Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Shakai no Mado: Your Social Window

Transalation: Shakai no mado: Social window, society's window.

Welcome to the ever-interesting world of Japanese idiomatic expressions. I don't care how good your Japanese is, I'm betting this is something only living in Japan can teach you-until now. I doubt they covered it in Japan-go 101, but hey, I could be wrong. Here goes:

Allow me to set the scene. An innocent, enthusiastuc ALT, (AKA, Me) doing her best to be genki (energetic and entertaining) despite the fact that the temperature inside the school is zero and the teachers have decided that, since so many students have been catching colds, they should start keeping the doors and windows open (What the $#$%@%@Q@#%# ?!) As she jumps, dances, and karate-chops her way around the room, pretending to play "Simon Says" in a crude attempt to survive the bitter cold...

Student: Sensei?

Teacher: Yes?

Student: Society's window.

Teacher: Huh? (clueless).

Student: Social Window! (Trying to be discreet).

Teacher: WHAT the heck is that? Social window? What does that mean? (loud and obnoxious. If everyone wasn't listening before, they are now).

Student: It's open.

Sensei: . . . Oh...

So, what does it mean?

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Road Trip: Matsumoto or Bust!

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Matsumoto Castle, also known as the Black Crow for its black walls and roofs spread out like wings, is one of the four castles Japan has listed as a National Treasure. Construction of the castle, as it appears today, began in the 1580's. The Donjon, or keep, is the second oldest survivng castle structure in Japan, built in 1593. The stones that form the foundation were taken from nearby mountains and carefully piled up by crossing their longer and shorter sides. No mortar was used between the stones. This process is know as Nozura-sumi.

In a weak attempt to break our winter weekend routine (which consists of sitting directly in front of a heater or under a kotatsu)the world famous Profesora of Abbey in Ena fame and I decided to take a roadtrip up to Matsumoto Castle in neighboring Nagano. Unlike a previously attempted roadtrip in which we never actually arrived at our agreed upon destination (thanks to some outdated Japanese road signage and a Jurassic Park-like road barrier) we found our way through the beautiful, increasingly cold and snowy mountain scenery along the Gifu-Nagano border, sharing an Ipod and singing along to the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Yui, WuTangClan, Bump Of Chicken, and Shakira.

Home-made roadtrip-commemorative purikkura!

Nestled in the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps, Matsumoto castle would have a stunning backdrop if not for all the cell phone towers, pachinko parlors and concrete that seem to have it under seige. Although it's flat-land position seems strategically weak, whatever the "black crow" castle lacks in defensive strength, it makes up for in aesthetics: unique black walls, gracefully upturned roof tips, and a classically curved, crimson bridge leading over a reflective moat. It's hard to believe that shortly after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the new Japanese government was so desperate for cash that it decided to demolish the castle to sell any timber or iron fittings they could salvage as scrap. Sadly, many other castles met this fate, being too high maintenance with no modern military value. Luckily, a local buisnessman named Ichikawa Ryozo rescued Matsumoto Castle, helping local citizens to purchased the castle in 1878.

Who is that hooded slurper? What excellent chopstick form!

After struggling to survive the climb up and the steep, irregularly spaced stairs in dangerously slippery, over-sized slippers, were rewarded with beautiful blue skies for a few post-soba slurpping pictures. Did I mention that there's an excellent soba shop convieniently located near the castle entrance? The kitsune soba is meccha umai (crazy good!), and the hot soba cha (tea) helped speed along the thawing process after nearly freezing in the frigid interior of the castle. You can read more about our little adventure at The World or Bust.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

My Cambodian Family : Battambang

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Ratha's father, Papa Kim, and I.

Remember Ratha? We've kept in touch since August, and when I told him I was coming back to visit, he was kind enough to invite me to meet his family and stay at his home.

Ratha and his father outside their home.

Like father like son!

My new sister, Srey Mom, and I chatting away over something delicious.

Concentrate! I`m showing off my ability to count in Khmer.

Now we`re laughing at my inability to do anything else in Khmer. Thank God laughter is universal!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Where Did The Year Take You?

A few of my favorite images of 2006. It was a very good year.

Here's where 2006 took me:

1. Ena, Gifu, Japan ( Of course. I live here!)
2. Nagoya (Unavoidable stop on the way out of the country, or to Kansai).
3. Kyoto (Matsuri, geisha dances, and any other excuse I can find).
4. Osaka (To visit Shingo and Yuko-chan!)
5. Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan (Yuki Matsuri, the snow festival 2006)
6. Otaru, Japan (Quick sushi fix)
7. Hanoi , Vietnam
8. Saigon/ HCM, Vietnam
9. Sapa, Vietnam (Where I started the new year).
10. Bac Ha, Vietnam
11. Taipei, Taiwan
12. Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
13. Phnom Pehn, Cambodia
13. Siem Reap, Cambodia
14. Battambang, Cambodia
15. Cleveland, Ohio (for my best friend's wedding).

I wonder where 2007 will lead...

Friday, January 19, 2007

If Only I Were More Anime-ted...

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My most favoritest nengajo, or new year's card, EVER! Drawn by my extrememly talented student, Yuno Matsuo, from the Beautiful Mountain School. Remember that name. She's going to be famous some day (^-^)/ This is supposed to be me, by the way... Thank you for making me kawaii Yuno-chan!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Last Day: Battambang

August 28, 2006: My last lunch with the monks.

Sammuth and Cham Reourn helping to prepare the meal. They look so kind and gentle, right?

Sammuth and I.

Post-feast siesta time!

Ratha in his hammock.

Yeay (grandmother) Ping.

Yeay Vouy.
The girls and I. I know they don't look thrilled, but they actually asked to take a picture together so that I wouldn't forget them.

As if I could!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Hikikomori: Shutting Out the Sun

Hikikomori (one who shuts himself away and becomes socially withdrawn, from the words hiku or "pull," and komoru, or "retire") is the word for a Japanese phenomenon of young people, mostly men (80% of hikikomori are male, numbering over 1 million), who lock themselves in their rooms for years in an attempt to escape from Japanese society's rigid rules and expectations. I have 3 students who were, or have become hikikomori, and I have wanted to write about it many times.

If you are at all interested in learning more about Hikikomori or the other problems facing modern Japan, please listen to this interview on NPR with Micheal Zielenziger, author of the new book Blocking Out The Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation. I have not read the book, but listening to the interview I heard myself trying to explain the darker side of polished and pretty, seemingly perfect Japan to visiting friends, family, and other foreigners I have met in my travels. If you have any insight or experience in these matters, please share the wisdom. I hope to write more about my own experiences soon...

A Walk in the Rice Fields:Battambang

Battambang, Day 3, August 2006: Before our ride on the Bamboo Express, Ratha, Kosul and I took a long walk through "A Thousand Rice Fields".

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Bamboo Express: Battambang

August 2006, Battambang Day 3: Kosul, Ratha, and my fellow passengers on Battambang`s Bamboo train.

Known affectionately as the norry to the Khmers, the "Bamboo Train" is the result of Khmer ingenuity in the face of necessity. It is 100% pure Cambodian, and one of the coolest rides that I have ever been on.

With nothing more than a rickety wooden frame, thin bamboo planking bending beneath the weight of its buren, a four-stroke, upright engine and, appropriately enough, reused military tank wheels and axles, Bamboo Trains haul passengers and cargo between the rice bowl (Battambang) and the capitol (Phnom Penh).

A young conductor pulling into the "station".

As you might imagine, Bamboo Trains are quite illegal, wreaking havoc whenever they cross roadways. The 'real' train only comes along once a day, making it sluggish way up to Battambang or back to Phnom Penh at a pace that makes it possible to hop on and off at any time. In the meantime, the old, neglected track is practically begging to be used.

Ratha and Kosul enjoy the ride.

And used they are, with an unknown number of these Cambodian contraptions rumbling up and down the bumpy, disjointed track. There is, ofcourse, only one track, which begs the question: What happens when another Bamboo Train comes chucking along?

Another bamboo train chucking along in our general direction.

With a real train, this would pose a problem, but with the bamboo train its a bowl of amok (weak attempt to Cambodianize the western 'piece of cake' expression). Bamboo Trains can be disassembled and disappear into the bushy Cambodian countryside in the blink of an eye. Off comes the frame, followed by the Honda moto engine, axles and wheels. Proper Bamboo Train etiquette states that the norry with the least amount of passengers must give way to the one carrying more, with the conductor of the latter helping the former to disassemble and remove it from the tracks.

Having disembled our train so that the other might pass, I note that we are being watched. A spy for the anti-norry authorities, perhaps?

To be finished in between classes...

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Tuk-Tuk Tour: Battambang

August 2006: Our friendly countryside tour guides, at the pre-Angkorian ruins of Phnom Ek. Sammuth, Ratha and Cham Reourn: The Monkey Crew (or part of it), as they refer to themselves.

Ratha and Sammuth share a laugh about my fortune, which they translated for me: "Soon I will find the love of my life and be married within two years." This after the first one warned me to be careful about traveling. Have I mentioned the moto-burn/toothpaste incident?

Sammuth smiling about my good fortunes in the colorful interior of Mount Sampoa's pagoda.

While climbing up to one of the mountain top temples near Battambang, Chamreourn noticed a Jasmine (frangipangi) flower lying on the ground and bent down to pick it up. He sat down, spinning it in his hand, smelling its sweet fragrance and thinking.

Chamreurn taking a well-deserved rest in a hammock.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Welcome to the Rice Bowl: Battambang

Cambodia's Rice Bowl: Lush rice fields (during the rainy season) stretch as far as the eye can see from the top of Mount Sampoa, a rewarding view of the Cambodian countryside and welcomed rest after scaling 600+ steps.

August 2006

On what I thought could possibly be my last day in Siem Reap (I'm never sure about these things. Who knows what would happen, who I may meet, what unforseeable adventure might come along?) I headed to Angkor Wat to enjoy the wonderful light fade over the ancient stones for one last sunset. As I mozied up the causeway admiring the peaks of Mt. Meru framed by reflective ponds and sugar palms, I noticed the tangerine robes of two monks, sheltering their squinting eyes as they walked into the sunlight. After meeting the friendly monks in Phnom Pehn, I couldn't help but smile as they drew near. "Hello!" They smiled, veering slightly from their course to meet me. They began by asking me where I was from, how long I had been in Cambodia- the usual conversation starters.

"How about you? Where are you from?"

"We're from Cambodia, of course!" The older, shorter one laughed.

I giggled. "I know! I mean, where in Cambodia?"

"Oh! (Laughing. I love the way Cambodians laugh.) We're just visiting from our pagoda in Battambang."

"Really? Battambang?" I asked excitedly. I was thinking about heading to Battambang myself, and this seemed like a sign. "I'm going to Battambang, too."

The monks asked me to come visit them at their pagoda if I had a chance. They gave me their address and names, wished me good luck and success, and disappeared through the shadowy stone gate.

When I returned to my guesthouse, I booked a boat trip to Battambang.

These two cutnesses kept me occupied on the 7 hour boat ride from Siem Reap to Battambang, Cambodia's second biggest city. We cruised the watery alley ways of a few floating villages and dangerously narrow paths through submerged forests, swallowed by the swollen waters of rainy season. The passages were so narrow that branches clawed through the windows, whippping and scratching unsuspecting passangers, and almost tearing the cutains right out of the boat. Weary travelers spent most of the trip hunched over, hugging their knees, bracing themselves for the fury of the sunken ents.

After checking into the Chaaya Hotel with a Finnish girl I had befriended on the boat, I took a very cold shower and collapsed on the bed. "I'm going to smoking pot," she told me nonchalantly. "Would you like to come?"

"I'm sorry," I said, thinking I had heard her wrong. "You're going to what?"

"Smoking pot," she said, pausing for a moment before bursting into laughter. "The Smoking Pot! Not smoking pot! It's a restaurant quite near here. I want to sign up for a cooking lesson. The Smoking Pot is the name!"

We laughed as we headed for The Smoking Pot, sharing stories and adventures over delicious Chaa Kreung and fish Amok (Cambodia's national dish) as we slurpped down deliciously fresh fruit Tukalok (smoothies). I told her about the monks I had met first in Phnom Pehn, and then Siem Reap, and asked if she would be interested in walking down to their pagoda to meet them. After the time she had spent in Thailand, she seemed very suprised that monks would be so friendly with foreigners, especially women, but she was very excited. After finishing our final fruit smoothies, she pulled out her LP, located the pagoda they had neatly written in my notebook, and led the way.

It was late afternoon, and I was a little shy about walking into the quite temple grounds. The sun was begining to fade, and there was no one to be seen near the gate. I wondered what the monks and nuns would think when they saw two foreign girls stumble into their sanctuary, wandering around aimlessly, but soon after we crossed the threshold a group of young monks appeared in the distance and seemed to notice us immediately. "Hello!" One of them cried out, smiling and laughing, leading the others in our direction.

"Hello!" We called back, Heidi, as any normal person might, I, with that strange semi-bow thing I've picked up in Japan. The friendly monk, dressed in a deep, dignified crimson robe I had not yet seen before introduced himself as Ratha and began to ask us questions about where we were from and our time in Cambodia. As we stood there talking, many of the monks who were returning from class or had heard us laughing came out to join us. Eventually we sat beneath the eaves of the temple library,asking an answering each others questions and telling jokes, laughing like old friends.

"How long will you be in Battambang?" Ratha asked.

"Just two days," Heidi answered decidedly. I, of course, was far less sure.

"What are you going to do tomorrow?"

He looked at us, and we looked at each other."Well, we want to see the countryside," Heidi finally answered, "And ride the bamboo train!" I threw in enthusiastically.

"Okay!" Ratha exclaimed. "If you like, we can take you to the countryside and show you the temples. I studied English and tourism so I can be a good guide for you! I know all about the history and the lives of the people."

"Really?" We were both ecstatic. That sounded way better than dealing with the motodups back at the hotel. "Can you do that? Are you free?"

"Sure! Don't worry. Many times when foreigners come here and have a free time, we can show them the countryside and help them to understand Cambodia. Okay. So, let's meet here tomorrow at 9. Okay?"

"So much for my smoking pot class," Heidi whispered under her breath.

The sun had long since set and the monks were worried about us walking back to the hotel. They tried to convince us to take the temple motos for free or catch a tuk-tuk, but it really wasn't too far and we felt safe together. "Its not good for girls to walk alone at night." Ratha said with a worried look.

"That's OK. We're tough, and we're not alone."

"Foreign women are so brave," he said as we walked out the gates. "See you tomorrow!"

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

New Years: Where Else?

Just before the sun rose over Angkor Wat on the first day of 2007. 明けましておめでとう!今年もようりしくね!

It's only been a few days since I let the colorful cambodian capitol of Phnom Penh, its bustling streets overflowing with life, laughter, poverty, and hope, but the Khmer colored collage of city and countryside is still fresh in my mind. Painted in thick, textured strokes of dry, golden rice fields, shimmering swirls of warm sunlight, and the dark, midnight shaded sihouettes of tall, slender sugar palms against a radiant, ruby and clementine sky, I might as well have been sharing the view with Van Gogh.

I can still taste the restless, rust-colored clouds of dust that swallowed my mighty motodup and I, resurrected from dry, dirt roads by the occasional passover of a precariously packed pick up. Men, women, children, animals, furniture, some standing, some seated, some sitting on top of each other or other cargo, some hanging on for dear life, all smiling at me from beneath their colorful, checkered scarves as they passed. I can still hear the bubbling laughter of children jumping into ponds filled with blue skies and floating water lillies, with only drops of sparkling water covering their richly spiced, chai colored skin like fine, jeweled silks.

Billowing saffron robes draped with modest dignity over deeply bronzed skin dot the landscape of my memories, pausing beneath matching umbrellas to bless an almsgiver.

Shoeless children, with smudged faces and tattered clothing, carry bags too big for their small bodies, collecting whatever might fill the emptiness in their bellies or fetch a few hundred Riel. Heart-breakingly beautiful children, their knotted hair lightened by malnutrition, covered in scabs, bug bites, dirt, and little else, sleeping peacefully in the shallow shelter of a store front. Others stand as if under a spell, holding small bags to their mouth, filling their lungs with poison.


Sometimes I just don't know what to say.

Perhaps I should start by finishing the last chapter in my travels there: Battambang.