Thursday, December 27, 2007

Stopping to smell the roses

It's officially winter here in Hiroshima, but you'd never know it looking around you. Every morning I marvel at how many flowers I see even though it's almost January. I can finally see my breath on my walk to school in the morning now, but by afternoon temperatures are hanging out in the mid-50s.

Here are a couple more blossoms I saw on my walk home today.

Lots of trees and bushes are growing various kinds of orange fruit around our area, too. It's almost like I'm in Florida.

Cursing me yet? Take heart. I'm enjoying the flowers while I still can, as it appears their days may be numbered. Weather forecasters are calling for a low of 29 degrees Saturday night.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Celebrating our gifts

Well, we drank the eggnog and lived to tell about it. It was a little thin for eggnog, but it was sweet and eggy. I applaud Joe for his effort to brew it up on Christmas Eve, which we celebrated as Christmas this year. Christmas Eve was a holiday off work to celebrate the emperor's birthday, while Christmas itself was just another regular ole working day.

So we slept in on the 24th and then attacked the presents under our miniature tree, and spent the rest of the afternoon lounging around reading our new books and playing with our new toys.

Around dinner time, we decided to splurge on a pizza. Of course, our Japanese still isn't up to snuff enough to order delivery over the phone yet, so we figured if pizza can't come to us, we must go to it. So we hopped on our bicycles and peddled a chilly two miles to Domino's.

Lucky for us, flags were flying out front announcing it was 20 Percent Off Pizza Day. Whoopee! Unlucky for us, after an exchange with the cashier involving a lot of gesturing and mangled English and Japanese, we finally understood that pizzas could only be ordered for take-out that day. We ordered a deluxe pie anyway and forked over the 2400 Yen (about 24 bucks). Yes, a large deluxe pizza is regularly $30! After racking our brains to think of a nearby warm place where we could hide away to chow down, we came up with nothin'. So Joe wrapped his scarf around the pizza box, stuck it in his bike basket and we raced home, ignoring the brisk night air that whisked away our warmth.

When we got it home and opened it up, all the toppings were piled on one side of the box. A little rearranging and it was fit for consumption. 'Twas delicious. And surprisingly enough, it was still hot. This was the fourth pizza we've had since arriving here and it was the best.

I know this doesn't seem like a big deal to everyone else, but after being in Japan for nearly five months I have a whole new appreciation for pizza. I cannot wait for the day I can actually order a pizza for delivery.

Once our bellies were full of cheesy pepperoni goodness, we washed down some of Joe's eggnog and I made some rice krispie treats with the rice krispies and marshmallows that Mom and Dad so generously mailed me a few weeks ago. Yummy!

All in all, we had a very good holiday. Joe and I enjoyed the day relaxing and giving thanks for the many blessings in our lives. Sometimes I'm still in awe that we're actually here in Japan. Sometimes it is still a little surreal.

I'm still happy we're here, even though the holiday was a little difficult. It wasn't the same being away from family this year, or skipping church for that matter. It's been hard to get into the Christmas spirit this year. Christmas doesn't have that ever-present spirit here that it does back home. And it's strange seeing the decorations in store fronts and just knowing it truly is all commercial here. Yeah, it's commercial back home, too... but there's also a sense of the approaching celebration of a joyous occasion. That part's missing in Japan.

Still, I somehow managed to enjoy the exchanging of gifts, imagine that! ;) My favorite present this year was Cary Tennis's new book "Since You Asked." I am a devoted fan of Cary Tennis, who's written an advice column for since 2001. Mostly I love his writing because he has a tendency to go off on literary tangents with a poetic, philosophical bent. He's more likely to explore questions that have a more universal application to our lives. He tends to move past the practical and consider moral and ethical angles, stuff of the heart, the human condition. And then, sometimes he just rambles in some odd, mind-bending way.

This book is a collection of what he considers to be his best columns. He asked readers to nominate their favorite columns. To my delight, he included the column I nominated, right there on page 174. Yea! What a gift!

So, as my gift to you, I'll reprint a short excerpt of his fine advice here. When I worked at the newspaper, I taped this gem to my cubicle wall.

"Stay one step ahead of the law. Don't ever get too clean. Disguise yourself when you visit the drugstore for a prescription. Live like a happy, contented spouse, and wait for your moment ... be mad but not out of control ... be contrary but not reflexive ... write incomprehensible verses deep in the night while everyone else is sleeping ... Take long walks by the river before they arise ... resist assimilation ... pass notes to strangers in the park ... remain obdurately convinced of the rightness of your most controversial beliefs ... occasionally be inconsolable ... refuse to name your sources ... stay silent under torture ... beware of existence fatigue ... do not believe anyone who calls himself a spokesman ... question yourself mercilessly about your recent whereabouts ... organize yourself for maximum speed .. refuse to use the cruise control ... neither fear nor trust your neighbors ... have a suitcase always packed ... keep your passport handy ... learn a little Arabic ... do not discuss John Ashcroft with anyone. Learn to operate the crystal radio set, and locate the finest cheeses."

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Strolling along Peace Boulevard

Look, they strung Christmas lights all over the A-bomb Dome!

Just kidding.

No, this display is actually a whole different structure that was erected as part of Hiroshima's Christmas lights display downtown along Peace Boulevard.

I'm not sure if it's supposed to actually represent the A-bomb Dome, but it does bare a resemblance... I admit I do find it perhaps a bit tasteless, if that's what it's supposed to be.

At any rate, it's been a real blessing to have such a beautiful display to put us in the Christmas spirit. The lights extend for probably a half-mile down the road, on both sides. It's quite a sight to see! Joe and I have strolled along the walking path twice now to admire the lights and we've been so impressed.

Here's a trippy shot looking up from under the dome. I totally ripped off this angle from Joe.

Unfortunately, most of the pictures I snapped of the lights turned out quite blurry since I don't have a tripod. In some cases, that made for a cool effect that reminds me of how the Christmas tree looks when I'm not wearing my contacts or glasses. With 20/800 eyesight, I would be considered legally blind if my vision wasn't correctible. It's been something of a tradition for me to sit alone and admire the Christmas tree without my glasses every Christmas Eve before I hit the sack. The entire thing just absolutely glows. Looks heavenly, really.

Anyway, to give credit where credit's due, the pictures you see here that are in focus are Joe's. All the blurry stuff is mine. So are the blue tree and the snowman, which actually turned out sorta OK.

The giant blue tree is one of the highlights of the boulevard because of its sheer size. My guess is it is about 50 feet tall.

This particular setup is cool because the blue lights were running to give the effect of a waterfall.

And this sea of blue lights looks like a large pond, with the sidewalk made to look like a bridge crossing the pond in places.

Probably my favorite part of the whole display is this magnificent old tree with gold lights encasing all its branches. How beautiful!

The picture I took of it is interesting if you click on it to see it full size.

We also saw this neat altar along the way. I think it's cute that they dress up the statue in a little red outfit, though I don't think it's a Christmas thing since I've seen this before.

One of the neat things about this display is seeing how the holiday is represented through the filter of another culture. Beyond the standard snowmen, reindeer and choo-choo trains, we saw lights depicting Cinderella, hearts, four-leaf clovers, Puff the Magic Dragon and even a pretty cool-looking phoenix.

Here and there we see small lights displays at homes around the city, but for the most part these lights are the only serious display we've seen. Christmas lights here are expensive — a short strand runs around 40 bucks! So I'm grateful to have such an elaborate display to enjoy downtown. It's a welcome surprise in a place where Christmas is recognized strictly for commercial purposes.

Now that we've enjoyed the lights, it's on to new adventures this Christmas season. This weekend we plan to try our hand at making our own eggnog. Let's hope we don't poison ourselves!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Man candy

Today, while I was browsing the candy aisle at my local "Yours" supermarket, this is what I saw.

That's right, this isn't just any pockey, this is MEN'S pockey. Bitter chocolate pockey to be exact!

I do so wish that the manufacturers had goofed up their translation and called it Bitter Men's Chocolate.

I'm not sure what makes this Men's pockey. I thought perhaps this bitter chocolate stuff is too rough for delicate little flowers like myself to handle. I thought if I ingested some of this man candy I might gain a magical ability to navigate the city without asking for directions. Or maybe I'd suddenly find NASCAR entertaining. Or perhaps I'd finally be able to twist jars open all by myself.

No such luck! I'm here to report that I ate the pockey and none of the above occurred. I still do not have the ability to write golden messages in the snow.

Maybe I just haven't eaten enough of it to notice a difference yet. I wonder if it would help if I enjoyed this "Men's" custard pudding cup. (See the right side of the label.)

Too bad we don't have these goodies back in the states. I'd love to hear what the women's studies majors would have to say about that!

Deck the halls with...

Steamed fish paste balls!

So this was what awaited me when I took the lid off my bento at lunch today. "Oh!" I thought, "A treat!"

And why not? It was pink and green and kind of resembled mochi (pounded rice treat) on a stick.

The teacher sitting next to me was quite amused by the look of horror that flashed across my face when she informed me that it was not mochi, but in fact steamed fish paste, which sounds about as appetizing to me as the fish sausage sold at our neighborhood supermarket.

It was dyed red and green, she explained, to celebrate Christmas.


So even though it wasn't a dessert, I pretended it was and saved it 'til the end. I kinda had to psych myself up to eat it.

As it turns out, it wasn't so bad. It had a faint taste of fish but for the most part it was pretty tasteless and just had a weird chewy consistency.

This is my lot in life for now, I suppose. No chocolate-peanut butter Christmas cookies this year! Just dyed, steamed fish paste. Ganbatte! (Persevere!)

Thursday, December 13, 2007

12 Days of Christmas

Some days, I just can't help but break down into giggles while I'm grading my students' homework. Today was one of those days.

This week I've been teaching my students to sing the 12 Days of Christmas. After they've learned the song, their homework is to write their own 12 gifts to fit the melody of the song. So this morning I got back the first stack of homework and was delighted by some of the cute things they came up with.

Here are some of my favorites. These are funnier if you read them to the tune of the song.

12) twelve Ms. Gails (This kid's a prodigy.)
11) eleven delicious pockeys
10) ten rich uncles (Like I said...clearly, this kid's a prodigy!)
9) nine lunch boxes
8) eight rice balls
7) seven cheeze cakes
6) six note books
5) five golden carenders
4) four lovery snowmans
3) three yellow stars
2) two Christmas trees
1) a cat and a mouse

12) twelve presents for Santa-san (The Japanese add "san" to the end of other people's names as a sign of respect... I just find it so cute that this kid added it to Santa.)
11) eleven soccer players
10) ten singing children
9) nine baseball players
8) eight dancing octopus
7) seven lucky children
6) six Kentakky chickens (This is my favorite line of all.)
5) five beautiful Santa-san
4) four baby crying
3) three little pigs
2) two Tonakais (Apparently, this is a reindeer...)
1) a Big Cake we made

And then, there's this one... from the kid who apparently is in training to be a Japanese gangsta (what they call "Yakuza" 'round these parts).

12) twelve white castles (In case you're wondering, no they don't have White Castle here.)
11) eleven beautiful pictures
10) ten silver dishs
9) nine strange sweets
8) eight cooll cars
7) seven Nike bags
6) six good sox
5) five golden teeth (Awesome.)
4) four fighting dogs
3) three good clothes
2) two hand ball shoes
1) a book and a book mark (I guess I can't say this fits the Yakuza theme, so maybe there's hope for this one.)

I also enjoyed songs that included the lyrics "eight Hawaiian ukuleles," "four fried cartilages," and "nine twinkle trees."

Awww! I love my students.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Twiggy the Mannequin

What's wrong with this picture?

I took this picture during a recent visit to the Diamond City mall in Hiroshima.

Not to get all femi-nazi or anything, but, if the toothpicks masquerading as this girl's legs get any thinner, they'll disappear. Seriously. Her thighs are the size of my arms. You think the American fashion industry is driving throngs of young girls to anorexia? They ain't got nothin' on Japan.

I have to say that one of the surprises in store for me in Japan was the discovery that, at 5-foot-4, 135 pounds, I am a size Extra Large at the Uniqlo, which is essentially the equivalent of an Old Navy. Extra Large. Me. EXTRA LARGE.

It's like some kind of Bizarro universe.

Living here is like being caught in a contradictory existence where I alternate between feeling somehow fat next to all these size zero chicks and yet feeling as though I must be so much healthier than them. There are times when I just want to scream at everyone, "EAT! EEEEEEEEAT!"

On a side note, I'm fascinated by this offbeat article in the Japan Times. There's this eccentric old Japanese dude who spent a lifetime photographing mannequins. He says "feelings emanate from the dolls." He's a retired customs officer. Maybe that explains it... I imagine customs officers are pretty odd ducks.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The wonders of nature

A few inches of snow forced schools to close back home in Ohio this week. But here in Hiroshima, fall is just winding down. Bare trees are finally cropping up, but it's still pretty colorful.

Joe and I took a trip to Miyajima (the island with the "floating" orange torii gate) the day after Thanksgiving to see the leaves. Miyajima is supposed to be quite the sight in the autumn because of all its maple trees. Opting to take the road less traveled to the ropeway that transports visitors to the top of the Mt. Misen, we unwittingly bypassed a park filled with vibrant maple trees. We decided to continue on to the ropeway station rather than double back because the line was really long. I had my heart set on traveling to the mountain top to see the colors from up high and, of course, the wild monkeys. Unfortunately, we discovered at the peak that most of the trees higher up were still green, and the monkeys were nowhere to be seen. Apparently they were finding dinner in the forest. Damn monkeys! After a two-hour wait in line to make it back, those brilliant maples back in the park were cloaked in darkness. So it was a rather disappointing trip this time, but next year we'll get the timing right.

The day after our Miyajima trip, we headed east to Takamatsu to visit my cousin and his family over Thanksgiving weekend. My cousin's mother-in-law made us sukiyaki for Thanksgiving. It's a delicious stew that you cook right at the table in a thing that looks like a cross between a wok and a slow cooker. Joe was even brave enough to eat it true Japanese style, dipping the meat into — get ready, Mom — a cup containing a raw egg.

While we were there, we visited Ritsurin Park, a Japanese garden. Thanks to a slightly warmer climate on Shikoku island, it was still very lush and green.

My favorite part of the park was the pond teeming with koi (carp).

These suckers are huge and hungry. For a little pocket change you can buy some long, thin sticks of bread to feed the fish. You toss those pieces in and they just go crazy flopping all over each other to get to it. I bent down and held the stick to the water's surface and they all flocked to me, slimy scales gleaming, mouths gaping, desperately lunging for the bread in a chorus of sucking sounds.

It was so cool.

Our latest excursion was on Saturday with our Aussie friend Roo. We took a 90-minute bus ride to Sandankyo Gorge, which is famous for waterfalls and 130-foot high cliffs.It was sunny in Hiroshima when we left. But on the other side of some mountains, it was looking pretty gloomy. It started to drizzle as the bus dropped us off, so we each purchased umbrellas. For 500 yen, I got my own personal patch of blue sky. Best purchase I've made in a long time.

The rain grew steadily heavier during our three-hour hike to the waterfalls, until at one point we were forced to huddle under a shelter and wait for the thunder and lightening to pass. We were wet, freezing and questioning the wisdom of this little adventure. But we soldiered on. And as we approached the falls, sure enough, the sun came out!

What an incredible sight...

I was happy to finally break out my camera to capture the beauty of this place on the hike back. Most of the leaves were past their prime here but there was still plenty to see.

After returning, we discovered we'd misread the bus schedule and missed the bus by 10 minutes. So it was a two-hour wait for the next bus.

I poked around a little gift shop where this lady was selling roasted mochi. It looks like roasted marshmallow, but it's actually a sticky, dense, pounded rice ball. She brushed it with barbecue sauce before handing it to me. Not bad...but no roasted marshmallow.

Wandering through the store, I was most delighted to find this gem.

Take a closer look. Do you see there, the sticker...?

Ah yes, that's right, a little girl with four bloody bullet holes in her chest!

See, here in Japan, they don't have pansy little kids asking for an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle for Christmas! Ooooh, nooo, why have that when you can get the rifle meant to pierce the hearts of little children? "You'll shoot your eye out!"? Bah Humbug!

At least this one looks like an actual toy, unlike some of the other plastic guns I've seen around here. The 100 Yen store (dollar store) near my apartment sells a toy AK-47 that truly looks like the real thing.