Sunday, December 31, 2006

Hello? Watch, bag?....Hello? Crazy times in Shanghai

Wow! I'm back in Japan after 10 days of madness in Shanghai. It was quite an experience and made me realize that there is a hell of a lot more to Asia than just Japan. Natsumi and I headed to Narita airport on Dec 21st, and arrived in Shanghai at about 9 o'clock in the evening. By the time we got to the place where our hotel was it was around 10:30, so we just dropped off our gear and headed out for some food. Natsumi had lived in Shanghai previously as a student, and the hotel was near to her old campus so she knew the area well. The little restaurant that we went to that night was great. It was a little shishkabob restaurant that had the best food. We ate until we were full and drank beer until late. When the check arrived, I finally understood that we were in China. The grand total came to 34 yuan, or the equivalent of about $5 canadian. Nice.

The next day we went to a not-so-tourist-friendly market area called Qipu road. It was pretty crazy, and not a lot of tourists go there. The sheer quantity of shops, vendors, noise, and kiosks was a bit hard to take in. We did a bit of shopping there, and then moved on. Our next stop was the more famous Nanjing road. This is the more upscale area near the center of Shanghai where many name-brand shops, fast-food chains, and coffee shops. We spent some time walking around there, then headed to People's Square, a park area closeby. There was a huge Hong Kong style shopping mall there, and we ate some more delicious food. After that, we walked to the river to stroll along the famous pedestrain walkway know as the Bund. At night it is lit up and gives a great view of Pudong across the river. Later we headed back to Chifeng road, near our hotel, to do some "DVD" shopping.

The next day (Dec 23rd) we visited Yuyuan Garden. It was a beautiful temple area, and also a huge maket bazaar. We did some poking around and shopping there. On the way to Yuyuan, we took a very "scenic" walk though a neighborhood that was very traditional Chinese. It consisted od very, very old buildings, some without walls or even floors, but all still with tenants inside. It was weird to see such run-down and slummy looking places but see smiles on the faces of all the people around us. It really put into perspective just how different my life is than anything these people know.

Christmas eve was a bit of a downer for me. The first part of the day had been great. We had met up with a friend of Natsumi's, Akina, and visited some cool shops, a great market, and then headed to Nanjing Road. There, I split off from the girls and went walking around on my own for a bit. I was trying to buy a bottle of water at a kiosk when the "incident" happened. As I took my wallet out of my pocket, someone tried to rip it out of my hands. It fell to the ground, spilling out some cash onto the street. I went straight for the wallet, but the 4 other guys who I didn't even know were there went straight for the cash. It didn't take to long to realize that this little group of guys likely had me pegged for a while before and saw their chance. Anyway, only a bit of cash was lost, and all my important papers and cards were safe. If you are ever in Shanghai, keep a tight grip on you wallet! I should have been more careful!

We woke up early on Christmas day so we could eat some 'Baozi' which is a steam-bun filled with meat and/or vegetables, and is officially my favorite Chinese food. Even better, each bun only costs about 0.7 yuan, which is about 10 cents canadian. SWEET! Later in the day we did some shopping on Huaihai Road. By the time we were ready for Xmas dinner we were pretty beat, so we had a delicious KFC christmas.
We spent boxing day around People's square, and also near to Akina's apartment. We went to an enormous tea shop, tea shops actually, and were allowed to sample many kinds of Chinese tea. Later that night we went out to dinner with some Korean friends of Natsumi's. It was a very weird meal, as there were many languages being tossed around. There were 8 people there: 2 Chinese, 3 Koreans, Natsumi, Akina, and I, but we all didn't share common languages. Most of the people were Chinese language students in Shanghai, but none of them spoke any English. Akina doesn't speak English either, so as a result all of the conversations were in a mix of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and English. Confusing to say the least. Also, one of the Chinese girls (a Korean guy's girlfriend) was a bit of a cold fish and didn't seem very friendly at all. Not sure if there was some Chinese-Japanese hostilities or what, but Natsumi and I had more than a couple of chuckles at her expense during the meal.

On the 27th we headed to Shanghai station. We went to this are that was a huge underground are that was all eyeglass shops. I managed to get a great pair of glasses with prescription lenses for about $25 dollars. Silly me, I didn't check them until I got home and found that the prescription was off a little. Ah well. Later, we went to the trendy area of Xintiandi. It is a pretty upscale little are full of shops, restaurants, etc. In the evening we met a Shanghainese friend of Natsumi's called Xiao Li and enjoyed a delicious traditional Chinese-style meal.

On the 28th, we visited Jing'an temple and the nearby area. There was even a Burger King there! Of course we had to go it. I hadn't had Burger King in 3 years, as there are none in Japan. Whoppers are great! Later that night we went to the high rise district area called Pudong. From there we could get a beautiful view of the Bund. Also, we headed up to the 88th floor of Jin Mao tower.
Our last day we went back to Qipu road maket to do our shopping. We were able to buy tons of shoes, clothes, watches, etc. It was a tiring day, but we managed to get it all done. To cap off our trip, we headed back to the same shishkabob restaurant that we went to on our first night and enjoyed another night of good eats and good drink. Our flight the next day left early, so we had to get up at 4:30 am to catch it.

The trip was short, wild, intense, but was an unforgettable experience. If you want to see more of the photos from this trip click here.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Seasons Greetings from Joe and Natsumi

Hi everyone. Hope you have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! We'll be in Shanghai until the 30th so I won't be posting for a while. Enjoy the holidays! メリークリスマス と 明けましておめでとうございます!

Monday, December 18, 2006

My 2006

It`s that time of year...time to write about the main events from the last 365 days. It seems like every year just goes by faster and faster, and I am never able to realize it until it`s happened. It`ll soon be 2007, but I am still getting used to saying 2006.

I began my 2006 with a New Years party in Tokyo. I had been up in Akita prefecture doing some skiing with friends and had returned to Tokyo for a New Years party held at club Unit in Daikanyama. There was a good vibe in the place, and it was a fun night (minus the nausea trouble I got myself into as a result of drinking too many Heinekens).

I was busy in January, because my band (The Peacemakers) had a gig scheduled for the 22nd. It was at a large concert hall in Yashio, the same venue we had played a year earlier. We had been rehearsing in December and continued that into January right up until the date. The show went off well, with no major malfunctions other than the atrocious weather. It snowed a total of 3 days all winter last year in Yashio, but one of those days was the day of our concert, just my luck! We had a large post-concert party at a local izakaya (Eena) to cap the event off. Little did I know that it would likely be the final time I would play a gig with them.

February and March were spent trying to keep warm in my apartment. As I`ve no doubt mentioned hundreds of times, it is wickedly cold here in the winters. My apartment was also furnished with the world`s worst kerosene heater. It stunk up the place something awful, and didn`t kick out much heat. So instead, I used my aircon/heater despite the horribly expensive price of electricity. To stay warm, I would often spend long hours at the local gym. It was better to be warm and exercising than shivering in my apartment. I was lucky enough to have a decent community gym not far from my apartment. Community gyms are adequately equipped, and 300 yen ($3) per visit was much more reasonable than the 12,000 yen ($120) monthly fees charged by most private clubs.

In April, I was lucky enough to have my sister Natalie and her husband Mats come out to Japan to visit me for a week. It was nice to see them, as I hadn`t seen anyone from home since the previous year at their wedding. We toured many local areas in Tokyo, including Asakusa, Odaiba, Shinjuku, Harajuku, etc
I think it was a little hard for them to adjust to Japan`s climate/culture/food in such a short period of time though. If you are in Japan for a week, it taked a good 2 or 3 days just to get over the jetlag before you can fully comprehend things. They were troopers though, and we went on lots of day trips and tried lots of local Japanese cuisine. I am expecting more visitors from home in 2007 as well. My tour guide skills are top notch! lol

In May I met a wonderful girl named Natsumi. Since we have been together, my experince in Japan has been 100% different. I still do all the same things that I used to, but now I have so much different input and alternate viewpoints on things I thought were pretty obvious. Being with Natsumi has really opened my eyes and unlocked a culture that I have been immersed in for the past 2 years. I am now privy to all the subtle nuances of people`s actions, business strategies, pop culture, and history and as a result, I am really beginning to appreciate my experiences here the way they should be appreciated. Natsumi is a 4th year university student studying Chinese (Mandarin) and she is currently writing her thesis (actually she finished it 2 days ago! Omedetou!). Her English ability is also very high. We generally communicate in English, but I try and use the Japanese I`ve learned, and I am learning much more from her as well.

In early June, I met up with another music friend of mine, Kirk. He is formerly from Regina, Saskatchewan, but has been living here in Tokyo for the last 6 years. He is married to a Japanese woman and plans to spend his life in Japan. We rented a car and decided to go on a weeklong adventure. In Japan, it is very easy to travel almost anywhere by local or bullet train, but not so popular to do a Candian-style raod trip. We looked to buck that trend, so we planned a route through Japan that would take us on a scenic, off the beaten track kind of adventure. After a minor fender-bender in Tokyo (Kirk still wasn`t used to the right-hand drive cars, lol) we were off. We headed east of Tokyo and made our way to Nagano prefecture. We took a few roads through the mountains that were more than treacherous, but eventually ended up in the beautiful mountain village of Iina-shi. We stayed with another frind of mine, Carla, who is also origianlly from Winnipeg. We enjoyed a beautiful mountain onsen before pushing on in the direction of Osaka. Or plan had been to travel about halfway to Osaka that day, but instead we made it all the way there in a day. We stayed in Osaka for a couple of days, soaking in the local atmosphere, food, and excitement. The world cup was on at that time, so we joined the sea of blue Team Japan shirts and watched Japan`s game amongst hundreds of screaming Japanese fans. From there, we carried on to beautiful Kyoto. This was such a change after the madness of Osaka. We saw all of the beautiful temples and castles, and really chilled out for a couple of days.
Lastly, we headed back towards Tokyo. Our plan was to stay on the beach in Shizuoka, do some swimming, and just relax. When we got there though, the beach was a bit subpar, and it wasn`t so beautiful. We thought that maybe we should just head back to Tokyo that day, but we weren`t sure. It became a definite plan when Kirk lost his glasses in the ocean after taking a wave to the face. We arrived safely back in Tokyo, no major incidents in our trip.

At the endo of July, I packed up and moved to a new city, Kasukabe. All of the teachers in my previous city (Yashio) were being replaced by a private company, but I was licky enought to get a transfer to Kasukabe. Natsumi and I rented a moving truck, loaded it up, and drove it the 2 hours to Kasukabe. It was sad to leave Yashio, as it had been my home for 2 years here in Japan, and my base for all the crazy adventures I have been on in that time. It`s also where i met my good friends. I also had to say goodbye to a good buddy, Keith. He was heading back to the UK at that time. I think one of the first posts on this blog is about the beaking up of the YA-JET massive, so have a look if you want to read more. Anyway, I finally got settled in my new apartment (which is waaaaaay nicer and bigger than my previous one). I`ve made many new friends here in Kasukabe, and it is a great place to live.

I`ve made friends in Kasukabe who are from the US, the UK, Australia, NZ, Jamaica, Canada, and the Phillipines. My new school, Midori Junior High School, is also a lot of fun. The job is a lot more challenging here. Also, I have been teaching regularily at an Elementary school that is part of a special pilot program in English language education in Japan. It is one of only 3 schools in the whole country to incorporate a high level of English instruction at the elementary level. It is so influential, in fact, that it is regualrily visited by delegations of principals, superintendants, and other education officials who are interested in similar programs for their schools. Last week, I was part of a demonstration day where 500-600 education-related people, media, etc came to the school to watch us perform our classes and classroom routines. The work is a lot more interesting this year.

In October, Natsumi and I headed down to Okinawa. There is also an extensive post about that trip on this blog, so I will not bore you with the synopsis again. I will say that it was great and just the break I needed after the stress of moving to a new city, meeting new people, and starting a new job. Since then we`ve done many fun things including going to museums and parks around Tokyo, going to art shows, throwing parties (had a housewarming in October as well). In our downtime, we both enjoy going to the gym and are lucky enough to have a fairly inexpensive club near my apartment.

This past weekend, the English teachers from Kasukabe got together and threw a little Xmas shindig. We had to have the party early because it was the last chance that we would all have to be together before Xmas. Most people are leaving Japan to go home or take a vacation over Xmas. It was a fun time, and we even had a Xmas tree! Now I am back at work writing this after a hard weekend recovering from that night.

But all is well! Today is Monday, but this week I only work until Wednesday the 20th. On Thursday, Natsumi and I hop on a plane and will be headed for Shanghai!

I`ve got my Chinese VISA all sorted, and I`m ready to go. I am excited to go, as Shaghai looks and sounds like one of the craziest places. I`m looking forward to the shopping too. I`ll have a big post on here about the trip when we get back.

So...that was an abbreviated version of my 2006. Please write me and tell me all about your year as well. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! I hope you all succeed in whatever it is you are doing! Bye.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Studio Ghibli

Last weekend, Natsumi and I headed west of Shinjuku to visit the Ghibli Museum. This is the company that produced the anime films like Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, and Grave of Fireflies. The museum is kind of a tribute to Miyazaki, the guy who is the creative mastermind behind the movies. The museum is set up like a maze, so that when you walk in you have a number of choices of a route to follow. There were various rooms that were dedicated to different movies. Also, there was a movie theater in the lower section of the museum. We were shown a 20 minute movie that is only screened in the theater itself which was pretty interesting. We went up to the roof and saw a huge replica of the robots from the movie Laputa: Castle in the sky (pictured here). It was a really cool experience.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Japanese superstitions (日本の迷信)

I came across some interesting information yesterday and I thought I would share it with you. It is concerning some superstitions that are common here is Japan. I had heard some of these before, but others were new to me so I thought I would pass it along.

Bad luck superstitions:
1. The one thing that is considered to be very bad luck in Japan is to see a hearse (霊柩車)driving down the street. If you see this, you are supposed to make a fist around your thumb and protect it. Why? Well, in Japanese, the thumb is literally translated as the "parent finger", so by wrapping it in your fist as a hearse drives by, you are protecting your parents from death or injury.
2. Another superstition that I found interesting is about bad luck numbers. In the west, we always say that 13 is an unklucky number. In Japan, it isn`t 13 that is bad luck, but rather the numbers 4 (四)and 9 (九). The reason they are unlucky is that 4 is sometimes pronounced "shi", which means "death". Similarily, 9 is sometimes pronounced "ku", which means "suffering". Therefore, various measures are taken to avoid these numbers. For example, I live on the 4th floor of my building, but there is no apartment 404. Many buildings and hospitals often don`t have a 4th floor. Also, if you are giving prensents such as plates, cups, etc you would never give them in sets of four. Most of the time they are sold in sets of 3 or 5 just to avoid such a coincidence.
3. Yet another superstition is observed after returning from a funeral. It is believed that you should throw salt on yourself (or on the other person, if with someone) to purify yourself before entering your house after a funeral.

There is also a good luck superstition that I have heard about. For us in the West, keeping a rabbit`s foot on us is considered good luck. In Japan, businesses, companies, or any organization that is hoping to make a profit have a certain ornament that is placed in the store. It is a small cat with one paw raised. In the hopes of attracting positive financial gains, this cat is used.

As I sat with Natsumi discussing these superstitions, she informed me of another interesting one. In Japan, if you go to visit a sick friend in the hospital, you should never bring a potted plant or flowers as a gift. Bringing a bouquet of flowers is fine, but if you bring something that is potted it is considered back luck. The superstition is that because the plant/flowers have roots that are entrenched in the soil of the pot, it signifies that your friend will "grow roots" of their own in the hospital and not be able to leave. Intersting huh?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Clapton, culture, and craziness

I had an interesting weekend. On Saturday, I joined my good buddy Nori at Saitama Super Arena for an Eric Clapton concert. A company affiliated with Nori's work was the main sponsor of the show, and as a result he was comped a pair of tickets. Lucky for me, he hooked me up with a ticket. We got to the show a little early so we could catch up and have some afternoon beers. Then to kill some time before the show, we took in the John Lennon Museum, conveniently located in the same arena. The museum was quite interesting, and there was many cool Lennon-related items there including; guitars, clothes, artwork, and letters. Although I couldn't take any pictures inside, here is a picture of Nori with the famous couple.
After that, it was time for the concert. The fan base at this concert was quite a bit different from what I saw at the Loud Park Metal Festival in October, with most people being in their 40s and 50s. I was quite jacked for this show though, as Clapton is one of the all time greats and I had never had the chance to see him. Our seats were decent, just off the floor to the right side of the stage. Clapton was amazing, and he was complimented by a stellar backing band. He ran through most of the hits, including Layla and Crossroads. After the show we went to Omiya and caught up with some drinks and dinner.
The next day, I met Natsumi and her sister Yuko at Tokyo Big Sight. We met there so we could attend the Tokyo Design Festa. This is a yearly meeting of all sorts of artists from Japan and other countries around the world. The variety of exhibits and paintings on display at the event were quite amazing, but some were also a bit confusing. It was interesting to walk down an isle and see a goth booth, and anime booth, a performance art booth, and the a musician's booth all packed in together. Some of the stuff was a bit amateurish looking, but some of the people who were making the goth dolls really paid attention to detail. Example:
One of the funniest/freakiest things that I saw there today was some of the performance art pieces. In one (which I will put up on Youtube ASAP), tow masked guys were addressing the crowd. They looked like guys from WWE wrestling, wearing overalls and those cheesy masks. All of a sudden, the final scene from Terminator 1 (where Arnold gets shot up and lowered into the molten steel...remember?). Anyway, when the scene came on, the two guys proceeded to enact the scene as well by screaming like idiots for about 2 mintues. And I mean SCREAMING. It was so ridiculous, but sooooooo funny. I"ll put up the link to the video soon. Anyway, after that we headed to Shimbashi and walked around in Ginza. There was even a Subway restaurant! I hadn't eaten Subway in about 3 years...natsukashii! School tomorrow though :(