Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I had a three day weekend this week, so yesterday my host mother, sister and I headed out to Kyoto to check out a shibori exhibition that I had found through a handbill in my Zen Buddhist arts class. While we were on the train, my Okasan offhandedly mentioned that the yarn store that I had mentioned before was close to the exhibition.

What does this mean?


It means 1300 yards of eggplant-colored cashmere laceweight for ¥3600. Score. And the pattern for one of the ruffly scarves above - a little expensive, but I already have yarn that I could use for it and the resulting scarf is gorgeous. The Avril store itself is really cool - I haven't seen a lot of the yarns that they had - there's a lot more ribbony, novelty type yarn at Avril than I've seen at stores with a large selection of Habu. But the objects that are made with the yarn are delicate and Victorian in sensibility - necklaces, hair scrunchies, scarves. (Also, scrunchies here are so cute! Although when I think the word "scrunchie", I think of Carrie Bradshaw's squeaky exclamation.)

We also went to an amazing flea market and the shibori exhibition. The owner of the exhibition space also sells shibori kimonos, so he took us into the back of the store and showed us some of them. One in particular was absolutely gorgeous - clouds of red dots with pale pink and yellow chrysanthemums in between. When he named the price, I thought nothing of it - 千万円 just sounded like a lot of zeros. But I was sitting in class this morning and suddenly realized that that number is 1000 times 10,000. Slip two decimal places to the left and you've got the rough price in American dollars: $100,000. I almost thought that I had had a sudden lapse of understanding and it couldn't possibly be that much. But no. There are kimono in this world that cost as much as two years of my college education, a Steinway grand piano, or a house in Ohio. I can't even conceptualize that amount of money.

But then I think about it, and realize that with the amount of work that goes into each inch of cloth - hundreds of hours spend tying tiny bites of cloth with impossibly fine thread. Pounding small nails through the fabric so that some of it rests in a water-tight barrel and the rest is immersed in dye, which has to be done for each individual color. Removing all of those hours of work in one motion of the hand to reveal gloriously crinkly, intricately patterned silk. It's priceless, but if it had to have one, $100,000 would be about right.

I think sometimes about the value of handwork. When I made my coat last January, I had a friend tell me that it was amazing and that I could totally sell it for at least $300, and although it was a sweet thing for her to say, I was a little taken aback. When I think of my coat, I think about the salt melting snow on the sidewalk, slipping in high-heeled boots down Main Street, the squirrels in the snow, lying in bed sick with the flu. I think of the afternoon drinks with friends and the hat I was knitting and the cookie bars that I ate to take a break from weaving. I think of the sad love I felt for a friend who didn't feel it back for me, and the feel of the cold floor under my feet while I passed the shuttle from left to right, right to left. Money can't quantify it. It's not just a coat. It's made of snow and wool and love and I couldn't name its worth if I tried.

Which is why when I see something amazing and handmade, I am willing to pay whatever price is offered, within reason. I can't cough up $100,000 for the most beautiful kimono in the world, but I can afford ¥4500 for a necklace that has a strange pull of significance for me. I couldn't figure out why I saw this piece and fell in love, but as I walked around thinking about it yesterday, I realized a little bit of the why.

Life is kind of like a ladder. Everybody starts at the bottom when they're born, and as you grow up, the climb gets steeper. Sometimes it's hard to see past the rough old wood and the blisters on your hands and when you look up it seems impossibly far to go yet. But when you take a moment to turn around, the view is spectacular. And that part is always, always worth it, no matter how hard the climb.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Om Nom Nom: Chirashizushi and Warabimochi Edition

Today a bunch of study abroad and Japanese students got together and made some tasty food: chirashizushi and warabimochi. Chirashizushi is sort of like deconstructed sushi - the base layer is sushi rice, and for the toppings we used maguro (tuna), snap peas, ikura (salmon roe), egg and nori, although from what I can tell, there's a wide variety of toppings that could be used instead. Warabimochi is a dessert made of bracken starch (although ours was more likely a tapioca-bracken-starch-sweet-potato-starch combo) and dusted with sugared toasted soybean powder, akin to mochi in texture but not in taste. We made both in a tiny kitchen in what I think was a teacher's dormitory.

It was great fun - there were too many people to be working in one small space, so we all took turns. While some of us worked on stirring warabimochiko into water, heating it to translucency, and plopping spoonfuls into ice water to cool, those of us taking a break chatted about music, boyfriends, and our small town college lives. Less confusing was the chirashizushi preparation - wash some rice, throw it in the rice cooker, make some eggs, cut some tuna, mix things together. Done. Lots of jokes were made, and many of us had were still recovering from a late Friday night, so the general atmosphere was one of tired multicultural silliness.

I have to admit I didn't try my hand at making the omelette, because I have a track record of messing up super-thin egg-type concoctions. My housemates and I made tamago nigiri a couple of times this summer, and every time I made the eggs, they ended up either incredibly ugly (but delicious) or burnt and ugly. I keep away from anything that involves flipping hot objects, save grilled cheese. After everything was prepared, we put it all together on the table. Someone commented at this point that it looked sort of like pizza.

I'd say that it's like a weird but amazing combination of fried rice and sushi. The warabimochi was also delicious - a little gelatinous, but especially when coated in the soybean powder, a lovely combination of soft, sweet and savory in one bite. I'm a somewhat reluctant eater when I'm in the States - I don't like berries, I find the concept of eating raw meat sort of strange and unappealing, and in general I'm not the biggest fan of yogurt, a lot of fruit, or meat that doesn't begin with b and end with acon. (Blatantly not true. I like your basic chicken, turkey, tuna, whatever. But I do have a fondness for bacon that my arteries would like to sue me for.) For some reason, though, since I got to Japan, I've eaten and enjoyed maguro (where have you been all my life, delicious raw tuna??), salmon, salmon roe, sticky roe/kombu/sea urchin salad, what I think was chicken intestine, Japanese pear, giant Concord grapes, peaches, sake-soaked pickles, kabocha (pumpkin)... the list goes on. I've eaten and not enjoyed so much raw liver, strongly fishy sashimi, natto, and a few other things. I've been pleasantly surprised by most everything, which is nice, since I'm ordinarily pretty timid about trying foods whose origins I don't necessarily know. I think the key for me is quality, since all of the food I've been eating here is from nice restaurants and choosy groceries - apparently I'm just a picky jerk. Perhaps I'll have to test that theory when I return.

I also went to karaoke last night with four friends, and we ate omuraisu and sang 90's songs, Disney songs, and Lady Gaga until we were hoarse. Then I took the train from Hirakata-shi to Gotenyama, which is a 5-minute walk from my host family's house - and it only took about 20 minutes between when I left the karaoke place and when I got home, and it was absolutely beautiful out while I was walking home in the dark. In any case, hopefully all of these shenanigans will leave me satisfied enough to buckle down and get some studying done tomorrow. Hahah. We'll see about that.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

You are my sweetest downfall.

Those who want to know about Japan and not yarn may want to look away now. Just sayin'.

Exhibit A.

Dear yarn,

Why are you so awesome? I mean really. I already had red sock yarn two months ago: Shibui Sock in Chinese Red. I bought it last summer at Hilltop Yarn East (RIP) and it is pretty. It is the color of a Wong Kar-Wai film, or the silk robes from the red scenes in Hero, or the signal lanterns from Raise the Red Lantern. Socks made out of this yarn will be like fireworks for my feet.

But then I went to Santa Cruz and found this yarn. And it said, "Look at me. I am a completely different red. I am the color of lipstick and Louboutins and cherry-flavored candy." It's from an indie dyer in Oregon, although the name escapes me and the yarn itself is back in Seattle, waiting for my return.

Exhibit B.

Color is something that I get stuck on. The attention to color and design is something that I really appreciate about Japan - whenever I go, there are season-themed stationary kits, cotton fabric hair flowers, crocheted lace scarves in a thousand different shades of pink or grey, dangly kimono-inspired earrings of yellow, pink, and orange. The cup that I drink coffee out of in the morning is brown clay with a wash of dark blue dripping down one side. The coaster that I put said mug on is shaped like a cat, navy with red whiskers. The sky is pearl grey in the morning after it rains, some roof tiles on my walk to school are cobalt blue instead of brown or terra cotta, and packaging for bath products is usually white, pink and baby blue. It's nice that no matter where you go, color is a constant. And it helps that I brought a little of my own for good measure.

Handmaiden Silk Lace in an amazing, Balinese ocean turquoise. Hopefully it will become Laminaria or some other pattern like it.

And lastly but not leastly, I got more cashmere on my trip out to Los Angeles about a month ago - Jade Sapphire Mongolian Cashmere in colorway Green Apple. At first I thought it would be overkill to knit another Miralda, but after her tragic disappearance, I can't think of a better contender to fill her shoes.

On a side note, I can't believe that another week of school is almost over. The days have been full with knitting and class and studying, and the nights full of knitting and eating and socializing (and more studying). Friday I'm planning to go out for karaoke, Saturday I'm making traditional Japanese food at school, and then I might get to see a textiles exhibition out in Kyoto on Sunday. Waa! So busy!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Skinny Love

Status of knitting: upon knitting the first row of pattern after casting on 409 stitches for the second edging of Crown Prince, I found out that, in fact, I had 410. Cue exasperated sighs, the picking up of 410 cast-on stitches from below, and the tragic ripping of almost 3 full rows of knitting. That's...1230 stitches? How depressing.

The weather is starting to cool down to non-miserable temperatures at night, but my walk to school is still pretty gross. I can't wait for October to roll around so I can wear my woolies and boots! In the meantime, in my quest to keep my clothing choices conservative but still pretty, I've taken to wearing the cute little $.99 pink lacy capelet over camisoles and low-cut cresses, knotted at both the bottom and the bow. When it's loose, it tends to be sort of tent-like, but I like the way it looks tied even though it's a little weird. Also, from wearing my hair in a bun all day yesterday, it was a big corkscrew curl last night. The humidity isn't hair-friendly here so I've mostly been wearing it up - just another reason that I can't wait for the cooler weather.

Marigolds on the way home. Whenever I pass by this particular corner, there's butterflies and moths fluttering around the flowers. In many ways, this trip to Japan has felt different than the first time, perhaps because I'm older, I know more about the culture and history, and I'm more aware of my failings in the language department. I feel like this time I'm noticing different things - where before I was in awe of the details of the landscape, this time I see people in a different way. In moving from a culture that is so familiar to one that feels open in some ways and yet closed in others, I often find myself an outsider looking in and listening rather than participating. In general, I don't mind taking on this role - although I think I've lost a lot of it with age, I used to be relatively introverted and reflective as both a child and a teenager, and it's an old but familiar mode of operation for me. It's been sort of fun to rediscover my quieter personality.

In other ways, it's really difficult to be around people whose depth you can't perceive because of language, and vice versa. My host family thinks it's awesome that I like spicy food and like to knit, and I think my host family is funny and incredibly kind, but I feel like I'm missing out on their stories. Sometimes I can catch what they're saying, but when it's early in the morning or late at night and my language skills go out the window, I know that I'm only getting pieces of a whole.

I've also been thinking a lot about where I stand in relationships lately, both the friendship and romantic/post-romantic kind. I've been listening to Bon Iver, Radiohead, and Coldplay a lot, along with some old music I haven't listened to in a long time. It's surprising how much I associate certain music with certain people and places and times. Bon Iver I listened to non-stop over spring break with my friend Emily, when we went swing dancing and drank wine with our friend Zach while watching Lost on her parent's floor; when we visited Yale and while she was in class I drove to downtown New Haven and an attractive male graduate student on a street corner smiled at me and commented on the rain falling on our glasses and how that was funny. Coldplay I remember listening to in the library while I did chemistry homework, and walking across campus late at night to meet my friends Natalie and Dan at fourth meal. Being separated by four thousand miles from the people that I care about has made me appreciate them even more, and even though I love being here, it's nice to know that I will have people to come back to.

Friday, September 10, 2010



I'm afraid that heat and tests do not agree with me. Difference between A〜たらB、AとB、A〜すればB forms of saying "if A, then B"? Do not want.

Also, I am officially a dumbass. I lost my favorite scarf.

Tentative RIP, Miralda. I will still search for you in earnest, but I'm giving up hope. Even so, I know you're out there somewhere, soooomewhere, soooomewhere... all I want to see is your little smiling cashmere face once again.


Walk with me for a moment. Or rather, walk with the charming little crosswalk dude with a hat. Seriously! A top hat! Perhaps he's hot. Well, anyhow. Grab your umbrella and let's go.

Or, you know, stand there and look emo for a minute. That's fine too.

This here is a street that probably (maybe?) has a name. However, streets in Japan aren't super well-marked, and it's not like I could read them with any proficiency even if they were, so we'll just call this "the hill that I walk down on the way home from school". I'm walking on the right side of the street, facing traffic, which is quite an adjustment for us American types.

As a side note: Dear Japan, why are you so fucking magical all the time? I mean, seriously. Walking home there's this little staircase that leads somewhere on the side of the road. ??!!

And this little dude tells me when to turn left to get home. Now, if only he could tell me where to find Miralda...

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Falling Slowly

Where do I start?

A little less than two weeks ago, I got on a plane to Osaka. Actually, I got on a plane from Seattle to Vancouver B.C. to Narita to Kansai. I slept through almost all of my flights, partially because of the Dramamine that I load up on before I fly, and partially because I had woken up at 4:30 am the day of my flight after going to bed at 1:30. The Vancouver airport was completely empty when I arrived, so I stretched out over three seats in the international terminal to nap. When I woke up an hour or so later, it had gotten crowded.

There were a few snafus on the way in - I got a landing permit in Narita, but it was somehow lost between immigration and my connecting flight, so when I was going through immigration in Kansai, they pulled me off to a scary little waiting room and took my passport. Luckily, it only took about ten minutes, but as I was sitting there I wondered if this was what it felt like for your life as an international traveler to end. I made it to Hirakata on a bus that night with a few girls who were also in my program. The picture above is the view from a bridge right before you hit Hirakata station.

The next week after that was spent in Orientation events. In the span of a few days, I went from being an adrift tourist to a savvy, cell-phone wielding, officially enrolled international student at Kansai Gaidai University. And, on my second day, I decided to wear my newly finished Traveler's Stockings for the first time, as it seemed appropriate.

And holy crap, are they awesome. I just washed them for the first time this morning, and they came out even softer than before. I love this yarn.

Speaking of yarn, can you name this location?

If you answered Kinkakuji, then you're right! We went on a trip to Kyoto last week, and visited Kinkakuji, bought some souvenirs, and got some really delicious dinner from a little place in the shopping district.

I have almost this exact same picture somewhere in my printed pictures from my Japan trip when I was 16.

The grounds surrounding the temple are perhaps even more beautiful than I remember.

In some ways, I don't even know where to begin in terms of talking about my experiences here so far. In some ways, it's been really difficult and I feel like I make an ass of myself every single day. However, I also feel like my language skills have been improving very quickly. In Oberlin, the only people you can talk to in Japanese are other students from language classes or Japanese international students. Here, I'm forced to communicate in whatever way works. Sometimes it's silly hand gestures, sometimes it's a tentative word, and more and more often it's been full sentences. They may suck, but I'm getting used to speaking and that's what's important.

I placed into level 4 Japanese, which I feel is pretty ideal for my level. I totally whiffed my self-introduction on the first day, but my retention of grammar and vocabulary from the last two years is actually quite good. Skritter has been saving my life in studying for a kanji review test on Monday, and I've been telling everyone I can find about it. Gotta show some Oberlin love - the creators are alums who won an award for entrepreneurship.

I've already moved in with a host family, and it's been really awesome. I have an okasan, an otosan, and a little sister who's actually only a month or so younger than me. We all eat dinner together and watch Japanese game shows and period dramas. In the last week or so, I've tried natto, sashimi, sake pickles, and two different types of umeboshi, with mixed results. My family does, however, think it's hilarious that I love spicy food. They gave me kimchi and super spicy curry to see if I was just kidding, and when I ate it with aplomb they laughed and said I was unusual for an exchange student.

It's been ridiculously hot here - in the high 90s with super high humidity. I don't particularly like hot weather, so it's been an adjustment. In Ohio, even when it's really hot, it cools down at night, and that hasn't been the case here so far. However, there is air conditioning in every building, so it's not too much of a problem once you've gotten inside.

And, on the bright side, I found Kirin Lemon! Hooray! For refreshing family fun, drink Kirin Lemon.

Oh yes. Yes, I will.