Sunday, August 17, 2014

6. Knee-hone-go and ingurishu (aka communication troubles)

I have been studying Japanese furiously, but somehow not making too much progress.  I have a myriad of study tools that my predecessor left me, including these great flashcards that are made for little kids.  I studied them on the train down to Osaka, and at one point I dropped them at the feet of this old lady who chuckled as she handed them back.
I don't study this one because I hear this word muttered wherever I go.
Reading Japanese is next to impossible, because all of the nouns, verbs, and adjectives are written in the Chinese alphabet, which has a different symbol for each word.  Even when it is written in one of the phonetic alphabets, sometimes it's in some weird font.  This says "ramen," but you'd never know it.
Why did we give the calligraphy brush to our 3-year-old?
 Here are just a few things that I have recently learned about Japanese that I thought might be interesting.

-The symbol for "like/love" is the symbol for 'woman' next to the symbol for 'child.'  Cause you know, chicks love kids.

-The word for "clean" is the same word for "pretty."  I feel like that idea is engrained in the culture as well.

-The symbol for "tomorrow" is the symbol for 'bright' followed by the symbol for 'day.'  Awww, that's so optimistic, Japanese!

-Mountains are people too!  On certain mountains (high ones?), you add the same honorific you add after a person's name (it's not the same symbol, but when you say it aloud it sounds the same).  Mr. Fuji, Mr. Everest.  It could be a woman too I guess, I'm not trying to be sexist.

-Speaking of sexist, the symbol for "content" is a woman in a house.  Also, one of the symbols for "wife" is the symbol for "woman" next to "inside."

The Japanese people in my town have had ample opportunity to laugh at me attempting to communicate in their native tongue.  I find it only fair that I get to find amusement in some of the English writing I see around.  Here are some of my favorite uses of Engrish so far:

Invitation from my supervisor:
Yes, I am convenient.  How did you know?
This sign near my house:
This isn't wrong, but for some reason I enjoy it immensely.

My contract, of course:
See you guys next Jury!

And finally, this shirt I saw in the mall:
The tag on it says, "Value."  I wonder why.
Some other T-shirts I've seen that I enjoyed:

-"It knows the limit of the possible: all people have wonderful courage."
-"Dirtee Hollywood"
-"Got Drugs? I don't"
-This was on the side of a bus: "Boys be ambitious."

I'm sure I'll see lots more of these, so I'll try to throw them in where I can. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

5. Home is where the art is (aka shrines and signs)

Today I'm stuck inside because we're in the middle of a typhoon, and water is trying to flood the roads but being foiled by really excellent drainage systems.  Not just efficient at drainage, but also creative in their decor:
This gutter is filled with koi (carp), and also has statues of everyone from Micky Mouse to Pikachu to Godzilla
So I thought I'd show off some pictures I took when rain wasn't omnipresent.  Tamba is a small farming town "out in the middle of nowhere," which in Japan means two hours away from a major city.  I feel much less isolated than I was prepared for.  The architecture in general is really cool - most of the houses look very traditionally Japanese, and there are tons of shrines and temples.
These are my neighbors.  Their house would look more traditional if it wasn't blue and yellow.
Here's a some pictures of various shrines and temples around town:
Monks gotta have wheels too.
Close up of the bell at the pagoda on the
left.  Somehow I didn't pull it.  I must be
a damn good person or something.

I've always wanted pagoda Japan!  Too far, sorry.

Am I allowed to go in?  I decided forgiveness is easier to get than permission.
For some reason, all the street signs are particularly cutesy and cartoony.  Even the ones telling you not to litter or you'll get a fine look very friendly.  I think this one says something like "let's keep the town clean!"
If Rafael the soda can is able to pick up trash, you can too.
His arms are just metaphors. You have real ones.
There's this tree in "downtown" Tamba whose roots form the base of a bridge over a river.  It has some sort of spiritual, Shinto significance that I would probably understand if I could speak Japanese.
It needs those stabilizing beams because it's so old.  At least
that's what it says to cover its drinking problem.
It's even on the manhole covers!
All in all, it's a pretty cool town.  I'm pretty happy I'm here, despite not being able to communicate with anyone really.  Yet!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

4. An undisclosed location (aka doorframes and toilets)

Here is my apartment, in all its disarray!
Look at me taking panorama pictures like a champ. 
So I inherited (by which I mean paid a small amount of money for) a lot of things from the old English teacher that used to live in my apartment, and some things just came with the apartment when he got it.  I haven't figured out what a lot of them are, and here are some of my favorites:

1.  Brand new, never-been-used octopus cooker

Is this for cooking octopus, or for octopuses with a culinary inclination?
2.  Small circular object with a bunch of nails (pointy end) sticking out of it.  Looks like a brush, but they are NAILS.  Ow why did I try that on my head?

Some of you probably know what this is.  Please let me know.
3. Radio that doesn't have a tuning dial.  It is plugged in, but it doesn't turn off when I unplug it because it has a battery.  The first evening I was here, it made a beeping sound, turned itself on, and a voice in Japanese started speaking.  After a few minutes, it turned itself off.  I didn't really catch any of the words, but I was a little alarmed and I was worried it was a tsunami alert system or something.
Harbinger of doom
4. Speaker with a pull string.  When I pull it, a woman speaks in Japanese.  It's right next to the pull string for the light in my bedroom (if you can call it a bedroom - see below), so I've pulled it quite a few times even by mistake.  Later I learned that this is an emergency call system.  Apparently someone is supposed to come to your apartment if you pull it.  No one busted down my door, which is good I guess, but maybe disturbing too.
I thought these were for nursing homes.
5.  This was described to me as an electric table/blanket.  Which doesn't make any sense, but now that I saw it is probably how I would describe it too.  It's a table where the tabletop part comes off and you're left with a frame with a heater attached.  You stick a blanket over that part, stick the tabletop back on, and then sit with your legs under the table and never leave the house until spring comes.
It's called a kotatsu. There will be a quiz later.
The doorframes in my apartment are all right above eye level but definitely within solid head-smashing territory; this is a dangerous and stealthy zone for them to be in.  So far my morning trips to the bathroom in the first four mornings I have lived here have gone as follows:

Day 1 - Smashed my head on the doorframe.
Day 2 - Smashed my head on the doorframe.
Day 3 - Dodged the first two doorframes (yes!), then really slammed into the third one.
Day 4 - Crawled on the floor to the bathroom.  Got there safely.

Toilets in Japan are super nice.  The toilet we had in the hotel had 3 bidet settings (little butt spray, big butt spray, front spray for women), adjustable water pressure for the bidet, a heated seat, a big/little dual flush system, and a pressure-sensitive seat that sprayed deodorizer into the toilet whenever you sat down.  The public toilets in the lobby also had a little button that made a flushing noise when you push it to cover up any farting you may want to do.  My toilet in the apartment is pretty cool too, but it is in such a small room that if I sit down my knees are crammed against the door.  So I close the curtains when I poop and just leave the door open.  Hopefully I don't have to poop when people are over.

The toilet in my apartment also has this genius feature that every toilet in the world should incorporate.  When you flush, the water that fills up the tank comes out of a little sink on top of the toilet, so as you wash your hands, the drained water fills the toilet tank.  DOUBLE WATER USAGE! BAM!
So apparently the way most Japanese people sleep is in a bamboo mat (tatami) room, and they put a thin pad deceptively known as a futon underneath them every night.  They (we, I suppose, because that's what I'm doing for the moment) have to remove the futon during the day so the bamboo mats can air out.  Otherwise they mold.  Basically, the moral is, beds are better.  How's that for cultural insensitivity.
Here is my tatami room. Good for daily headstand practice, not so good for sleeping.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

3. Wake me up before you Hyogo (aka bad puns and bullet trains)

So the morning that we are supposed to leave for our respective cities, I tell my roommate to wake me up whenever he gets up.  Turns out he was in the military for 5 years and wakes up at 5:30 every day.  It's cool -  I go downstairs and have enough time for two breakfasts before I leave at 8:30.

Before we get on the train, we are sent to buy a boxed at a convenience store in the station.  I tell somebody, "man this all looks super processed."  They then inform me that I am looking at plastic models of the food that I will be buying.  I feel smart already.

Turns out we get to take the bullet train (Shinkansen, for those of you who like words in italics) to our prefecture, Hyogo.  It looks fast even when it's standing still.
More like shin-CAN'T-sen.  Am I right? no? OK sorry.
The train at its fastest goes about 300kph, or one mile every 19 seconds.  The countryside whizzes by so fast it's hard to even look at the houses we go past.  Because the track is raised about 20 feet off the ground often, it kind of looks like I'm in a really low-flying plane.

When we get to the station near Osaka, a man from our prefecture picks us up in his car.  He doesn't really speak English, and we don't really speak Japanese.  I launch into my formal introduction that I was supposed to prepare and memorize, but he cuts me off and makes a joke about how "Nate" sounds like "net" as in "internet," then he calls me "internet-san" for maybe a little longer than it was funny.  At least he will remember my name, I think.  Turns out not.

The board of education is where we go to sign a lot of papers we don't understand.  It's full of dinosaur pictures.  My compatriots (who did more research about this place than me) tell me that dinosaur bones were discovered in Tanba (Tamba? it's spelled different every time) and it's kind of Tanba's only claim to fame.  "Chitan" is our town's mascot.  He is a dinosaur that looks a lot like Barney.  He is striped to apparently represent the layers of dirt from which the dinosaur bones were excavated, and has a plant coming out of his head to represent the surface.
Chitan is everywhere here and endemic to the Tanba region.  The flowers are indigenous to a plastic factory in Taiwan.
Later that day, one of the departing teachers takes us out to dinner at a conveyor belt sushi place, because we don't have any food in our apartments and we have no way to get around.  It is delicious and only a dollar per plate.  We have a computer at our table and we can order plates that will get sent around on the conveyor belt with a marker for our table.  So cool.  To pay, the waitress stacks our plates and uses a measuring tape to figure out how much we owe.

The departing teacher then takes us grocery shopping because she's a saint.  I have no idea what anything is because for some reason they labeled everything in Japanese.  I eventually buy rice, eggs, something that looks like oats, and apples.  Rice is really expensive here for some reason, despite rice fields being everywhere in Tanba:
Yes, downtown is a perfect place for a rice patty that is a third the size of a soccer field.
The next day I realize I have nothing to put on my oats (also they take an hour to cook?  what the heck?) so I dig through what my predecessor left me and find some chocolate sauce.  It's going to be a good year.

Here's a picture of my part of Tanba I took on a short hike:

Photo credits:, me

Sunday, August 3, 2014

2. Deep Fried Cock China-style (aka immaturity and gambling)

The hotel we are staying at in Tokyo is right next to this weird building:
Yes, Cocoon Tower, those support beams do make your butt look big.
Tokyo is by far the biggest city I've ever been to, with 13.5 million people.  The next runners up are New York and Lima with 8.5 million each.  Unfortunately, we are in the hotel most of the time for mandatory orientation activities, so I didn't get to visit too many things in Tokyo. The first night we were there, four of us go out on the town.  Tokyo has tons of back alleyways that look like this:
Sometimes cars drive down roads like this, surprisingly.  Unsurprisingly, it is awkward and they are difficult to avoid.
We find a cheap place to eat (restaurants in Japan seem much less expensive than those in the US) that had pictures on the menu and questionable English translations of the other items.  The six pictures look like:
1) ramen with a bowl of rice on the left side
2) ramen with a bowl of rice on the right side
3) ramen with a bowl of half rice, half red sauce
4) ramen with a bowl of 3/4 rice, 1/4 red sauce
5) bigger bowl of ramen, smaller bowl of rice
6) smaller bowl of ramen, bigger bowl of rice

And some people say there's not enough variety at ramen restaurants.  psssh!  I'm not that hungry because of the quesadillas and sandwiches listed in the last post, some of which I had stowed in the minifridge of the hotel room.  So I take a look at the poorly translated appetizers, of which my favorite is "Deep Fried Cock China-style" which I order for obvious reasons.  They almost seem intentionally misspelled; "dumpling" is spelled four different ways on the first page alone.

Later, one of the more shy guys we are with suggests that we all try something that we are uncomfortable with tonight.  Not sure what he's getting at (still not sure!), I say, "well I've never gambled officially!"  So we head to a Pachinko parlor.

Slot machines set up to look like a pinball game.
None of us really speaks Japanese, so an attendant comes over to help us because we are confused foreigners.  I try to put one dollar into the machine, but he says I need about 10 dollars.  Reluctantly I feed my money in, knowing I probably will never see it again.  He tries to explain it, but when I try he winces as I literally throw my tokens down the drain at the bottom of the machine.  We all give it a whirl and end up with about 41 cents of tokens at the end, which I make sure to collect a prize with.  Yay!  We won styrofoam "chocolate pie" candy!  My night is complete.  We then went to a bar and had some beer and played darts, which was not as interesting but it was more fun.

That's my first night in Tokyo!  If this gets too long-winded, let me know (or just unfriend me on facebook or something).

Photo credits (in order):,,

Saturday, August 2, 2014

1. Across the Narrow Sea (aka leg room and sandwiches)


Welcome to my first post!  I've never done a blog before, blah blah desperate plea for attention blah.  So I'm staying in Japan for a year to teach English, and this will be my chronicles of my attempt to survive in the boonies with extremely limited Japanese skills.  Writing has never been my strong suit, so please forgive my terse sentences and general blundering attempts to comunikate thrugh wurds.  The only thing I am worse at than writing is photography, and you might find yourself looking at some of that too.  I'll try to use some photos I find on Google images so you don't have to deal with terrible lighting and framing.


I get to the airport 45 minutes after when they told us to be there, and I'm wearing flip flops, which they specifically told us not to wear (a luggage cart could slice your foot off!).  I am berated for both.  Whatever.  I came in to the airport with a gallon jug half-full (optimism!) of water, and I am forced to drink it all in the line for security. I barely make it through the metal detector before I run to the men's room.

Once we get on the plane, everything is super high tech.  Instead of shutters on the windows, they have buttons that slowly tint the windows to a darker shade of blue.  The toilet has three different bidet functions, and the lights in the bathroom gradually turn on as you open the door so as not to alarm you (I suppose).  I managed to snag an exit row somehow, so I have a hot date with seven feet of leg room for nine hours.

All the attendants bow incessantly, which is super weird and I am uncomfortably reminded of how much bowing I will have to do in the near future.  One of them comes around to talk with me about my special dietary needs, which confuses me at first.  Eventually, I remember my friend Pepper recommended I select Hindu dietary restrictions on the plane so that I would get served delicious curry, a plan which works swimmingly.

I was super worried about not getting enough food on the plane and bus to the hotel, so I packed six sandwiches, two quesadillas, a bag of green beans and carrots, and a tupperware full of rice, lentils, and kale.  Turns out the quesadillas are the last bit of cheese I will be eating for a while.

Interestingly enough, there is a leak in the roof, and a bunch of water pours out right onto my legs right as we touch down.  I think this is hilarious, but the flight attendant sitting across from me looks horrified and gets on her phone and has a hushed conversation in Japanese.  As I left the plane, they take me aside and have a very serious conversation about how they want to dry clean my jeans for me.  I tell them it's fine.

On the bus ride over to the hotel, I realize how illiterate I am.  It seems as if 90% of the writing uses kanji, by far the most difficult of the three Japanese alphabets, and the one I haven't studied at all.  Not being able to read simple signs makes me feel very small and powerless.

Alright whiner, this isn't a diary.

Anyway, we all get to the hotel in Tokyo with no major incidences, and the hotel is super nice, but we are packed three to a room in fairly small rooms.  I manage to find someone to lend me a pair of shoes for the swanky orientation period (I of course forgot my dress shoes in the US), then we go out for a night on the town! Details to follow.