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The Cliffs of Hotokegaura

The craggy white cliffs of Hotokegaura in Aomori
The craggy white cliffs of Hotokegaura in Aomori

Even though I’ve lived here for nearly three full years now, Aomori still manages to surprise me in the best possible ways. There’s always some naturally gorgeous spot to stumble upon for the first time and make me fall in love with Aomori all over again.

See Exhibit A: the cliffs of Hotokegaura (仏ヶ浦), which now reign supreme as my absolute favorite place in Aomori.

Sapphire water, white stone, and verdant trees set the scene.
Sapphire water, white stone, and verdant trees set the scene.

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Chand Baori Stepwell – “I’m Pretty Sure Batman Stood Here…”

The stairs of Chand Baori in Abhaneri
The stairs of Chand Baori in Abhaneri

As much as I love my day-to-day life, sometimes escaping is the only thing on my mind. Sometimes daydreams of far off beaches, exotic foods, and foreign horizons take center stage in my brain.

And when summer vacation is just lurking around the corner, that feeling has only become exacerbated. Sometimes it’s just me feeling antsy. Sometimes it gets a bit more severe. (Case in point: for the past few months, I’ve flirted with the idea of dyeing my hair blue and just heading to South America for a solid year or so when I’ve finished my time on the JET Programme.) And despite the fact that I’ve been grounded in Japan for almost three years now, some people might think that even that venture was an escape from “real life.”

But aside from traveling, the other form of escape I so often utilize is far more accessible on a day-to-day basis: books and movies. I’m a bibliophile and cinephile in equal parts. In my college days, one of my favorite classes was one on film theory, a love that I later parlayed into writing frequent reviews for the campus newspaper. And my love of books? Well, that’s been running rampant through my veins for the better part of two decades now.

What I really get a kick out of, though, is when those two loves bleed into each other. It’s why I loved seeing Pont de Bir-Hakeim , featured in Inception, in Paris. It’s why I loved visiting the Hobbiton set outside of Auckland in New Zealand. And most recently, it’s why I loved seeing the Chand Baori stepwell in India this past winter.

Chand Baori...look familiar?
Chand Baori…look familiar?

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I'm choosing to believe that the little blob below it is a heart.

Aomorian Graffiti

Of the many reasons I love my placement on JET, one of the most practical stems from the proximity of my school to my apartment. While a lot of other JETs have to take the bus, drive, or bike to their schools, my morning commute clocks in at a quick four minutes on foot. (And if I’m particularly in a hurry, I just duck through one of the chain-link fenced gaps near the back of school grounds and shave that down to two minutes.)

Being so close to the field also means that I get a front row seat to the team-building practices that go past 9 p.m. and involve, of all things, taiko drums.
Being so close to the field also means that I get a front row seat to the team-building practices that go past 9 p.m. and involve, of all things, taiko drums.

Anytime one of my students asks me where I live, I just point out the window of the classroom. From my apartment’s balcony to the school’s baseball field, it is a literal stone’s throw. It’s incredibly convenient and has made my life pretty stress-free when it comes to getting to work…

…but it does have one minor drawback. Continue reading

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Deutschland, Deutschland! (Sorry, America…But I Have My Reasons)

At approximately 5:32 this morning, my upstairs neighbors may have been awakened by the sound of me screaming in exulted bloody murder. There wasn’t an intruder lurking over me and I didn’t squash a spider underfoot on the way to the bathroom or anything so sinister like that…no, I was whooping because Miroslav Klose, striker extraordinaire and all-around powerhouse, found the back of the net for an equalizing goal in the seventy-first minute of Germany’s match against Ghana.

Also, that infographic might be my favorite thing ever.

Miro’s very first touch of the game, and he put it in the net. And the nation of Germany – along with one American frantically pacing in her living room in rural northern Japan, several thousand miles away from Castalao Stadium in Fortaleza – breathed again. I freaking love Miroslav Klose. (If only he weren’t married…)

And I freaking love the World Cup. At the very least, it’s certainly the only sporting event that’ll get me out of bed at 1 and 5 a.m. to watch a game. (Curse time differences.) I think it’s the one tournament, even more so than the Olympics, that purely and perfectly personifies just how important sports are to the world at large. People are never more patriotic than they are when watching a World Cup match. (And to go hand-in-hand with that pride, international rivalries are rarely ever higher or more volatile. Oh, sure, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens may hate each other, but not like Brazil and Argentina hate each other.)

Admittedly, I fall into that group of Americans whose passion and enthusiasm for soccer spikes exponentially during the World Cup. I love soccer, don’t get me wrong (I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t), but aside from casually following Bayern München and Lazio (the Italian team Klose plays for), I confess that I don’t follow it slavishly for much of the year. A lot of that has to do with the fact that I just don’t have convenient access. Japan’s not exactly known for its soccer scene; if I were based in Europe or South America, I think it’d be a whole different story. We’ll see how that changes, depending on where I end up after Japan. When the World Cup comes around though, it’s soccer 24/7 for me.

But why, as an American born and bred, was I so amped up over a German goal? Here’s the thing: I may be an American, but when it comes to the World Cup, Germany, not the good ol’ US of A, is my team.

And I have my reasons.

I wasn’t always this way. In fact, up through most of my teenage years, I couldn’t have cared less about soccer in the first place. Both of my younger sisters played, and whenever I got dragged along to games or practices, I more than likely spent the time with my nose buried in a book, rarely glancing up to watch the action on the field. (For the record, now that’s changed mightily…I follow baby sister Mani – university superstar, accolade magnet, and nationally ranked player that she is – like a rabid fan, refreshing game stats every two minutes when she’s playing while I’m at work.) And no matter how many times it was explained to me, I never understood what ‘offsides’ meant.

That changed – or at least, the seeds of change were planted – in the summer of 2006, when I went to Germany for the first time. In 2006, Germany hosted the World Cup…and that week opened up my eyes. Before that, the World Cup wasn’t even a blip on my radar. But when I was walking through Berlin at eight in the morning and saw thousands of people – in German colors and otherwise – reveling on the street in jerseys and painted faces, I had an epiphany.

“There is nothing in America that compares to this,” I thought. “It makes the Super Bowl look like a weekend pick-up game in the backyard.”

Somewhere at home in America, that scarf is buried amongst my belongings.
Somewhere at home in America, that scarf is buried amongst my belongings.

In 2009, when I studied abroad in Germany, my conversion was complete. Köln, the city where I lived, was home to one of the worst teams in the league – 1 FC Köln – but that didn’t matter. One of my favorite memories of the time I spent in Germany was at a home match. I don’t even remember who the opposing team was – Dortmund, maybe? – but I remember being crammed into a subway car like a sardine with the rest of the fans, I remember sipping a Colabier on the grounds before the match started, and I remember shouting Tooooor! along with the Germans in the seats beside us every time Köln scored a goal.

Sparklers aloft. Funnily enough, I think this was one of the few games Köln won that season.
Sparklers aloft. Funnily enough, I think this was one of the few games Köln won that season.

Without question, it was more fun than any American sporting event I’d ever attended or watched. And I was more invested in that one game, as meaningless as it was in the long run, than I ever was in any Super Bowl that the Steelers, Pittsburgh’s (American) football team, played in.

Raisin' those scarves.
Raisin’ those scarves.

In 2010, when South Africa hosted the Cup, I bled gold, red, and black for Germany. I watched all the matches (shout out to my boss for being one hundred percent okay with me watching games while at work), cheering, fretting, and biting my nails through every one. The names of the German team – like Khedira, Podolski (who, incidentally, played for Köln at the time!), Ozil, Gómez, Neuer, Müller, Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Boateng, and most of all Klose – were burned into my brain.

And now, in 2014, I’m waking up at all ungodly hours of the night to watch Germany’s games, hunched in front of my TV or over my iPad, freaking out when my stream lags or skips.

A good portion of my love for the German squad obviously comes from the team itself. From Cup to Cup, the German teams are often described as young, but they certainly don’t play like it. Like so many of things of German origin, they are quick and efficient on the field. They may not play the flashiest game, but damned if they don’t get the job done.

And as people? They just seem like awesome, regular guys. There is no German Ronaldo, known just as much (or even more so) for his looks as his talent. There is no German Rooney, with a snobby, superstar reputation off the field. There is no German Messi, whose own country isn’t so fond of him. In fact, there’s no real superstar that stands above the rest of the team. They’re just all damned good footballers. Even Klose, probably the best-known player on the squad, doesn’t showboat or garner attention with anything that isn’t soccer related.

I started this post by writing about my guy Miroslav, and there’s a reason for that. I’ve never been someone to look up to athletes as a major role model or inspiration. Miroslav Klose is the exception to that role. He’s stuck around for four World Cups and, with that goal against Ghana, is now tied with – and poised to overtake – Brazilian legend Ronaldo’s record of World Cup goals. It’s not just his talent that I love. In a sport that’s often ridiculed and criticized for its athletes diving or playing up injuries, Klose is a good guy. He plays it straight. And seeing as this will be his final World Cup appearance, I want him to go out on top.

When I tell other Americans that I cheer for Germany, I get a lot of negative reactions, at least from people who don’t know me well. Surprise usually comes first, followed swiftly by “You cheer against your own country?” The way I see it, I don’t cheer against the USA. I want them to advance past the group stage, and if they made it out of the “Group of Death” alongside Germany, all the better.

And, honestly, considering most Americans don’t even care about the World Cup, I don’t feel the least bit guilty supporting Germany. If there’s one stat that sums up America’s view on the Cup, it’s this: of all the teams competing, which team are most USA fans hoping to see lose? Their own team.

Later this week, Germany and the USA will play against each other…and I will be cheering for the country that taught me to love the sport of soccer. I’ll cheer for the country that I lived in when I discovered just how great that sport is.

And that’s Deutschland.

And if by some hellish twist of fate Germany doesn’t advance past the group stage, you’ll be able to find me curled up in my bed, sobbing while wearing my customized German jersey, adorned with the number 11 (Miro’s number, naturally).

But I’m willing to bet that Klose and company won’t let that happen.

World Cup stylin'.
World Cup stylin’.
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The Best View in Tokyo

Sunset over Shinjuku
Sunset over Shinjuku

Okay, maybe it’s not the best, seeing as how every time you turn down a new street in Tokyo, you’re presented with something surprising and/or beautiful…but it’s definitely a top contender.

In late afternoon, the view's pretty nice...
In late afternoon, the view’s pretty nice…
...but when the sun starts to set, it gets downright gorgeous.
…but when the sun starts to set, it gets downright gorgeous.

Tokyo’s got its fair share of gorgeous views, but in my book, this one – from the Tokyo Metropolitan Building in Shinjuku (AKA, the skyscraper district of Tokyo) – reigns supreme. Each of the towers houses an observatory at 202 meters, and on clear days, you can catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji in the distance. And the capper? Admission is totally free!

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アレックス先生, reporting for duty.

It’s the Little Things

It’s no secret that I really, genuinely, totally love my job. I look forward to going to work every single day, and so many of my fondest memories of my time in Japan are from time spent in the classroom. Being a JET, especially at a school like mine, carries a whole lot of perks. And for me, the greatest perk of all is getting to work with kids who are motivated, intelligent, and energetic. (Though that last one doesn’t always apply when I have lessons with them during Monday’s first period…)

It’s the little things, like how one of the baseball players whom I thought didn’t really care for my lessons yelled “Alex-sensei’s lesson today?! YES!” when I came into class last week, that really make me love my job even more, because it makes me feel like the attachment and fondness I feel for the kids I teach goes the other way, too. Sometimes, when I’m lucky, that manifests concretely.

Case in point: in the next month and a half, 青森高校 will have its annual sports day and school festival. As you might have seen in these posts from last year, each of the homerooms – both students and teachers – get their own T-shirts. Even though I’m part of the first-year teachers, I’m not linked to any specific homeroom, so I’ve never managed to wrangle a jersey for myself. Continue reading

A kappa peeking out from one of the shops.

Kappabashi-dori’s Kitchen Mecca

Kappabashi-dori
Kappabashi-dori

The longer I live in Japan, the more convinced I become that there’s nothing you can’t get in Tokyo. Need anything electronic? Akihabara is your haven. Want some cool, counterculture hippie clothes? Kichijoji’s your best bet. Just want to goggle at some of the trendiest (and sometimes most bizarre) street fashion in the world? Go to Harajuku and prepare to feel like you’re ten years and twenty trends behind.

And if you’re looking to stock your kitchen? Look no further than Kappabashi-dori (合羽橋鶏) near Ueno and Asakusa. If you’re looking for some obscure kitchen tool and can’t find it in Tokyo’s Kitchen Town, then, frankly, you’re probably just not looking hard enough.

Need any bowls? Kappbashi-dori has you covered, whether you just need one...or you're feeding an army.
Need any bowls? Kappbashi-dori has you covered, whether you just need one…or you’re feeding an army.

合羽橋 (kappabashi) means “kappa bridge” in English, and there are a few theories as to the origin of the name, both of which deal with the history of the local area. One of them comes from fisherman drying their raincoats (or kappa) off of a nearby bridge when the weather allowed it. Alternatively, the name could have come from a merchant named Kihachi Kappaya, who started a ditch-building project to divert water from the flooding Mikane River. (At least, that’s what I think that’s what this site says. No promises regarding the accuracy of my translation.)

A kappa peeking out from one of the shops.
A kappa peeking out from one of the shops.

Now, though, the official mascot of the street is a different sort of kappa: the Japanese water demon that’s like a long-legged turtle with a bowl on its head. Naturally, the ones adorning Kappbashi-dori are adorable, but the kappa in Japanese legend are decidedly less so.

Keep your eyes peeled, and you'll see kappa everywhere.
Keep your eyes peeled, and you’ll see kappa everywhere.

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Permanent Resident of Dromomania Central

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