Monday, December 24, 2012

Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas

Just wishing all my friends a family a great winter holiday week! Please know that for those of you I can't be with, I miss you very much, and wish I could be there. Even if you don't celebrate any particular holidays during this time, it is always good to take moment before the new coming year to sit back and reflect on all the good things that have happened during the year.

As for myself, I have had an incredible year so far. I recently graduated from college, was able to work and do research at one of the most famous medical universities in the United States, was accepted into graduate school in Japan, made many new friends, went many new places, and managed to get to know some wonderful people where-ever I went.

Even though this Christmas holiday I will be away from my family in the United States, I will be able to meet my Japanese family for the first time to greet the New Years!

Best wishes everyone ~ Jane Tonello

Monday, December 17, 2012

Holiday Preparation

Many friends and family have been kind enough to send me holiday cards, so I have been lining my shelves with them as a constant reminder that I have been in Japan for over three months. My Mom was also nice enough to send me a small Christmas Tree in my monthly package, so now my room has a slight flare of holiday spirit. I'm starting to get a little homesick now, but I am ever thankful to know that my family and friends are thinking of me. If they are reading this, I hope they know that I miss them, and wish I could be there to thank them and wish them a happy holiday in person... but until airplane tickets are under $800 or someone invents an instant teleportation system, I am spending my holidays in Japan.

The month of December has mostly been spent for the preparation of Christmas and then New Years. The first week in December I reserved bus tickets to get around to visit my relatives in Kagoshima and Kumamoto. Luckily, my cousin Satomi is going to pick me up by car on her way to Kagoshima, so for at least that part of my trip, I will not be traveling alone. In Kagoshima I will be staying a few days at Satomi's grandfather's home (I just know him as Arima-san) where I will meet Satomi's brothers and nieces and nephews. Kagoshima is one of the most southern cities in Kyushu, so I am hoping the weather is warmer there than here (it's fluffing cold). After Kagoshima, I will ride up to Kumamoto by bus to spend some time with my Great Aunt Yoko and her family before finally returning back to my Japanese home in Fukuoka.

Of course, before all this happens I have quite a few things to do at my campus. This past weekend, I went with my friends to Itosaisai and then Tenjin. Itosaisai is a local farmers market that is very famous in the area for it's vegetables. My friend says that if you buy produce there, that it says good for two weeks even without refrigeration because it's so freshly picked. It is also famous for its fish and obentos (lunch boxes) also freshly prepared the same day. Needless to say the three of us bought a ton of things, mostly to make a lovely seafood stew that we ate that night (ika-nabe or squid stew... it was delicious, but unfortunately the squid ink gland leaked so the soup turned black, along with all our mouths by the end of the meal).

After going to Itosaisai and eating lunch (of Itosaisai sushi!) Haejoo, her husband Kazu-san, Kayoung, and myself rode the train down to the Tenjin/Hakata area of Fukuoka to look at Christmas lights. This is the busy downtown area, so there are a lot of people and many places to go see. Sadly, it was raining pretty badly that day, so we were unable to see the illuminations in the park or in the town square. We were able to see the lights inside the Canal City Mall (which were really impressive considering), and the few outside of the train station. It was really a fun day, but everyone was tired after walking around so much. When we returned to Haejoo's house to have dinner, no one wanted to leave the kotatsu.

The next day I had to buy a ton of butter and other ingredients to make some cookies for a Christmas Fair. My friend Sho, who is the manager of a student run cafe, has holiday parties to bring together international and native Japanese students. This year is his last year working at the cafe before he graduates, so he wanted to do something special, and have homemade sweets for the Christmas Fair. I volunteered to make cookies, and several other students are making cakes, drinks, and traditional Japanese sweets. Sho also ordered several gingerbread house making kits, so that students who have never been able to build a gingerbread houses before, could have the experience. Since there is suppose to be a big turn out for this event, I made about 8 dozen cookies in total, with four varieties: Gingerbread men, jam thumbprints, shortbread, and brownies. The cafe will compensate me for the cost of ingredients, but I am hoping to eat a few of the sweets myself at the Christmas Party.

Speaking of eating, my lab has created another crazy food-celebratory event called the 'Yamahon Challenge'. We have two seniors in the PHD program graduating soon, so they are having a party at a kaiten-sushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurant.One of them is the head student in my project (Gen-san) and the other is the head student in the muscle cell study group (Yamahon-san). Anyways, the idea of the challenge came from the fact that the one student, Yamahon, at one time ate 30 plates of sushi from a kaiten-sushi restaurant. If you don't know how a kaiten-sushi place works, little plates (usually containing two pieces of nigiri sushi) rotate around the restaurant past the dining booths. A customer just picks the plate they want off the conveyor belt, and the cost of the dinner is determined by the number of plates you picked up at the end of your meal. So Yamahon ate approximately 60 pieces of sushi in one sitting.... the Japanese amaze me on how much they eat. Because of this, the lab is having a team challenge to see which project-team of students can eat the most plates of sushi by the end of the meal. I will be attending this event, but I am not going to be much help for my team. The most plates I have eaten at this kind of restaurant is 4.... I think my team is going to lose. I'll be attending this event tomorrow night, so let's see what the outcome is ( I might add some photos later).

This weekend is Korean friends' Christmas party, and also a day trip to Nagasaki so I am busy preparing for those as well. My next post will be all my post-holiday reports, so I'm sure something interesting will happen between now and then. Of course, if the world really ends on December 21st, then I'll have wasted a bus ticket and a whole bunch of cookies...

Friday, December 7, 2012

Start of the Holiday Season

Sure enough, as soon as Halloween was over, every store in the area already had Christmas goods and lights out. I'm quite surprised sometimes, that for a country that has only about a 2% Christian population, that Christmas would be such a big deal. Of course, here in Japan it is mostly a commercial holiday for couples and friends to eat fried chicken and overly decorated cakes, and New Years is when you go spend time with your family and pray at a temple... almost the reverse of the United States. The important thing for me, though, is that virtually all holidays, whether the meaning is the same or not, have A LOT of food.

This so far has been a time of food! My campus festival was really quite a nice way to end the month, but since the comedians and musicians there were performing in Japanese (imagine that) I'm afraid the entertainment value was lost on me. Mostly the festival was tents of campus clubs selling food to raise money for their organizations. There were also a few games, and some other activities for students to participate in, but mostly just junk food to stuff your face with. I came with my one of my friends on the last day of the festival and we managed to eat cake, crepes, gyoza, icecream, and drink coffee and tea in about a span of three hours. It was a lot, but you have to indulge yourself every once and again.

The following weekend I went out again with my good friends Kayoung and Haejoo (Foodies like me) and we had a delicious meal of Korean style barbeque. This was sort of my Thanksgiving dinner, and it was quite tasty! Afterwards, we went for coffee and cookies and talked about plans for our upcoming Christmas party.

During that week, there was also an International Student Party for the Engineering Departments on Ito Campus. Kayoung said it was a good place to meet people, and that the organization in charge always orders a lot of delicious food as well. The party was a lot of fun, though the turn-out was much poorer than expected. I think this was partly because the weather had become so bitterly cold, so not as many students were willing to venture out at night to go to a 2 hour event. Plus, due to some scheduling conflicts, they moved the date of the party to the first week of December, which is midterms for students. Because of this, there was a surplus of food and drinks, so the staff in charge asked the students to please take the food with them or it would be thrown away. I found it quite humorous that the first thing the native Japanese students took was all the alcohol off the beverage table. While I didn't take any food or drink with me from this event, I was able to meet some new people, and I got to see a new instrument being played which I have never seen before. It's an Indonesian instrument made from bamboo reeds... I was told the name, but I have no clue how to spell it. If someone knows what it is called from the photo, please tell me.

As far as school I got through my first section of Japanese language courses, so I'll be upgrading to the next class level soon. Mostly it's just review for me now, but it's good to remember the vocabulary and proper grammar for the language. I often asked my Japanese laboratory members for answers to Japanese questions, but they usually don't know. It's difficult for a native speaker to know the rudimentary basics of something they inherently learned as a child... so it's easier to learn from other foreign students than the native speakers.

In relation to my scientific experiments, I have started learning the basics of cell culture and media preparation here in my lab. It's almost the same as back at Vanderbilt, but of course the technique and recipes are different... also since there's 20 people trying to use the two fume hoods in the laboratory so it's difficult to coordinate with the other students. I feel guilty having to rely on the other people in my lab project group to constantly guide me (especially since they try really hard to teach me in English) , but I think it will be like this for the first few months until I become acquainted with my labs protocols. Right now, even though I am a Master-level student, the undergrads are more knowledgeable than me. Alas, the language barrier prevents me from doing much more! I will have to study hard in Japanese class.

December so far will prove to be a food-frenzy of holiday activity! I will be going out with my friends to Tenjin and Hakata to see the beautiful Christmas Lights (they call them illuminations here, since they are technically not just for Christmas) and to go an all you can eat sushi/sashimi bar ( it's also oyster season too!). We will also have a Christmas party, and then an end of the year party to celebrate many of the lab students' graduation. After that, I am going to go to Kagoshima and Kumamoto to visit my relatives for the New Years. It will be quite a month, indeed!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Halloween in November

This November has been one crazy month for me! I've had something big planned almost every week, and a lot of new things are starting up. It's just like in the United States, really. As soon as Halloween is over, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years just pop up and you hectically are trying to keep up with it all, while trying not to freeze to death from the sudden change from a pleasant fall coolness to a snot-freezing frigid winter chill. In seven weeks I've gone from wearing shorts and T-shirts to sweaters and pants with trouser socks. So anyways, this is a few things that I have done this month:

The first weekend in November, my family from Kumamoto came to visit me for the day in an area called Tenjin. This was my grandmother's little sister, and her daughter. It was so nice to see them! I had my Great Aunt Yoko almost ten years ago, but I did not meet her daughter before. They took me to go shopping at Ikea, and then to look at some Hakata weaving. It was a little crazy that day, since it was a holiday and there was a MILLION people everywhere we went. I was also suprised by the size of Ikea... when they originally told me they were taking me there, I was assuming it was just the size of a normal store, but this one was its own shopping-mall! After buying a few things there, we returned from Ikea back to Tenjin where we tracked down a store that sold Hakata-ori. It was really amazing for me since I have done weaving before! The quality and beauty of it, really is not captured well in the photos, but maybe you can get an idea.

That following week I had two Halloween parties one right after another. First, was the Friday coffee-hour party. The coffee hour is just a social meeting for international and domestic students alike to meet and talk. Luckily that week both my Korean friends could attend. Usually, one of them is unable to come because her lab has meetings that same time on Friday. This particular Friday her boss was on a business trip in another city, so she was able to attend. There was a lot of food, and I was able to make some apple cider for the occasion. It went over quite well, but there was more people than food, so I regretted bringing a drink rather than dish. I think everyone had a good time, though, and I was able to talk to a few new people.

Of course, right after this Halloween Party on the following Saturday, I had another Halloween Party at my dormitory. It took me two days to plan and prepare the food, but there was enough for everyone and they enjoyed to games. I introduced them to bobbing to apples (sort of, it was more like suspended apples that were switched out each round), a chopstick game, and a game of mafia (or in Japan, yakuza).  It was a ton of laughs, and aside from the very bruised apples, I think everyone else had a good time. Also, a nice thing in Japan is that afterwards everyone will help you clean up before they leave. Maybe it was just my particular group of friends who did this, but I really appreciated their help setting up and taking down things (especially the really tall guy who could get stuff off the ceiling).

The week after this, I participated in a day-trip to Saga, Japan. The trip was organized by the international students club, and over all it was a fairly good experience. My only complaint is that the weather was really lousy, but what can you do about that? Our first stop was at a place called Kunenan:

Kunenan (nine-year hermitage), a national scenic beauty spot, is famous for its beautiful autumn leaves. It used to be the retreat of a successful Saga businessman Itami Yataro. The name is derived from the fact that its construction took 9 years beginning 1900 (33rd year of the Meiji Era) under the guidance of Hotori, a priest of the Zen Buddhism sect Jodo Shinshu. Azaleas and maple trees are planted around the Sukiya-style residence (traditional tea house architecture) .The garden uses a Japanese traditional gardening method Shakkei (Borrowed scenery) incorporating background landscape into the composition of a garden, in this case the Chikushi Plain. Naturally growing trees and moss, which are found throughout the garden, create a quaint and elegant atmosphere. It is open to the public for only 9 days in the middle of November every year, which is the best season for autumn leaves. Today, Kunenan is owned by the Saga Prefectural Government.

This place was indeed very beautiful, but with the weather it was cold, wet, and muddy to venture around. Plus, with all the tourists stopping to take photos, the stay at Kunenan was nearly an hour late! They had to cut lunch-time short at our next stop at a park... but honestly the park was not too enjoyable due to the weather.

 This park did however, have a really nice remake of a famous German building. I managed to get a picture of it while I was eating lunch  with some students from Mexico (which by the way, I sprayed myself with salad dressing as we were talking. It was extremely embarrassing). At the park we took a large group photo, and quickly moved on to our last stop of the day trip.

Finally we arrived at Arita Porcelain Park, just as the rain stopped. This place would have been the best stop of the trip, if it hadn't been so creepy:

The porcelain of Arita Village has had an influence on the world of porcelain as well as appealing to European royalty since the 17th century. The first thing that grabs one’s attention is the symbol of the park, the Zwinger Palace, a beautiful reproduction of a palace referred to as a spectacular example of German baroque architecture of the early 18th century. Inside the palace artwork which was exported at the end of the Edo period and until the beginning of the Meiji period (19th Century) are on display. Also situated on the park grounds are other amenities including a studio where visitors can try their hand at making porcelain, tours of a refined sake, shochu (Japanese liquor similar to vodka) and beer factory, and taste testing sake. There is also an eating and drinking facility serving western and Japanese dishes, an all-you-can-eat buffet, coffee shop and a bakery, and is where one can spend a relaxing day. 

The whole group got to paint their own little porcelain tea cup however they wanted, which was a lot of fun! However, the rest of the places in the park outside of the porcelain store, was closed... in fact we were the only people there. This is what made the theme park so creepy. I was really disappointed about the bakery being closed too! Who in the world decides to have most of the theme park stores closed on Saturday? Shouldn't that be the busiest day of the week? Most of the international students seemed to be having a great time anyways, so maybe it was only me disappointed by the lack of German pastries.

This concluded the day trip, and we arrived back after dark. I met a lot of nice people on this trip, so I hope to be able to run into them from time to time when I can. It's a little difficult on Ito campus to see other international students since the vast majority are at the Hakozaki campus location. However, the few that stay on Ito campus are a very tight-knit group, so when they do get-together, they usually have a good time.

This is all I have to report for now. The conclusion of November will be the campus festival, so I am really looking for to it!