Sunday, September 27, 2009

Welcome to the neighbourhood

It's about time we introduced you to sweet Izumi...

This is our street.

We are fond of it.

The surrounding apartments are no more than 2 or 3 storeys high and there are some immaculate gardens, with perfectly trimmed bobbly trees. Not to mention the cats on leashes, snake roadkill, giant spiders, green frogs, neatly parked bicycles and friendly neighbours.

At one end there is a large pond filled with lillypads and at the other end a nice copse of trees, a scattering of rice fields and other farm-like happenings.

And it's only a 10min walk to the shops and the station!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Feel the season

The Japanese basically never take paid leave from work (due to a big cultural difference in which "not letting the team down" is a major part of their work ethic), but they do have a fine selection of public holidays -- usually one per month, but sometimes clumped together in bunches, as in Golden Week's four on the trot in May, or Silver Week's three in a row, which was this week just past.

So with a five-day weekend in hand (well, actually only four for me, because I had to work on Saturday for my school's festival, but that's another story altogether), Mirabel and I ventured out of Sendai, going by bus, train, and another bus to Bandai, a beautiful mountain/lake town in Fukushima.

Bandai as we know it was created only a hundred or so years ago (1888 to be precise) by a massive volcanic eruption that killed 461 people, buried several nearby villages and created the lakes that surround the mountain today. So a pretty major natural force, but one that created a stunning spot for a bit of camping.

Welcome to Matsubara Camp Jo.

We walked, we kayaked, we ate and drank, we read and knitted, we saw the stars and had constellations pointed out to us by the amazing camp owner on a boat, we saw moths as big as your hand, we ate s'mores (I now know what a Graeme cracker is), we were warm during the day and we froze at night, we played table tennis, we barbecued, we had a very nice time basically.

One of the big attractions at Bandai is the Goshikinuma -- the five coloured lakes -- a series of very small lakes which have been turned brilliant greens and blues by the volcanic activity of the mountain. Some of the lower leaves you can see have been turned white by the water.

And on the last day we discovered an amazing and entirely unexpected little modern art gallery with a very extensive Salvador Dali collection (apparently 332 works!), as well as paintings by Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne and Matisse, among others. Quite a find, really, considering we had no idea of its existence beforehand!

Also, on our way to Bandai we met this guy:

Awesome! Weekend complete.

For the nice tomorrow

I don't think this place will ever stop being funny.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

All that jazu

The 19th annual Jozenji Street Jazz Festival was held in Sendai last weekend, and Mirabel and I were out and about trying to find some good swing music to dance to.

Most of our Saturday was spent wandering around eating foods on sticks (a recurring theme at these festivals) and finding not much apart from afro be-wigged funk bands and Abba tribute acts. Apparently it's a loose definiton of "jazz" -- although to be fair, there were dozens of stages around the central city and we had no idea what we were supposed to be looking for, so we probably missed some really great swing bands.

Luckily, however, later that night we ran into the go-to person for swing dancing in Sendai, Nammy, a lovely lady who we were introduced to recently after mentioning our interest in dancing to a JET veteran. Anyway, a bit of a dance to Nammy's band and a glass of wine later and we were scheduled to dance in front of the main stage for the finale of the festival!

So on Sunday we turned up mid-afternoon to do a practice run and get our back stage passes. The band we were to dance to was an excellent Elvis tribute band called Erudorado (a Japanification of El Dorado). Okay, it's not quite proper swing, but it's got a good beat for it and we did just fine when it came time for the main event.

And it's on video! We're the first couple to walk on as the band starts up. The first song is Jailhouse Rock, and then there's Can't Help Falling in Love, which is way too slow to dance to, so we just sway a lot. There's a part two to this video with the other two songs they played (I Wanna Play House With You and Blue Suede Shoes), but you can't really see much of us in that one.

Here we are coming off stage after. Total rock star moment:

This one is back stage after the show. Nammy is bottom left, Erudorado's lead singer is in the grey suit, the two chaps on the left are also in the band, and the mob of well-dressed folks to the right are our fellow dancers.

It was pretty amazing to be involved with this when we're still feeling like total newbies in the city. We feel very lucky to have stumbled upon such a rad group of people at the right time and right place!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

cat dog rabbit

This delightful band of vagabonds casually stroll the city streets daily, resting when the bunny gets tired.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Have you seen the banana man?

Shopping at the supermarket in Japan can be a very strange experience. On my first day in Sendai I stood dumbfounded in the middle of my local suupaa, completely bewildered as I wondered which carton of milk to buy out of the half dozen or so varieties on display, none of which I could satisfactorily distinguish from the other. The bread came in packs of six ultra-thick slices. There were about 50 different types of soy sauce. You could pick and pack your own fish with a pair of tongs. A single peach cost about 500 yen, or $NZ8. In short, it was weird.

Then I came across this guy: the Dole banana man.

In the video I saw, which was helpfully playing on a small screen nestled amongst the produce, and which can be found here, bananas come out of the guy's pants, to the delight of all onlookers.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

let's sail round the bay

This wee post is about our trip to Matsushima, a coastal town about 20 minutes by train from Sendai, where they hold a famous firework and lantern summer festival.

We spent the whole day there wandering the streets and eating things on sticks. Chicken on a stick, pork on a stick and banana on a stick!

Unfortunately banana on a stick really wasn't that good. I don't know what we expected though - blue chocolate?

After our treat we took an hour long boat ride around the bay, weaving between the dozens of small islands. It was very beautiful. A cross between Akaroa and the Bay of Islands.

Enticed by the promise of sea otters, we went to the aquarium, only to find lots of beavers. But none-the-less it was jolly good fun.

Gareth took a million zillion photos on the camera, but these were some of our favourites:
Eels hiding in pipes

Panda dolphins

and lots of little jellyfish

Notable mentions -- gigantic, dinosauric, South American fish that were tricky to photograph. The Ocean Sunfish that just looked too sad to photograph because of its desolate tank. And the delightful seal show that kept us too entralled to whip out the camera.

Matsushima is also famous for its anicent temples and shrines nestled in forests and carved into rock faces.

It was particularly nice walking around through the trees in the gloaming with the fesitval lanterns in the background.

And then it was time for the fireworks! They were AMAZING! There were ones that made 3D shapes and faces.

The sea was covered in floating lanterns that made my heart melt.

There seems to be fireworks going off somewhere every weekend at night and sometimes during the day too. I don't quite understand this yet, but maybe in time it will all become clear.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The bright lights of Namco Land

So, walking along one of the main shopping arcades in Sendai, Ichibancho Dori, we came across the Namco Land video arcade, the birthplace of Tekken and home to dozens of grabby-arm prize games such as this one.

Clearly on the lookout for a sound investment opportunity for my hard-earned yen, I decided I must win one of these ridiculous, fat, stubby and impossibly cute soft toys for Mirabel.

It took me a couple of gos to figure out the nuances of the contraption, but despite feeling confident of my robo-arm-grabbing ability, victory was proving elusive. After chewing through around 1600 yen and experiencing several "ooh, so close" moments, I threw my arms up in despair and decided the game was rigged to eat your money, just like all those way less enticing versions of this in New Zealand.

But wait! On our way back down the street what did we see but a boy winning the very prize for this lucky young lady!

I was back on the case, more determined than ever and assured of an at-least slim chance of success. Check out my technique: the finesse on the buttons, the concentrated stare. This is gaming zen.

A few hundred yen and a couple of well-placed pincer movements later, and Mirabel was the proud owner of one brown, blobby, cute pillow-thing with a face. We named him Ashi-chan.

This is why we will be rubbish travellers. The hoarding of junk has already begun.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


Tonight I found a tiny green frog on the street outside our apartment. He was small and soft and cold.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

It becomes becomings happy feelings all

Hello there!
Gareth has done a pretty good run down on our Tokyo fun, but before I whisk you up north to Sendai I will mention just a couple of things...

In this photo I am outside the Karaoke bar, but behind me you can see a rack of clothes that we were delighted to learn were for hiring while you sing. Happiness!

I also have to mention the hotel toilets. Fit for a princess, I tell you. Heated seat, two types of fountains, deodoriser and fake flushing sounds (to diguise any blushing sounds). I'm sure there must have been a button to make rainbows somewhere on it too.

Anyway all too soon it was time to catch the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Sendai. I don't want to shatter too many illusions when I say this, but it didn't really feel that fast eep! Jolly nice ride through the countryside though.

We arrived in Sendai during the Tanabata festival, which is a celebration of the appearance of two stars in the night sky. Vega and Altair are two lovers separated by the Milky Way. Once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the lunisolar calendar they meet! Romance.
Sendai was looking absolutely glorious with large paper decorations hanging in the major streets and shopping arcades, and people running around in yukata and kimono.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Big in Japan, turning Japanese etc

Hello all,

Today I join All Your Stars Are Out as it transmutates from a crafty, radio showy, cakey, pretty thingsy blog of one person to a travelly, Japanesey, weird thingsy, musicky (and crafty, cakey, pretty thingsy) blog of two.

Mirabel and I moved to Sendai, Japan about one month ago, and we've only recently got the ol' internet hooked up in our apartment. This was very exciting, as we had very limited exposure to the outside world throughout August and we can finally check out the news (and I can catch up on Achewood).

And so but I guess initially some backstory is in order. So let's start at the very beginning, and get a terrible rash of cliches out of the way at the same time. Two birds, one stone.

Arriving in Tokyo on August second, the pair of us were shepherded in a very orderly fashion straight from Nanakita Airport, via a brief exposure to the sweltering humidity of the mid-summer air, to the air conditioned, five-star, slightly sterile bubble that is the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku.

We spent three days getting a crash course in this whole teaching lark, and collecting mountains of "helpful" (as in, "man, I had something that explained this! Now which of these twelve folders is it in?") hand-outs and booklets, clutching the foreign security blanket of 1000 other JET participants in the same situation. You could venture out into the real Tokyo in the evenings but the safety of Western food and English-speaking hotel staff were but a hop, skip and jump away if it all became too much.

So, we strolled around Shinjuku on the first night, and visited the New Zealand embassy the next. The embassy put on a nice spread of battered fish and mussels wrapped in bacon for us, and their garden was really stunning. Apparently the building is on the former site of the Japanese presidential family grounds, which would explain the impressive landscaping.

After the embassy, we took the subway back to the hotel, on the way walking through the famous Shibuya intersection -- the one in Lost in Translation with the video billboards and the loads of people.

It was pretty impressive. I dare say more impressive than our hurriedly taken snapshots would suggest.

The next night was karaoke with the some of the other JET particpants placed in and near Sendai, and our first introduction to the Japanese art of nomihodai, or all you can drink. M and I rocked the mic right to Captain and Tenille and Bruce Springsteen, and then it was back to the Keio Plaza in time to hit the hotel bar to recreate another Lost in Translation moment: drinking a Suntory whiskey and pretending to be Bill Murray.

"For relaxing times, make it Suntory time".

It was kind of worth it for the movie reference, but the freaking thing set me back nearly 2000 yen, the equivalent of around $NZ30. Sigh. Some things just have to be done, I guess? Mirabel had a juice.