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Thursday, January 31

The Celebratory Kampai at Alcatraz ER

All finished with my classes, I was really ready to celebrate last weekend. The choice of where the celebrating would occur was thought out extra carefully. In the end, I came up with Alcatraz ER in Shibuya, a medical prison themed restaurant. It was ranked number two of the weirdest watering holes in Tokyo on another blog I read. Let me explain why.

Upon entering, we were sequestered in the entry way. All nine of us gaijin were squeezed into this tiny area where they proceeded to put handcuffs on one lucky friend (who, of course, I helped pick out as the most dangerous of our motley group of sinners), while I was given a ‘shot’ from a very large and daunting looking needle. We were ‘processed’ and allowed to enter the restaurant, to be led through a maze of dingy gray, paint-peeling walls lined with jail cells by the ‘night nurse.’ Coming to our room where we would squeeze in and force to ruminate over our impure deeds, the barred doors were rolled back so we could remove our shoes and then crawl in to our cell. Above our cell was another cell where the inmates were already working on their first courses. To get in to their cell, there was a ladder that you had to climb. Our cell was not much more than waist high so the crawling part to get in was quite literal. The tables were traditional low Japanese tables, which caused a collective moan from the male inmates of our group. Once in, the shoes were swept away, the barred doors were closed, but at least menus were left to be perused while we reflected on our misfortunate states. Or so we thought that we would have time to peruse.

We had actually come out of the train station from the wrong entrance. Even the wrong damn side. And considering this is one of the largest train stations in Tokyo, that was a big issue. Until we walked the whole way around the station, made it up the street we were supposed to be on, after stopping and asking for directions at multiple conbini (convenience stores), trekked down one of the biggest love hotel districts I’ve seen in awhile, we were over a half hour late. The reservation timing had been crucial. There was enough time to order our first round of drinks before the entertainment was to begin.

Not long after we were put in jail (I’ve always kind of wanted to say that), the lights went out and the first of two shows was to begin… the inmate and inpatient prison escapes. In our cell, things were lit only by the glowing handprints on the hallway wall. Our waiter, who had only moments ago taken our drink order, came sliding down the hallway in a mask I can’t even begin to describe while belting out some strange showtunes. Sirens wailed, screams pierced the air, gunshots were fired at escaping convicts, the singing rose above the chaos… it was everything I always thought jail would be. Er. I wish I had photographed this, but the darkness and the fact that I couldn’t take my eyes off these whacky shenanigans caused me to not even bother to feel around in the dark for wherever that camera had gotten to. God knows what I might have found. The group consensus of the ‘show’… totally bizarre, totally hilarious. Only in Japan.

The lights came back on and the waiter returns with his goofy grin and the drinks. Two of us had ordered the experiment which came as a beaker glass with liquid in it and a chemistry set of test tubes filled with various other liquids. I have no idea what anything was. The menu was all in Japanese except for a few drink names and words like ‘orange based’ (the Experiment) or ‘strawberry based’ (the Blood Transfusion). I just poured all the pretty test tubes into my drink and guzzled away. Besides the bizarre way drinks were delivered (one in a baby’s bottle called Big Breast, which my friend happily sucked away on), the best part about the drink order was when our waiter/singer/inmate tried to convince the five guys in our party that one pitcher of beer should be enough for them. We finally settled on two to start, but by the end of the night, the count was well past original speculation and sufficiently into the double digits to show the Japanese that they underestimate us America-type foreigners.

Overall, the food was nothing spectacular but serving it in metal surgical pans surely improved the taste, if only in our minds. The drinks were not as outrageously priced as I anticipated with the cost being well worth it for the amusement… particularly a drink that only said ‘banana based,’ which ended up being a creamy concoction with a frozen banana carved into a penis. Tasty.

A second show came later in the evening, an ER surgery show where one inmate/patron was swept from his cell into a wheelchair, where the wait staff-come-surgeons wheeled him into the dim and dirty hallway to perform macabre surgeries on his insides. Another waiter/insane asylum inmate climbed the cages of the cells up and down the hallway making crazed monkey noises. Really… I don’t know how to describe these shows adequately and can only say… you just gotta’ be there to understand.

Japan has certainly got the novelty factor down. Alcatraz was a hoot and well worth the price and the long walk in the cold to find it. Heading back to the train station, we struggled through massive crowds of thousands of people. What the heck are they doing out all night long and in such droves? They say New York is the city that never sleeps? Well, I say try a night in Tokyo, my friends.

Sunday, January 27

Now What?

Last week were finals. My final finals. My final papers. My final days of classes for that long eluded bachelors degree. Words cannot express how proud of myself I am. Yet, I feel like I shouldn’t make a big deal of this. Frankly, I feel like the rest of the world is looking at me like… well, yeah… ‘bout damn time. So I shouldn’t even mention it besides in quick passing, right? I simply shouldn’t draw attention to the fact that I am just now achieving something my friends all achieved years ago, with many of them now finishing masters degrees and doctorates. Who the hell am I for this tiny accomplishment? Because of this awkwardness, I only directly told my parents, two friends at home, and a handful of friends here who understood my wish to go out and get a little wild this past weekend. I am proud of myself, yes, but I am still wishing to brush the whole incident off as much as possible.

So why mention it to the internet then? Well, this is my journal of my time here in Japan above everything else. Why not write about this mixed bag of emotions I find myself mulling in? I’m not asking for pats on the back, nor do I really deserve them. It only really matters that I am proud of myself. One friend who was directly told gave me a little email lecture filled with love and admiration. She just completed a dual masters degree in law and journalism. Just having support from a woman as smart, successful and lovely as her is enough to make me glow inside and, at the same time, hang my head a little more for taking so long to get here. My parents are incredibly supportive and proud for doing something that few in my immediate family have. My husband has also been wonderfully supportive in so many loving ways. If he hadn’t agreed to the whole move overseas giving me the time to do this, it wouldn’t even be happening. He encouraged me every step of the way in heart and in mind. Ever since we met, he has never treated me as less than him because I wasn’t educated in the same way as he was… even when I swore on multiple occasions that I was. I was planning on skipping the graduation ceremony in Tokyo in April, but after several discussions with him, I have come to the realization that he really wants me to go. He wants me to see his pride in me. This coming from the guy who skipped his own college graduation.

So the hard part is over. Now what? I’ve been battling this question for awhile. Part of the point of coming to Japan was to get ourselves debt free. A regular job would certainly help that cause, but the opportunities here are either slim or difficult. For now, the plan is to up my substituting hours to that end and also start teaching English to Japanese. Yet, I am not willing to waste a life opportunity here. If things work out as we expect (and I never count on this, but only use it as a gauge), we might be back in the states late this year or early next year, which means that it is back to a daily 9-to-5’er for me. The months left will surely fly by, but I am being given a good amount of time to experience and enjoy even more than I have in the past. My first goal is to get back into the arts that I love so much – I found a new sensei in the Kozan School of Ikebana which I will start with in February and I will get back to drawing and also learn some skills in sumi-e (Japanese painting). My second goal is all about health – committing myself to one hour in the gym five days a week and eating even healthier than I already do. My third goal is focusing on Japan – it’s time to buckle down and pick up more of the language and also explore a bit more avidly.

But for today, it’s time to go prop my feet up and read a book simply for fun… because it’s just been too damn long since that last happened. Come tomorrow though… I’m updating my resume with the words: “Graduated April 2008, University of Maryland, Bachelors Degree Majoring in History.” Hip-hip-hooray!

Tuesday, January 22

The Young, The Hip, and Often The Quite Freaky

What do you do when your husband ditches you to return stateside, hanging out with all of your favorite people in all of your favorite places? Well, you retaliate by shopping one of the hippest and priciest parts of Tokyo… that’s what you do!

A girlfriend and I caught an early (but not too early as I stay up way past my bedtime when the husband is out of town) train to Harajuku on the best day to be there… Sunday! Why Sunday, you ask? Well, that’s when some seriously freaky people haunt the neighborhood. And everyone knows I love myself a good freak show.

In the past, there used to be a lot more freakiness and costume-wearing, day-long hanging out on the bridge over the train tracks, but things are mellowing in the area a tad. There are still those interested in good old-fashioned fun… like the middle aged guy handing out free hugs while dressed like a school girl. No, I did not except one, but I am pretty sure I would have gotten more than I bargained for with that price. This Sunday was particularly cold, which we think kept a few of the good costume wearers hidden inside curled around their kerosene heaters.

Besides the freaks (and I say that in truly the most adoring way), Harajuku provides shopping for the punk, the young and the trendy. And since I am… well… none of that, I relegated myself to the huge winter sale at the Gap and some kitchen trinkets and Ikebana books from the Oriental Bazaar. We peaked through many other stores (Condomania – oh, how you amuse me but I simply have no need for your wares) where there were many more frivolities I would have liked to waste money on (kisses to Anna Sui and Jimmy Choo just for making some of the most fantabulous goods my un-fashionable eyes have ever seen), but I’ll take the Valentine’s trip to China for $1700, Bob, and not the purse for twice that amount.

No visit to Harajuku is complete with a prayer at the most venerable shrine in Tokyo, the Meiji Jingu. There, in the middle of Tokyo, which rarely sees nary a flake of snow, did we see about fifty ice sculptures. Why, you ask? You with your questions… why, I have no idea why. But they sure were purty. Even the one where we questioned the artist’s intentions, knowing it would be placed at a religious site.

The bonus of the day… catching a bride and groom leaving the shrine after the ceremony. I sure hoped they didn’t mind my impromptu photo shoot performed over their photographers shoulder!

Wednesday, January 16

Back and Forth, A Burger, and then Back and Forth Again

Our last Ikebana International Board meeting was back in Kamakura. I like this location. It’s convenient for me at one train stop away, only a two block walk from the station, and I pass about a hundred fast food chains on my way home where I can grab that quick bite to ear. This was the entire plan on Thursday… meeting, eat, rush home to write silly research paper on the Quaker history in Pennsylvania. Oh, yeah… and I added a yakitori dinner with friends in there because I felt like it. Which meant that I narrowed my paper writing window down to about three hours that day, definitely not enough for a complete effort, but it was enough for a good start. Or so it was…

As usual, I rushed out the morning of the meeting knowing I would have to hightail it to catch the right train to get me there on time. Locking the door behind me, I was in too much of a rush to put my keys into my purse and instead threw them into the tote I was carrying to the meeting. Eight minutes later, train ticket in hand as I tried to squeeze quickly through the gate, the train doors closed and off it went. Without me. Patiently waiting (read: incessantly tapping my foot and making repeated glares at the time displayed on my phone) for the next train, I dashed to the meeting only about a minute late.

The meeting comes to order. As usual, it goes into overtime. More tapping ensues hidden by the table leaves. Meeting is wrapped. I toss the tote to a fellow Board member and recommence a sprint to the train station. Back in Zushi, it’s time for that bite to eat I mentioned.

Here is when all rushing stops. Food is a major decision, ya’ know??

I bypass the street side shop selling egg salad and tonkatsu sandwiches, and then McDonalds advertising the MegaTamago and MegaTomato. For the record, let me state that American fast-food burger joints in Japan are simply unacceptable. Look at this burger… three, greasy burger patties (one even topped with an egg!) is completely unreasonable for a culture that eats everything else in such healthy portions. And it isn’t just McDonald’s that is response for these atrocities! Look at Wendy’s version… the Super Mega… Even Subway has made a relatively fast food into a fast killer with its creations! Yet, on this day I was craving a burger and a burger I would get. Mos Burger! Not that this place is any healthier, but I like to think that the rice-based barbeque-like topping is somehow better for me. Sadly, it didn’t hit the spot. When I passed the ‘circle place’ fast food chain (we call it that because we can’t read the sign, but there are these pretty circles) with its push-button menu on the way home, I realized the mistake I ultimately made in my choosing.

At this point, I had puttered away a good hour debating on what fast food I was in the mood for. It was time to hustle home to that paper. My feet were starting to hurt in my high-heeled boots and my skirt kept annoyingly ridding up past my burger-rounded belly.

One block from home, I froze in midstep.

My keys.

They were still in the tote, which was god only knows where since the meeting. I know there aren’t really many swear words in Japanese, but we have got plenty in English. Every person on that street and on the train got an earful as I bitched myself out the whole way back to Kamakura and my keys.

The extra expedition had wasted another hour. By the time I got home, the paper motivation was dead. What’s a girl to do then? Why… call her work done for the day and set out early for that peachy chilled chu-hi and yakitori… that’s what. A minute spent to change my clothes and then it was back down to the very same train station I had already passed through… four times in one day. Thank god alcohol can kill foot pain.

Saturday, January 12

I Never Get Enough

If there is one thing in Japan that you can never get enough of eating, it’s gyoza. If there is one thing in Japan that you can never get enough of seeing, it’s Mt. Fuji. Combining those two things into one day, makes for a pretty awesome time spent.

This was exactly the plan last Sunday. A friend had been telling us about this restaurant in Hakone called the Gyoza Center. I scoffed a bit at the title, thinking there surely was something more clever they could come up with, but there was no scoffing as we sat down to eat. In case you don’t recall gyoza in previous posts, it is this dumpling that can be fried of boiled. This particular restaurant makes a variety so delicious, that there is a line outside the door thirty minutes before the place even opened (we were second!). The amusing part about this is that the restaurant is in the middle of nowhere, mountainous Hakone. The only way a place in the middle of nowhere like this could have such a following is by word of mouth… oh and the fact that Lonely Planet recently added it to their books. I actually only knew that last part as we were standing in line and our friends shared that bit. Perhaps it was the season, but that part didn’t seem to draw too much attention… we were the only gaijin in the tiny restaurant. We tossed down a variety of gyoza – garlic, crab, shrimp – made complete with miso soup, rice, pickled vegetables and tall glasses of grenadine or lemon chuhi. Oh sweet heaven!

Filled from lunch, we were a traveling group without any real travel plans. With the weather in Japan often being quite cloudy, you can never count on seeing Mt. Fuji unless you decide to actually hike it… which can only be done in a 60 day span in the summer. Seeing as we were well outside of that zone, but the day was (quite strangely) utterly clear, we decided to hike over to the next train line that gets us closer to Fuji san views – an expensive cable car ride followed by the ropeway – which ultimately brings us to a neighboring peak great for taking in the sights. I mentioned this travel method way back when my cousins were visiting, so I’m skipping the detail here. The difference on this particular day of travel is that when we arrived to crest at the precipice of the mountain’s peak, Fuji san was in all its prominent glory just ahead of us instead of hiding behind cloud cover as it did on my previous trip. It truly was like watching a mountain dawn… just beautiful in all its snow-covered, glory goodness. Our friend has lived in Japan for over eight years and she even commented that she had never seen Fuji like this.

As we got off the ropeway, we practically ran to take in the sights I had longed to see from this vantage point. It took everything I had not to push other mountain top visitors out of my way to get the best picture spot. Of course, my hands were often preoccupied with hanging on to my hat… damn it was windy up there.

When our awed staring started to slow, our friends decided (much to my inner thrill) they would like to meander through the gift shops. At the first, we came upon “the world most famous egg… kurotamago… eat one and get 7 years longevity!” Who could refuse, right? These black eggs have a white powdery substance coating them, I assume the remnants of cooking them underground in the sulfur beds. More than a little wary about eating a black egg, I don’t ever want to seem the chicken that never was (you know… the egg… errr… whatever) and not try something, so I cracked into the egg, coated it in course salt, and just about ate it whole as it was so darn tasty. After Hello Kitty and I chilled for a bit, savoring the blackened frippery, it was time to call it a day and start the trek back before the mountain temperatures threatened permanent damage to my fingers.

Having to switch trains in Ofuna, we decided to stop for a bit and take advantage of the well-priced fruit and vegetable markets in the area. The skies grew dark over us as we shopped, signaling it was yet again time for a meal. Why not top the day off with one more meal out, right? While it wasn’t part of the original plan (then again, we never had an original plan, did we?), we stopped for Japanese Italian… always strange… always a hit. Our senses thoroughly filled from the day (and having only 600 yen left jingling in out pocket, just barely enough for the last train leg home), it really was time to call it a day. An incredibly perfect day.

Tuesday, January 8

Japanese Peculiarities #3

Like I said, my goals for the New Year do include eating healthier. Yet there are a few leftovers from 2007 in my house than need some serious consuming before the whole healthy thing can happen. These goods are some of the more odd things I have come across in my time here. Sure, I expected to see lots of fish and octopus as a snack in various states… dried, miniature, made into chips, made into crackers, made with nuts, made with wasabi, made into various jellied states… but what I wasn’t prepared for, nor expecting, is what they did to some of the classics, also known as some of my life long favorite buds.

Pringles! Totally delicious, no? Pringles Winter Cheese Fondue flavor? Not so much. Chocolate should be a no brainer. Just don’t mess with it. Yet, there is about any flavor chocolate here imaginable. I’ve tried about all of them. Meiji makes some incredibly odd chocolate concoctions. My impression, Meiji? Stick with chocolate flavor, slap some PB and caramel in with it and call it a day, please.

Actually, I can’t complain too much. Some aren’t that bad. I actually like Meiji’s grape chocolate, even if I haven’t been able to find another bar of it in the year since I last sampled it. The strawberry chocolate bar… not as horrific as I thought it would be… combining two of my favorite things in the world was risky on your part. Now, the mushroom chocolate? Good God. What were you people thinking?

And as for you Kit-Kat, well you people may be some of the most popular chocolatiers here in Japan, but you have some serious crazy going on up in those heads of yours. I’ll give you this – cantaloupe Kit-Kat or banana or even the red azuki bean Kit-Kat… you people are surprisingly rockin’ that crazy. On the other hand, kitto katsu (kind of saying “you will surely win!”)… my ass. Maccha Milk, Green Tea and Fruit Parfait were just never meant to hang with chocolate, wafer and PB boys.

All this talk about junk food is making me hungry. Damn goals. Now leave me alone will I devour my Vanilla Bean kitto katsu, will you?

Tuesday, January 1

New Years in Japan

Another holiday spent in a land where nothing is like home. Japan has been gearing up hard core for a week now with shops selling decorations and pine everywhere, from your local grocery store to the mall to the street corners of every city.

New Years… the family holiday for Japan. It’s like Christmas is for Americans; everything shuts down and people stay in to enjoy time with the ones they love over a big bowl of soba. This is a wonderful sentiment, but it becomes truly problematic for the American looking for a good bar close by to hang out and enjoy the festivities. Sure, Tokyo has some haunts, but I hardly wanted to take a train that would be shut down at midnight, leaving us to find other, more expensive, means home. After much indecision, we opted for the stay at home Japanese holiday. Some friends came over, and we partook of the New Years buffalo wings as our own little twist on the night.

There were some things I did just like the locals. I hung a Japanese New Year’s decoration on our door on the 29th, only to find out from a Japanese friend the next day that I jumped the gun. The point of the pine hung at the entrance to property is apparently to tell God (I imagine ‘God’ being in the Shinto-Buddhist sense) that “Hey, God! Here is the place to come!” Then a subsequent decoration is hung on the doorway telling God, “Hey, God! This is the door to come thru!” And here is the most important part… before hanging these decorations, you spend New Years Eve day cleaning and preparing your house to be pure for God to enter in the New Year. This is where I seriously faltered. My house was supposed to be clean? Oops.

Another thing I discovered all too late, you are supposed to hang these decorations in a proper way, with a proper hanger and such. I don’t think by proper, they would include my fingerprinted, multiple slices of Scotch tape. That would be ‘ni’ in oops. But since I lacked this knowledge prior to hanging my New Years decorations… well… live and learn.

A tradition from my hometown is to eat pork and sauerkraut on New Year’s Day. Should you choose to skip this meal, rumor has it you will be haunted by bad luck for the coming year. Besides really enjoying this meal, I never want to test this theory, so we did perform this tradition. I’m sure our Japanese neighbors loved the smell of fermenting cabbage for a day. Yum.

With my time here in Japan being filled primarily by one man and no big family, at least this year, I had a lot of free time to take stock of my life and do a bit of reflecting. This past year has been a mix of emotion. We’ve been here in Japan for a year and a half and I still have moments where I miss home desperately, others where I feel like I’ve always lived here in the Far East, and others where every day is filled with wonder and newness. While this may be like general daily life for most, I had lost a lot of the first and last of those feelings. Making the decision to move halfway around the world has afforded me opportunities to really reflect on this life lived and not to just live it, hopefully something I will keep with me in the future.

Enough with my inane thoughts of self-professed clarity, some of the best moments from 2007…

1. Sitting on a store stoop, lost in the middle of a huge and unknown Bangkok while rain poured from the heavens like I have never seen before.

2. While snorkeling in Kauai, the feeding fish frenzy when my friend squeezed bits of soggy bread from a sandwich bag that led to ensuing moments of awe, freak out and laughter.

3. Dinner at my friend’s home in Arlington where a majority of my closest and most loved girlfriends gathered to share a night with me. Just sitting in the room with all of them made me feel love like only the truly blessed experience.

4. Discovering that there is true love behind the friendship of my first friend here, Fumie, when she showed me a mother’s touch in a moment of true need.

5. Careening through the snowmobile sledding course in Sapporo, when the icy wind that caused my throat to ache couldn’t stop the laughter.

6. Taking a long, late afternoon summer walk with my parents, my husband and our chocolate, black and yellow labs.

7. Sitting at the top of one of the world’s highest ferris wheels with my cousins, Chris and Erika.

8. Chasing geishas in Kyoto with my mom, uncle and husband as we tried to get a good picture, while the girls so easily eluded us.

9. Dining on Hida Takayama beef with newfound friends from all over the world – China, Russia, New Zealand, Poland – and watching the moment with awe as we all learned to share with one another despite cultural and language differences that typically would keep us apart.

10. Hearing my dad say how proud he was of me – not once – but more times than in my entire life.

But I can’t just look back or I would miss the point of serious reflecting. I’m not so into New Year’s resolutions, because I have never found a serious reason to commit to something which will seemingly be deemed unimportant the following year. Instead, it is more about short term and long term goals for me. The short term list (and most like a resolution as the intention is to succeed within the year) – finish my long worked on bachelors, learn more Japanese to the point of better fluency, conquer making pad thai at home, learn upright styles of Ikebana, learn Japanese ink painting, drink more water to eliminate those damn stones, take the perfect picture of Mt. Fuji, and last but not least, visit China, Australia, South Korea, and make more trips to local destinations including Hakone, Hiroshima, Harajuku, Takao, Odabai, the Monkey Park. A list that is all quite doable within a year. The long term list – visit all continents… except Antarctica, visit all 50 states (25 down), continually try new things, learn Spanish to complete fluency, read 30 new books each year, watch all of the best movies of classic Hollywood, let go of my materialistic needs, become more patient, have children, exercise at least four times a week, return to creating art, let go of silly regrets and let the past be the past, eat healthier on a daily basis, learn to dress like a Gilmore girl, drink more water, save more money and pay off credit card debt, skydive, learn to swim without my fears, practice and master yoga, learn to knit… more than just a scarf, find my dream home with a large front porch, wooden floors, a library with floor to ceiling bookshelves in dark wood, and stained glass windows. Come what may in this fickle life, it’s good to have a plan.

May your New Year be filled with awe and inspiration. And may you fulfill all of your plans, and most importantly, your dreams. Happy 2008.