Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Jacob-san vs. Fuji-san

Before I get too far into this entry I want to explain that I’m going to jump a little out of sequence here in terms of my adventures in Japan thus far. This weekend was quite a momentous occasion, so I want to get it down before it loses its freshness.

This past weekend here in Japan represents a holiday that they call “Obon” and it represents a time of reflection upon one’s ancestors. The Japanese people believe that during this time of the year, the spirits of their ancestors return to the household to spend time with the family they have left. Many people return home at this time to be with their families. For the rest of us it just meant a long weekend.

Because we had the extra time off, my good friend Christian and I decided that it would be the perfect time for a visit, and also to attempt an epic adventure. As I described in earlier posts, I had gone to visit him, but this was his first time seeing my home or even this part of Japan. I can’t believe that two months have already gone by since I was in Himeji. It blows my mind.

Saturday morning I woke up ridiculously early in anticipation of his arrival, cleaned up my pigsty and walked down to the station at 10 a.m. to pick him up. When he stepped off the train the first thing we did after a hearty hug was to commiserate about our lack of sleep. Neither of us had really gotten any rest the night before. We were understandably excited. After showing him around “downtown” Fukuroi, which you would find quite ironic if you ever get the chance to see it (why would you want to?) we stopped by my apartment for some relaxation and gift exchange. Being big music fans we both had plenty of music to trade each other, as well as him having brought some of my CDs back and some new books for me to read. I also was very grateful for him having brought his hair clippers, for I needed a cut in the worst way. Christian was so exhausted that after a couple of hours hanging out he absolutely needed to take a nap, so I let him get a few hours before we went out to dinner. My friend Keiko picked us up and we went for katsudon, which is pork cutlet topped with egg. Delicious.

As we were leaving the restaurant it began to rain so we decided to nix our plans to head down to Hamamatsu, the big city nearby, to go clubbing, and instead we just came back here to my apartment and watched a movie before crashing unbelievably hard. Not only were we tired, but we needed to get as much rest as we could before the next day’s impending ordeal. We made a quick stop at Keiko’s house where she picked up a pair of walking sticks from a previous climb of hers to lend us. Getting back to my place, we were asleep by about 11 p.m. so that we could get a good 12 hours sleep before attempting what was to be one of the greatest accomplishments of both of our lives: climbing Mt. Fuji.

The next morning, we woke up and upon conferring with Keiko, she told us that she would be more than happy to drive us to the city of Gotemba, where we were to pick up the bus to the mountain. It was very gracious of her, and of course we accepted her offer gladly. After a brief stop for food and at the shoe store so that I could pick up a pair of hiking boots we were on our way. The drive itself was easy as pie, having left Fukuroi at around 2 p.m. we arrived at the bus station in Gotemba at 3:30 p.m. Keiko dropped us off, bid us farewell and good luck and then left us teeming full of smiles and anticipation. Up to this point we had not yet seen the mountain itself, even though we were less than an hour away because of the cloud cover in the area that day. The bus left Gotemba at 4 p.m. and we were on our way. Christian and I had the bus to ourselves. Halfway through the ride the bus pulled over at the side of the road for some reason we couldn’t at first discern. Then we looked behind us and up the hill towards the bus were running two gaikokujin (foreigners) who had gotten on the wrong bus at the station. Upon returning to our seats the new arrivals coincidentally recognized Christian, turning out to be two of our fellow employees with Peppy! Japan may not be the biggest country, (about the size of California,) but it’s truly a small place when you are a foreigner.

A couple of quick facts about Mt. Fuji:

Mt. Fuji at it’s peak has an elevation of 3776 meters above sea level. Climbing season is the months of July and August, when thousands of people ascend and descend its various paths. It is indeed a volcano, but long at rest. There are four climbing trails available to use, spanning from the north face to the south face with one path due east and one south-east. Most climbers start at one of what are called “5th stations” which vary in height depending on the path. At the peak is the 10th station, over three and a half kilometers above sea level.

We arrived at Gotembaguchi at 5 p.m. This is the 5th station along the Gotemba trail, the south-east path up the mountain. We are now 1400 meters up. After getting our gear adjusted and taking a few quick photos we were on our way. Immediately we were awed by the height; not only from the place at which we stood, but this was our first look at the peak. And truth be told we couldn’t even see it because it was still wrapped in clouds.

It’s the middle of the afternoon in Japan in the summer. Even if you are halfway up a mountain it is hot outside. After an hour of climbing I had developed a lovely “knapsack sweat line” which you can see in my online photo album (link on the right side of this page under “Links”.) At this point there were still many people around us, either ahead or behind us attempting the ascent, or others coming down the descending path. The path itself was made up of loose, pebbly black volcanic rock which was fairly easy on our feet, but wasn’t the most helpful in terms of speed; each step we took we slid back half a step, slowing our upward motion by half.

I would say it was perhaps 2 or 3 hours in before we got high enough for it to get cold. We took several rests to take pictures or take a swig of water, but made steady progress for quite a good while. At the previous station we had read that it would be roughly a 4 hour climb before reaching the next rest station. Our intention was to get there, get a bite to eat, get changed and get warm. By this time we quite far up, and the scenery was absolutely amazing. We could look behind us and see fields, cities and mountains in the distance all surrounded by clouds easily far lower than ourselves at that point. Christian mentioned how glorious the lack of civilization sounded; other than the wind it was completely silent on the side of that mountain. Before we got to the 7th station we watched the light bleed out of the sky as the sun set behind the mountain, leaving us bathed for a short time in lovely blues, pinks and reds.

We arrived to our first disappointment at the 7th station. The lights were out, and we found out that unless we wanted to sleep that we were out of luck in terms of getting food or having a warm place to rest. There was nothing we could do, so we sat down on the benches outside and got changed into our heavier clothes. We took about half an hour’s rest before shouldering our bags and heading onward and upward. At the 8th station we were lucky enough to have caught the station ward awake and hospitable. I’d say this was about 6 or 7 hours into our climb. For about four dollars apiece we each got a cup of the worst coffee we’ve ever had. At that point it was worth every penny, even just for us to be inside out of the cold and the wind. But again we were disappointed by the lack of food, so we asked the ward, and he informed us that there should be food being served at the next station. So we took another 20 minutes rest here and then were on our way again.

Now, I don’t want you to get your hopes up like I did, but we didn’t find something to eat until 6 a.m. But I’m jumping ahead. The trail had become more difficult at this point. We had left the gravelly path some time ago, and now everything was rocky and we had to start choosing each step carefully. Any real physical pain from the start of the climb, my aching legs, ankles, feet and shoulders had disappeared, but instead we were faced with what became a much tougher battle: altitude. At this point we must have been somewhere close to 2800 or 3000 meters above sea level. So it’s cold, dark and we’re hungry. We continue to pick our way amongst the rocks, leaning heavily on our walking sticks and concentrating on our breathing so as to not get sick. It’s a real concern at that height, I can verify, because I was dizzy at many points, and also close to throwing up once or twice. Another thing I noticed was that after climbing upwards and leaning forward for such a long time, my equilibrium was off-balance, causing me to have trouble looking back down the mountain for fear that I would start tumbling head over heels. The rests had to get more frequent and we had to move slower if we were going to get anywhere further, so this is exactly what we did.

As we were ascending the most incredible things were going on both below and above us. We would be climbing and we would hear these great cracks of noise in the distance. At first we thought it was thunder in the surrounding clouds. Once the sun had set completely we could see that below us, to the south-east, there were magnificent flares appearing from within the surrounding woods. Four beats from what must have been giant drums would be hammered out and then four flares would appear in a circle. It was simultaneously confusing and magical. Graciously, the sky had also cleared, and the stars shone down on us and bathed us in ethereal light. Upon taking a rest at some point I happened to glance up into the sky and noticed a shooting star. Then they were all around us. Talk about magic. It was at this point I was convinced of how close to nature we had gotten; the clouds surrounding, the stars above, the land unfolding below and the mountain itself came together in a symphony that could not be ignored.

Upon arrival at the 9th station we were far from surprised that it was closed, but very disappointed. We were hungry and tired so we bitterly began to curse the mountain, calling it “Shama-yama” because each supposed “rest stop” turned out to be anything but restful. I remember saying something like: “What a sham! I didn’t pay NO money to climb this sucker and not get fed along the way!” So you can see that even though we were cold, hungry and tired, we still managed to keep our senses of humor. We must have been about 3400 meters above sea level now. We started to get increasingly cold, so we finally brought out our jackets. Sitting by the shanty that I suppose must have been the 9th station, Christian and I found a spot safe from the chilly blasts and sat down for a good rest. The valley below us was beautiful in a way I could never fully describe. It was full dark out now, but we could make out the lights from the towns far below us, and the valley stretching out until we lost it in cloud cover. In the distance smaller mountains loomed in every direction, shrouded in thick clouds, and I finally understood the inspiration for many of the murals I had seen painted on the walls of the ancient castles. This is truly a land of green, rolling mountains and thick, billowy clouds as far as one can see, and if you ever get a chance to see these paintings, (or climb Fuji,) you will see exactly what I mean.

Once we saw the sign that told us we had an hour to go until the summit, regardless of our lack of oxygen, we were incredibly excited. It was a difficult combination at the time, seeing as how the whole journey was leading us to this very point and yet every step we took became more and more difficult. At this altitude we were also no longer disparate from the clouds, we were in them. The beam of the flashlight extended no farther than 15 feet from us. And it this point the climb became especially hazardous because the path was not well-marked in some places, and a few times we nearly strayed into the mist.

We knew that the summit was nearing, even though all we could make out was one darker shapeless blob of black against a sky only a shade lighter. In fact, it was almost upon us before we knew it when out of the clouds Christian spotted a “torii” (gate-post) and we knew we had arrived. We walked under the gate at the same time, and breathed a sight of relief, albeit a short-breathed one. We had arrived at 3 a.m., meaning that it had taken us roughly 10 hours to scale the mountain, and we were still about an hour and a half early for the sunrise.

It was still impossible to make out any details of the terrain around us because of the clouds so we began to pick our way around to see if we could find some shelter or food or even other people. We found a path that led to a series of buildings, and although we did find people shelter and food were not to be found. Everyone was huddling in doorways or anywhere else they could to get out of the wind. It was absolutely frigid by this point, and Christian and I had no choice but to find someplace we could sit and wait out the sunrise. We found our way back to the top of the Gotemba trail and huddled down beside the building there, ending up having to hold each other just to keep warm. There was no way we were going to be able to sleep, so upon Christian’s suggestion we got up and found our way to the highest peak on the eastern edge of the crater. Luckily there was a small rock pile at the top that we huddled in front of, not that it helped much. By the time we had sat down the sky was visibly lighter, and more and more people began to stream up to the peak and join us.

Of course there is no way to explain the glory of a sunrise from the top of a mountain. You can take a look at some of the pictures we took, but of course this does the experience no justice. Sufficed to say, we were very pleased to have come all that way and gone through so much to see something so beautiful. On the other hand, we were exhausted, freezing and starving, so we took some time to get some good pictures of the valleys below, the clouds as they melted red and gold and the view from the peak down into the crater before packing up and heading down to the buildings below. We found our way directly to the cafeteria and got ourselves the most expensive cup of coffee and bowl of soup I’ve ever seen, but I would have paid double what I did at that point. After gobbling that down we gave ourselves 30 minutes just sitting down on the stools in there before we got up to decide what our next move was going to be. Once we got outside we could see that there would be nowhere to get comfortable enough to sleep for a few hours so we re-slung our bags, said goodbye to the other Peppy teachers that we had met again at the summit and started out on the journey back down the mountain. It was then 6:30 a.m.

I really don’t want to go into too much detail about the climb back down. We chose the shortest path down, but what we didn’t expect was the amount of traffic in both directions and the rockiness of the trail. The Gotemba trail, the one we ascended was supposed to be 7-10 hours up and 5-7 down, and the Fujinomiya trail was only supposed to be 2-4 hours down. For us it turned out to be about 4 and a half of the most grueling and painful hours imaginable. By the time we reached the bottom our feet had given up. Mine were screaming murder at me, threatening to give up altogether. Our necks, shoulders, thighs, knees, calves, ankles, feet and toes were all throbbing. It was heaven once we finally reached pavement and level ground. We found our way to the bus stop and hopped on the first bus to Fuji city; it was a two hour drive that gave us our first taste of sleep in 24 hours. And it was glorious.

Once we arrived at the station we called up Keiko who we had previously arranged to meet. She came and picked us up, and had even bought us fresh t-shirts and socks! We had warned her to expect two exhausted and stinky boys, so she came prepared. We drove about an hour or so to the town of Hakone where we went to what would be best described as a water park. In Japan one of the most popular forms of recreation is going to an “onsen” which is a natural hot spring. This wasn’t quite the same in that it was basically a hot spring amusement park. There were many different kinds of baths including flavored baths like coffee, flower essence, green tea, red wine and sake. Regardless of how tacky and artificial the atmosphere, it was heaven on earth to soak ourselves and rest our bodies after the previous day and night’s ordeal.

On the way back Christian and I understandably both passed out in the car. Keiko woke us up once we were back in Fukuroi. We stopped for a quick bite at a local sushi restaurant and then came right home to crash. I don’t know if I can say I really slept much in the car on the way home so at this point I was going on 36 hours without sleep. We both feel deep asleep and woke up about 12 hours later feeling unbelievably sore. By now the pain was alright though, because we had had a chance to rest and get a little perspective on what we had just accomplished. We’d been on the roof of the world! Or the roof of Japan at least. I don’t think I have ever gone through something more physically trying in my life, and I don’t discount the mental challenge either. Pride was definitely abound when we awoke, got ourselves together and headed down to the train station to go to Hamamatsu where I would be showing Christian around for a few hours before he was to return home to Himeji. Unfortunately we arrived too late to take a tour of the Musical Instrument Museum, but we did manage to check out a few key shops in the downtown area and stop for some delicious Indian food. After that there was nothing left but to see Christian off at the Shinkansen station and then head home as well.

This was definitely one for the books. An adventure of a lifetime. How many more clichés can I spout? Probably too many. It was something that I know will give some shape to my life, something that I am very proud of and can carry with me always, at least in memory. The physical pain and trial endured was nothing compared to the beauty that I experienced and the strength that I gained as a result. Thank you Christian for sharing that with me. I’m glad we had a chance to complete an ordeal so epic and representative of Japan during our time here. For everyone else, I hope you enjoyed the read somewhere close to as much as I enjoyed the living and the telling. Check out my photo album for updated pictures, both of the trip to Mt. Fuji and of my apartment. And keep those emails coming… I love em!

Lots of love to all… wherever and whenever,


Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Great Nagoya Fortnight -or- How I Became a Peppy teacher

In the beginning, there was training.

Having just returned from a wonderful weekend with Christian (our agent in Hyogo… see the link on the right side of this page) I was ready to get down to work. The things I had seen up to this point were already thrilling me, and yet I had only seen a small fraction of what this beautiful, green, mountainous country has to offer. Before I had left for the weekend, two days were spent in Nagoya with Phil, my roommate and the very few other trainees that had arrived. By the time I returned from my trip, the training centre was full of people. My exhilaration caused by recent adventures was immediately mixed with a small dose of regret, for I had missed the first weekend together with the rest of my training group.

This was the night of June 19th. Returning from downtown Nagoya and the Shinkansen station, I approached the steps to the Kenshu Centre, where we were all staying for the next few days. Outside were standing a couple of people I had never met before, but little did I know they both would become close friends by the end of our two weeks together. Chris and Tara are their names. The former is a Brit, who had been living some time in Australia. He is world-travelled, he is a formidable bass-player, (I have recordings of two bands he has been in as proof,) and generally just an amazing fellow. The latter is a saucy Aussie, straight from Sydney, and one of the funniest people in our training group. It was great relating stories of my weekend in Himeji, Osaka and Kobe; they were more than happy to hear about other places in Japan that they would undoubtedly visit at some point in the next year. In turn, I got to hear about the goings-on in Nagoya during my absence, including an all-night karaoke session, (only the first of several before our time together was up.)

So those first few days became mostly an experience in discovering identity and personalities as we started our training sessions. The first day, however, brought one of our harshest blows. Since there were two dozen trainees in this group, we were being split up into to groups: the Nagoya group and the Osaka group. As it turned out, we in the Nagoya group scored large when it came to the people we had with us. I’m sure the Osaka group would say the same thing. The first day of training was spent in one room, all of us dressed in office attire, listening to speeches from various members of the Peppy Kids administration, including Yano Jicho, the president of our branch of KTC Group. We received a plethora of information as well, pertaining to all manner of things, mostly company policy, but also our apartment assignments in our various cities. It was long, arduous, and jam-packed with information, but it was also no sweat. For me, at least.

The next two weeks spent in training involved traveling around to various classrooms in the Nagoya district, and receiving instruction about the Peppy Kids curriculum. For each of us in the training group, we would also have three days where we went to classrooms and taught our very first classes while being observed by the regular native English teacher there. It would be rather pointless to give you a daily run-down, so I thought I would provide a brief overview of how the actual teaching side of Peppy works.

Peppy Kids Club provides English lessons to Japanese youth aged 2-14. They receive these lesson from both "Native Teachers" as we foreigners are called, and from Japanese teachers, who are Japanese women who can speak Ensligh. In Japan it is very rare that men are teachers by profession, especially when it comes to instructing children. Because of the large range in ages we have several different curricula in use. Our youngest students, aged 2-5, are placed in what we call “packet classes.” There are four levels of packet classes, but they all contain the same basic elements. We sing action songs, which get the kids up on their feet and generally laughing and having fun. One song is to learn the alphabet, one is to learn verbs, and one is to learn gestures and vocabulary. We also teach them what we call “fundamental basics.” This covers colors, shapes, and numbers. Then they get some vocabulary lessons. Peppy Kids Club in its entirety is focused around a flash card system. The company patented a machine called the “Egg-go” that reads aloud the information imprinted on a magnetic strip built into the card itself. The vocabulary lessons we give involve using these cards in groups like fruit, vegetables, animals, professions, and family. We then have a game that employs the vocabulary in one way or another, and the class always ends with an activity that involves the general theme of the term.

The middle curriculum is called Peppy Headway, and the children range in age from 5-12. There are 7 different levels in this group alone. At this level there are no longer any songs, but there is still vocabulary and mostly more involved games to do with vocabulary and verbs. There is also an element in each lesson of phonics instruction. At the end of each lesson there is a time set aside for what we call “cultural awareness.” In short, this means exposing the children to how their culture differs from others around the world. You would be surprised how uninformed these children are about other cultures, and often even their own. For example, in one term we teach them that in North America after someone sneezes it is polite to say “bless you.” It is not a custom in Japan to do the same. This term’s cultural awareness lesson had to do with peeling apples. The kids were astounded to learn that in North America it is very common that people do NOT peel their apples before eating one. In Japan they peel everything, including grapes.

The oldest group is called Peppy Pathway, or Junior classes, with the oldest group called Destiny’s Gate. The children at this level are usually somewhere between 11 and 14 years of age. Central to the entire junior curriculum is the textbook that is used. The entire class I basically guide the children through several pages in their text, along with some audio readings and assignments on the CD assigned to each level. At this level, our goal is to get the children speaking full sentences and entire, albeit short, conversations entirely in English. The oldest students, the Destiny’s Gate students, have quite an interesting experience. Their classes are based around one continuous story that spans the entire year in the format of a film and associated comics. Again, the goal here is fluid conversation in English, along with increased vocabulary and also a focus on idioms.

The way the schedule works, my earliest class on any given day might be 1:15 pm, but it also might be 5:00 pm. I have anywhere from 2 to 5 classes a day, and I work 5 days a week with Sundays and Mondays off. I get paid the same for a day where I work two hours as I do on I day when I work six. It’s nice that way. One thing I have mixed feelings about is the rotation of classes. I teach at four different schools in my area, and I essentially spend one week at each school. Since the children only come to class once a week, this means I see a different group of kids every day in the month, and I only see them again the following month. By the end of my contract I will have seen each child only 12 times. Although this is ideal when it comes to difficult classes, it makes me a little sad that I can’t develop a closer relationship with most of the children. The reason for this is the schedule. As a “native” English teacher, or NT, I act as a substitute teacher for one week. The other three weeks of the month, these children get to see their regular Japanese teacher, who also teaches them English. The week when I am at their schools is the week the Japanese teachers have off altogether. I enjoy going to different places, and spreading the knowledge around but some of these kids are so darned CUTE! I wish I could spend more time with them on a regular basis so that a true pedagogical relationship could form.

So now it’s our last night in Nagoya together as a group before we head off to our respective cities and towns to be successful Peppy teachers. We met up at the subway station closest to each of our respective training apartments to decide our fate for the evening. The dilemma was that if we did go all the way downtown (a good 21 stops on the subway line) then we would most likely get stranded down there until morning because the trains stop running right around midnight, and that would be FAR too early for us to even consider returning home on our last night together. It’s so interesting how quickly friendships form and how strong they seem to be under such circumstances. When a bunch of people are thrown together in the same new experience, I find it usually inevitable that seemingly intense and passionate friendships are inevitable. In fact, I’m still as close as I can be with at least 5 of the people I met in training.

After some deliberation it was decided that we would brave the downtown core, and hopefully be able to hole ourselves up in a karaoke room until daylight. Yes, all of these places are open all night, and many often don’t open until 9 or even 11 o’clock. Stepping out of the subway, we rose into the central courtyard of the Sakae district. In the centre is a giant fountain; a very plain, unimpressive, concrete monstrosity, typical of concrete-jungle Nagoya. As we roamed around, our roamings brought us to the far end of the courtyard where a street band was playing. It was a funk band called The Blunk Top. Don’t ask me what it means. As we approached they actually seemed to be packing up their equipment. One of our group, Hannah, thought it would be fun to jump on the drums, and as it turned out the band had no problem with this idea. She got behind the drum kit they had set up and started hammering a little bit, but immediately complained that there wasn’t much she could do without accompaniment. Fortunately, we had a skilled bass-man with us in the form of the formidable Chris Raine. After a little goading by myself he did get up there and ask the band if he could use the bass guitar, of which they approved. So Hannah and Chris were doing their thing, but there wasn’t much sound going on without any other instruments involved. I was very hesitant to pick up the electric guitar considering how I had just days before had the splint removed from my middle finger, the one that had the torn ligament. But I did anyway. Although it hurt like hell, and all I could play was bar chords, it was awesome. It wasn’t long before Allison jumped onto the keyboard and there we were: a full band! We played for a short while, and then let the band have their equipment back so that they could pack up. There were a few bystanders listening and checking us out, but it was totally for our own satisfaction that we were playing. What a great start to the night.

After trying for some time to find a decent karaoke bar, and failing, I ended up hanging out in the courtyard with Phil and Chris, Allison and Hannah. The rest of the group had holed themselves up in a karaoke bar around the corner, but at the time we really had no interest in that gaudy, black-lit palace of off-tune tunes. That part of the group felt that we had deserted them and were upset when they caught up with us in the courtyard later, but we just couldn’t deal with being in that place. As the night wore on, we’re talking 3 a.m. by this point, I started to get not only tired, but severely bored. I suggested perhaps the five or six of us that remained should split a cab home. When we tried to figure the logistics of how much it would cost us to get back, it was basically out of the question. We were staying in the furthest east end of the city, and cabs in Japan are ridiculously expensive. So after some persuasion I convinced my fellows to at least start walking. We made it perhaps 8 blocks before we found… a Denny’s! I couldn’t believe it. Of all place, there it was right in front of me, the home of the Grand Slam. We thought we had found salvation because we could sit in there until the sun came up and the subways started running again. What we didn’t know was that Denny’s is most likely the most expensive restaurant in Japan! I won’t go into much detail, but let’s just say that the smallest club sandwich I have ever seen was more than $10!!! We sat talking until I began to notice the sky lightening and the sun glinting off the office buildings, so after milking our stay for so long, we paid our bill and set out for the nearest subway station. I’ll end the recounting adventure by saying that it was around 7:30 a.m. by the time I got to bed.

So there you have it. I lied though; just a little one. That was actually the second-last night in Nagoya. The last night Phil and I invited a bunch of people over to our apartment for a movie-fest, which actually turned out to be more like just good friends, food and conversation. At around 2:30 a.m. when everybody finally left I packed up the rest of my things and hit the sack, excited for my trip to my new hometown the next morning. When I woke up, Phil was already gone, having to take an earlier train to get to Okayama. Tara came by about 30 minutes later to walk me to the subway station and see me off. After a quick breakfast and a nice goodbye hug I was sent off on my way to the Shinkansen station downtown and then to Fukuroi… my current hometown.

And that’s where I’m going to leave it for now. There’s a few more adventures and just general things about Japan that I am eager to share with all of you, but I think I’ve written enough for one blogging. There will be much more in the near future, (perhaps even tomorrow and Friday,) because I want to get things up to date before Christian arrives Friday evening. We have a big weekend ahead of us, for on Sunday we will be climbing the biggest mountain in Japan: Mt. Fuji!

Keep yours eyes peeled, and your mouse buttons ready for more.

Much love to all of you from over here in the land of the rising sun.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Adventures in Osaka and Kobe

OK, OK… I know it’s been an incredibly long gap between now and my previous entry here in the blog, but there have been several reasons (excuses) for this. Primarily, I had no access to the internet on an English language computer. For some reason I was having problems logging in here, so I had to wait until I got the internet hooked up at home in order to be able to read the instructions on how to retrieve the proper login information. Also, it wasn’t until last week that I did actually get the internet installed here at my apartment. Now, I’m sure you’re saying to yourself. “Jacob, wouldn’t you want to get on top of your blog right away so that people know what’s going on with you?” And of course you would be right. I have wanted to post something here for a while, but have been daunted by the amount of information and details of my various adventures I need to catch you all up on. What you might be happy to hear is that I have been keeping notes, and I will go over everything. What you might not be happy to hear is that you aren’t going to get it all right now. If I was to write everything down all at once, I don’t think any of you would take the time to read it all at one sitting. There is quite a lot. So instead I’m going to give it to you in installments, readable size entries that will slowly fill you in until we are caught up with the present. (And actually it would still be the future for just about all of you, considering us over here in the land of the rising sun are roughly 8-11 hours ahead, depending on your location in North America.) This first one is going to take over right where I left off previously, a month and a half ago.

So I was sitting in Christian’s apartment after cruising around Himeji for the afternoon while he was at work. Mostly I was having my first experience with Japanese television. What can I tell you? Not much for me to understand. But since then I have been told by several people that it is a good tool for trying to learn the language. (I haven’t been a huge fan of television for some time now, and have only turned on the one in my apartment once since arriving here.) At the time, there wasn’t anything I could understand, so instead I amused myself with the laptop which had for some time been my baby, but was now changing hands, and staying in Himeji with it’s true owner, Christian, (the lucky jerk! JO-DAN, Kurisuchan.) He didn’t arrive home until mid-evening, so we didn’t leave his place until after ten o’clock. Basically, we caught the last train into Osaka. It was a local train, which meant a trip of over an hour for us. (I’ll explain the train system later.) By the time we did actually get to Osaka it was near midnight.

Upon leaving the station my first impression of Osaka was “nothing special.” It’s basically a huge metropolis, with plenty of concrete and lots of cars, rushing everywhere. I’m sure there are many amazing things about the place, but I didn’t get to spend enough time there to be a good judge. One neat thing that I did enjoy was the pedestrian overpasses running everywhere over the main streets. It is very common in Japan in the major cities for pedestrians to either have to climb an overpass, or descend into an underpass to cross the street at the busy corners.

Now, although it’s a little graphic, I do have to relate the next part of this little story to you. Christian were walking down the sidewalk on route to our destination, past a stand of trees on the left, next to the road, where there were a bunch of homeless people camped out. No sooner had we begun to pass this one old man then he pulled down his pants, and squatted to take a dump right there on the sidewalk! I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I’ve seen people, mostly drunks, peeing on the sidewalk late at night, but I have never seen someone do something like that.

It was roughly 12:30 a.m. by this time, and we were a mite hungry so we stopped in this little place, Coco Curry, which is a large chain in Japan of fast food curry that has become a favorite of mine. Now, by no means is it gourmet curry, but it does satisfy. After a quick bite we hopped around the corner to a rather famous club in Osaka called Sam & Dave’s. This was our aforementioned destination. And what a place. Wall to wall people crammed in a decent sized place, some playing pool, some mingling around the bar, but most off on the dance floor, moving to the music. By no means can I say that it is the best club I’ve ever been to, but it did have some things going for it. Primarily, I hadn’t been to a club in some time, so it was nice to be out among my peers, (even if they were mostly Japanese and younger than I.) The drinks weren’t ridiculously expensive, which was nice, and there were plenty of cute girls around and about. After pounding back a couple drinks Christian and I didn’t hesitate to hit the dance floor ourselves. The place was crammed. We circled the floor several times throughout the night, and not one of those was an easy trip. The first DJ was a very good looking girl who unfortunately didn’t have much skill, but luckily this didn’t seem to matter, as the crowd was obviously not there out of a sincere devotion to the music. All night it was top 40’s tunes, which was actually alright because it meant Christian and I heard songs that we knew. It’s funny… in Japan I guess the kids have taken some of the most popular songs and have turned them into anthems where they all chant at the same time during the chorus or some other appropriate place in the song. It was really very amusing for me, and I even caught myself getting into it further into the night.

We stayed at the club until about 5 a.m. By that time I was beat. We sat outside in the morning light, watching people come out of the club and try to adjust to the glare. If you’ve ever been to an all night club, or “rave” you know the looks on those faces. Most look happy but haggard. It’s not necessarily the nicest sight, but it is the sign of having had a great night. I’m sure we had these faces on, ourselves. So we tottered over to the station where we joined the masses waiting for the trains to work. Upon finally getting back to Christian’s apartment we passed out almost immediately. I’m sorry to say that he only had about 3 hours of sleep before he had to get up for his Japanese lessons while I remained on the air mattress to sleep for several more hours. By the time he got home, he was tired but very much hopped up on caffeine, so I packed up my stuff and we headed over to Kobe to visit with his friend Kelly, another fellow Peppy Kids Club employee.

Upon leaving the station in Kobe I can tell you we were greeted with a much nicer welcome than the public bathroom of Osaka. In the courtyard where we met Kelly and his girlfriend there were about three or four bands set up, playing music. Each one would take a turn playing a couple tunes, and then they would rotate around. This is another very common thing in Japan: there are street bands and musicians everywhere, and it is very rare for any of them to actually be looking for a hand out. There was a cool funk/rock band playing when we arrived, and one of the most hilarious things I have seen in a long time happened once we had met up with Kelly. There was this little old man totally going off dancing to this band. And it’s not as if he didn’t have some skills… this man was really cutting it up! I have a video of it that Christian took with his digital camera, oh how I wish you all could see it. I laugh out loud every time I watch it. Classic.

We dropped by a little café somewhere in downtown Kobe. The walk there was amazing. I have never been in a city where there are mountains right at the end of the street you are walking upon. I’m not talking about the road going up a hill at the end of the street. I’m talking about full on mountains, lush and green with foliage, coming right down to the end of the road. Absolutely incredible. I definitely want to go back to Kobe to visit, but even from that one time there I got the feeling it would be a wonderful place to live. So we went to this café because they had a free wireless internet hotspot. Christian and I had brought our laptops so we could check email and a few other things quickly before I left town to return to Nagoya. After leaving the café, we got a quick picture in front of a local city map of Kobe, (which you can see in my Himeji photobucket album,) before Christian walked me up to the Shinkansen station. We said our goodbyes, got a parting photo, (also in the photo album,) and I hopped on my train back to lovely, concrete Nagoya to actually begin my training.

I think I’m going to leave things there for now. That’s a good little bit for y’all to chew on. Imagine, throughout all that I’ve written so far, it only encompasses my first weekend in Japan! There is so much more that’s happened, and I’m sure you want to hear all about it, and you will. Trust me. All in good time. But hopefully not too much time. I’ll get on it, I promise. Please visit the online photo albums and check the new pics I have uploaded. Once I get a digital camera, there will be more all the time. The link is in the first post on this page, down at the bottom.

Much love to all of you. I hope you are well wherever and whenever you are.