うさぎ人形!Bunny Doll!

This is the ningyou that I made for myself, because next year–2011–is usagi doshi (the year of the rabbit!) and also my year! I’ll be 24. It’s funny the things that I always thought would happen by 24, and all the things that I never thought would happen by 24… Not going into detail, but I am not complaining either! I like where I am. Usagi doshi, bring it on!

Funny Japanese Cooking

One of the best parts about living anywhere is going to the grocery store. Japanese grocery stores look very similar to American ones at first glance, but if you look closer, you’ll realize (or at least I did) that you have NO IDEA what anything is.

I thought I was buying a bag of already cut bamboo. What I actually bought was a form of mochi (glutenous rice cakes) that are supposed to be micowaved or baked to mochirii perfection when dipped in soy sauce.

I thought bamboo would be good in a fried noodle dish, so I started to sauté them with the noodles and sauce. When everything started getting gooey I knew we had a problem…

I ate the noodles out of it because I had no time to make anything else before samba practice!

Kyoto Trip Cancelled, but for the Better!

I was supposed to be visiting some friends in Kyoto, Osaka, Tokyo, Himeji, and Kobe in the first week of April this year, but two omens presented themselves in the form of my first friend not being able to host me, and the second was a traffic accident.  Please don’t worry, I am JUST FINE!  私はほんとうにだいじょぶです!I wasn’t about to wait for the third omen to show up, BUT when my vice principal said that I shouldn’t go on the trip, because I had a doctor’s appointment to keep I didn’t make a fuss because I wasn’t waiting for the third omen to show up before or on my Kyoto trip. However, my Vice Principal made a fuss to the man who hit me and he ended up paying for my medical expenses (4 x-rays to my knees and thumb, emergency room attendance, and an abulance ride=about $100).  The man who hit me only stopped about 3 feet too late in a crosswalk and unexpectedly knocked me off my bike. 

It was scary more than painful.  I was dazed as I crawled around on my knees and looked at the few scratched/bleeding parts of me.  The people who saw the accident started to close me in and the only thing I could think to say in Japanese was one moment please.  I was very lucky that day, but I panicked as they asked me too many questions in Japanese that I couldn’t understand.  Someone was holding me up and I was suddenly very sleepy, so I closed my eyes and had the most realistic, colorful dream of my friend Tutor in my Japanese apartment telling me how nasty the bathroom was.  I could only agree, and then I was shaken awake again.  I didn’t immediately realize where I was and I started to cry.  Someone asked me who my friend was to call them, and I spoke as much Japanese as I could telling them to please call Kakujyo, and then someone called an ambulance.  It’s funny that this was the week that I had inbetween supervisors, and I had no one officially responsible for me, so it fell on my Vice Principal’s shoulders.  It took the kyukyusha (the ambulance) 2 minutes to get there, but by then I was trying to puke on the road.  They neckbraced me, strapped me into a very bare-looking ambulance (not like the ones I’ve seen on ER) and put my finger into a pulse-checking machine.  A sleu of Japanese questions ensued and I’d never been more thankful that this didn’t happen before I had studied Japanese for 8 months.  I also got my handy-dandy Gaikokujin/Alien Card out and relaxed until the doctor could see me. 

My Vice Principal intercepted me at the hospital, covered in sweat from worrying about me.  He took care of all the details with the hospital, set my follow-up appointment, we went upstairs to talk to my landlady to tell her what happened, talked to the police, and took me home.  He was a very scary man in the beginning, but I am thankful that he was there. 

The man who hit me was incredibly sorry and stayed the entire time, making sure that he called my school, held me up when I passed out, called an ambulance, and endured the toungue lashing that my Vice Principal gave him.  It turns out that he was a Kendo (Japanese martial art) teacher at the only public high school that I don’t teach at in Saiki, and I also accidentally ran into him at the Saiki Spring Festival at a Kendo demonstration that my students pulled me into.  He’s a very upstanding, nice man, and sent me a huge gift of senbe (Japanese crackers that cost a FORTUNE) the next day and came to the school to apologize formally the next week.  I was very embarrassed, but this is a Japanese formality that people, especially esteemed high school Kendo and English teachers, are subject to. 

The funny thing is that before it all started, the day was great.  I met my new teachers, it was sunny enough to want to walk to the train station and get my bike back after a week of walking in the rain, a friend spotted me and nicely offered to give me a ride to the station, and I was headed back on my bike to get some takoyaki (octopus dough balls–sounds yummy, huh!?) for my sick landlady in the same hospital that I was ambulanced to shortly afterwards.  What a day.

Before all of this, I had to decide when I was going to Kyoto, and the most convenient times were also during the Saiki Spring Festival (Haru Matsuri) which I decided not to go to in favor of seeing the beautiful sakura in Kyoto and Himeji Castle, staying with friends along the way.  So, instead on Saturday morning, I went to my friend Alexa’s house, we made a very nice late breakfast, went shopping where I found the PERFECT jean jacket and some shoes that I can not WAIT to wear and on our way back, we intercepted the parade heading to the Haru Matsuri.  Perfect timing, and two fun days of Japanese Matsuri ensued. 

I think that seeing the sakura in Saiki was definitely more meaningful than seeing it in a famous place like Kyoto, having the tourist experience with everybody else.  Even though I was very unhappy in the beginning being in such a small place and not being able to dance as much as I had hoped, over the last 8 months I have been able to see what a unique and strengthening experience this has been.   I was able to enjoy the cherry blossoms and the sights, tastes, smells, sounds of Matsuri with my friends, my students, and even the man that I was in a traffic accident with.  I felt the pride my students exuded when I came to watch them at the kendo performance and my tea ceremony students were so excited that they could be seen in action by a pair of “sunflower” eyes unlike their own, and I truly appreciated Japan for the first time that weekend. 

Let’s enjoy Japan together for the next few months…  Saiki will always be my Japanese hometown.

Intercepting the Parade!

Samba with Sandra

The one thing that has been keeping me sane here is dancing samba with my lovely, amazing friend Sandra.  She’s originally from Brazil, was married to a Japanese man, and now has two beautiful “halfu” (half-Japanese, half-Brazilian) daughters to raise in Oita City.  She comes to Saiki every Tuesday and Thursday to teach an aerobics samba class to a handful of ladies, including myself and my good friends Alexa, Nori chan, Ai cho, Emi chan, Tomoko, and Yai chan.   The age range is from 4 years old to 84 years old, so it is quite a sight! 

This class is something I do whether I am happy, dead-tired, sad, natsukashii (homesick), or cho genki (HYPER) and I always come home feeling leveled.  Sandra always has a wonderful, warm effect on my mood, I can’t help but to go. 

Anyway, after 8 months of practicing, being secretely groomed for a position in the performance team, I debuted last weekend with Sandra, her daughter Camila, Hiro-chan, and Sayuri at an old folks’ home.  Needless to say they were very happy with our performance, and I was hooked.  It’s almost like ballroom dancing, costuming and makeup et. al, but of course it’s solo.  I am considering this a chance to work on my choreographobia, so that I can be a better-than-average ballroom dancer when I next get the chance.  Also, the costumes are quite elaborate and very fun to wear.  It requires the height of a woman’s confidence in her body, her sexuality, and her ability to deflect other’s bad mojo.  Honestly, I think every person (not just women!!) should have a Brazilian experience.  I mean, Michael Jackson had his, and through a chart-topping song, Brazil is still only a ghost on the map to many people.  Brazil is an amazing country that celebrates the body through dancing.   

So unless you’re going to be supportive, please don’t look at the picture below.  Thanks!

Sarah AKA Sakurako 桜子

So, on a very serendipitous note, I have a new name.  I’ve had a lot of Japanese nicknames, like Sarah chan, Rashomon, or Sticky Rice (Hiro–you brat!), but I have been officially given a new name by my students:  Sakurako.  This is where the serendipitous part comes in.  Before I left for Japan, I titled my blog “SarahSakura” and it’s really coincidental that I was only off by one kanji! 

 桜=さくら=sakura=cherry blossom 子=こ=ko=girl child

The name came to fruition because my students wanted English names one day, so I named them Amber, Betty, Brittany, and Jessica.  Three weeks later, they informed me that my new name was Sakurako, wrote it on all of my things, and a week after that was my birthday, so everybody adorned me with sakura items, including a spiffy new Sakura iPhone cover!  Now, it is Hanami time, and I am perfectly prepared!

I love March in Japan!  It’s still a little cold, but it’s comfortable and sunny most of the time!  I’m not looking foward to the rainy season though…

O HANAMI お花見

お花見はすごいたのしかた!
Hanami is a really good time! At the end of March, and through the beginning of April, the sakura (cherry blossoms) bloom in Kyushu. Starting in Southern Japan, the entire country watches on the news as the “Cherry Blossom Front” raids Nihon from Okinawa to Minami Kyushu to Hokkaido. It’s a fleetingly beautiful week and a half of bare branches full of white, pink, and almost magenta flowers.
However, the Japanese LOVE to drink and be merry, so they have Hanami (sakura viewing parties) where everybody gets together and barbeques, drinks, and generally has some good clean fun.

This year, I was lucky enough to know Go-chan and his wife, Ai-cho. They are great people who love to have parties, so they organized something like a singles party for all of their friends to mingle. “How romantic would it be to meet your future ball-and-chain under the cherry blossoms?” they joked.
We ate lots of barbequed meat and veggies, drank lots of beer and chuhai (a very sweet, fruit flavored alcohol, akin to Smirnoff Ice–also something I will NEVER drink again due to the massive headache that ensued WHILE I was drinking it. It didn’t even have the decency to wait until the next morning!) and we mingled, just as Go-chan and Ai-cho hoped.
When that party was finished, there was the nijukai–the afterparty! We stayed until 11PM on Sunday, drinking and eating delicious Chinese food, cooked by our wonderful Chinese friends.

Hokkaido Ice Cream

No I did not eat yellow snow… but I did eat crab, miso ramen, salmon, salmon roe, and lots of lamb, washing it all down with lots of refreshing Sapporo Brewery Beer (akin to yellow snow.) There’s just something about Hokkaido ice cream as well that is extra NOM. I don’t know, maybe it’s because the cream is extra fresh–or at least frozen as soon as it reaches the outside world–or I was still high on life  (thanks to my good friends Una, Rhianna, and Natalie) when I ate it, but that was the best ice cream ever.

The trip started on Wednesday night when my friend Al drove from the next town over to pick me up.  I made some spaghetti carbonara for us and we were on our way to Mie to eat mochi (nomalicious glutenous, green rice cakes stuffed with sweet bean paste) and watch Princess Mononoke, which is a very interesting Ghibli Studios Film–made by the same guy as Ponyo and Totoro.  Jeremy came over, we had a few beers and I dreamt about getting stung by mukade all night.  I was happy to wake up early.

We drove to Oita in rain, picked up Alex, and drove on to Fukuoka Airport in some amazing, and really frustrating fog.  I haven’t seen fog like that since my family and I drove out of the Smoky Mountains before the sun rose in the summer!  BUT we got to the airport, albeit a few minutes late.  The rest of the crew was waiting there for us, 25 in all. 

In a stroke of vanity I brought a prettier jacket in lieu of a warmer jacket, but I wore lots of leggings and layers, so I was fine, but the test was walking off of the airplaine for the first time with a cold BLAST of arctic air from the Russian ice tundras.  Delicious. 

The miso ramen that we had for lunch was also DELICIOUS!  I was so hungry and it looked so good that I forgot to take pictures until I had slurped almost all of the noodles!  We had to climb 10 flights of stairs–well at least Rhianna and Al did before I caught the elevator for the remaining 5 floors.  They must have legs of steel!!  The payback was enough… 2 steaming hot bowls of miso ramen to start our trip off with, as well as 2 cold slimy bowls of pickled noodles?  We will never eat that again.

  This video is short, but hopefully it intimates the grandiose feeling of being surrounded by statues of ice at a Weinachtsmarkt-looking festival with lots of hot food and drinks with AMAZING friends who are HOL.  (High on Life)

From there we met our tour guide, Mr. Nick Jones himself!  WHO?  Nick Jones!  During our Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival) tour that he volunteered to take us on, he told us a very funny story about a little green man in Hokkaido, Mr. Marimokuri:

The rest of the tour was just as naughty—I MEAN good… and after the Yuki Matsuri, everyone was hungry again, so we went to the Ghengis Khan.  The Ghengis Khan is a dining hall in the Sapporo Brewery famous for the lamb that it serves.  Tabehodai (all-you-can-eat) lamb and vegetables with nomihodai (all-your-can-drink) draft beer.  Delicious!  The best part is that I cooked it myself, so it’s fresh and hot and dipped in just the right amount of sauce and in my mouth to be enjoyed.  I envision McDonalds turning toward this technique in the future ’cause I was lovin’ it!  The only slightly unnacceptable part was that we smelled like lamb for days–our coats and hats and the clothes that we stuffed back into our suitcases to mingle with the clean ones.  I guess it could be a good man-hunting technique: pretty girl + BBQ lamb and beer perfume=GOTCHA!   Luckily it was so cold on the slopes that nobody could smell anybody.  We drove for hours into the white wilderness to get to the Freedom Inn where Tom, Matt, Sam and the cute little beagle awaited.

On Friday morning everybody ate a delicious continental breakfast provided by the Inn and then hit the slopes as soon as they could.  I, on the other hand, do not wake up for anything (except food) so I ate breakfast and slept until about 11, got ready and met the group for lunch and then some extremely powdery snowboarding on Niseko.  The first run was the best, sunny and beautiful, but the second run, up to the very top of the mountain “Dynamic” run, was a little darker and windy.  But with Melissa and Alex by my sides, we froze on the way up to the top, and thawed out on the way down. 

After this jubilant picture, I found out that I have NO IDEA how to snowboard in powder.  I spent the first black diamond in the toilet position, facing the mountain, drifting towards Russia and then the Pacific, trying not to get in any senpai’s (someone who’s better) way.  Poor Melissa waited for me at intervals because she’s awesome, and I think she wanted to make sure that I didn’t kill myself in the perfect conditions.  Plus you should always play on mountains with a buddy.  The lifts closed a little early that day because it started to get dark and white-outey.  So we made the most out of it, threw a few snowballs at each other, Melissa tackled Al in slow motion into a snow drift, and we headed back to the Inn. 

That night we were on our own for dinner, so a bunch of us (the fearsome four! and some boys) went into Hirafu Village for some eats.  We were actually in search of Una and Rhianna’s snowboarding instructor who had told them to be at a hotel named “Vale around 8 for a free BBQ and tobbogoning…” which (as we found out from a very confused and sorry front desk man) had been cancelled the week before.  DOH!  Our consolation prize was an izakaya (restaraunt for big groups) down the street which allowed us to get pretty pissed (off of the whiskey that Una and Rhianna bought to doctor our sodas with) tolerated our silent disco turned karaoke, and served the testicular sack of a cod fish.  A delicacy… that almost  made the boys throw up.  Unfortunately, there were two old men who spoke English in the izakaya as well who thought we were being too rowdy.  “You know, this restaraunt is for everyone.” to which we could have replied, “Yeah, you know this restaraunt IS for everyone!”  So they dampened our fun a little, and we paid and left, but they got their just rewards later.  They stumbled into OUR ice bar and we made them stay and were nice to them.  One managed to apologize for his uptight friend, but that wasn’t enough, so we took our party elsewhere, leaving them in the empty ice building to buy expensive drinks. 

Our last stop of the night was “Little Australia”  or a bar called Yuki.  Niseko is bascially a place where lots of Australians come to play for weeks on end.  When they want to drink or shoot some pool, they go to Yuki.  It was nice hearing some Ozzie for a little bit, and we met some neat new friends, Julian and company.  The taxi took us home earlier than I’d hoped to stay out–but then again I had slept in until 10.  Everyone else was pooped.

Day two of the slopes, starting for me at 10AM, starting for everyone else at 7.  Rhianna and I had a nice morning at the hotel and headed to Niseko village to pick Una up off the family slope for lunch and to buy some omiyage to bring back to our coworkers.  Instead we found yoparai ojisan (an old, drunk man) struggling to walk down the road.  He spoke English!  Rhianna and I were so suprised that we walked him down the icy hill (one on each side) and he told us about the war and the best ramen in town and how he lived in the USA once and that if we ate ramen and drank beer that we could stay young forever!  I mean, just look at him!  88 years old!  He may have been a drunk, but he sure was funny.

Hokkaido is famous for a few things, judging by the omiyage in the gift shop.  In between the ninja or geisha shot glasses, hashi (chopstick) sets, laquerware, and keitai (cellphone) straps were lavender goods and dark chocolate, the perfect things (for me–my two favorite things in the world) for Hokkaido to be famous for.  Apparently in the summer, Hokkaido has fields upon fields of lavender and supplies most of the world with my favorite smell.  I indulged myself with a little pot of lavender lip gloss and then remembered that I still have my stock at home.  I bought Royce “nama” choco (“raw” dark and bittersweet) for my coworkers and it was gone in two days–unlike my weird spicy cookie omiyage from Thailand that took weeks to be half eaten and then I finally threw it out. 

Rhianna had an appointment to ride a snow mobile, so we headed back to Hanazono (kanji for flower and garden) where we met everybody else who was too hungover to slide down the mountain for the second day.  This is when I ate kani (crab) miso ramen and enjoyed the warmth of the ski lodge and watching the little kids play in the snow while everybody else outside was cold. 

It was fun peeling the crab out of the shell with chopsticks.  They are too handy to poke the meat out of the other side with. 

Around 4, when the snow was the heaviest, and the lifts closed, everyone came back to the lodge for an “otusekare” or a drink after a hard day of playing.  The lodge was fully prepared for this mentality and there was a “yard-of-beer” option for about $40 (4,000 yen).  We split it between 6 people and had enough for two beers each, and when we were silly from the dehydration, some pictures were taken through the eyes of the beer.

Determined not to have a blowout in our last night in Niseko, we took naps, relaxed, ate pizza and had a wonderful outside onsen with a snowy view and good friends. 

At 10 o’ clock Hells Bells sounded and Rhianna, Una, Natalie, and I (the fearsome four henceforth) dragged ol Tom and somehow convinced Sam, (both employees of the hotel) to come and party in the city with us.  We started at Wild Bills, one of the best bars in Niseko, with an impeccable mojito for me and lots of Aussies for us!  Tom and Sam were right in the middle of the fun, too!  At one point there was a man climbing up the framework of the building and they shut the music off until he came down, but it was all in good fun!  Wild Bills shuts down at midnight for some stupid reason, so we all went to get our stuff and leave–but Una’s purse had been stolen and my grandma sweater had been nicked as well.  We weren’t in Japan anymore, we were in Little Oz.  Una was a trooper though, and kept her party going for the rest of us. 

Next stop: Splash bar.  Lame.  Next stop: nameless karaoke bar with pool upstairs and a whole lotta Japanese!  SWEET!  We sang karaoke until Rhianna could sing like Louis Armstrong and then headed back to the Inn after a successful night.  Even at 4AM nobody could stop us, and we drank some more and played scrabble–an interesting, sloppy version of scrabble!  I stayed up long enough to take a shower and sleep for 2 hours before we had to pack up and leave on Valentine’s day/Chinese New Year, also known as Sunday, the day before Monday, which most of us would have to work. 

I would like to say that the trip was uneventful from there, but there was a little snafu with our group boarding tickets at the airport.  I was too tired to do anything but what I was told, so I sat there, dozing in the airport.  I zombied to the gate after everything was figured out and Cheryl’s blood pressure went down 20 points.  I woke up for 5 minutes to eat the best ice cream cone I’ve had in my life (thanks Rhiri! I ❤ U! ) and then I woke up to Al telling me to get out of his car.  I’m sure that from the Inn to Aso apato in Saiki was at least 17 hours of travel on a bus, subway, airplane, shuttle, and then a car.  TAI HEN DESU, NE!?  I will never live in the inaka of Japan AGAIN!  But I will go back to Hokkaido.

Outtakes: THE ELUSIVE RHIANNA IN HER NATURAL HABITAT http://www.youtube.com/user/sarahchan7#p/a/u/2/FiFhv0ZQ5BA

THE SARAH CHAN http://www.youtube.com/user/sarahchan7#p/a/u/0/7dHwbK7mSn0