Posts Tagged ‘Japanese’


Connie: The Great Happiness Space

June 24, 2011

The title of this blog comes from the title of the documentary movie that originally sparked my interest in host clubs.

Because while I was in Osaka, I was finally able to make my dream come true and go to one!

Going to a host club is probably a strange dream. I can see where people will raise eyebrows at me. I suppose I can’t entirely refute this kind of skepticism—the beautiful men waiting on you hand and foot is nothing to complain about—but my interest goes slightly beyond this. Ever since seeing that movie, I was introduced to the darker side of the industry as well. It’s one that slowly decays the hosts lives (and livers), as they live full schedules and tell nice lies until they forget their own personality. The way these people can charm so flawlessly that they forget themselves, as well as the way some girls can fall so completely for this kind of lie, is fascinating to me. In all truth, I hope to write my final thesis on host clubs and the society that produces them and makes them work. That’s why I couldn’t leave Japan without going at least once, to understand how they work.

Now onto a far less academic look and into my own adventures.

Osaka is known for its night life. Of course, so is Tokyo, so one of the things that makes Osaka stand out to some people is the number of host clubs. Maybe it’s the outgoing Kansai personality that does it, but who can really say? I just know that Osaka is famous for host clubs, and if I was going to go to Osaka, I was going to go to a host club.

My first destination was a club in the Umeda district. Called Club Acqua, it’s one of the more famous clubs. There were, however, several problems with this club. First off, Umeda isn’t the top host district in Osaka, so it’s hard to just ask for directions. In night life districts in various cities in Japan there are free… let’s just say “entertainment guides”. As the district I was in was known more for its hostesses, asking these people would be hopeless. That was okay, I figured, since I had the address. But that’s the thing about Japanese addresses – they make no sense. After WWII the addresses were picked at what seems to be entirely random (they’re actually labeled by the spaces between streets rather than streets), so convenience store workers, cab drivers and whoever the hell else you ask will have quite a tough time of helping you. I asked at 5 convenience stores and 3 cab drivers, all of whom told me different things. I mean, I know I’m bad at directions myself, but if everyone tells you something different, people who live and work there, it can’t be just a personal problem.

It must have taken me over an hour to finally find the place in between the curving roads of the night life district. My feet were soaking wet from the pouring rain by the time I finally found the place, tucked in nice and quietly in a random basement. Neon blue letters stared up at me and told me the club’s name. I was relieved to have finally found the place after all that searching. I walked in and was engulfed in dim lights and men with tall hair and suits.

That’s when I found out to enter I needed my passport. In all instances other than this one, my alien registration card had sufficed. I wasn’t carrying my passport on me. “Isn’t there anything you can do?” I asked, quite annoyed at having come all that way through all those damp, winding streets for nothing.

“Sorry,” he said in that Japanese way that sounds polite, yet at the same time doesn’t at all.

I was quite unhappy when I got back outside. The loud music was still echoing in my ears and I was wishing I could be seated at a table full of men with hair-sprayed and dyed hair. I was worried that this might be the end of my search for a host club. I thought about going back, as I was quite exhausted from the day before. But then I figured there was no way I was going to abandon this dream again.

Off to Namba I went, to an area more populated by hosts. I had brought another address with me, but once I got in the general vicinity, I realized I wanted nothing to do with address hunting. Instead I stopped at one of the free information booths and told the man working I wanted to go to a host club. His reaction was entertaining. It was a sort of an “ooh” of awe. He made a phone call, and soon a charming young man with a really thick Kansai-accent showed up.

“Would you prefer a big place or a small one? It’s your first time going? I have a recommendation. I used to work as a host, actually. I’ll call them. Do you have a passport? The alien card should work. I’ll call them. Okay, let’s go.”

After processing all of the rapid-fire Kansai-accent we headed off to a nearby host club. It was located on the edge of the main nightlife area, in another basement. The club was called Club キセキ (kiseki), which translates to Club Miracle. Of course, they always have cute names like this.

My guide passed me off to the host working reception. He examined my alien card and allowed me in. I was sat down in a comfy booth and told to wait. I nodded politely and watched the exchange that followed. It was hard for me to tell what exactly it was – it could have been, “Which host isn’t occupied?” or it could have been, “Which host is going to deal with the foreigner?” To be honest, I probably came off as something of a burden. Kansai’s accent is thick, spoken quickly, and hosts aren’t used to using simple Japanese. I took a while to take in the atmosphere while waiting. The music was loud, and there were of course groups of girls chatting in a lively way with their hosts. The space was incredibly trendy, though not as gaudy as some host clubs I’ve seen. I didn’t know what I was going to make of my experience. I’d heard stories of foreigners being treated not as kindly as Japanese customers, being left alone a lot of the time. Read the rest of this entry ?


Connie: Jazz lives and Kagura Festivals

June 16, 2011

Saturday was our band’s jazz live. It was the first one we did in a public venue. We performed in a small, rather popular cafe on campus called Mermaid Cafe in front of friends and people who just wanted their morning coffee.

The acoustics in the cafe were awful, and I missed a few notes (I’m sure we all did), but people enjoyed it! One of my friends who had run off before I got a chance to talk to him even sent me a private message on facebook saying how good we did. 

It was a bit funny to me that the three foreigners in the band were the ones who act as emcees. I know I rambled a bit and said a few weird things, but I think if we appear in a live again I’ll do better. As for music, my favorite two songs we performed were Tokyo Telephone, a cover of a Merry song, and On Green Dolphin Street. Bluesy lyrics and quick tempo changes make the world a better place.

After our live, my host father picked me up and along with one current graduate student who had stayed with him as a host-daughter in the past, we made the venture from middle-of-nowhere Saijo to even more middle-of-nowhere Shobara up in the mountains. The snow had long since melted, and though the weather forecast had promised rain, the clouds broke up.

My host father owns a rather large RV, and as it turns out he’d volunteered to take a group from Shobara up to Shimane-ken, the prefecture north of Hiroshima, to see a kagura festival at the same place I’d tried on the costumes before. It took roughly two hours to get from Shobara-shi to Shimane-ken going up and down mountainous roads. When we arrived at the school there were more people than I’d expected there to be. There were also makeup- and costume-less young kagura actors squatting on the steps of the school, smoking like high school punks. These weren’t the sort of people I’d imagined acting in such a graceful traditional dance, to be sure.

What had at one time been the school’s gymnasium was transformed into a stage with mats set out in front of it for a rather large audience. Food vendors were packed in the corners with rather delicious bentos. When we received the program I was surprised to see that it would be going until midnight. Actually, the atmosphere of the place was rather charming. I don’t know if there’s anything really like it in America. While such an ancient and beautiful art is going on onstage, people are conversing (though not obnoxiously), drinking, eating, rather like a large picnic. At one point my host father’s friend told me that in the olden days these sorts of festivals would continue until sunrise. To me that seems like a really cool thing, but I suppose in this modern life it’s not very practical.

The performances themselves were stunning. All the actors are men, no matter what kind of character they play. All of them are incredibly graceful, somehow managing to move smoothly in the costumes I could barely hold up. The smoking punks were suddenly transformed into something entirely different. Not only that, but the crowded room we were in was incredibly hot, not to mention the costumes – at one point I went backstage to take a picture with a few of the actors and I encountered one coming offstage, absolutely drenched in sweat. Not only is their grace impressive, but so is their perseverance. In these kind of conditions, the actors do plays that last roughly 20 minutes each, along with musicians who beat drums relentlessly the entire time.

My favorite costume. I always paid attention when these guys were on.

This particular actor was my favorite. Everything he did was beautiful.

The Japanese spoken during these performances is an ancient form of the current language. I suppose it could be equated to hearing Shakespeare’s English, though possibly less decipherable – my host father said there aren’t any Japanese people who really understand it. The program we’d been given had a summary of what each play was about, each of which I did my best to read through despite my lacking knowledge of kanji. The stories are old Japanese legends, including exactly the kinds of characters you would imagine in such legends: princesses, priests, young warriors, demons, dragons.

I’ve taken away from that night something of an interest in kagura. When I expressed that, one of my friends back in Saijo informed me that in July there is another kagura performance near here. I’m considering going to that one as well. I wonder if it will be the same kind of atmosphere?


Connie: Yukata Matsuri

June 10, 2011

This past weekend was the three day festival, Yukata Matsuri. Due to the price of commuting to the city, I only went on Saturday. I sort of regret not going every day, but I suppose there’s no point in regretting it now. Though I wish I could have seen more, the simple atmosphere of Japanese festivals pleases me enough. It’s a feeling completely different from street festivals in the United States. Perhaps it’s because the festivals always feel distinctly Japanese – there’s always something pointing back toward traditional culture integrated into the festivities.

We were to depart at 3. I started the task of putting on the yukata I’d previously purchased at Miyajima around 2. It took me until 2:30 to get the thing on, and though I really wanted to redo some parts, I knew I would have no time if I was going to make the bus. To be honest I was slightly nervous about going out for the first time in a yukata I’d tied by myself. One of the friends I went with does Japanese dance as a hobby and is particular about the way people wear traditional Japanese clothing. But when my friend saw me he actually did the opposite of what I’d expected and complimented the job I’d done my first time tying a yukata.

The day was full of mishaps. We had to wait for one of our friends at the station, so we didn’t make it into the city until 5. The trams running along the streets of Hiroshima city were incredibly packed – there was some kid uncomfortably close on the train whose parents had to literally hold his hands down so he wouldn’t touch me. When we reached our destination we were feeling fairly good and wanted to partake in some festival food – 唐揚げ (karage), or fried chicken, was our first stop. That was all fine and good until one of our friends started to choke on it and seemed quite peeved that none of us knew what to do in that kind of situation. I suppose I should learn the Heimlich before the next festival?

This bit of bad luck was all forgotten when we stopped to get crepes and snow cones. Sweets make it all better! Our moods were back to normal and we were admiring all of the people in yukata. As always, people-watching in Japan is fantastic. Since the festival was near the shady district of Hiroshima, when you wandered in the right area you would suddenly be surrounded by girls very improperly wearing their yukata, with their shoulders and cleavage exposed, or host-types with mile-high dyed hair and designer obi. Of course you also have normal people, college students, families with fathers carrying tired children, and for some reason Yukata Matsuri also translates in some girls’ heads to lolita fashion. Most of what we did was people-watch and eat. The dances we came across were too packed with people to see anything properly. A shame, since they did one dance I really enjoy, ソーラン節(Soran Bushi).

Out of the group of us, only two were dressed in Western clothing. One was a girl who had yet to buy a yukata, so we went with her to the shopping district, Hondoori, to find a kimono shop. The other was a Japanese guy, so we kept making fun of him for the irony in him being the only one not to wear a yukata.

When my friend bought her yukata, one of the women took her to a changing room and dressed her up perfectly. While we were waiting, one of the other women offered to retie another of our friends’ obi. The knot she did was intricate and beautiful – we were all in awe. When the girl who bought the yukata returned we were also in awe. It was a really colorful yukata, matching her usual style.

After leaving the shop, all but our one Japanese friend clad in yukata, we went to find an izakaya to get some food and drinks. We decided to head back toward home after this since we didn’t want to risk missing the last train. Turns out our friend, the one who does dance as a hobby, had accidentally fallen asleep on the last train the night before and ended up spending the night in the miniscule station two stops beyond Saijo. We didn’t want to risk that scenario again.

On the train we learned a valuable lesson – our poor friend who had purchased the yukata found out that having an obi tied too tightly can become really painful. The pressure on her stomach made her sick, especially on the swaying train. It was a relief for her to get off the bumpy train and untie the obi.

Not the best of our festival experiences, but I have no regrets in going (other than that I didn’t go every day). I got to see many interesting people, wear a yukata, eat lots of delicious food, and somewhere in there I managed to take a picture with a wandering host.

There is another Yukata Matsuri put on by Hiroshima University in July. I’m really looking forward to that! 


Connie: 日本人が使う英語/Japanese People’s English

June 2, 2011

I am currently taking a class that focuses on the common mistakes made by foreigners when they write in Japanese. When last semester I had to write several papers in Japanese for my Korean and proverbs classes, I was quite frustrated by how much harder it was than writing in English. I was also frustrated when one of the people who helped to make sure my paper was understandable told me I wrote like an elementary school student. Of course I wasn’t mad at him – I asked him to give me his honest opinion, after all. The reason I was frustrated was that writing is one of my few talents in English, so it’s strange to me that I’m not able to do it in Japanese. This should be logical, but in my mind I want nothing but to get better.

Thus I decided to take this class. While the class itself is quite boring, I rather like the assignments. Every week we have to write a short essay. The teacher then corrects it in the ways a Japanese person would word the same essay and returns it to us.

I had fun with this week’s prompt: 日本人が使う英語, or the English a Japanese person uses. My friends in the same class took this in several directions, one of the most obvious being the hundreds of loan words that have been adopted into the Japanese language. I, however, immediately thought of the poorly crafted English song lyrics that so often find their way onto my iPod. As I enjoyed writing it so much, I’ve decided to share, with an English translation below. Would you like to read?




だが、全然理解できない場合もある。このいい例は、「SuG」というバンドの歌がそのいい例だ。「p!nk masquerade」という歌を初めて聞いた時、英語の発音が悪く、歌詞はすべて日本語で書いてあるのだろうと思ったが、カラオケに行った時、この歌を選ぶと、英語の歌詞が出てきたのでびっくりした。だから、歌いながら、歌詞が変なので、大笑いした。コーラスの英語は、「Gonna B Free/Anything goes/Glossily!/Can you do?/To nobility/like the cat」。日本語に訳したら、「自由になるよ/なんでもいい/つやつや!/できる?/貴族に/猫のように」になるが、ナンセンスなだけじゃなく、英語の文法もおかしい。例えば,「Gonna B Free」は正しくは、 「Gonna be free」だし、「Can you do?」は「Can you do it?」になる。どうしてこのバンドは英語を使ったのだろうか。そして、作詞者は何を考えていたのだろうか。本当に面白く思う。

In English:

I have an interest in Japanese rock and pop music. Sometimes while listening to today’s popular music, I hear strange English. At this time I wonder why the lyricist chose to use English. In these songs, do the English words fit the rhythm better? Even though the lyricist is bad at English, did they just want to use it? Or did the lyricist think their English was correct? To me this is very strange.

There are bands who are good at English. For example, a band called “Radwimps” that has been popular lately has English lyrics that even a native English speaker can easily decipher. Then there are bands like the underground Gazette who, while their English is strange, if you understand Japanese, you can understand how they translated those lyrics.

However, there are also bands whose English is impossible to decipher. A good example of this is a band called “SuG”. When first listening to their song “p!nk masquerade”, due to the vocalist’s poor English pronunciation, I thought all of the lyrics were written in Japanese.  When I went to karaoke and chose this song I was surprised when English words appeared.  Because of how strange the lyrics were I laughed hard. The English in the chorus goes, “Gonna B Free/Anything goes/Glossily!/Can you do?/To nobility/like the cat”. It’s not that it’s just nonsense, but also that the English grammar is a bit off. For example, “Gonna B Free” should be, “Gonna be free” and “Can you do?” should be, “Can you do it?” I wonder why this band chose to write their lyrics in English? I also wonder what the lyricist was thinking. I find it funny.


Connie: Shake the Sunrise

April 22, 2011

To those of you cool enough to know where I got this entry’s title, kudos.

To the rest of you: the past 10 hours have been interesting ones. As it is currently 7:30am, and I haven’t slept a bit, a list shall suffice.

  • A group of friends, all foreigners, went to hang out in the new common area. 5 freshmen came in and decided to join us. Turns out all of them live in the same dorm as the exchange student boys. We got to know each other fairly well in that time.
  • This getting to know each other was spurred on by a rather innocent game of truth or dare. Best dare: one of the freshmen running around the building shouting, “外人大好き!”
  • I got two shoulder massages. Their 罰 is my gain.
  • I aired some particularly dirty laundry, but somehow it felt good to get it off my chest after having it there for over a year. I feel somehow lighter.
  • We went to play some darts with three of the five. The lovely habanero-takoyaki chef decimated us all at the game, since he practically gets paid to play day in and day out.
  • By the time we left it was getting light. We decided to go see the sunrise from the top of the nearby mountain, Kagamiyama. Though there were gripes about going, I think everyone was glad they did. The sun was obscured by clouds but the view was still beautiful! All of Saijo and Higashi-Hiroshima could be seen from the peak.

In that time I forgot language barriers and I was spoken to in 敬語 (keigo), or polite form. At first I wasn’t sure what to think of them – I’m usually not these days – but in the end they were all sweet. As they live in the dorms and have as much free time as us foreigners, I wonder if we’ll cross paths more often from now on?

At any rate, I have only a few hours of sleep (or perhaps nap) before skyping with my parents. Then at some point I’m supposed to turn in my registration form, and during some obscure hour of the night I’ll be meeting one of my friends who helps me a lot with Japanese conversation. I haven’t seen him since before spring break, so I hope I don’t fall asleep too early…


Connie: Sakura (hanami) Season

April 19, 2011

From early March when I was in Tokyo places all over started advertising sakura (cherry blossom) flavored items, but it wasn’t until a week or so ago that the trees actually burst into bloom. Suddenly the campus was full of blossoming flowers just as classes began again. On our way to one of our first classes as we traveled down the main road lined with sakura trees and packed with students, my friend made the oh-so-intelligent quote, “This is the most Japanese thing I’ve seen! Cherry blossoms and Japanese people!”

And while we laughed at her, the cherry blossoms themselves really do paint a picture of stereotypical Japan. On the way home that day I felt like I was living in an anime when I saw high school students riding bicycles beneath the sakura trees.

The sakuras blooming means 花見 (hanami) parties a-plenty. Hanami means flower viewing. So families, groups of friends, and school clubs all grab tarps, food, and maybe some alcohol, go to wherever the best trees are, set up camp and enjoy the view all around them. I’ve been told there are times when popular viewing areas get so crowded you have to go rather early to procure a good spot. Luckily Saijo isn’t a terribly big town, so every time I went there was no problem getting somewhere with a nice view.

The first hanami party I attended was with the jazz circle. This was held rather early, so the trees were only just starting to bloom. The weather was also rather rainy and unpleasant, but we weren’t to be deterred from our planned event. Just outside of the building where the jazz circle’s practice room is there are four or five sakura trees. At the time they were only just starting to become pink with flowers. Despite the misty rain the weather was rather warm. So with umbrellas in hand we sat outside and people got to know each other. My English friend and I at first tried to converse with a group of freshman boys whose only response to, “Nice to meet you,” was, “Yeah…” Luckily there were a pair of girls who were much more enthusiastic about conversing with foreigners. We ended up spending most of the night talking to them, and though I haven’t seen them since I hope to run into them soon. They were very easy to talk to.

The second party was Thursday when the weather outside was beautiful. We went to nearby Kagamiyama Park and, aside from the lumps in the ground, got a rather prime sakura-viewing spot. By this time the trees were at the peak of their glory. When the wind picked up and the daytime warmth dwindled we ended up going to the same local bar that had previously served us habanero takoyaki. We hung out there until late into the night joking and playing darts.

The third was the next day and part of a joint birthday celebration for two of the students in our program. We ended up almost in the same spot as the day before. Though the forecast had promised rain it actually ended just before we went to the park, leaving us with surprisingly pleasant weather. The birthday boy had made a reservation to continue the party at an izakaya at 8:30, but when the time approached he said, “I kind of wish we could stay here now.” Of course, by the time we started our party at the izakaya, no regrets were had.

The last hanami party was the next morning. It was an event meant to introduce Japanese people from around Saijo to international students. This time a large place was reserved up on the hill of Kagamiyama Park from which you could see the bright blue tarps of other groups all the way down between the branches of sakura trees. Despite being sleepless from the party the night before everyone joined in the activities and enjoyed the scenery – we probably had one of the best spots in the park. When the hanami ended a group of us trekked down to campus and played soccer. Though I was feeling quite fatigued from several days straight of going out it was nice to run around. Those who organized this game said they wanted to make it a weekly event. I’m no good at soccer, so I wonder if I can convince everyone to play tennis?

I noticed today on my way to jazz practice that the trees are already starting to shed their petals. Apparently at hanami, one is supposed to contemplate the transience of things – they come and go just as quickly as the flowers do. I snapped a photo of one of my friends staring at the branches as if he were contemplating such a thing:

He told me in reality he was just staring into space.

With hanami parties out of the way, my life will start going back to a regular pattern. Classes, jazz, darts. But I suppose even this routine will only last so long. More than half a year has passed already. It’s hard to believe. There are so many things I wish I had more time for. I wonder what I can accomplish in the next few months?


Connie: Incoming Freshman

April 8, 2011

So the new school year starts out in April. I only have a few more days before my long break comes to an end and I’m back to sitting in classrooms listening to long lectures.

Along with lectures comes another thing: freshmen. Our dorms were full of families helping their kids move in. I would walk out into the hallway in pajamas and wonder why I was faced with someone’s brother. It’s a bit awkward after having spent the whole year in a girls-only dorm. It was also a bit annoying to hear everyone chattering, and the girls whose doors are broken (like mine) have yet to get used to them slamming with a resounding crash and waking anyone in the dorms up.

These are only minor annoyances, and they’ve mostly disappeared already. Since the new freshmen have replaced the old tenants, I think our floor has actually gotten cleaner. Not that that’s such an impressive feat; all it takes is people not leaving chunks of chopped vegetables on the table and clumps of hair on the shower room floor. Still, it’s nice.

What’s more, the new girls are all so friendly. My American friend was in the kitchen and was approached by one of the new girls. She asked my friend, “Are you my 先輩 (sempai)?” The word “sempai” means something like senior, and it’s a very important part of Japanese culture. You have to use a different, more polite form of speech when addressing sempai who you aren’t particularly close with, and in club settings sempai have the right to order around their juniors, who are in Japanese called 後輩 (kouhai). Anyway, my friend was very happy about gaining this new status. She was happy to be talked to in Japanese and happy to show the girl around the dorms.

A few days after this I was in the kitchen cleaning some dishes while a girl was moving in. Her door was open, so I’m guessing she saw me pass by on my way to the kitchen. She came in shortly after me with the only purpose of saying, “Hello! Nice to meet you!” The girls from last semester for the most part kept to themselves, so it was nice to see the newcomers greet us in such an open way.

What’s more is when I’m walking out around Saijo, the freshmen seem to have a different reaction to me than the others typically do. This is partially, as one Japanese friend told me, because high school students rarely interact with foreigners, and since the population is so homogeneous, they don’t really know what to make of us. The other thing seems to be that we have lived here half a year and know our way around while the freshmen don’t. It’s probably strange for them to see us walking around with purpose while they’re still trying to figure out the difference between up and down in college life. Instead of the, “Ah, a foreigner,” sort of reaction we’ve seemed to get all year, these kids give us something slightly closer to awe. While this is strange, it’s also kind of refreshing.

All of the freshmen participate in an event called 入学式 (nyuugakushiki), which is usually translated as Entrance Ceremony. Basically they all get dressed up in suits and carted off somewhere where they sit through some speeches and whatnot, welcoming them to university. They also get bombarded by every club on campus as well as some businesses, all of which are advertising or looking for new members.

I wanted to go, so I went with a couple of friends. When I got off the bus I was standing near the jazz club, so I went over to greet my friend. He handed me a pile of fliers he was supposed to be handing out and then promptly disappeared for the rest of the day. I suppose handing out fliers was good experience, but I ended up getting separated from everyone since I felt obligated to do this chore. I didn’t particularly mind, I suppose. I like the feeling of belonging to something, even if I’m still a bit on the outside of the whole group.

In the end I managed to get rid of all the fliers, though one girl helped me out. I didn’t get to meet any freshmen, but maybe they’ll remember that I was the one visibly foreign person working with a club. I was also wearing a high school uniform, so maybe they’ll remember me for that.

I also got to listen to a lot of free jazz. Unfortunately, no one brought a flute for me to play. Though it was probably more a formality than anything, the trumpet player (who is quite skilled) said it would have been nice if I’d joined them. Maybe next time, if I feel like waking up an hour early to get there.


Connie: Russian Roulette Habanero Takoyaki

March 30, 2011

My favorite food in Japan is probably たこ焼き (takoyaki). Takoyaki is a piece of octopus inside of a delicious ball of batter, usually topped with お好みソース (okonomi sauce) and Japanese mayonnaise (which is far better than its western counterpart). And though that might sound a bit strange it’s truly delicious.

Actually, earlier in the year, when a girl living in my dorm asked which kind of food I like best, I answered takoyaki. She then taught me to make it since she had a takoyaki maker, which is basically a griddle with small craters all over it. You first pour the batter in it, then when it starts to cook you put the piece of octopus in the middle, and then using chopsticks you rotate it until it’s cooked all around. A few months after this a couple living in Japan invited some people over to eat takoyaki before they moved to America. When I expressed my enthusiasm for takoyaki they told me they were trying to get rid of everything and I inherited a takoyaki maker. I fully intend to drag it back to America with me and have this dish whenever I like.

Not only do I like takoyaki, but I enjoy spicy foods – something that is actually rather rare in Japan. So when my friends and I discovered “Russian Roulette Habanero Takoyaki” at one of the bars around here, we were intrigued.

Basically you order some takoyaki, and the idea is to put a habanero pepper in one of them so some unfortunate person gets it. A few months back we initially tried it and though neither I nor the two friends who ordered it with me were the lucky ones to get the pepper, we were told it wasn’t so bad. Being the brave souls we are we ordered a set of takoyaki in which 3 of 8 were filled with habanero.

This night wasn’t so bad. We ate the takoyaki with poker faces. The Japanese bartender who had made the takoyaki watched us in disbelief and went back to test his creation. He came back sweating and pouring himself milk. He discovered very quickly that foreigners, apparently, have a much higher tolerance for spicy foods. He assured us that next time he would make them hotter.

Last night we went again and, feeling quite confident in our spice thresholds, we ordered the takoyaki with 8 of 8 containing habaneros. The first tip off should have been the three bartenders smiling mischievously at one another. They sent the youngest one back to make us our takoyaki. He came back and set it in front of us with a smirk on his face.

They definitely delivered when they told us they were going to make it hotter. The first one set a fire in my mouth. I had to order a milk-based drink to wash the heat away. Slowly the pain faded into something tolerable. Since there were three of us that night, 5 pieces of hellfire takoyaki remained.

We all figured that our mouth had been numbed out by the first, so the second would be no problem. We realized this was our second mistake the moment we ate it. One of my friends went to the bathroom to wash out his mouth. The other promptly ordered something to wash it down with. I finished what I had ordered during the first round.

“You made it, why don’t you try it?” I asked the bartender. Either he was brave or he felt obligated since he was a worker there and that’s simply how Japanese workers roll – it doesn’t really matter which. It took seconds for him to start visibly sweating, and when he tried to pour himself a glass of water I told him, “That will make it worse. Try milk.”

This left one more takoyaki on the dish. With my mouth incredibly numb, I decided that for sure this time I wouldn’t feel anything. This was my third mistake. I drank two more glasses of milk and my hands were shaking. Don’t mess with habanero peppers. But at least it was my first satisfyingly spicy dish since being in Japan. (Wasabi doesn’t count; wasabi is more of a single blast of tears and sinus-clearing while things like habanero peppers linger for a while.)

The bartender who had made us the takoyaki laughed and told us one would be on the house since he’d put us through so much pain. My two friends opted for a glass of beer, but I instead chose a game of darts.

He still owes me, actually. We shook hands on it.


Connie: Birthday Udon

March 25, 2011

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my favorite novel is Murakami Haruki’s “Kafka on the Shore.” The main character travels to Takamatsu as a runaway, figuring it’s a place where no one will think to look for him. While the novel doesn’t describe much of the city in detail, or perhaps because of this, I’ve wanted all year to go there. I wanted to see what that place was like so perhaps the next time I read through I’ll have a clearer picture in my head.

I was surprised when I received a message on facebook from the Japanese student going to study abroad in Minnesota next year asking me if I wanted to travel down to Kagawa (the prefecture Takamatsu is in) with him. Not only that, but the day he proposed we go on was familiar. It was actually my birthday – though he didn’t know that, and apparently I’d almost forgotten myself. I couldn’t believe the coincidence!

It turns out my friend was headed to Tokushima prefecture, which is next to Kagawa. He had two Japanese friends with him who agreed to go with so they could eat the delicious udon noodles, which is famous Japan-wide. There were 5 of us total: my friend going to Minnesota, his two friends, my English friend and I. The drive from Saijo was roughly 3 hours. It didn’t seem so long. On the way there we conversed a lot, and the scenery is beautiful. It’s entirely different from what is in Minnesota – lakes and trees are replaced by mountains and the ocean, and of course traditional Japanese houses scattered about the green fields.

Our first stop was at a rest area in between the largest island, Honshu, and the island on which Kagawa is located, Shikoku. The spot was beautiful and the weather was warm and breezy. It smelled like the sea. The bridge we were halfway through crossing was stunning, and I kept thinking of one of the characters from Kafka on the Shore saying, “I need to cross a big bridge,” referring to leaving Honshu and entering Shikoku.

The first thing we did upon crossing the bridge was search for our first bowl of udon. We pulled in at a convenience store and the two young men in the car went to ask where the best udon place was. My friend got back in the car with all of the directions memorized – he recited them three or four times just to annoy us. They must not have been very good directions, however, because the place was incredibly hard to find. Even with the car’s GPS we got lost several times. When we finally pulled up I could see why. It was tucked between regular houses in what seemed to be the worst location for any sort of business.

However, this seemed to deter no one. Word of mouth must be fantastic, because the line waiting for this tiny shop was huge. The shop itself was miniscule. There was only room for maybe 5 or 6 people inside, but there were plenty of benches outside. “This is really Japanese style,” my friend said. “Eating udon outside like this.”

As for Kagawa’s udon, it truly was wonderful. I must admit, though I like udon, it’s not my top choice in Japanese foods. In Kagawa, however, it might be worth the drive from Saijo. Not only was it delicious but it was incredibly cheap – I paid 230 yen for mine, roughly $3 including the tempura on top.

Between bowls of udon our group went to Ritsurin Park. It’s a lovely garden with several walking courses and beautiful ponds all over. You can buy feed from vendors and feed the koi fish that swim in the ponds. Those fish will come in swarms and stick their mouths right up against the rocks trying to suck dampened feed from the surface. My friend was transformed into a kid again while he fed these things. One moment he would said, “Gross!” and then the next he would hand-feed them. Then he would break off huge chunks of the food and challenge them, “It’s too big! You can’t eat it! HA! …Oh, you ate it!”

This friend also stopped to talk to a high school girl we saw painting the landscape. Apparently they were there as an art class doing a project during spring break. What a beautiful landscape they had to paint! All the girls I saw painting were also very talented. My friend snuck up behind one of them and took a picture of her painting. I wonder if she noticed – he wasn’t exactly quiet when he said, “Wow! So skillful!”

There were tons of cats in the garden. There are several scenes in Kafka on the Shore in which characters engage in dialogue with cats. So I meowed at them. And they meowed back. I felt very accomplished, even if that’s silly. I talked to a cat!

Between the park and our next destination we fit in another bowl of udon. The first bowl was better, but the second was nothing to turn your nose up at. This was around 3pm, so needless to say, I wasn’t very hungry for the rest of the day.

Finally we headed into the heart of Takamatsu. We found the sea again. It was a lovely area, and the whole bay in front of us was spotted with sailboats. It was at this time that all of us seemed to become quiet and self-reflecting. I wish I lived near that place so I could go every day and straighten things out. I felt so clear-minded there on the shore. I stared at the mountains and wondered, “Did Murakami ever come here? What kind of forest is Oshima’s cabin in?” I wonder what the others were thinking about?

It was probably one of the best birthdays I’ve had. I’ve never really been able to do the kinds of things I want to do on my birthday. There’s always something in the way. But this year I had the random chance to do something I’ve dreamed of doing. Though the city was different from how I pictured it. I’m glad I got to go. I’m also glad I got to know a little about the person coming to study abroad in Minnesota next year. I’ll have to show him somewhere interesting back in the States!



Connie: We love Nagasaki!

February 25, 2011

The first trip of my spring break was taken in Nagasaki. The reason was that it was my friend’s hometown and he agreed to let us meet his family. Me and the two girls who went with me were greatly looking forward to it, though we didn’t know how Nagasaki itself would be. Several Japanese people said it wasn’t a very interesting place.

The three of us came back thinking about how wrong they were!

We were originally planning on taking local trains all the way there to save money, but we discovered that taking the 新幹線 (shinkansen), or the famous bullet train, only cost about $20 more and cut out 8 hours of travel. The train really was quick. It felt like we’d only just got on when we got off. It’s like riding an airplane, only on the ground.

When we arrived in Nagasaki we were not only greeted by our friend, but by a giant lantern—it was the lantern festival, and the town was littered with them here and there. All of the zodiac signs were scattered about the city.

We stayed in a hostel a bit away from the station. We would probably never have found the place if it weren’t for our Japanese friend. He knew exactly which tram we needed to take. On the way we admired the scenery that makes up Nagasaki. It’s a really charming city. The buildings climb up the sides of mountains and look almost surreal. There are trams rather than buses that give it a lovely feel. The place near our hostel felt very stereotypically Japanese – there was a river flowing right through the city with bright orange koi fish swimming in it. There were twisted old trees lining it and across from our hostel was a shrine.

The owners of the hostel were extremely friendly. The hostel itself was nice and cozy. I really liked it. When us three American girls were led to the fourth floor where our room was, we saw there was already one occupant in one of the beds. By looking at his clothing spread out on the bed we could tell immediately it was a guy. Our day sightseeing was spent pondering what sort of guy we were rooming with. We met him that night–he was nothing like any of our conjectures, but he was a nice Japanese guy and had very good English. We all wonder where you are now, Mr. Yoshi.

The first night we wandered down the river looking at the lanterns strung across it, went up and down the main shopping road which was scattered with festival food vendors, and went through China Town where the best of the lantern displays were. That night our friend took us to his house where his parents made us some of the most delicious food I’ve had in Japan, including pan-fried noodles, sweet and sour shrimp, and Japanese-style fried chicken. They were extremely open and friendly to us. The most interesting part was that the moment we met them, we knew exactly how our friend had turned out like he did. He’s an off-beat guy who is always trying to prove himself. I’m sure this comes from his friendly and also slightly off-beat family, almost all girls, who make fun of him every chance they get. When he walked in our friend said, “These girls gave me Valentine’s day chocolate!” His sisters were quick to reply with, “The first time since you were born!”

The next day our sight-seeing was more in-depth, even despite the steady rain and inevitable puddles in my shoes.

Our first stop was 出島 (Dejima), the place where the Dutch people who first came to Japan were forced to live. It was once an artificial island hanging off of Japan, but nowadays it’s surrounded by artificial land that’s really indistinguishable from the rest.

Of course the history of the place is interesting. But me being a language nerd, the most interesting part of the plaques covering the walls of the Dutch-Japanese fusion style houses was the way in which the Japanese and English versions of the same paragraphs differed. Naturally, the Japanese was more in-depth.

After exploring Dejima we made our way to Glover Garden somewhere at the edge of Nagasaki. Glover, a once-influential man in Nagasaki, owned a rather large chunk of land that has been turned into a tourist destination. The buildings there were the inspiration for the set to Madame Butterfly. But to me the most beautiful part was the outside with the beautiful garden. It was also the most bizarre, as you traveled from one place to another by escalator. It almost felt like I was walking through some kind of surreal painting.

After our site-seeing, we returned to China Town. We were just in time for the dragon dance, in which a bunch of people control a long dragon prop and make it float around the stage in the telling of an old legend. But my favorite part was the lion dance that came after. Fantastic work to all the Japanese people! Sometimes I really did forget that there were people inside.

Nagasaki is famous for several food items. These are Chinese food, チャンポン (chanpon) which is like thick ramen, トルコライス (Turko Rice) which is noodles with yellow rice and breaded pork on top, and カステラ (castella) cake. I had some of all of these things. They were good, but my favorite food on the trip was that prepared by my friend’s family.

Everywhere we went this day we saw high school students. “Don’t they ever go to class?” we asked. Our Japanese friend replied, “They’re probably on a school trip,” until he got a look at their uniforms. “What? Those are Nagasaki uniforms!” So, I guess Nagasaki students never go to class. Ever.

Our last day was short as we had to catch the shinkansen back at around 3:30. When we arrived back in Saijo, our Japanese friend immediately said he missed Nagasaki. The weather at Hiroshima station was very noticeably more chilly and there weren’t lanterns lighting the roadways. “Let’s get back on the train right now,” we joked. But of course we didn’t.

So far, Nagasaki is my favorite of the places I’ve been to. Definitely go if you get the chance!

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