Saturday, September 30, 2006

of thin walls and cute guys

When you're living in a place as quiet and remote as Urasa, you can literally hear a pin drop. Let me illustrate that by sharing the following which has just happened.

I was trying to get a good night's sleep for the drive to Niigata in a few hours' time and was about to enter slumberland when I heard voices from what I thought was the corridor of the dorms.

A bunch of students were throwing a farewell party for some of the Tokyo batch who was here for their English language programme. I knew they had just ended the party when I heard laughter and voices slightly after midnight.

But this group of grrls here were still carrying on their conversation and what I found most interesting was that I could hear almost every single detail of their animated chatter. And what amused me, and not surprisingly so, was that they were talking about the cute guys on campus!

As much as I would've joined them, I think I wasn't the only one who could hear their voices. Sound travels really well around here, so much so that rumours are known to spread very fast. So I did what I had to do. Waited a little while more to see if they would cease talking.

But knowing how the topic went on, I knew it might even last till sun break. So I unlocked my door as quietly as possible. And to my surprise, they all stopped talking almost immediately. Add to that, they weren't in the walkways after all, they were just at the stairs, which was just next to my room.

Oh boy, either it is that quiet around here or the dorms have really thin walls.

Friday, September 29, 2006

welcome to iuj

Hey people! I'm writing this for the first time from my new place here in IUJ. Am currently living in the dorms and have met some of the most interesting people ever. Looks like everyone is someone in their own fields. Or are at least amazingly talented in some area. And the best thing is we all speak English here.

Shifted in here over last Friday and Saturday. And ever since then, have been swamped with workshops and briefings non-stop. FYI, the semester hasn't started yet. I'm still bewildered at the busyness of my 1 week here. The only time I get to be back in the room is to bathe and sleep.

We've had career workshops which will definitely help in our job hunting, good start to the semester as we'd be too busy to think about applying for jobs once classes begin. There are also pre-course workshops which I thought was helpful in jogging the memory in subjects like statistics.

In the midst of all these, we had our opening ceremony at the Sawarabi community hall. Everyone looked so smart all dressed up. Picture here taken with the rest of the Monbusho scholars, except for Daniel who had not checked in yet.

Right after the ceremony, I took a qualifying Jap test and my initial plan was to take up the Basic/Elementary track. But for the fun of it, I sat for the Intermediate test just to see where I stood. I only knew like half of the kanji in the list they gave and still had lots to go in my verb conjugations. So it wouldn't be surprising if I failed.

That night itself, as I loitered around the notice boards, Takeuchi sensei came out with the results list and pasted the results for the Intermediate test. Surprise surprise! I passed! I not only double-checked, but triple checked and came back again the next day to see if it really was my ID on that list. Now I'm in a dilemma, whether to take up the Intermediate which might take a toll on my Masters course, or to take it easy and do the Elementary track.

And if that wasn't enough, I also signed up with 4 other guys to take up the Innovation Challenge. I've always had a tinge of interest in these sorta stuff but never met anyone who'd be keen to take it up. Since we're all 1st year students and competing against the geniuses from the best MBA schools around the world, it would definitely be an interesting challenge.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

kyoukai kyanpu

After the amazing race in Hokkaido, I thought I could do with some rest and almost wanted to forgo the church camp. Besides, I still had things to settle before moving out. But after considering the circumstances, I decided to just go ahead with it.

Because of the camp and the fact that our Ps Tony was away in Tokyo, they cancelled the English service. So I had to attend the Japanese one instead. The last time I went for one was when I first stepped foot into Grace Chapel and found myself crying at the beautifully familiar music. Then I realised that it was through the Japanese service that I began my relationship with the local church and had my last as well.

The only people from the English service was Korean Lee and Filipino Rey. But because I was still very new, they specially engaged an interpreter for me. Ps Tsuchiya just had to announce that to the congregation. I was quite red-faced to find that he was translating just for me! What privilege :D

My personal interpreter did an excellent job (but unfortunately I have forgotten his name!), and I really enjoyed the service. I never knew Ps Tsuchiya had such a sense of humour. What shame, if only I understood more Japanese.

Most of the Japanese congregation departed for the camp straight after that. I had a lift from Akiko-san, a Sri Lankan who took up Japanese citizenship. She's been living in Japan for almost 15 years already, and undoubtedly had a good command of the language. Her own children prefer Japanese food more than her Sri Lankan curry.

I've never stayed in a typical Japanese hotel before. Business travellers tell me that those in Tokyo are so small you barely have space to walk around. But here in Niigata, they look so spacious and luxurious. They even moved the coffee (well, in this case, tea) table aside while you have your dinner downstairs so that they can lay out the futon and pillow for you. How Japanese.

Food was an art in itself. The type of plates used, layout of the various cutleries, play of colour and tastes. It was like having a 10 course meal, except that the courses are served all at once. I heard that the meal itself cost Y3,000. I wouldn't be surprised.

The next morning, just before the message, Ps Tsuchiya approached me to give a testimony. I was so unprepared for it since I just wanted to rest and relax and perhaps blend in and hope no one finds out about me. Unfortunately, he only gave me a minute to prepare a 3 minute testimony. Now, everyone knew who I was, what I was doing and why that camp would be my last time with them.

With my broken Japanese, I managed to make friends with most of them. They've been pretty hospitable and really gracious. To a fault! But it was a nice way to say goodbye. Having fun and enjoying each other's company. How ironic, just as I was beginning to grasp the language, I had to bid farewell and miss out on getting to know these people better.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

the thought of spending a night at the airport

Yesterday must've been the most stressful experience ever. I was supposed to take a flight back, but had an open ticket. However, I was also on waiting list for the 2 afternoon flights. So I went to the Sapporo Chitose Airport to wait for my flight.

The first one came and went. My number was not called. I prayed really hard, the next flight was my only way home. Niigata was up on the screen, but no number yet. Suddenly it disappeared. I wondered if it meant that the flight was full and I couldn't get a seat. Then Niigata went up again, I noticed the boarding gate changed.

Just about 10 minutes before departure time, my number came up. I was happy, but a little hesitant. I still had to confirm my seat at the counter. The ANA officer was typing something at the computer. It was taking longer than expected. He had a puzzled look on his face. Was there something wrong with my ticket? My credit card transaction didn't go through? A million questions ran through my head.

I was bracing for the worst. And then, the ANA officer called out someone's name, a Japanese, who had just checked in. Dang, there goes my seat. Stupid guy, why did you have to check in so late and dash my hope at the last minute? I was devastated. But not enough to strangle him.

With a few choices and very little time, I had to decide fast. I could be on the waiting list again for the flights the next day, which was today. The catch was that I had to repeat the whole process and I might not even get a flight again. Moreoever, after checking with the officers, I was told that I couldn't sleep in the airport. I had to find a hotel. After spending so much already, I couldn't afford to spend another night there.

Since there are no buses plying between the Hokkaido and Honshu islands, that was out. I was left with train and ferry. Taking shinkansen would've cost as much as the flight itself. Taking the normal train would've taken almost 19 hours and costing about Y19,000, which was only a few thousand yen less than the previous option.

I decided to take a gamble and go for the ferry instead. And thus began my amazing race. I bought a ticket for Tomakomai, the nearest terminal which could bring me home to Niigata. But after buying the ticket, I was told by the trainmaster that there might not be a next train from the airport since Tomakomai was only served by local trains. I got a refund and asked for an alternative. He showed me how to get to the bus stop.

The bus bound for Tomakomai was just outside the airport, and would be leaving in 10 minutes. But I had to think of a way to get to the ferry terminal from the last stop. I don't even know how long the bus would take, or where the ferry terminal was. But I was already on the bus and could only ask the person sitting behind me.

Unfortunately, he was also a first time visitor to Hokkaido. But he did keep me company while I was anxiously strategising my plans. I had to have a back up plan in case this didn't work. My phone was giving me problems and with my limited Japanese, I couldn't really understand some of the words they speak. It was really a do or die situation.

The last stop was at the Tomakomai train station. I could've gotten a train from the airport using another line, and detour back there, but with the local trains running so infrequently and the day getting late, I couldn't risk it. Upon reaching the station, my new friend kindly asked for a taxi to fetch me to the ferry terminal.

On the way to the terminal, I asked the taxi driver how much it would cost. When I heard Y6,000 I thought I heard wrongly or that he misunderstood my question. The price of a ferry ticket was also Y6,000. He understood my situation and drove quiet fast. And then it dawned on me that he really said Y6,000. It took at least half an hour to reach the terminal.

In my purse there was only enough for the ferry ticket. I asked if I could remit the fare from Niigata when I got home instead. Of course, that was not doable. But I had to try. Then I asked if there was a post office nearby. He said it was not on the way. With no time and little choice, we decided to stop by 7-11 and thank God, the ATM there accepted my post office cash card.

With a little extra money and less worry on my face, we sped off to the terminal. But along the way, he mentioned that there were 2 ferry terminals in Tomakomai, and only one has the Niigata-bound ferry. Both were quite a distance apart. I was thinking, if we end up in the wrong terminal, I would have no choice but to go back to the town and pay him another Y6,000.

Just a few minutes before reaching the terminal, he got a phone call. He was talking to someone who was apparently questioning his choice and if there was really a ferry bound for Niigata that evening. Apparently, my taxi driver had called one of his peers to check out for him after finding out about my predicament. At that moment, I said to myself this was a gamble and there was really no turning back.

We reached the ferry terminal and saw the ship at the dork. The taxi driver was really nice enough to accompany me in and help me get my ticket. Thank God it was bound for Niigata after all! I reached there with only 15 minutes to spare.

Once on board, I was preparing myself for the 18 hours ahead with nothing but the sea around me. Since I paid for the cheapest fare, I wasn't eligible for a bed. But I had my bulky rucksack. That would have to do then.

But as I was about to find my room, I ran into Naomi-san, one of the Japanese students from my uni. Words cannot describe my relief. And she came with a group of friends, some of whom I knew from the volunteer class. I could only say "yokatta, honto ni yokatta". They even invited me to bunk in with them.

So now, I had friends to keep me company and a bed for a good night's sleep. And it turned out that, they also visited the same places in Hokkaido. So we chatted away sharing our experiences while looking at photos.

It was rocky ride, but the sleep helped. Speaking of which, we must've spent the bulk of the time sleeeping. We also played card games and Jenga, yes a challenging one that. And soon we were at the Niigata port. It was a harrowing experience and I still have to go to the ANA office to request for a refund for my unused ticket. But a memorable experience, nonetheless.

Through this trip, I took the airplane and ferry, both of which I never expected to do while in Japan. Some extra pimples popped up and I got a good workout for my heart. I'm still feeling the buoyancy of the ride. I know there is some word to describe what I'm feeling now, it's like being "terayun-ayun", or something to that effect.

I really must get some food and then an early night. This crazy adventure will swear me off any holiday trips forever in the near future. I might even be too traumatised to write about my Hokkaido trip. We'll see how.

Friday, September 15, 2006

hokkaido hopping

In case you were wondering the dearth of blog updates this week, I'm in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan.

As I was thinking what to write in such a short period of time (have to catch a plane, but I'm actually on waiting list), I realised that I haven't even finished my Aizu stories and the trips I did in Tokyo. And I can't wait to get back to upload tales from Hokkaido. I'm such a sanguine!

Anyways, spending the week in Hokkaido and thus getting away from the heat in Honshu was a good idea. Have been staying in Sapporo for the past 4 nights. I love the way the city is laid out, very systematic, much akin to America's grid system. Each block is numbered according to their coordinates, for example : Kita 4 Nishi 5 (North 4 West 5). This is such a pleasant change compared to the other parts of Japan where the roads don't even have names!

Bought myself the Hokkaido Rail Pass where for Y14,000 I can travel anywhere in Hokkaido in 3 days using their trains and some buses. I've since covered Sapporo, Otaru, Furano, Asahikawa, Noboribetsu and Hakodate and I'm proud to say the amount used is double the worth of the original pass. This is actually very useful for those wishing to hop around the island and see what Hokkaido has to offer. There is also the Y18,000 pass for 5 days.

Needless to say, travelling within Japan is an expensive hobby. I guess the only way I could visit so many places was because I managed to save quite a bit living in a small town like Niigata! For those wishing to do Hokkaido, you might have to spend up to Y80,000 for a week of fun and relaxation. I took the plane from Niigata to save time, but if you have loads of free time to spare, try out the ferry or trains. You will be able to cut down on travelling expenses by quite a bit.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

featful week

Lots have happened this week. Some bite-sized updates are in order :

1) Bought a 14 year old Subaru Rex from my senior in Urasa. Drove it back here to Niigata. Achievement of sorts. First time in 10 years driving a manual car. And also, my first time driving a manual car long distance. I also had to drive her around for some errands coz I'm so nice her licence has expired, so it was my first time driving a 4WD MPV, Honda Stream. Very smooth and easy to handle. Automatic, definitely.

The My car (chewah, that sounds good!) is still not washed and vacummed, so pictures will be up later ya. Also need to get some stuff like umbrella, shovel, maps, notebook and some other necessities.

2) Finally cooked the nasi lemak meant for Merdeka. First time for Alden and I, so it was really trial and error. Our guinea pig willing tester was Gene, even though he didn't know about it. But since he liked it, it must be quite good. The only thing lacking was sambal, the all important ingredient that gives it the oomph. So we made up for it by throwing in some concoction of spicy spices and what turned out tasted like fish head curry punya sauce. Haha.

But if you look at this picture, boleh makan lah. I even took the extra coconut milk to make some desserts. So that's how we had our own little Merdeka celebration, belated but doable.

3) Since I'm currently attending the English service, I hardly meet the people from the 2 Japanese services of our church. I decided to be brave and join them for their annual BBQ. One thing about Japanese BBQ's, they're usually held in the afternoons, like during summer! So I went there with this elderly couple, the Iguras and their friend, Tanaka-san. I had to switch my brains to Japanese mode, since almost throughout the whole journey, we had to speak in Japanese.

It was in a park somewhere near Shibata, about an hour's drive away. Lots of fresh yummy seafood and good fellowship. But I think what I ended up doing was quietly enjoying the fun and observing the antics of what I regarded as typical Japanese christians. Needless to say, with my looks I blended in quite well, and some thought I was one of them. That is, until I opened my mouth with my half-baked Japanese. But Japanese being Japanese, they will praise your Japanese and say you're so jouzu.

My saving grace was the American pastor and this Sri Lankan lady, and their families who came to join us later. I also met a Chinese couple who has been living in Niigata for about 6 years already. So yesterday, I spoke all the languages I knew, except for Bahasa Malaysia.

I'm taking another step of bravery to further Japanise myself coz I just signed up for the church camp. I imagine I will be surrounded by people who hardly speak English and most words will sound like an unintelligible buzz around me. I must be quite sadistic to throw myself to the deep end of the pool like that.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

japanised enuf?

I've officially finished my Japanese language course! Can't believe time flies by so fast. I can still remember the day we had our opening ceremony. The sensei's, the high ranking people (I know they have specific posts!) and many new faces. Some of them went up to welcome us and introduce us to the course. I didn't understand what they were talking about up there on the stage then.

Today, we had our closing ceremony, sorta like a graduation thingy. Sadly, I still didn't understand some of what they said in their speeches this afternoon. Haha. Does that mean I am a bad student? To be fair, some of it sounded really deep and I'm only at the elementary level.

It was really quite sad bading our sensei's farewell. They've been a wonderful lot, patiently teaching and correcting us. I'm gonna miss those times when we had games, challenges, quizzes and movies just so that we wouldn't fall asleep in the afternoon classes and still be up for new grammar rules.

To all my Japanese teachers - Mr & Mrs Ikeda, Koketsu, Matsuda, Wada, and Shibata sensei, : 日本語のクラスはいつもおもしろくて、楽しかったです。日本語を教えてくださってありがとうございました。つぎのがっきうらさで勉強つずけて、いつ会うかわからないんですが、お元気でね。新潟大学のかたがた、国際volunteerのかたがたかんしゃいたします。どうもありがとうございました。