Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Sayonara Japan

The countdown begins...

We spent a day in Hiroshima visiting the Peace Park, the Atomic Dome and the National Peace Museum. It was all quite impactful as you might expect, though you wouldn't otherwise know the city's history as it is quite a modern metropolis. Li asked good questions, but after a few hours she asked whether we could change the subject to something else. Fair enough.

The port city of Shimonoseki was our last stop in Japan. We spent a pleasant day strolling the aquarium learning about Blowfish from around the world. Poisonous blowfish, locally known as Fugu, are the regional delicacy. Apparently only 30% of the chefs who attend the 3 year training course to prepare the blowfish safely actually pass. The take home message is clearly not to buy any "cheap" blowfish.

Tomorrow we board our 27 hour ferry bound for Qingdao, China-goodbye civilization, hello chaos.

P.S. Japan Rail Passes Rock!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Temples versus Air Conditioning

Some days it’s a draw, but honestly some days the air conditioning wins! The last week we’ve been heading south through Japan into Temple central. Between Takayama, Kyoto and Nara, there have been plenty. Our favorite was the large Todaiji Temple in Nara-the largest wooden structure in the world (though apparently only 2/3 its original size). We elected this as our favorite because of the enormous bronze Buddha that sits in the center. In addition to periodic destruction by fire, this temple has suffered indignities during earthquakes when the giant Buddha’s head has fallen off of the statue. We can only hope the monks weren’t actively praying underneath. Though Li had already obtained enlightenment in Nagano, we thought she should have a back-up plan, so she went for the “squeeze”. This hollow in large structural post provides enlightenment for those that can fit, which is apparently exactly the size of the Buddha’s nostril. Steve made it too, much to the amusement of the on looking crowd.

In Kyoto we did some geisha spotting (3 by our count, though we think two were fakes) and strolled the back alleys of old Kyoto. Our geocaching efforts brought us to an area of town full of “men’s clubs”. It was also our most expensive geocache ever since Li found the Yukata (lightweight summer kimono) of her dreams at a nearby Kimono store. She insisted on wearing her Yukata the next day to the monthly flea market where one could find endless treasures. We were amused how many pictures tourists took of her (never knowing that was our Chinese-Wyoming daughter dressed in Japanese clothes).

Yesterday we wandered around Nara-the former Japanese capitol. Nara is famous for temples (surprise) and deer. The deer have been treated as sacred for 1200 years. As a result they are lounging everywhere and tourists take many pictures and try to pet them. The vendors sell deer biscuits. Li insisted she deserved to feed the deer after being dragged through the temples and parks. After warning her the deer might be a little aggressive, she insisted. She was nearly stampeded by the deer that continuously bit me in the butt trying to get at the biscuits. The whole event took less than 60 seconds!

Today we head south to Hiroshima to see how much history we are ready to digest.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Eating Our Way South

Our last night in Tokyo was also one of our favorite meals. The proprietor of our ryokan sent us to a small okonomiyaki restaurant (basically a bowl of ingredients you mix in an egg batter and grill at your table) making what we call "Japanese pancakes". Having done this twice before we considered ourselves somewhat expert. That is until we entered the 4 table restaurant with a hand written Japanese menu and a waitress who spoke no English. Luckily the family at the next table help us muddle through the menu and order the house specialty. As we drank draft beer to cool ourselves down the chef came over and helped us with our grilling. We were apparently fairly inept and needed continuous instruction. The chef helped himself to quite a few glasses of the house draft beer as well-so we were all in a good mood and well fed by the end.

After leaving Tokyo we went to stay with a fellow Lijiang teacher at her home near Hakone. Our conversations were a mix of English, Japanese, Chinese and French. Somehow we avoided making any crucial language mistakes-or so we think. Our first night at her house she pulled out a portable table grill and proceeded to cook us huge amounts of vegetables and meat. One piece of advice-mushroom-phobes should not come to Japan. It was all excellent, though the pig intestines were a bit "chewy". Her house lacks air conditioning so we spent our time there sweating, heading to the onsen, and sweating again as soon as we were done. During the days we went to Hakone to explore. Hakone is well set up as a tourist destination-we thought of it as the Amazing Race Part 2 (Part 1 having been the Chinese Consulate in Tokyo). In one day we were on trains, a bus, a ship, a gondola, a cable car, a narrow gauge railway and of course our feet. The food of the day was the bratwurst house Steve and Li discovered. For our last night with our friend we attended a neighborhood summer festival and drank sake with shaved ice and edamame. Steve charmed the old men (who invited him to stay and play golf) while Li admired the girls in their bright Yukatas.

The last two days we have been in Takayama. The dark brown wood buildings are strikingly reminiscent of the Berkeley hills. We opted for a local restaurant tonight and chose the recommended specialty. Small cooking braziers were placed on our table. Mine was topped by a large magnolia leaf heaped with small pieces of Hida Beef, onions, mushrooms and the local miso bean paste. I was instructed to mix and grill. Which I did. Then I ate and enjoyed! Except for the price, I could easily repeat the meal. Li's required similar cooking with help from her Dad. Desert consisted of local peaches and plums. You gotta love summer. Tomorrow we go to Kyoto-temples here we come!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

We came, we saw, we survived!

That applies to the city of Tokyo, Tokyo Disneyland and the Chinese Consulate. In case you didn't know, Tokyo in July is hot and sticky-thus so are we most of the time. We've ended up here for 6 days for the primary purpose of getting our Chinese tourist visas so we can get back into the country. To amuse ourselves while waiting we braved the crowds at Tokyo Disneyland. It is a replica of Disneyland in Anaheim-except of course the characters speak and sing in Japanese. Speaking characters is odd to begin with, but when you hear Japanese it is even stranger. Li only cried once, but I think that's par for the course for a hot, overstimulated child. The highlight of our day was watching her boundless excitement as we went through "It's a Small World". Of course we were also secretly proud that she could identify most of the nationalities in the ride. She also chose a souvenir with high breaking potential for us to tote around two countries. All in all a successful event.

Our Disneyland was the Chinese Consulate. We knew we had to to turn in our passports on Monday in order to get them back Thursday or Friday. After a series of subways and map checks we found the Consulate by following the long security line leaving the building. We had approximately 30 minutes before the Consulate closed for the day at Noon. It was a combination of 'The Amazing Race' meets Arts and Crafts. First, security check in Japanese and next all get into the elevator to the 3rd floor. Open to organized mayhem. Steve went to the left, to get a number. Shana went to the right, for the correctly positioned passport and Japan visa xerox copies. Li was the runner to move the passports to Steve for the number since Shana's line was slower. Then to figure out the copy machines and to keep all papers collated while listening for our number. Then on to gluing on passport pictures which we already had (so skipped the photo booth). Then our number came up and all our papers were accepted and we were given a time to return in 3 days. They did not want any of our documentation for our August Chinese housing or travels which we were warned to collect. Fifteen minutes later, we were done with that much time to spare. Celebrate by all going to Denny's.

Nagano and the North

Thank goodness for the mountains. At least that was our feeling as we spent 4 days in the Japanese Alps. Our first stop was Nagano and the Zenko-ji Temple. We made at least three cultural faux pas with our hostess at the shrine hostel, but that's what traveling is about! We also learned that most restaurants in Nagano close by 7! Luckily we snuck into one that closed at 7:30 for a late night dinner. It was nice to wake up in our tatami room in the 100 year old building that served as our hostel. After a morning of exploring we boarded a bus for Hakuba, one of the many small ski towns that dot the Alps. We landed in a lovely little hostel and armed ourselves with groceries and a bottle of local wine. The next day we took the gondola part way up the mountain and hiked a burly 4 miles in the mist. Periodically the clouds parted to give us a glimpse of the mountains, but it felt like we were being teased. At one point we came across a small graveyard. After the two snakes who were keeping guard disappeared we found two graves with ice axe heads cemented into them, though we couldn't quite puzzle together the story. That evening our WMI course translator from two years ago met us and we wined and dined at our hostel.

The next day she took us to a local high ropes course. She works for Project Adventure Japan and sweet talked the locals into letting us hop on the course at a reduced rate. It has been 20 years since I was on a high ropes course-the technology has certainly evolved! The course had a self belay system that allowed you to complete the entire course without a staff person on the system. We completed the course in about an hour with the requisite screams and profanity. Li was utterly fearless and kept urging her mother along when I took too long to complete an element. She was incredible!

Last stop in the north was Matsumoto Castle. A very cool 500 year old castle with three rings of moats. At one point our friend Missy commented on the gentleman wearing a striped shirt and plaid pants (something about fashion sense...) and indeed he ambled over and volunteered to be our English speaking guide. He was better as a guide than as a dresser. We biked around the town of Matsumoto, Li perched on the back of a bike on a chair cushion. After watching her on the high ropes course I didn't worry too much, that is until one of Steve's brakes stopped working...

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Japan-How Civilized!

We’ve decided to spare you all and experience our reverse culture shock in Japan. Our course hosts met us at the Narita Airport and spent the next hour helping Steve and Li buy train tickets to Nikko. My co-instructor Missy and I waved goodbye as they disappeared into the belly of the Narita train station. We had a semi-firm plan to meet in 5 days, no mobile phone and sketchy Internet. How big can Japan be?? Missy and I headed 4 hours north to Shirakawa where we taught a 2 day Wilderness First Aid course over 4 days to allow for translation time. For the first two days of errands and course set-up I couldn’t help but think, I am not in China anymore! From smelly, dirty Chinese squat toilets without toilet paper to immaculate restroom with heated toilet seats and bidets-what a contrast! I think my word for Japan is fastidious. Things are clean and efficient, the people are polite to a fault and everything runs on time. Astounding after the past year. Of course it’s as expensive here as the US, but since the bills look foreign, I don’t feel so bad about what I am spending!

Truly the best feature of Japan, however, is the onsen-the natural hot springs. We have been to an onsen every night in Japan except one. The people are also incredibly generous. Our students were respectful and attentive in class and partiers at night. In other words after two days of teaching we had been naked and drinking with our students (not at the same time)! The course went well and we did our best to flounder through Japanese formalities. We managed to connect with Steve and Li at the train station and after dinner at Denny’s (the menu looks a little different!) and some onsen time, we were all united at the course facility in the mountain.

Steve and Li spent time in Nikko and Aizu Watsumota. The main feature of their travels involved arts and crafts (of course) but they ate well and slept well and survived! After mailing 75 pounds of teaching gear to Hong Kong today we are off on our own to Nagano. Japan Rail Passes in hand we can go as we please through the country. Given how hot and humid it is in Tokyo, we opted to head north to the mountains!

The End! At Least Temporarily

Our last two weeks in China were a whirlwind of packing, examinations, dinners and many farewells. For as much effort as we put into our finals, it is disappointing to know that our grades probably won’t actually count. In other words the students that we fail, will simply be promoted into the next class regardless. Then next year’s unsuspecting foreign teachers will inherit the same problems that we did. We had two official farewell dinners. Both times we were segregated into a separate table for the “western” teachers and refused the opportunity to mingle. Such heavy handedness was imposed by the Dean of the English Department. At least he did ask us to stay next year while were taking a departmental photo-three days before leaving China! We were able to spend an afternoon with our friend LuShan and her family. Her six year old daughter and Li entertained us with dance performances and songs for the afternoon. We had some great meals with friends and students and generally felt sad at the community we were leaving. The good news is that by the time we get back here again, most of our students will have graduated and we can visit them all over China.

One of the most memorable events of our departure was the goodbye party at Li’s school. We told her teacher we wanted to come by to take some pictures and bring a few small gifts. Upon our arrival we discovered three chairs waiting for us at one end of the room and the kids ready to sing and dance for us. We put WMI tattoos on all the kids and gave out treats. Li gave away many treasures, but ended up with about the same amount in return. There was a giant cake and lots of excited screaming, and of course some tears.

Most of our household items found good homes with students and other teachers. Nevertheless we ended up shipping 10 boxes back home (1/2 of which are gifts!). In China this involves stuffing a bag full of what you want to mail, handing it to the counter person, waiting while they look in every pocket and every book, and then cringing as they pack things poorly into boxes. It will be a race to see whether we beat our boxes home.

Steve started his 40th birthday with a burly 20 mile run and ended with a foot massage and mystery cake.

On the first of July we pulled out of campus in a taxi for the last time. Our flight to Xi’an was uneventful and we managed to forgo hotel food and find a local restaurant to drink a few beers and sit outside on a sweaty summer evening. Steve did eventually unplug our hotel room phone after the third call asking if we wanted a “massage”.