Monday, February 25, 2008

Super Crazy Weekend

Aaron here: We are coming off of one of the craziest weekends we've enjoyed so far in Japan. The past few days have been filled with new experiences, some expected, and some not. Nonetheless, it's been an exciting time.

On Saturday, we began our day by going over to the Tanigawa's home (The Tanigawas are the family Kendra and I stayed with our first two days in Kobe. They helped us find and move into our house as well). Katherine came as well, which is good, because she has magical Japanese powers and can help translate for me. Mrs. Tanigawa is quite a character, and she loves to feed us. Unfortunately, most of the food she made us for lunch on Saturday had meat in it, which is not Katherine's cup of tea. But there was plenty of good salad and the like as well.

Before we left, Tanigawasan called us up and told us to come early for lunch so that we had some time to plan--for what, I'm sure you are asking yourself. Well, at the time we weren't quite sure ourselves. We knew that Tanigawa-san had recruited us for some kind of get together involving young children, in which we would have to entertain them in an English only environment. I think the theory is that young children are very impressionable, and so Japanese parents like to put there kids in setting where only English is spoken, hoping they will pick some of it up. (It's required to learn English in schools here. Think of what it would be like if all Americans had to learn Japanese.)

Anyway, so we thought of a few songs and games we had learned from working at Summer camps, and we left the Tanigawa's home hoping for the best. We arrived at a small building filled with tables and chairs, with a little kitchen area. Before too long, the room was filled with about 15 children from age 5-9 with their parents. The host of the party introduced us (all three of our names are exceedingly difficult for Japanese people to pronounce). Then everyone basically stared at us for a minute, and then the host told us to begin. Needless to say, not a lot of preparation.

We found some cards with animals on them and played a game where we tried to teach them the sounds the animals make in English. And yes, animals make a different sound in Japanese than in English. For instance, pigs say "bu, bu" in Japanese, as opposed to "oink, oink" in English. Then we laid out the cards on a table and made an animal sound and they had to grab the card with the picture of the corresponding animal on it. They did quite good. Then, we sang a couple camp songs and went right into Duck Duck Goose, which went over pretty well for the most part. Similar to in America, young boys in Japan can be quite competitive, and young girls can be quite shy. While I was it, a made a girl the "goose" and she immediately burst into tears. I quickly picked a new "goose" and she was fine again. The parents laughed, so I didn't feel too too bad about it. The only other time a girl cried was when we played musical chairs. She couldn't find a chair when the music stopped, and the waterworks started. She also was fine again in a short time. Everyone else loved the game.

This brings me to another interesting tidbit about Japan. In Japan, people often play a game the equivalent of "rock, paper, scissors" called "Jan-Ken-Pon." Children play it religiously, and where we quickly grew sick of it in our youth, it never seems to get old over here. Like in America, it is also used to decided disputes, and even business men in offices are known to use it to decide who will be doing portions of a day's workload. So, it was quite amusing when the children brought "Jan-Ken-Pon" into musical chairs without any prompting. If two kids ended up on the same chair when the music stopped, even if one was clearly there first (on the bottom) they would immediately go into a game of "Jan-Ken-Pon" to decide who remained in the game. The boys are very intense when they do it. Whereas we merely pound our fist on our hand, they shake their hands and thrust it forward, as if throwing dice. They have impressive footwork as well, making "rock, paper, scissors" look like some kind of martial art (or emulation of Japanese cartoon characters.) In any case, the victor was never questioned, and both children enjoyed themselves whether they won or lost.

We also played "Simon Says," which proved a little difficult for the children, but they caught on eventually. And we put on a spur of the moment interpretation of Little Red Riding Hood. Guess what part I played? Yup. The wolf.

After the session was over (after a good couple hours) the parents had us sit down in chairs and presented their children one at a time to give there thanks for our activities. That was a little different, and many of the children were quite shy during this, even if they weren't during the games. It was kind of uncomfortable, but hey, that's the way they do it. I also got a possible job interview during this parade of "thank yous". It would be a pretty serious job, and I doubt I'm really qualified, but we'll see what happens. They have to contact me first, however.

Anyway, after that strange few hours, Mrs. Tanigawa found it warranted to treat us to a pampered evening. We went straight from the place where we played with the kids to a Japanese public bath. If you aren't aware, the Japanese have very strong feelings about taking baths. It's one of their favorite past times, and very important for health and tradition. Therefore, Japan is covered with two kinds of bathing facilities--onsens, which are natural hot springs, usually found in the mountains, and bath houses, which don't have any natural flow of water. This was my first time going to a bath house.

When we arrived, the first thing was saw was a large sign saying that tattoos were not allowed. It is important that a explain here the difference in tattoo culture between America and Japan. As any American can tell you, it's not too uncommon to find tattoos on regular old Joes and Janes back in the states. It's a little rarer here, and unfortunately, tattoos have become extremely stigmatized because of their link to the Yakuza, or the Japanese mafia equivalent. For a very long time, members of the organized crime networks in Japan have had large, extravagant tattoos, usually covering their backs, and usually containing dragons or fierce beasts. So, because of this, tattoos are considered quite taboo over here. To illustrate how taboo they are, let me give you this little anecdote. There was a friend of a friend of a friend at a spa in Osaka, an American, caucasion girl, whom we just met the other day, actually. Anyway, she had some tattoos, and she covered them up with tape, as is the trend when going to a public bath. While she was in the pool area, an elderly, male, worker spotted the tape covering her tattoo, and she was actually kicked out of the facility. Now, I'm no scientist, but the odds of a white, American girl with a small tattoo being part of the Yakuza seems pretty slim, but nonetheless, it was enough to get her booted.

Anyway, back to our story. So, when we arrived and saw the no tattoo sign, Tanigawa-san immediately remembered about Kendra's tattoos and she grew concerned. She spoke to the clerk for what seemed like 10 minutes or so (and Mrs. Tanigawa is a powerful negotiator, which is another story altogether) and nevertheless, she returned with a shrug. We weren't allowed to go in. Kendra, feeling terrible, in a moment of desperation asked if they had any tape available that she could just cover her tattoos with. Tanigawa-san went and asked, and returned with a roll of skin colored tape. Why the clerk hadn't mentioned this option before escapes me, but we were allowed to go in, which was the important thing.

It was strange for me specifically, because I was the only one of us who had never been to a bath, and I was also totally by myself. They gave me a quick rundown of the bath etiquette, and I was off. There are always two lockers you need at a place like this, the shoe locker by the entrance (never wear your shoes through a bath house, or any place that should be considered a "clean" place), and a locker by the baths. At the second of the two lockers, you deposit your clothes, hit the showers, and enter the bath.

The first thing that came to mind when I entered the bath was that this sort of place could never exist in America. It isn't so much the fact that there were so many nude people there, and therefore it would be too taboo. I think there isn't the kind of shamelessness in America to support a bath financially. The Japanese are a little more like the Europeans when it comes to nudity. I don't see this many people in America being comfortable enough to not only spend a few hours with other naked people of the same gender, but to spend a decent amount of money to do so as well.

The bath itself was quite nice. They had many different pools--some with jets, some with bubbles, and some that were just hotter than others. There was also an outdoor section with an onsen-esque pool surrounded by artificial rocks and the like. That's where I spent most of my time. It was too hot inside for me, and I needed the winter air to keep me from overheating in the bath water. It started to snow, and the wind picked up, and I still barely sat in the water. It must have looked quite strange to the elderly Japanese men, completely submerged in the bath water to avoid the cold air.

At any rate, it was a peaceful, relaxing experience--one that I think everyone should enjoy should the opportunity arise. I apologize for the lack of pictures, but I'm sure you understand.

After the bath, Tanigawa-san wasn't done with us. Nope. She brought us back home, fed us some cheese, gave me a beer, and waited for her husband to arrive. Mr. Tanigawa works with a pharmaceutical company, and he travels around the world for his work, and therefore is almost always gone, and also speaks pretty decent English. We tried to get into two different Yaki-tori places (it means grilled chicken) but one was full and one was closed. So, we went to an izakaiya, which is like a snack bar with lots of little grilled and fried foods, and lots of drinks as well. It didn't take long for us to realize that they weren't going to stop giving us food and drinks until they were satisfied with our complete and utter gluttony. Kendra and I both had four beers. I think I had at least six different kinds of chicken on a stick alone, not to mention beef, pork, grilled vegetables, and several other things Americans wouldn't imagine without having been to one of these places. We started with a sort of marinated octopus, served cold. I also enjoyed my first chicken sashimi (yes, as you feared, sashimi means raw). It was a raw piece of chicken served on sushi rice with a wasabi garnish. Basically your basic piece of sushi, only instead of tuna or salmon, it was chicken. And it was unstoppably good.

Anyway, they got us full and drunk and then brought us back for more food and drink. Mrs. Tanigawa must have poured me at least fifteen little cups of Sake (Japanese rice wine). She is convinced that I look just like Tom Cruise from The Last Samurai. White people don't see the resemblance. She also gave me a hug for the first time ever. This may not sound like a big deal, but over here, it is. People don't hug over here, period. It's just not a normal thing. They bow instead, and even that is more of an apology than a buddy-buddy sort of thing. I was always told that Japanese people had to drink before they opened up like that, and now I've witnessed it first hand. I guess that's why bars are so ridiculously popular in this country. Everyone has to get lit up to cut loose. Anyway, it was all good fun, and we went home around 11:30 after one of the craziest days ever.

Okay, go take a break, grab a snack, meet me back here for part two--which I promise will be much shorter.

Okay. So, after living here several months before going to a bath house, it figures that the very next day, we were invited to go to another bath house. However, this was no ordinary bath house, it was SPA WORLD, the largest bath house in Japan, found in the massive nearby city of Osaka. Our friend Abel, whom I've mention earlier, invited us and about 12 other foreigners (JET program people mostly) to go to spa world. And we obliged.

To put this place into perspective, it is like taking an amusement park, a bathhouse, and the food court of a mall and cramming it into one massive facility. It has 8 floors and includes a massage parlor, barber, full-sized gym, a few floors of spas and baths, saunas, snack bars, at least a dozen restaurants, rooms that are for nothing but sitting in recliner chairs, and about a zillion lockers.

We spent the first couple hours checking out the pool area, which is kind of like a miniature water themed park. Think of Michigan's adventure, for all us Michiganders, minus the rides. They have a lazy river, several water slides, another place to buy food, and an outdoor jacuzzi that was absolutely awesome.

We got dinner at an omelet place (they love their omelets over here. They cover them in curry and put them on rice. It's quite good). I got a doria (which is like a gratin, only with rice on the bottom), and it was awesome.

We spent the rest of the time in the spa area. It was amazing. I can now say that I've bathed in royal jelly. Actually, it was a mixture of royal jelly, honey, and milk, poured into the bath water (royal jelly is the special stuff a colony of bees feeds to the queen to make her lay a billion eggs. It's like a super energy booster or something). I also did a salt bath, which seems like a crazy idea, but is actually quite nice. You rub your whole body down with salt and sit in a super hot sauna for fifteen minutes or so. In case you couldn't guess, it makes you sweat like none other. But, it's supposed to draw out all of your impurities, as well as exfoliate your skin.
Then, there was a spot where you sit in a super hot bath and then move directly to an ice cold bath. Talk about extreme. I asked Abel what the purpose of the contrast was. He sad it was to give people heart attacks. I believed him. After the ice bath, you lay on a mat with your head resting on a little log, and let your body warm up again. I'm sure there was more significance to all of these stages, but I just did what everyone else did. It's the safest thing to do in Japan.

Kendra enjoyed most of the same spas on her floor, which was modeled European style. They had rooms with Greek columns and the like to make you feel like an old aristocratic European. Our floor was dubbed "The Asia Zone." One step into this magical floor of baths, and I actually thought I was in Asia for a moment. Yeah, it was basically just Japanese style, except one room that was decorated with Egyptian stuff. I don't know if they think Egypt is in Asia, or what. But the whole place was very slick, with lots of marble and polished stone. Very ritzy.

Well, that's about it. Hope you enjoyed my story, and maybe learned a thing or two as well. I know I did. Until next time.


Unknown said...

Some Nudity is acceptable, but hugging is not. Japan is weird.

Unknown said...

japan is the ultimate "hot" spot for "hot" springs. and the bath salts is like icing on the cake :D