Monday, May 23, 2011

JapanTakai FAQ and Sayonara

After 16 months in Japan, we are moving back to the USA and will not continue to blog here anymore. We feel we've accomplished our goals for the blog which were: 1) Keep in touch with family and friends 2) Keep a record for ourselves of our time here and 3) Give back to the blogosphere a bit since we were helped by many blogs as we prepared to come here and in our first months. Thanks to all who have read. Japan is a fascinating place, it's been quite a ride and we're happy to have had you along, however virtually.

We thought this might be an opportune time to clear up some frequently asked questions.

1. Where does the name of the blog come from?
It’s an homage to the cutest little comic book called Japan Ai: A Tall Girl’s Adventures in Japan by Aimee Major Steinberger which we read before we came. The rest is explained in the banner at the top.

2. Who wrote the posts?
They’re based on shared experiences and conversations but Josie usually wrote the posts and John edited.

3. Who took the pictures?
John mostly took the pictures. Don’t blame him for the subpar ones of late though. Our camera (that we bought for our first trip together to Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico in 2005) finally died and we’ve just been using a Kodak video camera ever since. Thanks to Josie’s family for a highly used going away present!

4. Who reads this thing?
We wondered that ourselves for the first few months as our family and friends got used to blog checking. Over time though we've seen hits from Saudi Arabia, Oman, Serbia, Moldova, Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, South Africa, and more. Mostly it's people in the USA and Japan though.

Arigatou and Sayonara!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Are we sad to leave?

This is a question we've been hearing a lot these days. Our last days of school were sad. They didn't tell my students until the last day, per the Japanese custom. So, all day I had kids coming up to shake my hand and give me a note or just a longing look. I had fun signing the 3rd graders' folders. I wrote things like "Don't study too hard!" and "Don't forget to have fun!" They wake up at 5am, go to their club activity practice, go to school all day, have club activity after school, eat dinner and then study until late. They don't really need to be told to work hard or try their best; it's a given in this culture. It was hard to see my teachers look sad and I'll miss both the students and teachers but mostly I feel joyous inside. The job wasn't challenging enough and I wasn't learning anything new anymore. We came, we enjoyed, we're leaving on a positive note (to go to grad school, not because of radiation or anything else) and now it's time to go.

John was only at his schools for 2 months but still received an outpouring of love from his students. Check out the cards his kids made for him.

We are sad to leave our friends here. Given we lived in a small-ish town with no car, we feel lucky to have met and connected with so many people. It was not uncommon to be at a picnic/party/karaoke/dinner with people from Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, England, Canada, Spain and/or Jamaica, plus people from all over the US. We'll never forget our friends and the support system they gave us here. We survived not only 16 months in a foreign land but a 9.0 earthquake and a nuclear meltdown with these folks. We know we'll see many of them again whether in the US, Europe or elsewhere. The world is made smaller when you have close friends from every corner of it. We are so grateful to them - thanks, guys - you know who you are!

Here's one picture from Mike's Rapture party on Saturday. Good times!

Friday, May 20, 2011

What we'll take away from Japan

Sometimes (mostly in the cold cold winter) we wanted to strangle Japan's little neck. All in all, though she was really good to us. Here are some of the things we'll take away from living in Japan.
  • An appreciation for seasonal food. Sometimes it was a bummer when there was very little produce in the grocery store but it was all the more exciting when a certain fruit or vegetable came into season. We found ourselves eating more seasonally by default, which was nice.
  • An appreciation for regional foods. Japanese people are always telling you what foods a place is known for. We find ourselves doing it now too. For instance, Nagano is known for soba (buckwheat noodles), apples, miso, basashi (raw horse meat - John tried it!) and inago (fried locusts). Our town is known for unagi (eel), which John also had the other night.
  • An appreciation for seasons. While it's sometimes annoying that Japanese people think they invented seasons and are the only culture with them, it is nice to see the reverence they have for them.
  • An appreciation for sacred spaces and mindful moments. The Japanese are very busy and not that good at enjoying life overall when compared to say, South Americans or Europeans. However, they are good at creating lovely Japanese spaces to create a wabi sabi feeling and revel in it. Examples are clusters of cherry blossoms for ohanami parties, tea rooms and tatami rooms for fancy Japanese meals, temples and shrines for praying and outdoor onsen (especially in winter) for relaxing.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Our favorite Japanese people and the izakaya experience

Last night we had our last class with our adult students. We don't feel too bad leaving them because our friend Mike is going to continue the class so they'll be in good hands. We've been teaching them since last October and have gotten to know them well. These folks were so sweet to us. We feel lucky to have met and gotten on so well with them.

Pssst! We're not standing on chairs or anything; we're just actually more than a head taller than all the ladies.

After class John and I stopped by Yuki's, our favorite local izakaya (pub) in our town, for a beer. We realized afterwards that we were nonplussed by the 1600 yen bill (almost $20) for 2 pints and 2 little obligatory snacks they give you with them. We've gotten used to those prices but now that we're going home in less than 2 weeks, we realized it could be half that in Minneapolis. There's no tipping in Japan but it's still spendy. You see why we almost never go out here? Here are some snaps of the sake and shochu selections.

There's still smoking in bars and restaurants in Japan, which we've also grown accustomed to. It's like the 90s! The man (owner?) who served us was essentially a caricature of every white haired old guy from every random Japanese movie we've seen on bus rides and such. He smoked a cigarette and tried to act casual as he grilled us with questions and pointed out the pictures of foreigners on his wall. Classic.

One thing we don't love about Japanese bars and restaurants is that they're almost always sort of hidden away. They don't do outdoor seating, there are no windows usually and they often cover their doors with curtains. It's all kind of dark and enclosed and feels like a secret society (probably more so to us since we can't read signs). That said, when you do know and feel comfortable in a place (like us with Yuki's) it feels really cozy, familiar and nice. Especially the izakayas with tatami rooms where you take your shoes off and sit on the floor really evoke that feeling of being at home, but out. That's a pretty unique bar experience.

Monday, May 9, 2011

3 charming things in our town

There's this statue between town hall and the post office.

They change his outfits often so that in the winter he's wearing a stocking cap and scarf, for instance. Unfortunately, he's wearing this right now.

Older ladies ride around in these funny bikes. They have mitts on the handlebars so their hands don't get cold. Too funny.

We love the mossy fountains with fresh mountain spring water (sometimes hot!).

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Technology in Japan

Either Japan or the rest of the world has done a great job at perpetuating the idea that they’re very technologically advanced. Of course they are a very modern country and quite ahead of the curve on some things, but we were surprised to find the ways in which they were lacking in this area.

We'll start with computers. Our c-workers do not use email. Memos are printed and placed in every teachers’ mailbox thus wasting tons of paper (we recycle nearly all of them as we can't read the memos anyways). Some teachers we work with do not seem very familiar with simple google searches. No doubt it is difficult to type with kanji, which is one of the reasons they are behind in the computer usage area, but I also read that because of the hierarchy, those in charge do not appreciate the stratification of power brought about by email. They prefer top down information dispersion. In Japan they like to literally stamp their seal on things. I had to tell my tax preparer that sorry, I didn't have access to a scanner. We fax(!) our monthly reports to our company.

Japanese consumers generally favor flip cell phones versus android/smart phones. This may be because of kanji as well, but in Korea everyone was watching TV on their phones and doing things most Japanese do not seem to have widespread access to yet. The internet is fast but it took us 2 months to get it. When our predecessors left they detached the fiber optic cable and gave it to another household. We had to wait until another one became available or something. The houses are not made to last and have no insulation. They use archaic heating systems such as kerosene heaters which were banned in the US in the 50s because of their carcinogenic outputs and asphyxiating tendencies. You have to turn the water heater on when you want hot water and it fires up anew each time you twist the hot tap - most inefficient. It's still very much a cash culture and we pay our bills at the convenience store or the bank. We could go on and on.

In general terms, of course, Japan is technologically on par with the rest of the developed world. It's just that they're simultaneously quite behind in some regards. That incongruence is perhaps one of the most interesting things about living here.

Japan is speeding ahead in their bullet trains AND their feet are stuck in the mud of their rice paddies.

Speaking of which, they've been flooding the rice paddies lately and some have even started planting. It's nice to note the passing seasons in terms of the most important food in the culture.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Lack of personal touch in Japan

One interesting cultural aspect in Japan that we won't miss is the lack of personal touch. In public couples don't touch and parents don't touch their children much. People bow instead of shaking hands. Sometimes our students hold hands, actually. But mostly it's a hands off culture. Compared with Latin cultures where couples are sitting on each other's laps in the plazas, it's downright frigid. We saw a Japanese couple holding hands in Bali and it immediately struck us that they don't/can't do that in Japan. We've recently had one of our adult students (drunkenly) lament this fact as well.

When I told the teacher I've worked with the longest that I was leaving she burst into tears. She was really upset and couldn't leave the room for a few minutes in order to get herself together. I've been here long enough to know that it wasn't really appropriate to touch her, but I just couldn't let her stand there and cry in front of me. I stood up, asked if I could hug her and gave her a squeeze. More than any other country, living in Japan has made me realize things about my own culture and how much I'm a product of it. I couldn't just let some one I've known for 15 months cry in front of me without hugging her. I literally couldn't do it, especially when I was the cause of her distress. John's only been at his schools for a month and some of his teachers were near tears too.

It's definitely going to be difficult to upset the "wa" at school by leaving early. They aren't telling my students until an all school assembly on my last day (per the Japanese custom) when I'll give a speech on the stage. Yikes.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Children's Day

Today is Children's Day in Japan. It's one of the holidays making up Golden Week this week which means no school for us! All the neighbors have hung these carp shaped koinobori flags. It used to be called Boys Day but they changed it to include girls. It's one of those Japanese things that they make seem like it's very traditional and ancient but really was started by the government in 1948. Here are some of the koinobori from around our town.

Meanwhile, we're in the thick of trying to get rid of stuff here and tie up loose ends while meanwhile starting to think about getting things set up back home. Less than 3 weeks now!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Japanese luncheon

Our adult ESL students had us over for a luncheon. Here's the spread we encountered when we walked in.

There was fruit, pickled vegetables, homemade bread, tofu, tempura and plenty of beer and wine.


Maki sushi

We were really drawn to the host's garden.

John with our host.

She does "sado" (tea ceremony) so she whisked us up an amazing cup of matcha in lovely chawans (tea bowls).

Our host's house was a beautiful old labyrinth of fusuma doors and shoji screens, scrolls and sculptures with tatami mats everywhere. What a lovely afternoon we had.

It seems anyone who lives in Japan encounters questions like, "Can you use chopsticks?" and "Can you sit Japanese style?". These are strange for 2 reasons. 1) They're assuming they're the only ones who use chopsticks or sit on the floor when lots of the world does those things. 2) It shows how they see us as almost another species who may not be able to do the same basic things they do every day. But they're just so sweet, naive and well meaning about it all. They're just curious and want to make sure we're comfortable.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Mountain Walk: Part 2

In Part 1, I showed the nice parts of this walk. Here I'll show the not so nice. We told you we live in the "real Japan".

In Japan they really love their nature but what they love more is controlling it.

All the way up the mountain a stream flows next to the road. They've paved under the entire thing. They're also currently paving under the big river that flows into the lake. Next they'll pave under the lake!

Here's where the guys are always burning garbage.

Here's where people just dump their garbage.

This appears to be where people open their car doors and ditch their McDonalds wrappers.

It just feels wrong to garden so near the cemetery.

Along the way one must be careful not to fall into the gaijin trap gutters.

It's mostly a lovely town but if you go back up into it a ways this is the kind of thing you'll find. Random garbage dumps. Abandoned cars and shacks. If I could vote here, I'd be asking the politicians (who have recently been riding around in vans waving their white gloved hands out the windows and blaring messages over loudspeakers) about these spots. Also, we can't understand why they don't bury their power lines - they muck up the mountain vistas.

Most days all we notice is the beautiful (like cherry blossoms and Mt. Fuji views) but some days it's the ugly things like these that stand out.

Mountain Walk: Part 1

About 4 times a week I walk up the mountain while reading my book (just finished The Corrections by Franzen) . Here are some of the lovely things I see.

Daffodils at my school.

These flowers at the neighbors'.

Jizo statues.

There are a few cemeteries scattered about.

Soon I feel the air get cooler and I know I've come to the little stream and this mini-shrine. Power spot!

The houses and their topiary look like this.

There's an old guy who tinkers on his bonsai in his little makeshift greenhouse. Cute elderly couples head up into the mountains, maybe to collect mountain vegetables.

Rice paddies.

A cute resting area.

The High School. Every day of the week uniformed teenagers come and go along this road.

Sakura (ok, only for these 2 weeks or so).

Another little neighborhood mini shrine.

Sometimes I loop back through Akimiya Shrine.

I like to see this little pond there.

It's about an hour walk up and back - perfect for some exercise and fresh air. People from this area can be a little standoffish; maybe it's the mountains factor. Not many people initiate a greeting with me but if I say "konnichiwa" they're obligated to respond in return. I force a lot of people into interacting with me in this way - I play on their politeness :)

Psst - these are the good parts of my mountain walk. See Part 2 for the bad bits.