Sunday, November 4, 2007


Just had the oddest ending to my week with parents (which won't be able to write about now). Was wandering towards Ueno station to figure out rest of travels, get tickets, etc., when was stopped by woman fundraising for something.. can't remember what now, but seemed good at the time, so donated 500 yen. Had odd conversation, own understanding unfortunately less than usual because woman deaf enough to have hearing aid, slurred words. Eventually gathered that was offering to take me to concert this evening, if 1500 yen entrance fee was okay. Agreed, thinking would be nice to see concert.. violins were mentioned. Was told to return at 5:45pm when she finished volunteering for cause.

Had frustrating time in between, was trying to reserve spots at hostels, but stupid phone card ceased to work. Asked about it at service desk, then couldn't stop them fussing about it for longest time.. finally decided to use coins. Made reservations in Kurashiki and Nara, all in Japanese. Ouch. Also scored ticket to Kurashiki. Figured was all set, so returned to corner where fundraising happening.

Soon left along with first woman, another fundraising woman, and man who seemed to have been recruited for concert too. Never really figured out what his deal was, but he kept half-scolding women for dragging the poor foreigner off to depths of err.. wherever we were going. Was soon somewhat lost after wandering diagonally through parks. Discovered first woman also likes cats, so viewed cat pics on cellphone.

Arrived at small cafe where ate dinner while conversed. Discovered first woman was Hyuga Aya (nickname Sakko), and exchanged other smalltalk. Seems is also programmer, and is from Miyazaki, near Kumamoto. Had many interruptions, as almost every person entering cafe had surprised reaction to foreigner and had to ask same basic questions: "where are you from, what do you do, and how long are you in Japan?". Had couple longer interactions, one about how Ottawa is capital of Canada (expressed by Tokyo is to Japan as Ottawa is to Canada), another about violin.

At 7pm, was ushered upstairs to small theatre where paid admission and found a seat next to Sakko. Explained programme a bit, pointed out songs in songbook (???) and mentioned one was Chinese. Soon learned that some of programme was sing-along style. First rendition of song done as performance, then everyone got out song books and sang along for second. Second song even had audience-participation dancing. Yes, was almost as corny as sounds. Had figured out before then that everyone involved sort of misfits in some way, sort of like.. well.. the kind one finds in a highschool band.

Middle part of performance not as audience-participatory, but still had two renditions of each song, which confused the heck out of me. Would sing/dance/play something, then audience asked to contribute tickets (different amount based on who performed), tickets collected and names read out off back of tickets, then thing performed again. Backup band played for every song, consisted of keyboard/violin, french horn, guitar, base guitar, drums and grand piano. Had two main performers. First was local star, sang and danced (perhaps a little awkwardly). For one song just danced, and another woman sang. Second was guest star, played traditional string instrument and sang. Beautiful voice, probably classically trained in Japanese opera. Quite enjoyed the music, but was confuzzled by ticket thing and double performances. Did find out that tickets cost 300 yen and were available at front, but didn't feel comfortable doing anything about it. Not everyone participated.

Near end of evening, local star introduced me to crowd (eek!), but also introduced another guest. Another interesting part of evening was when singer said something along the lines of "oh you must all be stiff from sitting, let's stretch with this next song!", and led song where had pattern of shrug right shoulder, shrug left, right, left, both, both, both, both. Now imagine whole room doing that and singing. Quite the phenomenon.

Took a while to leave, as many people wanted to greet me and thank me for coming. Also received contact info from Sakko in case am able to drop by again when in Tokyo before leaving Japan, and small keychain gift of bottles of sand and shells. Hope will be able to see them again, were very welcoming and kind.

Friday, October 26, 2007



Meet the Tokuhara (徳原) family. Tadashi is father of family, and the one I contacted to work on farm. Is a musician, and spends half his time working around house and farm, and other half teaching guitar and coaching tennis. Etsuko is the mother, and currently stays at home most of time and takes care of youngest child. She also gathers chestnuts, coaches own children at tennis, and does most of housework and cooking. Both are in their mid 40s. Ryoto is oldest child, and only son, 13. Is very talented at guitar, and spent most of time listening to minidisc player and/or playing guitar. Yui is 10, and very social. Likes English class at school, but hesitant to practice with me. Iha is 3, and loves to sing. Probably at stage where still getting used to idea of talking in full sentences, and so talks constantly.. even if makes no sense.

Also have two pets, Pii-chan and Audrey Hepburn. Seriously. Though for first while, thought were calling her Odie (Japanese pronounce like Odori). Yoichi, who lives on 2nd floor of house and was introduced as worker on farm, also has two dogs.. Titan and Concon. Yoichi speaks fairly good English, as he went to University in the U.S.. Is interesting to converse with, as studies Steiner philosophy in German.


Farm was not really your classic idea of farm. Had small (when I say small, I mean size of average back yard) vegetable patch for own use, but main point of interest was chestnut trees and wild grapes. Didn't ever see chestnuts or grapes sold, but gathered that sometimes are sold and grapes made into jam. Also run cafe in winter, were just beginning to prepare to start up. WWOOF organization demands only that the farm be organic, not particularly profitable... and what more organic than gathering wind-fallen nuts and wild grapes?

Main job was to clear paths to chestnut trees, or whereever else grass needed removing. Was given hand mower with large saw blade and sent off into hills. Dad would be sad, mowed maybe football field's worth of pampas grass similar to that which carefully tended back in Ottawa. Darned annoying stuff, too, as was taller than self and tended to fall in face when cut down, covering clothes in fluff. Don't think will be cultivating pampas in own garden someday, bad association now fully set.

Other jobs included... 1) Babysitting on first day during meeting, which didn't go so well, children somewhat nervous about strange gaijin, kept running back to mothers. Managed at least to entertain Iha, who was older than others. 2) Painting large spools. 3) Cleaning shower/bath room, to "pika-pika" shiny clean standards on a rainy day. Own family in shock as recall my usual standard of cleanliness. 4) Shelling chestnuts with method similar to peeling apple or carving wood. 5) Picking up garbage around rather large property, separate trips for burnable and non-burnable.


Family spoke about as much English as I spoke Japanese, so really tried to learn more Japanese. Believe came away with much stronger vocabulary in such areas as vegetable names and things one says to a 3-year-old.. as spent most of time with Iha and Etsuko who were at home most of time. Most memorable were potato = jagaimo, sweet potato = satsumaimo, not allowed = dame, dangerous = abunai and the various conjugations of "to understand"... not to mention OISHII!!!!! (yummy!) which a Japanese 3-year-old seems to say at the most unexpected things. Iha loves sweet potato, which after eating every day for snack I must agree, and also loves natto.. which I didn't feel the need to get used to. Natto is fermented soy beans ("a relative of tofu, so must be good!", says Etsuko laughingly), usually served in small cup along with soy sauce and rather spicy mustard. Hard to imagine more unappealing presentation of vegetable matter. Sticks together like, well... snot. Is mandatory to mix up before eating, making squishy noises and leaving tendrils of slime behind. Taste is... rotten beans, basically. And if add too much mustard, also burns mouth and shoots flames out nostrils. Perhaps I exaggerate, but seriously unpleasant stuff... and many Japanese children beg for it! Have it for dessert! You may think me uncultured for exclaiming so much about natto, but was sort of game for them to feed foreigner natto and see reaction. All good fun, and wasn't obliged to eat again (though seriously did try it hoping would be good, seems like nice healthy snack).


Biggest part of experience for me was culture exchange. First weekend of stay, was able to join family in attending school festival.. something was familiar with from Japanese television. Hadn't realized was equivalent of meet-the-teacher night. Children's role is to create displays and/or run little cafes and/or put on a play and/or just run around having fun at other stations. Teachers' role is to supervise activity rooms, provide entertainment, and put on demonstration classes for parents. Parents' role is to view everything, get a feeling for what child is doing in school. Another point of festival seems to be fundraising for school. People buy little wooden stars at entrance, each worth about 50 cents. Each station then charges certain amount of stars to participate, though usually only when getting entertainment or food.

Own day at festival included such things as making transparent origami star, watching puppet show so different from north american style that hardly felt could give same name, eating at halloween-themed cafe where Ryoto dressed as cat bus from Totoro, particpating in mock grade 2 math class, and watching kids all run to get end-of-day treat of boiled potato and salt. School was particularly interesting as was Steiner, known in north america as Waldorf. Steiner schools (and any alternative schooling) not recognized in Japan, children attending them considered truant, and with that fact is very difficult to transfer between systems. Also have issues keeping population of school intact, even though some families have mother and children move to be able to attend the school while father stays in some other town where can find work. Steiner system in itself a little foreign to me, so noted such things as displays of sewing work (including pair of pants made by Ryoto), small buildings in yard constructed each year by 4th grade class (Yui's class made rabbit hutch, year before made brick oven which was being used to make delicious buns), and math class taught with song.

Other component of culture will take away with me was Etsuko's wonderful cooking. Made fairly traditional Japanese meals, all thoughtfully vegetarian for me, and very healthy. Was difficult at times translating recipes, for many reasons. For one thing, measuring spoons are a different size, and Etsuko, like many good chefs, just adds "dash of this", "pinch of that". For another thing, ingredients come conveniently pre-mixed, in forms am sure will have difficulty finding in Ottawa. Lastly, was amusing troubles in vocabulary.. especially when Etsuko tried explaining things with sound effects like "shuka shuka" for beating egg whites. Anyway, managed with fairly good results in most cases. Have decent array of recipes to add to repertoire, and even got to try making some while was there. Tempura especially fun to make, and chahan has to be one of favourite meals.

In return, introduced family to pancake sunday, as practiced by my family all through my childhood. Made mountains of pancakes for 7 people, and broke out small bottle of maple syrup from collection have been carrying around for gifts (had previously given them fancy maple leaf shaped bottle of syrup, but let them save that for own occasions). All seemed to appreciate, and Etsuko surprised me later that afternoon by recreating recipe with Japanese touch of style. Have never seen such a beautiful pancake.

In all, was very lucky to find this family. Have heard of other WWOOF experiences, and this measures up well. Was easily accepted into family life, and work not too hard and reasonably interesting. Would do it again? Probably, if opportunity arose.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Finally, an Internet Cafe

If you happen upon this post, you may want to look back and see if you've missed anything. I've finally found an internet cafe where I can update and upload my pictures, so I'll be backposting a few things. I'll edit here when something new goes in. Please pardon the lack of grammar, there's so much to write.

[some pictures added]

2007-10-01 Travelling

2007-10-02 Arrival

2007-10-03 Tokyo [day 1]

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Tokyo [day 1]

Breakfast at hotel rather good. Fully labelled, a la Japanese gentleman on the plane.

Around 10am, met Moto, one of visitors to Ottawa karate camp the week before. With group, followed around Tokyo for most of day. Had funny ideas of what was necessary to see. Spent morning in Shibuya, fashion district. Toured mall full of highly fashionable women's clothing, all in size zero. Wandered streets for a while before found basement restaurant for lunch. Had lunch deal, pick three of twelve options for 700円 ($7). Ordered tempura, cold tofu, and "egg on potato" which ended up being raw quail egg on shredded potato... couldn't bring myself to eat it. Other two were great, and aquiring taste for constant rice. Conversed with Japanese man who came in halfway through, mostly in mangled Japanese. Very neat.

In afternoon, visited Akihabara. Not as exciting on the streets as expected, but Moto took us to a Maid Cafe. Most people felt was interesting experience once, but otherwise creepy. Also expensive, $3 just to walk in the door, and $5 for a coffee. Moto annoyed waitress by asking real age, "ruining atmosphere". Claimed to be 4 years old, spoke in cute voice, crouched down to take orders, constantly fumbled pen onto floor. Most interesting thing on menu was "original cocktail" which seemed different every time ordered. Looked like juice or milk colourful drinks, but had alcohol.. and one had bear-shaped pastry on rim. Also noticed cafe offered massages, but no takers in our group.

Next stop was 6-storey porn shop with costumes in every window. Mostly had costume selection, but also electronics and "real dolls". Also had pics on walls from women who went for deal "30% off purchase if agree to be photographed wearing it".

Last stop was electronics mall with everything imaginable, and then some. Purchases by group ended up being things like specialized batteries and charger, 1000-piece puzzles, and toy trucks.


Tuesday, October 2, 2007


Crossed date line somewhere in air before arrival in Tokyo. Rushed onto Skyline almost as soon as arrived, felt very conspicious with big backpack, sweaty gaijin face. However, Sensei's instructions for getting to hotel very good, so didn't get too lost. Once paused to study map, and immediately man stopped to help. Pointed where to go, and when I went the wrong way, chased after me and led to correct place.

Hotel staff flustered by English, but soon found "expert" on staff who spoke in very proper British accent (also found out later could speak very good French too).

Rooms small, of course, but adequate. Toilets down the hall, sink room a bit further, and communal (single gender) shower/bathroom on every second floor.

Others started to return to hotel soon after unpacked, showered. All went out for sushi with manager of hotel. Had large tables, with holes under for feet (like Suisha Gardens in Ottawa), and cubbies with wooden block key for shoes. Learned must not put socked feet on shoe floor even for a moment, and vice versa. Went for karaoke after dinner with Sensei, Denise, Batya, Helen, Soledad and manager of hotel. Was quite fun, everyone very into it. Strange selection of English songs, though, some really random songs and lack of popular (in Canada) songs. Sang "Lemon Tree" and "The Sign".

Went to convenience store before bed, got snacks and drinks. Learned that Calbee french-fry-shaped chips with veggie bits are yummy, as are madarin orange segments in jelly and sponge cakes. Also tried some apple lemonade and vitamin C tonics which were different but quite drinkable.

Monday, October 1, 2007


Hurry up and wait, the traveller's life. Arrived at the airport almost two hours early, but of course things didn't open right then. Oh well, was near front of line most of the way through. Encountered some rudeness - one woman offended that old man in wheelchair and wife weren't exactly in line, were off to one side. Attempted to intervene on their behalf, had been there before me.. got evil glare for troubles. Sheesh. Better experience with next encounter. Woman in front of me began chatting. Turned out was photographer, in Ottawa to visit sister. Interesting conversation, spoke of Parliament Hill cats and travelling through India with 80-year-old woman doctor revered by locals. Quite different way of seeing country. Liked photographer's style, didn't need to exchange names, just mutual brief entertainment. Not like will see each other again.

Finally left Ottawa at sunrise.

Newark dull, with many baseball diamonds on approach to runway. American TV news rather strange, two biggest stories about immigration problem and nerd auction. Immigration problem seemed to refer to illegal immigrants from south. One guy had it right - help them improve standard of living back home and won't need to move. Nerd auction a group from MIT (?), public relations class using comp sci club to study. Got impression was somehow supposed to encourage women to enter tech fields? Didn't make sense. Food at airport also bad sort of American.. greasy shredded "home fries", jam tasted like cough syrup (probably no actual fruit). Was randomly amused by tennis ball on a stick used to clean up shoe scuff marks.

Meal was good for once, but only because meal choice messed up again. Had spent hours on phone with customer service trying to get veggie meal, but still hadn't worked. Nice stewardess found something in business class meal for me.. Fancy salad with yummy goat cheese, fresh fruit for dessert. Noticed seat mate, older Japanese gentleman, also writing in journal. Drew diagram of dinner, complete with colour.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


I believe I've finally found a farm to stay at in Japan for the two weeks after I part company with the dojo group. It's in Hokkaido, near Date (pronounced dah-teh). You can see the area on google maps or mapion, and there's a bit of a description on the WWOOF website. For those who haven't heard of WWOOF, it stands for "willing workers on organic farms" (sometimes the first "W" is used for "worldwide"). They're not all precisely farms, some are restaurants or pensions, but they're all supposed to have some connection to organic farming. The deal is that workers can stay on the farm and work 4-6 hours a day for room and board. I thought it'd be a great way to reduce the cost of my trip while also getting an inside look at Japanese culture and everyday life. The host I'm staying with also knows very little English, so I expect I'll be practicing my Japanese a lot too.

Unfortunately, I found out through an email exchange (in Japanese, thanks to Ian for help in translating some of that) that they don't, in fact, have horses anymore.. I was looking forward to that. On the other hand, I do like kids.. I find they're great to practice language with because they naturally tend to use simple structures and vocabulary.

I'm not usually one for countdowns, but hey.. 3 sleeps until I leave! Sunday doesn't count, with a 6am departure I'll probably have to just stay up until the taxi comes at around 4am.