Tag Archives: Japanese culture

What Color Is The Sun?

So my seventh graders are covering a unit in the book which talks about how the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco isn’t golden. From my extensive nannying experience and all of the kids’ books I read to my charges, I know that the official color of the bridge is, “International Orange.” But every year when the teacher asks the students, “What color is the bridge?” they all say, “Red.” I stand there politely and don’t say anything because, well, in Japan it is rude to contradict someone and this isn’t a make it or break it aspect of the English language. This week, however, the teacher turned to me and asked

“What color is the bridge?”

I hesitated a moment. “Orange.”

“Not red?”




This is translated to the students, who all begin exclaiming about how the bridge is clearly red. Then the teacher turns back to me:

“What color is the sun?”

“In the middle of the day? Or at the end of the day?”

“What color is the sun when a child draws it in a picture?”


This is translated back to the students, who gasp. It’s time for me to ask a question:

“What color is the sun when a Japanese child draws it?”


The class was polled. Two girls used to make their suns yellow, one boy made it orange, and the other 16, yeah, they had red suns in their childhood drawings.

And for the first time in my 31 years I understand why “The Land Of The Rising Sun” has a big RED dot in the middle of their flag.


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Just Your Abnormal Friday

Today was a normal Friday. Or not. It depends upon how you look at it. All of the “normal” things happened: I went to work, helped teach some students, ate lunch, etc. But this day was still special because of the oddball things that happened. Here are three that stick out:

1. I ate an apple.

Japan has apples. Northern Japan is especially known for its apples. And the province I’m from, Fukushima, is known as one of the top apple areas in the country. Therefore, when I pulled out an apple as part of my lunch, you might think it wouldn’t have phased them. But it did. Here apples are only eaten once they have been peeled and neatly sliced. I opted for American style and bit into the red orb. Not only was this less prep work, not only did this mean I didn’t have my apple turning brown in my lunchbox, but it also meant I retained a lot of the nutrition is in the peel.

I knew my method of eating the apple would shock the students. What I didn’t anticipate was HOW shocked they would be. Instead of gaping and staring, they ignored me. They avoided looking at me. It was the same attitude people get when they are being shamed into social conformity. All because of an apple and the way I ate it.

2. We were given forewarning of a typhoon day on Tuesday. 

Typhoon Vongfong is heading straight for Japan. If its course continues on the current trajectory, it will reach here on Tuesday. An announcement was made to the students that if school was canceled on Tuesday, the Board of Education would make a decision by noon on Monday.

So why was this weird? We don’t get days off of school here for weather. At least, we didn’t in the past. Last winter my town had its first snow day in a decade. We get snow here, but people wrap chains around their tires and push through. Meanwhile, I am given to understand that typhoon days are equally rare, but we had one last October, and again this past Monday. Now we are facing another potential typhoon disruption.

I fully support the decision to have people stay home when the weather is dangerous. The remarkable thing is that these precautions are being taken. Either the weather is getting worse or the schools are getting more cautious.

3. My co-worker recommended that American women hang men’s underwear outside their house.

I was telling the Japanese teacher of English with whom I work that in the U.S. young adults are more likely to live with other single young adults than with their parents. He asked if these are mixed gender apartments and houses. Sometimes they are, I told him, but I’ve only lived with other females. I thought this would be applauded by the Japanese sense of propriety, but to my surprise he told me I should live with men. This is out of concern for my safety, to have a man to protect me and scare off creeps. Then he went on to tell me that some Japanese women who live alone will buy men’s underwear and other clothing and hang it out on their clothes line to make it look like a man lives there.

I think I’ll start by buying mace. But, you know, I guess if I feel threatened to I could start buying men’s underwear and tossing it in my wash…


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Maybe I Know More Than I Think: Reflections On 2.5 Years In Japan And Comprehension Of Culture

Back when I was preparing to graduate from college I remember looking back over my time at school and thinking, “Wait, did I learn something?” Please don’t misunderstand me: I loved my time at university. I was diligent with my studies while learning to back off and not push myself to academic perfection I sought in high school. I especially loved my general education classes, and I truly believe I learned an abundance from them. It was my major that I had a harder time with. I chose to study anthropology because I saw a judgmental nature within myself, and I wanted to lose that. I wanted to be more accepting of American culture and lose the ethnocentrism I saw within my heart. And I was successful, at least to a certain extent. I don’t know if I’ve lost all of the pride, but I know I have a lot less of it now than I did when I was 18. I know studying anthropology was a good decision for me. But when it came to explaining what it is that I learned over those 36 credit hours, that was a little bit more difficult. 
Recently I’ve been asking myself a similar question about Japanese culture. I read an article in a recent issue of Smithsonian magazine that taught me about an element of this culture with which I was entirely unfamiliar. (For that article, see here). “Have I learned anything in my time here?” I wondered. 
Then came today. My seventh graders have already learned the grammar to give descriptions in first and second person. Soon they will learn how to describe a third party. My Japanese Teacher of English asked me to put together a series of flashcards with characters the students could describe. I was happy to oblige, and sat down to piece a list together. 
In some ways, I feel like I don’t know anything. The lead singer of any band in Japan could pass me on the street and I wouldn’t have a clue that I brushed by fame. I can’t describe the likes and dislikes of the most popular anime characters, and I don’t know where Dragonball is from. But the longer I looked at the list, the more I realized that it illustrates what I HAVE learned during my time here. I know the names of the bands my students like the most, even if I can’t tell you the songs or the names of the band members. I know that Mickey and Minnie are popular but Goofy and Pluto are not. I know that everyone knows Snoopy and no one knows Charlie Brown. Winnie the Pooh is popular, but Piglet is basically unknown. I know that even a preschooler knows who Santa Claus is, but no one here knows he lives at the North Pole. I can tell you the most popular soccer player from Japan’s world cup team, and I can name the most popular anime characters. I may still feel out of the loop, but I have learned enough to teach well, or at least to come up with a list of characters the students will know.  
It’s something. It isn’t everything, but it is something. 


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This Is How We Do It

All cultures revert to patterns and prescribed ways of doing and acting. Some cultures highly value tradition and some highly value innovation. There are pros and cons to each path.

On graphs that show typical cultural mindsets, Japan and the U.S. often fall on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. One example of this is that the U.S. often embraces a new and unique way of doing something. Whether it is wearing jeans backwards or having pancakes for supper, the person who implements such change is considered “cool” or “innovative” or “pioneering.” Japan, on the other hand, values doing things a certain way because “This is how we do it.” Following you will find three examples of things that don’t quite jive in my brain, but which I accept are part of the culture and won’t change just because they befuddle me. 

1. Last Friday brought new reminders of the way things are done in Japan.  In the morning a group of five visitors came to see the principal. A couple of us scurried off to the kitchenette to prepare six cups of tea. Serving tea to a guest is pretty customary in Japan, especially in business situations, but I’ve also been served complementary tea at a pastry shop and at the jewelry shop I stepped into to have the screws on my glasses tightened. Serving tea at the school isn’t my job, but it was an especially slow morning and the woman whose job it was had stepped out of the building to run some errands. So there we are: the counselor, the interim math teacher, and me. The counselor was frazzled because she couldn’t find six tea cups that matched. 

“What about these?” I asked. There were six simple white cups that all matched. 

“Those are coffee cups,” she replied.

“Could we use them for tea?” I asked.

“No, they’re coffee cups.”

Okay. Well, I didn’t want to bring it to this, but, 

“In the U.S. we sometimes serve tea with cups that don’t match.”


“Maybe we should just serve them coffee?” The young math teacher has now chimed in. The search for six matching tea cups has proved fruitless. Coffee it is. 

This was all taking place late morning, and the coffee had cooled down. To freshen it up, the counselor added boiling water to the pot. The math teacher set out saucers and packets of cream. I grabbed the sugar sticks. Some were blue and some were pink. I was hoping they wouldn’t care about that minor fact, but just in case, I put all of the blue sticks on one tray and all of the pink sticks on the other tray. 

As there was a good chance I would make a mistake in serving the coffee, I let the counselor and the math teacher go in with the trays. But as I sat pondering what had just happened, I realized it cleared up an incident from seven years ago.

Back in 2007 my family visited my older sister, who was living in this same town in Japan. At the time, she was working at this school. When my family came for a visit, we were all served coffee. I though this was because we were Americans and they assumed we liked coffee better. In fact, none of us drink coffee on a daily basis, and three or four of us downright despise it. Still, I got a few slurps down in order to be polite, but I remember thinking how weak it was. I barely could taste the coffee. Teachers rotate schools at a rapid pace in this district, so I don’t believe any of the faculty present seven years ago still works there today. But the cups may not have changed. And perhaps that is the entire reason that we were served weak coffee one hot August morning seven years ago.

2. Friday at lunch time another difference arose, albeit comparatively minor. While usually a school lunch was provided, because of a crazy schedule, we all brought our own lunch that day. One student had grapes in his lunch. I watched as he systematically began squeezing the pulp into his mouth and neatly laying the skins to the side. This wasn’t a personality quirk. I had heard this is how Japanese eat grapes, but this was the first time I had actually seen it. “You know, in America,” I remarked casually, “we eat the skins. My mother is a dietitian and she always told me the skins are good for me.” The students all looked appropriately amazed. “Here, give me a grape, and I’ll show you.” The boy obliged and I popped it into my mouth. A couple other students wanted to try too. They didn’t make faces or anything. But I can almost guarantee you that they will keep squeezing the pulp out every time they eat grapes. 

3. On Wednesday a student came into the teacher’s room (in Japanese schools the homerooms stay together, teachers revolve in and out, and when teachers aren’t teaching they return to a general teachers’ room). It almost looked like he was wearing makeup. Now, Japan does have makeup for men, but junior highers, male or female, aren’t allowed to wear makeup to school. I thought some more about what was different and realized his lips had a bluish tinge. 

“Have you been swimming?” I asked him. 


Japanese elementary and junior high schools, at least the ones around here, have pools and swimming is part of the P.E. curriculum. The temperature outside was about 23 C (73 Fahrenheit) and it was a cloudy day. I don’t know if the pool is heated or not. But the kid’s lips were blue. 

Now, I completely understand that they probably need to finish up their curriculum and the sudden drop in temperature (we lost about 10 Celsius/20 Fahrenheit degrees in a week) was unexpected. The thing that doesn’t quite work in my brain is that in the hottest part of summer, Japanese people become quite anxious if they see someone going for a run in the rain. Or a walk in the rain without an umbrella. One time some friends and I were hiking, got caught in a downpour, and began biking back. A woman pulled over and insisted we take plastic garbage bags and put them on. We were already soaked. And it was warm out. I just don’t quite get it. And mind you, this rain fear is not new from the radiation. It was present long before 2011. 

There are certain ways things are done. They may or may not make sense to me. But in fairness, most people in the world don’t understand why Americans will remain stopped at a red light when no one else is around. And that is a rule I faithfully followed, even when I recurrently finished a shift at 10:30 p.m. and had to wait on empty streets for the lights to change. We all have our own comprehension of the rules. I understand that, even if I don’t understand the individual customs.


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Two Stories

What do you do with your teeth?
On Monday one of my students had a tooth fall out in the middle of class. Since I teach junior high, this is a decently rare occurrence, but out it came. The teacher explained to me that in Japan upper teeth are buried under the house and lower teeth are thrown on the roof. This is considered good luck and helps ensure that the next set of teeth will be strong. In turn, I explained that in the U.S. we put a tooth under our pillows, and the tooth fairy comes to pick it up, leaving money behind. The teacher translated this for the students, and they all made the standard Japanese noise of astonishment. They say “Eh”, but instead of making it one note like crusty old Americans do, the sound starts relatively low and raises 22 notes. The lack of completion of the third octave conveys a feeling of bewilderment. But in this case it was good bewilderment. I think they all wished they got money from their teeth too.

Um, would you like a pen?
Since I live overseas I have my mother on my checking account. It means she can deal with my finances and pay bills without too much of a problem. Because my parents live in a small town with exactly one bank, that is the bank chain I use. Like many companies, this bank gives out pens to its customers. They happen to be really good pens, and when I make my once a year visits I grab
half a dozen to take with me.

Today at the elementary school I teach at I saw the students looking inquisitively at my pen. I didn’t see anything special about it. It is a dark green ball point pen with English writing. Still, if they valued it that much…

I offered the girl the pen. She insisted she couldn’t take it. But the boy next to her said he would take it. The girl got mad at him. I don’t
know if it was because she actually wanted it or because she thought it was rude for him to take it. In either case, this was something I could fix. In elementary school the students come to the teacher’s room to fetch me to start class and they walk me back afterwards. The girl happened to be the one assigned to accompany me. Back at the office, I asked her to wait a minute and dug through my backpack to find another pen from the bank, which was subsequently presented to her. She thanked me and left. During cleaning time I saw she was using it to mark the progress on her group’s chart.

I wonder if this bank has any idea that it’s pens are floating around in rural Japan.


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The Fire Drill

Last week the junior high I teach at had a fire drill. 

I’m going to assume everyone reading this blog has a grid for what a typical fire drill entails. If the reader doesn’t, it usually is just making sure everyone exits in an orderly and safe fashion.

Here is what is different about Japanese fire drills (vs. U.S. ones):

1. The students changed their shoes on the way out. – Yes, Japanese take their shoes off when they enter houses. They also do it when they enter select businesses (schools and hospitals, yes. Traditional restaurants, yes. Most other stores, no). Since this was a planned drill, the students all collected their outdoor shoes from the cubby holes a few minutes before, then changed on the way out. I asked my co-teacher and he said in a real drill they would just go outside in their indoor shoes.

2. Once the students exited the building, they ran to the designated gathering point. My teachers always yelled at us if we broke into a jog. Here, it was expected. Not a full out sprint, but a rapid jog. Like storm troopers on a mission. 

3. They all wore caps – I knew about the shoes thing. My sister had told me about it years ago when she was a teacher in Japan. But this year, for the first time, I noticed the caps. Japanese students have caps that they wear during their daily cleaning time. Apparently they also wear them during fire drills. What I want to know is whether they would all reach for their caps in the case of a real fire. 

4. And they all held handkerchiefs – As far as I could gather, this was to have something to cover their mouths with to prevent smoke inhalation. Makes sense. But what if you don’t have the handkerchief with you? Do you dig through your bag to find it before exiting? So many questions…

5. They actually practiced putting out fires. It wasn’t a real fire, but the firemen who had come to observe the drill gave a short lecture and then about twenty students took turns taking the pin out of a fire extinguisher and aiming it at the fire. They used real extinguishers but filled them with water which was aimed at an orange pylon. This part I really like. I’m 30 years old and I’ve been shown how to use an extinguisher, but never having actually used it, I sometimes wonder if I would botch the whole operation in a panicky moment. Here they practice. I say, Good show!

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Spring Break: Cleaning, then Touring Tokyo and Kyoto

It’s been a few days since I posted. The main reason for this is that I was on spring break. In Japan spring break marks the change from one school year to the next. For this reason, or perhaps another, we are given two weeks off, which is longer than any U.S. school that I know of.

Part 1: Cleaning

The first week I spent helping coworkers clean apartments, as four of the ex-pats were leaving, two were moving into vacated apartments, and four more teachers were moving in. We junked a ton of items. What, after all, are we really supposed to do with glittery jewelry that none of us here want, with half empty bottles of condiments, with bikes whose brakes no longer work, clothing that flatters no one currently living here, used gift bags, VHS tapes, and Japanese textbooks that were pompous enough to invent their own system of romaji? With the exception of clothes, which we are trying to coax friends with cars to cart to Koriyama and make a profit selling to thrift stores, it all got thrown away. There were plenty of echoes of, “But someone might want that?” but in the end most of it ended up in the trash.Seeing the high amount of stuff that was left for the rest of us to deal with, and feeling the frustration of it, often meant I returned to my own apartment and began tossing items into the trash. Those butt-ugly Christmas decorations? They’re gone. The taupe shirt I never wear? It’s on the donate pile. The purple flats I’ve worn to pieces and should have thrown away years ago? Dumpster. The poinsettia that wasn’t really still alive? Yep, that too. Next year I don’t want to be the person who is still packing the night before and leaves clutter, dust, and mold for the other teachers to deal with. I want to be the person who is well packed and leaves the apartment as spotless as possible (bed sheets being the great challenge to all movers everywhere). Intellectually I acknowledge there were other things I did that week, but the emotional memories are tied to cleaning.

Part 2: Tokyo and Kyoto

The second week I headed down south for a few days. My sister and my brother-in-law came to visit and we spent two days in Tokyo and four days in Kyoto. There is plenty that can be said about both of these cities, for they are both beautiful and have a lot to offer. But there are plenty of blogs and books that hold that information. In this blog post I’m going to skip all of that basic information (if you want to read it, leave a comment below and I’ll type up an additional post) and instead just tell you the funny/odd bits of the trip.


1. We took the bullet train (shinkansen) from Koriyama to Tokyo. Because it was relatively crowded, I didn’t bother to try and sit by my companions but bee lined to an empty seat. Two gentlemen were sitting in a row and after asking permission in Japanese, I sat down in the seat between them. I pulled out my book and assumed that would be the last we spoke for the next 75 minutes. To my surprise the man on the aisle began speaking to me in English. It was a pleasant enough conversation, especially once I found out he had a girlfriend and therefore wasn’t hitting on me, just exploiting the opportunity to practice his English (which bothers me far less than it does some other ex-pats).

As the chatter waned, the end of the conversation ran as such:

Man: “Do you like beer?”

Me: “No.” He had told me he was a cook at a pub (izakaya) and I was sensitive to the fact that it might hurt his feelings to tell the truth, but I did so anyway.

Man: “You don’t like beer?”

Me: “No. I don’t like the taste.”

Man: (pulling a can of beer out of his coat pocket) “Do you want this?”

Me: “No, thank you. Please enjoy.”

And he did, cracking open his can of Asahi. It was 10:30 in the morning. I may have lived here for two years, but moments like this still hit me hard with the, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas any more” feelings. I also breathed a sigh of relief that I had been honest, else I would have been obligated to sit there drinking a can of beer.

2. That night we stayed in a capsule hotel. My sister complained about this a little, but because this is a peak travel time, when she went to make reservations a couple weeks ago, everything else was either really expensive, really inconvenient, or already booked. Why, she wanted to know, would she pay the same as a regular room for a space she couldn’t even stand up in? Me? I loved it. I first heard about capsule hotels via a television program 15-20 years ago, and when I got a job here in Japan, that was high on top of the bucket list. It was a bitter disappointment to learn that most cater only to men, and that my gender would keep me from this amazing experience. Somehow we found one of the only ones that allows women and that is where our reservation was. 

I had had a long day. The physicality as well as the frustrations of cleaning the week before had really taken it out of me, my relatives had been sharing my small apartment space for five days, we had gone for a run that morning then spent the afternoon walking around museums, and while I had long since ceased to be contagious, my body was still feeling the effects of the flu that had ravaged it. It was 6:30 when we checked in, and my sister asked if we wanted to do something. “I need some alone time” I responded, and crept off. Despite everything else, when I reached my capsule I began grinning like a fool. There is something in my soul that loves the really small spaces  when I am sleeping, and after journaling for a few minutes I fell asleep, exhausted. I slept for 12 hours that night. Man, that flu did a number on me!

Jeni in a capsule

My sister in her capsule.


The best food in the world is when someone really good at making an item makes it. Rice and beans had never tasted so good as they did in Mexico. And people from India will always be the best at making naan. Similarly, the Japanese do Japanese food like nobody’s business. But they’re not so hot at making American, British, Italian, etc. food. Most of their interpretations end up as some amalgamation that is pretty pitiful. I’m a decent cook and can make quite a lot of food myself. Nevertheless, there are certain items I can’t make, and when I travel out of my rural town, I like to hunt down the really good food as opposed to settling for the “just okay”. To save our budget, we rounded out the restaurant visits with trips to the convenience store for sandwiches, snacks, fruit, and milk. Sunday breakfast was just such a meal. For lunch we found ourselves in Ueno and I dragged my sister and brother-in-law to a shawarma stand run by a guy who, well, I don’t know where he is from. But he isn’t Japanese and the sauce there is really good. Around supper time we were in Akihabara and I successfully lobbied for a visit to the local Rose and Crown (a chain of Victorian pubs) for some decent fish and chips. I’m sure they’re not perfect, and if I were British I would know that, but they are better than the fried fish at the Iwaki aquarium, and are pretty close to those at the Eagle and Child in Oxford. 

Akihabara is a part of Tokyo known for two things: 1. The plethora of electronic stores 2. A girl’s pop group based out of there. The group is called AKB 48. AKB is the abbreviation for Akihabara and 48 is the number of women in the group. They are split into three groups – the A group, K group, and B group – of 16 each and they perform concerts with lots of choreographed dancing. And they are wildly popular. 

Beneath the subway station in Akihabara there is an AKB 48 cafe. We walked by at 9:15 in the morning and saw a long line already forming for the opening at 10. After going to Ueno we came back to Akihabara for dinner. The Rose and Crown is across the square from the AKB 48 cafe, and I decided to track how fast the line moved. There was a consistent rain, and I kept my eye on a certain pink umbrella. In the 50 minutes we sat in the restaurant, it advanced 25 meters. By my best guess, the patrons spent an average of 90 minutes in line prior to entering the cafe. The line never got shorter while we were there, and even grew slightly longer. People arrived to stand in line at the same pace as they entered. Granted, it was a Sunday during spring break, which may have resulted in a higher demand that day, but I still wondered at the commitment. 


Monday we traveled to Kyoto. First we stopped by the Shinjuku area of Tokyo to see the view from the Tokyo Metropolitan Offices. Then we took the bullet train to Kyoto, found our hostel, walked to Gion to see a temple and see the shops full of Japanese craft. After stopping back at our hostel to put on more layers of clothing, we walked to Nijo castle to see the cherry trees lit up at night.

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The cherry blossoms lit up at night

We also enjoyed some performances on the koto, sometimes called the Japanese zither. In total I calculated we walked 9 1/2 miles that day (15 km). No, I don’t want to go running tomorrow, thank you.

The koto performance was done by three women who were all very skilled. But I had a hard time not focusing on how bad a case of osteoporosis one performer had. I blame it on watching too many episodes of “Bones.”

After the koto performance I stopped by one of the tables selling various items. It was giving samples of various types of liquor. I had been there a year before and regretted that I hadn’t bought a bottle of yuzu shu. “Yuzu” is a kind of citrus fruit and “shu” is another term for sake. I think there is some technical difference, just like ale is technically different from beer, but I don’t know what it is. I had in mind to buy some yuzu shu, but to make sure it was as good as I remembered it, I tried the small sample sips of each of the three options: yuzu shu, plum shu, and a special sake that was developed with the mind for people to drink it while sitting under cherry blossoms. A lot of businesses colleagues and groups of friends hang out under the flowering cherry trees during the spring and, well, they drink. Public intoxication isn’t grounds for arrest in this country. As long as you don’t drive, no one seems to care. Except the women receiving unwanted advances. 

While the plum shu was good, of the three I still liked the yuzu shu best, so that is what I bought. But this year I caught a key piece of information I had missed last year. The sake was 20% alcohol, the plum shu was 8% alcohol, and the yuzu shu was a mere 5% alcohol. The amount of alcohol seems inversely related to how much I like the beverage. In other words, I really don’t care for the taste of alcohol. 


Tuesday we went back to Nijo castle in order to see it by day and get the historical side. The best way to do this was by renting audio guides that told about each location. It was 500 yen to rent each device, and I suggested to my sister that she could remove the provided ear piece and replace it with my headphones, which she could then share with her husband, thereby cutting costs. The woman running the station insisted this was not possible. I’m not super technologically savvy, but by looking at them, my suggestion would have been quite easy. The woman just didn’t like the idea of us finding a way to save some money.

Lesson learned: just because people in Fukushima-ken don’t generally know English, don’t assume the people in Kyoto don’t.


Wednesday we headed out to Arashiyama, notable for both the flowering cherry trees along the river bank as well as for the wild animal park that, unlike the typically cramped zoos of Japan, allows visitors to look at monkeys in their natural environment. To the Japanese they are just “monkeys” but to the English speaking world they are “snow monkeys.” This is because they live farther from the equator in the wild than any other non-human primate. The system that makes this possible is the many natural hot springs in Japan, which snow monkeys freely bathe in during the winter. Japan is basically a bunch of mountains sticking up out of the ocean, and while technically  dormant, most of these mountains are volcanoes. The hot springs provided by the magma are enjoyed by humans and monkeys alike, though they don’t share the spots. These hot springs allow the monkeys to live on Hokkaido, Japan’s northern most island, which has a latitude equivalent to Maine. In addition to living in a different climate, Japanese monkeys do not carry the coloring of African primates. No dark haired, white faced apes here. Snow monkeys have light hair and red faces and rumps. As long as a person keeps in mind that they are wild animals and there is no barrier so caution must be taken, it is a wonderful experience to see them. 

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A snow monkey at Arashiyama

On the way back to downtown Kyoto the train was again crowded. I found a seat, but by accident this was in the section reserved for handicapped, pregnant mothers, the elderly, etc. Others are still allowed to sit there, but courtesy dictates that we be mindful and offer the seat if necessary. A few stops later an older man stepped aboard. I watched him look around for a place to sit and, finding no available options, stood. As I waited for people to finish crawling aboard I processed how in the world to offer my seat in Japanese. Nope, I didn’t have the words for it. I realized, however, that the Japanese value of less communication could actually work in my favor here. If I could just pull this off correctly, I wouldn’t need more than a few words. I waited until the gentleman was looking in my direction, then rose and gestured to my seat, saying only an elongated, “Sumimasen” (Excuse me) in a way that clearly indicated a question. The man acknowledged my gesture but waved it away, wordlessly communicating he didn’t want my seat. I sat back down. Communication. Win.


Even though we could have spent a few more hours in Kyoto, all three of us agreed we would just rather head back up north. We had seen what we wanted to see, and while we could have found something to do (there is a new aquarium and we hadn’t seen the silver temple), it was mutually agreed upon that my brother-in-law would get a better picture of Japan by spending an afternoon in Koriyama than by spending another morning in Kyoto. In Koriyama I took them to the top of a tall building near the station to see the view, then we went off to experience Round One. Round One is like Chuck-E-Cheese on crack for grownups. There are a ton of games and areas (everything from DDR to arcade games to batting cages to pool tables to roller skating to a mechanical bull) but instead of paying per activity you pay for the amount of time you are there. I don’t know of anything quite like it in the U.S., so that is how we decided to spend our free time on Thursday.

But first we wanted to eat lunch. We got into Koriyama at about 1. There is a good Indian food place nearby, but we had had Indian the night before. The other two agreed that ramen would be good, so I guided them to the place all of my friends rave about, then headed to McDonald’s.

Inside McDonald’s I ordered and sat down. As I was situating my stuff, a group of high school boys in the corner shot glances at each other and then furtively called out, “Nice to meet you.” I ignored them.

Don’t misunderstand me. I wasn’t dissing them because of what they said. It was more HOW they said it. If they had come up to me with a big smile and said, “Nice to meet you,” I probably would have thrown them a bone and interacted with them until our limited mutual language ran out. But young Japanese men have this thing they do. They call out a phrase and then hide their eyes, heads, or whole bodies if possible, seeing if the woman responds. If they can say something more suggestive they do. I have a funny story about that, but I promised this blog would be G rated, so I doubt I’ll every type it out on here. The American equivalent of what these guys do is like the punk across the room making kissy faces and winking. Or the guys who honk at girls as they drive by. Okay, we see you, but if you were actually looking for a date, you need to work on your communication skills. What you’re currently doing isn’t going to get me to throw myself at you and plead for your number. The creepy young man thing? Yeah, they have them in Japan too. And in every country I have a hard time not bursting into laughter at their incompetence. 

Well, that’s most of the funny things I can remember. Until next time, I’m signing off.

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A Different Attitude Towards Snow

It was snowy here in February. I’m not saying it snowed a lot. We had three or four snows, and one of them brought down over a foot. But in comparison to what the weather has been in the U.S., this winter, what we had was nothing. Except it is something. Not because the amount is something I’m not used to but because the Fukushima culture handles snow differently. 

I grew up in the Midwest. It snows there in the winter. The first flurries always seemed to come around Halloween, and I remember them continuing after March had passed. That phrase “In like a lion, out like a lamb” always seemed idiotic to me. In my world March came in like a lion and left like a lion. And we knew how to handle it. In high school my family lived on the town’s main street, and we mentally measured how much snow had come down by how frequently the plows went by. Salt trucks spread their cargo as the flakes first began to stick and plows were out within the hour to keep the roads clear. In college I moved to a wealthy Chicago suburb, one of those places where people pay others to do their yard work. The small landscaping businesses compensated for the lack of work in the winter by attaching a plow on the front of their truck and clearing driveways and privately owned parking lots. And among those who cleaned their driveways themselves, it was common to see snow blowers. I’ve never owned a snow blower in my life. My dad figured his kids could clean the driveway, and post college my roommates and I had short driveways. But every place I lived had a snow shovel. And a bag of salt in the hall closet by the front door. 

My Japanese town’s treatment of snow puzzled me for a long time. 

1. First and foremost because there is no snowplow in this city, not one. In times of great desperation a bulldozer is called and all of the snow is pushed into a corner. A few days later a crane might appear and systematically scoop the mound into a dump truck before it is disposed of in the river. But for the most part, the streets aren’t cleared. People just wrap chains around their tires and leave for work early. 

2. Secondly, I was puzzled because there are no snow days here. Where I went to high school snow days were built into the schedule, and if we didn’t use them, we got an extra long spring break. In rare form, the local Japanese schools did actually get a snow day this year. From asking around it sounds like it was the first in ten years. 

3. Thirdly, I was puzzled because sidewalk salt doesn’t seemed to be used here. My first winter in Japan I didn’t see it at all until March, and I was so shocked by it that a rather loud, “It does exist!” exuded from my mouth. Seeing how bad salt is for the environment, this omission doesn’t bother me too much. It still perplexes me, however, for anytime I walked on icy roads the usual “Konichiwa”s are replaced by “Kyotsukete”s. “Be careful” everyone calls out to me. Yes, I know to be careful while walking on ice. If you’re so concerned about it, why don’t you do something about it? 

4. And fourthly, I didn’t understand the lackadaisical approach often taken to clearing the snow. Where I grew up if the snow isn’t cleared but is just packed down by tires or feet, after the temperature drops overnight it will be a sheet of ice. Here is no exception. I spent many an hour my first winter using the afternoon sun’s warmth to give me an advantage over the glacier covering my junior high’s parking lot. 

I’m still not so sure I understand everything that goes on in the local heads. But here is my current theory about why Fukushima prefecture treats snow the way it does: They think the snow will take care of itself. 

In some ways, I guess they are right. Where I lived the last 23 years, we often experienced days at a time when the thermometer didn’t go above 32F (0C). Here it seems like most afternoons any spot not in the shade gets to 45F (8C) or higher. Fukushima is further south than where I grew up. The prefecture sits at the 37th parallel. That puts it on par with southern Kentucky and northern Arizona. I often forget how far south I am living. The, um, energy efficient heating practices make me feel like I live in North Dakota (see my December post Balmy New Hampshire for more on that). While it might feel cold inside, outside is warm compared to what I am used to. And if the snow is just going to melt in a few days, you might as well leave it alone. 

I can relate to that. My least favorite chore in the world isn’t mowing the lawn or taking out the trash or even changing a dirty diaper. It’s drying dishes. Because while the toilet won’t scrub itself and the carpet won’t vacuum itself, the dishes will, in fact, dry themselves if you give them a couple hours. And you know what? That snow will melt all by itself if you wait awhile. So grab a shovel, clear the street, and wrap some chains around the tires. It will probably only last a few days, and then everything will be clear again. 

Now, the reader may ask, “Do people still go to work and to school if the roads are that bad?” Yes, yes they do. With that exception of that once a decade snow day. The Japanese have a very strong work ethic, one that makes my Protestant German work ethic look downright lazy. But that is another post for another time. Suffice it to say, they don’t have a grid for not going to work just because the weather is bad or they are sick. 

Or the reader may ask, “What if someone slips and falls on the ice?” Well, that is a good question. I don’t have a complete answer. But a big concern in the U.S. is that someone will fall and break a bone and sue. I texted a couple Japanese friends and asked them if a store would be held liable for medical costs if a customer slipped on ice. Both said that the person who fell would be the one who paid for it. In Japan, at least when it comes to snow, it seems it is the responsibility of each person to “Kyotsukete” to be careful, not for anyone else to make it safe.

Have any other questions? Let me know and I’ll ask around.

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Navigating Valentine’s Day in Japan

One of the tricky things about living overseas is that even after one has been in the country a decent amount of time, there are still areas in which one feels completely clueless. 
Take Valentine’s Day. I know the Japanese have heard of Valentine’s Day. Before coming here I was told by multiple sources that Japanese women give men (coworkers, friends, etc.) gifts on Valentine’s Day and that men return the favor on March 14th, known here as White Day. The tricky thing is, I have not found that to be my experience. SOME of the ex-pats who work in other schools observed this. But it isn’t true in every school. I received some chocolate last White Day, but it was from an American coworker. And on neither Valentine’s Day I have spent in Japan have I seen any of the other female teachers in my junior high give gifts to anyone else. In fact, as far as I can tell, my workplace doesn’t observe it at all. 
But I wanted to observe it. The question was how. Giving gifts to my male coworkers was out. They are all married. I haven’t figured out if the Japanese consider this to be a holiday for lovers, but I wasn’t going to touch the implication of an affair with a ten foot pole. Giving Valentines to my junior high students was out too. The Japanese are all about being fair with their gifts, so unless I gave a valentine to EVERY student I really shouldn’t give them to ANY student. And that opened up a whole host of complications. I didn’t have 100 valentines. I only had 30. Even if I wanted to make up the difference, I can’t give 30 store bought valentines and 70 hand made ones. I would have had to hand cut out 100 hearts. This might have been possible if I hadn’t waited until the night before.
Eventually what I settled on was giving some valentines to the preschoolers who ride my bus. 12 children get on before I get off. That was a manageable number. So I dug out the Hello Kitty Valentines I bought on sale two years ago and schlepped over here, carefully wrote names on the front in Japanese script, inserted a little sticker in the crease inside, and sealed them shut with heart stickers. 
The next morning I waited for each student to climb on the bus, then handed him or her a valentine. The students admired it, but just sat gazing at the heart on the front. I wondered if they knew to open it up. Explaining didn’t work as I don’t know that kind of Japanese, and they don’t know that kind of English. I tried pantomiming with a spare valentine. Still nothing. But kids are kids, and eventually a four  year old girl named Mami bent the paper and saw that there was another picture inside, then asked the Japanese teacher to break the seal for her. That yielded more admiration: of stickers, of Hello Kitty, of the whole thing. What surprised me the most is how these cards captured their attention. A full thirty minutes elapses between the time that the first child gets on the bus and I get off the bus. Yet these preschoolers sat gazing at their valentines the whole time, only breaking when each subsequent child got on the bus to eagerly see if he or she would get a valentine too and to participate in the joy with them. Mami in particular was smiling and smiling and smiling. Usually Mami exudes the quiet brooding of an old soul, or of a youngster awakened from her nap and wondering what kind of fool this energetic person in front of her is. But this day she beamed winningly. 
For that alone, for that smile alone, it was worth all of the calculations and second guessing, all of the doubts and processing I did to try and figure out how to celebrate this day in a way that would make someone feel part of the love I have for them without being creepy or overbearing or suggestive, etc. 
The reality is, two years in a culture isn’t enough to master it. A lifetime isn’t enough to understand every nuance of a culture. A lot of times I have to decide which risks to take, and it can be scary because I don’t know what the implications of each decision are. But having such rewards as I have received gives me the confidence to keep taking risks. Like entering a pool from a high dive, it is a matter of carefully observing the area, then taking a deep breath and jumping.

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