Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Funny in Japan

   I asked a Japanese friend of mine how Japanese people react to sarcasm the other day.

   "Well, they'd probably take you seriously at first. And once they realized you were being sarcastic, they'd probably label you as a cynical person."

   If you search for the word 皮肉(hiniku) in the dictionary, you'll get the following: "cynicism; sarcasm; irony; satire." I'm not sure what the history of the word is, but 皮 is the kanji for skin or hide, and 肉 is the kanji for meat. It's a tough word.

   Where I'm from, sarcasm is a big part of your average conversation. If it's raining outside and everyone feels miserable, you'll turn to the person next to you and say, "Great weather today, huh?" and without missing a beat, they'll agree.

   There's a scene in Watership Down when Hazel and the other rabbits are staying in a new warren, and one of their hosts laughs at something Hazel says. Hazel and his friends have never seen a rabbit laugh. They run away in fear.
   I think if I started being sarcastic in Japan, people might run away.

   In other news, I took a trip recently. It was awesome. Here are some photos. 

   The river is awesome. People hang out there at all hours. You can find live music there or performance artists like fire throwers. Since drinking in public is legal, you can even have a beer there in the evening. And ducks live in it.

   A view of the city from the park. 

   The entrance to a tiny restaurant in the park. 

   Just because. 

   This awesome creek/canal runs parallel to the river. There are a bunch of restuarant, bars, and fancy-looking apartments next to it.  I saw some ducks hanging out in it, too.

   A little alley lined with expensive restaurants. 

   The creek again. 

   The river at night. There's a little stone path that crosses the river. Some of the stones are in the shape of turtles. I walked across, pausing in the middle to sit on a turtle for a little bit.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A little list

Some things Japanese people like to ask me:

   Do Americans put ketchup on everything they eat?

   Do you have guns in your house?

   Were you in NYC on 9/11? [this is always accompanied by a mimed airplane crashing into a building]

   Can you eat raw fish?

   Can you eat Natto? [Natto is rotten *cough* I mean fermented soy beans. It tastes like gun powder. Slimy gun powder.]

Sunday, April 21, 2013

A little stroll

   Today I went for a drive to the west again, and on my way back I spotted a little path on the side of the road. So I parked at a nearby convenience store and hopped out.

   The path was to the right of the road here. 

   The railroad tracks ran close by the trail. You can see them crossing this dried-out creek. 

   The view of the river from the path. 

   Near the end of the path was this tiny little shrine. It looks like it's being kept up, too. 

   And that's the railroad again, running under the mountain.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

A picture and a poem

Many individuals with a strong sense of justice
were mixed in among the people
They would die still harboring a great resentment
In the natural world, the changing of the seasons brought them pleasure
When they felt hatred for humanity,
the wild beasts of the hills and valleys would welcome them.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Evening Excursions

   This is one of the creeks that feeds into the river. It's behind a supermarket close to my apartment.

   The other evening I went for a stroll. The easiest place to walk is along the river, and I decided to head towards the East this time. 

   This is the back of a hotel. That blue door looks like something out of Portal to me.

   It was very warm this past week. It crept up into the 70s on Wednesday and Thursday, and I didn't even feel the need to wear a sweater in my apartment. However, it looks like it's going to get cold again this weekend.

    I think this is the same creek as the one in the first picture. This is where it feeds into the river. It ran under the path I was standing on.

   This evening I took a 30 minute drive west towards an Aeon mall. The road there was lined with shops and strip malls, and it was both ugly and comforting, since it reminded me a little bit of the US. The mall was huge and it had a gigantic supermarket on the ground floor, plus a multitude of other food stores and restaurants. I found a foreign goods store that had exotic foods like salsa, taco seasoning, olives, Indian-style curry paste, peanut butter, oatmeal, a tiny selection of western beers, and, most importantly, coffee!!! Coffee with the country of origin clearly marked and not roasted into tiny lumps of coal. I picked out some Brazilian beans that looked lightly roasted. We'll see if they're any good tomorrow. I also bought a small jar of Smucker's peanut butter.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Jokes? No, no, these are manners.

   There is a saying in Japanese, 「挨拶が出来れば、何でも出来る」 (Aisatsu ga dekireba, nandemo dekiru). It translates roughly to: "If you can say your Greetings properly, you can do anything." 
   "Aisatsu" encompasses a wide range of ritualistic phrases. You might translate it as "greetings" or "pleasantries" depending on the situation. It includes saying Good morning, Good afternoon, and Good night, but it also includes countless other phrases, such as "Itadakimasu!" before you eat and "Gochisousama deshita" after you finish a meal. It includes saying "Shitsureishimasu" when you enter someone else's office, and "Shitsureishimashita" when you leave. Or, when you visit someone's house, "Ojamashimasu!" And then there is the all-encompassing "Yoroshiku-onegaishimasu," which you use in all kinds of situations: at the beginning of a business relationship, at the beginning of class, when you are about to undertake a task with someone, when you ask someone to do you a favor, and much, much more. The other day I even got into a Yoroshiku-onegaishimasu battle in which I and the person I was talking to repeatedly bowed at each other, repeating "Yoroshiku-onegaishimasu! Onegai-shimasu!" as I slowly backed up, hoping that once I was far enough away, it wouldn't be rude to cut the battle short.
   I suppose the corresponding phenomemon in the US would be "manners" in general, including phrases like "Excuse me" or "Pardon me." But Aisatsu seem to be much more important and prevalent in Japan. They make social interactions go smoothly because they provide a script for you and your partner to follow. For example, in the US (at least where I'm from) talking about the weather is considered boring and lame, and you only fall back on it when you are having a conversation with a complete stranger or with someone you have absolutely no common ground with. (Well, unless you just got three feet of snow.) But here, I've noticed that if one person says something like, "It's cold today, isn't it?" literally every other person in the room will chime in enthusiastically: "Yes, it's really cold today!"

   Since Aisatsu are so important, a big part of growing up in Japan is learning to say them properly. Parents and teachers praise kids when they say them properly, and when they don't, they teach them what to say, or ask, "Aisatsu ha?" (What about your aisatsu?).

   I always try to say Aisatsu properly to show that I'm not an incompetent foreigner, but sometimes I slip up. The other night, I mistakenly said "Konbanha!" as I was saying good bye to a friend. In English, we have two phrases: "Good evening," which is a greeting, and "Good night," which we use to say good bye. In Japanese, Konbanha is strictly a greeting, but on this particular evening, I was thinking "Good night" as I said it. 

   「こんばんは」じゃないでしょ!「さようなら」でしょ!said my friend. "Not 'Good evening!' 'Farewell!!'"

   Japanese people are usually very good at holding their tongues when you make mistakes (sometimes they even praise you ironically). But, perhaps because Aisatsu are so fundamental, they quickly lose their usual diplomacy when you mess them up.

    I'm sorry! I meant Farewell!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Mountain climbing

   Today I wanted to have an adventure, but I was also exhausted, so instead of walking around, I went for a car ride. After consulting a map, I set off towards the mountains. It's a good thing I checked the map thoroughly and have a good sense of direction, because as soon as I got too close to the mountains, my gps got confused.

    After driving down a main road for a while, passing farm land and factories, I decided I wasn't getting any closer to the mountains, so I turned off onto a side road that looked promising.

    I hit gold! I passed by some old-timey houses, but couldn't stop to take photos of them. For the first time, I saw people actually working in the fields, too. I pulled over here and got out to take a picture of one of the creeks. I mentioned before that these creeks run everywhere, and I guess there are too many of them for them to be man-made. But they all seem to be managed and well-kept, because they all run between rock walls that definitely are man made. I wonder when they were built.

    The entire road was this winding and curvy. When I stopped here, a cyclist came whizzing past going downhill (he was even wearing a gaudy spandex suit), and once I saw how far up the road climbed, I was pretty impressed that he had managed the road. On my way up, I passed by a bunch of cars that were parked on the side of the road by a little water pump. They had all brought big 2,3-gallon jugs and were filling them up. I guess the water must come from a mountain spring.

   I parked here, because I spotted a little hiking trail on the side of the road. The road was really narrow in most parts, but after an interval it would get wider so that you had space to pull over and let oncoming traffic pass. And at most of the really tight turns, there was a helpful mirror so that you could check if someone was coming around the bend. The road only went up this high, but the hiking trail went up even farther.


    The trail was really steep, and when I got near the top, I found this amazing view. Here, I was facing south.

    This is the view to the East, although you can't see it very well. There were lots of flowery bushes and trees, like those purple flowers.

   This is a full-sized photo of the view to the south. If it had been clearer out, I might have been able to see all the way to the sea. That little road that you can see on the left is the road I was driving on, past the tunnel. I continued along it after I returned from the hiking trail.

   Walking back to the car was more difficult than climbing the trail had been, because the path was mostly made up of loose rocks, and it was easy to slip. After I got back in the car and started descending the mountain, I came to a parking lot where the trails began. If I want to go back and properly go hiking, I can park there. I also passed by a park and a shrine on my way home. Both looked worth exploring another day.

   Since it's so hard to find places to park, I'm considering buying a bicycle so that I can tool around and explore more at my leisure without wasting gas. It will also make it easier to stop and take photos. I wouldn't have been able to manage that road from today on a bicycle though. Not without the power-up that a spandex suit gives you, anyway.

   I've been listening to Harry Potter audiobooks for the umpteenth time. I started with Book 4, and I'm already on Book 5. At the end of Book 4, Dumbledore makes a little speech about Cedric Diggory, and he says something like, "There will soon come a time when you will have to choose between what is Right and what is Easy."
   Being in a new country has left me a bit shell-shocked, and I've noticed that I've been making some decisions based on what is Easy, instead of what is Right. I'm not talking about moral or professional decisions; I mean my purchasing decisions. For example, I mentioned that I bought a little mattress the other day. Well, it's definitely better than before, but I probably should have just bought a real mattress. I also bought a "wifi router" from Softbank, which is a little portable internet router that catches 4G waves and beams them to your computer. It's convenient, but it's also pretty weak and unreliable. Normally I would have researched what internet provider was best, but I bought the router without looking into it at all.
   Since my track record was getting a little embarassing, I made an executive decision to put all major purchases on hold until the end of May. At that point, I should be a little more used to life here, and my brain may be able to start making good decisions again.
   I did buy a little gas range that is pretty awesome, though. My apartment didn't have anything in the way of a stovetop or oven, and the rental company I used to furnish my apartment provided me with a little "IH" plate: Inductive heating. You definitely can't use a cast iron skillet on it, so it was useless to me, but half of the pots and pans at the department store are made to use on an IH plate, so I guess a lot of people use them around here. 

   I learned a useful Japanese expression last night: Doron shimasu! (ドロンします). Here is a picture of the accompanying gesture: http://kunugi.laff.jp/blog/images/2010/08/02/dvc00006_2.jpg (the apologetic expression is also key). Apparently this is something that ninjas say before they disappear in a puff of smoke. But in modern times, people use it, jokingly, when they have to leave a party or meeting before everyone else. So for today, doron shimasu.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Tell me if you please, does your house have the central heating?

   These past few days have been very chilly for April. The temperature dips down to the mid 30's at night, and creeps up to the high 50s during the day. Even the locals say it's cold. I can't wait for summer, although I'll regret saying that when I have to sweat away in a suit all day. I confirmed that my apartment does not have central heating. It isn't an issue yet, but this fall I'll have to buy a space heater. According to an informal survey of other people I know living in Japan, lack of central heating is standard for apartments outside of big cities.
   I do, however, have an air conditioner. To me, heating seems like a basic necessity and air conditioning a luxury. But the person who designed this building had different priorities.

   However, if my apartment had central heating, I wouldn't have an excuse to by a kotatsu. Kotatsu's are little tables with a heater on the underside of the table top, and a blanket that dangles to the floor, trapping the heat under the table. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mPw-MOQXpd8
   I already found a stack of them at a second hand shop.

   I don't have much to say today, but I'm definitely going to attempt an adventure this weekend, either by exploring some nearby ruins, or by taking a train trip into the city.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Suit and Rail

   So far, even on sunny days, it's been very hazy in my town. But today, for the first time, it was clear enough for me to see something new. Way off in the distance, I saw huge, snow covered mountains to the north and east. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to take pictures until dusk, so I'll have to show them here another day.

   Instead, I took some pictures of the train station! It's small, but trains come through twice an hour.

   I'll take the train if I want to visit the city, because parking is probably more expensive than a train ticket, and driving is only slightly faster. 

   Speaking of which, I seem to be getting excellent mileage on my tiny car. I ought to, considering that I can feel it buffeted by the slightest gust of wind.  

    In other news, I finally found a dry cleaner's for my suits. Over the weekend, I drove all over looking for an open one, but they were all closed. I was driving back to one today but missed the turn, and as I pulled into a parking lot to turn around, I realized that I was in the parking lot for a different one! The lady who ran it even walked out as I pulled up and welcomed me in.
   Finding a dry cleaner's was a bit of an ordeal because of what they are called. They call them "Cleaning" or "kuriiningu"/ クリーニング. Meanwhile, they call their clinics "kurinikku"/ クリニック. You can see how similar they look. So I'd be driving around and catch sight of what looked like a Cleaner's, only to discover that it was a Clinic.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Paper products

   No pictures today! It's been rainy.

   I've noticed when I go to public restrooms that they are never stocked with paper towels. They don't have hand dryers, either. Instead, most people seem to carry small towels or packets of tissues with them to dry off their hands after they wash them. I haven't noticed paper towels being sold in supermarkets, either. They sell tissues and toilet paper, and occasionally small packs of napkins, but that's about it. This might be because I'm in a small town, not a big city.

   I went to KFC the other day -- I didn't want to, but I needed a place to park while I checked out a dry cleaner's, and KFC was the only place around with parking. After I ran to the cleaner's, I felt obliged to buy something, so I ordered some nuggets. Fast food doesn't taste any better in Japan, it's just different.
   Anyway, I took a few napkins with me on my way out, and noticed that they weren't made of paper - they were made of plastic. The coffee shops I've been to also use these plastic napkins. They're made of several thin layers of slightly absorbent plastic. They don't feel as convincing as paper napkins.

   On the other hand, if you want some scented wipes, any drug store will have a vast selection. They're sold in little packs of 10 - 50 wipes, and they come in flowery scents for women and cologne-like scents for men. I haven't seen many people using them so far, but I remember when I was here in the summer, people used them all the time to freshen up.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Sunny in the mid 60s

   Sometimes I hear a whapping sound coming from the balconies of my neighbors. This is a sign that they are beating their futons! Apparently when you put your futon outside to air out, you need to beat it to get rid of accumulated dust.

   I haven't done this yet, but I have been doing laundry and putting it out to dry. My shirts came out a little stiffer than usual, but also less wrinkled. So far I'm a fan of line-drying, but if it ever rains for an entire week I'll be out of luck.


   In addition to a lot of farm land, there are also several factories in the area.Today I walked along the outskirts of one of them. You can see it on the left, hidden by a screen of bushes. I'm not sure what it is a factory for, but I think it's related to cars. I also saw stacks of lumber lying around. At around 5:30 every evening, a chime goes off, and streams of workers come out of the factory and find their way back to their cars or apartments.

   This picture didn't come out very well... But on the ground there, you can see stone grates. Each of those little notches in the stone is actually a hole that allows water to drain into a little stream below. I usually walk along these when there are no sidewalks. 

   This is the river again. There are lots of little canals and streams that run through the town, and although some of them may be natural, I suspect that many of them were built as irrigation for the farms. 

   After suffering for the past few nights on an incredibly thin futon (I've know winter coats to be thicker), I finally bought something that is billed as a mattress today. It's 5cm thick and it was the hardest one I could find, which means that, unlike softer versions, my fingers do not touch when I pinch it. Combined with the futon, it should let me sleep well tonight. Later, I might buy a real mattress, or maybe a better futon.

   I noticed when I first started driving here that people almost universally back into parking spots, whether it's at the mall or at their apartment building. At first, this seemed like too much to ask, but after I tried it, I realized that in a tiny car, it's not difficult at all. There is even a term for it: mae muki (前向き), which literally means "facing forwards." The term is also used to mean "a positive attitude," and maybe that is part of the reason Japanese people insist on parking that way. 

   One thing that hasn't changed is that motorcyclists still zoom between lanes to get to the front. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Salt is not a spice

   Today was beautiful and warm out - 60 degrees. It was also really windy. I decided to go for a walk and explore the side roads north of my apartment.

   As soon as I left the main road, I found farms. Each plot of land is pretty small; nothing like big corporate farms that you see in the Midwest. Some of them were pretty big, like the one above, and others were little vegetable gardens grown in someone's yard.

   There were also plots of land with these yellow wildflowers growing on them. I think they are wildflowers, anyway. They seem to grow in rectangular plots, so maybe they are planted on purpose to re-fertilize the soil.

   In some ways, the town reminds me of upstate New York. There are some older, Japanese-style houses (these are usually the ones attached to land), and then there are a few modern suburban houses mixed in. Some houses also look like they are built from concrete and sheet metal. Those generally look pretty run down. 

   There are also a few abandoned buildings that used to be restaurants or pachinko places. There are a lot of little restaurants that look like if you walked in, you would be the only customer. Then when you get back to the main road, you find the bigger restaurants, including chain restaurants. The convenience stores are as densely distributed as Starbucks in NYC.

   I also spotted a "European-style Club! Your safety is guaranteed! (安心! 安全!)"

   I found a supermarket that is about a 20 minute walk from my apartment. I bought a big box of salt there. It was in the same aisle as sugar and soy sauce.
   Unfortunately, parmesan cheese was too expensive, so my pasta tonight will feel incomplete. I've been frying cherry tomatoes with garlic and mushing them into a paste, though, and that makes a pretty delicious sauce.
   I also purchased some cheap coffee. It's too late to drink it today, but tomorrow I'll see if it's any good!

   I've been driving for the past couple of days, and it is mostly fine but occasionally harrowing. Of course the right/left switch is disconcerting. My main problem, however, is traffic lights and street signs. There are no stop signs or speed limit signs - those things are written on the road itself. The traffic lights are horizontal instead of vertical. This doesn't seem like a big deal, but the mere fact that they look different from what I'm used to makes it harder for my brain to notice them. Plus, for some reason, about half the time they hang the traffic light over the right lane - which is the lane I'm not driving in! This also makes them harder to notice. Well, I'll get used to that. But today I came to a traffic sign that was red on top, and then on the bottom, the left arrow, straight arrow, and right arrow were all green! I slowed down and was about to stop when the guy behind me helpfully beeped, telling me to go ahead. I went. I checked that he followed behind me, confirming that he really was telling me to go.

   Stop unless you are going in any of the directions available for you to go.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Going for a walk

   Today I went for a walk along the river. There's a path that runs along it for about a mile to the west, and I'm not sure how far to the east. It's raised up pretty high and serves as a protection against the town flooding. The mountains on the other side of the river are very steep. Before I saw them up close, I thought there might be hiking trails in them, but I think it's highly doubtful unless the other side has gentler slopes. 

   There weren't too many other people walking on the path, and most of them were older. There were also a few bikers, and I saw a lady walking her chihuahua. 

  If you look closely at the top of the mountain in the center, you'll see a temple or castle. I definitely have to figure out how to get up there, because the view must be amazing. When I got to the end of the path, I could see that there's a road that tunnels through that mountain.

   I guess this is the only photo that actually shows the river itself! You can see that it's pretty rocky.

   I also went shopping again today. Vegetables are pretty reasonable here, but fruit is very expensive. For example, apples were about 120Yen each, which is roughly $1.30. The only fruit I ended up buying was bananas, but I bought plenty of onions, peppers, and asparagus. Olive oil is also really expensive over here, but the canola oil they were selling looked really low quality, so I decided to buy it anyway.
   Butter is also ridiculously expensive. You can get half a pound for about $4.00.

   On the plus side, senbei are really cheap here!

   In Japanese grocery stores, the check-out people don't bag your food for you. Instead they put it back in your cart and you bring it over to a little bagging station. However, there aren't any real bags here, just little ones to wrap vegetables or meat in. People bring their own bags. Some supermarkets also set out empty boxes that you can use.