Thursday, October 24, 2013

I totally paused

   When nobody tells you the rules, you just have to figure them out by watching what other people are doing. This can lead to some interesting results.

   I'm talking about traffic rules. As a foreigner in Japan, I'm allowed to wait a year until I take the Japanese driver's test, which is supposedly a bit more rigorous than the American version. I've heard it involves an obstacle course. But so far, I haven't done any studying for the test. I've just been relying on common sense and imitating what other peope do on the road. This is what I've gathered so far.

   No left turns on red. (That's like no right on red in America). 

   Unless it's late at night. Then red lights are more of a guideline. You should slow down, assess the situation, and then blow right through the intersection.

   Even during the day, as long as you're still going pretty fast as the light turns red, it's ok to blast right on through, and the car behind you can follow your lead, too. Also, if you want to make a right turn (that's across traffic) and you're the first person waiting at that red light, it's ok to get a little of a head start before the light actually turns so you can make it across the intersection before oncoming traffic has started moving. 

   If you're on a two lane road, you should definitely change lanes any time someone ahead of you so much as taps on the breaks. 

   In all seriousness though, Japanese people are fairly courteous drivers, at least compared to New Yorkers. They're usually pretty happy to let you pull in front of them, and trucks especially are willing to slow down and let you make that right turn across their lane so that the big line of people waiting behind you doesn't turn into an angry mob. When you let someone cut in front of you, they'll usually blink their lights at you to say thanks. And if you can actually physically see the person, they usually give you a little bow of their head.

   But don't even think about going the speed limit on one of those tiny winding country roads. A big line of cars will pile up behind you, and you'll have to find a place to pull over and let them zoom past before they actually ram into your bumper.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Dances with cucumbers

   Every day at school lunch we have three dishes. One is usually a bowl of rice. The other is usually soup. The third plate generally holds a slice of fish and a salad, or, less often, a piece of meat and a salad. I say "salad" because that's what they call it here, but it never contains lettuce or even raw vegetables. It's always a pile of boiled vegetables doused in salad dressing, or, less often, mayonnaise.

   The one thing this so-called salad invariably contains is sliced cucumber.

   Cucumbers with  corn and kale. Cucumbers with daikon and sesame seeds. Cucumbers with diced pumpkin. Cucumbers with radishes and carrots. There are endless variations. Apparently everything pairs well with cucumber.

   I went to a nearby castle recently. The other castles I've visited have all been carved out and turned into carpeted, fluorescent-lit museums on the inside. But this one still had its original interior. Unfortunately, all the pictures I took inside came out looking totally lame, so I'll just have to describe it to you.

   The castle had a huge rock foundation, but the rest of it was completely wooden. Huge, dark wooden beams criss crossed the ceilings, and the floor consisted of long, wide slabs of wood. The stairs were ridiculously steep, more like a ladder than an actual staircase. I had to bend my knee way past ninety degrees to get up to the next step.
   The wood was very old but well-cared for. None of the visitors were allowed to wear shoes in the house, so the floors were smooth and shiny. We went on a beautiful, sunny day, and the wood seemed to absorb the sunlight and reflect it back in warm glow. It was pretty hot outside, but it was cool and dark inside.
   One of the scary things, aside from the Cirith Ungol-like stairs, was the fact that you could see light winking up at you between floor boards. The stairs and floors also creaked like crazy, so if any ninjas wanted to sneak in and assassinate a warlord, they'd have to be pretty good.

   Castles and shrines in Japan are traditionally built entirely of wood (and stone). They don't use nails or screws. Instead, they cut the wood so that it fits together perfectly, using other pieces of wood as wedges or locks to hold it all in place. They have a special title for the type of carpenter who knows how to build and repair these all-wood buildings: "Miya-daiku." Castles like the one I visited are repaired, not rebuilt, but some temples and shrines are torn down every fifty or so years and completely rebuilt. One reason for this, presumably, is to keep the craft alive and people with that highly-specialized skill in business.
   It's really cool to examine the ceiling, the railings, and the staircases and see how all the wood was built to fit together.

behind an abandoned coin laundry

   If you play video games, you'll understand why I am uploading pictures of rusty barrels. I keep happening across these in Japan - something that never ever happened to me in America.

at the top of a hiking trail near a shrine

   In video games, barrels are strategically strewn about warehouses, parking lots, the basements of corporate research laboratories, or the alleys in an urban sprawl - you know, the type of places where you typically encounter barrels in real life.  The red ones always contain something flammable, so when you shoot them (usually takes three shots with a pistol, or a quick click with your automatic rifle) they explode and kill lots of enemies, and maybe you, too, if you are standing too close.

at least this looks like a warehouse where maybe they actually need barrels to store stuff

   But their only purpose in Japan seems to be to convince me that at any moment I might have to drop everything and go thwart an evil, corporate conspiracy or stop aliens from enslaving the human race. 

no red ones. maybe they're just there so i can stack them and jump up to the second story