Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Staring up at the Stars

Okay, so things are beginning to look up! Not to say that I'm still not missing Frannie. Definitely am. She was a good cat. But at least now I have heat, hot water, and while I missed my futon again, this is highly mitigated first by my initial wanderings, which yielded toilet paper (nothing says brighter day like toilet paper!), Pantene Pro-V conditioner and shampoo for damaged hair, not WOC, but close, and Pantene is dirt cheap here too, go figure. Also some lovely photographs. The second mitigating factor which is highly exciting is Charlene at Altia telling me about the Jusco store, a wonderful superstore filled with a cornucopia of cheap but reasonable quality goods--kind of like a crossover between a K-Mart and Target. I got a soft, large floor rug that I'm going to use as my bed tonight, some hand towels, a cross between a pot and a frying pan (good for both), a spatula, a new watch (hopefully it works), some hand towels, a large towel for showering, a blanket and a half body pillow, all for under 7,000 yen (approx $70-75). There was also a Kusuri store next door (a drugstore, I'm guessing) that had shumai and a dozen brown eggs for dirt cheap. So even though I'm going to be a bit uncomfortable tonight, it's going to be nothing like last night.

My mom and I also had a deep and long conversation about Frannie. We both, of course, feel terrible, overwhelmed, crying, etc, but we were able to talk for an hour and comfort each other. We agreed that it's been an incredibly rough start for both of us with my going to Japan. She's had the cat crisis, plus other problems, and I've had the apartment crisis, the losing a cat, etc. But I think the next 24 hours will look up for her as they are looking up for me. I am also quite happy with myself today in regards to using Japanese. Though I'm still a neophyte, for certain, I can tell my accent is getting better, and I am able to more naturally ask for and about things (especially if they have to do with directions). I caught my first Japanese bus today to get to the Jusco and was able to get the last bus in. I'm still not conversational, but if it has to do with getting from point A to point B, buying stuff, and the like, my skills are growing fast. I also managed a good sounding “oishii” (it's delicious) today at the restaurant where I bought a delicious (though a bit overwhelming on the cheese sauce) rice donburi. I could tell I got it right because the waitress had a slightly different tone to her voice when she said “arigatou gozaimasu.”

Wandering around Toyota City today, especially taking the new step into the Japanese bus system, has really made me love my new city, or at least my little corner of it. This is a good place, and I'm looking forward to learning more about it as I branch out in my explorations. Though for tomorrow that will have to wait until after my futon arrives.

Having just returned from another fun filled hour of Karaoke, my spirits are much better. I did another solo run, this time at the other Karaoke place that's about a block away from where I went yesterday. I'm not sure what either place is called, but I will say in spite of the fact this one was more expensive and they really weren't working hard to let you know your time was up, I still preferred this venue because their equipment and ambiance was so much better. Especially the equipment. It was sooo much easier to search for songs. Also, while there was furigana, for most of the obvious kanji like 中, 人, 自分, etc, they didn't use it, which made the reading a lot easier. Occasionally this would work against me though, as I haven't learned my Kanji in frequency order, there are still a number of common ones that I don't really know. But for the most part, I prefer the furigana for the hard stuff method to the furigana everywhere. It was a lot of fun! Also, I setup my soft mat that I bought where my futon will be, and boy it's like a four poster bed in comparison to last night! When that futon finally arrives and I am there to greet it, I'll be sleeping like on air. So I guess this sleeping on hardwood on top of a towel experience has some pluses—I can't wait to appreciate and love futon life for sure!

Glad to feel a bit less stressed, though I am exhausted from last night. My room is toasty, and I am ready to go to bed

More pictures going up on facebook soon, so check them out!

The Pendulum Swings

This has been the worst 24 hours I've had in some time. My cat Frannie died this morning (evening Philly time), which I found out just after I managed to get my internet working this morning. (a major task in itself, compounded by the fact I have no heat or bedding). This news was the cherry on a sh*t sundae of a 24 hours beginning as orientation ended and hopefully ending soon.

I found out at the end of Monday's Orientation/Training that (a) my apartment has no heat until sometime this morning (evening in Philly) and (b) because the LeoPalaces come furnished (a good thing), I didn't get the furniture pack (saving me 1500 yen/month, also good) and thus do not have a futon (a bad thing, no futon, no blankets, no heat = unhappy Vash). I'm ridiculously grateful that Steph bought me the Star Trek Snuggie I'm currently wrapped in. Graham (my recruiter) arranged took time out of his incredibly busy schedule to have a futon delivered yesterday evening, but the last day of training ran late and I got very lost finding my apartment (shocking), so while they tried to deliver the futon at 6:20, I didn't get to my apartment until 8:30pm.

With my key, I was given train and walking directions to my apartment that were entirely in Kanji, accompanied by grainy, awful maps from Google Maps, the same maps types of maps and direction I printed in Philly that got me (a) to the wrong hotel and (b) were almost useless to the cabbie for getting me to the Kyoya Ryokan. I understand the woman who handed me the directions is wildly overworked, so she basically pushed the directions over to me with a “daijobu” (okay, in Japanese) and then said for me to look them over and come back with questions. It was clear she was very busy though and I didn't want to bother her further.

The extra fun part of this map was the walking directions. With train directions, you can play “match the Kanji” and do okay, as I've learned, but walking is your real challenge. These walking directions featured a grainy Google map closeup with the letter A circled (which on google maps indicates where you're coming FROM, not TO), and two train stations also circled, these in Kanji, but thank God Kanji I could read—Kanji Movie Method hands down has helped save my life on this trip. One of the stations was the Toyota-eki (Toyota Station), and the other was the ShinToyota-eki (New Toyota Station). What I was supposed to do with these circled locations was a complete blank for me, because I wasn't sure if I was heading towards A, or away from it, or which train station (if any) I was arriving at. This is in part because the walking portion of the directions hadn't been expanded, thus it took someone else pointing it out to me for me to see “sanpou” = walking from Toyota Station to ShinToyota Station. The folks at the hotels, when they give you a map, are kind enough to draw a line from where you are to where you are going, and it makes a HUGE difference.

I went back into the orientation room, and thankfully Lem, one of my fellow Toyota ALTs, came over and gave me his contact information in case I needed help. I asked him about the directions, and he and Stan, another Toyota ALT, translated them for me with landmarks and I was ready.

To add to the travel excitement/up the level of navigational difficulty, through the four days of our orientation we were given a huge wealth of wonderful teaching materials. The materials (and training) were great, but sadly these materials also added about 30lbs (a low estimate) to the weight of my baggage. One of the ALTs mentioned the possibility of me having the hotel ship my suitcases to my new address, which sounded exciting but it also meant I'd have no clothes overnight (and with my luck that my luggage could end up lost,) which with no heat and only the possibility of a futon, didn't seem like it would work out for me. Instead, I took out the backpack Steph had lent me from her European and Israeli backpacking in college and that I'd had flattened in my checked-in luggage and loaded clothing and some of the manuals into there, distributing the multiple giant 8.5/11 flashcard books and CDs around the rest of my luggage. Stan, a Toyota veteran actually helped drag my tied together rolling suitcases to the Kanayama station, which was an unmitigated blessing for which I'll always be grateful. He also gave me his contact information.

I managed to get through the train system this time with only a few complications, most of them due to the fact that Japanese Public transportation is not very wheelchair /luggage friendly. There are some elevators and escalators at the large stations and subway stations in Nagoya, but even there it's not uncommon for an escalator to take you halfway up and then be followed by a flight of stairs to get you the rest of the way. Now I've been trained: if I see an escalator, I automatically look for an elevator instead—escalators in Japanese train stations are often a road to stairs. So from the Chiryu station, for me to transfer to the train from Toyohashi (“bountiful bridge” says the Kanji) to Toyota (“bountiful rice-field,”) I had to drag my luggage down a flight of stairs under an underpass, and then back up a flight of stairs to where the train stopped. A nice Japanese man helped me get it down (as the people around us were stampeding like a Spanish running of the bulls, not kidding here,) but he even wasn't brave enough to try to get it back up the stairs, so I had to take it in three shifts, ultimately missing my train.

I got the rest of the way to Toyota without incident, where I was greeted at the train station by a McDonalds and another Starbucks. It was like I never left! I was also doing really well with the walking directions, until I tried to orient myself at the ShinToyota Station. There, I asked an incredibly kind woman about my age (whose name I found out later is Arisa) where I was, since I didn't see the landmarks listed fuzzily on the map, and I'd already passed the ones that Lem had mentioned. She took one look at the map, squinted, turned it around, looked at the map again, and then asked in English “Can I show you?” Turns out she'd spent a month in California and is studying English! I said only if it wasn't a problem for her, and she said no problem. And so we walked and talked. And walked. And walked. Our walk was punctuated by exclamations of “taihen desu ne” = “that's really rough/huge/disaster” in regards to my luggage, and “muzukashii desu ne” = “very difficult” in regards to the map. Eventually she was lost too, though she lives here, and we both asked another kind Japanese woman with an adorable white dog if she knew where my LeoPalace was. She looked at the map, squinted, and said “muzukashii desu ne?” and Arisa and I both nodded.

At this point, poor Arisa, who was waiting on a call from her mother to meet her at the train station, had instead been out wandering around Toyota with me for at least 10-15 minutes and I felt horrible for it. The second woman lead us back down the hill we'd painstakingly walked up, and with a few starts and stops we're in front of a LeoPalace. Woman with dog leaves, then comes back about 30 seconds later as I'm trying to find my apartment and informs me we're at the WRONG Leopalace. At this point, the long metal handle on my large rolling suitcase breaks, leaving me with two broken suitcases that can only be rolled my the small handle on top that's meant for lifting them. (The other suitcase broke on my way to the Kanayama Plaza Hotel on Friday.) Arisa took my small suitcase (which makes me feel crappier because I know how heavy it is but I couldn't do it without the help), and a block later we were at the right Leopalace. I exchanged contact information with Arisa (we may grab dinner) and told her if she ever wants to practice English, just email. I'll do anything in the world for her. Seriously, for her and the other woman who helped me find the alley where my apartment is. If it wasn't for them, I think I'd have been sleeping in the train station last night.

I sent Arisa on her way, opened the door to my apartment, threw my suitcases in, tried to turn on the light and there was no response. Nothing. Darkness I have no heat and I have no electricity. The apartment is pitch black, the only light is a small glow across my “genkan” (entrance where the shoe closet is) from the outside light that is lighting up the area in front of all of the apartments.

Near tears, I propped my suitcase against the door to keep it open, sat down on the concrete area in front of my dark apartment, and tried to access the internet so I can could my supervisor. No internet. In the process of all of this in and out of the apartment, I also thought I had lost the tenancy agreement and my map from the station (though I'd actually left it inside on top of the washing machine). At this point, I sat down in front of my apartment and cried. I had no idea what to do. I was pissed off and totally lost. But hysteria is only useful for so long, so with the aid of a pack of tissues I'd been handed at the Kanayama station (stores just love to give you tissues in Japan), I walked back into my apartment to find the map, get my computer and find an internet cafe. But before I leave, I see a giant circuit breaker, thankfully at the front of the apartment where it is lit. I look at it and figure what the hell, I'll pull some switches. Fifty-fifty it kills my apartment, but my apartment was pretty non-responsive anyway, so what the hell.I tried all of the small breakers first, then the large one, and voila, I had lights!

Yay! Just having lights makes a huge difference in ones mood. I still didn't have internet (that took me a half hour to figure out the instructions this morning—I was too whacked out to even be able to find those instructions last night). After storing my luggage, (and in much better spirits though still somewhat pissed) I trekked out for an internet cafe to try and call the futon place to see if they could deliver today (still working on that—the 24 hour number seems nonfunctional but even if they can't I'm buying a sleeping bag today, as soon as I get my heat.)

On the trip to the internet cafe is when I got the first good navigation idea I've had since I arrived in Japan. I took a picture with my digital camera facing back towards my apartment (where I'd been) at every intersection, so that I could find my way home. This basically worked, though some of my ideas of what makes a good landmark were better than others. A man saw me taking pictures and asked in Japanese if I was taking “momento” photos (tourist) and I was able to explain in Japanese “Everywhere I'm always saying 'doko desu ka' and because of that I'm taking pictures from my apartment to here.” And he responded “Ah, shashin no michi!” and I said, “Hai!” It was exciting to me to be able to have that sort of conversation. He also gave me directions to the internet cafe. At first, I thought the McDonalds was the internet cafe because someone told me they have internet, but they only have internet from 9-7pm (as the woman nicely explained to me) after I couldn't find it. Still, while McDonalds is crap food in any country, it was better than nothing and hot. The internet cafe was actually behind the McDonalds, and for approximately $2, I was able to use internet for a half hour.

Of course, I couldn't reach the futon place, nor any family or friends. Feeling very alone, I started back to my apartment. On my way, I saw a sign for Karaoke, so I did Karaoke by myself for an hour. That sounds kind of pathetic, and it felt that way at first, but as I started singing songs from my favorite Japanese band (The Mass Missile) I began to have a lot of fun! Even after just three times doing Karaoke in Japan, my sight reading of kana and kanji is improving. Also, as with songs in English, there are many lyrics to songs that I've been mistaken about (“hold me closer, Tony Danza), so it's good to find out what the songs are really saying. At Karaoke, all songs have furigana which is also nice/wonderful/subarashii!.

Back at the apartment, I put on three more layers of clothes, two layers of socks, my hat and gloves, wrapped myself in my Snuggie on top of my towel and some laundry and tried to use the internet again in my “bed”. The universe was clearly watching out for me because while I couldn't check my email, Skype miraculously worked even though my internet password failed, and I was able to talk to Steph for over an hour. A best friend is an irreplaceable gift for which I am infinitely grateful. (and everyone wish Steph luck at her new job!)

I went to sleep at 2am Toyota Time. I woke again at 4am because I was shivering, but with some rearrangement of self and blankets, I was able to stay warm enough to sleep until 6:30am. I was sooo glad to see sunlight. I struggled with the LeoPalace Welcome Guide (written entirely in Japanese, kana and kanji, no furigana) and I learned from the diagrams that there are five types of “cable” boxes I could have (with five types of remotes, and two different systems, etc). I identified mine as a type five, and then through trial and error, managed to get myself to the Check-in Screen. This is not nearly as easy as it sounds. (especially as technical support is in Japanese only, “sumimasen desu”, so it wasn't like I could call someone) Once I was at the check-in screen, the diagrams and katakana were actually pretty straightforward, but getting there, like walking in Japan, was not at all intuitive.

That's when I read my mom's email from sometime yesterday that while was Frannie was not improving, she is stable, that my mom is sorry she missed my calls, and to call back anytime. I call, and Frannie has died.

I feel ridiculously crappy about this because I'm wondering how I missed her heart disease, or worse, if her underlying heart disease was exacerbated by something that I did. I know my mom feels even worse, though she shouldn't. I know she did EVERYTHING possible in regards to helping Frannie. She's at a Passover Seder now (which I'm feeling nostalgic for). It is possible that Frannie's high White Blood Cell Count was caused by cancer and not an infection, and this was just incredibly bad timing (the worst). I also know Frannie was 15 years old, but before I took her out of the house she'd been happy and stable. I was trying to do my best by her to have her be vaccinated before I left the country, but maybe that exacerbated her underlying infection that we didn't know about until after the blood work came back. In any sense, I feel responsible because if I hadn't made that decision, and if I hadn't been so crazy with the leaving that I'm sure I missed one or two of her antibiotic dosages, maybe she'd still be alive. Or maybe not. I don't know.

In short, it has been a rough 24 hours. So far though, still better than my first week at Graduate School. Knock on wood. I'm just praying that the pendulum shifts and things move back on an upswing again. I have had one positive sign. As I write this last paragraph, the maintenance man arrived, and he is outside my door working on my heat. At least I think that's what he said. Either that or he's here to rob my apartment, and good luck with that. If he can lift my luggage to take it away, he's a better person than me.

Pictures to be posted on facebook.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Nagoya Day 2: Orientation/Training and Karaoke!

Today offers less pictures because I spent the bulk of my day in Orientation/Training. I can say definitively that our company offers a huge wealth of wonderful teaching materials and comprehensive training that promises to be quite helpful. From listening to the stories of others ALT's in the room starting with Altia who have experience elsewhere, it seems to me that the training and materials here is definitely top-notch. This makes me feel more comfortable, because aspects of the task we're taking in are a bit overwhelming. I'm going to be teaching in something like 5-6 schools, multiple classes in each, and with multiple teachers. It's more than a little stressful to think about the logistics of this, especially things like memorizing my students' names, consulting with teachers about the lesson plans, etc. I think the first few weeks are going to be a bit rough while I get my feet under me. But the attitude of my trainers and fellow ALTs is very positive. If I could handle my first month of Grad School, this should certainly be within my capabilities. I hope.

After training, it was time for Karaoke! Me and three other ALTs from my company were supposed to hook up with the group I met from Interac when my plane came in, but schedules didn't mesh, so we ended up on our own. It was Saturday night, so when we got to Joy Joy Karaoke, the place was booked an hour out. So we put our names in, and then headed out to find some cheap beer. And so I had my first “Kampai” in Japan, toasting with my new friends over frothy mugs of Nama beer. At this bar, they also give you tofu with your beer. It seemed like it was a part of the package, but we found out after we had finished it that we'd been charged more for the tofu than the beer. That was a bit of a downer, though I did enjoy the tofu.

Our number came up just as soon as we got to Karaoke. And so I stepped foot into one of the millions of beating hearts of the motherland of Karaoke, a Karaoke Booth just outside the Kanayama station in Nagoya Japan. The Karaoke booth is a tiny room with two microphones. Inside, the acoustics are great, and there is even a button that allows you to change the key of the song so that you can sing it better. Alas, my knowledge of what key I should be singing in is limited, but I expect I'll get a feel for it once I do more Karaoke.

The place we were at also had Nomi-houdai, which means all the alcohol you can drink (off of their alcohol menu) but in this case the drinks were so weak it was more like an all you can drink random soda selection. In the Karaoke booth, there is a small portable entry screen which allows you to enter the name of an artist and get all of their songs (that the Karaoke place has). Luckily two of the four people with our group knew exactly how to use the machine, so we were able to select our songs on the entirely Japanese menus. Then, once the song goes through (both English and Japanese songs are featured), you read it off of a large, flatscreen which has all of the words written in their native language with Furigana on top. This means that even the songs with Kanji can be read if you can read Hiragana and Katakana.

Unfortunately, while I can read Hiragana and Katakana, I read it like a mentally deficient second grader, ie, very very sloooooowly. So I couldn't really keep up with the Japanese songs I picked though it was fun to try. My rendition of Crystal Kay's “Think of You” was a slow motion disaster. Larc-en-ciel's driver's high was a bit better, in part because I also had a friend join me. I think this is defintely going to be my road to reading and typing in Japanese! What's also nice about the booths is that you really can do lots of songs in an hour, and with your friends the experience is ridiculously fun. Also the sound setup is amazing. In the other sense though, the booths do make Karaoke less of a “meeting people” experience. We are all in our own little booth bubbles, bonding with existing circles of friends. I am definitely going to be doing a LOT more Karaoke in Japan (note from the future: gonna head out tonight, Monday, after our welcome party) but I think that Karaoke is not going to be my vehicle to meet random strangers. I'm gonna have to find my local bar for that. All of these things I'd already suspected, and it is good to have them confirmed.

After Karaoke, we went to a video arcade where we played this mad awesome drumming game. My partner is a professional drummer, so he set it to major hard “muzukashii”. I barely hit anything (as we were playing as partners) but it didn't matter because it was great fun. I especially enjoyed “Train, Train, Train” the song, which was super cute and fun! (and a bit easier to know when to hit the drum).

After that, it was off to bed and ready for another rousing day of orientation! Let's play a game—Yay!

Pictures are Posted to my Facebook Album: Nagoya Day 2

Next Entry: More Orientation and the Long Walk for Hawaiian Food.
Upcoming: It's The Little Things; Musings on Differences between Nagoya and Philly.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Nagoya Day 1: Second Half:

It was around 11am Nagoya time when I made it to the Kanayama Washington Hotel. I dragged my luggage onto the elevator and spoke with the woman at the front desk, explaining in rather broken Japanese that I was with Altia Central and that they had reserved my room. Alas, I was soon to discover that I had intrepidly journeyed to the wrong hotel. I needed the Kanayama Plaza hotel, and that was a good 3-4 blocks away. Which considering my travel speed meant a good hour or more of wandering around Nagoya asking people “doko desu ka” until I staggared to my intended destination. The woman at the desk pulled out a lovely map and drew a line from where I was to where I was going. Then she asked if it was okay. I kind of shrugged and said "hai, daijoubu." What was I going to do, take up residence in her hotel lobby? So with a Genki grin I set out again. Once more into the streets of Nagoya.

About halfway to my destination, I ran into a lovely Pakistani man named Suni who ended up giving me a ride to the hotel. I'd never have accepted this ride in Philly, and probably it was poor judgement here, but I did have pepper spray. There is a certain bond that comes from being a foriegner here though. No matter what country you're from, if you're gaijin (ie: not from Japan), there's an automatic point of common ground. In my time here, I've met people from all over the world, so in a way I'm not just learning about Japanese culture but also getting a different and fascinating perspective on the rest of the world.

Once I got settled into my hotel, it was time to venture back out for necessary supplies (namely hairbrush and watch) as well as get my health check done. I went first for the health check, but in keeping with my theme for the day, ended up first at the wrong Mizutani hospital (Mizutani was recommended I go for the health check by my company). The correct one was just around the corner though, and the first hospital had a small map which they gave me. That along with simple instructions got me to the second hospital. They were of course closed on afternoon siesta, so I had to come back two hours later. Which was fine, because this gave me the chance to whip out my hotel map and wend my way to the Donkiyote store (sounds like Don Quixote, I kid you not--which felt appropriate, because in regards to Nagoya navigation, I've totally been chasing windmills).

Don Quixote's store was made of amazing. It was like fifty of those “health and beauty” stores on Chestnut street combined with twenty dollar stores and a few sections of Walmart squashed into one floor of my house. All with multiple TV's going constantly, and a small food section. In short, I was completely in love. In this store I found a watch (which apparantly doesn't work, so I'm going to try my first return probably tonight after training (note from the future: this was all on Friday and it's currently morning Nagoya time...blogging the events of ones life are awfully time consuming). I bought an excellent hairbrush, a nonfunctional watch, some canned mangoes, this incredible peach chewing gum and bottled tea. In Japan, bottled tea comes in a sea of flavors and types. This is also where I got my picture of the famous “Black Man” underwear, that seems to be designed to make a man look more well endowed. I couldn't stop laughing as I snapped the picture. That' s also where I got my canned tuna Onigiri, which I've been informed is actually Tsuna (ツナ)not Shina(シナ)。Thanks Rally! That's a huge difference.

The health clinic checkup was also really interesting. I am very proud that through gestures and broken Japanese, I was able to explain my physical state (in vague, broad terms) as well as some of my family medical history. Luckily one of the nurses spoke some English, which became necessary especially when I saw the doctor because he was wearing a face mask, and between the muffledness of his voice and the fact that I couldn't read his expressions, I couldn't understand him at all. One unexpected event at the health clinic: on the giant flatscreen TV in the waiting room, I saw a commercial for beer featuring the actress who plays Yankumi in the live action version of Gokusen. From what I was able to glean from the commercial, before trying this particular type of beer, she didn't like beer, but now beer is GREAT!

I was also completely amazed by my physical. I got an ear test, eye check, x-ray, and (very) brief physical all for about 4,500 yen ($45). This was the rate without insurance. The same physical in the USA would have costed me over $200 with my crappy insurance, without the X-ray (I know because I called my PCP on this before I left and decided to do it in Japan). In Japan, there are no appointments: you just walk into Japanese clinics and wait. I was admitted to the clinic in under 15 minutes, and was seen in under an hour. The place was really hopping. I think about 30 people were in and out in the time I was getting seen. People with obvious limbs in casts, people wearing “I'm sick” facemasks and a number of healthy looking people as well. This really put our healthcare debate in the USA into a different perspective. I'm sure the Japanese system has it's own flaws (that I'll discover soon, especially when I try to get more birth control...sigh...), but their nationalized system seems a huge step up from what we have (and are probably going to have with this new bill, but hope springs eternal).

Reflecting on my first full day in Nagoya, I can say it's a good thing I enjoy being lost, because my life in Japan is all about being lost. I'm lost in restaurants, only having a vague idea of what's on the menu. I'm lost on the streets, only having a vague idea of where I'm going, and I'm lost in conversation, only having a vague idea of what people are saying. But the other half of this is the magic of having a condensed rush of new experiences that are at points amazing, maybe a little frustrating, and wonderfully strange. It's been ridiculously fun, and I'm so happy to be here!

Photos of Day one posted at Facebook on my profile. Hopefully that link will work.

Next post: Orientation/Training and Karaoke!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Nagoya: First Half of Day 1

Today came in highs and lows. The largest low was this morning's (for me, it was Thursday evening for Philly folks) panicked phone call from my mom that Frannie, our oldest cat, was having severe labored breathing. She's responding to lasix, thank God, but this was my nightmare situation, and it happens within 24 hours of my landing in Japan. The rest of the day basically centered around transportation and sundry tasks related to orientation preparation. I am highly excited that with the help of 5-10 fine Japanese people and one wonderful Pakistani man, I made it from the hostel to the Kanayama Plaza hotel. I did originally go to the Kanayama Washington Hotel, only to find out that it was not the right hotel and then start the long walk to the correct hotel. By long I mean, under five blocks, but with my sense of direction, language, and reading skills, probably another 1-2 hours of wandering around Nagoya.

I am proud to say that I have succeeded in using and understanding the Nagoya Subway system. I decided upon leaving my hostel/ryokan that since I had five and a half hours to kill before I checked in at the hotel that instead of taking the cab to the train station, I'd walk it. According to the hostel website and my roommate, it was only a ten minute walk and it would it save me the 7500 yen for the cab ride. So I set off in the direction that Hiro-san had told me towards what I thought was the Meitetsu Line.

Now, to put things in context, before I left Philly, I printed out google map directions from the hostel to the hotel, as well as for every other place I thought I'd need to go in the first few days. They've been only mildly helpful, in large part because the street maps are grainy and the station names and lines are written in Kanji. Small, grainy kanji. So I've been highly dependent on asking for directions about every 5-10 minutes in order to see if I'm on track. The major problem with asking for directions in a language you barely speak is that you don't know if you're asking for what you think you're asking for. So, for example, I thought I asked where the train station was for the Meitetsu line because I was trying to get to Kanayama. What I got was the subway station. So I'm looking at my grainy map, comparing it to the Nagoya subway map that I thankfully printed as well, and realizing that if I take the Sakura-dori line to Nagoya station, I'll be back in line with my google maps directions. (for however helpful that will be.) And so my luggage and I went underground.

I asked for directions again before descending, and was told to go to the Kokksai Center (cultural center) stop and then take the Sakura-dori line one stop to Nagoya. So I followed signs for Sakura-dori (thankfully in English) until I got to a station. A lovely old woman pointed me to the nearest Sakura-dori station. She probably was giving me useful information in Japanese (like, the fact that I was not going to the cultural center) but I didn't understand it. So I get to the stop, and it's Sakura-dori, but not Koksai Center. At every station, there's a giant map of the subway line above the automatic ticket counter. It has a “You Are Here” in Japanese, which is prominently displayed in Kanji. I had a good feeling that the kanji in question meant “you are here” and a nice person confirmed this for me.

Once I got to Nagoya Station, I was greeted with a station that was five levels deep and connected with multiple subways and buses, and so the confusion began again. But again, with the aid of “doko desu ka” and the ability to follow signs, I made it to the train. My confidence with asking for directions and using Japanese subways is growing by leaps and bounds! Of course, when I got off of the train, I found the Kanayama Washington Hotel with little difficulty--stopping at a vender inside the train to get some amazingly delicious tamago sushi with seaweed wrapped something that was also tasty as heck! Not speaking the language well means you have to be adventurous with food. I rarely know what I'm eating, beyond in the most general sense: looks like sushi, could be chicken, maybe that's an orange, betting that's milk, etc. But it's all been great so far—knowing what you're eating is clearly overrated. Also, thankfully, there are lots of pictures on food and drink, and English abounds, at least in Nagoya, so it's not as confusing as it could be. I have a can of mangos from the store I went to yesterday, and chopsticks, so that's breakfast.

Which is where I'm leaving off today because I have to get showered and dressed for Orientation now.

Day one, second half to come soon!

Food note: I had an Onigiri (rice and something wrapped in seaweed--delicious) yesterday labeled シナ= shina, which meant inside the rice and seaweed was Shina. Tasted like Tuna, and when I looked up Tuna one of the selections was シナ = canned tuna. So now I've added Canned Tuna to my list of food vocabulary!

Friday, March 26, 2010

From Plane to Futon: Day 0.5

I made it! So much happened since my last entry, I feel like that moment of my life was just a snapshot from a distant past. This is probably in part because of the endless day of travel between Philadelphia and Nagoya. I say endless because we literally chased the sun from where it rose over the Philadelphia International airport to as where I sat on the Meitetsu line traveling from the airport to Nagoya proper as it drifted below the horizon around 6:30pm (5:30am EST) Our plane traveled northwest from Chicago, over Anchorage and back down again, zipping past Siberia (though we didn't pass over it), Hokkaido, and to land at the Narita International Airport in Toyko.

As is usual with me, my Ready, Fire, Aim approach to life seriously had me skirting major lostness and frustration in my exhausted state after landing in Nagoya. But some Deity (or possibly my grandmother) was watching out for me because I had a series of incredibly good fortune coincidences that helped get me from the Nagoya airport to my hostel.

First, at Narita, Andrea, who ironically happens to live in Philadelphia, less than a mile from my house, came over and started talking with me. Turns out we had been on the same flight from Philly to Chicago and onwards to Tokyo. She's with a different company, Interac, and her and a small group of Americans and Canadians were meeting up with a guide in Nagoya to get to their training with Interac. Thankfully, they were heading for Kanayama, which is only one stop on the Meitetsu line before my stop in Nagoya central. I dramatically underestimated how difficult it would be to navigate a train system, exchange money, etc. in a totally different country, but the Interac guide let me tag along with them and even supplemented my upgrade to a first class car so I could ride with them in the same train. I am SO incredibly grateful. As tired and lost as I was after the flight, I think it would have taken me 2-3x as long to figure things out for myself, and I might have ended up going the wrong way anyway.

I am also incredibly grateful to Hatsue Ishikawa-san who I met on the plane from Tokyo to Nagoya. She and her daughter were visiting her husband in Chicago, and we spent the entire flight from Tokyo to Nagoya talking about our lives, sharing pictures etc. She also offered to get me on the proper train, but I had already agreed to follow the Interac people and didn't want to hold her up as I had needed to stop and exchange money. Ishikawa-san volunteers at a Juuku (cram school, may have the spelling romanized wrong) where she helps teach the children English. I may be volunteering there sometimes as well if that works out, which would be awesome because it would give me a chance to meet more Japanese people and get another window into Japanese culture (as well as make the learning fun, as these poor kids are so stressed).

When I got off of the train at Kanayama, I was alone again, struggling with my two suitcases--SO glad I minimized my luggage; I barely made it with the two suitcases I had. I can't imagine how I would have managed more or heavier bags. I needed to get to the taxi station, which turned out to be up a flight of stairs (no elevator or escalator). I was definitely in panic/stress mode there. There was another escalator, which led in a totally different direction, and my spacial relations were shot at that point (as were many of my higher functions due to exhaustion). I was standing with my suitcases, totally at a loss when a nice woman who looked a bit younger than me came up to me and asked in Japanese if I was okay. I said I was fine, and she asked me what was going on, and I tried to ask about another escalator but eventually gave up. Turns out she spoke English (Thank God!) and she even helped me take my carryon up the stairs so I could lug the big suitcase. She pointed me to the taxi station. I wish I had gotten her name or a photo, but I'll never forget her. She totally saved me!

The taxis here are like luxury automobiles in the US. They have white paper on the seats, are immaculate, and the cabbie wears a suit. I almost didn't get into the cab because I assumed it couldn't be a cab, but the sign said taxi (in English) so I went for it. For only 7500 yen (about $8) I got from the taxi station to the Ryokan. That was a bit of an adventure too because the cabbie didn't speak any English, I barely speak Japanese, and my address was in English. I had been given some landmarks from the website for the Ryokan/Hostel, but either I screwed them up or they weren't very helpful because both me and the cabbie were totally confused. But eventually (because google maps gives the address and phone number of your destination), he was able to locate it on his GPS and while we were driving, I had my first real conversation that was only in Japanese. And we made it to the Kyoya Ryokan.

The Ryokan is amazing! I'll let the pictures tell the story because I feel like I've been typing forever. So in quick summary, my hostel roommate Fanny (a mathematician from France who speaks English very well though she doesn't thinks she does) and I went out for Ramen at a real corner Ramen dive. (a dive in Japan is like a small, cozy, immaculate restaurant in Philly). She was also very helpful and I am very glad we got to room together since she's been here for about a month and thus knows the lay of the land. Then I took a second shower and soaked in the public bath, which was like a hot tub. Perfect end to a very looooong day.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Chicago to Nagoya: Flight advice

So much has happened in the past seven or eight hours. First, I made it to and through Chicago, O'hare airport (including a shuttle train ride and a second pass through security). Chicago boasted of wireless internet access, but ultimately, it was an even deeper betrayal, because I couldn't get the internet to even load enough to charge me. But my plane did land safely (way more important), and the pilot was wonderful. He had the laid back yet professional attitude that immediately puts a passenger at ease. In addition, the plane was practically empty, which allowed me to take over an entire row and sleep for close to two hours.

Now I'm about five plus hours into my flight from Chicago to Nagoya. Seriously, if you have to be on a plane for close to 14 hours, take Japan Airlines. About an hour in, I treated to the best, hands down, in-flight meal I've ever had, complete with hot cloth before eating, in season fruits and vegetables, and a followup with hot tea and then Artisian water—made of happy! And the entertainment system is to die for. There are over 30 movies and shows to choose from, all that can be queued up “on demand” style with rewind, pause, etc, at your leisure. Menus are in Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean, Spanish and more. Also, there are selections of Japanese, American, Indian, Chinese and Korean films and television shows. And if you're not feeling the TV, there are also about 20 audio stations and video games, all playable with a handy personal remote for each passenger. My seatmate has spent quite a long time playing video games. I'm currently typing on my netbook while listening to J-pop from the plane. And, somewhere here there is rumored to be an electrical socket. Of course, I put all of my chargers in the overhead compartment (inside my small suitcase) as it never occurred to me there'd be an electric socket, but still, I am warmed by the fact that it exists, somewhere.

I did sleep for a couple of hours while listening to the classical station.

Thoughts on flying and the body (so far):

1.Happy Feet: You may think fuzzy socks (the super soft socks you get from CVS) are a great idea for long distance flying but they're NOT. Wearing them for the short 2:40 minute to Chicago, my feet felt like they were being bathed in static. At O'Hare switched to my more standard (but still a bit loose) kitty socks and my feet have been quite happy for this flight so far. Happiness in travel starts at the feet, so make sure to pick the right socks.
2.In the same vein as the above “happy feet” notation, taking off your shoes and chilling in your socks makes for a much happier flight. Which leads to thought #3...
3.Planes run hot and dry so scrub pants (the kind nurses aides and doctors wear) and a light weight top for running or biking is an excellent choice for comfortable travel. My mom had a pair of scrub pants that she bought about a year ago. Yes, they're green and my running shirt is a powder blue. With my knee high boots and bulky travel document holder stuffed down my shirt that makes me look like I'm preparing to eject a deformed chest-hugger, I look like an idiot, but I'm a comfortable idiot (with easily accessible travel documents), and comfort is the key to flying happily. The scrubs and running shirt both are quite lightweight and breathe well.
4.Water: You'll be drinking like crazy and still feel very dry as the flight continues. Be prepared for dry sinuses, dry throat, dry skin, dry eyes, etc. My tactic to offset this has been to keep drinking water. In fact, while it was $2.50/bottle, I'm very happy that I bought an extra 2 bottles of water in Chicago, as well as having a fruit smoothie there, as in combination with the plethora of beverages the fine staff at Japan Airlines is plying us with, the extra water is still being used. Of course (un/fortunately...?) this means I'm peeing a LOT, but for a long flight like this, it's a good idea to be up every couple of hours anyway to move around and stretch. Not only is it more comfortable, but long term sitting can effect the kidneys as well as cause swelling and blood clots. I'm probably being overly paranoid and not especially popular with my seatmates, as I'm at the window and keep getting them up every 2 hours so I can pee, but sacrifices must be made. Also, chapstick is a win.
5.Candy is good. I'm so glad I bought those Starburst jellybeans earlier this week as an impulse purchase, and that chocolate frosted donut in Philly. Haven't broken yet into the candy that Steph gave me (chocolate, chocolate, chocolate!) but I will soon.
6.In summary, being on a plane this long makes you incredibly aware of your body, it's needs, and it's level of comfort.

Now moving on to flying topics unrelated to comfort, the view I've had out of the window as we've flown has been incredible. We're currently heading past Anchorage (towards on top of the world, I think), but every time I've looked out of my window, I've been amazed at the view. And you can get good photos through an aircraft window. Also, I think we're following the sun as it's been consistently sunny for my entire flight, and when I (finally) get to Nagoya, it will only be 5:05pm their time, and likely still sunny. Not only am I fast forwarding into the future, but I am having a day of unending light. Not bad for what could be a rather traumatizing experience.

Oh, and I really wish I'd brought a watch. I'm going to try and find one in Nagoya, as well as an alarm clock. I'm going to try and use my cell for the second purpose (and with some math, a bit of the first), though this may not work as my service is off as of the March 25, EST.

Next up, read a novel. Get some sleep. Watch another movie. And then make some further decision about the final 2-3 hours of my flight. Not necessarily in that order.

Until later.

Note from the future: no reading was accomplished on this flight. I did play Bejeweled for over an hour though.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Musings from Philly International Airport

So we don't get free internet at Philly International anymore, which means that I'm most likely posting this message in the evening after my marathon flight. But I haven't yet flown to that future now, so I'll treat you to punchy, pre-travel musings.

Musing 1: It friggin sucks that Philly International is making you pay for wireless now! What a bunch of jerks.

Musing 2: It was incredibly difficult to leave my mom. We were supposed to stay overnight at a hotel prior to the flight, but we never made it, and that was the better decision considering how many pickup things I still had to do. I finished up around 3am, with the exception of packing my medical records, which are still sitting on the recliner at home...doh! That and a brush, also still at home. I'm gonna have nappy hair tomorrow--unless the Chicago airport has brushes (which it didn't, says Vash from the future), Philly International appears to be out. Or maybe it's more that I asked at one place, and then found a chair with an electrical outlet, spread out, and now here I stay with my tea and cold bagel. Which leads directly to...

Musing 3: Exhaustion combined with nervousness and excitement = temporary ADD. Like look at this post. We moved from the pain of leaving my mother who is also my best and oldest friend. To clarify: Steph being my best and oldest friend with whom I don't technically share blood, (unless you count that vampire pact, which we don't. We don't talk about the Vampire Pact. That is the first rule of the Vampire pact, goshdarnit!) I know my mom is going to be okay. She's even mastering the Terminator walk in regards to Oddball's medication (he runs, but always to the same place where he gives up and takes the pill—gonna miss that cat). But for me, it wasn't like the situation was real until I actually left. Maybe a part of that was the fact I was washing dishes and scooping litterpans at 2:30 in the morning, not unusual for me, but the physical act of hugging my mother goodbye, throwing my keys through the mail slot while the cabbie waited to toss my luggage into the trunk made it really a true thing.

Musing 5: I ran into an acquaintance I met at Don's party who recognized me, came over and talked. We had a lovely conversation. She's on her way to Puerto Rico with something like 18 highschoolers. I'm an idiot for not remembering her name, but I think that's the two days of under 4 hours of sleep followed by last night's total of 20 minutes sleep making it impossible for me to retain any actual information.
And my plane is boarding. So much for Musing 6: On Philly movie posters in the airport. And it promised to be such a great musing!

Photos to be uploaded to Photobucket. I'll post a link in the blog.


I have to begin my teaching with a "Self Introduction" or Jikoshoukai lesson, and here are links to some of the pictures I plan/hope to use to add pizzas to this lesson.

My name is Vashti:

I am from the United States: Picture of USA Flag

My hometown is Philadelphia:*b6aGxcasL8Fw-nIjH9o-AwJe-ZrOTw5G7MASf-1MEkjGxNqUYNExaVUnvyHqGSBGSA2i/PhiladelphiaSkyline.jpg

I like Pasta:

I like Karaoke: (this will be cropped so it's the two of us)

I like Cats:

Now back to last minute errands!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Packing...the continuing saga!

A smaller suitcase weighs less, which is the insight I had this morning at 8:30am. So moved all of my clothing that's being checked into a slightly smaller suitcase. I had to sacrifice another pair of shoes, a bottle of Tussin DM and a second bathing suit (really, do I need more than one bathing suit?) but I made it. Phew!

I am feeling a little adrift only having the Tussin tablets though. Hopefully I'll wait a few weeks to get sick so that my liquid Tussin has arrived. According to the forums, American OTC drugs like Tussin and Ibuprofen are apparently very difficult to acquire in Japan (cheaply, in normal to U.S. citizen dosages), as is antiperspirant deodorant and fluoride toothpaste. I'm not sure why a country as awesome as Japan would shirk on the fluoride toothpaste, but I'm a huge fan of minimizing my cavities. So I packed in travel sizes and am having larger sizes shipped.

It's amazing how little you can get by with, shocking to a packrat like me. I'm glad that I can use my room at home for storage. I'm also amazed with this process, which has been at points agonizing, that my friend Carrie managed to reduce her life down to what she could carry on a bicycle. With two suitcases, a large purse and at least 3 boxes being shipped over the next few weeks, I'm still feeling naked and unprepared. (now one of these boxes is haircare products--I bought a year of Pantene for WOC Oil Creme moisturizer as I doubt that will be a hot item in Japan). I think I bought more luggage when I went to Odyssey--I know I bought more stuff home thanks to Barb's car.

This is my last morning at home for the next year and a half, my last morning in my childhood room, watching Babycat jump in and out of the window while Oddball walks up and down around me on the bed. It'll be the last day of sitting on the sofa watching DVRed episodes of Buffy the Vampire slayer while Boo-Boo tries to rob me of my breakfast. (and today, I do my taxes: all multitasking, all the time). This'll be my last morning conversation with my mom where it's morning for both of us--now, where one sun is setting the other will be rising. So while I'm vibrating with excitement (and exhaustion and stress and omg, the running and the screaming...), it's still a bittersweet experience. When I return, I'll be both myself and someone else. Someone with a wealth of new experiences, a few true stories that nobody will believe, and hopefully a fiction or two that someone will.

Love and Hugs to all :)

Getting Ready for Japan

Good News: I'm in a Leopalace, which means I'll have internet (most likely) in my apartment, as well as a washer and full bathroom dryer, toaster, and other appliances. The apartment is beyond tiny, but that should persuade me not to get too much stuff. I'm very excited!

Youtube video tour of a Leopalace apartment:

The packing process has been a huge challenge though. I started out with one giant suitcase, a giant camping backpack, all overflowing with stuff. After an intense conversation with Steph and my mom about the fact that my packing strategy was INSANE, I decided to repack.

I unpacked all of my luggage and tossed it in a pile of rolled up sausage garments, then started the process of picking seven outfits for my trip. I've got it down to one checked bag (the backpack now packed inside the large suitcase). Still, I still haven't fully made the grade. It's 3am and I"m at 55 pounds on my checked bag. At least I think it's 55lb, getting the suitcase on the scale is a bit of a challenge. I may let it ride and pay the $50 bucks for the extra weight. My carry on is about six pounds over the weight limit also, but I'm hoping they don't check it. I"m tempted to pack some of my extra luggage in the backpack and save the money, but I'll probably suck it up for ease of carrying. There's also the possibility of taking a small knapsack and filling it with the extra 10lbs extra, as I'm allowed to have two checked bags. Gonna sleep on it.

I still have a zillion things to do tomorrow. I wish I'd done my taxes last week. Totally kept slipping my mind. But as I'm po', the gov't owes me so I can wait until I get back if push comes to shove. Still, the refund would be happy-making as I try to rebuild my savings as I've been hemorrhaging money the past two weeks.

This isn't the most exciting blog entry, but it's almost 4am so there goes.

Hugs to all :)