Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Not in japan anymore

   Japan does some things better than the US.

   National healthcare is the best example. I paid about 300 dollars for health insurance for the entire time I was in Japan. Most people I know pay more than that per month for their insurance in the US. When I went to the clinic in town for a cold, I paid about 20 dollars for my visit and meds. 

   When I cancelled my health insurance at the town hall, shortly before returning to the US, the town clerk told me I had actually paid 18 dollars too much. "I'm so sorry, but it takes two weeks to process the return, so we won't be able to give you this money back before you leave the country," he told me. I assured him that 18 dollars was not a big deal, considering how little I had paid the entire year. "Are you sure?" he kept asking.


  Another thing I'll miss: my transaction register. When I opened my bank account, I received a little pad, a lot like the registers that come with your checkbook. I always kept it with me and when I'd go to the ATM to withdraw money, I'd insert it into the ATM. The ATM would update it, so after I'd taken my money, it would print out the transaction, update my balance, and add any other transactions that had happened recently, like deposits to my account or the automatic bill pay I had going for my phone. So every time I went to the ATM, I'd get, free of charge, an update of every financial transaction I'd had, in print on my bank pad. This came in use once, when I needed to prove to my phone company that I'd paid my most recent bill.  

    Convenience stores are way more awesome in Japan. You can pay your utility bills, buy concert tickets, fax, scan, or print things out. Also, the guy behind the register will definitely take the cap off your bottle of beer if you ask him to. 

   There's also transportation. Now that I'm back in the US, I'm surprised by all this empty, unused space: huge stretches of unused fields and hills, and towns separated by miles of uncultivated land. In Japan, everything seemed to be on a much smaller, more compact scale. All but the most remote towns are connected by the train system. Even when I drove for hours out into the countryside, I'd usually be surrounded by farmland and factories that were just less densely packed. Usually the only real stretches of wilderness were mountains that were too steep to farm or live on.

   Aside from these practical concerns, the thing I'll miss most about Japan is the scenery. It's a beautiful country. 


Friday, March 7, 2014

They didn't have any hats to throw

   The Japanese school year ends in March and begins in April. Which means this month is when all the graduation ceremonies take place.

   Education is mandatory up through the 9th grade here. That's six years of elementary school and three years of junior high school. To get into a high school, even a public one, you have to sit an entrance exam. Ninth graders study hard all year, usually attending cram schools in the evenings and weekends, so that they can get into a good high school. Early in March, they graduate from junior high school, and a few days later, they sit their entrance exams. They don't find out until a couple weeks before school starts which - if any - high schools they've been accepted to.

   I recently attended the graduation for my jhs. It was a pretty formal occasion. There was a lot of bowing. Somber classical music played while the kids walked up to get their diplomas. Afterwards, there were a lot of speeches. I managed not to sneeze, even though I have a cold.

   The thing that struck me the most was that there was absolutely no mention of anything academic. Nobody talked about the importance of reading, writing, or arithmetic, or any of the subjects they'd spent the last three years studying. Instead, they talked about the sports festival, the chorus performance, the school trips, or the school campaigns to promote proper Aisatsu throughout the school. In short, all the things that they'd done together, as a class. They talked about how mandatory education socializes children. Through the past nine years of schooling, they'd learned manners, proper behavior, and how to relate to their peers and their community.

   They told the students they should be greatful to their parents and teachers and all the other people in their community who had made those nine years of schooling possible. They told them to have a dream and work towards it. With the skills and experiences they had acquired from mandatory schooling, and the continued support of their family and town, they could achieve any dream they had.

   A lot of those kids had been going to school together since kindergarten, so it was pretty emotional for them. Now, they'll all go their separate ways. A few of them will start working, and the rest will go off to different high schools. Some of them will have a thirty minute train commute to school every day. Others will have a twenty minute bike ride. The driven ones will spend every evening in a cram school, because after high school comes college entrance exams.

   I don't envy them.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Always talk to strangers

   A couple months back I went for a walk in the next town up from me.

   I always love looking at peoples' yards, especially when they have gardens. This seemed like a pretty poor part of town, and this one house had a lot of creative stuff in its garden. 

   As I was walking along the path by this house, I passed by a man who was leaning against his truck, looking out at the river. He said hello to me, and when I said hi back, he called me over to look in the back of his car. Since it's Japan, and he seemed friendly, I went over and took a look. He showed me a bunch of beautiful photographs of birds that live in the river. He's been watching and photographing them for ten years, he told me. He knows where they nest and where they like to hang out and look for food. He told me about the way they dance when they're mating. Unlike humans, he said, the males are more beautiful than the females.  Before I left, he gave me one of his photographs.

    Some people like to stop and chat with me here, and I've noticed it tends to be older people. They tend to give me something before they say good bye. One old man who was sitting next to me on the train asked me where I was from, told me a folktale about the shrine in the tiny town we were passing through (which unfortunately, I barely understood), and then gave us some postcards he and his girlfriend had painted. He told me about other people he had given cards to - they were all foreigners.

   Another time, a friend and I were on a train, holding a bunch of cooking supplies, and a really nice old lady with trembling hands gave my friend a safety pin because she was worried that the handle of her tote bag would break from the strain of all the pots and pans inside.

   There was also an old man who chatted up me and a friend of mine right after we descended that hiking trail from the castle. Somehow we got talking about American movie actors and he asked me if I had ever met some random actor, maybe Clint Eastwood. 

   Another day, I was walking along a river and I fell into step with an old woman who was walking at a brisk pace. "Do you know how this river got its name?" she asked me. When I said no, she proceeded to tell me the story, which involved a German man who used to live in the area.

   And once when some friends and I were in a bookstore in the city, a young guy came up and talked to us in English for a few minutes. He told us he was studying English at university, but had a hard time finding foreigners to talk to. "Japanese people don't usually talk to strangers in bookstores," he told us. 

   I really like the random people who talk to me and my friends. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Oh, hello

   Recently I got to go to a fourth grade math class. They were studying rectangular prisms.

   The kids had all brought in boxes from home. The first thing they did was cut them up: unfolded them so that the six faces were connected but lying flat. Of course, depending on how the kids cut them up, they ended up with a bunch of different shapes.

   At that point, the teacher wrote the day's goal up on the board. They do this in every class, in every grade. It must be required as part of the Japanese curriculum. In English classes, they call it the "aim" or "task" for the day. The kids usually have to copy it onto their worksheets or into their notebooks. The goal for this class was to think about that shape that you get when you unfold a box. What is that called? Apparently in English it's called a net.

    Like this guy:

    The teacher handed out graph paper and told them to draw the net for a 3x4x5 rectangular prism. He got them started by drawing two of the faces up on the board, but then let them finish it themselves. When they were done, they cut it out and checked that they could fold it into a box. For the kids who finished early, he challenged them to think of different ways to draw nets. One kid came up with three different ways.

   What struck me the most about the class is how relaxed the pace was. They really only did two things in the class: first they cut up a box into a net, and then they drew a net and folded it into a box. It was also really hands on, and the teacher let the kids think for themselves about how to draw the net. Only one or two of the kids seemed to find drawing the net confusing, and since it was so slow paced, the teacher had plenty of time to go over and help them out. 

   Me, I spend most of my time in English class. Thinking about English from the perspective of someone who's not a native speaker can be pretty mind blowing. I've noticed all kinds of crazy things about the English language that I never noticed before.

   For example, what's the difference between "will" and "going to?"
   "I'll call her."
   "I'm going to call her."
    You'd say "I'll" if you just made up your mind to call her on the spot. Someone reminds you that you have to call her and you say, ok fine I'll do it.
    You'd say "I'm going to" if it's something you already planned to do. Someone says, oh no, I forgot we were supposed to call her! and you say, no, it's cool, I'm going to do it.
   If the phone rang and you rushed to pick it up, you'd say "I'll get it!" because it's a spur of the moment decision. 

   On the other hand, "I will call her" sounds emphatic and formal. Maybe you're trying to convince someone that you'll really do it. 

   What's the difference between "just now" and "right now"?
   "He was here just now." (but he's not any more)
   "He's here right now." (and still is)

   And this is more Japanese-specific, but it always sounds more natural for them to say, "Because I was cold, I put on my jacket." Instead of, "I put on my jacket because I was cold." Apparently we English-speakers like to cut to the chase and offer a reason later, but Japanese people prefer to soften you up with the reason before they tell you what they did.

   And then there's this debacle:
   I don't know how anybody who picks up English as a second language ever gets this 100% right. Try explaining to someone that when you start writing your paragraph about a village in Alaska, you call it "a village" because your audience doesn't know it yet, so it's just some random nonspecific village in their minds. But once you've introduced it, it becomes "the village" because everyone knows that you are talking about that one village up there in Alaska.

   And by the way, I play soccer, but I also play "the" piano. What's up with that?

Saturday, December 28, 2013

You've cat to be kitten me right meow

   A little while ago I went to a cat cafe in the city. Scarred from the last time I attempted a visit and was told there was a three hour waiting list, this time I called ahead to try to make a reservation. They wouldn't let me, but we managed to get in anyway.
   It was a pretty small room on the second floor - maybe the size of the average American living room. There were about a dozen cats packed inside. They kept the room a balmy one hundred degrees, and the floors were covered in heated electric carpets. The room was one hundred percent cat oriented: lots of contraptions for them to climb or jump inside, lots of cat beds, and tons of cat-sized hammocks and shelves nailed into the walls. Thanks to the heat, or maybe due to whatever kind of kitty zoloft they had them on, the cats were completely out of it, ranging from zonked out to barely awake.

   The thing that really cracked me up was how polite all the customers were to the cats. In general, I've noticed that Japanese adults (not children) are more respectful of their pets' personal space. People cautiously scratched their ears, tentatively pet them, and apologetically tried to get them interested in the cat toys. Nobody picked one up. Most of the time they just watched them and said things like "So cute! So pretty! Whoops, I woke it up!"
    For their part, the cats were totally uninterested in the humans. They didn't mind being pet or stared at, and one or two even half-heartedly batted at the toys the humans were dangling in front of them, but aside from that, we might not have existed. 

   The other thing that surprised me is that the other customers were mostly couples. Maybe the mere bond of friendship isn't strong enough to persuade the average person to accompany a crazy cat person to a cat cafe.

   For seven dollars, we got to stay for half an hour. There were a couple interesting breeds of cats. One had one of those squishy pug faces like the cat in Babe, and another had really short stubby legs like the cat equivalent of a corgi. When I wasn't saying hi to the cats, I drank some hot cocoa and leafed through the weird cat comics they had lying around.

   As we left, some of the younger cats raced downstairs with us and tried to get out, leading me to wonder if they spend their entire lives in that weird, overheated room with a dozen other cats.

   I've been meaning to write a blog post full of ugly pictures of Japan. The trouble is, I usually think even the objectively ugly parts of Japan are interesting-looking. I took the photos in this post as I was strolling from my apartment to the river walk. I live right next to a factory, so there are a lot of warehouses and crummy housing for the factory workers nearby. But if you just keep walking for another couple hundred feet, you find a gorgeous view of the river and mountains.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


   Waking up in a building without central heating can be really rough. And it's only going to get worse.

   For some reason, Japan doesn't think insulation is very important. Most houses and apartment buildings have paper thin walls, and people tend to heat one room at a time to save on money.

   On the plus side, Japanese toilets have heated seats, and no expense is spared in this department.  The bathroom may be icy cold, but your toilet seat will be toasty warm.

   Recently, I went to the Culture Festival at one of my schools. It's a fancy name, but it was really just a Chorus Festival, with each class performing a song. Music is a required subject in Japan. Starting in kindergarten, kids learn to play little melodicas: two octave keyboards that are actually wind instruments; you blow into them as you press the keys. 

   All kids, in theory at least, learn how to read music and decipher the musical terms for volume and tempo. They're also all required to sing. The teachers tell me it's good for class unity. If you listen to 8 year olds sing, it sounds more like semi-coordinated shouting. But by the time they hit puberty, they're pretty decent. 

   Japanese schools take Art seriously, too. Students are taught specific techniques, and I've seen actual worksheets on how to shade 3D objects: they'll be given cubes, for example, and expected to shade each face varying levels of darkness. They're also taught perspective. At kindergarten, I've seen teachers sit with kids and tell them, "Draw an eye here. Bigger. Like a circle." In America, I think that would be considered crushing the child's self-expression, but here, they just think of it as teaching the kids how to produce a respectable piece of art.

   Coming from America, where most people will tell you they don't know how to draw and plenty of people have no idea how to read music, I think there's something to be said for how they do things here. 

   Students also take "Home Economics." From what I've gleaned, they seem to learn about health and nutrition, and maybe a few other things. But the really cool part is that they learn to cook. There's a lab-like kitchen at school, and sometimes I'll walk past and find myself assaulted by delicious cooking smells. When I peer inside, the kids will be wearing aprons and flipping burgers. If you ask any small child if they know how to cook, they'll happily answer, "Yes!" because they do. They learned it at school. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Apple cider

   Today was Thanksgiving. For school lunch, they served an omelette, corn soup, and cucumber salad, and I shed a single tear.

   Japan has apple orchards, but they don't have apple cider. I don't know what they think they're doing with all those delicious apples.

   Chestnuts seem to be the token Autumn food here. Back in October, everyone was eating "kurikinto," which is chestnut paste shaped into a candy. It has two ingredients: chestnuts and sugar, but it's not very sweet. That fad has passed, but you can still buy baked or candied chestnuts and chestnut lattes.

   I drove past an apple orchard last weekend. I had to drive over an hour, into a more mountainous region of Japan, and then wind my way up a tiny one lane road that cut through a forest that looked like something out of Princess Mononoke. When I got to the top, the apple orchard was already picked clean, so I drove on and found a petting farm with goats, sheep, ponies, rabbits, and lots of little kids. The kids weren't for petting though, they were just visiting. 

   Way back in April or May, there were a few clear days when I caught a glimpse of some snow capped mountains off on in the distance. I don't know why Japan is so hazy, but most of the time, even when it's sunny, everything gets pale and fuzzy on the horizon. This trip, I finally got a better look: a whole range of snow capped mountains.

     Lately I've been missing home a lot, but this drive was a good reminder of why I'm living in Japan. I thought I came here for the language and the culture, but the thing I've enjoyed most is the land.