Friday, October 31, 2008

Sannomiya pt 1 (of...)

Yesterday night was a confusing mess of social interaction. I always have fun in Japan at night, but I think after last night I have had my fill of karaoke...

Firstly, I had basically staked out the limits for tonight's dealie in advance: only certain people were going to be doing this with me, we were first going to go to some sort of residence-hosted party in Nada station (the first station east of Sannomiya on the JR line). Afterward, yesterday was my friend Matt's birthday, so I wanted to make sure I stuck with him most of all and buy him a few drinks for his birthday.

It started off without a hitch: Joe was with me, we went to the party, everything was good. I met quite a few people at the party, met up with a larger group of people who were going to a bar in Sannomiya. I haven't been there all that often to do anything at night, and what I did go to was a club I didn't like. Somehow (I am not sure how) people invited people invited people and six people turned into twenty-five or more. So this massive group went downtown and after ten minutes of standing around, I tried to split the group to go somewhere, but it inevitable reformed. Finally I took Matt and some friends (and whoever had decided at this point to hop on to our bandwagon as well) to a cheap izakaya so that this original bar-going group could do what they originally intended to.

Izakaya was good, and the people were nice, but the group was a big group of guys which is always weird... like, if a group of people has around six guys and four girls, its different. The group actually had one girl who largely sat. Her English was bad and my Japanese is pretty bad at this point, so there wasn't any hope for that at all. A Chinese friend ordered two strange things: Tako (Octopus) Wasabi and what he described as "chicken bones" but were actually chicken cartilage. That is probably the weirdest thing I have eaten since I came to Japan, and their texture was a relatively tenderized version of a rubber bouncing ball. Guh.

Perhaps the highlight of the night was drunkenly rushing through a store here called "Don Quixote" which I had heard much about but never entered. The place is four or five floors of discounted items, but arent placed in any particular order I could discern. I rushed around trying to find (surprise!) more alcohol for people outside but I got lost and actually couldnt find my way out of the store. Someone had to come find me in the labyrinth so that I could buy some melon chu-hai and try to make conversation in Japanese with the clerk. That was probably one of the most surreal experiences I have had since I came here. In fact, in that moment I achieved a state of mind which probably has been addressed somewhere in French literature with much more vigor and detail, but which I simply call "Raoul Duke on Ether." It was quite fantastic and I am looking forward to doing it again.

How was I able to get away with all this public foolishness you say? Read: using my gaijin powers for evil. See: Gaijin Smash.

That's just a good blog in general. Even after coming to Japan, I still maintain the guy at least appears a little too rude and apathetic for my tastes, but not that I am here, I completely understand what he is talking about around eighty percent of the time. It's actually kind of scary how accurate they usually are.

Well, speaking of parties, I'm supposed to go drinking with a load of French people tonight. I love French people; they usually have two social stages if they are the same age as you. Fake nice, and He's-not-an-unreasonable-American nice. I should add that if you start swinging a your American flag around without explaining yourself (for a Frenchman doesn't care if you are a patriot so long as you are not a warmongering jerk who always tries to talk politics with people as an icebreaker) you'll be stuck in a "pocket" nice stage wherein they will ignore you and try again to be nice once you've stopped bleeding hamburgers, apple pie, and pizza, screaming "MERICA" at the top of your lungs.

So these French guys and girls are fantastic. Alexi, the guy who took me to Osaka for the first time, will probably be there as well. Should be a good Saturday night, and also Monday is a holiday so I might head for Kyoto or Meriken Park here in Kobe. Who knows. It's a bit easier to just go with the flow here, but I have learned that you need to sort of group up at the start of something so as not to get lost in the ebb and flow of gaijin who will desperately cling to you in order to share tabs at an izakaya or karaoke place.

Once again,


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Last Saturday I went to Himeji.

I went for Himeji Castle, specifically. I did it mostly because I haven't left Kobe very often since I have been here, and with the train system being what it was, I thought going to see one of the closest landmarks would be a good thing.

The day began somewhat early for a Saturday, and I saw a festival on the way to the train station:

It's a pretty good portrait of urban Japan, actually.

First, we went to a yoshoku (western-style) restaurant. It was good but like all yoshoku a little confusing. The food was part japanese, part american, and quite a bit of japanese-style italian mixed in. The walls were covered in pictures and old signs like a typical American bar-and-grill, but it was sort of... off. Our (Me, Yuka, and her boyfriend, Andrew) waiter was very friendly and engaging, though my Japanese was dodgy and broken as always so I did as best I could to entertain his fascination.

Himeji castle was fantastic, and my first real bit of old Japan outside of the shrines that I have found throughout Kobe city proper. The doorways were short for me, even for some of the Japanese, and after walking through it I am quite sure it would have been hard for someone to take the castle by force (though this was never tested). The trek to the Samurai's castle through the castle groups zigzagged back and forth uphill, so that attackers could easily be sniped at close range by archers.

This next picture was in the genkan slipper area. The genkan is the part of the japanese traditional household where one steps out of their shoes and puts on slippers so as to not track dust and dirt in the house and generally show respect and awareness.

Here are some pictures from inside the castle:

Woohoo! You know, the Jesuits inadvertently helped bring these to Japan. Typically Christian missionaries brought gun technology or it followed them through trade soon thereafter, their conversion intent be damned.

Typical samurai armor... but its real. I should be so used to images such as these, but they still amaze me because chances are these were really USED.

This was a little shrine, called Osakabe, at the top. I don't know why there was sake here, but I am sure there is a good reason. Anyone care to explain? Apparently a swordsman named Musashi Miyamoto haunts this place.

View from the shrine at the top. 6th floor, I think.

I don't know. I couldn't stay to read the plaque, since the place was starting to shut down for the day (we got there rather late).

This was the Hari-kiri place- harikiri is ritualized suicide to preserve honor in old japan- but Yuka told me it was never actually used. Still spooky that so large a place was dedicated to such things.

This was a well where a famous ghost story takes place, called "Banshu Sara-Yashiki." A servant named Okiku thwarted a conspiracy against the current samurai lord by a chief retainer. When the retainer found out that it was her fault, he stole one of the "ten treasure dishes" of the lord and she was tortured to death on the charge of missing the dish. The retainer threw her body into the well, and she is supposed to haunt it also.

Beautiful Japanese scenery. I have to say, Himeji has given me a taste of traditional Japan that I want to explore further, particularly what is there for me in the local area. I definitely want to go to Kyoto but from what I understand I may not have much longer before it just gets too cold.

I am signing up for a host family, so that should be good. I would visit them about 2-3 times a month and go places that only a resident would know about. It should be awesome.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Everyone Reading,
It's been a long time since my last post, forgive me. Time hasn't so much flown as been suddenly crowded with things that I need to do. Despite the fact that I am going to be here for a year, I am also aware that my stay here is limited. Everything I do is a wasted hour that I could spend studying, meeting loads of new people, and seeing Japan. I have waited until after this initial week of cramming for my first exam (which was over an entire book) in my intensive course.
The course (my language course) is every day from 8:50 AM to 12:30 PM. I have additional classes in the afternoon on certain days; they are a welcome distraction from my language course because that course is very fast, very hard, and very time consuming. This semester, until I really begin to develop a study rhythm, I donit think I will be doing much in the way of social events during the week. There are a few "circles" I will definitely go to (circles are like normal clubs in American schools- think high school art club, but a bit more dedicated, while the groups called "clubs" are actually like hardcore team sports) including Truss, which is intended to actually help other international students, as well as a karate circle and a hiking circle.
The most time consuming thing, however, has been getting used to Japan. Before I complain about that, let me say that I have no idea how anyone could expect to become fluent in a language without living in a country that speaks said language. It doesn't really matter how long, but you have to understand how life plays out on a daily basis to understand communication in any form, because that is what people primarily talk about.
Another thing to note about my particular frame of mind here is that everyone in my classes and in my dorm is older than me by three years or more with few exceptions. I have met alot of people but I think there is a big disconnect between people my age from 19-22 and people 23-27. I just haven't been living on my own quite that long. I don't really even have a solid reason for coming here beyond my own education and building myself as a potential employee or professional. Many people are on their last year in school and are looking for jobs here or they are research students. Then again... maybe that is just what turning twenty is. You start to notice this and the PARTYPARTYPARTY impulse is still there, but not constantly muttering in your ear like a lobbyist who needs to persuade you to do something but simultaneously needs to pee.
At any rate, this last weekend I went to Osaka for the first time. For those not in the know, Osaka is actually about 20-25 minutes away from downtown Kobe (Sannomiya) by JR express train. I went to Dotonbori, a shopping "way" in Nanba, which is sort of the south side of Osaka. While it is admittedly a little more run down than Umeda, the north part of Osaka, I didn't see much real urban decay aside from areas that alot of people use, which is normal for a city the size of Osaka.
Anyway, here are pictures of that:

We (me and my friend Alexi, a Parisian) actually didn't head down this street and went the other way. We had originally gone to Osaka just to go to Yodobashi Camera, where I bought my electronic dictionary. It was around $285 USD and was on sale, so I got a fairly good deal.

This is from inside the other side of Dotonbori. We went into here to, well, shop. However, unlike Athens, there are many, many other things to do in public during the day, so this is one of the few occasions where I intentionally went out to shop.

To anyone planning on going to Japan: Do not worry about ordering at restaurants. There are menus everywhere that you can just point to. Here is a typical storefront in Japan, especially at Western-style cafes and smaller restaurants not affiliated with chains like Fugetsu or Yoshinoya. Obviously you wouldnt get anywhere with NO Japanese, but you don't need to know much to order at a restaurant. Of course, I can't understand conversation a waitress is making 70% of the time, but I can get by with small talk and simple questions.

They've been advertising the hell out of Ugly Betty lately.

Nice mix of old, new, and the mass of ads that is commercial Japan.

Ah, Okonomiyaki. In Kobe, this is a staple. I know that it has been called "Japanese Pizza" before but I don't think that is really the case other than that, like with American pizza, you tend to eat it when you are hanging out with people.

Port Island, where I live at the moment. It sort of feels like its own borough, and is very quiet (except in the morning when advertising trucks drive past my window fgsfdsdsfargg!!!11)

Later that night I went to an izakaya for nomihodai. Both of these are very important terms, blog readers, and you will soon know them well: izakaya is where you rent out a room- I have had some like western style booths and like quasi-traditional Japanese rooms both, and order loads of food and drink and everyone foots part of the bill. Nomihodai is as much as you can drink for two hours. It costs around 15-20 USD. You have to be careful if it isnt a tabehodai (all you can eat) or nomihodai because while the food is cheaper than normal, that isnt very cheap by my cheap American college student standards. At any rate, that is what izakaya is in a nutshell.

This was an izakaya between exchange students from my home university and Japanese who had been on exchange there before. All three of the Japanese (Yuka, Akane, and Tetsuya) have helped me immensely both in the US and here, so I am extremely grateful for their help.

Tetsuya was my language exchange partner at my home university and I have learned alot from him, and he also picked me up at the airport and took me out for okonomiyaki, squid, and beer on my first night.

Yuka is amazing, I also knew her in the US and she sat through literally 2 hours to help me and my friend Shin (also on exchange to Kobe University) get cell phones and has run with me to the bank twice, couldn't be doing what I am doing without her.

Akane has dealt with all of the crap from the internet company because, as you know, I had to privately set up my internet. She also set up the izakaya ahead of time.

In typical Ryan fashion I apologized and praised them in spades during nomihodai. Praising people too much is actually sort of patronizing here, but all three of them think a bit differently from the normal Japanese, simply because they have been abroad and understand culture acquisition.

I had a great time but didnt really try to get into my cups until around the 1:35 minute mark, which was a mistake but probably for the best as I had class the next day (This was a Sunday night).

Yuka being awesome.

Umeshuu, otherwise known as "Nectar of the Kami." This is sort of a girly drink, but I am a foreigner so it just comes off as funny. If you get it mixed, that's okay, but I will make a note of it for the far future when I am hanging out with Japanese and actually speaking Japanese. Nevertheless, try some in America on the rocks as a sour, since in America the Umeshuu we have is particularly syrupy.

Tetsu and Chris. Chris is from my home university and is going to Kansai Gakuin in Osaka.

Akane, cute picture.

Yoshinoya. The Waffle House of Japan. Gyuudon (beef rice bowl) for only 3.50 USD. I have heard there is Unadon here (Unagi, or eel rice bowl) which would be fantastic but I have yet to find it on the menu.

A very familiar scene to anyone who goes clubbing or partying in Japan, I am sure. The trains close at around midnight everywhere and start again from 5-6 depending on how far out you live from a city. So, if you want to go clubbing late, you are going to be out all night or you need to live within 45 minutes walking distance of wherever you want to go. On the flip side, that usually means people stay to socialize in clubs longer.

So, that was last weekend. This week has just been class, class, and meeting some new Japanese friends at a circle in university (who I will probably go to karaoke with tomorrow after a school function (sort of) for exchange students tomorrow night.

Jaa, mata ne!

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Quick Post from "Media Cafe Popeye" an otaku media den whose walls are insulated with manga.

Hello hello hello everyone,
So... my first week was a pretty bumpy ride. My initial culture shock was sort of quadrupled by the fact that I had no way to contact my family immediately beyond pay phones. Admittedly, the office at my dormitory has done their best to accomodate everyone here- there is one (1) international payphone in the lobby that hates me and would accept my phone card but no numbers would work, not even local ones. There was no internet, which was sort of a surprise for me because I was banking on having video skype as soon as I arrived. I was pretty pissed off, actually, because no one warned me about this... this, and everyone who actually lives on Port Island apparently hates this dormitory because most of the students are idiots and blast music at 4 in the morning while drinking.

Money works weird here. I was forewarned, but I wasnt prepared. Its hard to keep track of money; It isnt that my spending is out of control, its that so much of it is lost to change, but then you NEED the change to get on trains and work vending machines, which are everywhere, but I am trying to avoid that habit or else only get juice or water from them.

A grab bag of observations before this hour runs out:

- all of the guys here dress very effeminately. Upon reflection, guys in the states nowadays who are somewhat wealthy and fashionable also do this, so whatever. I am not sure how to explain this, but I think it is an interesting, is somewhat frivolous, quality of life here.

- ordering food is the hardest part of being a foreigner, but here models of the food in a restaurant are displayed outside and you can just point and say *kore, onegaishimasu*

-I have so many freaking 10 yen pieces. I have at least 500 yen worth. Even if I get a drink with this every day, the amount would exponentially grow. I must be missing something here, so feel free to explain.

That`s all for now! I will probably update again tomorrow with pictures, and I will update much more frequently when I get internet on the 22nd of this month (sooo far away, I just have to deal.

~Peace and Love