Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Hotels: Now in Easy to Swallow Capsule Form

I’m a bit of a homebody. I like the outdoors and the countryside. Long lazy afternoons and quiet nights by the “fire” i.e.: kerosene heater. But, I can never go very long without a big city fix. Flashy signs advertising fantastic fashion and Jimmy Choo nock off stilettos on everybody’s feet clicking to the chirp of crosswalks. I love being lost in the crowds and perfectly anonymous with the rush of warm subway tunnel draft in my hair.

Recently Danny and I have pulled out all of our travel guides and gotten even more from the library. We are planning our big trip to Tokyo. Museums, galleries, Gothem city-like architecture and high end fashion window shopping. The Tokyo trip is a month away and like an addict I needed my city fix so this Saturday we headed down to Nagoya, the fourth largest city in Japan.

We rode the subway late at night to the entertainment areas and followed the bright lights. We wandered past bars, clubs restaurants, and pachinko parlors, and finally into the Host and Hostess club district where decorative men and women can be bought for conversation along with overpriced drinks. This activity is not to be confused with prostitution though in these areas the two are never far apart.

We made reservations at a capsule hotel, which was actually quite luxurious. For a fee you could get just about any type of facial, massage, or nail set. Plus there were restaurants, a lounge room, and pachinko. After checking in Danny and I were led through different colored doors not to see each other again until morning. I was given a bag with pajamas and towels as well as socks and a toothbrush (the underwear was in a vending machine). I put all of my clothes in a locker and after a dip in the hotel Onsen I was off to my capsule. It was about eight feet long and three and a half feet wide. It was equipped with a television, radio, alarm clock, headphones, mood lighting, flashlight, mirror, and of course bedding. My capsule was a top bunk and I couldn’t help but have these images flash through my head: a morgue, top bunk summer camp, and various scenes from The Matrix, Brazil, Fifth Element, and Bladerunner. I didn’t get a very good night’s sleep, but it was not the capsule. It probably had something to do with the Chinese food I ate for dinner that night.

The next day we spend most of our time in the city’s largest museum looking at a collection of the past 100 years of modern and went home happy and exhausted.

Toronto, London, Nagoya, and every other big city I have ever been to blend in my head and I can almost see them as the same place with their subways, airports, Starbucks, skyscrapers, and people. It may be the crazy intense fashion, the unique smells, the ultra modern multimedia signs that I can’t read or the language that I can’t understand but there is something unique and exciting about Japanese cities for me. I look forward to what Tokyo has to tell me next month.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Zen of the Onsen

The archipelago that is Japan is made up of thousands of Islands, over fifty percent of which is covered with mountains and forest. Japan is located where several continental plates meet and consequently it is often wracked with the shudders of earthquakes and boast a number of active volcanoes. Though occasionally devastating these fierce forces of nature also have attractions. Hot water infused with minerals from deep within the earth’s core flow from the mountains. This water is considered sacred to the Japanese people. Traditionally it holds the keys to spiritual purification, beauty, fertility, rejuvenation, and health. Historically a visit to the local hot spring was a daily affair; to wash the body, cleanse the soul and catch up on town gossip.
Now, most of these natural wonders are housed and charge and admission fee.

Despite the rich religious traditions tied so closely with the culture most Japanese citizens claim to be atheist. However, past religious practices have blended seamlessly with present daily life. The observances have become matters of superstition and luck rather than faith. The rituals surrounding the Onsen (Japanese for hot spring) are still observed with fervor. The springs are only to be entered once you have washed thoroughly. Soap is often provided, as well as shampoo, conditioner and a plethora of other facial and body cosmetics. Once you are all spick and span you can test the waters. There are usually quite a variety of luxuries to choose from including: indoor and outdoor baths, mineral baths, herbal baths, bubblers, jets, steam rooms, and saunas. So, for five to ten dollars you can soak your sins away and cleanse your pores at the same time.

Unfortunately, for some there is a downside to this paradise. The baths are to be entered completely nude; even jewelry is discouraged. Though it may sound difficult, after a few moments of sheer terror you begin to realize the peace, call it Zen if you will, of being naked in open spaces. Of course men and women have separate bathing areas, and you are given a small rectangle of cloth called a “decency towel.” Clinging to my “shred of decency,” I head off to the local onsens regularly. It is my favorite thing to do in the winter season. Most Japanese people will bathe for an hour, but to get the most soak for my buck I try to make a day of it and stay for hours.

Despite the steryotypical politeness of the Japanese there is a constant tension between social propriety and a curiosity. My Northern European physique may as well have flashing neon signs that announce my presence to the other bathers, especially the elderly, who are typically shorter than the younger generations. They find it novel to compare the height of the top of their heads to the height of my naval and breasts; which when I am naked can seem quite invasive.

Communal bathing is a completely foreign concept to most North Americans who cease to take communal baths in early childhood. However being able to see, in a single glance, very real people in every stage of life from an infant to the aged is a refreshingly complete way of experiencing the maturing of the body. Perhaps we in North America would not be so shocked at the changes in our own bodies if from an early age we appreciated the beauty of the aging cycle as the Japanese do in their sacred hot springs.

Sunday, December 10, 2006


Advent in Japan is shaping up to be a real winner. There are incessant synthesized Christmas classics playing in the stores and there are gaudy tinsel garlands, flashing lights and rubber boots (stockings?) decorated with animae characters and stuffed with squid (Commercialism: so what else is new Charlie Brown?). Surprisingly, people have not just forgotten the reason for the season they are not even sure what they are celebrating. But, if its good enough for the west then its good enough for Japan. Here Christmas is just another novel holiday like Halloween with its pumpkins or Easter with its rabbits. We were sent two small nativity sets which we keep in our classrooms and act out the story for our students who are quite confused that we are celebrating the coming of Jesus rather than the coming of Santa. They just figured that Christmas has something to do with red and green and cake and bells.
To the credit of the Japanese Christmas cake here is a huge improvement. The Christmas cake in Japan is just your average cake with Christmas motif decorations. To all you well informed readers this will be your clue that Tasha is typing not Danny, he loves Christmas cake—western style.
For Christmas dinner most families “in the know” will sit down to a chicken dinner and eat cake for dessert. Unfortunately, chicken will not cut it for six homesick Canadians in the area and a few days after Christmas we will ban together for a real turkey dinner with all the fixings purchased at astronomical rates from the Foreign Buyers Club.
Unfortunately, I can not wait that long to get in the Christmas spirit especially since I will be working until 9pm on Christmas Day. So, today I hopped on my bike and rode to an area of town which I do not frequent. I went to a nice lush looking shrine and skulked around to make sure no one was looking. I then pulled out my clippers and a big black bag and began trimming some of the shaggier cedar trees. They really did need tending to and I doubt that the seven lucky gods will mind. Needless to say my wreath and garlands look and smell lovely. With my ill gotten boughs we are beginning to weave together an advent season for ourselves where despite the lack of liturgy and family we are preparing to celebrate.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Wedding -- Take2

On October 6th we had our second wedding at the Hida folk village in Takayama.
We were picked up at 8am for hair, make-up, and costumes. I am not sure what happened to Daniel, after his hair was foofed, but after I was finished three well meaning Japanese women stripped me down to nothing and then spent fifteen minutes just putting traditional underwear on. If I tried to assist with anything I got a firm hand slap and an extra tug on the numerous and constricting chords tied around my middle. When all was finished I felt more like frosty the snowman than a bride. However, I was thoroughly impressed with the art involved in traditional dressing.
When we arrived at the folk village we soon became aware that we were getting much more than we bargained for. Three television crews, four newspapers, two magazines and one radio showed up to witness our contrived nuptials. These intent onlookers were accompanied by two professional wedding photographers and a host of crooning tourists who had come to see the folk village, but joined in on our party.
On the cue of a flute and vocalist I walked through a grove of trees with a “servant girl” holding a red umbrella for me. There was a short non-religious ceremony where we drank sake, after which I changed outfits (you can imagine that ordeal) from white to red and had more pictures taken. Our modeling stint turned out to be a media frenzy that promoted us quickly to local stardom. Neighbors, church community, students, and frequented cashiers all clap and exclaim over the newsie bits they had seen and read about. For pictures, check out http://ringthebells.shutterfly.com/

We left at sunrise on our honeymoon and took a bus nearly two hours to Kamakochi National Park. This same park where last winter Daniel was chased by monkeys, is also home to Yakadake, a volcano. Though it is not considered dangerous neither is it inactive. The last eruption was over thirty years ago at which time it partially filled in a lake at its base. It constantly spews sulfur and hot steam from numerous orifices and approaching it was like ascending to Mordor, with its rocky sulfurous surface and steam rising from the ground everywhere. The hike, though strenuous, was beautiful. Autumnal colors surrounded us and above the tree line provided excellent views.

Now (one month after these events) Life continues as usual, though colder. The mounains that were hidden from view for most of the summer because of the thick moist atmosphere seemed to apperate out of thin air (or rather because of thin air) and are now a constant snowy presence. We have welcomed their beauty, unfortunately we can’t see them because of the bubble wrap covering our windows to keep us warm,

Friday, September 29, 2006

The Marriage of the Foxes

The rice is being harvested. Where there was once a sea of green, the brown stalks are bundled and hanging upside down drying in the sun. Our time in Japan has been marked by the changing fields and we are both shocked to realize how quickly time goes.

After the rice harvest the Japanese turn their thoughts to weddings, (because the heavy bridal get-ups that are too hot to wear in the summer). The whole affair was kicked off by “the Marriage of the Foxes”. This is an elaborate wedding ceremony done Japanese style: slightly different, though, in that it is outside at night by the light of many bonfires, and everyone gets their face painted like a fox. Also, I don’t think that the “Dance of the Happy Forest Spirits,” as we have dubbed it, is usually included in a traditional ceremony. Or, for that matter, the hairy serpents that invaded the celebration with strobe lights and scared the bride. All and all, it was an interesting affair.

Luckily we will get to find out exactly what a real wedding ceremony is like in Japan. You know, the fox wedding really got us thinking about our commitment level, and Daniel and I have finally decided to get married... Or rather, we were asked by a Wedding Kimono shop to model for them next weekend. We will do an entire mock ceremony including hair and make-up, sake and multiple outfit changes. The newspaper is coming and we have been instructed to pretend that this wedding is our real wedding when we are interviewed. Our translator is the owner’s daughter and Daniel’s student. She told us that she would just say what her father wanted us to say in the interview. Whatever happens I just hope the hairy snakes don’t show up.

We are trying our hand at the art of glass blowing. Our teacher is a pretty cool guy: he is our age and has just finished art school and he has a brand new studio with all the latest equipment a showroom and a loft for his band to practice in. His English skills are only slightly better than our Japanese. With sketchy communication and molten glass at temperatures of one thousand degrees, you can imagine we have had a couple arm hairs singed. But, as Danny says, “The heat builds character.” Together we have successfully managed to make four cups, one bowl, three paper weights, and a bead
Anyways, you’ll hear from us again after the mock Honeymoon.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Spirited Away

Near the end of July my mom came to visit us in Japan. We had a wonderful three weeks. It was great to get a hug and to catch up on hours of missed conversation. She made friends with our students and with the neighbors. Mom came with us to pottery and proved to be an excellent pottery student. Her first attempts on the wheel put our months of learning to shame. Other highlights of her trip include making Japanese paper, going to the hot springs (despite the hot weather), bargain shopping, and best of all polishing off an entire season of “Gilmore Girls” with mounds of popcorn.

The last day of Mom’s trip was the beginning of our own vacation. About the time her flight home was taking off, Daniel and I were forcing our aching muscles off the overnight bus from Nagoya to Hiroshima. After throwing our backpacks in a coin locker we were off to explore the city. At 8:15am on August 6th 1945 the world’s first atomic bomb exploded about 200 meters above the city and incinerated everything within a two kilometer radius and destroyed far more. At the Hiroshima Peace Memorial museum we were able to see exhibits and artifacts from the tragic history of the city. Now Hiroshima is unique among many Japanese cities for its large park areas and modern city centre.

The next day we went to Miajima Shrine a sixty minute tram ride and six minute ferry ride away from Hiroshima. Miajima shrine is considered one of the three most beautiful sights in Japan (the other two being the Golden temple in Kyoto and Mt. Fuji). The temple itself is over 1300 years old and is built on stilts in the water. The tide flows in and out under the Shrine, its bridges and its arches. It was obviously designed by someone who loves the water because where in most shrines there would be gardens, in Miajima there is the ocean. This temple is also the grand setting for fireworks and theatre to mark celebrations in the Japanese calendar.

The last stop on our trip was an overnight excursion to the Island of Shikoku which is one of the three main Islands making up the body of Japan. There we made a pilgrimage to Dōgō Onsen. Have you ever seen the Japanese animated movie Spirited Away? If not we highly recommend it. Spirited Away is on both of our top-five-favorite movies list. In this movie a young girl finds herself in a magical world where she must work in a Bath House to save herself and her family. The Dōgō Onsen where we visited was the inspiration for the bath house in this movie. It was wonderful! We got bathrobes to explore the building in and we were fed tea and cookies after our trip to the hot spring baths.

After some bad instructions to the Youth Hostel we made a wrong turn and were ourselves spirited away to a strange temple and an ascending underground cave that brought us up to even stranger overgrown temples and an abandoned shrine to buffaloes…

Now we are facing the first aching week back to work after vacation. Though it is far less exciting than a buffalo shrine we are glad to be back home.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

On Beyond Zebra

It has been one month since our last post. Ideally, we should get into the habit of more frequently updating this website; truth be told, however, it is sometimes a month before we have had any report worthy experiences.

Recently, we visited a 615 year-old Zen temple in a nearby town. Zen-Shoji is a sprawling complex of sprawling complex of tiny wooden corridors and beautfully crippled trees. It has an ancient rock garden, with moss and pond plants cascading down from the foot of a cedar forest, as well as a weathered ink brush portrait that is a National Treasure. Perhaps because we were the only visitors, perhaps because he sensed something about us, the resident monk/priest of Zen-Shoji approached us and invited us to have tea with him. It was a very odd, though pleasant experience. We felt very accutely observed, though in no way threatened. With his big glasses and frequent laughter, the monk remined us of the Dalai Lama (I mean, what other Buddhist monks do I know ...) He spoke much better English than he let on to, and afterwards, gave a book on Zen buddhism and Japanese culture and invited us back. Of course, we both Natasha and I harboured Kill Bill fantasies about his training us as samurai or ninja ...

When I was a child, I had a Dr. Seuss book entitled On Beyond Zebra. In it, a young boy who is learning the alphabet is interrupted by a friend or elder brother that informs him that there are more letters in existence than the rudimentary 26 one learns at school. "Most people stop at the Z," says the adventuring older boy, "but not me!" The younger is then taken on a tour of the "other" letters of the alphabet and of the worlds they are used to describe. Kind of a simple conceit, really. But I was always intrigued by the shapes of the letters -- a blend of familiarity and grotesque. I have been thinking about this book, because we have begun studying Japanese. Not as interesting or practical as German, Latin, or Sanskrit, I would venture, but it is always good to dabble, multilinguistically. Goethe observed, "The man who knows only one language knows none." Anyway, we are still at the exciting stage, when the Japanese alphabetic characters still have an image quality to them: I can admire them as new and exotic designs--interesting compositions of vertical and horizontal lines, curves, rhythms. They have not yet become purely symbolic of sounds, words, ideas, communication ... They still have a presence of their own. They move. I try to look newly at the Roman alphabet, for traces of strangeness. I try to imagine what a first encounter with the shape of an "h" is like. Or a "Q". It must have happened sometime when we were children ... how did we let our letters become so prosaic? How can letters, words even, be both image and communicative currency? I guess this is the stuff and power of typographic Design. Of calligraphy.

Speaking of "beyond zebras", I recently stumbled upon a Japanese kamoshika. I decided, one day, to escape the mulling city and climb up one of the surrounding mountains. I spent several hours picking my way up a mountain river (bouldering? is that what it is called?). It wasn't light work: the slopes of the Japanese are pretty darn steep. Anyway, far above me, up the high slope of the river bank, I noticed something moving. I supposed, excitedly, that it was a monkey; but when I moved in closer to try and take a picture, I realised that it both walked on all fours and had a bearded, eerily human-like face. It was pretty terrifying. Anyone who has ever seen "the forest spirit" in the film Princess Monoke will have a pretty good sense of what this thing looked like. Other than that, the most exciting news is the discovery of a tiny town that has a cheese bar ... a cafe that imports European cheese on a seasonal, monthly basis. And there was much rejoicing.