Dana Goes to Japan


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Monday, December 30, 2002

I'm back in Sendai now, having said good-bye to my parents and brother in Tokyo yesterday. The prospect of updating my blog with the whole 9 days of stuff that we did is somewhat daunting to me right now, so at the suggestion of my friend Will, and with his collaboration, I present now the highlights of my vacation, condensed to haiku form.

Eh. Kyoto. Tokyo.
I visited both places.
My brother still lives.

Cherry blossoms fall
differently when you
are on vacation.

Begin Kyoto,
visit castles and temples,
end in Tokyo.

Kyoto's temples,
Tokyo's confusion, and
Sendai's emptiness.

Hot water, heating,
luxury beyond belief,
how I love hotels.

(There will be more, I promise, just not right this minute. Be patient, I'm recovering.)

Friday, December 20, 2002

Stay Tuned
Okay, yeah, I know, this hasn't been very interesting for the past two weeks, but I'm going to be gone again. But I'm going to be doing exciting things! Really! And I promise to tell you all about them when I get back. Stay tuned for an action-packed recounting of Christmas in Kyoto and Tokyo. I know you're all on the edge of your seats now. See you again on December 30.

Monday, December 16, 2002

Culture Shock, Round Two
but also, The Importance of Foreign Languages on Airplanes

Being back in Japan after a whirlwind week in small towns in the US is pretty much what I suspected it would be. You see, I had my reasons for not intending to go back to the States during my year here. When I got here, the bad parts of culture shock were offset by the stage of finding everything bright and shiny and new, which is usefully distracting. My mind adjusted to life in Japan and all the daily stressors that I eventually ceased to notice while the rest of me was being all happy and wide-eyed.

After going to the States, though, specifically to Grinnell, where I am totally comfortable and know everything about the town, coming back to Japan is quite a contrast. Even when Mark and I were in Escanaba in the UP of Michigan, where I’ve never been before, I felt more comfortable than I do in Japan. I mean, I could actually find my way there with a map. The streets have names. Food is recognizable on a menu. I understand conversations going on around me. And most telling, most amazing, most subtle, I don’t have to explain cultural background before saying anything. All those people there know what I’m talking about. There are so many things we take for granted as understood in daily conversation that I can’t assume here in Japan. But I had gotten somewhat used to that gradually, without noticing, which was a nice defense. Now it’s all to clear, and it makes me rather tired. Ah, culture shock.

This is not to say that I’m sorry to be in Japan or anything. I’m still glad I’m here. And I’m glad I went to be with Mark last week. The contrast is more interesting to me right now than disheartening. There are good things about being an overly intellectual and observationally-inclined nerd.

So here are some more amusing observations I made on my way over to the US. As I stayed awake for about 36 hours that day, things became more and more amusing to me as time went on. (A quick breakdown of my traveling day: up at 5:30 am, subway to Sendai Station, 2-hour shinkansen ride to Tokyo Ueno Station, 1-hour train ride to Narita Airport, 3-hour wait in airport, 11-hour flight Tokyo to Dallas, 2.5-hour wait in airport, 2-hour flight Dallas to Des Moines, 1-hour drive to Grinnell.)

Asian people fly well. I noticed this coming back from Taiwan, too. Coach is no problem for them. They just fold up into the seats and go to sleep. Japanese people, as has been noted before, can sleep anywhere.

The family sitting next to me was a mother and her two daughters. They were speaking in Japanese the whole time, leading me to believe that they have grown up primarily in Japan, but they are Colombian passport holders, and were on their way to visit family there. However, because their connecting flight was in Dallas, they were having to fill out US customs forms. The daughter next to me was designated the person most likely to be able to figure out the forms, and was trying to figure them out. I tried to explain them first in Japanese (very badly, but apparently understandably), and then, when we got to the part about “address in US,” she said they were going to Colombia, to which I replied, “Do you speak Spanish?” Then I got to explain much more grammatically in Spanish. So really, my Spanish major is coming in handy in Japan after all. Sort of. I thought it was cool, at any rate.

You could tell all the truly Japanese women on the plane, as opposed to Japanese-American women, by the ones who pulled out full make-up kits preparatory to landing. No Japanese woman of taste will allow herself to be seen in public, even after an 11-hour plane flight, with less than impeccable make-up. I even saw eyelash curlers. And just so you know, changing air pressure does weird things to liquid lip gloss.

Tuesday, December 03, 2002

I'm not here
On the off chance that anyone actually reads this thing that frequently, I just thought I'd tell you why there won't be any new stuff up for a while. Mark's dad died, and I'm going back to the US for the funeral. Therefore, I won't be in Japan from 5-12 December, and so there will be no funny or bizarre observations about Japanese culture. In the meantime, enjoy the really long entry about my first set of visitors.
First Wave
The visiting season has officially begun here in Sendai. It was kicked off by the first wave of visitors, in the form of my aunt and uncle from Raleigh, Linda and Bruce.

They arrived in Japan on Wednesday, getting to Sendai a mere 5 hours after touching down in Tokyo, which really isn’t that bad. Only two hours to get through customs. They were staying in the Holiday Inn in Sendai, which, for those of you possibly planning trips to this little bit of Japan, is a mere 7 minute walk from Sendai Station, very nice, and the rooms come equipped with lots of neat electronic buttons to play with. They had fun with that.

I can’t speak for what they did during the days on Thursday and Friday, as I had to go to work, but I did see them in the evenings. On Thursday I toured them around the area near the station, with the obligatory stops at Muji and Beard Papa’s Pipin’ Hot Cream Puffs. We had dinner at a place that’s probably supposed to be Chinese, but basically serves Japanese Chinese food, and discussed observations they’d had about Japanese culture, such as the fact that all the Christmas decorations and music has come into evidence now. They had been hoping that by traveling to an Asian country, they would escape the Christmas kitsch, but not so. Here, Christmas is celebrated because it is a Western holiday that involves retail and decorations, not because it’s a big holiday of cultural significance, which makes it basically celebrated as it is for most of the US, except without the pretense.

Friday night, Linda and Bruce found their way to my house, even with only Japanese-style directions to go by. (Go straight on the big street that runs in front of the station until you get to a large bridge with a big electronic sign, turn left, go past the Coffee You, the bookstore, and the sushi restaurant, turn right…) I broke in my new plates for real by cooking them dinner. Yakisoba is wonderfully easy to make, as is rice from a rice cooker, and the best thing is, it all seems so marvelously Japanese. They oohed and aahed over my little apartment, my kotatsu, and my electronics. They were a very appreciative audience. I also introduced them to the marvelous world of silly Japanese snack foods, just to round out the meal. They brought me Christmas a month early, so I now have good Christmas music (Ella Fitzgerald, but too short! Only half an hour.) and a nice big book, given in, what else, a Linux box. I come by my geeky tendencies honestly.

On Saturday, I got to really show them around. We met at the station and boarded the train to, where else, Shiogama. There, we met Danola so she could take us to see Shiogama Shrine, which she is always going on and on about. We did find it, and we sort of looked at it from the bottom of the stairs, but in between us and the beautiful temple, there was a construction crew and a giant crane. So we didn’t go up. Instead, we intended to get an early start on the next leg of our intended journey for the day, a ferry ride to Matsushima from Shiogama port. This of course required walking back through Shiogama, and ended up including side trips to the used kimono shop and Mister Donut. But eventually we did get to Shiogama port and successfully buy tickets for the tourist ferry.

For those of you not up on your Japanese tourist spots, Matsushima is “one of the three most beautiful spots in Japan.” The poet Basho, father of haiku, purportedly saw Matsushima and was so taken with its beauty he couldn’t even compose a poem about it. If you go to Matsushima, you will hear this story at least three times. The Japanese are very big on knowing exactly why their tourist spots are famous. Matsushima itself is a town on the mainland, but what people actually go to see are the islands in the bay, including one which is connected by the world’s longest pedestrian bridge (I think), and which is now a botanical garden. Linda and Bruce were thrilled. Linda and I circumnavigated the island, while Bruce dawdled about, waiting for the light to be just right for a shot he wanted. On our way around the island, we found several gorgeous lookout points. From one of them, we could see the little island that is famous for having one lone pine growing on it, and for which Date Matsumune (founder of Sendai and lord of the Tohoku region in samurai times) offered tons of money to the person who could figure out how to transport the island into his castle. As the island is still there, obviously no one did. The island is full of beautiful, giant trees, and many of the Japanese maples were in the last stages of their fall turning. My favorites were the ones that were bright yellow on one side, but orange and then flaming red on the other side of the tree. They looked like they were on fire. I bet it would have been breathtaking at the peak of leaf season.

On our way to the train station to get back to Shiogama, we stopped at a shrine. I really like shrines here. This one was like a miniature version of the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, with a path under the torii gate and then to the shrine in between towering trees. We were there just in time to hear them ring the huge bell. This shrine was distinguished by all the icons carved into the face of the hillside next to it.

Then we got on the train and made our way back to Shiogama, where we followed Danola’s directions, which included such auspicious phrases as “Go past the frog shop and turn towards Big Bang…,” to get to the soba shop Sharon discovered. It was very good and now Linda and Bruce have been introduced to the real wonderful world of soba. They seemed to enjoy it, at least. And then it was back to Sendai, where we had another silly snack exploration in their hotel room, where they were also exposed to the incredibly bizarre world of Japanese television commercials.

On Sunday, we took a trip to Laox. Linda was captured by the plasma TV display, but we managed to get out with only necessary items, two flash cards for their digital camera and a thermos that actually keeps hot things hot for me. Then we went to India Gold for lunch, which was excellent, with the added bonuses of being easy to find, cheap, and with a head waiter who speaks English. This was followed by a quick trip to my apartment via subway, so Linda could take pictures of me in my Japanese home, and then they were off again on the next leg of their Japanese odyssey.