aWhat else? So besides the harrowing brush with death, something else happened that I thought could only happen once. I was late, again. For the girl who's never been late in her life, I was going to set a record by being late TWICE in the country that SHAMES tardiness. The first time was totally the fault of the person who wrote the directions...but the second time was probably my fault. On my very second day of teaching, I was supposed to have an early meeting before my classes. I totally forgot about said meeting. I woke up, made breakfast, and began to eat when I got a call from my supervisor.
She was like, "Where are you?" and I replied something to the effect of, "just finished eating?"
"What? Did you forget?"
"Forget what?" I said, baffled.
"The meeting. The meeting we're having right now."
Instant, insane, and complete panic. I must have thrown on clothes faster than a magician. I tossed everything in my bag and practically ran. I looked at the time. By the time I was going to make it to the meeting, it would be half over. I sighed and felt immediate resignation. Maybe it would be better if I just showed up early for my classes (to be fair, I had to show up at least 2 hours before as per the Peppy Kids Club policy, but I was always earlier than that). I was at the station, when I got another call.
"Where are you now?"
"At the station."
"Going to my classes..."
"You need to be here. Now."
"I don't know how to get there..."
At this point, she passes the phone off to another teacher whom I haven't met because she can't deal with me. I get specific instructions on how to take the bus to the school. I first have to find said bus, because it's on the other side of the station. I get on the bus, but don't know what to do since this bus is different. The bus driver glared down at me from his perch and practically ripped the ticket out of the machine to hand to me. I muttered the destination, and he just said, "Hai". My stop came and went, I tried to get him to stop just after but he adamantly refused and told me to sit down. I sat down and waited for the bus to reach it's final stop. When I was getting off, I put the money and ticket in just like I did in Nagoya - expecting change in return. However, buses in Utsunomiya have a separate change machine for this purpose. I did not know that. The moment it happened, it triggered the bus driver into an unquenchable rage. He told me what I did wrong in Japanese and I shyly muttered, "Wakarimasen?" meaning, "I don't understand". He then proceeded to yell at me in a mocking tone, "Wakarimasen!? Wakarimasen!!!" The next sentences that followed were slurs against gaijins, I understood that much. I had never been so humiliated and hurt in public. He yelled at me to get off the bus and I did. I then had to run back to the previous stop as I choked back tears. When I finally arrived at the school, I took the wrong entrance (despite the instructions saying the contrary), and found nothing but hostility. The supervisor and my fellow teachers were cold. She took every opportunity to either ignore me, or belittle me. In fact, she soured every opportunity I had at a friendship in that circle. And every subsequent meeting she would remark on how I was, "finally on time" and "not like that other time when I was incredibly late".
When the awful, awful meeting ended, I found out there were no buses back at that time and I had classes to teach. I practically ran. Turned out, it was about a 45 minute walk. Ugh. When I finally made it back to the station, I saw some of my fellow teachers. They actually turned their backs on me and walked away. Then I noticed the station seemed very busy. I try to pay attention to the announcements before I finally take out my phone and find out all of the trains have been delayed to Utsunomiya. Now I was screwed again. I was going to be late to check in for my classes. I called head office and informed them the trains weren't running. They said just wait in the station and keep them informed. It took about an hour before the trains were back, and the train ride to school was about 45 minutes as well. I let head office know my situation, and they resignedly asked me to "try my best to be on time" and let me know it would still be considered my fault if I was late. Circumstances were apparently irrelevant. I spent the whole train ride prepping to run out of the doors when it stopped. And that's what I did. I practically flew by the man taking tickets, although he seemed unfazed - perhaps even found it amusing. I literally made it to the school within a minute of my deadline. I raced to the phone and called in. Head office was mildly impressed, and commented that I must have ran.
The next day was the earthquake. Truly, the week from hell.
Well, thank you so much for reading! If you like, I've made a gallery of photos from Nagoya! Ciao!
Japanese trains are silent. The engine may huff, the couplings will swing, and the cars can creak, but you won't hear a word. People bring silence to the train. It's an odd concept in North America since North Americans love to talk. There's laughter, sometimes overly loud music, and of course, conversation. Yet, in Japan, the silence is deafening. The few times I heard anything was often between foreigners or high school girls. Even still, the foreigners eventually learn it's a faux pas, and the girls always speak in hushed tones. The train became a prime example of Japanese etiquette.
For instance, if someone is carrying a backpack or any other type of bag, it takes up no space. If they sit, it's on their lap, and if they stand, it's between their legs and on the ground. Courteous. Polite. Efficient. That's not all. Say someone enjoys reading during their commute, they will use a book cover so no one may be offended and they are granted their privacy. In truth, I highly doubt there would be offense in the first place, but the thought is there. People listen to music, but you'll never see them move. No rhythmic bobbing of the head, or even a slight toe tap, and while you would think this was only true for the train...the night clubs always surprised me.
As I'm sure you've guessed, Japanese trains can be quite busy - especially Tokyo trains. Yet, there is no pushing or shoving. When the doors open, people allow everyone to disembark and wait in a self imposed queue automatically. The moment people are done leaving the train, the queue begins to board. Everyone respects the amount of time someone has waited, and respects the order. It was heavenly. I loved being able to trust that every single person understood the unspoken, unwritten rules of commuting. It made commuting safe.
But, marching in robotic synchronicity, and keeping absolute silence was sometimes painful. There's an absence of life. I can honestly say I hold politeness, courtesy, and respect in the highest regard, however...it was as if everyone lacked humanity. It was like the town from Footloose. Everyone was so morally upstanding, that it even prevented them from dancing. I wanted to be the person who breathed life back into Japan - well, everyday Japan. Japanese TV and media is another story. I think it's the only way they can express anything. Through over the top symbolism, and crazy hi-jinks. Trust me, in everyday life, people hide their eccentricities. Usually. Save for the odd man inexplicably wearing a girl's school uniform.
I digress. Japanese trains are efficient and always on time. If they're late (even by 5 minutes), either someone died, or the weather has actually gotten serious. Worried about being late for work? Just ask one of the many train staff for your proof that the train was actually late (chien shoumeisho). I'm serious, it's a slip of paper officially stamped, essentially acting as an apology to your employer. I had to ask for one a few times, but luckily it didn't affect me. I still managed to arrive early (thanks to leaving early and typically short delays).
Overall, the most impressive part about Japanese trains is the fact that so many of them are still running. I often took trains to rural Japan, and that meant riding on the oldest trains you've ever seen. Like the ones just after they were done with coal. They worked beautifully. Sure, they made a little bit more noise, and sometimes when they started moving again you could feel the whole train jolt and shudder as it caught up to the engine, but they worked perfect. That's another thing I learned about Japan, they believed in fixing things - not replacing them. Another quality I greatly admire.
For today's post, I've arranged a few photos from trains around Aichi. I've also included a few videos of trains in movement. They're a bit boring, but interesting. I hope you enjoy, and I'll be back for the next update on March 31. Jya ne! (See you!)
Thanks for reading! Next update is March 24! See you, Space Cowboy.
Back in 2014 I moved to Japan and had the experience of a lifetime. I was all set to be an English teacher, and ready to move to my first big Japanese city, Nagoya. It's located in the Aichi prefecture in central Japan. I spent a hot and humid August training, teaching, and exploring in the "peaceful" city.
One of the best parts about Japan are the festivals. There are so many festivals happening year round, and most of them are specific to the local community. They are a great opportunity to observe local talent and interesting traditions. There might be a parade, ancient palanquins, or even music and elaborate costumes. One thing is for certain, there will always be delicious food, and lots of people.
The Kikusui Matsuri at Futaarayama was a beautiful collaboration of an intense cacophony of instruments, and pageantry. There were many people dressed in traditional garb, and some prepared for a purification ceremony. I wandered around, lost in a world I've never known. I found the surroundings nearly overwhelming, and deeply satisfying but some people appeared distracted. There were some stares. They don't see a lot of non-Japanese people and I felt like a moving display, open to interpretation and hushed curiosity.
I didn't mind though. I was too busy admiring the intricately decorated horen or letting the ritual sounds thunder through my heart. There was something so spiritual, so wondrous that I couldn't help but become entirely enraptured.
I visited the local shrine often, since that's where all the events seemed to take place. I missed a lot of events actually, due to work conflicts, but I feel lucky to have witnessed a few, like Oshougatsu. The New Year's Day Festival started late December 31, and became unbelievably crowded before midnight. People were out drinking and partying in the square. I couldn't believe it. I could barely maneuver through the crowd - not a normal sight in the small city. They were lined up to visit the shrine and hopefully attain good fortune for the year. What surprised me the most was everyone counted down to midnight in English! It made everything feel so surreal.
Soon after New Year's Day, there was a parade of fire fighters, performers, martial artists, and even children. At the end, a long line of fire trucks drove past slowly. In the meantime, they maintained regular traffic in all the other lanes. I was astonished. A parade of this size and importance was still not enough to shut down part of a main street. Trust the Japanese to put efficiency and politeness at the top of their priorities, wouldn't want to bother people too much with an annual parade.
I visited Ueno Park in April during the finals days of hanami. Most of the sakura (cherry blossom) petals were gone, but it was still beautiful. Ueno has a zoo, a couple national museums and even a "lake". I walked around the park, visited the museum, ate small octopus on a stick and even had the opportunity to get in a swan boat with a friend for funsies. I enjoyed it!
During Golden Week, on Kodomo no Hi, there was a concert in front of the shrine. It featured several different bands, playing varying degrees of rock. Some bands were more metal, and others were more pop. The best part about the concert was the amount of people dressed up in some form of cosplay. I loved seeing such creativity and imagination sprung to life on the people around me. Most of them were college students, taking the opportunity to celebrate. Some were middle aged men simply enjoying the spectacle of wearing a skirt out in public. I ended up buying an album and tweeting about the event - I really did enjoy the music.
I saw so many festivals. One of my favourites featured a small market in a rural town. It barely covered a block, and was dappled with tents covering handmade crafts, and unique novelties. I saw old Astro Boy manga, a gold leaf ashtray from France, jade necklaces, baskets, food vendors and even a booth to make your own pin or keychain. I bought myself a figurine of komainu - which surprised the locals. I also bought some handmade jewellry, and designed a keychain alongside a 5 year old girl. All the meanwhile, I could feel everyone's eyes on me. I listened to elderly singers strain to hit the right pitch over the speakers, while pedestrians stared relentlessly. In fact, as soon as I started browsing, a man with a camera began to follow me. He wanted to know where I was from and if he could take a picture. I told him it was fine and he took a couple. Then some of the vendors wanted to know where I was from and what I was doing there. They were surprised by the presence of a foreigner to their little town (minutes away from a major tourist destination). Everyone had to ask. I thought it was sweet and enjoyed their curiosity. Although, the man with the camera kept following me and taking photos...guess I granted him the right to be my temporary paparazzi. It was sort of funny, and I think of those moments fondly. The sun shining brightly, the wind tousling my hair, and meeting some of the nicest (and most curious) people in Japan.
Compared to larger festivals within the city - the people kept to themselves and seemed too shy to approach me. Sort of an odd juxtaposition. All-in-all, Japanese festivals are entertaining and enriching. They're an excellent chance for anyone to become involved in the culture, and take part in something bigger.
We were immediately blown away by the simple beauty of the room. Wonderful tatami floors, accompanied by a traditional kneeling table and chairs, and adorned with a beautiful tea set. We were given a quick tour before we had a moment alone to admire our room. A set of chairs looked out onto the outdoor patio, right next to the stocked bar. Outside our glass sliding doors was an outdoor shower, and an open air hot springs bath. Our own, private hot spring! Lucky for us, there was a tall fence and walls surrounding the private patio, but still a noticeable view of the mountains and trees. Soon enough, the attendant returned and asked us to sit down. She served us green tea and gave us a delicious mochi snack. She left us alone and we delighted in our situation.
I finally removed my shoes and slipped on the provided ones, where we were then ushered into a little dining area with a fantastic, panoramic view. A woman, obviously proficient in English, asked when we would like to schedule dinner, and breakfast in our room before whisking us away down the hall. She gave us a little tour of the facilities, pointing out the bathrooms and accompanying segregated male, and female hot spring baths. There were delightful copper sinks in the hall, which gleamed invitingly. I squealed with delight at every turn in the corridor. Every inch of this place felt authentic, and warm. Soon she showed us to the elevator and informed us which floor the room was located. My partner and I squeezed into the little elevator, while the woman in her tabi and sandals, took the stairs and met us on the same floor. Again, the customer service and enthusiasm impressed me to no end. She quickly escorted us to our room and as soon as we entered the little foyer and genkan, I removed the slippers and stepped up onto raised platform. She thanked me, almost profusely, making it obvious that many foreigners didn’t recognize the faux pas.
When we finally reached the Hakone-Yumoto station, we were starting to get really excited. We found the bus heading in the right direction by asking at information – and felt really fortunate when they spoke English – then prepared for our final leg of the journey. Our stop was approximately 20 minutes away, but it took a little longer since there were delays. The road to the ryokan was a long, twisty road up a mountain. The further we travelled, the more we wondered where we were headed. I started to panic a little (as I do) and hoped that we actually caught the right bus. I wanted to make sure we made our check-in time. I would hate to be late. It would be absolutely unseemly.
We crossed the road and as we were admiring the brilliant visage ahead of us, a man in traditional work garb was bouncing down the stairs with a clipboard. My partner and I looked at one another before the man eagerly greeted us, then said the name the reservation was under. We nodded, impressed with the immediate and enthusiastic service. We hadn’t even gotten to the bottom of the stairs leading to the impressive ryokan. We followed him as he led us through the antique sliding doors, and were instantly set upon by a whole team of women in kimonos. They smiled warmly and encouraged us to remove our shoes in the genkan and replace them with slippers. When they saw the size of my partner’s feet, they quickly and quietly switched them out with larger ones. I was struggling to remove my shoes and was leveraging myself on my partner’s shoulder, when one of the women scurried away to bring me a special bamboo stand especially designed for that purpose. I couldn’t believe the already outstanding service.
During my Christmas break, I had the luck and fortune to visit a few great places in the Kanto region. I visited Hakone (world renown for their hot springs), Tokyo, and Nikko (home of many famous temples and shrines). In Tokyo, I had the opportunity to see a few of the major tourist attractions, including: Shibuya, Shinjuku, Asakusa, Roppongi Hills, the Tokyo Skytree, and just outside of Tokyo – Mitaka, where the Studio Ghibli Museum is located. In order to see all of Tokyo, you would honestly need at least a full week. There is so much to see and do. Many things require reservations in advance and can only be done with enough forethought. My significant other and I had been thinking about what sort of things we’d like to do together, since he was going to visiting me during my break. We came up with ideas and made the appropriate arrangements.
The first place we visited was Hakone! We reserved our room weeks in advance (although it would be better to do it even earlier if you want more time). I spent a long time researching different ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) in the area and found out a number of them offer rooms with a private, outdoor hot spring bath. This really appealed to both of us – and it wasn’t long after that we sorted through our top choices and settled on one. A place called, “Mikawaya Ryokan”. It was established in 1883 and is one of the most popular ryokans in Hakone. After our visit, I completely understand why.
I currently reside in Utsunomiya, Tochigi and that’s where our journey first started. We took the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Omiya, which is about a 30 minute ride, and then another 30 minute train ride to Shinjuku. From there we wandered around the station for a bit and enjoyed some time at a café while we waited for our Romancecar train to Hakone. We had booked the tickets in advance and discovered that the train name was slightly misleading. While it was a scenic route, I wouldn’t necessarily call it romantic since it carried passengers of every description between Shinjuku and Hakone. Although we did enjoy the 100 minute ride with a few drinks bought from the cart.
What happened next? Well, it didn’t take long to finish a cup of tea and run outside into the brisk air. One hot shower later, we braved the even hotter waters of the hot spring. We quickly discerned that we needed to turn on the cold water faucet positioned above the hot spring. We had been warned prior to using it that it would be necessary to use cold water – boy, she wasn’t kidding. I thought maybe she was just being cautious. No, that was a real hot spring with insanely hot, natural water pouring in to the bath. Thank goodness for the cold water as a method to temper the heat. When we finally reached the ideal temperature, we sat back and enjoyed the chill mountain air, and natural, Earthly heat.
After a brief hiccup paying for bus fare, since my partner had never experienced getting change from the machine up front nor recognized all of the currency – we were finally at our stop. The bus pulled away and across the road was our beautiful, Japanese inn. We looked around and saw gorgeous views of the valley below us, since we had climbed the mountain and we were now towering over the little town. We arrived just 5 minutes before check-in, and this made me a little anxious. I was eager to get settled in our room.
When morning finally came, we woke up a bit early to take our final dip in the hot springs. A startling wake-up call from the cold air, followed by an immediate hot shower (and a couple of traditional buckets of water), and we were in the bath enjoying the startling heat and rising steam. We had closed the paper doors between the main room, and the bar room so that if they came early with breakfast, we would be fine. Sure enough, they arrived earlier than anticipated. We could hear the rattling of dishes and movement as we sat in the glory of the morning light. I suddenly realized I wasn’t sure I could get out of the bath, so I sent my partner in to put on his robe and check. The attendant had left but in her absence, sat breakfast – ready and waiting. I scrambled for my yukata, and sat down, eager and hungry for another spectacular meal. I was not disappointed. Rice, miso soup, fried fish, and a couple of dishes I can’t name, but enjoyed.
Their timing was always perfect, it wasn’t long after we finished dessert and were contemplating another session in the hot spring when two men came in and quickly cleaned up the room in the most orderly and efficient fashion. They pushed the table aside and set up the futons as easily, and professionally as a pit crew. Night had finally spilled over the horizon, when we sat in the hot springs sharing sweet plum wine and admiring the night sky.
Hours slipped by, we eventually got out of the bath and put on our yukatas. They were comforting. My partner turned on some Japanese TV while we waited for dinner time. As per Japanese culture, dinner arrived early. Our attendant laid out a few dishes – sushi, sashimi, pickled vegetables, and two burners topped with a metallic bowl of sea inspired soup. We sat in awe of our bubbling soup, and made agreeable sounds when eating the sashimi. There was quite a bit of food, but it didn’t take long for more food to be brought out. Beautiful cuts of fish and steak, more interesting food atop the burner, and of course an assortment of unrecognizable Japanese cuisine. We ate up the delicious food, and was served with yet another dinner course. We continued to marvel at the wonderful dinner and did our best to finish. When she brought the final dinner course, she let us know to call the front desk and ask for dessert. They served a mixture of sweet and unusual dishes, before we finally felt absolutely full.
When we finally finished eating, we realized that we’d have to get ready to leave our dream destination. We prepared for our departure and finally said our goodbyes to the room. My loving and incredibly generous partner took care of the bill while he sent me to the gift shop to check it out. The staff called us a taxi back to the station, and we lamented our leaving. Our trip back down the mountain in the morning light was quiet and unwinding. The views were breathtaking and wondrous. We finally arrived back in town, and bought a few things in a little shop before buying another ticket back to Shinjuku.
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