Friday, July 25, 2008

Cormorant fishing in Miyoshi

A manhole cover in Miyoshi

Last Sunday, Joe and I decided we needed a break from the city, so we took a day trip to the little town of Miyoshi in the north end of the prefecture.

Half the reason for going was actually just the train ride. We'd heard the Geibi line is very scenic, and indeed it was. The tracks ran across the countryside between towering mountains, past tiny villages and vibrant green rice paddies. From our house it was a two-hour ride, but it passed in no time since we spent the whole trip gazing out the windows.

After we'd arrived and grabbed some lunch at the local "cultural center," which just looked like an ordinary mall, we struck back out into the heat and hunted down a shrine near the train station.

The shrine itself wasn't anything much out of the ordinary, but it was tucked away up on the side of a hill among some tall trees and grassy areas, which was very peaceful. It also gave us a nice view over the city, which has a population of about 60,000 people.

We wandered around town a bit admiring the rice paddies and thoroughly sweated through our clothes in the 90+ heat.

Then came the other half of our reason for visiting Miyoshi — finding the spot on the Basen River where we could see cormorant fishing later that evening.

Cormorant fishing, or ukai, dates back 1,300 years. Miyoshi is one of a handful of places throughout Japan where you can witness this traditional method of fishing on summer evenings. Instead of using fishing poles, these fishermen use specially trained cormorant birds. The fishermen put the birds on leashes and the birds dive under water to catch fish. A harness tied around their neck prevents the birds from actually swallowing the fish, so the fishermen can pull them back to the surface and make them spit the fish out. Poor birds...

You can make reservations to ride the boats and witness the fishing up close, but a fellow teacher who grew up in Miyoshi told me rides are 8,000 yen ($80) per person, which was a bit too steep for Joe and I, even considering that the price included a bento dinner. Now if it was steak, then we could talk about it.

We arrived well before the start of the fishing at 7:30 PM, so we got to watch the fishermen set up their boats, assembling tents over top and stringing Japanese lanterns down the sides.

Soon men and women began showing up in colorful yukata. They took their seats on the boats and ate dinner while the fishermen prepared the birds nearby.

At nightfall, the boats, lanterns lit, pulled away and set off down the river. The boats with passengers rode alongside the boats carrying the birds, and fisherman held large lamps over the birds as they swam so everyone could see them dive down and come up with the fish.

Apparently other places, like Iwakuni, actually use large torches instead of lamps, which I think would be a lot more thrilling.

Joe and I could see the birds diving, but unfortunately we couldn't actually get close enough to see them coughing up any fish. But I got to see the catch after they returned. There were several bins like this.

Hopefully the fishermen treat the birds to a few of these at the end of the night.

It was all quite a spectacle. It's when I see stuff like this that I really feel blessed to be here in Japan, seeing things that most other people don't get to see.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Latest addition to the "WHAT the...??!" file

This is one of the traditional Japanese squat toilets in the lady's restroom at my school. Looks like fun, doesn't it?

I remember the first time I saw one of these after our arrival in Tokyo. I didn't know what to make of it, but I really had to go and there was no other option. I was convinced the first time I used it that I'd peed all over the back of my pants and that I'd walk out looking like a total fool. Once I was finished of course I discovered I hadn't peed on myself after all and all was right with the world. It took a while to get over the fear of peeing on myself but after using the squatters several times without incident, I kind of got over it.

In case you are wondering how you're supposed to use it, you just face the pipes, scooting as far forward as possible so as not to overshoot the pot, and squat all the way down to your ankles and go. I usually pull up a bit on the crotch of my pants just to make sure there are no accidents.

Joe has a couple very entertaining stories about his misuse of these toilets, but I'll leave those for him to tell someday.

These kind of toilets are the most common toilets around here, though some restrooms also will have a western toilet, often a bidet.

So I no longer get my panties in a wad about using one of the squatters, and in fact I admit that in some cases they are even nicer than regular western toilets because there's no actual physical contact with a toilet seat. In other cases, however, they can really be pretty disgusting, most notably at the train stations, where they are quite often utterly filthy. It's not a pleasant experience to squat down right up close and personal with a grimy, foul smelling pot (not to mention the surrounding floor).

I'd complained about this a while back to Joe's family, and his younger sister Jenny apparently took it upon herself to help me solve this problem.

In a recent package that arrived from Joe's family, there were two flat, square gifts addressed to me from Jenny. I opened the first one and looked at it.

Turning it over to the back side...

Say it with me now: "WHAT the...??!"

I turned to Joe, who was chewing his dinner, and said, "What the hell is this?! Did you know she was getting me this?"

"Yeah," he said. "What's the big deal?"

He was confused. I was confused. Was this not "chotto hen" (a little weird)?

He finally paid attention to what was in my hands and realized it wasn't what he was expecting — the folded up "international translator" sheet with pictures you can point to in everyday situations when you don't know the word for something. That was the other square flat gift. She said she found both of them at Magellans online travel supply store.

We both had a hearty chuckle over this strange and unexpected gift. I opened it up to check it out and saw it's basically just a paper funnel that ladies are supposed to, you know, hold just so. You know, in a manly kinda way. No squatting required.

Yes, for my birthday, Jenny gave me the ability to pee like a man. Um, thank you, Jenny.

The package cautions me in five different languages that "The use of the Urinelle could feel strange at first. Be aware that the tube will feel warm."

Hmm. I'll have to take the package's word for it because this is a little too strange for me to try. But I'll keep 'em around. I guess you never know when we might go somewhere where I'd be glad I had them.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Love shack!

Loyal readers may recall that I mentioned recently that Joe and I had planned a trip to a love hotel for my birthday.

Well, we did indeed rent a room a couple weekends ago after a sudsy evening at a beer garden bidding farewell to fellow JETs who are leaving Japan.

Mom and Dad, continue reading at your own risk.

For those of you unfamiliar with Japanese love hotels, let me explain a little about them. Due to the high population density of Japan, living quarters in the city tend to resemble sardine cans. Families with children often live in small apartments with very little privacy. As you can imagine, this can make certain activities difficult for moms and dads, or even adult children still living at home with their parents. Enter the Japanese love hotel — hotels designed with one specific purpose in mind.

Now at first you might have the same reaction to this that I did — Eeeew! But we were told time and again that they are actually very nice and very clean, quality places. The rooms are larger and more comfortable than rooms in regular hotels, but the price is the same or lower. And they've got all sorts of room service with quality food and drink delivered to your door.

Of course, there's a reason for that: once you enter the room, it locks behind you. Until you submit your payment into a machine by the door, you cannot leave. And once you leave the room, you cannot return.

Acting on the recommendation of one of my Japanese friends, we headed to the Hotel Royal on the Tenmagawa River.

It's the large white building in front.

We had my Japanese friend call this hotel a few days earlier to make us a reservation, but discovered that the hotel does not actually take reservations, so instead we just showed up to see what was available. Inside the door, you see a large board with pictures of all the rooms. (You can see pictures here. Look on the left side of the screen and click on the third link under "What's New." Then scroll down.)

The available rooms are lit up on the board, and you just hit a button for the one you want. When we arrived, there was only one available room. At 14,000 yen ($140) I do believe this was probably one of the more expensive rooms in the hotel. The price tag made me wince a bit, but we figured we at least felt sure that this particular hotel was nice, and we didn't know what we would get if we tried a different hotel. Not exactly a gamble I was inclined to take. And actually, even though this was an expensive room for the love hotel, it was still on par with what Joe and I have had to pay before when we've stayed in regular hotels. The regular hotels (nothing fancy whatsoever) that we've stayed in have charged us 6000 to 8000 yen ($60-$80) per person.

So we hit the button to take the room for the night (they rent them hourly, too, if you want).

At that point, I think we could've headed upstairs to our room without ever talking to anyone, but the clerk at the front desk called us over to make sure we knew what we were doing since we're foreign. She told us in Japanese not to use the phone and then sent us on our way.

There was a flashing red light in front of our door when we arrived. Wasn't sure how to feel about that.

Inside, here's what we saw.

The bed was to the left. It was probably the most comfortable bed I've slept in since arriving in Japan. That's not saying it was super comfy, but it was nice, and it had a nice down comforter to protect against the room's good air conditioning.

Looking to the right of the bed, we saw a cool wide-screen flat television with a sweet surround sound stereo system. Along with the stereo, it appeared the walls were also soundproof, as I never heard a single peep from any of our neighbors.

Moving on. The carpet was a plush gray shag, very soft. Shag carpet... seems appropriate!

And then this was the wall across from the foot of the bed — a deep, sexy red to complement all the sleek gray and black decor.

The room featured all sorts of adjustable lighting as well. Tinted mirrors lined the ceiling on an angle.

The bathroom area was back past the TV. First, the sink:

The toilet was in its own room off to the left. It was a bidet toilet, of course, but this was the first bidet I'd seen in Japan that actually featured a dryer. I usually never use the bidets in Japan because I haven't figured out how you're supposed to clean yourself up properly after spraying all that water. I mean, toilet paper just comes apart when it gets too wet.

So I tried using this bidet thinking the experience might be a bit more pleasant. There are two buttons — one for your bum and one for your other parts — but both of them just sprayed me pretty forcefully in the ass. When I tried to scoot into position, I just ended up sending water spraying way out into the room. Oops. No doubt Joe wondered why there was water all over the floor. Likewise, the dryer was equally useless as the hot air it blew out didn't dry anything very quickly. So I guess I can say the bidets are still lost on me.

To the right of the sink was the shower room, and it was big enough to fit a dozen people.

The hot tub wasn't big enough to fit both me and Joe, but it did have all these different colored lights that would cycle through the water...Red, pink, green, blue, purple....

In addition, the room was equipped with a refrigerator set up like a vending machine inside, so you could take out cold drinks that you could pay for later. It also had a food vending machine with various snacks like ramen noodles and udon... and a couple uh, shall we say, entertaining gadgets.

All in all, it was a fun experience. It was indeed a quality place. The only thing that wasn't quite up to snuff were the wall decorations. There was this one with a crucifix on it...

And then there was this one. Not so bad at first sight.

But look closer at the writing at the top...

What. The. Hell? Jesus in a love hotel?

As my friend Paul put it, "If they were trying to make all the guys have performance problems, they should have capped it all off with a picture of the pope above the headboard!"

Even the artwork in the hallway continued this theme.

Uuuuuuuuuuuhh. Right.

All I can say is, Japan being a Buddhist country, sometimes I don't think the Japanese see images portraying Christianity the same way some westerners do.

A perfect example is this poster I've seen around various places advertising the Hiroshima Carp's last year in their old stadium.

Look familiar?

This poster is hanging on the wall at the special education school I visit twice a month. The team manager (the only white guy) portrays Jesus with all the Japanese baseball players as his disciples (speaking of which, I wonder how the player standing in for Judas felt?). When I pointed out that making a parody of the Last Supper was offensive, the teachers didn't understand what I meant. Take a closer look at this ad and you'll see an additional absurdity: the Mona Lisa is hanging on the wall in the background, but her face has been photoshopped out and replaced with the manager's face. Nice.

I digress. The love hotel was a fun experience, and if I were travelling somewhere for one night and had to choose between staying in a love hotel or in a regular hotel, I'd probably take a chance on the love hotel. It was a pretty posh place.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Yummy yakiniku (say that 10 times fast)

Besides the cute little Indian restaurant in our neighborhood that I absolutely adore, I also love restaurants serving yakiniku, also known as Korean barbecue. So that's where we headed to celebrate my 28th birthday last Friday, July 11.

At yakiniku restaurants, you order a platter of raw meat and vegetables and cook them right there at your table in a grill inset into the middle of the table. It is without a doubt the kind of thing that would short circuit the brains of food health and safety inspectors back home. I know already that this is one of the things I will miss most fervently about Japan when we leave.

Unfortunately I can't imagine a place like this ever flying in the U.S. I can see the lawsuits now the first time some macho moron eats a piece of raw meat and gets food poisoning, or when some kid manhandles the raw meat and then lays his bacteria laden little mitts all over everything in sight and sickens everyone.

I've gotta hand it to the Japanese — there are some things here that are just a lot more fun because they don't get super uptight and regulate everything based on the lowest common denominator in society. This is one of those things. People here understand that if they decide to do something and they get hurt somehow, well, they took the risk and it's their own fault. If you eat a raw egg and get sick, well that's your own fault. If you fall off a five-story human pyramid on sports day and break your leg, your fault. Participate in a fire festival and engulf yourself in flames — your fault. Go to yakiniku restaurant and improperly cook the meat — Your Fault!

This particular platter ran us around 4500 yen ($45) and had asparagus, carrots, pumpkin, and bite-sized morsels of beef, chicken and some other unidentified meat (I prefer it that way). You just let it grill and then you dip it in a very tasty barbecue-like sauce. A little ventilation system built into the side of the grill immediately wicks up all the smoke and redirects it outside.

I liked this restaurant, though I think I prefer the places that offer tabehodai (all you can eat) yakiniku for a set price and time limit. The last one we went to, in Kyoto, had a 90-minute limit. We can eat a lot of meat in 90 minutes. A lot. And it was all you can eat dessert, too. Let me say that again: All you can eat dessert. No wonder this isn't in America. Double the lawsuits! Picture the headlines now: "900-pound lady sues yakiniku chain, claims it didn't warn her all-you-can-eat dessert would cause her to swell up like a manatee."

Speaking of swelling up like a manatee...

Joe, my lovely, perfect, amazing husband, came home from work today carrying this:

Real honest-to-God chocolate cake. Not impostor Japanese sponge cake. Real Betty Crocker cake from a box and sinful chocolate icing. My parents sent it from home, and he baked it in the Home Ec room at his school today on his lunch break. At first I thought it was a mirage. But it wasn't. It was really real. I stuffed myself with chocolate cake tonight after dinner, and it was wonderful. I am a lucky, lucky girl.

Monday, July 14, 2008

My yukata

Remember how I said Joe's anniversary present to me would be a yukata? Well we met up with our private Japanese teacher recently and went to the Fukuya department store to go buy one. As it turns out we were able to buy a yukata off the rack instead of having one made. Since it's really kind of like a big bathrobe, there's not a whole lot of tailoring involved.

Anyway, this is me looking like a goof in the yukata. The sales ladies were nice enough to let me try several on while I tried to decide which one I liked the best. Joe took a picture of me in each one so I could compare, but it didn't occur to me at the time that this would really be the only picture I'd have to show you until I actually wear the yukata to a real event. So since I wasn't worried about looking all glamorous in the photo, this is all we've got. But at least you can see what it looks like. I liked the little blue leaves on this yukata. I thought they were pretty. I'm not sure when I'll wear it yet, but I think I'm going to avoid wearing it the next couple months when it's super hot. I want to avoid soaking this thing in sweat since the sales ladies told us that we shouldn't put it in the washing machine, and we shouldn't dry clean it either. So it will have to be just hand wash.

Even though the sales lady dressed me in different yukata several times, I'm still not entirely sure how she wrapped it up. It's kind of complicated. But she told me that I'm welcome to come back to the store and they'll help me put it on when I want to wear it.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Take me out to the Carp game!

Lots of stuff has happened in a short period of time recently so I'm going to be writing about some things a little after the fact. First up — our first trip to a Hiroshima Toyo Carp professional baseball game.

The beloved Carp are playing their last year in Hiroshima Shimin stadium in the heart of downtown. A new stadium is under construction near Hiroshima Station. I wanted to make sure we caught a game before the old stadium met the wrecking ball.

So on Sunday, July 6, we packed up some sunblock and a couple beers in a soft cooler and headed downtown to see the Carp take on the Yakult Swallows from Tokyo.

I expected it to be a strange sort of de ja vu. You see, the Carp have the exact same red uniforms and "C" logo as the Cincinnati Reds back home. And, in some sort of hilarious cosmic joke, they are also huge losers just like the Reds. My first thought was, "Well, is it any wonder they're not vicious fighters when they're named after a big icky fish?" Turns out that in Japanese culture, the carp is actually a symbol of strength and perseverance. Rather fitting for a team that formed five years after the atomic bomb obliterated the city. So I guess blame for the team's losing nature will have to be placed elsewhere — like the players.

As it turned out, the Swallows' record was about as bad as the Carp, so there was some hope the Carp might just flip its bad karma the bird and pull out a win for the home team. That's what I was hoping for when Joe and I trooped into the stadium with my supervisor and a couple new friends we've recently been hanging out with, Katie and Jason. Through some blog networking, I found Katie's blog and discovered she lives downtown and moved here a few weeks after me, she's my age, and she's also from the Dayton area. We got together a few weeks ago for the first time and saw Indiana Jones (the first movie Joe and I'd seen in Japan — the theater was really nice, basically the same as back home) and we've gotten together a couple times since then.

We'd planned to get seats in one area behind home plate for 2000 yen (20 bucks) but they were sold out, so we ended up forking over 3500 ($35) a piece for the tickets, which made me cringe a bit because it hurt our wallet but also because it practically doubled the price that I'd quoted to Katie and Jason.

The silver lining was that we actually were seated below the second deck, which meant we spent most of the game in the shade while everyone else roasted in the afternoon sun. It was over 90 degrees when the game started at 1:30, and I'm sure it just got hotter. The sun in Japan is really brutal. You can feel OK in the shade, but as soon as you step into the sun, it feels like you're in an oven. So we lucked out with the seats. Here's the view from where we sat:

The cool thing about Shimin stadium is its small size. It is actually the smallest professional baseball stadium in Japan, which is probably why it sees more home runs than any other stadium. It rather reminded me of the stadium that the Dayton Dragons play in. We felt really close to the field and players even though our seats were almost at the back of the first deck.

The fans seated in the outfield were the liveliest, always participating in coordinated cheers with standing and sitting and chanting of players' names. Our section was pretty tame, though. There was no heckling or obnoxious behavior, but they still did their share of cheering, especially when the Carp scored, which prompted everyone to pump their fists and cry "Bonzai!!!"

And instead of the traditional "Take me out to the ball game" song, they sing a traditional fight song during the seventh inning stretch. Everyone blows up these long pink phallic looking balloons and waves them around during the song. At the end they let go and the balloons go spiraling up into the sky and rain back down onto the crowd. That was pretty cool.

I forgot my video camera, but I found someone else's video on YouTube:

They also played the Chicken Dance and that obnoxious Black Eyed Peas song, "Lady Lumps." I had to roll my eyes at that. Actually, I was really hoping to hear the Japanese sing along to that one, given the trouble they have saying R sounds instead of L sounds, hehehe. No such luck.

Here's the Carp mascot leading the YMCA. No, the mascot isn't a carp. It's some sort of blue dinosaur named Slyly. Ronald McDonald also made an appearance to rally the crowd.

Prices were pretty reasonable at the game. A draft beer went for 400 yen ($4). If memory serves correct, a beer at the Reds game I attended in 2003 was $6.50.

They had beer girls wandering through the stands with mini kegs on their backs. Pretty nifty, huh? They need to adopt these in the U.S.! I wish we had these in college. I would've been the most popular person at parties.

Fans also have the option to buy nomihodai (all you can drink) rights when they purchase their tickets. Not sure of the price but I believe that adds somewhere around 2000 yen ($20) to the cost of your ticket.

I didn't see anyone munching on hot dogs or peanuts, but Joe did buy a cup of popcorn while we were there. I saw other fans eating udon (Japanese noodles). This cute little truck made the rounds marketing ramen noodles between innings, though I can't imagine they were selling much of it given the heat.

The Carp ended up losing 5-3, so I guess I had the true Carp experience. It was a good one.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Second wedding anniversary

Today is Joe's and my two-year wedding anniversary.

Two years. Two years!

I can hardly believe it. It seems like just yesterday I was pouring myself into that dress and gliding down the aisle, shaking like a little leaf the whole way. Joe made faces at me at the alter to try to calm me down.

And then... there was this scene at the reception when he retrieved the garter...

He's so wildly inappropriate. How could I not love him?

It's strange to think that now nearly half our marriage has been spent in Japan.

We didn't do anything special today to celebrate since it's in the middle of the week. This weekend, Joe has to work on Saturday and we've got plans to see a Hiroshima Carps baseball game on Sunday. So the real celebration will happen next weekend — a double whammy anniversary/birthday celebration since I turn 28 on July 11. We've planned to visit our favorite restaurant (an Indian place... how funny is that, our favorite restaurant in Japan is Indian?) and check out a Love Hotel. I'll explain more about that after we go, but you can get the gist from the name.

The two-year anniversary is supposed to be the year of cotton. In keeping with this tradition, Joe told me he wants to give me a yukata (like a summer kimono) as an anniversary gift. Not one of the cheap yukatas from Uniqlo, but a Nice yukata. Something custom made. Something that, decades from now, will serve as a quality, authentic reminder of our time in Japan. Isn't that cool? He has recruited our private Japanese tutor to help me go get fitted for it this Saturday. I'm getting rather excited about the idea of it. I think it's a pretty sweet and thoughtful anniversary gift. That's my Joe.

As for my gift to him... well... sorry to say I haven't bought anything so special just yet. He originally told me he'd be giving my gift late, so I didn't worry about being late either. But he did get a little something from me today — a nice plush towel. Yeah, a towel. Lame, right? Well, all our towels are cheap old things we inherited from other people. And decent towels — by that I mean anything even slightly plush — are super expensive here. The plush towels I saw this weekend (and when I say plush, they weren't even as thick or soft as the towels we got as wedding gifts) were all 3500 yen ($35) and up. For one towel. I managed to find something less expensive than that, but still way overpriced for just a towel. So yeah, I just got Joe a towel, but I guess I'm saying a nice towel is a gift to be more appreciated here. He'll be getting a bigger gift from me soon, but I can't say what it is because obviously that would ruin the surprise.