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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Are you ready for J-TAC? New Podcast by JTA!

Hello, friends! Before too long, I'll be posting the first episode of J-TAC, Japan Travel Advisor Cast - the official podcast for Japan TravelAdvisor, bringing you news, suggstions, must-know tips, and useful phrases for traveling and living in Japan. Given the tragic disasters that recently struck Japan, and which continue to plague the north-eastern coast with problems, right now is not the ideal time to travel to Japan.

Some time this weekend, I am going to post an essay written by my friend, Rachel, who is an English teacher in Tochigi, Japan, which is one of the prefectures immediately south of Fukushima. Rachel has been with the JET program since August 2008, and her view on the disaster is emotional, hopeful, and unbelievably strong.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

And I Am Living - Guest Post by Rachel Bellairs

Today's guest post is by Rachel Bellairs, who has been a JET in Tochigi, Japan since 2008. Thank you, Rachel, for sharing your feelings and putting into words the things that so many others could not. It is difficult to address these emotions, and you do a great service to us all by helping those on the outside to understand.

And I Am Living
by Rachel Bellairs

Rachel Bellairs
Living through a natural disaster isn’t the same as reading about it. Of course, you think, that’s just common sense but you don’t realize, not really, until you’ve LIVED it. It’s not just about surviving the disaster itself. Of course there’s that relief that you made it. And in my case, that the damage wasn’t that bad. 

The day following the quake, one of the things I remember most was of a friend commenting that all the news was talking about was the earthquake and tsunami destruction but in our area it was almost surreal how normal everything seemed. But it wasn’t. Because that’s the thing. You don’t just live through the natural disaster. You also live through everything that comes after. You live through the initial relief of finding yourself and your friends alive and unharmed. Then through the guilt of watching all those who weren’t so lucky. You live through telling family and friends who weren’t involved that you’re ok, that you’re shaken up. Then try to keep being OK. You live, even after realizing that though you think you weren’t really affected, you are. That it’s not just your own fear you have to deal with, but others’ as well.

I think the hardest thing for me is the uncertainty. It’s been a week since the quake and the aftershocks still happen. Every time, I wonder if this time it’ll be another big one, if this time it won’t settle down after a few seconds. Sometimes I get what I have taken to calling “phantom shocks.” They aren’t really there but my body thinks they are and my heart jumps all the same. My instincts now have reason to fear earthquakes and instinct doesn’t die down quickly. Added to that uncertainty is the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima. First of all, there is not enough power to go around, so we have finally begun scheduled blackouts for about three hours every day. There has been major confusion about those when the government, power companies, and civilian organizations, namely the train companies, failed to coordinate their efforts.
I have adjusted to these fairly well, and even enjoy the time I spend at my friends’ house when my own power goes out. The first time this happened, I was on my way there and was in the middle of the city when it suddenly went dark. It was fascinating and eerie and a small part dangerous because there were now no traffic lights to help me cross the street. I have come to realize how much I and everyone else here rely on the trains, now that service is sketchy. The freedom of movement we’re used to seems like such an ordinary thing but it’s so precious.

Today we learned that my school will shelter refugees from places affected by the power plant and natural disaster. To me that means we are safe here. The government has been reporting continuously but America at least seems bound and determined to tell us that Japan isn’t being honest with its citizens. At the same time this annoys the hell out of me, a small part of me is afraid of the consequences if they are right. A small part of me has been afraid since the earthquake but it’s a damn scary situation. Aid to victims of the earthquake and tsunami has been slow getting to them because of fuel shortages. Lines for gas can be three hours long and some gas stations have shut down because they ran out. Shelves in supermarkets and convenience stores are sometimes empty when some new fresh bit of news starts people panicking. Make no mistake, there is panic. It’s not the same kind you’ll find in America or other countries but it’s there. Some ALTs have left, breaking contracts early which I agree with one of my friends, seems a lousy thing to do. I will stay until the government tells me to go. And not just suggests, but orders. I stay because my teachers aren’t leaving and neither are my students. I respect these people and I care for my students. I stay because I signed a contract and gave my word. I stay because I have made a life here. And a life isn’t something you easily abandon.

I am sad. Sad for the lives lost, that could still be lost, because help isn’t coming when it should. I am angry. Angry at the panic and the fear, and sometimes at the people spreading it, at the government for doing what seems to be a poor job. I am anxious. Anxious because I can’t be sure of exactly what’s going on or when things will go back to normal. I am tired. Tired of worrying, of having my life disrupted. But that, I think, is life. And I am living.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Is Your Perception of "Normal" Changed by Travel?

After watching this video, I had to wonder about how traveling affects our perception of what is typical. As an American living in the South, the "most typical person" I saw growing up is not the same as the man in the video, yet I was in no way surprised to see that it was a Chinese person. Being a huge fan of the TV show Firefly, I had a little bit of research already done for me on the concept of what might happen if everyone in the world were to integrate. Plus, the sheer number of people is impossible to ignore. I was surprised, however, to see that the most typical person was a man, since I was under the impression that women outnumbered men on the Earth. Oh well, can't give my mom THAT excuse for no grandchildren anymore...

But my perception of normalcy has been irreversibly changed by travel: I have the unique experience of having lived in a foreign country with a homogeneous phenotype very different from my own. Living in Japan impressed upon me the idea that "normal" is not only a relative concept, but a malleable one. In North Carolina, I was used to seeing a little bit of everything, but a typical person in my immediate sphere was white, black, or Hispanic. Despite the fact that my best friend was Chinese, I still didn't take the Asian phenotype for granted as being "typical". My friend was my friend, and so became more complex and real in presence, while her specific outside all but disappeared on my radar.

I remember stepping off the plane in Japan, and just feeling staggered. I had expected the homogeneous society, but the thing I had not been quite as mentally prepared for was my own sudden lack of anonymity. Yes, I knew I was going to be a foreigner, but I didn't think about how that might affect my perception of myself among the native population. It was strange, to feel that I--who had been so normal in appearance my whole life--was as far from "typical" as I could get.

Over the next few months, that feeling became normal. I was used to people staring, used to people assuming I didn't understand them (even when I did), and used to everyone around me being Japanese. In fact, I got so used to it, that even I started staring at other foreigners! My sense of normal made the shift, and settled.

Three years later, I came home, and boy was that an eye-opener. You hear of Reverse Culture-Shock, and part of that very real concept is the necessity to readjust to the "old normal". Stepping off the plane, I was suddenly invisible amidst the people still living in the North Carolina "typical". People walked by with fast-food soda cups too big to have fit in my Japanese refrigerator, and the trio of workers at Starbucks didn't greet me, but continued their conversation about hating work as they made my white mocha. Had everything always been so much bigger? Had shop staff always been so inconsiderate? I guess they had, but I just hadn't noticed.

I remember sitting by the fire at my parents' house, looking around the strangely-familiar screened-in porch. That lariat hadn't been there, but almost everything was exactly the same. It started to feel like my entire experience in Japan was a dream--everything was almost as I had left it, and I felt my memory of my experiences abroad slipping away, like the elusive tail of a dream. I always thought of deracination as a feeling experienced away from one's native country, but here I was, at home, feeling like my roots wouldn't quite take hold in the soil after being pulled out.

I realized that it was impossible to accept that old sense of what was normal. I couldn't re-embrace all the things I had taken for granted before, especially since it had been so hard to force myself to let go in the first place. Instead, I started looking for new things to embrace: new challenges, new adventures--a new sense of "normal". Or maybe, I learned to reject the thought that there was even a "normal" at all.

Have your perceptions of what is "normal" been changed by traveling? How, and what happened after your perception changed?

Monday, March 7, 2011

Going to Asia? - Asia in the News

Photo courtesy Springben's photostream
Lauren here, to bring you a few updates from around the internet.

Looking for Photography? Check out "Toshio"'s Flickr photostream, including This Gorgeous Picture of a Japanese Torii. Or how about the Harbin Snow Festival in China?

Eating Vegan in Japan!
If you've not heard, Tokyo has recently outstripped Paris as a food capital of the world, but it can be tough get a vegetarian/vegan meal outside Godzilla's stomping ground. If you haven't been to Japan, you probably find it surprising that such a health-conscious culture doesn't have many vegetarian options. The truth is, meat is present in just about every meal in some way or another, so it could be a challenge for a vegetarian to visit or live in Japan, particularly for someone who doesn't know the language. Vegan is almost impossible. However, one culinary-minded foreigner committed to helping her vegan friends find sustenance in the home of yaki-tori and sushi.

"Tomodachi of a Vegan" is a blog that features almost daily vegan recipes that visitors and residents in Japan can follow to feed themselves, even in rural areas. The most recent post: Hot-Pockets for Dinner looks absolutely delicious. The great part is, most of these recipes can be modified to include meat for us carnivores.

Blog Articles

The Good
Coming Face to Face with History in Hiroshima, Japan in this Gadling.com article, writer Erin de Santiago talks about her decision to visit Hiroshima, Japan, and the impact of history on her present-day travel experience. A brief, moving article.

Siem Reap: 3 Days in Cambodia Gadling.com travel journalist, Justin Delany is back again, this time giving us the low-down on exactly how to spend three days in Cambodia. If you didn't want to go before reading this article, you will once you're done. ATV's, natural temples, and a 3$ foot-massage? Yes, please.

China Flights to Hawaii Despite worries about the complex visa process, the sell-out flights from China to Honolulu indicate success for this new direct flight venture.

The Bad
Vietnam Authorities Suspend Tour Company  A tour company responsible for the deaths of 12 tourists, who died after the ship they were sleeping on sank last month, is now suspended by Vietnamese authorities. Click the link to read more.

The Ugly
North Korea Resumes Construction of World's Most Hideous Hotel again, via Gadling.com, writer Justin Delaney expounds upon NK's decision to resume construction of a hotel begun in the 1980's...which Delaney estimates will cost roughly 5-10% of North Korea's GDP. You have to wonder if Kim Jong Il is expecting travel to increase...

Keep checking back for more news, and some guest blogs by travelers around the world!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Tokyo Travel Spot: Shimokitazawa (下北沢)Part I

(Photos courtesy Guwashi999 's Flickr Photostream)

Bridge Art on the South Side of the Station, next to
The Honda Gekkijou (The Honda Theater)
When I was in Japan, I fell in love with a town called Shimokitazawa (下北沢). At the crossing of the Odakyu and Keio-Inogashira lines, it's about five minutes from Shibuya and ten from Shinjuku, and is one of the most popular places to shop with the young indie crowd. 

It's easy to see why people love Shimokitazawa--by day, it's streets are packed with shops whose merchandise spill out of open-faced shops, cafes and coffeeshops boasting an array of gastronomic delights for even the most discerning of java junkies, and throngs of young Japanese shoppers at their bohemian best. Fashion hits Shimokitazawa at a somewhat sideways angle, leaving it with a concentrated sampling of the trendy, the bag-lady, and the downright weird. 

Why Shimokita?

South Side storefronts at night.
Shimokitazawa is a tiny art town dropped in the middle of big-city Tokyo, and like many art towns, feels simultaneously very new and very old. Young people flock to Shimokita to catch shows at one of its many live-houses, search out rare records at any number of retro music shops, or dig through the trendy clothing stores. You won't see any gray walls in Shimokita, either--after closing time, storefronts roll down garage doors, and while most of Japan has to look at bland neutrals, every storefront, garage door, and retaining wall in Shimokita is decorated with hand-painted graffiti.

North Side of the Station
A short trip from the North side of the station, however, reveals an old shrine, which houses an enormous Tengu mask--rolled out every year at Setsubun for the Tengu Matsuri. Any number of older ladies dressed in traditional kimonos haggle with the produce vendors, tucked away under the corrugated tin roof of the market next to the station. 

South Side of the Station

Manga Man!
The South side is most popular with the young crowd. Here you'll find clothing stores, arcades, karaoke-kan, bakeries, and restaurants. At any time of day, amateur musicians and artists set up shop under the railroad tracks or on the grimy sidewalks. If you see the "Manga Man", toss a coin in his collection tin, and he'll do a dramatic reading from any one of his hundred manga. 

Once, I watched a man in a skin-tight spandex bodysuit draped in rainbow-colored Christmas lights, clutching a guitar. He banged out an original song that translates roughly to "STFU, blockhead!" Not too long after, I sat down with a pair of young Japanese men who spent their free-time hand-grinding coffee, which they percolated over a palm-sized gas stove and served to me out of a paper cup. Apparently, one of them had backpacked across Okinawa, trading coffee for food and supplies. That's hardcore.

There's a lot to see in Shimokitazawa on both sides of the tracks, but today I'm just going to focus on some of my favorite spots on the North Side of the station. Keep your eyes open for the continuation, including the South side of the tracks.


This is where you'll find the coffeeshops, the tiny French or Italian restaurants, and the quirky antique stores. Browse around, and make sure you're looking for the coffee shops...above street level. Spot the Kanji 加非, or the hiragana コーヒー and you're golden...it means coffee! Like anywhere in Japan, shopping is a matter of not just looking around...but looking up. Here are some of my favorite restaurants and stores:

The Indian Restaurant

In America, I probably wouldn't have set foot in this place. It's got the appearance of a shabby dive-bar, and the concrete floor wouldn't look out of place in a prison cell. The once-cheery rose-tinted paint, and the clutter of brightly-colored Idol pictures are grease-stained, and...was that a roach? If you get bothered by little things like appearance in Shimokitazawa, you'll miss out on the best places you could eat.

Leave through the North exit and turn right; you'll see what appears to be a shanty-town or market stalls underneath a corrugated tin roof. It's dark, it looks dingy and when you step out of the bright sunlight, it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. The temperature drops by several degrees, like you're entering a cave. Nervous? Don't be. You don't want to miss what's inside. 

Pass the Yakitori place on the right, and take a left at the vegetable seller, Mr. Tanaka, and find the bright yellow storefront with red-and-white checkered tables. This is some of the best Indian food you will ever eat. The Indian owners speak English and Japanese, and cook everything right there in front of you on a gas stove. Watch in amazement as they stretch nan dough over a padded disc and slam it into the tandoori oven, only to bring it out--piping-hot and mouthwatering--a minute later. I learned to make some of the best spicy cucumber salad I have ever eaten just by watching the couple of ingredients.

Make sure you don't eat and run, though, or you could miss out on the complimentary chai latte, served to you in a little tin cup. Get to know the owner of this place a little, and he'll say hello to you every day for the rest of your life.

If you're in the mood for dessert, hop back out onto the street and walk to where the road tees at a huge cherry-blossom tree. Turn left and you'll soon find:

I walked by this place every day on the way to work. Not only were the gelatin and ice-cream hand-made, but the staff was extremely friendly. 

My friends and I thought the place was a little sketchy at first, because of all the mushroom paraphernalia, but the staff greeted me every morning as I walked by, so I eventually got brave enough to ask about the mushrooms.
"Oh," said the staff member. "We use them because Tengu eat mushrooms."
If you like soy, I highly recommend their "Tonyuu" flavored ice-cream, but if it's winter, be sure not to miss their hot custard! It's the best I've had anywhere, and they'll give you a small cup of hot chocolate on the house.
Sunday Brunch

Picture Courtesy www.bento.com
On the North side of the station, down where the coffee-shops and boutiques cram themselves on streets too narrow for taxies, is a spacious place to eat. Aptly named "Sunday Brunch", this place serves western fare like avocado and shrimp salad, or various types of breakfast foods. The place has an airy, industrial feel, with pressed tin and clustered lights on the ceiling, and enough windows to make it feel almost like you're eating outside.

My number one recommendation is the French Toast. It's made with a baguette, and served with fresh cream, syrup, and powdered sugar. It's the best French toast you'll ever eat. I promise. Also, check out the gift shop, where you can find cute stickers and fun stationary...because you'll want to write home about it.

Day's has flowers, clothes, and stationary. Best yet? It's right
across from Sunday Brunch! Picture courtesy akiba_gab
And of course, there are hundreds of coffeeshops on the south side of the station. To get to the real shopping streets, all you have to do is take a right out of the station, walk until you get to the first cross-road, and take a left. Pretty soon, you'll be right in the thick of things!