Monday, August 2, 2010

Japan Part One

Though my trip to Japan ended with a mad dash to another prefecture and then out of the country due to my gross negligence, I have to say that I had a great time in Japan.

I arrived on schedule, thanks mostly to Steph who took time out of her busy schedule to look up where and when I should wait for the airport shuttle. Unfortunately, when I got there, I seemed to be setting off someone's internal alarm bells. The customs guy stopped me and had me follow him into a side room where he and a female customs agent proceeded to take every single thing out of my bags, one by one, and discuss it with me. Then, just for good measure, they x-rayed everything I owned.

This, however, didn't seem to matter to me. See, I couldn't concentrate on what was going on over the screaming in my head that just kept going AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHH!!! I'M IN JAPAN! AAAAAAAAAAAAHH!

I was no where this excited when I got to Korea. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I used to love anime. I still do, I guess, but I don't have the patience to read the subtitles anymore. I always have to be doing something with my hands when I watch a movie and reading precludes me from doing so. Thus, I no longer really watch anime. But the idea of Japan as a Mecca for anime lovers was so burned in my brain that I was just too excited to be upset about being strip searched.

Erin lives in a city called Takamatsu in Kagawa prefecture - which is famous for its udon noodles. Its about three hours away from Osaka and five hours away from Kyoto. Takamatsu is the sister city of St.Petersburg, Florida, where we both went to college. Erin is working for the City Hall as a sort of good will ambassador. She proof reads signs, has meetings with visiting dignitaries, teaches English at a local high school, writes tourist pamphlets, and whatever else they can think up for their pet foreigner. Most recently, this includes filming an informational video for other foreigners to help them navigate the trains and the ferries between cities and islands.

Erin is super busy most of the time so I wasn't surprised when we took a taxi straight from the airport to her karate dojo. She was training for her black belt test that Saturday and really didn't want to miss a practice. So, my first couple of hours in Japan were spent sitting in a corner with my bags, trying to avoid being hit by old man sweat as she practiced her katas.

It was an interesting feeling because - as some of you may or may not know - I took Tae Kwon Do for about five years when I was in Maryland and, to tell the truth, I have been missing it for a while. Even my superficial commitment to Juisitsu classes in college did not satisfy my itch to train for real. I'd been thinking about joining a dojo in Korea - after all, it is the birth place of Tae Kwon Do - but have been hesitating because I wasn't sure I could brave it with the language barrier. But watching Erin - even though she speaks "impeccable" Japanese - brave the language barrier really got me thinking about committing again to training in martial arts. I was only two belts away from black when I left so I could probably pick it up again rather quickly.

After she was finished practicing, we went back to her place and slept. Her apartment is a tradition sort of place with a traditional Japanese bath - i.e.: one that looks like a tub but is a square that comes up to about your hip. You are supposed to kneel in the tub so the water is all around you and pour water over your head with a bucket. It has been the bane of Erin's existence for an entire year. For me, after being in India for five months with no hot water and no shower heads, it was rather nostalgic.

Being Takamatsu's pet foreigner has its perks, like an all expenses paid island hopping trip to see all the local art exhibits. The Setouchi art festival is apparently very famous:

"The Setouchi International Art Festival is an annual art festival held across the small islands of the Seto Inland Sea, an area known as a mecca of contemporary art in Japan. The festival gives visitors a chance to experience both the works of art and local island culture of this unique region."

And many famous artists come to participate every year. Read more about it here. Some of the pieces were beautiful and intriguing, some were confusing and unimpressive. Either way they are spread out over the dozen or so islands in the Set Inland Sea and we tramped over quite a few of them. It was a long day of hiking and avoiding heat exhaustion but it utilized the one class I had even taken at Eckerd that was even remotely related to Japan - Japanese Art Through the Ages.

From that class I learned - and it was confirmed by this adventure - that Japanese art, both modern and ancient, is very subtle. Even anime, though crazy and ridiculous at times, uses lines to imply rather than to fully spell out an image. Its one of the reasons I stopped trying to draw it, because it seemed like such a cop out. Though I still love to look at it.

Erin's handler from the City Office, Mariko, was our guide, and along for the ride were two high school girls from St. Petersburg who are participating in a cultural exchange for the summer, their host families, and Prof. Adachi from Eckerd who has the honor of being the only Japanese teacher there and Erin's own personal Jesus.

I knew Adachi-sensei from my time at Eckerd because all my friends were taking Japanese and they would always drag me to their Japanese department parties. My friends would tell her stories about things that I did - I'm pretty sure I'm burned in her memory as 'the other one'.

It was a great time for Erin because Adachi-sensei got to see how well she's getting along in Japan and how amazing her Japanese skillz have gotten (she said, and I quote "your Japanese is Impeccable". This was a very big deal for Erin). Adachi-sensei took the opportunity to tell me that I should have taken Japanese instead of Spanish at Eckerd and, honestly, if I had, I would probably have two degrees right now instead of one. But that's another rant for another time.

The day ended with a farewell dinner for Adachi-sensei with more people from City Hall which was very much an education in a traditional Japanese business dinner.

Things I Knew: Never stick your chopstick into your food - this indicated it is an offering to the spirits. Always wait until the most important person at the table starts to eat before you do. Always monitor the drink levels of your companions; pour them a new drink if they get low. Never pour yourself a drink. Always accept gifts/business cards with both hands and make sure you do something acceptable with them when you have them. For example, don't accept a business card with both hands and then shove it unceremoniously into your back pocket.

Things I Didn't Know: NEVER touch chopsticks with another person. Don't let your chopsticks touch the table, when you are done, put them across your bowl or plate. Always finish every last bit of your food (In Korea, its the opposite. A clean plate means your host has been neglectful and isn't feeding you enough). Always turn your chopsticks around to use the other side when taking food from the communal bowl. Always clap after a toast.

The eldest person is supposed to pay for the rest, and so, all day, Adachi-sensei and Mariko-san were duking it out over who got to buy us ice cream, lunch, etc. Erin dubbed it the Battle of the Super Powers. Since the dinner was already paid for they took a break and we all just talked. I talked a little less than the others because I didn't understand Japanese.

And that was only day one. I'll type the rest later - my fingers hurt. And soon to come - Pictures!

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