Within the walls

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Stepping into the Old City of Jerusalem is an assault on your senses. The ancient city explodes with commercial stalls overflowing with colorful goods, and the even more colorful characters who sell them. The plethora of spice shops with bins of neatly pilled cinnamon and cardamom fill the air with delicious fragrances. The spicy smells only last until wandering into the butcher alley where animal organs not even known to be edible are on display, permeating the air along with the extraneous juices from the butchering process. Soon enough though the produce stalls fill the air, and flirt the senses with stacks of beautiful fruit, and various unidentifiable vegetables.

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The best parts of the Old City are the pockets of genuine humanity, often hidden by the overwhelming presence of “salesmen.” The old men playing backgammon, hanging out at the barber shop, sleeping on the job, shooting the shit with their friends across the alley. The crowds of people clamoring at the bread cart as he momentarily stops his mobile store. The mothers buying the parts of the evening Ramadan Meal, or their counterparts preparing for Shabbat. The best place to experience these glimpses into real life is the Arab Quarter where the store keepers are more concerned with selling their shoes or house-hold tools, than even looking at the passing tourists.

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Its nearly impossible to get to a specific place on purpose in the Old City. The narrow alleys and rows of identical stores immediately steal away any sense of direction. I find that its best to go with the flow and see what wonderful things the circus of the Old City brings your way.

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J-town So Far….

After a 32+ hour marathon of travel connections I arrived in the Tel Aviv airport, just a little tired and disoriented. It was a glorious welcome to have most of my host family waiting for me at arrivals. I left the same family last year at the Amsterdam airport in a violent fit of tears, unsure when I would see their little faces again. I never imagined I would be lucky enough to see these nuggets so soon. As with all good friends, we picked up right where we left off, even though we were meeting a year later which is practically a lifetime in children world.

Last day with the family July 2013, and my how they have grown.

Last day with the family July 2013, and my how they have grown.

My glorious host family wasted no time getting me into the swing of things. Within the first couple days they had taken me to the Machane Yehuda Market, along with a couple more major shopping areas, Garden Tomb, Mediterranean Beach, as well as the Dead Sea. Unsurprisingly I needed a couple days to recover from transportation as well as travel.

The neighborhood

The neighborhood

So far Jerusalem has been everything I hoped it would be, and more. The neighborhood we’re staying in is “old” however new by Jerusalem standards, built in the 1800’s. There’s outdoor markets galore and just about everything is within walking distance, including the Old City which holds the holiest sites for Islam, Judaism, and Christian religions, as well as countless other old and significant sites.  I may need another 6 weeks after this trip to process everything here, between the culture, history, and current politics.

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I'm floating in the Dead Sea, I'm really floating!!!

I’m floating in the Dead Sea, I’m really floating!!!

NDT Programma II

Last week I was fortunate enough to see the Nederlands Dans Theater perform for a second time. It turns out that they have special 10euro youth tickets for people under 27. 10euros! That’s less than the price of a movie ticket to see one of the best dance companies in the world. In addition to the dance performance the ticket includes drinks before the performance and during the intermissions. Just my drinks for the night would have cost as much as the ticket.

But then there was the performance and it was worth far more than the 10euro price. The first piece was “Chamber” choreographed by Medhi Walerski. It was everything I wanted out of a NDT performance. Other than great lighting there weren’t many theatrical elements, even the costumes were minimal. The whole focus was simply on the dancers and their incredible bodies. Next were two pieces from Jyri Kilian’s Black and White Ballets. I probably watched the Black and White ballets video twice a year in university and even wrote a paper on the choreography. When I first saw the dress on stage I let out a little squeal of delight.  I was happy as a clam, but it only got better with the last piece “Swan Song” by Sol León & Paul Lightfoot and  was one of the best contemporary pieces I’ve seen. This piece emphasized the beautiful technique in addition to their flawless movement quality. Everything came together perfectly the choreography, music, and set pieces to create brilliant story telling and visual stimulation.

I was speechless at the end of the show. It was difficult to take in so much awesome in a 3 hour span. The good news is, there’s more shows to see and at 10euro/ show I can afford to be a regular at the Lucient Theater. I already have tickets to see Momix in December, and there’s a possibility of some Romeo and Juliet action next week.

マルマル モリモリ 一番です

Behold, one of the current chart toppers of Japan. It started as the theme song of a Japanese drama, but it has grown into a phenomenon all its own. I’ve seen everyone from preschoolers to adults doing the dance. I admit I can do parts of the dance and almost keep up with it at karaoke even though  this was the first time I have seen the video. This jingle and dance is everywhere. Even if you don’t understand Japanese there’s a good chance this will get stuck in your head.

your welcome.

semiautomatic doors

I’m automatic door challenged. Strange, but possible. The automatic doors in Japan open just a little bit slower than what I’m used to. Instead of maintaining the same walking speed I have to slow down just a bit so the doors can open. Since it is such a subtle difference I have difficulty remembering to slow down. Because of this I have walked into sliding doors on more than one occasion. Then there’s the semi-automatic doors. They open, you just have to push a button or touch a certain spot. These are where things get really dicey. First I have to recognize that the door requires effort to open. Then I have to figure out the magic spot. This is harder than you would think. I once spent several minutes frantically hitting the door to Yoshinoya while the lunch eaters looked at me like the crazy person that I was. Japan, I love you but your automatic doors make me feel stupid.

just say NO to kancho

This has been a difficult topic for me to write about, but I feel that after 16 months of exposure, most of the shock has worn away and I can address it calmly. I’m talking about kancho’s. This is a word that can/will stir of fear in even the strongest of ALT’s. What’s a kancho you ask? I’ll give you a hint, its the Japanese word for enema. We were warned to look out for it in training, but even when I had my first one it took me by surprise. They can strike at any time, and sometimes I still find myself falling into kancho traps even after more than a year of experience.

This is all still a little cryptic so let me be a little more specific. The kancho is a children’s prank much like the butt slap or wegie, but so much more violating. Children make their hands in the shape of a gun, but they aren’t playing spy. Those fingers are about to be shoved right up your bum. I’m not talking about some weird sex practice, this is something that happens everywhere especially schools. Since it happens in schools, obviously all clothing is still on, but there is still touching where touching shouldn’t be happening. Kids do it to each other as sort of an unpleasant joke. But it doesn’t stop with students kanchoing each other, they go right after the teachers as well. And since it is a generally accepted (not encouraged) practice I can’t really complain about it. Even though in any other circumstance that would be considered sexual misconduct. I mean politicians get in trouble for having their hands graze a woman’s leg and go just a little too far. These kids just go right for the target. (shutter). There is no teacher to teacher kancho, THAT would be a HUGE problem.

I have been a victim of this joke more times than I want to talk about. It happens every week or so, and would happen more often if I wasn’t so great at the block and dodge. There are students that I have learned to look out for in the hallways. Even if they raise a hand to wave a me I dive to the other side of the hall for fear of stray fingers. I’ve had some strange kanchos. A student substituted his head for his fingers and head-butted me in the butt, brooms during cleaning time are also popular, there’s also the jack-hammer where 1 kancho just isn’t enough and they just keep going. Sometimes after playing during recess I have to spend some time just sitting alone to recover from the shell shock of too many children’s hands.

This isn’t done maliciously, its like a display of trust or “you’re in the club.” Its done innocently enough, and its a really strange way for the students to tell you that they like you. Younger students are more apt to have stray hands but I have heard of Jr High teachers getting the kanch by some of their students. I’ve tried to keep an open mind about Japanese culture, but this is still something that I can’t wrap my head around. Japan is such a shy culture, they are still reluctant to shake hands b/c of germs and touching, but the fingers up someone else’s bum is aOK.

I don’t think I can talk about this anymore. Too many harsh memories. I was lucky enough to dodge all attempts today and would rather not think about any more Kanchos.

a kancho arcade game: this is so wrong I don't even know where to begin

street art

Street art has been becoming much more main stream thanks to artists like Banksy and the movie Exit through the Gift Shop. But street art in Japan has been everywhere for years in the form of beautifully decorated manhole covers. Just about every town in Japan has its own design for manhole covers, sometimes they’re even painted. I’ve tried to find each city’s version in my travels and these are just the beginning.

Uno City, Okayama Prefecture

Maniwa City, Okayama Prefecture

Otaru City, Hokkaido Prefecture

Kurashiki City, Okayama Prefecture

Kurashiki City, Okayama Prefecture

Kurashiki City, Okayama Prefecture

I’m basically Japanese

I bow to people without even noticing, slurp my noodles, can use chopsticks without hesitation, drink more tea than water, can back into parking spots like a pro, and now I have this sweet track suit* to look the part. All I need to do is learn the language and I would blend right in, never mind that I’m white and a head taller than most of the country.

*In case you weren’t aware the track suit is an essential part the of the Japanese wardrobe. It serves many functions, leisure wear, workout wear, elementary school teacher uniform, extra curricular activity identifier, and uniform of the “bad ass” dyed hair convenie loitering crowd. Honestly I don’t know how I’ve lived here so long without one.

** In other news I just bought a white faux fur / shag rug for my apartment. Although it doesn’t add to my Japaneseness it is the best purchase I’ve made in a long time.

11.11.11 – a day for snacks

I know that I am a little late but I couldn’t pass up the chance to share the great holiday celebrated two weeks ago on Nov 11. I’m not talking about Veteran’s day since it is a holiday that Americans already know about and show their respect. I’m gonna take things a little bit lighter to the food  centered variety of holidays. 11.11 is a pretty magical date, especially if you live in Japan. Its not just a lucky day its Pocky day. That’s right a whole day to celebrate the magic that is Pocky.  And since it was 11.11.11 it was extra special. (The pocky tasted especially good)

Wait what’s pocky? You mean you don’t know what Pocky is. Its made its way across the pacific in the last couple years, and can be found in the asian aisle of many grocery stores. But maybe you just haven’t made the leap into chocolate stick goodness. Pocky are thin cookie sticks that are a little sweet and covered in chocolate or another flavor of candy coating. They can be found in many different varieties, chocolate, men’s (dark chocolate), strawberry, mint, orange, almond crunch, panda (chocolate cookie with white chocolate frosting) and salty chocolate. Its pretty much the perfect combination of crunchy and chocolate. I’ve fallen into and recovered from a few Pocky addictions in the last year.

Now back to Pocky day. It started in 1994 in Korea with a snack called Pepero which is pretty much the Korean rip off of Pocky. Girls started giving each other Pepero to wish each other to grow as tall and slender as the snack, over the last 17 years its has transformed to become the cheeper cousin of Valentine’s day where couples buy Pepero for each other.

Pocky v Pepero - look curiously alike don't they?

Glico, the makers of Pocky thought this was a great idea to boost  sales. I’m not sure what its like in Jr high but nobody I’ve seen in Japan thinks of Pocky day as a psuedo romantic holiday. More like the advertising climax of Glico. I was informed of a Jr game called the Pocky game where a boy and girl start at either end of the pocky and eat their way to the center until…..oooops…they kiss! Either way I’ll take a day dedicated to snacking. PS- the date wasn’t chosen by accident. 11.11 is a date that can be written with Pocky snacks. Can’t argue with rock solid logic.

we opted for the non-traditional flavors last year

How do you celebrate Pocky day you ask. Its pretty simple, Step 1: go to a convenie. Sure you can get them other places but it just seems more fitting to get the Pocky in one of Japan’s man-made-wonders. Step 2: purchase Pocky preferably in a variety of flavors. If obesity or lack of money limits the range of flavors work with a couple friends to get the most out of the convenie. Step 3: Share the Pocky. Sure their good enough to eat 4 boxes on your own, but Pocky is a treat that brings people together. There aren’t many people that would turn one down if offered. I once bought 2 boxes of Pocky and shared them with my entire train car, I definitely didn’t know everyone on that train, but you can believe that everybody likes Pocky.  Step 4: Eat and enjoy Pocky. Yes its true that you can eat Pocky on any other day, but its a little more fun when the day is dedicated to the candy and you’ve shared them with everyone around you.

these guys loved the Pocky present

So there ya have it. The ins and outs of Japan’s candy centered holiday.

PS- example of the jr high “pocky game”

toilettes pt 1

Bathroom, the john, the oval office, the loo, toilettes, whatever you choose to call it.. can be quite an experience in Japan. They are actually quite representational of the culture, a mix of ultra forward thinking and deeply rooted tradition. Yes I’m still talking about using the facilities….But really some toilettes out here are practically from the jetsons. In my hotel room, the toilette had a seat warmer, bum shower, and bidet function. I have heard of others that even fold the toilette paper roll into a neat triangle after each person. Then on the other end of the spectrum are some public toilettes. They are basically a porcelain hole in the ground, even for the ladies. Seat toilettes or “western style” are available and there will be signs. So there ya have it, Japanese toilettes and their cultural symbolism- something to consider while using the “loo.”