Monday, December 21, 2009

The Holiday Parties Continue

This past weekend, my friend Amanda was so gracious to offer up her small living room for the sake of Christmas cheer! She made us wassail, bought us Kentucky Fried Chicken, and even made two boxes of the blue box macaroni and cheese. I can tell already, she's gonna be a great mother ;) The Japanese have this weird tradition of eating KFC on Christmas, presumably because they think that's what Americans do on Christmas. So, we decided to "follow the norm" and get some chicken. We also had some fabulous Ghiradelli brownies and our Christmas cookies made the night before!

There was a special guest appearance by Santa Claus and Rudolph, and really, what Christmas party is complete without them?

Nicole happened to have the exact same sweatshirt as me, so I decided I should of course wear mine too. Seems we've reverted back to junior high when wearing the same clothes as someone else was cool.

After dinner we just hung around and enjoyed each others' company. Above is our gracious host, Amanda. Below, Neil models one of his Christmas presents. He grew a mustache last month, so someone gave him a fake one just in case he missed it too much. Also, note that amazing Christmas sweater bought for 900 yen from the local second hand store. Classy.

We ended the evening with a pajama party and the next morning climbed into two cars and road tripped back to Fujinomiya for some Montego burgers. Because that's also what Americans love. Obviously that one's true.

I think that's the last holiday party for me in awhile unfortunately, but I know everyone else back home is gearing up for a week with family! Travel safely everyone!!

I'm starting off on a travel adventure on Thursday morning. I'm taking local trains (aka very slow trains) all the way to the south island, Kyushu (green on the map of Japan below). I'm excited to go on a solo adventure. When I was in Europe and South America I did quite a bit of traveling alone, but in Japan I know so many other teachers and everyone wants to travel. So since coming here, I haven't gone anywhere alone! So this will be my first solo venture and will be good "me" time to charge up for the next year.

After Kyushu, I'm going to ring in the new year in Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan. I'm planning on hitting up some of the Mirei Shigemori Japanese gardens. He was a landscape architect and designed a bunch of dry landscape gardens in Japan (over 200). A friend recommended a few to me, and after looking into it, I'm definitely going to make that a part of my few days there (I've already been there and hit up the main tourist areas)! Below is an example of one of his gardens, since I'm sure "dry landscape garden" doesn't probably evoke an image in your mind.

I'm also thinking about bringing in the New Year in the traditional Japanese way by watching the sunrise and going to a temple. Thought it would be a good thing since it's my first and only New Year's in Japan! Also, since I'm traveling alone, I probably won't be going to any rave New Year's parties or anything.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year People!

Christmas Cookies 2009

Friday night was girls night, cookie decorating style! Four of us ladies from the Fuji area (+1 from a far off land) got together to bake and decorate Christmas cookies. I actually haven't made Christmas cookies that much back when I lived in the United States, but we got to talking and it seems that was the case for all of us. I think when living abroad, things like this just provide a comfort of home and an air of familiarity. And well, who doesn't like eating cookies?!

We ended up with more cookies than we knew what to do with, and also too many and not enough frosting!! Above, Fiona, Kelly and I pose in front of the cookie decorating station. Below are all of Kelly's Christmas tree creations. She's Ms. Artsy and definitely won the "best cookie" awards :) But we had a few "think outside the box" winners (a yellow snowman comes to mind) as well!

My mission to have a great Christmas has been successful thus far, and I hope it continues through the new year! Love you and miss you all back home - Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Christmas Cheer Continues

Merry X'mas! I enjoy that they went to the effort of getting a sign made, and still used the shortened version. They must have charged by letter! Last night Kelly, Kory and I headed up to Gotemba around the other side of Mt. Fuji. It's at a bit higher altitude than Fujinomiya, so it was pretty cold up there, but that to me just made it seem more like Christmas!! There still was no snow however, but since I really only want the snow for effect, I'll say we're better off without it! We went to the "Gotemba Illumination" and we continued to call the Christmas lights illumination all night long. Some things just creep into our vocabulary and never leave. Conbini instead of convenience store comes to mind. I'm sure there are more that I'm going to have trouble reverting back to English when I come home!

So at the illumination there was a big tunnel of lights you could walk through, and outside the tunnel were a lot of lit up deer and snowmen. Inside the tunnel at one spot were a bunch of reindeer and sleighs. Here, I'm taking over Santa's sleigh. Just don't expect too many presents this year ;) There was one bigger tunnel and then one smaller tunnel, and also another section that you had to pay for that I think ended with a big lit up manga character, but we didn't want to pay $5 to see it. Though we could actually see the character anyway, just from farther away I suppose. There was also a bit lit up dome with a fountain in the middle and illuminated swans all around it - pretty cool! We wandered up and down the tunnels for awhile, before going to dinner.

The resort where the illumination is at has quite a few restaurants, but one of the more popular ones is an all you can eat buffet. It includes all you can drink beer, but unfortunately I was driving so I couldn't take part in that!! They have a selection of 4-5 beers. The food was delicious. They have sort of an international cuisine. Below was my first plate of chips and chili, caesar salad, steak cubes, pizza, CHEESE, rice gratin bake, and potato salad. My second plate was mostly meat, which I only regretted a little bit after reading an article on CNN yesterday right before going to the illumination "Eating animals is making us sick". The steak cubes were fabulous and I would go back there again just for those!!

It was a fabulous evening! Can't wait to continue my efforts to make it actually feel like Christmas this year with some Christmas cookie decorating on Friday. I'm having some girls over to my house to bake and decorate cookies! Will post pictures this weekend after the fact!

Happy Holidays!! I wish a safe flight to my sis and good health to my bro! Wish I could be there for the festivities!!

Onsen on a Tuesday Night

Onsen Nite, originally uploaded by kellykilgore.

Kelly and I realized it had been a really long time since we had been to the onsen, and decided we needed to do something about we got together on Tuesday night for an out of character weeknight onsen. It was just in time for Kelly as she finished grading for the semester that day, and though I don't have much going on at work these days, I was stressed in the previous weeks! This pic is actually from a different time at the onsen, but I enjoyed our towel heads and entertainment selection (thanks to my recent visitors for providing us with literature aka trashy magazines).

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Final Days with Sarah

I'm closing out the sister adventure blogs, though long overdue. This seems to be a trend for me, but a week's worth of travel is hard to pack into small blurbs! Sarah and I were able to make it over to the Shimizu port area in my prefecture, about an hour's drive through city-ish traffic. We drove up to Nihondaira lookout, which usually has a great view of Fuji and Suruga bay. Unfortunately for us, Fuji wasn't out to play, but we took a ropeway across some trees changing colors to a nice Toshogu shrine and later that day were able to see Fuji on a "bay cruise" at the port. I've been wanting to do this for awhile, so it was great to do something new in my area. I need to do more things like this -- finding things in my area to explore. It's easy to get set in your ways and not seek out these mini-adventures! I hope you enjoyed it as much as me, Sarah!

At the Nihondaira Parkway Lookout:
Tea fields, fall colors and mountain ranges
Still Nihondaira Parkway Lookout

Suruga Bay and probably what would be Mt. Fuji were it not cloudy.

Actually at Nihondaira, we see where Mt. Fuji should be through the clouds...

Taking the cable car across to the shrine

Lots of fall colorsAt the Toshogu Shrine

Our Bay Cruise Boat:

On the boat - note Mt. Fuji to the right of my head, she finally came out to play:

There were tons of sea gulls getting food from the tourists on the boat. I think you could buy food to feed them...I just took pictures instead. The sun getting ready to go down.

After a long day of sightseeing, we were off to meet my friends for a night out on the town. We met up for dinner and drinks at our local Australian bar. It was a great day near the end of Sarah's trip!

'Tis the Season

Christmas is approaching fast, it feels like only a month ago I was home to visit for summer vacation! I would definitely love to be home this Christmas season, but I'll settle for an extended stay in July and August ;) Save the date!

Things have felt quite festive recently, despite the fact that they don't really celebrate Christmas in Japan. Some people have Christmas parties, most eat Christmas cake (what is that, really?), and others go on dates. But for the most part, it's a completely different holiday, and really the children are just looking forward to New Year's when they get a huge envelope of cash to spend on whatever they like.

I, on the other hand, have tried to really get into the season this year, as last year I was sick in Thailand and just wishing that I could be at home with my mommy to bring me chicken soup. So I put up my Christmas tree a few weeks ago.

Also, a few weeks ago I was having a movie day on a Sunday and quite conveniently a package arrived at my door. A special shout out to Dawna (the sender) and the Japan Post office for their Sunday deliveries. It was the perfect gift, my favorite Christmas movie, Love Actually. It's playing on the TV here actually :) I've rewatched it like 5 times in the last week, and it's really put me in the Christmas spirit!

The Thanksmas Spread

Also this weekend I had a Thanksmas party at my house. We were all busy at Thanksgiving it seemed, and so we decided to have a combined Christmas and Thanksgiving party, which really ended up being mostly about Christmas. It was a fabulous day if I do say so myself! My friend Kelly who claims to not be a cook made her fabulous homemade rolls, sweet potatoes with and without raisins and all with marshmallows, and a Jeff Davis pudding pie.

Showing my domestic side

With the help of my esteemed (?) guests, I made mashed potatoes and gravy, homemade stuffing, herb crusted chicken, and green bean casserole. Colin tossed us the perfect Caesar salad, and Liz made a bannoffee pie, which had no bananas, so it was more an offee pie, which was just as delicious! With everyone's help, the meal was the best I've had all year! Absolutely American, (sorry to you non-American guests, but I heard no complaints), and absolutely fabulous.

Most of my guests in post meal bliss...

We watched lots of Christmas movies and television shows, had snacks and drinks, and enjoyed each other's company into the wee hours of the morning! Thanks to everyone who helped cook, let me boss you around in the kitchen, washed my dishes, opened my wine, brought movies and entertainment, and didn't spill beer on my floor! I was worried about having 14 people in my apartment at once, but it was just the right size for fun, friends, and food. I hope you have a fabulous holiday season!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Happy Birthday Avery!

This weekend was my niece's first birthday! Throughout the last year and a half I have missed all of my friends and family, but one of the hardest parts of being away from home is not being able to watch my little angel grow and develop! She's my first niece and I swear has to be the cutest baby ever! I hope that you all had a great time celebrating this weekend. I'm sure there was cake everywhere, I can't wait to see pictures. Happy Birthday Avery Elise and I hope to be there to celebrate with you on the next one! XoXo, Your Auntie Ash

Monday, December 7, 2009

School Days

The language lab is where all my classes are held.
The students have most of the classes in their homeroom classroom.

Once we came back to Fujinomiya, there was still no rest for the weary! I had to work two days while Sarah was here because it was time to give my final test! So she joined me on Wednesday to see where I work. I thought this was as good a time as any to show you a few pictures of my school as well, so this entry actually has more pics of me than Sarah...oops! But I can't really ask my teachers to take pictures of my with my bulletin boards - that would just be strange.

We piled into my Minica and drove in the rain to school. It was nice that if it was going to rain, that it did it when we had to go to school, and not when we were trying to sight see. Sarah laughed at my car pretty much every time we were in it! So of course she had to take a pic of me's close because we sit so close to each other in the car.

My Minnesota bulletin board. I made this when I first arrived, and haven't taken it
down because I think it's sorta a good reference for the kids.

The morning started off with our usual morning meeting. My supervisor was gone that day as well as the vice principal who knew Sarah was coming. Also the other English teacher who sits near me was gone with the flu. So when it came time for the morning meeting, they asked me to introduce Sarah to the other teachers! This is only the second time I've ever spoken in the teacher's meeting, and the first time I had a rehearsed self-introduction speech written down. This time I totally had to wing it and hadn't thought I would have to do it, so it was quite terrible actually. I stumbled through a small introduction and said she was coming to my classes that day. Terrifying!

Sarah's self introduction

During my classes, the students had a listening test that I had recorded with Dion, who is the ALT at a local school (and of course most of you know him as my friend too :P). After the test, I had the students play a conversation bingo type game and they had to ask each other questions, as well as me and Sarah. Sarah gave a short self-introduction and then she helped out in the game by answering students questions.

A newer bulletin board I made with American Holidays

The kids were turning their heads all day as we walked past them in the hallway. We also had lunch with a few of my faves, who enjoyed talking to Sarah and asking lots of questions.

Lunch with the kiddies

Sarah was my first visitor to come to class and it was really cool for both me and the students. The students are always excited to meet another "foreigner" and it was nice for someone to see what my work is like here! It wasn't a regular schedule by any means since it was testing, but still nice.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Finishing Out the Tokyo Adventure

On our final day in Tokyo, we woke up before 5am and headed to the fish market! Tsukiji fish market is the largest fish market in the world (according to Lonely Planet). There is a huge tuna auction from 5am-6:15am. We came in for the tail end of the auction. It was a room with hundreds of frozen tuna fish (I never knew they were so big!), auctioneers and buyers from restaurants. Below we're posing in the auction room before getting kicked out at the end of the auction:

After the auction, we went for a sushi breakfast in one of the nearby restaurants. We enjoyed our green tea and different kinds of tuna sushi.

Then, we went off to Sensoji temple a second time and got our fortunes. Sarah got a great fortune, though mine was terrible. I think I should just stop getting those fortunes because they're always bad!!

Sarah getting her fortune

Then we did some shopping and headed back to our hotel to pack. Sarah claims she "packed light"...but that resulted in her sitting on her suitcase to shut it:

After that, it was extremely heavy and we had to take turns wheeling it to the station! Here I'm taking my turn!

Sarah and all the luggage (mine too...). She had to take the backpacks so I could carry the suitcase up the stairs. There was no elevator! Thankfully some Japanese man decided to help me and we carried it up together!

We finally made it to the bus at Tokyo station and Sarah got her first glimpse of Mt. Fuji on the bus back while I took a nap! We got ready for the rest of our week in the Fuji area!

We slept like babies that night, each in our own bed thankfully since we both snore!!

Tokyo Day Two

We started off our morning with a trip to an unimpressive shrine in Tokyo. I'd read about the torii gates leading up to the shrine, which led me to believe it would be really cool. Let's just say that Sarah didn't get the best first impression of Japanese shrines!! I guess the walkway up was okay, but I have been to Fushimi Inari in Kyoto, where the gates go all the way up a mountain, so a stairway is nothing to write home about. But I'm writing home about it anway ;)

Anyway, here's a pic of us with the torii tunnel behind us. Though the shrine it'self wasn't all that cool, there was an important holiday here recently called the Seven-Five-Three Festival. People celebrate their 3 year old and 7 year old daughters and 5 year old boys. They bring them to shrines or temples to pray for their health and happiness. Below is a little girl I'm assuming turned 3 this year. It's too cute when even Japanese this young are already flashing the peace sign! Love it.

And as with all shrines, we had to take a quick pic with the barrels of sake. Do you think they would notice if one of those things was missing? I'm sure Buddha would and I would live with bad karma forever! I'll keep my klepto tendencies to a minimum while at shrines and temples.

Next we were off to Imperial Palace and Gardens. Not my first visit, but beautiful nonetheless. Imperial Gardens is actually one of my favorite places in Japan. It's so peaceful. It was extra special this time because of all the fall colors.

The pond and bridge in the garden.

Posing at a lookout above the gardens.

After a long morning and early afternoon of walking, we needed to rest our feet! We stopped in for some Chinese ramen and a beer before continuing on!

Oishii ne!

Then we were off to the international forum. Basically all that entailed was looking at the cool architecture of the building. See below:

Last we stopped off at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building for a night view of Tokyo. The city lights never end.

After that, we seriously couldn't walk any further!! Our feet were killing us, so we headed back to the hotel for a rest! Our hotel room was super small, but it got the job done.
After resting up for a bit, we made one more venture out to see Sensoji Temple, with the huge lantern that's lit up at night and the huge five story pagoda. I have posted pics of that several times, so I'm going to opt against adding anymore photos to this post!! I already have too many!

It was a great day, with the highlight definitely being the gardens and fall colors.