Spirited Away

August 14th, 2008 by Steph

I like to bike through the Buddhist temple district on the way to school. The road is lined with trees, and the temples add an air of serenity. The path is generally free of students, which means I don’t have to fight my way upstream against an onslaught of preteen boys fiddling with their cellphones on their way to the junior high by my house.

But today, the atmosphere had changed.

The streets were clogged with cars. Temples which are usually in a state of stasis had their doors flung open, with visitors milling around inside. Vendors were starting to assemble their kakigori stands, with the usual 氷 flags. Old ladies sat by the side of the road calling out “ikaga desu ka?”, trying to get me to buy ice cream that has been carefully molded into a pink and yellow flower bud. I know from first hand experience that this calculated presentation is a trick, that their product is an assault to the taste buds, a horrid concoction of banana and artificial strawberry that has somehow come to represent summer in Akita.

The graveyards adjacent to the temples were the hoppingest place in town at 8:15 in the morning. Families greeted each other with a smile or a wave, and gathered around graves, bringing flowers, money, and sake to family members who have passed on. A monk in a conical straw hat meandered among the gravestones, ringing a bell, ready to offer blessings to the deceased.

Welcome to the first day of Obon, where everyone in Japan returns to their hometown to be with their family and pray to their ancestors. I don’t really have any family to be with or ancestors to pray to here in Japan. But I am content to pause for a moment, to be part of this landscape for a brief few minutes on the way to work, to slow to a crawl on my bike, weaving in and out of traffic in my own private trance, dodging pedestrians and taking in the scene.


July 24th, 2008 by Chris

I literally just returned from my two-week trip to Boston and Buffalo, and moments after sitting down at the computer… another earthquake! The epicenter was in the same prefecture, Iwate, as the previous big one about a month ago. Poor Iwate.

This one was a little scary because this time, Stephanie wasn’t here in Akita. She and our friend Andy took a road trip to Aomori, and were located much closer to the epicenter than Noshiro. (They are in the armpit of the large axe-shaped peninsula at the top of the island.) Not to worry though; Steph called and assured me everything is all right.

I should also mention that there was a big one in the same region, but a ways off shore, just last week! That makes three in just over a month, all about the same 7-ish magnitude. Definitely some major correction going on in the earth’s crust around eastern Tohoku.

Japan’s new earthquake alert system

June 14th, 2008 by Chris

Earthquake Early Warnings, originally uploaded by miyagawa.

This (not my photo; thanks, Flickr!) is what appeared on the TV screen several seconds before the earthquake arrived in Noshiro this morning. Note that the blue overlay is not part of the newscast, but pops up over whatever show is currently on. This particular warning is from an aftershock about half an hour after the main quake, so at this point everybody was already watching the news.

Seismic sensors are placed all over the country, and immediately upon the occurrence of the first shock, the epicenter is calculated and warnings go up on TV stations immediately. Since the shock waves take time to spread from the epicenter through the ground, the warning will hit the TV before the quake arrives in most places. Impressive stuff.

Iwate Earthquake

June 14th, 2008 by Chris

About 20 minutes ago there was a large earthquake in our neighboring prefecture of Iwate. The epicenter was right around the “tri-state area” where Akita, Iwate, and Miyagi meet.

Amazingly, I was watching the news when the earthquake happened, and an earthquake alert popped up on the television about 10 seconds before the earthquake actually arrived. The shaking was not heavy all the way over here in Noshiro, but it went on for over a minute. It felt like being on a boat, with a kind of constant vibration accompanied by big, slow swaying back and forth. I went outside and noticed all the powerlines swinging all over the place. Our landlord’s gardener was out there and didn’t seem to be noticing anything though!

More info

JPop 101

June 10th, 2008 by Steph

To get more of a flavor for the JPop School of Japanese Studies, below is a cross-section of my, um, homework.

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The JLPT and JPop

June 9th, 2008 by Steph

Let’s face it, posts have been few and far between these last few months. The cause of this silence? I blame the Japanese… not the people, mind you, who have been exceedingly fun and kind and friendly, but the language, which has not yet exhibited any of these qualities to me.

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Bagpipes and Applecores

April 18th, 2008 by Steph

I have a fascination this one question, and lately I’ve been asking everyone within earshot: What was your first job? Sometimes this leads to cryptic two-word answers for which you must invent your own back-story (take for example “cookie factory”). Other times you get more information than you were bargaining for (“I mowed lawns so I could buy my first set of bagpipes”).

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April 9th, 2008 by Steph

Now this may surprise all of you (ok, none of you), but I am actually not all that interested in war. And I don’t mean starting them or watching them, but studying them and learning about them. Perhaps this lack of interest could be traced back to any number of uninspiring history teachers in my past. Or the fact that history class never really seemed to get past WWI, from an almost exclusively European standpoint. So when I was informed that I should check out the war memorials, the war bunkers, and the war museums during my upcoming trip to Okinawa, I politely nodded yes on the outside and then quickly jettisoned the notion of doing anything remotely related to WWII on my much needed vacation. I was going to see culture, dammit, and see a slice of paradise. Why ruin a good thing with something so depressing?

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Worth a Thousand Words

March 31st, 2008 by Steph

About a week ago, Chris and I returned from a 9-day visit to Okinawa. Instead of outright telling you about the complex awesomeness of the place, let’s see if our new vocabulary gleaned from the trip paints a vivid enough picture.

Of course, there’s all the uniquely Okinawan things you’ll find there: umibudou, awamori, chanpuru, gusuku, ryukyu, utaki, tebichi, habu, togyu, sanshin, bashofu, bingata, mozuku, rafute, beniimo, eisa and shisa.

But several other general-use words adhered themselves to my long-term memory as a consequence of the trip, including: hade (gaudy), kaesu (to return, as in a car), yakeshimashita (sunburned), kokusai (international), suizokukan (aquarium), yatai (a food stall without walls), yakimono (pottery), ei (ray), haka (grave) and jietai (soldier in Japan’s self-defense force).

Create a mosaic in your mind’s eye with that vocabulary (and these pictures), and we’ll return soon to provide the narrative.

Media Madness

March 31st, 2008 by Steph

A few months ago, Chris and I were contacted out of the blue by an editor at CityWeekend, an expat newspaper in China. He found our photos on flickr, and asked if either of us would be interested in doing some travel writing. As improbable as this solicitation sounded, the inquiry was legit, and I now have a published article to show for it. It’s so beautiful how Flickr brings people together. You can read the article on cherry blossoms in Japan here:


Also, the next podcast with PodAsia is up. This episode is about sacred Mount Koya in Wakayama prefecture. The podcast includes an interview with a monk as well as Buddhist chanting and shamisen music. Check it out, episode 93: