[The American Years]

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Greetings from Japan, where the beef prices in the grocery store don’t seem all that bad, until you realize that the posted price is per 100grams. (Multiply by 4.5 for the per pound price.) No wonder there’s mad cow disease. You’d be mad too if they were selling your flesh for these prices and you weren’t getting any of the money.

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We took a weekend vacation last weekend. Two places. We went to Gero Onsen, and Shirakawago.

Gero Onsen is a tourist town with an economy based on Onsen, the Japanese communal hot spring bath. Very relaxing and nice.

For exclusive images of the Thomas family enjoying the natural outdoor spings, please click this link.


The second place we went was Shirakawago. A preserved village with Gasshou style (A-Frame, like praying hands) architecture and straw thatched roofs. Pretty amazing.

Japan does a thing where they have manhole covers that are made special to the area. Kinda neat.

A little slideshow of our fun.

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Japanese Proverb:
A good sword is the one left in its scabbard.
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Monday, September 25, 2006

Greetings from Japan, where the local time is... tomorrow. (Yes, I stole that from The Simpsons, but I like it.)
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We are tourists, more or less. So I heard about a tour. And as a tourist I felt it was my duty to go. It was the tour of the Asahi brewery here in Nagoya. The tour was all given in Japanese, but really, what could they say that I really needed to know about beer.

Mass production, big tanks, cans and bottles, hops, barley, blah blah blah. Got it. How long until the tasting room?

You might think that taking kids on a brewery tour is a bad idea. You might be right. But the nice people at Asahi are ready for kids. Right down to the coloring book and markers adorned with a cartoon beer mug! You know, for kids!
After our designated 20 minutes in the tasting room, it was back on the train back to town. Across from the tracks?... More beer cases than I have ever seen in one place.
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The whole point of living somewhere strange and different and new is to get experiences that the typical tourist or business traveler wouldn’t get, right?

Like they say, be careful what you ask for.

Our car was towed last month. The Japanese typically park and double park wherever their car will fit along the roadside, and sometimes they park where their car won’t fit. We had heard, however, about a ‘crackdown’ where the police were contracting with 3rd party entities to do parking enforcement. I expected that it meant parking tickets. Yes, it does mean that.
We found out the hard way that it also means towing. Kathleen and the kids walked out of the train station to find the car missing. Knowing that it wasn’t stolen, she called me and told me it had been towed from what had been until then our favorite parking spot at the subway station.
So we have to go that night to the police station to get it back. The state of crime in Japan is that there were 5 policemen on duty there, and they could spare 2 of them to talk to us about our ticket. When I say “talk” I mean they took turns reading from a phrasebook explaining our infraction and the next steps.

The next steps included paying 14,000 yen (~$120) to them for the towing fee. Paying that fee got us a hand written receipt, duplicated using (get this) carbon paper. This is Japan, but at the police station it was Japan of 1962, I think. We paid our fine in cash, and the cash went into the same metal tackle-box that the receipt pad and carbon paper came out of. No cash register. No computer. Amazing.

You’d think that with the lack of crime, some of these on duty guys could tidy up the police station, which had papers and books strewn about like they were in the middle of a crime wave. And maybe they are. After all, there are all these foreigners just parking wherever they want.
I think the clutter is to give the image that they are busy. Never thought of a policeman and needing to prove his value to society, but over here I think they have to justify their existence.

I was trying to look at the bright side, and I started to think that the experience was almost worth the 14000 yen. Crazy police station. Carbon paper. Good blog fodder. I was just turning the corner, making lemonade out of it.

Then more lemons.

Paying for our infraction wasn’t over. We got a second bill for the parking ticket itself, which was another 15000yen ($130). Which oddly enough, couldn’t be paid for at the police station itself. (Maybe their carbon paper was worn out.) That one we had to take to the post office to pay. Which is pretty common over here. If you can’t do something at the post office or the convenience store, it can’t be done, I don't think.

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"A crane lives 1,000 years, but a turtle lives 10,000." - Japanese Proverb
(Post script to the last proverb. To job your memory, the last proverb was
"Forgiving the unrepentant is like drawing pictures on water."
I thought about it, and decided that means it's literally a lost art.)
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Friday, September 15, 2006

Greetings from Japan, where you can’t register a car unless you have a signed document from your landlord or neighborhood governmental office assuring that you have a place to park it.

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More about language this time.

Joke told by one of our neighbor kids.

Kid: "Knock Knock"
Kathleen: "Who's there?"
Kid: "Holy Toh"
Kathleen: "Holy Toh-Who?"
Kid: (walks away laughing hysterically)
It's funny (kid-funny, anyway) that he made her say "Holy Tofu", and it's a play on the fact that the Japanese don't have a sylible for the Who, or Hu sound. They have Ha, He, Ho, and Hi, but no Hu. They have Fu instead. And it's the only F syllable they have. No fa, fe, fi, fo. No "Fee Fie Fo Fum". So what does the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk say in Japan? "Fu Fu Fu Fum?" And what does Horton hear? Why, Horton hears a Fu, I would guess.

I thought that my Japanese learning was coming along well. Then I learned that I was wrong.

Example No 1.
After the family got here I was supposed to register them as my dependents in the online benefits system at my workplace. Easy enough. So pick the kanji symbol that has woman on it, that one is probably wife, right? Then here's a menu that has numbers and the symbols for boy, then numbers and the symbols for girls. Easy enough. I select 7-boy and 5-girl figuring it's their ages, and I'm good to go. Click submit and I'm feeling good with my Japanese skill.
It was within 30 minutes of submitting that phone calls were made and concerned and helpful people were around my desk trying to sort out my mistakes. I apparently had set off some alarm bell in HQ that had to be fixed.

Well the 'woman' symbol I chose had another symbol next to it that I didn't recognize. I didn't think it mattered, but it turns out that I selected the Japanese symbol for "Common Law Wife". And the numbers next to the kids? Actually not their ages. Instead, it was the number of the child, like the whole "number one son" thing. So I had data in there was for my 7th son and 5th daughter.

So now it makes sense why alarm bells rang in HQ. I bet I was the first person to register for Japanese benefits for a common law wife and 12 kids. What did they expect? I did move here from Kentucky after all.


Example No.2
So it has happened, and much sooner than I had expected. My kids have corrected my Japanese. Combining business trips and this stay, I'm nearing a year in Japan, and over 10 years working closely with Japanese. My kids are here for not even a season and are correcting me already. And to beat the band it was Veronica. Zane is picking up the spoken Japanese very quickly, mostly from his tendency to make quick friends. Veronica is reading Japanese hiragana (the phonetic alphabet) like a pro. But it was Veronica who corrected my spoken Japanese. I won't go into the details of how it happened (as I want to maintain some stitch of pride), but I believe she was listening to my conversation with a shopkeeper, and she heard me use the word for mother when I meant father. After the conversation was over, she came to me and said, "No Daddy, the word was ...."

I replayed the conversation in my mind and darn it all if she wasn't completely correct.
I guess I knew it would happen. I have always maintained that the kids would be the most fluent when we left... but WE JUST GOT HERE! I'M SUPPOSED TO BE THE BEST SPEAKER!
Back to the books for me.
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Not so much new content here. Some retreads from the past months. Enjoy!
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Japanese Proverb:
Forgiving the unrepentant is like drawing pictures on water.
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Saturday, September 09, 2006

Greeting from Japan, where a loaf of bread consists of 6 or 8 slices with no heel on either end. The slices are big, about 6” by 6” by 1/2”thick. Great for French Toast or Texas toast, but strange for a sammich. No idea how the Japanese use them. Don’t think they go Texan or Frenchy with their toast, and don’t tend toward sammiches. I will investigate and give further updates as events warrant.

This is the kids' Japanese teacher. Kind of a kid himself, but he's great.


The Japanese are superior at math. You've heard it all you life. To which I say,"Whatever." Let's see them figure out how many 3/16 inch holes spaced at 2 5/8 inches can be fit in a 2x4 (which of course measures 1 5/8 x 3 3/8) that is 4 feet long. Which is to say that the metric system is nice. Once you get used to it, it's makes things much easier.

Even the Japanese money increases metrically. Coins are valued 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500 yen. Bills are 1000, 5000 and 10,000. (The largest being valued at about $100). Similar to ours except no 25c equivalent and no $20bill equivalent. They introduced a 2000 yen bill a few years ago, equivalent to our $20, and it failed. It is no longer in production. No surprise there. It doesn't follow the pattern. An no quarter (25 yen) either. Straight from dime to 50cent piece. It's funny that two of the more prevalent denominations in the US don't have equivalents over here. (Obviously, I don't mean that it's laugh-out-loud funny.)

There is something a bit strange over here though. The number words don't follow the commas. (This might get boring. Reader's response: "GET boring? We blew right past boring last paragraph." But I figure that if you've made it this far, you have a high tolerance for boredom, so I trudge onward.) In English, our words follow the commas. 1,000:new word - Thousand. 1,000,000: New word - Million. etc. We don't say "Thousand Million", we say "Billion". So every 3 digits we get a new word, and we don't count any higher than up to hundreds of each larger unit. Hundred million, hundred billion, etc.

So simple I never even thought about it. But leave it to the Japanese to make it tough. They have a fourth word. They have a unique word for Ten Thousand. And then they count up to thousands of those and all the bigger units. So what is 10,000,000 or ten million to you and me, is actually 'Sen Ma', or a thousand tenthousands to them. And then they have a new word at the hundred million level, and every 4th place thereafter. And the kicker is that they don't move the commas. They still use them and still put them in every 3 places, you know, for clarity. Go figure.
Told you it was boring.


Another weekend, another festival, this one with dancers and drummers sporting tassle hats!


Friday, September 01, 2006

Greetings from Japan, where drinking your morning coffee from what you and I would consider a juicebox is a perfectly acceptable and dare I say delicious option!

In Japan, as you may have heard, they speak a foreign language.

I have decided that it would be in my best interest to learn a few words of it, since I’m living here and working for a Japanese company and all. Working knowledge might come in handy in case I ever have to order a beer, or having succeeded in that, find a restroom.

Japanese is the language they’ve decided to speak over here, and I guess it was an obvious choice, since it has the word ‘Japan’ right in the name of the language.

Learning Japanese, like any language, isn’t easy. Certain things are, like the vowel sounds. There’s just 5. Compare that with English and its dozens, and it seems easier. Japanese also has only about 50 single-syllable sounds that make up all words. Like, ah - ee - uu -- eh -- oh ; kah -- kee -- kuu -- keh -- koh, and so on.

The problem is that when people run a bunch of those syllables together, you have no idea when one word stops and the next word starts. And so it is terrifically confusing to pick up things in conversation.

In my 10+ years working for a Japanese company I have only picked up a handful of phrases and words. Unfortunately the majority of them involve beer and bathrooms.

Coming here for this extended term I was hoping that I would get enough vocabulary that I would turn a corner. I would turn the corner where I could listen to someone speak, and be able to understand 75% of what they say, so that the other 25% would become understandable, and therefore learnable from context.

Sadly I have not turned the corner yet. That corner will be a long slow curve, I fear. I can listen to someone speak, and have no idea if they said “haki mo nomi masu“ or “ha kimono mimasu“. (Neither of which make any sense but you get the idea.)

It’s like every sentence in their spoken language can be misinterpreted, along the lines of “Excuse me while I kiss the sky” vs. “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.”

Get this. There can be such confusion along these lines that many Japanese TV shows use subtitles. These are Japanese TV shows starring Japanese people speaking Japanese to other Japanese people, and the intended audience is completely Japanese. The subtitles of course, are also Japanese, but they include the kanji (Chinese character alphabet), so the audience knows what the people meant when they say 25 syllables in a row at blazing speed. If they say “Ni hon” they could mean two books, two bottles, or the country of Japan itself.

The subtitles would be great for me the student of Japanese, except that of the thousands of kanji out there, I know about 50, and the people on TV never use those 50. The 50 kanji I know are the numbers (yes, 1,2,3,4,5 is just too easy so there are different characters for those), the days of the week, and then the rest are those having to do with (what else) beer and bathrooms!


In case you forgot, here is confirmation that the Thomas family can be silly. At times downright foolhardy.


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