Travel Journal of my Time in Japan

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September 20, 2002

September 12, 2002 - A Happy 36th Birthday in Japan
My birthday in Japan was great! No national holiday, so I worked as usual. I started the day reading cards that happened to make it here on the 10th and 11th. (Thank you mom, pop, Carolyn, Mary Ellen, Erin, Anna, Emma, and my cat! Yes, somehow Julie managed to send a card, not bad for no opposable thumbs. Thanks Mary Ellen!)

Then at school there was a banner that had "Happy Birthday Anne" written on it - which was very nice. Unfortunately, it was hung swag-like, and so low that I had to duck significantly to clear it. Conor too. There's also another low-hanging sign for a sales campaign going on. So for the day, we had TWO obstacles. But it was fun! So I lead my first class into the classroom, closed the door and suddenly all my students are wishing me "Happy Birthday" and smiling and bowing - yes, the Japanese bow quite a lot. My bewildered expression led them to point to the back of the door - another sign that had "Happy Birthday Anne" written on it, this one with my photograph. :-) Sayuri, a Japanese teacher/co-worker bought little cakes for me. They were sort of like soft waffles, folded with mousse and whipped cream in them. My birthday cake for the year. There was no singing, and I'm alright with that. :-)

At my "lunch break" (around 4pm) I went to the international center to check email, and there were a slew of birthday emails. I can't even begin to list everyone, so I won't even try. Instead, I'll just say "Thanks ALL!" :-) Towards the end of the day, I finished one of my classes and headed back to the lobby to collect my students (from the 20 or so in the lobby) for my next class, and... "SURPRISE!!!" With loud bangs and streamers coming at me. Some of you know how easily I jump at sudden noises, you can imagine my reaction. I about jumped out of my skin which made everyone laugh.

The next day I got more emails. Technically these weren't late because Japan is a day ahead of the US. So, in a way, my birthday lasted 48 hours. Gotta like that! In the last week I've gotten a few MORE cards and emails, and a student gave me a gift tonight - a children's book in Japanese. So when I learn enough Japanese I'll be able to read it. All in all, I felt remembered, which makes for a perfect birthday. Definitely one to be remembered always.

Yeah, this is me. Look at those ears, and all that hair!
Somehow this photo seemed appropriate around my birthday.
Have a good giggle! :-)

First Japanese Sushi
Last Friday night I was invited by another of my students, Hiroyuki, for sushi - real sushi, Japanese sushi. I took the photo of him to the right with my cell phone camera. The experience was quite memorable indeed. Hiroyuki said the place we were going to was a professional sushi bar. I'm not exactly sure what that means, but I think it means that all they serve is sushi, and so they do it very well. And the fish is particularly fresh.

We sat in bar stool type seats, at a bar kind of table, and behind the bar was the sushi bar owner, and on the bar were glass cases of... well, of piles of raw fish. Hiroyuki talked to the owner and ordered our meal. The owner put out a few dishes, chopsticks, and a wet wash cloth. And then he began cutting off pieces of fish and putting it on our plates. I was doing very well. I was trying everything the man put on our plates. All the while having wonderful conversation with Hiroyuki about history, politics, current events, etc. Every now and again the sushi bar owner would put something else on our plates. Although he didn't speak English, every now and again he would point to some pile of fish in the glass case and say "challenge?" - asking me if I wanted to try it. I managed to graciously say no, with Hiroyuki's help, and thankfully the sushi bar owner kept smiling. But then, the miso (spelling?) soup...

Hiroyuki asked if I would like miso soup. I told him I'd never had it, but I would try it. I figured if I could eat all that raw fish, I could manage a little soup. So the server comes with two bowls, each with two pinkish-red things sticking out of it, that look like twigs. The thought did occur to me they could be antennae, but I tried to block that thought. Luckily the soup was cloudy, so I couldn't confirm what the twigs were attached to. But before I could blindly try the soup, Hiroyuki pulled on the "twigs" to show what he considered a prize on the other end - the head of a shrimp. I about passed out. "Oh Hiroyuki, I wish you hadn't shown me that." "Why?" he innocently asked.

For the next 30 minutes I sat there trying to muster up the courage to try the soup. The sushi bar owner was right there - and Hiroyuki, my host, the person nice enough to take me out for real sushi, he was right there. They were waiting for me to try it. Meanwhile, Hiroyuki was sipping out of his bowl, the antennae tickling his nose. I just couldn't do it. I didn't want to offend anyone, but it just wasn't going to happen. In an attempt to be helpful, Hiroyuki said "Look, I will show you it is alright, I will suck on the head, it is tender and delicious." Luckily I managed to turn away before he actually put the shrimp's head in his mouth. Finally, Hiroyuki gallantly offered to take the head out my soup. He took my bowl, turned his back and Voila! the antennae and head were gone from my bowl. He assured me there was nothing else scary in the soup, but the damage was done. Hiroyuki kept trying to reason with me, he really enjoys miso soup very much and wanted me to enjoy it too. So, I told him, "For you I will try this soup, this is how much I like you. Just for you." And I did. And it did taste good, but that shrimp's head had been in there, and that was that. I tried to explain to Hiroyuki. I asked him if he'd ever been asked to eat something in America that seemed scary. We couldn't think of anything - I realized then how tame American food is. But he did remember that once he had been asked to eat bee larva, and another time grasshoppers. He just couldn't eat either one, no matter what line of reasoning was offered. "That's it, that's how I feel! Even eating this raw fish has been difficult, the shrimp head is just too much." And then he understood, and gallantly took my soup and drank the rest of it himself, even though it was cold.

All the time the sushi bar owner was watching, smiling, waiting to see if I was going to try the soup. Hiroyuki explained that the shrimp's head made it difficult for me. But the sushi owner was smiling, I think he was enjoying the fun of freaking out the foreigner. He even asked Hiroyuki to tell me that some of the fish was still alive. Hiroyuki told me, pointing to the fish he was talking about. It was right in front of me, so I leaned in very close to the glass case to have a good close look. I couldn't see a face or anything. I could see tentacle-looking things, like an octopus would have, but nothing else looked familiar - it was just a pile of flesh like any of the other piles. I couldn't see any evidence that it was still alive. There was no breathing, no blinking. But then the sushi bar owner flicked the pile of fish with his finger and AHHHHHHHHH! It moved on it's own for a few seconds afterwards! My eyes must have gotten huge, and the sushi bar owner laughed and did it again. "Challenge?" NO, thank you! The next day I didn't feel quite right in the stomach. So I think maybe sushi is just too much for this silly foreigner. The Japanese call us gaigin, or foreigner, or 'from the outside'. I've found the Japanese are very patient with gaigin - I suppose they have to be.

Learning More About Things Japanese
So have you heard of Japanese folding paper? It's an art form, they fold paper into all sorts of shapes - like the cranes Chieko made for the September 11 victims in New York - I mentioned that in the September 11th entry. Anyway, you might remember that I went bicycling with Sayuri, a coworker, last weekend - also mentioned in the September 11th entry. First we went to her house for lunch and then bicycling. While there for lunch I met her mother. There were dolls on top of the television, and when I noticed them, Sayuri's mother showed them to me. It turns out she made them, from paper. She offered to show me how to make them. So I went to the store and bought some Japanese folding paper. Unfortunately, the paper I got is cut into pieces that are too small. But they are just the right size for making cranes - like Chieko gave me. So Sayuri said she would show me how to fold cranes. I can't wait!

I Have a New Bike
Speaking of bicycles, I bought another bicycle. It's a used one, about six months old. I got a very good price. Of course, it is too small for me, all the bikes here are, but it's much nicer than the one I had before. The ride is much smoother, I don't have to kick it while I'm riding it to stop the fender from rubbing against the tire. So I feel much safer now.

A Little about Japanese Streets
I would like to share a little bit about the experience of riding a bicycle on a Japanese street. Everyone rides bicycles here. It's rather nice actually. But it makes for crowded sidewalks, when there IS a sidewalk. There really aren't rules. Well, there are lines on the sidewalks which I think are intended to indicate where bicycles are supposed to be, and where pedestrians are supposed to be. But people don't pay much attention to them. Which is funny, because the Japanese will stand at a light, with NO cars coming and wait for the crosswalk light to change before they will cross. If you cross against the crosswalk light, "they look at you like you're an animal or somethin'" - that's what Conor says, he does it all the time. Anyway, riding on the sidewalks is a bit of a free for all. Sometimes things get a little mixed up. I think I cause most of the mix ups I'm involved in. In Japan they drive on the left, so when people ride on bicycles they tend to go to the right when they need to pass someone. And I tend to go to the left. This is fine when you're passing people going the same direction. But when you pass someone coming at you, it causes problems. So I just stop and put a foot down and let them pass. Or sometimes you encounter a rather old person riding a bicycle, and they tend to sway left and right, so it's dangerous to pass them. I usually just wait until one of us turns a different direction, or until I get to a wide portion of sidewalk. Sometimes sidewalks get narrow because of pedestrian and bicycle traffic, or when there are a lot of bicycles parked on both sides of the sidewalk. Sometimes there are so many blocking the sidewalk that policemen go around and move bicycles to make room. I once came out of work and had trouble finding my bicycle because it had been moved for this reason.

Below is a photo of a rare open field right in town - I think an old building had just been cleared to make way for new construction. I took this because the open field makes it possible for you to get an idea of what the houses generally look like.

The Japanese "Wa"
One time Conor and I were bicycling home from school and some people got in our way. More precisely they were some drunk salarymen coming out of a bar. (We get out of school at 9pm each night.) Conor said if he were back in Ireland he'd yell at them to get outta the way. But here he didn't feel the urge to yell out. I told him I felt the same but I didn't know why. Conor had an interesting thought. He said he didn't want to upset the "wa". I asked him what the "wa" was and he said it was the harmony among people. I realized he was right, that was why I didn't shout either. Because if we yelled at those guys, or even showed annoyance, they might be upset and then maybe yell at, or show annoyance to someone else down the road, and so on, and so on. And then the harmony would be negatively effected. And so you don't yell. Instead, you are just patient, and glad to be so. "Patience is the path of least resistance" - I saw that on a wall hanging at a Chicago street art fair last summer. I really wish I would have bought it because it has become my new mantra, driving goal, and Japan is a great place to explore that goal. The Japanese are very good at being patient. :-)

What I Miss
I was missing my books a great deal last week. I brought some with me, and found a couple good ones here in the apartment, but I was still feeling lonesome for books. I wanted a dictionary and a Japanese guide book. (I don't know what I was thinking when I took those out of my suitcase just before I closed it.) But last weekend I walked into the Nagaoka library and got myself a library card. They don't have many books in English, but they have some. I checked out a brief history of Japan, a book of Japanese folk tales, Moby Dick, and a book about Hiroshima and the atomic bomb. (As I wondered about how the Japanese were feeling on September 11th, I found myself thinking a lot about Hiroshima.) But even with my library card, I still miss wandering around a used book store - taking in the titles, authors, etc. And I still wanted a dictionary and a Japan guide book. So last night I mentioned to Conor how I wanted to buy some English books. He goes to Niigata (a larger city to the north) quite a bit to visit a friend of his. I asked if he knew of an English bookstore in Niigata. He asked what books I was looking for. I told him - a dictionary and a Japan guide book. And you know, when we got back to our apartment building he gave me a dictionary and a Japan guide book (with the understanding that he could borrow the guide book whenever he wanted.) So now I'm feeling much less lonesome for books. Although I still very much want to wander around an English bookstore. Although, I can always get online and order books through

I'd really enjoy receiving a pile of photographs from a party I missed. Or maybe an audio recording of familiar voices. :-) Or you know those "cheese" packets that come in the Kraft macaroni and cheese? I don't need the noodles, but the cheese packets would be awesome. And one would be easy to put in a card or letter. Just a thought. Oh, and if anyone comes across a calendar with Chicago photographs, I could use one for my classroom. And a box of thank you cards would be appreciated. You should try to buy "thank you cards" when you don't know which cards say "Thank you" and which cards say "Happy Birthday", or "With deepest sympathy" or who knows what else! I wish you could send milk, because the milk smells and tastes a little sour here - of course it's not - but it does smell different. And so I think that's why the cheese and other dairy products all smell and taste... different. Oh well, I take my vitamins like a good girl, so it's okay if I don't drink quite as much milk as before.

I think of you all often.

Dewa sono uchi ni
"See you in a little while"

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on to September 26, 2002