First post and explanation
And in other news.
Here are my mornings. I tend to get up somewhere between 6:30am and 6:50am, giving myself enough time to clean up my room, fold my futon, get dressed and go to the bathroom with no big rush before breakfast. Being the professional housewife that she is, my host mother always has a breakfast featuring at the very least a fried egg, fresh spinach and other greens, potatoes of some variety, pork or ham, cherry tomatoes, and rice ready by exactly 7:00am. I help set the table. It's one of my only chores around the household, so I'm pretty dutiful about it.
I generally wolf down my breakfast while Kou-chan, my four year-old host brother, whines about something or other and Sa-tchan, my nine year-old host sister, makes fun of him. He hates meal times. He's never all that hungry and his parents are pretty insistent that he finish everything. I think the mother gives him too much food to finish and meal times would be less of a crisis if they reduced his portions a bit, but I'm not a parent. I was a picky eater as a kid too. Except that instead of scream at the top of my lungs, I would eat whatever my mother asked me to and then promptly vomit all over the table.
As a result, my family really didn't have anything like a "clean plates club," and I ate a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Breakfast inhaled, I'm generally out the door by 7:10am with an "Ittekimaasu!" to which the whole family replies "Itterasshaai!" I like Japanese ritual idioms. They give the day a nicely ordered feel.
My bike is a cheap, grey easy rider that looks exactly like every other bike in Japan, making it somewhat difficult to find whenever I park it among the two hundred thousand other grey, easy rider bikes with black baskets that will invariably be piled in front of whatever building I'm visiting. They're called "mamachari" in Japanese, "Mama chariots," but their most common riders are middle schoolers and high schoolers. I join the horde of them going to school every morning on my commute.
The neighborhood I live in is the Japanese version of a suburb: still tightly packed, but with open fields in the vacinity and the occasional miniature lawn. Mine is undergoing development as Hakodate grows, with lots of families with children moving in. Whatever the declining birthrate, the neighborhood is always packed with kids running up and down the streets, talking excitedly with each other, giggling, bashing each other with plastic toys, etc. It's like a scene out of the nineteen fifties. You'd never guess Japan was an aging society from where I live.
I pull out of the suburb and on to the main thoroughfaire leading to downtown Hakodate fairly quickly, which is when I start my kanji practice. The Japanese are extremely fond of vertical banners with mostly kanji on them to advertize various services. Restaurants and barber shops, in the main (the red/white/blue twisting pole stands for a haircut here too), but plenty of gas stations, convenience stores, and sundry.
I'm going beyond the point of seeing lots of kanji I know the meaning of, but not the pronunciation of in unfamiliar compounds, which was about my level when I arrived. It meant that often enough I'd get the general idea of what a sign was advertizing, but I'd be clueless if you asked me to read it out loud.
It's worth saying that however much I complain about the intensity of my class, my kanji reading is growing by leaps and bounds. Now I'm actually able to pronounce a good portion of signs out loud, just by remembering the Chinese reading of a particular kanji from some word I've seen it in. I'm not at the level where I know what all these words actually mean, in exact translation, but reading the sineage and placing the meanings and pronunciations of more and more kanji each day works out as excellent reinforcement of my lessons.
The road I take is long, straight, and littered with stoplights. I'm usually in a hurry in the morning, since the hour or so before class when I arrive is prime internet usage time, so timing the stoplights takes strategy. Often enough, there will be a very narrow street feeding into the thoroughfaire on one side, but clear pavement on the other.
Oh, forgot to mention, no one rides their bikes in the street here. Ever. Similar to Germany, where I also spent a summer studying two years ago, there are designated bike lanes along the sidewalk. It would be terribly convenient, if pedestrians paid the lanes any mind whatsoever.
Back to the strategerie, sometimes I can switch sides before a light turns and continue on my way at the same speed. I picked this up from high schoolers who smoothly passed me by while txt messaging each other with their cellphones. It's very gauche to actually pay attention to where you're riding among the youth here; you have to be chatting with a friend beside you or sharing rumors over the cellular networks or futzing with your MP3 player or holding an umbrella or reading a manga or doing anything except looking ahead of you.
But when I don't switch sides in time, then I have to judge the jaywalking potential. Coming from Chicago of course, my initial habit is to take red lights as a mere suggestion that you might want to slow down a little, maybe. But Japan being the sort of country that it is, things work differently here.
Even at streets that are little more than alleyways, pedestrians will wait patiently for the little green man to pop up, even if there are no cars in sight. Again, high schoolers ignore these signals wantonly--I'm sure they have some sort of sixth sense that allows them to stop when a car happens to be coming without ever looking up from their charm strewn keitai--but I think I'm held to different standards. I've been told police in Japan associate foreigners on bicycles with Trouble and Mayhem.
Still, though I respected every stoplight the first week, the itch to get a move on has grown too vicious not to scratch, so now I generally judge my crossing by whether there's a middle aged lady waiting at the crosswalk who would give me a dirty look or not. There was a Japanese word for these troublesome middle aged ladies with sour expressions, by the way: "obatarian." It combines the word for "aunt" (obasan) and "battalion" (batarian). Unfortunately, it died out in the eighties, but still, clever clever language, this one.
About a half-hour into my ride, I reach the one turn I have to make the entire time, at the gigantic sign with the single character for "rice" on it (kome marks the spot!). This is a bit of a challenge, as one of the big high schools is right near this intersection, so there's always a mass of surly teenage boys punching each other occasionally and tired-looking girls in sailor uniforms with their skirts hiked up enough to make me blush, all sitting on their bikes between me and my turn.
They're much cooler than lame-o, naive middle schoolers, so they make a very obvious, very conscious effort to completely ignore me. It's cute, except I need to get through so I generally have to yell various apologetic things in a not-so-apologetic tone to get on my way.
High schoolers. Meh.
The rest of the way is a road that hugs the railroad track, which itself hugs the bay. It's a traffic disaster during the morning rush, which makes every day a wonderful adventure of dodging cars coming barreling out of teensy eensy sidestreets or backing into parking lots that happen to occupy the exact same space as the supposed sidewalk. Did I mention Japan hasn't discovered the bicycle helmet yet? Not once have I seen anyone with a helmet on. I don't know, if we're talking games of Crazy Taxi with grumpy morning commuters, I kinda like something between my head and the asphalt.
About forty-five minutes into the ride and I can see Hakodate Bay, and all the stinky fish factories that entails, from across a vast plaza that fronts the main train station. This is the town's business district, so there's lots of garish several-story billboards and Japanese women yelling product slogans in that peculiar high pitched voice that everyone seems to like here.
As an aside, my host dad asked me what Americans thought of Japanese women, and I replied that they're generally considered attractive and fashionable, but disturbingly child-like. He sighed and said, "Yeah, I figured that. We have a thing for cute, don't we?" Uh huh yeah you do.
Because the traffic light at the Ekimae intersection takes foreeeeever to change, I generally swerve toward the bay here and take a back street toward Mt. Hakodate, bringing me past the morning fish market. I breathe through my mouth along this stretch of road. Nonetheless, it's entertaining, with all the squid frantically swimming around their tanks and the huge-ass spikey crabs trying to pinch people and the young men with headbands yelling after any woman who looks under forty, "Hey, hey! Where are you going?! Gimme yer number! Buy some fish!"
They use the extra not polite verb conjugation.
After the fishy market is another stretch I have to exercise caution around, because this time it's all Japanese tourists taking pictures (they do that here too) and staring at their maps, wandering randomly from one side of the sidewalk to the other. Three damn weeks and I'm already proud I've never visited this tourist trap section of town (the English signs mysteriously identify the neighboorhood as "A cluster of warehouses." Uh, thanks?)
At about fifty minutes, I finally reach the mountain itself, at which point I get off my bike and start the long hike up a street steeper than I think even San Francisco could stomach. It's cobblestoned and packed with pretty shops hugging each other the whole way up, but I'm generally too distracted by the exhertion to admire them. They're nice to give a quick glance on the way down, though.
Between fifty-five and sixty minutes later, I've arrived at HIF, which is near the top of the street before the heavily forested mountain starts in earnest. I pull my t-shirt out of my bag and don it over my sweaty tank-top (I hate walking in with gross sweat stains across my back from my backpack), lock up the bike with a lock a Chicago thief would be skip over with contempt, it's so flimsy, and climb three floors to the sweet, sweet lounge with its ethernet connection.
Which has brought you this not-as-gushingly-emo update.
Author's note: this post was written about two months ago. Izu is now back stateside.