Thursday, March 30, 2006


It will probably be the only time in my life that a pair of sneakers helped me get a job.

If you know much about Japanese culture, you probably know that the Japanese are a little finicky about their footwear. Shoes are not to be worn inside a home, although slippers are quite common and often provided for guests. (The slippers are invariably five sizes too small for western males, except for my buddy Schwartz, who has the smallest feet of any white guy I know. Naturally, he wastes those small feet by keeping them in America, instead of bringing them to Japan where they could really fit in.) Many restaurants have sections where stocking-footed diners sit at low tables directly on tatami (straw mat) flooring. Shoes are left either at the entrance or in the aisle. Slippers are provided for trips to the bathroom. When you get to there, you’ll likely be confronted by yet another pair of slippers (blue ones in the men’s room, red ones in the women’s room). You’re to trade your hallway slippers for these toilet slippers (often, conveniently labeled as such) while doing your business, then trade back upon exiting the bathroom. Even in the dressing rooms for public baths, where it’s assumed everyone will be naked, you’ll find toilet slippers waiting in the bathroom. Be careful you don’t wear them back into the dressing room, or you could really cause a stir.

Most schools have shoe rules, too. Slippers are still provided for visitors, but students and faculty typically have a separate pair of indoor shoes that they change into upon entering the building. Outside shoes can be just about anything, but inside shoes are often sneakers. It’s just like Mr. Rogers trading his wingtips for Keds at the beginning of every episode, although here, white Asics seem to be the norm among students. Faculty have more choice in the matter, and it’s common to see teachers in suits or dresses with anything from matching dress shoes to cross trainers to sport sandals on their feet.

I arrived in Japan from China with only my trail-worn hiking boots. I’d shipped sandals, brown loafers, and black dress shoes, but no sneakers since the last pair I had in the U.S. was nearly spent. My plan was to buy a pair in Japan, but I knew that would be tricky given the size differential. Coming home from Sapporo a few weeks, Mo suggested we look in the outlets near the airport, which look surprisingly like any outlet mall I’ve ever had the misfortunate of visiting in the U.S. It was uncanny, really. The layout was the same, the stores were the same, even the music was the same. The sizes sure weren’t the same, though. It took four stores before we found any size 12 sneakers, a single pair of silver Nikes for 4000 yen (about $35US). I’m not much of a Nike man these days, but I seemed to have little choice in the matter.

Since the weather still favors boots (unless you ask the college girls walking through snow and ice in 3-inch heels), I’ve been using my new sneakers as indoor shoes, mainly at the high schools where rehearsals are held for Maureen’s musical. But when I went to my first job interview here two Saturdays ago, I decided to bring them along. One of Maureen’s friends suggested it might be a good way of demonstrating that I’d learned something about the culture.

One thing that I’d already known for a long time about Japanese culture is the importance of being on time, which, here, means being early. My interview was scheduled for 1:30. I took a train that arrived at 12:50, giving me a full forty minutes to find my way from the station to the high school. My contact had suggested taking a cab, but had also given me directions by bus. With so much time, only a short distance to go, and a hot streak of foreign navigational confidence, I boarded the bus at the #2 platform per my instructions. From there, I was to ride down a hill to a lemon yellow school. The bus went down a hill, and there, on the left, was a school. It wasn’t quite lemon yellow, but its pale yellow exterior looked as if it could have faded from lemon at some point. I signaled the driver and exited. Inside the building, I found a lot of students who all looked a little too young to be in high school. One showed me to the teachers’ office, where a kind English teacher informed me that this was, in fact, a junior high. The high school I wanted was further down the street, down another hill to another yellow building. By now my time was getting tight. I walked quickly outside but just missed the next bus. Fifteen minutes of fast walking later, I was at a much more yellow school, but ten minutes late. I don't have a cell phone here, and didn’t pass a single public phone on the way. I wondered if I should even bother going in, but the security guard gave me a warm smile and pointed up the stairs.

There were several pairs of slippers at the edge of the foyer, and for a moment I considered them carefully. Then I decided that since I had bothered to carry my indoor shoes all this way, I might as well wear them, funny as it felt to be wearing silver Nikes with my black suit into an interview. Not that I really expected it to matter given my tardiness, especially after wasting a couple more minutes looking for the teachers’ room upstairs.

I walked into the office apologizing profusely, even seriously considered prostrating myself before the two young women and one middle-aged man who were waiting for me. They showed me into a conference room and completely dashed whatever slim hopes I had left by starting the interview with several aggressive questions about my lack of teaching experience and relatively short time spent in Japan. The one good thing my plight did, however, was help relax me. I knew I didn’t have a prayer, so I felt a little more at ease to answer honestly, candidly, and enthusiastically. I didn’t even flinch when the man asked me a question in Japanese. I simply explained that I didn’t speak very much Japanese and asked for the question again in English. I asked several questions about their school and English department at the end, apologized more, thanked them for their time and walked out, never expecting to hear from them again.

“How was the interview?” everyone wanted to know at dinner that night.

“I got there late.”

“Oh.” This said as if I’d told them I’d puked on the vice principal.

Three days passed with no word. On the afternoon of the fourth day, I was shocked to see a new email with the subject “Job Offer.” Following some discussion about the details of the arrangements, I accepted.

On Wednesday night, I attended my first event with my new co-workers, an office dinner party at one of the gigantic resort/spa/hotels in Noboribetsu. Rooms were reserved and I was invited to spend the night, with everything paid for by the school.

The dinner party served the two-fold purpose of honoring five retiring teachers and introducing four new ones, myself included. Everyone sat on the floor in front of individual, low tables, on which a considerable variety of Japanese cuisine was spread. I only recognized about half of what I was eating, but there was plenty of everything. There was also plenty of beer. Everything that I’d read and heard about the Japanese opening up over alcohol proved most true.

One young social studies teacher, who speaks only a little more English than I speak Japanese, had learned a few choice phrases from the Canadian teacher I was replacing. He introduced himself, raised a glass, and boldly proclaimed, “Let’s get pissed!”

Later, one of the women who had interviewed me sat down beside me, beer glass in hand. After only a very little small talk, she began telling me all about herself without my even having to ask. That would never happen without the cover of alcohol. She also brought up my interview, and the fact that I was late.

“I honestly never expected to hear from you again.”

“We were all sitting around wondering where you were and what we were going to do to you if you did eventually arrive.”

“Why did you decide to hire me?”

“You were so sorry about being late, and we all agreed that you would be something fresh and new for our department.” Then she added, with a smile, “Oh, and your shoes. You brought indoor shoes with you. Everyone else we interviewed just wore slippers.”

All of the teachers I met were very welcoming and spoke openly with me. There are about six Japanese English teachers, most in the their mid-twenties to early thirties, making it very a young, energetic department. It is also a department undergoing some turmoil. Last year they had two native English speakers on their staff, one full-time and one part-time. One of those teachers left on bad terms. The other, the Canadian, left on very good terms. He was among the five retiring teachers being honored at the dinner, even though he had only been at the school for two years. The other four teachers were older Japanese with more than 30 years of service each.

Classes start during the second week of April, so I still have some time to prepare myself. The school is located in a southern suburb of Sapporo, and is about an hour and half commute by train. That doesn’t bother me, since (1) I like to ride on trains, (2) it will be excellent time for reading and writing, and (3) the school is paying for it. I will work three days most weeks, teaching very basic English to first year students, as well as conversation classes with third year students. All classes will be team-taught, meaning I’ll have a Japanese teacher of English (JTE) helping me at all times.

I’m excited, nervous, and anticipating lots of stories to come out of this. Wish me luck!

Friday, March 24, 2006

In the Land of the Rising Sun

Since the subtitle of my blog advertises photography, and since there's been precious little of that on here recently, I thought I'd share a few photos from this morning. Sunrise comes quite early to Hokkaido, since Japan is all one timezone with Hokkaido on the eastern end. They don't observe daylight savings time here, either, so at the summer solstice the sun will be popping over the horizon around 4:00am. I'm envisioning lots of nights camping on location to get sunrise photos. Fortunately, there are plenty of places to camp around here.

Since we're only in the first official week of spring, the sun currently rises around 5:30. This morning I rose at 4:00 for the hour walk up Mt. Sokuryozan. I met only one car on the winding road up the mountain, a minivan of teenagers with one hanging out the opened sunroof. It was surprisingly refreshing to see a group of Japanese teenagers out being a little wild. Not too wild, though. Even with J-pop blaring, the driver came down the mountain at a reasonably safe rate of speed.

I had the summit to myself. There are few things I like better than a solitary view of the world waking up.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Asian Toilets

This week marks my six-month anniversary with breaking the bonds of North America and embarking on this Asian adventure. The half-year point seems a good place to stop, look back, look inward, and reflect on these past 180-odd days lived so far from home. And what better place for reflection than the toilet? (Mature content warning: if you are not comfortable with openly discussing personal manners of a secondary nature – and by secondary, I mean going number two – I strongly recommend you stop reading now. You’ve been warned.)

Astute readers with very good memories might recall that I had some difficulty with finding toilet paper on the very day I arrived in the Beijing airport. My memorable experiences with Asian toilets by no means ended there. Let’s look at China first, that emerging superpower with a fifth of the world’s folks and an economy on pace to take over the galaxy by 2037. The first thing I want to say about Chinese toilets is that not everyone uses them. In the empty grasslands of Inner Mongolia, that should come as no surprise. On the street corners of Hegang, an incredibly industrial city of several hundred thousand in Heilongjiang province, it might. I should stress that in my 84 days in China, I did not, in fact, see anyone going number two on a street corner. Not that it would have shocked me if I had, especially towards the end of the trip, but I didn’t. In Hegang, however, what I did see was a young lad of perhaps two, pelvis thrust proudly forward, standing on a busy street corner at rush hour, naked from the waist down, letting fly a yellow stream for all to see. More disturbing, perhaps, was Mom standing approvingly alongside. I since came to realize that parents in China don’t dress their toddlers in diapers. Instead, they give them pants with a couple snaps in the crotch and no undies. Whenever nature calls, wherever nature calls, relief is just a thumb-flick away.

Although modesty does increase with age, such teachings nevertheless carry over into adulthood. Standing by the overpass at the east end of the Daban yard in sunset light found me composing glinty photographs of steam locomotives and trackworkers one brisk November afternoon. In my viewfinder I noticed some glint where there shouldn’t have been any. Zooming in revealed the low sun catching a golden arc emitting from the midsection of one of those workers.

Be careful you don’t judge the mature Chinese too harshly, however. One visit to nearly any public toilet very far off the tourist track would have all but the most reserved of travelers looking for the nearest bush. While western-style, sit-down toilets are becoming more common in cosmopolitan Chinese cities, the eastern-style squat toilets are still maintain a commanding majority. The ones that are plumbed and flush when you pull the chain aren’t so bad. Those, however, remain a smallish minority group within the commanding majority of squat toilets.

Get a surprisingly short distance out of Beijing, and the average public Chinese toilet looks something like the following. What you’ll find is a smallish, rectangular brick building with open doorways on opposite ends. It’s important to learn the characters for male and female, as they’re often the only distinguishing characteristics, cast in concrete beside their respective doorways. Fortunately, with a good teacher like Ron, learning them is easy.

“The one for female has crossed legs, while the male one has a little dangly thing in the middle.”

It’s all the more important to learn the difference, because the facilities in each side are sometimes identical. They’re often not particularly private, either. In the men’s side, there’s often, but not always, a concrete trough for number one. The whole thing will be cast at a slight angle so it all runs down to one end and drains through a little hole. The stalls, one to six of them, depending on the size of the place, are typically separated only by low brick dividers with not so much as even a place to hang a door. In the middle of the concrete floor of each “stall,” you’ll find a long, rectangular slot that you’re supposed to squat over. The slot is maybe six to eight inches wide and two feet long. The size is an advantage, because it gives you a pretty good-sized landing zone. It’s just that these same slots are also big enough to put a leg in, or to swallow a small child.

Four things that you won’t find in one of these bathrooms are toilet paper, electricity, a sink, and running water. That hole at the end of the urinal trough? It might drain to an underground tank, but just as likely it simply drains to the outside. The slots are often constructed over top of rudimentary septic tanks, but that is by no means a steadfast rule of construction. Some toilets are constructed over dirt holes in the ground. Others are on the side of a steeply sloping hill, where gravity is left to dispose of the waste into the grove of poplars that border the town. Or, in the case of at least one public facility in Jixi, another city of several hundred thousand in Heilongjiang, the building (of wooden construction) sits directly, unfettered, and unfiltered above a swift-flowing stream. Above it is a coal processing plant. Below it is crowded residential neighborhood. Naturally, you bring your own roll to these establishments. You also bring a flashlight if you plan on going by night, especially given the size of those holes.

The first time I hiked over the mountain to Lixin on the Huanan narrow gauge line, I didn’t find the wooden outhouse in back of the brick station building. The next morning, when my intestines had finished with the previous night’s eggs and potatoes, I simply found a likely spot in the wooded hillside above the station. This being early in my trip, I felt a little bad for not having a shovel to dig a proper hole. I needn’t have been so concerned. When I returned with Ron two months later, I found the outhouse in back of the brick station building, a three-walled box constructed of rough sticks. Nobody had bothered to dig a proper hole beneath it, either.

Nearly every traveler who spends much time in China comes home with a toilet horror story or two. One quiet day between trains, I asked Ron about his.

“My worst Chinese toilet story?” he repeated, no doubt surveying a lengthy list in his mind for the chart topper. “That would have to be from a trip I made a few winters back way up north to this little town in Heilongjiang where it got to 40 below at night and maybe warmed up to 20 below during the day. I walked into one of these toilets and I absolutely had to go right then. And when I got in there, what did I find? A solid sheet, several inches thick, of yellow ice on the floor. Here and there, little, frozen brown piles lay halfway sunken into the ice from where they’d been warm enough to melt it a little at first. (I warned you at the beginning, remember?) The one good thing about the cold was that at least the smell wasn’t too bad.”

Coming to Japan, I expected to leave such scenes behind me, and I did. I did not, however, completely escape memorable toilet moments. You may have noticed that I refrain from using the word “restroom.” That’s a habit I picked up from Ron. It seemed quite odd to me at first, saying “I have to use the toilet” all the time, no matter how grammatically correct it might be. It still seems a bit odd, even though I often say toilet now, myself. But the word “restroom” would definitely be something of a misnomer for many an Asian toilet, in China and Japan alike, as so many of them are quite far from being the restful reading place that lead so many American dads to half hour BMs.

The squat-plopper, as I have come to call the eastern squat toilet, does not hold the same commanding advantage over the western toilet in Japan that it does in China, but it does still hold something of a margin. With a little patience and enough exploring, however, the intrepid traveler to Japan can find a western-style toilet in most Japanese public establishments. Not in all of them, though. One of the most glaring omissions occurs on many of the trains here. If you travel in Japan, chances are you will go by the country’s extensive, extremely punctual railway system. If you travel very much, chances are will find yourself needing to go while on board. Likely as not, you will find yourself stepping up onto a small pedestal to squat over a porcelain basin. If you’re of a smallish stature, it might even go fairly well. If you’re closer to my size or, heaven forbid, larger, your knees will probably get jammed up against the wall and completely cover up the little metal bar they put there for you to steady yourself. And if you can’t steady yourself on the little metal bar, what you do is, you brace yourself against the sidewalls and start praying that the tracks are smooth and free of bumps for the duration of your business.

One nice thing about the toilets on board the trains is that they’ll come with toilet paper. There will probably even be a couple of extra rolls lying in a mesh shelf up in one corner. If you anticipate further movements upon arriving at the station of your destination, and don’t feel too badly about stealing, you might want to grab one of those rolls. To the best of my recollecting, I have yet to find a public toilet in a single Japanese railway station that came stocked with TP. There will, however, be a vending machine just outside on a wall selling small packs of tissues for Y50-100. On the street corners of some larger cities, you can often find vendors handing out free tissue packets with an advertisement stuffed inside them.

Today I had the occasion to use the toilet at JR Hokkaido’s Sapporo Station, a towering new building completed in 2003 in the middle of the city. Of course there was no toilet paper, but I was prepared for that. I walked in, closed the door, hung my camera bag and coat on the convenient metal hanger, and set myself to the task at hand. With accompaniment. No sooner had I shut the door behind me than a little speaker in the rear corner of the room began playing running water sounds. It didn’t stop until I finished and the automatic flush mechanism activated and whisked everything away. It wasn’t the first time I had seen such technology at work. Some toilets here have heated seats, some can spray your nether-region with jets of water (warm or cold, your choice), some can even cover the smell by spraying puffs of heavily-scented air freshener. Many toilets are lavishing decorated, like ours for example, with smiling cartoons and cuddly creatures. My bowel movements at home are faithfully witnessed by several manifestations of a little white rabbit named Miffy, with black eyes, a small x for a mouth, and, quite conveniently, no nose.

The public toilets in Japan are also impeccably clean, made so by a sizeable staff of cleaning ladies, who still manage to unnerve me when they march right in, mop in hand, as I’m unzipping at the urinal. And just in case they should come in while I’m tending to more pressing matters in one of the stalls, or in case someone else should be doing the same in the adjacent stall, there’s a recording of running water playing so nobody will hear when my own plop hits the water. It won’t entirely hit the water, though. Instead, it will half hit the water and half hit the bottom of the bowl, sliding the rest of the way down and leaving a nice, brown trail since the water level of the toilets is kept quite low here. But I guess that gives the cleaning ladies something to do when I’m gone.

So what I was thinking in the toilet today as I was fishing in my right hip pocket for my pack of tissues, is I how I really wish they’d just cut the crap in these Japanese toilets and let us get to crapping. That’s what we’re there for, afterall, and I, for one, don’t need any recordings covering the sound of my own bodily functions. I don’t even mind smelling them. I wouldn’t mind a roll of toilet paper hanging on the wall, though.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Old Trains

I like books. I like to read books. I like to look at books. I like to walk through aisles of books. Warmwood aisles with the soft, incandescent glow of drizzly, main street afternoons. I like to pick up books and thumb their pages and wonder at all the possibilities they contain. You could probably say that I’m a bookaholic. In fact, you could definitely say that. I know that because yesterday I bought not one, but two books that I cannot even read.

A few days ago, I was on the third floor of Nagasakiya, the big department and grocery store in Muroran, waiting for Maureen to pick out the right tomatoes and cans of corn. I already know I can’t read any of the books there, but I still like to walk among them. Usually, I drift to the magazine racks where I never cease to be amazed by the quantity of quality railroad magazines. Half a dozen or more monthly titles on glossy, thick paper. The photography in every one of them could give the best American rail mag a run for its money.

Usually I stay in the magazines until Maureen finds me, but that day something compelled me to keep going. Displayed with cover facing outward on a shelf along one wall, I found a hardcover book of Hokkaido photography. I was about to pick it up when I noticed the writing on the spine of another title beside it. Capital “SL.” Those happen to be my initials, but in Japan that means Steam Locomotive. I pulled out a soft-cover, perfect-bound, 300 glossy, thick pages of black & white photographs of steam locomotives operating in Hokkaido. On the back cover I found the price: Y2500, about $22US. Not bad. Not bad at all. I was about to buy, when I noticed that the very similar book beside it was not, in fact, another copy of the same title, but a companion volume on the history of all Japan Rail operations in Hokkaido, also Y2500. Now I had a choice. I smeared greasy fingerprints onto several glossy pages of both, and in the end gave the day to indecision and took neither. Yesterday I returned and again gave the day to indecision. I bought both.

Late yesterday afternoon, I met Maureen at the Muroran train station for the hour ride to Tomakomai. In the morning, she had four classes at Tomakomai Nishi (west) High School. We were spending the night with the classes’ teacher, Hiromi Goto, her husband Fuyuki, a biology teacher at another Tomakomai High School, and their daughter, Kanako. As Usami-sensei is the capstone of Muroran’s international community, so is the Goto family the capstone of Tomakomai’s. Their home is always opened, where Hiromi weaves spells from her kitchen to make food mystically and unceasingly appear at the table, and the conversation (in perfect English) is bounded only by the necessity of sleep.

The black and white images in my new books captivated me, but I needed someone to make the stories in the photos come to life. So I packed the JR volume into my overnight bag. Reclining at the magic table after dinner, I turned to Fuyuki.

“I bought a new book today.”

“Really?” He looked genuinely intrigued, which is quite possibly his most natural expression.

I brought it the table. He began flipping through the pages.

“This is a good book,” he announced decisively.

I showed him the two maps printed side-by-side on the inside front cover. I didn't need any translator to explain their stories. The 1959 map of Hokkaido railways showed some two times more trackage than the 2002 edition.

“So many lines…gone,” he mused. “Coal mines closed, roads opened, people moved out of the country and into the cities…”

He stopped at a two-page spread from 1972 on pages 114-115. A woman stood at the door of a passenger train on a mostly empty station platform while a double-headed steam freight passed on the opposite track. Beyond the train, only trees and sky.

“I know this station,” Fuyuki exclaimed. “This is between Shin-Sapporo and Kita-Hiroshima. Before they were built, it was the first station south of Sapporo. Today, there are no trees. Just buildings. Endless buildings. But then, there were trees. I know this. I grew up by this station. I went there with my family all the time.”

He kept turning the pages. “Funny story here,” he said, pointing to a small photo of the nameplate on the side of a passenger train. Each car of Japanese trains carries a removable metal nameplate listing the originating and terminating stations of the train. “This was a very famous train running between Kushiro and Otaru. It was very popular with people who liked trains. So popular, that they began stealing the signs. They stole so many signs, that JR began using cardboard signs instead of metal in this train. They stole the cardboard signs. Finally, JR simply wrote the station names on pieces of paper. And people stole them, too.”

Page 230 also gave him pause. He pointed to a small photo in the top left corner. On a narrow, wooden platform, three women posed beside the station sign while three men snapped their photos. “I know this place, too. Kofuku, the name means ‘happiness,’ so this is Happiness Station. Many people traveled here to have their pictures taken.”

“Can you still go there?” I asked.

We checked the maps at the front of the book.

“No,” Fuyuki said shaking his head sadly. “The whole line is gone. It is a shame. The station was only five stops from the mainline [still active]. They should have preserved it and ran tourist trains.”

“What about this line?” I asked, pointing to a photo a few pages earlier of a one-car train crossing a towering steel bridge over a rushing river.

Fuyuki’s eyes skimmed the page. “No, gone,” he replied, shaking his head. “It used to go to one of the biggest coal mines in the Hokkaido.”

“What about this one?” I asked, trying again with a back-cover photo of a two-car train crossing a viaduct in front of a castle.

“Oh, I know this place!” Fuyuki’s eyes lit up. “This is Matsumae, site of the only traditional Japanese castle in Hokkaido. It is near Hakodate. You should go there!”

“Can we go by train?” I asked hopefully.

“I do not know…probably not.”

We found the appropriate chapter in the book.

“Maybe you can go there by train,” he said hopefully, looking up from reading the timeline. “Let’s see, freight service ended in 1982…no, no you cannot go there by train. All services were suspended in 1988.”

As Hiromi passed from the living room into the kitchen, Fuyuki stopped her.

“Scott brought a very good book.”

She took it and began turning the pages, half mindlessly at first, then stopping as a long-forgotten scene flashed afresh before her.

“I know this place,” she pointed excitedly to a mixed freight and passenger train steaming through a snowy valley. “Yes, yes, I have been there many times. This is very close to where I grew up, near Monbetsu on the Sea of Okhotsk. I rode this train many times. Of course, there have not been trains there for nearly 20 years.”

She turned the pages now with new purpose, carefully examining each one for a glimpse of her own past. She stopped again at the bottom of 232. A family waited on a non-descript platform to board a two-car local train, a picnic basket slung over the mother’s shoulder.

“I know what they are doing!” Hiromi exclaimed. “I know this station. They are getting on here to ride to the next station where they can pick wild vegetables. I did this often with my family. We did not have a car, you see, so we always traveled by train.”

And then it all clicked. I suddenly understood how these two people, with no special interest in trains, could get so excited over a book of old train photos. For these were not merely old train photos to them, not anymore than a photo of a 1963 Ford station wagon is just a picture of an old car to the American woman who rode in one a hundred times to Grandma’s house, a thousand times to school, and twice to Myrtle Beach.

There was one more photo that I had to know about. The bottom of page 65 showed a panoramic view of a short freight train curving along the side of a high mountain. I was afraid to ask, but I had to know.

Fuyuki’s eyes sparkled. “Ah, I know this place, too! This, this was the best of all, the best scenery anywhere in Hokkaido. I rode through here many times when I lived in Kushiro and would travel to Sapporo. Beautiful! I still like going there.”

“By train?”

“No, not by train,” the spark left his eyes. “Not anymore. This was Karikachi Pass, so steep they had to use a second locomotive to push on the rear, but it was replaced by a new tunnel in 1981. Oh, but to ride over it in the fall…”

His voice trailed off, but the spark caught and grew again. As his eyes turned back inside himself, back to journeys past, for a moment then the monochrome scene before me dissolved and reformed in the space before me, hovering there in the full color of our minds.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Green(er) Life

At the end of lunch today, Maureen directed my attention to the top of the microwave, where sat two small packages containing Japanese desserts. She opened hers to reveal two small pancakes pressed around a sweet bean filling (a common delicacy here). I opened my package to reveal: another package.

Japan, it would seem, is a country addicted to packaging. Walk into any convenience store and order a single dumpling. The dumpling is plucked from its heated case on a piece of heavy paper. It is then placed on another sheet of paper big enough to cover it at least three times. Wrapped and taped, this package is dropped inside a small, plastic dumpling bag, which is then placed inside a larger plastic shopping bag, along with the receipt and a big “Arigato gozaimas” from the clerk. This all happens very, very fast, and too quickly to do anything about it unless you remember to shout “Ie desu, ie desu!” (It’s okay!) at the top of your lungs immediately upon asking for the dumpling.

Since I’m slow and rarely remember to shout “Ie desu!” in time, I often find myself in the parking lot eating a dumpling that had already grown cold by the time I finished unwrapping it and trying to stuff a wad of packaging with a total land mass only slightly smaller than Rhode Island into the nearest garbage can. A few such episodes can do wonders for raising the level of one’s environmental consciousness.

After lunch today (this started with lunch, remember?), I stepped back into my boots and waded back into the muck in the bathing room. In a moment completely lacking in foresight for my own well-being, I had given Maureen an I-O-U to clean the bathing room as a Christmas present. Today was the day to put my money, or, rather, my mop, where my mouth had so foolishly been.

However, my sweet wife is not without sympathy, and knowing that misery loves company, she spent the day cleaning up her papers littering one of our two currently unused tatami rooms. With the temperatures growing ever so slightly less cold, and with the help of a small space heater, the idea is to move the desk and computer into this room so I can have my own space to write. I’ve become so excited by the idea that it’s given me a brief craving for organization. Striking while the iron was hot, Maureen encouraged me to go to the store and get a bookshelf and plastic filing cabinet as soon as I finished in the bathing room.

I caught the 4:37 local train to Higashi-Muroran and setoff through the slushy streets and icy sidewalks for the stores. Maureen had suggested Second City, a recycle shop selling used everything, from clothing to cameras to filing cabinets. Japan is an absolute goldmine for used merchandise. The dwellings are small, the basements non-existent, and the storage space incredibly limited. Whenever almost any household item is replaced in Japan, it either goes out with the trash or off to the recycle shop.

You might think the recycle shops would be easy to find, but they aren’t. Second City is located in a far corner of the shopping district, in back of and dwarfed by the big-box Home Amenity Center. But I found it, and along the back wall I found a bookshelf. It was nearly as tall as me and almost twice as wide. It wobbled and swayed back and forth, but for only Y1980 (about $18US), I was tempted. Until I picked it up. There was absolutely no way I was carrying this bookshelf the kilometer back to the station, taking it on the train with me back to Muroran, and then lugging it another kilometer up the hill to our apartment. Next to the bookshelf was a much sturdier shelf. It was also even larger – and heavier. Beside it was a similar model with glass doors. Neither cost more than $40US. Neither were going anywhere without anything short of a minivan. A couple of Maureen’s fellow English teachers here own cars, but they’re small cars, their owners are away skiing for the weekend, and besides, we already feel like we impose too often for rides. We came to Japan planning to get by without a car, but times like this leave me wondering. Frustrated, I walked outside to the Big Box.

Inside the Home Amenity Center (Homac), I found dozens of particle-board, wood-laminate bookshelves (some assembly required). I picked out a small one for Y998 in a box that I could easily carry under one arm. I also found a small, plastic, three-drawer filing cabinet for Y780. These I took to the checkout area, where three cash registers were opened and none of the lines were moving very fast. While waiting, I looked at my bookshelf. It wasn’t quite what I wanted. Not enough shelves, too deep and not wide enough. Then, as if for the first time, I noticed the cardboard box that it was in, the plastic wrapped around the cardboard, and the plastic wrapped around the filing cabinet. And I thought about stuffing them all into the dumpster on Tuesday when the trash is collected. I left my place in line and returned them to their shelves. Dumplings can do that to you.

Back at Second City, I saw that no new bookshelves had arrived while I had been away. However, I noticed a large plastic filing cabinet that hadn’t caught my eye before. It was fully assembled, five drawers high, lightweight, sturdy, in perfect condition and without a scrap of packaging. It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, either, but my books and papers will fit in it. I paid my Y1580 and carried it back to the station, just in time to catch the 6:15.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


Wednesday, March 1st was graduation day in Japan. At 10:00 in the morning, every 3rd year high school student in the country graduated. Maureen was able to arrange going to the ceremony at Tomakomai Nishi and invited me to join her.

At the school's entrance, we were warmly welcomed by a smiling man in a dark business suit and white sneakers. In fact, nearly all of the staff was wearing either sneakers or sandals with their suits and dresses, even on graduation day. Everyone wears their dress shoes to work, then changes at the entrance into more comfortable indoor shoes. Only the school's principal, who handed out diplomas wearing a tuxedo jacket with tails, sported shiny black wingtips.

Upstairs, students were moving about the halls under a festive air, girls walking arm in arm and boys smiling and congratulating each other. All of them wore their school uniforms, black sailor suits with short skirts for the girls (bare legs, even with snow outside), and high, brass buttoned black jackets and trousers for the boys, a style inspired by 19th century Persian military dress and virtually unchanged since then. Except for the shoes. Both genders wore the same white Asics sneakers that they wear everyday once inside the school building. Only the single red rose pinned on their chests distinguished the matriculating class from the younger students.

One of the girls who we had both met before spotted us and came running up.

"Thank you so much for coming," she beamed.

"Congratulations! Are you excited?" we asked.

"Yes, yes!" she nodded.

"And a little sad, too?" Maureen wondered.

"Sad? No, I'm not sad at all. Today I gain liberty, freedom."

The temperature of our reception dropped a few degrees from there. We next met with one of the English teachers that Maureen assists, a nervous young woman who seemed to have no idea what to do with me.

"We could sit with the teachers," she said to Maureen, "but he," pointing to me as if was an object rather than the a person, "is not a teacher." I took this to mean, "unfortunately, the gymnasium does not have a hole big enough for him to crawl into, so I'll have to think of something else to do with him." The looks I got from her and the other teachers had me wishing that they did have a hole, or at least that I could become invisible for the next couple hours.

In the end, we sat with the teachers. I shared my feelings with Mo, who helped put the situation in perspective.

"They don't know what to do with you. We're the exceptions here, and they'll just have to deal with it."

The band started playing promptly at 9:50. The graduating students entered by homeroom class, each class led by its teacher. Students keep the same homeroom teacher (who also serves as advisor and mentor) for all three years of high school. It's a good system when everyone gets along, but extremely trying when personalities do not mesh well. The band finished playing at the same instant the last student arrived at his seat. All students, both graduating and non, sat in straight-backed wooden chairs, while teachers and visits had padded folding chairs.

Awarding of diplomas began immediately. Each homeroom teacher went to the microphone for his or her class and read each name. The student, up on stage, responded with "Hai!", then approached the podium, bowed to the principal who bowed back and presented the diploma, holding it out with two hands. The student took it with both hands, then shook right hands with the principal, stepped back, exchanged bows, and returned to his or her seat as the next name was read. The audience applauded for the first student, then remained silent. A few students varied the pitch of their "Hai's" enough to get a laugh from the student body, and the biggest laugh of all came when one spiky-haired boys answered "Yes!" at the reading of his name. He got a few more laughs when he struck a double-hands-the-shape-six-shooters pose at the end of the stage.

As the last student received his diploma, the principal stopped and read the contents of the diploma, then the student returned to his seat like everyone else. No one applauded after the last name was read. Three of the older male faculty gave short speeches, then the student body president (a second-year student) gave the farewell address to the third years. One girl was award a certificate for perfect attendance, and one graduating student made a short speech. The band played "Auld Lang Sine," then all the first and second year students lined up along the center aisle.

The tension seemed to flow out of the room and I could feel everyone breath a collective exhale. I was ready for tossing of caps, shouts of jubilation, raucous applause and all the celebration I associate with the American idea of gaining liberty. What I got was a pop song played at medium volume over the PA system with the audience reservedly clapping in time while the graduates filed out, quietly shaking hands and accepting congrats from their classmates.

When they had gone, the band returned to their seats, everyone sat, then got back up and filed ordely out, the students taking their wooden straight-backed chairs with them. Back in the teachers' office, graduates came in two or three at time with yearbooks for their teachers to sing (price: Y7000 each) and bearing gifts for their homeroom teachers -- graduates in Japan give gifts instead of receiving them. They left the building slowly, to go off and have lunch and go on with their days while the first and second year students returned to their classes.

The student that Maureen and I had spoken with earlier returned, and Maureen gave her the brownies she had baked for her the night before. She thanked us again, and told us about her plans to go to Tokyo and working a restaurant/bar. College was not part of the picture for her. Later that night she would attend her weekly English class -- not a graduation party.

Afterwards, we went to lunch with another of the teachers Maureen works with. Hiromi Goto and her husband Fuyuki are an incredibly well-traveled couple whose English is first-rate and whose hospitality is limitless. On the way to lunch, we asked Hiromi what the other students would do now that exams were over and the graduates were gone.

"Break doesn't start for three more weeks," she explained.

"But now they don't get tested on anything else, right?" Maureen asked. "You're just teaching to teach?"

"Yes, just teaching to teach them, to entertain them, to occupy them."

"What did you think of a Japanese graduation?" she asked us.

"Very quiet," was all we could think to respond.