[The American Years]

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Special New Year's Edition

Greetings from Japan, where New Year's is big. Bigger than Christmas. And the solemnity is switched. Here we had Christmas eve fireworks and big light shows. More of a party.

New Year's is supposed to be prayerful. It's common to visit shrines and temples during the first days of the New Year. At the Buddhist temples, they ring those big bells 108 times leading up to midnight to ring away the 108 types of sins. The big gong has to completely go silent from each gong before they bong the next time. So as I understand it, it will take over an hour.

Only 108 sins? They haven't been watching the news.

Nagoya's famous Shinto shrine was the #5 top visited site in Japan for the New Year's term (Dec 31 - Jan 3). The website said it was over 3 million visitors during that time. So that's where I'm going to go tonight. I hear that when you step out of the train station, the you will get carried there by the crowds, unable to get out. I want to see huge solemn crowds. If any people can do it, the Japanese can.

I won't be able to share pictures of it, as I won't likely take my camera. I don't want to seem disrespectful. My mere presence might be disrespectful enough.

The trains and subways run all night on New Year's. The only day of the year.

There are traditional foods that people make for New Year's. The right way is to make all the dishes during the days leading up to Jan 1 so they don't have to cook for a few days. And from what I understand, it takes a few days to prepare it all.

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Some pictures for no good reason.

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ATM machines are strange here. They close. Depending on the locaion they will close down from 10 or 11 at night until 7am or so. Next, my bank charges a fee depending on the time you use it. You get an "after hours fee" of about a dollar if you use if outside of normal business hours, or on the weekend. Like overtime pay for the ATM.

The best is that the ATM gets New Year's Day off. Acutally it gets Jan 1-3 off. I guess since all the shops will be closed, the atm doesn't need to stay open? Or the bank doesn't want to have employees work to put more money in over the holidays?

So if you're a pickpocket or pursesnatcher, the few days leading up to New Year's must be the richest time of the year for you, since everyone is carrying big cash. Pickpocketing and pursesnatching are number 97 and 98 of the 108 sins, I think.
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Please drive safely. Caution, recycling ahead.

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There is a traditional year-end party for businesses and organizations here called a bounenkai. I attended (as the only foreigner) the bounenkai held by my department.

Just like a year end holiday party at other an American company it’s a time to reflect on the year’s accomplishments, to forget the year’s failures, and to cross-dress and dance around on stage…

Well I guess that might be a little different than in America.

Typical entertainment is for the members of the group to have little skits performed. They are required of the ‘freshmen’ or new employees. My department had so many freshmen that they had two teams. There were also two other teams of more experienced members. And of course there was judging and prizes, as they are not going to put the effort into it without the chance to be come out as the winner.

I asked a friend what the skits are called, as ‘skit’ is not in my dictionary. The quote from my colleague? "The are called ‘gei’. It’s pronounced like ‘gay’ but it’s not relation." He’s right, the ‘gei’ is the first syllable and sumbol of ‘geisha’, which directly translates as Art Person. But he was wrong on one point -- the English meaning of that syllable is more relation than not, in this case.

All four skits were funny. Even though I only understood 10-20% of the words, all the meaning was clear. Examples include :

(1) A couple goes to the wedding planner. The man is an employee of my company, dressed in hard hat and work jacket. His bride-to-be of course played by another male worker of my department in full drag. (There is one woman in my department of about 140 people, but for some reason she stayed home.) The groom-to-be viewes the estimate from the wedding planner complaining about the cost. He then goes through the details of the estimate complaining about things like the size of the shrimp served (with accompanying slide show on the screen showing engineering measurement tools used to measure a shrimp). Our company is big on cost cutting. Very funny stuff.

(2) A company recruiter is explaining the coming job for a new employee, in a ‘Good News, Bad News’ manner. "You’ll get lovely food gifts left on your desk from people in vendor companies. Unfortunately you’ll be away at other facilities and won’t return until after the expiration dates on the food gifts." "You’ll get a lovely, professional looking work jacket. Unfortunately it will be covered in grease and goop after the first week and you’ll look homeless if you wear it outside the company." And the slide show had pictures of true examples of these things.

(3) My favorite one was by the freshmen. Never mind the so-called plot of the skit. The plot was just there to get them to the hook, which was that it included 5 grown men dancing around in skimpy red skirts, halter tops and santa hats. All dancing perfectly in sync to some Christmas pop song. The accompanying slideshow had before and after pictures of each of the dancing members. Before and after what? Before and after they shaved their armpits and legs. Yes, these young guys gave their all.

And how did the audience react? This was my favorite part. Except for one tall foreigner in the back of the room who couldn’t contain himself, the whole crowd was stonefaced and silent. I think someone actually brought a cricket in so that you could hear it chirping at the end instead of applause.

There are two possible reasons that I could see.
(1) The audience seemed like they had seen it all before, because they probably had seen it all before. From what I understand, the ‘engineers in drag’ is a common bit at the bounenkai. Even the wait staff in the banquet hall was unmoved. "Japanese boys in drag. Well, how very clever. That makes the 12th bounenkai this year with boys in drag."

(2) This is the more likley answer: It is necessary to make the freshmen squirm and die a slow death on stage. The more humiliating the skit, the better. It all serves as emotional hazing as they give their all, and get no love back. Those poor guys were up there, shakin’ what their mama gave them (which wasn’t much), and looking out at the crowd to see 120 people looking like they were waiting their turn with the dentist. Well, I can hope that maybe one of those poor guys looked out to the back to see the tall foreigner cracking clean up in his seat. (Not really a seat, but a cushion on the floor. Anyway you get the idea.)

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Japanese Proverb:
One kind word can warm three winter months.

(I guess it helps if you can understand the word...)

Friday, December 29, 2006

Greetings from Japan, where there are two citrus fruits that you may not be familiar with. You thought you knew all the citrus fruits, didn't you? So did I. Check this out. For fans of citrus this is huge.

The two fruits hail from Okinawa island. (Insert joke here combining the US military presence on Okinawa, "Fruits", and "Don't-ask-don't tell".)
They are Uzu and Shikwasa. (Like lemon and lime, only with about 10x the pucker factor.)
Neither of them is edible on its own, but the juice of each, heavily sweetened (and/or combined with alcohol), is found in delicious items.
Uzu is a common flavor of Chu-Hi, and I've had Uzu soft ice cream and sherbert. At this time of year I've heard of people taking Yuzu baths. I don't know if the bath water has the juice in it, or if you float the whole fruits in there with you. Supposedly it will keep you from having a cold all year.

Uzu's green cousin is Shikwasa. It's available in vitamin C drops and Vitamin C drinks. The vending machine in my office offers it as a hot health drink. If you need a kilogram of Vitamin C all at once.

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Now it's time for a copyrighted feature of this podcast:
Japanese is Too Difficult To Learn, So Let's Not Even Try.
Homophones are common in Japan. (Oh grow up. I'm speaking of words which sound exactly the same.) Sometimes they can be annoying and difficult. But some can be downright fun.

As soon as you tell someone who speaks Japanese well, "Hey, that is just like this other word," their response is always, "Mmm. But it's different Kanji."

Well, sure, I could tell that when you said it. I think that's why they have Japanese subtitles on Japanese programs sometimes.

Some good examples. "Kazeh" means wind. "Kazeh" also means a cold, like the kind you come down with.

"Why did you miss work yesterday?"
"There was a strong kazeh."
My current favorite is kaki. Not pronounced 'khaki' like the pants, but more like 'cocky'.
Persimmons are kaki. Writing is kaki. A fence is kaki. The summer season is kaki. And an oyster is kaki, which I think is great because of the supposed mythical power of the oyster.
If you dare to sit on a fence in the summer and write about eating persimmons and oysters, you are very kaki indeed!
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Next time on JITDTLSLNET, the dreaded counters! (Not kitchen counters, either) By popular demand!
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The Japanese do vending machines. Do they ever. Mostly drinks. Almost everywhere you have drinks for sale in vending machines, and almost nowhere do you see people drinking a nice satisfying beverage in public. Do they take the drinks home? If so, why not stop at the convenience store where there is a larger selection? I haven’t figured that one out.
But for me, the foreigner who has no qualms about enjoying a cool (or even warm! from the same machine!) and satisfying canned beverage right out in the open in front of Buddha and everyone, it’s great.

During hot weather they are a godsend. Hot as octopus balls? Kids are thirsty? No biggie. 200 yen later we’re all cool as the other side of the pillow.
During cold weather, it's so great to wrap your hands around a can of hot tea or cocoa or coffee, that you don't even need to drink it to feel warmer.

The Japanese don’t stop at drinks though. You might think that a tasty crispy snack might be the next step. Some little bags of squid jerky, a nice pouch of kaki-no-tani (spicy orange puffed rice – better than it sounds) , some tasty shrimp-taste crackers? A little something to make a meal out of the beer you just bought from the machine next door?

Oddly enough, it’s not done. Not that I can find. There are almost no food snacks sold in vending machines. In fact, I’ve seen alcoholic beverages in vending machines more often (3 times so far) than I’ve found snacks. Now, they do have ice cream, but I’ve seen that only twice, and once was at a big-time tourist trap.

The other time I saw food it was a French fry machine. Which made them fresh. Yes, you put money in, and it dropped your potatoes into oil, salted them, and served them to you in a little paper cup. The novelty was a bigger draw than the food quality to most people, including me. What a concept.

But that is it for food, in my searching so far.

However, a different kind of vending is big. I have now bought a hot noodle lunch for me me and the kids, and bought 3 haircuts from vending machines. And I want to do more.

This is done via a menu-vending machine. You see what you want in a picture, match up the Japanese (or the price -- it's easier) to the correct button, and buy a ticket. You later give that ticket to the attendant, and you’re off to the races.

This worked great in the barber shop (see previous post). I pressed the button which I can just barely read that says "Cut" (praying that it is taking about my hair), hand the ticket to the barber, and 10 minutes later my ears were lowered to the acceptable range.

At the restaurant, you push the buttons, and hand the tickets to the lady while you wait in line for a seat, and when you sit down your food arrives.
This system is superior for at least one reason, and might only work in a country like Japan for 2 reasons that I can think of.

The superior reason: The Clean. It all comes back to The Clean. Nobody touching your hair at the barber shop or your food at the restaurant is handling money at the same time. Just little tickets. Germ control is important to the Japanese after all.
It could be pointed out that I am handling the money, I touch my hair, I eat my food, and yet still I live a healthy life. But don’t try to tell that to the germaphobe with the mask on in the seat next to me on the train.
I actually don’t know if Japanese view money as a possible vector for germ sharing. I will say that their money is always incredibly crisp and flat. I never come across a wadded bill. So if only by appearance it seems perfectly clean and healthy. It even stays crispy in milk.

Now the two reasons the vending ticket system works here, and might not somewhere else:
(1) No tipping. The barber and the waitress (and for that matter, the butcher, the baker and the chopstick maker) provide fantastic service, because it’s their job to. Nothing more nothing less. Nobody here expect a tip. There is no jar on the counter at Starbucks or anywhere else. It must seem rude or pitiful that the Americans have jars everywhere asking for small change. With the ticketing system, after you buy your ticket, you are done with money. (So far, this system might just work for Canadians wherever they go in the world…. What’s the difference between a canoe and a Canadian?...You can get one of them to tip.)

(2) Nobody is going to personalize their order. After getting out the ‘bowl of noodles’ ticket, nobody is going to write ‘extra pork, easy on the bean sprouts, not too much soup, no fish-paste patty please’ on the ticket. If you get the ticket, you get what the ticket says. As the title of this blog advises: Don’t Break the Set. Japan is big about not breaking the set, and so the ticket thing works.

I am now seeking out the next things that I will find in a vending machine. I envision being able to get your nails done, buy a car, file your taxes all via tickets bought at vending machines. I will keep you updated with what I find.

By the way, buying a car via vending machine makes sense as new car dealerships here don’t have inventory parked on site. (That would be a waste of precious land.) You buy a car and then wait for it to be built and delivered.
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From the "Well, at least they are trying" department.

Lemonade? (I did buy it for the label.)

Elvis? Not sure what they were going for here.

In temples, castles, hotels and other places where you are directed to take off your shoes, sometimes they give you slippers to wear around. Sometimes half of my foot is covered.

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Japanese proverb:

If the father is a frog, the son will be a frog.
(Sorry, Zane.)
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Monday, December 25, 2006

Greetings from Japan, where they don't celebrate Christmas.... Ha ha ha ha ha!

That's our running joke here. We say it every time we pass another Christmas tree, house covered in lights, or Santa hat on a waitress.

If they don't celebrate Christmas, then I don't know what they're celebrating. Maybe they don't know what they're celebrating either. I haven't figured it all out yet. Japan has adopted Santa Claus, twinky lights, Christmas carols, jingly bells, the whole shebang. It's everywhere throughout December.

Absent of course are any religious songs or symbols. So in other words it's exactly like back home!

They have even added a few things which I am very fond of. We went to Christmas Eve fireworks. That's right. Fireworks. And if I did it right you'll see evidence of fireworks exploding in the shapes of jingle bells and stockings in the sky. Christmassy!

The other addition is the Christmas cake. They are advertised at bakeries, grocery stores and convenience stores alike. You are encouraged to order them ahead. They almost always have strawberries on top, and lots of creamy goo inside. Yummy.

The traditional Christmas eve meal in Japan? Well, we had yakisoba (fried noodles) and takoyaki (my beloved octopus balls) sitting in the park awaiting our fireworks. But the more traditional dinner in Japan is KFC. The kids and I thought we would go enjoy a KFC lunch on the 24th as we hustled and bustled around. We were turned away. There was a line out the door for people picking up their evening meals. The nice employee at the door (of course, all employees in Japan are very nice) told me lots of things that I couldn't understand. I did understand just three things. He was very sorry for our trouble, it would be 30 minutes wait for our lunch, and that he was truly very sorry.

This was not an isolated run on the colonel. On our drive to the Nagoya Port area to see the fireworks, traffic was stacking up pretty bad. I thought we were still a fair distance from the action. Police were directing cars and the whole thing. It was not the fireworks crowd. It was KFC.

By the way, most KFC restaurants in Japan have a lifesize colonel at the door to the restaurant. Like Big Boy or Ronald McD back in the States, only the colonel was a real person of course. At Christmas they put a Santa suit on him. Every restaurant. There must be thousands of Colonel Sanders-sized Santa suits in storage for 11 months of the year. That's probably a single-digit percentage of the total available storage space in Japan.

So here's a slideshow of some Christmassy stuff from Japan. Included are:
* A Christmas train in the lobby of a local hotel, used as a charity fundraiser for a local orphanage. The hotel also has a 30 foot (fake) tree in the lobby. I don't think the photo included here does it justice.
* Images from a park about an hour's drive away which has lights stung and strewn all around. It's like this every night in December. There must be millions of lights.
* Our lovely Christmas Cake.
* The fireworks.

Happy Christmas!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

I've heard from two whole people that I haven't posted for a while. To me, this is my ravenous readership clammoring for more.

Yes, it's been a while since I've posted. First there was a 2 week gap for our home leave trip to California for Thanksgiving. Then we came back. Then I was saying I wasn't going to post until Kathleen caught up on reading the blog. Then she did. Then ... well... nevermind.

From my understanding of blogs, the "Sorry for the delay in posting" is a regular feature of most blogs. An experienced blogger has about a dozen excused prewritten, and has shortcut keys ready. Alt-F5 is starts my random apology generator applet. Now I just need one for apologies to Kathleen.

"Eric, do you know anything about this broken Chrismas ornament?"
"Alt-F5, honey."


Greetings from Japan, where they count years differently from the way we do.

They know it’s 2006, of course, but to them it’s 18. They count the years of the current emperor’s reign. This year thing is on almost everything official and governmental, like car registrations, tax documents, and even our beloved parking tickets.

I guess it makes sense. In the western world, we use the whole “Year of Our Lord” thing. So do they, but their Lord changes every generation or so. So Happy New Year! Happy 19!

Things I’ll Miss About Japan

Being yelled at when I go into a shop. Yes, they yell at you here, but it’s very nice. And it’s not always yelling, but it’s the yelling I’ll miss.

There’s a word here which is a way to say “Welcome” which is said by staff at restaurants, stores, convenience stores, etc. Basically anywhere you go in to spend money, they say “Ira Shai Massei”. I guess the practical translation is "We welcome your business."

Sometimes they yell it. At a large noisy restaurant, the kitchen staff will not be watching the door, but they’ll yell the word when they hear other staff say it. It can create waves of the word going throughout the restaurant when people say it just because they heard it.

*** Japanese is difficult, so let’s not even try:

Since the Japanese Kanji (Chinese Character) alphabet is largely symbolic, reading is separated into two functions. Understanding and pronouncing. In my limited knowledge of Kanji, I can recognize what some sentences mean, without being able to pronounce the words.

Kanji can have several different readings depending on usage, but the meaning is largely clear. This really helps Japanese learners of Chinese and vice versa. A Chinese person and a Japanese person might be able to understand some of what the other writes, even though they wouldn’t be able to speak to each other. Interesting.

Kanji is like a barber pole. (You heard it here first.) I don't know the word for barbershop in Japanese, but I know what it means when I see a barber pole.

Of course, it's important to note that the Japanese have adopted the barber pole as a haircut symbol. It adorns every incarnation, from train station barbershops to high end salons. Twisty pole is the symbol for haircut and style. They have some pretty fancy ones here. It's the Kanji for Barbershop, but you won't find it in any books.

So now let's talk about getting a haircut in Japan. (Check out that segue: Kanji to barbershop. Never been tried before!)

I was nervous about visiting a Japanese barber. Before we came here, I was sure to pack the hedge clippers so Kathleen could cut my hair when the time came.

My fear came from a combination of cost and communication.

It’s common in Japan to pay $30-$40 US for a haircut. I had heard stories of posh salons, and a spa experience of some kind. Maybe a little massage, a manicure perhaps, some hot stones applied. None of which merits the cost in my book.

The other fear was communication. The haircut is the main thing I’m after, and I don’t have enough vocabulary to say ‘a little off the top’, or ‘make me look like that Flock of Seagulls guy’. So my fear was, pay a lot of money, get lots of pampering and things I don’t want, and nothing I do want.

Well, I’ve been happily surprised. I have found my barber. 1600yen is all it costs, about US$13 (and remember, no tipping!) The man gives a pretty good haircut. I brought my work id badge in for photographic reference, but he didn’t need it. He looked at my hair, said something in Japanese to me while making some hand motions. I said “Hai,” which in this context is translated as “Whatever, it’ll grow back,” and dude was off to the races.

After the cut was done (and I was looking pretty good I have to admit), he asked if I wanted my eyebrows shaped. I had seen this done before, to boys and to men. Some foam, a straight razor, and the eyebrows are perfect. To my sensibilities, they were perfect before, but my sensibilities have no sense.

I declined the brow shaping, but accepted the straight-razor beard shave. I plan to get the most out of my 1600 yen. I have never had a straight razor shave from a barber before. I don’t even know if in this day of disease-fear you can still get a nice straight razor shave in America.

Well you can in Japan, baby.

First, some hot foam on the face. Then I get covered by a piping hot towel. Bliss! Then more foam. Next, the straight razor comes out of … what, a hermetically sealed wrapper?...a blue disinfectant solution?.. a box bathing it in irradiating rays? No, it came out of my barber’s shirt pocket. That’s right, it’s clean. What has it touched all day besides other people’s faces and eyebrows? Those are clean! That’s not where the dirt is. The dirt is on your shoes. I thought we’d been over this.

The experience was excellent, and I look forward to my next visit. I was never nervous about being cut by the razor. I figure my barber has much more shaving experience than I do. I couldn’t relax entirely, though. Images from Godfather Part II and Good, Bad and Ugly (or was it Fistful of Dollars?) of people getting shot while enjoying a nice relaxing time at the barber kept going through my head. But then I remembered I was in Japan, where there really are no guns. And I couldn’t think of any karate movies involving barber shops.

Yet another thing I will miss about Japan.


Time for a video montage, long overdue. These are pictures and video from 3 places we went on a weekend trip in mid-November.

Himeji castle is one of the original remaining castles from the Shogun era. I think there are about a dozen which weren't destroyed in WWII. The major destroyed ones have been rebuilt, Nagoya's among them.

Himeji castle has been used in Akira Kurosawa films, all the way up to The Last Samurai movie. It's pretty amazing. Outside the castle was a display of ikebana (Japanese flower arranging) and Japanese style chrysanthemums. The Japanese style is to clip off all the flowers from their mum except for one, which grows into a huge and impressive flower. It's that huge mum which is the imperial symbol. It adorns anything associated with the emporer, including the front of some police cars.

Hiroshima was next. We went through the peace memorial park and museum, which was easier on kids than I expected. The folded paper you see in the pictures are origami cranes. There is a true story of a girl who was 2 when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. When she was 12 she died from Leukemia. When in ailing health, she thought if she could fold 1000 origami cranes (a symbol of long life), she would survive. She died before she completed all the origami birds, but her classmates took up the cause. And now, schoolchildren from all over bring strings of paper cranes to leave at the Hiroshima Peace Park monuments.

There is a children's book "Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes" which tells the story. We bought it and read it on the train ride back. Kathleen cried. Veronica consoled her.

Hiroshima is also famous for a dish called Okinomiyaki. It is in other areas of Japan as well, but the Hiroshima style is different, and well known among the Japanese. It's a pancake with a little batter, some cabage, some noodles, seafood, an egg, and some sweet sauce on top. It's really good. We went twice. You'll notice there are more images of okonomiyaki than there are of the Peace Memorial Park. I make no excuses for that. These are my fond memories that I'm sharing; I can edit them as I please.

Lastly, there are pictures from Miyajima. It's an island off the coast of Hiroshima, and is pretty amazing. The signature image from Miyajima is the giant Torii (shrine gate) which sits out in the water. A torii usually marks the entrance to a shrine. This torii marks the entrance to the whole island, which is considered sacred.

We were lucky enough to be there when the tide was in, making it better for the viewing, but worse for the crowds. Still great. At low tide the area is just mud, really. The island also has two famous food products. Grilled oysters is one, where they have the shells atop the coals, and upon ordering one, they split it open, loosen the meat, and give you a lemon wedge and a toothpick. I am not a huge oyster fan, to the "on the half-shell" level, but this was fantastic.

The other is a leaf-shaped pastry, usually with some sweet filling. These pastries are machine made before your eyes, in a Rube Goldberg style mechanism. There are dozens of places making and selling them, and the machines are a all very similar. Video explains better. They were tasty to eat, but more fun to watch.

Monday, November 13, 2006


Greetings from Japan, where the word for 'loud' and the word for 'annoying' are the same word. You can't be loud without being annoying here. (I guess they have heard me singing karaoke.)
We took a weekend trip to Tokyo last month. Below is a slideshow of our fun.

Of note: we went to NHK (translated PBS, or occasionally CBC depending on your dictionary) and visited the "Studio Park", full of NHK fun. I got to try my hand at broadcasting. Note the assured gleam in my eye while I read the news.

NHK studios are in Shibuya, a vibrant and bustling area of Tokyo. 'Vibrant and bustling' sounds like Frommer's-speak for 'crowded'. It was crowded, but a lot of fun. The crowds are part of the fun. The intersection right in front of Shibuya station is said to be the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world. It's a great place to people-watch.

We took a guided bus tour the next day, and saw the sights like the tourists we are. Highlights included: the Shinto shrine where we saw wedding parties marching off to their ceremonies, the Imperial palace gardens where even the police cars (lovely hybrid cars I might add) are adorned with the imperial symbol of the crysanthemum, and the harbor cruise where our kids became tourist attractions themselves.

When you think of Tokyo Station, you probably think of some modern glass-and-steel structure. But it's all brick, built in the early 20th century, and based on a train station in Holland somewhere.

This was our first ride as a family on the Shinkansen, or bullet train. 275km/hour converts to 'flat-out haulin' in the metric to Kentuckian conversion chart. Zane was particularly impressed.

We had heard such stories about supercrowded subway trains in Tokyo, but we were lucky enough to miss rush hour. Preparing for the worst, I had my Japanese speaking friends help me with these cards worn by the kids.

We are thankful that nobody got separated or lost. Well, that's not exactly true. We all got lost, but we were all together, following me!


Deceiving a deceiver is no knavery. Source: Japanese Proverb

(Knaving a knaver, however...)


Sunday, November 12, 2006

Potty training, revisited

Greetings from Japan, where for as polite as they are, they don’t bless people when they sneeze. Also holding a door open for someone is largely not done. Not sure why or why not, but it's just different.


If you thought this blog or its author were above potty-talk, guess again. Due to overwhelming pressure, I can no longer remain silent on this topic. (Actually the pressure was only moderately whelming... )

Finally, Japanese restrooms will be addressed! First an image to set the tone (from a train station in Nagoya).

For those of who with weak constitutions, or who take offense at discussions of your bodily functions and the facilities designed to contain them, please tune out now.

(Here's where I can pretend that my mom has stopped reading, so I can widen the filter.)



The Japanese toilet is in a transitional phase, so this is a work in progress. We are right on the cusp between two eras. Japanese historians will look back and recognize these days for the ground-breaking revolution that they are, similar to when the Edo Period became the Meiji.

Let’s start by talking about technology in Japan. Yes, they are high-tech. Given. But they are more selective than Americans as to what technology they will embrace, and what they will delay on. Newer is not always better in Japan, so people hold on to what they have a little longer. Case in point, VHS still exists here. As does Mini disc. And let’s face it, chopsticks. They have known about forks and knives for generations now, and they are just fine with what they have. Sure, forks and spoons are used by kids before they learn to manipulate sticks, but sticks are still king. (From comedian Adam Corrola: 'And you should see the Japanese construction crew digging a ditch by using a couple of pool cues. Very impressive.')

Now, on to toilets. The traditional Japanese toilet is not much more than a ceramic hole in the ground. There is no seat. I call it a squatter. Pictured here from a centuies-old building at the Meiji Mura historical village, but this configuration is in many modern buildings, inlcuding my office though not quite as ornate.

Closer look?

How does one use it? Instead of a thousand words, here’s a picture. My Japanese language study book has a cultural awareness page in every chapter. This image was in chapter number 8, but you'd think it'd be in number 2. (Click to enlarge.)

I include the bathtub usage instructions for comparison. The bathtub description gets 3 paragraphs. Toilet usage? Nary a word of instruction, and believe me there's more to it than knowing which way to face. Honestly that's a fairly minor point. A lot more could go horribly wrong with the toilet usage than with the bath usage. You use soap in the bath then drain it? Bit of a faux pas, but you're a foreigner, they'll understand. I'll let you imagine the outcome of toilet misuse.

I also like that they put the western style toilet in there for your reference, in case you forgot. Why doesn't the bathtub description doesn't have an image of the stick figure using a sudsy bath at home for reference?

One thing that's right on the money is they got the typical Japanese body type correct. Stick figure drawing must have been invented in Japan, because it's just so darn realistic.

Okay, back on topic.

In this Japanese culture that honors The Clean, if you were accustomed to that potty would you switch it up and prefer to sit on a regular western-style throne seat? Probably not. Benefit to the western-style: relaxing seat. Detriment: Kinda germy to share a seat with the world. So the Japanese as a society did not embrace the western throne because it did not honor The Clean. “Better safe than sorry” applied.

For the longest time there were only Japanese squatter-potties. In some places, where westerners frequent like my office, there was the occasional western potty. We all knew where they were and prefered to wait in line for them rather than taking our chances with the squatter. Our fear of the squatter might not need to be explained. Let’s just say that body parts and clothes are closer to the action than westerners are used to, so it makes us nervous. That and (except when drunk or Elvis) we've never had to worry about our balance while using the potty. So “better safe than sorry” applies for us as well.

The Japanese had their potty, the westerners had theirs. It looked like it would go the way of the chopsticks vs. forks and knives. Each side was happy with what they had.

But now the stalemate has been broken. (This revolution will not be televised, thankfully.) There have been technological advances to the western potty seats in Japan over the last 10-15 years. The primary component is the built-in bidet in the potty. Push a button and a little nozzle comes out below to spray your hind quarters clean. This technological advance has put The Clean back into potty-sitting, and the Japanese have now embraced it. The bidet has also put The Cheap into throne sitting, as paper is expensive.

The built-in bidet is where it started, but the Japanese spirit of ‘copy-and-improve’ has been in full force in the past decade. Once you’ve decided that electricity and buttons will be present, you can just start adding things.

Our own toilet seats in our home here have the following features: Seat warmer, bidet of adjustable water temperature, spray strength and optional oscillation, air deodorizer, auto flush sensor activated when you stand, and pushbutton controls (including two flush buttons, ‘small’ and 'big'- translated #1 and #2) on a wall-mounted console next to the seat. Other versions include a auto lid lifter when you approac. Ours might have other features, but I only push the buttons I'm familiar with.

Our wall mounted controls for the "Toilet of Wonder".

The Simpsons in Japan episode was not too far off. When Homer approached the hotel’s toilet it put on a water and light show and announced, “I am honored to accept your waste.”

From what I hear, the auto-powder feature, the splash suppressor, the built-in Brazilian waxing, and the computer generated voice giving words of encouragement will be the next steps. The auto colonoscopy is still a ways off, however.

And now the original concern about The Clean (sharing a seat with strangers) has also been addressed. It’s getting more common to have sanitizing gel dispensers in the stalls. Put a little on a tissue, wipe down the seat, and you are sparkling.

The potty revolution has not been complete. There is still a generational difference, I think. Luddites who would prefer to squat rather than to sit on a robotic fountain are still around. The age of a building often determines what potty specification you’ll find there. My own office has low-tech and high-tech in neighboring stalls. Tradition and technology side by side. It's an allegory of Japan itself.

Toilets have always been a topic of conversation for the western traveler in Japan. It used to be shock and surprise at the primitive facilities. Now it’s shock and surprise at the elaborate technology. Yet another way the Japanese are superior.

Side note 1. Warning for men using the fully modern Japanese restroom. There are buttons on the wall, and most of us can’t read them. If you are someone who, like me, occasionally stands up in front of the potty, take care which button you press. When trying to flush, if you press the wrong button the bidet feature will engage, and begin spraying up out of the bowl. The arc of the stream will almost exactly match the arc which you created just moments before, and will stike you right where it counts. It won’t hurt, but as you exit, people will think you didn’t make it in there in time.


Side note 2. Public Service Announcement: If you are someone who, like me, occasionally wears pants, the toilet usage instruction sketch above has a key component missing: pants. The #1 rule: Western toilet, pants at ankles. Japanese toilet: Pants at knees. If this had been a real PSA, I would have come up with a clever rhyme or jingle and maybe a spokespuppet. You know, for kids. But I believe further explanation isn't required.


Side note 3. Potty talk. If you are traveling in Japan and nature calls, don’t ask someone where the bathroom is. Let me remind you that Japanese like a nice soak in a hot bath. They take baths, and even do have shared public bathing areas, or Bath Rooms. However, bathroom is not a word for restroom in Japan. This is an actual conversation that happened when two colleagues of mine, one Japanese and one American, landed at the airport in Japan:

American: Hey, where’s the nearest bathroom.
Japanese: The what?
American: The bathroom. I need to use the bathroom.
Japanese: Um, I don’t think there’s one in the airport, and anyway we don’t have time for that now.

So please use the word ‘Toilet’. They’ll know what you’re talking about.


“Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.”

(Japanese Proverb)


Sunday, November 05, 2006


Greetings from Japan, where since the bad guys don't have guns, neither do the good guys. Police are however highly trained in martial arts. This makes them super good at writing parking tickets, it turns out.

*Japanese is difficult, so let’s not even try:
There are 4 words for brother and 4 for sister. Different words if it's my brother or yours (your brother gets the honorary word, even if he is a total goober), and whether he's older or younger. Same goes for our sisters. And just for fun, a couple more unrelated words which mean 'brothers and sisters'. Fun!

* * *

Takayama is a little town in nearby Gifu prefecture. Gifu is fast becoming my favorite prefecture. And ‘prefecture’ is fast becoming my favorite geographical term.

We went to Takayama for (three guesses…?) a festival! Takayama is famous for centuries-old wooden floats which are wheeled through the streets but twice a year. The woodworking and gold and silversmith craftsmanship on these floats is astounding, and they are all national treasures. The additional attraction to them is the puppetry. There are mechanically controlled puppets on these floats. It’s this skill that Takayama has become famous for.

Kathleen read at the museum that the Takayama area had many woodworkers, and during a generation or so of slow demand, they decided to make puppets and floats to attract business. I guess it paid off, because we went there, right?

You can’t call the puppets marionettes because there are no strings above them.. The puppets are completely internally controlled via strings and levers operated by people inside the floats.

(If this sounds similar to the Tsushima festival from a few posts ago, you’re right. But Tsushima is the minor leagues compared to Takayama.)

The problem is that we got there at 12noon, and didn’t realize that the Sunday parading of the floats had just wrapped up in the morning hours.

Not to be daunted, we found the museum, which had many of the floats on display and a demonstration of the puppetry, which can be best likened to Disney animatronics, without electricity. The most amazing was a puppet which climbs from pedestal to pedestal, being controlled from inside whatever pedestal it is standing on. So the controls are run up through the puppets legs, and connect to the puppet as it steps on each pedestal.

Another puppet just sits there, but it writes for you. His arm is controlled by strings connecting it to a puppeteer below, who can watch his handiwork through a series of mirrors. As the strangest looking people in the audience, we were chosen to receive the puppet’s writings.

The puppet wrote 'Hida', which roughly translates to “Kick Me”.


The puppet wrote 'Hida', which roughly translates to "Help, I'm trapped inside this puppet and they won't let me out!"

The wind-up tea serving puppet is great also. Early robotics. Setting the tray of tea on it starts it moving. Removing the tea makes it turn around and return to its post, ready to serve you again. (It’s just like a Japanese wife, except they are typically self-winding.)

There’s a sampling of the puppetry in the video I have here, which doesn’t do it justice at all. If you are interested in it at all, go to the festival next spring (and get there early), or go to this visitor website which has much better video than I was able to capture.

There was also a pretty impressive Buddhist temple, where we were privileged to see the ancient rite of a car being blessed. It involved a priestly man standing in front of the car while the owner and friends stood beside the car. Then a nunly woman ran around the car shaking some bells. The whole thing took about 15 seconds.

(The car was a Nissan, and I could make all sorts of jokes about how it needs a few more blessings, and all the help it can get, or how the owner was actually repenting for his improper choice, but I’m above all that. Clearly.)

Friday, November 03, 2006

(Way too many pictures from) Kamikochi

Greetings from Japan, where autumn leaf viewing is a big thing. Not as big as cherry blossom vieweing, but still pretty big.

We tried to get in on the action as well. We broke a cardinal rule of limited-stay traveling: we went back to somewhere. We went back to Nagano prefecture to stay at the same inn we stayed at this past summer. Our hope was to catch some fall color. And anyway there are two national parks adjacent to each other in this area. Last time we visited one (Norikura) this time it was the other (Kamikochi).

We were a little early for leaf peeping, but the weather was great and the scenery was wonderful too. And the main reason we went back to the same inn (the friendliness and fine cooking) were in full force. Just a quick weekend, but time enough to take way too many pictures and to overuse my wide angle lens. A selection of them are here for your viewing pleasure, or just for you to ignore.

As they say in Japan: Dozo, bozo!

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Greetings from Japan, where the unlucky number is… 4. Also, 42, but mostly 4.
There are two prevalent ways to pronounce 4 in Japanese. (Numbers and counting are hard in Japanese. A whole topic for a later date, I think.) Four is typically pronounced either ‘Yon’ or ‘Shi’. They’re pretty interchangeable, but certain pronunciations must be used in certain circumstances.

By sad coincidence, ‘Shi’ is also the pronunciation of the kanji symbol for death. So 4 is a harbinger of doom. If you buy a set of dishes or chopsticks there will rarely be a set of 4. Tea sets will have 2 or 5 cups, never 4. If there are parking lots with numbered spaces 1-100, 4 and 42 will be missing. 42 can be pronounced Shi-ni, which is pretty close to “Dead Person”. A western hotel we stayed at in Tokyo had floors 4 and 13 missing, I guess as a nod to the superstitions of their western clientele.

Veronica has the unluckiest birthday in Japan, 4/4. And I wonder about double-dating. Is it bad luck to travel as a party of 4?

A copyrighted feature of this blog…
Bottled green tea. Yes, green tea is a thing in Japan. Before it was ever a trend that made it to you grocer’s shelves (maybe a couple of thousand years before), the Japanese have been enjoying it. For all the trend in the US beverage market, they still don’t have the bottled green tea.

Simple, unsweetened, calorie free and delicious. It is amazingly refreshing. When it’s hot outside (as octopus balls, for example) nothing tastes better to me. It’s like standing under a waterfall.

It's unlikely this will ever make it to the states. No sugar, no 'extreme' image, made of... leaves. Boring! Get some High Fructose Corn Syrup in there, get some X-Games guys to drink it, and we're in business.

People talk about the weight loss properties of tea, especially green tea. But I think that they have it backwards. If you drink tea, your body is tricked into thinking it’s not starving. That’s why tea is an ancient drink – it made hunger bearable, and back when food supplies were dependent on luck and weather, I bet it came in handy.

So you can lose weight by drinking green tea, but only if you were going to lose weight anyway. Tea just makes it more comfortable. (I should submit that to the ad people at Lipton. Replace “Take the Nestea Plunge” with “It Makes Starvation Bearable.”)

Another copyrighted feature of this blog:
JAPANESE IS HARD TO LEARN (so let’s not even try)
Japanese doesn’t put accents on syllables the way we do in English. Theirs is a more musical difference. Formally, each word of two or more syllables either goes up or down, and it seems like most go up. By up and down, I mean that the word starts at ‘do’ on the scale and finishes at ‘fa’ or maybe ‘so’. Or the other way round. (This is all per my Japanese instructor. Honestly in normal speech I can't really hear it. But our Japanese class sounds like we're rehearsing the worst musical ever.)

An example. If you say Ah-meh, going down, it means rain. If you say A-me going up, it means candy. However, if it’s raining candy, you say “subarashii” (magnificent) and turn your umbrella upside down.

Similarly, byoh-een pronounced one way is beauty parlor. The other way is hospital. Both are good places for expert emergency repair, I guess.


Some scans of a recent class work by Veronica. Drawings of her family members.





Hmm. One of these things is not like the others…This is a case study for a family therapist.

I asked her about it. Is Veronica happy or sad? “Happy”. Describe Mommy. “Happy.” Daddy? “Happy.” What about Zane? “Grumpy! Because he’s always grumpy at me.”

She said it with a smile on her face, but it’s true. He is pretty mean to her. More than normal sibling rivalry? Probably not. But I still feel for her. Anything he learns at school or anything he can do well he lords over her.

For the most part, she takes it in stride, and is pretty confident about her skills. She even can be happy for him sometimes, complimenting him on what he does. But a lot of time Zane succeeds in his trying to make her feel bad. Really, he can be a stinker.

This says more about him than about her, that he has to put his sister down in order to feel worthwhile. I guess we’d better start acting like parents and do something. Is this where I pull out the “I’ll give you something to cry about” or the “Don’t make me turn this car around?” Really those are the only parenting phrases I know.


Just to prove there is some joy in mudville, here's a video of us being happy.


Adversity is the foundation of virtue. Source: Japanese Proverb

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Greetings from Japan, where it's considered good luck if a bird poops on you. What a country!


No time for a post of any true merit this week. The delicate balance between doing things and having time to write about them tilted against my blogging this weekend. We went to Tokyo on the Shinkansen! (Bullet train.) The fastest shinkansen (which we took because why go unless you go all the way) travels at around 240 km/hour. That's around 145mph. That's fast. It was great. That crazy Tokyo nightlife! (We were in bed by 8:30, exhausted.) We had a great time, and you'll hear about it at some point.


Things we will miss about Japan, episode 2:

Three little letters. NHK. It's the PBS of Japan, and like all things in Japan, it's superior. Or it's at least different enough to be great. The kids programming is awesome. It is of course based on PBS kids programming, so it's just as charming and clever as Sesame Street or Electric Company. However it's made in Japan, so it's smaller and more efficient.

We saw a crawl on CNN that Youtube.com had removed a bunch of Japanese videos, and we were crestfallen that our one link to NHK when we return to the US was drying up.

Never fear. Here's a taste. Be warned that the Algorithm March, and the complementary Algorithm Exercises (available separately), are completely addictive. There are several incarnations shown on NHK. I posted this one because it has the translation supertitles, along with the Japanese for you.


And here is a neighbor kid and myself giving it a try. No ninjas here, sorry. The more detail oriented of you will notice that I pooch it at the end. I was too busy having fun to be totally algorithmic. More practice!


Knowledge without wisdom is a load of books on the back of an ass.

Source: (Japanese Proverb)


Sunday, October 15, 2006

Greeting from Japan, where curry is a beloved dish. Different from Thai or Indian curry, and quite tasty to the western palate. Especially to kids! And the curry restaurant has excellent cost performance. Coco is the name of the predominant chain of curry restaurants, where they allow you to personalize your curry rice. A selection of meats on top, different amounts of rice, and spice levels, from 1 to 10. The menu warns that in order to purchase level 6 spice or above, you must first prove that you can take it, by eating a whole serving of level 5.

I pursued this, only because I figured with a chain restaurant the size of Coco, you would need to have a card to register yourself as a Level-5+-spice-approved customer. That card would be a welcome addition to my wallet, and a great souvenier, suitable for framing. Sadly, there appears to be no National Spicy Curry Registration Program. After finishing my Level 5, there was no fanfare or ceremony. And the next time through, I ordered Level 6 and the waiter didn't blink.

In case you're wondering, Level 6 is the point for me where it begins to be work to eat it. It's fine, but it borders on not being enjoyable. So since I forsee there's no T-shirt or badge of honor or placque on the wall when I reach Level 10, I have gone back down to a more comfortable spice level. For Kathleen, the comfortable level is Level 0.


Now that we are nearing the end of our stay here (less than 5 months left, don't tell Kathleen), it's time to establish a new and copyrighted feature of this blog. I call it:

Things I'll Miss About Japan

(I need some theme music. Can you do that in a blog? I'll get the staff to work on it.)

First off the top: Chu Hi. I will miss Chu Hi. Everyone who knows about Chu Hi, knows what I'm talking about, and why. For the rest of you, Chu Hi is a mixed beverage with Sho Chu as the alcohol. Sho Chu has the reputation as the poor-man's sake. I think it's Korean in origin. It's a rice or potato based spirit, with about 30% alcohol I think. To make it more drinkable, it's often mixed with fruit juice and soda water to make a Chu-Hi. (Or "Shochu Highball".) The fruit juice is usually citrus. Grapefruit and lemon are the most popular. At a high class bar, they will give you a grapefruit half for you to squeeze your own fresh juice into the drink. At lower class places a syrup is used.

Recently, maybe in the last 10 years, it has become popular as a canned beverage. The good people at Kirin have done wonders with it, though they have for the moment decided not to export it to the US. Plenty of flavors, including pineaple, plum, and Japanese pear.

It's a bit like the Japanese wine cooler, except for one thing: The base alcohol, Sho Chu, is not for kids. The canned Chu Hi product is around 6% alcohol, and tastes like fruity bubbles. A colleague of mine here on business trip was out with friends and called someone after a few Chu Hi to report, "I can't feel my face."

That concludes the first installment of Things I'll Miss About Japan. (Bookend with Exit Music bumper here.) (Fade to black.) (Cue audience applause.)

(Not everything in this ongoing series will be about alcohol. I promise. I really don't drink that much over here. I'm trying to keep my girlish figure.)


I'm feeling sporty: How about another new and copyrighted feature! This one is more educational. (I forsee turning it into a useful series of books for the language learner.) The working title is:

Japanese Is Too Hard To Learn!
(So Let's Not Even Try!)

Lesson 1:
There's a word for cute or darling: kawai. Pronounced almost like the Hawaiian island. Easy to remember, right?

Well, be careful, because there's another word. It means scary or frightening. Pronounced: kowai.

It's easy to mispronounce both words sound to sound like "kuh-wai". I'm pronouncing 'kuh' to rhyme with 'duh', and it is very fitting.

I never realized it before, but we as English speakers blur vowel sounds all the time and don't know it. It's how we get all the lovely and different accents in English. It's how you know when someone speaks with a New York accent that they are rude overly biased towards their city, and how when a Kentuckian speaks you know right away he is new to the marvels of indoor plumbing. Very convenient for the listener.

In Japanese, bluring the vowel sounds gets you in big trouble. Be very careful telling the mother of the newborn that the new baby is very cute. You might be calling it scary.

Want another? Think you're ready to progress?

Kirei ('Key-Ray') = beautiful. Kirai ('Key-Rye') = detested or hated.

Gives the old phrase "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful," a new twist. I don't use that phrase all that often. My beauty is way down on the list of reasons I'm hated.

OK, let's close up the new features of the blog and get to what people really want. Pictures.


Meiji Mura is an outdoor museum of architechture about an hour outside of Nagoya. When Japan was getting all modern, it was decreed that the primary architectural themes to be embraced would be "Gray" and "Square". To their credit however, someone noticed the trend, and decided to find a way to save important or interesting buildings, and this park was the result. Each building was dismantled, transported, and remantled (?) in this park. It has old street cars from Kyoto, a working steam engine line, the first Christian churches built after the ban on Christianity was lifted, etc. The highlight is the lobby and front exterior fountain from the Tokyo Imperial Hotel, which was a Frank Lloyd Wright work. Enjoy.

What this prison cell needs some pizazz!

Veronica checks us in.


If neither animal nor vegetable you be, then mineral you are.

Source: (Japanese Proverb)