Notes from Japan 7
My friend Mr. Nasu works in the town office. If I have not come into the office for a while he will say to
me, “Sashi-bori” or “It has been after a long absence.” And so it has.
It’s beginning to look a lot like ….
I thought, in a country with a Christian population at less than one percent, perhaps I would be able
to avoid Jingle Bells and Santa for one season. Nope, lights are up everywhere and stores have big
Christmas displays. So far however, there are no Chanukah, Ramadan or Quanza decorations to be
found. In Elementary School the other day I helped my classes with the new English songs they are
learning, “We wish you a Merry Christmas” and “Jingle Bells.” I have also helped the Jr. High chorus
work on “Hail Holy Queen”. Christmas is big here. Business, government buildings and even homes
are decked out with lights and trees. There are even a few places that would rival that crazy house
off the Rt.22 overpass in Plainfield (reference for NJ readers).
Last weekend I attended three Christmas parties and I have another coming up on Friday. I asked
some of my students what they do for Christmas. Everyone seems to have cake for the holiday and
many people mentioned fried chicken (KFC) and French Fries (Fridu Potetu).
I showed my adult conversation class some Chanukah items and tried to explain the holiday. It just
doesn’t register when I say that Jewish folks don’t celebrate Christmas. That is one cultural
communication I will just have to let slide for now.
I feel the Earth move under my feet
As I was getting ready for bed one night last week, I heard the chickens outside get really noisy. As
this is not totally unprecedented, I ignored their squawking. Within a moment or so, the room was
shaking. Not violently or anything, but still shaking. It went on for a few seconds and then stopped. I
asked a teacher if that had been an earthquake. She said that it had but only a very small one.
That kind of little shaking in the evening doesn’t really phase people in a country as natural-disaster
prone as this one.
Last month, two of my junior high schools had “Bunkasis” or cultural festivals. The Bunkasi is a day
long event that includes a play by each of the three grades, English speech recitations, choral works
by each class, Tyco drumming, the school orchestra and an art display. A teacher asked if we have
anything like a Bunkasi in America. I told her that we do have art exhibits, school plays, orchestra
and chorus recitals; just we don’t cram everything into one day.
One particularly poignant play was a student written piece about nurses and wounded soldiers in
WWII. In the end two of the nurses who had been warned against it, surrendered to the US forces as
a video projection showed footage of war images and the classes trip to Okinawa where they had laid
1000 paper cranes at a memorial to war dead from both sides. Other plays included traditional
Japanese mythical stories, a play dealing with issues the students face and of course Romeo and
Juliet-o. And for the record, the dialogue is in fact just as incomprehensible in Japanese as it is in
The schools are covered with student art work and booths the students run during breaks from the
performances. The art ranges from massive origami cranes to a recreation of the Tower of Babel
made by gluing 120,000 tiny squares of paper onto a giant grid (see photos on my blog).
The back to back Bunkasis were a natural opportunity for back to back teachers parties (and after-
teacher parties) for those of us who work here. As always, this is a great way to enjoy time with my
coworkers. Many of whom discover a latent ability to speak in English after a few cups of beverage.
The other day I opened a document folder where I keep all of my important papers like contracts and
car registrations. A small mouse had somehow gotten into the not-quite impregnable plastic. He
crawled out of a pocket over my finger, so I did what any relatively calm, masculine person does in
such a situation. I dropped the folder and screeched like a nursery school child.
He landed on the floor dazed. By the time I had arrived with a dustpan, he was feebly walking around
in circles. I put him outside in some bushes. This may be harsh, but he is a mouse and I’m just not
that in to animals living with me.
I have now been to a few Mochi ceremonies. When a new house under construction has been
framed out and has a roof, there is a custom to observe a religious / community ceremony involving
Mochi. Mochi are a type of steamed, pulverized rice cakes. The mochi are quite chewy and
remarkably bland save for a slight metallic taste (which Japanese people claim not to taste). The
mochi are put into plastic bags and taken up to the roof of the house.
On the roof the carpenters and the home buyer say Shinto prayers, drink some Sho-chu and then
throw the Mochi to the crowd of neighbors waiting below. In modern days Mochi is supplemented with
candy, packaged snacks and money. Inside the plastic bag along with the Mochi are sometimes
papers with numbers on them and coins. The papers correspond to wrapped presents which are
handed out latter along with other food items.
I have learned that it is very important not to boil or cook the Mochi you receive from this ceremony,
because then the house that is being built will burn down. Japanese people will know and respect
this, but my participating in this ceremony as a neighbor prompted a number of people to break out
their electronic English dictionaries and to ask me to please not cook the Mochi so the new house
would not burn down.
No problem, after choking down one, I took the rest into my office and left them on the snack
counter. The other prizes included a set of hand towels, some fruit and a bunch of candy. Definitely
a cool ceremony, that serves to ingratiate yourself to your new neighbors.
I went climbing with my friend Masatoshi in the Kagoshima prefecture. We left early in the morning for
a ninety minute drive to Mt. Takachihou. At the foot of the mountain, just past the pavement of the
parking lot, we started out with a very small cup of Sho-Chu. We sipped a little then poured the rest
over a tree. I believe this is a done for luck or a safe trip. Then we started the climb. The first bit is
easy, its just a simple walk up some trails and rock steps. After about 20 minutes we were at the
rock. Here we were going up a “path” that seems to be about 45 to 55 degrees up. We got to the
top of a crater and walked around the edge to the actual mountain on the other side. The crater was
supposedly formed as the result of a volcanic explosion that destroyed the mountain (volcano?) that
had once stood there. The actual mountain was a little difficult, but well worth it once we reached the
At the top Masatoshi san took a gas stove out of his backpack and started cooking fish and ramen
noodles. I chatted with some other hikers at the top and enjoyed some beautiful views. From the top
you can see Kagoshima city, an active volcano, the ocean and the crater.
Going down is as difficult as going up on this particular mountain. The rocks are relatively loose and
the best way down is not the slow and steady, but rather gently jumping a few feet at a time and
trying to avoid any solid rocks that would stop your momentum.
At the supermarket the other day, some tents were set up outside and the supermarket staff were
selling fruits and vegetables. I went to one stand and saw a bunch of about 20 bananas for ¥200
(approximately $1.60). I told the vendor that it was a good priced as I paid for the fruit and some
mushrooms. A few minutes later I was shopping inside the store. I try to listen to and understand as
much of the in store announcements as I can. A man was talking about the produce; “Delicious
Oranges, 150 yen, Try the delicious tomatoes…” I was impressed with my ability to catch a number of
the words that were going by. Then I heard, “Delicious Bananas, Delicious Bananas 200 yen, the
American English teacher said they are a good price…”
Some will tell you that it is a mix of paranoia and narcissism that leads foreigners to assume everyone
is always talking about us. Then again, just because I may be paranoid doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Oto Oto San
My brother David will be visiting me for 2 weeks starting this Saturday. We will be traveling around
Kyushu and then Tokyo.
And Finally: Letters from two Vacuum Cleaners
My vacuum cleaner has been broken, and sitting in the BOE for the last 2 months. Recently the
following message appeared on a card attached to the vacuum.
Hello, this is Sanyo-San the vacuum. I have been sick lately and need to see a doctor or vacuum
repair man. I used to live in Ue, but have been living by this door in the Board of Education division
of the Asagiri Town Office.
One day I hope to return to Joshua`s house, so I may again be useful and keep the floors clean in his
house. I am afraid there will be much work for me when I return.
Well thank you for taking the time to read this note, I would have written it in Japanese, but having
lived in the ALT apartment for many years, I only learned the English Language.
Two days later there was an upright vacuum cleaner standing by my desk. It had the following
Hello. I am National-San. I had worked at Mr. Kawashima’s house, but since a new high-tech vacuum
came to stay there I have been bored. I heard that my friend, Sanyo-san, is very sick. I decided to
go to Joshua’s house since there is a lot of work to do at his house. I will try to get along with Joshua
and do my best.