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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Disneyland of Food

A couple of weeks ago, we took some of our students to Costco in Fukuoka. My mom and the dogs came along for the ride. We piled into three vehicles and Miyuki was in the lead car. She knew how to get there. She did a great job of getting us there and back safely. Thank you Miyuki! We let Noriko in the lead car use one of our cell phones. English was the only requirement for using the phone. On the way to Fukuoka, I received a call from Noriko, asking that we pass their vehicle. I was puzzled as to why they wanted us to lead. The traffic was heavy and we were afraid to change lanes. I quickly handed the phone to Erika for clarification. Yep, sure enough, they wanted us to pass them. Miyuki wanted us pass safely so that we would end up in the correct lane while she blocked traffic…pretty clever thinking on her part.

Fukuoka is a two hour drive from Tsukahara. There are many full service rest areas along the highway. The roundtrip cost to drive on the highway from Yufuin to Fukuoka is about 5000 yen. Considering it would have taken a lot longer on the smaller side roads, it was worth it. The speed limit on the highway is 80kph, but I think the posted speed limit is a mere suggestion. Most of the cars were flying past us. I finally figured out why some Japanese own very expensive sports cars. They like to drive fast on the highways. We were passed by a Lamborghini, Ferrari, Porsches, BMW’s, Jaguar and a Maserati just to name a few. I often see cars like these in Tsukahara, but I couldn’t figure out why. The top speed on our country roads is 60kph. Why would anyone need a car like that to drive so slow? Now, I know the answer.

The highlight for the students was a chance to eat a Costco pizza. I had a couple of slices, but I satisfied my craving for junk food with a couple of foot-long hotdogs smothered in ketchup, mustard, and relish…yummmmm. The general impression was that Costco was huge, they had a lot of stuff, and the stuff they had was big. I guess that sums it up. Even the carts were huge. Judging from what I saw at the check-out lines, people visited Costco for the experience rather than actually buying a bunch of things. I saw many carts with just a couple of items. It was interesting to see the long lines of people patiently waiting to taste free samples. Each person would take only one sample knowing that the person behind them had been patiently waiting in line also. In the U.S., it’s not that uncommon for someone to eat all of the samples and leave nothing for everyone else.

The parking lot was filled to capacity. I glanced at the license plates and I was amazed at how far people traveled to come to this store. Erika reminded me that only two Costco warehouses exist in Kyushu. “A Disneyland of food,” is how I described Costco to the students before they traveled to Fukuoka. After the trip, I concluded that Costco is like a taste of America without the hassle and cost of jumping on an airplane. I hope our students came away with that impression too.     George

Monday, April 21, 2014

Well, that's it.

My mom’s visit to Japan was important for both of us. She had a chance to see my life in Japan. She was able to see how happy I am here. She also saw how busy we are with the business and remodeling our home.  She witnessed the difficulties and inconveniences of living in the countryside. I think the time she spent here put her mind at ease. She said that she could stop worrying about me, but I know that is impossible. She is an expert at worrying and she will always do so. The second purpose of her visit was to determine if she could live in Japan after she becomes unable to take care of herself. I don’t think she can live here. Reverting back to Japanese culture would be difficult after being an American for 60+ years. Come to think of it…for me, reverting back to American culture would be very difficult after living in Japan for only 2.5 years. Why? The differences between the two cultures are light years apart, especially comparing a life in a small community in the Japan countryside with a life in a moderately sized city in California. Let me explain…

Life in Tsukahara is quiet and slow. Life in the Bay Area (California) is not. In Tsukahara, everyone knows everyone. We try to treat each other with respect and kindness and expect the same in return. In California, I lived in the same house for ten years and I didn’t know any of my neighbors. I didn’t want to know them. I kept my doors locked and I kept to myself. It was safer to do so. For my mom, she has lived in that kind of environment for most of her life. One day, I found that all of our doors were locked in Tsukahara, because she locked them. She was afraid that maybe a deer would break into the house? On my last visit to my mom’s house, I found myself staying indoors even though the house is located in a gated community. All of the new stories about random murders and violence prevented me from having a pleasant visit to the golden state. Each night, the local news would spend the first five or ten minutes describing a recent homicide, robbery, or rape. I didn’t realize it, but I was numb to those stories when I lived in the states. Upon my return visit, I became sensitive to the news of violence…maybe too sensitive. I did not want to leave the relatively safe confines of my mom’s home.

The third purpose of her visit was to spend time with her older sister. I think they enjoyed each other’s company for a few days. Those moments were priceless. Overall, I was able to share five weeks with my mom. That fact is amazing considering I used to argue with her after 5 minutes! Erika was the very best daughter-in-law. She took care of my mom when I was at work. She took her shopping, and to the local restaurants. They did some sightseeing in Yufuin. She introduced my mom to some of the neighbors. Erika was even the last one to say, “Goodbye” to her at the bus stop before she went back to America. I’m a lucky guy to have such a great wife. Well, that’s it. My mom is safely back home and ready to start her new life in retirement.    George

Thursday, April 3, 2014

I'm back!

First day in Japan. Mt. Yufu in the background.
It’s great to be home! I missed my wife, dogs, and most important…the volcano. In my previous post, I wrote that I had a surprise to disclose. What’s the surprise, George? My mom flew back with me to Japan. She will be visiting for a month. Believe it or not, she just celebrated her 85th birthday. I was worried about her enduring the long flight from San Francisco. She ended up having more energy than me after we arrived in Fukuoka. She is an amazing woman. She has been here for about a week. Her older sister, niece and her son has been showing my mom the Yufuin/ Beppu area in style. You know…fancy hotels, hot springs, 11 course dinners. It has been a fantastic experience for her…so far. Thank you, Megumi and Nao, for taking great care of my mom. I think the most important part of the trip has been the time that she could spend with her sister. Sadly, they both believe that it will be their last.
Which one is my mom?

What did you do while you were in the U.S.? Not much. Before I left, my mom had not renewed her driver’s license. I was ready to help her prepare for a life without a car. I wanted to spend as much time as I could getting her used to using public transportation. As it turned out, she passed her driver’s test on the first try. She said that she couldn’t have done it without my help, but I disagree. She studied very hard on her own. Needless to say, she was ecstatic when she received her test score. I was grateful that I could be there to share that with her.

Jelly Belly Factory entrance


Jelly Belly bus
Jelly Belly mascot

Jelly Belly VW

Guess what it is? It's a Jelly Belly motorcycle

Made with 25,000 jelly beans
What else did you do?  Honestly, after being away from the hustle and bustle of the city, I was hesitant to get out and explore. I could not believe how much everything had grown. The cars and the roads seemed to be enormous after experiencing Japan for a few years. Traffic congestion was the norm. I didn’t know where everyone was going, but they were certainly in a hurry to get there. The speed limit is about 140kph on the freeway. It’s called a “freeway” because there are no toll booths except for the bridges. I’m used to driving at 60kph. I stayed in the slow lane for most of my driving excursions. There are six lanes of traffic in each direction. It didn’t take long to get used to driving on the right side of the road, but I often turned the windshield wiper on instead of the turn signals. Besides visiting the Factory Stores, which I hate to do, I visited the Jelly Belly Factory to pick up some gifts.

New homes near the park boundaries
I spent some time hiking in Rockville Hills Park. I have fond memories of the park. I used to walk my other dogs there. Even the park has grown. It used to be a place that was hidden away from the public’s eye. Now it is surrounded by million dollar homes and patrolled by park rangers making sure the park entrance fee is paid. Rockville Park is still a nice place to visit and it’s good to know that it’s being protected from future development. My mom and I ate at all of the local restaurants. I satisfied any cravings I had for pizza and fast food. I learned that things (fast food and pizza) don’t taste as well as I remembered them. I can live without that kind of junk food for the rest of my life. I sorely missed Erika’s home cooking.
Beautiful spring day at Rockville Hills Park

Here’s what I learned from my recent trip to the states: Living in California is convenient. The convenience comes with a high price tag. I’m convinced that the everyday stress of commuting back and forth to the bay area had taken many precious years from my life. It’s nice to be able to go to the mall and buy whatever you want. I learned that what I want and what I need are two entirely different things. Lightening the load has brought me a greater appreciation for the things I have rather than the things I want. It’s nice to live in a gated community full of stucco homes and manicured lawns. I’d rather live in Japan in a broken down log home on the side of a volcano. Peace and quiet are priceless. It’s nice to be in a familiar English environment. Perhaps, but not understanding what people are saying behind your back has its advantages. California does have great weather. Yep, there’s no denying that. Will I ever move back to the U.S.? What do you think?     George