Things You Thought You Knew #10: Are Black Cats Bad Luck?

What You Thought You Knew: A black cat crossing your path could cause bad luck.

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What You Didn’t Know: Whether you’re superstitious or not, the fact remains that many people believe that black cats cause bad luck. It’s why they’re popular Halloween symbols and why they’re the least adopted animals at rescue shelters. But it seems like the whole superstition may be a little overplayed.

In ancient Egypt, black cats were seen not only as acceptable but even as praiseworthy, so harming one was considered an extremely serious offense (of the same degree as, say, murder). The Japanese consider black cats to be good luck, and even in Europe and early America where the bulk of black cat myths existed, sailors still believed that a black cat on the docks boded well for their voyage. In fact, a black cat on the ship was extremely good luck, especially if it approached you on deck. If you threw it overboard…well, you might as well have been tying your own noose, they say.

But I’m not really interested in the superstitions about how witches can turn into black cats at night (the prevalent opinion especially during the times surrounding the Salem Witch Trials). So instead, I wanted something more factual. In what percent of people does the presence of a black cat immediately precede “bad luck” (negative consequences)?

As it turns out, bad “luck” happens to the best of us, and the kitties don’t have anything to do with it. In a statistical analysis of black cat encounters immediately prior to a coin toss, each person tested did report a slight drop in favorable outcomes (choosing the correct side), but the average success/failure rate was still within that person’s normal range, as proven by prior testing.

To ensure that the study wasn’t too biased, the participants were then also exposed to WHITE cats (thought to bring good luck) crossing their paths. Again, the average success/failure rate changed, but it still remained within the person’s average. It is interesting to note, however, that the black cat made the rate go down slightly and the white cat granted success for the first few throws after its appearance. In both cases, averages returned to normal quickly.

It seems, then, that the cats had nothing to do with the averages, which would have been fluctuating anyway, regardless of whether or not cats walked in front of the participants.

Now You Know: That there is no statistical proof that black cats cause negative outcomes.

Japan Part 18: Coming Home

This morning was both a sad and an exciting one – though I was sad to be leaving Japan, I was excited to return home and have some time to rest after our constant travels. I packed my bags (and yes, I was able to fit in all the food as well) and headed down to the lobby to wait for my group.

Once we were in the station, we just had to go buy some tickets for the Narita express. Once we were on that, it’d be smooth sailing to the airport. Unfortunately, Sarah’s irritating antics knew no ends – even at the end of our trip. Headphones blasting in her ears like always, she walked out the wrong gate and used up her ticket. I was shouting at her, but of course she could not hear me. Had I not been paying attention to her, we would have left her behind and she would have had no idea where to find us.

I’d had it with her – that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Once she’d caught up with us, she put her headphones in and stood around waiting for Sensei to buy her ticket. She was standing out in the open in everyone’s way, not even trying to move, making people trip.

All right, that’s it.

You should have seen the look on her face when she felt my fist connect with her right shoulder blade. I glared at her and, white knuckling her shoulder, shoved her out of the way.

“MOVE.”

She said nothing. With her headphones in, she probably didn’t even hear me.

With Sarah still completely oblivious (but by then safely at Sensei’s side) we went off to get some snacks for the train. I grabbed a bean bun, some French toast, and a donut, all of which I ate on the express.

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I watched Japan fly by outside the windows, thinking that there was still so much that I hadn’t seen.

That’s the way it should be. If we saw all we could see, life would be no fun.

Once we got to the airport, we hovered around at the shops for a little bit and I finally bought a Japan T-shirt (everybody’s got to be a tourist at some point). We dropped off our luggage and waited around until our flight boarded.

Once we were on the plane, I eagerly flipped to the selection of movies…to find they were exactly the same crappy movies we’d had on the way out.

Oh well, I’ll just listen to my MP3 player instead. I put 10 hours of Two Steps from Hell music on there. I should be good.

MP3 is dead. WHAT? I hadn’t listened to the thing since it had been fully charged on the way over. How did this happen?

But wait. I, ever the resourceful traveler, can fix this. I fished around in my bag and, wouldn’t you know it, I knew myself too well – there was a USB in the front pocket of my backpack.

I took out my laptop and plugged my MP3 in to charge and played Hanafuda until the laptop was ready to die. By then, my music was good to go for the rest of the 11-hour trip.

Once we got off the plane, we were given a bright orange express ticket and told to go to the front of all lines – our plane would not wait for us. As far as I knew, we still had plenty of time, so I didn’t know why everyone was panicking. We went to wait for our luggage, which I assumed was express also.

Wrong.

Our luggage was THE LAST to come out of the belt.

Okay…why would you give someone an express ticket telling them their flight will leave without them if they don’t hurry and then don’t bother to give them their luggage first?

We had waited for our luggage for nearly an hour; long enough that a security guard came over and started whistling and dancing to keep us entertained (for real!).

Once we got our luggage, we RAN to customs and got through as fast as we could. During the typical customs question-answer time, my checker said, “What were you doing in Japan?”

“Oh, we were studying,” I replied. “I’m a Japanese major, and that’s my sensei over there.”

He looked. “So if she’s your sensei, does that make you a grasshopper?”

That, good sir, was epic.

Once we got through customs, we got completely lost. There were no signs for American Airlines, and we were all running around like headless chickens before Sensei finally found an airport worker and got directions. Of course, because we were going to miss our flight, we had to leave the airport and walk quite a ways and take a subway and all that jazz. At one point, Sarah was leading the way, and I asked her where she was going.

“I don’t know.”

THEN WHY ARE YOU LEADING US?

Finally, we found our luggage dropoff point. We all wheeled her suitcases to her and then started to run off, but she stopped me and Amy.

“Oh, sweetie, you need to push these under the railing.”

Okay, PUNK. What is your job? Standing here doing nothing? We’re going to miss our flight, so how about you do YOUR job and push them under there!?

So we had to stand there and filter our luggage 2 MORE INCHES under the clogged railing. Sorry. Didn’t want to make you actually do your job, airport lady. We’re not in a rush or anything.

Once we got to security, there was an officer shouting, “Passengers for Chicago come to the front of the line! Your flight is leaving soon! The flight will NOT wait for you!”

You think?

I bullied my way to the front of the line only to have a large African American woman hold out her hand and smack me in the neck. “YOU NEED TO WAIT BEHIND ME, HUN! I be sick’a all your friends gettin’ in front’a me!”

I glared at her and held up my express pass. “Do you have one of these?” I growled.

“Yes I do,” she said but didn’t show it.

Lady, I can see your flight ticket. You don’t have one. Whatever, you have one? Go.

She then proceeded to NOT go until the security guard grabbed me by the shoulder and shoved me into the spot in front of her. Yeah, that’s what you get. Now I get to go in front of you too.

We were in such a rush that I didn’t even get to tie my shoes before we had to leap onto the plane. It was a close call.

Once we were on the flight, I settled down and watched Jack the Giant Slayer. The woman next to me (an African American woman that looked strangely familiar…) acted like she was in first class – taking up both arm rails, covering my headphone jack, ordering wine, and taking out an entire box of pizza to eat on her tray table.

Thankfully, once that flight ended and the final one began, things were much easier. Less than an hour after takeoff, we landed back in good old Grand Rapids. Some family reunions took place for those lucky enough to have family in the area, and the rest of us said goodbye to each other, got one last group picture, and then grabbed our luggage and went our separate ways. I had a free shuttle back to campus, where I checked in to the conference center and sprawled on the cool, crisp bedsheets. I called my mom for the first time in weeks, then settled down to go to sleep, the faint sounds of Monsters, Inc mumbling in the background on TV.

America. Home at last.

Japan Part 17: Hachiko and the Shibuya Crossing

This morning, Taylor, Amy, Brian, and I decided to head out on our own for a more relaxed day. I only had two things that I wanted to do, and both were very easy (and in the same place) – see the Hachi statue and go up in a Starbucks to watch Shibuya crossing. All Brian wanted was to find a Phiten, which is a sports store. He said he even had a plan for how to do it. Cool.

On our way to Shibuya, our first destination, Brian asked me to teach him how to use the train system. Since he’d never traveled alone before, I was more than happy to show him the ins and outs of using public transportation. Once we got to Shibuya, it was pretty simple to find the statue of Hachi and snap a quick picture.

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The previous night, Taylor (who is a vegan) had had a pretty horrific dream about slaughterhouses and all sorts of animal death stuff. When she asked me what the significance of the dog statue was, I apparently only made her animal sadness for the day worse.

So, who is Hachi? Well, it’s actually a true story. Hachi was an abandoned dog (an akita) rescued by a Japanese college teacher. Hachi and his master bonded so deeply that, every day, Hachi would follow his master to the train station. When his master was due to return, he’d go to meet him at the station. This routine continued for years.

Then one day, the teacher had a heart attack while teaching at his college and died in the hospital. Hachi went to meet him at the station, but his master never returned. So, Hachi remained in front of Shibuya station for seven years, waiting for his master to return. People got to know who Hachi was, so they fed him and he survived by himself for those years. The statue of Hachi, a popular meeting place in Tokyo, was erected in the spot where Hachi died, still waiting for his master.

I strongly suggest that you watch this movie about Hachi (it’s GREAT): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhEHr7B1QiU

After seeing the statue, I suggested that we go across the street to head up into the Starbucks and get a picture of the famous Shibuya Crossing from above. As it turned out, we were getting pictures of it during a pretty SLOW time. Go figure.Image

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Since my day’s goals had been completed in about 10 minutes, I was cool to go wherever everyone else wanted to for the rest of the day. Brian said that he looked up Phiten locations the night before and knew there was one in Shibuya.

“Great!” I said. “Where is it?”

He shrugged. “It’s near the station.”

One does not simply walk into Shibuya. Its busy streets are confusing to more than just foreigners. It is a hectic metropolis, riddled with cars, and people, and smog. The very air you breathe is a muggy fume. You expect to find one store among thousands easily with no map or directions in Shibuya? Not with ten thousand men could you do this. It is folly.

Yeah. Only the Lord of the Rings nerds will care about what just happened there.

Needless to say, the prospects of finding said Phiten were completely hopeless. So, since Brian needed to exchange money, we stopped into a bank and then agreed to go back to the station to at least find a map. Unfortunately, Phiten wasn’t on it. Brian was a good sport, though, and said that it was okay if we didn’t find it. We didn’t really know where to go next, but just then, Sensei texted Taylor to say that we’d left before she gave us our stipend money for the day.

Oops. We thought yesterday’s stipend was all we got. Cool.

In order to make it easier on her, we went to where she was in Shinjuku to grab our money. While we were standing by the west exit waiting, a random Japanese person with a cheerful grin walked up to Brian.

“Where are you from?” the Japanese man asked.

“Michigan,” Brian replied. The Japanese man practically jumped for joy.

“Oh, great! Great state!”

As I was watching the Japanese man act…strangely, Sensei sneaked up behind me and pinched me on the arm.

Since when did she become mischievous like that?

We had a quick laugh, but we didn’t want to keep her for too long – she was going to visit her father’s grave and needed to meet up with her mom. She cautioned us that Shinjuku can be a kind of sketchy place, so we should stick to the main streets and shopping centers.

We were all famished by this point, so we agreed to just wander outside the station and find a place to eat. On the way out, I was asking Brian what was up with the Japanese guy he was talking to. Just as I kind of ducked around Amy so that I could see his answer, I accidentally slammed right into a little Japanese boy with a backpack.

Eh, I suppose “body tackled” is more appropriate, considering that he went flying and ended up plastered against a glass pillar. Oops. For the rest of the day, everyone kept teasing me, saying, “Wow, there’s a big crowd! Better let Carrie in the front, she’ll just tackle people out of the way!” and “I know your fortune said you should go for people younger than you, but come on!”

One long, dark tunnel under the train station led us out to a main street where we quickly found a ramen restaurant. I ordered some udon, totally unprepared for just how BIG those stinking noodles would be! Needless to say I couldn’t come close to finishing it all.

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As we were sitting and eating, we were talking about where we should go next. We kind of just wanted some sort of shopping mall. I suggested Roppongi, though I had never been there and didn’t know what we would find. Since no one really had any plans, we agreed that somewhere unique like Roppongi would be more fun than somewhere more typical like Harajuku.

Once we were at Roppongi, we kind of wandered around for a while before Brian popped into an Ipad store to use Google Maps on one of their display models and find us a mall. He was having some trouble, and it took multiple attempts before I finally convinced him just to ask the clerk for directions to the nearest mall.

Ugh. Men and asking for directions.

Thankfully, with the Japanese directions, the mall wasn’t hard to find. It was an eclectic place full of strange but cool statues and water fountains.

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We went inside for a bit and wandered around before we found a movie theater. We’d all kind of agreed the day before that, if we found a theater with good movies, we’d go see one. Considering how worn out our feet were feeling from our fruitless quest in Mordor…err, I mean Shibuya…we were definitely ready to sit down.

They had movies in multiple languages, but we figured that it would be cool to see one in English with Japanese subtitles. Originally, we were going to see Maniac, but we missed the showing for it, so we chose Oblivion instead. The theater was cool, and they even filter out all the old air in between movies so it’s fresh when you go in.

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After the movie, we only wandered around for a little bit (and accidentally found a Phiten!) before we headed back to the train station and then to our hostel.

We took a break for a short bit, but Taylor and Brian were planning on going out again. Why not, I figured. I’ll go too.

Right near the hostel was a cute little soup place, so I just ordered a really tiny bowl of miso since I wasn’t really hungry and then grabbed a little milkshake from the convenience store. I should have remembered that Japan is famous for never having garbage cans in public (reduces the bomb threat, I guess), so I had to carry around my empty container for about an hour.

Around one corner, we found an arcade and knew we’d be set for the rest of the night (AKA until we ran out of spare change). We went and got a purikura real quick, then spent most of our time on those claw games. Of course, Taylor was winning virtually everything.

She won a rug, for heaven’s sake.

Once we’d spent our change, Taylor went to play one last game – the table flipping game. Kind of reminds me of Money Making Game in Zelda….

Anyway, the entire goal is to flip the table as hard as you can and destroy as much stuff in the room as you can. Taylor flipped with all her might (a picture that my camera unfortunately deleted, along with many others), and the people in the room went flying.

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Then we got an epic replay of the people going flying and knocking over glasses and chairs and each other.

Then we got an epic replay of the epic replay of people going flying and knocking over glasses and chairs and each other.

Then we got an epic replay of another angle of the epic replay that showed the disco ball falling from the ceiling and the angry Japanese mother shouting.

It was, overall, pretty awesome. 🙂 A random tourist watching us had so much fun seeing us do it that he had to try afterward.

Our spare change spent and our feet tired, we went the few blocks back to the hostel to finally relax on this, our last day in Japan.

Japan Part 16: The Ghibli Museum and Goat-Flavored Ice Cream

This morning, our first morning in Tokyo, we made sure to meet Sensei at 8AM to grab our food stipend for the day before heading out. For these days in Tokyo, we were free to do as we pleased – Sensei hadn’t planned a single thing for us. In that case, Taylor and I had planned for months to make a stop at the Studio Ghibli museum in Mitaka.

Let the adventure begin.

We walked to the Asakusa station, bought some tickets on the local to Akihabara, then transferred to Sobu for Ochanomizu and the Chuo all the way to Mitaka. Thankfully, it was a shorter ride than I’d expected, as we kind of…got lost.

We had a map to follow once we got out of the Mitaka station – follow the waterworks straight down to the museum. Simple enough? Not really. When they said “waterworks,” Taylor and I were thinking something like a canal or river.

Yeah. Try a little brook thingy. Needless to say we missed it the first time we looked for it.

Once we realized that we weren’t on the right track (which, thankfully, only took a few minutes), we backtracked to the station and tried again with better results. Once we’d found that little stream that they called the “waterworks,” it really was a cinch getting to the museum. Follow the giant Totoro signs.

As soon as I saw the Ghibli museum, I was totally excited. They say that it’s supposed to be “a storybook world,” and that’s why they don’t let you take pictures inside.

In my personal opinion, the reason they don’t let you take pictures is because you’d never leave; you’d be taking so many pictures of all the awesome stuff.

On the sidewalk before we even entered the museum, we were dwarfed by the towering ivy sculptures and intrigued by the windows in the stones bursting with soot sprites. Even the natural leaves surrounding the rocks had soot sprites underneath.

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Once we were inside, we were instantly drawn to a display that had clay figurines of many Ghibli characters like Totoro and the cat bus. Each figurine was suspended on a circle around which slightly altered versions of it were also attached. The lights would go down, the circles spin, and a strobe light flicker. Suddenly, they looked smoothly animated!

There were a lot of displays that involved how to animate things, and we got to watch a bunch of film strip zoom through cameras all over the place. One was a short film on evolution, some of them included zoom boxes to let you zoom in on a place in the scene, and another was a box of instruments on sticks that, when moved together, made the whole scene animate.

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After we’d wandered around looking at all the amazing things inside, we went into Miyazaki’s office to see numerous images of pigs (a representation of himself), the pterodactyl that hangs from the ceiling in Spirited Away, huge walls of concept art and final panels, and the progression panels that animate the whole scene.

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There were secret tunnels all over the museum that you can crouch through to get to new areas or get a bird’s eye view of the place. It was pretty sweet.

Inside one of the secret passages was a book store containing entire collections of concept art for whole movies. I noticed one on Mononoke.

Once we’d gotten to the top floor of the museum, my heart just about broke. There was a LIFE SIZED, fluffy, USABLE cat bus on the top floor. But you had to be in elementary school in order to get in it. My life is officially over. I’ll never get inside the cat bus. Boo.

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We stopped shortly to soothe our aching hearts at the museum’s café. Taylor ordered minestrone and a drink called “here comes the sun.” Apparently, it starts dark like pre-dawn and, as you mix it with a straw (that’s actually made out of straw, by the way), a chemical reaction happens that makes the drink change color just like the sunrise.

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And it really worked. Well tickle me pink. While we were both oohing and aahing over her drink, my order of banana bread showed up. I had already broken into half of the food that my host parents had been giving me, so I wasn’t too hungry yet. Still, the bread was great!

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I did find it a little hilariously ironic that the menu outside the café was held up by a wooden sculpture of Porco Rosso and the main dish of the day was pork.

Oops.

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While we were outside, we explored a bit down below the museum and pumped up some water in the fountain just because we could. The place was beautiful, sporting real ivy all around and stained glass windows of Ghibli characters, like this one of Haku.

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Before we went back inside to wade through the crowd of middle-schoolers currently in the gift shop, I suggested that we climb the tower to the roof of the museum to see the iron giant from Nausicaa and a small rooftop garden. After that, we popped into the gift shop shortly, where  I picked up a stuffed animal Yakul (from Mononoke) that I’d always wanted and Taylor found her soul mate – a build-it-yourself model of an Ohm from Nausicaa.

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Needless to say she went away happy.

The last thing we had to do in the museum was to visit the theater, home of a Studio Ghibli museum exclusive movie. We have no idea what it was called, but it was about a witch and an egg princess and a dough man baked into bread. It was actually pretty epic. The theater itself was small, and our ticket for admission into the theater (which looked wicked awesome, by the way) was also our ticket for the movie.

Inside the theater, on the ceiling, was the rotating day and night panels of the sun and moon that can be seen in Spirited Away. This trend continued throughout the movie (such as with the pterodactyl mentioned earlier or the fact that the ceiling fans were Porco Rosso propellers).

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All in all, it was a pretty EPIC museum. Everyone should go, whether they like Ghibli or not. Just be advised that you must buy your tickets way in advance (we bought ours in April for a June visit) and in America – it’s hard (or impossible) to find tickets in Japan.

After that, Taylor and I were both pretty tired, so we decided to make only one more stop for the day – something we’d been looking forward to forever. Ice Cream City.

We rode to Ikebukuro, then took a local train to Higashi Ikebukuro. From there, it was a simple matter of following an underground tunnel to find Sunshine City mall. Taylor had no idea where we were going, so I led the way.

We walked around in the mall for a little while before I directed us to the second floor for NamjaTown, where I recalled that Ice Cream City was supposed to be. Man, I was so psyched to try all different kinds of weird flavored ice cream. I had my heart set on trying cactus flavor, but after that I wasn’t sure. I was thinking maybe eel or goat. After having tasted real raw horseflesh, I no longer saw the need to order the raw horseflesh ice cream.

However, after quite a while of looking, we just couldn’t find Ice Cream City. I knew we were in the right place, so I went and asked an information desk.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Ice Cream City is closed. It will open in two weeks.”

Of course it will. Because we’ll only be here two more days. Poopoo.

Oh well. Our ice cream dreams shattered, we decided to wander around a little more. We happened upon a Ghibli store (where I bought a whole set of Totoro miniatures so that I could line them all up like in the movie), then we decided that we were still hankering for some ice cream. Thankfully for us, there was a Coldstone nearby. I ordered some huge conglomeration of chocolate, fudge, chocolate, and fudge, then we sat and rested our feet for about an hour.

Good times, good times. Sometimes it’s nice to travel just with the people you actually want to travel with.

Once we’d finished, we got back on the trains and returned to Asakusa. As we were heading back to the hostel, I saw a great photo opportunity to get the Skytree in the same picture as a temple, so I ran over quickly to get a shot. Taylor followed, and next thing we knew, we were exploring the whole temple compound and the shopping district around it. 

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I must say, this temple had THE BIGGEST paper lanterns I have ever seen. Me for scale.

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It wasn’t long after we returned to the hostel that Sarah and Amy came back as well. It was obvious that Amy was exhausted, so she didn’t want to go back out with Sarah to meet Yosuke, a Japanese boy that Sarah’s family had hosted quite some years ago. Taylor, ever the saint, agreed to take Amy’s place at the dinner, so Amy and I sat and chitchatted about anime and video games for a few hours while we rested our feet. On the bunk beds.

After a quick run to a nearby Lawsons (a convenience store where we happened to meet up with Taylor and Sarah coming back), I snacked on some homestay family gift food while Taylor excitedly built her model Ohm that she bought from the Ghibli store. From that moment on, I (and eventually the others too) started affectionately calling her model “our ohmie” or “our ohmboy.”

The grin on her face brought by building such a hideous creature priceless.

While she was building our ohmie, Brian asked me to play Go with him. Since I was probably the only one on the trip who knew how to play Go, I agreed. Go, in its most basic explanation, is kind of like Othello. The goal is to capture territory, and you can do that by surrounding pieces. However, unlike Othello, surrounding just the ends is not enough. The person with the most territory at the end wins. For a more detailed explanation, check out good old Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rules_of_Go.

It was a long game, and he was quite good. In captures, he totally beat me. But in territory, I won. So while I technically won the game, he was the better fighter. By the time we’d finished the game, it was after 11, so we decided that we’d all go out together the next day and that we should probably get some sleep. Lights off, good night.

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Japan Part 15: Bohemian Rhapsody

Breakfast this morning was fantastic, just as any breakfast that includes Japanese toast is bound to be. I had two pieces (which is the equivalent of four American pieces of toast), some strawberry yogurt, and a glass of deliciously fatty milk. Man that was good. I’m glad they don’t have it widely available in America – I’d get fat REALLY fast.

Unfortunately, Mari could not stick around to see me off at the train station; her part-time job was calling. I said goodbye to her and promised to keep in contact via Facebook (which I am). Shortly after that, I also had to say goodbye to my host father before he too went off to work. Though it was sad to see everyone go, I was once again feeling that relief of knowing that I only had a few more hours until my very exhausting homestay was done.

And this time, they’re done for good.

I also made sure to spend some time with Himapi, the bunny, before I left. He and I had almost become siblings – he obeyed me like he obeyed everyone else in the family (he was, after all, a trained bunny who could do tricks). We spent some time sitting on the couch together before I had to grab my stuff and head out the door.

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We had a short walk to the station, though my host mother seemed a little unfocused and wasn’t giving me enough room to lug my suitcase down the street beside her. Once we got to the station, we worked together the carry the luggage down the long flights of stairs to the gates. I thanked her profusely for all her help and said my final goodbye, watching her disappear as the escalator took me and my “substitute host father,” Ura, down below to the train. He was kind enough to take my biggest piece of luggage for me.

Once we got to the meeting place in the station, we stored our luggage in coin lockers for the day; we’d be coming back, of course, but we had some things to do in Nagoya before we finally made the journey to our last destination – Tokyo. Sarah was the only other one who’d arrived so far, so I went to stand by her. She then proceeded to hand me the most epic sandwich ever, courtesy of her host mom.

It had an image of Lelouch on one side and picture of Ryuk from Death Note on the other.

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Epic host mom for the win.

Once everyone had arrived and stashed their luggage for the day, we left the station and got on a tourist bus because it was the quickest way to our destination.

Let me amend that. We didn’t get on the bus…we kneaded ourselves into the doughy mass of people within it.

Thankfully, it was only a few stops until we arrived at our first destination, the Toyota factory and museum in Nagoya. Although I wasn’t super excited to visit a car museum, that’s not to say that I wasn’t happy that we went. I also didn’t realize that the Toyota museum would be about much more than just cars.

As it turns out, the Toyota industry started out as a textile manufacturer. Who knew?

We got to walk through at our own pace and check out what we wanted to. I went with Amy and Brian around the museum, and eventually we ended up in an interactive room where we could operate windshield wipers and stuff by hand. It was fun (and even nicer that we didn’t have a tour guide). Many of the machines had buttons that you could press to actually turn them on and see what they do.

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After we met back up at the entrance of the museum, it was back on the dough bus for a short trip to Naritake, a pottery place that represents the center of Japan’s porcelain and pottery industry. It was a cool place, and we even got to paint our own pottery. I think pretty much everyone chose to do a plate, not a bowl. I painted a Japanese dragon on mine. 🙂

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After that, we spent some time just wandering around in Nagoya, visiting shopping malls and small stores. I didn’t realize that our host parents would make a reappearance! Sarah’s host mother (the anime-loving one) made sure to take us to a Pokémon center! That was something I wasn’t expecting. But it was fun.

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We’d been told to meet back in front of such and such a place at 5:30PM. Unfortunately, we’d all returned and sat down for dinner…except Taylor and Brian. They somehow went missing.

We all sat and waited for a few minutes, figuring that they were just lagging behind. But twenty minutes later, when they still hadn’t appeared, we got a bit worried. I went up to Sensei and offered to help her find Taylor, but she said that one of the host fathers is outside waiting for them. I approached Taylor’s host mom and asked her if she had Taylor’s number. After a long bout of confusion (during which time she gave us HER number and said it was Taylor’s), we determined that we just wouldn’t be able to call or text Taylor.

Looks like we’ll just have to wait until they get here.

Thankfully, it was just a simple misunderstanding – suddenly, Taylor forgot how to read clocks. Literally. I can’t blame her; when I’ve had a long day, I do that too. You look and think it says 5:30 but it actually says 6:30 at a glance. So, she and Brian arrived an hour late, but safe and sound and that’s what matters.

The dinner was an I-don’t-know-how-many-courses meal, but it was a lot of food. It was also a karaoke room, so we were able to entertain our host families during this farewell dinner. Taylor signed Brian up to sing “A Whole New World” with her…but he had no idea what the melody was.

It was more like an epic narration than a song.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TByjjNExGwk

We continued to sing and have fun, but our host came in and told us we only had five more minutes. So, for our host families, we decided to go out with a bang. We’ve got one song left. We’d better make it good.

Bohemian Rhapsody.

Needless to say that our host families were laughing so hard that they were crying, and Sensei was hiding her face in her hands in a mixture of hilarity and “oh my gosh I can’t believe I’m with all these Americans.” It was A BLAST – especially toward the end of the song.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ko_im5yPbYw

[You HAVE to watch, at least from 2:20 on!!]

Once dinner was over, our host families made sure that we left with an ample amount of leftovers. Considering that I was still hauling around the food that my first family in Hirado had given me, I was quite ready to NOT be carrying any more food. But, I had to accept it.

We walked to the station, but some problems arose with Sarah’s ticket (if she would have had her JR pass, it wouldn’t have been a problem). My host mother was trying to push me through the gates to catch my train, but I refused.

I can’t leave without the rest of my group! We have to get on the same train, lady.

Let me rephrase that. I shouldn’t leave without the rest of my group. Would I survive? Absolutely.

Anyway, our host families didn’t really understand that there’s no rush to get through the gates ahead of each other because we all have to wait for each other anyway. My host mother had her hand flat on my back directing me like a 5-year-old.

Let me tell you something, host mama. I truly appreciate everything that you did for me. But I am not a child. I do not need your hand on me to help me turn corners.

Once we finally got through, we bid a very quick farewell to our families and sprinted toward the train – it would be leaving in about 30 seconds thanks to Sarah’s mishap. Thankfully, we made it just as the doors were closing.

Now, with a nice, soft seat on a quiet, fast shinkansen, we were headed to our last few days in Japan in the bustling metropolis that is Tokyo.

Japan Part 14: In Which My Host Mother Kickboxes a Moving Car

Had the clock in my room been on the correct time, I could have slept quite a bit longer this morning. Oh well. No harm done. I’m an early riser anyway.

As promised, I agreed to take the shower first. I officially do not want to shower again for like a month.

Okay, maybe not a month. 😉 But still, this is shower number 9 in less than 48 hours.

After that, it was a short breakfast of sandwiches, soft-boiled eggs, and yogurt and some sunscreen application before Mari held up her side of last night’s bargain and agreed to take me out into Nagoya to show me everything she had planned for a surprise.

Thankfully, she and I have similar tastes.

Because we didn’t have too much time in Nagoya, Sensei decided that we would not go to see Nagoya castle. I, however, am a castle junkie, so I was happy to see that Mari’s “surprise” was to take me to see the castle. We wandered around inside it for a while, and we had quite a few hearty laughs climbing the vast number of stairs to the top. Before we left, I made sure to climb on top of a shachihoko (a guardian tiger-fish that protects against fire); normally they are very sacred monuments, so it was a privilege to be able to touch this one.

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Mari was busting with laughter as we had lots of fun exploring the castle, and I made sure to get a quick picture with a man whose job is to dress as a samurai. Yes, sometimes I just have to be touristy like that.

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We also explored a newly renovated (and just opened) building that features brand new painted panels of all of Nagoya castle’s old, worn out ones. From tigers to pheasants to foxes, the artwork was incredible and so, SO vibrant! It was absolutely stunning.

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After we visited the castle and the painted panels, Mari led me to the train station to meet with Ura, my “substitute host father” for the day since my host parents could not come out and join the fun because of their jobs. I said goodbye to Mari and took the short trip with Ura to join my friends at Osu Kannon, a Buddhist temple.

Once we were all together, Sensei said that we had free reign until 2PM – go where we want with whichever friends and host parents we wanted to. One of my friend’s host mothers was a huge anime fan, so she made sure to take us to multiple anime and figurine stores. One of them had a BUNCH of Monster Hunter figurines.

I about went nuts.

I love Monster Hunter, and I’ve been a fan of the series since its original release on the PlayStation. It’s a difficult game, sure, but it’s fantastic. The monsters are very well designed, and so to see figurines of them for $9 was great.

Unfortunately, my luggage does not have room to accommodate all of my wants. Good thing I’m coming back to Japan next year. And besides, they didn’t even have figurines of Agnaktor or Plesioth, so I probably wouldn’t have bought anything anyway. 🙂 We also went to a manga store (Mandarake), and I finally, FINALLY found some Death Note manga.

You wouldn’t think that it would be as hard to find as it was. The first two volumes are now mine. And I am happy.

Our homestay families were doing everything that they could to make our stay in Nagoya memorable, and that included buying us some great local food. One of the really excitable host fathers lured us into a dango shop and bought us some fried dango on a stick. Actually, it was really good. It was a bit like a fried donut but with sweet bean paste in the middle.

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While we were munching on our dango, I swooped in to a 100 yen store and bought a dragon fan. We wandered around for a while (and I found a pachinko ball lying around), grabbed some lucky cat statues as gifts for family and friends, and then joined some of my friends to finally, FINALLY go to a neko café.

A neko café (i.e. a cat café) is a place where you just go and sit in a room full of cats. You can pet them, play with them, or just watch them, but it’s very relaxing and fun. Sensei decided to come with us, and the cats sure loved her! They kept scrambling to get inside her backpack for some strange reason….

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Another one of the cats that entertained us for quite a while was a rather grumpy looking one. This cat just curled up in his cloth cradle, peeking out to watch before slinking back in with a sour frown on his face. When was he coming out? I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, cat. You know we’ll have a good time then.

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One of the cats, a young one by the look of it, was just bursting with energy. He bounded around the room, climbing the walls and spinning in circles. He was NUTS. Fun to watch, though. As I was kneeling to get a picture of a lazy cat that kind of looked like Grumpy Cat, apparently the other kitties found my skirt supremely interesting. One of them went under my skirt and started batting at it, and that’s when the fun started.

Cat #1 got his claw stuck in the back of my skirt as he played with it, so he ended up trapped underneath my skirt as I was kneeling. Cat #2 wondered what on earth could possibly be going on and came to investigate. He also crept underneath my skirt, watching Cat #1 try to get out of my skirt.

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I never intended to become the cat lady.

After our short but enjoyable time in the cat café, we rejoined our group, as it was about 2PM. Sensei led us quickly to a spot on the street underneath a balcony, where we watched a cool mechanical puppet clock do its thing.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIhInJoSlm0

After it had finished, I was just starting to walk away when I backtracked to watch some monks. My group seemed irritated that I wanted to stay for another minute, but I wanted to see what was going on. They were enchanting something. And it was cool.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eO7HA1g6KDI

After we’d walked around to our hearts’ content, we went to Nagoya college to have a 2-hour tour from some students. It was enjoyable, and some students on the large campus seemed to be performers practicing for a show. They were all juggling.

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By far, though, the best moment on that campus was Taylor’s bravery in pressing, you guessed it, the bacon button.

Let me preface this by saying that, if you didn’t know, many Japanese toilets have A LOT of buttons that do a lot of things. There’s not just a simple handle to flush – I bet you could find a toilet that would sing songs for you.

Oh wait. They already do that too.

Anyway, Taylor went in to use the bathroom while my friends and I were waiting outside the stall.

“Guys!” Taylor shouted. “There’s a button in here that looks like bacon!”

“You should press it!” I said.

“But I’m afraid!” she replied. “What if a jet of water hits me in the crotch?”

“You want another security guard to come in here?” Amy snorted (referring to an earlier incident where we’d accidentally hit the emergency button). “What if it’s the toilet alert button?”

“No, the ‘toilet alert’ button next to the bacon button is the toilet alert button,” said Sarah, who was in the toilet beside Taylor.

“It’ll probably be okay,” the other Sarah piped in.

“I’ve always wanted a bacon button in the bathroom,” Sarah chuckled.

I grinned. “It’ll be an adventure….”

“I’m gonna do it, guys,” Taylor announced. “Oh gosh, I’m a little scared right now! Wha…wh…guys, it’s a fan! There’s a fan blowing cool air on my crotch! This is really creeping me out here!”

After we’d all recovered from our hysterical laughter, Taylor came out and said, “I even closed the lid so the next person can see it open.”

I gasped. “It opens automatically?”

“Yup.”

“Let me see!”

Once our tour of Nagoya university was finished, we were all exhausted and quite ready to go home. Our homestay families came out to meet us, and Miho was (as usual) a bubble of exuberance. She took me to a store, then decided not to buy anything. She was just buzzing around like a bee.

Oh host mama.

As soon as I got home, I greeted my host father and found Himapi to continue forging our human-bunny relationship. As my host father and I sat and talked together, I explained my abiding love of Japanese history, specifically the Shinsengumi.

And I thought that my host dad was a pretty chill guy. He about exploded. In excitement.

Apparently, he’s a Shinsengumi guru!

As soon as he found out that that was also my interest, he just had to run upstairs and dig out all of his Shinsengumi stuff – to give to me. I felt so guilty for accepting it, but he really was insisting that I keep it as the most honorable gift he could provide – a beautiful Shinsengumi uniform and a wall banner stating their creed. He then offered me his golden Shinsengumi sword.

You can’t be serious. There’s no way I can accept something so valuable!

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Although I was quite sad that I couldn’t bring myself to keep the sword (for many reasons, including taking it away from him, trying to get it into America in my luggage, and the small size of said luggage), I was so incredibly honored that he offered it to me and even let me unsheathe it and use it!

He continued to explain how all of his Shinsengumi weaponry worked, but I was one step ahead; when he pulled out a jitte (a half-sai sword with a hook on the guard), I interrupted him to finish explaining what it does. He was surprised to see me demonstrate how to break a samurai sword (katana) with a jitte, as the Japanese police did during the Edo period.

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Needless to say he was so thrilled he was about to explode.

For the rest of the night, he just couldn’t wipe the smile off of his face. It was obvious that I’d made a meaningful connection with him, and that was meaningful to me. He made sure to switch on some old samurai TV movies during dinner.

Because of my host father’s generosity in giving me his Shisengumi stuff, I made sure to present my own homestay gift to them immediately. My host mother responded by giving me yet more gifts – a beautiful, handmade bag that she had created out of tatami cloth and kimono material (apparently she’s actually kind of famous in Japan for her creations), some miso dip to bring back to my family, and some arm sleeve things. I really appreciated all that my final host family was doing for me! I was explaining my gift, some homemade jam made by some Amish friends in our town, and it was quite interesting (and difficult) to communicate the idea of “Amish” in Japanese. So, instead, I used their computer to find the Japanese Wikipedia article about Amish people.

My entire homestay family was very surprised to see that I lived in a community with these types of astonishing people. As it turned out, my host family respected the Amish way of life greatly and were very excited and happy to learn about them. That made them all the more excited about my gift to them.

Shortly after we’d exchanged gifts and had that fun learning experience, my host mother proved her mettle one more time…by facing a drunken car crash head-on. In her slippers.

Like a boss.

As Mari and I were sitting on the couch watching TV and taking turns petting Himapi, we heard a dull rumble, as if something had hit the house. We both got up to look outside the sliding glass doors on the side of the house above the driveway. Host mama was cooking dinner.

As we watched, the driver (who seemed to be trying to pull into our vertical driveway diagonally) gunned it and shot forward, then reversed, then shot forward again, then reversed again. Each time, he was scraping the side of his car against the house. Mari told host mama what was going on. Host mama gently set down her knife, and the look on her face said one thing very clearly – this, my friends, was war.

She went outside just as the driver was backing up again, grating once more across the corner of the house. She had her arms raised, shouting, “何するの!?” [nani suru no; what on earth are you doing!?] as she ran toward the purplish car. As soon as she got to it, she started punching the hood like she was a boxer.

As I said before, this woman is a beast.

When the driver didn’t stop, she walked around the back of the car in order to get to the driver’s side (walking around the front being impossible because of the way he was pinned diagonally against the house corner). Just then, he put the car in reverse and sped out of Mari’s and my view. We heard host mama scream, “ちょっと待ってよ!” [chotto matte yo; wait/hold on!], followed by a loud crash and an even more piercing shriek from my mama.

Oh great. I bet my host mother has just been pinned between a house and a car.

Mari rushed outside, looked around, then rushed back inside to get her father, who was in the shower. I was still looking out the window, hoping that I hadn’t just heard my host mother’s final moments before she got hit by that car. Just then, my host father practically exploded from the shower like King Kong through a brick wall, trickles of water streaming down around him as he stood there in only his boxers.

He rushed to the window as well, but just then, the front door opened and host mama walked back in, seemingly unharmed. Without saying a word, she went back into the kitchen and, regaining her content smile, resumed cutting up some pieces of melon.

As if nothing had happened.

My host mama is a beast. I’d hate to see what that driver looks like after coming face-to-face with her….

Despite her harrowing experience, she seemed to have no problem cooking up a delicious dinner as if the whole car thing had never happened. She made some homemade tonkatsu and curry rice with melon slices. Thankfully, unlike my other host families, she explicitly told me that I did not have to eat it all and, actually, she wasn’t going to be able to finish it all either.

At dinner and for a short time afterward, I entertained my host family with stories of my time on Niagara (turns out my host father was also fond of sailing) and with an explanation of what medieval faires are and how my parents and I dress when we go to them. They were really enjoying getting a glimpse of my culture.

As thanks for staying with them, my host family offered to help me find directions to the places that I wanted to go in Tokyo; they navigated me through the Japanese equivalent of Mapquest until I had some nice maps and a Tokyo train map as well, which would prove to be exceedingly useful. I am quite good at navigating using public transportation, and having a small map of all the stops and lines is invaluable in a big place like Tokyo.

After such a long, hot day, my host mother insisted that I take (yet another) shower to relax. I complied, not really feeling like arguing. After that, I dismissed myself to bed and prepared to leave my final homestay in the morning.

One Day Hiatus from Japan Series — Dog Troubles

Hello, all my readers!

Unfortunately, there will not be a Japan post today — today’s entry has been rescheduled for tomorrow (probably…we’ll see how my “semi-surgical” operation goes). Our beloved dog Zeke, a 7-year-old beagle/corgi mix, collapsed early this morning and began seizing and shrieking. He seemed to recover only to have another seizure 5 hours later. We have been to the vet and have no answers, so we are waiting it out to see if the seizures continue. We almost expected to lose him today.

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Because of that, today’s post is not finished. Assuming that I recover well from the procedure tomorrow morning, today’s post will appear tomorrow afternoon/evening.

Thank you for your patience and concern!