Monday, December 28, 2009

Winter Travel - Day Two - Nagasaki (Part One, with Penguins)

I woke up early on my second day in Nagasaki because I had lots to see since I was headed to Beppu the next day. Getting up early was tough, but the promise of penguins made it possible. Here are the highlights of my day in pictures.

Good Morning, Nagasaki, My Dear Sweet Friend
Nagasaki, near Kankoudori tram stop
Sunday, December 27, 2009
A Starbucks next to the Mr Donuts. In truth, though, I went to the nearby Mc Donald's (making it a trifecta of Maggie Happy). I have been craving a Sausage McMuffin for weeks, since before the Osaka trip (tried to make it happen, but it just didn't), and there is no Mc D's in Tiny Town. I did have a Starbucks latte for dessert, though. Mister Donut will happen before the end of this trip. Yes, I'm eating the local foods in between the foods from home I miss. Always the well balanced eater.

Year of the Tiger, 2010
New Year's is huge here, kinda like Christmas is back home. Since 2010 is the year of the tiger, cute tiger stuff is everywhere. Rawr.

Nagasaki Penguin Aquarium
(alternate signage, if they let me write it: OMG, PENGEENS LIVEZ HERE!)

Not Just Penguins

The One I Wanted to Keep Forever

Exclusive Passage for Pengiuns.

I Wanna Be a Pengiun that Lives Here
This is the beautiful view from the aquarium. They get to swim in the little roped off area.

Relaxing, Penguin Style

Two Penguins are Better than One

Beax Up!
(Yes, I titled that just for you. I told you that's how they did!)

On This Day, Cuteness was Seen Here

Don't Ride the Penguins
No, that's not what it says. I think it says not to get on the platform they are standing on in the picture above because it's dangerous. It's always fun when I can understand the clearly the part about how something is dangerous but when I'm a little fuzzy on the rest.

Penguins on Parade

And since that picture alone could never do it justice, I bring you:

Penguins on Parade, the 20 Second Video

Pretty Nagasaki
Somewhere between the exit door and the bus stop was this. It may have been on the long and pretty pathway leading to the Penguin Aquarium, the one that confuzzled me when I was headed up to the place.

So, that was just the morning, and since there were penguins involved, I took a crazy amount of pictures, which means that the rest of that day will have to be in the next post, the one without penguins. If only every post could have penguins. I'm smitten. And now I'm a day behind when I'd just gotten all caught back up. But there were penguins!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Winter Travel - Day One - Nagasaki

Woke up bright and early for the long trip with several train transfers and only got on the wrong train once but, thankfully, got off of it right before it started to go where I wasn't trying to be. It only cost me about 30 extra minutes, and then I did get to where I was headed, Nagasaki.

I'm traveling alone but only kinda. See, one of my favorite Oklahoma bloggers, Baloney, asked more readers to take the flat version of herself somewhere. She's been along for the ride, and I've been snapping pictures of her along the journey. It's made it a little more fun. Once the trip is finally done, I'll be sending her the best pics to post and/or post them here.

For now, just some of my other favorite shots from today in Nagasaki.

Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum
Saturday, December 26, 2009


Prayers for a Peaceful World
What you can't see is that this message is made of tiny paper cranes. Pretty amazing.

Hypocenter, Nagasaki, August 1945
Or as a Japanese gentlemen said to me, I assume to make sure I knew what I was seeing, "ground zero." That and a few other little things have felt kind of awkward, though, where the intent could go either way and awkward in a way I definitely did not experience when I visited Hiroshima. Maybe it's all in my head? In any case, a terrible thing happened right here.

"Joy of Life" Statue
Peace Park, Nagasaki

More "Joy of Life"
I really loved this statue. It says so much and made me think of hope.

Peace Statue
Peace Park, Nagasaki
The plaque near it explains "The elevated right hand points to the threat of nuclear weapons, while the outstretched left hand symbolizes tranquility and world peace. Divine omnipotence and love are embodied in the sturdy physique and gentle countenance of the statue, and a prayer for the repose of souls of all war victims is expressed in the closed eyes. Furthermore, the folded right leg symbolizes quiet meditation, while the left leg is poised for action in assisting humanity."

"Protection of Our Future" Statue
Peace Park, Nagasaki

Urakami Cathedral
There are a lot of churches in Nagasaki as a result of European influence from the 16th to 19th centuries. You'll likely be hearing a little more after tomorrow's city touring. There is quite a bit of interesting history behind this church in particular, which was built when the ban on Christianity was lifted, was destroyed by the atomic bomb in 1945 and was rebuilt. I saw part of the original at the museum and a piece of the wall near the hydrocenter.

Seen from the Streetcar
Yes, a Ferris wheel on the side of a building. No, I didn't.

Nagasaki Harbor

Champon is one of the things you are supposed to eat in Nagasaki. So I did. The place smelled oddly like wet dog, but I've become a fan of yet another variety of noodles.


Nagasaki at Night from Way Up High
I pretend like I am not afraid of heights when I'm traveling, so I did the ropeway thing to the top of Mt. Inasa (better than climbing, right?). The view all around was spectacular. I clutched tightly to whatever I had my fingers around, but I didn't pee at all, so I'd say I was a successfull ropeway rider.

Good Opportunities for Your Dreams and Future
Actually, they did. I've been trying to buy a damn pair of gym/walking/athletic shoes since I've been here. I'm short with huge feet for my height, but really, they are not huge enough that it would be a problem back home (size 8 in the US). Here, it's a problem. I rarely find shoes in my size, and on those rare moments when I have, they wanted about the equivalent of $100. Tonight I found some in my size for about $10. They are not awesome looking, but they are lightweight and not hideous. The shoes I wore today were hurting my feet on day one of a six day trip. It was about time for a good opportunity. Also, there was a Starbucks on the way out of the You Me Saito shopping center. You. Me. Shoes. Coffee. Happy.

Hotel Room Refrigerator

If all goes as planned, tomorrow should involve penguins. If not, it will involve other stuff. But I hope it involves penguins because penguins are cool. Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

I Weiner You a Potato Christmas

I just did something here that nobody in his/her right mind would do back home. I went to the grocery store on Christmas Eve. It was pretty well festooned with Christmas cheer and Christmas music in the background, and there were a few people milling about, but it was not the pandemonium that grocery stores are back home the closer it gets to Christmas.

There was, of course, the traditionally Japanese Christmas Cake (woulda bought some if they had a smaller version), even a turkey leg here and there, and they had tons of special foods not otherwise on display with a cheerful Merry Christmas sticker. That way you knew that it was supposed to be for Christmas. And not for a freak show. Because otherwise, seriously, with some of the choices, I wouldn't have been sure.

Of course there was fried chicken because of the KFC on Christmas Eve tradition here, so if you didn't get your advance order in on time (scroll down if you click the link) and would have been left chickenless, they'd have you covered. There was also sweet and sour pork, and that made sense to me somehow, more than the fried chicken thing, though I can't explain why. There was an odd assortment of all kinds of stuff. I wanted to take pictures, but they have those signs at the entrance saying not to, and I'm kind of noticeable here in my weensy little corner of Japanland.

But then I saw this. And I no longer cared if they threw me in picture takers' jail or whatever happens. For all that was wrong, this really disturbed me:

Merry Weiner Potato Pizza Christmas
Look at this a little more closely. There are, indeed, weiners (weiner. weiner. weiner. I said weiner.). And scoops of mashed potatoes. And corn. And it's a little hard to see, but I'm pretty sure that's tuna under there. All this silliness on a pizza. A pizza. It would make sense considering the whole combination tuna/corn/mayo pizza travesty that goes on here as if that's a valid way to order a pizza. I opted not to have this for my Christmas Eve dinner.

Merry Chicken and Shrimp Christmas
Instead I went with the chicken and shrimp. It's still not right, but at least it's not so wrong.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Singin' a New Song

Just heard this song for the first time (while washing dishes on a day off and streaming Christmas music from this awesome site that lets you pick what kind of Christmas music you want to hear), and it might be my newest favorite Christmas song. After O Holy Night. Hilarious, sweet, fun and good. Rockin the Cheer Gut by Trailer Choir. Watch, listen and smile. Go Santa, go Santa, go Santa, go!

Monday, December 21, 2009

More Christmas Cheer (Then Some Sadness)

Doing my best to stay current so that I can update during my travels. I`m leaving the day after Christmas, and I`m *so* excited. All of the festivities leading up to it just add to the excitement. As I said last post, I`m embracing whatever kind of different Christmas is and will be this year, and it`s been good. Friday, in particular, was 7 layers of awesome.

Mid-morning, one of the JTEs (Japanese English Teachers) came over to my desk and presented me with a gift bag. It was full of cards handmade (and some elaborately so) by the students of my favorite class, the elective class. Imagine being literally half a world away from family, friends and your own way of celebrating Christmas and then finding out that some students have been putting all this effort into making cards for you because a JTE was sweet enough to think of you. My eyes teared up a little, and then I smiled reading them. Some of them were actually pretty funny, even if not intentionally so, and it just made them that much sweeter.

Hi There, Kitty
Friday, December 18, 2009

Hey, Ho.

Hello Christmas

Christmas Cutouts

You can see how much work they put into these. All I could do was thank the JTE, but there are really no words in my language, hers or a muddle of both to explain how much it meant. After the new year, I'll get to see that class again. I hope by then I've come up with some way to let them know how thankful I am for how thoughtful they were.

After work on Friday, there was a party in Okayama City, an international exchange type of event between Okayama City and South Australia, but all of us were invited. There was one slot for a free ticket for food and drink (plus an awesome Santa hat) if you did a quick presentation about Christmas in your own country, even if it wasn't Australia. I snagged that opportunity and used some of the same Powerpoint slides I've been using in class covering some of the same key differences I've mentioned on here - Christmas cookies instead of Christmas cake, 9 reindeer with names instead of 1 or 2 or unknown nameless ones, Santa's home in the North Pole vs. Finland, etc.

Oh, and there was wine local to Okayama as well as to South Australia. I did a lot of tasting for comparison. They also had us stand up and sing Christmas songs unrehearsed in addition to Japanese songs we'd never heard of, with gestures, one about the oyster okonomiyaki in the little town of Hinase (where one of our group lives, and where we will be going to see if the song is right). Most of us had been sampling enough wine that an impromptu performance wasn't a problem but was still pretty funny.

There was not a ton of food, more like several appetizers, but they were delicious and gorgeous.

Just Desserts

Me, Okayama City
The peach shaped fountain is always there in front of the station, but all of the blue circles of lights are just for the holidays.

Christmas in Okayama

OMG, It's Santa in a Mini Truck!
Snapped this one fast in the dark while walking in front of cars, so it's blurry, but Santa is in there. Not quite a common sight.

Me, Santa Hat, Out and About
After the Aussie party, we went to our favorite bar and then to karaoke, wearing Santa hats all the while. It was a fun night.

I even slept in that Santa hat. Most of us only have any kind of heat in one room. The friend's house where we stayed didn't have it in the living room where we all slept, so it was very chilly. Under enough blankets and with the help of the Santa hat (and the aforementioned alcohol), it was fine though. Getting up was a little less than fun.

Hello Kitty Holiday Toilet Paper
By Sunday I felt recuperated enough to get some shopping done. I needed toilet paper. Never knew this existed, but the moment I found out, I had no choice but to get it. Same cost/quality as the regular stuff, too!

Can't end this post without mentioning how much I have always loved Brittany Murphy and how shocked and sad I was to find out that she had died. Way too young. Her family must be devastated. Keeping them in my thoughts.

Tonight I re-watched one of my favorite Japan-related movies that I probably loved even more because she was in it. Plus ramen, which is a thing of joy when it's the real deal.

It's a movie called The Ramen Girl. The movie made me homesick for Japan when I first watched it over a decade removed from Japan because it was filmed in Tokyo and Yokohama and just really captures what it looks like on any given street in a Japanese city, plus a bit of gorgeous trademark Yokohama, too. Watching it again while being here feels odd in just how familiar it seems. It's half in Japanese and half in English, and even that feels so much like my life, understanding some but having no clue about the rest (except that the movie uses subtitles, while my real life does not) . Her character is the same sweet but kind of silly type she usually played, and it just works.

I liked The Ramen Girl better than Lost in Translation (though I liked the scenery and the story in general, just maybe not together) because the main character in The Ramen Girl actually enjoys being in Japan rather than pretty much hating every minute of being someplace dear to my heart, which always kind of stood in the way of me fully loving Lost in Translation.

Anyway, I just watched The Ramen Girl again, and I still love it, even if it makes my heart sadder that Brittany Murphy is gone. If you haven't seen it and are interested, it's available to watch instantly on Netflix. Or to rent or buy somewhere. It's one of those movies I'll probably watch a million times and always remember the thoughts in my head the night I wrote this post.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cold Hands, Warm Heart

My mother used to always say "cold hands, warm heart." She also hated cold but loved this holiday time of the year more than anyone I've ever known. She's gone. I'm here. Tom's there. The Christmas season could really suck this year. I'm happy to report that it doesn't.

Yes, Japan does it way differently. They don't "get it" how Christmas for many is emotionally wrapped up with a complicated bow of twisty heartstrings that bind together memories and feelings for which words just don't exist, good, bad and other. Some of the feelings are real, some are what those damn holiday cry commercials (where people come home for surprise visits at Christmas and make coffee and whatnot) and all of those Christmas movies tell us to feel, and some feelings are from out of nowhere. Or out of exhaustion. Busy times, these times. Add a layer of religion in the mix for those who pitch/bat/play shortstop/other for that team, and it just churns the "guess you had to be there growing up with it" pot of "they don't get it" even more.

My first Christmas without my mom, 14 years ago, I was also in Japan. I had a little bit of a meltdown in the department store, just trying to buy pants. There had been a banner by the station proclaiming "Hearty Christmas," and the store was playing Christmas music. I was sure (still am) that I was the only one who knew the words by heart and with my heart. I just wanted to go home. But Mom still wouldn't be there. And that would just be worse. I felt so


Over the years, I've gotten more than OK with Christmas again. Year by year, Tom and I have built our own traditions, and I do find comfort, much joy even, in our mixed up ways of celebrating how we like because the cats won't notice or care. Every year, at some point, there is something that triggers the "I miss my mom so much" ugly cry, and then I get merry. She was never sad at Christmas. And I like to be happy, so I often just am. Or try to be. Unless folks don't act right.

None of the above is what I intended to write. Christmas, a swirling flurry of emotions and thoughts, never know what will spill out.

What was going to write is that I had a great day today. In fact, the whole week so far (it's late Wednesday night) has been pretty great and the opposite of lonely. It's been the opposite of being concerned that "they don't get Christmas," though I am enjoying my students' responses to the no Christmas Cake back home but 9 reindeer thing (from back in the sumo post, scroll down). There's been food and good folks. There's been letting Japan do this time of the year the way Japan does it and feeling grateful, sincerely, to be included. I look so forward to next year with my sweetheart and our traditions, but this year I am here. As of this moment, I am content to be where I am and to embrace it like it will never be quite this way again because it won't. My opinion on all of this is subject to change, but for now I am grinning broadly.

And I took pictures. You know I did.

Monday Night Eikaiwa Group, Nabe Bonenkai
Monday, December 14, 2009
Every Monday the foreign teachers here in Tiny Town get together with a really nice little group of Japanese folks who want to practice speaking English.
Eikaiwa = English conversation class. Nabe = heaven cooked on your tabletop. Bonenkai = end of year, forget the year party. All of this happened at my place.

Disheveled Christmas Tree Vandalized by Cotton
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Tuesday was some kind of health check thing where they send you from room to room to check you out head to toe. In the waiting area of the EKG room was the most mixed up disheveled Christmas tree I've seen in a long time. The lights weren't on, the garland was all messed up, and there were huge tufts of cotton tossed on random limbs. I had a good laugh and took a stealth picture.
Later that night, I went home and ate the nabe leftovers, followed by hot chocolate while I watched Christmas movies.

I Heart Papa-san and Mama-san
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
We were invited tonight to the elusive Chinese restaurant I've mentioned that is only open for lunch and that I rarely get to visit. I'd met Papa-san before and finally got to meet Mama-san tonight. They cooked us a huge meal, were fun and interesting and just a joy to be around, and they even sent us home with leftovers. And a Christmas present. I melted.
Papa-san is very musical, and he plays instruments I've never heard of or seen. This one is a very simple 2-string Chinese guitar-like instrument that sounds like a violin. It's called nikou, meaning 2 strings (maybe).
More good stuff. When I first got here, any chance I got, I tried telling pretty much everyone I met that I wanted to learn how to cook Japanese food. Putting the word out there in a place like this usually results in somehow getting hooked up with someone. It hadn't happened. I'd given up. Then, within 10 minutes of meeting Mama-san, she said that she'd heard (yay for the grapevine!) that I want to learn how to cook Japanese food and that she cannot wait to show me. I also got invited to join them just after the start of the new year to see the sunrise. I think. At first she said 7AM, but then mentioned 10AM. I'll find out. Either way, I know it will be time well spent because they are all kinds of awesome, any time of day.

Christmas Cake
After the huge dinner, there was the traditional Japanese Christmas cake, and it made me feel oddly at home.

The weather has been cold for a place without insulated buildings or proper heating (my apartment has a nice AC/heater unit in one room, so no complaints here, especially compared to last time), and the forecast shows possibly a little snow in the days to come (believe it when I see it - weather prediction is no more accurate here than back home). I don't love shoveling or driving in snow, but since I'd get to just watch it fall, I kind of hope the weather guys are right. Either way, it's winter-ish. My hands get so cold teaching in a 45F classroom, but my heart is, indeed, so very warm lately. It's not my mother's Christmas, but it works for me.

Monday, December 14, 2009

December in Tiny Town

Dare I say that with this post, I'll be pretty much current. This is good since it's just in time for winter travels coming up right around the corner. More on that later. Promise.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Whenever you go somewhere and come back to work in Japan, it's common to buy some kind of little souvenir treats. The good news is that it couldn't be easier to find omiyage when traveling pretty much anywhere in Japan because most places are famous for at least something, and they sell little cookies or treats with that theme in mind. Someone went somewhere and came back with these. Not sure who or where, but it had the most amazing cream filling. I also enjoyed reading the package.

Autumn Bike Ride
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
The weather was finally pretty nice after what seemed like endless days of too cold, too much rain or just being too tired, so I rode around town places I hadn't ridden around yet. I found water. I like water. You can see the mountains changing color in the background, too.

Lantern, Water

More Lantern

Saturday, December 12, 2009
Another gorgeous day for a bike ride. It was actually almost warm. I try to go somewhere most weekends, but I miscalculated and sent home too much money, so it was a very relaxing weekend in Tiny Town. Don't ask me why there is a Kewpie Doll logo for Kewpie Mayo (different from mayo back home, but it grows on you) on the gate of this house. But there it was. And there I and my camera were. So here you are.

Cannot Believe I Live Here

Two Roads Diverged in the Rice Fields Surrounded by Mountains
I took the one on the right because it looked like the one less traveled.
(Robert Frost and I are like that.)

Stormy Sky
Not one drop fell on me, but it looked cool.

Dilapidation, with Clown Motif
This is the crazy karaoke place around here where it looks like some old scary horror movie hotel but also has a scary clown theme. I have a hard time imagining that it ever looked bight and shiny and new. The dilapidation effect really just kind of adds to the mood, I think.

Rice Fields. Mountains. Sky. Temporary Home.

Minus Two
A "dozen" eggs doesn't really happen here.

Saturday Night at Home
Yes, I drank alone. And I liked it. I was getting in the spirit for future travel plans in February. More on that upcoming.

New Recipe
Sunday, December 13, 2009
The weekend before this one a bunch of us got together for a belated makeshift Thanksgiving dinner. There were a lot of not traditional foods and not a lot of traditional foods since only a handful of us were Americans, and we were a limited to ingredients we can buy here.
Lacking regular mayonnaise (see Kewpie above) and relish, I went with a new twist on deviled eggs. I'd read about avocado stuffed deviled eggs, and I went with that theme and created something like these, but the ones I made this Sunday at home were even better.
(how to make - see below)
Basically, make and cool hard boiled eggs, slice in half, pop out the yolks (set whites aside) and mix yolks with a cut up avocado (about one for 6 whole eggs that become 12 halves). Mix in lemon juice, cumin, salt, pepper, and garlic powder (sorry, didn't measure anything, just added ingredients until I loved them). Spoon (or do the cut corner plastic bag thing if you want to be fancy) the avocado/egg mixture into egg whites. Sprinkle with paprika.
If it turns out that you are making them somewhere else, like, say, a Thanksgiving dinner thingy, but you forgot to bring the lemon juice but happen to have a random citrus fruit on hand (even a yuzu, of all things), it will taste different, but in kind of a good way!