Sunday, September 29, 2013

Flower Fragrance Dorm: Home is What You Make It

(BGM: "Doesn't Really Matter" by Janet Jackson, 2000)

September 2001: Less-Than-Perfect First Impressions
That's exactly right. Gullible little me saw that JJ vid before coming to Japan and thought that my dorm room, sponsored by one of Japan's most influential universities, would look similar to this -Aibo robots and all. 

Reality Check: There were plenty of Aibo robots around Sapporo at the time. Just none were waiting patiently in my room for my return. I had to go to Yodobashi Camera (a major home electronics retail chain) to watch them play in their pen. The ones in Janet's video were more agile, though.

If you read the blog before this one, you already know what my first impressions were of the aptly named Flower Fragrance Dorm.  To dispense with all pleasantries, in my ethnocentric closed-mindedness, I thought the dorm was a complete mess. Despite the whole place sporting a bright and very appreciated fresh coat of paint, I realized very quickly how blessed we were in the States to have professionally-cleaned buildings and handymen on-call to fix any major issues like broken heaters or expired light bulbs. At my old dorm in AK, the only thing we lacked was a decent grocery store on upper campus that sold more than instant ramen. Flower Fragrance Dorm didn't even have fire detectors in the rooms! (Hopefully things have changed in the 12 years since I lived there). Looking at this incredibly dangerous obstacle course of a hallway, you can see how fire safety regulations were disregarded as a legitimate concern. Every week people's things were accidentally knocked off the shelves onto the hard linoleum floor. 

The Facilities

Ah yes, the traditional Japanese toilets of Flower Fragrance Dorm. For the sake of taking the least offensive photo possible, this was the cleanest loo I could find and it isn't even on my floor. Note how the toilet paper is missing (probably stolen, as was often the case. I always carried my own). Each floor had a room with four toilets and every stall was less than 5 feet wide. It's squat-style, meaning spray can get on your shoes if you're not careful. If you're not standing forward enough or if your balance is off, you can risk getting the floor behind you soiled as well. Weak-kneed, disabled, the elderly and larger people always have a hard time on these things. They aren't recommended for the squeamish, either, as you get very used to smells, sights & sounds you would otherwise never have to deal with on Western toilets. (After the first few weeks of torture, I found out that there was a clean electronic Western-style toilet at the 7-11 convenience store just in front of the dorm! My knees and pride were saved!)

The communal sink on each floor was in a bit better shape, but it only had a cold water faucet. Women in a hurry, too cold and busy to run four floors down to the showers, would sometimes wash their long, black hair in there, clogging it up and leaving it that way for the other residents to contend with. There was only room for 2 people to use the tiny, notebook-size mirrors at a time. We'd carry our toiletries with us in brightly colored plastic baskets and brush our teeth, do our makeup and preen as fast as possible, since there as always a line of girls waiting to use it.

The kitchen at Flower Fragrance Dorm, however, was spacious and inviting. There were two tables with chairs big enough to chop veggies on or have a quiet morning breakfast while gazing out over the Sapporo mountainside. With plenty of sink and gas range space, even a small collection of microwaves, you could tell the kitchens were the heart of every floor. Everyone had their own refrigerator, freezer and cupboard space and we all shared cookware, which was a definite bonus.
I spent lots of time here my first few weeks, chatting it up with my new Chinese and Japanese mates, who became very much like sisters by the end of the year. They were always cooking up something wonderful. Pictured here is my "little sister" from China whipping up a scrumptious batch of homemade pot stickers filled with lots of tasty minced pork and garlic grass! Yummy!!  

Having established some sort of rhythm to life at Flower Fragrance Dorm, I was soon able to enjoy the little things like gabbing with friends over a hot cup of cocoa or settling into my room with a mug of hojicha tea and relax after a hot bath with some enka music on my AM radio. I would just sip and relax, watching the heavy autumn clouds hang menacingly over Sapporo. The weather was quite dramatic that year (2001). Perched up high among the towers, I felt like a bird who had finally found a place to lift up my wings and weather out any storm that came along. Flower Fragrance Dorm would serve me just fine.

Emergency Dorm Re-Make! 
Tada!! Doesn't look all that bad, now, does it? Just days after moving into Flower Fragrance Dorm, my friends Masaru and Shiori drove me to several second-hand shops and Nitori  (now a major nation-wide home furnishings chain, more popular in Japan than Ikea). I loaded up on appliances to make my life easier like a water percolator for hot tea, a VCR/TV combo and a ceramic coil heater (since the big radiator didn't get turned on until November). Brrr! With a few token things kawaii (cute), and a few zabuton cushions strategically placed to cover the coffee stains and puke, I had a very comfortable, study-worthy home away from home. And besides, I was only paying 7000 yen a month for the privilege of staying here (a virtual steal)! Of course I would make this work. I could even have fun, here! It had everything I needed -different from what I was used to, yes. But that didn't make it bad. Flower Fragrance Dorm was my first lesson on how to carve out a new life for myself with my own two hands. I was determined to enjoy it!  

 Copyright 2013 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

Using Commercials For Language Study and Survival

(BMG: I Feel Coke by Inoue Daisuke, 1987)

I Feel Coke  

Not to brag. I still have an incredibly long way to go to attain fluency. But many a Japanese person has told me that I speak with little to no American accent. My secret? Commercials! They've also helped me to get adjusted quite easily from the get-go as an ex-pat in this country.

I saw my very first Japanese commercial in high school back in the '80s. Our teacher used a video series that included a couple of commercials in each lesson (I forgot the name of the series. If any of you know the one I'm talking about, please leave me a comment!) After learning the basic grammar and dialogue points for each unit, we were asked to do the following:

Step 1: Watch the commercial once, all the way through, trying to guess the content.
Step 2: Watch a subtitled translation of the commercial and have a follow-up discussion of what we learned/observed, taking note of key words and phrases.
Step 3: Watch the original commercial again, mimicking the speed and intonation while repeating the key words along with the commercial.

A wonderful thing about Japanese commercials (or 'CMs' as they're called in Japan), is that many of them are relatively short, some lasting only 15 seconds long (much shorter than the average American commercial). It's just long enough for the brain to comprehend the images without getting bored. Combine that with a very catchy jingle and stunning graphic images and you've got yourself a very powerful tool for language learning. They're just perfect for learning key words and phrases in the context of their usage. Plus the audio/visual impact only helps to aid memorization. It's easier to learn words from an exciting, entertaining CM than from a contrived skit or boring vocab list in a traditional textbook. For someone like me who learns a word faster by hearing it a few times, this technique is a godsend!

Can you guess within the first five seconds what this commercial is all about? Suntory CM

I couldn't either until I saw that whiskey bottle at the very end. Strange, foreign images, bright colors and art, randomness that keeps you guessing -no detail is overlooked, no matter how tiny. Japanese commercials are more than just advertisements. They're perfectly packaged little journeys that catapult you over the wall of monotony to a land where anything is possible and everything is beautiful. It's almost as if the Japanese spend far more on their commercials than they do their everyday network programming! But whatever they're doing, they're doing it right. Every single person in Japan seems to have a favorite commercial. In a country where the average household has at least 2 TVs, it's bound to happen.

In the '80s and '90s, all we had was VHS technology. Back then, many Asian grocery shops rented out videocassettes of TV programming for ex-pats living in America who weren't able to access their favorite shows (global home satellite TV was a financial impossibility for many). I would hoard the old tapes for a buck each when the stores were done circulating them, and transfer the commercials onto blank cassettes so I could focus on just the CMs while giving them a longer shelf life. I left them on for BGM (background music) while doing homework, housework, exercise, even while sleeping! I thought my family would get sick and tired of them but they often found the CMs more entertaining (and less stressful) than American TV! Who knew! Some CMs in particular, like this one from DeBeers, became part of the actual soundtrack to my life!
The older I got, the bigger my collection grew. At one point, just before I left for Japan, I had over 5,000 Japanese commercials stored on VHS. (They're all gone now, lost to mildew and old age). But through the CMs, I was able to keep up with consumer trends, current news, pop culture and music much more effectively than waiting for the rare once-a-week Japanese feature to grace the likes of CNN. At one point, my Japanese ex-pat friends were asking to borrow my tapes so they could see what was going on back home! As Japanese food items became more popular at American supermarkets, I would instantly recognize any new product in the Asian food section and already know how to use it. First came Pocky (pronounced /poe-key/ NOT /paw-key/) and Kameda arare crackers. Then came soba noodles and bonito soup stock . What's that on the top shelf? House Wasabi paste? Instant curry base? No sweat! I knew how to use and enjoy these products while my fellow Alaskans just left them there on the shelf to get dusty.

My favorite CMs usually advertised traditional Japanese products like sake rice wine (pronounced /sah-keh/ NOT /sah-key/),  soy sauce, green tea and miso paste. They tend to reflect the seasons at the time of airing and often feature special cultural traditions and locations. They are always so exquisitely made that after watching them, I felt I had actually visited Japan. This one in particular for Gekkeikan Sake still takes my breath away after almost 20 years. I still catch myself humming the BGM tune (Ano Koro E by Anzen Chitai), whenever I get the chance to stroll around the temples of Kyoto.

Japanese commercials are interesting for their social insights as well. Some are quite notorious for making Western celebrities do embarrassing things that would literally kill their careers were they to act the same way at home, as foreigners in Japan are culturally expected to go over-the-top more than their Japanese counterparts. Here's one of my favorite commercials for an energy drink starring former California governor "Arnie." Of course, commercials that exploit the 'strangeness' of foreign people have their obvious drawbacks. I'd like to save this discussion for another post but for now, let's have a nice guffaw on Arnie, shall we?

(Ha ha ha!! I can't understand what he's saying, but it sure sounds funny!)

On a more serious note, perhaps the biggest, most practical benefit I got from studying Japanese commercials was the way it helped me to quickly adjust to my new lifestyle as an ex-pat. My brain full of knowledge concerning Japanese products and services would prove indispensable the moment I arrived in Japan. I already knew by name the stores I needed to go to and the products I wanted to try out! Everything from laundry detergent to cosmetics, even for ailments like athlete's foot or indigestion, I was ready. I'm sure this knowledge saved me weeks and weeks' worth of time not having to ask people what items were good for what, or asking clerks to interpret the writing on miscellaneous packages. I probably also saved myself a lot of embarrassment, spared from making those easy mistakes like buying shampoo instead of body soap (easy to do when the bottles look exactly alike).

And now that we're in the glorious age of the Internet, we language learners have absolutely no excuse not to take full advantage of this free and globally available media source. It's been a great source of joy to find most of my lost collection uploaded online by other viewers. I also love watching these old clips to find that I can understand all of the contents without subtitles; a great measure of my own progress! And what used to cost me a dollar a tape is now free online thanks to the YouTube community. Commercials from all over this amazing world are finally available to all; you don't need to be of a certain ethnicity to access them. (It does help if you can enter the correct language into YouTube's search engines, though).

Tip: To get more than just 15-30 second blips, if you use Japanese font on your global IME, enter: CM集 (the Chinese character shuu  集 pronounced /shoe/ means 'collection').

Here are some interesting YouTube channels with hours and hours of retro Japanese commercials from back in the day:

Soikll3's Channel:
Commercial033's Channel:
Kbigstone's Channel:

Happy viewing, happy learning! Have a good day/night wherever you are. -Robynn

Copyright 2013 Robynn. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author. All video content is used strictly for educational purposes in accordance with the Fair Use Act.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Day 1: Sensory Overload

(BGM: Secret Base by Zone) 

Funny how a single song can help you to properly remember a moment the way it actually happened.

Sept. 22, 2001
After the crows woke me up a final time, my brain focused to realize that this song was blasting a few rooms down from me.

Looking around the tiny empty dorm room, I was in a bit of shock. I stretched out my body to see if what my classmates back in Alaska said was true: Yes, I could actually touch both opposing walls with my toes and fingers! Glad nobody else was living in here with me! The uncovered futon lay on its wooden frame without any sheets. There were no curtains to preserve my privacy. I'd have to buy all that myself. All that stuff about Japanese hospitality towards new guests, about showing them the best possible side of their grace and their country, I learned, quite often DOES NOT APPLY to foreign guests at public institutions like universities. Of course, friends will go all out for each other. But institutions are exempt. So there I was, tucked away in the farthest corner on the highest floor of that old building with no elevator, with a broken door lock, a torn window screen, puke and coffee-stained carpet floor and three bags of trash nearly blocking my doorway. Nobody was sent to greet me or say hello. I was left completely to my own devices, with absolutely no idea where to find food or even find my way around the building. Welcome to our college life, Robynn. This is the best we can do for you.

Lesson 1: Never expect graciousness from anyone, especially if they say you are a "guest." 

Here's the part where I try to communicate in vain: Standing at my door, an overly serious girl with the face of a summer peach came up to my room and reluctantly said something to me that I didn't understand at all. Her lips were moving but the sounds just didn't make any sense. She noticed I wasn't really comprehending her, gave up and with a huff of frustration, simply walked back down the hall and disappeared. I didn't know how to react. I was utterly lost.

I, like, seriously have to study harder. The textbooks did NOT prepare me for THIS! I thought to myself in a moment of humbling facepalm. I had no choice, now. The return ticket to the States wouldn't be in my hands until next July. I had to get through this! I just had to!

Then one of my neighbors, a very lovely girl with long, silky black hair and a funky reddish crocheted beanie came up to me, properly introduced herself as Noriko in beautiful English, and then proceeded to tell me that my luggage was waiting for me in the office on the first floor! She graciously showed me where the bathroom, shower room and kitchen were, after helping me carry my big black suitcase to my room. She also offered her help if I needed anything. I couldn't have been more grateful. Though she was busy that day, she would be available later on after work to show me around the town and help me adjust!

Lesson 2: The Universe always sends angels to help just when you need it the most.

First things first: I was utterly starving, so I opened up the meticulously-wrapped present from my dear longtime friend who met me at the airport: fruit-filled jelly snacks! Perfect for a hot late summer morning! I ate four of them without a spoon, just ripping off the foil tops and sucking them up, topping off my meal with the small packet of Alaskan Air peanuts. That would do. I quickly unpacked my towels, grabbed a change of clothes, some portable toiletries and made a beeline downstairs to the huge dorm sento bath. That was the first time in my life I had to shower on my knees! But it felt incredible to finally get that two days' worth of crud off of me. 

Just moments after getting back up to my room, my name was blaring over the dorm intercom. My friends Shiori and Masaru (not their real names), two awesome friends I made back in Alaska, had come to pick me up!

Rounds of crazy laughter and bone-crushing hugs ensued. Then with much ado, Masaru opened a big white scroll and I was so surprised to see a very cute hand-drawn welcome poster of the three of us. What a nice thing to wake up to in a faraway land! I beamed uncontrollably from ear to ear at the sight of the hillarious caricature of my friends with squinted eyes, booted feet and funny hats, with chubby me in the middle, glowing with a halo and naruto cheeks (naruto is a type of fish cake with a pink decorative swirl pattern).

Lesson 3: Sometimes the best gifts in the world are the simplest.

The universe felt right again as we walked the city streets a little, stopping by to shove into my mouth anything that looked remotely interesting (steamed buns, ramen, etc). I couldn't believe the noise, the smells, the sheer numbers of people, cars and buildings -it was just blowing my mind! There were more people in one of these towering steel buildings than in my entire village back home!

But it was all good. Masaru helped me to cash some travelers checks and apply for my Alien Registration card at the city office. Then we all hopped onto a train bound for the Shin-Kotoni area, where we had a very filling and cooling sushi dinner with Masaru's aunt.

Needless to say, it was the freshest, plumpest and tastiest sushi I'd had in my entire life up to that point. I mean, Alaska has pretty tasty seafood. But nowhere in the world is sushi done better than in Japan.

Surveying the land from the balcony of her beautiful high-rise condo, staring out at the Sapporo skyline glinting in the sun with all its square, flat-roofed buildings, Sapporo started to feel like home in that moment. Everything would be fine. I just needed to be patient in this land where even the crows speak Japanese. Masaru's aunt gave me a beautiful dark blue silk floral folding fan to keep myself cool. I was so happy that I embraced her, which she timidly tried to squirm out of, much to my chagrin. Masaru told me that the Japanese aren't open huggers like we Alaskans are. I apologized at least twenty times and prayed that her trauma would be short-lived. Woops!

Lesson 4: Never hug a Japanese person unless they instigate it first.

It was indeed sensory overload but I loved every minute of it! As Shiori and Masaru showed me around Sapporo over the next several days, I wanted to take pictures of every single image before my eyes but they kept pulling me along saying "that's nothing! There's better waiting!" The most boring white building facades were decorated with all sorts of cute characters and brightly colored signs, luring little ole' foreign me, fresh off the boat from a country where 'cute' was reserved only for babies.

I kept getting stares and giggles from all sorts of passersby. I asked Shiori what the big deal was. She said that it was already late September and I was still in short sleeves. The Sapporoans were laughing because they thought it was a bit cold that day. But I was sweating like a fountain from the 26-degree sun and they told me not to mind. My friends were also world travelers who knew all about having to acclimate to different temperatures. I answered each sneer from that moment on with an exaggerated smile. They weren't going to kill my joy. I was here to have fun, dangit!

 Over the next few days, we toured the immediate area around my dorm, tasting wonderful little pleasures along the way. We went to a shopping mall in Shin Sapporo where I marveled at my first-ever real kimono, gawked at legendary lifelike resin food models in restaurant windows, and lost my heart to the cuteness of a baby green turtle. Masaru and Shiori took me to a small chain store called Nitori, where I stocked up on very bright and relatively cheap bedding, curtains, lights and towels. Shiori also told me to get a wash bowl and plastic seat for use in the bathroom, so I could be comfortable while still doing things 'the Japanese way.' I was grateful for every shred of advice. They also took me to a second-hand shop, where I bought a rice cooker, a nice used TV with funny rabbit ear antenna, and a CD player/radio so I would no longer feel lonely in my dorm room. I was all set. Now if only I could smuggle in that cute baby turtle!

Stay tuned for more adventures from Japan!. Have a good day wherever you are. -Robynn

Copyright 2013 Robynn. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Lift Off: Chasing the Rising Sun (version 2.0)

(The original post of this blog can be seen here at my other site:

"Exactly twelve years ago, today..."

(BGM: "A Beautiful Day" by U2)

The truth is, I almost didn't come to Japan.
I had a moment of doubt on the tarmac as I slowly approached my first of four planes, that day. Mom told me on the phone that she saw me hesitate. (A mother's intuition can be spooky. Cool, but spooky).

"If you weren't going to board by yourself, I was all ready to push your butt onto that plane with my own hands," she said sternly. She was serious! She knew how hard we'd both worked to make this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity possible for me. And she wasn't about to stand by and watch me give up on my lifelong dream.

(Thanks, Mom).

Although the memory of leaving her and Alaska still hurts to this day, I am happy to let her know that my sadness disappeared somewhere over Fire Island. I saw the mandarin orange glow of Anchorage lights on the horizon through the cockpit window (Cessnas are small enough to see through to the cockpit) and felt the familiar, comforting lull of forward motion. I knew for sure that I was on the right course.

One down, three more planes to go.

 The red-eye flight from Anchorage to Seattle was filled with the pungent reek of airplane coffee and the rustling of newspapers by men in khakis and blue denim shirts. I sat by a kind-eyed gentleman in his fifties with curly blond hair. He told me he was meeting up with family in the Lower 48 after a summer of fishing on Kodiak Island. He gave me the best encouragement in the world: to explore everything I could while I was young, before life forced me to slow down.

(Thanks, Friendly Lower 48 Dude. :-)

Two weeks after that terrible day that changed my nation for the worse, I was certain that flight security and baggage checks were going to be much tighter than normal. But as an out-bound traveler exiting the US, there were absolutely no problems. I was quickly ushered through to the proper lines, processed without hassle and sent on my merry way. With nearly an hour left to blow, I settled into my SeaTac Airport pre-boarding routine: a tasty smoked salmon bagel sandwich, a hot paper cup of Starbucks coffee (before it became commonplace), and a Nikkei Weekly in English from the bookstore. The front page of the paper was still covering the horrible event. I felt so strange, leaving at a time like this. But I was also completely elated, for the next stop would be TOKYO! At the SeaTac terminal, I noticed a group of excited young Japanese college-aged basketball players headed over to my country for their own foreign exchange! I told them how happy I was to get to see their country for the first time. They posed for several of my pictures and each took turns shaking my hand enthusiastically. They were the coolest bunch of boys I'd ever met! (I wonder if any of them are famous athletes, by now?) 

 My Airbus was luxuriantly spacious! In fact, I was the only one sitting in my entire row! I kept waiting for my potential neighbor to come walking down the aisle but nope! Just me! So during those peaceful 10 hours in-flight from Seattle to Tokyo, when the attendants weren't busy in our cabin shuffling newspapers and pouring ever more coffee, I followed the other passengers' lead and set my tired, swollen feet up on the seat next to mine. It was great to stretch out! Enjoying the intriguing mix of Japanese and English over the intercom, I found myself drifting, completely relaxed in a comfortingly familiar bilingual euphoria. Because our plane was only half-full, we all got extra snacks and perks for just being there! Fantastic!

Somewhere around the Aleutian Chain I must have dozed off, because what I saw next convinced me that I was having a waking dream. A few windows down from mine, stark and sure in the pinkish morning smog, I caught a glimpse of Mt. Fuji's silhouette. Without warning, hot tears flooded my eyes and my heart leaped out from its cage as I silently wept. My eyes were helplessly glued to the fleeting apparition, straining for a steady, uninterrupted view as the elegantly shaped stratovolcano kept bobbing up and down whenever the plane veered to one side, returning as it adjusted. It looked too perfect to be real, having already been built up in my mind from childhood as an iconic shrine. But this was no illusion. We were indeed circling around Shizuoka, slowly turning back around towards Chiba, so there was no mistake. In my rapture, I completely forgot to take a picture.

At Narita Airport, sweating to death in my too-heavy-for-summer burgundy velvet dress, I was greeted by two of my dear friends -one I'd known for years and the other I'd be meeting there in person for the first time. Sipping gratefully on a frosty melon soda, the three of us chatted nervously but my new friend was an expert at asking questions and breaking the ice. My older friend kept glaring at me like a protective father. I appreciated his concern. He looked so dapper in his business suit and sharp silk necktie. I was used to seeing him in flannels and fishing gear every time he visited Alaska, ready to catch as many salmon as possible. It was so wonderful seeing his bright, familiar smile. Before his time came to return to work, he handed me a bag with a beautifully wrapped food gift inside. After telling me to be careful, he waved several times goodbye, leaving my new friend and I to catch up on all the details of our lives since I departed Alaska.

This new friend and I had been pen-friends for over a year already, and we had all the familiarity and rapport of best friends, so meeting him felt strangely like coming home. We wandered together through the boisterous, colorful shopping aisles, trying to find a nice and quiet part of the terminal where our chatting wouldn't bother anyone else. He ceremoniously presented me with a glistening silver omamori (protective amulet) and saw me on my plane to Sapporo with a warm, healing hug and a handful of phonecards so I could call him should I need anything. Even on this side of the Pacific, I had a guardian angel looking out for me. That was an incredibly comforting feeling. (I was floating in my euphoria, actually. It was 'a beautiful day,' indeed!)

The plane from Narita to Sapporo lasted only about an hour and before I knew it, I was escorted into a very small blue car with a roof too low for larger humans. Rubbing the bump on my head from hitting the car door frame on the way in, I stared out the front windshield, watching dark, reflective green roadsigns written in both kanji and English whoosh by and disappear. The next thing I knew, I was sitting with knees pressed tightly together on a train with my university's international exchange coordinator sitting beside me. He didn't utter a word to me, except a grumpy mumble warning me not to rummage through my bag while on a public train -it would only draw attention from other passengers. His head shiny and smooth like a Buddhist monk, he peered over his steel-rimmed glasses at me at me with startled yet compassionate eyes. He seemed quite worried about me, that I might have a hard time getting on in his country. My luggage had been put on the wrong plane in Seattle and was en route to Japan behind me, so already he felt sorry for my challenge. We stepped off the train, transferred to a waiting taxi and the driver pulled us up to this 4-story white concrete building streaked with dark patches of mildew and dirt.  This would be my new home for a year.

The coordinator kept gently prodding my shoulder from behind, telling me to hurry because we were late. (Now how could this be my fault when someone else booked my tickets for me?) Too exhausted to react, I was hoping I could just take a quick shower and hit the sack. But no go. Instead of being shown to my room, I was told to take off my shoes in the entrance and step onto the dirty linoleum floor, ushered quickly down a smelly red carpet stairwell and forced to contort and squeeze myself into a tightly-packed group of 80 girls, all sitting on folded legs with no room to stretch out. (All students had to attend the weekly 8:00pm meeting. No exceptions).

So here I was, dizzy with sheer exhaustion, culture shock and jet-lag, reeling in this musty-smelling basement filled with these women -half of them Japanese, the other half 'foreigners' like me, from places as far away as Russia and Egypt. After 30 hours of little sleep, my eyes kept shutting uncontrollably as the women chatted on about policy. Once it was over, I learned that I wasn't allowed to shower until the morning. Even if I could, I had no towels to use (they were in my lost luggage). I was escorted up four flights of stairs in that hot, steaming building and led to the farthest corner of the hallway. Three black bags of garbage blocked my door. The hall rep had the wrong key. Once let inside, I wondered where the heck my bed was! Just a wooden frame with a bag on it! I was told to open the bag and spread out the futon set inside: one brand-spanking new mat with a cover blanket. Better than nothing! Still in my sweaty velvet clothes, I fell lifelessly down on my futon, completely drained. With no shower, no sheets and a broken screen window, I didn't care. I just needed silence, darkness and my legs in a horizontal position. But once inside the peaceful womb of night, my mind drifted back to Tokyo and the bliss of that very short, but electrifying transfer. So many emotions and sensations in the tiny span of a few hours! I drifted into a very exhausted but satisfying sleep.

"AAAHHH! AHHHH! AAAAH!!!!!" The horrible sound of some guy in passionate ecstasy woke me up around 5:30 am. Man, they're really uninhibited, I mused, and then dozed off again.

"AAAHH!!! AHHH!" It was now 8:40am and the sound was very close outside my window. I thought maybe one of the girls living below me had a male visitor. I was not impressed. Preparing to turn the perpetrators in, I sat up and looked through my window with no curtains. My motion startled a huge black carrion crow, which flew away from the window ledge with a final "AAAAAHH!"

Woah! The crows even speak different over here, I thought. (Alaskan ravens have more of a xhaou!, xhaou! sound, like water dropping into a bucket). 'Might as well stay up and see where I am, I thought.

Copyright 2013 Robynn. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

How Dreams Materialize

(BGM: One Wish by Hiroshima)

Many people ask me what brought me to Japan.

That's always been a tough one for me to answer. I always fear that they might think I'm trying to be profound or self-important if I tell them the truth. So I usually just make a silent compromise and tell them that I find the culture interesting, or something simple like that.

But the truth is, Japan called me to it.

I don't think I was born in the wrong country. I'm thankful I had the chance to spend three decades in one of the Earth's most pristine and untouched places. I'm terribly glad I was lucky enough to enjoy America's educational system when I did, before huge budget cuts and standardization took its ugly toll on it. My childhood in latter oil-boom Alaska was magical to say the least.

But like the wind that catches the kite to lift it high into the air, when I heard my first notes of enka music drifting gracefully from the speakers of my father's short wave radio, I found myself being carried away, lulled by black-haired sprites into a dream of vivid green bamboo forests and crystal waterfalls. Little did I know how closely my imagination of the place would match reality. (It's kinda spooky when I think about it, actually).

McHugh Creek waterfall along Turnagain Arm in Alaska

Small Waterfall in Arashiyama, Kyoto
At eight years old, I had no means whatsoever of getting to Japan, so I journeyed there all the time in my mind. I collected every magazine and image I could find with Japanese-related anything in it. I checked out every book on all things Japanese from our local libraries. I bought every single item of Japanese origin that my ex-pat friend (and former babysitter) Patti sold at her garage sales whenever she was home visiting.  In my teens, when VHS finally became available, I hoarded Japanese TV programs and commercials, memorizing them by sound as much as possible. Our school didn't have a Japanese language class, so I teamed up with another student and we created our own, which eventually grew into a class of 35 with its own club (of which I became president). I covered my bedroom windows in thin yellowish paper with strips of masking tape to make it look like shoji screens when the sun shone through it (it was quite effective!). At night I would put Kodo or Hiroshima on my Walkman and pedal away on my stationary bicycle, imagining myself cruising down one of Japan's many cycling roads. (Again, I had NO idea at the time how this would become a reality).

But my favorite thing in the world to do, would be to savor the magical view from my mother's screaming green Cadillac as we wove around the Chugach Mountains down the Old Seward Highway on our way to Anchorage, back when it was full of lethal hairpin turns. Cow parsnip and devil's club bushes grew untamed right against the road, emerald lushness broken by the occasional whoosh of a rushing waterfall. Japan to me would look exactly like this. It almost got to the point where my fantasies about Japan were enough. I didn't need to go to there to feel as if I'd traveled there. (Little did I know that decades later, I would come across the exact same type of landscape in Shiga, Kyoto and Hiroshima prefectures).

Unnamed Waterfall in Higashi Hiroshima
In college, I made my first Japanese friends, who confirmed all my hopes about their amazing country. It was then I learned that the key to getting what I want would be to do the work, study hard, land some scholarships and get over there on foreign exchange when the opportunities eventually presented themselves, which is exactly what I did. The point is, I kept an eye open for those opportunities and seized them with all my might.

I do believe I was called to Japan. And I'm glad of it. You don't have to be 'native' or even a patriot to love where you are. You don't even have to know a place well to belong there. If a place resonates with you, then you should be there, by all means! It is my firm belief that people should be free to live wherever they are most comfortable. If only our respective governments and societies held this same belief!

Yet this remains another dream. I wonder what kind of work needs to be done to make that happen.

Good night from Japan.

-Robynn :-)

Copyright 2013 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

10 Reasons Why I Stay in Japan

(BGM: Don't Belong  by Andy Duguid feat. Leah)

I can't believe it's been twelve years since I first made the jump to fulfill my lifelong dream and move to Japan. To be honest, I had no idea I would spend more than a year here. I seriously believed at the time that I would come back after the short stint was over, see my family and friends again, be reunited with all my things and live happily ever after in the land of the familiar. Back then, seeing the future was easy. Though I'd overcome quite a few challenges already, I had no clue about the way life and death really worked, nor did I care. But choices have consequences that are impossible to foresee -all good, but some not so comfortable.

Several of my loved ones would depart this earth during my time away. Still others would simply stop communicating with me, even after all my attempts to keep in touch. My things would be sold, my home included. Now I am adrift in a country I'm not legally allowed to call 'home,' with no way out and nowhere to go back to. I have become a gypsy. A nomad. Follow the work, sing and dance in the firelight, pack up and move somewhere else. It's not a living, but wow, what a LIFE!

This kind of ride doesn't come without its own risks. It's hard to keep friends in this situation. And it's quite impossible to think of settling down to have a family. I am married to another ex-pat, which means that most of the benefits of our host country are unavailable to us. We aren't sure at our age if it's worth pursuing citizenship. The idea of having children is so unrealistic and impractical, that it has since become a running joke between us. We're too old now to consider it, anyways.

But it's not as grim as it seems. For me, being an ex-pat has countless more payoffs than drawbacks. My life is an ongoing adventure. If I were to die five minutes from now, I can seriously look back on my life and feel good about how it all went. I've contributed to making this world a better place and got the chance to help lots of people. I've met some amazing souls and done some incredible things. I've had the pleasure of savoring experiences my peers back home could only dream about. Not everyone I know can say that.

So, there's nothing left to do but to just keep enjoying where I am, while working whatever jobs I can land to survive and hopefully, start giving back to all those who contributed to getting and keeping me here.

Just in case I forget, though, for those times when I'm caught up in the thrill of survival, these are the 10 reasons I decided to stay in Japan as an ex-pat, and why it's not that awful of a life, at least, not for me.


Tensai Bakabon figures for sale at a shop in Odaiba, Tokyo
From the complex language to the way the Japanese train their children to bow at just the right angle, it all intrigues me. Japanese culture is my passion to this day. But more than anything, I'm attracted to learning about the old ways when folk lived much closer to the land than they do, today. It's still very possible to enjoy this old Japan outside city limits.

The traditional Japanese diet centered around fish, beans, vegetables and rice is as healing as it is nutritious. There are countless forests and mountains to keep my hiking feet happy, and the national love of sports and outdoor activity means that I'm in good company for keeping myself fit. It's a great place to lose weight and keep it off, cheaply. 


Some of the kindest strangers I ever met :-)
I've met some really incredible people here. I consider many of them my extended family. Their love and constant encouragement help to keep me here. It's so easy to have the most eye-opening, mind-expanding conversations with complete strangers in Japan. And their hospitality to solo travelers is legendary for a reason.


The Yoshino River flowing through Iya Village (Tokushima Prefecture)
The metropolises do indeed sparkle with bright and colorful lights. But Japan's true colors are green, purple, gold and azure -not fifty shades of concrete gray. Part of my mission here is to show off to the world Japan's inner beauty inaccessible by public transportation.


A ghost crab caught on Tachibana Beach, Mukaishima Island (Hiroshima Prefecture)

The Japanese archipelago has a staggering variety of birds, insects, wildflowers, marine life and other creatures. Many are unique to the islands. I love challenging myself with the daunting task of learning their names in both English and Japanese.

In Japan, there's true freedom of expression and religion that isn't really appreciated or practiced where I am from. I aim not to offend by this, but culturally, there seems to be more of a respect of personal privacy and individual thought here than in the USA, a place where strangers outwardly approach you to engage in intensely personal conversations about your deepest beliefs (or lack of them). In Japan, you can live without the constant judgment and harassment for thinking one way or another. Sure, the Japanese tell each other how to behave every moment of the day. But at least you can freely believe what you want without any of reproach. To illustrate my point, in Japan during the Bush Jr. administration, when I said I was against war, even people who didn't agree with me (hard to find back then) would simply accept my opinion for what it was: my opinion. But whenever I said the same thing in the US, I would be labeled a "liberal" and a "commie" by not only strangers, but by co-workers and relatives, some even claiming to be religious. True story!


An Organic Farm at Shigaraki-no-Sato (Koka City, Shiga Prefecture)
For the time being, Japan's treasure is still its agricultural network. At the time of writing, it's very possible to live nearly anywhere in mainland Japan and get most of your produce locally grown at a reasonable price. An increasing number of farms are going organic. Farmers markets exist nationwide. Practically anyone can take their own land and turn it into a garden. The lack of neighborhood zoning laws makes for a country full of fresh and beautiful food. I say "for the time being" because trade agreements like TPP threaten to destroy the whole system by squishing the small farmers who can't compete with bigger corporations. But for now, I am grateful for the chance to enjoy non-GMO, locally-grown food while I still can. 


The Yu-Momi Show  at Kusatsu Onsen (Gumma Prefecture)

I'm forever fascinated by the way Japan has harnessed the powers of the earth for relaxation and physical health. I'm eternally grateful for this, too. Much of my gratitude will be expressed throughout this blog.


A simple yet elegant salad with sesame dressing (Ebisuya Lodge, Beppu City, Oita Prefecture)
Japanese food is a whole universe in itself. This alone is a worthy reason to remain in Japan as long as possible. 

It's great to not have to worry at all about my credit rating if I'm late on a payment of any kind. Most stores in Japan accept cash, only. The same goes for most public services. It's nice to be able to live somewhere without needing a credit card for day-to-day living. It makes me feel like my life is actually owned by, well, me.

So there you have it. I'm sure I left out a gazillion things. I'm not trying to paint an unrealistic picture presenting life in Japan as all sushi and roses. There's much here to trouble and perplex the foreign mind. I'm well aware of the fact that the only constant in life is change. I'll have to pick up and head somewhere else in time, I'm sure, and that's okay. But for the sake of my own survival, I've made it a habit to appreciate to the fullest the wonder of where I am. I prefer to do that wherever my 'home' is. 

Wide Awake In Japan is a celebration of this wonderment. May it educate and inspire.


 Copyright 2013 Robynn Lee. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.