[The American Years]

Monday, August 28, 2006

Greetings from Japan, where curry is a beloved dish. Different from Thai or Indian curry, and quite tasty to the western palate. Especially to kids! The Japanese don't usually go for goop over their rice. White rice is a pure and perfect thing, you see. The delicious exception is curry. Yum.

During the middle of August we had a week’s holiday. When I say ‘we’ I mean the 90% of the country of Japan. Except for tourism related industries, everybody is off in Japan during three weeks each year: first week of the year, first week of May, and middle week of August. Many companies also prohibit people from taking more than 3 days off in a row at any other time during the year. Which means that if you are Japanese and you want to go somewhere far, this is when you do it.

Those 3 weeks might not show up on the official Disneyland/Disneyworld calendar on their website, but you know they are marked in green highlighter somewhere behind the scenes in Anaheim and Orlando.

Kathleen’s request for a getaway was that we go somewhere cool and not crowded. This left me with 3 choices: our living room, the ice cream freezer at the convenience store, and the mountains.

We went for 4 days of the week to a lesser known area of Nagano prefecture, called Mt. Norikura. You might remember Nagano as the site of the 1988(?) winter Olympics. You might not. Not my problem.

Nagano is in part of the country named the Japan Alps. They were so named by a British guy in the 1880s. He has been immortalized here ever since, though the historic account is that he forgot he had named anything while here, and his only memories of his trip were a blur of strange food, heart-stopping taxi rides, and Tokyo Disney.

We had a great time. The inn was operated by a family who lived in the states for 10 years, so their English was superb, but not as good as their cooking, which was astounding.

The good thing I learned about holiday weeks in Japan is that if a tour bus doesn’t go there, it’s not going to be crowded. Japanese prefer travel by organized tour. In their own country, even. They like the “course” idea. They will choose Course A, Course B, or Course C as the method they will experience a given area. Tourism maps for areas outline ‘self-courses’ for the adventurous…, but not too adventurous. (Off the Couse tourism?... that’s a bit like Breaking the Set, isn’t it? Hmm. Sounds dangerous.)

It worked out great for us. We took some nice little walks around the mountains, and the weather was pleasant, not too humid. All in all, a great time.

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The family was exposed (literally) to onsen for the first time. Onsen is the communal mineral hot spring bath, very popular in mountain areas of Japan. I don’t have the bandwidth here to satisfactorily discuss the Japanese and their bathing, but suffice it to say that the Japanese enjoy a nice hot soak. Naked. With no clothes on. With lots of other people around. In the nude. Did I mention how they don’t wear clothes?

I’ve been 3 or 4 times, but this was the first time for the famly. At most onsen, this one included, the men and women are in separate areas. And having an outdoor tub is a big draw, so you can enjoy nature, nature-boy style.

I brought home a Nagano Hotels brochure from a travel agent to show Kathleen. On each page, there are pictures of the amenities for each hotel. It’s pretty clear that for a vacation, you eat, then take a bath, then eat, then take a bath, maybe some mini golf, then more bathing before dinner, then eat, then another soak before bed. They dig it over here.

Zane and I had a fine time after his initial nerves wore off. However the water (45deg C) was too hot for Veronica, so she and Kathleen cut their experience short.

Onsen Etiquette Rule Number 1 for you first time onsen-goers out there: No Flash Photography. Don’t learn the hard way like I did.

Some photos of our trip to the mountains, maybe too many. No clever slideshows this time. Enjoy.

Japanese proverb:
Deceive the rich and powerful if you will, but don't insult them.

(I think that mirrors the Starbucks Coffee business model: "This coffee is worth $4, and you deserve it because you're special.")


Friday, August 25, 2006

Greetings from Japan where they’ve determined where the dirt is. It’s on your shoes. Case closed.

A few photos of general shenanigans to start us off.

At the Nagoya Castle Festival.


* Girls in Yukata, and Kirin Beer Girl posters.

* Video of the festival dancing. The Japanese Electric Slide. *


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Let’s discuss octopus balls. (Oh how I have longed to write those words!) Festival season is upon us, which means fair food. Newsflash: in Japan, fair food is different than in the states, with the exception of a couple of staples: hot dog on a stick, corn on the cob. Over here the staples also include yakisoba (a fried noodle dish) and octopus balls, called tako-yaki. (Note: A Tako stand here is nothing like a Taco stand back in California.)

Octopus balls are a type of dumpling, I guess. They are batter, vegetables, and octopus meat fried in balls about the size of golf balls. They taste a bit better than golf balls, I guess, especially if you like octopus meat. They are squishy, and served super hot off the specially made griddle.

I have been trying to get a phrase to catch on over here. Since festival season is also summer heat season, I’ve tried to get traction on the phrase “It’s as hot as Octopus balls out here.” So far it hasn’t caught on. But I’ll keep trying. If it’s hot where you are, please start using the phrase with your friends and neighbors.

A slideshow of the tako-yaki stands in action.

Japanese Proverb:
Forgiving the unrepentant is like drawing pictures on water.

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Sunday, August 20, 2006



Greeting from Japan, where some seemingly normal things have distasteful associations, and are thusly avoided. For example, sunglasses and tattoos are avoided by normal folk (read: basically everybody) because they are affiliated with Japanese organized crime. I still wear sunglasses, as I am the least likely Japanese mafia member ever. I have however decided to delay getting my planned tattoo of the eagle riding the Harley across my back.

Similarly, the Japanese flag is not displayed because of a fringe political group who wants to reinstall the emperor as the governing authority. That group waves the flag all over the place, and drives around in gray SUVs blaring the national anthem. The result is that what you and I would consider normal patriotic displays have become distasteful for respectable citizens. Strange that in a country that is nationalistic nearly to a fault, you almost never see their flag. Not even at the post office or at schools.

(Personal note: Kathleen bought a Japanese flag despite my warnings. So not only are we foreigners, who should be avoided, we are also now foreigners who are loyal to the emperor. )


A note about beer. It's sold in vending machines (though the practice is becoming rare).

Also, a non alcoholic beer is marketed to kids. Great website: www.kodomo-beer.com ('kodomo' means kid) Notice in the photo below that the kid beer for girls is a smaller bottle than that for boys. Awesome.


Toyota City is the sister city to Detroit. Big deal, I know. But Toyota City (yes, that’s the real name) has an additional claim to fame. It is the home of the Oiden festival. “Oiden” means “Come to my town” in a local dialect. I think it’s the only word left of that dialect, but whatever.

The main idea of most festivals in Japan is to eat fair food, sweat in the heat and watch fireworks. The Toyota Oiden festival has great fireworks, which we loved. It however has an additional focus: competitive synchronized dancing.

Teams of dancers compete for prizes for their dancing, costumes, etc. The costumes range from traditional yukata (robes), to lab coats with neon blinking lights, to French maid outfits (on the men), to speed skaters pushing religious icons on wheels (see video, attached).

The competition goes like this: Teams of 20 or so people parade around in a circle, and past the judges. The Oiden Song plays and they dance, then move forward, then dance again, then move forward some more. After the song plays 3 times in a row, they take a break for some drinking, then it’s back to the (somehow slightly less) synchronized dancing.

It’s terrifically silly and senseless, and I love it. Were I going to be here next year at this time, I would try to join a team for sure. The people practice hard to be very organized and synchronized when they are acting like complete idiots. It’s awesome. If one person were behaving in this manner, it would be a shameful embarrassment. Put 20 of them doing it in unison, and it’s turns into a respectable (though largely drunken) competition.

The scale of this festival is simply astounding. It takes two evenings to accommodate all the teams. It fills street after street after street. Toyota City expected more than 200,000 people on each of the 3 days of the festival. (And that’s in metric, so there’s a 1.6 conversion factor as well.)

And the song… it’s a repetitive silly popsong. It’s played about 200 times during the course of the dancing. Seriously, at least that many times. It’s the “It’s a Small World” of Japanese festival songs.

Here’s a taste, with thanks to friend Damien S., for providing some coverage to the goings on.


Japanese Proverb:

If you understand everything, you must be misinformed.


Sunday, August 13, 2006

Greetings from Japan, where large trucks have 3 blue-green lights above the cab. One light comes on if the truck’s speed is higher than 30km/h, two lights on if above 60km/h and all three lights are on when the truck is doing more than 90km/h (60mph). Other drivers can gauge distance and speed of the oncoming truck. Smart!

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So let's start with a few photos from the general goofing off that goes on around here. Zane and his architecture attempt. Leave it to him to make a structure out of blocks that has no straight line. Tormented genius? Nope. I think we need to torment him some more.... Veronica woke up one weekend morning saying she wanted breakfast in bed. Her staff stapped into action. "This is not a drill people. Get the Barbie plate.... No! The Hello Kitty! Flowers! We need flowers! Ok, smiles everyone smiles!"

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Summer festival season is in full swing over here. I will try to capture bits of it for you. It's not something I ever had a good window on as a visitor. It is quite a spectacle.

There was a festival last month which was our first exposure to the season. It was down in Minami Chita on the tip of the peninsula which frames Nagoya bay. Minami Chita, directly translated means “Warm Breeze Through Hades”.

I will try to explain this festival. To save my typing, whenever you see (*), please mentally insert the phrase “for no apparent reason”.

The festival centers around four giant wooden and paper fish (*). The fish are hoisted by teams of drunken men and paraded around in a circle (*), narrowly missing the bystanders who are kept save by a rope and a team of policemen in hard hats blowing whistles. The men carrying the fish are not totally concerned about the safety of the crowd, because they’re too busy not dying of heat stroke. It was hot there. Serious hot.

To keep them from becoming exhausted or dead, the fish-carrying men take many breaks in between fish carrying events, and drink something from a long bamboo canister. I made friendly with some of the boys, and they shared a drink of it with me. It’s either watered down sake, or mercury-laden bay water. Either way it was delicious and refreshing, and made me want to carry huge fish(*).

Anyway, after going taking turns running the fish around in circles (*), the fish are lined up and one by on run directly at a building (*) which holds a small shrine. Luckily the building and shrine are protected by a wooden structure resembling an early AFL football goalpost. But the fish, and the men laboring to animate them, are not going to be stopped from going straight at the building. One by one, the teams run their fish directly into the goalposts (*), basically destroying each one in turn.

You’d think by the 3rd fish they would see that the goalpost is impenetrable. Blame it on the drink in the bamboo tubes. Truly I think there is a prize for the team which crushes their fish the best.

After the fish smashing, the fish are taken back, repaired, and readied to be taken somewhere else to do something else(*). I think at the end of the day, whatever is left of the fish finds its way the ocean(*), but we couldn’t last that long. We had all the fish fun we could have for one day. And we truly did have fun. They serve cold beer at Japanese festivals. Did I mention?

A slideshow of the goings on.

Those are styrofoam fish teeth that Zane has as souveniers in one photo.

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Deceive the rich and powerful if you will, but don't insult them. -- Japanese Proverb