Sunday, July 30, 2006

Working to chill

Some of you may not know that I'm addicted to massages. So in our hotel in Japan I splurged and got an in-room massage, hopefully the kind that would not be sketchy. The time comes and I open it to see this tiny old woman holding a long white cane. What the Hell is she going to do with that cane? Then she feels her way gingerly along the wall and I realize that she's blind. Wow, I'm a moron. Apparently, blind people often go into massage in Asia.
The only problem with her blindness is that she speaks Japanese. I speak Crapanese. To compensate for my feeble language skills, I have been relying on phrasebooks and saying "hai" (yes) and "sumimasen" (excuse me, sorry) a lot. I have also developed a whole dictionary of points and gestures, from the definitive point to a menu meaning "I want this for lunch" to a pathetic point to a map meaning "I'm lost and stupid, where is this?" So being with this blind massage therapist, my limited vocabulary is reduced by 80%. Which makes it really hard to ask "clothes on or off?" and "do I lie face up or face down?" From her gestures and her firm hands on my shoulders, I gather that I should leave my clothes on and lie on my side on top of the futon. Her fingers dig into my shoulder shiatsu style and she starts chatting with me. I assume she can tell by my voice that I am a clueless American, but she keeps on chatting, quickly, and I don't want to be rude to this complete stranger who is doing me a service, even tough I hate it when massage therapists talk to me.
So now I'm confused and a little annoyed that she doesn't seem to just give up conversing, her questions keep coming like Tetris blocks where the keys are changed so I can't rotate the blocks in time. And I can't even shake my head and give her a confused facial expression, and this is in no way relaxing, what a bad idea. Then I see it, my salvation just on the other side of my pillow- oh, tiny phrasebook! You'll save me with your intricate knowledge of Japanese and your convenient English translations and your adorable pronunciation guide. You even have a section of phrases specifically for massage and accupuncture! You're my hero!
And that is how I ended up on top of my bed in a Japanese resort on my side with my clothes on frantically thumbing through my Japanese phrasebook to answer questions asked by my blind massage therapist.
It was one of the oddest experiences I have ever had.

Friday, July 28, 2006

TV Producers wanted

You must have an extensive knowledge of Japanese culture and be willing to mercilessly make fun of white people.
I'm pitching a new reality TV show for a Japanese network, called "Laughing at Stupid Hakujin Foreigners!"
Here are some future episodes:
1. Subway. A large and diverse group of Americans get to Tokyo station. They try to find a train to take them out of Tokyo to the peaceful, more "Japanese" part of Japan, since the city is not what Westerners think of when they want to see a foerign country. They want quaint. So they try to find quaint railroad lines. They go up one escalator, down another, finally ask a person in a uniform who shrugs, then a passing janitor who happnes to speak English leads them back the way they came, laughing that they've gone so far out of the way. So they follow the janitor all the way to the ticket kiosk, where they have to fumble through yen at the machine that doesn't have any English! And of course they all get on the women only car, stupid Hakujin (white person, or an American). Then they are leaving the next subway station and someone runs after them, and beckons them back the other way, where instead of the right bus terminal is a bank of very expensive taxis, which he seems to think they should take. For $30 a person. Ha!

2. The Hotel: The group goes to a tradtional Japanese inn, where they toss their shoes all over the place, or worse wear shoes on the mat inside the room, make tea and eat the proffered cookies well before the maid is able to make tea for them, and they don't even use the suacers! Jesus, the saucers are right there on the table under the huge stack of cups, you freaking barbarians! They also scare the crap out of the room maid by hiding behind the screen when she comes in to make the futon for sleeping.

3. At Dinner. The group gets a huge dinner eaten on the floor, where they are all too afriad to ask whats in all of the thirty tiny bowls. The fish in some bowls is supposed to be eaten raw, but other fish is supposed to be cooked on the tiny hibachi in the corner- watch how they can't tell the difference! And best of all, see then pour soy sauce right on to their rice, like children. After ice cream that they all eat too quickly, they lay a huge dump of shame on their maids asking to get to go to the buffet for breakfast. The maids, embarassed that the Hakujin hate their clearly sub-par service, must kill themselves.

4. Onsen. The traditional hot hot hot baths, which are sex segregated. Which is hard to remember when the women's bath is hidden up a staircase and around a corner. Whoops.

5. Laundry. Some of our plucky but ignorant travelers go to a coin laundry and ruin it. After breaking one machine and overloading the next, having to call the owner over from across the island, they also buy three times too much soap and can't figure out how long to dry clothes. And they don't have a thank you gift for the owner who helps them- who doesn't carry around a few thank you gifts just in case? Morons. Including the taxi ride over there, they disperse the laundry back to the rest of the group- at $3 an item. $3 for one shirt! Silly.

6. Shrines. Don't get me started. I've shamed so many dead people by now that I should just try to make sure I go to hell.

Next Episode- going to a Japanese theme park!

8am overload

We're currently staying at this very deluxe resort inn in Kashikojima, Mie prefecture. Look at a map of Honshu, then find the part jutting out east that is south of Tokyo. Bingo.

Breakfast and dinner are included here, along with multiple baths everyday, from 5am to midnight. Bathing is a very serious pastime and I am delighted to spend an hour or more a day sitting in hot water, more on that later when we stay at an onsen on Hokkaido, but now back to breakfast.

For the last few years, working in advertising, I've had roughly the same breakfast 5 days a week. Clif bar, usually chocolate almond, eaten around 10am, and some kind of fruit, a banana or maybe an applesauce cup, around 11. So no great variety for me, and not too early either.

Knowing my usual breakfast comes out of a foil wrapper and takes all of a minute to prepare and eat, look at the photo below for my 8am meal. Since I've shaken off the jet lag, 8am is now early to me, also, I'm not really hungry when I get up. But I get served this, which, if you look closely, includes a personal mini-hibachi (in the upper left) that is actually grilling some fish. There are 3 types of seaweed, 2 types of tofu, soybean paste, myriad pickled vegetables, rice and this is only the beginning. There are two servers in kimonos who continue to bring out the courses as I try to make sense of why I want to try and eat all of this. Try I do, since I've vowed to try everything they put in front of me, including the tail end of some type of snail thing that looks scary and black. It's awful. Then I'm informed that I should only eat the top part, the bottom is the supersized equivalent of eating that vein in the back of the prawn - full of crap. MMmmmmmm.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

very helpful people

Tonight we went to the third largest festival in Japan. Imagine you're at a huge keg party in the middle of Times Square on New Year's eve. And you can't understand anything other than excuse me and thank you. It was a lot like that. We did get to see more drunk people carrying shrines, the Sapporo barge cheerleaders, and a quarter of a million people? I do not think this is an exaggeration. We also ate octopus balls- different from buffalo oysters, but still kind of gross.
We also chatted with two very kind English speakers.
One saw us looking at a map at the end of the night; he was a businessman who was eager to practice his English since he was going to America the next morning. LA, Kentucky, and Indiana. I guess when you travel for business you can't be too picky. He walked us all the way . . . to the wrong station. But it was very very very kind of him to try to help us.
The other kind English speaking man was standing with his son or grandson (it can be very hard to tell ages here)with us on this island watching the fireworks. We talked about where we were from and what we were doing in Japan. And then this happened:
Anne: Your English is very good.
Man: You mean my Janglish.
What Anne wanted to say so badly but didn't: Better than my Crapanese.
What Anne said: Better than my Japanese.

And now I'm so glad I have someone to tell that joke to. I still think it's funny.
We are both trying to learn Japanese, but it's not easy. People talk fast here. And don't get me started on Kanji. Pictographs? Seriously?
On the plus side, people here are very helpful.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

robots and temples

We've spent the past few days travelling with Taiko Center LA in Osaka, which is sort of central and south, for those of you silly geographically-challenged Americans. Group travel is like Army life (or what I imagine army life must be from watching Forrest Gump): hurry up and wait. But we have actually gotten out of the subway stations to do some stuff:
A real neighborhood festival in Taiko Town, where Brian tried to prove his manliness carrying this shrine with 50 other drunk japanese guys.
A temple up in the mountains that is it's own city, where the closely packed graves are covered with tiny offerings like fake flowers and chex mix.
A castle with the most impressive moat I have ever seen, where this renegade feudal lord ruled with the standard iron fist. You would have to be an amazing ninja to scale this moat.
We also went to Electric town, where you can buy hi-tech rice cookers, phones, mp3 players, vibrators, televisio- what? vibrators, just lying on the racks next to spare batteries and lightbulbs. And let me tell you, there were not very many left on the shelves- those things must sell like hot cakes. Actually, electric is clearly aimed at a certain demographic: those who frequent hi-tech electronics and porn stores.
I feel compelled to discribe with reverential awe the stunning efficiency and reliability of the subway system here. Of all the public transportation, in fact. That train says it's going to be at 11:06, and it does not mess around. Apparently people have to get a signed note from the station master if something does go wrong so they can convince their employer that for once the train really did fail. Because it just never happens. Ever. It's miraculous.

Friday, July 21, 2006

to Japan

There was a flurry of activity in the final days before leaving as we tried to accomplish everything on our to do list. We managed to complete all the important items -- moving out, packing, booking our flight to Europe; some other things will have to wait until we return. It was stressful, both of us sleeping just a few hours Monday night and not at all on Tuesday. Complete relief was had by finally making it to the airport and checking in with a little time to spare before our flight.

We flew on JAL, which was a nice introduction to what was in store for us here: people speaking mostly Japanese, a little English mixed in, and eel for lunch. Very tasty. We're getting an easy introduction to the country, since we're with a group for the next two weeks that includes some Japanese speakers.

The outline of our plan is this. In Japan for two weeks with my taiko group. We'll be sightseeing and playing a little bit, attending a few of the many festivals held everywhere during the summer throughout Japan. Then we're on our own for the next two weeks, first visiting friends up north on Hokkaido in Asahikawa, then south to the island of Shodoshima. We have JapanRail passes (think eurorail) that will get us practically anywhere in the country where the trains run on time ALWAYS. On 16 Aug we fly back to LAX, visit our storage locker (it's very cozy and air-conditioned, if they let me, I'd consider living there, they have running water and hispeed internet access, neither of shich we'll have when visiting Evan in Moldova) to dump what we no longer need and fly to London on 17 Aug. We spend the day at Gatwick, flying to Prague to meet Evan and hang out for a week. Another week of free time during which we'll travel to Moldova where we'll stay while Evan begins his work teaching English to the schoolkids. We get to help, or at least be a show-and to help, or at least be a show-and-tell item for the teacher. Then off to Croatia by 12 Sept, where Anne and I will relax on 12 Sept, where Anne and I will relax on Brac, a small island somewhere in the Adriatic, I think. We still need to figure out the next bit, but it likely involves boats, buses, trains and airplanes. getting to London by 22 Sept and flying back to LAX on 26 Sept, ready to look for an apartment. Whew.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Getting started

The countdown is on for our trip. Eight days left before we leave the country for a couple of months. And to make this more fun, we've decided to quit any jobs and pack our apartment into a small storage unit to really feel the cleaness of the dislocation.

I have a to-do list that I've estimated will take about 70 hours to complete. Some simple things like "cancel utilities" that I can knock off quickly and feel good about, and the slightly harder "pack and clean apartment" which will take most of the time available. The next few days will be filled with activity as I try to figure out if we can buy the moldovan visas at the border or will need to get them in advance (you can get them at the airport in Chisinau, but we aren't planning on flying in). At least the Japan portion of the trip is entirely planned and paid for at this point. In fact, Japan seemed too easy, since a travel agent arranged two weeks and the other two will be spent visiting people we know, eveything worked out easily. We'll see how the Europe part works out in the coming week.