crowed bridges with kind of strong wind and it was quite scary. It wasn't dangerous, just scary, especially because I wasn't expecting it.

Pig's foot

That night we ate some Okinawan specialties like pig foot, pig ear (in peanut sauce) and some seaweed stuff. The pig foot was not good, the peanut sauce on the pig ear made it very edible, only the texture was a little strange.

Day 2: The next day we took a ferry off the main island to an island called Zamami. It's a small island with about 3,000 people and consists mostly of hotel and restaurant owners, but every thing was almost run down. Our room was a single standing "building" that reminded me of those "Pods," portable storage containers- barely enough room for our fold out beds and the bathrooms a port-o-potty and a port-o-shower. It was still fun though.

After arriving we rented some bicycles and cycled our way to some beaches, then up some mountains (oops). The scenery was impeccable. The water was a little cold, but little fish would come and swim up right next to us! Later we ended up renting some snorkels and masks and swam amongst some corral. Let me tell you, I don't know if I've done anything so cool, and it got better. We not only saw a sea turtle, but we got to swim right next to him! It was SO COOL. But again, it gets better, just wait.
That night, we had arranged to do a "mystery tour" with our hotel owner. The Mama-san came along too and brought their daughter who was visiting for the weekend from San Fransisco. The first stop was a spot to view fireflies, we didn't see many though. Mystery number two was at the port. Armed with flashlights and nets we were instructed to shine the light into the shallow water to attract plankton. The plankton would attract these little fish, which were supposed to catch. I followed the directions and found that I was surprisingly good at catching this fast little suckers. So I caught one and I was just excited for catching it. I thought that was that. Then they brought out the container of soy sauce and ginger. What?! Somehow I'd missed the part where we told we were going to eat the fish. I put the still live fish in the soy sauce and it kept flopping around until, crunch! I chewed him to death!  In Japanese it's called 踊り食い odorigui (踊り means dancing and 食い is eat). So I ate the still dancing fish. Pretty wild right?  It tasted bad, very very fishy.  The next mystery was just a couple feet away in another shallow part of the port. Here we used the nets to stir up some bioluminescent plankton, but I didn't eat these guys.  Next up was another dock were we caught two fish (again, everyone was so impressed by my net skills), one rare one that looked like a leaf and another that had a long nose.  Second to last was the hermit crab lair. There were about a hundred hermit crabs walking around a giant pile of shells. We played with them a bit and then saw one change shells, which apparently isn't seen too often. (Steve later found this article The last mystery was the most spectacular. We drove up to the top of a a big hill and laid down on a helipad and gazed at the stars. I saw the milky way!

Day 3: The next morning we headed out for another fantastic day. With a blue sky, a wet suit and snorkel gear we first swam with some sea turtles, no big deal. Just kidding, it was a big deal! We followed around this big daddy turtle for awhile and then a little guy came over too. It was AWESOME! Our guide (for this sea kayaking/ snorkel tour we were doing) took a lot of pictures of us.
Me and a sea turtle

Next we kayaked to one of the uninhabited islands between two bigger islands and snorkeled in the corral reef.  Our guide pointed out many cool creatures like a very fragile sea star and a very poisonous sea snake. The guide grabbed the sea snake by the head and tail and we got to touch it! It felt like a normal snake. Then when it was released, it swam right towards me! I guess it wasn't in the mood for any oodoriigui though. (Get it? My name is Japanese is pronounced oodorii, which sounds like the previous odori, but the vowels are longer. So I said he wasn't in the mood to eat any Audreys. Ha!) Other than the snake, I didn't get to touch any of the fish because they were too fast, but I did try.

We kayaked to another island, did some more snorkeling, wandered around while the guide cooked us some Okinawan spaghetti on the beach and went out again. The sun was warm, the water was refreshing and I spent the day chasing animals. Doesn't get much better!

That night we were turned down at a couple restaurants because they were too full. We eventually found ourselves at this place that was definitely not one of the hip joints (out of the 5 other restaurants on the island). It was run by an old man, who couldn't provide half the things on the menu, but the menu was a little odd itself:

Notice the top line: "spit" and the second from the bottom "an oil painting"
 Day 4: The next day we headed off back to mainland Okinawa. The ferry first stopped at a neighboring island, Aka-jima. There's a cute story about two dogs, Marilyn and Shiro. Marilyn lived on Zamami, where we were, but Shiro lived on Aki-jima. The two dogs were in love, after meeting when Shiro was brought to Zamami on a routine visit. But it was love at first sight and legend has it that Shiro swam back and forth between the islands to see his beloved Marilyn. Cute right? There is a statue of each on their respective islands.

Back in Naha, we headed out Kokusaidori (International Street) to see a parade and the execution of the world's biggest tug-of-war. We saw some of the parade, ate some Mexican food, saw the GIANT rope, but got too bored of the waiting through hours of ceremony and preparation to watch the actual tugging, we wouldn't be able to see much anyway.

This event is a battle between two ends of town that dates back to the 17th century. I assume the rope wasn't as big back then, because they didn't the fleet of cranes needed to carry all 40 tons of it. Apparently, about 20,000 people participate and everyone gets to hold a smaller branch rope and pulls on that as men call directions from atop the rope itself.  It was cool, but not as cool as I was hoping.

Day 5: This was a big day too. We rented a car and drove up to the northern end of the island to the world famous aquarium. It was pretty awesome and I got to hold more sea cucumbers (which if I didn't mention above, I really like sea cucumbers (not eating them though, even though it's one of Omura's specialties).  There was a humungous tank with huge fish and a shark. Really neat.

(On the way up to the aquarium we stopped at an A&W Burger for the most disappointing meal of the trip. But I think we hyped it up more in our heads than it warranted.)

Next we went to the Nago Pineapple Park, which is indeed a tourist trap. It pretty funny though. We rode a magnetically controlled golf cart through a "botanical garden" as a tape told us facts like "pineapple comes from the words 'pine' and 'apple'." It was enlightening. I think we ate our admission fee in free pineapple samples though. We ate until our tongue burned and our stomachs ached.  With full bellies, we were immune to the next tour of the gift shop where they offered everything from pineapple cake to pineapple wine to pineapple soap. The best (or worst...?) part of the park was the song that you heard constantly from the second you stepped out of your car until hours after you left, since you can't get it out of your head.  I tried to find a good video so you could hear the song, but no luck. I'll sing it to you next time I see you.

One goal of ours for our trip was to find a mongoose v. habu (very poisonous snake) fight, that apparently used to be a thing. We playfully thought maybe there was an underground fighting ring we could somehow gain access too. While that didn't happen we did find a place that advertised fights, but since it has long been banned, was just a video. We didn't actually see it, so it's hard to say what it actually was.

One very amusing moment for us was passing a sign board for the entrance of a college, but behind it was only a playground. This is funny because in Japan students work really hard to get in to college, but once they are there, they can relax and take it easy.

Day 6: Our last day on the islands. We took the car up to the Shuri Castle. This palace was burned down, rebuilt and renovated countless times, but it was still pretty cool. We watched a video of a renovation and it seemed pretty hard work; I can't imagine having to build, paint and decorate that place without modern technology.

Finally, we stocked up on souvenirs and hit the road back to Omura. It was a fun filled trip.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Takoyaki Party

Following the gyoza party, I had a takoyaki party with some other friends. This time, instead of dumplings we made takoyaki (literally grilled octopus, but it's more of a clump of dough with a small piece of octopus in the middle). Since I'm not the biggest fan of octopus, we used wieners instead, which were delicious!

At the end we played "Russian roulette." We put kimchee in one, peanut butter in another, and mustard in another. Then we mixed them up with normal ones and took turns eating. It was fun. I lucked out with a normal one, but I tasted the kimchee, it was great!

Gyoza Party

Last week, I had a couple of Japanese friends over and we made gyoza. Well, they made the stuffing, I just stuffed and sealed the pouches. You can buy the gyoza skin in the supermarket, so it as all pretty easy.

My friends also brought some pizza stuff so we made pizza gyoza. Their version of pizza gyoza was not what I had in mind though. When they suggested it, I was thinking "pizza roll", but they just made them flat. While those were delicious, my specially made pizza roll style was perfect. It was no pizza roll, as I didn't have real pepperoni, cheese or grease, it was delicious.


Termites- in Japanese, 白蟻、or white ant.

I had termites! One day I was vacuuming and found this really weird dirt-like crud under a floor chair (see below). It was gross and weird. Thankfully, the same day the apartment maintenance guys were next door and came to take a look. They took one glance and instantly knew- termites.

They pulled up the tatami and thousands of little termites were crawling around eating my floor! They were quickly cleaned up, medicine was put in and the tatami mats were put back. That was that. No tent. No fumigation. So far so good, no more termites.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Mold Update 2012

(One funny thing about Japan is that people love to talk about the weather.  I think it's contagious. I am writing this retrospectively, as I found myself half way through this post about mold and I've spent the first 3 paragraphs talking only about the weather.)

I know you guys are all dying to hear about my mold situation this year. Tsuyu (rainy season) "officially" kicked off June 7th, but until this past weekend it was pretty mild. I've been writing the weather down on my calendar everyday, specifically to mark the days I saw the sun.  There's been no sun since Thursday, but really, that's not so bad. This time last year, we were pushing 2 weeks.

But it finally feels like tsuyu and the on and off downpours since Friday have laid to rest my worry that all the new ALTs would think I was wimp, having complained and warned them about rainy season earlier in the year. I was even doubting myself for those first two weeks of June. It also hasn't been as hot and although there is a typhoon coming later this week, the temperature is forecast in the low to mid 20s. Not too bad, even a little chilly if you ask me.

The only issue with this late/slow start to tsuyu is the idea that it might last later into July. Last year there was a few days break just before my birthday when the sun was shining and the sky was blue, and it looked like the rain was gone for good, only for it to come back for another week. As usual, I'm hoping for no rain on my birthday, especially because I plan to be laying on a beautiful beach on Iki island, but we'll see.

Now on to the real issue, the mold. I've taken precautions this year, setting out my vapor-sucker-boxes all over the house, with multiple in all the rooms. Occasionally I turn on the "dry" function on my air conditioners if it feels especially humid. So far so good (knock on wood). I'm keeping a sharp eye out to hopefully get it before it gets out of hand, but fingers crossed it doesn't start at all.

My friend told me she did an internet search for "fight mold in rainy season japan" and found herself unknowingly reading my blog post from last year. Kind of funny, kind of cool. I hope it helped her.

Monday, May 21, 2012

My Big Modeling Debut in the Fashion World

During the rehearsal
Okay, so maybe it wasn't a big debut and I don't know if you can count kimono as being in the "fashion world," but I did model.

I know a family who owns a kimono shop and school in Omura. Ladies take classes to learn how to dress themselves (beginner) and others (intermediate) in kimono. Last weekend each level had tests and one of the test-takers for the intermediate test needed a model, so the family called on me. I don't really know why, they know plenty of people (really, this is probably the most well-connected family in Omura), but they asked for me. Regardless of the reason, how could I turn it down?

Me and my friend who also modeled
Sunday morning, despite my fever (I caught a cold, I made it through all of winter and it's dreadful flu season unscathed, but I catch a cold in May, go figure), I went to the school.  First I got my hair done.  They teased it and poofed it, used gel and hairspray. I really had no idea what to expect before I looked in the mirror, but it turned out pretty cool. Next came my make-up, just some eye shadow, eye liner, blush and lipstick. I also put on my brown contacts I got in Korea. (I also got green and blue, but brown is supposed to make my eyes look bigger, so I thought that would be fun. It was.)

Finally came the kimono. There are so many layers and elements to kimono, it's pretty cool, but also seems kind of tiresome. The kimono was a very traditional Japanese-y print. It was beautiful! The knot in the back was really cool too, looks hard to do.

Two of my Japanese friends and also
the daughters of the shop owners
Finally came the modeling. I had to walk on a stage, pose, go right, pose, turn and show the back, repeat on the left side and one last pose in the middle before retuning to the back. It was pretty nerve wracking and I thinks it's safe to say I was not the most graceful model of the bunch (5 girls) and that's being generous. But that's okay! They weren't judging me, just the kimono. 

It was really like being on Project Runway. After everyone went individually, they brought everyone out and the test-takers were asked to comment on their work and then answered questions from the judges. We were also asked to make some comments, I said it was fun. My Japanese is not so hot when I'm sick, my brain can't handle it I think, so I kept it simple.

While the judges tallied scores, some of the teachers at the school competed (for fun) in obi (sash) tying race. It was really cool and very impressive.

My team didn't win and I don't actually know if the lady who dressed me passed, but I assume she did because I looked great!
It would be cool to do it again next year and maybe I'll take a class or two. It would be fun to know how to tie obi and such.

Two of the boy ALTs modeled yukata (summer kimono),
but it wasn't part of the competition.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Tennis Shoes and Spicy Food

At the beginning of May in Japan there is a series of holidays within a few days of each other, April 29th- Showa Day, May 3rd- Constitutional Memorial Day, May 4th- Greenery Day and May 5th- Children's Day. As these are all public holidays, there is no work or school, so the first week of May usually only has one or two non-holiday days. This week has been coined "Golden Week" and is a popular time to travel in Japan. Taking advantage of the 9 day holiday (only taking 2 days of annual leave), and to avoid the crowds of traveling in Japan, I headed to Korea with the other ALT at my junior high school.


Instead of going into details of the sights and sounds, I thought I'd share some things I observed about Korea that liked.  First of all, the clothing styles. Granted styles change with time, there's a huge difference between Korean and Japanese styles, which might not just be clothes deep.  In Japan, most girls dress in frills, skirts and dresses, and they wear high-heels all the time (I've seen them while hiking and at snowboard rental shops). Boys too, tend to dress up; you'll rarely see a man wearing just a plain t-shirt and shorts, for example; button up shirts and pointy shoes seem to be the norm.  This is fine, I have no problem with the way they dress, these are just observations. In Korea however, everyone wears tennis shoes. That's just an easy way of saying that the fashion is much more relaxed; more my style. I was much more comfortable in my t-shirts and jeans. I'm not saying they don't dress up, there were plenty of girls in heels and dresses out on the town on Saturday night, but for the most part, it was relaxed.

Matching outfits, and still not as "matchy-matchy"
as others.
But back to the tennis shoes, because this could be a whole topic of it's own. There were shoes of every color imaginable.  You could see a grandma walking down the road wearing hot pink sneakers, next to her grandson wearing neon green and blue shoes of his own, and still, you'll see another gaudy pair of kicks on the next person that walks by. It was fun!  Another interesting aspect of Korean sneakers is that couples wear the same pair of sneakers, while often time in different colors. I thought this was a fluke at first, but the more time I spent there, the more it became apparent, couples wear matching shoes.  I asked some people about this and they said it's actually toned down a lot from a couple years ago when couples would wear the same outfit (I did see this a couple times, but it was usually just matching shirts).  Assuming this was a custom the girlfriends force upon the boyfriends, I asked a Korean guy what he thought about couple-matching. In short, he was shocked that I thought it was weird.

Same shoes.
I think the difference in fashion can be compared to comfort. Korean people seem more comfortable and more confident, not just in their choice of outfits. For example, speaking English.  If an obvious foreigner (i.e. me) goes up to a Japanese person and asks them if they speak English, they will usually say "no." Most people in Japan took English class for at least 3, if not 6+ years. They are surrounded by it, they can usually read it and if they try, even ones who haven't thought about it in years can spit out enough vocabulary to make a point. But they don't try. In Korea, given the same situation, the answer would usually be "yes." Sometimes, they might not really be able to say much, but it's enough to get by.  The key here is that, even if they aren't good at it, they are confident enough to try.  False confidence, perhaps, but not in a bad way. This is just one example.  (Note: The general level of English in Korea is far higher than in Japan, but still, they use it.)

Bulgogi and all the usual trimmings
Moving on, the next reason I love Korea: spicy food. YUM! The food was delicious. I don't think I had a meal I didn't like. I actually don't know the name of a lot of what I ate, but I must say my favorite was the barbequed chicken. I used to hate spicy food, but then I moved to Japan. I may have mentioned this in my post about Taiwan, but Japanese food isn't spicy at all. I loved the way my mouth burned when I ate some foods in Korea. It's a feeling I didn't appreciate until it was gone.

Next reason, the people are so nice (maybe not the shop owners...). I talked with some Americans who are currently living in Korea, but had visited Japan and they disagreed with me. However, Niki and I quite often found ourselves in situations where people went out of their way to help us, for no real reason.  People would come up and try to talk to us, not necessarily in English either. This doesn't really happen in Japan, at least not in Nagasaki.

Next reason, everything is cheap. Clothes and accessories are SO cheap.  I bought a pair of prescription glasses and sunglasses for about $70 total.  Food is dirt cheap. Transportation is practically free compared to Japan. We took the Korean high speed train for a fraction of the price of riding the Japanese Shinkansen.

Finally, 4D movies. I really don't know why more countries haven't adopted this, it seems like something America would eat up. For less than the price of a regular movie in America or Japan, you can watch movies in 4D in Korea (and a handful of other countries). What's 4D? It's a movie that is not only in 3D, but has added sensations. Your chair moves, there are massage like features that push you from behind, they'll blow air or water at you when it suits the plot of the movie. It's really something. Definitely worth a try if you go to Korea. I saw "The Avengers" there, which was, for some reason, released at least a week before it was released in the US. (On a sidenote, I didn't think it was as great as the rest of the world seems to think it was.)

Some other notable features of Korea:
At the DMZ, notice the water is from a mountain spring
withing the 4 mile wide DMZ. Yum!

-More western brand stores and restaurants- much more influenced by western culture than Japan
-DVD theaters, where you can rent a DVD and watch it in a small "home-theater" type room, with couches, surround sound and big screens. It's like a Japanese karaoke room, but with movies and more comfortable.
-Hangul- it's really easy to learn to read, I learned all the characters' sounds on a 2-hour bus ride.
-DMZ- probably just a tourist trap, but still pretty cool. I got to walk into a tunnel that North Korea was caught digging through the DMZ. Almost made it to the South. -Men must serve 21-26 months in the army, navy or air force. There were always men in uniform walking around. We noticed they often carried one shopping bag, which we found odd. It turns out, they aren't supplied with a small "day-pack," so if they go out on leave, they use shopping bags to carry their change of clothes, toiletries, etc. 

We caught the changing of the guards at one of the palaces. He was so tall!

One night we stayed in this traditional mud hut in a preserved village
where around 200 people still live. 

Also in the preserved village, this is a church. I think the neon cross might be a recent addition.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Singin' and Dancin'

This is a little late, but last October I participated in my junior high school's annual band/choir performance. With three other teachers and 4 third-year students, I performed the song Maru Maru Mori Mori, which gained fame last summer as the end song to a drama called Marumo no Okite.  The drama is  about a man who has suddenly has to raise his niece and nephew (I've never seen it). The end song features these kids (around 7 years old) doing this cute song and dance. They became hugely famous and were on talk shows everyday. This is the original Maru Maru Mori Mori .

I practiced endlessly to learn the words and the dance. I practiced the dance every night before bed and would listen exclusively to this song when I went running. It took a week or two, and I think my friends got pretty sick of the song since I would be practicing it constantly. In the end, I knew the words better than the Japanese teachers and I had 97% of the dance down. As for the costume, first-grade elementary students always were these bright yelllow hats, and all elementary students use the leather backpacks, randoseru, and my cheeks are rosy. I uploaded the video, but I password protected it because it has my students in it. The password is just my name.

Maru Maru Mori Mori from drizz on Vimeo.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

台湾 Taiwan

Sorry for the delay, I have been quite busy since I've come back from Taiwan. Thankfully, I took notes about my journey, so I could remember all the exciting/strange/great things that I saw or experienced. This is going to be long, be prepared. For associated pictures, look here.

Day 1
After a bus ride to Fukuoka (I really should have made reservations, there was almost not enough room for me!), I get to the airport, check-in and receive a Hello Kitty boarding pass. I was flying with EVA, an new Taiwanese airline. I was quite amused by the boarding pass, but little did I know that the whole plane would be Hello Kitty. The outside of the plane, the pillows, the animation on the TV's idle screen, the carrot and fishcake in my meal, my silverware. There was so much Hello Kitty, I was surprised that the flight attendants weren't wearing cat ears! 

My first stop in Taiwan was Taichung. I took a 2 hour bus there for equates to about 600 yen. The 2 hour bus ride I took in Japan the same morning was 2400 yen. Quite a difference! I liked Taiwan already.

This was my first time traveling alone. By this point, so far, so good. My hostel was a little strange though. The office was on the street, but the room was in an apartment building across the street. The room had 3 sets of bunk beds, but was otherwise a normal apartment. Since there was no one else staying in my room, so for 2 days I didn't meet or talk to anyone from the hostel.

The first night I walked around in the famous night market that was just down the street. There were food stands everywhere and people were walking around eating and shopping. It was quite different than Japan. It had the feel of a Japanese summer festival, but more lively, more crowded, more shopping and it happens every night of the year, not every so often in the summer. There are markets like this all over Taiwan. I ate most of my dinners at markets like these.  As for dinner, I ate a flaky sticky pepper bun cooked in a funny kiln like oven, some takoyaki but with shrimp instead of octopus, dimsum shumai,  lime black tea, and grapefruit green tea. It was all delicious, but I don't know the name of anything!

Interesting sightings: Everyone rides scooters; there are scooters everywhere! They seem to have their own road rules, because they would just zip around wherever and whenever they wanted, it seemed. The oddest thing I saw though was how many people took their dogs around on their scooters.

Day 2
Wunwu Temple
For my first full day I headed to Sun Moon Lake.  I decided to bike around the lake, so I rented a bike and headed off. It was a really nice day, about 22 C/ 71 F.  I made some pit stops along the way to look at a temple, a pagoda, a walkway where I was supposed to be able to see frogs (didn't), a gondola ride, lunch at an aboriginal restaurant and at a small park to touch the water.  It was a really nice area, I liked it a lot. When I got back to the bike rental place 5 or so hours later, they took my picture and gave me a certificate for biking the 30 km around the lake. Apparently people don't really do that very often.  It was fun, but I was tired.

For dinner I returned to the night market near my hostel. My food for the day: Dried pork and egg wrap, pork and rice with a fried egg (the aboriginal food), li hing tea (I think it was li hing, I tasted it and was very surprised, it took me a minute to figure it out, but after a few more sips I realized what it was. Reminded me of all my Hawaiian friends), apple flavored milk with rose petals, milk tea served in a black plastic bag with a rubber band to attach it to your wrist, guava. I also stood in line at this place that seemed really famous because it always had a ridiculously long line. I can't accurately explain what I ate, I'm not really sure myself. From what I can figure out, it was a sausage inside a grilled rice-sausage with some toppings. It sounds crazy, I know... I don't think it was worth the long line and communication trouble.

Day 3
At this point I was feeling kinda lonely, especially at night. But off to my next destination, Kenting- a beach paradise in south Taiwan. I took the high-speed train (also significantly less expensive than in Japan) and a bus to get there. My hostel, a surf hostel, seemed pretty laid back, but the person at reception wasn't the friendliest person I've ever met. I spent the rest of the day swimming and reading. The wind was very strong though, so the waves were huge and sand blew all over me while I was reading. When evening came I walked to the downtown area and walked through the night market.  By this time I was really lonely and almost regretting traveling alone. But when I returned to the hostel, the owner was there and he was so friendly and invited me to sit on the patio with some other guests. It was a lot of fun. Most of the guests/workers were Taiwanese and didn't speak much English, but we got by. There were also two Japanese guests and a German one, so I could talk to them.

Food for the day: Thai curry, mabodofu, chicken feet and pig's blood (pudding?)!

Day 4
My hostel offers really cheap surf lessons, so I had one scheduled for the afternoon. In the morning, I borrowed a bicycle from the hostel and biked to this other beach some of the guests recommended. It was beautiful! It was a hot day (29 C/ 84 F), so the bike ride wasn't particularly easy, but it made the water even better. This beach had a drop off really near the beach, so it got deep really fast. This made the waves big and the white water really strong. I ran into one of the Japanese guests there, but while we were swimming he, as he put it, "almost drowned" and I "saved him." I think he got tired and was having trouble swimming in, so he started panicking. I didn't really do anything, I think I told him to hold his breath when a wave was coming and swam in next to him. He made me out as a hero though when he was telling people at the hostel what happened.

Then I had my surf lesson. It was a lot of fun and I stood up every time. I went one time in Hawaii many years ago and in Japan last September. While it wasn't completely foreign to me, it was good to have a proper lesson and some help. The instructor spoke good English and he was really cool. Then I watched a lot of other surfers for awhile, they were great!

For dinner that night, I had Taiwanese hot pot (it was kind of flavorless) and some ice cream.  I got this little wooden frog statue, that when you strike his back with a little wood stick, it makes a frog-like sound. It's pretty neat. They had other animals too.

Despite the beauty of the beach, one thing I did notice (maybe I've been in Japan too long) was the amount of litter on the beach. It really wasn't that much, but I did take a plastic bag out of the water at one point. 

Day 5
My plan for this day was to wake up really early and head to my next destination, Hualien- on the east coast. It was going to be about a 5 hour journey, so I wanted to get an early start. That was before I was reunited with hot weather, sunshine and the beach. I did wake up early, but only to go to the beach and take an early morning nap, listening to the waves, then one last dip in the ocean. I didn't end up leaving until noon!

My journey to Hualien pretty smooth. The train I wanted to board was full (the man at the ticket counter called someone who spoke English, in order to communicate this to me), so I got on the next one an hour later, adding more time to the journey. Not a total loss though, as I spent that hour at a really cool cafe across the street with free wifi.

By the time I got to my hostel it was around 6 and I was hungry, but the hostel owner informed me of an aboriginal dance show at 7 in the downtown area. So I headed over there. The show was fun and at the end the dancers came into the crowd and asked for volunteers to dance. Why not? I went up on stage, but found myself the only person over 7 years old. At the last second a foreign student in the crowd joined me on stage, I think he felt sorry for me. Little did I know, a guest from my hostel was in the crowd and took pictures and video of my dance performance. No interesting food today.

Day 6 (The Hike)
Like most days of my trip, I had an early start, and thank goodness or the day could've gone sour.  I made my way to the first of the handful of hikes that the hostel-owner recommended. Shakadang Trail. It was beautiful. The water was the bluest-blue I've ever seen water be. I heard from another hiker that it was from the marble that made up the gorge. Not only was it blue, but it was crystal clear as well. I was dying to get in and swim but you weren't even supposed to go down near the water. (I did at one point, but only to take a picture. I touched the water though, it was pretty chilly.)

This scenic walk was about 4 km and took a little over an hour. I was going to walk back the way I came, what most, sane people do, but I stumbled upon a trail head. The sign said it was only about 6 km, but pretty difficult. Only 6 km, not bad right? I can do that in less than 2 hours, no problem. Boy was I wrong! The trail went straight up, leveled off for a bit and then straight down. It was indeed a difficult hike and I got really tired. At one point, I arrived at an intersection, I had two options to go down the mountain. I chose the wrong one! It went down all right, but I came to a station of the ropeway, and from there I couldn't find the trail again, so I had to go back about 1 km straight uphill to go down the other trail. What a hassle! The other trail had about 2,000 stairs (maybe even more and I'm not even exaggerating. I would count from time to time and I counted up to at least 600.) By the time I got to the bottom, it was 6 hours from when I started the "scenic walk," which means that measly 6km hike, took over 4 hours! It was worth it though. The view from the top was amazing! I cam across a rooster at one point. When he cawed, it echoed through the valley. It was really neat.

Despite most of my morning being taken up by one hike, I still had time to see another place and somehow mustered the energy to go to Swallow Grotto. This was also very beautiful.

I finished off the night with some Taiwanese shabu-shabu some students from my hostel. One boy got crocodile meat and I made mine super spicy. I had to take advantage of the availability of spicy food while I still could, since it is severely lacking in Japan.

Day 7
Very early in the morning I headed to Taipei by train. My plan for the day was to head to Jinguashi, an old mining town, and Jiufen, a famous shopping area. While in line to take the bus to Jinguashi, I came upon two Asian people speaking English to each other. One turned out to be a girl from Yokohama, who is studying English in college. The other was a boy (and his sister) from Busan, Korea, very close to Kyushu. They were headed to the same places, so we joined forces for the day. Just our luck, the Gold Mine Museum in Jiguashi was closed; the only day in a month it is closed! We still had a good time though. There was a nice path and we got to see some gold mine relics at least. There was also a temple, a giant statue, the remnants of a fort and a beautiful view of the gold-tinged sea, from the runoff of the gold mines.

Our next stop was a place just a few minutes down the road called Jiufen. While being famous before, it really claimed fame with the Japanese animated film Spirited Away by Hayao Miyazaki. (The Japanese title is Sen to Chihiro Kamikakushi). The steep shopping streets of Jiufen, with it's red lanterns, was replicated in the film. Needless to say, if it wasn't before, Jiufen became really popular with Japanese tourists. My students loved the picture I took and could recognize what film I was talking about almost instantly.

Interesting foods: Japanese bread stick (which was new for me and the Japanese girl...), peanut butter ice cream sandwiched between pancakes, a peanut brittle crepe and Korean food for dinner.

Random item: There is a game show on Taiwanese TV where college students (who are required to take 1( or 2) years of English) are tested on their English ability on national TV. It was pretty funny.

For my final day, I planned on doing all the Taipei sites. There are a lot, but two Taiwanese girls I met helped me decided what was really worth seeing. Bright and early, my first stop was the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall and National Theater and Concert Hall. Before getting there though, I bought a rice ball. It was much different than Japanese rice balls, onigiri, in pretty much every way. It was about twice the size, the rice was purple and it was filled with... I don't really know what, but it was delicious. The Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial was pretty cool too. Worth a visit, but I didn't need to spend too much time there.

My next stop was Taipei 101, the tallest building in Taiwan, with the fastest elevator in the world. Somehow, within the 15 minutes I was on the subway between the memorial hall and the stop for Taipei 101, the weather went from beautiful and calm, to overcast and very very windy. When I got to Taipei 101, they informed me I wouldn't be able to go on the outdoor observation deck and I wouldn't be able to see much, so did I really want to spend the ~$15 to ride the world's fastest elevator and not see anything? The thought crossed my mind, I mean, it's the fastest elevator in the world... but I decided against. Instead, I had lunch. I kept seeing these pizza cones all over Taiwan, so I finally bought one. I knew before I bought it that it probably wouldn't be delicious, but I had to try it. It was about as expected, but cone-shaped.

Next on my list was to ride the Mao Kong gondola, but due to the weather, I assumed it would be closed so I went to the National Palace museum instead. The museum was pretty nice, but very crowded. I saw this little kid trying to go through an automatic door, but he was too short to set the sensor off, so it wouldn't open. It was funny, but I walked over and opened it for him. At one point, I bumped into a Japanese tour group, so I stood in the back and listened to the tour guide talking about some old furniture. I understood most of it and could laugh at the jokes, but there was an old man who could not figure out why I was standing there and I don't think the thought even passed through his head that I could understand Japanese.

I was a little worried that the poor weather would ruin my second to last stop in Taiwan, Tamsui. It is known for it's beautiful sunsets and as a good place to buy souvenirs.  Luckily, just as I was leaving the museum, the weather turned for the better. After buying some omiyage for friends and my schools, I walked along a boardwalk, watching the sunset. It was a nice sunset until the sun disappeared behind clouds.

Last stop, Shilin Night Market, the biggest and most famous night market in Taipei. I went with one of the Taiwanese girls I met, so she was able to give me the low-down on different foods and vendors. First we ate some Chinese food, the two most popular, most Taiwanese dishes, apparently. One was mincemeat on rice and one was an "oyster omelet" but I think we had shrimp, not oyster. Next, we ate some tofu hot-pot, to-go- it came in a plastic bag and was super spicy. Delicious! Finally, we ate a giant piece of fried chicken. The line at this stand was so long, and the place was famous because of how giant the fried chicken is; it was bigger than my face. For dessert we had some yakimochi, fried mochi and fruit ( guava, Taiwanese apple and dragonfruit (no flavor!)).  It was a great time.

The next morning, I set off for the airport at 4am (the vendors from the night market were still cleaning up). I had a pretty wonderful time in Taiwan. I met a lot of cool people, I saw a lot of neat things and I survived a week traveling alone. It wasn't so bad! 

Monday, March 26, 2012

House pictures

I've been so busy lately! This week I will be going to Taiwan, so I had a lot of planning to do! There will most definitely be a post about that, but I thought I would post the long-overdue pictures of my furnished house:

Coming soon: Taiwan, new host family, graduation and.... new member of the family? meow!