Monthly Archives: April 2014

Can You Speak Japanese?

The other day I was pondering the question, do I know Japanese? I mean, if somebody back in the states asked me, what would I say? 

A little? 

Some? 

Basic?

No?

Most times I lean towards the latter. And it’s not because the Japanese cultural value of false modesty is rubbing off on me. It’s because most of the time I don’t FEEL like I know Japanese. 

When I arrived in this country 25 months ago I thought that, with some hard work, after a few months I would have a pretty decent idea what was going on. I don’t think I ever would have guessed that at this point, a month after I originally planned to leave, I would still be this out of the loop. I still can’t track with most conversations. I can’t follow the baby talk of the preschoolers who ride my bus, the slang of the junior highers I teach, or the thick rural accent and dialectical words of the elderly locals I pass as I walk through town. It’s discouraging! I feel stupid, a lot. 

In my better moments I give myself more credit. Years of Spanish and German meant I was once conversational in both. I didn’t know every word in either language, but I could talk about almost anything I wanted. Just, sometimes I had to take the circular route to get there. If I didn’t know the word for “pregnant” I would say a woman had a baby in her stomach. Not accurate, but it got my point across. 

The thing is, I almost never spoke to native speakers of either language. I never had to deal with rapidity and slang and thick accents. Even at my peak, I couldn’t track movies in either language if they didn’t have subtitles. I was good at both languages, but I was never thrown in the deep end of the pool in the way I am here in Japan. 

Japanese. I’m still not as good at it as Spanish or German. I can often get my point across, but there is still a ton of stuff I can’t say. Every once in awhile, however, I see glimpses that I’m not as incompetent as I think. 

Today, for example. One of the new responsibilities I’ve taken on these past few weeks is doing some translating for my coworkers. Teaching plans for the elementary schools show up and it is my job to decipher them and communicate the information to the people who will be teaching at that school. And I can do it. Right now I’m taking it slowly and double checking by typing it all out into a translator. But I’m learning that most of the time my guess as to what the sentence said was correct. And even the fact that I can type it in is a win. It means that I know at least one pronunciation of a good chunk of the Chinese characters (most of the characters have at least two if not more pronunciations), and for those I don’t know, the method of looking them up is done by knowing components of the character and knowing how the strokes would be made. And I know those. It takes me time, but I can translate these papers. 

Can I speak Japanese? I’m not sure. But I’m getting there. And hopefully someday I’ll give myself the grace to say, “yes”.

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Sittin’ in the corner, Munching eggs…

Yesterday a friend asked if we could go for a run together sometime today. She wanted to show me a certain cherry tree that was blooming. 

That sounded like a capital idea. However by the time she gets off work tonight it will be dark. Therefore, we decided to go in the morning before work.

After the run I had enough time to shower, put on make-up, read my Bible, and catch the bus. What I DIDN’T quite have enough time to do was eat breakfast. I grabbed two hard boiled eggs and a bottle of spicy mayonnaise (it tastes rather like Arby’s Horsey sauce), stuffed them in my backpack, and headed out the door. 

Once I arrived at school I had 40 minutes before classes began. There is some debate whether it is really appropriate to eat at our desk outside of the designated lunch time and the omiyage (food gifts brought back from vacations). When other teachers pull out food to snack on, they share it with everyone in the office. This was breakfast, and I didn’t have enough to share. So I slipped off to the women’s locker room and sat in the corner, peeling eggshells into a paper bag. The locker room is rarely used, and I assumed I would have peace and quiet and that no one would ever find out.

About half way into the first egg, however, the school nurse walked in. She apologized in Japanese, and I waved it away, apologizing myself. We had a bit of a conversation while she changed and I peeled the other egg. Then she left. It turned out okay. But for all the world, I saw how ridiculous I looked, sitting cross-legged in a corner of this narrow room, munching on eggs. 

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Spring Break: Cleaning, then Touring Tokyo and Kyoto

It’s been a few days since I posted. The main reason for this is that I was on spring break. In Japan spring break marks the change from one school year to the next. For this reason, or perhaps another, we are given two weeks off, which is longer than any U.S. school that I know of.

Part 1: Cleaning

The first week I spent helping coworkers clean apartments, as four of the ex-pats were leaving, two were moving into vacated apartments, and four more teachers were moving in. We junked a ton of items. What, after all, are we really supposed to do with glittery jewelry that none of us here want, with half empty bottles of condiments, with bikes whose brakes no longer work, clothing that flatters no one currently living here, used gift bags, VHS tapes, and Japanese textbooks that were pompous enough to invent their own system of romaji? With the exception of clothes, which we are trying to coax friends with cars to cart to Koriyama and make a profit selling to thrift stores, it all got thrown away. There were plenty of echoes of, “But someone might want that?” but in the end most of it ended up in the trash.Seeing the high amount of stuff that was left for the rest of us to deal with, and feeling the frustration of it, often meant I returned to my own apartment and began tossing items into the trash. Those butt-ugly Christmas decorations? They’re gone. The taupe shirt I never wear? It’s on the donate pile. The purple flats I’ve worn to pieces and should have thrown away years ago? Dumpster. The poinsettia that wasn’t really still alive? Yep, that too. Next year I don’t want to be the person who is still packing the night before and leaves clutter, dust, and mold for the other teachers to deal with. I want to be the person who is well packed and leaves the apartment as spotless as possible (bed sheets being the great challenge to all movers everywhere). Intellectually I acknowledge there were other things I did that week, but the emotional memories are tied to cleaning.

Part 2: Tokyo and Kyoto

The second week I headed down south for a few days. My sister and my brother-in-law came to visit and we spent two days in Tokyo and four days in Kyoto. There is plenty that can be said about both of these cities, for they are both beautiful and have a lot to offer. But there are plenty of blogs and books that hold that information. In this blog post I’m going to skip all of that basic information (if you want to read it, leave a comment below and I’ll type up an additional post) and instead just tell you the funny/odd bits of the trip.

Saturday

1. We took the bullet train (shinkansen) from Koriyama to Tokyo. Because it was relatively crowded, I didn’t bother to try and sit by my companions but bee lined to an empty seat. Two gentlemen were sitting in a row and after asking permission in Japanese, I sat down in the seat between them. I pulled out my book and assumed that would be the last we spoke for the next 75 minutes. To my surprise the man on the aisle began speaking to me in English. It was a pleasant enough conversation, especially once I found out he had a girlfriend and therefore wasn’t hitting on me, just exploiting the opportunity to practice his English (which bothers me far less than it does some other ex-pats).

As the chatter waned, the end of the conversation ran as such:

Man: “Do you like beer?”

Me: “No.” He had told me he was a cook at a pub (izakaya) and I was sensitive to the fact that it might hurt his feelings to tell the truth, but I did so anyway.

Man: “You don’t like beer?”

Me: “No. I don’t like the taste.”

Man: (pulling a can of beer out of his coat pocket) “Do you want this?”

Me: “No, thank you. Please enjoy.”

And he did, cracking open his can of Asahi. It was 10:30 in the morning. I may have lived here for two years, but moments like this still hit me hard with the, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more” feelings. I also breathed a sigh of relief that I had been honest, else I would have been obligated to sit there drinking a can of beer.

2. That night we stayed in a capsule hotel. My sister complained about this a little, but because this is a peak travel time, when she went to make reservations a couple weeks ago, everything else was either really expensive, really inconvenient, or already booked. Why, she wanted to know, would she pay the same as a regular room for a space she couldn’t even stand up in? Me? I loved it. I first heard about capsule hotels via a television program 15-20 years ago, and when I got a job here in Japan, that was high on top of the bucket list. It was a bitter disappointment to learn that most cater only to men, and that my gender would keep me from this amazing experience. Somehow we found one of the only ones that allows women and that is where our reservation was. 

I had had a long day. The physicality as well as the frustrations of cleaning the week before had really taken it out of me, my relatives had been sharing my small apartment space for five days, we had gone for a run that morning then spent the afternoon walking around museums, and while I had long since ceased to be contagious, my body was still feeling the effects of the flu that had ravaged it. It was 6:30 when we checked in, and my sister asked if we wanted to do something. “I need some alone time” I responded, and crept off. Despite everything else, when I reached my capsule I began grinning like a fool. There is something in my soul that loves the really small spaces  when I am sleeping, and after journaling for a few minutes I fell asleep, exhausted. I slept for 12 hours that night. Man, that flu did a number on me!

Jeni in a capsule

My sister in her capsule.

Sunday

The best food in the world is when someone really good at making an item makes it. Rice and beans had never tasted so good as they did in Mexico. And people from India will always be the best at making naan. Similarly, the Japanese do Japanese food like nobody’s business. But they’re not so hot at making American, British, Italian, etc. food. Most of their interpretations end up as some amalgamation that is pretty pitiful. I’m a decent cook and can make quite a lot of food myself. Nevertheless, there are certain items I can’t make, and when I travel out of my rural town, I like to hunt down the really good food as opposed to settling for the “just okay”. To save our budget, we rounded out the restaurant visits with trips to the convenience store for sandwiches, snacks, fruit, and milk. Sunday breakfast was just such a meal. For lunch we found ourselves in Ueno and I dragged my sister and brother-in-law to a shawarma stand run by a guy who, well, I don’t know where he is from. But he isn’t Japanese and the sauce there is really good. Around supper time we were in Akihabara and I successfully lobbied for a visit to the local Rose and Crown (a chain of Victorian pubs) for some decent fish and chips. I’m sure they’re not perfect, and if I were British I would know that, but they are better than the fried fish at the Iwaki aquarium, and are pretty close to those at the Eagle and Child in Oxford. 

Akihabara is a part of Tokyo known for two things: 1. The plethora of electronic stores 2. A girl’s pop group based out of there. The group is called AKB 48. AKB is the abbreviation for Akihabara and 48 is the number of women in the group. They are split into three groups – the A group, K group, and B group – of 16 each and they perform concerts with lots of choreographed dancing. And they are wildly popular. 

Beneath the subway station in Akihabara there is an AKB 48 cafe. We walked by at 9:15 in the morning and saw a long line already forming for the opening at 10. After going to Ueno we came back to Akihabara for dinner. The Rose and Crown is across the square from the AKB 48 cafe, and I decided to track how fast the line moved. There was a consistent rain, and I kept my eye on a certain pink umbrella. In the 50 minutes we sat in the restaurant, it advanced 25 meters. By my best guess, the patrons spent an average of 90 minutes in line prior to entering the cafe. The line never got shorter while we were there, and even grew slightly longer. People arrived to stand in line at the same pace as they entered. Granted, it was a Sunday during spring break, which may have resulted in a higher demand that day, but I still wondered at the commitment. 

Monday

Monday we traveled to Kyoto. First we stopped by the Shinjuku area of Tokyo to see the view from the Tokyo Metropolitan Offices. Then we took the bullet train to Kyoto, found our hostel, walked to Gion to see a temple and see the shops full of Japanese craft. After stopping back at our hostel to put on more layers of clothing, we walked to Nijo castle to see the cherry trees lit up at night.

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The cherry blossoms lit up at night

We also enjoyed some performances on the koto, sometimes called the Japanese zither. In total I calculated we walked 9 1/2 miles that day (15 km). No, I don’t want to go running tomorrow, thank you.

The koto performance was done by three women who were all very skilled. But I had a hard time not focusing on how bad a case of osteoporosis one performer had. I blame it on watching too many episodes of “Bones.”

After the koto performance I stopped by one of the tables selling various items. It was giving samples of various types of liquor. I had been there a year before and regretted that I hadn’t bought a bottle of yuzu shu. “Yuzu” is a kind of citrus fruit and “shu” is another term for sake. I think there is some technical difference, just like ale is technically different from beer, but I don’t know what it is. I had in mind to buy some yuzu shu, but to make sure it was as good as I remembered it, I tried the small sample sips of each of the three options: yuzu shu, plum shu, and a special sake that was developed with the mind for people to drink it while sitting under cherry blossoms. A lot of businesses colleagues and groups of friends hang out under the flowering cherry trees during the spring and, well, they drink. Public intoxication isn’t grounds for arrest in this country. As long as you don’t drive, no one seems to care. Except the women receiving unwanted advances. 

While the plum shu was good, of the three I still liked the yuzu shu best, so that is what I bought. But this year I caught a key piece of information I had missed last year. The sake was 20% alcohol, the plum shu was 8% alcohol, and the yuzu shu was a mere 5% alcohol. The amount of alcohol seems inversely related to how much I like the beverage. In other words, I really don’t care for the taste of alcohol. 

Tuesday

Tuesday we went back to Nijo castle in order to see it by day and get the historical side. The best way to do this was by renting audio guides that told about each location. It was 500 yen to rent each device, and I suggested to my sister that she could remove the provided ear piece and replace it with my headphones, which she could then share with her husband, thereby cutting costs. The woman running the station insisted this was not possible. I’m not super technologically savvy, but by looking at them, my suggestion would have been quite easy. The woman just didn’t like the idea of us finding a way to save some money.

Lesson learned: just because people in Fukushima-ken don’t generally know English, don’t assume the people in Kyoto don’t.

Wednesday

Wednesday we headed out to Arashiyama, notable for both the flowering cherry trees along the river bank as well as for the wild animal park that, unlike the typically cramped zoos of Japan, allows visitors to look at monkeys in their natural environment. To the Japanese they are just “monkeys” but to the English speaking world they are “snow monkeys.” This is because they live farther from the equator in the wild than any other non-human primate. The system that makes this possible is the many natural hot springs in Japan, which snow monkeys freely bathe in during the winter. Japan is basically a bunch of mountains sticking up out of the ocean, and while technically  dormant, most of these mountains are volcanoes. The hot springs provided by the magma are enjoyed by humans and monkeys alike, though they don’t share the spots. These hot springs allow the monkeys to live on Hokkaido, Japan’s northern most island, which has a latitude equivalent to Maine. In addition to living in a different climate, Japanese monkeys do not carry the coloring of African primates. No dark haired, white faced apes here. Snow monkeys have light hair and red faces and rumps. As long as a person keeps in mind that they are wild animals and there is no barrier so caution must be taken, it is a wonderful experience to see them. 

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A snow monkey at Arashiyama

On the way back to downtown Kyoto the train was again crowded. I found a seat, but by accident this was in the section reserved for handicapped, pregnant mothers, the elderly, etc. Others are still allowed to sit there, but courtesy dictates that we be mindful and offer the seat if necessary. A few stops later an older man stepped aboard. I watched him look around for a place to sit and, finding no available options, stood. As I waited for people to finish crawling aboard I processed how in the world to offer my seat in Japanese. Nope, I didn’t have the words for it. I realized, however, that the Japanese value of less communication could actually work in my favor here. If I could just pull this off correctly, I wouldn’t need more than a few words. I waited until the gentleman was looking in my direction, then rose and gestured to my seat, saying only an elongated, “Sumimasen” (Excuse me) in a way that clearly indicated a question. The man acknowledged my gesture but waved it away, wordlessly communicating he didn’t want my seat. I sat back down. Communication. Win.

Thursday

Even though we could have spent a few more hours in Kyoto, all three of us agreed we would just rather head back up north. We had seen what we wanted to see, and while we could have found something to do (there is a new aquarium and we hadn’t seen the silver temple), it was mutually agreed upon that my brother-in-law would get a better picture of Japan by spending an afternoon in Koriyama than by spending another morning in Kyoto. In Koriyama I took them to the top of a tall building near the station to see the view, then we went off to experience Round One. Round One is like Chuck-E-Cheese on crack for grownups. There are a ton of games and areas (everything from DDR to arcade games to batting cages to pool tables to roller skating to a mechanical bull) but instead of paying per activity you pay for the amount of time you are there. I don’t know of anything quite like it in the U.S., so that is how we decided to spend our free time on Thursday.

But first we wanted to eat lunch. We got into Koriyama at about 1. There is a good Indian food place nearby, but we had had Indian the night before. The other two agreed that ramen would be good, so I guided them to the place all of my friends rave about, then headed to McDonald’s.

Inside McDonald’s I ordered and sat down. As I was situating my stuff, a group of high school boys in the corner shot glances at each other and then furtively called out, “Nice to meet you.” I ignored them.

Don’t misunderstand me. I wasn’t dissing them because of what they said. It was more HOW they said it. If they had come up to me with a big smile and said, “Nice to meet you,” I probably would have thrown them a bone and interacted with them until our limited mutual language ran out. But young Japanese men have this thing they do. They call out a phrase and then hide their eyes, heads, or whole bodies if possible, seeing if the woman responds. If they can say something more suggestive they do. I have a funny story about that, but I promised this blog would be G rated, so I doubt I’ll every type it out on here. The American equivalent of what these guys do is like the punk across the room making kissy faces and winking. Or the guys who honk at girls as they drive by. Okay, we see you, but if you were actually looking for a date, you need to work on your communication skills. What you’re currently doing isn’t going to get me to throw myself at you and plead for your number. The creepy young man thing? Yeah, they have them in Japan too. And in every country I have a hard time not bursting into laughter at their incompetence. 

Well, that’s most of the funny things I can remember. Until next time, I’m signing off.

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