Whoa…I Wanna See That! (Another Top 7)

Before I  moved to Tokyo, I made a top 7 list of the most important things I wanted to experience in Japan. I’ve managed to do a few, like checking out Harajuku fashion on a Sunday, eating kaiten sushi and cherry blossom viewing in April, (which I almost missed because of a frantic trip back home after the 3/11 earthquake.)

But…I have a problem: since coming to Japan people keep recommending places to go, or I keep reading about people’s trips on other blogs, and now I have a ridonculous list of places I really want to see! Damn you Japan, for having so many beautiful landmarks. How am I supposed to visit them all? I guess I should just make another Top 7 list and try to hit those first. Places like:

Okinawa

Supposedly the Hawaii of Japan, Okinawa has tropical temperatures, blue skies and bluer water. I hear there’s a laid back “Okinawa culture” that can only come from spending all your free time lying on beaches like this.

Okinawa Beach

Aaaah...relaxing.

Sounds like paradise right? As if that wasn’t enough, the universe nudged me once again in Okinawa’s direction one day when I went to an Okinawa-themed izakaya in Ueno, where I ate this deliciousness.

Soki Soba

Get in Ma Belleh!

That’s Soki Soba… I think. Anyway it’s like udon, but with big slabs of tender, tender pork in it, and it’s sooo good. If it was that drool-inducing in some izakaya in Tokyo, it should be twice as splendiferous straight from the source right?

The Izu Peninsula

Izu

The poor man’s Okinawa… just kidding. Izu has a few things Okinawa doesn’t, like being closer to where I live and therefore costing much less money to visit. OK, maybe it is the poor man’s Okinawa. Ah! I know: one thing Izu has the Okinawa doesn’t is a great view of the honorable Fuji-san. And, I admit it, I still haven’t worked up the courage to visit an onsen (hot spring) yet, but there a few good ones in Izu so that might just be the push I need.

Miyajima

Miyajima Floating Torii

Cool.

According to the ancient Chinese Taoist philosophy, my personality primarily reflects the element of water, so maybe that’s why I love anything water-ish. Miyajima is the home of  Itsukushima shrine — a shrine that is built close to the sea and looks like it’s floating when the tide comes in. Perhaps it’s not the most reasonable place for a building in a country with such volatile nature (earthquakes and tsunamis and all that), but it makes for a beautifully fantastical image.

However, what I really want to see is the “floating” torii. I’m not sure why the image of this gigantic red gate in the water touches me the way it does, but to me it is the quintessential “Japan” image. There’s something majestic, wise and strong about that gate…even though it’s just a gate. Anyway, I really want to see it in person, and bask in its gatey-ness.

Haikyo

“Haikyo” refers to ruins — more specifically ruin crawling. This one’s a pretty new addition, inspired by blogs like Gakuranman and Micheal John Grist. I’ve always had a love of ruins. They should be depressing, but I just find them beautiful. I love the sense of calm, peace and finality to be found in ruins. Who knows maybe the sight of dead, dilapidated buildings with nature slowly but surely creeping back in helps me come to terms with the futility of life, helps me remember that this is just the matrix. One day I will become a ruin too, and no matter how much you gain in this earthly life, you can’t take even a speck of it with you, so it’s best to live life according to your passion, and try instead to leave something behind.

Anyway, here are a few inspiring samples of Haikyo exploration.

Gukanjima by Gakuranman

...not even if you were the last man on Earth

The Maya Hotel by Gakuranman

Stairway to Heaven?

Keishin Hospital by Micheal John Grist
I’ll go anywhere but here, because *clearly* there are zombies waiting inside. Exhibit A: the “Slow Down People” graffiti (zombies are notoriously slow).  In fact my theory is that MJG is a zombie as well, as he seems to have escaped this place “alive” and unharmed.

The Top of Mt Fuji

The climb up Mt. Fuji is a tough one, but if you time it right, and make it to the top of the mountain in time for sunrise, I hear the view makes the eight-hour (!) climb worth it. Honestly, I’m not very athletic and I’m not sure I’m going to make this one, but it does sound pretty amazing to be able to gaze down on creation from the top of a mountain like you were God him/her/itself.

Mt Fuji

Actually it looks kind of cold up there

Hokokuji Temple, Kamakura

Bamboo ForestWhen I was a kid, I used to go for walks in this big forest in my neighborhood, to be alone and release the worries of my childish life, like why all my friends had better sneakers than me, and how the boy I liked didn’t like me back. However it didn’t take long for housing developers to notice the forest too, and soon they chopped it all down to make way for more suburban sprawl, and my refuge was gone.

I want to go to Hokokuji temple to run through its famous bamboo groves, and relive even just for a little while carefree afternoons of my childhood.

 

 

Nikko

Temple in Nikko

I’ve had a few people recommend Nikko, before I even moved to Japan. And, probably due to my love of water that I mentioned before, what I’m all about in Nikko are the waterfalls!

Nikko Waterfall

A pretty waterfall

Nikko Waterfall 2

And another one

Kegon falls is the most famous, probably for all the trees surrounding it. People keep suggesting that the best time to visit Nikko is in the fall, because of the beauty of the changing leaves, so that would mean I need to get out there right… about…now.

So those are my goals for the next year or so. How about you? What are some of your must-see spots in Japan?

 

 

 

This is What Makes Blogging Worthwhile

This is What Makes Blogging WorthwhileEvery once in a while I get emails asking for advice from people who are thinking about moving to Japan. And one of my readers, Josh, was so thankful that when he ended up in Japan on business this month he wanted to meet up!

I said yes and we went out for his first ever Japanese curry.  Then we went on a souvenir Kit Kat hunt in Shinjuku, but unfortunately the only interesting flavours we could find were green tea and white chocolate.

After that were massages courtesy of the massage chairs at Labi electronics store. What I wouldn’t give to be able to afford one of those/fit it in my apartment. I think the attendant there had a good time practicing his English on us.

It was really cool to meet someone who I’d helped, and we had a great time and good conversation. Look me up whenever you’re in Japan, Josh!

 

 

Things About Japan that were as Good as I Expected

My. Fuji

Don’t you love it when something is exactly as wonderful as you thought it would be? It just doesn’t happen enough in life, but I’m a lucky girl because here in Japan there are a few things that have thankfully turned out to be exactly as I’d hoped.

Japan FashionEveryone is Stylin’

On any given street in Tokyo at any given time there is a fashion show. Women and men are perfectly coordinated — even to do something as simple as go shopping for more fashionable things to wear. Yeah, it makes me feel frumpy sometimes when I can’t be bothered to do more than throw on my jeans and sneakers, but for the most part it’s inspiring! I love art and fashion, and it’s like Tokyo is a big fashion gallery.

Japan is Sightseeing Heaven

To say Japan is a beautiful country is a big understatement. I seriously doubt I’ll get to see all the places I want to see here, even if I stay for years. There are just so many! The traditional beauty of Kyoto and the Gion district, famous Miyajima shrine in Hiroshima, the beaches of Okinawa, the Islands of Izu, the forests of Nikko, the temples of Kamakura, plus dozens more places that are off the beaten track.

The Best Customer Service in the World

It’s almost shocking how far people will go out of their way to help you out. For example at the grocery store, I asked a stock guy for baking soda, and he told me it was on the first floor. I went upstairs and I had some trouble finding it, then out of nowhere he comes to my rescue with the baking soda in his hand. And people often apologize to me for not speaking English! Plus if you’re lost and ask for directions, people will usually either take you where you want to go or find/draw you a map.

The Food is really different…but really good!

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki

Since coming to Japan some of my favourite Japanese foods are Okonomiyaki, Udon, Japanese curry, and Japanese Shumai. I was a little worried about the food here because seafood is so common, and I wasn’t so much about the seafood back in the day, but everyone who had been to Japan told me the food was amazing, and I’m so glad they were right. Aside from seafood the most popular meat is pork, and I have no problem with that ;) . Japanese fried chicken is also totemo oiishi (very delicious).

For my fellow travellers and expats, was there anything about the country you lived in or visited that turned out to be everything you wanted and more?

Three Reasons Why You Can’t Learn Japanese in a Year

This post was inspired by what was — I’ll say it — a stupid comment on another one of my posts: Why Living in Tokyo is Hard.  In it I talk about my struggle with getting everyday things done in Japanese. A person named “James” had this helpful response:

Seriously if you’re not going to learn the language don’t expect it to be easy living there… I’m sick of these blogs crying about how hard it is moving there when you SHOULD be getting your lazy ass fluent in their language…

For the record yes, I have been studying Japanese, and I’m waaaaay better than I was when I first came. (For example, I don’t run away crying at McDonald’s anymore when they ask me if it’s eat in or take out),  but no I’m still not fluent.

I’ll cut James some slack, because before I did any research at all about what being an expat in Japan would be like, I also thought that I would be able to converse pretty smoothly in Japanese after just one year. I was…wrong, so wrong, but I think this is an idea a lot of people have. The hard truth is if you move to Japan, especially to teach English, after a year you probably still won’t understand even half of what people are saying to you, and here’s why:

You’re Not Really Immersed in Japanese

In fact when you first get here most of your long and/or meaningful conversations will be in English because…you can’t speak Japanese! So you’re going to seek out English services, get friends and coworkers to help you, and continue speaking in the language you actually know how to speak. You’re going to stream movies in English, listen to your English music on your iPod, think in English, eat, sleep and shower all in the King’s English. Plus, if you work teaching English that’s — what — eight hours a day where you’re in an English environment. In fact where I work we’re discouraged from even letting the students know we can speak Japanese. The idea is to try to immerse the students in English for the time they’re at the school. So I’m actually not hearing as much Japanese as I thought I would.

You (Hopefully) Have a Life

Alright, I suppose it’s technically possible to become at least conversational in Japanese after only one year, but it will be at the complete expense of your social life and you’ll have no one to converse with anyway. It’s not like you can just hear Japanese and magically “learn” it. It takes time, and it takes study. Even if you did want to go the “I’ll just listen and pick it up” route,  think about this: A Japanese baby, living in Japanese society, hearing Japanese since birth, using his baby language-learning super powers to suck up the language into his eager baby brain, will still take a good three to four years to start stringing together sophisticated sentences. So if you want to get past cave-man Japanese in just one year, you’re going to have to work at it like it’s your 9-5.

People Will Want to Practice their English with You

So you’ve made some Japanese friends, maybe got a Japanese boyfriend or girlfriend, gotten chummy with your coworkers…what a great resource of people to help you learn Japanese right? Wrong, because you are actually a great resource, a real live English conversation specimen, they can use to hone their English. And referring back to point one, if you want to have any kind of meaningful conversations with your friend/partner it’ll have to be done in English. Besides, your friends aren’t teachers. They may mean well and truly want to help at first, but the halting conversations about the weather will quickly wear thin. I hate to say it, but it’s much more exciting/beneficial for your friends to use you to develop their own English skills, and who can blame ‘em?

So this is my story for why I’m still not bilingual yet, and I’m sticking to it. And don’t get me wrong, despite what I’ve written above I actually really enjoy learning Japanese. I get a secret thrill whenever I understand a few words of what someone has said, and sometimes I even catch a whole sentence! So although I won’t be fluent this year or even next, I’m going to keep at it. And if I’m lucky maybe this time next year I’ll be able to order a pizza.

…And screw you, James.

How I Faced my Fears and Moved to Tokyo

Skydiving Facing FearsIf you’re wondering if you too can take on life as an expat in the country you’ve been admiring from afar, the answer is yes, you can.

Really!

Here’s the thing: My trip to Japan actually started years before I even set foot on the plane. I’d heard about the Japan Exchange and Teaching program (more commonly known as JET) in my first year of University, and given my love at the time for everything I knew about Japan (which was pretty much Final Fantasy, Dragon Ball Z and neon leg warmers) I was determined to sign on once I had the required degree. But…I was scared. At that point I don’t think I’d even been away from my parent’s house for more than a week. Plus I’d been researching — reading about what life was like for foreigners in Japan on blogs and forums, and it wasn’t always positive. Mixed in with stories about ultimate temple crawling and sushi so delicious it could bring peace to the Middle East were anecdotes about racism in Japan: TV shows that catered to stereotypes, Black Sambo dolls, Mr. James (a caricature of a clueless Caucasian foreigner used in a McDonald’s ad campaign) and silly questions and comments like, “do you play basketball?” (if you’re a black foreigner), or “foreigners can’t learn Japanese”.

Fast forward four years and I’d graduated from University, but I needed internship experience to get my journalism diploma from the college I had also been fast tracking through at the time. And that’s how I found myself in an office, working that 9-5, instead of saying a teary goodbye to my family at the airport.

I finished the internship, but stayed on to pay my student loans. One year at the company turned into two, and then three, and suddenly I found myself stressed out over deadlines wondering “whatever happened to Japan?” I started researching Eikaiwa schools because I knew that if I worked with JET I’d probably get sent out to the bush where no one spoke English, and moving to Japan was already tough enough.  Finally, after spending a fitful night worrying about an issue I would have to fix at work on Monday, I woke up one Sunday morning, turned on my computer and just applied online to the school that seemed the best fit.

It’s just an application. I told myself. Even if I do get an interview I don’t have to go.

Well, a couple of days later I got an email, and sure enough I did get an interview, and I did in fact go. I told myself:

I’m just going to the interview; I might not even get the job. And if I do, I don’t have to accept it.

But strangely enough, after the interview the fear started to give way to excitement, and I found myself really hoping that I got the job. Even though the guy who interviewed me said it would take about two weeks for them to let me know, I couldn’t help checking my email every day until finally I got the answer I’d been both hoping for and dreading: I had got the job, and if I accepted I’d be moving to Japan.

Ah yes, now there was a serious decision to make, but once again I just had to trick my brain into believing it was no big deal: I’ll say yes to the job, I can always back out if I change my mind, and I can always move home if I hate living in Japan.

And armed with the knowledge that nothing is forever I was able to take that leap across the globe, and now no matter what happens, I’ll never have to wonder what it would have been like if I had moved to Japan.

I can’t say life here has been perfect, it’s been challenging as you’ll see in some of my other blog posts, but the fact that this is the challenge I chose makes it easier for me to face it. And I’ve only been here ten months, but I feel I’ve learned so much about myself, and gained a lot of confidence too.  I guess successfully navigating life in a foreign country will do that to you.

So I say if you’re thinking about moving abroad, and there aren’t any tangible obligations holding you back (such as a family) then why not take that first step? After all you don’t have to go through with it…but you probably will.

 

 

Fishing in Shinjuku? Who Knew?

It was peaceful, sitting there on the bench with soft shamisen music playing as I watched the pink bait at the end of my fishing line dangling in the water, but that bubble of serenity was about to be popped. Fish after fish swam right by my bait, but finally one was foolish enough to nibble, and as his fishy mouth swallowed up the bait, I yanked on the line, and he began wriggling and struggling, sending water splashing as he fought his fate, but soon the fish was scooped up into a net, where he spent his last living moments.

“Sugoi! (Amazing),” cried the people sitting behind me in our big fishing boat, as I stood with the fish in the net. I had a moment to admire my catch before the waiter took it away to fry it up.

At Zauo restaurant in Shinjuku, the first hint that this is not the usual dining experience is when you’re seated on a bench in what is essentially a giant fishing boat, surrounded by a moat filled with fish.

Fishing at Zauo Shinjuku

As close as you'll get to being out on the open sea in downtown Tokyo

For a few hundred yen, the staff will bring you a fishing pole and bait, and you can fish for what you eat. In fact, if you catch a fish you get a discount. However there are no throwbacks: you catch it you eat it.

Fishing at Zauo Shark

Even if you manage to pull this bad boy

I’ll admit it, fishing for my own fish, and watching it struggle and die was kind of strange…bordering on disturbing. If you’re a squeamish or sensitive person, I wouldn’t recommend it. Still, I figured I wanted to eat fish, and someone’s gotta kill it right? And this way the fish is guaranteed fresh.

Fishing at Zauo caught a fish

Forget catch of the day, it's the catch of the *second*

So if you’re looking to do something unusual, (possibly a bit disturbing) yet entertaining for dinner try fishing at Zauo. The location I visited was on the ground floor of the Washington hotel in Shinjuku, but there are more locations throughout Japan.

This post is part of the November 2011 J-Festa: Dining in Japan.