Sunday, June 27, 2010

Sayonara 日本!

**Brief announcements: most (if not all) of these pictures were captured by a friend, so many thanks to Peter's photographic talent! Also, happy (early) birthday to Kamila! So, on we go.**

I was losing sight of him amongst the crowded stalls and colorful attire of the enthusiastic proprietors eagerly seizing opportunities to attract new customers.

“Green tea, black English tea, cheap prices!”

“Delicious shrimp-flavored senbei, only a few bags left!”

“Zunda mochi, a Sendai original!”


(fish loaf)

Say what? I blinked, struggling to focus on the rapidly waving packet held by my friend, who had reappeared out of nowhere. All grins, he continued undeterred by my apparent confusion, repeatedly poking the egg-shaped packets. “It’s perfect for a present! It’s a unique Sendai flavor!”

I nodded slowly, trying to figure how to best convey my appreciation while again attempting to explain that I needed something that, while visibly Japanese in origin, would also be something I could convince my friends/family to try. Not an easy feat, when the word “soy” exhorts notable cringing and mentions of “raw fish” can generally clear a table of people in record time. In the short while that we had wandered the souvenir stands beneath the train station, my friend and I had run through several similar options—shrimp and fruit curry mix (expires in less than 3 days), spicy rice crackers (won’t survive the airport luggage handlers’ tender care), nori-filled lemon candy (even my friend rejected a sample), salami-like strips of dried beef tongue (can you even get that through customs?).

Packing for home turned out to be more complicated than I had expected.

This is not to say that departure preparations curtailed my traveling entirely! I visited Kamila and Peter in Tokyo (twice actually...the last time being my final week in Japan), where they are living for a month so that Kamila can pursue her doctoral research. Amongst other things, this included a visit to the spectacular Yokohama ferris wheel, the beautiful temples at Nikko, and the necessary sojourn to Tokyo’s Akihabara area. Concerning the latter, as I have absolutely no expertise in the world of technology/video games/comics, my major find for the day was a giant gorilla head that adorned the outside of a curry restaurant.

Beautiful Yokohama

The Ferris Wheel! EXCITING!!

Kamila and Peter, who patiently tolerated my overenthusiastic gushing regarding the incredible coolness of the ride.

But you have to admit, it is cool.

Shrines and Temples at Nikko, a UNESCO World Heritage Site!

It was hot. >:\

In another encounter with larger-than-life exotic animal-exhibiting food establishments, I recently found myself face to face with a life-sized ET plushie outside of a taiyaki (remember the waffle fish?) store. Several weeks ago while leaving a coffee shop in town, a friend and I ran into a Japanese individual looking for English language practice; ironically, Yusuke was also a member of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. Thank you, karma. Needless to say, what followed was a very interesting afternoon of traversing the Sendai landscape and coffee shop scene (I attempted to limit research-related questions to an un-geekly amount). Our final visit for the day was to the aforementioned taiyaki store, which, in addition to providing employee-taught English, German, and Chinese lessons to desiring customers, also had unusual menu offerings such as Indian curry chicken or German sausage potato taiyaki. (Choose the curry.)

Taiyaki fish (not my photo--credit to Shizuoka Gourmet)

After a whirlwind of packing and crushing all my belongings into an overweight suitcase, I spent a final week in Tokyo, also having the opportunity to attend a Fulbright-sponsored tour of the Japanese Diet Building and Supreme Court. This involved a lecture from one of Japan’s Supreme Court Justices (while standing in his private office—cool.), as well as a Q&A session hosted by a member of the House of Representatives. After attending a Fulbright conference the following day on Japanese “soft power,” the other Fulbrighters and I celebrated one of the Fellow’s birthdays with a dinner at the Tokyo restaurant that inspired a scene in the movie “Kill Bill.”

This is it--ate on the second floor (again not my photo)

Suddenly, after months of navigating Japanese grocery stores, kanji crunching, and research recitations, I found myself staring at Delta’s steamed squash and potato dinner—accompanied by sides of a sourdough roll filled with additional potato paste and a patty of guacamole in salsa (?)—and sitting next to a very kind elderly woman who smelled of mothballs while her screaming grandchild viciously (and quite determinedly) walloped the back of my seat with a stuffed monkey. Flash forward 24-hours, and the Chicago deep-dish pizza I bullied my sister into ordering (from a very readable English menu) was worlds apart from the sushi and onigiri to which I had become accustomed. Surprisingly, I found myself almost eager to duck into one of the many sushi restaurants Chicago offers, just to see if I could find something that I had come to consider good eats. Reverse culture shock is an interesting thing.

Proof of deep dish for ye unbelievers.

With the conclusion of the Fulbright year, it’s a brief summer detour in the States before the next saga abroad continues—this time for a 3-year stint—in Scotland this fall. This is not the end for the Fulbright research, however, nor for my travels in Japan; I hope (with some notable editing) to eventually publish the past year’s work, and perhaps to use some of the collected data in dissertation research. Finally, many thanks to all those who made this opportunity possible for their contributions to what was a truly wonderful and unique experience. Your commitment and ongoing dedication to making such diverse and enriching experiences possible is admirable and very much appreciated.

And so, I’m off to take advantage of one benefit provided by the US-based Starbucks—more coffee for less! For those starting on their own new adventures, either domestic or abroad, がんばって!See you! wanted to see the gorilla curry shop, didn't you. Right, then. Akihabara's Go Go Curry! restaurant:

(photo = still not mine; credit to Adrian Lozano.

My camera is still in the bottom of my suitcase. Somewhere. ...probably.)