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Monday, December 26, 2011

Merry X'mas from Japan

We didn’t send any X’mas cards this year…sorry. We had to save our pennies. Our friends provided us with a lot of junk food, cakes and box lunches for X’mas. It wasn’t exactly Christmas around here, but we had a peaceful time on X’mas day.

I hope everyone had a safe and happy holiday and that the New Year brings you good fortune.


Keeping Warm

The major repair on the side of our home is complete. The rot was extensive and I had to do a lot of fancy woodworking to get the log back to a natural appearance. I hope that’s the last major repair I will have to do. The temperature has dropped significantly and I doubt I will have a chance to put a finish coat on. I started framing the foundation for my garage, but that will probably have to wait until the temperature warms up.

Since it’s turning into winter outside, I decided to do some work inside. I started installing the fan in the great room. The reason I made this job a priority is because the wood stove warms the upstairs rooms, but does little to keep the downstairs warm. Since warm air rises, the fan should do a good job of circulating the air. Usually, a fan installation isn’t a big deal, but the fan is 68” wide and it required a step-up transformer (100 volts to 120 volts). The fan is mounted to a very large log that is 20 feet above the floor. I had to wire the transformer to a switch and then to the fan. Japanese wiring doesn’t use a ground wire. I asked an electrician in Japan about this and he said that if something goes wrong the whole thing goes “Poof”. I told him that the electrical storms at this elevation are fierce and a lightning strike isn’t out of the question. He said that a lightning strike is highly unlikely. If it did happen, then my electrical system would go…you guessed it…”Poof”. To wire our house to an earth ground would be cost prohibitive at this time. The down rod for the fan had to be manufactured out of a pipe that I found. The pitch of the roof along with the length of the blades required an extra long down rod…48 inches. This project should be completed tomorrow provided the step-up transformer can handle the amperage draw of the fan motor. I have my fingers crossed.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Three Times a Charm

After miserably failing my drivers test twice, I decided to pay 23,000 yen and attend driving school. The instructor was very familiar with foreigners and he knew how to troubleshoot bad American habits. The class was two hours long for which I first thought was a long time to go around a driving course that takes only 5 minutes to complete. What I later learned was that two hours of practice was not even close to enough time to feel confident to pass the test. The instructor first drove the course and explained each maneuver that had to be done…in real time. My head was spinning after that short drive. There was no way that I was going to pass the test. The instructor observed my weak attempt at mimicking his driving skills. I thought I knew how to drive since I did have 32 years of experience. Wrong!! I felt like I knew nothing about driving in Japan. Driving on the left side of the road was one thing, but knowing that your within 1 meter from a curb, 30 cm from a line, pumping brakes and turning while “Yoshing” at the correct moment, (the list goes on and on), was something totally different. I was a “green” driver and the driving course proved it. I had a lot of intense work ahead of me. The instructor quickly found my weak points and drilled me over and over again. Looking back in hindsight, the instructor was doing me a huge favor. The problem was that the instruction was so intense that I lost track of the time. Before I knew it, the instructor was giving me advice and writing a receipt for his services. What I didn’t realize was that his instruction stayed in my head for two days. I couldn’t sleep without visualizing the course and his voice haunting me, “No, accelerate! No, look for bicycles! No, look far down the road! No, ‘Yosh’ before the corner! No, too slow! No, too fast! No! No! No! I had to take the test as soon as possible just to try to get his voice out of my head. I was going crazy.

Monday arrived and Erika and I drove to Shonai Town to find five schools where she will be teaching next month. We decided to do this first before I took my driving test since it was on the way. The schools were difficult to find out in the countryside. Two hours had passed and we could only found two of the schools. We gave up since we had to make it to Oita City before the deadline of 1:30 pm. We made it to the driving course with ten minutes to spare. This did very little to soothe my frazzled nerves. Erika quickly registered me for the driving test and after a two hour wait, the examiner appeared. I recognized him as the same examiner who tested me for the first time…not good. He was very serious and asked if I had practiced driving. I nervously replied that I had and that I was ready for the test. I remember nothing of the test because I was either numb from being nervous or I soon forgot bad things. I politely thanked him for allowing me to drive him around the course and then we proceeded inside to meet with Erika, my translator. The examiner chatted with Erika for ten minutes explaining what I had done wrong and his concerns about my driving during the holiday season. I peeked at his score sheet and it read, “30”. I was ready to leave with another failed test under my belt. The next thing that happened totally shocked me…he shook my hand. Erika then said that the examiner had given me a score of 70…I passed!! He didn’t want to disclose that information right away because he feared that I would have ignored his concerns. I was thrilled, but in a contained manner. I didn’t want to seem like I didn’t care about his concerns. I expressed my gratitude and I respected his comments and told him I would be extremely careful. Inside my head, I was jumping for joy.

I want to thank Yano Kouzou (Manager of Hayami Driving Center). Without his guidance and expert training skills, I could have never passed the test. He was fantastic and I would highly recommend him to anyone. Yano sensei called me tonight and checked to see if I had passed the exam. He was relieved and happy to hear the great news. I also want to thank Himoshita Keiichi (Oita Prefecture Driving Center) for his help in getting my paperwork approved.

I’m glad it’s over and I won’t have to repeat it again until I’m 70 years old. Whew!


Sunday, December 11, 2011

If at first…

The ongoing struggle of obtaining my driver’s license continues. Last week, I went to Oita for the third time. It wasn’t to take a test. That came later. I went to get permission to take the tests. Yes, it took three times just to get permission. The person running the department section that takes care of those things kept telling me that he was not my enemy. He reminded me that we were on the same team. Yet, he insisted that the paperwork that I had given him was not enough to prove that I had been driving in Washington for at least three months. So, what’s the big deal? It would have been a simple matter of accessing my paycheck stubs on the internet and handing the copies to Japan DMV. The problem is that they do not accept copies. They require originals with signatures. Good grief! All of my banking, utilities, paychecks, tax statements…everything is online. The Japanese DMV requirements are ridiculously out of date and they admit to that. The long story short, Erika told them that I needed my license by January or I would lose a job opportunity in January and move back to the U.S. Amazingly, they accepted my paperwork and gave me permission to take the tests.
I took an eye exam and I needed my glasses to pass. The written test was ten true/ false questions. You were allowed to miss three. Fortunately, I studied the driver’s handbook and I didn’t miss any. I was directed to the practical part of the test. The person behind the counter assured me that I would fail the exam, so I failed. The examiner emphasized about how difficult the course was. I didn’t have a chance. The person behind the counter actually said that it would be a miracle if I had passed. How’s that for a confidence builder. The driving part was relatively easy. It was important to pump the brakes three times. Say, “Yosh” every time I looked in the mirror. Stay on the left side of the road. They had some narrow obstacles that required careful maneuvering. All of these things were not too difficult to follow. The problem was that they also required some Japanese rules that needed to be followed. This is where I had trouble. Before entering the car, the front, side and back required visual inspection. I had to pretend I was entering the car from a busy street which required that I look backwards before opening the driver’s door. I had to adjust the mirrors, seat and seatbelt before starting the car and within a certain amount of time. This was the first time I ever drove this car. Never brake in a corner. Drive 30cm from the centerline at all times. Look far ahead and “Yosh” at all of the appropriate mirrors. This was difficult to do since the course had many sharp turns and I did not memorize the course. Don’t drive too fast or too slow. Keep imagining that a pedestrian or cyclist could appear at any time. Blah, blah, blah…just when I thought the test was over, I had to park the car in a specific parking space. The car had to be precisely 30cm from the curb and 30cm from the face of a numbered sign to my bumper. Do you have any idea how difficult that is to do after taking a stressful test? Oh, he also tested to make sure that I put the car in “Park”, set the parking brake, and looked behind before opening the car door. I was mentally exhausted. That was last Thursday and I get to do it all over again on Wednesday. To make things worse, the test cost 4000 yen each time, and it takes 1.5 hours (one way) to get to the driving center from my house. I wonder how many times it will take to pass? I enrolled in a driver’s training course (which is booked solid till next Saturday) at a cost of 20,000 yen. I’ll take the practical again before I attend the course, just to make sure about what I’m confused with. My strategy for passing the driver’s portion of the exam is: If at first you don’t succeed, keep trying until they are tired of you. I heard that the record was 32 attempts. Stay tuned…          George

Sunday, December 4, 2011

I just had to do it.

“You’re in big trouble! Do you have any idea what kind of mess you created?” exclaimed Erika as she ran around in a panic over a tree that I cut down.
“I just had to do it,” I calmly replied. “You knew I was going to cut it down. What’s the big deal? Just tell the property owners that my husband is from America and that he didn’t know any better.”

I think it’s a major taboo to cut a tree down that is on someone else’s property. The tree was only five feet from the property line. It was blocking the view of my volcano. Solution: Cut the tree down. It wasn’t a huge tree, but it was getting bigger each day and if I had waited till the property owners gave permission, it might have become a huge tree. I’m sorry, but I just had to do it. I was getting the hang of using a chainsaw because I had lots of logs to cut for firewood. I looked over at the tree that had been bothering me since we purchased the house. “Why not?” I asked myself. “Now is as good a time as any.” Fifteen minutes later, the deed was done. I had committed a sinister crime of unknown proportions. I felt sorry that I had to cut down a perfectly good tree, but the tree was in the wrong place at the wrong time…it had to go. After all the dust had settled, I felt good that I had done what I had set out to do. The trouble was that if the property owner was unhappy about the trees disappearance, we could be sued. Solution: Hide the evidence. That’s what I have been busy doing today and will be doing tomorrow. I have a lot of tree to chop up into little pieces and a stump to whittle down to something smaller than a pancake. It will be worth it…I think. One day, I’ll be sitting on the porch admiring the view and thinking about a tree that could have ruined the whole scene. It still could, in an economical sense, provided I don’t do a good job of covering my mistake.

Today, we had a surprise visit from a friend that had a backhoe. His name is Kiyonaga-san. My friend was kind enough to let me use the scaffolding that has been gracing the side of our home for the past month. He also let me use the chainsaw to cut firewood and the tree of despair. His current contribution to my well being is the use of a backhoe. He pulled up to our property and asked me if I had drawn the plans for the new garage. I showed him the drawing and the rest was history. He immediately hammered some stakes into the ground, set up a level, took some measurements, and began excavating. It really happened that fast! I was left in astonishment as he took control of the situation. I have never met anyone like him. He then proceeded to measure, stake, backhoe, and level the area for our dog fence…amazing!! Did I say that he did this on his weekend? Did I also mention that he did this for free? It’s been six hours since he left and I’m still trying to catch my breath. In a mere 5 hours, Kiyonaga-san, transformed my yard into something that I had thought I would have to wait for at least another year or two. I really don’t want to learn how to build a foundation from the ground up, but Kiyonaga-san believes it’s the best way to save a lot of money. He also believes that I can do it with his help. I’m speechless and grateful to have him as a friend.


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

One Down

The wood stove is installed and working perfectly. That means that one project is done and I have ten thousand more to go. The next headache…I mean project…is to repair, apply sealant, and stain one side of the house. Most of the upper logs have been completed. I still need to clean up the white panels and prepare them for primer and paint. The middle section of logs will require a major repair (see an earlier post). I decided to leave that for later. Since the scaffolding is on borrowed time, I need to make the best use of it. The weather has been stable, but each day begins with mist and the temperature gradually warms as the day progresses. This pattern should continue for another day or two before it starts to get really cold. I’m at the mercy of mother-nature which means that I can only do what I can do.  I’ll continue removing the grey wood along with the mildew using a product called “Wood Renew”. The stuff is amazing and it doesn’t harm the environment. Just mix it up, brush it on, wait ten minutes, and scrub the remaining gunk off. Like magic, the original wood color appears. I’ll post before and after pictures as soon as I get around to it.

Our friends and neighbors have been kind enough to provide us with some hardwoods to burn in our new stove. The problems are that we don’t have a place to store seasoned wood and the wood needs to be cut into 45cm pieces. We purchased a wood splitter in the U.S., but we need a chainsaw. A good chainsaw is expensive in Japan. I feel uncomfortable asking our neighbor to use her chainsaw all the time. We’ll try to shop around for one this week. I wish we could find a good used one, but I know I’m dreaming. Our front yard has a truck load of starter wood in one pile and a truckload of logs in another. We are expecting another 2 tons of wood to appear next week. It sounds like a lot of wood, but I was told that we may not have enough wood to get us through the winter. We’ll see how it goes. As the season gets colder, the price of firewood rises. Hopefully, we’ll make it through our first winter without freezing to death.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

What a nice day!

Even though it's cold and winter is near, we frequently have beautifully clear and sunny days here. I often take advantage of it and hang our blankets outside. The blankets airate under the sun and smell nice and fresh when we use them at night. It may be a luxurious life we are having without money. There may be so many rich people who want to experience this...a life safe from guns and gangs, from pesticides and chemicals and from polluted air and water. I gradually understand why George loves it here. I can see that George has never experienced this kind of life before. He yells, "Good morning!"when he opens the front door each morning to let the dogs out. He really loves it here.This castle is for Kiley and George. Hopefully, someday it will be for Lucky and myself.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011


George missed American food, cookies and pizza. Our friend, Nami-chan, took us to COSTCO in Fukuoka. It took 2.5 hours by car, but it was worth it. He kept saying, "pizza" all the way to Costco.
We ordered one large combo pizza which was more than enough for the three of us. After that, he was tired of pizza, which was a good thing. We can't afford to go to Costco so often. As soon as he finished the pizza, he grabbed some cookies and headed to the car to spend some time with the doggies. Of course, the doggies got some pizza and cookies. They enjoyed the whole trip in Nami-chan's comfortable van. Thank you Nami-chan!!
We can afford this kind of luxury once in a while, can't we???

I guess this is what they mean when they say, "Having all your ducks in a row?"    George


Maybe, you imagined that George would treat me like a princess since I agreed to live in Japan. No, our relationship has not changed.
George and I installed the parts to the chimney. I was so scared to climb up to the top of the scaffolding in the strong winds. My legs were trembling and my heart was pounding. One thing I was sure of...I was not ready to die. George felt sorry for me and allowed me to climb to the third level instead of the top. I was okay and I enjoyed the views while spying on what the others' were doing.
I observed that the field of Susuki's next to our house to be huge and beautiful. A nearby neighbor owned a large property with many buildings. I also observed that Lucky had the best seat in our yard. Earlier, I cleaned the dogs' beds and airated them under the sun on our patio table. Of course, Lucky chose the most comfortable bed with the best view. He didn't know that I was watching him from above.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Another Day at the Office

Here’s an update on the remodeling of our home. The giant blue tarp was removed after a year of protecting our home from the torrential rains in Tsukahara. I managed to apply Perma-chink sealant to all of the seams and joints that could possibly cause a leak. This took about five days to accomplish. I found some gaps between the logs and the concrete backer board. It’s no wonder that we had some serious leaks in the house. After completing that long and tedious project, I decided to remove the side roofing structure that looked like a two-year old had built it. The eye-sore was causing more harm than good. I was surprised to see how much rot was behind the bracing for the structure. These photos will give you an idea of the extent of the damage. Our neighbor’s jaw dropped when she saw the gaping holes after I removed some of the rotted wood. I’ll need at least a week to get this area stabilized.

Earlier this week, Erika and I installed the chimney section of piping for our wood stove. This wasn’t an easy task since the piping was heavy and awkward. Fortunately, the scaffolding was a great help. I could barely reach the chimney, but it was doable. We are trying to install the wood stove before winter arrives. The floor tile for the stove area has been cut, but we are having trouble finding thin set mortar to install the tile. It looks like we will have to use some sort of adhesive to lay the tiles. The adhesive is extremely expensive and I’m not looking forward to using it. The working time is ten minutes and that’s not a long time to use a material that I have no experience with. I’ll take photos as soon as that project is done.

It’s has been raining all day…time to catch up on some much needed rest. I’ve been studying for my driver’s exam. The written exam is supposed to be an easy ten question test. The practical exam is the real challenge. I’m expecting to fail a few times before I even come close to passing. I’ll have a lot to write about when that time comes.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Busy, busy, busy

In between doing a gazillion other things, I managed to start remodeling our home. Since winter will soon be here, I need to have the wood stove up and running. I was told that it can get very cold in Tsukahara. It would be a shame to freeze to death during our first winter in Japan. In order to have a working stove, I need to tile the area where the stove will be placed. I cut all of the floor tiles, but I’m having difficulty finding acrylic thin set mortar. Finding anything that has to do with home maintenance is a challenge. In the U.S., I visited my nearby Home Depot or Lowes and they would have everything I needed. In Japan, I visited a home center in Oita City (45 minutes away)and they told me that only a specialist uses this or that. I would have to special order whatever I was looking for…good grief. An example of this nonsense was when I needed to purchase some mortar. They carry only tiny bags of mortar that could cover only a couple of tiles. The cost was 2000 yen. To make matters worse, the grout only came in two colors…gray and white. The person working at the home center didn’t have a clue about using mortar or laying tiles. He tried to sell me a bag of concrete and told me that only specialists use thin set mortar. “Normal people” use concrete. Fortunately, my neighbor’s son works for Diawa House and he brought over some beige colored grout. The color matched our tile perfectly. I’m still working on purchasing mortar.

The chimney pipe also requires installation. A huge scaffold is resting next to our home waiting for me to climb all over it. The plan is to install the chimney pipe before the tile. I’ll need the scaffolding to get near the chimney so the pipe can be secured. Once the pipe is secured, I can install the tile. The stove comes next, then the stove pipe. After all of that fun is complete, it will be time to build a wood storage shed. I also need to install fencing for the yard so that the dogs can play outside while we are away from home. Somehow, I need to find time to repair the leak under the blue tarp that has been hanging on the side of our home for the past year. To complicate things, I need the scaffolding to repair the leak, but I only have two weeks left to use the stand. The mountain weather is unpredictable and it’s hard to determine when a clear day will occur. The best I can do is to keep busy and to get as much done as I can. Did I say I was busy?

Friday, November 4, 2011

Thank you

Our life has totally changed. We are now officially POOR, but I have never seen George so happy. His smile has never disappeared since he moved here. Whenever we have a chance to go to the city, he misses Tsukahara.

I am often scared of the strong winds, wild boar, deer, snakes and bugs, but this is the safest environment he has ever lived in, according to George. We don’t have to worry about guns, gangs, violence or lawsuits. Our next door neighbor, Ms. Namba-san, shares with us all kinds of rumors which is a form of entertainment for us. Ms. Namba, often gives us some of her cooking. Her cooking tastes as if a world class chef had prepared it. We get more than enough nutritious food from her. Thank you Namba-san!

Each day, we experience something new…most of the experiences are good. We have so much news to share with you after spending our first month in Japan.
Our new car is a Nissan Moco. George’s cousin, Megumi from Tokyo, gave us a fantastic deal and managed to arrange delivery a day after we arrived home. George was complaining about the color and female interior style, but as soon as it arrived, Lucky gave his approval. That’s all that mattered for us. Since then, Lucky spends most of his time in the car and George has grown fond of the color. Thank you for everything Megumi!
Scaffolding: George had kept asking for it for a long time, but we couldn’t afford to rent it. On George’s birthday, Mr. Kiyonaga-san who is the best friend of George’s good friend, Mr. Yoshida-san called us. He found the great deal on scaffolding and he even helped us for an entire day to set it up. Thank you Kiyonaga-san!

George’s 50th birthday: Our friends brought a cake for George and shared his birthday. We usually don’t celebrate anniversaries or holidays, but this was special. I did my best to make sure that we moved to Japan before his birthday. I wanted this to be the BEST birthday present that he ever had. Since we had to pinch every penny, he missed having dessert. The cake was sooooooo good. Thank you Nami-chan and Yoko!

Lucky and Kiley: They have experienced all kinds of creatures in this natural environment. They are often scared of strong winds and sudden downpours. Deer often visit our yard and the dogs go nuts! Kiley and Lucky can find all sorts of entertainment from the window. It’s a great relief to see that they have adapted so well to their new home.

I have so many stories to tell, but I’ll just summarize a few for today. Erika