Monday, May 28, 2012

Toilets and Munchies

In the United States there are a lot of little annoyances that we ignore; those insignificant problems that bug you in the moment, but later become an afterthought. There’s an attitude of “deal with it,” which is fine, because, really, no one should waste her time being upset about such trifling incidents. On the other hand, in Japan people go to the next level to erase any discomfort or inconvenience you might be feeling. Examples of extraordinary care and concern can be found in nearly every aspect of Japanese daily life, and just like the annoyances are forgotten in the U.S., sometimes I wonder if the conveniences are forgotten in Japan. Their usefulness and rarity were certainly not wasted on me, and there were some amenities that stood out in particular.

Let’s start with toilets. The Western-style toilets in Japan are awesome. The high tech ones come with a button pad mounted on the wall, allowing you an array of options to make your business as enjoyable as possible. There is a water spout option with adjustable angles, which helps wash away the mess from your private bits. It can follow up with a good warm air-drying, leaving you feeling cleaner than any meager piece of paper could accomplish. Some toilets include a button that plays the sound of running water to camouflage any…uh, unfortunate sounds that might happen. There was even a massage button, but when I pushed it nothing happened, so I’m not sure what is supposed to occur. (Does the toilet seat start pulsating or send rotating spheres along your buttocks like those massaging chairs? Or maybe it’s just an undulating, high pressure spout? I have no idea.) The most appreciated feature, however, was the heated toilet seat. During the winter months and still cold early spring, a freezing cold toilet seat is enough to deter you from the bathroom for even the most urgent call. So the addition of a heated seat is happily welcome. For Japanese people the warmth of their toilets seems to be an important thing, because even non-electric ones are covered in some sort of fabric to keep your bottom warm. The electric ones include a programmable timer, so that it doesn’t waste electricity (or money) during times of infrequent use, such as when the user is asleep. My boyfriend was so fond of these toilets that he often scorned our low-tech dorm bathrooms and insisted on traveling across campus to the library to use their fancy ones. They’re that awesome.

Just as Japan cares about what should be kept warm, they also care about what should be kept cool. One of my favorite places in the mall near campus was a specialty cake shop called Fujiya, whose mascot is a supposedly cute girl licking her lips in anticipation.

(To me she’s a little kimokawaii, or cute but creepy.)

Fujiya sells Western-style cakes, with their most popular being strawberry shortcake. Although a bit pricey, I would often pick up a slice of some sweet treat or another, for around 400 yen, as an afternoon pick-me-up, or a surprise gift for my roommate. The slices would come in their own little boxes with a handle for easy carrying and a tiny spoon for eating, but the most impressive part was the small icepack slipped inside. I have never bought a cake in the United States that came with such a courtesy. Even specially made cakes for birthdays are simply put in a cardboard box, so that the icing is less than perfect when it gets home. Of course, higher priced bakeries probably do provide some sort of cooling method, but Fujiya is not overly expensive. Even if you only spend a few dollars there, they still strive to make sure your cake looks as good when you open it as it did when you bought it. The icepacks don't look cheap, either. 

The Japanese also care about variety. In the U.S., vending machines never have any pull over me, because their options are simply too limited. What kind of syrupy soda do I want, even though they’re all variations on each other? Which sugary or salty, vastly unhealthy snack food should I choose, even though they all taste like sweet or salty cardboard? Compared to the U.S., Japan’s vending machines are godly. Their drink vending machines include the usual array of dark and light sodas, as well as some sodas unique to Japan, such as Calpis or Qoo. On top of that they have various juices, a selection of teas including oolong, black, green, milk tea, and fruit teas. They have different flavors of coffee drinks and chocolate drinks. They even have a kind of drink that includes fruit soda filled with fruit jelly squares. Japanese drink vending machines offer both cold and hot drinks, and while some of them are the standard bottle or canned kinds, they also have some that dispense your drink right into a paper cup! My favorite drinks included the addictive Ty-Hi Milk Tea (hot or cold), creamy matcha tea, and frothy hot chocolate (which was often sold out because it was so tasty).

The paper cup vending machines often had options that allowed you change the ratios of espresso, water, sugar, milk, or froth. The warm drinks are sold in extra thick steel cans to provide insulation.

For food, Japanese vending machines went beyond simple candy bars and chip bags. They had assorted pastries with different fruit flavors (melon bread being one of the best), a large selection of instant ramen for your middle of the night cravings, chocolate biscuit treats, Kit-Kats in flavors you’d never find stateside, and pretzel sticks that were the savory equivalent of Pocky. Japan even had vending machines that sold hot food, with everything from hot dogs to fried chicken to grilled rice balls (called onigiri). The one below also has french fries and takoyaki, or pieces of octopus inside balls of batter and covered in a savory-sweet sauce.

The vending machines even say hello (or good morning/evening depending on the time), and thank you for your business in a cheery female voice.  At my school, during mid-terms and finals they said “Otsukaresama desu!” or “Good work!”

Japan’s courtesy could be found in the most unexpected places. Sidewalks are covered in rows of bumps to help blind people move about easier. Shopping carts in grocery stores and suitcases have wheels that swivel in every direction, so it’s never a struggle to move them in any way you like, even in tight circles. Much better than lifting those ungreased, broken-wheeled carts at Safeway whenever you need to move to make room. Ice-cream stores provide guests waiting in line with paper flavor menus, so you can choose faster. Iced-tea orders come with individual packets of liquid sweetener for easy dissolving. Malls have attendants at entrances to help you locate what you need, instead of just providing a map that might be hard to read.

These every-day amenities stem from the fact that the Japanese are a very polite people. In everything they do, they are concerned with being unoffensive and avoiding any discomfort for their guests. They are very hospitable by nature. This attention translates into the entire service industry, even when there are no actual people there to serve you. It is as if the entire country is trying to say, “irasshaimase!” or “welcome,” even if you are just walking down a sidewalk or buying some munchies to get through tests.  Personally, I wish my toilet seat would be a bit more courteous and learn to warm up next winter. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Community of AIU

While describing my experiences in Japan, I can assure you I have no intent of boring you with a description of every single day and every single thing I did while abroad. Although every day was amazing to me, not every day contained something really worth writing about. This Japan series will be long, filled with a wide array of events, but I will only describe to you the most important moments, the ones that really burrowed into my heart and made a home there. Some will be very specific, others will be more general to encompass the feelings that involve so many moments, it would be impossible to describe each one. This one is of the latter variety. I want to tell you, as best as I can, about life at Akita International University (AIU).

AIU is the kind of college that every college wishes it was. Situated near the Akita airport, it is surrounded by nature on all sides, with mysterious forest to the west and picturesque rice fields to the east. It's far enough away from the city to be beautifully quiet, and yet close to major roads and with its own bus route, ensuring you're never more than a 20 minute bus ride from the city. The campus is gorgeous, with cherry trees lining the pathways, lawns covered in soft grass, and a gorgeous garden park behind. Across the street is a huge sports complex where students can play baseball or tennis to work out their study-induced blues. The architecture is environmentally conscious and stylistically innovative. The interior of the library, with its sun-like rafting and wall of windows is so remarkable, it stuns you into silence, eliminating all need for shushing librarians.

The campus is small, only about the size of a large city block, so that getting to class feels like simply rolling out of bed into your desk. In the cold winter months of Northern Japan, AIU keeps you warm by making all the buildings connected to each other by corridors.

But AIU isn't just amazing for its location. It is the spirit of AIU that most colleges aspire to, but only rarely achieve. AIU's most interesting aspect is the fact that it is an international campus. Every year, a large percentage of their student body is comprised of exchange students from around the world. When I went there were students from all over the United States as well as Canada, Hungary, England, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, France, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Australia, Mexico, Brazil, and the Philippines. (And that year was a smaller representation than usual; their exchange student numbers had been halved by negative reactions to the earthquake in March.) Just as they welcome many students from abroad, they also send their own students off into the world. The school teaches their students English as a common language until they are proficient enough to travel, at which point they must study abroad in order to graduate. They even encourage their students to pick up a third language, believing that language the best gateway to the soul of a country. The result is a hybrid campus culture where every student can learn about different ways of life from every corner of the globe, and provide a bit of his own perspective. Understanding the value of immersing in a foreign culture, the Japanese students there are all to eager to help any exchange student experience as much of Akita and Japan as possible. For a Japanese major like myself, it was a perfect opportunity to practice their language, as well as teach some of my own (and occasionally rely on it if I didn't know how to say something in Japanese). I learned about food and traditions in places I had only briefly heard of, and I now have friends around the world, who are ready and willing to house me should I ever manage to visit their countries.

This is the goal of the school; to help every student learn about the world and experience it. They believe in the same things I believe in. In order to really do well in today's global economy, to really understand oneself and one's country, you must experience as much of the rest of the world as possible. This is the future of the human race, and the first ones to embrace it will become the leaders of the world. So the school tries to make that as easy as possible. They provide clubs about everything from calligraphy to world issues. They host events that showcase music or food from different countries. They provide their exchange students with specially tailored field trips that show them the best and most notable of Akita culture. They set students up with host families, part-time jobs, school visits. After the earthquake, they helped exchange students join volunteer programs, where the students could help clean up homes and comfort families. The whole school is dedicated to their mission of globalized education, and you can feel that energy and devotion reverberating in the halls. It is a beautiful, heart-warming feeling.

The effectiveness of the school's efforts is partially dependent on the smallness of the school itself. The total number of students, exchange students included, totals somewhere around seven hundred. Living in such a small community made me realize that maybe attending a school with 30,000 people was a mistake. It was impossible to go through your day without running into someone you knew. At lunch and dinner in the dining halls, you always had friends to sit with. Even in the depths of midterms and finals, you never felt isolated, even if you couldn't actually “get together” with anyone. The Japanese students were friendly and welcoming to any foreigner, and the exchange students loved to spend time together and relish in their shared experience as said foreigners. Even the teachers engaged with their students on a personal level, often inviting them out in groups to lunch or dinner, and accompanying them on field trips. I felt so involved in the community, so included, that it felt like saying good-bye to family when we all went our separate ways at the end of the semester. I made life-long friendships there in a mere 4 months that will probably last longer than most of the tenuous, sometimes superficial friendships I've made in Boulder after 4 years.

AIU is a school that leaves a mark on your heart with every detail. I miss its hallways, the vending machines, the tiny TV in the student lounge. I long for the near-holy peace of the library, the bustle and terrible food in the cafeteria, and the pathways through the gorgeous garden where every plant has a tag telling me its species. But mostly, I miss the people. I miss my roommate, Mai-chan, who loved pajamas and supported me during the occasional bout of homesickness. I miss Phil, an always energetic DJ grad student who helped out every single exchange student and landed me an English-teaching part-time job. I miss my teachers, especially Ashmore-sensei, the witty, English geek who taught me to indulge in all passions no matter how dorky, and Andy, my chemistry teacher who took us to a firework factory and let us make ice cream with liquid nitrogen. I even miss the cleaning staff, who bowed and smiled and said “Ohayou gozaimasu!” (good morning!) every time I passed them. I envy every new student from my school who goes there, and yet I wish I could give this experience to every one in the world. The love of this place developed over many days, through the small details of the ordinary, and through the huge moments that made my eyes sparkle with wonder. Even though I could only be there for a short four months, I will always consider it my home across the sea.  

(The cafeteria where the whole freshman class and the exchange students would eat meals. Large windows allowed for delightful daydreaming on the rare chance you ate alone.)

(One, the AIU mascot. He is an Akita, the dog breed, and his name is a play on the Japanese sound for woof "wan", as well as the word 'one,' as in we are all part of one world.)

(Sakura, or cherry trees, lining one of the walkways on campus.)

(A video of the hip-hop dance club's recruiting skit. This was at an information session that told new students about the cool clubs they could join. I personally dallied in the calligraphy club, the tea ceremony club, and mainly the Japanese traditional dance club.)

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Highs and Lows of Being Somewhere Foreign

Although I have been traveling to far away places since I was 6 years old, for the most part I hadn't experienced anything extremely foreign. Most of my travel experience has been to either Alberta or California, with the occasional trip so somewhere new, like Hawaii, Arizona, British Columbia, and Mexico. Canada, while retaining an entirely different essence than the US, has never pushed my comfort zone so far as to feel “foreign.” My trips to Hawaii and Mexico were so tourist oriented, that the walls of my resort hotel or cruise ship kept me from really experiencing the uniqueness of those places. So when I went to Japan, the sensation of being in a truly foreign land, built up by a lifetime of dreaming, obsession, and hype, was intense.

The understanding that I was even going to Japan didn't really dawned on me until I was on the train traveling from Narita Airport to Tokyo Station. Looking out the window as we moved through the relatively uncrowded outskirts of Tokyo it finally hit me that I wasn't just going to Japan, I was there. And it was so different. The trees, roads and houses were crowded together with only loose whispers of order, making the careful city planning of Colorado cities seem obsessive-complusive. The roofs of the houses spread out passed the walls into the pointed corners so characteristic of East Asian architecture—giving even the cheapest, smallest house a traditional flair reminiscent of shrines and pagodas and samurai castles. The signs and billboards we passed were written in a language that, despite my years of learning it, I could not decipher in the brief moments they flew by. It was exactly as I had expected it to look, and yet everything was a surprise. I was bouncing in my seat, nose pressed against the glass like a child. Turning to my boyfriend, Justin, who was also studying abroad, I said, “I can't believe we're here.”

This excitement was enough, for a while, to counteract the fact that I had just flown across the Pacific Ocean on a cramped airplane and had managed very little sleep. It wasn't until we actually got to Tokyo Station—the biggest and most crowded train station in the world—that the other, scarier side of being in such a foreign place began to take its toll. My language courses had not prepped me for the plunge of being surrounded by people who only spoke Japanese. As my weariness sunk in, I suddenly could not remember anything I'd learned, and anybody who talked to me sounded like an alien under water. Not to mention that speaking Japanese to a native still made my palms sweat and my heart beat like a percussionist on crack.

Navigating Tokyo Station, even with the supposed “help” of my boyfriend's brother who lived in Tokyo, was a nightmare. For a small town girl who is used to cities of 3000 and can barely handle her university of 30,000, it was terrifying. People in Tokyo Station don't watch where they're going. They are focused on getting to their destination as fast as possible and they don't notice anything else—even two dumb foreigners with two huge suitcases each, standing in everyone's way looking completely lost. Some guy even intentionally tripped my luggage. Justin's brother adopted this hurried mindset, too, and completely forgot (or didn't care to find out) that I had no idea how to buy train tickets, or get through the check points, or where to go. When I tried to explain, I was rushed past the check point anyway, quickly told “It's okay. It's okay.” Luckily no one checked our tickets on the train we took to get to dinner, because I definitely did not buy one.

This was not going as I had hoped. Justin and I had traveled to Japan shortly after the big earthquake in March 2011. After a month of not knowing whether we could go at all, we finally got the green light a mere week before we were supposed to leave. Having to rush all our preparations in one week, we had no time to really understand what would happen once we got to Japan. All I knew was that we were going to eat with Justin's brother in Tokyo before getting on to a bus to take us north to Akita province. As such, when we got there we were completely clueless.

After my illegal train trip we found ourselves in Akihabara, where we were supposed to eat. In case you don't know, Akihabara is a neighborhood of Tokyo that specializes in the crazier side of Japan. It's full of shops that sell everything you could possibly obsess over—anime, electronics, video games and arcades, maid cafes, porn, candy, toys, karaoke, alcohol. All of this is advertised with signs of bright, glaring neon that hover over the densely crowded streets filled with every kind of person you can imagine. It's a place I've long wanted to visit, but after the confusion of Tokyo Station, its intensity was overwhelming. There was too much too look at, it was too bright, too crowded, I was tired and my feet hurt. Our luggage was heavy and cumbersome, and dragging it through such a crowded neighborhood was like trying to maneuver a semi through rush hour L.A. traffic.

When we finally reached our restaurant—which was supposed to be sukiyaki (my favorite Japanese dish)--Justin and I were cranky and exhausted, and more than a little hungry. The meal was certainly not sukiyaki, and was instead some overpriced assortment of tough cuts of beef, cooked over a table grill. The portions were inadequate, and yet they were so expensive I couldn't bear to order more.

Justin's brother and his wife were anxious to make the most of our brief time in Tokyo before we left for school, so we made a pathetic effort to go a neko cafe, or a cafe where you enjoy food with cats around. It sounded cute, but when we got there it was closed. Despite offers to try something else, Justin and I just wanted to go wait for our bus and sit down. So we did. With our butts cooling on a cement ridge around the sidewalk, we waited until our bus came and left without much ceremony. We would, after all, see them at the end of our trip.

The night bus was nice and quiet and dark, and I slept with my head in Justin's lap, despite my misgivings about public affection in Japan. (Cuddling and kissing in public in Japan is not as accepted as it is in the United States). I was tired, and at the moment I couldn't care less about what people thought of me using my boyfriend as a pillow.

When we arrived in Akita and at our school, Akita International University (AIU), some of the exhilaration began to return. The campus was beautiful, and the welcome committee was full of friendly, warm, energetic people. Exchange students from all around the world were chatting in groups, already making friends. We were shown our rooms, where the novelty of being in the dorms again brought back memories of my freshman year of college, when I first felt the delight of striking out on my own. I set up my futon rental in my bunk bed, crawled into it. Although I was not used to sleeping on a thin mattress on top of a wooden bed frame, I fell asleep instantly, ready and excited to take on the next day which would, hopefully, be much better than my first day in Japan.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Introductions and new passions.

Hajimemashite. (Let me introduce myself.)
Guraui Kyandesu desu. (My name is Candace Graue.)
Douzo yoroshiku. (Nice to meet you.)

During my beginning Japanese class, back in my freshman year of college, we practiced self-introductions, or jikoshoukai, relentlessly. Every person was introduced to every other person a dozen times, followed by careful practicing of the Japanese bow: not too high, not too low, and with hands on the thighs for women. I had no idea that this beginner’s language course, taken on a whim, with all its introductions was introducing me to an entirely unpredicted, and therefore terrifying, direction in life.

Although I love “living in the moment” and going on spontaneous adventures, when it comes to the important, big parts of my life—career, marriage, children, lifestyle—I like to plan down to the smallest detail. I did not go into college with no idea what I wanted as a career, as many of my fellow students often do. Since my freshman year of high school I knew I wanted to be an English teacher. The more I learned about education and the issues surrounding it, the more I believed that this was my calling, my place to make a change in this world—even if it were only  through students I taught. I believed that through education, particularly English, a child’s mind could be opened to endless interests, causes, cultures, and viewpoints. They just needed the right guidance. With that passion burning in my heart, I entered college knowing my path, how to get there, and what to do in the meantime. On top of that, I knew how many kids I wanted, what their names would be, where I’d live, and what kind of house I wanted. I even knew what kinds of pets I would adopt and what I would name them. I would teach, I would live, and I would write—another passion of mine that began as early as elementary school.

But my interest in Japan and its culture and language did not diminish, and I continued to take the language courses and even studied abroad in Japan, despite the fact that these classes had no value towards my English and Education degree. Then, when I started to apply to the School of Education at my university, I came to realize that despite all my fervor for education, getting the required degree meant a lot more money and time in college than I felt was right. It meant taking on a huge amount of debt, spending an extra year and a half in school, only to go into a career that at this time is not hiring—in fact, it’s mainly cutting jobs. It was then, with a heavy heart, that I changed my Education double major to a Japanese one, feeling like I was cutting out a part of my soul for the sake of my future financial well-being.   
That’s not to say I am unhappy with a Japanese major. But after spending 6 years knowing I was going to be a teacher, suddenly not having that goal anymore left me hollow. What, I asked, would my passion be now? What would I do with a Japanese degree? Teach English in Japan? Translate? I needed that fiery motivation that kept me going through all the annoying little stuff, knowing that every small step was part of a bigger, happier picture.

Luckily, my trip to Japan for a semester and a year of pondering my future, has revealed to me a potential, new calling, one that draws on everything I believed in as a someday teacher. I still believe that people need to open their minds, to embrace curiosity, and to explore. And after traveling to Japan and a couple other countries, I think that exploration of other cultures and places of the world is particularly important. Only by exploring different ways of life can you ever truly understand yourself and the country you live in. You can never have perspective without experiencing the other side, first. Surely, this is the most important lesson I have taken from learning about and experiencing Japanese culture. Lately, I have started to think that I can still share this ideal with the world in ways other than teaching. And to be honest, I miss being tin Japan, or anywhere foreign, so deeply that is almost physically hurts in the center of my body.

So in order to explore this revised passion, I want to write about culture. Not just Japanese, but culture around the world, and even here at home. This blog will help me begin that path, and maybe find that plan I so desperately need to feel secure. Maybe I will inspire other people to go beyond their comfort zone and embrace different ways of life. This is not a travel blog, though there will be posts about travel. It is not a food blog, although I love tasting food from different countries. It is just going to be a blog about curiosity for the world—and everything that goes with it. I hope to visit many other countries as soon as I can and continue to share my experience through my writing.

Something else Japanese has taught me is that literal translations often don’t effectively communicate the same meanings. The literal translation of my opening jikoshoukai is something like “I am beginning.  I am Candace Graue. Please treat me well.” As an introduction, this translation into English isn’t much help. But for this, I believe the literal meaning works just as well. To both my future readers, and my future itself: I am beginning, please treat me well.