Sunday, December 21, 2008

Our last weekend in Tokyo of 2008

Part 1: Playing catch-up

We just finished the first semester with our students, but rather than leave to fly back to Minnesota immediately after school let out on Friday afternoon, we decided to put in a buffer period of two days to organize our life and get some R&R. So, that's exactly what we did yesterday.

I woke up early to take out the trash and, after getting my fill of the political landscape around the world and taking a short bike trip to the store for a carton of milk, began cleaning. Together, Rachael and I cleaned for several hours: scrubbing, mopping, wiping, vacuuming and organizing. See, we have the advantage of being foreigner observers in what has to be one of the most obsessively clean cultures in the world.

Just a few of the rules and regs: 1.) Remove your shoes upon entering a fitting room, a restaurant, or a home, 2.) Sweep up literally every single fallen leaf in front of your house or business...every single day, 3.) Cover your trash bags in a large mesh blanket so as to discourage naughty crows from disturbing the clean ground that you just meticulously swept of disobedient leaves, 4.) Dust and mop, inside and out, on a daily basis, 5.) Using a warm towel, wipe your hands (some their face and neck too) before eating, 6.) Take all your trash and recyclables home when you are out and about, because there are no public trash cans so your trash is your responsibility, 7.) Place cigarette butts in appropriately labeled smoking station depositories, and smoke in sealed rooms inside of train stations and shopping malls. Needless to say, the list goes on.

And on. Although the task of conforming to these new standards has not always been easily managed, we have begun to pick up on these disciplined habits and incorporate them, nearly full-scale, into our life here. Surprisingly, rather than make life more complicated and difficult, it actually ends up reducing stress, because doing a bit each day nullifies the need to have big cleaning sprees where we spend hours, or even days, cleaning up our messes from the days and weeks before.

Part 2: Masks

Since arriving in Tokyo, we have made several attempts to get a window into the Japanese culture- to understand its intricacies, its beauty, and the unique aspects of a guarded culture that one can only experience living within the coastal frame of Japan. We have gotten a peek through some of those windows, but up until last night, we realized that we haven't gotten to know Japan as well partly because we don't know many Japanese people very well. Our life is an insulated one, working at an international school and attending an English-speaking international church.

Last night, we visited a local onsen, or Japanese hot spring. For the first time, we actually saw and heard couples talking sweetly to each other, and saw families interacting with one other. They actually spoke! All right, I exaggerate, but it is incredible how people do put on very public masks and don't often allow them to be penetrated, especially by curious gaijin like us.

Like yesterday, for instance; I was out shopping and bought my grandmother a leaf-sweeper (a bit of an inside joke- she is equally as obsessed with sweeping leaves in her driveway in Iowa as are Tokyoites). The young woman at the checkout counter set the sweeper down and started counting my money. The sweeper fell. She picked it up, and apologized twice. Then, she began counting again. The sweeper fell again. She apologized again. There was no acknowledgment of the comedy of the situation. Just an apology, and she handed me my change. I chuckled a little, hoping to get the same out of her, but no reaction.

Part 3: The onsen experience

Anyway, back to the onsen. When you enter an onsen, you remove and store your shoes, pay a users’ fee, receive towels and a pretty stylish Japanese jogging suit, and have full use of the several different hot springs and bathing facilities for the day. After changing, we both wandered around our respective locker rooms, and came back out to the front, bewildered as to where to go or how to begin. I had read before that one must first bathe before entering the hot springs, but I wasn’t sure where or how to do that.

Immediately upon exiting the locker room was a small tub with ladles. It didn't look big enough to sit in, and I wasn't sure if I should take a drink with a ladle (like at a Shinto shrine) or spoon water onto myself. Next, in an adjoining large room, there were several buckets on the floor along the walls. Water spigots and bottles appearing to be soap or shampoo were placed near each bucket. That looked like a promising place to start. Next to that room, there was a large older man lying face down, getting a sponge bath from a pretty young woman. That was not so promising- especially for a happily married gaijin looking to keep things that way. :)

Luckily, a kind older gentleman could see I was pretty unsure of what to do, so he offered to show me to the outdoor pools. Rachael just had to fend for herself and try to find us. Eventually, we met back up on the other side of the bathing area, and walked in the direction pointed out by our new friend. Although it was in the lower 40s, we walked barefoot down a magical wooden path under an umbrella of red Japanese sugar maples, past statues and manicured bushes. Finally, we made it to the outdoor pool. We sought out this particular pool because swimsuits were required there. No, we weren't quite ready for the whole coed-naked approach to relaxing at the spa.

For the next hour or so, we sat in the corner of a seemingly ancient symmetrical stone pool looking out on the city lights. This particular onsen is located on the top floor of a tall building in our neighborhood, so it overlooks the city and even has a clear view of Mt. Fuji. It truly feels as though you're in a forest that happens to have a view of the entire city. The water was a pale green, stemming from the various minerals in the rocks and water, and steam skimmed and swirled across the surface. The combination of the frigid air and the 106 degree water worked wonders to put both of us at ease.

We decided that the onsen must be the Japanese fountain of youth. In rural and pre-modern Japan, the onsen was the method of bathing for entire communities. After working the fields all day, men, women and children would come to the onsen to bathe and relieve their stressed muscles in the scaldingly hot water. With the fast pace of Japanese work life, we can certainly understand why the onsen is still a popular spot today. Maybe someday we'll get up enough courage to go to a more traditional onsen; you know, the kind where swimsuits are not only optional but not allowed. Until then, we'll definitely be returning to this hidden jewel, just a three-minute walk from our apartment.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Weekend Fun

This weekend was a fun-filled one. After a week of doing something akin to containing a nuclear explosion with our bare hands (teaching classes of boys the week before Christmas break), we definitely needed some time to recover, relax, and hang out with friends.

Friday night started out with a farewell party for our friend from Lyon, France, Regis Philbert. First, we wined and dined at a nearby "izakaya" (like a local tavern with a nice variety of grilled and fried food: Then, we went back to see our friend "Noboru," who owns and operates another small izakaya with space for about nine people. Surely he wasn't expecting to fill six of those seats with gaijin, but we definitely enjoyed seeing him again, along with the three completely plastered Japanese that were there before us. With the degree to which Japanese people in Tokyo keep to themselves, it's always a treat to find an intimate atmosphere like one of these restaurants and try our best to communicate with the locals.

Noboru served up his perfectly poured Asahi beers (just the right amount of head on top, usually much more than we're used to in the States) and decided he wanted us to try two of his unique dishes. The first was a fried chicken wing that he had stuffed with the filling usually reserved for gyoza dumplings. Absolutely mouth-watering and delicious. The second was a bit more on the bizarre side. Like a cartoon with a lightbulb above his head, his kind and gentle face lit up with a great idea: serving us some specially prepared squid beak. As you'll see in these photos and videos, it was an interesting experience, and one which we both were brave enough to enjoy. We thanked Noboru and our kind neighbors and headed out to see another long time friend, the local karaoke joint.

Check out the videos below for a delightful window into the world of karaoke in Tokyo.

We called it a night after singing for an hour, and hopped on the train to lazily ride for one stop, rather than take the twelve minute walk home. Well, either hubris or karma came back to bite us because taking the train turned out to be a very bad idea. The train car was definitely crowded and stuffed to its limits, which under normal conditions is stifling enough. Even worse was the out of control heat that was blowing enough to simulate the feeling of being in the Amazon jungle. Worst of all, the train stopped, stalled and restarted for nearly 20 minutes in a tunnel. Talk about claustrophobia setting in. This was actually the first time we'd been on a train that was late, delayed or malfunctioning, and we certainly don't hope to repeat the experience anytime soon. Not cool Tokyo, not cool.

(haha. For the record, my lovely wife just said "Uno moment sil vous plait." Yes, in one sentence, she was successfully tri-lingual.)

This morning, we woke up without an alarm and Rachael made french toast, my favorite. Yes, I am spoiled rotten. The rest of the day consisted of meandering around retail Tokyo- in Shibuya and Omotesando- for Christmas gifts. It was one of the first Saturdays we've had in a while that actually felt like a Saturday, so we're both grateful for that. Now that our bellies are full of sushi and lettuce wraps, we're cuddling up to watch a Top Gun VHS that I snuck into our baggage.

8 days 'til we get home! Thanks for stopping by and please leave a comment if you have time.

Shibuya Xmas

Shopping in Shibuya


Friday, December 5, 2008

Japanland Joys

Now that I'm recovering from a horrible stomach flu that took out a couple teachers and dozens of 1st and 2nd graders this week, I planned on blogging today, but didn't really have much on my mind.

And then BANG, it hit me. Not an idea, but an email.

"Dear Brad
Please refrain from hanging beddings etc., over the Railings.because it spoils the image of the building.

Seriously. Since I've been so sick, and Rachael has so far avoided catching this, we bleached our apartment and washed all of our sheets and comforter. I hung the comforter outside for oh, about 2 hours, and got this email while I was at the bank this afternoon.

Once, Rachael parked a friend's bike downstairs overnight, which we had never done before and will certainly not do again. When we left for school the following morning at 7:45am and went to look for the bike, our wonderful neighbor was looking it over with his hands on it, and looked like he was going to move it out of the apartment property.

We really have tried to be good neighbors. No loud parties. No drunken foreigners spilling out of our place in the early morning hours. We take out our trash on time. We keep the place clean.

But for two hours, I put my comforter outside and get an email like this? Here's the worst part, though; I bet a dozen other people felt the same...or even more strongly and just couldn't tell us!

Thanks to Rebecca Cahill, I'm reading a fantastic book about the heart of Japan, called Japanland. It's by National Geographic filmmaker and writer Karin Muller, who lives in Japan for a year, fully immersing herself in this intriguing puzzle of a society. In it, despite her extreme efforts to file into the culture in which she is living, she eventually gets kicked out of her house. In this passage, she and her host mother discuss why she was asked to leave. It reminds me of the horrible sin of hanging bedding on the railings.

"I bow my head and ask what I've done wrong and if there's anything that I can do to make it right. There's a pause...I am, she tells me, a completely unmannered lout. 'Could you be more specific?' I ask without a hint of irony. I don't greet her properly when I come in the door, and I don't wash my bath mat often enough. She once found a stain on the underside of my cutting board, and the maid had to wash it off. I walk in at dinnertime and talk to [her husband] when she is ready to lay the table. I can't help myself. 'But I asked if it was okay- twice! You didn't say anything.' I should have known by her expression. 'Maybe it's a cultural misunderstanding.' 'Not culture. Manners. You have none.' The list goes on for forty minutes. When it's over, I'm curiously relieved. She said nothing that I would be afraid to tell my mother. I can live with her critique. I pack my gear and say goodbye to my beloved garden."

Now, we definitely still love living here, but it is a very difficult culture to understand. On the surface, there are only slight differences, but Japanese culture, like all others is an iceberg. The easy stuff sticks out of the water. But the many underlying differences below the surface are the ones that cause the shipwrecks.

The Fray returns

Our friends in the Fray have returned with what looks like a promising, new self-titled album. The album will be released in February, and they're playing a small tour in the States now. So, get your tickets quickly if you want to see them. We'll be waiting patiently until they launch their full tour and make a stop in Tokyo again. Until then, here's their newest video (1. Song alone, 2. Song for show "Lost").

Monday, December 1, 2008

Thanksgiving with the Whites

Check out this video Brad put together to see our Thanksgiving Day as a whole. You'll also see our home, neighborhood, friends, and the adventure of cooking a 26-pound Butterball in Tokyo.