[The American Years]

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Greetings from Japan, where it’s considered rude to kiss in public. I get scowls of disapproval if I give my wife a peck in the train station. Not just from her, either. And I really get a mean scowl when I try to kiss someone else’s wife.

In Japan kissing is considered foreplay, so it should not be shared with a larger audience. There is a Japanese word for kiss, but it’s not often used. They prefer the imported English word. Maybe the Japanese word is sacred and personal, but the foreigners are always playing kissyface, so their word is the one that is used. (This is all conjecture on my part.)

There are Ferris Wheels all over Japan. Very common. I have ridden in 4 permanent wheels in Nagoya alone. They all seem to have enclosed capsules to ride in as well. Very nice, but I didn't really understand it, until a friend connected the dots. He said, "Very popular for dating couples." Of course. They can't just go about necking in public. So they go up in the big wheel, and they have 10 minutes of mostly privacy. It's like the Tunnel of Love, gone airborn.

The topic of Japan and sexuality is maybe another topic for my master’s thesis. To generalize, the Japanese are both more out in the open with their naked bodies and body parts than most westerners, especially Americans, and yet completely private with their sexuality. There, I think that properly sums up the topic, so we’ll leave it there in case my mom is reading.

Things I'll miss from Japan

Red miso

You may have heard or enjoyed miso soup. It’s enjoyable, and one of my treasures of Japanese life. But the uses of miso go way beyond the soup.

First, what is miso?

I don’t know. You can look it up on wikipedia or somewhere. That’s not the purpose of this blog. To me, it’s a yummy paste, very salty and flavorful. There’s red and white.

My favorite use of the red miso is to put it onto sliced Japanese cucumbers (half the diameter and twice the flavor of American cucumbers). We discovered this in at a little café in the mountains and have fallen in love. The sweet cucumber mixes perfectly with tangy salty miso paste. Amazing.

From the Tastes Better Than It Looks file:

Don’t know if you can get quality miso in the States. And I’m sure I can’t bring back tubs with me on the airplane. So these might be my last few months of quality miso experiences. It makes miso sad! (Sorry for that one.)



You have all heard about and laughed at the inability of Japanese to make certain sounds common in English. Most famous of course is the "L" sound. Also, "th" and "v" are problems. But I bet you haven't heard of sounds they make in their language that we westerners can't do. Well there are some.

My pronunciation nemesis is the "Ryo" sound. You and I would say it in two syllables. "Ree- yo". However the correct pronunciation is one syllable. You say the 'Yo' sound with just a hint of "r" at the beginning. It's impossible for me. (Yet Veronica has it down perfectly of course.)

A "ryokan" is a Japanese traditional small hotel, which we love and frequent. When I talk to my Japanese friends about staying in a ryokan, they don't know what I'm talking about. "Oh, you mean 'ryokan', not 'reeyokan'.

I never respond with "Oh, yeah, you're right. By the way, please say 'Larry's really very thrifty.' for me. "


Japan Monkey Park is an amuzement park. With monkeys. Monkeys that walk on a rope bridge 20 feet directly above the public. There are signs to warn you of what might happen when a spider monkey walks above you. I didn't realize there were international symbols for that, but there they are.

However, the signs are a bit confusing. Should I be looking up to avoid the problem or looking down?

Zane qualified for big rides for the first time in his life. And he made the most of it. I think they expect a kid measuring 130cm (I think that's like 14 inches) to be of an age to drive a little car in a responsible manner. And actually Zane measured up on both accounts. He is also, officially, addicted to loopdeloop rollercoasters. He's head over.... Well, let's just say he likes them a lot.

I was a little disappointed that the teacup ride would did have handmade ceramic tea-ceremony quality green tea teacups to spin. Oh well, when in doubt, put Hello Kitty on it.


"When in doubt, put Hello Kitty on it."
- New Japanese Proverb.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Greetings from Japan, where some cars have mysterious stickers on the back, one green and yellow, the other orange and yellow. For your benefit, I have learned a little about these. Okay, it's not for your benefit at all, but you still have to hear about it.

First this one.

The green and yellow are for new drivers. As I understand it, after one gets a driver license, this sticker must adorn the new driver's car for one year or so. I think this is to warn other drivers, or make them more patient when the newbie is taking their sweet time making that right turn against traffic to get into the convenience store.

The orange and yellow is not for new drivers, but rather for old ones, aged ones. I believe it's not a requirement, but voluntarily purchased and placed on the senior citizen's cars. Again, to warn drivers. The real warning is not about the skill or reflexes of the driver of that car. Rather it's about the steep fines you'll get slapped with if you cut off or mistreat a driver with this emblem.

There is no similar sticker for foreigners driving in Japan, though we need it the most. The new driver and the old have far more training sitting on the right side of the car and driving on the left side of the road.

I am definitely going to get one or both of these Japanese car stickers to adorn my car back in the states. It might make 3 or 4 Japanese people in all of Kentucky laugh out loud, while the rest of everyone has no clue what's going on. Completely worth it.


A regular and copyrighted feature of this blog:

JITDTLSLNET (Japanese is Too Difficult to Learn So Let's Not Even Try)

The honorific 'O'. By putting the long "O" sound in front of words, it makes them honorary. Which is fine unless you are just learning the language and have a weak vocabulary. Sometimes it's no problem. The word for money "kaneh" is always prefaced with "Oh". So is gift. Miyage is always pronounced as Omiyage. I learned both those words with the "Oh" in front and only learned later that it was tacked on to increase the respect for the noun.

Always respect your nouns.

However, it gets in the way when you don't know it's coming. Two examples.

We checked in to a hotel and the Japanese lady was going on and on about the Oheya. I had no idea what she was talking about until later when I realized she was talking about the room. Heya is room, but she totally lost me.

The better example was when Kathleen was at the grocery store. She had picked up a nice round watermelon and was toting it as grocery carts are a bit smaller over here. The grocer is ready for this. Kathleen was approached by an employee and by hand motions it was clear that he was going to take the watermelon up to the front for her and hold it there. He asked her what her name was, putting the honorific "O" in front of the word for name.

Kathleen knows the word for name, and would have got it pretty quickly, the "O" threw her. She tried to sort out what he was saying by repeating it back to herself slowly. So she started back with "Oh.." This was all the grocer needed (or cared to wait for). He decided that her name was 'Oh-san' and he wrote it on the watermelon and took it up front for her. So of course at the front Kathleen had to ask for Mrs. Oh's melon to complete the transaction.

It makes the Japanese almost Irish. O'Malley, O'Tool, O'Kaneh, O'miyage.


It snowed on us! Right here in Nagoya, it was almost enough to scrape together a snowball or two, and stayed on the ground for half a day. Pretty nice, and probably the only snow for the year in this area.


Below is a slide show from our early January trip to Kyoto. It was our second trip, so we were able to do some exploring of sites that are off the beaten tourist path. Many of these places we were the only foreigners there, which is odd in Kyoto.

The shrine with the many orange Tori gates is Fushimi Inari. It makes a brief appearance in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. Of course in the movie they show only the front side of the torii. The back has writing saying which company has donated the torii on which date. I was glad I couldn't read it, as it would have taken away from the solemnity to see "Toshi's Dry Cleaning, donated 2002" on the back of an impressive tori.

The kids can only stand temple after shrine after garden for so long, so we went to a steam locamotive museum. It was pretty great actually. Did you know they drive their trains on the left side of the tracks...?

The kids were having fun trying to make "ghost pictures" when it was near dark. So look out for those.

We stayed in another Ryokan, or traditional family run inn. This was the best one for the kids, as there was a girl there to make friends with, as well as a dog and a cat.

Our last visit was a small temple up in the mountains, one of the oldest in Japan. It had the oldest tea field in Japan, for those of you interested in old tea fields.

"Never rely on the glory of the morning nor the smiles of your mother-in-law"
-Japanese Proverb

(No offense Marsha! You have a lovely smile!)

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Another Special New Year's Edition

Greetings from Japan, where bicycles are primarily used for (get this) transportation. Not recreation. So the majority of them don't look like bikes in the states. They do, however look a great deal like each other. How people find their bikes at the train station is a mystery to me.

Most bikes are shaped like what the American eye would consider a "girl's bike", with a low main crossbar. If you are using the bike for transportation, certainly you don't need the structural advantage of a horizontal main support. So skirt wearers and pants wearers all share the same bike shape.

This is at our local subway station.

There are tons of bikes that reside at the subway station. I guess because people don't have room to keep them at thome. Some bikes are designed to accomodate tight quarters: they fold in half for easier storage.

Many of these bikes come with built-in locks as well. Right behind the seat is a ring lock that grips around the spoke. I don't think it's to foil theves. It think it's more to make sure nobody takes the wrong bike by mistake, since they all basically look the same


A copyrighted feature of this blog: Japanese is Too Difficult to Learn, So Let's Not Even Try.
(JITDTLSLNET -- pronounced just like it's spelled.)

This time, counters. In any language, counting from one to ten is an obvious baby step. Japanese starts by having two common words for 4 and two common words for 7. But they're just getting started.

If you are not just going to say a number for the sake of a number, but if you are actually going to talk about a number of things, different words are used. And not just one set of words. They are different depending mostly on the shape what you are counting.

Round cylindrical things are hon (or bon, or pon). Flat things are mai. Machines and vehicles are dai. Three bottles of beer with three pizzas with served by three delivery vehicles (scooters in Japan's case) are sanbon, sanmai, sandai.

That's just 3 examples of counters. (How do the japanese count things that don't have shapes, like examples? Great question. Did I mention that Japanese is too difficult to learn?)

I was at a grocery meat counter and my friend wanted to get 15 chicken breasts for a party he was throwing.

He said "15 please" using the general number word, jugoh. The attendant had no idea what he wanted. He pointed to the chicken breasts again, saying jugoh again. Nothing. Thinking (correctly) that his pronunciation probably lacked correctness, he wrote the number down on a piece of paper and showed her, pointing to the chicken breasts again. And again the lady looked at us like we were speaking and writing in Klingon. I remembered the counter word for small things or pieces, which is 'ko'. I said "jugoh ko, please" and she got it right away.

"Ko" was the first counter I learned. Since I'm so big to them, I can call anything a small thing, right? Probably not.

How do you count a flounder fish? By using 'mai' for a flat thing or by using 'hiki' for animals?

My elementary Japanese book has an appendix for counters in the back of it. There are sixteen different counter words for different things in the book, and I know there must be tons more.

It also gets worse. There are tons of irregularities. Sure it's bon if there are 3 cylindrical things.

With 4 it becomes hon. With 6 it becomes pon. All the counters have such irregularities.

I swear, they made this language as difficult as possible just to keep the foreigners out.


New Year spectacular, part II.

Last time I said I wouldn't likely take a camera to the New Year festivities, or o-shohgatsu. But I did anyway. I didn't get much that was good, but I'll put it here anyway.

Dec 31 was Buddhist. I went to a nearby temple. This is where they do the ringing of the bells. The big bells that are rung by swinging a log at them. I heard they ring them 108 times, for the 108 sins, but judging from the line at this temple, there may have been some new sins invented so as to accomodate the bell ringers.

They also gather around an incense smokery hoping to get the good luck smoke on themselves. Then inside the temple there are special prayers and readings done by the priests. People crowd into the entry way of the temple and thow money on the floor of the alter area.

During non-new year crowds, there is a box with slats for people to put their money in. However, in this case there is too big of a crowd, so coins are being thrown over the heads to land on the floor inside the temple. (Sorry, no picture of that. I was too conspicuous already.)

Jan 1 was Shinto. I went the biggest and most impressive shrine in Nagoya, and didn't get close to it. The crowds were just too much. I was able to get close to the purifying water pond. It's where you are to wash your hands and your mouth, since those are the source of most sin, before approaching the shrine. Big crowds there.

I tried to get to the main part of the shrine but gave up. I did find a smaller shrine building which had white cloth draped around the inside to catch all the flung offeratory moneys. (Also had a security guard standing by.)

Though I don't understand either religion very well, both seem to have a great reverence for the New Year. Making money offerings in the hope of good luck, good fortune, and business success seeps important to both.

And they have no problem with money changers in the temple. With all the crowds coming through, there were fair-food stalls aplenty, ready to change your money into sweets, noodles, and of course, my beloved octopus balls.

This video has no pictures of our family, for once. I made these trips on my own. I'll more than make up for it in the future. (I also noticed I goofed and put the same - not very good - pitcure in twice... I may have even put some of the slides in the carousel backwards. Oh, I guess that doesn't happen with modern slideshows. )

An interesting note about Auld Lang Syne. I couldn't help but to put it as the background to this slideshow. It's probably not surprising that it's not a song associated with the New Year in Japan. But the song is everywhere here. Evertime something is going to close for the day, this is the song they play. Amusement parks, libraries, grocery stores. It's the 10 minutes till closing tune here.

No idea how or why the song came to be for that purpose, but it does get me into a lot of trouble. One minute I'm a mild mannered foreigner in the grocery store near closing time. Then the song comes on. Suddenly I start staggering around, drinking stale champagne out of other people glasses, looking for people to kiss. It's really embarrasing for the kids.

The reverse side also has a reverse side.
-Japanese proverb.