Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sayonara Blog World

I just finished reading the cover story of this week's New York Times Sunday Magazine. If you are too lazy to click on the link provided then I will sum up the article as this: An established New York City blogger suffers an internal meltdown due to overexposure and scrutiny in the public eye and stops blogging.

I am by no means as established or as bloggery as Emily Gould, the article's writer and protagonist. But I, too, have suffered an internal meltdown due to overexposure and scrutiny in the public eye of a smallish town-city in Hokkaido, Japan. I know, I know this is hardly a similarity, but I somehow connected with Emily's story. She talks about a time when she did not want to leave her apartment except to go to the grocery store. The only in-person human interaction that she has is with those grocery store clerks. The cause: a disasterous interview on Larry King Live.

For the last few months, I did not leave my apartment much either. But the grocery store clerks in Iwamizawa might think otherwise. However, since I am not a professional blogger, I was forced to leave to go to work. But beyond that, I was content to stay at home and watch lots and lots of television. And just when I thought I was ready to face the world -- er, the neighborhood -- again, I would have another traumatic public eye experience.

A few weekends ago I was eating ice cream in a local playground with two other JET Program friends of mine. The only people in the playground were us three and then a group of children playing together. When we decided to play on the swings and other playground equipment, the children wanted to join in. As most Japanese elementary school kids are, they were super enthusiastic to talk to us and play with us. A 5-year-old girl jumped up onto my lap as I perched on a swing and begged me to swing the two of us together. Just as I was about to say "No, sorry", one of the kid's fathers paraded through the park collecting every child in sight, and staring coldly in the direction of the three foreigners. Yes, this situation could have occurred regardless of race. We were adults playing in a playground. But Japan is country that leaves its kids unsupervised -- and they are for the most part fine. It also could have been a coincidence that this dad was stopping by the park. Maybe it was dinnertime -- for all eight non-related children? But somehow I was left feeling like the character who is scrutinized by an entire suburban community in Little Children.

I know that that sounds ridiculously extreme. But this is how I am forced to feel after 10 months of never being given a chance to feel normal, accepted, or acclaimated. When I returned to Hokkaido from a trip to Kyoto last week, the man at the airport said, in English, "Enjoy your visit."

It has taken me two months to update this blog. The list of excuses could rattle on and on, but boil down to this:

1. I think the idea of blogs and bloggers is kind of stupid. (Thank you to the New York Times for further solidfying my opinion with your latest story.)

2. As the saying goes: If you don't have anything nice to say, then don't say anything at all.

The title of my blog is Hokkaido Hillary so I wanted to stay away from discussing my various vacations to other parts of Japan. Beyond that, the only other bit of news that I had to share was an incident of a plain clothes policeman showing up at my apartment to question me about the upcoming G8 Summit and to grill me in Japanese about potential terrorists and could I possibly be one of them? For the record (since this blog is probably being monitored by the Ministry of Justice in Japan), I am not a terrorist. I came to live in Japan because I like cartoon characters, sushi, and limited edition sneakers.

I can joke about all of this stuff now, but at the time, all I did was cry, panic, and stay inside of my apartment and watch reruns of Gilmore Girls and the OC. So I sympathize with Emily Gould's blogger's block.

But then, last Wednesday, I liked Hokkaido again. I was scheduled to visit the high school in Moseushi that is now in its final year as a school. They are down to one class of 3rd year students, the majority of them comprising the award-winning volleyball team. The teachers invited me to participate in their field trip to a local farm to learn how to plant rice. Sure! This sounded terrific! I had only recently learned that all of the farm plots that I passed each morning on my various train rides around Sorachi were not flooded crops of asparagus. No, they were actual rice paddies! I came across this bit of information from studying Kanji. The Japanese word for "rice paddy" is comprised of two Kanji characters. The first character is "water" and the second character is "field".

So I set out on a school bus with the entire 29 members of the Moseushi student body to plant rice. "Let's plant delicious rice!" as one of the teachers exclaimed in English. This same teacher also likes to shout out random English words to impress me. He once yelled "UNICORN!" in the middle of the teacher's room.

The weather was drizzly as we wrapped ourselves in trash bags and duct tape. After a long opening ceremony of various speeches, bowing in trash bags, a photo presentation on the history of rice (laminated in case of inclimate weather), and some more bowing in trash bags, we went down into the mud to plant some rice seedlings. Knee deep in mud and clenching my stomach muscles to maintain my balance, I partnered up with one of the students to plant the seedlings that were sailing down the field in tiny "rice boats".

Our planting time was cut short because of the rain, and whew was I exhausted after 30 minutes of wading through the mud! But I left feeling happy. If I hadn't decided to live this year abroad, I never would have accumulated so many Hello Kitty cell phone charms, I certainly wouldn't have consumed an aquarium's worth of sushi, and I wouldn't be bringing home the coolest pair of New Balance sneakers ever manufactured. I also never ever ever in my life ever would have stepped in mud, let alone glide through it in trash bags pants, to plant rice. That is pretty darn cool.

This postive note thus concludes my time spent writing Hokkaido Hillary . I really am saying sayonara to blogging. Even before reading the New York Times article, the internet was already freaking me out. I stopped wanting to know what celebrities were doing minute by minute. Leave them alone, I shouted!

I discovered the feature of Flickr that tracks what photos of mine are viewed each day and noticed odd patterns of viewing that had me wondering who exactly was looking at these photos and why. I gave up scouring for clues when I realized there was no true way to find out, and I am no Veronica Mars.

The icing on the cake was a MySpace friend request from a user named "Kill Devil Hill". I immediately thought that someone was out to get me. All the more reason to quit the internet and never leave my apartment. Little did I know it was just my friend Mark who had set up a page for his new antique store in Brooklyn called Kill Devil Hill.

In just two months I am moving back to Philadelphia. I am excited to return home, but I really think my stint writing on the interweb is very much finito. Don't anticipate reading Hilly in Philly any time soon.

Friday, March 28, 2008

A Friendship Lunch

Today was one of the last days before the big school year CHANGEOVER. Due to a reason I do not quite comprehend, teachers and school adminstrators are forced to change jobs and relocate every couple of years. I've already had to say good-bye to some English teachers that I spent the last 7 months working with. Now I have to anxiously await new ones, unprepared for how things will go in their classes. Just when I was getting used to my job and living in a foreign country. On the days that I have to sit at my desk, doodling and pondering life's true meaning, I will now have to deal with a new supervisor.

I think that a large part of the oh-so-popular quarter-life crisis is the anxiety of starting a new job, or dealing with any other bit of drastic change. I can't imagine being a teacher in Japan, finally settling into a routine, building close relationships with staff and students, and then be told you have less than a month to move. I could never deal with being constantly uprooted and having to start a life and a job all over again. Groundhog Day.

From what I could gather, most people seem to respond to the news with pure nonchalance. Some seem ecstatic for the change. My supervisor is moving 4 hours away from his wife and children and referred to going back to "single life". He said this with a smile on his face.

This week has been devoted to honoring those who are changing jobs. Last night was the ultra-fancy soubetsu-kai (farewell) banquet which was held at the super swanky Iwamizawa Hotel Sun Plaza. This was my first time inside the hotel, and boy oh boy was it ready for some WEDDINGS. Every picture on the wall and every decor in the hall, all had to do with the ultimate "My Super Sweet 16" of weddings! The chairs at our dinner tables were even upholstered in white lace.

The dinner was much less "YMCA" with the bridal party, and more the really annoying, long-winded speeches that the drunk uncle makes before the newlyweds cut the cake. From these speeches I learned that 1) Some people really do not know how to use a microphone, 2) The general consensus is that is very cold and snows a lot in Iwamizawa, and 3) I do not understand very much Japanese.

An hour of the party was spent sitting at the dinner tables, waiting for a fellow Sorachi Board of Education employee to come around with a giant bottle of Sapporo beer to refill your glass and bow repeatedly. Now, even if you have not taken a sip, you still have to have your glass refilled. It is considered rude to decline. One must awkwardly sip some beer, to get another awkward drip put back into the glass. I even attempted to refill some glasses, nearly over-flowing one glass and failing to pour a drop into another. The cap was still on the bottle.

All in all the evening was pleasant. For the farewell finale, all of the employees staying formed a human bridge leading up to the exit. All of the staff who were leaving had to walk under the bridge like it was their ultimate Soul Train moment. imagine this after hundreds of beer sips (and their refills).

This afternoon, at lunchtime, everyone recovered from the previous night's extravaganza (there were definitely some after parties in the mix) at the "Friendship Lunch". Last week my fellow foreign co-worker and I were approached about the "Friendship Lunch" and "please, let's all have lunch together for communication and friendship." The office was providing bento boxes for everyone and I imagined us all gathering around and singing "Lean on Me" or "That's What Friends Are For".

Instead, at 12:13pm the bento boxes were distributed. From 12:15pm to 12:30pm, forty people ate in absolute silence at their desks. These 15 minutes were followed by another 15 minutes where a speech was made about the amount of money that was spent on all of the year's various enkais (these extravagant parties and lunches). Pages of numbers were read aloud for all to hear.

I was hoping that by writing about this experience on paper (or on the internet), I would be able to come to a coherent conclusion as to the exact meaning of a "Friendship Lunch". But alas, I cannot.

Lastly, I dedicate this blog entry to one of my officemates who is leaving the Sorachi District Board of Education for good: Mr. Robert DeNiro.

I do not know this man's real name, but on my first day of work he came up to me and said, in English, "Hello. I am Robert DeNiro."

And he is only sort of lying.

He really looks like Robert DeNiro. Well, a Japanese Robert DeNiro... mixed with a little bit of Danny Devito. Hmm... maybe another mis-translation. Regardless, he will be missed.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

West Meets East

It seems that spring has arrived early in Hokkaido. We may have to wait longer than the rest of Japan for cherry blossom season to arrive, but the snow is melting quickly and the weather is in the 50s. It’s quite a relief to know that the worst weather is over and done with.

In celebration of the shifting seasons, Japan has a Spring Equinox Day as an actual National Holiday. I spent Spring Equinox Day at the movies for a double feature: Enchanted and the Golden Compass. And, the holiday was even more rewarding since it took place on a Thursday and every Thursday is Ladies’ Day at the movies -- discounted tickets and concessions for women only!

Soon Hokkaido will be the big man on the campus that is Japan. In July, the G8 Summit will take place in the Southeast, resort area of the island called Lake Toyo. In preparation for this momentous event there are now G8 Summit themed kewpie doll souvenirs and the train stations all don cute and clever “welcome” signs featuring each country’s animal representative!

In other parts of Japan there is a different buzz about Hokkaido. In place of G8 Summit welcome signs and posters, there is this advertisement:



On a recent trip to Tokyo and Kyoto with my parents, we noticed this poster in the train station and it made me embarrassed to bring them back to the place I have had to call home for the last 8 months!

The summit is still a few months away so it is my duty to further shed Hokkaido of it’s lackadaisical image. And thus the promotion of the area’s newest (and quite fabulous) additions begins:

While halfway around the world from where I lived my entire life, I spent most of my Saturday as if I was already back “West” on the East Coast. I began the morning at Sapporo’s squeaky clean, sparkly new COSTCO. The shopping carts were the size of tractor’s and the Hokkaido-ian customers were gathered in clusters, trying to figure out how they could squeeze the gigantic frozen pizzas that they stacked in their gigantic carts in their not-so-conventional Japanese ovens. Think clown cars. With every turn down the aisle, I had outbursts of “WOWs” and “Ooohs” and “Eeeeeks”. I stuffed the cart with 12 boxes of Macaroni and Cheese, 5 pounds of gummi bears, and enough salsa and soy milk to last me until August. In what most people feel is an American nightmare, I was experiencing the dream of corporate gluttony! But I have an excuse: I miss “normal” food! I need my slice of Americana!

If my COSTCO supply ever runs lows, I can seek normal food elsewhere thanks to the appearance of a handful of Subway Sandwich chains in the Sapporo area. Shoved into the corner of a Softbank cell phone store plastered with posters of Hilary Duff and Cameron Diaz chit-chatting on futuristic phones, is a teeny tiny Subway shop. The line was so long that you were forced to test out new cell phones while waiting. Some people might have been forced to sign up for phone plans. To avoid signing any contracts, you also have the option of studying the Subway menu to pass the time. The menu was more like a play by play of what you were supposed to do upon reaching the counter. The 45 minute wait for a sandwich was in part due to the confusion of the Japanese guests forced to choose (in the correct order, at that) from five types of bread, handfuls of toppings, toasting or sans-toasting, sandwich dressings, and final accouterments that did not fall into one of the previous sandwich-stacking categories -- like jalapenos and mayonnaise. The rest of the hold-up was the fault of Japan’s consistently excellent customer service. The sandwich maker’s deserved to be poster children for a “Slow Stay Subway Sandwiches” campaign, as they carefully arranged two slices of pickle per half of the sandwich, and then garnished the pickles with 3 slices of an olive half. The dressing was drizzled, the wrapper was labeled, and the baked French fries took 6 minutes to actually be baked. It was truly frightening experience that resulted in a delicious meal!

Just beyond the Subway was a carpeted mall where the afternoon was finished off inside with a latte at Starbucks. It wasn’t until a man appeared in the middle of the mall, clad in silver sequins for a demonstration of Honda’s Asimo robot, that I was snapped back into Japanese reality.

Here is a photo of the robot:



It’s pretty spectacular in person and seeing it made me smile. Hokkaido is not so much a "slow stay" kind of place. Instead it is like a totally way cooler, super futuristic version of South Jersey. What could be better than that?!?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

How I Lost My Indoor Shoes in the Middle of a Snowy Rice Field

I cannot believe it is the end of January and I am still visiting new schools for the first time. Friday marked my first visit to Nanporo Yogo -- a school for children with disabilities and special needs. My visit to this school was wonderful. I sang Japanese children's songs with the kids in music class and made "Kami-Sumo" (paper sumo wrestlers) and competed against the whole first grade Jr High class in a "Kami-Sumo" tournament! But my time at Nanporo Yogo is a whole other tale to tell. Today's story boasts the harsh truth that living in Japan for 6 months does not make you invincible. Sometimes you get lost and you lose things.

Nanporo is a spacious, country town -- far less populated than it is wide -- located somewhere between Sapporo and Iwamizawa. I frequently visit the high school in town. The students there are slightly badass. They are super into rapping in English and sometimes refer to themselves as "crazy hoes". Again, a whole other tale to tell...

My trips to this school are fairly routine. I take the same train each time and switch to the same bus. When I received my schedule for the new school, Nanporo Yogo, I realized I would have to be there an hour earlier. This meant a different train and a different bus to Nanporo Town.

Having convinced myself that 6 months in I had memorized every train and bus schedule for the 12 cities and towns that I visit, I set out Friday morning for my last school of the week. And 'twas on this journey that I encountered a series of obstacles.

Obstacle #1: In these harsh winter months, my route to the Iwamizawa train station is completely paved in sheets of ice.

Obstacle #2: The trains in Japan never fail to zap me into a sudden state of narcolepsy. The train seats are cushioned AND heated. I fall asleep as soon as the warmth dethaws my body.

Obstacle #3: Public transportation in Japan is stellar. Rarely are trains or buses a nano-second behind schedule. Even in snowy Hokkaido! I managed to wake up in time for my station stop, Ebetsu. I simply needed to cross the street in 4 minutes to transfer to the bus destined for Nanporo. No problem! Except that I really only had 2 minutes. I had memorized the bus schedule incorrectly and had already missed my connection. It is at this time that I slightly panicked. The buses to inaka towns are hardly frequent. I spin in circles trying to decide where to go. But I stopped the spinning as a saw a blurred bus in the distance. A rainbow colored bus! My bus! A bus in Japan was actually late! It's a miracle!

Obstacle #4: This bus was far from a miracle. It was the wrong bus and about ten minutes later I was halfway across the world on the other side of a rice field. I was also the only person left on the bus, besides the driver. I run up to him and spew some Japanese words out of my mouth. Somewhere in these desperate mumbles I formed the correct questions and concerns. No problem, he says. The bus driver came to the rescue as he radios for another bus -- the correct bus. It seems that the bus I needed was also running late. PERFECT.

Obstacle #5: In order to get to the new bus I had to sprint through a snow-filled rice paddy, in frozen tundra, Hokkaidoian weather, and make it to the highway where the already off-schedule bus was impatiently waiting for me in a patient manner. So I did. I completed this obstacle course by running through the snow, through the field. In about 7 minutes time, I, the huffing and puffing blonde, foreign girl said some "Gomenasai's" to the driver and passengers and sunk down into the heated, cushioned seat. This time I didn't fall asleep. I was still wheezing from the morning jog.

20 minutes and a big sigh of relief later, I settled into the genkan of the school and reached into my bag for my indoor shoes. Everyone has to wear different shoes inside and outside and mine were a comfortable alternative to the plastiquey slippers that they provide for guests. For a brief and inherently awkward moment, I flapped my hand around in my bag in search and only grabbing hold of air. The shoes were not in my bag. They were in my bag when I left my house, and on the train to Ebetsu. But now they were gone.

Obstacle #6: Somewhere in the middle of a snowy, Hokkaido rice field, there lie my indoor school shoes. Frozen over and forever hibernating.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Merry Kurisumasu (クリスマス)

Today it is Christmas in America but it is already the day after Christmas in Japan. And, furthermore, it is really the day after the day after this country's customary Christmas festivities.

While I spent the days leading up to Xmas at the Apple Store in Sapporo, anxiously waiting for the results of my external harddrive's MP3 rescue surgery, most folks were preparing for their Japanese-style Christmas dinner. The main event seems to take place December 24th, as it is (coincidentally) a National holiday in celebration of the Emperor's Birthday. On the morning of the 24th, in Sapporo, I noticed that just before 10am there was a huge line spiraling around the basement entrance to Diamaru Department Store. Last minute shoppers -- I presumed. Yet there was also a similar line outside of a nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken, and ditto with Mos Burger.

As my friend Emma later informed me, all of these people were in line to buy FRIED CHICKEN. And several food establishments that do not normally sell fried chicken, were putting it on display for eager buyers that day! It is only now that I discover, a mere 8 hours before dinner time, that the typical Christmas-dinner fare is not unlike the meal you would find at a Britney Spears family Christmas in a Louisianan double-wide trailer: Fried Chicken and Christmas Cake!!

Here is a photo of a Japanese KFC during Christmas:



And here is a photo of a Japanese Christmas Cake:



For my Christmas I opted to be non-traditional in both my home country and my new country's sense (or non-sense). I was supposed to spend my Christmas day at my desk at the Board of Education but ended up recovering from my end-of-semester cold at home instead! With my low-key day at home, I thought about how it was somewhat refreshing to spend the month of December much less saturated in commercial holiday cheer.

But contradictory to the above statement, I am about to embark on a totally non-traditional New Years Eve trip. New Years Eve and Day are a HUGE deal here in Japan. There is an arduous house cleaning project that must occur prior to January 1st, followed by a day and night at a local illuminated shrine. However, I am heading down South to my own personal shrine: Tokyo Disneyland!

Happy New Year everyone!

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Culture Shock

I woke up this morning and the little cartoon ghost that bounces around my cell phone screen was wearing a Santa Claus hat and sleeping under a Christmas tree. I cannot believe that it is already December 1st and I have been in Japan for 3 months and 3 days! Although time is going remarkably fast, the amount of time that remains of my stay in Japan seems forever and a year away. I have yet to decide if I will re-contract for a 2nd year, but even the end of my first year seems 10 years in the future.

According to the JET Programme General Handbook's chapter on Culture Shock, my sense of time flying and standing still at the same time, as well as frustration, impatience, homesickness, general annoyance with every day life, and fatigue -- which have been hitting me in crashing waves for the past 2 plus months -- are all symptons of Culture Shock. And according to the chapter's Month-by-Month Emotional Distress Graph, I am presently at the peak of it all. I guess, in a way, this is a good sign because it can only get better from here. But this past month, my general feeling of cultural overwhelmingness is the cause for my lack of commitment to blogging.

But amidst the bad, there is a whole lot of good. I had a fabulous time in Tokyo during Thanksgiving weekend. I ate grasshopper at my friend Yosuke's family restaurant, I saw diva dogs in kimonos, and I experienced the Tsukiji fish market at 4:30am as all of the fish was coming off the trucks from (presumably) Hokkaido. The site-seeing theme of the trip was "Deep Tokyo". Yosuke and Arisa wanted my friend Brett and I to experience a non-touristy side of Tokyo which included a long morning/afternoon/evening spend in Odaiba -- the neighborhood near Tokyo Bay. This is a newly developed area of Tokyo with a very flashy shopping complex. One of the malls, Venus Fort, features an indoor and outdoor dog park with dog boutiques and dog glamour shots. You can even rent a dog by the hour to parade around in clothes! Dog attire is mandatory for a day out at Venus Fort.

Here is a short video I took of one of the dogs in Venus Fort.




The mall is also very "Gyaru" which is a sub-culture in Japan where (from an outsider perspective) all of the girls want to be like Paris Hilton. Here is a chart about the various off-shoots of Gyaru style.

My favorite part of Venus Fort was the kid bungee jump! Words cannot describe so here is a short video of the kid bungee jumping course with some bungee in progess!




I also went to a Japanese hair salon for the first time which was a fantastic treat! Along with a 3-hour haircut and dye job, you get a 20 minute head, neck, and back massage! Thanks to a friend of a friend's blog, I went to a super-hip-yet-completely-unpretentious hair place in my Tokyo mecca, Harajuku. I didn't spend much time in the neighborhood beyond my haircut because I knew I'd be back during my forthcoming Tokyo trips.

Back in Hokkaido it is snow snowing snowy! I am already saying things like "I had to walk 30 minutes in the snow to get to school." Which is so true. And now I sympathize with all of the nostalgic grandparents of the world who have made that same comment. The roads are like ice skating rinks but the snow does not stop anyone from getting where they need to go and doing their job. The trains and buses run perfectly on schedule, people are still riding bicycles, and the yogurt delivery folks are still speeding down the street on their mopeds, adorning some sort of face shield. I am not fully adjusted to this winter wonderland. It sure is pretty, but it makes me want to stay inside and just look at it from my window. It's too bad that the windows in my apartment were recently replaced and now fully frosted -- both from the cold and by their manufacturer.

I am still visiting some schools for the first time. This past week I went to a school where the moment I stepped into a class the students started yelling "Bekki Chan! Bekki Chan!" Their teacher told me that Bekki Chan is a Japanese TV star who is half-Japanese and half-British. (The common expression here -- which I don't approve of whatsoever -- is that she is Halvsie.) After some extensive Google research I discovered that I bare no resemblance to Bekki. Here is her official website and her Wikipedia Japan profile, translated by Google. Bekki also has a monthly column in one of my favorite teen fashion magazines called Cutie.

Since I already have the fan base of about 12 Hokkaido high schools worh of teenagers, I figure my next pursuit will be to star in my own Japanese TV show!

Hillary-CHAN!!!!




(This was a photo from an arcade with photo booths from my visit to Tokyo with Brett, Yosuke, and Arisa)

With all of my ups and downs living half-way around the world from home, I am still very happy to be having this experience. However bizarre it may be!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Note: Today was the first big snow (雪) in Iwamizawa. I imagine there is lots more to come!

From my window: