[The American Years]

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.

1 comment:

Philip said...

The shave at the barber was by far my favorite memory/experience in Japan. At the barber the boys and I attended (near the Toyota-shi eki) there was a 45 year oldish woman that worked there that would deliver the best shaves! We'd battle to get in her chair! Also, there isn't enough space here to tell the story, but next time we talk please remind me to tell you about Brian Breiholz's (TEMA Powertrain PE) Japanese barbershop experience. It makes me cry/laugh every time I hear him tell it!

Merry Christmas!!