It's the middle of December and the days are actually starting to cool down. We lucked out with a few near-20 degree days, but now we're hovering around the low-teens during the day, and low single-digit temperatures at night. Japan actually experiences four distinct seasons, so this post is going to cover a bit of the autumn and winter lifestyle changes.
I was finally able to arrange and attend a trip to a nearby Onsen with my classmates. I actually think we went at one of the best times of the year, even though it was quite dead in the hotel we stayed in.
Bathing habits aren't at all what you wouldn't expect. Erm, that is, you pretty much do what you think you should do. Strip down to nothing, scrub yourself really well before getting into the bath, do your best not to boil yourself in the 40°+ baths, get out, wash yourself again, and repeat as you see fit. You can spend a lot of time inside the baths, but just make sure you're properly hydrated and not drunk or anything that would cause abnormally low blood pressure.
The initial awkwardness of seeing your friends or classmates completely naked and in quite compromising positions (squatting and washing themselves with buckets of water) fades quickly, especially considering you're in the exact same situation as them. Jumping into hot water after standing in cold, fresh, morning mountain air takes your mind off anything, and your eyes stay fixed on the sprawling mountain scenery before you. Leaves were changing colours, and with my eyes obstructed by steam, the scene looked not unlike a colourful oil painting.
Getting there and back
Unsurprisingly so in a country known for convenience, doing a Google Maps search for directions from Osaka to Arima Onsen turns up multiple routes with competing prices and duration. On the way there, we vouched for a train to a station near Kobe, then hopped into a bus that drove through mountains. We passed through a total of maybe two tunnels, so you could imagine how fun that ride could be. My classmates didn't look too well and remained silent, tying to hold in their breakfast.
But I couldn't contain my excitement. Seeing cars you only see at auto shows in Canada causally driving on the mountain roads, parked at rest stops, passing our bus when the driver would stop to allow them to. The roads were twisty and clear, no speed bumps like the wonderful hairpins The Forks are sandwiched between, no, recently paved, smooth, and with mirrors on the turns so you can cut a little if you want to give your brakes a break.
On the way home, we took a train directly from the Onsen to a station in Kobe. This train drove through mountains, but literally through via a tunnel. The tunnel had maybe a 4° constant grade and was impressively straight. Kobe to home is just as simple as hopping on the JR and waiting 30 minutes. It was nice being in Kobe again, though, after a two year absence.
Winter seems to bring the annual tradition of slipping around some ice and falling on your ass regardless of your location. Osaka is no exception. Plopped right in front of a giant staircase which serves as a popular drinking spot for young and old alike, MBS sponsored a pint-sized rink and it's quite popular! I swung by with some classmates in November and was surprised that the ice was not ice at all.
Instead, some plastic material was on the ground. Thing is, it looks like ice with lines carved into it from skates, it sounds like ice, and by golly it feels like ice. Really dirty, gashed up, friction-loving ice, though. It's not terrible, though, considering the small size of the rink, and how inexperienced most people are, it's good not to go fast and for those blessed with the skill of balance and balls of steel, it's a constant game of avoid skating over the fallens' fingers.
While passing through Kobe, I spotted a real outdoor rink with an army of refrigeration machines whining away, trying to freeze some water in near-20° weather, haha, good luck. I may return there when it's a bit cooler for some real ice skating.
One semester of it, at least. I remember writing my entrance exam and getting absolutely obliterated by it. They wouldn't even reveal the score to me because it probably had more zeroes than the US national debt. After writing that test, my advisor sat me down and drew a simple line graph. At one end was a vertical marker with beginner written a top, the middle had N5 written on it, and the other end had a glimpse of N4 in sight. She looked at me and said, "You're here". She pointed at the line, left of the beginner tick and said "Before beginner".
Maybe it was the lack of sleep, or my nerves that day, but I performed so poorly that even a beginner was considered more adept than I, somebody who had been studying in whatever spare time he could muster up while still in Canada. This scared me, but rightly so. I knew so little, and was aware that ECC was not an easy school. I tightened my laces and pushed forward.
On December 12, 2015
I wrote a series of tests. Half of which were targeted at knowledge we picked up from our textbooks, the remainder being N5 tests. N5, that half-way marker on the line graph my advisor said I was so far away from. I'm really not a fan of standardized tests, but for the first time, I was pleased to see my progress gauged against one. I passed it, and it was easy. The tests, I mean, class every day and homework was challenging, but I felt very prepared for what was thrown at us on that fateful Friday.
After writing this test, I reflected a bit and thought of that entrance exam I wrote. Was it the same? I couldn't even understand the content of the first test, so it's impossible to know. It's frustrating enough to not know the answer to a question, but when you don't even understand the question, well, that's another story. Maybe I'll find some time to ask my advisor to see if it was indeed the same test I wrote that Friday.
Being mostly free for a few weeks is really weird. I haven't had this kind of time off for years. Even while I've been out of the country and about, I've carried the burden of a job that I had to return to each night to make sure shit's not on fire, yo. Just as these thoughts cautiously start seeping into the mush of my brain, I'm pulled aside by a new face.
I got my first job in Japan
Just months in, but I was offered this one-time gig from somebody at school. I was asked to go to a high school and speak a little bit about work and life overseas. Sounds a little like Global Edge which I participated in more than a few years ago back in 2010. Funny how these things follow you around, even if my employer doesn't know about it.
It's just a one-time gig, though. I'm still expected to jump through the hoops of registering with the school's HR department and submitting the equivalent of my SIN for tax purposes, so I'm counting this as a legitimate job. I was offered something a little more regular, but I would have to be in the morning class for that to work. But at least that little bit of a tease carried valuable information, I'll be in the afternoon class again!
Oh, this presentation is likely to be Japanese-only, so my typical just wing it style may not go too smoothly.
Oh Christmas, that holiday that everyone loves and hates at the same time. You know, Christmas music playing from late November and gradually getting more and more annoying until on Christmas day, those carolers that show up every year precisely at dinner time knock on your door. But this year you're ready, you have the fire poker resting next to the door with a coat covering it so nobody sees it. You open the door with a smile on your face and at the same time push the cold, iron rod through that annoying neighbour's soft belly flesh.
The smile is still on your face as you push it deeper and deeper, give it a twist and dramatically pull it out. Blood sprays your face and the rest of the carolers run away in terror. "Who's at the door?" asks your wife, impatiently. That nag stabs at the itching nerve so deep in your brain, but you suddenly remember the basement that you doused with gasoline just before dinner. You look at your watch knowing there's about two minutes until the water heater flickers on and ignites that rag you made sure to give a second dip of gas. You slowly walk back to the dining room and sit down at the table. Your family stares, shocked. The smell of fresh blood mixes with the smoke coming from the basement door and you realize at this exact moment, the fake smile you greeted the carolers with has turned into a smile of pure joy.
Osaka is no exception. Christmas is rammed down your throat so hard, and you haven't even had time to swallow Halloween and clean yourself up a bit. This gangbang of western holidays is wholly for financial reasons, understandably so. People go nuts for it and the income generated during these times is crazy. Just approach holidays with a bit of light-hearted attitude, or a sadistic one, and you'll be fine.
Oh, there was a Christmas market underneath Umeda Sky building that really reminded me of the Toronto Christmas market, less the old buildings, cobblestone streets, and stupid cold. The night I went was a little rainy and 15 degrees. It certainly felt like Christmas. They had all the usual food and drink and was a nice place to stop off and drink a pint.
I'm immensely proud of my classmates for getting through the first semester. I know I wasn't alone in the helplessness after writing that entrance test, but we all banded together and made sure everyone made it through! I've bonded with classmates in the past, but when you're put into a foreign environment, you look to your peers for comfort, inspiration, and companionship. Slowly, we are growing more independent, and it's great. We are all still each other's crutch, but we're all here for the same reason; to roam and navigate this country on our own. We'll get there.
Winter break has some homework, but I'm otherwise free. I might take a tiny trip North (East...). Other than that, I'm just planning to use what I've learned to learn a bit more about this place I now call home.