Thursday, December 16, 2010

Monkey Mountain

I have conquered the perils of Monkey Mountain.

Last Saturday, I joined some Nara and Kyoto JETs in climbing Arashiyama, or as I call it, Monkey Mountain.

This mountain in Kyoto is famous for playing host to many feral Macaques. The hike up the mountain was pretty easy. There were only a few hazards. Because it was a bit misty, the rock steps and ramps were a little slippery. We cautiously made our way up Arashiyama.

As we climbed, we came across many signs warning us of the dangers of Monkey Mountain:

1. Do not feed the monkeys

2. Do not look the monkeys in the eyes

3. Do not touch the monkeys

Yeah...lots of "do not's."

We were were about halfway up the mountain and STILL hadn't seen any monkeys. We all began to think this was a waste of time. About 3/4 up the mountain, we suddenly heard some horrific howls from within the forest. We looked around, and saw 3 macaques violently chasing each other into the brush. Now, we got the feeling we were surrounded...

We finally reached a clearing. Lo and behold, there were monkeys! Lots of them! There were two park rangers to ensure none of us did anything stupid. Safety is what THEY call it. Rule #2 was difficult to follow. All the monkeys stare into your eyes. I did my best to look away but then this happened:



There was another clearing a little farther up the mountain with more monkeys. At this clearing, one daring baby monkey tried to steal my umbrella. I promptly yelled, "This cost me 1000 yen!" The monkey ran away. Sometimes a little human rage is good for negotiation.





We ended the night by walking through an illuminated bamboo forest. It was very crowded, but absolutely beautiful.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Santa?

I will be playing Santa Claus for two kindergartens tomorrow. I was sitting in my living room trying to memorize the script and I came across this gem:

~A Student will ask: What do you do everyday?

Me [as Santa]: I go to the mountains and cut trees to make magic tops. On other days, I make preparations for Christmas Day. I make maps to follow while I deliver presents, and search for where good children live.~

There ya have it folks: apparently Santa destroys forests to make dreidels. Magical dreidels.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

B┼Źnenkai!

I recently went to my school's Bon Enkai to celebrate the end of the fall term! It was amaaaaaaaazing!

A brief preface: The definition of “enkai” is merely “party; banquet” but it is also what greases the wheels of social communication in Japanese culture. The enkai is usually a work party with a lot of drinking.

My school's enkai was held at a major shrine in the city of Kashihara. Kashihara is the 2nd largest city in Nara, with Nara City being it's largest.

Given the terrible weather conditions, Storm and I received a ride from S-Sensei to the enkai. After we arrived, we were told to pick a table number out of a box to determine where we would sit for the dinner. I thought I was being funny when I did the ol' "reach my hand into the mysterious box and pretend like something grabbed it" routine, but apparently my humor doesn't reach across borders sometimes. Storm and I pulled different table numbers, so we wouldn't be sitting together. After we pulled our number we were given scratch lottery tickets. We were also told not to scratch them until the enkai starts.

The time had finally come for the enkai to begin, so all the teachers and staff shuffled into the event hall. The event hall was gorgeous. It was decked out with fancy table trimmings and Christmas decorations. I eventually found my table. Of course, with awesome luck on my side, I was seated at a table with NO ENGLISH SPEAKERS. There are 15 English teachers at my school and somehow I managed to choose the only table they weren't sitting at. Storm faired much better, with about 4 English teachers at her table.

The enkai began as all Japanese events begin...with a ceremony. I had to listen to a couple teachers talk about [insert thank you's and other platitudes] before the principal took the stage. My god, our principal LOVES to hear himself speak. I even noticed some of the teachers starting to bow their heads in boredom as he droned on and on and on and on...and on.

When the meal finally began, I searched for an open seat at another table. I found one easily, then quietly moved to another table trying to go unnoticed. Yes, the big, white foreigner tried to go unnoticed. To be honest, no one cared.

I should have learned my lesson about fine Japanese cuisine 2 years when I ate at a fancy restaurant with my brother. That night, I revisited my nightmares about Japanese cuisine. Sashimi, tofu, nabe [mostly cabbage] were eagerly waiting on my plate. Did I mention the shrimp and fish eggs? Ugh. Enough about the food. Typing this part of the blog is making me feel ill...

The festivities of the enkai were a lot of fun! Everyone scratched their lottery ticket at the same. Storm and I didn't win anything. Duh. The next event was Bingo! There 50 gifts in Christmas tote bags lined up on stage. We all watched a giant screen with the Bingo randomizer. It chose the letter and number. Up until this point, I had wondered why this enkai cost me $100. Then I saw the prizes in the bags, and became fully aware. Some the prizes were AMAZING. Some were LAME. I was 31st to win [YATA!] and in my bag was a digital photo frame. It was nice. Another teacher won a Nintendo Wii. Lucky!

My favorite part of the night were the conversations I had with teachers. I learned that night that there are 2 really cool teachers [not English teachers, mind you] who speak a little bit of English! I don't know why we had never talked before [they probably weren't drunk enough]. They were really nice and now I have a few more friends in the office. I toured all the tables, filled people's drinks [as is the custom], and was generally sociable.

After the enkai, I went with about a dozen other male staff to the nijikai [after party!}. We went to an izakaya to drink and eat more. The head of the English dept told me, "Joshua, you cannot speak English here. Only Nihongo!" I sighed, and agreed to his terms. I was surprised how much Japanese I actually knew. A lot of the basic phrases I learned came in handy. The teachers ordered food that I didn't like JUST to watch my reactions as I ate it. I told my spider joke again. I was challenged to a chugging contest [I won, easily]. Truly, it was boys being boys. I had a blast. A blasty blast.

Conclusion: I can't wait for the next enkai!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tales from the JETs

An Ibaraki JET:

A teacher at my school said, "My kids wanted more expensive things for Christmas this year, so I told them Santa was dead."

LOL.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Kyoto Joy

Last Saturday, I went to Kyoto with some Japanese friends and Rogue, a Nara JET. I woke early (on my effing weekend) and hopped the train to Nara. From Nara, I met up with Rogue and we took the train to Inari Station in Kyoto together. We had to take a local train to Inari Station so it took about an hour to get there.

Side Note: Living in Nara is amazing. Not only is Nara the cultural capital of Japan, but Nara is smack-dab in the middle of the Kansai Region. To the north, Kyoto. To the West, Osaka and Kobe. I live less than an hour from all the wonderful places in Japan. Awesome.

Rogue and I met up with the rest of the crew and we ventured into Fushimi Inari Taisha (a shrine). This shrine is amazing. The entrance is adorned with a LARGE orange gate. Once we reached the inside, we partook of some shrine rituals.



1. Shrines and temples do have a way to make money from followers and tourists. Usually they sell charms, souvenirs, and even fortunes. I paid a small pittance for my fortune. How it's done: I shake a case full of sticks with numbers on them. Whichever stick falls out of the case first is my number. I tell the number to the priest and he retrieves my fortune from his archive of bullshit.

My Fortune:
-West is a good direction.
-Someone who is annoying at first, will be okay soon.
-More bullshit that I don't remember anymore



Another tradition at this particular shrine is called the Omoikaruishi (literally: Heavy Light Rocks). These are stones that sit atop small placements. If one lifts the stones and they are light, one will have good luck. If the stones are heavy, one will have bad luck. I tried it. Honestly, they were kind of light...so hurray!



The march up the mountain is wonderful. The entire trail is adorned with orange gates. It was like walking through a piece of art. Just beautiful.





The top of the shrine isn't really impressive. There is a small altar and some statues, but nothing worth seeing. The best place is the lookout about halfway up the mountain. I could see all of Kyoto from this lookout. It was absolutely breathtaking.




Restaurant Ninja:

There is a ninja-themed restaurant in Kyoto aptly named, "Restaurant Ninja." After taking the train from Fushimi Inari and walking a bit through Kyoto's shopping district (called Sanjo), we finally found it. At the front door, there is a host (dressed as a ninja) who showed us to our table. As we entered the restaurant, I suddenly lost all vision. The place is very dark and it took about 20 seconds for my eyes to adjust. The inside of the restaurant looks like the inside of cave. It is meant to mimic a ninja's "hideout." There is fake moss growing on the walls and random ladders everywhere. We sat down and ordered the lunch special.



I've heard that for dinner, the chef comes out to the table and performs ninja tricks while he cooks the food. I will definitely have to return.



After lunch, we were whisked away to the ninja maze downstairs. We were given little lanterns to find our way through the maze as well as bingo cards. We had to find the kanji on the bingo cards in the maze in order to win the prize at the end. What the host ninja neglected to tell us is that ninjas would be dropping down from the ceiling to scare the shit out of us. Ninjas appeared out of nowhere, then disappeared immediately after making me wet my pants. My favorite ninja scare came at the end. We found the kanji and were just about to exit the maze when a ninja appeared right at the exit. One of my Japanese friends actually screamed like a little girl. It was hysterical. Way to get us while our guards are down Japan!

The prize at the end was A CHANCE to win some free dessert. We drew lots. I didn't win, but it's okay, I got dessert any way. Restaurant Ninja specializes in custard wrapped with a crepe made from black bamboo.



I'm not crazy about the bamboo crepe, but the custard was yummy!

We spent a couple hours walking around Kyoto after lunch. The girls really wanted to do purikura, so we did that too. Purikura are a REALLY popular photo booths in Japan. They tend to white out faces to give everyone an even complexion and they really make the eyes stand out as well. After the pictures were taken, I let the girls customize them on the touch screen. The touch screen displays a vast array of options such as virtual stamps, pictures, clip art, colorful backdrops, borders, and pens that can be superimposed on the photographs. The other guy in the group and I just hung outside and talked about how silly purikura is. Here is a sample they created:



After Purikura, we hit up Starbucks for cocoa and general relaxation. We'd been going nonstop since the morning after all. Following Starbucks we visited another popular shrine at the end of Sanjo street. The shrine is big, but rather unimpressive. Eventually, all shrines start to look the same. The best part about this particular shrine was the food. I bought kobe beef on a stick for 400 yen ($4.50)!!!! It was delicious. They grilled the meat, dipped it in sauce, grilled it again, then served it. It was amazing and inexpensive.

To kill off our amazing day we did two hours of Karaoke. Rogue and I took the express train back to Nara. We slept like babies when we got home.

As John Stewart would say, "here is your moment of zen":