Archive for August, 2006

Oishii Ringo Meron

Thursday, August 31st, 2006 by Chris

Brief cell-phone video of a Japanese ice cream truck driving by the house. No colorful pictures or bad electronic music here; just an alarmingly straightforward recording of a guy saying, in random order: oishii (tasty), ringo (apple), suika (watermelon), meron (honeydew). For some reason this evokes a low-level deep terror within me.

OMG Fireworks

Wednesday, August 30th, 2006 by Chris

Steph mentioned it briefly in the red bullet post, but we went to the awesomest fireworks show last weekend. The small city of Omagari hosts this big competition each year, wherein the 30 top fireworks makers of Japan compete for top honors. This means that instead of a typical half-hour show where most of the impressive stuff is in the last few minutes, Omaragi is a three hour boomfest consisting of individual 3-4 minute shows by each company — where every show is a grand finale. Pretty awesome.

I took lots of pictures–maybe more than you really want to see of fireworks (and I didn’t post them all). Unfortunately I didn’t bring my tripod to Japan, so I had to make do with bracing on my knees and hoping I didn’t shake too much. Most of these shots are 3 second exposures.

A few samples:

Red squigglyBlue SquareRainbow StreamersBig Koosh®Dandelions

The Red Bullet

Monday, August 28th, 2006 by Steph

Every morning I get up an hour before I head off to school. Unfailingly, I have toast for breakfast, which takes 5 minutes in our oven/toaster/microwave unit. I haven’t figured out other breakfast options here yet (except for natto, which I’ve tried and whole-heartedly rejected). I usually have time after breakfast to watch the children’s morning show, which is remarkably like sesame street with puppets and everything. Usually the English portion is on, but sometimes I get kids’ animation in Japanese. This morning was about a superhero who has a magic mochi sword. He conquers his enemies by flinging ice cream at them… when they eat it, their eyes are filled with flowers and puppies and other warm fuzzies. How can you not love programming like this?

I then head off to one of my myriad schools via my one-speed bike, complete with basket. I love biking to school… it reminds me of being in junior high. And right now the weather is so beautiful and I’m happy to have the exercise. I pass all my kids riding their bikes on the way to school. And if I’m feeling awake enough to be sociable, I say good morning as I leave them in the dust.

As for the small town nature of my job… it’s finally sinking in for everyone. Yesterday Chris and I were walking around town when this group of 4 girls I didn’t recognize stop us with an “eeeEEEEEEHHH! Sensei! Hello!” I’ve only been working for a week and have only been to each class once, so there’s no way I recognize these girls, so I use the old trick where I make them introduce themselves to Chris, including their name and school. And I ask them to remember Chris’ name from the self-introduction I did as a lesson plan, and amazingly enough, they come through. I hope Chris isn’t creeped out by everyone in town already knowing his name.

On Saturday, we sucked it up and took the big 4 hour round trip trek to Omagari for… fireworks! Every year in this sleepy little town, they host the all Japan fireworks and millions of people flock there to watch. The show, 3 (!) hours long, was quite spectacular. We found a small group of JETs, where we met up with Corey the guy who is GIVING me his CAR. Woo hoo! I am now mobile, folks! Her name is: the Red Bullet.

Before we celebrate too much, let’s discuss the car. It’s got some severe muffler problems and who knows what else is about to fall off or refuse to work in the dead of winter. It took us $45 to fill up the tank with gas. But hey, you can’t beat the sticker price.

Everyone cross your fingers for me or hold your breath or something, eh?

Block Party

Friday, August 25th, 2006 by Steph

Sweet mother of all that is holy, thank GOD the temperature has finally dropped to something resembling reasonable!

So, even though I live in a boring little town where there’s nothing to do, somehow we’re always off doing something. Such is the glory of small town life. There’s always a little league game or a speech contest to attend. Or something tasty to eat, yum! Melon ice cream anyone? I’ve convinced myself that it is necessary to eat as much of this as possible before the weather gets nasty.

It’s kind of remarkable how regional and seasonal Japan is. Every season has it’s specific activities and food. Summer and winter are for festivals (I believe they’re supposed to make you forget how miserable the weather is), and then in the fall and spring you go view the leaves and cherry blossoms. Every region (maybe even city?) has it’s specific handicrafts, culinary specialties, and festivals. I always thought of America as a pretty diverse place, but I don’t think we have this kind of specialization… (I ask you, what is Escondido famous for?). I had expected Japan to be a pretty homogenious place by comparison, but this focus on region-specific goodies totally took me by surprise. It’s hard to explain. I’ll show you when you get here. ;)

Last week we attempted to get pizza delivered to our house, which was an adventure to be sure, but also a communication disaster and did not result in said pizza. At this point, I was tired, i was hungry, (was I was poor too?), and I went out in a huff to get something ANYTHING to sate the hungry tummy. We were on our way to some restaurant, when these guys hanging out at the local park start yelling at us to join them. We walk around the chain link fence to find our neighbor and several guys from the neighborhood having a little picnic. They clear seats for us at the table, and explain that it’s a little neighborhood festival, as they stuff us full of gyoza, yakitori, yakisoba, edamame, watermelon, and cucumbers. Oh yes, and of course the essential ingredient to any social gathering: liquor.

It was pretty dark at this point, and our neighbor pulls us over to the field where he and the kids (and us too!) light some little fireworks and run amok. Afterwards, we chill at the table some more, make a short speech in Japanese, and even do a little impromptu kareoke (why did someone bring a microphone to a picnic?) Some of the old men even get up to demonstrate traditional dancing with towels on their heads (not sure if that part is traditional or just a bonus). After some intense questioning, it was discovered by the group (okay, maybe I told them) that Chris’ birthday is this weekend on the 27th. At that point the guys are like “PAAAAARTY!”, and swear to throw Chris a birthday party the following week, especially since he’s the new guy in town.

You will of course be the first to know if this party Goes Down.

Email subscriptions

Friday, August 25th, 2006 by Chris

I know some of you would prefer to receive emails from us rather than checking this blog every day, so I have added email subscriptions.  Look to the right on the front page to sign up for emails whenever we post.


Friday, August 25th, 2006 by Chris

We have internet! It’s supposedly a 50Mbit DSL line (for less money than I was paying for my ~5Mbit cable in San Diego), which I’ll believe when I see it…

Finding Foreign Food

Thursday, August 24th, 2006 by Chris

No matter how long it feels subjectively, we haven’t been in Japan all that long. It’s been about three weeks since we arrived in Noshiro, and in that time we’ve been busy investigating the food options in this medium-sized town.

Many JETs are placed in towns so small they don’t appear on maps, and others are in big cities with dozens of other gaijin to hang out with. The small towners tend to be local celebrities known by everyone in town. One person we met a couple weeks ago lives in a town of 6,000 and is surrounded by farmers who bring her fresh vegetables from their fields. Conversely, the big city folk are surrounded by places like Starbucks and Italian restaurants and shops that sell foreign foods.

Noshiro is an unfortunate middle ground. As Steph put it, “big enough that no one cares were here, but not big enough for there to be anything to do.” The central core of town is amusingly lifeless. There’s one big “shopping street” which has a string of mostly small restaurants and shops. We’re gradually covering this street from end to end and trying a couple of new restaurants each week. Most Japanese restaurants are intimidating because they have no windows so you can’t look in and get an idea of whether it will be any good. Unmarked doors sometimes lead into lovely little places, and grand entrances may equally well lead into dirty places selling fish guts.

One of the places on this “shopping street” is Bamboo House, which we thought was just a bar. Indeed that’s all you see when you look in the window (already a point in favor that it has a window), and all the JET gossip says that Bamboo House is a great place to drink. But we didn’t want to drink; indeed, we were just looking for some Chinese food one night, and the Bamboo House bartender looked friendly so we stopped in to ask. He said there was a second floor restaurant that had some dim-sum like Chinese food. It turns out that Bamboo House has a restaurant upstairs which had never been mentioned by all the JETs enthusiastically talking about drinking. But good thing we found it, because it’s definitely the best place in town for us world travelers. We knew we were in the right place when we were sat at a counter facing a wall with a huge statue of the Hindu elephant god Ganesha (thanks Google!) right in front of us. It turns out this place has all kinds of great food, including Thai and Indian curries, pastas, Chinese dim-summish things, and really (really) big beers. The tandoori chicken we had was fantastic. And the atmosphere is perfect (unusual in smaller Japanese towns) — bamboo blinds, rugs hanging from the ceiling, lots of warm wood and fun stuff on the walls. We find we are having to consciously keep ourselves from going there more than once a week…

We thought “shopping street” was all there was to Noshiro until we got bicycles and were able to expand our horizons. And that’s when we discovered the wonder that is Route 7. About a mile south of town, this is the big non-expressway road (think route 66) that connects all the major cities of Akita. As you would expect it’s littered with big discount stores and fast food restaurants; much as I hate to say it, I feel right at home down there.

Former Noshiro JETs had urged us to go to a place called Gusto (gasuto) on Route 7, which is legendary among American locals for its — wait for it — FREE REFILLS. And great burgers, apparently. So last Friday we decided to give it a try. Gusto did not disappoint. The drinks were indeed bottomless (and serve-yourself — choose between various kinds of coffee, soda, and tea) and the cheeseburgers were… not bad at all. I would say they were on a par with Denny’s, which is about as good as can be expected. The rest of the menu actually looked pretty entertaining. There was all kinds of Japanese junk food on there, as well as various kinds of entertaining hamburger patties on plates surrounded by interesting-looking ingredients. We weren’t feeling that adventurous that night, but maybe next time.

Across the street from Gusto is Japan’s McDonald’s equivalent, Mos Burger. We haven’t eaten there yet but it’s on our list. A poster in Mos Burger’s window shows “burgers” which look to me more like a cross between a taco and a pita.

Strangely, Italian food is everywhere. Many of the department store-style restaurants (with plastic food displays out front) have pasta dishes with tomato sauce and varying approximations of cheese and ham. My theory is that these are so popular since noodles are already a comfort food here.

We’re still on the lookout for some honest-to-god teriyaki and taro boba tea, which don’t actually seem to exist in Japan. But we’re thrilled to have begun discovering the good places to eat in town, so that when y’all come visit we will have lots of tasty options!

we don’t need no education

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2006 by Steph

Everything has been pretty wonderful and great for the last week, except for a repetative stress wrist injury that’s surfaced, which has kept me from telling you how wonderful and great everything has been.

Monday was the first day of school at the commercial high school I’m based at. I met the entire student body at the school assembly… during which I had to give an introductory speech in Japanese (!). I started out with a little shout out to each grade level (“where my ichi-nenseis at?”) and everything went pretty smoothly from there. Sure I didn’t know where to sit or when to stand, but it all worked out in the end.

After the assembly (at which I got to hear the school song! Do we even *have* those any more?), a reporter from the local newspaper came to interview me. Noshiro only gets new ALTs (assistant language teachers) like every 3 years, so I guess it’s big news. The reporter asked me what I expected, and I could only reply, “I expect to be surprised by *something*”. Not what they were looking for, perhaps. I was also asked what I thought of Noshiro… you KNOW there’s only one correct answer to this… luckily, I didn’t feel like I had to lie. People have been so friendly, and I feel right at home in the teacher’s lounge. Probably because I am still blissfully ignorant about all of the atrocious faux-pas I’ve been committing. And it’s great to be in an area with so much natural beauty. I have a hard time wrapping my head around how fierce the winter is going to be. You can tell that the rainy season is approaching, as we are starting to get storms and appear from and disappear to nowhere. As my fellow teachers here insist, “typhoons are fun!” Unless you’re a mamachari bicycling fool like myself. I’ve got to get a car before the sky falls on my head.

The head English teacher here at the high school has been quite approachable and friendly. He translates the gist of all the speeches for me, including the teacher’s room meeting that we commence with every morning. Yesterday, he had some literary questions for me, as he just finished The Alchemist and One Hundred Years of Solitude (in English, of course). I am very impressed… I am still trying to get through the Japanese children’s story “Peach Boy” (without much success).

I eat at the school cafeteria, which is a bunch of old ladies slinging noodles around. It’s got great variety and even tastes pretty good, which is a relief after eating for a week at the Board of Education, where food options are a bit more… limited.

We’ve got wireless here in the teachers’ room, which is pretty sweet. Thank god, because I’ve been informed that I pretty much will never have any classes on Monday, so I need to keep busy somehow. On the up side, it should make it easy to take 3 day weekends whenever one of you gets your butt over here to visit!

Sports are huge here, so I’ve revived my dormant excitement for volleyball. Sports Day (really a week) is coming up at the end of September, and I’ve already been recruited for the teacher’s team. It’s been like a decade since i’ve played seriously though, and I am now an old, old, woman (as those in Ho-asogli can verify), so we’ll see how my body puts up with the abuse.

Classes have been going pretty well, although the students waver between totally silent/sleeping and chattering nonstop in Japanese. But I love their energy and I am enjoying interacting with the class. The classes are so big here (35+) that instead of the usual team teaching between the ALT and Japanese Teacher of English (JTE), there are 3 of us all together (me and 2 JTEs). I am also “in charge” of an English club which meets once a week after school. It seems this is just really an excuse for students to get together and chill and eat food, but hey, I’m good with that. Bring on the pancakes, people! there is also a recitation contest coming up, where the students read passages in English from wherever. I’ve been enlisted to help 2 students with pronunciation… which is harder than it sounds.

Momentous Day

Sunday, August 20th, 2006 by Chris

The Day I Have Been Waiting For has finally arrived and passed. If you’ve been following our story, you may remember the Cell Phone Saga of two weeks ago, in which it took three and a half hours at the Vodafone shop to discover that I couldn’t buy a phone without my Alien Registration Card (even though I had been assured I could use the “proof of application” form as a stand-in until the actual card arrived in two weeks). Well, two impatient weeks finally passed and I awoke in an eager mood just like I used to on Christmas morning. The sun was shining (and if was f-ing HOT as usual) as I made my way to the city office to pick up my alien card. They had given me a one-week range in which I should pick it up. Of course I was going on the very first day of the range, so I wasn’t sure it would actually be ready yet. (Never mind that I had gone in a week earlier just to see if it was done then. City officials couldn’t understand why I would appear outside the allotted time.)

My relief was profound when I was handed our shiny new cards. Of course I immediately headed back to Vodafone to complete the deal. It was much easier this time because I already had all the completed forms from the previous attempt. In 20 minutes the paperwork was done and the shiny new phones were in front of me. Unfortunately some mysterious process (I think it was charging the phone up and activating it) required one hour, so I went and had lunch while I waited. I walked out of the store at noon and immediately went home and devoured the manual.

(Aside: Japanese cell phones are super cool, but Jesus, the plans are expensive. For about one hour of talk time per month with no extras, it’s about $40. Text messages and other data stuff are more on top of that. Back home I got unlimited nights and weekends and about 7 hours of weekday talk time for $35. Weird.)

We both have phones (this marks the first time Steph has ever owned her own cell phone) and they point toward our different priorities. Mine is a big heavy clunker (although it’s a metallic purple clunker) which I chose because I just couldn’t resist the technology. It has:

  • amazing high-resolution screen (640×480 squeezed into a cell phone!)
  • camera with optical zoom (in fact there are two cameras, one facing the user and one facing out)
  • GPS app with knowledge of train schedules and toll roads
  • wireless transponder thing that can do credit card-like payments by holding the phone up to a special receiver at certain shops
  • Bluetooth for using wireless headset and also acting as a computer modem

All that for $70 (and a 2-year contract. Hope Steph re-ups!).

Steph’s phone was free with the 2-year deal and is the sexiest piece of technology I have ever held in my hot little hand. It’s apparently the world’s thinnest phone — it’s thinner than the bottom half of my Mac laptop, if that gives you an idea. We’re looking forward to finally being able to communicate when we fail to meet up for whatever reason (more on that later).

I forgot to mention: Steph was not around for all of this because she had run off to Akita City for the two-day prefectural JET orientation. I was due to meet her at the end of the day in the big city for a party at some German place, which sounded enticing after two weeks of ramen and questionable meat products. I got the phones about noon and was due on the train at 4:00.

What I didn’t expect was the giant thunderstorm that hit around 2:00. It had rained and thundered a bit at 5 in the morning but it was all gone by the time I got out of bed. Having to leave for the train in an hour, I wasn’t sure how I was going to get there without getting soaked. So I was relieved then the rain cleared up just in time for me to hit the road. I biked as fast as I possible could to the train station and made it there with 20 minutes to spare.

Now, as you probably have heard, Japanese trains are just about the most reliable thing on the planet. So I was surprised when I was directed to get on a bus to East Noshrio (the transfer point we always have to go through when leaving Noshiro). I assumed they were working on the track or something and that I would get on the normal Akita train at East Noshiro. But no: it turns out the trains simply weren’t running. The electronic schedule signs were all three hours out of date and the station was brimming with sweaty school kids going home for the weekend on a Friday night. The tiny air-conditioned station room was nice and cool but boy, was it smelly. So my train that I was supposed to board in 10 minutes didn’t arrive. Buses occasionally pulled into the station, but (of course) none of them were labeled with a destination and my shallow understanding of Japanese assured me that none of them were going to Akita either. I was somewhat shaken as I had taken it on faith that these trains were supposed to be the most reliable thing, after death and taxes. Fortunately I am used to Amtrak and its system of falling an hour behind for every two hours of actual travel, so I had patience.

Now would have been a great time for both Steph and I to have cell phones. Unfortunately I had Steph’s brand new phone with me too so it wasn’t particularly useful in this situation. But at least I was able to dash off a text message to our new friend Claire, who may or may not have actually been within shouting distance of Steph at the time, but it was the next best thing.

In the end, I had to wait around that station for an hour and half; it felt like a lifetime of alternating between muggy outside and less muggy, more musky inside. I still don’t know why the trains weren’t running; the only unusual thing that had happened that day was the thunderstorms. But this country had thunderstorms all the time and other JETs have verified that they’ve never shut down the trains before. In the end, I got a decently swanky charter bus ride straight to Akita Station, not stopping at the stations in between, which made it shorter than the equivalent train ride would have been. I got to play with my new GPS toy along the away. I have to admit, it never occurred to me that all the cool functionality of my phone would be hidden behind Japanese user interfaces. My Japanese reading ability is going to go through the roof just because I want to use all the cool stuff on my phone.

I arrived in Akita with half an hour to spare before the party started. I was ravenous and wasn’t sure what I was going to do about dinner; I also didn’t know exactly where the party was, except that it was near the Washington Hotel (which took me an extra minute to find because the building said ワシントンホテル instead). The party was at a place called Platz (already promising) and I was wandering around looking for it when I spotted a big group of white people being herded around. I fell in with them and we were there in one minute. The restaurant showed promise already because it had big beer-brewing vats in the window. I was thrilled to find out that they served food as well, so I went in and had a joyous reunion with Steph.

The party was great, and I had a quite decent (though very small) bowl of potatoes, broccoli, and “bacon” (I would call it fatty, fatty Japanese ham) smothered in glorious, glorious cheese.

At the end of the night (a nice late 9:45), Steph and I headed back to the train station with two other Noshiroids (both coincidentally from mid-northern England and great fun to listen to) and discovered that, amazingly, the trains to Noshiro still weren’t running after 8-9 hours. We were ushered outside the station to the taxi stand, where the four of us received our own postage-paid taxi delivery back to Noshiro — over an hour away. The taxi fare ended up being over $200 — which we got for our sweet 950 yen (about $9)-each train tickets.

So ended my biggest day so far in Japan. We’re officially documented with our alien cards, we have phones, we had decent beer, and we have witnessed the rare event of the Japanese train system going out. Oh yeah, and we both have bikes now so we can actually explore Noshiro more thoroughly. Sounds like the foundation for a lovely weekend.

Day of Your Mom

Tuesday, August 15th, 2006 by Steph

I am slightly hung over this morning, because… we had a night of carousing with another Noshiro JET last night! We finally connected with the other new guy. His name’s Francis, and he’s from England. He’s had two summer jobs in America; one in Indiana, and one in Utah, which means he’s spent more time in the middle of my country than I have.

He:s only been in town for a few days, so we introduced him to Bamboo House, which is the swankiest joint we’ve found so far. This place is pimped out with a huge golden Vishnu and they serve tasty goodies from all over the world, so it’s a great place to go when you need a respite from ramen, udon, and sushi. They’ve also got the cheapest and largest beers we’ve found in town so far.

And yes, you can get beer in vending machines here.

We took him over to our place after dinner… my predecessor left a prodigious supply and variety of sake, so we decided to have a little informal taste test. And I’m still feeling the repercussions. But I’d do it all again, no regrets. :)

This last weekend was kind of mellow. Chris and I tried to court adventure, but she declined our advances. We hopped on a train to check out the coast North of us. The plan was to check out a beach like area, and then proceed farther north to some huge bizarre water-wheel thingy that is some sort of tourist attraction.

Stop number one was Hachimori. The day clouded over, and didn’t exactly scream “beach party”, but we got out to look around anyway.

I think maybe there’s a reason why you never hear much about the Japanese beaches. What we found was a black sand beach (cool) with driftwood and detritus all over it (uncool). The whole area just had a generally unwholesome air to it. The spot was supposed to be famous for its sunsets, but as there was no sun, we didn’t get to verify this feature.

So we return to the station to find to our dismay that the next train through does not actually go much farther north, and falls several stops short of our next destination.

A quick note about trains here. Taking the train until this point has been so easy, cheap, and enjoyable that I had been lulled into thinking of the rails as a substitute for the subway lines I am familiar with back in the States. However, the lines run irregularly, so that there are huge swaths in the middle of the day when the trains just don’t run for a few hours at a time. There are also several speeds of train which run on the same tracks. Which means that a $4 trip on the slow train can all of a sudden become a $12 trip on the fast train. Then trains may just stop and turn around, even though there is more track and you had plans to go farther.

So…the JR train… not a subway.

Sunday was more chill. We went to the numerous Buddhist temples and cemeteries by our house to check out Obon festivities. this holiday is kind of like Day of the Dead, only without the candy skulls. everyone visits the graves of their ancestors to clean themup (the graves, not the people) and offer some flowers or food. Buddhist monks were going around to individual graves to pray over them. one could hear little bells ringing throughout the graveyard, or the rhythmic knocking of sticks together. it was a very contemplative environment.

Later that day we headed to Futatsui, the next town over, to explore. we were delighted to find a beautiful path along the river, which runs through some very lush green land. it was hot as horses though, so we kept our exploration short. Later we discovered that Futatsui has a set of city bikes. You can borrow one for free and go cruising around town. Very excellent.