A Travellerspoint blog

Mind Over Matters Part II of III

Following the music.....

Eikosan greeted us with a comforting smile at the door. It was just the breath of fresh air I needed to keep my feet moving up the stairs and into the living room. She escorted us towards the end of the table where two teenage boys stood up and politely offered us their chair. My legs sang a little "Hallelujah" when they saw I wouldn't be sitting on my knees all evening. The people to our right and left gave a warm smile and a light bow in our direction. With one gesture by our neighbors I felt my anxiety melt away and my confidence restore. They reached out their hands and gave us a proper western greeting, followed by their names.

I glanced down the table and marveled at the variety of food. The middle of the table was lined with countless dishes filled with everything from rice, baked breads, different kinds of meat, noodle salads and sandwhiches filled with fruit and whipped cream. I felt my blood temperature drop a few degrees when I realized I wouldn't be receiving any bamboo blows to the head. Before digging into a delicious buffet style dinner, I took it all in.

I watched the kids at our end of the table laugh with one another while they made silly faces, some people leaned towards one another to hear the whole story, while others leaned back in disbelief at the story they had just heard. Looks of surprise morphed into smiles while looks of sympathy were met by looks of appreciation. I closed my eyes for just a minute, drew a deep breath, and verified all the sounds at the table were real. In that moment I could have been at my own family new years party. Kids were on one side of the table with adults on the other. The buzz of excitement and holiday spirit was electrifying everyone as we sat together and shared the simple things in life: family, friends and food.

Within a few moments of sitting down, Ana and I had made friends with the couple sitting across from us. Ruslan and his wife were from Tajikistan, the country just north of Afganistan, and their English was nothing short of impressive. Like a true American I had no idea where that was, so I felt a little sheepish saying "Terjerkishtan, ahhhhh. Where is that again?". The smirk on Ruslan's face told me this wasn't his first time answering that question. He pulled out his smart phone and showed us a map of the region around Tajikistan followed by a brief history of his country while we piled mounds of comfort food onto our plates.

Half way into dinner, I heard the opening guitar lines from the Emerson, Lake and Palmer song, "From the Beginning". Some where deep inside of me, I felt the ring of a tuning fork. Immediately tuning out any dinner conversation, I focused on the guitar sounds until I was sure it wasn't playing over a fading radio station. This was a live acoustic performance. I turned my head and saw a group of guys sitting at a smaller table off to the side, with several cups of sake in the center. All the eyes around the table were focused on the individual with the guitar. His legs were crossed and the guitar resting over his knee, his eyes closed. I politely excused myself from the table and followed the music.

As the song came to and end, he opened his eyes and the crowd of 4-5 older gentleman gave a light round of applause. The man looked at me and said, "You pray (play)?". Although my nerves weren't completely settled, I nodded affirming I had a little experience. Within moments they had cleared a space and passed me the strings. After shaking my hands loose and wiping the sweat from my brow I played the first few notes to the only song I could recall both the lyrics and the chords, Land Down Under by Men at Work. Not only did they recognize it, but we had a nice little sing/humm along. I passed the guitar to the man on my right and he jumped into the next song, Stand by Me. After the last few notes were strummed one of the men offered me a small glass filled with sake. I indulged his offer and we raised our glasses in unison "KAN PAI!".

The man to my left introduced himself. Kobayashi was the 58 year old brother of Eikosan and had been working as a psychiatrist in Tokyo for 32 years. "I'm from Beatles era", he said with a smile. His neighbor passed Kobayashi the guitar and he began finger picking the first few notes to Blackbird. As my first sip of sake was settling in...so was the realization I had completely misjudged the setting of the party and the people. This was a loose, relaxing setting and people were extremely polite and eager to practice their English. Not knowing Japanese wasn't necessarily an excuse to keep quiet, but a reason to communicate through other means. Afterall, who needs Japanese or English when you have music.

When he finished with Blackbird, he whipped through a tight version of Helter Skelter. Just when I thought the music selection or the moment couldn't get any more surreal, Kobayashi started playing the Immigrant Song by Led Zepplin. Suffice to say it's not the acoustic song one would expect to hear at a round table during a family gathering. This is the kind of song for a big stage, loud amps and lots of screaming fans. While Kobayashi whaled on the 6 string one of the other guys played the drums on his lap.

Just as I was starting to loosen up I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up from my chair and saw Ojiisan standing behind me. All the sounds in the room began to fade away as he stood there looking me dead in the eye, with that same face void of emotion.

Posted by Sr.curtissan 16:14 Comments (2)

Mind Over Matters Part I of III

The Japanese have a saying: Koketsu ni irazunba koji wo ezu. The literal translation is: If you do not enter the tiger's cave, you will not catch its cub. The English equivalent is: Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Every year our host mother Eikosan throws a New Years Party and invites several of her family members for dinner. This year she invited approximately 30 people and mentioned that she'd like us to attend. This was hard to pass up, as her warm smile and gift of hospitality always make us feel at home. This was going to be our 4th time breaking bread under her roof. Although we had enjoyed each of the other 3 visits, the idea of mingling with 30 other people whose language I didn't speak was a little unsettling.

While riding the subway to Eikosan's I had a vision. I pictured a quite room filled with tatami mats, a japanese table, notes from an eastern string instrument played over an old radio, traditional dress worn by everyone and lots of bowing to the patriarch of the family, who in this case was Ojiisan (grandpa). Although we hadn't been formally introduced I had seen him twice before, the first time being quite awkward. During our initial visit to Eikosan's home I opened the door on him when he was reading the newspaper in the bathroom. For just one moment I stood there, he sat there, and we looked at eachother with blank stares. Mine saying,"Is this happening?", and his saying "Who are you?". The second time was when the rest of us were eating dinner. From the hallway he stuck his head through the doorway and looked at me, then at the other guests, and with a look void of emotion he did an about face and marched down the hallway.

It would be fair to say I was a little afraid of Ojiisan. He was a shorter man who looked to be in his late 80's or early 90's, he wore a military crew cut of gray hair and large bi-focal glasses with gold trim. Even though we had our differences in the restroom, I desperately wanted to communicate with him and get his pespective on things. If he was willing to share it with me, I imagined that it would be quite interesting. I wanted to show my respect towards him and hoped he could acknowledge my appreciation for inviting me into his home. The one thing I knew about Japanese culture was the importance of maintaining respect for older generations. And the more I realized I didn't know enough japanese to accomplish this one simple task, the more my blood began to rush with anxiety.

It was starting to dawn on me, not only was I unable to deliver a proper greeting to Ojiisan but I was also going to meet partiarchs from all different sides of the family. Uncles, fathers, sons, cousins, would all be present and counting on me to deliver a fair attempt at a personal and proper greeting. "How had I survived nearly two monthes in Japan and not learned the basics?", I thought. Then my imagination really took me for a ride. I began to picture everyone watching me while I stood in the middle of the living room gesturing with my hands and making facial expressions, trying to communicate simple things like "Thanks for the invite", and "Please excuse the sweaty pits". I imagined eveyone watching me as I tasted the food they had prepared. They would study my facial expressions, and then slap me on the back of the head with a bamboo pole right after cutting through the bullshit of my pre-planned response of "MMM, oiishi des!" (it's delicious).

I knew no Japanese, I was way behind in my Japanese family customs class and I was definitely going to insult the patriarch of every family present. Meanwhile, I would insult all the cooks by not liking their traditional holiday dish. As if the anxiety of all that wasn't uncomfortable enough, I was going to a family gathering that was not my own. I was not entering my family's comfort zone, where the walls have been scaled, broken down and there is no ice left to break. I was completely out of my element. What did we have in common anyway? We're from opposite sides of the globe, so what common thread would we weave even if we could speak the same language? All these questions were burning up my insides. Here I was again, assuming the worst case scenario would take place.

We jumped off the subway and headed towards Eikosan's. I took a few breaths and tried to calm my nerves. I glanced down at my watch and realized we would be arriving 30 minutes late. "What a great first impression", I thought. We rang the door bell and waited to be greeted at the front door.

Posted by Sr.curtissan 01:39 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

Slightly Off Kilter

10 head scratching moments of life in Japan

9 °C

Greetings and Happy Holidays to everyone!

You are all in my thoughts and I wish you a happy holiday with friends and family.

Although i've settled in to Japan quite well, some things still seem impossible to wrap my head around and continue blow my mind. Here's a list of 10 reminders that i'm not in the United States. Some of them were quite frustrating, while others have become a channel for adventure:

  1. 1 Navigating the subway was a challenge, but after checking out a 90 second tutorial on You Tube I had it down to a science. The machines that dispense the tickets have a special button for people like me, it says "English". Once you touch it, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

  1. 2 Disposal of garbage is a process. Garbage is not picked up once a week, it's picked up once a day. Combustible items are on picked up on Sat and Tues, plastics on Mon, recyclable paper is on the 1st and 3rd Wed of the month, and cans and bottles are picked up on Fri. Besides figuring out which days of the week are appropriate for said piece of garbage, there is a certain way to bundle everything together by using twine or a transparent plastic bags. Even garbage disposal can be an art form.

  1. 3 Using the toilet has taken some practice and patience. Very rarely do I encounter a typical western toilet with a normal seat and simple switch for single flush action. Most toilets have double barrel flushing power. Dial the switch to the left for "big" and to the right for "small". This was extremely confusing the first day I arrived, as the toilet switch in our apartment is hooked up backwards. The big flush was tiny and the small flush was heroic. Vwoosh! That's just the half of it, I saw a toilet at Starbucks in Chinatown that had heated seats, butt washing capability and an emergency "panic" button (i'm not exagerrating). Then there's the eastern porcelin toilet that has a dish on the floor. Nature hasn't called when I've been in the vicinity of one of these thrones.

  1. 4 Most restaurants use a machine to facilitate the food ordering process. Either you order from a machine (and pay the machine) immediatley upon entering the restuarant, or you're seated by a host/hostess and order from a small digital screen at your table. After using it once or twice it's not so bad, but it's quite a nightmare the first time through. These little machines do not have an "English" button either. Lucky for us at least one member of our group always knows more Japanese than we do.

  1. 5 I was running the other day when I saw an older woman fall down in the crosswalk. She was in her 80's or 90's I presume. It was raining, cold, and only a few other people were around to help. Fortunately they rushed to her side and I didn't have to do anything. The problem was, I wanted to help. Since I don't speak Japanese, have a phone to call for help, I felt quite useless. Eventually she got up, but this served as a reminder of the importance of knowing the language.

  1. 6 Trying new foods has become an adventure. It might not be as rowdy as bungee jumping or walking across hot coals, but it's exciting and i'm constantly surprised at how much I enjoy it. Since most foods come in small quantities, it's easy to taste and not get stuck eating the whole plate if it doesn't agree with you. Here's a list of a few things i've tried along the way that were new to me: squid, octopus, raw salmon, sardines, fried chicken cartilage and several other kinds of fish (some raw some not). I've also had ta-ko yaki (octopus in a fried batter) onigiri (rice, veggies and ham rolled in sea weed), tama-wo-raki (eggs, spinich, sugar amd green onion rolled together) and chi-dash-i (traditional japanese rice). The best part is that i've enjoyed the majority of it.

  1. 7 The "Onsen" (hot springs) was pretty amazing. We walked into the building, slipped off our shoes, paid the machine and made our way into the changing room. The pools are separated into two areas, one for males and one for females. Rule #1, no bathing suits. Rule #2, bath before entering the hot springs. Bathing does not mean standing in a shower stall, it means sitting on what looks like a small plastic bucket infront of a little mirror and washing up. Next to the mirror are a bottle of soap and shampoo, a small bucket to rinse a razor (if shaving) and a removeable shower spout from the wall used to rinse off the soap. The onsen had 6 hot springs inside, 4 outside and one sauna. Equal amounts for both the men and women. The water was between 39 and 41 degrees C which is very similar average hot tub temps.

  1. 8 The flea market near Ueno Station in Tokyo was a mad house. I'd compare it to the midway at the state fair on the busiest day of the year, just in a smaller space. This market has the cheapest prices for all kinds of food, clothes, jewlery, etc. I'm not sure our feet hit the ground when we passed through this alley. There were so many people, crammed so close together, we sort of floated from one end to the other letting the current of people take us down stream. All the while workers were shouting their prices for delicious seafood caught earlier that day.

  1. 9 The other night we had dinner with 3 of Ana's friends. We did Izakaya at a restaurant in Yokohama. It's a very common in the Japanese culture. It involves drinking for two hours while eating small plates of food. When we finished, we headed back to the subway. On the way we encountered several people in the street offering deals to sing kareoke. After some tough negociation the 5 of us rented a room from 11:00pm-5:00am for 3,000 yen ($36), all drinks included. The first thing they gave us when we got in the room was a small digital box we would be using to place our orders.

  1. 10 To get to Tokyo or anywhere outside of Yokohama you have to go through Yokohama station. It's the central station in Yokohama that is two stops away from our apartment. Life around town is pretty smooth until you have to pass through this station. Fortunately first floor is where we do most of our walking because the 10 floors of restaurants, shops and 1/2 dozen different train lines passing through here are overwhelming. One thing never changes at Yokohama station, the feeling that it's the day before Christmas and all 35,000,000 people decided to shop here for their last minute gifts. Picture a dozen school of fish coming from all different directions heading towards the same location. You are in the middle of that location. They race towards you, colliding and weaving through one another only to vanish around the corner and out of sight.....that's life at Yokohama station.

Thanks for taking a minute to check out life in Japan. We're getting to know the city better, meeting new people and enjoying our time together. Have a safe and Happy New Year! See you soon!

Sr.Curtis San

Posted by Sr.curtissan 16:58 Archived in Japan Comments (2)

Chewing the Fat

Curve balls at the dinner table.

5 °C

Ana and I met a couple of our neighbors for dinner at a restaurant near our apartment called Toriki. Toriki’s specialty is mainly meats served on stick, i.e. chicken and meatballs etc. When we arrived, a young man greeted us at the front door with a light bow from the hip and a gentle smile. We exchanged a traditional evening greeting, “Kon-bon-wa”, and followed the motion of his head as he pointed us towards the table closest to the kitchen. As I grabbed a hanger from the hook on the wall, another young man darted from around the corner and headed in my direction. With an even lighter bow and gentler smile, he reached for my coat and hung it on the wall, like one might assist an older person reaching for the top isle in a grocery store. He slowly backed away while offering several smaller bows before disappearing into the kitchen.

“I ordered 5 of everything” our neighbor said. She closed the menu and handed it to the server. For a moment I thought “Five of everything? How hungry are we?" Before I could open my mouth to inquire about her ordering strategy, the pre-dinner snack arrived. Two small plates were set on the table. The thin layer of cabbage covering the bottom of the plates was topped with a mountain of fried chicken skin cut into standard chip sized pieces. For anyone who secretly loves the skin of fried chicken, this blows chips and salsa right out of the water.

Shortly afterwards, the first of several plates arrived. A thin rectangle plate was laid across our table with 5 wooden skewers on it, each one covered with just larger than bite sized pieces of chicken. This became the theme for the of the evening. Just as we finished one plate the next one would arrive. This happened throughout the evening approximately 5-6 times, each set of meat was prepared slightly different than the plate before. We ate tender meatballs covered with cheese, grilled chicken with a ‘secret sauce’ and at one point chicken wings which we ate with chop sticks of course.

The conversation was as delicious as the dinner. Each of the 5 members of our dinner party were from a different spot around the globe. It was refreshing to field questions about where we had traveled, the languages we spoke and our likes and dislikes about Japan. Being arbroad makes everything new and intersting, even the details about yourself that once seemed average and monotonous become exciting and avant garde.

There were however, two moments during this dinner that gave me a little anxiety. The first came when the server cracked an egg into a small dish and motioned for me to dip my chicken in it. I’m sure I made the face a man makes just before he's about to knowingly swallow poison. Rather than bolt out the door, I dropped the glazed piece of chicken on to my tongue and sighed with relief while my taste buds relaxed. The egg offered a nice coat around the moist cut of meat, it was a complete success and I hope to experience it again.

The second moment came after they set the last set of skewers on our table. According to the other members of our group this was supposed to be the best part of the meal. “Serious? If that’s the case I’m on my way to finishing the best meal of my life,” I thought. After the dipping the chicken in the egg I was feeling pretty confident about my abilities to try anything, until I threw this last piece into my mouth. The last skewer contained 3 pieces of wonderfully prepared fat. One thing holds true around the globe, no matter how well it’s prepared and no matter what country you’re in all fat chews the same. When it comes to chewing fat at the dinner table there is nothing less comfortable for a picky eater, especially when you look down and see that your glass is empty.

Thanks for taking a moment to check out life in Japan!

Go Vikes!

Posted by Sr.curtissan 19:17 Archived in Japan Comments (3)

Panic Button

My trip to the grocery store.

11 °C

Greetings from Japan!

Yesterday might have been the first day I felt a little stir crazy in this apartment.

I rolled out of bed around 9:00am...this took effort. After a little breakfast, skyping with my sister and a few cups of coffee I looked at the clock, 1:00pm. There I was standing in the middle of our apartment with my pijama pants on, an old tee shirt around my neck and bed hair. I comtemplated for a few minutes as the 4 cups of coffee began to settle in. "Did I sleep in too late? Is this vacation catching up with me? What have I accomplished today?"

With no patience to sit down and too small an apartment to walk off the caffeine buzz, I thought about jumping out the window and doing a cannon ball onto the street. Just before taking a run at it, Ana suggested I take a walk to the grocery store. "Good call," I thought. I threw on a cap and a quick change of clothes. She handed me a short list of items and smiled as I walked out the door. The list read: eggs, onions, toilet paper and quit acting wierd. Well said. "Back in 20 minutes!" I yelled, and closed the door behind me.

After A few seconds out the door and I became inspired. A little fresh air was just what the doctor ordered. Birds were singing, the sun was shining and the neighborhood park was buzzing with laughter and children. I'm pretty sure a bird even landed on my shoulder and wished me a good morning.

I strolled into the neighborhood co-op and grabbed a red basket from the stack near the door. I walked right past the gray jello and straight to the onions. Onions...check! The TP was not next to the paper towels or anywhere nearby. Seeing that I don't know the japanese word for toilet paper, I imagined flagging down an employee, pointing to the paper towels and then to my butt. All the while making a silly "where?" face while shrugging my shoulders. I decided against that option and figured it would turn up sooner or later. Besides, i'm much more comfortable flying under the radar when traveling.

On my way to the dairy section I got a little distracted by the snacks for 100 yen, before I realized it my basket was full of items not on the list. By the time I made it to the dairly isle the eggs could barely fit in the basket. Near the check out line I spotted a pyramid of toilet paper on sale. I swiped a 12 pack off the top and hit the register with a full load. I sighed with relief as I unloaded everything on the counter, a wave of accomplishment washing over me.

I placed my money in the tray, put the change in my pocket and turned to the table nearby to bag my groceries. That's when it hit me, the co-op is BYOB...Bring Your Own Bag.

My inspiration was waning rapidly at this point. The fresh tee shirt I pulled off the clothes line earlier was now soaked with perspiration. The internal panic button had been pushed. Writing this now I realize l could have just bought couple bags and chalked it up to poor planning. Instead, I decided to act like this was all part of the plan and load up. Drawing attention to the fact I speak little to no japanese was not an option, and my skill at cherades wasn't good enough to explain leaving the groceries on the table and coming back with bags. I NEEEDED to make this work.

So much for flying under the radar. Once the 3 pack of onions was stuffed into the rear pocket of my jeans, heads began to turn. With a bag of potato chips under both arms, several 100 yen bags of sweets hanging out my front pockets, a 12 pack of TP in one hand and a carton of eggs in the other I headed for the door. By now I could feel the half dozen sets of eyes trained on me. That explained sweating through my 2nd shirt. "Relax Keith, you can make it!"

Most people mind their own business around here and don't pay any attention to the next passer by, no matter how wierd or different they might look. Staring is just as impolite here as it is there. I must have looked ridiulous, because on the way home I drew a lot of attention. Nearly every person I passed on my way home took a moment to look me up and down. By the time I walked in the door, the 20 minute trip had lasted just over an hour. Rather than recount the details of my journey with Ana right away, I took a different route. I swapped the two sweaty shirts and blue jeans for pijama pants and an frayed old tee shirt. I climbed the ladder into cubby space, and took a nice long nap.

Happy Holidays!

Posted by Sr.curtissan 16:00 Archived in Japan Comments (1)

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