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Summer in Tsukahara

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Sunday, March 25, 2012


I had the golden opportunity of attending an elementary school graduation. Yes, an elementary school graduation. The leap from 6th to 7th grade is a time to celebrate. In the U.S., it’s not a big deal. In Japan, the students start preparing weeks in advance for the big occasion. I think the most time consuming was the rehearsals. Getting a bunch of students (1st thru 6th) to sit still and be quiet for a couple of hours was no easy task. The production required that the younger students recite several songs and messages to the older students. I guess it was a way of saying goodbye and thank you. The 6th grade class was ushered in like football players. They had several rows of arches, decorated in paper flowers, for the graduating students to march under before being seated in the auditorium. Everyone stood in applause before the students were seated. With great precision, the clapping stopped and the long and dry speeches began. My first impression of this event was the vivid colors of the flowers, potted plants, and decorations. The atmosphere was lively and happy. A pianist was playing an upbeat song to the rhythm of the students marching to their seats. I was anticipating a happy occasion. The mood changed dramatically as soon as the principal took the stage. A cloak of seriousness covered the room.
Each time a person approached the stage, they would bow to the Japanese flag. It was easy to tell that every move was well rehearsed. The speakers were stiff and acted as if they would be shot if they made even a slight error. Their speeches were neatly folded and placed into envelopes. Each speaker carefully pulled the envelope out of his black coat pocket and began his speech. It sounded more like a drone. I honestly believe that if they smiled, their faces would have cracked. After each speech, the paper was neatly folded and placed back into the envelope and back into his breast pocket. The speaker carefully backed up from the podium, turned, and bowed to the flag. Then he turned and lightly but deliberately walked down the steps from the stage and bowed to the audience. As for the content of each speech…I can only guess. The drone sounded the same to me. This repeated fifteen arduous times. I’m amazed that the students didn’t fall asleep. I guess since the students had to bow before and after each boring speech, they had to stay awake. Besides, they had lots of practice trying to stay awake.
The presentation of the diplomas allowed the students a chance to get up and stretch their legs. Each student had to get up from their assigned seat in a certain way and time. They would bow to the audience and then carefully climb the stairs to the stage. The students waited for their names to be called by their teacher and then proceeded to the podium. Once there, they had to stand a certain distance from the principal. The principal read what was written on the diploma and then carefully (with both hands) offered the document to the student. The student deeply bowed and grasped the diploma (with both hands). I think it was important that the diploma was held with both hands above the student’s head while deeply bowing. Try to do that sometime…it’s not easy. The student lightly bent the diploma in half (easier to carry) and proceeded down the stairs. Once at the bottom, the student carried the diploma to his parent that was seated, following the lines painted on the floor. No smiling was allowed! The parents cried after the diploma was handed to them. The whole ritual had the feeling of a funeral. Good grief! After all of the diplomas were handed out, and all of the speeches were given, it was time for the ceremony to come to an end. To my surprise, the flowered arches were resurrected and the cloud of gloom and doom disappeared. The pianist played a lively marching tune and the audience stood in applause as the smiling students marched out of the auditorium.
I was allowed to sit in the front row along with the teachers. Since I was an ALT, I sat at the end. This was fine with me. Since I had no idea when to stand, bow or applause, I followed the rest of the teachers. This plan worked fine until near the end of the ceremony. The microphone was moved closer to the visiting parents. I had to turn my head so that I could not see what the other teachers were doing. The sobbing parent gave a long and heartfelt speech to the teachers. I sat and politely watched her with interest even though I had no idea what she was saying. After the speech, I turned to find that all of the teachers were standing…oops! I was the only one seated during the speech. I don’t know why someone didn’t tap my shoulder and say, “Please stand.” I guess everyone was nervous. As soon as the ceremony was over, I looked down and headed out the door to find a hole to crawl in. I called Erika and told her what had happened. She laughed and told me not to worry about it. Yeah right. That’s easy for her to say. Later, Erika called my boss, and she agreed with Erika’s opinion. My boss wondered if I was really an easy-going American or a boring Japanese. I tend to take mishaps seriously and I was emotionally scarred for the rest of the day.

Friday, March 23, 2012




Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Driving the narrow roads of Japan requires a different way of thinking compared to driving in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. Some of the Japan country roads are narrow…very narrow. It’s not that unusual to find a mountain road that has only one narrow lane. Ever wonder why the cars are so tiny in Japan? Answer: so they can fit on these narrow roads. I get nervous whenever I drive on them. I’m assuming that the person who reaches the narrow road first has priority. I have found that this isn’t always the case. The person that is the most aggressive has the right of way. I’m amazed that there aren’t more accidents.

Another thing that requires a different way of thinking is the white dotted lines that separate lanes. The line is there more as a suggestion rather than a rule. I find that drivers don’t hesitate driving across the dotted lines to find the straightest way through a blind curve. That fact is alarming especially when I’m driving into a curve and someone is heading in my direction across the lane divider. EEK! I guess it’s not a big deal as everyone seems to do it. Okay…so most of the blind corners (there are a lot of them) have curved mirrors strategically posted. This is supposed to make you feel more at ease as someone is heading directly at you at *warp speed*. There are two reasons why this doesn’t work for me. First: the cars are too tiny to see in a mirror that’s posted in the far corner of each hairpin turn. Second: the Japanese do not like to use their headlights. I haven’t figured out why this is the case. It could be foggy, rainy, snowy, or dark outside and for some strange reason; Japanese drivers refuse to turn on their lights. Maybe it has something to do with sticking out from the crowd. All I know is that when I turn on my headlights I’m driving in the mountains.

A note about *warp speed*…the speed limit is 40 to 50 kph. From my limited experience with driving in the Japan countryside, the speed limit is rarely obeyed except by the elderly or someone who enjoys leading a parade of cars. I’ve seen a line of 30 cars with the parade leader completely oblivious to the fact that they are slowing the Japanese economy down because of their obligation to follow the speed limit.  New drivers and the elderly have to have a magnetic placard posted on their cars so that the world knows who they are. The placards are easy to see because tailgating is the norm here. In my next post, I’ll discuss the wacky world of car insurance.   

Monday, March 12, 2012

Where are you?

Last Saturday, it was snowy white outside and we couldn’t see George’s volcano. I asked him, “Are we in the fog or in the clouds?” He said, “We are in heaven.” I guess he’s still in honeymoon mood.
George and I have a mutual agreement that we are not supposed to hike in any new areas alone. A couple of weeks ago, we hiked on a trail (fire road) that winded its way uphill through a dense cedar forest. It was the first time we had explored that area. The trailhead is located about 500 feet from our home. It was raining and cold. After about 45 minutes of climbing, we decided that it was not safe to go all the way to the top. George wasn’t happy and he was determined to conquer that mountain. Early Sunday morning, he left for a walk with the doggies while I was busy cleaning the house. I asked him where he was going to go. He said, “Oh, I’m going up the hill.” I didn’t pay attention to the answer as I was busy. After one hour he called me, “Erika, guess where I am?” “I don’t know…you are on a hill, aren’t you?” I replied. “Yes, I can see all of Yufuin from here. It’s gorgeous!” I suddenly yelled at him and said, “Where are you?” “I said I would go up the hill,” George replied. “George, we are surrounded by hills. Nothing but hills.” “Oh well, you know…” I told him to come down. After one hour, he had not returned home. I called him many times, but he didn’t answer. I dropped everything and ran out the door while continuing to call him.

I finally reached him on the phone and shortly after, met him on the trail. I was out of breath and extremely worried. Here is the conversation I had with happy George.
“I was ready to call the police.”
“Gommen ne. (means I’m sorry.) When he uses the phrase, he doesn’t really mean it.
“I was so worried. Why didn’t you answer the phone?”
“I didn’t hear a thing.”He looked at his phone.
 Oh, the phone is set to ‘Vibrate’. OOPS!”
“You must call me every hour from now on when you take the dogs for a walk. If this happens again, you must call me every 30 minutes. Then every ten minutes.”

He had a huge smile and told me that he hiked to the top of the hill. He was amazed at how beautiful it was. I don’t think he heard a word I said. I couldn’t stop laughing inside, but I didn’t want show my happiness on my face. He needed to know how serious I was.


Saturday, March 10, 2012


Searching for firewood has become a weekend past time. Fortunately, we have friends and neighbors that are helping us find what we need. Seasoned hardwood is expensive, especially this late in the year. Most people prepare a year or two in advance by collecting unseasoned wood and storing it until the wood is dry. Unseasoned wood is much cheaper to purchase and easier to find. Since we moved to Japan in October, we were too late to prepare our firewood in advance. This has led us to seek desperate measures…spending more for less. Erika found a supplier in Shonai, but his supply has since been exhausted. We collected some wood from a neighbor and this weekend we will travel about an hour away to fetch some wood. Another neighbor has cut down some cherry trees and offered to let us collect the wood. This was an extremely generous offer and Erika promptly returned the favor with a bottle of Jack Daniels. Winter comes into play as it is difficult to collect wood when the weather is foul. It is also difficult to split wood in cold weather. Our log splitter uses hydraulic fluid and the seals could rupture if too much pressure is applied. I purchased a chainsaw a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t want to borrow our friend’s chainsaw any longer because I felt guilty using a new saw and wearing it out. The chainsaw was a major purchase, but I think it was a wise investment. It should pay for itself in a couple of years.

The “K” truck is proving to be a real workhorse. We have carried a couple of heavy loads with it and it does just fine. I really enjoy driving the truck. I think I share that feeling with a lot of people. It’s almost impossible to find a good used truck at a reasonable price. They really hold their value. The truck is rock solid and I can feel every bump in the road. I like sitting on top of the engine, because I can feel where the center of gravity is. This is important for when I am driving on a curvy mountain road. The truck has a second and a low gear for driving in snow. The 4wd and snow tires make this an ideal truck for driving in the mountains. I can also carry firewood and building materials. I love this truck. I like to think that the “Moco” handles like a Cadillac and the truck handles like…a truck. I think the best advantage of driving a “K” truck is that I can enjoy the scenery because no one expects me to drive fast.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Snowy Commute

It snowed heavily a couple of weeks ago so I took some photos of my commute. I took these pictures when the snow was about 12 inches deep. I use roads that are less traveled. This is good and bad. The good part…no traffic and the scenery is spectacular. The bad part…the roads are not cleared when the snow falls. When I drove in the snow for the first few times in Japan, I was nervous/ anxious. I wasn’t used to blazing my own trail in the snow. Now, I love driving in the snow! It’s fun! Everything is so quiet, peaceful, and refreshing. Oh, it’s also cold. Thank goodness for studless tires and 4WD. I prefer driving in the white stuff with the “K” truck since I have more clearance than the Moco.
Driving on icy roads…no thank you. I have learned from my limited experience with living in the mountains during the winter months that some people are not prepared. Usually, it’s the people from the cities that are visiting or they just want to experience snow. They drive up to the snow line and find that they can’t keep their cars on the road. The roads are steep (11% grade) and if they don’t have the right kind of tires and 4WD, they don’t have much of a chance. For some strange reason, when they break down, it often happens in the middle of the road. This makes it very difficult to get by them. A few weeks ago, the black ice was severe on one of the mountain passes near Shonai. I had climbed the pass very slowly only to find on the downhill side that seven cars were strewn across the road. The road was slick and it was impossible to stand. I saw people on their hands and knees trying to crawl across the road. I managed to sneak my way through the maze of cars. It was senseless to try to use my brakes. I think that was the mistake they made. I used “Low” gear and nursed my way down the hill. The road was closed later because of the treacherous conditions.

I find it nerve wracking to drive on some of the mountain roads. The Japanese like to frame the roads with uncovered drain ditches. Some of these ditches can swallow a small car. Also, when the snow sticks to the bamboo, the branches tend to bend towards the road making a narrow road even narrower. I found myself weaving through tunnels made of snow laden bamboo branches (I’ll try to take pictures next time). Couple this with the fact that the roads are covered with black ice or snow…this makes for an interesting commute. Spring is almost here and I’m looking forward to some uneventful commutes.