[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.