Travel Journal of my Time in Japan

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December 1, 2002

New Email Address
Okay, I've had it with all the JUNK email I've been getting. I've been getting so much, so quickly that it fills up my inbox so much that some of YOUR emails may be getting sent back! :-o If that has happened, I do apologize. Please send me another message at "Sumisu" is Smith in Japanese. I guess there's no 'th' sound in Japanese, so there's no letter, so they spell it Sumisu. (Pronounced Sue-me-sue). So Sumisu in Japan... - get it? Great! Now please send me a note, no matter how short. The emails are getting a bit thin these days... it takes me a while to reply because I can't get online all that much. But I WILL reply! I miss you all so much.

I Found TWO PAIRS of LONG Warm Pants - That Actually Fit!
This may not impress you until you think about the fact that Japanese women tend to be much shorter than I am. Plus I am in a less urban place. Plus I do not speak the language, nor can I read very many signs. NOW are you impressed? It was quite a shopping coup! But I did, I found two pairs of the comfiest pants ever! I think they're meant to be really tight dancers pants, but they fit like sweats on me. I love 'em! I put them on as SOON as I get home each night. And I have a little fleece jacket that is also very warm. And my Manager, Akiko, bought me a kotatsu, a heater that goes under the table. So I am set for winter! Bring it on! Although so far it's only been rain, except for one quick flurry one morning. It seems like it rains almost every day here. I think clouds get stuck in the mountains all around Nagaoka. When I went to the hot spring with Suzuki earlier in November (see November 15th entry), we drove to the other side of the mountains, and the sun came out, and stayed out the whole day - until we drove back into the Nagaoka area. On that day, I realized what kind of a winter I'm in for. Not very cold, but very cloudy.

I went to Tokyo!
I spent a day hanging out in Tokyo last month, and then a day of follow up training for work. I got to see some of the folks I trained with in August, I mentioned them in the August 25th entry. I didn't get to see all of them because they had a different date for their follow up training.

I was really glad to see Luke again (with me in the photo to the right) because he is assigned to a school way up in the north. I really enjoyed getting to know him during the August training, even though he was very open about not being too keen on Americans (he's Australian). But he is very open-minded, hilarious, and very kind. Not to mention the fact that he was the one that had the most excellent idea of going to the John Lennon Museum on our first full day in Japan! You might find the posted behind us interesting. Did you ever wonder why in English we "play tennis" but "go hiking"? Why is it that we don't "go tennis" or "play hiking"????...

After the follow up training, some of us went to dinner. Megan and Julian (also from my training class in August) were at the follow up training, and went with our group to dinner. It was so nice to see them again and have a few laughs before we all had to get on our trains back to our schools. To the left is a photo of them that I took with my cell phone camera when we were at dinner. Unfortunately, Luke couldn't join us, because he had to catch a train back to Sapporo right after the follow up training because his school is way to the north, and he he had to work the next day. Oh, these guys taught me how to use text messaging with my Japanese phone! :-)

To the right is a photo of Jeremy, also in my August training group and at the follow up training. He was one of the few of us who spoke any Japanese - and actually he was quite fluent. So he was ordering food for us. The tables at restaurants are sorta lowered into the floor. You sorta climb down into your seat - which can sometimes be tricky when you're in your stocking feet. I should probably mention that in Japan, you leave your shoes at the door. Some places have little lockers and you take the key. Other places just have little cubby holes. Anyway, the waitress in this photo is actually crouching down just to be at eye level with Jeremy. And she uses an electronic device to record our order. I think the order goes directly to the kitchen so she doesn't have to ring it in.

On my hanging out day, I went with Astrid to Shibuya. Oh my goodness - Shibuya was a trip! I never saw so many people in one place! And the lights, there are multiple HUGE tv screens on the sides of buildings playing videos and commercials. Like Times Square... only more, in some ways. It was a great experience to see Tokyo, but I don't think I could be happy living there, it's much too crowded for me. We found a bookstore with SEVERAL shelves of books in English. It was wonderful! I bought way too many books, but I'm happy on that front for quite a while.

After that we met some other friends from our training class at the Hachiko statue (I hope I spelled that right.) Hachiko is a dog that always walked with her master to the train station, and then she would meet her master in the evenings at the train station. One day the master didn't come home, he had died, but the dog still came and waited in the same spot for years until the dog eventually died. So they put up a statue. A great story. To the left is the photo I took there with Astrid, like a typical tourist. Anyway, we met some more people there (it's a very popular meeting place because of the story) and went to... a mexican restaurant! It was heavenly to have tacos, and mexican rice and nachos and cheese cake... okay, so the cheese cake wasn't mexican...was it? Anyway, it still tasted good. :-) I'm thinking of spending New Year's in Tokyo.

I also rode the Tokyo subway last weekend - quite an experience. Luckily I never was on it during rush hour, so I "missed" the full experience of the workers with white gloves pushing as many people as possible into the closing doors of the trains - and I missed the gropers (thankfully). But it was still rather interesting. Plenty of the signs were also in English so it wasn't too hard. And I took the bullet train by myself to get there. That was quite an adventure as well, but again, there was so much English that it was easier than I thought it would be. SO, anyone thinking of visiting?...

I had my First Visitors!
Julian and Megan (teachers I trained with) visited me in Nagaoka. Julian is from Canada and teaching in Tokyo, and Megan is from St. Louis and teaching in Hiratsuka (just southwest of Tokyo) - and they also rock!

Together we figured out how to take the bus around Nagaoka. We went up to Nagaoka Castle and saw some children playing in the beautiful fall colors. I was really happy with how this photo to the right turned out. That's Julian, and the shadows on the leaves are Megan's and mine.

Below is a photo of Megan and me up in the castle looking out over the trees. Julian asked us to get together for a photo. I just put my arms around her as if she was my height. Megan just giggled. I don't know why I did that, maybe because it felt so good to be with other foreigners. In any case, I'm glad I did because I like how the photo turned out.

Julian and Megan were very impressed with Nagaoka's International Center. I knew I was lucky to have those folks. Whenever I have ANY questions, I can go in and they will help me. They can help me make travel plans, figure out my phone, anything! And they provide the Internet access I use to stay in touch with all you folks. I want to get them a little something special for Christmas. I wish I'd packed a few more boxes of Fannie Mae candy. Oh well! I'll look for something here.

Saturday night we went to the foreigner bar. Mariko, one of my students met us there. To the left is a photo of Mariko, me and Julian.

More Japanese Perspectives on Current Events
There is a week-long vacation coming up at the end of December, and I'm going to ask the people at the international center to help me plan it. Many of my students are asking me where I'm going to go - it's a common question everyone is asking each other. I tell them I will probably go to Tokyo for New Year's Eve (Astrid said I could stay with her - told you she rocked.) And then after the New Year, go to Hiroshima for a day or two. First they usually laugh and ask "Why do you want to go to Hiroshima?" I think it's sorta like saying "I'm going to Cleveland for vacation." Sorry Clevelanders, but it's not a hotspot for tourists in America. When I explain that I want to go to the Peace Museum, their expressions quickly change and they become somber. The Peace Museum is about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and the effects. Again, they ask why I want to go to such a sad place. I've tried to explain it many different ways - that I want to go to "pay respects," to say I'm sorry it happened, because of 9-11, but I worry that I'm offending them, or making them uncomfortable. Hiroshima is a VERY sensitive subject for the Japanese, and so is World War II in general - which is understandable. Come to think of it, I'm not exactly sure what is drawing me to Hiroshima. Maybe because I'm an environmentalist and nuclear explosions make my heart hurt for nature, maybe because I need to go there as part of dealing with 9-11, maybe because I'm so patriotic and Hiroshima causes inner conflict for me. Whatever the reason, I'm thinking perhaps I shouldn't even bring up the subject with Japanese people. I think in the future I will just say that I'm going to Tokyo to visit a friend.

Today I had a discussion with a private lesson student. His name is Hiroyuki and he is an Engineering Professor at the local University. He teaches and does research. I helped him put together a presentation for an international conference in Cancun. But now his presentation is done, so we discuss news articles. We were discussing Iraq and he shared an interesting perspective with me. He gave me a lot to think about, I'm still working it all out in my mind. He was saying that many Japanese wish they could've sent soldiers to help in the Persian Gulf War, and to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Japanese military isn't allowed to fight except in self-defense - the constitution developed by the US after World War II makes it illegal for the Japanese Army to be on the offensive. So instead Japan sent a great deal of money to the UN after the Persian Gulf War to help recover the costs. And they sent soldiers to support other countries by hauling oil and other supplies - but their soldiers could not be on the front lines. My student, Hiroyuki, felt great concern that other countries weren't aware of WHY the Japanese weren't there, fighting. Japan has a high standard of living, the second largest economy in the world. He was concerned that the world might think Japan didn't WANT to help defend freedom, only benefit from it. It's a very noble perspective, at one level I can understand what he's saying. But I can't seem to put myself completely in his shoes, because it's such a different perspective. I'll have to let my mind gnaw on this one for a while.

Also today, I heard some more interesting perspectives from students in my discussion class. Bush and Iraq comes up quite often in that class because we discuss many current events. They wonder why Bush is focusing on Iraq - they believe it is really the massive profits to be made by oil companies. I brought up the prospect of biological weapons in Iraq, but they just kinda looked at me and didn't say anything. I think I mentioned in an earlier update that Japanese want the US to focus on North Korea which has admitted to having nuclear weapons, instead of Iraq. Remember, Japan cannot go on the offensive. They are dependent on the US military to defend them when necessary. They worry that North Korea will attack them, and then it will be too late - another Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Another interesting perspective - we were talking about Colin Powell. I asked what they thought of him, and they said when he was appointed Secretary of State their first thought was that he would push for war. This is because he always appeared in his uniform. I tried to explain that he was a big part of planning the Persian Gulf War - and did his best to make sure it was quick and resulted in the least loss of life. And personally, my image of him is someone who is trying to diplomatically avoid war. But again, they just looked at me. I wasn't sure exactly what they were thinking. So much for me to think about. These are the kind of things that fill my mind here. Being exposed to entirely different perspectives, and trying to empathize with them, expands the mind immensely.

One of my students, Aiko, often gives me treats. She's a very nice lady. Last week she gave me an orange. It didn't look like much from the outside, but oh my goodness! It was wonderful. The rind just fell off, and it was so sweet. I bought a bag of them at the grocery store. I have one every day, and I think maybe they are what Americans call Mandarin Oranges. Mmmmmmm.... Aiko also gave me a few persimmons last month - I mentioned persimmons in the November 15th entry. They were pretty good, but they wouldn't be my first choice. As it turns out the persimmons mean more to the Japanese than just a fruit that grows all over. Aiko told me the reason they grow all over is because after World War II there wasn't much food and so people planted persimmon trees for food. They take pride in their ability to bounce back so much since World War II. So persimmons represent that achievement and mean so much to the Japanese. I think maybe they represent life itself, and endurance. Aiko planted a persimmon in her yard when her son was born, and now she gets fruit from it every fall. So perhaps I will give persimmons another chance. :-)

I'm still trying to track changes in me, and share them here. I don't want to be a stranger to you all next time I see you.

This adventure has been so good for me. I feel content in my job, there have been challenges from which I'm learning patience. I guess you could say I'm getting more comfortable with myself. Everyday I'm learning more about the world, people in general, and also about myself, my limitations, my strengths, etc. But I'm still the same basic, goofy me. :-) I am starting to wonder what it will be like when I do go back to the US. I can already tell that I will go through another round of culture shock - I think they call it counter-culture shock. But that's too far off to think too much about just now. Although it's already been more than three months - gosh, time flies!

Dewa sono uchi ni
"See you in a little while"

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on to December 11, 2002