Sunday, February 28, 2010

Some Questions Are Better Left Unanswered, Especially on Fridays

Sorry, sorry. Yes, I know, I know... I should have posted something here during the week. But I didn't. I was busy. And Dr. Trouble couldn't write anything either, because he was in France trying to "give us a better future." Whatever that means.

And now I can't post anything tonight either, because I am too busy planning my trip to (mostly) Seoul during our Japanese Golden Week.

But because I'm not a total jerk, I'll tell you what happened yesterday. Yesterday was Friday. I got to watch an English lesson taught by a Japanese teacher *. She wanted me to participate and ask her students a couple of questions. Obviously she was looking to show off her superior teaching skillz.

I asked the kids about the weather and they told me it was cloudy. The teacher wanted more from me, so I asked what day it was. And the kids, their teacher too, stretched out their arms and started making airplane moves and noises. I stood there with a stupid expression on my face and for the life of me couldn't figure out just what exactly the deal with Fridays and airplanes was.

I gave up and asked the teacher, especially since the kids very clearly expected to be complimented on their "flying" performance.

The teacher looked at me like I was a total idiot.

"Fly!" she finally said. "Flyday!"


How stupid of me. Leally. 

*) She's a qualified English teacher with a degree in English and all that. From a Japanese university.

Monday, February 22, 2010

I "heart" Brazilian Supermarkets

My friend just called and told me she was on her way to a Brazilian restaurant in Moka. And that resulted in two things:

1. me getting very hungry, and
2. this blog post.

Funny, because just yesterday I was reading on some other blog a bunch of useless, racist drivel about Brazilian Japanese (no link, because racist nonsense shouldn’t be advertised). And the day before I went shopping at a Brazilian supermarket in Moka (bought pickled beets, sausages and Inca Kola).


Takara Brazilian Supermarket in Moka

So, yes, in case you didn’t know, there are Brazilians living in Japan. Quite a few of them. And Peruvians. Also quite a few of them. And Bolivians and other South Americans, but not so many of them.

How did they get here? By plane, presumably. And yes, they are of Japanese descent, but it might be hard to realize by looking at some of them.

The story goes like this: back in prehistoric times, sometime around the beginning of the 20th century bunches of impoverished Japanese peasants were enticed to immigrate to Brazil. And so they did. Until 1941 almost 190 000 people left Japan in search of a better life in Brazil.


The immigration from Japan to Peru had started even earlier, back in the late 1890. Anyway, fast forward to the end of the 20th century – that’s when the descendants of those Japanese, in order to escape the instability of Latin America, came knocking on the door of their “motherland”.


A small mercado in Kanuma

Those “returnees” are known as “dekasegi” and while many do struggle in Japan, because even though they may look Japanese, culturally they are not, there are also many success stories. But you don't hear much about those successes, because really, like, who cares?

You just hear about those who lost their jobs due to the economic downturn and about the Japanese government’s scheme to pay them some laughable amount of cash and send them back to wherever it is they came from.


But where were we? Ah yes, Brazilian supermarkets. Yes, these people need to eat, and I for one, am very glad for this fact. Since this is not Tokyo and I can’t just hop to a local import food store, I am very grateful for our local Brazilian markets. Because they stock all sorts of stuff, and not only from Brazil. And while I am very happy in Japan, every once in a while I crave pickled beets or proper chorizo, and yes, even Inca Kola.


And now, if you excuse me, I have a lovely beet salad to consume.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

How Much Fun Is Fundoshi?

Observing any matsuri crowd it’s very easy to figure out which foreigners are freshly arrived in Japan Americans. Those are the ones who look embarrassed and cover their children’s eyes when faced with a group of fundoshi-clad men in a mikoshi procession.

Fundoshi x500

Yeah, fundoshi… The underwear that puts the “fun” back into a loincloth.

It’s cold and, frankly, I’m tired of this winter. And to remind myself that summer will, eventually, come again sometime this year and I won’t have to wear two pairs of socks and a fleece to bed, I looked at some photos taken in warmer months.

And the fact that a group of my students asked me to consider being on a mikoshi team with them this coming summer also had something to do with it. Fortunately, as a woman, I won’t have to don fundoshi (which considering the size of my ass, is definitely a blessing). And unfortunately, I will have to pass on the mikoshi procession, as I will be in the UK attending a Discworld convention during that time. Yes, I’m a geek and proud of it. And it will be my first time in the UK, too! (Because transfers between Heathrow and Gatwick don't count.)

But where were we? Ah yes, fundoshi (褌)… 


My husband doesn’t own any, and though my FIL does, I’ve been (mercifully) spared the sight of him wearing it.

Fundoshi is a strip of cloth tied like a loincloth. It’s so traditionally Japanese that it’s even mentioned in the ancient myth collection – Nihon Shoki (or if you prefer – the second oldest book of classical Japanese history – “The Chronicles of Japan”, whatever… still a bunch of myths to me).

Fun squat x500

Anyway, how complicated can a basic loincloth get? What do you think? Apparently – very. From what the men in the family told me, there are more than just a couple of variations on fundoshi. And since I’m a clueless female, despite some very graphic explanations, it’s still just a piece of fabric securing a guy’s dingdongs to me.

But because I know you’re just dying to learn more, here’s a (tasteful) lesson in how to wear fundoshi.

Fundoshi x375

Monday, February 15, 2010

Nikko Candle Pageant 2010

Today is Valentine's Day and because nothing says "I love you" like freezing your butt off in subzero temperatures, at night, and in the snow, we decided to celebrate the occasion by going to the Nikko Candle Pageant.

Held in the Ganman area (where the stone Buddhas are) on February 10th - 14th, the event was fairly simple: give people a bunch of plastic lanterns to decorate, stick some candles inside and place them along the Buddha statues.

And when you run out of tiny Buddhas to illuminate, just make some tiny snowmen:

Add a band on a makeshift stage and get them to play lame covers of equally lame Japanese hits, get the local hotel association to hand out cups of hot cocoa, organize a shuttle bus from the municipal parking lot and you have a recipe for success.

And the best part? The event was free. We only had to pay for the parking.

More photos from the Nikko Candle Pageant are here.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Hey, Hey, We're the Monkeys (of Nikko)

So, do they, or do they not like to take onsen baths?

The Nikko natives are quick to tell you that they do, and if it’s really cold outside, sometimes they will even venture into human territory to try human outdoor onsen. But if you start asking if they’ve actually seen a monkey sitting in their backyard tub, they will tell you that no, they haven’t. But they have a friend (relative, co-worker, neighbor) who’s seen it.


Though it’s been repeated over and over that these monkeys (Japanese Macaque, Snow Monkey, Nihon zaru) like to lounge in hot springs, the first time when such behavior was actually observed by scientists was in 1963 in Nagano. And even then, the situation was not accidental, but carefully engineered by researchers to get the monkey into the water. The monkey decided that sitting in hot water on a cold winter day was a much better alternative than freezing her butt off in the woods, and soon other members of her monkey troop joined her.

In Nikko you will see many signs admonishing you not to feed the monkeys. But when it’s really cold and they are obviously hungry enough to get on the road to bother the passing motorists for a bit of food, it’s hard to resist.


Unfortunately, that teaches them bad habits and causes problems for the city of Nikko. To deal with the monkeys, the city officials thought up a volunteer program when a couple of times a year the residents have to scare the monkeys away. You can’t shoot them (protected species), so the volunteers use noisemakers to drive them away. But the monkeys, being smart and adaptable, figured out this trick very quickly. They’re not afraid of humans, they’re not afraid of cars, and when they’re really hungry, they can be quite persistent.

So while driving around Nikko in winter, please be careful. You don’t want to hurt a hungry monkey.

Most tourists, however, come to see the carved monkeys and pay little attention to the wild ones. Actually, you’d be surprised to learn how many foreign visitors have no clue at all that monkeys live in Japan in the wild.

And this is what they come to see:


Yeah, the three wise monkeys who see no evil (Mizaru), speak no evil (Iwazaru), hear no evil (Kikazaru). In other words, stick your head in the sand and pretend that the world at large doesn’t exist. Oh, wait, ostriches do that, not monkeys. So why not ostriches on the Toshogu shrine, but monkeys? Because the Japanese word for monkey – saru (猿) sounds like an old negative verb conjugation – zaru. 


And besides, three monkeys are a lot more fun to look at than one ostrich sticking its head in the sand.

Actually, there's more than three of them, but the rest isn't doing anything cute or terribly exciting:


Saturday, February 13, 2010

My Phobia of Onsens and Japanese-style Baths

Call me stupid, or spoiled and lazy, but I have serious issues with water. With standing water. And especially with standing water that has been used by someone else.

Swimming pools give me long lasting trauma. While I can be forced to enter one, I will scrub myself afterwards with harsh chemicals for much longer than it’s commonly considered safe by most human beings.

Yes, swimming pool water is chlorinated, but that’s of small comfort to me. After all, somebody could have peed (or spat in it, or had a runny nose) in the pool. I don’t care how diluted those bodily fluids might be, I just don’t want them on me. Or in me, if I’m accidentally going to get splashed in my face. Plain and simple.

My paranoia was easily concealed in the West. I simply didn’t frequent swimming pools.

Now, that I’m living in the country of onsens and standing bath water that is used by more than one person for more than one day*, my mental anguish has reached truly massive proportions.


Hot and steaming outdoor "onsen"

Japanese onsens are hot springs. Those it seems that these days any hotel that has a communal hot tub calls it “onsen”. Those fake onsens are rather like big communal baths, except that you don’t actually use them to clean yourself. You just sit in hot water and relax. You clean yourself before getting into the bath.

That in theory you’re supposed to be freshly scrubbed before entering the tub means nothing to me. I know at least a half dozen Japanese for whom a shower consists of just several splashes of hot water, with or without soap, as the bathroom might be too cold for an actual proper scrubbing session (no central heating here, remember?). And then it’s off to the tub. No thanks, I’ll pass. I don't want to use the same water that dissolved your mucopurulent discharge or smegma just a second ago. The same water that might have been used yesterday by some other people. Yeah, it might have been “purified” but to satisfy my idea of “pure” there’s simply not enough chlorine in the world.

And if I see some hair floating in the water, my day is done. You’d be lucky not to clean my vomit from the floor (or water).


Japanese style bath - water stays in for a couple of days and that thing you can see on the right is used to cover the tub.

Home baths aren’t of much comfort to me either. While I can share my bathwater with Dr. Trouble (my germs are his germs, and vice versa), the thought of using the same water the next day makes me gag.

When we lived with relatives, our designated bath order was clear – first mom and pop, and then us, lowly freeloaders. Needless to say, I took zero baths at that house.

I was reluctant to share my fear of Japanese baths with my Japanese friends. After all, this is their culture, and I didn’t want to offend their fragile sensibilities (Japanese sensibilities are fragile by definition). So imagine my shock when I heard (from the horse’s mouth, so to speak) that not all Japanese people like their baths the Japanese way. To some a dip in onsen is a source of profound psychological suffering.

The Japanese women who openly admitted to sharing my onsen phobia say they feel like traitors to their own culture and tradition. In their homes, they change the bath water daily and in order to be able to take a bath at all, they have to go first.

To them, a bath is not a relaxing experience, but something that must be painfully endured. And they have to be dragged kicking and screaming into a public onsen.


Hotel "onsen" with an underwater illumination in the tub.

The fact that there are Japanese who feel the same way does give me some comfort. I might be a freak, but I’m not alone in my freakishness. And besides, there are a lot more serious afflictions in this world.

In the great scheme of things, fear of shared bath water ranks somewhere between the missing sock conspiracy and the inability of many people (including some self-claimed travel writers) to spell the name “Chiang Mai” correctly.

*) Yes, that’s how Japanese baths work – the same water will be reheated and used the following day. How many days it can go on – that depends on the homeowner.

Onsens (Japanese hot springs, common hotel baths, etc.) are regulated by a set of very strict rules, but personally, there aren’t enough strict rules in the universe to make the idea of previously used bath water (by strangers, no less) even remotely palatable to me.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Pet Friendly Pension Animale in Nikko

The cats were not too keen on a road trip. But that’s normal. As soon as their travel carriers come out of storage, they run and hide. And frankly, I can’t blame them. If I were my cat, I’d hate to travel, too. Poor guys, they’ve been through a lot, that’s for sure.
So when we had to go to Nikko a couple of weekends ago, we wanted our “kids” to be comfortable.

Enter Pension Animale.

Pension Animale is a pet friendly hotel in Nikko, and after calling and confirming that their definition of pets included cat as well (many hotels when they say “pets welcome” mean “dogs OK, cats no”) we booked a room.

But why would we want to stay at a hotel if we live only about 20 kms away? Being too lazy to drive back and forth both days certainly had something to do with it. Especially since it was going to snow and we didn’t (and still don’t) have snow tires. See? We might be stupid most of the time, that’s for sure, but every once in a while we do have a sensible idea.

Anyway, back to Pension Animale…

There were no rooms with private bathrooms available for that night, so we had no choice but to get a room with a shared bath.
The price seemed a bit steep, but with zero other options (as it very frequently happens when traveling with pets), we booked it.

However, at the very last minute it turned out that Little Cousin was available to cat sit, so when we arrived at Pension Animale, it was just us. The cats stayed at home. And we left the kotatsu on for them, too.

The pension is a bit out of the way, but still in Nikko. It’s a cheerful house in a very quiet, wooded neighborhood.


Pension Animale during daytime

When we arrived in the evening, the whole area seemed absolutely deserted. And the woods were cold and dark and dreary.

The establishment is run by the Hiratas, a very cute young couple from Tokyo. They took over the business last November and are still full of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed enthusiasm. Even though they did say that Nikko was a lot colder than what they were used to and that there were bugs even in the midst of winter.

The pension itself is very basic. Our room was nicely heated when we got there, but there was no heater in the bathroom and in the toilet. Not even a warmlet (heated toilet seat), which is positively spartan by Japanese standards. To put things in perspective, it was below zero that night and there’s no central heating in Japan.


Our room. It could sleep four, and yes, a hairdyer was provided.

The dining area was bright and cheery and we were greeted by two barking pups that were enjoying dinner with their humans. That’s what makes Pension Animale different from other pet friendly hotels – here you can take your furkids with you everywhere in the building, including the dining room.


"When will they finish eating? I'm booooored..."


"Ohhhh... I'm so stuffed, time for a nap."

Dinner (French style) was prepared by Kenji the manager himself, he’s an excellent chef and cooks every night. My only complaint was that the portions were rather small. After vacuuming everything on my plates I was still starving. I’m not a huge person, quite the opposite, and I don’t think we eat extravagant amounts of food. But apparently what is enough for your average Japanese is just appetizers for us.

Because after dinner we were still hungry, we hopped in the car and drove to a 24-hour Sunkus to get more stuff to eat.
And it seemed that at least half of Nikko had the same idea, the convenience store looked like a refugee camp. People were buying whatever was left on the nearly bare shelves. Dr. Trouble had a cup ramen (curry flavor), I ate a stale tuna sandwich.

Incidentally, my Japanese friends (and even one Nikko restaurant owner) echoed my complaint. Hotel dinner portions in Nikko are not big enough, especially if you are very hungry after a full day of walking outside (which is what you normally do in Nikko).

One woman said flat out that when booking a pension in Chuzenji, she asks very detailed questions about dinners. Because if you’re still hungry after dinner, there’s no place to buy food – you need to drive 16 kms to Nikko proper to the nearest convenience store. Which will be that bare shelfed 24-hour Sunkus we visited.

Ok, back to Pension Animale…

There are two onsens – one indoor western style (with a very cool underwater lightup) and one outdoor Japanese style. And yes, you can take your pets with you when you take a bath.


Outdoor onsen in January? Thanks, I'll pass.

As my hatred of Japanese style baths is legendary, I did not try them. Dr Trouble did, he said they were nice.
There was also a bathtub in the shared bathroom in the main building. I passed on that too and because it was just too bloody freezing to take a shower, I was seriously considering going stinky that day.


Shared bathroom

Eventually, I did brave a 30-second shower in the morning, that was all one could safely take without suffering from hypothermia.

The whole experience set us back almost 18 000 yen (total for two people). It included one night’s stay, two dinners, two breakfasts, and two onsen baths (of which only one was taken).
If you’re traveling with pets that might be a good deal, because otherwise you’d have to pay for a pet hotel for your dogs or cats. But if you end up coming without your animals (like us that day), then sorry, but for what Pension Animale offers, this is a ridiculous rate.

There are much better hotels in Nikko with similar prices. And they have heated bathrooms, or at least warmlets.

But a litter box waiting in our room was a very sweet touch. I was ready to bring our own anyway.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

Setsubun at Futara Shrine in Utsunomiya

Since I had to work (well, somebody has in this house) I couldn't participate in the Setsubun festivities. Instead, I sent the husband to the shrine downtown telling him not to come back without some snacks and lots of photos (and bento for dinner). And I’m pleased to say that he followed my directions exactly. He came back home with two bags of snacks and a few tissue packets. Not bad for a guy who was taking pictures the whole time.

Oh, but yes, Setsubun. What is that? Because I know you’re too lazy to google it and read the whole wikipedia entry, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version:
Setsubun (節分) – observed on February 3rd, is a bean (soybeans) throwing ceremony (the ritual is literally called mamemaki – bean throwing -豆撒き), which is supposed to ward off evil and bring good luck in the new year. Yeah, new year. We’re talking about the lunar calendar here, of course.
These days not only beans are thrown, I got pelted with rice today (yeah, some kids mistook me for the devil, it happens). Some people throw peanuts, and some – popcorn, which they say is easier for the birds to eat.

At the shrine today all sorts of things were being tossed into the crowd – candy, snacks, toilet paper and packets of tissues. It was crazy.

Me, me, me, me!!!!

The people behaved like a pack of hungry hyenas. They came prepared with empty bags and boxes and there was no mercy.
Properly prepared

Getting in the way of an old lady who won’t think twice about poking your eye out for a roll of toilet paper is not something you want to experience, trust me.

Unless of course, your eyesight is not your top priority. But that’s the fun of Setsubun – trampling your fellow human beings for a pack of snacks.
And occasionally, stuff would get stuck in a tree:

And frankly, I'm surprised that the tree is still standing. I don't know if it's because of bad economy, but people were particularly greedy this year.
Of course, just in case (and as with any event involving the masses at large) Tochigi finest were at hand:

I've never seen so many people squeaking with delight at the sight of toilet paper rolls being tossed into the air.