Travel Journal of my Time in Japan

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January 26, 2003

I just got back from my first day of snowboarding! I left the slopes about 5 hours ago and already my body feels... well, it FEELS! Tomorrow morning is going to be interesting. But it was fun. I've mentioned a group of Japanese folks that hang out at Nameless - I put a photo on the December 23rd entry. They go snowboarding all the time, and they are really good. Back when I first arrived in August, three of them offered to teach me how to snowboard. Maybe you remember me mentioning Wateru in the September 11th entry when he taught me how to make rice, and the December 23rd entry when he wore the santa hat. And there was also Takahiko (who I also mentioned in the December 23rd entry) and Reji (aka Crazy Reggie). All three are the sweetest guys you'd ever want to meet. They were sooooo accommodating, and patient with all of us. (There were other foreigners, some beginners at snowboarding, some intermediate.) They laugh when we call them gentlemen. So for five months I've been looking forward to them teaching me to snowboard.

Here's an example of how sweet these guys are: The three gentlemen called to me ("Anne, Anne!") down the hill where I was firmly planted after a more recent fall. There were quite a few falls. Anyway, I turned to see the three gentlemen skiing/snowboarding toward me. They immediately presented a young girl to me saying "Anne, Anne, she wants to speak English!" I replied "Yes, yes!" and looked over my other shoulder to see the cutest young girl, about 12. I said "hello" and smiled at her, and she smiled back, but she kinda froze - shy. It's the usual reaction with children. Eventually, with a little encouragement from the three gentlemen, she said "hello" and we had a little chat. She was very nice. I asked Reji to tell her she was cute. She ended up having lunch with us and hanging around with us quite a bit. These three guys befriended this 12-year-old girl like it was nothing, like they did it all the time. Whenever I saw one or more of them, she was usually close by. Man, that little girl could ski circles around me without really trying! Amazing. Later she gave us lemon drops, and introduced me to her older sister who also froze, and then giggled a lot.

Snowboarding is pretty cool! I did pretty well. Toward the end, Takahiko and Reji were trying to teach me how to turn. But I tell ya, my body was just worn out! It couldn't do anymore. I knew what muscles I had to use and how to use them, but they just wouldn't work right - they were just too tired. So I felt scared to try new things because I couldn't count on my body to... to engage! Maybe I will go again, if the conditions are right. Today was perfect - sunny, some fresh snow, not too warm, not too cool. And the view! Oh my goodness, as I was riding up on the lift, I was thinking more about enjoying the amazing view for a little while, than I was about going down the hill! There were mountains covered with trees with a light dusting of snow as far as the eye could see, and in all directions. I think we were near a major national park. And as the sun went down it just got prettier and prettier. I just checked a map and we were in the Japanese Alps - on the edge of them. Cool! That's another thing I can check off the Japan to-do list. :-)

Party with Mariko
Last night I went to Nameless with another student, Mariko. I mentioned her in the December 1st entry - and there's a photo of her there too. She is a private student and very interesting. She is studying Advertising Design. And she is working very hard to learn English. Some day she would like to work for an advertising firm in Singapore. She is an upper intermediate student who ALWAYS does her homework and has made a very noticeable improvement during our short 4 months together - very satisfying for both of us. Plus she's cute as a bug! A couple times in class we just started giggling over something, to the point where I almost had tears. A few weeks ago she finished a very important school project so I wanted to go to Nameless with her and buy her a drink to celebrate. She had a big test today, (English proficiency test) so she wanted first a juice and a ginger ale. But that was alright with me. I'm not one to push alcohol on anyone. She left early to get good rest before her test.

Well, first it was just us two, but then Takahiko and I were trying to plan snowboarding for today so I asked him to meet us at Nameless. So then we were three. And then Chris, another American who is NOT a teacher was the one driving, so we asked him to come too so we could plan today. Then we were four. And then Greg (an Australian) was sitting alone at the bar so we invited him to join us. Then we were five. And then four Japanese salarymen came in and started talking to us. Then we were nine. It turned out to be quite a party! That happens very easily in Japan. Or maybe it's just because Nagaoka is such a small town and so within any given group, an "outside" individual is bound to know someone in it and so you come together. But none of us knew the Japanese Managers, they just turned and started chatting to us, in English. They were very friendly. The picture at the right is of Takow (one of the salarymen) and me. I'm SOOOOO glad I'm in Nagaoka instead of Tokyo. :-)

Tomorrow, Takahiko and I are going to an exhibit at Mariko's college - on the other side of town. (This is assuming my body will go along with the plan!) Mariko's final project which we were celebrating, is in the exhibit. I'm looking forward to seeing it. Mariko might not be able to meet us but it will be fun to see her work. :-)

Party with my Discussion Class
Last Saturday night (January 18th) I went out with my discussion class. I only have one discussion class that meets late Saturday afternoon. It's a great class and we have a lot of fun in class. Two weeks ago, two of my students, Noriko and Rieko planned a "party" for our class. In Japan "party" means making a reservation at a restaurant for those invited and then usually afterwards there is second party at a different place. We ended up going to Nameless for second party. It was a very fun evening! From the left, the photos below are of 1) Futoshi, 2) Rieko and me, 3) Masatoshi and Mitsuru, and 4) Mitsuru, Rie and Noriko. (Rieko and Masatoshi are married.)

Cultural Exchange in My Discussion Class
Discussion classes (I have one and Conor has one) are intended to be the most advanced class. We throw out a topic and basically say, "please discuss". This is really hard for Japanese because they are SO afraid of making a mistake. But we help them through it and encourage them when they manage a particularly difficult sentence, or use a particularly difficult word. My discussion class has also been a major cultural exchange. We've discussed North Korea, Iraq, the Kyoto Accord, WWII, and many other topics. There is one man who is not afraid to ask the tough questions very directly, the ones for which I have no answer. Like "Why is Bush pushing so hard for war with Iraq, but not with North Korea?" A select few of my students have asked this and I don't have an answer for them. I tell them that not ALL Americans want war, and that America is very split on the issue just now. They worry about North Korea attacking them - we are in range here, only the Sea of Japan between us. (I haven't mentioned that before because I didn't want y'all to worry. But this is another part of me not self-editing anymore.) So which one the US chooses to attack concerns them very deeply. Maybe it's difficult to relate to that all the way over there in the US. I mean, a war in Iraq will effect Americans pretty much the same as a war in North Korea. But to the Japanese, it's a BIG difference. Remember, the US is responsible for Japan's security since it is illegal for Japan to develop their own military - the Constitution drawn up by the occupation forces after WWII makes it illegal... Hmmm, just now sitting here, I think I may have figured out a big puzzle...

Musing About the Relationship Between Japan and the US
First, the Japanese people are very interested in American culture. Many dye their beautiful, shiny, black hair in an attempt to be blond. Many wear spike heels to look taller. Many of my students have commented about how they have a friend who is sooo pretty, "just like a foreigner" - and yet Asians are some of the most beautiful people in the world, particularly the women with their creamy skin and lovely almond eyes. Many of my students are studying English because some day they want to visit America. They love the music (although much of what they listen to is from the 80's), the clothes, the movie stars, etc. This is mostly young people that enjoy American culture, of course, which is frustrating to the older people. Secondly, an important element of the Japanese culture is they also tend to be very focused on groups and teams. You are either in a group or you are not, there is little gray on that. Just now it occurred to me that maybe because of the political relationship the US has with Japan (i.e. US is responsible for their security) a sort of group or team was formed with the current Japanese Constitution. And so since "the Japan way" is to build team, by connecting with your teammates, perhaps the Japanese feel a cultural instinct (urge? responsibility? etc.) to close the gap between the two cultures, and yet retain their Japanese-ness. This is just a theory... requiring more thought and discussion with some Japanese friends. If there's something to this then it will be yet another, very strong example, of the power of culture.

Suzuki's January Wine Tasting Party
Last Sunday (January 19th) was another wine tasting party! As usual I enjoyed myself! For each party Suzuki makes a list of everyone who is there. Their name both in (Japanese "letters" and western letters. For the past parties, Suzuki wrote my name in katakana, one of the Japanese letter systems that are usually used for foreign words. For this party he chose to use Kanji for my name. Kanji are the original writing system of the Japanese - based on chinese characters. He chose characters with very nice meanings! Although there was discussion among some of the people at the party about what would be a good kanji for Smith. Apparently, the kanji that Suzuki originally chose was also used by sumo wrestlers, and they just didn't want me to use that one - not very feminine. Everyone decided on something else, so now I have Kanji for my name - thanks Suzuki! :-)

This time I sat next to a high school art teacher. I believe her name was Etsu. She was very nice. When I called her Sense (teacher), she seemed uncomfortable. Suzuki explained that she does not like that title because she sometimes makes mistakes. She was being humble. The title Sense is meant for the absolute experts capable of perfection. Hmmm, makes me uncomfortable with people calling ME Sense! Anyway, she was very nice. Her English was limited, but Suzuki was prepared with an English-Japanese dictionary which he somewhat covertly placed between us. She said she would design a honko for me. Honko are very interesting. Japanese do not use signatures on official documents, they use Honkos. It looks like a lipstick tube, but it is a stamp. And each person chooses a honko based on the kanji for their name. Now that I have kanji, I commented that I would buy a honko and she immediately pulled out a piece of paper and tried to design the THREE kanji (usually japanese only have two names - two kanji) into a small circle about the size of penny. She said it would be difficult, but she will try.

On the other side of me was Shizuka who has really good English. She is married to a Canadian who was also there. But we choose numbers when we arrive to see where we will sit. This way everyone has an opportunity to talk to new people. Actually Shizuka chose a number at the other end of the table, but she came and sat next to me because she knew I didn't understand Japanese - so she was my translator for the party. She left her husband, Todd, at the other end of the table. He also doesn't understand, but Suzuki translated for him. I thanked Todd for letting me "borrow" his wife, and he was very kind about it.

At second party I sat next to Hisashi, one of my students who is also friends with Suzuki. He and his wife usually go to the parties. He is a nice man. I accomplished a great feat at the second party. I remembered everyone's names! They were all very happy. I'm getting better at names, but I still have a looooong way to go. I keep trying though! Anyway, I ate crab legs! Someone ordered crab legs, and when they saw how much I enjoyed them, they handed one after the other to me. :-) I made quite a mess trying to eat them. But they were sooooo good! I should eat those more. Pretty easy to come by in these parts. MMMmmmm....

The Wall
I'm feeling like that first leg is still firmly up there on the wall, and I'm still working on the second leg. So I can see the view on the other side, but I'm still not on the other side of the wall where culture shock is no longer an issue. I'm still amazed by the patience and tolerance of the Japanese, I'm seeing more examples of conflict fading away and harmony being restored... but I also still have challenges. It feels like some of it is accepting myself for who I am as a person, some of it is accepting that I am American and not Japanese - and so I will inevitably make mistakes. The saga continues... :-)

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

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on to February 5, 2003