Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Japanese Bathing Etiquette

Part of the experience of staying in a traditional Japanese house or ryokan is taking advantage of the common baths.  Large cedar and granite baths filled to the brim with water that is piping hot.  It’s considered a luxurious way to relax.

But beware... there is strict bathing etiquette.  From the sign posted in the bath and instructions in my room, it seems apparent Westerners must make faux pas quite often.

I studied the rules, put on my cotton kimono, grabbed my towel and headed to the bathing room.  In the entry room, it’s time to strip down and leave your belongings in a basket.  No underwear allowed – this is not a time for modesty, the signs make clear!

Now the key to understanding the bath is that it’s for relaxing, not washing.  Also key is that it’s shared, so you need to be clean before stepping in.  That means you must shower before bathing.

As for the shower, standing would be an embarrassing mistake.  You must sit on the little stool provided.  You have a shower nozzle and bucket to work with.  It’s a little awkward, but I accomplished my goal.

Feeling good about my progress – I step in the bath.  Wow, it’s hot!  But, soon I’m relaxing.  Thinking I’ve got this whole Japanese bathing etiquette mastered, I notice my first error.  Towels are strictly prohibited from being placed in the bath.  I didn’t mean to do it…I just placed my towel on the edge of the tub.  But, soon it was in the water and soaking wet.  Luckily, there were extra towels for those slow learners like myself.

Ten minutes later I’m ready for shower number two, a new towel, and then it’s time to get into bed.  It was a pleasant experience, but then again I had the bath all to myself.  So, if there were any other missteps along the way, no one was there to witness them.

The sign inside the bath advising you to enjoy the bath with manners.

Your clothes are left here -- underwear too!

The shower set up.  Those stools are short!

The beautiful bath.  The picture doesn't do it justice.  It was very large and filled to the brim like an infinity pool.

The exterior of our lovely ryokan.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Japan First Impressions

I just returned from a 6 day whirlwind trip in Japan that took me to Tokyo, Mt. Fuji and the Fuji 5 Lakes area, and Osaka.  In such a short time, I could only get a sampling of what Japan has to offer.  Soaking everything in, you can’t help but make comparisons…to America and South Korea.  So, here are the big bullet point first impressions I walked away with.

  • Japan is more western than Korea.  It’s the proliferation of chain stores and restaurants that first lead me to this conclusion.  Then you quickly realize that English is more widely spoken here.  Even in the small alleyways and corner shops a few words can be exchanged and English menus are tucked away. 
  • The Japanese people are friendly.  I didn’t make any big connections with locals, but plenty of small conversations were had.  Their greetings, smiles, and constant offers to take our pictures were endearing. 
  • The youth are displaying some eccentric fashion sense (especially in Osaka).  My best description is that both young men and women dress as though they are rock stars.  The men have long, teased, mussed hair paired with tight pants and metallic belts.  The women typically have long locks bleached orange or occasionally blond.  Leopard print, bold colors, layers, lace, lots of makeup and very high heels – Madonna circa 1985 – it’s a very popular look.  In Osaka, the look was everywhere, making people watching an enjoyable experience. 
  • Old traditions still exist.  Beautiful temples, shrines, castles, and even the Imperial Palace protected by moats and giant fortress walls can loose the feelings of old Edo when they’re filled with tourists and next to souvenir shops.  But, in many ways old traditions are guarded and adored.  Ceremony was very much a part of the sumo tournament we watched and a kendo tournament (wooden sword fighting) we stumbled upon.  Our stay in a traditional Japanese house or ryokan emphasized that.  Festivals, traditional gardens, and theater like Kabuki will show you that the Japan you’ve imagined still exists in many ways.  That was a joy to discover.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Summer Term Ends

(My youngest students pictured here were unruly and loveable.)

The first day of teaching in Korea I wondered how I would ever remember all of the students’ names.  Now, I don’t know how I could ever forget them.

In many ways, I fell in love with my students.  They are funny, sweet and smart.  Even the naughty ones are precious.  I’m convinced God knew they were going to cause trouble, so he gave them the sweetest faces.

I had “my kids” for 9 weeks during the summer term.  It’s not a lot of time, but I bonded with many of those students.  Some latched onto me quickly, bringing me little gifts and looking to hold my hand at any opportunity.  Some were just fascinated by their American teacher who looked and sounded different from them.  They bombarded me with questions, although I haven’t yet divulged my age!

Korean children work very hard.  Their primary school is followed by hours of specialized classes.  They are bused from one school to the next.  They come to me for English and they go to other schools for Math, Chinese or Science.  They are under immense pressure.  As a teacher, my position has afforded me the opportunity to boost these children’s confidence.  I have treasured this power.  I love to encourage and praise my students.  I can see them soak it up.  And, then I see them strive to do better.

So, when the Summer Term ended I was in mourning.  On the first day of the Fall Term, I actually felt myself wanting “my kids” back.  I never expected to get attached so quickly to these children.

Included here are some pictures of my wonderful students who sometimes drive me to near insanity, but mostly make me happy!

Two precious girls who are happily still my students this fall.

Being wild during break time.

 These girls were a joy to have in class -- cheerful and smart.

Making presentations are a crucial part of the curriculum.  It's a great way to practice those English skills!

Jane actually asked to take a picture with me, but many of the students dont' like to smile for photos.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Agony of Travel Planning

Moving to South Korea, I was thrilled with the prospect of traveling around Asia.  I still am.  The actual travel part is wonderful.  It's a dream come true.  It's the planning that has me wanting to pull my hair out.

Planning a trip to a foreign country, from a foreign country is a whole new ball game.

First let's talk airfare.  In America, I always took for granted the access I had to several major airports.  If I couldn't get a flight out of Newark, well then I would try LaGuardia or JFK.  Finding a flight really never posed a problem.  In Korea -- there is one aiport providing international flights.  That means flights are limited and book up fast.  This is the first time I've been in a panic -- finding flight after flight booked up and feeling lucky to just get a seat.

If you need help, or want someone else to do the planning for you -- you can always call a travel agent.  Well, that's in America, where travel agents all speak you language.  I tried this route for my first trip abroad and was largely unsuccessful.   Some agencies tried to help and connect me with English speaking agents, but then the tours they offered were only in Korean.

Well, there's always the internet, right?  It provides a wealth of information, but often times the websites you need are in a foreign language.  So, booking a train or bus ticket suddenly becomes a complicated affair.

Our fist trip was to Hong Kong and Macau.  After the fruitless search for help from an agent, we planned this trip on our own.  It was really a great location for us.  First of all, once in Hong Kong you will find that English is widely spoken.  Second, it's a really small area, which makes getting around on your own very easy.  The public transportation is wonderful -- using the subway, buses, ferries, and jet boats, would could figure out how to island hop our way around.  I ended up buying a guide book (Rough Guides are great) and used that as my research and planning tool.  All went smoothly....

Our second trip will be to Japan in one week.  Now, this planning process is proving to be more difficult.  First of all, Japan is a much larger country, which means picking up and moving from city to city.  Figuring out the transportation isn't as easy as I thought.  Common problems are... I need to book a ticket and can't figure out how....or the website is in Japanese.  Those two issues are usually connected!  It's also a very expensive city, so if you want to figure out how to save a few dollars here and there, you need to do some research.  Once again, I've got my guide book...and am slaving away on the computer!

I have one other thing working against me -- planning time.  We didn't have a lot of notice about our time off, so planning a trip in 3 weeks kicks things into high gear.  The good news is -- I should be really good at travel planning when I leave Korea!

More good news...I'm going to Japan!  After all my griping, yes I am very excited.  In Tokyo, we will be staying in a traditional ryokan.  Picture Japanese housing with wooden details, tatami mats, and traditional baths.  We already have our Sumo wrestling tickets!  In Tokyo, there are only 3 national tournaments a year, and we are going.  I'm thrilled.  We'll get to go to Mt. Fuji and ride a bullet train to Osaka.  I'm excited to experience Japan.  But first....I've got some more details to figure out!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Typhoon Kompasu

(photo:  Getty Images)

I need to find myself one of those screen printed T-shirts that says “I survived Typhoon Kompasu!”  It was my first Typhoon (which is a Hurricane occurring in the Pacific or Indian Oceans).  I’ve never been through a Hurricane either, so my only real knowledge about these storms comes from years of watching video and reports on CNN.

At 6am, I was woken up by high winds.  Thankfully, my windows are protected by a neighboring building.  It doesn’t make for a great view, but it came in handy this time.  Still, putting my hands on the glass, I could feel it trembling.  News is in our blood, so my husband and I grabbed our video camera and went outside.  We could see shingles being torn off roofs, and the trees were getting battered.  But, it appeared life was moving on as normal.  Men and women dressed in business attire were fighting the winds to walk to work.  The roads were filled with buses and cars and the morning commute was still on.

As I watched the winds whip and tear at everything in their path, I did feel a bit scared.  I thought this was just the beginning and it would get much worse.  I was wrong.  That was it.  For about two hours the winds beat us up and then they moved on.  In Bundang, where I live, we barely got any rain and the power stayed on.  Still, my neighborhood isn’t without injury.  Some buildings had windows blown out, and a lot of roofs will need repairs.  I understand the storm was worse in other areas of Seoul (click here for details).

So, now I can check that off my list.  Check…I have experienced a Typhoon.  I’m just glad the season for big storms is almost over.