Thursday, August 30, 2007

Tsunashima and Shibuya

Friday we celebrated Dave's birthday in Shibuya, at a cool place called Cozmo's Cafe.

You can see pics of everyone in the great glasses (a present from Helen and me) on Dave's site, here.

We met James, from England, and Dave's real-life geisha friend. She had a scented fan and said I was pretty.

Helen drank tequila shots with Dave and could barely stay awake in the train home.

It was matsuri weekend in Tsunashima, and we spent last weekend pretty much all in Tsunashima, with Macky as our host. We did the festival thing, and hung out at his (parent's) house.

They totally let kids cheat at carnival games at these things.

If you didn't know, Macky's folks have an ice company. The kids enjoyed hanging out in the walk-in freezer. Me, I've seen too many movies with people getting locked in these things, so there was no way I was going in. I also had to resist the urge to shut them in. That's what you do to people when they walk into freezers.

This is a cool old photo of the ice company, which I am going to paint for the Makimoto family.

We also spent a good amount of time in a local kimono shop, and had shoes made (zori, geta, whatever they're called). You get to pick out the base and the thongy-things, and they brought us tea and iced pears while we waited for their assembly.

Jeff's shoes are way cool.

Mid-week, Jeff got invited out to a Honda racetrack/fun park place about 3 hours away. He took the kids, who apparently had a great time. They both got "licenses," D for cars, M for motorcycles, built a go-cart and rode it, and M got all dressed up in a fire-safe suit and went racing. I can't find all the pics for this, but I know there's a great one of M in his car that I'll post when I find it. There was also a museum, a lab, and a robot!

While they were off being boys, I went to Shibuya for the day because, well, because I could. I had lunch with Helen at a french crepe place, and shopped mostly. I spent two hours in Tower Records at the listening stations, trying desperately to find some new music to buy. I couldn't find anything I was willing to spend 2500 yen on. Mostly it was crap, which was depressing, but not all that surprising. Got nearly poisoned by a Starbucks iced coffee, which hardened my resolve not to patronize Starbucks.

Punk is dead. I blame Hot Topic for starting it, but the pink Anarchy shoes with the teddy bears have put the nail in the coffin.

I was on my way to Shinjuku to have a few drinks with Dave when the skies opened up and dumped rain and gave us a good light show. Neither of us were prepared and had to buy umbrellas. Luckily, these are readily available and cheap in any number of nearby shops (yesterday, to my joy and relief, I found practically disposable umbrellas for 100 yen in a drugstore! Saved my ass again, because I was unprepared). Anyway, he took me down an alley to a cute little 8-seater bar called The Albatross. Sadly, Dave is leaving soon, going back to Paris. This is my first taste of what it's like to live in a foreign country full of transient ex-pats. You make friends, and then they leave. Well, I'm going to do it, too, so...

Yesterday was the orientation at the kids' school, where I met the new crop of teachers. D's teacher, also the music teacher, is a very enthusiastic guy from NZ. He's going to teach everyone guitar and form sports teams, so he looks like a winner. M's teacher, in his now-combined 5-6-7-8 class, is also the new head teacher. She's a Brit, and seems pretty on top of things. The whole school seems a lot better organized, suddenly, which is a relief. I was having my doubts about the place, honestly, but now I am excited for them. Our buddy Hakan is now in charge of the library, and he still wants my help with the cataloging and whatnot, so I'll stay involved.

TODAY is M's birthday. 10 years old, can you believe it? I can't. We have, spur-of-yesterday's school event, organized a small bowling party on the base this evening. I have to take 5 kids to Yokosuka on the train and get three of them base passes. That'll be fun. M is so excited.

The kids are going to be really excited after we get them in the car this weekend and tell them where we are going: it's a surprise, to commemorate M's birthday, our one-year-in-Japan anniversary, and the end of summer. School starts on Monday. Yes.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Ending Summer With a Bang

Summer, at least academic-calendar-wise, is drawing to a close. We celebrated it by going to Yamanashi with the Steigers. Wilson had been talking up the fireworks there since the last time went to Yamanashi with him last fall, and we were not disappointed.

Jeff was in the States, so Wil picked us up on Sunday and we went straight to Grinpa, which is part of the Fuji Campgrounds area. It's a total kiddie amusement park, with an Ultraman theme (also nearby Fuji Safari, to which I am going next time, if I have anything to say about it). The kids all had fun, except for a D meltdown in the last 20 minutes.

Then back to Baba's house. She's Miki's mother and a very doting grandma, whom you may remember a mention of from a previous post. I know she has a proper name that I'm supposed to call her by, but it has too many syllables for me to remember, and I don't want to be rude, so I just don't call her anything. M and D adopted Ryokun (Viktor) again, sort of like a pet.

Next day, to Fuji-Q High Land again. I didn't have anyone forcing me to go on any roller coasters (Jeff wasn't there, Miki was paranoid after some freak accident in Korea or somewhere, and Wilson was born an old woman), so I mostly split my time between kids riding on kiddie rides. D and I wanted to go in the haunted hospital this time, but the wait was 2.5 hours, and upon seeing pictures of it later, it was probably a good thing I didn't go in with a 7 yr old. We did go on the really cool water ride, which dumps you through a huge amount of water (you can buy ponchos). M went on the swing ride like 40 times (OK, 3). On our way out, the sky was breathtaking.

We laid around on Tuesday mostly, gearing up for the fireworks. Miki and I got dressed by the neighbor, who is a professional dance-master. This was my first experience in traditional yukata (summer kimono), and man, it's tight. I actually had a board on my belly to create a flatter silhouette. My yukata was from UniQlo (sort of like a Japanese Gap, Miki says. I thinks it's way better), and its pattern is based on artwork by a famous Japanese graphic designer.

A bunch of us, mostly Miki's relatives, drank and ate a ton of yummy food in the backyard. Jeff showed up just in the nick of time after an all-day train journey from Sasebo. Wilson wasn't kidding around when he said the fireworks were right over the you. We all had towels or plates over our heads to protect us from the raining, and sometimes smoldering, debris. It went on for like 2 hours. It was truly the most mold-breaking display I have ever seen, and all subsequent displays will be disappointing. Even D said, and I quote "This is something I won't ever forget."

When we moved up to the river proper to view the finale, I got a cinder or something in my eye that made it weep for a day and a half (no permanent damage, I think). We went down the street to the actual matsuri, anyway, where D "won" a few goldfish (that were floating upside down the next day. They have since been replaced. Because we need more pets.).

I was exhausted the next day, with my weeping eye and a dread that I had caught my kids' nasty colds. The journey home was uneventful except for a quick stop at an omiyagi (souvenir) place that had the World's Largest Drum, a weird old-man mannequin, and a sake-sample vendor (which Jeff could not get to work, sadly).

Oh, and Baba sent us home with the biggest goddamned grapes I have ever seen.

The pictures don't do the fireworks justice. I am working on video to post soon. In the meantime, you can see the rest of the trip's pics here.

Am I sad that summer is ending? Not really. I'm tired of kicking the kids off the video games, because that's all they want to do. Soon they are going back to school and I can have my life back. I have painting to do, and studying, and shopping, and all the things I can't do with anyone else in tow. I have enjoyed spending time with them, but 24/7 with my loving munchkins is a bit much. I am going to remedy my need for adult time a little tonight in Shibuya, for Dave's birthday.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

One Year

Can't believe it. We've been here a year. Now is the time when I tell you how I feel about it, I guess.

I now understand why Shannon always said she had a love/hate relationship with Japan. I thought I would have many of questions about the culture answered, but instead, the more I see, the more confused I am. I guess I have to just accept a lot of things, the way Shingo does at my sporadic Japanese lessons: "I don't know why. Nobody knows why. We just do it like that."

For instance, I am really confused by the morality/sexuality question. Any given night, there will be a line of guys standing at the magazine rack at the combini, reading nasty manga full of mostly naked schoolgirls. You can get little plastic action figures of girls in lingerie in all sorts of suggestive positions. There are entire districts of Tokyo devoted to the sex trade, places where you can get services that involve hands, soap, and anything else. Love hotels are everywhere. It's all in your face, and perfectly legal. At on-sens (fancy bathhouses), dozens of perfect strangers are naked with each other. Yet the Japanese are some of the least affectionate, least physical, least sexy people I have ever met. It sort of reminds me of what I know about the Victorian era, when the publicly repressed society had the craziest fetishes in private, is totally in the public eye. I don't get it.

And the whole relationship with the US. Westerners, and Americans in specific, are considered on the whole, loud, obnoxious, and rude, and we dropped an ATOMIC BOMB on them. Yet they embrace everything commercial about America: McDonalds, Disney, hip-hop, surfer fashion, hot rods, Christmas and other holidays, Hollywood, Budweiser, and every kind of merchandising. It makes me confused and rather sad.

There are things I love about Japan. Like the food. I love it even more now. So much of it is fresh, and simple, and light. I will someday miss how I can go to a 7-11 and get a perfectly tasty, nutritious meal. I love the combinis themselves. I can buy liquor, cigarettes, lunch, a battery-powered phone charger, nail polish, and socks there, while paying my electric bill. And I am always 5 minutes on foot away from one. I love that there are so many zoos and parks and museums. I love the trains. I can get anywhere by a combination of a bus and a train or two. I love that the bars close at 5 in the morning, or later. They don't let you get all liquored up to kick you out the door at 1:45am to make your drunken way home. (If the trains ran all night, the system would be perfect. But there are always taxis.) I love some of the people I've met. An international bunch of people who have seen the world and know there is so much out there beyond their home countries. Helen! I love the attention to detail the Japanese give to wrapping things, even the simplest purchase. Japanese mayonnaise. I love that there are random stalls in odd places that sell yummy hot treats like yakitori and red bean-filled fish-shaped sweets. I love that you can always count on there being a vending machine just around the corner where you can get a refreshing cold beverage or a can of hot coffee when you need one. I love the traditional things, the food, the festivals, the temples, the kimonos that mix with the everyday traffic. My kids are hanging out with other kids of every nation and culture, and will always carry their experiences here with them. I love my combination washer-dryer and my shower room and my deep tub that fills itself.

There are always many things I don't like so much. Like the overwhelming cuteness of things. Grown people with Sesame Street or Disney characters hanging off their cellphones. Girls who look like plastic baby dolls, all adoring-eyed, ruffled and ribboned and bowed, feet crammed into tiny, pointy-toed, high-heeled shoes you know are destroying their feet. The surprising hideousness of most buildings exteriors. The fact that I have to fill out of a form, in a written language I am only just beginning to grasp, and go to the bank every month to pay my rent. I don't like that pretty much the only job I could get is teaching English. I don't like how ridiculously humid it is in the summer, or that I ruined a lot of my clothes during the rainy season because I wasn't aware that you have to buy things to protect your closet against mold and mildew. Chilled red wine. Most of all, and this is mostly my own fault, I don't like that I can't talk to most of the people around me, or read the signs. And I never feel really comfortable around people. I'm not sure how much about me is merely tolerated because I am gaijin and expected to behave that way. Most of the people I am surrounded by, and this is true anywhere, but magnified here, are simply not like me.

There are things that I both love and feel ambivalent about. Like how most snacks seem to taste like fish in some way. Or the campsites that have all the conveniences. Or the garbage separation. Bringing a gift of some kind any time you go to someone's house. The levels of politeness.

All in all, I am still glad we moved here. But I don't think I'll ever really belong here. And so, on this, our one-year anniversary, I can safely say, unless something drastic changes, we'll be here just one more year.

OK, reflection over. Back to our regularly-scheduled program of What I Did in the Past Week.

We went to a local pool. PoolS. There were three of them, for different swim-levels, and a skinny old lifeguard.

We had a backyard BBQ.

Jeff went to the states, and I took the kids to Chinatown and to the Yoshimoto Children's Aquarium. The most bizarre aquarium ever. Japanese are very fond of their fish. They are very tasty, and fish are funny. I guess.

Ever seen The Abyss? I'm convinced they got the idea for the ETs from these guys. They swim and have little flashy lights just like them.

This guy got nervous about his merch.

Yeah, ramen-flavored candy.

I didn't notice that the sign said "No Photo" until I looked at the photo. Oops.

Motomachi-Chukagai station. It's my favorite.

More pics of the comic aquarium and Chinatown with the kids here.

I went to a party at Kumi's mom's house. Same people as last time, just as drunken as last time. This is Cynthia. She's a preschool teacher.

We went to the Yokohama Science Center with Takako Kato and her kids. All about space and related topics. Very cool.

This little girl was so skinny, she creeped me out.

More pics of that stuff here.

Jeff'll be home any minute. Then he has to go to Sasebo tomorrow. Poor guy. The rest of us are leaving for Yamanashi with Wilson and family in the morning, and Jeff will meet us for the matsuri.