Thursday, August 11, 2011


I headed to Osaka, Japan, on Saturday, July 23rd, on the Sunflower ferry out of Beppu city.  I love the ferry.  It's fun, convenient, relaxing, and the least expensive way to travel between Oita and Osaka.  Granted, you have to be ok with sleeping on a pretty hard surface and not be bothered by motion sickness.  I'm a professional-level sleeper and I don't get motion sickness, so it's great for me.  There are private and semi-private rooms available, but I just chose the group room where maybe 40 people each have a futon and a place for their things.  I think the ferry system might not work in America due to crime.  In America, I would be very wary of going to sleep in a room with unknown men and women, leaving myself vulnerable and my belongings unattended.  In Japan, I was the only person one night to use a locker (for my wallet and camera).  The ferry has a Japanese style bath, like an onsen, but with tap water as opposed to spring water.  A woman next to me befriended me right away, as well as a girl that was traveling alone and a granny on my other side.  We went to the bath together.  They were so sweet, giving me a hyaku yen for the locker and putting my shoes up for me.

After the bath (a Japanese bath is always incredibly relaxing), I talked with the lady about her grandchildren and her family in the US.  We showed each other pictures of our cats.  Everything I talked about with the woman had to be communicated in Japanese.  That was interesting.  I also met a woman whose daughter was clearly only half Japanese, and she told me that she had been married to an Australian man, but that he had passed away.  We had a nice time speaking in English and playing with the kids that had congregated around us.  There were many very funny things on the boat, like the granny airing out her nether regions in front of the fan after she got out of the bath, and a little boy who strode into the bathroom and peed with the door open.  Before bed, I just had to get a beer out of the vending machine because I just think beer vending machines are really funny, and because it was my mission to become as relaxed as possible.  I took a stroll around the ship and went outside.  The stars were incredible out on the ocean with a new invisible moon.  I haven't seen so many stars in a long time.  I also saw a shooting star and made a wish.  After that I had a nice sit-down with the now clothed granny, and then we went to bed.  We all had a good laugh when I realized I would be sleeping on a vinyl pillow and slid my dress around it as a pillow case. 

Lights on the boat in the common room came on at around 5:50am.  It was very unlike me to feel ready to get up at that time, but I was excited, so I just jumped right up and got ready for the day.  I sat with the same woman from the day before at breakfast.  I disembarked and headed for the train, where I ran into the lady again, and she helped me figure out which train to get.  We were taking the same two transfers, so we hung out all the way to my last train, which took me to Uehonmachi, the neighborhood where my hotel was.  I stayed at the Weekly Uehonmachi Hotel which was only a 5 minute walk from the YMCA Japanese school where I would study from 9am to 3pm every day for two weeks.

I had such a wonderful time in Osaka.  Brie is another JET in Oita prefecture, and the JET who gave me the contact info for the school.  We had a great time walking most days to popular areas and trying restaurants that specialized in food we don't usually get to eat.  We ate at a Mexican place one day, and several times at Subway (sandwiches).  Sandwiches are really different in Japan, so it was awesome to have Subway for two weeks.  I have a good picture on Facebook of the Sunway shrimp sandwich.  I don't think that one is available in the US.  We took in the sights, sounds, and tastes of the Osaka summer festival on the first two days.  They had hundreds of food and game booths set up along the river with lots of interesting foods.  Barges and boats carrying men in traditional Japanese dress and playing drums sailed up and down the river.  Paper lanterns hung everywhere, and torches lined the river.  At night, many hundreds of people came out in yukata (summer kimono in cotton as opposed to silk for winter) and there were fireworks.

Tea Ceremony


Flower Arranging

We visited a bunraku theater (puppets) but didn't have time to attend, and saw a mini-museum with traditional costumes and ancient texts.  In the museum, I had this strange but really cool feeling, and a new concept occurred to me.  I was looking at the ink on the paper, and you know, it's not just any paper and ink; in Japan, an incredible degree of care is devoted to the arts.  It doesn't matter if it's tea ceremony or calligraphy, theatre or flower arranging, there are always very special materials used and etiquette followed.  So, I was looking at this paper, and it felt like I was soaking it in, like it was becoming a part of me.  It occurred to me that the things I see and experience must affect me in a more profound way than I have previously accepted.  I think this partly has to do with how I have changed as I have gained time and experience in this life.  I'm about to talk about my maturity, which demands a disclaimer... OK, I know I am silly and a little wild.  I am rebellious.  I have an unruly sense of humor, and, especially of late (due to big changes in my life) I have become a lot more impulsive, which is something I recognize and have decided to allow, as I see it as a healthy kind of release... aside from all of that, I have gained some wisdom on this planet and learned a great deal about myself and life.  In addition to many varied life experiences, having a child has accelerated my attainment of self assuredness- the comfort I feel in my own shoes- the sense of internal calm that comes with age.  I look back and can't regret anything because everything has made me the person I am.  (In fact, on a philosophical level, I am starting question whether "mistakes" exist.  But that is for another day.)  So, I was looking at this paper, soaking it in, and I had kind of a shift of consciousness.  I felt all of my experiences in me, and it was like I was suddenly able to observe the minute change each one of them had made in me, and after we left the museum, as I walked down the street, it was like stuff was jumping into my consciousness; the smell of the antique bookstore we passed, colors from the rack of kimono, the feel of the obi on my fingers; and to a greater degree, the experience of kabuki theatre, and the tour of an ancient shogun's castle.  It's like I can feel the degree of care that has gone into each artifact and performance.  The rocks in the castle wall emit an archaic wisdom that is tactile to me.  I know it sounds a little loony, but touching the old rocks and wood of a castle changes me internally.  It makes me calm.  It's like the feeling that nature gives, except in addition, something beautiful, artistic, and purposeful has been done with it in a human way, which adds yet another dimension.  Japan excels at shaping nature in ways that are healthy and beautiful.  I love it here.

At Nijo Castle in osaka

This makes me think of something else that occurred to me within the past few years...  I think it started with a question I posed to myself about raising kids, and the question of why certain artists are so successful:  How does one develop a loving, smart, compassionate human being?  Why is Michael Jackson so freaking awesome?  These things may not seem related, but they are.  I think the difference is love.  When a child is loved, he is done the best for, he is hugged and his boo-boos are kissed, he is properly disciplined and educated, and even when "mistakes" are made, the intention shines through.  (That goes for bad intentions too, when love is a guise and dysfunction wins out.)  Michael Jackson had this intense love in him that everyone could see and hear and feel.  It was in his music, even his hater music was about love.  Even his bad ass super cool music was about love.  Why are U2's With Or Without You and The Sweetest Thing so timeless?  In my opinion, it's because they are oozing with love.

Samurai Sighting
Anyway, like I adverted to, we saw Kabuki one night in this huge theater in Osaka.  It was cool.  The final scene after the guy has killed a bunch of people was aesthetically exquisite:  The pissed guy with the katana (Japanese sword) busts through a paper door to the outside where a Japanese style bridge stands in front of sculpted trees and bushes, in the dim still of a summer night.  He is chasing down the last two body guards of the house.  In the previous scene, we saw him kill a bunch of men and women, and now his white and blue yukata looking dress is all blood-stained.  He has already injured the two guys, and they are crawling away across the bridge.   He stands there between them with the sword raised, the light low...  The contrast between the perfect looking summer night and the bloody fight made an awesome impact.  And now I can cross Kabuki off my list of Japan must-sees.  In Osaka, we also saw the big shopping district, lots of temples, some parks, etc.

A Stolen Photo of Kabuki 
On the first Saturday, July 30th, we went to Kyoto, only 30 minutes by train, to see Phantom of the Opera.  The show wasn't until the evening, but we went early in the day to see some sights of Kyoto.  We went to Nijo Castle, which is in the neighborhood of 400 years old.  I have lots of great pictures on facebook of the castle and the whole trip.  After the castle, we took the bus to another area of town where we had lunch and walked down a really cute little shopping street.  Then we walked to Gion, the old geisha district.  They still have geisha come around in the evening, but I'm pretty sure it's only a tourist/cultural attraction now and not true geisha-ry (yeah, I made that up).  You can also pay to dress up as a geisha yourself.  We didn't have time (or the inclination because it's really expensive and unbearably hot) to do that, but we saw someone else doing it and got a picture.  We headed to the theater after that, changed, and took in a musical.

Seeing Phantom... in Japanese was a very interesting cultural experience.  I was juiced up to see a show that is familiar to me in a language that I am learning.  I thought it was a really unique opportunity.  It was also unique to see a show written by an American, based on a French novel, set in Paris, done by all Asian people, in Japan.  I was enjoying the show, but my brain was having trouble figuring out why Asian people were wearing 1880s European clothing.  Not something you see every day.  The weirdest thing about it, and maybe the most weirded out I have been by a cultural difference, was the lack of applause.  Several times a song would finish and I would be THE ONLY PERSON in the theater clapping.  I looked around and whispered to Brie, "Why isn't anyone clapping?"  She didn't know or care.  People pretty much only clapped at the end of each act.  So weird!!  Also, at the end of the play, the cast bowed about 25 times.  I mean, I know bowing in Japan is like, an all day every day thing, but seriously, I was laughing, it seemed so absurd.  It was worse than the NYC ballet!  They all bowed like usual, then they closed the curtain and opened it again and they bowed some more, then they closed the curtain and opened it in a new configuration with only the leads and they bowed, then only the Phantom bowed, then only Christine, then only Raul, then the whole cast again, then... it went on and on.  What I found most ridiculous was that Raul bowed last, by himself.  The third most important character got the last bow.  Anyways...

A mural on the way to Tennoji (A neighborhood of Osaka)
I missed my little boy terribly, but I took advantage of the time to recharge and relax with no toddler to chase after.  It took me a few days to come off of mommy-style-high-alert and a full week before I felt wholly rested.  I enjoyed a level of independence that I have not been allowed in quite some time.  I am stubbornly independent, but that was basically defenestrated when I became pregnant.  Everything from that point becomes about the well-being of someone else, and eventually about the will of a toddler.  Anyway, it was nice to be only responsible for myself for a couple of weeks.  I could sleep when I wanted, eat when I wanted, do what I wanted at all hours of the day and night.  It was great.  But nothing is better than the sound of my baby's voice on the phone, and when I heard him say, "Where, Mommy, where?" my heart was broken.  I almost got on the shinkansen right then, but I made it through, having tons of fun but feeling the magnetic pull of Knox on me all the time.

This is a summer to remember.  I've been at work for about 6 hours and my butt is asleep for the first time in a month.  But, it's all worth it for the good times and the experiences I am afforded by my choice to sit here.

From Japan,

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