Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Monday, December 1, 2008
We had our Sayonara Buffet tonight and it was bittersweet. I have come to like so many people I've met and I can't believe how much has happened in the days I spent in Japan. We were led by one of the staff members in a closing ceremony. You clap a certain way to end something. It was a sweet, solemn moment.
So of course, we went out after the party!!! I wasn't about to spend most of the night in the hotel!! We played virtual golf, I tried a "Tsunami" beer (a reddish lager), and ended the night by singing at a karoke bar. I like how it's done here--you rent your own room for karaoke so you sing in front of a friendly crowd. I didn't sing out loud but the guys did a great job with Barry White, Snoop Dogg, and Guns and Roses.
My heart ached all through the night when I thought about leaving. I was treated so well everywhere I went and had such an incredible experience. I wanted very much to see Scooter and E and be with all my family/friends again, but I have to be honest; I didn't want this to end. Thursday morning came way too quickly.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
During rush hours there are cars that are for women only. I can only imagine the problems that prompted the designation!
The Tokyo group now consisted of Lynne, Lisa, Randy, Paul, Joe, Kim, Tanya, and me. I followed them out this night and I'm so glad I did!! We went to the Tokyo Dome, home of the Yomiuri Giants. I love baseball and would have been thrilled to go and I was "this close" but I missed out on a game because I was in Minamisoma. Anyway, I rode the "Thunder Dolphin," the roller coaster by the dome. It goes up to 80 mph, threads through the Ferris wheel, and goes on top of one of the buildings. I screamed my head off!! The first hill was terrifying--but in a great way! I think it also enhanced the ride that I didn't have a harness pinning my shoulders. It made me feel freer and that made it even scarier. I loved it!!! It was a great surprise and I can now say I've ridden a roller coaster on two continents. After the ride we had beer and burgers at this small place near the dome. Then we ended up at a pub called The Mermaid near the hotel. It's pretty cool to be able to sit out on the sidewalk, drink a pint, and watch the people as they pass.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
We had a 14 course banquet in the room above. The waiter just kept serving and bringing and serving and bringing!!
Here is my plate at one point during the banquet. The little pot in the top left was filled with meat and vegetables and the waiter lit it when we began and it cooked through the meal and we ate it towards the end. I ate the pretty yellow chrysanthemum too. I could get used to that!
Our group photo after the meal. I am so blessed to have traveled with my group. We laughed a lot and there were some really smart people and I enjoyed their company while we were in Minamisoma.
So now for an explanation and description of the onsen. It's a hot spring and it can include a sulphur bath. I stayed in the hot spring. There was some hesitation on my part because you have to be completely naked when you bathe. No swimwear allowed. I decided to participate because it is a very popular Japanese activity and I wanted to soak up all of the culture that I could. (yes, pun intended!!) I entered what looked like the dressing room of a nice gym, went to the large area of baskets, stripped, got a small towel and headed for the shower stalls. Here's where is was a little weird for me. (yes, I know--for some of you it's gone way past weird already!) My experience with shower stalls is you stand and shower. Not here--they were half as tall so you sat on a stool and used a hand-held shower head and cleaned yourself well. All products and cloths were provided.
Side note: I liked that about all of my Japanese hotels. Your products like shampoo, soap, razor, toothbrush, comb/brush, etc. were provided. The toothbrushes were the perfect size!!
We checked out the next morning and I posted this picture of our waiter from the night before because I want to share something. He came out to the bus to tell us goodbye and bring us candy and he stood and waved the whole time while we took off until we were gone. He did all that just because he wanted to but we didn't tip him--we couldn't tip him. He was one of the best waiters I've ever had and I couldn't give him a dime! It just impressed the heck out of me that he would do all that without the expectation of extra money. I mean, maybe it was in the fee but I don't know. It's just not practiced in Japan. But I ran into people all the time who were friendly and tried to help any way they could with no expectation. I kind of like it. The ryokan was the perfect way to wrap up our time outside of Tokyo.
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
They seemed to like the gifts I brought, especially the Snickers. I gave them postcards of Dallas and Texas and Mrs. Endo recognized the armadillos. She said there were a lot of them in Brazil.
The Endo's had a traditional Japanese room complete with a tatami floor, their Buddhist shrine, a silk screen divider, paper doors, and a ceremonial fire pit. They asked if I wanted to stay in there and of course I said yes! Mrs. Endo and I made the pallet on the floor for me. Dr. Endo and his son even brought in the chair--I said I didn't need it (I didn't want to damage the floor) but they were so nice and insisted.
I thoroughly enjoyed the bath I took. I must admit though, that I didn't soak as long as I would have liked because the water was so very hot. Meg told us that it would be but still--wow!! I even ran cold water. I turned so red for awhile that it looked like I had a sunburn. I slept very, very well that night. Breakfast was delicious--eggs, ham, toast, seaweed salad, persimmons, and the greenest broccoli I have ever seen. Really--I don't know why, but it was super green.
After breakfast we went to the club where Dr. Endo's son practices Kyudo--Japanese archery. The setting was gorgeous--you can tell from the picture that even though I was seated indoors, it felt like being outdoors because of the building's open side. The weather was cool and the air was crisp and the neighborhood was quiet. Kyudo is not about shooting or hitting the target. Kyudo literally means "the way of the bow." He said that he is still in the "beginner's" class after six years. I tried it---needless to say, archery is not my thing! I felt honored that he wanted to share his hobby with me.
We went to a conveyor belt sushi place for lunch. If you ordered something special it came to your table on a separate belt that was made to look like the bullet train. It was hilarious! Before I left, they presented me with gifts--a handkerchief, a robe, and a pottery candlewarmer made by their daughter.
Again, I'm not sure I can express all of the feelings--it's unnerving to go into a stranger's home and even more so when you know you don't speak the language. And yet I felt welcome instantly. They were kind and generous and tried very hard to make me feel comfortable. Their home was lived-in and I am so glad I didn't let my apprehension ruin the experience.
It was definitely a highlight of this trip.
Friday, November 7, 2008
They started out by giving up these beautiful sweets. The tea often takes the theme of the season and so ours had an autumn theme. I use the term sweets lightly--the leaf was actually filled with bean paste and that isn't very sweet. The pink wafer wasn't either, but I liked them both. The stick was used to cut the leaf as it was too big to put in your mouth all at once.
Each part of the tea ceremony is a mediatation. I was told that you can spend your whole life mastering the ceremony. It was serene and beautiful to watch as she made tea.
These are the cups I drank from. They are themed according to the season or the celebration. I don't have a picture of it, but we were taught that there is a certain way to examine your cup after you drink--bent over on your hands and knees. Meg said it was because the cups can be very, very expensive and since you're on your knees anyway, you just bend over and keep the cup close to ground so you don't drop it. Needless to say, there was a lot of giggling, but it totally made sense.
They let us try whisking the tea. I had such a nice time and the ladies were so funny. Several people in my group wanted to take pictures of the backs of the obis because they had great needlework on them. The ladies were laughing and covering up their bottoms--they didn't want their "backsides" to be the focus of the pictures. It was so cute and funny--ladies are the same everywhere!!
Again, my pictures couldn't capture just how wonderful the setting was. There was a traditional Japanese garden outside and the air was crisp and cool and it was perfect. The tea was a good flavor--a lot of the green tea I'd been served had a fishy smell to it and so I didn't care for it but this was great tasting.
It was a nice way to end the afternoon and it did kind of relax me which I needed since I was getting a little anxious about the homestay. Dr. and Mrs. Endo picked me up around 4.
We went to the city museum for a "local craft experience." I wasn't excited about it at first because I don't consider myself "crafty" in any sense of the word. I was pleasantly surprised. We had a local artist who helped us use watercolor paints on woodblock postcards. I had fun doing that. We also sanded stones beads or magatamas. Mine didn't look anything like it should have. The top picture is outside the museum. Like the one in Fukushima, this museum was in a gorgeous setting that included a stream. I stole about 10 minutes outside to enjoy it.
After that it was off to the tea house for our tea ceremony that I'd been looking forward to. Most of you who know me know that I thoroughly enjoy English high tea and I was thrilled to get the chance to experience the Japanese tea ceremony. I'm pictured here with the lady who is considered a tea master. She leads classes for the others in the ceremony. The whole thing was so great that it deserves its own post.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
After lunch we went to the tatami mat factory. The gentleman who owns and runs the place is also a highly respected rider in the Soma Nomaoi horse festival. The mats cost about $100 a piece and can last up to 10 years depending on how much they are used. His son works in the factory too. There were pictures on the wall showing him making the mats by hand. Now they have machines to help with the stitching.
Next on our agenda was a stop at the Pacific Ocean. You can't tell from the picture but it was raining and very windy. I had wanted to walk to it and at least get my feet wet but that wasn't possible. So I had to settle for it blowing on me! ;) I have now seen the Pacific from two continents. That's pretty cool.
Then we went to the thermal power plant. I found it interesting that 1/3 of the plant sits on reclaimed land. It still is a coal burning plant but the company claims it's getting "greener" all the time and I believe them. As a whole, the Japanese society is very committed to ecological preservation and "green" living. I know I could learn a lot from their lifestyles.
When we got back into town we had just enough time to see the last of the choral competition that we saw our junior high students reahearsing for. They all did an outstanding job.
The entire group went out to dinner tonight at an Italian restaurant in Minamisoma. Our group coordinator Meg told me that many Japanese people like Italian food. This is a picture of how they served the sake. It's poured into the glass until it overflows into the box. You drink it from the glass first and then the box. But I never did find out for sure if you were supposed to pour the box's contents into the glass or drink it straight from the box. I just tipped the box's corner.
After dinner a smaller group of us went to sing karaoke at this place. It was inexpensive fun!
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
We ate lunch with several members of the student council. High school students bring their own lunches in bento boxes--that's a student lunch on top and my bento box on the bottom. When I asked the student I ate with what he knew of America, he said that our economy was bad. He also knew the election was coming up and asked who I thought would win. He was a serious young man who wants to study economics at the university. He plays piano and attends a "cram" school after regular school to prepare for the entrance exams.
After school most of the students participate in club activities. I watched students practice kendo and kyudo. I am impressed by the discipline shown by most students I met. They have demanding schedules, homework, and they balance it with their family and personal lives.
Teachers were generally reserved but I did manage to find out some interesting things. First, they work very long hours--6:30 or 7 in the morning until around 7 or 8 at night. The mandatory retirement age is 60. There is also a policy in place that transfers teachers around every 4 to 5 years. I found that one to be the harshest as it must place a burden on families.
My school visits have come to an end. It is interesting to me that educators we spoke with brought up some of the same issues we have--lower test scores, the inability of students to apply their knowledge, classroom discipline, parental issues, and a general feeling that education just isn't as important to some people anymore. It seems that we have a lot in common--more than I had originally thought.
Monday, November 3, 2008
This is a picture of my dinner. The English name of the restaurant means "May." It was a delicious sushi and sashimi--and yes, I that is squid and I did eat it.