Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Volcano Eruptions and Field Trips

As you may recall, Kagoshima city is on the west side of Kinkoan Bay (that gray area on the left) and right in the middle of the bay is our resident volcano, Mt. Sakurajima. Recently the old Sak has been sending her ash our way (normally when she erupts all the ash gets blown to the East) and making quite a mess. Here's a clip of a more significant erruption a couple months ago.
It has ever ashed on us quite as heavily as it did this last time, and from the bus I thought in my post-workday haze that my bus home had descended into some kind of strange soupy smog cloud (did that idea seem so feasible to me because I grew up near LA?). As soon as I stepped off the bus I was covered in a thin layer of ash as was everything, everywhere.

Everyone had different ash protection methods.
Looking down a street it seemed like this must be what a light dust storm in the Middle East would be like, minus the part about being in the Middle East.
The Prius' were covered in ash!
Suit people sweep it up!
And then there was a field trip I took to the countryside with my second year students.
They didn't really seem to know how to interact with nature. Bugs were a big problem, as was crossing these wild rapids.

Eating snacks with some of my favorite students.
May 5th was Boy's Day. All over the countryside you see these carp hanging over rivers, blowing in the wind. I hear that there is a Chinese folk tale about a carp that swims up stream and when it gets past all the obstacles of the river it turns into a dragon. I also hear that the carp often symbolize each member in a family. I think they look real nice!
This shrine is at the foot of the hill that one of my schools is on and is a memorial to a student who was killed in a car accident. Every week the flowers change to match the countryside flowers that are in season.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Outdoor Happenings

The kind of Spring that my Californian sensibility longs for (a warm, sunburn worthy, whimsical dress-wearing one) has finally hit Kagoshima. So we hit Nichinan beach, a couple hours north of Kagoshima in Miyazaki prefecture. Near Nichinan is Udo Jingu (shrine), which I think is by far one of the most beautiful shrines I have been to in Japan.

You walked a path right along the cliffs that leads down the the main shrine which is inside of a sea cave!

It's hard to see in this picture, but there is a hole in this rock that you try to throw blessed clay stones into from the cliff above. Women throw with their right hand and men throw with their left hand (because women need all the help they can get?). If you make it in, then you know, eternal happiness and good luck and all that jazz. And I made it!
The shrine inside the cave. So cool and nice in there...
A different weekend, a different outdoor excursion! A canola flower snack!
Takachiho gorge!
Lounging by the river. Oh river nap, you are so nice!

An early Saturday morning, heading out to the beach... and wild dachshund attack! There were at least four wiener dogs in this car who all wanted to jump out and bite our ankles. I can still hear their barking ringing in my ears as we sped off.
A pachinko (annoying Japanese fake gambling) parlour that I drive past every morning on my way to school. It reminds me of an aging casino in Carson City, Nevada, and that makes me like it. What a tragedy that they don't have breakfast buffets or lobster and steak dinners in pachinko parlours.
These are pictures of 2 out of the 3 legit cheese sources in my city. Now you know how dire my situation is. Gone are the days of artisanal goat cheese and farmer's market splurges.
Holding the largest block of cheese available. Not very large. Also called "Extra Extra Mild Cheddar," which isn't good news. Most cheese that Japanese people eat comes pre-shredded and is labeled either "pizza cheese," "cooking cheese" or "toast cheese." I can never figure out which one sounds better or will meet my cheese needs most appropriately. I am now used to paying at least $10 for a wedge of cheese that is too minuscule to do anything with but take small nibbles of.

Mostly, I try not to think about cheese.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Marry Me

My cousin's cousin's wife's aunt's sister's cousin (ok, I kid, but our relation is just about this complicated) got married last Sunday at Meiji Jingu, the largest Shinto shrine in Tokyo, to a Swiss banker.

What an affair! Half the wedding party were Swiss, speaking mostly French and bieng quite flamboyant, the other half Japanese, speaking NO French and being quite reserved/Japanese. The couple, pictured above, in traditional wedding kimono and hakama.

The Shinto wedding ceremony. Though I understood hardly any of it, I was impressed by the feeling and the structure of the ceremony itself. It all felt so deliberate and fully of thought and great intention. I couldn't help but feel that the seriousness of the ceremony conveyed that this marriage was being taken in equal seriousness, and it made me wonder if the casual way that we conduct weddings usually is part of the reason why marriage itself is often taken so casually.

My cousin Aki.
Cousins Aki and Yuko in all their kimono splendor. I am still mystified by kimono - I have absolutely no ability to tell the difference between a high price kimono and a knock off poleyster deal (I don't know if they actually make kimono in poleyster, but I'm sure someone thought of this in 1963). Often the most expensive ones look the cheapest to me and vice versa. What I do know is that the one's my cousin's wore cost as much to rent per day as a ten year-old used Volvo. Am I too practical? I would rather have the Volvo.
We arrived at the shrine and all the kimono cousins were the darlings of the tourists visiting the shrine.
Cousin Yasuko.
We all met in a reception room of the shrine and each side of the family introduced themselves.
Then we marched across the front of the shrine to another private room where the priests would conduct the marriage ceremony. The line on the right: us. The line on the right: tourists gathering round to snap celebrity pics.

We were served sakura cha, which is a tea made out of dried and salted cherry blossoms. It looks pretty, but it tasted like... salt. No way man.
We moved from the shrine to the Hotel New Otani, to a fancy recetion room complete with automatic curtains that would be drawn or let down dramatically to showcase the gardens through the windows or the entrance of the bride each time she had an outfit change.

This was my favorite dish served at the reception: personal igloos with sashimi inside!
The family hired Japanese interpretors for many of the French speaking guests and at one point a man who looked like he only ever wore clothes suitable for yachting (silk scarf tucked into the shirt and fancy boating shoes... oh, how I love boating shoes!) stood up and gave a long speech. Throughout the speech he waved his hands the air, made kissing gestures, cried a little and spoke as effusively as a French-speaking yachting sport knows how. Oh, haha and the poor Japanese translator had no idea what to do with him. He would say something emotionally gripping and swivel around wildly and she would time after time translate into the most polite, kurt Japanese. Even for those who couldn't understand Japanese it was a hilarious scene. Everyone could see the comedy of this, and like a scene from Lost in Translation, the more he said, the less she said. I don't think the Japanese guests quite got the joke though...
Weddings in Japan seem to often be a Japanese interpretation of what a Western style wedding is. This wedding carefully stuck to traditional Japanese wedding style and so instead of four different dresses, my cousin changed into four different kimono. All of the food was Japanese and each dish had symbolism relating to the union of the new couple, prosperity, future happines, blah blah.

Me and the women in the fam.
Aside from the wedding, there was Tokyo. I am not sure if I like Tokyo yet. I always get those excited shivers of "I am in a big city!" when I first arrive, but I don't think Tokyo is a very beautiful or magnetic city in the way I want a big city to be. Or at least I haven't learned how to understand it for itself as opposed to how I usually understand other big cities, because I think Tokyo must call for some other kind of understanding.
The cherry blossoms were just starting to do their thing and everyone was out to check it out.
I went shopping like crazy woah! Ah, for the love of international stores! In Harajuku.
In Omotesando.
Sat in front of a crepe restuarant and ate a goat cheese gallette and a pear and pear liquer crepe a flambe. The man who own the restaurant basically makes it his job to act as flamboyantly French as possible when welcoming patrons and I watched group after group of Japanese people enter the restaurant squeeling with delight at this man yelling at them in wild French. I tried to pretend I was sitting in Passy at a cafe and I had a coffee so strong (no one makes good coffee in Kagoshima) that I thought I was going to have a panic attack.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Volcanoes, Cherry Blossoms and a Castle

Map of my Japanese Island. Remember this. I am making a solid effort to learn all of the prefectures of Japan, but its way hard! There's a whole bunch!
Map of Mt. Aso, the volcano!
The sakura (cherry trees) are doing that blooming thing and it is oh so pretty!
The thing to do when the sakura are mankai (in full blossom) is to portion off a space under them for you and your friends to barbecue and drink under. I really appreciate Japan for this - it seems that every season there is a new flower blossoming or tree changing color that needs to be viewed while eating and drinking in the company of friends and family. Many butcher shops will deliver a BBQ set complete with meat, veggies and rice to your designated sakura viewing spot and pick it all up when you are done feasting. Brilliant!
We went on a camping expedition to Mt. Aso, an active volcano in northern Kumamoto prefecture (see the above map) that boasts the largest caldera in the world.
It all began with shrieks of excitement over a Starbuck's with a drive thru in the middle of nowhere Japan that looked like a carbon copy of something you would see off the 5 in between SF and LA. How did I get here, to this point where Starbuck's excites me? All I can think of are other times of desperation: eating Subway in Delhi, or conversely, all the shitty Japanese food I have eaten in NOT Japan.
And then, my prized loaf of "French countryside bread" purchased from the only store in Kagoshima to sell such a thing flew out of the trunk and it had to be saved a mile down the freeway. When it was rescued it had tire marks across the top but you don't just give up that kind of bread for lost.

Some anti-drug propaganda on the front of a convenience store. Be broken! Flashback! Ha, what I would give for a nice flashback once and a while here...
Feeding the lazy koi. Lazy fish!
We skipped over to Takachiho Gorge in northern Miyazaki prefecture because there were rumors that you could kayak through it, but the kayaks turned out to be rowboats with a one and a half hour wait and you had to stay in a roped off area. So instead we just watched Japanese people run their rowboats into the sides of the cliffs
Funny English is so prevalent that I rarely take pictures of it any more, but I always should. It's often quite poetic.
There was a bonfire accompanied by the usual Bob Marley covers, lots of expensive cheap wine, mystery guests (I wish they had been of a supernatural nature), and sentimental marsh mellows. I woke up unsure of quite a few moments.
I saw the stars for the first time in ages. Growing up in Ojai, CA, seeing the stars really means something to me and Japan is so overly lit that I had given up on them. At last!
Some delicious BBQ treats! Sweet, sweet salmons!

At the volcano you could ride these beautiful draft horses in a sad circle around a hill that all the Japanese tourists walked up in high heels.

We walked up the "real hill" to try to get a view into the steaming volcano but it was too smoky to see anything.
Part of the caldera. A face, anyone?
The volcano smoking in the distance.
Looking shockingly sporty (a look I won't ever really feel comfortable with) after summitting the hill.

At Kumamoto Castle. Flowers. Castle, Japan style. Rainy day.