Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Amanohashidate: The Bridge to Heaven

“Kavitha, WHAT are you doing? Are you sick, cuz girl you look crazy!?!” I shouted to my friend as we were on top of a mountain on the Sea of Japan. After stepping on a bench to see the view of the sea from the summit, my friend had immediately bent over as though she were going to be sick…until I realized that everyone else was doing the same thing. I knew Japanese people were a little crazy what with their dressing up as anime characters and drunk salarymen on the trains…but honestly, folks.

What I didn’t realize was that for millenia, visitors at the Bridge to Heaven have been doing this very same thing. Supposedly, it gives one the ultimate view of the tree-covered sandbar as it sweeps up toward the heavens. Amanohashidate (say that ten times fast), as it is known in Japanese, is one of the Nihon Sankei, or three most beautiful sights in Japan that have been worshipped for centuries. My buddy and I had used our Spring Break to join in on the affordable train fairs that are offered for young travelers, such as the “youthful 18” ticket that allowed us to travel for 5 very long hours to the northern end of Kansai, on the Sea of Japan.

What we didn’t realize, was that even after soaking in the amazing sights, walking for miles on the tranquil sandbar, visiting omiyage (local traditional souvenir/gift) shops and seeing temples was that the island literally shut down at 5:30. On the dot. We couldn’t even find a convenience store, which are as prominent in Japan as Starbucks in the states (it’s true, if Starbucks made “across the street from one another” stores popular, Japan perfected it)!

So hungry and tired, Kavitha did the only thing possible: stowed away on an express train, pretended to be asleep and made it back to Osaka in a quarter of the time it took us to get to the Bridge to Heaven. Seriously…why hadn’t I thought of it before? We’ve both paid an arm and a leg (and probably a spleen and kidney) in transportation costs in this country and the trains have an explicit “no waking foreigners up because they might curse at you in words you don’t understand” policy, so fortunately it worked to our advantage. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) for Kavitha and I, we have consciouses that work overtime, so we’re going to put our illegitimate train-hopping ways on the back-burner…

…at least until there’s another adventure to tackle!

February 6-8th: A Flurry of Fun at the Sapporo Snow Festival

I am your typical Midwestern girl, just like my profile states. I rode my bike to the local pool and roasted marshmallows regularly during our numerous camping adventures in the summer. In the winter months I would nurse my cold hands back to life by drinking gallons of hot chocolate after endless hours of vigorous sledding and creating snowmen. It was, if you will, the most quaint and vivid Americana experience a young, wide-eyed girl could wish for.
Decades later, transport me to an industrial, concrete city of 8 million, with no grass or snow to think of, and the word “claustrophobic” comes to mind. So when I heard of a literal winter wonderland that existed far North in Sapporo, the thought of frolicking amongst snowflakes immediately leapt me out of my winter blues!

Hokkaido is known for its vast natural elegance, complete with volcanic national parks, lavender fields spanning hundreds of miles and the Sapporo Snow Festival, claiming the world’s largest ice sculpture festival.

Kavitha and Yeon Wha, two of my fellow Fulbright gals, joined me in this adventure as we flew to this remote island (Japan’s largesse train system doesn’t even attempt to transcend this remote respite.

Unfortunately, even after living in a part of the nation where 10 below is warm for the winter, Osaka’s warm weather quickly acclimatized me to being used to 50 degree temperatures. Translation: Sapporo was friggin freezing! Even after immediately traversing the negative wind chill to buy long-underwear and extra mittens, I still had to wear two coats just to survive.

But Hokkaido’s meibutsu, or specialty, is boiling hot butter corn ramen. This particular fare is so infamous that Sapporo boasts a Ramen Alley, a street filled with just these kinds of vendors, all competing against one another for your business. Amidst the steam pouring from each store’s stoves, the brilliant neon lights and the screaming women clamoring on how their ramen is the best in Hokkaido. Needless to say, it was a difficult decision, but the three of us descended upon an old ojiisan’s (grandpa’s) stand and the smell was decadent. Whether it was the hours of travel, bitter cold or simply being among friends, it was most definitely the best ramen I have ever slurped up!

After wiping the soup from our faces and prodigiously thanking our new friend for the wonderful meal, we trotted off to the Susukino Ice Festival and the 56th Annual Sapporo Snow Festival. With flashing lights, rock stars, hot chocolate and cameras, we tackled the hundreds of ice castles and snow statues that covered the streets. It was a beautiful sight but I still have to give my allegiance to the St. Paul Winter Carnival Ice Palace (gotta give props to my fellow Minnesotans!).

After drinking green tea to warm ourselves and getting a good night’s sleep, the three of us ventured out the next day to take in all the sights of Sapporo. With our faithful and handy Lonely Planet guide in tow, we checked out the Sapporo sights: the Old Government Building with its beautiful baroque architecture and official archives; the Sapporo Beer Factory, complete with taste tests of the barley and hops used in the production of the nation’s first brewery; the Clock Tower and its centuries old clock that withstands earthquakes and the University of Hokkaido. Whew!

After an exhausting day of sight-seeing, girls just wanna have fun. So we treated ourselves to a big bag of popcorn and a movie: “Pride and Prejudice.” Needless to say, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single girl in possession of a few yen must be in want of a good chic flick! Ya gotta love Jane!

The following day, after getting up early, we once again braved the cold to traverse up Mount Moiwa, which boasts a lovely view of Sapporo. Once we finally found the ropeway entrance that takes visitors to the summit, we were greeted with a zamboni-like machine that pulled an authentic sleigh to the observation deck. I felt like I was in some sort of bizarre science fiction and was waiting for someone to jump out and say, “You’re on candid camera.” Luckily, the trip was short, and the girls and I warmed ourselves up with coffee at the top of the mountain before once again braving the storm and taking in the amazing scenic views from 532 meters above sea level.

After that journey, we were wiped out and ready to head back home. With enough frostbite, pink noses and snowballs to satisfy me, I was happy to embrace Osaka as my home!

Saturday, February 4th: From China to America and back again!

After a wonderfully long and exhausting day of catching up with the other fellows and dining with the entertaining executive director of the program, we were all up for a day of exploring Saturday. Our thirsts pointed us in the direction of Yokohama, the metropolis adjacent to Tokyo, filled with towering brand new business parks right on the bay and boasted the nation’s largest Chinatown nestled in the middle of its 8 million residents.

So our little gaijin group of myself, Kavitha, David (our Nagasaki dude), Takara and Takaaki (our T’s from Sendai) are gathered together to handle our way through the fumbling Tokyo metro system to get to Yokohama. Unfortunately, of our pseudo-intelligentsia groupies, none of us had actually taken notice to figure out what to do and where to go when we arrived at Yokohama Station. Three subway stops, two confused station attendants, one information booth and plenty of random pedestrians later,
we found ourselves on our way to Landmark Tower, the tallest building in Japan standing at 972 feet tall and hosting the world’s fastest elevator, speeding up to the observation deck in less than 40 seconds.

Our little group was astounded at the beautiful views of Tokyo Bay and Mount Fuji and it made me anticipate climbing the mountain when my friends and relatives begin to visit me in Japan!

But before getting ahead of ourselves, our local guide Takaaki was adamant that we check out Yokohama’s Chinatown. This city within a city spans many a city block and is complete with hundreds of restaurants and even an authentic Chinese dragon that goes from storefront to storefront followed by fireworks. It was incredible to inhale the smell of Chinese sweets such as roasted almonds and take our time searching through the millions of tchochkes like sequined shoes and beanies. This place held everything you one could possibly conceived of when thinking of China!

David and Kavitha and I were dead set on finding a fantastic Chinese restaurant and after hours of searching and looking for just the right spot we’d found our heaven: all you can eat for an hour and a half. It was one of those restaurants where the food revolves in front of you, half teasing you to pick up every tasty-looking morsel just to see what those around you would say. Societal norms be damned because the three of us ate more than we had ever tried in our lives, more or less in Japan. We ate everything from rice pudding tapioca to spring rolls to beef and broccoli and egg drop soup. All of it was certainly delicious and lived up to its high expectations!

So the only way to top a phantasmagorically scrumptious trip to the Far East? Why to return to America, of course! At least in the form of Roppongi, the notoriously gaijin part of Tokyo where all the young clubbers and hip-hop goers retreat to. It is a land where English is spoken incessantly, bouncers hussle you in front of every door and dancing sensually to the music is passport to fun and fantasy...the perfect end to any Tokyo adventure!

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Wednesday, February 2nd-Thursday, February 3rd: Come, gentle night bus, come, loving, black-brow'd night bus…

In efforts to reach Tokyo in an economic fashion for my Fulbright mid-year conference, my wonderful gal pal Kavitha and I chose the infamous “night bus” in all its regalia to take us to our destination. Little did we realize that with the upcoming akiyasumi, or the two-month long spring break most colleges had sprung on its students, we were surrounded in Kyoto Station by hopped-up teens sporting the latest 4 inch boots, gelled hair with snowboards and Louis Vuitton purses in tow.

The night bus is something of a rather eponymous variable in Japanese culture. Akin to a Greyhound in the states, we must remember that the Japanese people are much shorter than their American counterparts, meaning that two lovely 5 foot 9 inch women can barely squeeze into seats that barely accommodate the thousands of 4 foot 10 inch ladies that frequently use these buses. With my heels on, I literally am double the size of many Japanese woman, creating a sort of albino Bigfoot anomaly that has more than once been cause for havoc and impromptu photo shoots. Oh yes, the words, “mite” or “look!” are emphatically shouted when I walk by just so avid onlookers can take in the frightening giantess that happens to grace the presence of many Kansai inhabitants. Thank God we were headed to Tokyo, where 1 in 10 residents marries a foreigner, and therefore is used to this strange spectacle!

Unfortunately, Kavitha and I were so ecstatic at the end of classes and kanji quizzes that we did not realize how early our bus would land in the phantasmagorical land of Tokyo. At 6:17 A.M. we were shortly shoved off our night bus and forced to reckon with the fact that we were in the middle of Tokyo for almost an entire day before we could check in to our hostel. But fear not, Starbucks was to the rescue! As your prototypical gaijin, we headed to the nearest over-priced coffee joint and relished in the free, heated environment of mass globalization for over three (yes, count ‘em three) hours until the stores in the glamorous Ginza opened for our perusal. Just imagine seeing two foreigners, hopped up on caffeine with no sleep and no showers for twenty-four hours gossiping over the latest news and excitedly pouring over the vast expanse of consumerism that is Ginza, and you’ll realize why few Japanese patrons actually chose to sit next to us at the crowded Starbucks….folks, this was a desperate situation!

Finally we decided to lug our luggage to the historic Asakasa where our hostel had been arranged. After a forty minute train ride, half an hour of searching, ten minutes of phone calls, and two minutes of Kristin throwing down her gargantuan suitcase in the middle of the street and crying for desperate help did we find the “luxurious” Khaosan Hostel. Imagine a prison cell…now imagine sharing a prison cell, one shower an sinks with no running water with 25 other people….that was the loveliness of our hostel. Despite its low price of $20 a night and free drink tickets to the nearby (20 minutes) bar, the place had no walls, little heat and foreigners that had been living there for months. If this was hell, we were certainly in its 9th ring!

But, other Fulbrighters were quick to rescue our despair. After a quick shower and cat nap, we met up with friends and found a lovely restaurant in the nearby shopping district of Ueno, where we shared our tales of research and adventure for the past five months. With fabulous $3 glasses of wine, spectacular Italian-Japanese cuisine, and enough laughs to last us years over, we realized the close ties that we had formed with one another as we wined and dined one another. After all, when in Japan, do as the Japanese do, which means you must simply embrace your surroundings and let your friends melt away your fatigue and hunger with laughter and kinship!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

February 1st, 2006: Get your parkas: truthiness is the new black!

As I prepare for my trip to Tokyo, in great anticipation of joining my fellow Fulbrighters for our mid-year conference a melange of feelings has washed over me. Jumping on my suitcase, cramming in warm sweaters for our trip up to Hokkaido, the Northernmost island of Japan, to partake in the winter festival celebrations, sending off the last of letters and packages, I realize that in the midst of my life in Japan, something extremely significant has happened, and it almost slipped me by...

Hell, folks, has frozen over.

What? When did it happen? It started when truthiness, that word that defines, as the thoughful Stephen Colbert poignantly put it, the feeling in your gut rather than anything that can be claimed as fact, took precedence over anything concrete. Sure, James Frey fell to a million little pieces, Oprah supported, flip-flopped and then yelled. The Senate droned on and on and on about Alito, Bush wiretapped us all to figure out who's dating who and why....and now, W has seen the light...

The U.S.? Addicted to oil? Gosh, where have I been for the past 23 years...I must have been living under a rock in the Arctic Refuge...or hiding in my ginormous pimped out H2.

Or maybe, just maybe I was protesting for the freedom that all women want: the right to have men butt out of my reproductive private life and leave the abortion debate to my own choosing, rather than Sammy becoming the deciding factor.

Gosh, I'm gone for five months, and the country goes to pot (actually, it would of, but the Supreme Court ruled that we can't do that medically any more without fear of retribution).

So, I'll just put on my parka and ice skate over to Tokyo, where I am amicably joined by optimists, bright-eyed brilliant minds who still believe that the world can be saved. And we are going to do it, through medicine, education, human rights, economics, literature...and never give up, no matter how low our approval numbers drop, how often we are called traitors for questioning fundamental beliefs and no longer will we sit idly by and let our nation be destroyed by pundits.

I left America to study human rights....I never thought that the best place to do so would be right where I started.

An [extremely frustrated] American in Japan!

Saturday, January 28, 2006

January 28, 2006: In a post-modern feminist’s world

I am known for being loud, over-the-top, animated…and the words “Kristin” and “drama queen” are often used in the same sentence. In America, this makes me a wild child, in Japan, I am a rambunctious “seikyo” foreigner. Seikyo means forward in Japanese, which brings a very interesting topic to light. Back in the good old U.S. of A., a woman who grabs life by the horns and obtains what she wants is admirably ambitious. In Japan, this makes you exhibit male qualities that leave the opposite sex running for the yama (hills).

So why, in a nation as democratic and advanced as Japan, am I labeled “seikyo,” or forward? Why is this negative? Just because I don’t sit back, shut up and listen to my male elders, does that make me so outside of the pre-existing box that I’m a rude, overbearing enigma?

In America, of course, I understand that not anytime soon will the Republican rebel-rowsers be knocking at my door asking for contributions. I bilk marriage for law school, women’s rights rule over men’s egos, and antiquity and decorum be dammed when it comes to wearing high heels while vacuuming my living room…as Maureen Dowd (my heroine, about whom’s Rebecca Traister writes, “You can love her or hate her, but you can't dismiss her”) says, “our Hoovers are turning on us.” Well I’d rather have the fat sucked out of me instead of my female charismatic values, also known as my God-given rights (take that Falwell and Alito).

Campus Progress critiques Dowd as criticizing the patriarchal boundaries but while living within them. Am I doing the same thing? In America, if I wanted something, I went for it! I wanted a man…I tagged and bagged him (kudos to you sweetie). I wanted to go to a fantastic college that was financially out of my league. I made sacrifices. I wanted to work for the Democratic presidential candidate, the leading female senator in Minnesota and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner: I campaigned, I convinced and I conceded.

Unfortunately, us modern fem-Nazis (as my girlfriends in high school used to call ourselves) are nastily chided from all sides. The right call us lesbians at best and “anti-Christian immoral” women who ignore God’s place for us in the world [gag me]. The left, even the progressives, pettily accuse us of accepting the “gender games.” Others, like Katha Pollitt, a woman I respect greatly, of The Nation wrote, “The young women I know--most of whom, contrary to stereotype, have no problem calling themselves feminists--are so far ahead of where I was at their age, so much more confident and multicompetent and worldly-wise, I only wish I could hire one to renegotiate my girl-money salary for me.” While Pollitt claims that Dowd believes the age of Aquarius to be dead, alongside it’s “Feminism is Dead polemic.” Harsh words. But do they ring true in the new millennium for women in America and the world?

It seems that in an age where Germany’s Angela Merkel, even Chile and Liberia where Michelle Bachelet and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf rule respectively and respectfully, that the only country that is steeped in a male patriarchy is the land of Starbucks, Botox and boob jobs. I’m not professing that feminism led nowhere, after all, my mom is still a tried and true hippie to this day still questioning my affinity for dresses and Dior, but are we really where we wanted to be? That is the question I believe Dowd to be asking, and we still ponder why? Why are we amazed at the Indira Gandhis, Margaret Thatchers and leaders with two X chromosomes that can be counted on one hand?

The answer was poignantly discussed in a recent New York Times column: “Women's successes in Liberia, Chile and Germany are being celebrated in part because this kind of achievement is still rare. In most countries, women have yet to achieve the critical mass at the lower levels of government that will be necessary if their ascension is to be seen as part of the normal course of politics.

In Japan, my joie de vivre trumps my femininity, unfettered by Asian, or even American convention. I refuse to uphold values that still continue, regardless of geographical location or boundary, to bind my values and dreams. I want to be the next Merkel, Bachelet and Johnson Sirleaf…whose poetic largesse and strong intellectual charisma led them to the top spots in their own countries. If that makes me seikyo, so be it. At least I’ll do it with dignity, and a little feminine finesse to boot!

Thursday, January 26, 2006

January 25, 2006: Foreigners, assimilation and the basic of all rights

“I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”-Robert Frost

Immigration versus assimilation. This topic transcends borders, from France and America to the far sea of Japan. What makes someone indigenous? Native? Why do some countries welcome foreigners and others create concrete walls of precaution to protect themselves from these “threats” (as Bush, Rove, Cheney and the rest of the White House cronies would have us believe them to be)?

Living in Japan as a five foot eight inch Caucasian woman, I obviously stick out in the massive Osaka crowds. I politely ignore the stares on the trains, laugh off the jibes in subways and calmly rebuke the negative jingoist comments I can often understand in Japanese. I never in my life thought that I would experience discrimination that I had read that existed in America or heard first-hand from my friends who experienced outright bigotry. Fortunately, the Midwest somewhat sheltered me from this harsh existence that many others experience, so my first-hand knowledge at being an outsider was the moment I entered the geographic borders of Japan as a “resident alien.”

The conversation is a fluid and timely one in our lives. We are still learning lessons from Paris’s riots, groping at understanding the subtle differences between Shi’ites and Sunnis, and commemorating Martin Luther King’s dreams of a day when the content of our character pushes aside color and creed. For now, however, we live in a time where the pugnacious nature of racism is truculently inevitable.

In Japan recently, one of the Diet (parliament) members proclaimed that Japan is a “homogenous” nation. Furor erupted from the Brazilian, Korean and Chinese communities (to name a few) who celebrate their ethnic diversity while embracing their inherent “Japanese-ness.” So why do some nations value the idea of a melting pot and what provokes others to forego this diversity?

The Economist from last November explained that “hyphenating beats segregating” in America, a nation whose stars and stripes better assimilate Arabs than France or other European nations. The article describes “assimilation” as the ability for minorities in America to have equal opportunities for education, income and advancement, i.e. social, educational, commercial, political equality. While I virulently inveigh that we as Americans have a long ways to go, I remember a conversation I had with an Arab-American friend of mine, Razi, several summers ago.

We met at a conference for young leaders concerned with American’s image in the world, and Razi was a representative from Dearborn, Michigan; the location of the nation’s largest Arab population. Being a deftly and embarrassingly ignorant Midwesterner, where the only diversity I ever experienced was the variety of cowboy hats I saw each day, Razi patiently described his reactions after 9/11, his Muslim faith and how he appreciated every opportunity to explain his views to an ignorant person (i.e. me). He truly believed that Arab-Americans had an opportunity those in other nations did not, even if he did get hassled by the FBI and frequently pulled aside at airports.

So why do nations like France and Japan not possess mechanisms that allow this same kind of understanding? I am not about to proclaim from a soapbox that American is the epitome of equality and understanding, but at least our nation was founded upon the shoulders of men and women who knew these borders were transient; a melting pot, an Ellis Island of good will toward all man and womankind, with a few bumps along the road of course (like Bush’s immigration plan).

My brilliant and insightful tomodachi Takara (Sista in Sendai) has highlighted the fact that in Japan, a place where thousands of years of culture meets tomorrow’s trends in technological and scientific advances, still has vast difficulties using archetypal images for minorities, from African-Americans to Korean-Japanese. And according to the Economist’s pre-requisites for assimilation, Japan certainly exudes arenas where fairness in social, educational and some political equality, at least for a modern, capitalist nation-state.

So what must be done? I too, am in a lover’s quarrel with the world, as Frost so poetically had inscribed on his epitaph. Therefore, I do not feel that we can simply envisage walls and borders. Rather than America alienating Vincente Fox and our Mexican neighbors, rather than Japan eliminating educational rights to foreign children, instead of ignoring the poverty of Arabs in Parisienne tenements, we need to inclusively create political equality for our increasingly globalize world. David Ardo, a human rights researcher colleague, highlighted in a recent Japan Times article how Japan must exhort lawmakers to support legislation that promotes the rights of gaikokujin, or foreigners and extend basic human rights to all peoples living within the borders of Japan. We must cede this bombastic idea that foreigners are a threat, and instead embrace the diverse qualities that they bring to our lives.

Only then can we truly embrace the ai, or love, that Frost, spoke of…the whole world over.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

January 24, 2006: A Room with a view...and so much more!

After a month long absence, I admit it is high time I get my writing into full swing and once again return to blogging. My holiday season was filled with warm wishes and wonderful family reunions as I traversed the world over to meet friends and family back in Rapid City, South Dakota. The season is never complete without passing away the hours with my mother cooking sugar cookies and cheesecakes, going to the quaint church my grandparents founded, checking out the latest happy hour specials in local, po-dunk bars with high school friends and simply remembering how blessed we all are for the opportunities we are given.

I sit here reminiscing over these warm tithes, of memories filled with beautiful, blinking Christmas lights, mugs of hot chocolate, and the brilliant white snows that graced the Black Hills while I was home. Rapid City will always be my home, and my mother said to me once I returned to Osaka, “Kristin, I am slowly learning that I need to let my children grow their wings. I can’t be your mother forever.” What an honest realization. For so long, I have thought that my life would be found within the memories encapsulated in South Dakota. I used to feel like Romeo, desperately proclaiming, “there is no world without Verona walls” when I thought of leaving my nest. Now, however, I have found the world to be flat, just as Thomas Friedman claims. Japan is really not so far from America is from France is from India, etc, etc, etc.

Of course, this bold realization also came with the arrival of my LSAT score, several days before Christmas. Sometimes, one wishes that Santa really would forget addresses, or not visit homes without chimneys, because the big guy upstairs was obviously not concerned for my Christmas wishes when I opened up my inbox and was filled with mixed reactions to my disappointing LSAT score.

Alas, my friends and family were right by my side to alleviate my woes with their support and I have now decided, much like Lucy Honeychurch, in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, that I have my whole life ahead of me to determine my course. I have now signed up for the Foreign Service exam should I want to pursue diplomacy as my friends at the American Consulate in Osaka have suggested. The GRE is another item on my To-Do list, considering I always wanted to obtain my Master’s in Public Policy. I might even spend next year teaching in China or writing in France. Who knows? The wonderful thing about life is that it is glorious and difficult all at the same time, as Forster wrote. We learn the instruments as we go along, and this is one heroine who has many things to check off her life’s To-Do list.


Friday, January 13, 2006

Sunday, December 19th

After a fitful night of fabulous taiko, I once again had the opportunity to have my Osaka gents escort me to yet another concert, this time to hear the wonderful group Ikari play. First things first, however. I was on a mission to get my cell phone to work again, regardless of me having not paid the bill for month (how long does the gaijin excuse work…one, two months?).

So I marched to Yodobashi Camera in downtown Osaka, had my list of vocabulary all prepared and the longer I stood waiting in line watching hundreds of consumers purchasing new ketai’s, my confidence shrank lower and lower. My friends warned me that I might be SOL, but I thought I could try right?

Luckily a kind gentleman came to my assistance, and as soon I rattled off my problem in Japanese, he ran off to help me, leaving me anxiously awaiting the outcome. Unfortunately he came back with a car charger and a grin a mile wide, proud that he could understand my awful Japanese. I felt like Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke;” “what we have here is a failure to communicate.”

An hour and a half later, my cell phone back to normal, I met my buddy Alex and we ran the 12 blocks to Liberty Osaka, a museum recently re-opened to support local human rights movements, which happened to be the host of the concert. Just before the concert started, we were seated (I always love to make an entrance) and the proud, anthem-like drum beats filled our ears. It was so powerful to see groups of otherwise disenfranchised minority ethnic groups coming together to celebrate something so primal, so Japanese. It was moving.

An afternoon of taiko cannot end without wining and dining with the taiko greats. Or so my friends convinced me as we traveled to Nara to dine at the home of the leader of Wudaiko Hiryu, Minehide-san. This is a gigantic man, bubbling with crude jokes and a personality that could fill the Parthenon. I was so honored at simply being invited, but was even more astounded as Shingo, another member of the group, joked with us that his house was called Minehide-jo, or Minehide’s castle. I understood immediately what he meant. With Jeep Cherokees sitting in the garage and a three story home complete with 60-inch flat screen HDTV, it wasn’t a castle but a palace!

With open arms and plenty of sake to go around Minehide warmly greeted us and we immediately settled around the kotatsu, a Japanese table with a heater underneath, to warm our hands from the cold and begin the fabulous meal of nabe. Nabe (literally meaning “pan”) is a traditional Japanese treat, where a large bowl with a soup base is placed on the dining table and everyone partakes in adding ingredients like mushrooms, cabbage, beef and onions. Each one taking his or her turn to stir the pot and serve one another. It is the ultimate communal dining experience, and for a nation that prides itself on integrity and social discretion, it is wonderful to simply sit, drink sake and share a meal with friends where no one cares who has “double-dipped” (George Costanza from Seinfeld would LOVE this culture!).

Amongst many cups of sake, red wine and cold beers, we somehow got through the language barrier and erupted with plenty to talk about, from food to sports. It was so wonderful to be in a home environment, complete with dogs in Santa suits and children running rampant. Unfortunately, the scene got a little too comfortable when my friend blurted to Minehide-san that I had a small crush on one of his group members, a young man named Makoto. Well, when a loud, gruff, practical jokester is armed with information like this, the only thing he can do is call Makoto on his cell phone, tell him there’s a foreigner who’s in love with him, and to get over here ASAP. Literally.

So an hour later, as I was trying to convince everyone that I was supposed to be making my way to Kyoto to meet friends, Makoto shows up, joins us, and is egged on by Minehide-san. The class clown even proceeded to put in a video of one of the group’s concerts and every time Makoto’s image graced the screen Minehide would cry, “Kristin-san, you see Makoto…eh?” with a grin a mile wide on his face. I couldn’t tell if it was the sake or the nabe, but things were definitely getting warm in the home, so I decided to graciously thank them for the meal and leave for Kyoto.

Or so I thought. Minehide took Makoto aside and asked him to drive me to the train station. With Makoto chain smoking during the inappropriately long drive to the station, I began to realize that I had no idea where I was. This feeling hit me hard as the car stopped in a covered garage and Makoto got out of the van. “Well this is the nicest train station I’ve ever seen,” I thought to myself, and no sooner had the thought entered my head did I realize where we were. Makoto had taken me to a love hotel, Japan’s equivalent of a seedy place where couples get it on. Before I could demand he take me back, he had a receipt for a room payment in his hand and was holding the elevator with a look like, “c’mon Kristin, what are you waiting for?”

So I did what any rational, confident twenty-something feminist would do. I screamed at him to leave immediately and drop me off at the next stop or I would hurt him severely. Oh, and who did he think he is? As his smile turned into a look of pure fear, he ran to the van and I quickly got out my cell phone, yelling into the microphone what had just happened as my friends laughed on the other end and Makoto tried to find the nearest station.

Very long story short, I made it to the station, but decided to go home after the eventful night. As it turned out, Minehide had dared Makoto to take me to the hotel and the poor kid fell for it…hook, line and sinker. It’s certainly a night I’ll laugh about for a long, long while.

December 17th, Saturday: A funny thing happened on the way to the taiko…

…when my local taiko gurus, Alex and Joe, graciously invited me to a fantastic Kodo concert before I left for Japan. I anxiously anticipated the event with bated breath. Since my time here in Japan began, my affinity for taiko, Japanese drumming, has skyrocketed, particularly since Kodo is one of the most world-renown groups in this genre, and they have a couple buff cuties showing off their muscles of steel of which I have developed an unhealthy crush. So, off to Southern Osaka I traversed to meet my boys and a few of their friends.

Or so I thought. As I tried to call them to ask where on earth I was going (you know Kristin and directions; my geography genes must have come from the paternal side of my family with my continued lack of public transportation know-how), my cell phone made a funny noise and died. But not before I received a dry e-mail from my cell phone provider stating I hadn’t paid my bill in several months. Uh-oh!

Not that I’m a delinquent or anything of the sort, but hey, things come up right? Now my friends and family will constantly laugh and tell you that when it comes to numbers and myself, we’ve never gotten along. More of a love-hate relationship. Heck, I barely passed math in college, what with my “Gateways of Mathematics” class where Professor “Paco” let us discuss our feelings on math. Yes, really.

But this time I had an excuse. Since moving from my friends’ place into my new apartment, my provider still hadn’t figured out the change of address. So on that fateful Saturday, they simply got fed up with me and cut off my service. It’s actually quite embarrassing and reminded me of those cliché TV episodes where you see the struggling artist return to his/her apartment only to find out the electricity has been shut off. (That reminds me, I must pay my electric bill.)

So after asking plenty of random strangers and almost missing another Kodo concert, I arrived at the hall just in time to meet my friends and rush inside. Of course, Kodo never disappoints, particularly since after the concert they came out and mingled with the audience. Merry Christmas to me!