Friday, May 21, 2010

HipPop Monster!

Engrish is everywhere in Japan, and by this point I am so used to seeing my native language horribly butchered that it doesn't even really register most of the time. However, now and then you do still come across a real gem. This is one of those times.

I was in the Fuji Grand department store near my house, in the kids' section, where there are a bunch of stickers and notebooks. A child's address book on the bottom shelf caught my eye and when I picked it up, this is what greeted me on the front cover:

Well, you can see it for yourself. A baby's ass with a smiley face drawn on it exclaiming "Nice to meet you!" as it hovers over a big city skyline, a little girl above the baby's butt informing us "It's so cute!" and a baby boy in the corner with the commentary "Oh My God!" and "Shit! My hip is the monster..."

NO CLUE what any of this is about.

Let's turn it over to see the back cover, shall we?

Yo! Yo! Check it up! "My hips were monster when getting up in the morning!!"

On the inside were several pages of very amusing stickers. You can click the pictures to enlarge these.

I do have to admit that the baby wearing the bat ears saying "Ga Ha Ha Ha Ha!!" is awfully cute. But is he a bigger charmer than the baby in the bottom right corner with a butt that proclaims "I'm hungry"?

Also love the stickers in the bottom right corner here with the blank baby's face stating "Unbelievable!", as well as the baby bottom saying "Feel so good!"

I was tempted to buy this but I really didn't have any use for a child's address book, and the rings in the binder were such that I didn't think I could find other blank pages to insert. So for a few minutes I was just the weird gaijin photographing stuff in the notebook section. This embarrasses Joe, but it really doesn't bother me.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Spring visit to Mitaki-dera

Statue at Mitaki Temple

Earlier this spring when the cherry blossoms were in bloom I took a day off work so I could check out the cherry blossoms at Mitaki Temple without having to beat the crowds off with a stick. It was a gorgeous day, bright and sunny without being too warm, and I was exceedingly happy not to spend it at my desk.

I was surprised to find relatively few cherry trees on the temple grounds itself, though there was a whole lane of cherry blossoms leading up to the temple grounds, as well as a large cemetery dotted with blossoms along the way. A few of those pictures got folded into the post about cherry blossoms.

Despite the overall lack of cherry blossoms, Mitaki was stunning as usual. I ended up meditating for a long time sitting alone in the middle of a silent bamboo forest.

God, I am going to miss this place.

More photos of the red-clad jizo statues I find so fascinating:

Even a tiny snake statue gets a red beret (and some offerings).

Love this tree.

A couple of many stone carvings that dot the sides of the cliffs:

One thing I always find strange are the junk food offerings that people set in front of the rows of statues and carved stone tablets beside the temple.

Inside of Mitaki Temple

I'll be back again.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Some globetrotting Peeps

Since we came to Japan, my parents have been kind enough to occasionally send packages from home with certain necessities or gifts. The latest package was a box including a bounty of Easter candy. Usually the packages take one week to get here, but when Mom and Dad's package hadn't arrived three weeks after they'd sent it, I'd given up on ever seeing it. I imagined some postal workers somewhere were enjoying our Peeps.

Finally the package did indeed show up at my school, a bit worse for wear but still in one piece and, miraculously, unopened. But the real surprise came when I inspected the papers stuck to the top of the box:

It seems our package made a detour to Sri Lanka on the way from Ohio to Hiroshima. How that happened is anyone's guess, but it was kinda neat to see the package had gone all that way.

As for the Peeps, they tasted even better than I remembered. Thanks Mom and Dad.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Cherry blossoms in Hiroshima

Cherry blossom season is a special time in Japan, one regarded with much reverence. Every year around early April the Hiroshima landscape bursts into a cloud of ethereal pink blossoms that stay just 10 days before unceremoniously fading away almost before you can notice.

The Japanese take advantage of their arrival by planning picnics under the blossoms. During hanami (literally, flower watching) season, the parks fill with people splayed out on plastic blue tarps covered with all manner of Japanese snacks and sake.

I enjoyed the blossoms in a number of spots this year, including my own neighborhood, Peace Park, Mitaki Temple and Senkoji Park in Onomichi city. It's always a pleasure to slow down and appreciate the cherry blossoms, and there's no doubt we'll miss this piece of Japan when we go.

Some more photos:

Sakura with Japanese lantern in Onomichi

Giant cherry tree on my way to work:

Around Mitaki Temple:

In Hiroshima's Peace Park by the Atomic Bomb Dome:

Monday, May 17, 2010

Playing dress-up with kimono and yukata

Me, wearing a traditional kimono.

When my Japanese teacher, Yoshiko, asked me recently if I'd be interested in learning how to wear a kimono and yukata (summer kimono), I figured this was one opportunity I shouldn't pass up. Joe bought me a yukata a couple years ago as an anniversary gift, but I'd never actually worn it, in part because I didn't know how to put it on myself and in part because I wasn't sure I could clean it properly afterward. But it would be a shame to leave Japan without wearing the yukata, or even understanding how to wear it for that matter, so on a couple weekends this spring I went with Yoshiko to learn all about it. I assumed that all Japanese people know how to put on kimono and yukata, but it turns out this assumption was wrong — Yoshiko was learning for the first time, too. Apparently it is not a skill all children learn, but rather something passed down from generation to generation.

On the first Saturday afternoon, Yoshiko, Joe and I went to a community center in her neighborhood where there were a number of other Japanese ladies and a French woman being dressed up in kimono by some older Japanese women.

Me with my Japanese teacher, Yoshiko

The process of putting this thing on was MUCH more complicated than I ever realized. It took two ladies working together around half an hour to put this thing on me. Imagine my surprise when they told me that they had been taking lessons for ONE YEAR to learn how to properly dress people in kimono. In Japan there are in fact licensed professional kimono dressers. The event we were attending was actually the culmination of their course — after taking lessons for a year, they were finally getting some real-life practice dressing real people in kimono rather than dummies. Needless to say, I was not able to learn in one hour how to properly dress myself in a kimono, but it was still a very enlightening experience.

There are at least 12 parts to the kimono that must be assembled in very specific ways. (There are many layers and strings and other pieces underneath it that you can't even see.) How it's worn also depends on your marital status. The ladies hadn't realized I was married and dressed me with long sleeves that draped almost to the floor, which is usually done to signify a woman is single. I actually didn't even realize this until I saw the pictures later and realized my kimono looked different from the other ladies'.

The kimono doesn't look so uncomfortable to wear, but it is. There are a number of pieces underneath tied very tightly to keep everything held together just so. The pink part across the middle (the obi) was very stiff and tight, as well. It was hard to breathe in all the way. Kind of reminded me of wearing my wedding dress, actually...

Joe and me

The yukata is more comfortable and a bit less complex. The second Saturday I spent with Yoshiko, we went to the house of one of the women who dressed me in the kimono and learned how to put on yukata. I think all told learning and practicing the steps took around two hours.

Yukata time! I'm in the center, Yoshiko is at left, the teacher at right.

Probably the most difficult part of putting on the yukata is properly assembling the obi, which is the stiff pink fabric in the middle.

I probably can't remember all the steps exactly off the top of my head, but at least now that I've practiced it I should be able to get it right with a little refresher from some YouTube videos. I'm hoping to wear my yukata to Hiroshima's Yukata Festival in June, so my skills will be put to the test then.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Scuba diving in the Kerama Islands, Okinawa

Me (on the left) with two diving buddies

While in Okinawa, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to experience the islands' world class SCUBA diving. I was able to do three dives in the Kerama Islands while we were there, and it was awesome. I am truly, truly blessed.

When Joe had told my supervisor about the cheap plane tickets we got to Okinawa, her husband decided to get in on the action as well and planned a weekend down there, so he was my diving buddy. It was nice to be able to dive with a friend (especially one with a camera equipped to take pictures underwater — all these pictures are his). We rented our equipment from "marine club an", a one man diving shop that I can highly recommend. The owner did not speak English, but he was super nice and patient, so we managed well enough.

The Kerama Islands are a 20-mile boat ride from Okinawa's main island, and they're known as one of the top dive sites in the world. I didn't bring my camera because I didn't want to chance it getting wet, so I wasn't able to photograph the stunning islands we were diving around, but it truly looked like something out of a calendar — emerald water, rocky islands rising sharply out of the sea, pristine beaches on deserted islands.

Say hello to Nemo!

Being early March, the water was around 72 degrees, chilly enough to require a full wet suit, including hood, and gloves. With the wet suit on, I didn't feel cold.

Visibility was 20-25 meters (21-27 yards), which was much better than what I experienced last fall in Kochi-ken, though not as good as it can get in Okinawa. We were diving to a depth of 10-20 meters (32-65 feet). One interesting feature of the dives around these islands were the huge underwater cliffs.

Black-headed sea snake — yes, highly poisonous.

I saw a number of the same fish that I saw in Kochi-ken, though not all. The indisputable highlight of the diving though? Swimming with a sea turtle.

When we arrived at the site for the second dive, the guide told us that this was an area where the sea turtles liked to go, but we needed to get our gear on quickly and get in the water, because they would swim away once they saw lots of divers in the water (We were on a large boat with divers from a number of dive shops). We did and sure enough, soon after our dive began we saw one lone sea turtle swimming our way.

It was a really surreal feeling to witness this. He swam past us, slowly and surely, flapping his fins as though he were flying. He paid us no mind as he passed by. I swam toward him to get a good look and got within a few feet of him. Incredible.

The other awesome find on this trip was a couple of whitetip reef sharks. Don't worry, they weren't exactly man eaters — maybe 3 feet long. The guide led us to them in a cave on the bottom of the ocean and shined a light on them. They were just hanging out motionless on the sea floor.

Here's me holding a long, black sea cucumber handed to me by the guide. It was squishy like a sponge.

And a few last pics:

Yellow oxfish

Turkey moray eel

Moon grouper

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Chinese garden: Marvel of man and nature

My Okinawan souvenirs. Aren't they cute? (Photo swiped from the Net)

Hundreds of years ago, Okinawa had a close trade relationship with China, and Chinese influences are still apparent today all over the islands. Perhaps the most ubiquitous souvenirs for sale were pairs of shisa, a creature from Okinawan mythology that's a cross between a lion and a dog. Shisa serve as guardians to ward off evil, and hence are often found on rooftops and around entrances.

In our wanderings around Naha, we stumbled across a traditional Chinese garden and decided to go exploring. The garden, Fukushu-en, was gorgeous and turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the trip.

My Internet research tells me that Fukushu-en was built entirely with wood and stone from the Chinese city of Fuzhou, Naha's sister city. This place really took my breath away. Walking through it, I often thought that everywhere I looked felt like a picture.

I'm no expert on the differences between Japanese and Chinese gardens, but I have to admit that I kind of preferred this garden to the Japanese gardens I've visited. Japanese gardens seem to be designed with a lot of meticulous landscaping and careful thought in the use of plants so that flowers are always in bloom no matter the time of year. Sections of the gardens are designed to highlight these flowers when they are in bloom. More emphasis in the Chinese garden seemed to be placed on the creation of graceful structures that flowed naturally with the landscape. Chinese gardens are designed to achieve a balance between architecture, rocks, water and plants (feng shui and all that). The swooping curves of the structures in Fukushu-en were really lovely.

The waterfall you see above actually had a caves built into the rocks behind the waterfall so that you could sneak inside and look at the garden from behind the waterfall.

Not only was looking out at the landscape from the garden's buildings a treat, but so was looking up. Take this pagoda for example:

From the inside looking up:

Or this little gazebo:

Looking up:

The level of detail we encountered in places was truly extraordinary, like these columns that had intricate dragons carved into them.

These dragons actually had free-standing stone balls in their mouth that could be rolled around but were too large to be removed from the mouth.

Last but not least, a door knocker. Because old door knockers are cool.

I really could have spent all day in this place, taking photos and relaxing. It was this little oasis of calm in the midst of the city, and I found it so fascinating that it makes me want to learn more about the Chinese culture.