Thursday, August 23, 2007

Prettiest Tapestry Ever

Just wanted to upload some pics of my pretty tapestry and demonstrate for you all how brilliant and crafty I am. The closet in my room does not have a pole on which to hang clothes, nor does it have a place to put one. There's also a shelf that divides the closet exactly in half, so if one wanted to somehow install a pole, it would really be of little use. So, my apartment came with a metal, wheeled thingymajig that clothes can be hung on. Said metal thing is really ugly, and I hated having to look at my clothes hanging on it everyday. I've been thinking about how I could cover that corner of the room since I moved in 3 weeks ago, and every idea I could think of was somehow impractical. Curtains would be too expensive and a pain to install, and I couldn't find large enough quantities of really pretty cloth (I'm sure its here somewhere, though its probably not cheap...). As soon as I got home from Sado and set my new tapestry down next to the ugly metal hanger, it clicked. The tapestry is the perfect size and I'm glad I'm able to look at it every day. I originally thought there would be nowhere to hang it in my house, cause all my big open wall space is covered. Killed two birds with one stone :-)

My clothes are all back there...

Every square is different. I instantly fell in love with it when I saw it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

My First List of Things About Japan that Confuse Me

Decided not to go to STS9 tomorrow, cause it was gonna be too much of a headache and was gonna cost me quite a lot. Which is one aspect of life in Japan that makes absolutely no sense to me. Traveling within Japan costs A LOT, regardless of how you do the traveling. Shinkansen (bullet trains) are really fast and convenient, but that also makes them super expensive. To give you an idea, a one-way ride from Niigata City to Tokyo, which takes around 2 hours, costs over $100*. The same one-way bus ride takes 5 hours and costs around $50. Surprisingly, driving can be MORE expensive, cause you'll pay about $100 dollars in highway tolls, and you've got to pay for gas/a place to park when you get there. It confuses me why Japan would make it so expensive and difficult to travel around the country. Wouldn't you want people to be able to travel easily, so they'd travel more (and spend more money...)? Many JETs have told me it's actually cheaper to travel to Seoul, Korea for a weekend than to go to Tokyo -- and Seoul requires a flight!!!

*No worries for those of you who want to visit. As a foreigner, you can get a JR rail pass before you come, and ride almost all the shinkansen for a flat (pretty cheap) rate. So COME VISIT ME :-)

Which brings me to another mind-boggling aspect of Japanese life. In Japan, ATMs are not always open. In fact, they all close every day around 7 PM, and the ones that DO stay open (which are usually in convenience stores) charge you for using them after hours and charge you if the ATM is not for your bank, which they're usually not. As if it couldn't get any more retarded, ATMs are often closed on holidays. WHAT? Is there a tiny Japanese man inside the machine who requires the day off? Now, I understand not leaving the bank open, but the ATM? Again, wouldn't it make sense to leave it open 24 hours, as this would encourage people to spend hard cash (always a good thing)? I feel sorry for the poor salaryman who doesn't get off work till 8 and can't get hundreds of dollars out to spend at his favorite hostess club. Cause you know, like most places in Japan, his favorite hostess club doesn't take plastic.

Lastly, another aspect of Japanese existence that I fail to understand is the practice that some stores have of playing the exact same annoying song OVER AND OVER AND OVER again literally all day. Two stores in particular are especially bad about this: Uoroku grocery store and K's Denki electronics store. Kristin, you think the 20-song Old Navy soundtrack is bad? Try listening to the EXACT SAME annoyingly upbeat Japanese song featuring children's voices all day. I don't know how the workers do it. But I now have a theory about what causes the ruthless killings that occur here every once in a while. Those songs would drive anyone to a murderous rage...

Okay, done questioning things I will never understand. Hannah OUT.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Hippies Abound

Most of you are probably aware that I went to Sado island this past weekend to see the Sado Island Earth Celebration. For the weeks leading up to this I couldn't stop buzzing about how excited I was to see a hippie-laden festival done Nihon-style. Well folks, I got exactly what I wanted -- plenty of tyedye, half-naked people brown people and patchouli.

I didn't go to Sado until Saturday, due to the fact that I wasn't able to make it to the last ferry out of Niigata City on Friday. So Friday night I went out with fellow Murakamians Joel and Eric to check out the mini Tanabata festival being held in town that night. The Tanabata is a Japanese star festival which celebrates the meeting of the lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi, two stars which during the rest of the year are separated by the river that is the Milky Way. Different people celebrate it based on different calendars, so August 19th was a smaller celebration. The giant celebration is July 7th, and is held all throughout Japan.

One of the 10 or so floats that was decorated by, and served to represent various areas of the city.

More floatage.

After walking down the street a ways we spotted Chris and Sean (two other Murakami JETs) in a garage chillin' and drinkin' with some Japanese locals, so we stopped to say hey. It was the perfect spot, because as all the different groups from each area of the city came by, they'd each stop to perform a dragon dance in front of our garage that looked insanely tiring. Ended the night playing darts at the darts bar and hitting the sack relatively early in preparation for Sado.

I woke up earlyish Saturday morning to travel to Niigata City so I could catch a ferry out to Sado island. The car ferry takes about 2.5 hours to travel the distance, and its a lovely ride. I'm mostly gonna let the pictures do the talking:

A small chunk of the lovely Sado. A large portion of the island is completely uninhabited and covered in trees -- i.e., hippie heaven.

Japan's cleaner, friendlier equivalent of Shakedown Street. I bought a number of excellent things, including the most beautiful tapestry ever and a tyedye dress. I was even more pleased, however, when the seller of said dress unwittingly put my new treasure in the most striking paradigm of postmodernism:

Damn that's deep...

Adorable nekkid hippie children were everywhere. I kept wanting to take pictures, although I didn't want to be that creepy gaijin. I found this cutie sleeping in the back of a shop though, and snapped when no one was looking.

The Shinto torii mark this place as sacred.

The steep, lovely climb to the stage.

Proof that I was, in fact, on Sado island decked out in paisley. That's the stage behind me. Sadly, no photos of the performance were allowed.

Saturday night's concert consisted mainly of two long sets. The first was Zakir Hussain and Dilshad Khan, both from India. Zakir is considered to be the best tabla drum player in the world, and after seeing his performance with Khan playing the sarangi, I second that opinion. Kodo, performers of the world's most physical drumming on the bass-laden Ō-daiko (great drum) and hosts of the Earth Celebration for the last 20 years, played the next set which was nothing short of amazing. As if they weren't already totally badass, the drummers and staff live and train on a 25-acre commune on Sado island and have put on the EC every year that they've been there. According to wikipedia, Kodo once once ran from the finish line of the Boston Marathon onto stage for a performance! I've heard they're also ninjas by night.

After the concert was over, back down the hill on the main road, some locals were playing drums, flutes and shamisen. Hundreds of people were milling about and dancing the Sado Okesa dance. The dancing lasted over two hours!

Locals playing the shamisen.

A small O-daiko.

Hundreds line the streets to do the Okesa dance.

A guy doing the Okesa dance in traditional yukata and hat.

I uploaded a video I took of a chick doing the Okesa dance for ya'll. Sorry it's not vertical -- I don't have Quicktime Pro and don't want to pay for it in order to rotate the video.

We (other JETs and myself) camped out on the beach that night. Despite the fact that I had sand in every nook and cranny of my body, I had fun being out on the beach beside a big bonfire. Also, I saw more stars that night than I've ever seen in my life and had a perfectly clear view of the Milky Way. Nearly every time I looked up I saw a shooting star without even trying. I think I made over 15 wishes.

Now, a few pictures of my favorite JETs, for good measure.

Richie, my favorite Irishman. Rich, your face really does look like the bandanna monster here.

Errol and I sharing a very meta moment.

Sunday I basically spent all day travelling back to Murakami since that involved a number of bus rides, ferry rides and train rides. The festival was really fun, and I definitely plan on returning next year, hopefully when my Japanese is better and I can converse with the earth people easier.

In other news, I think I've decided to skip out on the Metamorphose festival next weekend on the Izu peninsula. For those of you who haven't heard me constantly yap about it, its an all night electronic music festival just south of Tokyo that this year will feature one of my favorite groups, STS9. Just traveling there and back would cost OVER 200 dollars, and I've still gotta buy a ticket, a cool t-shirt/art, food, etc. (in that order). However, all is not lost! STS9 is playing a show in Tokyo Wednesday night, so I'm gonna ask my supervisor tomorrow if I could have Thursday off. If they say yes, I'll ride the shinkansen to Tokyo Wednesday after work and ride a bus back on Thursday. I'm a little concerned about asking off work this early in my JET career, although its not like I'm actually doing anything either. My days are filled with sitting at a desk, studying Japanese and surfing the internet. Gaaah my life is so hard ;-)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Beaches, Britney and Beutification

The last five days have been incredibly sweet. Why? Well, days 1 and 2 were Saturday and Sunday (weekends are always sweet), day 3 was prefectural orientation in Niigata city (I got to see some favorite Niigata peeps), and day 4 and 5 (Tuesday and Wednesday) I didn't have to go to work! So I've basically had a 5 day break which rocks. Saturday I did some much needed shopping in the shopping mecca of Bandai in Niigata city. Basically Bandai is a shopping area covered in department stores of the 8-story variety. Bitchin'.

So sometime last week fellow Murakamian Katrina asked me if I'd go hang out with her and a Japanese fellow she met at last weekend's Niigata party and one of his friends. I said yes, as long as all involved understood this was not a "double date," at least not on my part. So the plan was to meet them at the train station (we thought they were coming in by train) and then figure out how to get to the beach since neither of us knew how. Luckily, said boys drove their tricked-out kit car with GPS to the station, so technology all-father lead our way.

We decided to simply drive up the coast till we found a suitable spot to hit the beach. Now, keep in mind two things: one, Japan is a volcano-formed island nation, so in our area, theres not necessarily a lot of "beach" since the mountains run straight into the ocean. Two, next weekend the jellyfish are coming, and apparently its an assload of jellyfish. This being the case, EVERYONE is going to the beach this particular Sunday, because it's their last chance to swim without fear of stinging Scyphozoa. So we had to ride for a little bit before we got anywhere with relatively open beach.

As we're riding along, I notice that the song on the radio is really familiar, but I'm not sure why at first. I listen more closely. Then it hits me, this horrible sound belongs to only one person. How could I have not recognized it? -- Britney Spears has a distinctly god-awful voice. The reason I had not recognized her squall at first is because this particular song (I believe it's called "I'm Not a Girl" ) was some sort of remix. Okay, Britney's on the radio. Okay, boys aren't changing the station. Sad, but whatever. Katrina and I share a laugh and continue on our merry way. Roughly three to four minutes later, however, I notice Britney hasn't left us, and we've moved on to "Overprotected" remix. I incredulously leer at the car radio. Nope, this ain't a radio station. These two guys, ages 23 and 27, enjoy rocking out to Britney. In fact, they enjoy it enough to spend money on a CD in order to do so. Oh God, what is this place? This kind of thing truly makes my soul hurt.

My ability to laugh at the situation paired with the breathtaking scenery helped my immense Britney-induced sadness fade. We ended all the way up in Sanpoku, a gorgeous little beach town at the north most part of the prefecture. And when I say gorgeous, I mean it...

That's Katrina and the J-boys above. We frolicked for 3 or 4 hours, then headed back Murakami way.

When I returned to my house Sunday night, I had a notice in my mailbox that the mailman had been by to drop off some packages my parents sent. I had been waiting very impatiently for these packages to come, so I was stoked that they made it but a little bummed that I hadn't been home to receive them. Of course the notice is in Japanese, so most of it I can't read, but I turned it over and found a phone number to call for "assistance in English." I call the number and talk to a very nice Japanese woman who speaks really good English. I cut straight to the chase and ask her "where should I go to get my packages tomorrow?" She says, "um, they'll be at Murakami post office. But, can you tell me if there is a circled or boxed-in number on the ticket?" I look... "Yeah, it's a 16." "Hold on a moment." I get the Japanese version of hold music which is very upbeat and extremely annoying. After about 20 seconds, she's back. "Will you be home tonight between 7 and 9pm?" "Yes, I will..." "I'll contact the truck driver and get him to deliver it."

WHAT? It's SUNDAY! I was shocked that the post office operated on Sunday at all, let alone as late as 9PM!! But not only did they deliver it to my house that night, I got the packages 15 minutes after I got off the phone with the lady! Damn, THATS service!

These precious packages contained my decorations for my house. So, I spent the rest of my week off deckin' out my house. Here's the pimpin' results:



Kitchen sink.

America Love!!!!

Living room.

Living room 2.

My room. Not much different, but got rid of the god awful pink curtains.

Besides getting the chance to decorate this weekend, I also ended my time as a hermit by buying a bike and a keitai (cellphone). Now, to make you all jealous...

This beauty is the DoCoMo Foma d903i, in "Summer" turquoise. Its way cooler than any phone you chumps can get in America. 3.2 megapixel camera, mp3 player, wireless internet connected (with an awesome browser), GPS so if I get lost I can find out exactly where I am (or where the nearest 7-11 is), Japanese-English dictionary, and million other features I haven't figured out yet. It doesn't have TV or double as a Nintendo Wii remote (features found on other, fancier phones), but it slides out Matrix-style and is TURQUOISE. I love this place.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Around Town...

Sorry for the severe lack of posting over the last week. I've been very busy with work and I'm still getting settled in (lots of paper work :-( and lots of shopping :-D). I've also, unfortunately, been pretty terrible about taking pictures (who knew??), so I still don't have any pics of my workplace or of my coworkers, but I figure I'll wait till school actually starts before I begin snapping. The kids here are on summer vacation now, although strangely enough many of them still go to school. Its really confusing, and I'll admit I don't entirely understand what's going on. I asked the Kyoto-Sensei (vice principal) at one of my middle schools, and she explained it as such: the kids have all of August as summer vacation, but they go to school in the morning for certain clubs (which are required) and in the afternoon they can choose to go to prep classes for the coming semester. A surprising number of students stay for the prep classes, too. All this week I helped teach English classes at Kamihayashi Chugakko (middle school), and we pretty consistently had at least 20 kids in each class. So, kids in Japan basically don't have summer vacation, and they seem to like coming to school. Weird. Teachers and students alike are always shocked to hear that Americans get 3 months off in the summer. I'm sure this is correlated with the fact that kids in America are over 2 years behind kids in other industrialized countries in math ability. Hmmmm...

Anyways, I've had a bit of time to wander and explore in my fair town of Murakami, and so far I like what I see. I've really only seen the south side of the town, although I plan to buy a bike on Tuesday so the north side should be much more accessible. Let me tell you about a few of the gems I found on the south side:

This is the first sweet place I found, a used record store called Beatnik. The awesome Jimi Hendrix poster immediately caught my attention, and I knew I had to see what was going on inside.

This is Natsu, the owner of Beatnik. He spoke a little bit of English, so between my broken Japanese and his crappy English we pretty much had things covered. The record selection in the store was stellar, and the records were all in beautiful condition and perfectly packaged (each one neatly stuffed into a plastic sleeve and labeled, all in alphabetical order and organized by genre). Natsu DJs in Niigata City on weekends, and he had some turntables set up in the store. We had a nice conversation about music, and I told him I really like reggae. Notice the sweet dub record he's spinning and the excellent pose he struck for me when I asked to take his picture...

A little further down the street I hear more reggae music blaring. As I get closer to the source, what I discover is:

SOUL. What I found inside was an awesome dude named Junichi (the owner) and a whole lot of Rasta stuff and day-glo art. Needless to say, I immediately fell in love with the place. The art was amazing, and upon talking to him I found out it was all done by friends of his. He called one of them to get a price, and the artist is apparently willing to sell for about 5000 yen (about 45 bucks). When I get paid, I'm definitely going back and buying some stuff to add to my collection. :-) Interestingly, later that very night I went to a party in Niigata city with a few other JETs from Murakami, and the bar the party was held at was also covered in the exact same artist's day-glo work!!

Continuing past SOUL I wandered into what is called "Old Town" and found some truly beautiful places. Like this pretty road:

And a Shinto Torii that marks this place as sacred:

An entrance to a Buddhist temple:

And ancient refurbished Samurai houses:

I continued walking through Old Town for a bit, and soon found myself in a little shopping district full of various tiny shops. I was looking for a birthday gift for my mom, and knowing she likes dishes, I decided to look through a few tea shops. The very first one I stepped into I was warmly greeted by the cutest obaasan (old lady) who immediately sat me down and poured me some delicious tea. She was very interested in me, wanting to know where I was from and what I was doing in Japan (and especially why I was in the inaka town of Murakami). Her granddaughter spoke a little bit of English, so she called her and her two friends out to help translate.

The people in this town are crazy nice -- it reminds me of the south. Which is why, at least so far, I haven't felt a bit lonely or scared. Sure, I get pangs of sadness when I think about the people and the places I miss, but this experience is showing me that wonderful people worth having in your life are all over the planet.