Friday, January 29, 2010

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

So I was teaching at Chitose Elementary School--one of my "regular" ES visiting schools--today and doing the fifth grade Eigo Note lesson on school subjects.

Our final activity was charades. The kids had no problem thinking of things to show science, math, P.E., music, and even Japanese, but they had difficulty with subjects like social studies.

Then one kid came to the front to act and started off by leaving the classroom. Then he came back in with the biggest grin on his face and gave a really big, exaggerated "hello" wave. The answer, of course, was "English". ^___^

I'm not the only ALT who visits the school, but I couldn't help but feel happy that he had such a positive, "genki" image associated with ALTs. (Especially since I've always thought of myself as a rather serious/dour person.) And the home room teacher even made a comment (re: the student's choice of gesture) along the lines that the class's energy/motivation ("tension" in Japanese) always went up for ALT visits.

It was a good reminder that the attitude we bring is often far more important than what we do in the classroom.

With all the worries about my Kirita third year students (and their impending high school entrance exams) lately, I guess I've been feeling pretty tired and "blah" lately. (Well, at Kirita anyway. I always make extra efforts for elementary school visits.) As a result, my office time at Kirita this week was almost completely unproductive and I didn't try very hard to talk with the students during lunch either. ^^;;

But if I keep today's English gesture in mind, hopefully I can go back into the classroom on Tuesday with renewed energy/enthusiasm.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Enjoy Aomori

So I got an email from the Aomori listserv today about two Aomori Prefecture tourism blogs:

- Aomori-mori (Eng):
- まるごと青森 [Marugoto Aomori] (Jap):

Being the type who is totally susceptible to advertising of almost any kind, they are very dangerous blogs for me. Just by looking at the (current) main pages of both blogs I've discovered two three new places to add to my "want-to-go-to" list:

- ねぶたの里 [Nebuta no Sato] (Aomori City): A place where you can see Nebuta floats (2 1/2 years in Japan and I still haven't made it to the festival!) and, in the winter, go into igloos to see various Aomori apples displayed inside!! It looks like fun! (Unfortunately I don't know if I'll have enough time to go this winter...) [Read more about it at the Aomori-mori blog here.]

- スイートピーチ [Sweet Peach] (Hachinohe City): A bakery/cafe with delicious looking parfaits and drinks. There are two locations, but the "Salon" location looks like it may offer a bit more in the cafe... [Read more about it (Japanese only) at the まるごと青森 blog here.]

-アイプラス [Ai Plus] Shop & Cafe (Namioka): A really cute looking shop/cafe!! [Read more about it at the Aomori-mori blog here.]

The writers of both blogs are all in Aomori City so there's a lot of about Aomori City, but they are trying to cover various places around the Prefecture as well. I foresee a lot more day trips this year than in my previous two years combined (easily done since I've pretty much been a hermit...). Anyway, I subscribed to Aomori-mori and am looking forward to finding new "must-visit" places.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Weekend in Osaka: Day 3

Thankfully I woke up feeling better on the last day (Jan. 11) of my trip than I had felt on the previous days. After checking out of the hotel I headed to the Imamiya Ebisu Shrine. I hadn’t initially planned to go, but seeing as that long weekend just happened to be the Toka Ebisu Festival (Jan. 9-11), I thought I should take advantage of the chance to see what it was all about.

Immediately upon exiting the subway station I could see paper lanterns hung up on arches along the sidewalks. As I got nearer to the shrine, I could see the familiar festival “booths” lining the streets. Unfortunately, since I was still feeling a bit sick, much as I wanted to try some of the food, I didn’t buy anything because I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat it.

At the shrine, people were tossing old (presumably from the previous year) bamboo branches into big containers designated for that purpose and buying new ones. It was interesting to see the different types and numbers of things people decorated their bamboo with: carps, small boxes, etc. etc. I wanted to ask someone to explain what exactly the different items symbolized (some were obvious, but others not so much so) and to explain more about the festival in general, but I was too embarrassed to ask. Well, that and they all looked really busy, so I didn’t want to be a bother.

Anyway, after looking around the shrine grounds and taking pictures, I walked around the streets just taking in the festival atmosphere for a while (although since it was still fairly early, it wasn’t all that busy and many booths were still in the process of getting set up). I was quite surprised by the amount of garbage along the streets. Whenever there's a festival in Towada, it's always really clean. Even in Hiroshima during the Flower Festival in May the streets were pretty much clear of garbage. (I guess that's probably because 1) Towada is a small city; and 2) Hiroshima had a street clean-up campaign during the festival--you could get a free eco bag).

Anyway, once I got tired of walking around it was off to Shin-Osaka Station. (In my original itinerary I had planned to visit the Waterworks Memorial Hall but really that was just meant to be a time-filler so I decided to skip it.)

At the station I bought omiyage and takoyaki cream puffs!! The cream puffs didn’t taste like takoyaki, they were just made (with chocolate sauce, some sort of candied red fruit) to look like it. Unfortunately they only sold them in boxes of 8 (like real takoyaki, I guess), so I ended up inviting a friend to come over that evening to help me eat them. =P

Originally I was scheduled to leave Osaka at around 3pm and to return to Towada around 10pm, but I was tired so I got my tickets changed for a departure around 12pm so I could be back around 7pm. And that was the end of my weekend in Osaka. ^_^

Even though I was satisfied with the trip, I wouldn’t mind going back to Osaka again sometime. Since I was there for such a short time I was only able to see things in the city centre. If I could have, I would’ve liked to have gone to some of the museums/sites a little further out, like the Momofudo Ando Instant Ramen Museum (インスタントラーメン発明記念館) (Ikeda), the Osaka Takoyaki Museum (大阪たこ焼きミュジアム) (Universal Studios), the Historic Park of Ikegami-Sone Ruins (史跡池上曽根遺跡) (Ikegami Town, Izumi City), and the Open Air Museum of Old Japanese Houses (日本民家集落博物館) (Toyonaka City).

*sigh* That is actually a lot of places, now that I look at it. And here I was telling myself that I just needed to get Osaka checked off on my “place-to-visit” list.

[Edit: Forgot to mention, you can see all my Osaka pictures in my Facebook album:]

Friday, January 22, 2010

Weekend in Osaka: Day 2

The next day (Jan. 10) I woke up and my throat was absolutely KILLING me. The cough and congestion had gotten worse, and I could barely talk. Plus I felt kind of sore all over (body aches). But I was in Osaka and had a jam-packed day of sightseeing planned, so I just kept telling myself that everything was fine. To be on the safe side, though, I did wear a mask since I didn’t want to infect anyone if I could help it. (I should’ve learned from the previous day, though, and worn contacts since wearing a mask in the winter pretty much guarantees that your glasses will be continually fogged up.)

I had a quick breakfast (chai tea latte and a satsuma imo muffin) at Starbucks. Then I walked down to Osaka Station (about 10-15min) to buy an Osaka Unlimited Pass from the Osaka Visitor’s Information Center. It was really a good deal: 2000 yen for a 1-day subway (and limited private lines) pass, plus free entrance to various attractions. When I was buying the pass, the woman asked me if I thought I’d be able to go to at least three of the places; I went to six.

I pretty much stuck to the itinerary I posted in December, with only minor changes to the order/times. Well, I did skip one temple—the Taiyuji Temple—but I had only put it in to kill time before going to Floating Garden Observatory (so I could see the night view of Osaka) anyway, so it wasn’t a big loss.

Anyway, my first stop was Shitennoji. I had estimated that I’d go through it in 30minutes, but it turned out to be a pretty huge complex, so I ended up spending closer to an hour there. I went through the temple and the Treasure house, but wasn’t able to enter the garden since it didn’t open until 10am (and I wasn’t willing to wait and throw my schedule off even further).

Next was the Osaka International Peace Center. I was impressed because it actually addressed Japanese imperialism in China, Korea and other Southeast Asian countries. It even talked about comfort women. Also, I found it interesting to learn about the fire bombing in Osaka. I guess the main images of the war that you see are of the atomic bomb, but the fire bombing was of course also incredibly destructive and devastating. While I was wandering through the exhibits, I heard an announcement about a video (animated) that would be shown. Turns out there were multiple showings throughout the day, and each video was different. The one I watched was about elementary students from Osaka that were sent into the countryside for “training”.

Unfortunately, as interesting as everything was, because I was sick I didn’t feel able to go through things as thoroughly as I might have otherwise liked to have done. If I had been feeling better, I probably could’ve spent 1.5hrs there instead of going through it in about 1hr.

Following that I went to Osaka Castle. The walk through the park to the castle was much easier in the daylight. =P Since the Edo Period is one of the times I find most interesting in Japanese history, pretty much everything in the Osaka Castle (its construction was initiated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi) museum was of interest to me. But again, since I was sick and the museum was quite crowded, I didn’t really go through everything as slowly as I might have normally.

Once I finished in the castle, I had lunch! Thanks to the cold/flu/whatever-it-was, I didn’t have much of an appetite, but I still managed to polish off a tray of takoyaki. Being my usual impatient self, I burned my tongue and the roof of my mouth eating it, but it was still delicious.

A friend had told me that when you eat Osaka takoyaki it makes you think that everything else you’d eaten up to then wasn’t truly “takoyaki” but I thought that was mere hyperbole. It wasn’t. I don’t have a particularly refined palate or anything, and my sense of taste isn’t all that acute, but even I could tell that the taste and texture of the octopus was completely different from anything I’ve had in Aomori (even the octopus caught by Kyoto-sensei at Kirita). I guess my misunderstanding was that I thought my friend meant that the takoyaki tasted different because of the way it was made (like the batter or cooking technique), but really it was a difference in the quality of octopus.

Anyway, after the takoyaki I had awaokoshi (millet-seed cake solidified with sugar and malt syrup) soft serve. That turned out to be an excellent decision (even though I bought it more out of greed and a love of novelty than out of hunger) because the ice cream really soothed my still fiercely aching throat. I was also quite proud of the self-shot I took with both the ice cream and Osaka castle clearly visible. =P

Since I ate so quickly, I was actually able to make up for the time I’d “lost” at Shitennoji, so I was at the Osaka Museum of History pretty much exactly on schedule (according to my original itinerary). Being the history nerd that I am, the Museum of History and Museum of Housing and Living (the next stop on my itinerary) were the two sites I was most looking forward to seeing in Osaka. And I was not disappointed.

One of my favourite things at the Museum of History was the section where you could “experience” being on an archaeological dig. They had a magnetic urn puzzle thing with a couple of fixed pieces to start you off. Having seen similar works in progress on the third floor of the office and completed pieces in the Towada Culture Museum, the experience of putting together the puzzle (it took a lot longer than I expected) really made me respect the work Manabu (a fellow Board of Education employee) does/did.

Another nice thing in the Museum of History was that in the late Taisho/early Showa (“The Great Osaka”) section they had volunteers who would dress you in a kimono. The volunteers would also go with you to take pictures, and the volunteer who helped me even took me around and explained a lot of the displays to me. (Invaluable since trying to read the display information—in Japanese, of course—was quite a chore, and being sick I really couldn’t be bothered to try to decipher the more difficult explanations for the most part.) I was very impressed by the volunteers’ friendliness and helpfulness.

After the Museum of History, I went to the Osaka Museum of Housing and Living. This was probably my favourite site of the trip. There was a fairly large reproduction of “typical” Edo period houses/streets. You could walk down the streets, wander through houses, play with old fashioned toys, etc. They even had weather/time changes! At one point it rained, then it got dark as if night was falling (it didn’t last too too long, though) before brightening up again with sunrise and the start of a “new” day. I’m not sure if they had them available for guys, but definitely girls could put on kimonos to walk around town in if they wanted to. (I’d had my fill of that at the Museum of History, though, so I didn’t bother.) The special exhibit 「くらしの今昔展」 (Lifestyle: Past & Present) was also interesting. I thought it was really cool to hear grandparents, adults, etc. excitedly talking about how they remembered various items on display.

Following the Museum of Housing and Living, I went to the Umeda Sky Building “Floating Garden.” I arrived a little earlier than I’d originally intended—I’d hoped to get there around/after sunset so I could take in the night view of Osaka)—but it ended up being a good thing since I was starting to get tired at that point anyway.

When I had had my fill of photo-taking, it was back to the nearest subway station to head down to Dotonbori. Once there I went straight to Botejyu. According to the website:
The name “Botejyu” is derived from the rhythmic cooking sound of okonomiyaki. The first part of the name, “bote”, comes from the flipping sound in Japanese of an okonomiyaki being turned over with a metal spatula. The second part of the name, “jyu”, represents the sound of the okonomiyaki sizzling on the teppan grill. We, at Botejyu, still value this “delicious sound” as we continue to prepare each and every okonomiyaki with care and passion.
Also according to the website, “Botejyu invented the recipe for adding mayonnaise and Japanese mustard to the sauce [flavour] okonomiyaki in 1946.”

Even though I thought I’d made it before the dinner rush, there was already a line when I got there. It moved pretty quickly, though, which was nice. I did feel a bit awkward as a “party of one” in a restaurant otherwise filled with couples, families and larger groups, but oh well. (The Gyoza Stadium was more like a food court, so I didn’t feel as out of place.) I was really thankful that they cooked the okonomiyaki for you and then brought it to your table (so the grill was only needed to keep it warm). Even though I’ve eaten okonomiyaki about 3-4 times since coming to Japan, I’ve never actually made it myself (either a server or friend always made it for me) so I’m sure it wouldn’t have turned out nearly as tasty if I’d had to cook it for myself. =P

After dinner I did a bit of omiyage shopping in Dotonbori. Even though I keep telling myself that I shouldn’t buy any more “useless” things, I couldn’t resist buying a super cute stuffed octopus from the Glico store. In the end, though, it did turn out to be a somewhat practical purchase since we used it as the ball for a game of Dr. Dodge Ball at the Minami Kominkan (community center) Children’s Eikaiwa (English conversational class) the Wednesday immediately following my trip. ^_~

Even though I was quite full from the okonomiyaki (I don’t know how I managed to eat TWO in one sitting when I was in Hiroshima last May!), I was tempted by the taiyaki (fish shaped cakes—made from a pancake/waffle-like batter—with various fillings, such as red bean paste or cream) shop advertising a “NEW” caramel cocoa “mochi mochi” flavour. (“Mochi mochi” meaning it was chewy like mochi inside, instead of having the typical cake consistency.) My throat was also still quite sore, so I ended up getting a mixed (vanilla/chocolate) soft serve cone as well as the mochi. The ice cream really did help to soothe my throat, even though it made me quite full. It was probably overkill, but I did also eat the taiyaki that night in my hotel room (it was even still fairly warm).

And that was the end of my second (and main) day in Osaka.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Weekend in Osaka: Day 1

The night before my Osaka trip (Fri. Jan. 8) I started getting that feeling you get when you know you’re on the verge of developing a fever. I’d had a bit of a sore throat since late Thursday night, so the “almost-fever” didn’t take me by surprise or anything, but of course it was worrisome. So I took two Advil and went to bed “early” (10:30pm-ish?).

Saturday morning I woke up with a sore throat, cough, and slight nasal congestion, but no fever, so off I went. It did briefly cross my mind that it might be more sensible to cancel the trip since I was obviously getting sick, but I’d been looking forward to it for so long, and I’d already made all the arrangements and paid for everything, so... I did wear a mask to (hopefully) prevent spreading my germs to other travelers, at least.

My (long) weekend in Osaka actually started with a visit to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo. I had a 12:00pm entry time, but they let us in starting from 11:30am. As soon as I got in, I headed for the Straw Hat Café. Even though (or maybe because?) it only opened at 11:00am, when I got there, all the chairs were already full and there were a couple of people standing in line ahead of me. The wait wasn’t too bad, though—only about 45min.

Unfortunately, even though I hadn’t eaten anything for breakfast, with the sore throat and everything I didn’t have much of an appetite. Thankfully, though, the winter menu had clam chowder on it. Not only was the warm soup soothing for my throat, but in terms of portion size it was just right. And, of course I *had* to have a dessert as well, so I had chocolate cake.

After lunch, I headed to the theatre for this month’s original short film, Chuu Zumo (mouse sumo). Since I’d already seen the Ponyo exhibit twice before, I skipped that and just went up to the roof to take a quick picture of the Laputa robot. Following that I went to the gift store.

In October Nate bought me the Totoro necklace. This time, I thought I might pick up the matching earrings. When I looked in the jewellery case, however, I saw that they had some new items: Kurosuke (the little black balls) earrings, a necklace, and a bracelet! The woman working in that section was pretty on the ball and noticed that I was looking at the earrings, so she took them—both the Totoro and Kurosuke ones—out of the case for me to look at.

Up to then I wasn’t sure if I would actually buy anything or not, but I’m the type who buys something 70% of the time if I’ve asked for/received any sort of assistance from a store clerk and since I was tempted to buy something anyway that pretty much decided the matter for me. Naturally I went with the Kurosuke ones. The clerk also told me that the design for the leaf was taken from a leaf in Inokashira Park (where the Ghibli Museum is located) so that was a nice local touch.

After shopping I walked around the first floor for a while. I spent a long time watching both the Laputa and Totoro zoetropes. A zoetrope is “is a device that produces an illusion of action from a rapid succession of static pictures.” (Thank you, Wikipedia.) The Laputa one has the Laputa robot with birds flying up and around it; the Totoro one has Chu Totoro and Chibi Totoro doing jump rope with Mei-chan. Even though it’s the same thing over and over, I never get tired of watching them.

And that was it for Ghibli for me. The next stop was the Square Enix Character Goods Shop Showcase. Unfortunately there wasn’t anything really new for me to see (I had just been there in October, after all), but it was nice weather, so it was nice just going for a walk. On my way back to Shinjuku Station, a young Korean guy stopped to ask me for directions to Tochomae (I think he was going to see the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office Towers). Since that was right across from the Keio Grand (where Tokyo Orientation was held), I should’ve been able to give directions, but unfortunately I’ve got a terrible sense of direction, so I ended up not being helpful at all. ^^;;

From Shinjuku Station I went back to Tokyo Station where I ended up changing my train tickets so I could get to Osaka earlier—about 2 hours earlier than originally scheduled. After checking into my hotel (super conveniently located with direct access from a subway station), I headed out to Namco Naniwa Gyoza Stadium for dinner. I had gyuutonbou (beef) gyoza and crispy fried snack gyoza (curry flavoured) from one shop, and xiao long bao from another. The xiao long bao was a little excessive, probably, but it looked (and was in fact) delicious, so I couldn’t resist.

Then I went to Osaka Castle to take pictures of it illuminated at night. By that time, though, it was pretty late (around 9:30pm?) and I hadn’t realized just how huge the grounds of the castle are. And in the dark it’s pretty hard to navigate, so I got as close as the moat before I gave up and decided to be satisfied with only taking photos from afar. Then it was back to the hotel to end my first day in Osaka.

Friday, January 15, 2010

December travels

Things have been so crazy lately I haven’t had time to write updates. Anyway, here’s a recap of my December travels:

19-20: This year we went to Iwate for our Shidoka (BOE) end-of-year trip. Unfortunately it was snowing a fair bit on the 19th and there was an accident somewhere way ahead of us on the road, so the driving was slow and we had to cut some stuff from our itinerary. But even with the changes it was pretty much the perfect itinerary for a history/literature geek like me. ^_^

 We went to Esashi Fujiwara no Sato, a Heian Period “theme park” where you can try on Heian period clothes, play games from that era, etc. After that we went to Chusonji, a designated National Historic Site. The Konjikido—“Golden Hall” like Kinkakuji on a much smaller scale—was pretty crazy. Then it was off to the Hanamaki Onsen Hotel for a lavish dinner, followed by karaoke (nijikai) and chatting/snacking/drinking in Hosa’s room (sanjikai).

The next day we went to Denshoen, an outdoor museum with reconstructed traditional L-shaped houses. We couldn’t do any of the craft-making stuff (the bowls of water for spinning cocoons into silk thread were frozen solid!), but it was interesting nonetheless. After that it was off to the Tono Mukashibanashi Mura (Folk Village) where we learned about Tono folklore. Admittedly our next stop—Megane Bashi (a.k.a. Glasses Bridge)—wasn’t all that interesting, but I was glad we went because I got to try wasabi soft serve at the rest station near the bridge!! Our final stop was the Miyazawa Kenji Memorial Museum. I’d never actually read any of his works, but it was interesting nonetheless. For more photos/details, see my "Shidoka Bonenkai" Facebook album.

23: I had an uneventful return to Canada this year, thank goodness. Back in Canada, I actually had a lot of time for just relaxing—catching up on my manga reading, watching the Food Network, etc.—in between hanging out with friends and visiting family.

26-29: My family (mom, dad, brother and I) went to Las Vegas. Unfortunately a guy had tried to hijack a plane on Christmas Day, so a bunch of new regulations were put into place starting on the 26, in an effort to increase security. While we were in line for customs, for example, we were told that we could only have 1 carry-on item each (instead of the usual 2). Only my mother and brother had extra bags anyway, and we were able to stuff those into other bags without too much difficulty, but it was still a pain. Then our flight was delayed for 4 hours because they were doing extra security checks—like hand-searching all carry-on bags and doing pat downs of every passenger at the gate immediately prior to boarding.

It was a classic case of reactionary policies put into place without proper thought going into efficient implementation. I mean, they only had 2 security people to check every passenger on the plane, and Air Canada presumably hadn’t hired enough security guards since part of our delay was due to having to wait for the security guards to finish somewhere else before coming to our gate. But anyway, we made it to Las Vegas with enough time to do some stuff that afternoon/evening, so I guess it worked out OK in the end.

Our first stop (after checking into the hotel/resort) was the MGM. My brother and I are nerds, so we went for CSI: The Experience while my mom occupied herself at the slot machines (my dad would’ve enjoyed the CSI Experience as well, but he went with my mom to keep her company). It was pretty fun observing the crime scene and piecing together what had happened. (Although it was pretty simple.) Then we went for a walk down the strip—stopping at the M&M and Coca-Cola stores—and eventually stopped to have dinner at an Italian restaurant in the Planet Hollywood hotel complex.

For our second day, we watched two shows: Matsuri (a Japanese production based on festivals—“matsuri” means “festival” in Japanese) at the Imperial and Cirque du Soleil’s Mystére at Treasure Island. Before Matsuri, though, we had time to explore Caesar’s Palace (I bought more slightly odd stuffed animals at the FAO Schwartz) and to have a buffet lunch at Harrah’s (not so great).

I didn’t really know what to expect of Matsuri, but it was actually a lot of fun. For me it was even more amusing because I could recognize that something was like yosakoi and could appreciate how “Japanese” some things were. Like when they were doing jump rope tricks—e.g. three people skipping with individual ropes while skipping together with a big rope—I thought about all the jump rope practice/competitions I saw in elementary schools. They also did air taiko (stomping their feet to make the drum-sounds) which again was something familiar to me. It wasn’t an “awesome” or “amazing” show in the more literal sense of the words, but it *was* a lot of fun.

After Matsuri and before Mystére we did a quick look around the Venetian and went to the Mirage to catch the volcano explosion. After that we chilled in a coffee shop in the Mirage until it was time to head to Treasure Island for the show. Mystére was as excellent as I’d expected a Cirque du Soleil show to be. My dad had told me that there would be audience involvement, but my image of Cirque was always as something really artistic, so I didn’t believe him. Maybe it’s because Mystére is one of their first shows but it was a lot more comical than I expected. After watching Mystére, I thought “Well now I’ve GOT to see “Zed” in Tokyo!”

For our third day, my brother and I slept in while my mom and dad went to some preview for a timeshare resort. They’d gotten suckered into going by the promise of “free stuff” (buffet and gambling vouchers). It was supposed to be two hours, but ended up being three! My brother and I were late for the designated meeting time anyway, though, so the timing worked out perfectly—they finished just as we arrived. We took a shuttle to the Rio to use the free buffet coupons they’d just gotten. The line was crazy long and we had to wait for over an hour. The food was much better than the buffet at Harrah’s though, so at least that made up for the wait. My appetite has decreased a lot since moving to Japan, but if I didn’t eat much food food, well, I did eat a fair quantity of dessert. =P

After taking the shuttle back to the Strip, my mom and dad went to the Imperial to make use of the gambling vouchers while Nate and I checked out the flamingos and other birds at the Flamingo. We still had plenty of time to kill after viewing the flamingo habitat, however, so we decided to finally try our hands at a little gambling. We went to the penny slot machines and even though I didn’t know how the game worked, I at least managed to get $24 after putting in $8 (net profit of $16). Once I’d cashed out, we went to the Bellagio to watch the fountain show—highly recommended, by the way. The Bellagio was probably the prettiest of the hotels. The Christmas garden was really impressive—especially the polar bears made out of flowers (chrysanthemums?).

We were all pretty tired from two days of walking and more walking, so after a quick stop at the CVS Pharmacy to pick up omiyage (dice-shaped gummies! =P) we ended up stopping at Denny’s for dinner. My parents went back to the hotel but Nate and I continued on to the Luxor by way of Excalibur. (I wanted to take photos and my parents didn’t want me to go along, so Nate had to be a good brother and come too.) I was glad we went, though, because it was pretty cool—probably my second favourite, after the Bellagio. It seems pretty obvious, but I think we both thought it was pretty cool how it was still pyramid-shaped on the inside, too.

Our last day in Vegas was really just spent at the airport. I was amused to see that the rumours were true and that there were slot machines throughout the terminal so you could gamble right up to the time you boarded the plane. Thankfully our return was far less eventful than our arrival. No extra security checks or anything, so we departed on time. It was my first time flying West Jet, and I was pretty impressed.

The plane itself wasn’t as nice as Air Canada ones (there were TV channels but no movies, and the seats weren’t quite as nice) but the flight attendants were much more human. I’ve forgotten now, but I think it says a lot that I could actually remember the names of all of the crew members up to two days after the flight! The head flight steward in particular was pretty entertaining. Instead of just playing a recording, he did all of the (English) announcements and always threw in some sort of joke/off-hand comment. If it wasn’t for Aeroplan miles I would definitely prefer to fly West Jet over Air Canada.

And that was the end of my December travels. See my "Vegas, baby, Vegas!" Facebook album.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A roller coaster year

In life there are always ups and downs, but it seems like this year in particular there were many spectacular highs and lows. So here's my year-in-review:

late January: 
car accident
- I didn't slow down early enough for a curve leading up to a bridge, hit a patch of ice, skidded, spun, and hit the bridge railing
- thankfully the only thing injured was my car (goodbye red Vitz, hello white K-van)

late March/early April: 
Kyoto trip w/ Kasumi
- went to Kyoto with a Japanese friend (met through Nihonbuyo) on a long weekend, highlights include: Kyoto International Manga Museum, temples galore, and a 5-story pagoda

Anaheim trip w/ Steph
- Disneyland and California Adventureland
- Colorado Avalanche @ Anaheim Ducks NHL hockey game (courtesy of my friend Karvin)

My dad's triple bypass surgery
- right when I was in Anaheim, my dad underwent coronary artery bypass graft surgery
- since Steph and I had been planning the Anaheim trip for a long time, my parents wanted me to go instead of canceling and coming home; I ended up coming back the day after my father was released from the hospital
- the day after I got back, we had to take my dad into emergency because he was having trouble breathing and was behaving erratically
- he ended up being re-hospitalized and they discovered that he had a lot of fluid in his lungs; he was re-released the day (or day after?) I had to fly back to Japan

Golden Week Hiroshima (solo) trip
- Sankanou Okonomiyaki
- Peace Memorial Park/Museum
- Hiroshima Flower Festival
- Miyajima
- Hiroshima is my #1 favourite city to visit in Japan! I can't wait to go back again!

Visiting Carly in Shimokita 
- Hotokegaura, Osorezan and off-road adventures--it was a blast!

Tokyo Orientation
- presented a seminar on driving in Japan for newly arrived JETs (little did I know how much more of an expert I would become...)

Studio Ghibli & the Square Enix Character Goods Shop Showcase
- it was awesome hanging out with Tomabechi-sensei again!

Relaxing and fun Silver Week
- an Aomori City day trip
- Kirita Jinja Matsuri
- the beginning of my wardrobe makeover (LOVE Uniqlo!)
- surprise birthday party in Shichinohe for Sanae & Viresh

My dad's heart attack
- getting the call from my mom telling me that my dad had had a heart attack and was in a comatose state was the scariest event of my life; the time between getting the call and finding out that he had regained consciousness was the longest 36 hrs of my life

Nihonbuyo performance
- even though the amount of time I spent onstage for this performance was about the same as last year's Bunka Sai, this was really a massive event--the culmination of almost a year's planning/preparation

Nate's Japan visit
- he came to Towada (during a typhoon)
- 3 days in Tokyo, including such highlights as the Square Enix Character Goods Shop Showcase; the Ghibli Museum, Odaiba, and Asakusa

Towada Horse Festa
- finally got to see yabusame (horseback archery)!!

Car accident (#2)
- second scariest event of my life! getting hit by a k-truck and having my car flip onto its side 
- thankfully no one was seriously injured and I ended up not having to pay for any of the damages

Oirase Gorge Autumn Foliage
- FINALLY got to see the fall leaves in Oirase Gorge (although they were still quite green when I went)

Bunka Sai Performance
- I performed in not just one, but FOUR pieces and wore two different kimonos, plus a hakama

Shidoka Bonenkai in Iwate
- awesome awesome trip with lots of cultural/historical sites on our itinerary

Las Vegas
- a fun three night trip with my family--all the more meaningful given my father's health problems this year

Of course there are tons of other things that happened/that I did this past year, but this is just a brief summary of some of the "bigger" things. As you can see, October was a particularly crazy month for me--in both the good and bad sense. This year was also a big travel--within Japan and internationally--year for me.

I hope that 2010 will be an equally fun but less crazy ^^;; year than 2009.