Sunday, March 25, 2007

the real me: pink hair and a teddy bear

back in the day i had a wide array of candy-colored hair.
a refresher:

well that impulse never left me, and i was given an opportunity to dress up to the tune of "japanese fashion" for lolly's birthday last week. i was feeling a little confused about why i even agreed to go--after all, i'd be spending $100 round-trip (plus dinner, drinks, and karaoke fees) for a single night of fun. why do i have to live so damn far away? but when i started to assemble my outfit, the truth dawned sudden and strong like a wind that blows you clear off your feet:

i love to play dress-up!

i love it so much that i will pay $150 just for a good opportunity to do it. if fake eyelashes and short skirts are involved, i'll even take off precious vacation hours just to get there early and dress up at a leisurely pace. sitting on my floor in the many whimsical layers of my outfit, i had the undeniable feeling, this is what i was meant to wear. i felt so happy, so myself flouncing around in fur-trimmed knee socks and demure empire-waisted skirts, clutching a soft new bear. the night before, i had searched the shops for a perfect accessory--preferably something cute, fluffy, and pink. the bear (yet to be named) was the ultimate realization of all these things. this was the approximate look i was going for:

marina and i resolved to do it up High School Style and get ready together (complete with makeovers, mousse, and some hair harrassment). allison saved me the cold hundred by offering to drive her suitcase on wheels so we wouldn't have to take the train. i knew the only thing i needed to cement my place in the foreigner hall of fame was some fake pink hair. eureka!

the final product was enough to cause even the few japan natives brave enough to sail the tall waters of drunk gaijin to comment on my succesful rendering of a japanese stereotype. ah, but it was all adulation on my part. here's fiona's shot: she captured my entire outfit, making me look like an enormous doll next to sam and fern. (check out "confused and confusing" in the links above for fiona's website)

marina dubbed it "superior (do they spell it superiour in canada? ;) ) clash trash"

this was actually the first time i had ever been to REAL karaoke, and i could see how it would be Really Really Fun with a smaller group of close friends--belting out your favorite songs with the aid of alcohol and microphones. in the birthplace of karaoke (japan, duh), you get a whole room all to yourself and you rock the night away with no one else watching. there's a phone to call for drinks, and at the fancier places, electronic consoles to search for and queue up songs. this place played the most Boring crap behind the words--like bad footage of unattractive people sitting in outdoor cafes in Britain (why?), but it made me laugh at its incongruity. here's one of the rooms at UpDo.

sadly, just as i finally had a chance to talk to one of the cute boys there, we were leaving.
oh PS. did i mention mr. M is MARRIED!? as in: flirted with me one day and got married the next. of course he has neglected to tell me, but i heard it from some of the other teachers. be a doll and wear the "i'm married" sign for at least a week, for heaven's sake!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

sowing seeds to build a bridge

last night i decided to sleep in as hard as i could, but i only made it to 8:45 am. i've lost the knack i used to have for late mornings. nearly everyone i know is out of town this weekend, so i rattled around my house with no clear idea about what to do for the day. if it were warmer, i'd open all the windows and just enjoy being home, but with the windows closed, i felt restless. i did sit outside in the sun for a few hours and finished a strange and disappointing book, but after that, i knew i had to go somewhere or i'd just feel frustrated and bored for the rest of the evening. should i hike alone, walk along the beach, or ride my bike somewhere? part of the problem is that i get exhausted from standing out so much. people (though they often pretend not to) do stare or double-take when they see me. on the weekends, i just don't want to deal with it. i'm not saying i always mind being conspicuous, but it's annoying that it's only because i'm different, not because i've chosen to wear some sassy outfit. it's harder to have a devil-may-care attitude in another culture with crochety old women staring you down at every turn.
i put my sunglasses on and rode a little self-consciously into the day. it really doesn't take much to make me smile, though, and i got my mood's salvation in the form of a gas station attendant. buying gas in japan is quite an affair--as soon as you drive in, you're greeted with enthusiastic shouts from all the attendants. you order what you'd like from the comfort of your car, hand them any trash you'd like to rid yourself of, and they fill you up, wash your windows, and then (the grand finale of courtesy) they direct you into traffic, sometimes stopping it in order to wave you in. so i was laboring by the station on my bike and ahead i saw an attendant ready to direct a car forward, but when he saw me, he motioned the car to stop so i could pass unhindered. this really is remarkable because his priority is his customer, and he could have just as easily made me wait. i gave him a thank-bow and pedaled on feeling lighter.

one thing i've learned about myself is that i like having a quest of sorts, a desination, so i set off sluggishly and irresolutely for a grocery store pretty far away. Shufu No Mise (literally, the housewife store) is the only one in town that carries this vanilla creme sponge cake roll i've been craving, so i rode vaguely toward it with my self-inflicted haircut blowing in the bracing wind. i kept thinking, "this is an awful long way to go for a little cake." but at least i was out getting some exercise, and since i had nowhere to be and nothing to do, i supposed i'd just ride until the headwind overcame my desire to be outside. surprisingly, i made it all the way to the store, albeit slowly and without much stamina. on the way, i passed the all the usual signs i can't read, and i thought about what a challenge it's been for me (whose main talent lies in the linguistic arena) to basically be illiterate and only able to communicate in overwhelmingly unspecific sentences.
imagine if the only english words you could read were: tree, mountain, river, small, big, month, day, minute, child, fire, water, raw, and meat. yep; it limits your comprehension a little. i pick out what i can, and every day i understand a fraction more, even surprising myself by knowing something i didn't know i knew. but restaurants can be difficult. this is how i read a menu: "hmm. two things with pork. cheese on something. something. something. meat something. corn with something. salad with eggs, sesame, and something that's fried." i usually pick out things with one ingredient i recognize, and hope the rest isn't made of cow intestines.
at Shufu No Mise, i ran into one of my students shopping with her mom, and she gave me the little surprised bow/konnichiwa greeting. i waved, smiled, and echoed her konnichiwa. as we passed, i heard her mom ask, "who was that?" "oh, my english teacher." (the mom chuckling) "and you greeted her with konnichiwa?" i could imagine me and my mom having the same conversation. i set out for the long trek home, paused to watch the ocean, and was happy to finally get out of the (by then) glacial air.

Monday, March 12, 2007

people to watch: 山川

i'd like to give you an impression of some of the interesting (er...good and bad) people who inhabit my daily life.
today the lucky contestant is a mr. yamakawa. quite compact in stature, yet possessing a look of harnessed intensity, i was a little intimidated by this fine sir when i first arrived. after, oh, five months or so, he began to relax around me (or maybe it was the reverse), and i learned that his sense of humor is untarnished.
just today, when i pointed out the pixelated roof of my american home via google earth, he pointed to himself and said michieviously, "stalker" and we all had a good laugh. then when we found his house in town, i pointed to myself and said, "stalker" and he chuckled and said we were "even."

✪ has a knack for: planning golfing excursions which never fails to summon copious amounts of rain
✪ likes: sitting by the kerosene heater and dozing while listening to billy joel on his mp3 player
✪ dislikes: golfing in the rain
✪ notable traits: one of the few japanese men i've encountered with an actual smell, and a good one--sorta comforting father-y/grandfather-y

i had the opportunity to witness the very first time mr. yamakawa had ever tried a hamburger. i thought it was worthy of a photo. aww.

Saturday, March 10, 2007


the second wave has come. it's like everyone i know has decided to get together and bludgeon me with their joyful news. the remaining half of my friends are getting married this year, and the first half is having babies. this leaves me feeling like i'm the only person whose life has not really begun. no, i don't necessarily think life is defined by having a partner, but there are some key milestones that help define your adult life, and i seem to be skillful at missing them. i'm doing my best to really live and not wait around wallowing in self-pity because i'm always single, but at times it does gang up on me and i wonder--am i doing something wrong?
i'm twenty-eight, and i've never been in a "relationship." yes, i've had a number of close guy friends to whom i've been attracted, and a few ill-defined (and short-lived) dating experiences, but i have yet to experience liking someone who really likes me back. it bites.
please don't misunderstand: i'm overjoyed for those of you who have found your love! i won't dampen your celebration with my own sorrow, but this silent yearning gets louder every year, and today it's sticking in my throat.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

drunk on a school night, or: the foolish prince finally speaks

i'll never quite understand what it is that tips the balance between being completely ignored by someone and then suddenly included in (at least the outer reaches of) their social circle. yesterday was such a day, momentous only because i had been appreciating the attractiveness of this certain fellow since i got here. i also realized i had no real hope of getting to know him. he's one of the cool twenty-something teachers, established in his social life, and with no real reason to learn english. except me.
a few days before, i was standing next to him at graduation, and though we didn't speak a word or exchange a look, i stole a few glances for fun. the office girls, giggling, told me that they had noticed (from across the auditorium, no less) that though he was taller than me, my legs were longer. this precipitated a discussion about whether i ever wanted to be a fashion model. ha.
i long ago accepted this as my permanent relationship to mr. cutie. there was just no reasonable way to make our paths cross. i was aware that, like many of the young teachers, he lived in a building mere steps down the road from mine. having no car, i walk by there several times each week and wish that i knew enough to engage them all in a neighborly community. but...the truth is they don't spend much time at home. i actually go to and from school at a reasonable hour, but as is typical in japan, they linger at their workplace for hours and are in the bigger cities on weekends.
however, circumstance (most likely in the form of miss suzuki) propelled us together. i was invited to join a hike with M5 or "meat five," the young teachers who often get together for meaty meals. they'd more accurately be called A(alcohol)5, because i think the food is just an excuse to drink. anyway, this same group also does some hiking to work off their high caloric intake. the leader, mr. cutie, seemed surprised that i was "internally panicked," because he was going to have to pull out some of that rusty english and brandish it at me.
the hike was steep. i put those long legs to use and kept up with him quite well. the other, shorter teachers fell in step behind us. he was so friendly, and i was so surprised. i mean, this is someone who has literally said one thing to me, once (in seven months). i was expecting to just follow the group up the mountain and listen to them speak japanese. instead, mr. M (i'll call him) made a point to talk to me during the entire outing. he knew a lot more english than i expected. after he ascertained that i like beer, he made many broad invitations of joining the group for nights out, dinner parties, and more hikes, but i have enough experience to know that those things don't always pan out.
the hike was beautiful--rocky forest steps covered in filtered sunlight, and finally, a glittering view of the ocean on both sides of our vantage point. as we headed down, i was commissioned to teach mr. cutie english. finally i asked why he felt he needed to be in the "diet club" since he was already thin, to which he gave no response but said instead, "lauren is thin," and more faintly, "pretty." awww. did i hear that right?
i went home. i didn't realize they meant dinner together that night. miss suzuki texted me to meet mr. M outside his apartment and we'd pick up the rest of the group on the way.
so i'm standing in the cold outside his house. he comes around the corner and waves. he's still wearing a towel around his neck from the hike. i'm looking up at the clouds and shaking my head at how many times i've walked by this place with no idea i'd actually have a reason to stop. he shuffles some stuff from his car into his apartment and we slide into his Regular Sized Vehicle. it's a miracle! i can stretch my legs out entirely, and i relax knowing i won't feel carsick either. his fancy car is playing mary j. blige, and that makes me even happier.
during the drive, mr. M keeps referring to Miss Suzuki as Mr. Suzuki, and it makes me laugh every time. he just keeps talking, not realizing his mistake. he chatters to me and to himself. i ask if he went to the high school where we teach. "no, no! i'm from kuwana; i'm a shitty boy." he means "city boy." i guess i've been in japan long enough now, because this pronunciation doesn't even phase me.
at the korean house we drink beer and eat spicy food. he tells everyone that his mother used to call him bakatonosama or "foolish prince." i marvel at this new view of these teachers i've existed around for all this time. i actually feel young!
mainly it's nice to talk to them and feel like just a person speaking with another person, without the seemingly insurmountable barriers of language, culture, and persona at the office.
as the meal wound to a close, mr. M said "it's on me," and paid for my dinner!

Monday, March 05, 2007

high times at buddhist disneyland, or: nachi no tacos

a few weeks ago, megan and stan came down to make me a huge plate of nachos and see nachi waterfall...about 40 minutes away in the adjacent prefecture. it's the second tallest waterfall in japan. i hadn't made it to nachi yet because i didn't learn of it until winter...not a good time to stand around spraying water. i wanted to go with them, but i was hesitant because going anywhere from here usually requires driving on winding mountain roads that invariably make me carsick and ruin whatever experience i set out to have. i also had a pancake party date with the office girls later that evening, and i wanted to have time to get ready for that. but the day dawned sparkling and sunny, and i knew i'd regret not going out, so i agreed. the drive wasn't bad--we just had to drive to shingu (the road is almost dead straight) and then turn onto the windy part for a short time. we hopped out and walked up the road a bit to a giant staircase hewn out of rock...leading down to the base of the waterfall. this is an important place in the whole buddhist pilgrimage route, but i mainly ignore that stuff because it doesn't interest me. due to its importance, however, there were several fancy-pancy big temples nearby and lots of monks and monkettes selling prayer bags and other religious paraphernalia.
there was incense and fragrant wood burning...probably my favorite part about temples in japan. for about $2.50 we could hike up closer to the falls, which we did. at one point on the trail, they even had tiny ceramic dishes out of which you could drink the sacred waterfall water (for another $2.50), but i already had a bottle of volvic (voted best-tasting in a blind taste test), which cost less money and came all the way from france (that said in a wry voice). the waterfall was pretty, but i'm sure it's more magnificent when the rains have plumped it up a lot. i took a little camera video so i could capture the sound of the water...sorry it's sideways.

little did i know the entire day would be about water sounds. i was charmed by this crinkly stream on the way up to the big temples.

and lastly, a faucet dripping into a bucket, though mainly you just hear a kid jumping up the stairs behind me.

in the past, i've sorta had the attitude, "seen one temple, seen 'em all," but i was wrong. the nachi temples are accented in bright orange, and against the blue sky, stunning. it isn't uncommon to see young ladies "hiking" these rough-hewn, rocky trails in stiletto heels.

we climbed innumerable stairs, but the view was worth it.

when we got here, i reached the conclusion that sometimes japan looks just like a disney interpretation of itself. i expected to see snow white waving placidly from the wee orange bridge.

lovely chipped paint

these flower buds caught my attention and i photographed them a few times. when we came around the corner of the building, i (with my infantile kanji abilities) sounded out the first two kanji i've ever read adjacent to one another--mizuko. that is: water + child. this didn't make much sense to me until i realized i was standing in front of the temple where people go to honor their aborted babies. i could see a monk statue reaching out for a crawling baby (looked more like a monkey) and toys inside the door. it was tragic and creepy at once.

this is the main entrance to the big temple. the inside was surprisingly lavish and beautiful: fresh fruit, flowers, and strings of colorful origami cranes hung everywhere, and the glint of gold made the wooden interior shine. to the side were more jars of "backup cranes" which i really wanted to photograph, but i felt like i wasn't supposed to.

these pilgrims? shuffled across the courtyard looking mysterious and anonymous in their veils.

i got to climb inside an 800 year old camphor tree! now i know where all that fragrant wood they were burning came from. tell me this isn't like disneyland.

scariest depiction of a horse in the history of the world!

and finally a purchase i had been looking to make for some months: wooden geta of my very own.