Friday, July 21, 2006

What you all have been waiting for?

This post was not my idea. Let's just say it was made due to popular demand. Possibly the #1 question that family and friends from America have asked me is... "What are the toilets like?". (The #1 question here in Japan is if I have a girlfriend and/or want one. Talk about a culture shock! That question is just as foreign to me as some of the Japanese I am learning!) Anyways... if you're curious about it too, then this post is probably for you. So, as for toilets here in Japan, you can usually find modern western style ones everywhere. Along with this, you can also find traditional Japanese toilets almost everywhere too. The traditional Japanese toilet is in the ground, almost like a long trough to a hole. The main difference... there is no sitting involved. Get ready to squat. I have yet to use one haha, but we were educated about them in pre-departure YFU materials. As for the second pic, the urinals are all like this in Japan. I haven't seen any like the ones in America. Even my house has one like this (yes, my house has a urinal... probly the first house I have ever seen with a urinal.) The toilet in my house is unique. It does not fill up with water. There is a button for a small trickle of water, and if you need more, there is a hose connected to the toilet with a high power squirt gun feature. Kinda fun... Ready, aim, fire... okay, that is just weird. I have heard about crazy Japanese toilets that are totally electronic. I haven't seen one yet. Supposedly by the touch of a keypad you can adjust the water temp, turn on an attached bidet, and other crazy features. The pictures are from the mall toilets. I am not a freak, haha. I had a high anxiety that some Japanese guy would walk in and see some American teen photographing the stalls, haha... but luckily nothing happened. For all of you who asked for it, I did it for you!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Kawaii Culture

Okay, a few posts ago I introduced you to kawaii, which is the word for cute. This post is intended to elaborate on it and its culture here in Japan. This country has a fascination with cute things. Little animated animals or things accompany EVERY product it seems, and then even become a novelty item on their own (like stuffed animals, clothing patterns, and stickers). As for the culture, a lot of clothes or collection items for Japanese women can be based off of kawaii. That means lots of pastels, and girly things that American's would sooner associate with a 5 year old, or possibly a pre-teen. I think that is what describes this `culture`. For many women here, they strive to capture possibly the bubbliness or innocence of girls much younger than their own age. A good example of this is the clothes the toddlers at the daycare wore. They were pretty much just smaller styles of what older Japanese women may try to emulate. Along with fashion, brightly colored hair clips line girls' hair, and keychains/stickers of "cutsie" characters ornament many school girls' belongings.. A perfect "poster-character" for kawaii things is the one and only Hello Kitty, and its creator Sanrio. I have been to a few stores that specialize only in Sanrio goods. The consumer base ranges from the ages of toddlers to 20-30 year old Japanese women... and they are all pretty much the same. Hello Kitty is EVERYWHERE here in Japan... but that will be another post. The pictures are of Yurina cuddling up to a kawaii character that she likes in a shop that specializes in girly kawaii products. The other is of a Sanrio store with products intended to be sold to a surprisingly older age-group of 20 year old Japanese women. The last one is me sharing some love with Kitty-chan! (a nickname for Hello Kitty here in Japan, which means something like little kitty. Applying -chan to any name automatically adds a kawaii factor to it. It is a title for little kids. This is why my family calls OjiSAN, OjiCHAN. It is because he is now a cute little old man.)

My last day at school

Today at school, all of the students were lead to the gymnasium for a schoolwide assembly. This day marked the last day of school before their summer break. It also means that it was the last day I would be attending Ryukoku High School. I can't believe how fast the past 5 weeks of school has gone by. It is even more shocking to know that this is the "beginning of the end" with all of my goodbyes having to take place within these final two weeks of my stay. (The students have a short break during this time through August, but they still received thick homework packets to work on. Along with that, school clubs still take place over break... so it really isn't TOO much of a vacation.) At this assembly all of the classes formed lines and sat on the hard wood floors. I was very impressed with the respect and attentiveness that the students gave at this seasonal assembly. Whenever the principal or another speaker (various teachers) would walk on the stage, the teacher that served as the "Master of the Ceremonies" would command everyone to kneel in seiza position (the same position used during the tea ceremonies) and bow. You did this when the speaker walked up and off of the stage... for every speaker! During the assembly the principal talked about topics which I think dealt with events taking place during this time of year at the school (I couldn't comprehend it). The other speakers honored and congratulated Ryukoku athletes of different sports and disciplines for their successes at a recent all-city sports festival. The Ryukoku kendo team received top honors, which was a big deal for the school. I was also later recognized for being a visitor at the school for the past month and a half (as if know one knew, haha) I didn't have to recite a speech to the student body, but I was able to thank the school staff and students, and also bow. It was very neat. Later that day I made a few speeches to some classes, and to the teaching staff thanking them for such a great summer. At this time, I passed out lots of gifts and candy, and took pictures with many of my newly-made friends from the past few weeks. For some, it may be the last time I see them, for others, we may get together next week during their vactation. Either way, lets just say that I have many pen pals! It was a good day, just in a different way than other days. After school I visited my teachers that I had become close to, to say goodbye, and gave them some Michigan souveniers. I also went to see the principal in his office ( a room that I still feel is very intimidating. It is as large as a classroom! I guess that shows the level of respect for superiors in a Japanese sense). We chatted for quite a while about my past summer, and my personal background in America, and were even served green tea by a secretary, wow. I was very, very grateful to everyone for granting me such a great oportunity to attend school as a guest for so long. I really appreciated it. Ryukoku High School may have been very different from American schools, and slightly weathered from age, but it will still be remembered as a special place during my stay here in Japan. So many new things were experienced there, and so many new friends were made. The pics are of me and Takuji (a good pic of us two this time!), me with other friends in my class, and finally a picture of me with the "Kocho-Sensei", the school principal.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Half Day!

Wednesday was a halfday at school due to parent-teacher conferences ( I was surprised when I learned the school had them). Like America, halfdays mean fun afternoons, usually hanging out and going out to lunch with friends, here in Japan. On Tuesday, I spoke with one of my friends, Yoshi, who has been wanting to get together to do something fun. I told him to e-mail me the plans (that way I could translate them if I had difficulty). Well, I should have figured that by trying the easy way out, I wasn't going to get it, haha... this is what his e-mail said : "call me" and it listed his phone number! So I called him up. I have been surprising myself all along here in Japan (and it isn't always about what I eat either The image “http://www.erlanger-campingclub.de/images/smile_wink.png” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.). After I talked with him on the phone, I thought back to what I just did and realized that I just had a phone conversation entirely in Japanese... Woah. Anyways, we made plans to meet after school the next day and go to the mall. I was also going to meet his family's foreign exchange student from Brazil (which was a surprise to me that he was even hosting a foreign exchange student).
On Wednesday, we met up after school and went to his house. His home is very close to the school (like 5-10 minutes walking). I met Bernardo, who is 18, and is from Brazil. Unfortunately, he does not attend the same school as Yoshi and me. He is on a much different kind of program than I am on. He is part of a rotary club. He is living in Japan all year as a regular student, and was required to change families three times. I felt that was extreme. The Isse family (Yoshi's family) was Bernardo's 3rd and final host family. He was very nice. It is amazing to note that he speaks Portugese and Spanish fluently, good Japanese, slight English, and can read Italian... I would love to have that capacity of languages! The Isse family has hosted many college students before, but Bernardo is their first high school student. The first thing that we did was meet up with some of Yoshi's classmates at the Saga Castle Museum (right behind the high school). It was very fun, and even though I had seen it before, I think I enjoyed it even better this time. I love castles and ancient buildings. It is amazing to me how well we all communicated. None of the kids had great English speaking skills, Bernardo's Japanese was much superior to mine, but yet not perfect, and I am still at a very premature level of the Japanese language in a conversational aspect. The amazing thing is that we did talk, A LOT, and had a great time. Thinking back, it still doesn't make sense of how it worked, haha. Lots of describing, and added body language I guess! After the museum, we said goodbye to Mari-Chan and her friend, and we headed back to Yoshi's house. At the house Yoshi said we were going to go the mall at that time, and offered to borrow me some of his clothes, since I still had my uniform on. I was very shocked, but appreciative at the generous gesture. I guess that was the closest I was to Japanese fashion all summer, haha. We went to the mall with Yoshi's mom and older sister (who is 21), but split up from them. We checked out some stores and later got some "Sattii WaN" ("31" - Baskin Robbins) ice cream. The day was a lot of fun. I am looking forward to hopefully meeting up with Yoshi, Bernardo, and Mari-Chan again for some other activities sometime next week! The afternoon was a blast, one of the best of the summer. The pics are of Me with Mari-Chan, her friend, and Bernardo, outside the Saga Castle. The next is me with Yoshi and Bernardo, and finally us outside Baskin Robbins (and me sporting some of Yoshi's clothes, haha).

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

HanaBi

That night was the spectacle we were all waiting for: The Karatsu Umi no Hi fireworks display. The word for fireworks in Japanese is HanaBi, which literally means flowers of fire. I think it is pretty. We stayed on the Karatsu Castle island and found a spot on the beach. It was very crowded. On the beach there was live entertainment with singers and also many traditional Japanese snack booths. Some of them included Yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), Takoyaki (grilled buns with octopus meat and Japanese BBQ sauce), and kakigori (Japanese style snowcones) just to name a few of the many that were set up. On the beach there were also a lot of women and a few men dressed up in yukata (brightly colored traditional Japanese summer robes) or jinbe (mens traditional summer wear with a short sleeve robe top and matching shorts). It was very cool to see. At 8 o`clock, the fireworks show promptly started. It is interesting to note that an American fireworks display may be on average, about 15-20 minutes with large, spectacular, synchronized blasts. This Japanese fireworks show lasted 1 whole hour! It was quite different than an American show. Each firework was lit off almost individually, or in tiny spurts. It seemed they liked to enjoy the fireworks individually, not the shock and awe of a big huge blast. Could this possibly be viewed as a cultural perspective on how to enjoy the view of something? There was no finale in this long show. The fireworks did get bigger, but there was no big final mass explosion of many fireworks. The show just ended promptly at 9. One of the neat things about this show was there was a boat that went along the shallow waters. It would drop special fireworks into the water, and seconds later a huge colorful shroud of sparks would erupt from the light waves. It was awesome (except... I wouldn't want to be the guy on that boat, haha). Also the freight ship bridge was lined with sparklers that all went off in white and green! Along with that was the phrase in Japanese, roughly translating to, "Exciting Saga, Karatsu Newspaper" (It was one of the sponsors of the event). It was quite the sight to see. The pics are of me and the Kai family all together, at the fireworks display! Umi no Hi was a GREAT day. I am so glad I got to spend this Japanese holiday with my host family and that they took me to "sea" so many neat places and things! (ok... that was a REALLY lame play on words!)

A "Lively" Dinner

For dinner that night, we went out for the special occasion to a very traditional style Japanese restaurant. When entering the restaurant, you removed your shoes to enter one of the tatami floored dining rooms. All of the tables were low to the floor, and you knelt around the tables (I am very used to it now, since this is how we eat at home). For the holiday, there was a set menu. It is good to mention that Japanese cuisine has many, many small side dishes. First, there are always warm, damp towels to wash your hands with, and hot green tea is served. Then, individually, tiny plates of side dishes are brought out by the waitresses, who, in this restaurant, wore traditional Japanese summer robes and socks. There are TONS of plates used in serving Japanese meals, and each side dish only amounts to about 2 spoonfuls of food ( it is funny to talk in terms of spoonfuls, when you are really eating with chopsticks ). For example, the meals that we received contained, soba noodles, Japanese pickles, vinagered vegetables, fermented soybeans, soup, egg custard, soy sauce, orange slices, and rice, all served in their own tiny dishes (with the exception of the rice... it is always plentiful at the meals). The bigger portions were the tempura (fried shrimp, seafood, and vegetables), and its own dipping sauce in yet another small dish. Most everything in Japanese cuisine, as I have noticed so far (at home and at the restaurants), has been served individually for the person; not family style. There was one exception... the main course at this restaurant. This dish is what titled this post. I have already mentioned that Karatsu was famous for it's squid. Well, I was very much mistaken when I thought the conchshells I tried earlier were going to be the last exotic taste of the day. The waitress brought out a platter with 3 very, very fresh, raw squid, a Karatsu delicacy. When I say very fresh, I mean Very Fresh as in... alive! At the table, the squid's fins and tentacles were cut up right before our eyes. It was crazy! Surprisingly, I wasn't grossed out, I was in shock from amazement of what I was witnessing. I have eaten squid before, both grilled, and as sashimi (raw) here in Japan and have really enjoyed it, but I never thought I would eat it like this. To eat it you grabbed your freshly sliced wedge from the slowly writhing creature, and ate it just like sashimi: a little soysauce, wasabi and eat! It was weird, but still quite good. Talk about taking the word exotic to totally new levels! WOW! One of the squid actually turned red while we were sitting. My host father said it was angry, haha... I just can't wonder why?! After we were finished eating the raw dish, the waitress took the rest and had it tempura fried. That was very delicious, and at least a little easier to eat... it wasn't staring at you when you grabbed a bite to eat! The meal was very unique, and in a way, educational for me. Although very extreme, I was very happy that I got to experience this meal, and of course, the company of my entire host family. The pics are of me and my host father kneeling around the table, the next is the waitress in her traditional garb bringing out the seemingly endless side-dishes, and the last is the "lively" main course.

Dinner Pics

That was a long post! (and it deserved to be one too!)
Here are the pics that didn't fit!

Karatsu Castle

Later on, we met back up with my host father. The scheduled plan was to head over to the historical Karatsu Castle. The castle is located on an island, so we had to drive over a bridge to get to it. As a matter of fact, the island is where the fireworks show that night was going to take place. We unfortunately found out that the castle museum on the inside closed early, at 5 pm, for the holiday. My host father and I decided to check out the building anyway. Along the way, I was given a free fan by some business advertisers, so I was a happy camper regardless of what was going to happen next. There were a lot of stairs to get up to the high castle. The castle itself was awesome, with ivy gardens and high rock walls. It was a short stop, but a VERY worthwhile one. The pics are of the castle, me next to the tall tower, and the great view of the ocean and city from the castle courtyard. It is so neat to think that this castle used to be where samurai warlords would reside and fight in battle!

Karatsu Festival Floats

Every November in Karatsu, there is a huge parade for 3 days running through the city. In this parade, there are 14 different creatures, including fish, dragons, birds, and beasts, turned into massive man-moved floats that weigh over 5 tons. There are also lots of traditional Japanese drums and flute playing during the festival. The first thing that we did with my host mom was go to the Karatsu Festival Museum, where the annual massive floats are stored for the rest of the year. The pictures really don't serve them justice. They are truly majestic works of art. We watched a movie about the parade and also looked at many historical parade artifacts. As a matter of fact, one of the first pictures I recieved of my host mother in the initial E-mails is of her at this Karatsu festival with some floats in the background. After the museum, we visited a traditional Saga pottery store next door to view all of the neat, very expensive, clay masterpieces, and then to a UniQlo next door to check out some clothes. It was a very fun afternoon. The pics are of the Red Herring fish float (possibly the most famous), a sea dragon and a sky dragon float, and then some nice pottery at the culture shop.

Jusco

After the visit to the second mountain, my host dad had to stop at work for a few hours. He dropped Erika, Sora and me off at the Karatsu Jusco to hang out at and wait for my host mom. The Jusco was similar to the one in Saga, with 3 floors (supermarket, department store, mall), just not AS massive. There we got to spend almost 2 hours walking around shops and relaxing. We also grabbed lunch at a small chain restaurant called Mister Donuts, which sells noodle bowls, and guess what... lots of donuts. It was a fun time, and we later met up with Okasan and Yurina. The pics on this post were taken in Karatsu, but pertain more to a previous post; they just couldn't all fit earlier. The first are of the many boats in the harbor, the second is a small shop air drying their freshly caught squid on a fast spining contraption, and the last one is a unique Japanese forest with gnarled trees.

Yama 2

After the beach and the snack, we drove to the more modern, city side of Karatsu. There, we visited another mountain (Yama). This one was bigger than the last and had many traditional structures on it. First of all, at the entrance to the road up the mountain was a huge torii, the red gate (shown in the first picture). On top of the mountain there was a building shrine, and other smaller torii. There was a great view of the city and sea along with these cultural architectures. Also, atop the mountain was a booth with jars of good luck papers that read your fortune and luck. We each gave a donation and reached in for our sheets. My host dad translated mine and said that now I have so-so luck, but in the future I will find luck in business...ok ). We each took our sheets to the front of the building shrine and tied them to dangling strings along with other people. This is what the Japanese do. I was very excited to be on the mountain because of the beautiful scenery I was able to witness. The other pics are of me standing in front of the shrine building, and me under smaller torii gates (torii gates are usually painted a reddish color called vermilion) with the sea in the background.

Local Specialties

As I mentioned, we went to the bay's local cuisine shacks for a quick snack. The shacks were all connected, but each individual grill and table section had a seperate door. It was VERY interesting. The booths sold packages of dried seaweeds and squids, but as for cooked food there were two choices, grilled squid, or char grilled conch shells. I really expanded my boundries on the word "exotic" that day. The squid, which is a Karatsu specialty (It is EVERYWHERE due to its mass abundance), was delicious. The freshly caught squids were hanging out on a string. For the four of us, we ordered two. The squid was taken down and grilled right before us! It was very chewy, but very enjoyable, with a sweet glaze (which I think was teriyaki). After that, we orderded some conch shells, or sazae. Those were weird. They were steaming and boiling right there on the char grill. They were served to us extremely hot, and had to be handled with a towel. To open the shell you had to use a metal tool and break off a separate shell. It is done carefully since the... slug... or what ever you call it, is connected to this and you must twist its curly body out of the twisted conch shell. Wow. I was very skeptical about this one. I have been very good about trying everything here in Japan, and this was going to be no exception. The slug... thing was chewy just like the squid. It wasn't that bad except it was VERY salty, or a better word might be briny. My host father, sister, and her friend even drank the "juice" out of the shell afterwords! That was just too much salt for me. The snack turned out to be very exotic and interesting, but at the same time very cultural and fun! The picture is of a woman rotating the grilling conch shells, squid in hand. Yes, those are fresh squid hanging in the background. The other pics are of the where we sat, and the sazae.

The Bay

The next stop the beach itself. We visited a small cove on one of the bays with a great beach. We didn't go swimming due to time (it was actually cool that day too, very windy), but we did get our feet wet combing the beach's tides for shells. We collected a very nice selection. This beach was still in the rural part of Karatsu, and along the road, right next to the beach and the parking lot were a series of shacks that served fresh seaside japanese cuisine. That is where we got a quick pre-lunch snack. The pictures are of me on the seashore, the beach, and then the fresh seafood "snack shacks".

Karatsu (and Yama 1)

Karatsu was very unique. It had a beautiful bayside city, modern and busy, but in the morning, we visited a different area. We first toured the rural part of Karatsu. This really was my first time seeing a fully rural community here in Japan. This area was barely modernized. Many narrow streets with traditional stores and homes, many rice paddies, and even tanadas which are the rice paddies staircased up the side of a mountain! It was very worthwhile sightseeing. My host father drove us up a mountain (In Japanese, yama is mountain, hence the title) to get a good view of the surrounding bay and city. It was very scary, the roads are extremely narrow and there isn't too much other than a piece of aluminum to stop a car from going over the edge, haha! I have no idea what would happen if one car was going up while one was coming down... at least it didn't happen to us. Atop the mountain, the scenery was beautiful. There were statue shrines and even tables to relax at when spending time up there. While we were up there, there was a grandmother with her grandkids catching dragonflies with nets. We looked over the horizons and got an amazing view of the rural landscapes, the blue ocean, and small mountain islands in the distance. It was a great site, and the perfect thing to do on the day of the sea, to just stop and take a moment to view the ocean! The pictures are of a statue atop the mountain, me with the landscape background (the wind mills in the background were common in this area for energy... they probably work very well because it was windy!), and the tanada rice paddies.

Umi no Hi

Monday was a national holiday in Japan : Umi no Hi, which literally means day of the sea. On this holiday, people in Japan simply take the day off to enjoy the ocean. I feel that it is very appropriate since Japanese people are so close to lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and of course, the Pacific ocean. Early on monday morning, my host father, Erika, and I got up to head out to the city of Karatsu (Yurina had A.M. band class, and my host mother had errands. We were going to meet up with them later.) We first picked up Erika's friend, Sora, and we were on our way. Karatsu is the closest city to the ocean (about 50 minutes away). Actually, as a matter of fact, it is where my host father works. I was very fortunate that my host family packed so many activities into this holiday. The next posts are of everything that we did! These pictures are of the rural community side of Karatsu.

A little more about Nabeshima

This post is a continuation of the last one I made about Nabeshima, the small community block that my house is in here in Saga. Some of the pictures are a little funny.
At the end of the street there is some construction taking place at one house. Well... I guess if you need the job done, call Hello Kitty !







This picture is of a street sign that I have seen almost all over Kyushuu, and especially Saga. It simply tells you to clean up after your pets. I love how Japanese street signs always have a small kawaii cartoon to go along with the signs. It happens quite often. I guess it eliminates the language barrier difficulty.



This last picture is of the great mountains which are pretty much my backyard. I have really loved all of the mountains here in Japan. They are beautiful.

Sagantosu Soccer

On Sunday night I was invited to watch a soccer game with the Kai's relatives. "OF COURSE!", I was really excited. It ended up being Yurina, Takuji ( Erika and Yurina's cousin, who is actually in my class and sits next to me), Takuji's dad, and his sister ( who is Yurina's age). It is funny that I became friends with Takuji before it was even revealed to me that he was directly related to my host family! The game we went to go see was Sagantosu vs. Sapporo. Sagantosu is a collaboration of the neighboring cities, Saga and Tosu (get it... Saga `n` Tosu... they made it one word, haha). Sapporo is a city in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. The Sagantosu Stadium is located in Tosu and is very large. As we entered, I could see many fans wearing the team colors... teal and hot pink (unique, I know, for a pro Men's Soccer team). These teams are part of the J2 pro league which is the secondary pro-soccer league in Japan. The entertainment involved with the game was very fun to watch. There was a section filled with die-hard fans that sport the team colors, flags, drums and lots of other stuff. There was constant noise and cheers throughout the whole game. It was a great experience. The game itself was also very exciting, lots of break-away runs, many fast paced plays, and even 2 yellow cards. Sagantosu won 4-0, which is a rare and exceptional score in this level of soccer. It was an awesome night, and a great event to go to! The pics are of the lit up Sagantosu Stadium, me and Takuji ( sorry his eyes are closed... we were more interested in the game, and less in us being in pictures... oops, this is the only one I have of the two of us), and the Victory Celebration after the game with the team mascots.