Travel Journal of my Time in Japan

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December 11, 2002

This just in! We HAVE snow, I repeat, we HAVE snow!
The flakes are heavy, and floating down quite delicately. We have about 6" of accumulation at the time of writing. It's absolutely lovely! :-) I just got back from a night walk in the snow. It's quick to melt so I'm a little soggy, but none the worse for wear. I'm cozy under my kotatsu and warming quickly. Today I rode my bicycle to work because there was no real snow this morning. But I couldn't ride it home tonight. Have you ever tried to ride a bicycle in the snow? After today, I can say I have. And so it began...

The photo to the right is near my school. The school is right in the center of the photo, down that little street. Somehow, I climbed over all that snow!

Despite all this snow, I have yet to see a snow plow or a shovel. Instead, the Japanese have a system of little sprinklers in the street. I've been wondering what the silver disks (about the size of a silver dollar) in the street were. They are usually about a foot apart, flush to the street surface and located in intersection and on sidewalks. Suzuki explained they have a red sensory dot in their middle somehow knows when to turn them on. They spray water at about a 45 degree angle from the street in all four directions. Sometimes the water pressure seems weak and so the water only shoots a few inches in the air. Sometimes the water pressure is higher and it shoots water about a foot in the air. But always at a 45 degree angle. Although I have seen some that are in a line along a wall, and they only shoot water in one direction. They are activated by temperature and some other things, I don't remember the details, but essentially they are automatic. The effect is that the snow can never accumulate on the streets or sidewalks, so there's no need for a plow or shovel. Instead the snow gets soggy and quickly melts away down the storm pipe. Pretty clever, huh? The only problem is sometimes you have to walk through rows of these little fountains to cross a street. So I will have to learn how to avoid soggy legs.

Holidays are Difficult
I was having trouble getting into the holiday spirit, but the snow has helped tremendously. Gosh, this is my first holiday season away from home. I was in Germany for two weeks in 1999, and landed there on Thanksgiving Day. But somehow that doesn't count as "away" because I had Thanksgiving dinner with my cousin, Bruce, in Munich. It was wonderful! And I was home long before Christmas Day. I gotta tell ya, it's much more difficult than I thought it would be. There are holiday lights up everywhere in town (and in my apartment), but it's difficult to feel that certain something in the air. Writing holiday cards, decorating my apartment, and listening to holiday music help, but it's taking more effort this year. I think it is a cultural thing. I have to seek it out more here. There's a different holiday spirit with year-end parties, but I can't recognize that as easily as the western holiday spirit. I'll keep trying! These are the challenges I came for. But contact from ya'll would make the holidays away a little easier to take. :-) Thank you to Olive and Louise for the early holiday cards - they help a lot! And Suzuki gave me a holiday card too. I've put them all in my stocking. Yes, I have a stocking. It's hung by the fire-... by the bookcase with care, in the hopes that... more holiday cards soon will be here! :-) Thanks Mom for the nutty bars and chez packets that you sent with my mail. I got the package on a Tuesday morning and didn't open it allll day at work. I waited until I got home. The anticipation was so much fun!

Remember, y'all know MY news from these updates, perhaps even more than you WANT to know. :-) But please make sure you keep me up on YOUR news. I don't want any of you to be a stranger when I return. Many of you have commented that your news couldn't be as interesting as mine. I want to assure you, it will be very interesting to me. If you're waiting for a reply from me to your last email, please know that I have replied to ALL emails, so I must not have received your last email during the "full inbox" fiasco when some emails were sent back.

Drinking Attitudes
Generally speaking, attitudes about drinking alcohol seem different here, I'm not sure if I can put it in the right words. I guess it just seems that people are much more open about drinking alcohol here than they are in the US. In the textbooks I teach from, there are always references to alcohol. And my students are very open about expressing how anxious they are to meet their friends after class, specifically for drinking - usually on Friday and Saturday nights, but not always. Just this week (Wednesday night) two students came in to tell me they would not be in class because they were meeting a friend for drinking. Often my students are tired because they went drinking the night before. Drinking seems to be encouraged and expected on many different fronts, particularly in the workplace. Generally employees are expected to drink with co-workers after work - and I mean drink quite a bit. To not get drunk is considered unfriendly. Although I read in a book that often co-workers will pretend to be drunk so that they will not be expected to drink anymore, so maybe a lot of it's an act. Act or no act, every night there are always a few drunk salarymen or young people stumbling home at 9:30 pm or so. Even on week nights I have had to ride past them very carefully because I don't know when they will suddenly walk in front of my bike. In the US a group of drunk men would have scared me, but here I just chuckle at them. Sometimes if they notice me riding behind them, one will say something to make the group part, they all turn and bow and wave me past, smiling. It's really quite nice. Or sometimes they say "hello" just because they know the word in English and want to use it. I just say "hello" back and go on my way. People do that a lot. People I have never seen before, who are in a happy mood for whatever reason, will just say "hello" when they see me and recognize me as a foreigner. Sometimes I'll be zipping by them on my bike and they'll say "hello". I'm long gone before the word even registers, and still they say it just for fun. But I digress...

I guess it seems strange to me because in America there really is a stigmatism associated with heavy drinking. I wonder if that's good or bad, or maybe just different - I'm not sure. Perhaps because Japanese work VERY hard, they must also play hard. And I haven't heard anything about a problem with drinking and driving. I hope that's all there is to it, and no problem of alcoholism brewing. I guess the American in me can't help worrying about such issues. I try to "think outside of my culture" on this, but I can't seem to do it. Everyday I'm realizing how strong of a force culture can be. It molds us in so many ways that we don't even realize.

Year End Parties
The Japanese do not have Christmas parties so much as they have Year End Parties. They are called Bo Nen Kai which means "Party to forget the old year." I guess they are very popular. People are often expected to go to two or three work-related Bo Nen Kai, and again, they are expected to get drunk. I will not be expected to attend Bo Nen Kai for work, but there was a Christmas party.

School Christmas Party
This past Saturday night was the Christmas party for my school. I wore a Santa hat. Conor looked at me funny, remember he's Irish, so I think there's a different image of "Father Christmas" over in Ireland. But by the end of the night I managed to get this photo to the right of him in it. :-)

A few other people looked at me funny, but I really didn't care. Walking to the party, a few drunk people called to me from across the street. "Santa Claus!! Santa Claus!!" They had to call quite a few times because I didn't realize what they were saying the first couple of times because of their japanese accent. And then they had to call a few more times because, of course, I don't usually respond to that name. I have enough trouble responding to Anne (without the Marie). Although the other day, one of the Japanese teachers called me Anne Marie Sense ('sen-say')... and it felt very good. I miss my Marie sometimes. But again, I digress... the party was very fun, as was the second party right after.

Hiroyuki thought I was nut with the hat on. He's the one that took me out for sushi when I first got to Japan. See the September 20th entry for the story about that adventure. Anyway, the photo to the left is of us at the start of second party. He's giggling at me. But before we moved onto the 'third party' he he taken a turn wearing it too. :-)

Next weekend is another wine tasting party of Suzuki and Chieko (my landlord and his wife). I'm looking forward to that too. Oh, would you believe that many people here have told me I am a "strong drinker"? Chieko and some of my students. This surprises me because I've always thought of myself as a very weak drinker. It usually doesn't take much. Two glasses of wine and I'm tipsy. But Saturday night I drank four glasses of wine, people kept bringing me another and another, etc. Yet I never really felt all that drunk, only tipsy. Oh, and I also had a better part of a beer. Gosh, that's really a lot for me, but I didn't feel bad at all on Sunday morning. Just another day. I wonder why it didn't effect me as much as in the past. It's a mystery. Not to worry, I don't plan on testing these limits. :-)

"The Nod"
I want to tell you about "the nod." I get "the nod" from other foreigners. And even more surprisingly, I GIVE "the nod" whether I know them or not. I mentioned my first experience of this in the September 11th entry. I don't even realize I'm doing it until after it's done. It's almost as if I can't help it. I try not to, and yet when I see another foreigner outside of school, I find myself nodding. I've heard of "the nod" from other people in situations where they are the minority, but never quite understood it. It's really a strange phenomenon.

Kenichi is one of my private lesson students. I mentioned him in the October 10th entry because he gave me a map of Paris which I have hanging in my apartment. He's a very nice man, runs marathons all over the world, and travels for other reasons too. That's why he's taking English lessons - so he can manage in many countries. Our lessons are basically free conversation so he can stay in practice - as compared to my usual group classes which are based on one of many textbooks. Anyway, Kenichi has begun reading my website. He says he finds it interesting because it's more like spoken English. Last week he and his wife gave me three amazing apples! Maybe because they read in the November 15th entry about how much I enjoy japanese fruit. And they are delicious! And so big that I can't eat an entire one in a single sitting. (FYI: "apple" is "ringo" in japanese. I think it's pronounced like the drummer for the Beatles, but I'm not sure.) Kenichi has also given me some tips for this website, but it's not easy to apply them because my Internet time is pretty limited. But he has encouraged me to learn more whenever I get back to the states. Thanks Kenichi! :-)

You knew it would come up eventually. So how does someone 5'9"+ "fit" into a culture where the average person is not nearly as tall? Sometimes it ain't easy. I'd swear kitchen counters are a bit lower, although I haven't measured them. All I know is when I'm doing dishes my back hurts because I have to lean over, just a little. And I HAVE bumped my head a couple of times on door frames. If I'm on the upswing of my stride as I go through a door frame, particularly one in my apartment - then yes, I get a knock on the noggin'. But nothing major so far. And I duck much more than I ever used to, to clear signs, branches, Christmas decorations, etc. I can't straighten my legs in the tub, so shaving is a bit harder. And sometimes I just don't know where to put my legs. Desks and tables are a little lower so sometimes I can't cross my legs easily, and sometimes not at all. Usually this stuff is not a big deal, but there are times when I'm tired, and it's frustrating when doing the simplest thing becomes much more difficult than it seems to need to be. At those time I just have to stop and take a deep breath to remind myself it's not that big of a deal. On the upside, several of my students have told me that they think I should be a model when we talk about how tall I am. So there's good in just about everything if you look for it. :-)

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

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on to December 23, 2002