Japanese people outlive us all.

Article on how Japanese people live forever.

As I said to Dad on Skype last night: it is hard to be fat and lazy in this country, which is probably why Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world. According to this article on the CBC, babies born these last few years in Japan will live an average age of 86 years old. Researcher have commented on the culture`s well balanced diet and “attention to hygiene in all aspects of their daily life”.

From what I have observed in my short time in Japan thus far, I am not surprised at this news. When I lived in Italy it took no time at all to notice that people walked everywhere. Towns were designed for walking. In Japan, biking is the way to go. People bike everywhere. I was even left two bikes by my predecessor. Kids bike to school (or walk if they live close enough), people bike to the grocery store (I should take a picture of the bikes lined up outside, there are definitely more bikes in the parking lot than cars), and in every parking lot you go to (including the furniture store) there is a designated bike parking area (why on earth you would even bother biking to a furniture store is beyond me. I did once, just to see what was in there, and there was nothing in there I could have brought home with my bike).

Now I will discuss food. There are no sweets in this country. There is no chocolately, sugary, devily delicious goodness here. You know what they have instead of chocolate? Red bean paste. Paste… of red beans. Red beans mixed up, and squashed up into a paste; and they put it on bready looking substances which only leads moronic foreigners like me to gasp in the grocery store, buy this chocolate-y looking item, and rush home in anticipation of devouring chocolatey goodness… only to discover it is red bean paste. Thus, there are less overweight people here. Due to the lack of chocolate, I can only assume. Also, someone in the office yesterday came up to me with ice cream and said “here, have ice treat” and I said “why thank you, don’t mind if I do”. I assumed it was chocolate ice cream. It was not, it was red bean ice cream. Complete with whole red beans stuck inside. I ate it all though, I mean, it’s still ice cream. (Speaking of food, I had a dream last night about cream cheese. Cream cheese and crackers. I had such a craving I dreamt about it. There is also no cheese here. Sad times.) Oh, one last thing about food: School lunches. The school gives out these school lunches to students (and teachers if you so choose to participate and I figure I should, I mean I am in Japan, right? What`s the worst that can happen? I`ll get more healthy, that’s what). The point of these school lunches is to introduce kids to new foods, and I`m not talking try tuna on your pizza kind of new (flashback to Italy). It’s like, healthy new. The goal is to create a well balanced meal full of vitamins and nutrients. But it gets worse: people love it! They are all, “oh this is great, I hate this food but it’s good for you! Now I have to eat it or I don’t eat at all! Aren’t school lunches grand?” … and I`m like “no”.

Thirdly, general hygiene. People brush their teeth in the office here all the time. There are sinks all around the school for you to wash your hands or whatever. You have to put on separate shoes when you come in from outside. Indoor shoes only. Then when you go to the bathroom you take off your indoor shoes and put on your bathroom shoes and then when you are done you take off your bathroom shoes and put back on your indoor shoes. Germs have no chance here. If you cough, you get a mask. “Germs must die!” is like a country motto. Everyone here is … whatever those people who are afraid of germs are called.

Anyway, those are my musings on why Japanese people live so long. I can feel myself getting healthier every day I live here. My body just doesn`t even know how to handle all the veggies I eat. And without chocolate chip cookie dough I am pretty much going through drug withdrawal symptoms. But when those are over…. I will be indestructible.

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Blank Stares and Eggplants

Well, I have been in Japan for almost a month! This time last month I was packing up, getting prepared to leave! I can’t believe it! I am currently sitting at my desk at my base school, which is about a 20 minute cycle from my apartment. Not too bad, but coming here in the morning is uphill, so it’s kind of exhausting. A good way to wake up, though! My JTE is really nice, although I don’t really know what I am supposed to be doing at school yet. The kids are still on their summer break, so I haven’t started teaching yet. I think tomorrow we have our opening ceremony at our school and I have to give a self introduction in JAPANESE! And more than just my usual brief self introduction. Thankfully my JTE wrote one out for me and my only task is to memorize it. Which I am attempting to do.

We have finished our two week Japanese language course, and I do feel that it was useful. I definitely recognize a lot more words than I used to when people are speaking to me. For the most part though, I am still pretty hopeless. I have signed up for evening classes though, so that should help! Also the fact that people at work always start by talking to me in Japanese, and then when they only get blank stares back, they do their best to translate, is kind of embarrassing, but is forcing me to adapt. I have never wanted to learn a language more. I have no idea what is going on at any point in time. Yesterday at work there was some sort of office meeting. I had been warned by my JTE it was coming. There was lots of standing and bowing. And then I just sat there for an hour and a half and had absolutely no idea what was being said. My name was mentioned a few times though. So I smiled. They must think it’s just hilarious they can talk about me right in front of me and I literarlly have no idea what is being said. And I just smile along. Good times for me.

Anyway a couple days ago me and the other JET who lives in my building (there are only two of us in this whole town – he used to work at the schools I work at now) went to a student concert at his new school. There were lots of students from my new school there too, so we thought it was a good chance to see everyone outside of the office. It was great to see all the kids in the band playing. They were quite good. Afterwards, one of the English tutors from the Junior High School came up to us and told us about how much eggplant she has growing in her farm. Then she asked us if we liked eggplant, and we said yes. So she said `okay I will meet you back at your apartment in half an hour and I will bring eggplant and show you how to cook it`. And she did. She brought us each a few eggplants and showed us how to cook it up, Japanese style. Then she tested us by making us both chop up the eggplant properly – I didn’t cut the slices thin enough apparently, which affected the taste – and cook it the way she showed us! It was such a hilarious endeavor, and something that would only happen in Japan. She told me she would take me grocery shopping because I didn’t have enough Japanese style food items in my house! Haha I would actually love that though, because before I left I thought that learning to cook proper Japanese meals would be something I would really love to do. She was really sweet and we exchanged numbers and hopefully she can teach me some more Japanese cooking skills! Mine definitely need improvement, as anyone who lived with me through universities knows my cooking specialties are cereal (does that count?) and cookies. Oh and perogies. But only with E&A`s help.

Cat Cafe Adventure

Well I am still puttering around my little town and the city: going back and forth on the train every day almost. Yesterday was fun though; it was a new friend’s birthday. She came out to my little town and we went to the beach with a co-worker from the Board of Education and her husband. There we met up with a few other ALT’s and hung out and had ice cream (charcoal and milk flavour anyone? No? Me either, I had blueberry and it was delicious. Although I will admit the charcoal and milk was oddly delicious…). Then we went back into the city for supper and drinks. It was quite fun. And, we have started Japanese lessons today, which means almost everyone from our prefecture attends them and those who live far away usually stay in the city or nearby for convenience. Today’s lesson was pretty interesting. The teacher has just submerged us in it completely by only speaking Japanese. I was fortunate enough to be late to class (urgghh why can I never be on time?!) and had to sit in the front and was thus subject to her pointing and expecting a response and all I could ever muster up was “watashi wa Rachel desu!”. That was only the right answer once. We have started going through the katakana, learning the different sounds and combinations. It’s quite difficult and I better get the hang of it, quick! On Wednesday we go to our base schools for the first time. I’m so excited to meet my Japanese teacher of English and get into a routine. The last few weeks have just been so unpredictable. Every day brings about something different and you can never predict just what’s going to happen. Today we all decided, upon finishing our Japanese lesson, we would stop at a local “cat café” that we had scoped out earlier. That was quite an experience. You pay by the hour (we did not think we would spend a whole hour in a room with a bunch of cats but they wouldn’t let us book only a half hour. Surprisingly, we stayed the whole time). Included in your visit is one drink. Then they literally just put you in a room with a bunch of cats. And you pet them. And drink your coffee. It’s so so so so so strange. And at first I was like, “this is so awkward, I’m so over this”. Then I got really into it, especially once they brought out the kittens. It still is a strange experience but anyone who ever comes to visit me, be warned: we are going to the cat café. It is a unique experience that you will not have in Canada. Check out the photos on flickr!

Tomorrow is my last day at the BOE! I go there in the morning then to my Japanese class in the afternoon, and then back to the BOE Wednesday to meet up with my JTE (Japanese teacher of English) and they take me to my base school – which will become my new workplace! No more commuting! I look forward to what the next couple days has in store!

Lost.

I wake up super early, at around 6 am, probably due to a mix of the new place, the heat, nerves, adrenaline and whatever else. I take an ice cold shower to cool off. I went to have breakfast: I wanted cereal (I bought frosted flakes, I will ease myself into the Japanese food …) but I froze the milk by mistake. I guess I turned the fridge on a bit too high. So I make toast. I have a couple hours to spare because I don’t have to get to town until 9:30, so I saunter around and do some more unpacking and what not. Then I head out to the train station, ready for my day. The same lady who was working yesterday when I was taught how to buy my ticket is also working today. She recognizes me (I am one of two foreigners out here) and although she speaks to me in a language I cannot understand, I can tell she is kind and wishes me well. I get my ticket and wait for the train. When the train comes and we are off I realize I have forgotten my map. How will I know when to get off? Surely there will be signs and an announcement will be made when I reach my destination, besides, I know the time the train is supposed to get in, because the other JET is meeting me at the station at that time to take me to the BOE. After what I think is the approximate time I am supposed to be getting into the city we arrive at a stop. We were moving too fast so I couldn’t see the sign clearly when we zoomed in, and now it is too far away for me to read. The announcement comes on saying we have arrived somewhere, but he speaks to fast and I cannot tell if he said the name of the city I need to be at or not. It sounded like he did, and in the flash of the sign I did see, it seemed that this was my stop. So I get off and the train moves on. I walk through the station and come out to the other side, where I find nothing. This clearly isn’t the city center. This isn’t the city at all. I don’t see the guy who is supposed to be meeting me here. I go back into the station but there is no one there. After some wandering I find a map and it appears that I got off a stop too soon. The name of the place where I am and the city I am supposed to be in are very similar, in my defence. I’m now officially late, as the train I got off of will have arrived at my proper destination by now. The next train doesn’t come through for another hour, and I can’t wait. Japanese value timeliness, and I had thought I would make a good first impression, but that is gone out the window now. Big surprise; I am late. I find a pay phone and figure I will call the guy who is supposed to be waiting for me and tell him I’m lost. But I have no change. I had used it all to buy the ticket here to this stupid place. With no cell phone, no change for the pay phone, and no one around, I do the only thing I can do: start wandering aimlessly. Fortunately, before long, I stumble upon a taxi. I think it’s a taxi. There’s a little sign on the top, although I can’t read what it says. It looks like a taxi. It is parked on the side of the road and I stand and watch it for a while. I eventually decide it must be a cab so I decide that I will get in it. But what will I say? I don’t speak ANY Japanese. I’m so nervous and feel so awkward, and writing this now probably makes me sound like such an idiot to anyone who is reading. Finally I work up the courage to open the back door and sit in. The driver in front turns and looks at me and says something in Japanese. I just say the name of the city I want to be in. He points to the train station. I shake my head and say the name of the city again. Now that I am in the car though, I can tell it definitely is a cab, as there is a machine saying how much you owe up front beside the driver. Other than that it’s kind of hard to tell. It kind of just looks like a car with advertisements on the outside. Anyway, I guess he finally realizes I’m not going to wait at the train station for the next train to take me into the city, so he sets off. I say to him “station” because I need to get to the train station to meet my friend, and if he drops me off any old place then I will be just as lost as I was in the first place. He doesn’t seem to know what I mean but I say it a couple more times (what else can I do?) before seeing a sign for the train on the road, I point and say “station!” one more time and now he knows. He nods and takes me there. I’m sooo awkward. I’m awkward and now out another 40 bucks.

Luckily the guy who was supposed to be waiting for me was still there. He said he had called the BOE and told them I wasn’t on the train I was supposed to be on so he was going to wait there until the next train came through and then start searching for me until I turned up (thank god! I feel so bad, he took the morning off work to come get me and everything). Anyway, the others have already gone to city hall to get their alien registration card so he takes me there to meet up with them and then goes on his way. We get out alien registration cards and set up our bank accounts. Tomorrow we will get cell phones. Then we go out to lunch (an Italian place!) and then back to the BOE to read over some documents about our terms of employment. Then we take the tram around the city and learn where some of the other buildings are that we need to know about (I’m taking detailed notes at this point, there’s no way I can remember all this!). It’s the end of the day now, and we are told we are free to go. But I have no idea where I am. How do I get back to the train station that takes me back to my town? How do I buy a ticket there? How is my town written in Japanese so I will know it when we get there? I ask all these questions to the BOE staff and they decide they will send someone with me to the station so that I know how to get there from the office as I need to come here again tomorrow. It’s about a 15 minute walk. Again I’m taking intensely detailed notes about how to get there as I’m afraid I’ll forget. Writing while walking is hard. We get to the station and I am shown how to buy a ticket. It’s much more complicated here than in my small town, and with the staff’s help it gets done, but I’ll definitely have trouble doing this on my own when I want to go home tomorrow. I guess I’ll worry about that then…

I get on the train and go home. That part was easy, as I recognized my stop from this morning. I stop in at the grocery store on my way home and pick up some Fanta for the walk. You can’t drink enough liquids here, obviously, because you sweat everything out immediately. Fortunately I have that towel. So that was my day’s adventure. I have to go to the BOE earlier tomorrow, so I will try and get a good sleep tonight. I may try to get there extra early to account for my screw-ups. This time I will remember my map, hopefully. Off to bed now!

Goodnight.

Gypsy-soul to Blame

Before leaving Tokyo to fly to our new homes (done in groups of prefectures) we are sitting in the airport and one girl turns to me and the people I’m sitting with and says “look what I just bought!” It was a towel/washcloth sort of thing. She says, “It’s a sweat towel”. Now, in my mind I’m thinking, “that’s straight up disgusting”, but what I say is “oh?” She says, “Apparently it’s so hot where we are going that everyone carries these around”. “Mmmhmm,” I reply. That is gross. Why would I want to carry around a towel filled with my sweat? While other people go off to buy these sweat towels, I think to myself, I don’t really sweat that much anyway, I don’t really need one. So I don’t buy one. This decision turns out to be a mistake.

We board the plane. We fly. (Side-note: the flight was super cool because they have a camera on the outside of the plane that feeds to the television sets inside the plane so you can see all the beautiful scenery you are flying over live! Super neat! Although I seemed to be one of the few who hadn’t seen this before.) We get off the plane. We are waiting for our bags and due to the small airport size we can see everyone who is already here waiting for us with big signs: “WELCOME” and with our names. It was super nice. People who were flying in here but had still many hours of travel left (by bus or train to more remote areas) had groups of 3-4 people waiting for their arrival. Since I’m staying in the city, myself and a few others can see our names being held up by people who also live here. But before I can get to this person who is holding a welcome sign with my name on it I have to stop. I am dripping sweat. DRIPPING. The humidity is absurd. As I look around people are wiping their faces with little towels to remain dry. Now I am the disgusting one. Finally I reach the guy who is holding the sign with my name (a fellow JET, who has lived here for a few years now and once taught at my schools). He must have been alarmed by my appearance as he immediately gives me a little hand fan so I can cool myself down.

Anyway, this guy used to live in the apartment building I am moving into, so he says he is going to take me to it, since it is not in the same area as everyone else’s building (in fact, it’s about 30 minutes away by train and then walking). Him and some people from the Board of Education grab my bags from me and lead me to a car where we drive into the city to meet everyone for lunch. Everyone else had to take the bus in, apparently I was also supposed to – at one point we pulled over in the car we were in because upon realizing that everyone else was on the bus, they were going to kick me out. Some talk in Japanese occurs; I realize that the other JET promises the Board of Education (B.O.E) staff that he will teach me how to use the bus later and its stupid for me to get out now. So we continue on. We get to the B.O.E building, meet up with everyone, and have lunch. We then go back and are all taken to meet the staff where we have to do a self introduction in Japanese. Awesome. Before having time to think or prepare, we are thrown in front of a staffroom full of people who are all staring at us. “Go, go, introduce!” Hajimemashte. Watishi wa Rachel desu. Canada kira kimashta. Dozo yoroshiko onegaishimasu. That’s what I should have said. That’s what’s in the back of the handbook they gave us says to say. What did I say, you ask? I don’t really remember. I think I said my name. I think I mumbled everything else incoherently (since I didn’t know the proper pronunciation or word order, I kinda just knew the sounds from listening to everyone else say their introduction). Then I bowed and ran and hid behind the people who were already done. The staff people were really nice though, they listened, did a little clap after each one of us spoke (I think they could tell we clearly knew no Japanese, but they were impressed that we tried).

After that embarrassment, I get back in the car with the JET and the BOE staff I was with before and we drive to my new apartment. They help me bring my bags up. They hand me the keys and I open the door. I can see that the woman helping me carry my oversized and overweight luggage is struggling, and as the JET guy already has one of my other, even larger bags, I quickly grab the other bag from her and drag it into my new place. “GASP. AHHH NO NO NO!!! OHHH!” I stop. I’m freaking out. Is there a giant bug in my apartment already? Is it one of those mega cockroaches everyone keeps talking about? Is it a giant spider? If it is a giant spider I’m getting on the next flight home. None of the above. It took me a second to realize what was wrong. The other JET steps in: “it’s okay, it’s her house… she doesn’t have to take off her shoes if she doesn’t want to!” Oops. I didn’t take my shoes of in the little designated area at the entrance of my house. The reaction was funny looking back. I thought something was very wrong, but no. I quickly kick off my shoes and drag my luggage the rest of the way in.

They take me grocery shopping. They show me where I can get my bike fixed (apparently I have a punctured tire on one of the bikes I was given). They take me to the train station and show me how to buy a ticket back into town, which I will have to do tomorrow morning, as our training now takes place at the BOE in town. The other JET promises to meet me at the train station in town and show me the rest of the way. They take me back home and I’m left alone to unpack and do my own thing.

The first night was a lot better than I thought it would be. My apartment is a decent size; it’s nice to have a home base after moving around so much recently. I can see the ocean and the mountains. It’s super hot though. I find a washcloth in the linen left to me by my predecessor and put it in my purse for a “sweat cloth” for tomorrow. I unpack a bit and go to bed.

Note about the bed: it’s literally just a blanket on the floor. I sleep on a floor. If you were to right now lie down on a carpeted area somewhere in your home that would be the equivalent to the “mattress” that I sleep on here. Here’s hoping I get used to that.

I fall asleep at like 9pm. I actually had to force myself to stay up until 9. I was super tired, and since I’ve been here I crash at like 8 pm and then wake up at around 3 am. It’s inconvenient and I need to get back on schedule. Tomorrow things start for real.

Toronto to Tokyo

“Everyone is responsible for the page turning tempo of his or her own story.”

The flight from Toronto to Tokyo wasn’t that bad. It was certainly very long. I hardly slept at all because I was lucky enough to be given the middle seat, so I had people on either side of me. Both were fellow JETs, so we talked and played cards and such. Once we got off the plane, it was kind of like two days had passed. Earlier that day we boarded the plane (we had left Ottawa in the morning) and now we were getting off the plane in the afternoon of the next day. Sort of confusing. It was SUPER easy though, JET has it all layed out for you. You literally get your luggage, go through the gates, and there are a million people standing there in bright pink t-shirts yelling “WELCOME TO TOKYO!” Then they point you to another bright pink shirted person standing a short distance away and they say “go to them” so you stroll on over to them with your bags and they point to another pink shirted JET and say “follow that person” and when you get to them they will say “go around this corner” and when you do there is another one of them: “go up this escalator!” etc, etc etc. So basically it was impossible to get lost. (This is the part where I tell you how I got lost… Just kidding. I get pretty lost later, but not right now. Right now it’s all good.) So eventually we get outside (all of us who were on the plane together), and we split up our luggage, one to be shipped to our new home and one to take the hotel. They already had put tags on our luggage with the address on before we left Canada so that was really easy. We boarded a bus and before we knew it we were off to the hotel! I won’t talk too much about the next couple days. It was just orientation, so we didn’t really leave the hotel, and I didn’t really feel like I was in Japan. There were something like 800 people there for this orientation, all other JETs. Brits, Kiwis, Americans, Canadians, and some other countries were there. We met everyone would be going to our prefecture. We were given a schedule to stick to (show up to a certain room on a certain floor at a certain time) and it was pretty uneventful other than that. Went to karoke once with the Ottawa JETs. It was super weird because singing into a mic without anything to drink is super weird. You can imagine. Also the videos they put on while you are singing are not the music videos to the songs. They are like, random people doing random things. One was like a girl just popping her head out from around random places in some city in the states. Literally. The words were on the screen and behind them would be some girl peeking out from behind a building. Then the scene would change and she would be peering out from a newspaper while sitting in a cafe. It made the whole karoke thing even more awkward. I put some pictures on flickr of this, I don’t think you can see the actual images on the screen so you’ll have to use your imagination. Also, unlike Canadian’s version of “going out” which in my mind is going to a bar and meeting new people and mingling and what not, Japanese version seems to be lock yourself in a tiny room with the people you came with. When you go to karoke they give you a key to a room and you go to it, and it is very small, and you just sit in there with whoever you came with and sing. They come to your room to take your drink/food orders. Its not a big room of karoke like I thought it would be. It was odd. Overall Tokyo was fun. Met a lot of new people and learned a lot about the job we would be doing in the future. I enjoyed it but was ready to get to my own place.