Monday, June 28, 2010


On the trip to Japan, there were a total of 10 students in our group. Of those 9, we managed to round up 4, plus us, which makes 6. Not too bad, especially considering 2 of the group are downstate. Jorie and I invited our friends from the trip, as well as some other good friends from the Marquette area, to our apartment for a sushi party.
Of course, when you think of sushi, you think of fish. But ours was all vegan, with combinations like sesame seed and cucumber, asparagus and carrot, and daikon radish and pea sprouts. We had wasabi, shoyu, and pickled ginger available, as any sushi restaurant would!

Our friend Rachel helped me make the rolls and cut them. A.J. was taking the photo so we made faces at him, of course. Jorie is looming in the background with root beer- the drink of choice for the party.

I can't remember why, but Rachel explained to us that the chicken dance has actual lyrics. I guess A.J. got a picture of me doing the chicken dance while making sushi.

While everyone waited, they folded animal origami sheets sent to us by our friends on the West Coast, Molly & Caroline. I gave up after trying a giraffe- I'm awful at origami. Everyone else seemed to be successful.

Beforehand, I made two types of cookies: sugar cookies with royal icing, and coconut date macaroons. One was awfully sugary sweet, the other had no sweeteners added and was amazingly tasty. Both sets were devoured quickly. What's special about the sugar cookies, though, was the shape.

I didn't have a cookie cutter, so I used a knife to cut out shapes of "Chu" Totoro and "Chibi" Totoro, as well as a few mushrooms. This was my first time using the royal icing flooding technique, and I was pleased with the results.

We had a lot of fun talking about the trip and eating and laughing together. There aren't any pictures of us eating the sushi because we were too busy eating!

Clark and Andrew. That's all.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Nagaokakyo City

The last Saturday of the Japan trip was set aside as a day off to enjoy with our host family. Okaa-san decided that on this day, we would travel to Nagaokakyo City (located in Kyoto Prefecture) and visit her parents.

This was the first time that we saw Japanese highways. They are considerably different from American highways. Firstly, you drive on the left side of the highway, and the right lane is the passing/fast lane. In addition, the highways are expensive! It cost Okaa-san 1300 yen each way. We described to her how American highways are almost always free, except for in a few cases, such as the Ohio Turnpike -- and even then, they aren't nearly as expensive. Most exciting, and disconcerting, was when the highway went straight through the mountains, which was often. It took us several minutes to drive through the longest tunnel.


It took us about an hour and a half to reach our destination. Nagaokakyo City seemed much larger than Higashiomi, and it was certainly more busy. After navigating many twisting, narrow streets, we arrived at the house of Ojii-san and Obaa-san. Their house, as Okaa-san had described, was more Western in style, and, since this house was in the city, considerably smaller than a house in Higashiomi. Obaa-san served us a very tasty meal of onigiri and daifuku, and we chatted about Marquette, Michigan, and travel to the United States. As it turns out, Obaa-san and Ojii-san had traveled to the American Southwest.

After lunch, Okaa-san, Obaa-san, Steph, myself, and Miyu-chan, Okaa-san's neice, took a short walk to the Nagaokatenman-gu Shrine. One of the first things we saw was a group of children feeding a flock of pigeons. Nearby, in the large pond, a group of large koi and even turtles were waiting for handouts!


The shrine was absolutely gorgeous. We climbed a series of steps to get there, and it was simply magical. Here is just a glimpse of the whole experience:

Mossy Purification Basin



Trees from Below

After exploring the shrine for a while, we headed back. On the way, we saw a few things of note:

Waiting for the train to pass

Train crossing! I've had to wait for trains to cross in Michigan (and other states), but I've always been inside a car. This was the first time I've been a pedestrian, waiting for the train to go by.

Bicycle Parking

There was also a massive bicycle-parking area outside a grocery store. Bicycle parking lots are taken quite seriously in Japan; in Hikone, we saw a policeman ticketing bikes that were left in non-designated parking areas!

We stopped briefly at the grocery store for sweets, then continued home. Obaa-san surprised Steph and I with some very pretty gifts, then we bid farewell and headed back to Higashiomi. Exhausted, both Steph and I fell asleep.

Okaa-san, Miyu-chan, and Obaa-san

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

O toire wa doko des ka?

This post is all about toilets, so if you're not into toilet humor... you've been warned!

So, being an Interstitial Cystitis patient, I experienced quite a few toilets in Japan. I would say it's about 50/50 mix of Japanese and "Western-style" toilets.

I don't have any pictures, but I will link to a few by people I don't know.

This is a Japanese toilet. The first time I used one? On a train. Fortunately, there was a nice steel handle on the wall to stay steady. I came out just fine. Some people seemed weirded out by the "squat" toilets, but I never really had a problem. It actually seems a little less gross because you don't have to sit on anything. Then again, the floors aren't always clean around them, but that's why you take your shoes off before you go into your home!

Anyway, I quickly learned what the two Kanji on the flushers meant. The one on the left means "big" and the one on the right means "small". You get to choose how much water you need depending on how much of a mess you made. I also learned that this "Toto" company seems to have the monopoly on all things related to Japanese bathroom hardware like toilets, sinks, and showers.

Western-style toilets aren't exactly what we're used to either. They have a different shape and a heck of a lot of buttons. I played it safe and avoided the "butt shower" and "bidet" buttons and opted for the flush button exclusively. By the way, these toilets almost always have a heated seat! I didn't know such a thing existed until we went to Japan.

On both types of toilets, when in public, there is almost always a button or a sensor you can activate to play a fake flushing noise if you're bladder shy. I know many people in the US would kill for that little fake flusher. I never purposely employed it in Japan, but there were many times when it went off accidentally or I mistook it for the flush button. Each time made me laugh.

I think the best toilet was probably our host family's. They had it remodeled only days before our arrival, and our host mother decorated the toilet room so it was adorable! The light in the room automatically turned on when you walk in, and then the lid on the toilet opens automatically. It also flushes automatically if you don't press the button first. Pictures of it are here, at our host mom's blog! yopi's room: New toilet

At home (or at school), unlike in public, you don't leave your shoes on when you go to the toilet. You change into special toilet slippers. (more photos that don't belong to me!)

Interestingly, toilet paper is not a given in Japan. You must carry a pack of tissues with you at all times or you might get caught in an unpleasant situation. Soap is rarely available at sinks, either, unless you're in a nice department store or grocery store. We carried santizing wipes for this reason. There aren't paper towels to dry your hands *anywhere*, but there are hand dryers about 50% of the time, so we also carried handkerchiefs just in case. When we got back to the US, it was kind of a relief to find bathrooms stocked with all of those things we're used to! However, the Japanese way of stocking bathrooms may lead to less paper waste- but is it sanitary? It's interesting to look at the pros and cons of each system.

A phrase I came to know very well before even leaving for Japan is, "O toire wa doko des ka," meaning "Where is the toilet?" I used it a lot. Thankfully, there was never a situation where there was no toilet available. With my condition, it was a very fortunate thing. So if you have IC and you're planning a trip to Japan- fear not! Toilets are EVERYWHERE! Even on the train!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What We Brought Back

Though Steph and I filled a backpack entirely with our purchases in Japan, once unwrapping everything (and what nice wrapping and packaging it was!), it's safe to say we didn't buy that much during the three weeks we were away. What we did buy were small things, items that you can't find in America, and certainly not in Marquette.

What we brought back I

Steph has had some of these items for a while (such as the large maneki neko, black maneki neko, and daruma), but the teeny and fat maneki nekos are from our trip to Japan. The teeny one was purchased at Todai-ji, and the fat one, which is a bank full of our leftover yen, was bought at Nijo-jo. The two owl pendants are from the Nunobiki ceramics studio in Higashiomi, and the two omamori (good luck and dreams come true) are from Kinkaku-ji. As Steph mentioned in a previous entry, the two tanuki figures are from the Ohmi Merchant Village and Hikone Castle. The Nihonga painting, behind the large maneki neko, was made during one of our workshops at JCMU with Mayumi Kakimi.

What we brought back II

We did get some useful things! We found a small bento box that matches the one our friends Molly and Caroline sent us a few months ago. We also bought plenty of chopsticks, little cups for bento boxes, teeny bottles for soy sauce, and of course, a Totoro bento box.

I love bugs. Japan loves bugs. It should be no surprise, then, that I purchased some buggy cuteness:

What we brought back III

Glass Beetles

The stickers and magnets are from a book/CD/DVD/video game/stationery store in Higashiomi. The store was amazing and full of very cute things, and it's a wonder we only escaped with a select few items. The glass beetles -- which are absolutely tiny -- are from the Glass Museum in Nagahama. There were many beautiful things for sale, and again by some miracle I left only with these teeny beetles.

What we brought back IV

The trip to Nara led to the purchase of cute deer. It's interesting to note that most of the deer stuffed animals sold in America are fawns or does, but almost all the deer toys we saw in Japan had antlers. I desperately wanted to find one of these while we were in Nara, but apparently they're only sold at the Kasuga Shrine, which we did not visit. Oh well, there's always next time!

What we brought back V

What we brought back VI

We definitely bought our fair share of keychains and mascots. Hikonyan was irresistible, and he now jingles along with me wherever I go.

What we brought back IX

While in Higashiomi, Steph and I thought we were going to run out of toothpaste, so we bought a new tube just in case. It's delightfully menthol-flavored. Also amazing is this hand sanitizer, whose mascot is a raccoon. Steph spotted it at Lawson's (the convenience store across the street from JCMU) one of the first nights we were in Hikone, and we just had to buy it.

What we brought back VII

While in Nagahama, Steph and I discovered a shop that sold Studio Ghibli merchandise... it was amazing, to say the least, and again, I'm astounded we purchased so little there. We left with a tiny magnetic Gigi, a Totoro heating pad, and plenty of Totoro handkerchiefs/napkins.

What we brought back XII

Across from the Nunobiki ceramics studio in Higashiomi, there is a Shinto shrine. It is said that the owls that roost there are good luck.

What we brought back VIII

We encountered some very beautiful fabrics and papers. Steph bought a couple lovely scarves and looks very nice when she wears them.

What we brought back X

We did bring some books home, as well! Steph bought two children's books, as well as a very nice guide to the animals, plants, and insects of Japan. The art inside is beautiful.

Also purchased: an amazing t-shirt and Nekopanchi!

Monday, June 7, 2010


When Jorie and I had our first day out and about in Marquette after returning home from Japan, we had a bit of reverse-culture-shock. In Japan, we never really felt shocked or homesick at all, but upon returning home, we definitely felt a little strange.

Front Yard

The roads seemed very wide. Everything here seemed way too far apart. Useless, water-wasting lawns sprawled everywhere, trimmed neatly for no apparent reason other than cultural tradition. Space in Japan is used very wisely, and for good reason. But one can't help but admire the way the space is used, no matter the reason. There are no useless lawns, but instead every home has a garden, whether it's a good size or a tiny one. Even homes along the streets have many potted plants out front. If there is grass or a field, wild plants are allowed to grow. If there is a large space not being used in town, it becomes a vegetable garden or a rice paddy. It does make one think about how we do things like this in America. We have strange zoning laws that prevent that kind of integration. Lawns, both at businesses and at homes, are really quite strange and quite demanding when you think about it. They require fuel and time for cutting, they require far more water to stay green than native plants, and people often cover them with poison to control "weeds" and insects. It's rare to see this phenomena in Japan, at least where we were.

Food Not Lawns

Transportation! Cars in Japan are small to match the narrow roads. It seems to work fine, even when our host mother had to fit Jorie and I, along with our matching suitcases and carry-on bags into the car. Sometimes the old roads are a little too narrow though, and people must pull over so the other car can get by. Bicycles are used a lot more, as well as people's own two feet. We walked a lot in Japan, and we noticed a lot of bicycles, too. In places where it's feasible to walk or bike to their destination, that's what they do. We decided to walk a little more in Marquette, and today we did all our errands on foot for a change. It was actually quite nice.


There are also buses and trains everywhere in Japan. They are seldom late. Public transit does not go to waste by any means. When we came home, Jorie and I were discussing how useful trains would be in Michigan. A bullet train in lower Michigan sure would be nice! Buses aren't a common thing in this part of Michigan, but we're hoping we can utilize them once we move downstate.

The Japanese take good care of their skin. On bright, sunny days, people wear clothing that is light and thin, but covers their skin. They also tend to carry umbrellas and wear hats. Our host mother mentioned traveling in America and having an umbrella to block the sun, only to feel out of place since no one else was using one. It makes sense, but we explained that people would stare or laugh at you here if you used an umbrella because it's not common. Jorie and I wonder if the difference is that people in America always want to get a tan.

Grilling Takenoko in the Forest
This photo of some ladies shopping for grilled takenoko was taken on an incredibly hot, sunny day, yet they are covered head to toe. I tried wearing my hooded jacket that day and it wasn't as bad as I expected. I'm glad I did because everything that wasn't covered was horribly sunburned- especially my poor nose.

Other random things we noticed on our first day or so back is how simple our own English letters looked. We could read the signs and the packaging on items in the store! It seemed like magic after weeks of being confronted with complex kanji characters we had no hope of reading. We didn't greet people as much. When we arrived in the Minneapolis airport, one of the first things we saw after customs was people being driven around on small vehicles inside the airport instead of walking. There aren't vending machines in strange places here, and certainly not with the frequency in which we saw them in Japan.

Also, the only Japanese restaurant in town (the one on campus) was serving rice that didn't quite taste Japanese. The miso soup had a little too much miso, and the inari sushi's aburaage pouch seemed to be fried in a little too much mirin and not enough soy sauce. I guess we're connoisseurs now. We eagerly await our vegan Japanese cook book in the mail.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Giant Kite Festival

Today was the Yokaichi Giant Kite Festival. It was a hot and sunny day- maybe a little too much so. It was neat seeing all the kites, but it was also hot and tiring. The first thing we saw at the festival was the Shinto priest from the shrine we went to as a class. He was the one who allowed us to participate in a Shinto ceremony- he's a very kind man! (We've also heard he travels abroad a lot- I think he's even been to Marquette!) He was blessing the kite and praying for a good wind.

Blessing the Kite

We also saw people with their own, small kites, as well as groups of people under the shade of tents, with big kites propped up outside. They had many different designs, all following the tradition of having two animal figures and a Kanji. These kites always form a sort of word pun.

Shika Kite

Jorie and I managed to find the forest nearby and go inside for awhile. It was really lovely and we wanted to stay, but we didn’t get to explore for long. We heard music and followed a path that ended in a small area with people selling goods. Okaa-san was there and flagged us down- she and Oba-sensei were having some takenoko that was grilled with miso. We got to try some, but there was no time for us to eat our own- we had to go back to see the giant kite.

Forest Trail

Our classmates helped pull the kite, but Jorie and I just wanted to watch and take pictures and video. It was a little difficult because of the crowds. On the first try, the kite was off the ground for less than a minute, then came back down. Half an hour later (oh, that hot sun!) they tried again, and it crashed before it even lifted off fully. On the third try, they got the kite up for 40 seconds- slightly better but still not ideal.

They decided they might try again later in the afternoon after that, but we were finally allowed to leave, and, being way too hot and thirsty, we took the opportunity. We left with Okaa-san and went to the supermarket to get some lunch and some snacks for the flight home. Once in the supermarket, we all noticed we had some pretty mean sunburn despite our best efforts to keep covered up. After getting home and eating, we all promptly fell asleep for some time.

Later on, Jorie and I tried to visit the local shrine again, but the crows were still there and immediately found us and started cawing and following us around. Eventually, we spotted a broken eggshell on the ground and we assumed this area has their nest in it, so we left again. We’ve been wanting to go to the forest really badly, but every time we almost get a chance, it doesn’t work out. The shrine was the next best thing, but the crows just didn't want us there. We are determined to return to Japan someday to see the forest.


Later in the day, we heard that the kite finally flew very high in the sky and for about eight minutes!

Friday, June 4, 2010


If you know much about Japanese culture, you may know of the mythical creature known as Tanuki. The myth is based off of a real animal though, and that animal is the Raccoon Dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus). I'm a big fan of the species just having studied it, but sadly, I have never seen one in person. What I do know is that tanuki are not procyanids like Raccoons, but they are canids- meaning they are of the dog family. People outside of Japan and even those IN Japan get confused about what a tanuki actually is- some people confuse it with the Japanese badger (Meles anakuma) or with raccoons (Procyon lotor). However, it is completely unrelated to either of these animals.

As far as the myth goes, the supernatural tanuki has a wealth of folklore. According to Wikipedia, "The tanuki has eight special traits that bring good fortune, possibly created to coincide to the "Hachi" symbol (meaning eight) often found on the sake bottles the statues hold. The eight traits are: a hat to be ready to protect against trouble or bad weather; big eyes to perceive the environment and help make good decisions; a sake bottle that represents virtue; a big tail that provides steadiness and strength until success is achieved; over-sized testicles that symbolize financial luck; a promissory note that represents trust or confidence; a big belly that symbolises bold and calm decisiveness; and a friendly smile."

We saw tanuki statues everywhere in Japan.

Tanuki Face

They generally appear fairly similar to one another, with many size variations and slight color variations. Almost always, they are depicted with large testicles, which many people find hilarious. They are, as noted above, a symbol of financial luck.


This adorable golden Tanuki is holding an Ema, or prayer board. This little guy is at the door of our host family.


I knew about these types of tanuki before I arrived in Japan, and seeing them made me happy. However, when we toured the Ohmi Merchant Village, we came upon a tanuki I had never seen before. I didn't even know it was a tanuki until we asked about it.

Ohmi Merchant Village Tanuki

We were told this tanuki is a regional version, and that it was (is?) very important to merchants. It has wide, open eyes to be able to see trends and changes in the market. It's a protector of the merchants wares and thus is sometimes seen guarding storage areas. Others are out in gardens.

I purchased both a tiny traditional tanuki that I'm more familiar with, as well as one of these Ohmi merchant tanuki. The Ohmi tanuki is actually a ceramic bell! Here's hoping they bring us some prosperity.