Travel Journal of my Time in Japan

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November 15, 2002

I Visited a Hot Spring, Salmon Museum and Liquor Store
My landlord, Suzuki, and his wife took me to a hot springs about 100 kilometers away. In a city called Murakami. (If you want to look on a map, look north of Nagaoka, past Niigata, along the Sea of Japan Coast.) It was wonderful! Suzuki went to the gentlemen's side by himself. Chieko and I went to the ladies side. I didn't feel a bit shy with being naked in front of the other naked ladies. Although I did feel like a few more women were looking at me because I was the only foreigner - curious, I guess. First Chieko and I took a shower, each at our own little shower stalls with a little bench to sit on, shampoo, etc. Then we sat in an inside pool looking out a huge glass wall at the waves of the Sea of Japan crashing on the shore. But it got better... then we went outside and sat in the cool air, up to our necks in hot water. It was so relaxing because we had full tummies from lunch. Chieko didn't last long before she got cold. But I was just loving the sound of the waves. Ahhhhhh!

Below is a photo of Chieko and Suzuki right after we sat in the hot spring. We were all very relaxed and warm. Chieko's hair is still a little wet on the ends. Behind them, that window looks out over the beach. I don't know why all my photos are so washed out. Maybe I need a new camera.

Afterwards, they took me to a local salmon museum. I know that sounds like a strange thing to have a whole museum be about, but I think much of the town was based on the salmon fishing trade. It was very interesting. I saw the fish that lay caviar (fish eggs) - you might be surprised to know they are not the prettiest, most graceful fish in the world. A part of me expected them to be something that seemed to be flying through the water, and feathery fins or something elegant. But they are a dark, spotty gray color, more rectangular in shape, have long, awkward snouts and whiskers like a catfish, and they seemed to move in more of a nervous state that a graceful one. I couldn't help giggling when Suzuki told me they were the source for caviar. Does that surprise any of you? Also did you know salmon have little teeth? I didn't know that either. They looked like piranhas when I first saw them. And they're huge! They're a good two feet long and very solid fish. I don't think Julie (my little 6-pounds-on-a-good-day cat could catch one, even OUT of the the water.) Oh, one wall of the museum backed up to the nearby river, where the salmon swim upstream from the sea to lay their eggs and then die. We could watch the river bottom. There were tons of small fish, and then all of a sudden a big salmon would come crashing through and frighten all the small fish. It was mesmerizing to watch. Did you know the same salmon swim from Japan, where they're born, all the way to Alaska/Canada and back again to lay eggs and die? I guess I knew salmon migrated, but that's one heck of a migration! Anyway, this one wall that showed the river, was in a room at the end of a hallway. At the place where the hallway met the room was a strange black arch. Suzuki inspected it as we walked by and realized it was a water lock. "They are afraid of flood," he said running a hand along the arch. I realized he was right. If the windows were to give way, or if the river got too rough and flooded, it could ruin the whole building. So the black arch served as a water seal for a huge door in the ceiling. Yet another example of the clever, resourceful Japanese!

After the museum we went to a liquor store. Suzuki's family owns a liquor store so he's always on the lookout for good wines, particularly sake. Well, we sat and tasted sake for about a half hour, chatting with the owner. And then went home. On the car ride home, Suzuki and Chieko (I hope I'm spelling her name correctly) invited me for a spaghetti dinner. It was wonderful. Suzuki's mom was there too, she lives with them. Of course, none of you are surprised to hear that she is also a very nice lady. :-) Chieko sent me home with some delicious chocolate cake and a pear. Oh, the Japanese fruit deserves a heading of its own!

You wouldn't believe the fruit here!
Sometimes it's outrageously expensive - I saw a melon for ~$50, yes I said $50.00! But usually it's not quite that expensive. For example, an orange for ~$5. But you know what? The fruit is usually worth it because they are huge - and the shelf life is a gagillion years. The pear that Chieko sent home with me could be mistaken for a small pumpkin! And the apples can be a meal in themselves. And the taste? Oh, each seems to me like a piece of art. It almost seems a shame to cut them. But cut them you must in order to enjoy them. Oh, and I can say I've tried a persimmon. They grow on trees in people's yards around here. They're bright orange and about the size of your fist. I guess right off the tree they are very bitter, but people pick them and soak them in alcohol to take out the tanins and then give them away. People bring in bags of them to work and to friends. Quite a few students brought in some to share with the school staff. It's kind of like how people bring in tomatoes during the summer in the US midwest. Persimmons are pretty good, but not my first choice. Conor loves 'em!

I thought I was crazy because I could've sworn I was feeling little earthquivers - that's a word I've coined because to call them quakes is a bit dramatic. Tremor even sounds a bit excessive. They are little quivers. They show on a glass of water, but they are small enough where I wasn't sure if wasn't just a truck or the bullet train going by. As many of you know, I'm a pretty sensitive person - not only to romantic movies (please hand me a tissue - sniff, sniff) but also to noise, movement, etc. So I was pretty sure they were something. Conor looked at me funny when I asked if he felt them. He tried to convince me it was just a truck going by. But since then I have asked Suzuki, and he told me they most probably were little quivers. I've felt two already since I've been here. Quite a few of you have sent emails expressing concern about me because you read about earthquakes in Japan. Not to worry, I am completely uneffected by the earthquakes you've heard about. They are far enough away to only be little quivers to me. Although an interesting related event - the power company has sent all it's customers in the Niigata prefecture (a prefecture is sort of like a state in the US) ~$75 as compensation for the risk they take having the largest nuclear power plant in the world right here. I saw the plant when I went to Kashiwazaki to see the Taiko drum concert - see the September 26th entry. My mom was in the nuclear field, and I studied environmental issues like nuclear power, so I know quite a bit about the safety precautions they take to keep nuclear power plants safe. But just the same, it is a little unnerving to feel a little quiver one day, and receive the cash the next. It's very controversial in this area because the power company says it's completely safe, yet they make risk payments. When they say it wouldn't be safe in Tokyo, it makes the people around here wonder.

Christmas is already here in Japan
Now I know Japan is almost a full DAY ahead of the US, but would you believe it's already Christmas here? They are playing Christmas songs in the grocery store, the Christmas decoration have been up since November, and today I saw my first few strings of holiday lights. Goodness! Last week, we had Special Week - when the school gives special lessons instead of the usual book-based lessons. I taught two lessons. One was a treasure hunt where the students are given cards with clues on them and they have to go to a nearby store to find the answers, memorize them and come back and tell me the answers. The other game is where they have to go and look for sheets of paper with parts of sentences on them. One partner finds the sheets, memorizes what's on them, and then runs back to the other partner and dictates to them. And then they sit down together and make a story out of all the parts. They loved it! The games were Conor's ideas. He taught in Australia before he came to Japan. Yes, soon I will tie this into Christmas. One of the Japanese teachers at my school (Kasumi - in the photo to the right) taught songs in English. She chose two Christmas songs, "Jingle Bells" (the Frank Sinatra version, which really swings - Tony, you would love it!) and "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" (the Miriah Carey version). Oh, she also taught "Grandfather's Clock." I'd never heard of it, have any of you? I'm thinking it's a traditional British song. Anyway, everyday I heard Christmas songs over and over, so I feel like it's already Christmas!

My Hair is Still Very Short
It's going to take forever for the cut to grow. But in the meantime, I'm beginning to believe the women who compliment me on it. Chieko said that Japanese women want cuts like mine, but they can't. Something about the shape of their skulls. And they always ask where I got it cut. I figure it's either because they want to go there, or they want to avoid it like the plague! In any case, I want it to grow soon because my head and ears get cold! Apparently, this is a common story among the foreigners - language barriers ending up in VERY short haircuts. The teacher before me refused to get his hair cut in Japan. When he arrived his hair was so short it was practically gone. And when he left one year later, he looked like a mad scientist. And now I know why.

Interested in Calling?
I have no idea how to dial here from the US, but I'm sure if you call an operator they can help you. If you get a message with a Japanese woman speaking, hang on, and wait for the beep - it's probably my voicemail. If you leave a message, don't bank on me getting it. My phone has all japanese words, so I'm never sure what I'm doing. I think I've erased quite a few voicemails already, before I could figure out how to listen to them. But it you take the trouble to dial, and you get voicemail, please leave a message, and I will try to pick it up. (Manny, I got your message from this morning, it was great to hear your voice!) Please be aware that I can't call out internationally, but I can receive international calls. I use pay phones to make outgoing international calls. I'm not sure why that is, but that's the way it is. I've learned that I don't always need to know the details about everything that goes on here. My mom has figured out how to call my phone, and we chatted a bit. It was great to hear her voice! We even got a "meow" out of Julie, my cat. And my mom told me when to talk and she held the phone to Julie's ear. And you know what?! She rubbed her head up against the phone, she knew it was me! Melted my heart and broke it all at the same time. Anyway, among other things, we figured out that with daylight savings time now, I am 15 hours ahead of Chicago. To make a long story short, the best time for you to call me, is at 7pm or 7am Chicago time (that's 10am or 10 pm my time, respectively - 10am the next day, or 10pm that night). I start work at 12 or 1 depending on the day, and I work until 9pm. I know it's expensive to call, I don't know how expensive exactly, so I'll understand if some of you can't manage it. But I'd love to hear from ya if you can!

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

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on to December 1, 2002