Friday, 29 May 2009

Friendship = Mittens

I have a good friend who lives in the frozen wastelands of Canada Winnipeg. We first met in much warmer climates - when we were both volunteering at the Girl Guide Centre in India. We've been through a lot together, and she was the recipient of my very first knitted project last year.

Apparently, although she was very happy with my early attempts, the hat was just a liiiiitle too small and kept popping off her hugely enormous head. So she began bugging me for another toque to keep her ears warm in the Winnipeg year-round winter.

It took me a while before I asked her about style choices, and she responded that anything was fine as long as it had a pompom.. oh, and could I make a matching scarf? It then took me a while again before I asked her about colour choices. Again she responded by saying that anything was fine, but could I also make matching mittens?

Mittens?! urp... ummm... I've never done mittens... eek, a thumb?!

I figured, however, that it was a good challenge and I owed her at least an attempt and cast on. The mittens turned out to be much easier than I had thought. (perhaps choosing a pattern entitled "easy basic mittens" was a good choice!)

By the time I was done with the whole three-piece set I had managed to use up most of the black yarn I had mistakenly bought for a project that didn't work, and some other random left overs, which really quite pleased me as my stash is threatening to challenge the museum catalogues and other books for supremacy over my storage space.

So here it is, basic black with pompoms!

the set

the toque

the scarf

the mittens (no pompoms here...)

and the recipient!

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Random Wednesday

1 - I have a friend staying with me for about a week. We went for dinner to my local okonomiyaki restaurant, a cheap and yummy place just minutes from my apartment. Good food, good company, and a couple of drinks - what more could you ask for?!

2 - While I wasn't sure that talking about his worries over reconciling his girlfriend with his plans to go on exchange to Sweden was going to do anything for my sempai, I was wrong! After only a month of weekly meetings, he upped his spoken TOEFL score from a 9/30 to 17/30! Sadly he still has a long ways to go if he wants to go on exchange, but this is an incredible start!

3 - I'm finding it amusing to watch my two academic worlds colliding. The advisor of my last MA thesis wrote an overview of Japanese history (in English) that he used as a textbook for the undergraduate core class he co-taught with another professor. I TA-ed one section in my second year of the program and so taught from the book myself. Fast forward a few years and I'm reading the book as a student, but this time in a different language! In one of my current grad courses we're reading the Japanese translation and discussing different ways of viewing history...

4 - I'm enjoying TA-ing this time around so much more. The students look at me funny in the first class of the year, but after that they do remarkably well at ignoring the fact that I am a foreigner, and treat me normally. In the hands-on class this week one of the professors couldn't make it so the office assistant and I had to fill in, leading activities instead of just assisting as we normally do. While I know I didn't have all the right vocab, I enjoyed the opportunity to teach and found the students patient and eager - which surprised me!

5 - I thought I had a fifth point, but it was driven out of my head by my next-next door neighbour, an older man who seems to enjoy clearing his lungs loudly enough for the entire neighbourhood to hear... Lovely, eh? And on that note...

Saturday, 23 May 2009

My Favourite Place

The subject of this month's Japan Blog Matsuri is "My Favorite Place in Japan" hosted by Nihon Sun.

My favourite place in Japan... that's not one I have to think about very long, the answer is simple - I have two.

I first visited Nikko Toshogu just over a decade ago. It was a magical experience, and I've gone back likely a dozen times since that first time. I've gone in the fall and seen the stunning fall colour, I've gone in the winter and shivered in the chill drizzly rain, I've gone in the summer and baked in the humid heat, I've gotten a sunburn at the spring festival

and interviewed by a local TV station at the fall festival,

I've lined up with the ojisan with their huge cameras to photograph the shrine lit up at night, I've gone alone and I've taken friends. I love the contrasts of the shrine - the explosion of colour and goldleaf covering almost every surface

contrasting with the natural simplicity and silence of the surrounding cryptomeria forest.

I only have to close my eyes and I can be standing in front of the Yomeimon

or admiring the intricately carven panels running from either side of the gate

or standing in front of the simple grave of Tokugawa Ieyasu - the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate and the deity enshrined at Toshogu

or wandering down the path lined with stone lanterns.

In my mind's eye I can see the carvings of the famous sleeping cat

and the see-no-evil, speak-no-evil, hear-no-evil monkeys

or the climbing dragon

or beautiful irises

Nikko Toshogu is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Shrines and Temples of Nikko. Huge numbers of Japanese and foreign visitors visit every day. My other favourite place in Japan, however, is not on a single tourist map. It is found about a half an hour from the city of Kagoshima in the southern part of the island of Kyushu.

It looks like your average old Japanese home as it sits part-way up a hill overlooking rice paddies and small vegetable patches. The carport is covered in climbing plants, and the garden beyond is overrun with greenery. Squeezing past the car, you pick you way along a path of old weathered stones to an equally old sliding door. The hallway you enter into is dark with age, as is the entire house. Grandfather sits in the main room at the low table, reading the newspaper with a magnifying glass and practising his calligraphy. Grandmother putters about, straightening out things in the other room, fixing tea, and washing dishes. A few cats have free run of the place - jumping from between the papered sliding doors to the garden beyond.

When the younger two generations descend upon the house father inevitably turns on the TV to watch baseball - causing grandfather to complain about the noise while also muttering that he can't hear what they are saying. Mother complains that grandmother won't sit down and rest. The girls tease their grandfather and lounge about. And the odd looking older sister cradles her small cup of tea and smiles. She may have grown up an only child in a country on the other side of the world, but this place, these people, are home.

Flowers & Lace

When I knit a scarf for a friend I try really hard to choose a yarn and pattern that I feel suits them. I've succeeded in some cases, and not so much in others. One of my friends is very outgoing, friendly, and cheerful. I therefore chose bright colours for her scarf, not realizing the somewhat obvious fact that she rarely wears bright colors. She admired the lace scarf I made for another friend, so I decided to make her one too.

She seemed much happier with this scarf, especially since (it may be a bit difficult to tell in this photograph, but she's wearing a green shirt with white flowers) she matched the scarf quite well!

Friday, 22 May 2009

Swirly Whirly

After two large knitting projects taking up my time I decided I needed something quick and easy. I wanted instant gratification and I wanted to use up some yarn - a shaggy purple and black mix I was given for my birthday and almost the last bit of my huge stash of basic black. I saw a corkscrew scarf at an SnB and decided it would be the perfect project. This was actually the second one I knit up, the first hasn't found its way to the recipient yet. I had to rip it back a few times, before I figured out the right length, but overall both were quick and easy projects.

The recipient is in her first term of an MA and is finding it a bit rough, so it was good to see her smile. It is warm and is starting to get a bit humid here in Tokyo, so she won't likely be wearing her new scarf, even if it is only an accessory, but she said she was looking forward to the fall.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Pot 'o Gold

Its been raining on and off for the past few days. The Vancouverite in me likes the rain, but all the wet makes drying my laundry on the line a little difficult. It also can be impressive sometimes though...

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Hockey 'n Nan

In high school my friends and I went to hockey games a couple of times a year. We would take the bus across town and get to the arena hours before the game, before even the players had arrived. We would hang around the player's parking lot, waiting for them to arrive so we could get autographs. We would then spend an hour or so in the gift shop before watching the pre-game warm-up and then hiking up to the rafters to watch the game. Buying nosebleed seats was about all we could afford, so we would normally smuggle in snacks instead of paying the exhorbitant rates for the food at the arena. Back then I associated hockey games with red licorice and all-dressed chips.

My uncle's workplace has long had season tickets to the local NHL team and I was lucky enough to occasionally get to go to games - either with my family or with a friend. With good lower level seats and increased security measures smuggling in cheap food was no longer an option, so I began to associate hockey games with hot dogs, nachos with liquid cheese sauce, and frozen chocolate malts.

I went to see my university's hockey team in their semi-final game last week with a friend from school. It was a great game, hard fought and very evenly matched. Unfortunately my boys lost in overtime when they had a momentary lapse on defense. As my friend and I left the arena and headed to the train station I asked her if she wanted to grab dinner before going home. She assented and said "well since we've come to the hockey game, now we have to go for Indian!" Of all the cuisines that come to mind in conjunction with the sport of ice hockey, I have to say that Indian would be one of the very last I'd have come up with until recently. Now, well, it makes perfect sense. My favourite Indian restaurant in Tokyo (the curry is good, but the nan is exceptional!) is on the opposite side of the city from me, in an area I don't go to often. In fact the only time I do go through the area is to and from hockey games. That particular restaurant has thus become our favourite spot to celebrate wins and nurse losses.

Ice hockey and spinach curry - a match made in Tokyo!

Friday, 1 May 2009

Uninhibited English

One of the students in the doctoral program in my department wants to go on exchange to Sweden next year. He has realized that trying to learn Swedish in Japan is going to be difficult and besides, to be allowed on exchange the major requirement is a score above a certain level on the TOEFL exam. So he's focusing on English. I offered to help him out sometime and ended up getting roped into free weekly lessons. We had our first lesson yesterday and it did not go the way I had expected.

The student in question is younger than me but because he's in the doctoral program he's above me on the totem pole, he's my sempai. We had a couple of courses together last year, and continue to do so this year. We've chatted a bit at department parties. But we've never gone beyond the school-acquaintances level. I know only a few non-school things about him, things that our prof (who is the guy's advisor) teases or asks him about. He has never volunteered information himself.

Imagine my surprise, then, when we sat down for our first "lesson" and suddenly were talking about how his girlfriend is upset about him going, and long-distance relationships in general. Having a bit of (not so successful!) experience in this matter myself, I was able to give him some advice, and we ended up having a great chat. I'm not sure how useful it will be for his TOEFL studies, but he seemed much happier with free conversation time rather than some sort of structured lesson. Since I don't have the time to prepare proper lessons I'm just as happy with it too.

But it did get me thinking. This isn't the first time that I've had an English student start talking about things that they wouldn't talk to me about in Japanese. I had long thought it was just the separate space of the English classroom - a sort of what happens in Los Vegas stays in the English classroom kind of thing. Or maybe it was my foreignness - I was different and thus normal issues of what was polite to talk about didn't apply. But neither of these work with my sempai. We were sitting in a common space in the university - in the middle of a room surrounded by tables of students working on group projects, napping, and eating. So I'm wondering if it has more to do with the freedom of speaking in a new language, and the resulting breaking down of inhibitions.

We had a good time chatting, he got some worries off of his chest. I'm just not sure about how much of a "lesson" it was. I'm guessing the only thing he actually learnt was the second meaning for "score." I couldn't help but explain it to him after I corrected him (after I stopped giggling) when he said "I want to go to Sweden and score TOEFL." (I was having a hard time fighting off visions of the stereotypical tall blond Swedish beauty with a hello-my-name-is Toefl badge on her ample chest) He was at first embarrassed, but then greatly amused. I have the feeling that no matter how many times he'll need to be corrected for making the same mistakes over and over again, he'll never forget that one...!