2009-12-07

The End of a Great Decade

It didn't cross my mind that this year's New Year's celebration would take us into the next decade until I heard an NPR All Songs Considered show titled "Best Music of the Decade." Since then, I've been noticing loads of "Best ____ of the Decade" lists. Everyone wants to tell you the best movies, news stories, medical breakthroughs, heroes, and on and on.

I tend to think more about the future than the past, but I wanted to take a moment to share the most important moments of this, the most important decade of my life thus far. I was 14 when 2000 began, and I had just moved to Missouri. I wasn't too excited about being in Missouri. I had just begun to get settled in Vancouver, Washington when my parents informed me that we'd be moving to Missouri, a state I knew nothing about. Moving to Missouri turned out to be a great change in my young life. I met so many amazing people and had great opportunities I might not have had otherwise. Though it happened a few months before this decade, it is a very important part of the 2000's.

In the first three years of the decade, I had so many fun times at Liberty High School, but most importantly, I met two wonderful ladies who have been great friends ever since and accompanied me on so many adventures. I'm glad I know you, Lauren and Sam.

Not to discount my high school years, but attending college at Missouri State University was such a life-changing period for me. I know that just about everyone considers this part of their life important, so it's a bit cliche to go on about how university opened me up to so many different opinions, cultures, and people, but it did.

This decade is the decade when I became a vegetarian, and that has been very important to me. Besides making me feel healthier and happier, it has also opened up a whole world of food to me. Before becoming a vegetarian, my cooking skills consisted of opening up a box of Rice-a-Roni and adding butter and water. Since then, things have gotten considerably better, and I can now successfully conjure up a main dish, a side dish, and a salad relatively painlessly. (Though as Dustin would reveal, I usually skip the salad and the side dish and make a really scrumptious main dish, but I CAN make and HAVE made all three.) I even bake now, though I haven't yet mastered meringue. It is a project for the next decade.

In this decade, I have had the amazing opportunity to travel to Europe, twice! Both trips were so amazing and I saw so much, took way too many pictures, saw a slew of musicals, ate a crazy amount of pain au chocolat, and drank a few too many glasses of unbelievable French wine. I had the joy of studying Shakespeare and analyzing the songs of The Beatles in London. And I studied la langue française and French history in France. My professors on both programs encouraged me to begin writing, and it is completely because of them that I did. I caught the travel bug this decade and I don't plan on getting rid of it any time soon.

I've attempted (and not quite succeeded) to learn two new languages in the 2000's, French and Japanese. French was a bit easier to understand and remember than Japanese is proving to be. I've lost much of my French, but at my peak, I was speaking to my French parents about politics and the anatomy of a baguette. Compare that to the most recent conversation I had with some Japanese teenagers during which I got flustered and mistakenly told them I was 14. I've got a long way to go with my Japanese, but I hope that I have not yet reached my peak.

Most importantly, I met my future husband this decade. Nearly 3 years ago, Dustin and I were introduced to each other by my friend and his coworker, Sarah Scharfenberg. After a very fast romance, we moved into a nice little loft in downtown Springfield together, much to the (silent) dismay of our families and friends. Though few people said it, most of the reactions we got when telling people we'd be living together after a few short months of knowing each other was a look that said, "Whoa. That's waaaay too fast." Well, it turns out that our fast paced relationship has lasted the test of time and we're going to tie the knot. It is the first time that I've fallen in love, and that is undoubtedly the best thing about this decade.

And then, of course, we moved to Japan, which has been a grand adventure of its own. Once again, I moved to a strange new land, with a bit of trepidation, and turned out to love it. I doubt that I'll spend the next decade in Japan, but I'm glad I've come to experience this crazy country, and I'm willing to stick around for a while longer.

As with anyone's life, there has been the occasional disappointment and sadness over the past ten years, but this decade has been truly amazing. I've met some of the most important people in my life, and I hope that we will remain important to each other in the next decade. I've discovered some life long loves of my life: vegetarian food, traveling, writing, and Dustin.

Though it's been a great decade, I expect the next decade to be even more important than the last. There are a great many things I wish to do in the next decade:
-have my very own classroom
-continue to see the world
-continue my writing
-go back to France and finish learning French (hopefully with Brigitte)
-become a debt free citizen
-learn to sew and knit and make wearable garments
-have a house with a big garden
-be a mother (but probably in the latter part of the coming decade, so don't get too excited yet)

We'll see how the next decade turns out! Stay tuned.


Happy Holidayssssss

Dustin and I hosted our very first Thanksgiving feast. As it so often happens, Dustin's birthday fell shortly after the holiday. A few weeks before, he'd told me that he wanted a turkey shaped caked that also tasted like turkey. Little did he know, I had already ordered a bird from a website that Tracey shared with me, and it was due to arrive a few days before our Thanksgiving party.

I know that Thanksgiving falls on a Thursday, but all of us English teachers in Japan typically work on Thursdays, so we planned Dustin's birthday party/ Thanksgiving dinner for the following Sunday. After a few rousing games of bowling, we planned on having around 15 people over to our little Japanese apartment for a fabulous feast.

Since I am usually the lone vegetarian at Thanksgiving dinner, I have made the occasional dish to bring to the table, but I have never been responsible for the majority of the meal. Neither Dustin nor I have ever had anything to do with cooking a turkey. Having observed my mother over the years, I understood that you must start the cooking the day before if everything is to be finished in time. I spent most of Saturday night cooking up a storm. I continued in the morning, and somehow finished everything in the nick of time. I made glazed carrots, gravy, stuffing, cheesecake, brownies, and about 3 pounds of garlic mashed potatoes! The gravy was lumpy and the brownies exploded all over the oven, but they were gobbled up nonetheless.

Dustin did the turkey. It was quite a task, with a few problems. First problem, this tiny 3.4 kg turkey was too big to fit in our even tinier Japanese oven. Second problem, our oven is a bit finicky. It never seems to think the suggested amount of time is appropriate; sometimes it thinks 25 minutes should be 40, at other times 5 minutes into a 20 minute cooking time leaves something burnt to a crisp... So we weren't really sure how long it should stay in there.

Dustin solved the first problem by chopping off the wings and legs, and cooking the torso on its own. The second problem was solved by lots of observation. The instructions that came with our roasting bag said to cook it until most of the cooks agreed that it was done, probably between 2.5-3 hours. Well... neither of us knew how to tell if it was done, but it looked brown, so we took it out. And thankfully, it was done. And then the rest of the poor disassembled bird was stuck in the oven, and an hour later, it too was enjoyed by the carnivores in the room. Everyone happily ate the turkey without complaint, but once the guests left, Dustin admitted that it was much drier than the turkey he's used to. It was his first attempt and it was edible, so I declare it a success.

The evening turned out to be another lovely potluck in Japan. We had more dessert than we knew what to do with, but there were very few complaints about that. And our Japanese guests brought sushi, which was a welcome addition to the dinner. Someone even made Sangria! And luckily, our American friends rounded out the dinner with a few other Thanksgiving staples like macaroni and cheese and sweet potato casserole. In a single word, the night was delicious.

And of course, after Thanksgiving the next holiday is... CHRISTMAS! Which I am so very excited about spending in the U.S. that I talk about it far too much these days, so I will refrain from blabbing on and on about all the great fun I will be having in a short week and a half (like eating burritos and seeing the Nutcracker and attending more Christmas "events" than I have ever attended in one year and seeing all of the people I miss the most)!!!

I don't know if any of my faithful readers are familiar with David Sedaris's short story "Me Talk Pretty One Day" from a book of the same name, but I found myself in the midst of a remarkably similar situation the other day. Only we were talking about Christmas traditions around the world in broken Japanese, instead of Easter traditions around the world in broken French.

I have been taking a Japanese class at my local Civic Center since April. Currently, my class consists of me, my American boss, a middle-aged South Korean man who works at a restaurant, a 19 year-old Chinese girl, a middle-aged Chinese woman who I think is a doctor, and a mysterious middle-aged Spanish man from Madrid, who recently joined our class. At the end of each chapter, we take a little quiz that involves filling in the blanks of a story. The one we completed last time was a sort of guess who passage. It was about a man who has a wonderful job where he only has to work one day a year. He wears a red suit, and has white hair. I don't recall what else was in the passage, but I was giggling about half way through having realized that we were talking about Santa Claus here.

After we finished our quiz, my adorable little old Japanese teacher asked, "Who is this?" I said immediately, and a little too enthusiastically, "Santa Claus!" To which one of my Chinese classmates replied, "Who?" Who?!?!? Always prepared, my teacher pulled out a plush Santa and showed it to the Chinese girls who seemed to have recognized the face, but didn't know a thing about him. My teacher starting giving the run down on Santa, and she began by telling us why Santa Claus brings toys to all of the children in the world. She said that Santa Claus is single, but he loves children. I interrupted her to say, "That's wrong. Santa Claus has a wife." My teacher asked her name, and I replied, "Claus San," which could translate to Mrs. Claus or Mr. Claus, so that did nothing to quell her confusion. I broke the normal "Japanese only" rule, and said, "Mrs. Claus" in English.

Being the only American in the room (my boss was absent that day), my teacher felt that I was the authority on Santa Claus, and thus began asking me a multitude of questions about him. "Where does he live?"
"Umm... very north with lots of snow and countryside."
"What does his wife wear?"
"Mr. Santa the same, but dress and glasses."
"Does he have any children?"
"No, but he has many small people friends."
(There was a very confused expression on the face of everyone present at this point.)
Luckily, my teacher understood and said, "Erufu," the katakana version of elf.
Suddenly, the man from South Korea piped up, "Santa Claus very tall. He has blue clothes."
Next the Spanish guy chimed in, "His name is Papa Noel in Spain. We get two days presents. In January, three men put presents in children's shoes."
The Chinese girls continued to insist that they had never heard of this Santa character.

It was a very interesting cultural discussion, but I have a feeling there was an awful lot lost in translation and none of us came away with a complete understanding of the Christmas traditions observed in each others' home countries. Nonetheless, I cannot wait to visit you all in person and talk about all of the things that have been happening that haven't made it to the blog, and hear about your own live in the past year and a half. See you all so very very soon!

2009-11-20

Brigitte Invades Japan!

Last week, we had the great fortune of our very first American visitor. The lovely Brigitte came over to Japan for a week and a few days. I met her in Tokyo for the weekend before she came with us to Niigata-ken.

The week flew by, and unfortunately, Dustin and I both had to work, so it was a bit crazy, but we were so lucky to finally have a visitor. It was great to see a familiar face, and hear what we'd missed after we left Springfield. It was also wonderful to have someone to show around, because we did a few essential Japanese experiences that we rarely make the time for... all in one week.

First, Brigitte and I had an exciting weekend in Tokyo. Since we hadn't seen each other in over a year, the majority of our two days in Tokyo involved lots and lots of talking. In between all of the gabbing, we somehow managed to see the National Museum of Modern Art, visit an old school onsen, eat Indian food twice, do a wee bit of bargain hunting in Harajuku, see a lovely night view of Tokyo from the top of Roppongi Hills Tower, and traverse half of Tokyo on foot.

We both REALLY wanted to see the crazy fashion of the Harajuku girls, but despite having searched for them up and down the streets of Harajuku and running all over Yoyogi Park, we didn't see any of these fashion wonders in their natural environment. We did see two convincing "Harajuku girls," but they were both pretty blonde Westerners. We saw a tamer version of the Harajuku girls we sought out, but they were employees at a store who sold these crazy fashions, so they still didn't feel authentic. Disappointed, we met my friend Ryo at the train station to go to Roppongi for dinner. In the crowd, I spied a girl dressed in all pink, complete with a frilly pink tutu, and topped with a shocking pink bob. In excitement, I exclaimed, "Ryo, look! I found a Harajuku girl!" He looked her up and down and said, "Eh... not quite. She's trying, but..." Apparently, there are still a few Harajuku girls hanging on to this street fashion, and they meet at Harajuku Station around noon on Saturdays and Sundays, but most of the fashion craze ended five years ago. Westerners just clued into this delightful style a little too late. Boo.

Tokyo was fun, but eventually we had to leave for the countryside of Niigata-ken. To lessen the shock of Nagaoka compared to Tokyo, we went straight to Niigata-shi, the biggest city in our prefecture. We met my British friend, Ellen, and my Japanese friend, Kyoko, for lunch at a soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles) restaurant. It was an extremely rainy day, so we decided to do our sightseeing inside. We went to the top of the Toki Messe building, one of the largest in the city. The view wasn't nearly as impressive as the one in Tokyo, but it was interesting nonetheless, because we were right on the coast of the Japan sea. I could see the outline of Sado island in the distant fog.

When you think about Japan, it's pretty hard not to think about video games. They are such a huge part of the modern Japanese culture. I knew Brigitte wasn't too fond of video games, but I thought she should really experience Japanese arcade games. It was a bit of a hard sell, but when I told her that Round 1 had massage chairs, she agreed to give it a try... and she loved it! She had a lot of fun playing all the wacky Japanese video games. And we both relished the chance to use the massage chairs after two days of endless walking.

Once we got back to Nagaoka, we started showing Brigitte the typical Japanese lifestyle in the inaka. We did so much during her week in Niigata-ken. She had the chance to try so many different types of Japanese food, and she liked almost all of them. We went to an izekaiya and did karaoke. We even took her to a Japanese garden in Kashiwazaki where she got to enjoy the lovely fall momiji. At the garden, we did a tea ceremony with my friend Yumi. It was very interesting. We drank from cups that were around 400 years old. Thanks to Yumi's translating, we learned what each slow and calculated movement meant. My legs fell asleep about 15 minutes into it, but it was interesting.

I'm so happy that Brigitte got a chance to visit! It was great fun. You can see all of the pictures on facebook by clicking the new album on the list to the right!


2009-11-15

Honeymoon Madness

A few months ago, a travel agent from Springfield e-mailed me about our honeymoon. Assuming that I'd given her my e-mail address way back when Dustin and I went to a wedding show in Springfield, I excitedly sent her my dream honeymoon and budget and awaited her reply. She got back to me quickly, "excited for the challenge" I was presenting, since we needed to get from Japan to Springfield, MO to (hopefully) Thailand and back to Japan again. AND I needed to be ensured that where we'd be on our honeymoon week, there would be vegetarian food available. I e-mailed with her for about 3 weeks and even had a phone conversation with her, but all of a sudden, she disappeared. Whenever I e-mailed her, an "out of the office" e-mail would be sent to me. I tried calling her a few times, but she never answered. It's been about a month since the last time I had contact with her, and still no word. It's very mysterious.

So, I decided to take the honeymoon planning into my own hands. I began researching resorts on the internet. I quickly discovered that Thailand had plenty of amazing resorts, but they were all out of our price range. Reluctantly, I ditched my dream of honeymooning in Thailand, and started looking at other options in Asia, since we'd have to come back to Japan anyway. I found many more reasonably priced resorts, but when I checked the airfare, it was all outrageous, or it required an extra day of traveling that I wasn't willing to accept.

I'll go ahead and apologize for sounding spoiled, but I really did not want to honeymoon in the Caribbean. Both Dustin and I had been to the Caribbean more than once (and we're very grateful for each opportunity to have done that) and we wanted somewhere new for our honeymoon. I didn't want my honeymoon experience to be tainted by any past vacations' memories, good or bad. The only thing I didn't want more than a Caribbean vacation was one of those cheesy resorts whose commercials you see full of smiling models with a martini in one hand and their sarong waving in the wind in the other hand, like... Sandals for instance.

After weighing the options in nearly every part of the world, and getting really excited about the possibility of honeymooning in Hawaii for a split second (before realizing it was even more expensive than Thailand), we finally settled on... Sandals Grande Ocho Rios in Jamaica. I know what you're thinking, "That is both in the Caribbean and the cheesiest resort you can find." Well, it was a deal we couldn't pass up. It was affordable, and neither of us have been to Jamaica. Plus, we won't lose too much time traveling, since it's so close to the U.S. And it's all inclusive, so all drinks and food is covered, inclusing special vegetarian fare. Our honeymoon will begin shortly after our first day of marriage does, which is something I prefer to spending the first 17 hours of married life on a plane.

Deciding where to go took about 3 hours of "discussion," but actually ironing out all the details and booking our room and flight took twice as long. We started out by calling Sandals to ask about the differences between two rooms we were deciding between. We talked to Arol, a Jamaican gentleman. He made us feel like respectable royalty instead of the young bums we actually are. He called me ma'am and Dustin sir. He insisted we upgrade our room, because we deserved it. He "could tell" Dustin was a man who enjoyed golf, which he is, so he suggested that at some point on the honeymoon, Dustin take some time at the golf course, while I spend the day at the spa. Well, Arol, that sounds like a great idea! We booked our ocean front suite and felt very special and appreciated. As soon as we hung up with Arol, however, Dustin reminded me that Micheal Scott and Jan (from The Office) had gone to Sandals in Jamaica, and I no longer felt very special, but I did laugh for a few minutes.

Next step: plane tickets. We had quite an agenda what with flying into Springfield, MO from Japan, and then to Jamaica, and back to Japan. When I'd looked for one-way flights to the U.S. from Japan 2 months ago, the cheapest I could find was $2,500 each, so I was most nervous about this step. Miraculously, we found tickets for the entire itinerary for less than two grand. Whoo hoo! We'd bought our tickets for our upcoming trip in December from Cheapoair, so I was confident in their ability to provide us with the tickets we wanted. They provided us with more tickets than we wanted. There were so many options. All of them, unfortunately, included an overnight stay on the way back to Japan, because no planes leave Jamaica before 11:00 a.m., and no planes in our price range leave after 5:00 p.m. That meant we could stay at O'Hare in Chicago, JFK in New York, or DFW in Dallas. We looked up all three on a website that rates airports. JFK was voted the dirtiest airport and Chicago got bad marks for friendliness. Dallas didn't have as many amenities as the other two, but it looked the most promising if we were going to have to spend the night on cots in an airport.

I clicked "Buy Ticket" next to the itinerary that included a stop in Dallas, and got a message saying "That ticket is no longer available." Drat. So, I clicked "Buy Ticket" next to the one with a stop in Chicago... same message. Grrrrr. JFK, here we come, ugh... "That ticket is no longer available." WHAT?!?! I tried about 10 flights and all of a sudden, none of them were available. I decided to call the 800 number on Cheapoair's website and see where these tickets suddenly disappeared to.

The friendly phone operator at Cheapoair conducted her business a bit differently than Arol from Sandals had. She made jokes, often at our expense, but there was an amiable tone to our conversation. She congratulated us on our engagement, told us about her mother traveling to South Africa (though I'm not sure why), and joked with us about having to see things for ourselves since we were from "The Show Me State." She did eventually help us find the tickets we wanted in her database. She asked us which flight we wanted and noted that the biggest difference was which airport we'd be staying at. I explained that we'd already researched the three airports and found that JFK was too dirty and Chicago was too mean. Suddenly, her voice lost all of its warmth and friendliness, "What's wrong with New York's airport?" I told her that reviews said that JFK airport was really dirty, and suggested that it probably had more to do with the heavy flow of traffic than anything else. She informed us that she lived 15 minutes from the airport and it was a very nice airport thank you very much.

She then quickly put us on hold, made the reservations, put us on hold a dozen times more, took down our information, and hung up with us. Oops. At least we had our honeymoon all planned out! Or so we thought... When I checked the e-mail confirmation the next morning, I discovered that our friendly phone operator at Cheapoair had reserved a ticket for Dana and Duston. Dustin's name was spelled correctly in all of the Cheapoair customer information, but misspelled with the airline, which meant the ticket was useless for anyone but Duston Asby. NOOOOOOOO!

After speaking with the credit card company and several different men in India for another 3 hours that day, we finally had everything settled. Phew.

In about six months, we'll be flying from Tokyo to Springfield, MO, preparing all the little details I haven't yet anticipated for our wedding, getting married, then flying to Montego Bay, Jamaica for a week, and then flying to Dallas, TX (where we decided to to splurge on a room at the Hilton outside the airport using all the points we'll rack up from our reception), and then finally going back to home sweet home, Japan. It's going to be the busiest, craziest, funnest two weeks of my life. I can't wait! Hooray.

2009-10-20

Sado: The Old Japan

I'm on my very first long term business trip. I'm teaching on Sado Island, an island off the coast of Niigata-ken. In total, it will be seven days, six of which I had to/ have to work. I'm half-way through my business trip. So far it's been... まあまあ (so-so). I loooooooove sleeping in a bed. I didn't realize how much I missed a thick mattress until I spent a few nights on one. I like seeing a new place. I like having piping hot rice and green tea ready for me as soon as I get out of bed. I like getting paid $25 a day to go out to eat. BUT, I don't like being awoken at 5:46 a.m. by noisy construction workers almost every morning. I don't like waiting an hour for the next bus, because there are so few. I don't like not knowing where the heck I am or where in the world I'm going. I don't like not being able to cook. So, there are pluses and minuses to business trips. I'm glad there's usually only an opportunity for one a year, but then again, that option is nice, even if I don't take it again.

The best part of the business trip is the free time. My hotel is a 5 minute walk from the classroom, so the time I usually spend traveling is all mine. It's been nice to be all alone for such long uninterrupted time periods. I've been studying Japanese and reading to my heart's content. After two days of blissful alone time, Dustin joined me for the weekend. I take the blame for our weekend being a bit less eventful than we'd both hoped. I researched all of the possible destinations on Sado and chose the ones that seemed most intriguing to me. Once I got to Sado, I took out a map and marked all of the places I wanted to go. At that point, I realized that all of the things I wanted to see were on completely different parts of the island.

Before I got to Sado, I hadn't realized that it was so enormous. It's about twice the size of the greater Springfield area. That might not seem too big, but when you don't have a car or a bike, it's enormous. I suggested renting a power-bike, but the threat of rain caused us to nix that plan. So, we rode the bus everywhere. But the buses only came once an hour or once every 2 or 3 hours. I'm staying in a central area on the west coast of Sado, but even getting to the northwest coast (a mere thumb print on the map) took almost an hour by bus. We quickly realized we had to prioritize our destinations.

Due to indecisiveness and neither of us admitting that we really didn't care about certain tourist spots until halfway there, we changed the plans a lot. In the end, we ended up spending a good portion of day one figuring out which bus routes we'd need to take to get here, there, and everywhere, and didn't actually end up going to all of those places. We did go to a bunya puppet show. A nice little old lady (who we ran into about a billion times after we met her) was explaining the difference between Osaka bunrakyu puppets and Sado bunya puppets and then the show began. I understood very little of the song that accompanied the performance, so I made up my own story. I shared that story with Dustin after the performance and learned that the puppet I deemed the "lover" was actually the mother. That put a very different spin on the story.

After the puppets, we headed to the Sado Gold Mine. There was a modern tunnel and and Edo era (1600-late 1800) tunnel. We took the Edo course. There were really interesting animatronic models of the workers extracting the gold. Kind of cheesy, but surprisingly interesting. The best part of the experience was the brick of gold in a box with hole big enough to stick your arm through. The challenge was to lift the brick of gold. I watched as an endless line of elderly folks (most of the fellow tourists we've encountered on this trip have been well past retirement age) attempted and failed to pick up the brick. I waited for a short break in the line and rushed over to try my turn, hoping that all the push-ups I've been doing lately would help me out, but I couldn't even make it budge. When Dustin entered the room, I rushed him over to have his turn. He impressed me by picking it right up and lifting it pretty high. All the senior citizens were equally impressed.

After we finished at the Gold Mine, we headed into the nearby town of Aikawa to find a festival I'd read about in the map my boss had given me. Sado is famous for oni daiko (people who dress up as demons and play giant drums), and I was told that they are at virtually every festival on the island. Somehow, Dustin and I convinced ourselves that Kodo, a world famous taiko group who is actually from Sado, were also going to be at this festival. Dustin and I have been to our fair share of festivals, usually in Nagaoka. They often include loads of vendors selling food and drinks, multiple parades and performances, and massive crowds. When we got to Aikawa, it was distinctively quiet. Quieter than a normal city would be festival or not. Hmmm... we went into the local conbini, and I used my excellent (sarcasm) Japanese to ask where the festival was. He responded by pointing across the street, and saying with a laugh "that neighborhood." We left with a puzzled look on our faces and crossed the street, trying to find the festival. Dustin's ears perked up when he heard a flute. We started walking quickly towards the sound of the flute. We crossed paths with a group of taiko drummers accompanied by a couple of samurai and what appeared to be either a god or a demon with a white face mask. They were headed to the nearby gas station. We'd been told that the taiko groups in this town play at different houses as a way of asking for donations for the local shrine (kind of like the Aikawa version of trick-or-treating?), but we hadn't expected them to stop at a gas station.

After that performance, we tagged along to the next spot, but it was pretty much the same as the gas station performance, and we were the only people in the group that weren't wearing a matching festival jacket. Plus, we're white. Needless to say, we stuck out. We weren't too keen on being groupies to this particular drumming clan without seeing the rest of the town's offerings. So, we stopped off to watch a beautiful sunset before setting out again to find the center of the festival. We wanted festival food and crowds and maybe a glass of sake.

We walked up and down the streets. We saw the tell tale lanterns that usually denote a festival, but we couldn't find anything resembling a festival we were accustomed to. We'd asked the Japanese Teacher for the Peppy school on Sado if she wanted to join us, but my phone didn't have any reception in Aikawa, so I didn't really know if she would show up or not. Dustin and I were perplexed. We didn't want to keep following the same taiko group all around town. They were going to visit EVERY house after all. We were just standing on a street corner wondering what to do, when Hiromi (the Sado JT) suddenly appeared. She'd seen us standing on this corner and gotten off the bus to join us. We shared our confusion with her, hoping she would have some answers. She grew up on Sado, but she's always lived in Sawata, 15 minutes away by taxi, so she had no idea what the traditions of Aikawa are. She'd never been to this festival. It was shocking to me that two towns so close could have little to do with each other.

Being the helpful Japanese woman she is, Hiromi stopped the first Aikawan she found and asked him for the lowdown on the festival. Now, asking for help in Japan is a risky thing, because some people (especially people of a rather advanced age) will give you far too much help. Dustin and I had experienced that earlier in the day with a nice little old lady who'd overheard us bickering about which bus would take us to Aikawa. She not only pointed us in the direction of the bus, but she made us sit right next to her on the bus and commentated our 30 minute ride together. She told us the names of all the rock formations and frequently asked us questions that were drowned out by the bus's loud effort to make it up the mountainside. We appreciated the help, but it's more work than you realize to keep a grateful smile plastered on your face while trying to think of something appropriate to say in Japanese for half an hour.

The older gentlemen Hiromi was interrogating had obviously been partaking in sake for some time already, so he was even more helpful than he might have been pre-sake. He showed us some pictures of the taiko group he'd taken on his cell phone. He told us all about their route and how all of the taiko groups would meet on the main street in town at 10:00 (wrong), and that the oni daiko would be coming down the street shortly (wrong), and that we could find festival food at the end of that street (wrong). If he had told us these things directly, I could understand how certain ideas could have been lost in translation, but no, he gave all these bits of information to Hiromi, a Japanese woman, in Japanese. And Hiromi, who has spent 3 years in a Canadian university and has been teaching English for over 3 years, has near perfect English. Once we got over the disappointment of not being able to see the oni daiko or eat festival food, we set out in search of any food. We stopped in several izakaiya, but they were all closed on account of the festival, yet there was no one on the streets. It was nearly a ghost town, aside from the distant pounding of drums.

Another helpful older Japanese person directed us to about a million different places that might serve vegetables (since my dietary restrictions were a major factor in where we could eat in Hiromi's eyes), we finally found one that was indeed open. We tried to make our meal last since it was 6:00 and the true climax of the festival where the different taiko groups meet on the main street wasn't until 9:00. Dinner didn't quite last 3 hours, but we stayed there for quite a while before finding a choice spot on the main road, where we waited and waited and waited for the drummers to arrive. People started pouring onto the street out of nowhere. I have no idea where they'd been hiding all this time. Finally, the first group (the one we'd unintentionally been following all night long) showed up.

We asked Hiromi whether the guy with the white face was a demon or a god, but she didn't know, so she went to a nearby shop to inquire. I felt so bad that she was asking all of these questions and then translating just for our benefit. The drunk guy from earlier in the night had even asked if she was our guide... but she is just such a nice and helpful person. We discovered that he was neither a god nor a demon. She said, "He's not such a bad guy, but he has to make it difficult for the gods to pass by." Basically, the purpose of this festival is to raise money to offer to the gods in exchange for a good harvest. The struggle against the guy in the white mask is supposed to represent the idea that good things require a bit of hardship, so at harvest time, everyone must work really hard. We had waited around doing nothing for about 4 hours, but the climax of the festival was worth it.

The guy in the white mask did a really interesting dance, accompanied by the samurai while the other taiko groups tried (and all inevitably succeeded) to push past him. It was so traditional and full of meaning and emotion. Everyone was unbelievably into it, despite the fact that they've seen it every year of their life. After the last group had pushed through, two of the groups seemed to be fighting. We thought it was a part of the performance, until people started moving out of the way and everyone was shouting, but not in a festive manner. I looked up and noticed that the massive fight was moving right towards me, but directly in front of my face was the samurai's blade. AH! Luckily, a more leveled headed drummer broke up the fight. Only one guy showed signs of violence with a cut eye and a bloody shirt, but it was pretty intense.

We went to the Sado Legends Museum today. Sado was the place where Japanese intellectuals were banished in the 8th century. This kitschy museum told the stories of Sado's great legends (an emperor, the priest who popularized Buddhism in Japan, a healer who could make it rain, etc.) through impressively life-like robots. They were really neat.

I like Sado. It's quaint. It's quiet (aside from the two older gents on the other side of hotel room wall, that is). It's traditional. It's really beautiful, especially now that the leaves have just begun to change. I'm enjoying my little mini-vacation. I am increasingly realizing how essential is it for me to leave Nagaoka every once in while, or I will go crazy. I think this means that Nagaoka is not the city I'm intended to live in forever. I wonder if I will ever find that place... I wonder if anyone's attention span has lasted long enough to get to the end of this long-winded post... ごめんね... sorry!

p.s. More new Sado pictures are in the new album, which you can click on at the top right of this page: Sado Living.

2009-10-06

わたちたちは日本に一年にいます! or We've been in Japan for a year! (or at least I think that's what that says)

Yes, we have passed our first year milestone in Japan without much fuss. We had officially been on Japanese soil as of Saturday, September 26. I kind of wanted to celebrate with a one-year anniversary party, but that date happened to coincide with the going away party of two of our friends, so we let it pass by quietly.

Nothing much is new across the ocean. We've had a new prime minister for some time now, but I've seen no noticeable differences. There's a typhoon on its way over here this week, but then again, there was supposed to be a typhoon in August, but that never arrived in Niigata-ken.

It's getting colder, which I don't like, but that means more drinking hot tea and staying in trying to keep warm and just watching movies or reading, which I do like. A friend recently told me that there are more pachinko parlors in Niigata-ken than any other prefecture in Japan, because there isn't really much to do in the winter months. I guess when you get covered in snow walking from your front door to the car (assuming you're lucky enough to have one in those chilly months), there's little motivation to do anything but sit and stare at a machine feeding it tiny balls. Dustin can't wait for the first snow, so he can use his new snowboard (which he will get for his birthday in about a month and a half).

I'm counting down the days until December 17. I can't wait for a visit to the States. I've lived abroad before, but never for more than 6 months. I'm overjoyed to be able to spend 3 weeks at home in December and I can't wait to come back in 5 months for the wedding. Yay! There are a few new pictures in the "Last Days of Summer" album if you want to see what exactly we've been doing since I last posted.


2009-09-18

A Trip to the Onsen

Last weekend, Dustin and I went on a little mini-trip. We rode the Banetsu Monogatari, an old steam train that ran from the 1940's until the late 1960's that has been restored and makes two runs a week these days.We went to Aizu-Wakamatsu, a little town in the prefecture to our north. Our final destination was Higashi Yama Onsen Machi (East Mountain Hot Springs Town).

The 3 hour ride to Aizu was quaint. The countryside we passed on the way was beautiful. They held janken (rock, paper, scissors) tournaments in which the winners won little buttons and other souvenirs. I did feel a bit guilty about the environmental consequences of our ride when I saw the black smoke billowing out of the train. I felt even worse when our ride was finished and I saw the men covered in black shoveling coal into the train's bowels.

At the Aizu train station, we found a nice little map with different options for lunch. Most of the choices involved ramen or sushi, which is pretty typical for any Japanese town. At the very bottom of the map, however, as far away as you could get from the station, there was a little icon of a radish. I looked at the key and saw that a radish indicates something to do with vegetables. Dustin knew a few more of the kanji in the description. He determined that this particular restaurant had something to do with earth vegetables. Hmmm... an organic vegetarian restaurant in this small Japanese town? That would be incredible! I haven't seen a single vegetarian restaurant since my time in Japan began.

I warned Dustin that it might be far away and since it was Sunday, it could be closed. But he was nice enough to put those worries aside and accompany me to this potential vegetarian restaurant. From our experience, maps in Japan tend to look a lot bigger than the area they represent. And when you ask for directions, if someone tells you it's a 10 minute walk, it's usually more like 5 minutes. Despite the fact that the restaurant looked like it was about a half-hour walk from the train station, we expected it to be about 10 minutes away.

We set out with our map and walked and walked and walked. It seems this map was accurately scaled. About 25 minutes after we began our trek, we came across the "restaurant" we had been looking for all that time. Only... it wasn't a restaurant. It was a grocery store. Oops. We had passed one of those about 5 minutes from the station. They did have a really yummy pumpkin croquette and a super cheap nashi (Asian pear), but I don't know if it was worth the nearly half-hour walk.

During our journey we explored Aizu and decided that there's not too much there, so we set out immediately for the onsen. The little town where our hotel and onsen was located was up in the mountains. It was so quiet and peaceful. Nothing was there but various onsen, a few shrines, a tiny little grocery store, a liquor store, and curiously, a cork gun shooting range.

Our weekend was full of relaxing. When the cute little Japanese girl in her full kimono and accouterments took our bags to our room at the hotel, she served us a formal tea. After tea, we had a bit of time to enjoy our gorgeous room and win a few prizes at the shooting range before the fancy dinner. I can't even count how many courses were in this meal. Dustin loved it. It was all very traditional Japanese food. I didn't find much on the menu to suit me, but what I did like was very nice. I had brown rice for the first time in Japan. It was the most delicious rice I've ever had. I'm definitely going to try to find some in Nagaoka.

After dinner, we reserved one of the onsen for an hour. Normally, there is a female onsen and a male onsen, and the two sexes don't mix, but at our hotel, you could pay a bit extra and be alone with your partner for a while. It was really romantic and completely peaceful. We spent most of our time in the outside portion of the onsen. The nights are starting to get cool, so it was really lovely to feel the cool breeze and be in this piping hot, fresh water surrounded by trees and a stream and nature in general.

We had a long night's rest on very comfy futons (which were magically put out for us when we returned from dinner). In the morning, the breakfast we were served was enormous. It was pretty strange to have so many vegetables for breakfast, but it was filling and tasty, so I have no complaints. We had just enough time for one little dip in the onsen before check-out. I guess most people take their morning bath before breakfast, because both Dustin and I had our onsen to ourselves. While I was sitting outside under a little gazebo looking around at the trees and listening to the birds, I felt truly alone for the first time in about a year. Japan is so full of people that it's really difficult to find a place to be by yourself. Since we moved to the busiest corner of Nagaoka, I hear people out and about at every hour of the day and night. Even if I am alone, I don't quite feel like I am. It was incredibly calming to just sit in that water and be.

But alas, the relaxation had to come to an end eventually. We checked out, but had a few hours before our train left, so we decided to explore Higashi Yama Onsen Machi a bit more. We climbed up the steep stairs to find an uncared for shrine covered in bugs and mold. There was a playground in the yard that looked like it hadn't been used for a decade. We also saw gigantic spiders on our walk around town. Dustin was taking a picture of one and he told me to put my hand by the web for scale. I cautiously obliged, but he felt that my hand was not close enough to the spider, so he pushed it a little closer, and then closer still, and then too close. My hand hit the web and sent the spider into a fury. When I saw him move, I ran. It was terrifying.

During our adventure around Aizu the day before, we'd passed a Thai restaurant that was closed at the time, but I'd written down the phone number and confirmed that they were open for lunch Monday. We planned on lunching there before our train left. I was so excited for some yummy Thai food. After figuring out which bus to take to get to the center of town, we got off near the restaurant, sat down, and were given the options for lunch: chicken or fish. We explained that I was a vegetarian and asked if there was anything besides these two options, and the waitress said, "No. At lunch, everyone orders this one or this one." Wah. So, we didn't have Thai after all. We ate at a cheap chain Italian fast food place that was tasty, but not Thai.

I was jonesing for some ice cream, and I saw soft serve in about 4 or 5 shops along the street, so we set off in search of the perfect cone. I didn't really want plain vanilla, but that's all we could find, so I settled on it. It was a tasty treat, but I still wished I had found something more exciting. After my ice cream, we decided to head towards the station to catch our train. We got about one block from the shop where I'd bought my ice cream when we found a café that offered very interesting soft serve: black sesame, sweet potato, green tea, edamame, and others. I cursed myself for settling on vanilla. I had been wanting to try black sesame seed soft serve since I heard of its existence in Japan, but I'd never come across it in Japan. Dustin wanted to try one of these crazy ice creams, so we went inside. Knowing how strong my desire to taste the black sesame flavor was, he ordered it. Just outside the shop, he took a lick. He didn't like it. I took a lick. I didn't like it. Well, we tried it.

All in all, a very nice little weekend full of food and baths. I came back quite relaxed, but I wish it could have lasted longer. Luckily, a few Japanese holidays line up nicely this year to create the rare "Silver Week." We have a four day weekend starting Sunday! Dustin is going camping on the beach, but it's way to cold for me. Instead, I am going to join two of my friends, who are Muslim, in celebrating the end of Ramadan by eating some yummy Syrian food at their feast. Other than that, I see lots of sleeping, reading, and movie watching in my near future. It's been an extremely busy summer, and I could definitely use a vacation spent almost entirely in my apartment.

You can see some pictures of our weekend by clicking on the new photo album at the right!

2009-09-05

And IIIIIIIIIII Will Always Loooooove Yooouuuuu!

Whitney Houston has a new album out. They were talking about it on NPR, which I was listening to via a podcast while I was preparing for my lessons today. They compiled a nice little medley of some of her most popular songs from the late 80's/early 90's. When I was 5ish, I think I loved Whitney Houston. I remember occasionally hearing some of her songs in the car, because my dad had a Whitney tape that was occasionally popped in the tape deck. I knew all of the words, so I think that qualifies my feelings towards Whitney's music as positive (at least my 5-year self's feelings towards her).

There is a certain song that sticks out in my mind when I think of Whitney Houston. It's probably the same song that sticks out in most people's minds when they hear her name, so I know I'm not special, BUT the reason this song holds such a strong memory for me is perhaps different than the reason others remember "I Will Always Love You." As many of you can recall, Whitney Houston starred in the movie The Bodyguard, which apparently "received negative to mixed reviews" according to Wikipedia. (I mistakenly thought that it was semi-autobiographical, but I fact checked and cleared up that long-held, but seldom pondered misconception. While on Wikipedia, I learned many other interesting facts about The Bodyguard.)

Laugh if you must, but I cannot count how many times I have seen this movie. It's not the undeniable chemistry between Whitney and Kevin Costner that kept me coming back time after time. It was sheer lack of options. My grandma had very few videotapes at her house. My sister and I spent a fair amount of time at her house during summer "vacations" and family trips. I don't know if we always begged to watch movies or if she always had one playing, but I associate time spent in her house as a child very strongly with movies. And by movies, I mean the same four movies over and over and over and over again.

From the time I was around 5 until I was 15 or so, I don't think my grandma bought any new movies. It's possible that she owned more than four movies, but the only ones I remember seeing on an endless loop were (in order of most watched) Dirty Dancing, Pretty Woman, The Bodyguard, and Cutting Edge. What? Were you expecting a 5 year old to watch Aladdin or something equally as immature and childish (I love Aladdin, by the way). Coincidentally, the last time I was at her house cleaning up a bit, I noticed that she had several boxes of brand new DVDs, some still in their original shrink wrap. I guess she was just waiting for us to stop visiting as regularly to update the movie collection.

Anyhow. That was a very long background story about what I really want to tell you about... Back to me in my classroom in a suburban Japanese town that doesn't see a heck of a lot of foreigners, listening to the Whitney Houston medley when "I Will Always Love You" pops up. I was alone, so I threw up my arms and pretended I was on stage and lip synced until the "yoouuuuuu," when a bit of the song kind of slipped out (completely without my consent). At this point, I hear a very timid "Sumimasen," or "Excuse me." It was obvious by his slightly embarrassed look that he had not just walked in the door. I didn't know what to do, so I just rushed to the door and left Whitney belting out a series of pop hits while this frightened businessman handed me a card about graphic design. (Random people sometimes stop by the classroom to hand out cards for businesses which I can't fathom why an English school would need their services.) He was speaking in super polite rapid-fire Japanese and I was so mortified that I didn't even try to process what he was saying. I just nodded my head and left him finish his monologue before telling him, "I don't understand anything, but a Japanese person will be here next week." If I had been less flustered, I could have gotten across my meaning a bit more eloquently, but I really just wanted him to leave as soon as possible. So did he, apparently, because after I said, "Arigato" and took his card, he bolted out the door, and I keeled over laughing at myself.

If you need a refresher on "I Will Always Love You" or The Bodyguard, this official music video pretty much does it justice. I think the unsuspecting Japanese dude today walked in at about 3:20 in this video and saw a good 20 seconds of reenactment.

2009-08-31

Bearded People Music Festival

I love live music. Going to concerts ranks very high on my Top Five Things in the Universe list. Since I've been in Japan, I've only attended two concerts, both of which were Japanese jazz concerts. While they were very interesting, they couldn't quite fill that hole where live rock once existed in my life.

On Saturday, I finally remedied the lack of concerts in my life in Japan. One my friends had an extra ticket to a long ago sold out music festival that just happened to be in Nagaoka. Rarely do cool things happen in Nagaoka, so I was very surprised that I hadn't even heard of this festival until a few days before it was to take place. Luckily, I had a very rare Saturday off that coincided with the concert. The name of the festival was Higetachi no Ongaku Way 2009. I knew that ongaku means music and tachi is added to a word regarding people to make it plural, but hige was not in my vocabulary. Takeo informed me that hige means beard. We thought it over and decided that the festival's name translates roughly to "Beard People's Music Festival." I saw almost no bearded people there, but I still like the name.

My friend, Ellen, and her boyfriend, Takeo, and his friend, Nishi, met me at Nagaoka station and we began our journey to Echigo Hillside Park (the same park where Dustin and I had a BBQ with some friends a few Sundays ago). I had no idea how big this concert was. I knew it was a festival with many different types of music, but that's about all of the information I had required to agree to attend. When we got to the line-up for the shuttle buses, I was shocked. The huge line of people waiting to be taken to the park went around two and half city blocks. Wowzers. But of course, the Japanese are efficient and we went through that huge line quickly and were on a bus headed for the festival within ten minutes.

Once we got to the festival, we were given a wristband. Until we made our way to the hill on which we finally sat, we were instructed repeatedly to put our hands up (to show our wristband). There were signs, people with megaphones, and staff members yelling at the top of their lungs for us to display our wristbands. I felt like a part of some vague cause, all of our hands raised in solidarity... ultimately, I suppose that cause would be music.

Before the concert, I had never heard of any of the bands playing. The Japanese people I was with, however, did in fact know most of the bands/artists. I asked Takeo what type of music each band played. Funky Monkey Baby, the first band, was described as a funk band. Then there was a 1980's idol, a rock group, a ska band, a soft rock duo, a heavy metal band, a reggae band, and a hip-hop artist/rapper. Well, aside from the ska band (Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, the most famous of the artists to people outside of Japan) and the rapper (KREVA), all of the bands sounded exactly the same.

I'm not a fan of J-Pop. I've heard plenty of it. It's amusing when paired with teenaged girls performing a memorized dance routine, but it's just not for me. One of my Japanese friends gave me a few CDs of Japanese music. I listened to them a few times. I liked Tsuji Ayano alright. She's fun and a bit rocky. She has a really sweet voice that reminds you of a bright sunny day. It's peaceful and dreamy, and that ukulele can't help but make you happy. Chara, on the other hand wasn't horrible, but just not for me. She's an idol from the 90's. It's not quite J-pop, but too close for my tastes. I found one Japanese artist on my own that I like, and I occasionally listen to him (Shugo Tokumaru). He's got an indie rock sound mixed with Japanese craziness. In summary, despite trying very hard to find Japanese music I could fall in love with, I did not succeed. I had basically given up on finding really good Japanese music, but I hoped that this festival, full of new Japanese artist, would change my mind.

When the festival began, Funky Monkey Baby was on stage. They were supposed to be funk, but they sounded more like pop. The next artist, the idol, not surprisingly sounded like pop. The rock group sounded like pop. I wasn't very optimistic about discovering any Japanese music I liked.

The next group was Tokyo Ska Paradise. Many people, Japanese, American, and British alike, told me they were awesome. They were. I'm not a fan of ska, but I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. When they came on in light pink suits carrying a leopard print keyboard, I decided I liked them already. Ellen is a huge ska fan. Takeo and Nishi really like Tokyo Ska Para. Everyone wanted to abandon our comfy tarp up at the top of the hill to get as close as we could to the stage in the standing area. Ellen was going to teach Takeo and I how to skank. Takeo was a fast student, but I have little to no rhythm, so I didn't quite catch on. It was a fun show regardless of my lack of dancing skill. I still don't love ska, but I enjoyed the concert very much. I probably won't listen to this band in my free time, but I can definitely appreciate that they are a very amazing band.

After Tokyo Ska Para, there was a sleepy soft rock duo. We took this opportunity to pick up food. After a $4 ear of corn, I was anxious to see the "heavy medal" band. I couldn't imagine what Japanese heavy medal would sound like. The band, Unicorn, was Takeo's favorite of the day. Unfortunately, he'd gotten worn out from Tokyo Ska Para and slept through most of Unicorn. He wasn't woken up by the heavy medal sound, because there was no heavy medal sound. Unicorn's first song was acoustic! They sounded just like the rest of the bands that day. Towards the end of their set, Unicorn played what was apparently their most famous song. Takeo suddenly sat up and jumped right into the lyrics of the song and we headed quickly down to the standing area near the stage.

After Unicorn, a Japanese reggae band played. I have heard lots of good things about Japanese reggae, but I'd never actually listened to any. This band was called Shonan no Kaze, which means Wind from Shonan (a city in Japan). They were awesome! Definitely my favorite band of the day. Admittedly, they didn't sound too reggae, but there was a bit of a reggae undertone. They were fun. There was a great danceable beat. And the energy of the crowd just soared. The lead singer took about 5 minutes to talk to the crowd. I heard "freedom" in English and then "music" and "friends" in Japanese. I didn't understand anything else of his monologue, so I asked Nishi to translate. Nishi is a really nice guy, but he knows about as much English as I do Japanese, so we didn't exactly have a lot of deep conversations. He told me that the singer wanted everyone to listen to music in freedom of nature and be friends. Since we were in the middle of a ring of small mountains, I think that pretty much sums up the entire concert. I liked Shonan no Kaze even more after that speech.

At one point during Shonan no Kaze's set, everyone got out their towels and started swinging them at certain moments during the song. I didn't know how they knew when to swing their towels. It seemed to be innate. Japanese people are always carrying a towel to wipe away the inevitable sweat in the summer, so everyone was ready with their towel. I didn't have one, but I really wanted to be a part of this mass towel swinging. Luckily, Nishi had an extra towel and let me use it. I watched my peers and lifted my towel when they did. I tried to swing it like everyone else, but it kept getting twisted around my hand. Eventually, I figured it out and swung my towel along with the other 20,000 people in the audience. It was amazing. I had never seen anything like this before. Dustin later told me that people do this in the U.S. at sports games all the time. Hmmm... how would I know? I haven't been to a sports game in ages.

I took a short video of the towel swinging. That's Nishi showing off his sweet dance skills. You can hear Shonan no Kaze in the background.

video


The last act was KREVA, a Japanese rapper. I was interested to see how that would sound. The DJs with him were pretty awesome, but after 2 minutes of KREVA's rapping, I'd had enough. My interest was peaked again when I heard Jackson 5's music, but unfortunately, it was just a small sample with no Michael and only KREVA rapping over it. When we'd had enough, we finally folded up our tarp and made our way back to Nagaoka proper.

I had a lot of fun, got too much sun, and took loads of pictures. I added the pictures to the end of my "last days of summer" album, which you can click on at the right. There are also loads of pictures of the first potluck Dustin and I have hosted in our brand new apartment. The potluck was a blast, but the pictures speak for themselves.

I finally took a video tour of the apartment! I set aside an entire morning to film it, upload it, and write a bit about the parts I missed when I filmed it. But apparently, the internet only likes videos that are ten minutes or less in length. I filmed 12 glorious minutes of our apartment, so both YouTube and Blogger rejected it. Boo. Dustin thinks his filming skills surpass mine anyways, so he'll take another one soon, but soon in Dustin-time could be ages. I'll try to persuade him to do it in the next week or so, but you know how these things are. Don't blame me though, I tried... and failed.

The summer passed me by quickly. It didn't feel like the summer I'm used to. Now that I've stepped my big toe into the shallow end of the real world, I don't get the luxury of summer vacation. We worked a lot and had a wee bit of time off. It's the last day of August, so there's really no more summer. Our first year in Japan has almost come to an end.

2009-08-24

A Japanese Massage

Last week, I finally got that massage Dustin had given me for my birthday. It had been a long month and my back was aching, so I was elated at the thought of twenty minutes of back pain relief.

I went to the massage parlor, and showed my gift certificate. It was very different than any spa in the U.S. It was a big, open room with about ten tables, and three chairs. There was an older man getting what appeared to be a pedicure in one of the chairs, and a business man getting a quick rubdown on his lunch break on one of the tables. Since everyone was enjoying their relaxing in one room, I hoped they wouldn't ask me to disrobe. They did not. Instead, I kept on every piece of clothing and was covered in a giant towel, neck to foot.

Thinking of my experiences with massages in America, I expected my masseuse to pull back the towel covering whichever body part she was massaging at that time. But, no, during this massage, the towel remained over my entire body for the duration of the massage. Not once during the entire time did her skin come into contact with mine.

When she first started rubbing my back, it was a bit intense for my liking, but I got used to it quickly and began my relaxing. But suddenly, she was adjusting my spine, and trying to crack my back. I've never been to a chiropractor before, but I imagine I was getting an abbreviated version of a visit to one. She alternated between straightening my bones and pressing on my muscles for the rest of the massage.

Eventually, I let myself forget about all of the oddities and I just relaxed. It was an enjoyable massage. And it lasted about 35 minutes instead of the 20 I was entitled to. I can't say that I've noticed any grand improvements, but it was a nice afternoon activity and my back felt really awesome for that one day. Thanks, Dustin!

2009-08-20

Ladies who Lunch

Summer has finally hit Nagaoka. It's been hottish in the past few months, but you'd barely have noticed, since it rained nearly every day, bringing sporadic chills. The rain has stopped (for now) and it's sweltering. The water still lingers in the air, so you feel sticky all day long. I'm very thankful for the heat, though. I thought Nagaoka simply didn't have a summer for a while there. I'm able to have my favorite temperature at last.

We enjoyed our break. We got everything on our checklist done except for going to the beach. I couldn't convince Dustin to get out of bed before 1:30 on that day, so it wasn't much of a day after all. We had loads of fun playing video games and medals, going out to eat a bit too much, lounging around the house watching TV, and playing in the park. Looking back, it appears like it was a lazy break, but at the time, it seemed like almost every day was packed.

Tuesday, I went back to work, but I was completely unprepared for it. I had written my lesson plans for those classes the week before break, but I hadn't looked at them in 2 weeks. I hadn't created all of the materials I needed for my classes, either. I ended up only having one hour to prepare for my 3 lessons (a busy day in Peppy standards), but they turned out surprisingly well.

The reason for my lack of preparation is that I had agreed to have lunch with one of my student's mothers that day. She picked me up at the train station, and took me to her apartment. I told her I'd like to be at the classroom by 3:00. She said that wasn't enough time, so she'd take me at 4:00. I couldn't exactly refuse, since she was being so hospitable. I was constantly checking the clock during lunch, because I was so paranoid about being late. (Being late is practically the end of the world in a Japanese company.)

While she cooked some spaghetti, the kids lounged on the floor reading comics and occasionally wrestling. Banba-san (or Mrs. Banba) and I talked about this that and the other. All morning, I had been slightly anxious about my lunch date, since I knew we would be speaking in Japanese the whole afternoon. It turns out, I didn't have much to worry about. We communicated with each other pretty well. My sentence structure and grammar were laughable (I know, because the kids did sometimes laugh at my attempt to speak Japanese.), but I was always able to get my point across. At times, we passed the dictionary back and forth between us. This probably wouldn't have been necessary if Banba-san hadn't used such high level Japanese as the words for "to be accustomed to," "preparation," and "best used by."

Banba-san has always been one of the nicest parents I've encountered in Japan. She always has a wide smile on her face when she greets me at the classroom door. She often brings me some homemade baked goods. Before Summer School, she'd attempted small talk, but it was limited to the 30 seconds I usually have between two classes. After one of her sons' Summer School class a few weeks ago, however, she started chatting me up for a longer period of time. She then asked for my phone number. The next day, she called and we made plans for lunch he next time I was in town! I was grateful for the invitation, but I didn't really know why she wanted to cook lunch for me. None of the other parents even expressed interest in talking to me, much less spending an entire afternoon with me.

During lunch, I discovered Banba-san's motive. She said, "I have only sons. I love my sons, but I want a daughter. Sensei, you are so cute. You are like a daughter." Hmmmm... I didn't realize that I was agreeing to be a surrogate daughter. Her intent was even clearer when she started giving me "presents" of food from her pantry. I left with about 3 kilos of rice, a package of spaghetti, and a jar of spaghetti sauce. Lunch was tasty, the conversation was fun and very good practice, and playing Wii Fit with the kids was a blast. (I want one!) All in all, it was a very nice afternoon spent with a cute little Japanese family. She's invited me to come back, but unfortunately, my company is making cutbacks, so I won't be teaching in Niigata any more. It's pretty expensive to get up there from Nagaoka, and there's another Peppy teacher who lives in Niigata, so I'll be switching schools with him soon. Boo-hoo. Hopefully, I'll find a cute little Japanese family who wants to cook me dinner here in Nagaoka!

p.s. There are new pictures of us at the park!

2009-07-30

An Exciting July Continues

This post is so very late, because Dustin and I have been extremely busy with moving and summer school and general life happenings. Gomen nasai! (I'm really sorry!)

On to the really important things: Harry Potter. It had the same release date as the states, which means it technically came out in Japan before it showed in the U.S. Nah nah nah nah boo boo! And since I saw at 8:45 a.m., that means it was well before the midnight showing occurred stateside. "Why 8:45 in the morning?" you ask. Well, it was the first possible showing in Nagaoka, and it was the only time I could manage to see it before making it to work on a Wednesday night. I convinced two of my gaijin friends who are fellow Harry Potter fanatics to join me for this early-morning showing.

It was a drizzly morning and the theatre is across the bridge, so we had to catch the 7:55 bus. It was supposed to be a 10 minute bus ride, but none of us had ever ridden the bus during the early morning rush hour. As the time ticked on and the bus got more crowded, we worried that everyone would rush the theatre and we'd have the crappy seats that the theatre's less than technologically-advanced website had assigned us. When we arrived at the theatre 30 minutes after our journey had begun, a few high-school-aged girls got off the bus with us, but most of the passengers were on their way to work. Whew!

There weren't too many people in Nagaoka crazy enough to go to the 8:45 a.m. showing on opening day, so we had our choice of seats. Luckily, Cat knew about the Tempur Pedic seats that are supposedly so comfortable that discomfort is impossible while sitting in one, even for hours. I can neither support nor refute this claim, because I didn't notice anything at all about the chair while I was watching Harry Potter.

Armed with a breakfast of popcorn and soda (very healthy, I know), I readied myself for 153 minutes of joy. The first preview to flash across the screen was for Night at the Museum 2. I knew something was weird about it, but I was so focused on the looming presence of Harry, that it didn't dawn on me that the movie was dubbed in Japanese. The voice coming out of Ben Stiller's character was definitely not his own... Vivian turned to Cat and I and said, "Oh, no! Is Harry Potter going to be dubbed?" AHHH! The thought hadn't even crossed our minds. The next preview came on, Where the Wild Things Are (which looks amazing by the way), and it was in English. We spent the next few minutes with fingers crossed hoping and praying that Harry Potter wouldn't be dubbed. The big WB logo flashed across the screen, then the music started, and the whispering started and with the whispering... subtitles! Thank goodness! We let out a collective sigh, releasing the breath we'd been holding.

No one talked for the next two and a half hours, except for the moment when Cat turned to me with a look of utter confusion on her face and asked, "Why are they wearing shoes inside the house?!" Laughing, I replied, "They're not in Japan." She's been here far too long.

*SPOILER ALERT*
As for the actual movie, it was good while I was watching it, but immediately after it was finished, I was a bit disappointed in it. There were so many things in the book that they blatantly left out of the movie. I know it's difficult to condense such a large book into a movie, but why add stupid things that aren't in the book (What's with the opening scene, really?) and get rid of interesting side plots (Where were Fleur and Bill?). My biggest beef was the scene in the Astronomy Tower. In the book, Dumbledore forces Harry to don the invisibility cloak and then stuns him, so he can't move and no one knows that he's there, rendering him completely and utterly helpless. He really wants to stop Draco and Snape, but he literally cannot because of the spells he's under. In the movie, Dumbledore just asks him to hide under the floor, where he can look up and see what's going on and has more than one chance to send a spell towards Draco and/or Snape. It makes Harry seem slightly at fault for not helping Dumbledore. Bad move, Steve Kloves or David Yates, whoever made that decision. Overall, so-so. I still can't wait for the two-part conclusion to the movies!

ANYWAYS, as I said, the new pad is rocking! It's much bigger, brighter, more traditional, less moldy, more convenient, cheaper, and all around better. There are basically 5 rooms: bathroom/shower/laundry room, the kitchen, the living room, the office, and the bedroom. It's nice to have multiple rooms and doors. Dustin and I have survived the ultimate relationship test by living in such close quarters for 9 months, but we'll be a much happier couple in our new place. Once we get it perfected (There is one piece of crucial furniture still missing, and a few decorating kinks to work out at the moment.), we'll make a video tour of the place and post it.

We really lucked out and happened upon a sale on Marine Day. Marine Day is a day to be thankful for the ocean. Typically, you spend the day at the beach with your family, but Dustin and I spent the whole day shopping instead. Peppy had provided us with most of our appliances and furniture (which we had to give back when we moved out), so we had quite a bit to find. We found a little at the local recycle shop, but there were slim pickings, so we got a lot of our stuff at the Japanese version of IKEA. That means we spent the rest of the night, screwing together a shelf, a cabinet, and a desk. We got all of our appliances for great deals. Our TV was 50% off and the oven and washer were each cheaper than the used ones we'd seen at the recycle shop (which aren't guaranteed to work). Whoo-hoo!

We're super happy in our new place. We haven't gotten much of a chance to enjoy it yet, because it's Peppy's busiest time of the year: Summer School. Each school has a 5-day Summer School, with the Japanese Teacher teaching 3 days, and the Native Teacher teaching 2 days. So, that means we get to teach 6 days and then have 2 office days, during which we could be sent anywhere in Japan to cover for a Native Teacher who gets sick. We'll be saying many many prayers on those days that every Peppy teacher is extra healthy, because our office days happen to coincide with Nagaoka's festival, which boasts the largest fireworks in Japan. Hundreds of thousands of people come from all over Japan to watch them. I'm not big on fireworks, but I've heard these are not to be missed.

We're half-way through with Summer School now. After a few days back with our regular work schedules, we get a 5-day weekend (if no one in our area is late up until then) for Obon, the Japanese Buddhist custom of honoring one's departed family members. Since moving was such a giant expense, we're going to go the "staycation" route and explore Nagaoka a bit further, maybe go to the beach, see Neoteny Japan (contemporary Japanese art exhibit), and make a trip to Niigata for Round 1 and Thai and/or Indian food. The last part of our break will be spent cleaning out our old apartments. We took all of our belongings out on moving day and haven't looked back since. We finally say our last goodbyes to our first home in Japan on August 17. The only thing I'll miss about it is its proximity to Saizeriya (my favorite "fast-food" Italian restaurant).

Life in Nagaoka is very rainy and very busy, but very good at the moment.

2009-07-18

Cute Bento

This is technically only Japanese-inspired, since it was made by what appears to be an American woman, but it's typical Japanese stay-at-home-mom style lunch box or bento. There's a whole slew of cookbooks in all of the book stores that show you how to make your kid's lunch look way cuter and therefore cooler (because in Japan, cute definitely equals cool) than any other kid's. The most common I've seen are popular cartoon characters such as Anpanman (a bread superhero) or Hello Kitty. This one I stumbled across is definitely the prettiest and most intricate. I hope I have the energy to be such a cool mom when I have kids of my own.

Here's the photo album where I got this: Wacky Food Art Time.

2009-07-16

It's All Happening

The process of trying to find a landlord that would tolerate two devious foreigners such as Dustin and myself was a long and stressful one. About two months ago, we found our dream apartment, thought we had secured it as a residence, and were made to jump through hoops, only to miss the last hoop: a guarantor. Originally, we were to move in on July 6, the day after one of our huge work meetings where every Peppy employee in our prefecture gets together in one room. Unfortunately, we hadn't found anyone to sponsor us by the time that meeting rolled around, so I had resigned myself to staying in our little box on the boring side of town for however long we stayed in Nagaoka. At that point, I was leaning towards NOT staying here any longer than absolutely necessary.

After our loooooong meeting (I'm not used to working 6 hours in one day!), some of us went out for dinner and drinks at a local restaurant. Somehow, I ended up paying $50 for a salad and two drinks and Dustin ended up paying the same for a tiny plate of pasta and 3 drinks. Being poor, I was quite put out by having to overpay so much for a highly mediocre meal. I was so annoyed in fact, that I declared that Dustin and I would be going home immediately instead of joining the others at the bar they planned to head to as we now had no money left in our wallets. Our boss was sympathetic and suggested heading back to his place for a few drinks (free of charge) instead of going on to another establishment. Though I was still miffed about the dinner situation, I knew that Dustin wasn't ready to call it a night, so I headed back to Schyler's place with a few coworkers.

At some point in the night, one of my Japanese coworkers, Yuko, asked when we were moving into our new apartment. A few days after we'd first found the apartment and decided on a move-in date with the realtor, we'd gone to Round 1 with a huge group of people who were all subjected to a long description of how wonderful our new apartment was going to be and how we'd have them all over for a potluck and yada yada yada. Since those two months had passed, I hadn't really seen Yuko for any long period of time, so she hadn't yet had the pleasure of hearing my "Japan's discriminatory rental practices" speech. 

Once I finished my rant, she said casually, "So all you need is a hoshonin (guarantor)?"
Me, "Yeah... but I've asked everyone that I thought might possibly do it." Yuko, "Well, could I be your hoshonin?" Dustin and I looked at each other to confirm that the other had also heard Yuko's offer correctly. I said, "You would do that?" She proceeded to explain that when she was in L.A., she had similar experiences trying to find an apartment, so she knows how tough it is being a foreigner and how the simplest task back home feels impossible abroad.

After about a million thanks and Dustin removing the ring from my finger and offering to give it to Yuko instead (I'm pretty sure he was joking.), we made an appointment to go to the realtors that Friday and get our apartment. I spent the next week gathering as much cash as I could and worrying here and there that our apartment would have been snatched up in the month we'd failed to find a hoshonin or that Yuko would be too young to be our hoshonin or that they'd make us find a second hoshonin or... anything. 

When we walked into the realtor with Yuko trailing behind us, our realtor looked surprised to see us again. I said, "Hoshonin arimasu." or "We have a guarantor."  Her surprise turned into a smile and she said something to the effect of "That's great. It's been hard work, huh? It's difficult for foreigners."  She's a kind woman who has really tried her very best to help us through this despite never really talking to us directly. Since we don't understand most terms concerned with renting an apartment, whoever we've taken with us (our American friend who's lived in Japan for 4 years and knows quite a bit of Japanese, one of our Japanese bosses, and Yuko) has been our translator. She was so pleased that we found someone and she still had our file sitting on her desk, with our dream apartment's info page tucked neatly inside of it. We started to fill out the papers for Yuko to be our hoshonin. She asked when our contract was up and called the landlord who graciously decided that our lease would mirror our contract, so that we wouldn't be left with any extra months of rent to pay after our time in Nagaoka is finished. When the forms were filled out, we were told that Yuko had to be approved by the insurance company and we could come back the next Tuesday to sign the lease, pay, and get the key. We set our move-in date for July 19.

I was a bit more hopeful about getting the apartment, but I had a lingering fear that something would go wrong. Tuesday came and I took the money with me to meet Dustin and Yuko at the realtor at 12:00 sharp. I pulled my bike up to a very agitated Dustin, who barked, "You're late." I replied, "How can that be? I left extra early." To this, he replied, "You're only 3 minutes before noon. In Japan, that means you're late." "Ok, ok. Sorry... Where's Yuko?" I tried to keep my speech calm, but my inner dialogue was closer to "Oh, great. So, this is what it is. She's not going to come. Man, I really want this apartment. Will she come? Where could she be? Oh, no. I hope she's not hurt. WHERE IS SHE?" At some point after college ended, I went from eternal optimist to perpetual worrier. I guess that's what the real world does to you.

Luckily, she showed up soon after my mini-freak out. We spent the next hour and a half signing the lease. It wouldn't have taken as long if Dustin hadn't insisted that Yuko translate every word on the 20 page document. After adding up the deposit, realtor's fee, first month and a half of rent, and various other fees, we were nearly $3,000 poorer. We'll get a tiny portion of that back once we move out and we don't have to pay rent again until the end of August, but paying 5 months rent up front just to rent a place for a year seems pretty steep to me. We'll be saving loads of money once we finally do move in though. 

It didn't feel completely real until I had the key in my hand. I imagine it will feel even more real when the movers come at 9:30 a.m. on SUNDAY! Ah! It's so soon. I thought we had accumulated a lot of junk, but we got almost all of it packed up in a few hours time this week, so I guess we don't have THAT much. We're so excited! I'll post a video of the new place once we get all settled. Sunday and Monday are devoted entirely to making our new apartment a home I will actually be proud to call mine (for a year anyways). 

p.s. Please send any further mail to the new address at the right! Thanks much.

2009-07-02

Happy Birthday to Me!

Back in February, I came across an advertisement for Cirque Du Soleil: ZED in Tokyo. I've been bugging Dustin about how much I wanted to see it and how it would make a perfect birthday present ever since. Last weekend, we actually traveled to Tokyo and made my dream come true! It was hard to believe we'd been in Japan for 9 months, and hadn't yet made it to Tokyo.

After our very expensive 2 days, I now understand why we waited so long to visit. It was costly and quite busy, but extremely fun and whimsical. When planning my birthday weekend, I chose things I really wanted to see and do to fill our time. It wasn't until our weekend was coming to a close that I realized everything I picked to celebrate my 24th birthday was something I would have chosen at the age of 10 as well. 

First on the agenda (after a short stop in Akihabara, so Dustin could pick up some computer goodies) was Cirque Du Soleil, the original excuse for the entire trip. I have only one bad thing to say about Cirque Du Soleil, and that is the fact that we put the performance at the very beginning of our trip rather than the end. It was the most magnificent thing I've seen all year, so everything else that weekend seemed a bit less spectacular than it might have had I never seen Cirque Du Soleil in person. I've seen performances on television, but I knew it would be infinitely more amazing in person, and I was not at all disappointed. From the very first act, I was convinced I had fallen into the storybook along with the funny French clowns. The next hour seemed like a mystical dream. The fantasy was only broken by the intermission. I won't even try to explain the death-defying and seemingly impossible feats I witnessed, because I could never do them justice with words. The show started with an incredible piece involving flying sprites glowing with bright colors and a giant bird-like goddess. Countless risky acts fell between this breathtaking opening and the best finale I've witnessed during any theatre piece. Before the show closed, every performer came onstage, and they all simultaneously acted out their talents. I was awed. I felt like I was in the middle of the ring even though I was closer to the ceiling than the stage and there was no ring. I nearly lost myself completely in the fantasy until I heard Dustin's commentary about it being too much for him to handle. If I wasn't so clumsy, I would have been convinced to join the circus immediately.

For dinner, we headed to Ginza for a "fantasy dining experience" at Alice Restaurant. We were greeted at the door with a hostess dressed as Alice. She led us to our secluded little table where another Alice handed us our cocktail menus, with all the girly Wonderland concoctions hidden behind playing cards. After we chose our drinks, we were served little cups of dried fruit adorned with "Eat Me" notes. I had a very fancy pizza sans cheese (There weren't too many vegetarian options.) and Dustin had some fancy pasta. Dustin mentioned that it was my birthday, so the waitress asked what my name was. She was having trouble pronouncing it, so I offered to write it down for her. Thinking she needed to know to insert it into the birthday song, I wrote it out in katakana, so she would know how to say it. When they brought out the elaborate Cheshire Cat cake/pastry/ whip cream mountain, "Happy Birthday デーナ" was written in whip cream. Ha Ha. I also got a cute little Alice in Wonderland birthday card that says, "Happy Memorial Day" on the front and has a picture of me in an Alice headband and Dustin in the white rabbit ears holding my cake in the inside. The whole experience was very quaint. Even in Tokyo, Sundays are not the most happening day. Alice Restaurant was closed by 10:30, and despite looking around for another bar to find a real vodka martini (something I haven't come across in 9 months), we ended up back at the hostel earlish.

I was keen to go to sleep a bit early, knowing that the next day we would need as much energy as we could muster, because we would be spending the entire day at Disney Sea. Disney Sea is in the Tokyo Disney Resort. It's a Disney theme park unique to Tokyo. Its most appealing element was Mermaid Lagoon, the area that housed all things Little Mermaid. Since it was the first movie I ever saw in the movie theatre, it will always hold a special place in my heart. It's probably the movie I have seen the most times in my life (I believe I remember killing a VHS of the movie from overviewing.) and it's still not lost its magic. Mermaid Lagoon was indeed magical, but all of the rides were for young children. We did hop on the Jumping Jellyfish, but they were pretty boring. The short show "Under the Sea" was pretty interesting. Ariel was suspended much like the performers we'd seen the previous evening in Cirque Du Soleil, but they made no effort to hide the wires from which Ariel hung. The puppeteering was very interesting. They had people dressed head to toe in velour of colors corresponding to their puppet. Most of the puppets came down from the ceiling. Very cool. The giant animatronic, Japanese-speaking Ursula whose tentacles filled the theatre was much more terrifying than I think they intended, but the effect was impressive. We rode the Caravan Carousel in Arabian Coast (Aladdin's domain), and though Dustin very much wanted to ride a Genie, he was outrun by all of the children in line. We also visited Sinbad's Storybook Adventure, which was pretty much It's a Small World, but telling the story of Sinbad (which I realized while on the ride that I did not know). We also did some boy-themed things such as the Indiana Jones ride, a few generic roller coasters dressed up in Disney, Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Tower of Terror. We tried to ride the gondolas in "Venice" twice, but each time they were closed for a water show of some sort. 

We decided to end our lovely weekend in Tokyo with dinner at Disney Sea. I checked the map for all of our dining options and found that one out of the thirty-four restaurants offered a vegetarian option, so that's where we headed. Ristorante di Canaletto, in Mediterranean Harbor, happened to be the fanciest and most expensive restaurant in the park. They also failed to mention on the map that by vegetarian fare they meant a five-course vegetarian meal. Once we were seated and had ordered our wine and beer (Yes, you can drink alcohol in Disney Sea!), we figured we were committed and went all out for my second of three birthday meals. I ordered the only thing I could and Dustin ordered an overpriced salad and some truffle ravioli. The food was gourmet, the atmosphere was classy, the staff was overly polite. Eating a piece of cabbage stuffed with various vegetables and drizzled in an unidentified sauce while sipping my wine and listening to some lovely classical music, I felt very mature and sophisticated for a few minutes. And then I looked around the restaurant and saw an exhausted girl sleeping on her table, a couple of Japanese teenagers with Minnie Mouse ears adorning their heads, and a girl whose very understanding boyfriend was helping her arrange her collection of newly purchased teddy bears in a high chair at their table. It was a wonderful meal nonetheless, and a very fitting conclusion to my grown-up fantasy birthday weekend.

As for my real birthday, today, it's been great as well. One of our coworkers quit a few weeks ago, so I had to travel 2 hours away to cover his school yesterday. Since it was so far away, I had to spend the night in a hotel last night, on the company of course. That meant that on my birthday morning, I woke up on a lovely and very comfortable bed, something I miss very much. By some luck of scheduling, I have my birthday, a random Thursday, off of work. So, Dustin and I went to my favorite restaurant for my third birthday meal, a chain of cheap, fast Japanese-style Italian food, Saizeriya. Dustin asked if I wanted to use the menu to indicate to the waitress what I wanted to order, since pointing to a picture and saying, "This one." is my method of ordering nearly anywhere we go. I go to Saizeriya so often, however, that I know all of the Japanese needed to order my preferred meal of focaccia and アラビアタ pasta without bacon. I refused the menu and proceeded to order in flawless Japanese. (My order there is one of the many phrases I've got down.) After the waitress left, Dustin suggested that I look at the menu again, and as I picked it up, an envelope slid out from between the pages. It was a gift certificate for a massage! Whoo-hoo. Hints work after all...  Our lunch was less than fourth the cost of either of the previous birthday meals in Tokyo. 

Dustin had to work today, so I got a rare seven hours of alone time! It was a lovely day full of listening to music as loud as I like, putting together a jigsaw puzzle of an adorable puppy, reading a bit, and dancing like a fool all by myself. The night will end with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. My fellow Harry Potter fans and I are trying to re-watch the first five Harry Potter movies before the sixth one comes out in a mere two weeks!!!!!!!!!!! It's been a lovely birthday weekend. Thanks to all who have (and will) extended birthday wishes. The only thing that could have made it better would have been a giant dance party with all of you present (and maybe a burrito from Qdoba)! December can't come fast enough...