Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Final Countdown

What a whirlwind couple of months it has been! As I write this, I am set to leave Japan in for good in just 12 days. On July 30th, I will have been in Japan for 3 years. Unbelievable. Honestly, I can't even remember the person that I was before I set out of this adventure of mine.

I had origianlly signed a 1-year contract to come out to Japan, but the year went by so fast that I decided to stay on for another. By the end of my second year, I was feeling pretty comfortable in Japan but I still didn't feel like going home. Now that I have been here 3 whole years, I have mixed emotions about leaving. Yes, I am ready to move on and explore new places. Yes, I want to go home and see my family and friends. Yes, I feel like I have completed my experience here. But on the other hand, I have been here long enough that I have developed relationships with people that are going to be very difficult to give up. My girlfriend is here. My best Japanese mate is here. My band is here. My JAPAN is here.

Yes, it will be hard to leave, but now I know that I really do have a second home here in Japan. This country has taken me in and protected me over the past 3 years. It has helped me grow tremendously as a person. It has been a jumping off point for travel in other areas. It has been a non-stop cultural experience. It has given me the chance to become friends not only with Japanese people, but with people from dozens of countries. It has been great.

The reason that I have not posted in such a long time is that I have been busy doing all of the things that I want to do in Japan before I leave. Just look at this list of things that I have done in the past month or so:

- Joined the "Kanda Matsuri" festival, one of the largest festivals in the world, held in central Tokyo. A simply staggering number of people, music, shrines, and food. It was quite amazing.

- Went up to Fukushima prefecture with Natsumi to the "Hawaiians" super resort and water park. It was our 1-year anniversary, so we went up there for a couple of days. We had fun on the waterslides and pools, but my favorite was the "Guiness World Record" biggest outdoor onsen, complete with shanmisen music and Japanese dance. Unforgettable.

- Went to a sand onsen. Along with a fellow teacher, we went to an onsen in Kuki city where you are buried in heated sand up to your neck. The goal is to stay submerged for about 20 minutes and get a good sweat. After that we are able to relax in the regualr onsens as well. A strangely interesting experience.

- Sold my scooter. Yes, I finally had to say goodbye to my sweet little 50cc scooter. It served me better than I could have wanted here in Japan and opened up a lot of local sights that I would not have otherwise seen. RIP.

- Went to Disneyland with Natsumi! Well, Disney Sea to be exact. I had never been to Disneyland in any country up until now. I have kind of grown out of the cutesy aspect of Disneyland, but in Tokyo the also have another theme park next to it called Disney Sea, which is more geard toward couples or adults. The rides were actually quite good, especially the Tower of Terror. We saw shows, rode rides, ate good food, and met many Disney characters. It was great!

- Went to Kamakura. This small city south of Yokohama had always been on my list of places to go, and we finally made it there. We saw the famous Big Buddha, saw many of the beautiful temples of the area, and even went the (somewhat lackluster) beach called Enoshima. Definetely a highlight of Japan.

- Had a traveling party/ryokan trip with friends. About 10 of us (Western and Japanese people) headed up to Tochigi prefecture to the Nasu hot springs area where we chilled for a couple of days in a ryokan. The small tourist town of Shiobara actually turned out to be a pleasant place. We visitied the world's largest "foot onsen", ate a lot, drank even more, and took onsen at the ryokan. Kasukabe-gumi represent!

- Had a farewell concert with the Peacemakers. We took an opportunity to reserve a spot in our favorite live house (Live Abbey Road) and had a farewell performance with our international band, The Peacemakers. Although a couple of the members couldn't join us, other musical friends of ours stepped in and performed beautifully. I invited a bunch of friends from kasukabe, and there were also some Japanese customers there to watch our show as well. It was a great send-off for me, and I felt very lucky to get the chance to perform one more time with Nori, one of my favorite people in the world. It's another experience that I will never forget.

Phew! Crazy eh?! I still have an even crazier schedule in the next 12 days! I have various farewell parties to attend, I have to empty out my apartment, do all of the last paperwork that needs to be done, continue hitting the gym, and get my head straight before I get home. It's gonna be madness! Anyway, I am going to give it my all. I have been working hard for the past 3 years at bettering myself, so I am not about to slack off now when I am on the homestretch!

Keep on givin'er eh!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Recently, Natsumi and I went and checked out the Tsukiji Wholesale Fish Market. It is the biggest fish market in the world, based on the edge of Tokyo Bay. The action begins in the wee hours of the morning, and winds down by noon. This is the main port where all of the fresh seafood comes in every morning to be doled out and served at the thousands of sushi restaurants, izakayas, and other eateries all over Japan.

Knowing that we had to get there pretty early in the morning to see anything good, and because the trains don`t run between midnight and 5am, we headed in to Tokyo the night before at around 11pm. We arrived at Ginza station and took a walk to a local manga kissa (internet/manga cafe). For around $15 we got a small room with a sofa, Internet, TV, and drink bar. We stayed there until about 4am, then made our way over to Tsukiji.

It is a very strange feeling walking from Ginza to Tsukiji. Ginza in the most upscale district in Tokyo, and it is not unusual to see Lamborghinis, Ferraris, and other statement cars being driven by rich people amongst the designer label shops. However, if you go a block or two past the main drag towards Tsukiji, it seems that you have left Tokyo and arrived in a very different place. The smell of fish becomes very strong, and even though the sun has not risen yet, the place is as busy as a beehive. As we approached the gate into the market itself, we were made aware of just how massive the place really is. Hundreds of motorized carts, trucks of all sizes, and countless merchants were going this way and that, carrying back their day`s purchases and heading back for more. There is every kind of fish imagineable in Tsukiji, all of them for sale to the highest bidder. We made our way through the various alleyways, stalls, aquariums, and finally arrived at the main event: the tuna auction.
A single bluefin tuna can sell for between $10,000 and $20,000. They are definetely the prize of the market, and competition for them is fierce. We didn`t have the special permit needed to sit in on the auction itself, but we were able to see all of the tuna on display and see the customers carefully checking them out to see which were the ones they were going to try and bid on later in the auction.

After that we decided to leave, as incredibly it seemed like the pace of the place seemed to be picking up even more. It was very likely that we would soon have been run over by one of the motorized carts or a truck, so we decided to make our escape. We headed back out towards the main exit and stopped for some fresh "don", or raw, sliced fish over rice. I had salmon and tuna, and Natsumi had a mix of salmon, ikura "fish eggs", raw shrimp, and egg. It was great. Although our visit to Tsukiji was brief, it was all that we needed. I am fairly used to the fast pace of Tokyo, but after 30 minutes in this market, my head was spinning around like a top.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

40 days and counting!

Well, I am finally giving it and honest try. I haven`t had a cigarette since the beginning of April, about 40 days ago. I have always done a lot of talking about not smoking, and actually I was never really that heavy of a smoker (compared to most people anyway).

So far it hasn`t been too bad. It seems that if I am not around people who are smoking then I don`t think about it much. The big problem is when I go out to a bar, or when I am just sitting around with friends and having a few beers. That`s when the cravings really start to hit.

The idea of quitting never really occured to me either. I kind of just fell into it at first. When I got back from Hiroshima at the start of April, I had just happened to be out of cigarettes, and for some reason I just didn`t buy more. Soon, a whole week had gone by without a smoke. Then I had a night where I was drinking a bit and didn`t smoke. From then I decided just to see how long I could stretch it out. When I passed the 1-month point, I made up my mind that there is actually no reason for me to smoke any more.

As my family recently found out, it is virtually impossible to go anywhere where you can`t smoke in Japan. Restaurants still allow smoking. You can smoke in designated rooms at hospitals. Heck, you can even smoke in the teachers lounge at school! Packs are $3 cdn, so it is a very tempting to walk down the street and pass a cigarette vending machine every 30 seconds.

Anyway, gonna let `er rip, and hope for the best. I`ve decided that I want to live a long life, so this is my first real step in achieving that. Wish me luck!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The whole fam damily!

To see all the pics from my family's trip, click here.

This week is Golden Week here in Japan. There are a string of national holidays all in a row, and usually this means that the Japanese people all take their vacations then. This year, I had a special vacation planned, as some of my family members came here for the week.

At an izakaya in Kasukabe

From April 25th - May 3rd, my mother (Laura), two of my sisters (Natalie and Rachel), and my niece (Emma) made the grueling trip out to Japan from Canada. It was very nice to see them all. I couldn't believe how much Emma had grown! After we met at Narita airport, they got their first real taste of Japanese culture: a 2-hour train ride to my apartment in Kasukabe. Straight away they became aware of just how different Japan is compared to Canada, and what it really means to be located in the middle of a huge metropolis.

Tori gates in Ueno Park

I was anxious to see how they would be able to cope with daily life in Japan. I had a very busy week planned for them, but I was mindful of the fact that it can be quite a struggle to adapt to the pace of life here. I remember when I first arrived in Japan, the jetlag was so bad that it took me a week just to recover. Regardless, I wanted to pack as much in as I could in the short time that we had.

The first place we went was to the Imperial Palace (Kokyo 皇居) in Central Tokyo. It was a very warm day (we were very lucky with the weather this week) and we took our time strolling around the grounds.

Imperial Palace

We were also very lucky because we were there a few days before Golden Week began, so there were no crowds at all and we could stroll at our leisure. From there we walked past the Diet building, and on to Hibiya Park. In the park there were many scenic spots as well as a playground for Emma to have fun in.

Rachel in Hibiya Park

From there, we caught the subway and headed over to Ueno. After a lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, we walked over to Ueno park. We took in the sights, including the temples, statues etc. We stopped for ice cream, but the my family didn't seen to like the green tea flavoured ice cream as much as I did. Afterwards, we went to the surprisingly entertaining Ueno Zoo.

Emma at Ueno Zoo

The follwing morning (Fri Apr 27th) we woke up very early. I had a special weekend planned for us in Hakone, a very popular hot-springs resort town near Mt. Fuji. At 6:00 am we caught the train bound for Shinjuku. From there, we took the Odakyu line's "RomanceCar", a kind of deluxe train, for the 1.5 hour trip out to Hakone. I had booked us a night's stay at a beautiful old Ryokan (traditional Japanese-style inn) called Ichinoyu Honkan. For anyone travelling to Hakone, I highly recommend you check this place out. We were thrilled when we arrived and got our first look at the room. It was a very spacious room, with a main dining/sleeping room, a sitting room with a view of a waterfall right behind the building, and it even had its own private hot spring (onsen) bath inside!

Mom in her yukata at the ryokan

We dropped out bags off and then hopped back on the nearby Tozan train. We stopped along the way at an open-air museum that houses many amazing and strange works of art, as well as priceless pieces by Picasso and other more well known artists. From there, we took a cable car up to Sounzan. Next, we transferred to a gondola whic took us for a breathtaking ride over the volcanic region of Owakudani.

The view of Owakudani from the gondola

We could see the sulphur steaming and bubbling from the mountains, and the air was filled with the smell of rotten eggs (sulphur). When we got to the top, we even indulged in the local specialty of "kuroi tamago" or black eggs. They are just like regular har boiled eggs, but they are boiled in the sulphurous water, and therefore turned black during the process. It is said that you gain 7 years of life for every one of the black eggs that you eat, and that is good for me as I ate two of them!

Black eggs and pirate ships at Lake Ashino

Once we were down off of the mountain, we boarded the Pirate ship "Victory" which would take us on a cruise of Lake Ashino. Although the ship was quite over the top, and felt more like Disneyland, my niece Emma really enjoyed it. After a hairy bus ride back to the ryokan, we hopped into our private onsen, slipped into out yukatas and headed down to the dining room. Supper was a very well presented meal of Japanese "nabe" type food, followed by courses of fish, and deserts. As we had had a very big day, we stretched out our futons and had a well-deserved night's sleep.

Rachel about to try the cuisine at the ryokan

The next morning, we were all up ealy and went down to the ryokan's public bath. Men and women were seperate of course, and we could soak in the baths a bit before making our long trip back to Tokyo. Once we got back to Kasukabe, we all relaxed and rested most of the afternoon. That night, my girlfriend Natsumi preapred a many different types of Japanese food for my family to try. She also got them to help here make the food too.

Natalie honing her skills at making norimaki

We made norimaki (rolled sushi), tacoyaki (fried octopus batter-balls, substituting ham and cheese for octopus), yakisoba (Japanese chow mein), gyoza (dumplings), and cha-han (Chinese style fried rice). Everyone seemed to enjoy making and eating the food, and we were all very thankful to Natsumi for sharing this experience with us.

Mom, Nat, Rach, and Natsumi with the Japanese food they made

On Sunday, Aprill 29th, we had a more low-key day planned. The first thing on the agenda was to visit Hachiman Ginja, a Shinto shrine located near my apartment. Natsumi wanted to wear a kimono that day, and was nice enough to let us watch as she put it on. The process still boggles my mind...

In front of Kasukabe Hachiman jinja

It was another beautiful day, and the shrine was only a 5-minute walk from my apartment. After spending some time in the shrine grounds, playing with Emma in the playgroung, and climbing the steep stone-stepped hill near the shrine (congrats on climbing that Mom, what a great feeling eh?), we headed over to Fuji street, where by chance, Kasukabe city was holding it's annual Fuji Matsuri (festival).

Natsumi teaching Emma how to pray at a Shinto shrine

I was blown away by how good the festival actually was. I was expecting it to be a very low-key thing, with a few stalls and performers. When we got there, however, we realized that it was the real deal. Almost every school in Kasukabe had their marching band out to perform. There were also countless adult groups performing.

Parade during Kasukabe`s Fuji festival

We were able to see traditional Japanese dances, taiko performances, magic shows, and countless other performances in the seemingly endless parade. This was all framed by the blossoming Fuji trees which line the appropraitely named Fuji street. There were also dozens of booths and stalls selling the traditional Japanese festival wares: fried squid, fried octopus, chicken, okonomiyaki, kakigori, and countless others. To our delight, we were also in the right place at the right time to witness a traditional Japanese dance performed right in front of us!

With some performers at the festival

After a rest at my apartment, we headed next door to Turkey Bowl, a local bowling alley. From there, we had supper at Raku-Gan-Tei, a local izakaya. We had many delicious (in my opinion) dishes. Following that, Natsumi, Natalie, Rachel, and I headed over to a Karaoke joint and sang our hearts out well into the night. It was a blast...and all you can drink!

Havin` fun at Karaoke

We all needed a good sleep-in the next morning, but we sure didn't waste the day. Around noon we headed to Asakusa, and the famed Senso-ji shrine. This is the most visited tourist sight in Tokyo. It also happens to be one of my favorite places in Tokyo (and in the world for that matter). We stopped to check out the main gate (Kaminari-mon) before walking down the souvenir shopping street (Nakamise dori).

Kaminarimon, outside of Senso-ji temple in Asakusa

It was another beautiful day weather wise, and we took our time strolling down the crowded street. When we arrived at the main temple of Senso-ji, we stopped to each take our fortunes from the fortune boxes. To do this, you shake 1 chopstick free from a container, match the kanji character on it with the corresponding one on a shelf of drawers, and take your fortune paper from inside. Emma received a very good fortune, and the other had neutral or good fortunes, but I was the only one to get a bad fortune :(
After exploring Senso-ji's temples, 5-storey pagoda, and other sights, we moved on to the Water Bus terminal.

Senso-ji temple

Near Asakusa, the Sumida river runs towards Tokyo Bay. We bought tickets on a ferry and rode it down the river. We passes many famous bridges and buildings, and ended up at our destination: Hamarikyu garden.

Joey and Natsumi at Hamarikyu gardens

This is a traditional Japanese garden situated right in the heart of Tokyo's business district, Shiodome. it is quite a thing to see the beauty of the garden juxtaposed against the skyscrapers of Shiodome. We spent a good deal of time relaxing in the garden and discussing our next move. We had planned originally to go to Ginza, but instead decided to head towards Shinjuku.

After a short ride on the Yamanote line (Tokyo's famed "circle train line") we arrived at Shinjuku. The first thing we did was head to a 100 yen shop, another must-do when you are in Japan. After stocking up on supplies there, we headed for the red-light district of Tokyo, called Kabuki-cho.

Kabukicho at night

Keep in mind that a red-light district in Japan is quite different fromt he rest of the world, and really isn't as shady as it sounds. We were able to see a lot of neat things, check out a huge arcarde "game-center", take "purikura" pictures, etc. After supper at a ramen-shop, we left Kabuki-cho for the high rise district. There, we went up to the 45th floor of the Keio Plaza and had drinks in the Sky Lounge, complete with it's tuxedoed waiters and breathtaking view of Tokyo at night.

Everyone was a bit train-and-Tokyo'd-out the next day, so we just stuck around Kasukabe. It was just as well, as it was a rainy day (again with our luck with the weather!) We did some shopping at a local department store, went to some restaurants, and basically got rested up for the big trip back to Canada the following day. Natalie and Rachel even cooked us supper that night: chicken, mashed-potatoes, broccoli and cheese sauce, and of course plenty of beers, a completely Canadian treat! Thanks again guys!

The next day (Wed, May 2nd) the girls got all their stuff packed and we made the 2-hour train trip back to Narita airport. The week had flown by, and it had been great to see the family. I knew they were anxious to get back to more familiar lands, but I think they had a good time as well. Hopefully the experiences we had during the week will last them a lifetime. I hope it at least gave them more of an impression of what my daily life is here in Japan!

At a soba restaurant

*NAT, RACH, MOM, guys did super great! Thanks again for coming to visit Japan! I now it was a bit hairy at times, but it meant the world to Natsumi and I. Make sure you show the pictures and share the stories with tons of people... Arigato ne!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Road to Hiroshima

See the pics, click here.

I have had quite a memorable past few days. This month, Japan Railways offered a special deal where you could travel any 5 seperate days on their local train network for 8ooo yen (about $80 Canadian). Natsumi had bought a 5-day pass and still had 2 days left, so because I am on spring vacation I decided to take a trip of my own. I was thinking about where I would like to go in Japan, and only one place kept calling out to me: Hiroshima. It is one place that I just HAD to go to before I leave Japan. After a bit of searching for train schedules, I decided to take my trip from Saturday, March 31st until Monday, April 2nd. If I was to use the Shinkansen (bullet train), the trip would only take about 6 hours. It would, however, cost me about $200 Canadian each way. Using the local trains takes about 15 hours to get to Hiroshima fro Tokyo, but because of the deal, it only cost me about $15 each way. So, bright and early Saturday morning I caught the 5:02 am train from Kasukabe station. From there I had to head into Tokyo, catch a connection heading out towards Nagoya, then on to Kyoto, Osaka, Himeji, and finally Hiroshima. The distance from Tokyo to Hiroshima is roughly 1000km, so I knew it was going to be a LONG haul. Here was the schedule I followed (or tried to...)

Kasukabe --> Shinagawa (80 mins)
Shinagawa --> Atami (100mins)
Atami --> Hamamatsu (145 mins)
Hamamatsu --> Toyohashi (32 mins)
Toyohashi --> Ogaki (82 mins)
Ogaki --> Maibara (35 mins)
Maibara --> Himeji (145 mins) ***passing through Kyoto and Osaka***
Himeji --> Aioi (19 mins)
Aioi --> Okayama (63 mins)
Okayama --> Hiroshima (163 mins)

Phew! I had left Kasukabe at 5:02 am, and after all the train connections, delays, etc, I arrived in Hiroshima at about 11:15 pm. That meant the trip had taken about 18 hours! I was pretty beat, so I headed straight over to my hostel, named J-Hoppers, and crashed. I had booked a dormitory-style room at the hostel, so when I arrived, I was the last person to come into the room. I spread out my futon, and passed out.

The next morning, I was also the first one up. I got up at about 6:00 am, had some breakfast and started out. The first place I wanted to go was actually out of Hiroshima. I was bound for Miyajima island, with its famous "Floating Tori gate" and temples. Miyajima island is said to be one of the three best views in Japan, so I figured I had better check it out. Hiroshima city still uses streetcars in some areas, so I caught one of those to the station and took the 20-minute train ride to Miyajima. You access the island by ferry, and it brings you close to the Floating Tori so you can take pictures.
Once on the island, you can stroll about, pet the many tame deer that roam around, and check out the sights. I headed straight for the temples on the waterfront. There, rituals were being performed by monks, and it was a surreal feeling. I explored Miyajima temple itself, got some great views and pictures of the Floating Tori, and had a bite to eat. By that time (about 9:00 am) the area was getting packed with Japanese tourists, so I decided to head back towards the city center. Despite the gray weather, Miyajima was still a very beautiful experience.
Once I got back to the city center I headed for the place that every person comes to Hiroshima to see: the Peace Park and the Atomic Bomb dome. I had no idea what to expect before I arrived in Hiroshima. Of course, I didn't expect it to still be in a state of devastation because of the bomb - it's been 60 years after all - but I was curious as to what the vibe would be around the area. The first place I went was the Atomic Bomb (Genbaku) Dome. This is the preserved ruins of a building whose walls and metal skeleton had survived the bomb. It survived because the bomb exploded directly above it and spared to from some of the shock waves. It is now a world heritage sight, and for obvious reasons.
It was very moving to see something like that, and to be able to have something concrete to focus all of your emotions/concerns/fears about nuclear weapons. Personally, nuclear weapons to me are the single greatest threat to our survival, and therefore the biggest fear in my life, so to be in that place was incredibly moving for me.

Just across the river from there is the Hiroshima Peace Park. The is the park that houses all of the A-bomb memorials, cenotaphs, museums, etc. That day, it was extra beautiful because it was Hanami (Cherry blosson) time. The park is blanketed with cherry trees, all in bloom with beautiful white blossoms, so the message of "peace" was driven home with the force of a sledgehammer. I took my time to see all of the various memorials, many of which were just breathtaking. I also visited the Peace museum, which is set up as a full documentation of the buildup to the bomb being dropped, the aftermath, and the history since. I didn't notice the pro-Japan bias that I have seen in other museums here, and it was an incredible walk though the museum. They had scale models of Hiroshima before and after the bomb, thousands of artifacts with bomb/radiation damage, and even graphic mannequin-like representations of what people looked like minutes after the explosion. Very moving, and there was not a dry eye in the place. I also a place called the Memoral Hall for A-bomb victims, which is an underground exhibit that represents the center of Hiroshima and how the bomb radiated out from there. In the center of the room, there is a fountain that looks like a clock stopped at 8:15 am (the exact time the bomb hit) and a 360 degree panoramic image of Hiroshima with benches for sitting and reflecting silently about the tragedy. A moving place.
After leaving the peace park, I ventured over to Hiroshima castle. While it is very inpressive from the outside, going into the castle was a bit of a letdown. The interior had been rmodeled so much that it felt like being in a new house, not a centuries-old castle. It did have some impressive features though, like a huge moat, a protective rock wall, and vents in the building meant for pouring boiling oil on intruders. Still a neat stop.
Later, I headed to a local Izakaya (snack-type restaurant which serves alcohol) for some Yakitori and beer. I was just sitting quietly reading my book and having a beer, when all of a sudden an older Japanese couple sitting nearby bought me a beer. I started talking with them, and they turned out to be really fun and interesting people. After about an hour of chatting, I said I had to go. To my surprise, they paid my entire bill for me! I was humbled, as this does not happen to me very often (if ever) in Tokyo. A neat couple.
Afterwards, I headed back to the hostel to relax and try to get some sleep for the return trip the following day. This was cut short though, as I met some really interesting people at the hostel. I ended up going out for Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancake) and beer with them. The group was diverse: 1 guy from Ireland, 1 from the UK, 1 from Israel, 1 girl from Germany, a girl and her mother from Scotland, an American from Ohio, and me.

It was neat for me too, as I was the only one of the group who actually lived in Japan, the others were all just travelling here. They quizzed me for hours on various aspects of Japan and the culture, and I was glad to share my experiences with them. It was a nice reminder for me about all of the things that I have learned here in Japan that I now take for granted. Some days it seems like I really haven't progressed very much as far as really understanding Japan, the culture, and even the language. But the evening spent sharing tales with that group really gave me a good feeling inside.

The next morning at 5:30 am, I was up and catching the train home again. Aside from some minor route mistakes on the way home, I made it back safe and sound at about midnight. A short trip, but one that I equate as being as important as climbing Mount Fuji. Not only becasuse Hiroshima is an important place to visit, but also beacuse I conquered the complex cross-country Japan Rail system by myself. Chalk up another life experience for me! I am proud of myself. I likely will never do such a trip again, but if you are ever given the opportunity to do the same then try it. It is long, gruelling, frustrating, but you feel very proud and happy when you get to the finish line!