Monday, June 28, 2010

So You're Just Here For the Rain?

I'm so sorry I didn't get the last Japan blog up before we left! Things just got so busy as we were leaving. I promise the rest of the pictures and stories from Japan will be coming very soon.

John and I are in Hong Kong now, staying at residential college at Hong Kong University. It rained for the first three days that we were here, which was not the welcome we had hoped for. But the rainy season here is supposed to end by the beginning of July, and it's actually been clear for the last three days. The accomodations here aren't anything exciting, but it's nice to have lots of friends around. The beds here are so hard! My mattress feels like a piece of plywood with a fleece blanket and then a sheet on top. Surprisingly though, I still sleep pretty well. Every morning though, I think about how amazing my own bed will feel back in the US.

I bought a guide book, and I'm looking forward to getting out and exploring the city some. Before we got here I didn't think Hong Kong would be all that different from Japan. I guess in my mind one foreign Asian city was the same as another foreign Asian city. But they're so different! The architecture is so different, and the city is layed out in a totally different way, people act differently, and a lot of the food is different too. It's funny though, I find Hong Kong far more accessible, becaue there is more English here than in Tokyo, but John feels much more limited because he doesn't know any Cantonese and he did know Japanese.

Today I went out with a group of people to see a temple that used to be Buddhist' but then was converted to Taoist. I'm not entirely sure how that happened, but it was interesting to see, and different from any of the other temples I've seen. Then we went and saw a beautiful garden at a Buddhist nunnery. While I was off doing that, John climbed The Peak, which is a mountain top very close to the university. The view is supposed to be incredible, so I'm sure he'll have pictures to post soon, but the first mile and a half of the walk are supposed to be incredibly steep.

Other than that, we haven't done a whole lot. John had class everyday, and I've been traveling and touring so much that I'm starting to get lazy. I've taken the past few days to just relax and enjoy other people's company without charging off with a guidebook and a plan every morning. I am getting excited to go shopping for pearls though (and maybe opals and jade too). The shopping here is supposed to be really good, although not as great as mainland China, so I'm looking forward to that.

I hope you're all having a great summer! Happy fourth of July!


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Food In Japan

Alright, I'm going to try to do two blogs today, one about food and one about the last part of our time here. But the food blog is going to be way easier to do, so it comes first.

The thing about food here is that sometimes it seems so normal you let your guard down, and then sometimes it is the weirdest thing you can imagine. Earlier this week John and I went to an awesome American style pizza place where we got greasy pepperoni pizza and legitimate ceasar salad. It was so good! But you have to be very careful with pizza, mayonnaise and corn are both normal pizza toppings here.

John already told you about the cheddar cheese disaster. We had both been craving it, and it's not served anywhere. But I found some in the stores. Generally it comes in a block about the size of a deck of cards and costs 900 yen ($9-10.) I almost bought some, but then I saw they had kraft brand, which I bought because I recognized it. Seriously, do you see any warnings that this is not real cheddar cheese?

But this is what we found inside:

It's American cheese. Who on earth would want to eat a wedge of American cheese that thick?

Another thing Japanese people love is packaging. Everything is packaged! And then when you buy it, they might wrap it again, put it in a bag, tape the bag shut, and then give it to you. For example, these apples have been put in individual cushioned holders, placed two in a box, and then the box was wrapped in plastic.

An individually packaged lime

My personal favorite the "Monkey Banana"

Complaining and making fun aside, a lot of the food here is really good. Freshness is very important here, so the food is always very high quality, and the presentation is usually beautiful! Even if the food doesn't taste great it always looks delicious. At lunchtime many people buy prepackaged meals (called bento) that are usually very good. Several options I have tried are rice with a scrambled egg on top with curry beside it, slices of chicken with a sort of egg salad dressing with rice and vegetables, or cucumber and egg sandwiches. All of them have been pretty enjoyable. John normally gets sushi with salmon and pesto on it for lunch.

One thing that really surprised me here was the number of bakeries. Japanese people love bread and pastries! You find them nearly every block with usually more choices than you would find in a bakery in the US. On one of my first days here Ali, Hunter, and I got cupcakes in Tokyo Station that were amazing! Mine had a decorative piece of royal icing on top, vanilla icing, and raspberry and rose jam filling. Delicious!

It was called a "veil cupcake" because of the white decoration on top

The craziest thing John and I have eaten here, was in Kyoto. John ordered meat sashimi, which is thin slices of raw beef. They have to use extremely fresh meat in order for this to be safe (and every cow in Japan is tested for mad cow disease), and I was pretty scared to try it. Surprisingly, it was really good. There wasn't a whole lot of flavor, but it was extremely tender, and really not bad at all.

One thing I notice here is that I'm always thirsty. Drinks here are very expensive, and tiny! You might pay $4.50 for an 8 oz. coke. Now, I realize that a lot of things in America are comically big, but look at how small this glass of water is.

And forget about trying to get a refill

I had to ask 3 times just to get that glass of water in the first place. Alcohol is even more expensive. The cheapest beer on tap in most places around here is 900 yen (which is about $10 right now). And cocktails can easily be more than that. Strangely though, liquor in a liquor store is much less expensive. We bought a bottle of bombay sapphire for $18!

Well, I've got to run and mail some postcards and turn in our train passes. But I'll try to do another post today to wrap up our time here. Thanks for reading!


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

So Much To Tell

I can't believe we only have 3 more days here, and I haven't even started to write about Japan! I promise I'll get it all documented before we leave though.

My first week here was probably the busiest. Our friend Ali, who had been working in Osaka, and our friend Hunter, from high school, were both visiting Tokyo, so while John went to work I ran around with Ali and Hunter all day. It was kind of perfect though, because when I arrived I was exhausted and hadn't made any plans yet, but Ali had a perfect itinerary to see the highlights, and by the time she left, I had some places of my own that I wanted to see that Hunter helped me find.

Ali is a huge Disney fan, so course we had to visit Disney Sea, a special Disney Park next to Tokyo Disney. I had never been to any Disney Park before, but it was great to go with a professional. Ali knew all the important places to see, rides to go on, and how to skip the lines. By riding as single riders we got through a 90 minute wait in less than 10 minutes! The next day we went to an art/history of Japan museum. I have to admit, I don't remember the name of it though. We also walked through the Imperial Palace Gardens after having lunch in the Tokyo train station.

Lily Pond in the Palace Gardens

A Lantern in the Palace Gardens

That evening John and I went to watch a performance by The Young Americans, which is a performance group John's cousin Lindsay is in. She's currently on a tour around Japan, so it was awesome that we got to see her!

The Young Americans (Lindsay is straight above the director's head)

Lindsay on the Runway

After the show, we went to do karaoke with Lindsay, Hunter, and all our friends from Duke. I thought it was going to be awful, but it's actually really fun. I'm definitely not a great singer, but with everyone doing it together it's not bad.

Then for the weekend we went down to Kyoto and Nara, which John has already written about. But now some of his pictures are ready, so I'm going to post them. He might come back through and edit my captions though.

The Shinkansen (Bullet Train)

Lanterns at Kasuga Taisha

Lanterns at Kasuga Taisha

A Gold Lantern at Kasuga Taisha

Stone Lanterns on the path to Kasugataisha

Fortune are sold at the temples, but if the luck is bad, you tie it and leave it so the bad luck doesn't follow you.

One of the 12 generals


That's all for now, up next: weeks two and three, and a blog about food.


Saturday, June 19, 2010

This week on John and Wendy's life in Japan.

Spending my last weekend in Japan, I can't believe the whole thing has gone so quickly. Currently, however, I haven't managed to get out of bed for long enough to do anything except get some olives and feta for a snack.

This week at work they figured out that I didn't have enough to do, and so everyone has been giving me projects. I've gotten to write a few answers to clients emailed questions, rewrite some questions about an alleged sexual harassment, revise an article about Japanese labor law, and transcribe a interview between a Brazilian and a Japanese man, neither of whom spoke good enough English for the non-native speakers to understand what was going on.

Wendy bought some "Cheddar Cheese" made by Kraft. It was in fact a giant hunk of American Cheese. Yum, Yum, Yum!

Last night we went to a Tokyo Giants game. It was players night and so we got a free Big Mac if they hit a home run. Well they hit two home runs (which resulted in only one big mac). We then tried to cash in the coupons, however they weren't good until next Thursday. I know what I'm eating next Thursday. This Thursday we went to a restuarant that makes their own beer. it was a welcome respite from normal Japanese beer, but nothing anyone would drink in the U.S. given the vast array of amazing beer available. The food, however, was excellent. I had swordfish with mango salsa and Wendy had some sort of snapper (the love fish in Japan). Perhaps the best part was grilled romaine lettuce covered in butter and pepper. It had more flavor than most things I've had in Japan. Also in the parking lot outside the restaurant were two Ferraris and a 1960s Mercedes-Benz.

Sorry about the lack of pictures. Its a major pain to get them off my camera, develop them, and put them on the internet which such a terrible computer. Hopefully some will be put up soon.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Wendy eats deer - now that's news!

Hey everyone, Wendy pressured me into writing this blog entry - so thank her.

I work everyday (M-F, I asked if we worked on Saturday the first week) from 9:30am - 6pm (or 9:30-18 if your Japanese). Mostly I do different stuff everyday. So far I've translated a few documents, written a few emails to English speaking clients, done one research process on the reach of U.S. courts, and most importantly proof read a Pokemon licensing agreement.

I work on the 23 floor of the Mori tower, and get to sit at small desk among the secretaries since I'm not a lawyer. That also means I'm merely John-san instead of John-sensei. There is a secretary that sits next to me name Hayashida-san (her nickname is Linda) who is in charge of making sure that I'm alright among other things. The lawyer in charge of me is named Nemoto-sensei, he got his LL.M. at Duke about 2 years ago and his English is pretty good.

The apartment is pretty small, but bigger than other people's. It is on the fourth floor and has a wrap around balcony. It's so close to the building next to it I've considered jumping over to the other roof. I don't, however, know how to say "I was curious about jumping across the roof and I didn't mean to scare you" in Japanese to the person who's balcony I would be landing on, so I've not tried it. It's pretty close to where I work too - I can see the Mori tower from said balcony.

Wendy and I went to Kyoto last weekend. It rained one day and was sunny the other. Because it was raining I wasn't able to take very many pictures the second day which was kind of disappointing. Wendy did however get to feed the deer (I accidently told Hayashida-san that Wendy enjoyed eating the deer which is especially funny because the deer are sacred and harming them is illegal) "deer cookies." We tried to take the perfect picture but the deer weren't cooperating.

We tried to go to this one temple and started toward the temple about 2 hours before we had to leave. Kyoto has a terrible train system so you have to take buses, and we got on a bus that said it was going to the train station by way of the temple. However, once we got on the bus we found out that it had already been to the temple and was heading back to the station. We wanted to get off, but you have to wait until the bus gets to a stop to get off. Because of terrible traffic it took us thirty minutes to get to the train station (we could have walked it in 5) and then we got on another bus, hoping that the traffic was only bad in one direction. Well thirty more minutes later were were only 2 blocks away and had to get off the bus to make sure that we didn't miss our train back to Tokyo. This is why I hate buses and more importantly why no one ever wants to ride them, especially in America where on top of being slow and unpredictable they are also always late.

Pictures are to come, but its a big deal because I have to digitally develop the pictures which is really hard on this tiny, low resolution screen.

That's it for now.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Stranded In Paradise

My trip began in Tonga, a pacific island nation near Fiji, where I was meeting a friend from my hometown who's volunteering in the peace corps there. I knew that Tonga was a developing nation, and that is wasn't just going to be a glamorous beach vacation, but some things just blew my mind. In the capital pigs run across the streets freely. On the outer islands many people don't have running water, and electricity is only available part of the time.

I was lucky staying with Sarah, because although her house is small she has lots of amenities. Her house is about 15'x15'. She has a small bedroom, a living room, a tiny kitchen, and an indoor bathroom and shower. Most importantly though, she has electricity. (I met one peace corps volunteer who can't even refrigerate food, can you imagine how hard it would be to live that way?)

Sarah's House

While I was there, I got to experience a lot of real daily life, but Sarah also arranged for us to do all the fun touristy activities too. One day the local dive shop took us out snorkeling. Sarah saw a reef shark while we were out, but I missed it. The coral was amazing though, it's incredibly healthy and untouched, and the fish are so colorful! Another day we borrowed a kayak from a nearby resort and kayaked all the way around an uninhabited island. We stopped a couple of times to come onshore and chase crabs, collect shells, and lay in the sun. And then of course there are the beaches. They are never crowded, and a lot of times no one else is even on them, the shells are phenomenal, and the water is so many shades of blue!

Who Knew Starfish Were Blue?

On the Uninhabited Island With Sarah

I also got to do a lot of traditional things that most tourists don't get the chance to experience. On a Friday night I got to serve kava, which is a drink made from a mildly narcotic root. Traditionally only men drink kava, and women serve it to them (but men can serve it if no woman is around to serve). Apparently serving kava can be incredibly boring, but we actually had a good time. The guys played instruments and sang, watched some tv, and just talked while drinking. On Sunday I went to church with Sarah and we both wore traditional Tongan clothes which consist of a long skirt with matching shirt called a puletaha, and a woven belt/skirt thing called a kie-kie. I got to go to school with Sarah one day, and help her teach. The kids were so cute and so excited when they saw me! Even though they had all seen me around the village you could hear them gasp when I walked into the classroom.

Traditional Tongan Wear

Teaching at Sarah's School

On Friday, Sarah and I were supposed to fly back to the capital and spend the weekend there before my flight to Japan on Tuesday morning. But here's where things get crazy. There is one airline that flies domestically in Tonga, and apparently it doesn't have the best track record. Now, I don't know all the details, but to the best of my knowledge this is what happened. The Ministry of Transport had a meeting with the airline on Tuesday, and told them they needed report every mechanical failure they experienced (which they had not been doing.) On Wednesday a plane's landing gear didn't come down, so the plane was unable to land at the airport it was headed to. It had to go to the capital (which has better chances of handling disasters), and it crash landed. No one was hurt, and apparently the pilot did an amazing job under the circumstances. But the airline didn't report it. Of course everyone on the plane told everyone they knew about it, and the Ministry found out. So the Ministry, in order to send the airline a strong message, grounded all of their flights until further notice on Thursday. As soon as I heard this I panicked, but Sarah reassured me that this couldn't last long, we had gotten a flight far in advance, so surely I could get to the capital before my international flight, and if I had to, there was a ferry going to the capital. I was all for taking the ferry, but in Tonga things don't run on schedules. The ferry was supposed to leave at 4:00 pm and go straight to the capital. But there was a noble on another island who needed to get to the capital, and couldn't fly. So the ferry gave 15 minutes notice that it would be leaving at 12:00, and it takes at least 30 minutes to get to the ferry from Sarah's house in a taxi, so there was absolutely no way of getting on it.

I continued to panic throughout the weekend as flights continued to be canceled, and Sarah did an amazing job of putting up with me, as well as calling different airlines, the ferry, and anyone else she could think of, and keeping me entertained and well fed. Although I was mostly stressed out, I met a lot of the other peace corps members, and had a great time hanging out with Sarah's friends. On Monday afternoon the airline called and said they had a flight that evening, which was perfect, I would get in just before my flight the next morning. So we packed up my bags and raced to the airport. I was the last person to get my boarding pass (hand written) and check my bags before they announced the flight was canceled, and that there would be no flights the next day. It turns out they didn't actually have clearance from the Ministry. So we went back to Sarah's house where I laid on the floor and cried while Sarah frantically tried to cancel my flight the next day and rebook me (not they we knew when I would be able to get to the capital) None of the news was good though. My flights were with two different carriers, who were not partners, one of which didn't operate in Tonga at all. And my flight only went twice a week, and it was full for the next week and a half.

On Tuesday we again got a call that there would be a flight that evening, so we went back to the airport, fully expecting to head back to Sarah's house half an hour later. But it turned out that the flight was real, so we made it to the capital. The next two days we spent almost entirely on the phone with different airlines or in their offices (sometimes both at the same time). And in the end it was the wonderful people at Air New Zealand that saved me, even though I wasn't their responsibility at all. Neither of the airlines I was flying on were able to get me a complete flight from Tonga to Japan, but Air NZ is partners with both of the airlines, so they were able to access both systems, and find a flight leaving on Saturday (only 4 days late) that I could get on. The only really sad part was that I lost my day in Fiji, and instead was only there from 8:00 pm until midnight, so it wasn't worth leaving the airport at all. But at least I had a flight!

For our last nights in the capital I decided we were staying in the most expensive hotel in the country ($115/night) where we could have air conditioning, hot showers, and amazing beds. After all our struggles with the airlines, I thought we deserved some luxury. During the days Sarah showed me around the capital, and I got to help her shop for supplies to take back to her island.

A Cat Asleep on the Counter at One of the Biggest Stores in the Capital

Despite all the frustration and stress, I really enjoyed my time Tonga. It was great to see Sarah and amazing to experience the country the way I did. But I think the most meaningful part was my hotel shuttle back to the airport. One of the ladies who worked at the hotel rode with me, and talked with me about my trip. She knew that Sarah was a peace corps volunteer, and so she told me about how much the people in Tonga love the peace corps. She told me about the peace corps member (although she may have meant Australian aid worker) who her family has over for lunch every Sunday, and explained that Tongans know what a sacrifice these people make to come live and work with them, instead of living in America in huge houses where they can make lots of money. It's this generosity that means so much to them, even if they don't accomplish huge things with their projects. Even though I had seen the projects many volunteers were working on, and had gone to school with Sarah, it was so moving to hear this woman speaking with such gratitude. It was absolutely the best way to end my trip.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Welcome to Our Blog!

Hey everyone! I know I said I would have this blog up and running sooner than now, but things got complicated in Tonga, so it took a little longer than expected. But here it is now. You're joining us part way into our trip. I went to Tonga on May 20 to visit a friend in the peace corps there, and the next post will tell you all about that adventure, along with pictures (including my recently blonde hair!)

While I was in Tonga, John left for Tokyo, where he's interning at a law firm. I've joined John in Tokyo now, and we will be here until June 26. I promise there will be lots of posts about everything we're doing here, as well as pictures. Please leave lots of comments, because this will be a great way for us to keep in touch with all the people we miss in the states!