Mexican with a side of Heavy Heart

(Note: the complete lack of photos is due to my oversight… I forgot to bring my camera on this trip!)

Tourist Monday on the same week I got over my cold included a trip to Osaka to shop. I went with Caroline, and we did some exploring on Namba Walk. All of my efforts to find clothing that fit me were confounded by my unusually big shoulders and tragically oversized feet. The day also included visiting Junkudo and my successful resistance to buying any books. I was at the tail end of my cold, and my recovery thus far was going smoothly. But while I was wandering through the streets of Osaka, one stop in particular brought on a new kind of illness.

After walking to Shinsaibashi, Caroline and I decided it was time for lunch. There was a Mexican place on the eighth floor of a tower, and we decided to eat there. We left the busy streets of Osaka behind and stepped right back into the heart of my hometown.

I come from a place where Mexican restaurants are really common. They’re a dime a dozen, and each one is the same: poorly lit, seventeen variations on the same three or four food items, combo meals or platters… for a moment, I wasn’t in Japan. For a moment, I could leave and call my friends up. For a moment, I could go get an Iced Capp at Tim Horton’s with Melissa before dithering around Barnes and Noble and JoAnn’s for an hour. For a moment, I needed a car to get home instead of a train. For a moment, I was so homesick that I thought I would cry. Between the atmosphere and the food, I wasn’t in Osaka. I was in America, in my hometown, where everything familiar was right outside the door. I wasn’t a tourist or a gaijin. I was a native homebody. For one instant, I was back.

But reality came back the minute I exited. I was back in Osaka, a gaijin who couldn’t navigate her way out of a paper bag and who doesn’t know that Limited Express trains cost extra to ride (at least until that trip to Osaka… I think people could tell I didn’t belong on that train. Maybe because I was sitting in somebody’s seat? Or maybe because I wasn’t wearing a suit and tie…). Japan, for all its splendor, also has its moments of solitude.


The Consequences of my Lack of Sleep: Tales from a Japanese Clinic

Monday morning after my Kobe adventure, I was pretty much dead to the world. I slept 10 and a half hours and still felt groggy. Worse still, I had *that* taste in my mouth.

Let me explain. Since I was 13 or 14, I have been prone to sinus infections, particularly when the seasons change and the temperature drops (or rises) significantly. The odds of me getting sick increases exponentially when my body undergoes a surge of relief after a long period of stress. Having been in Nara for four or five weeks now, it was beginning to feel like home, and after last night’s misadventure, I was completely run down. Still, Caroline was coming to visit, so I did my best to look alive even if I didn’t feel it. But the way I can tell if I’m getting sick is actually not a stuffy nose or the itch in my throat. It’s this strangely stale taste in my mouth. Once that happens, I cue the big pot of soup and prepare myself for a disembodied state of mind.

“You look terrible,” she told me.

“I feel terrible.” We went to a crepe cafe, which I enjoyed because of the Earl Gray, did some shopping at Daiso, and worked a bit. She left early. I returned to my apartment… and proceeded to enter a state of zombiehood.

The next day was no better. At the beginning of the work week, I was so completely out of it that I didn’t even feel like I was living the life I was. I was coughing a lot, and I couldn’t breathe. My throat was also getting sore. My coworkers were worried, and so were my students. The assistant manager suggested I go to the hospital, but I didn’t think it was severe enough for that. Nonetheless, I told her I would consider it if I didn’t feel better in the morning.

Wednesday, I felt even worse, so I decided, for the sake of my students, to visit the hospital. Oddly enough, what the Japanese people call a hospital is sometimes not a hospital. Where I went was more of a walk-in clinic. The entire trip took 40 minutes, and the end result was this:

Japanese Pharmacy

How many drugs does it take to cure the common cold? In Japan, OVER 9,000!!!!!1

The doctor there diagnosed me with a common cold (the same one my coworker had) and prescribed me four pills,  none of which I know the names of. The one at the left and the one with the blue wrapper were to be taken twice a day with breakfast and dinner. The one at the right was once a day with breakfast. And the nasty looking packet of disgusting white dust was to be taken with liquid at every meal. I could deal with all of the pills since they were small, but that powder… it tastes like the vinyl things my dentist puts in my mouth to take my x-rays. In other words: absolutely disgusting. More than once, I asked my head teacher why, for the love of God and all things Holy, the Japanese could build robots and engineering feats like Sky Tree but couldn’t condense that white powder into an easy-to-swallow pill.

Four medications, seventeen gallons of tea, a plate of level 3 curry from Coco Ichiban, and one week later, I finally felt like a human being again, and there is nothing that feels quite so good as that.

Spice Haven: The Indian (?!) Cultural Festival

Sometime in early October, the people I trained with and I went to Kobe for an Indian Cultural Festival. In other words, we went to Kobe one by one and somehow managed to meet up after 3 hours of looking for each other. Even though we’re all gaijin by trade, it’s still really hard to find people.

My friend from Gakuenmae and I wound up arriving in Kobe around 1 pm. We took the JR line straight from Nara. It changes to the Hanshin line midway through and winds up stopping in Sannomiya. After 30 minutes of fighting with her i-phone and one embarrassing moment of nearly falling on my face in front of a bus full of Japanese tourists (who, might I add, proceeded to laugh and point at the uneven sidewalk… or me. I’m still not sure which one), we finally made it to Meriken Park, a small area situated on the edge of the sea. The breeze was exhilarating and somewhat cold, but the view was nice. Unbeknownst to either of us, Meriken Park is the location of a memorial for an earthquake that struck Kobe in 1994. Funds to rebuild the area were accumulated through special motorboat races held in 1995 and 1996. The most awesome thing for me was the fact that they walled off part of the road that had been destroyed and left it as is. It reminded me of my vacation in South Carolina, when the high tide swept away part of the road near our cabin.

Memorial Park

The random lamp post in the middle of destruction… something tells me this will be a symbol in my upcoming writing project.

Being next to the ocean really makes me feel alive, so I liked Kobe quite a bit. The festival was fun. There was also the Japanese equivalent of a garage sale: a bunch of people selling wares and used clothes from the trunks of their cars for incredibly low prices. Of course, I saved my money for the festival. When the time for eating came, we collectively settled on Naan bread. I’d never had Naan bread before, and I was looking forward to trying it. Since there were actual Indian people cooking it, I can only assume that this Naan was 100% authentic. They were throwing balls of dough into what looked like a kiln, then scraping them off after they were done cooking. And the keema curry was perfect: hearty and delicious. We ate while sitting in the grass at Meriken Park, then did some shopping at the festival.

Naan and Curry

My first ever naan bread, and curry that actually didn’t burn my face off! And, as a bonus, some deep-fried vegetable thing that I can’t remember the name of.

I wound up buying only four things at the festival. The first was a skirt that was only 1500 yen (about 13 dollars). I really like it and wish I would have bought seven more just like it, but perhaps even more precious to me were the spices I acquired. An indian food company from Tokyo was in the area, and they were selling 3 containers for 500 yen. These weren’t the miniscule grocery store containers, either… they were American sized. And that meant I had to buy some. I settled on chilli powder, cumin, and coriander. They all work really well in soups, and if I felt Mexican, I could even make tacos (if only I could find the shells… I actually made taco hamburg recently… just a hamburger patty with garlic and spices cooked in a frying pan and eaten with rice. Close enough, I suppose… in Japan, sometimes, you just have to settle). Needless to say, these spices have been my friends in all sorts of cooking ventures.

Kobe at Night

The sea and the lights…

We wandered around until night. Then, one of the latecomers suggested we go get a bite to eat at a Belgian (?) pub near Sannomiya station. It took forever to get there on foot, and it didn’t help that someone (coughs, me, coughs) wanted to see the giant ferris wheel up close. After close to 40 minutes of walking, we arrived, and by that point, I was in desperate need of vodka. So, I ordered a 600-yen vodka and cranberry (and felt no remorse), then a 900-yen cheeseburger (again, without remorse). I practically swallowed it whole, I was so hungry, and my feet were super-sore from walking all day.


American food in some European nationality pub in Japan. For the win, I CAN haz cheezburger.

[Intermission: Have I mentioned how much BETTER mayonnaise is in Japan? It doesn’t feel like I’m swallowing an oil slick, and it actually tastes GOOD. In America, I never was much of a mayonnaise fan, but in Japan, they put it on more than you would think. My second bento had mayonnaise all over the rice and chicken, and okonomiyaki also has mayonnaise on it. For me, this is still very strange. I mean, on the burger, it was fine. My thought is that mayonnaise belongs on a cheeseburger if you like that sort of thing. The problem is, I don’t think mayonnaise belongs on fried chicken, so when I eat o-bento with mayonnaise in it, it’s still a little strange for me. End intermission. Trust me… you’re going to need it for what’s coming.]

My friend from Gakuenmae and I decided we had had enough of Kobe and wanted to head home. There were, however, three problems with my brilliant plan:

  1. We had been walking around all day and, although we knew the name of the station, we couldn’t remember the name of the train line (note that I remember it now).
  2. We were running low on yen, but we had plenty to get home.
  3. The night before, I had five hours of sleep, and on five hours of sleep, I am even more useless than I usually am when it comes to navigating.

At the suggestion of someone who lives in the Kobe area, we hopped the JR line. The plan was to get off in Shin-Osaka or Osaka with our friend from Namba. Unfortunately, a cognitive break and a rather unfortunate miscommunication wound up with my friend and I missing both stops and winding up in the middle of nowhere. We had two options: either take the train to Kyoto, or turn around and go back. She opted for turning around, so we got off and ran (I mean ran… like, little child fleeing from a giant, vicious shika-monster ran) to catch the one that was already there… only to find out it was a local. By this point, I was in full panic mode, thinking about that 11:51 final train from Osaka, but I was still optimistic. Everything takes longer when you’re completely exhausted and in a state of mental disturbance. We made it back to Shin-Osaka and waited for the Midosuji line to take us to Namba, where we planned to hop the Kintetsu line back to our respective homes. The subway seemed to take forever, and the fare adjustment we had to pay for taking the train too far left me in a foul mood. But, we made it to Namba with 30 minutes to spare.

By this point, fatigue made me impatient. I just wanted to get back to Nara so I could sleep. I saw there was a rapid express line leaving Osaka soon and raced down the stairs. This is how the line of reasoning went:

  • P1: This train is facing the direction opposite that which the Nara train usually faces.
  • P2: This train says it’s going to Nara.
  • P2A: This train is going to Nara.
  • P2B: This train might be lying. Trains like. People lie. Words lie. I’ve read plenty of books. It could be a lie.
  • C: Shut the hell up, paranoia… this train is going to Shika-Shika-Nara!

The thoughts only took a split second. This is how the conversation went.

  • Me: This train is leaving for Nara!
  • Caroline: But it’s facing the other way!
  • Me: But it says it’s going to Nara!

One leap later…

One leap and two seconds later, I turned around to see the doors closing and Caroline still standing on the platform. And it’s about this time when P2B returns with a vengeance. I envision myself winding up in a different Nara, not being able to sleep in a hotel. An English-speaking woman reassured me that the train was going to Nara, but the first stop was somewhere in Osaka, and by that point, my adrenaline kicked fully in. She got off a few stops before the last one and reassured me that the train was going to Nara, but by that point, it was too late. Cue panic attack number 2 in Japan. The whole time I was sobbing quietly and shaking, I just kept thinking… “And all the people left on the train think I’m some stupid-ass gaijin who can’t hold herself together…” To my relief, I heard the word “Nara” overhead and climbed off, but by that point, I was so exhausted, so disoriented, that when I came up from underground, nothing felt like the Nara I left behind.

Not more than 24 hours later, I was reaping the consequences of my lack of sleep…

Uji: The Land of Rice and Matcha

Six weekends ago, I felt brave. Very brave. So brave, nothing could stand in my way! So brave, I could do something incredibly stupid.

So, I decided to go to Uji.

I’m not saying that going to Uji is incredibly stupid. Uji is a beautiful city that’s about 30 minutes away from Nara by train. Famous for Byodoin Temple (the temple on the 10-yen coin) and its Matcha (powdered green tea), it seemed like the perfect place to escape to. Oh, and did I mention the Tale of Genji museum? That’s the world’s first novel… oh, and it was written by a woman (stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Hemingway). The stupidity comes in when you consider the fact that I–the most directionally challenged gaijin in the history of history–was going to Uji alone.

Aside from the training I do in Osaka and my trip back from Kizugawa the previous weekend, this was my first solo trip on the train. I’m still very wary of trusting the train schedules and maps, so I always use my broken Japanese to ask where the train is going. That way, I never get on the wrong one. So, off I went to Uji. The tourist center is right next to JR station, and they speak English. Awesome. Equipped with a map and some directions, I went off in search of Byodoin.

And I found a snowman.


What the HECK is this doing here?

Having found something that reminded me a little more of home, I proceeded down the extremely narrow streets and continued my search for Byoudoin. My adventures took me past Agata Shrine, which I stopped at briefly. It’s kind of a roundabout way to get to Byoudoin according to my map. But my navigational skills did not fail me for once, and I wound up finding exactly what I was looking for, only it was in a less than ideal state.


Byoudoin Temple: Phoenix Hall. Tragically under construction.

It’s rather ironic… I came to Uji for two things: a look at Phoenix Hall, and a matcha parfait. The first of two was easy enough to find, but it was under construction and will be until 2014. Nonetheless, I got to admire the cute construction guys, tour the gardens around Byoudoin, and go through the museum, all for the low low price of 300 yen. The gardens were gorgeous and relaxing, and the museum was pretty awesome because it has artifacts from the original Phoenix Hall, including some glass beads dating back to 1000 A.D. and one of the original bronze phoenixes from the roof, as well as 27 Bodhisattvas (I think…), each with different instruments like lutes and drums. You’ll notice there are no pictures; it’s because photos are strictly prohibited in the museum, and even if I am completely incompetent in the Japanese language, I am fluent in common courtesy.

That, and there were ladies dressed like flight attendants before crossing into every room, and they made sure no photos were taken.

After my adventures in Byoudoin, I wound up wandering a little more. I had planned to visit The Tale of Genji Museum, what with being a literature buff and all, but I wound up getting distracted by a big, shiny Uji Shrine and an even bigger promise of a nice view from the top of Daikichiyama. I hiked all the way up to the observatory, weaving around spiders and breaking halfway because my hometown in America does not prepare one for walking up mountain paths. The view at the top was breathtaking, and I’m totally glad I did it.

Uji City

From the top Daikichiyama, a beautiful view of Uji!

Of course, climbing up all that way meant that I had to climb back down. No problem. Gravity, for once, would help me out, and I was back on the ground in no time, with practically no energy and no food.

It was time for lunch.

I wandered around for a half an hour before finally entering a completely random cafe. I don’t know the name of it, but it is next to Uji River, and they serve very delicious food at an affordable price. My lunch was around 1,200 yen, with the main course and the matcha parfait I ate afterwards being roughly equal in price. Still, I didn’t mind paying the money. Uji is famous for its matcha, so even with being almost out of yen, I bought some matcha on the way out of town and have been eating it on ice cream ever since. I’ve also had a few cups of matcha tea as well. So, with food in my stomach and matcha in my bag, I was ready to head back to Nara and get to work.

Except for one thing.

Apparently, the matcha parfait, in all of its deliciousness, made navigating anything impossible. I wandered the same strip of road for 40 minutes… 40 MINUTES!… and still couldn’t figure out where I was. I would go about two or three minutes one way, change my mind, and start going the other way. Then, I would stare at my map and try to find out where I was. Failing, I would turn around and go back the other way. And the fact that I was panicking definitely did not help matters.


Oh, God… was it this bridge I crossed to get here?

I finally walked back to Uji river and navigated my way back to the train station, much to my relief. With fall coming soon, another trip to Uji is surely in my future. Even though I had a bit of trouble coming home, I can’t wait to go back for more matcha and the Genji museum.

A Very Engrish Tourist Weekend

Long distance friends are complicated. Some people freak out about friending people on Facebook they don’t know in real life, and rightly so. Who knows… the person could Google Map your house and rob you… or worse.


Daibutsu-san says: You shall not pass!

The trouble is, when you relocate to Japan, all of your friends become long distance friends, so you have to find ways to overcome your inexplicable anxiety of making friends that would be long distance if you weren’t in Japan. The easiest way to do that: beg your Asian Studies major friend for help, get put into touch with a friend of his, and boom. You have an instant contact in Japan, an acquaintance who visits Nara with three of her friends and you all become… friends.

Or you get kidnapped.

Shika Snacks

Kidnapping: Almost as scary as a starving shika!

In my case, it happened to be both. Lauren, a friend of my friend, brought two friends with her: Kate and Annica. By our powers combined, we had mango apple soft serve ice-cream, wandered around Nara Koen, and had a good time being annoying-as-hell gaijins. And we played the role of tourists quite well. We fed the shika, of course, and we visited Daibutsu-san, which is an incredible experience I plan to have again.

We also ate lunch at Pinocchio’s, an Italian (etc.), very western-style restaurant on Sanjo Dori. The food was good, but we did find some LOL-esque things in the menu…

Menu Fail 1

“Bowl of rice with something.” It’s like Spam: we know it’s something. We just don’t know what!

Menu Fail 2

“…with some kind of sauce and cheese.” Two things: 1) What is the unknown: sauce, cheese, or sauce AND cheese? 2) WC Mode ON. This seems a little vague to me. Can you be more specific?











And don’t get me started on spelling.


One of these things is not like the other… For the record, Crrry sounds Grrrreat.

In all seriousness, Pinocchio has good food. If you’re feeling like you need a taste of the west… or the east… you should go.

From there, on our way back from Nara Koen, the conversation went a little something like this:

Lauren: Oh, by the way, we’re kidnapping you.

Me: Eh?

Lauren: And we won’t take no for an answer.

Me: Eh? But–

Lauren: No buts.

Me: H…hai… ;_;””

And so went my first kidnapping. We hopped a train to Kyoto, then went to a game center not far from Kizugawa. During this trip, I learned the following lessons:

  1. Starbucks is so much better in Japan.
  2. I cannot DDR worth a lick anymore.
  3. Karaoke is awesome.
  4. I apparently have the single greatest hidden talent of all time: riding a mechanical bull. And it was totally worth five days of cripping around like a ninety-year-old man.
Mechanical Bull

For the record, I maintained my decency courtesy of leggings.

My kidnappers dropped me off at the train station the next morning with expertly written instructions on how to get home without getting completely and hopelessly lost (unfortunately, one of my not-so-hidden “talents). It was really sad leaving them behind, but alas… I wanted to get back to Nara soon enough to write a few lesson plans, which I had totally neglected to do and which I could not do on the train because I was stupid enough to bring the books AND the blanks, but not the actual materials for the courses. I enjoyed the train ride and realized I already had a horrible case of Stockholm Syndrome. Until next time, I’ll remember being pissed about the absence of F.U.N.’s “We Are Young” on the karaoke machine, failing so epically at DDR that even the beginner level was excruciatingly challenging, and sleeping on a floor that was surprisingly more comfortable than my own futon.

A Hitchcock Moment at Todaiji Temple

Japan’s crows have always scared me just a little bit. Back in America, the black birds in my yard—the ones I grew up calling crows—are actually just cow birds. They’re comparatively smaller than the ones over here… and they’re a lot less ominous.

The first time I saw a crow over here (and it was in Tennoji Park, I nearly shat myself. Before I spotted it, I heard it, a raspy caw like fingernails clawing against old wood. It was even louder than the chorus of cicadas chirping happily away. Then, I look up and see this absolutely enormous bird staring at me, scuttling from branch to branch. All attempts to photograph the monstrous bird were futile.

They are also in Nara Koen. In the middle of a cloudy day, on my way back from Nigatsu-dou, I looked up and saw a Hitchcock moment at Todaiji Temple. It’s strange for me to see so many gloomy birds in a place I’ve come to associate with tranquility and good times. To me, this picture is like something out of a Japanese horror film, a shot the director uses right before the high school girl returns home and wanders around the house for thirty or so seconds, then finds her mom’s corpse upstairs.

Sometimes, I find it strange that such dark images appeal to me in their own way. Then, I remember that Frankenstein is the reason I became an English major, and my odd views make a little more sense.