Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Culture Clash: Social Security

I have gotten my first Culture Clash request from my uncle Hans. He proposed a number of questions and I hope to answer all of them in what I write below, but as always if you are still wondering about something then let me know and I will do my best to answer!

Because of recent failures in the American economy questions have sprung up all over the world as to how it is affecting other countries. Here in Japan the economy has been affected, “The government has noted a jump in layoffs in many industries, especially heavily export-dependent sectors including the automobile and electronics industries, while voluntary retirement among regular workers also is rising.” (Daily Yomiuri)
However in relation to the US dollar and other currencies the Yen has remained strong. The reason for this is that Japan has been averting risk. Instead of taking bold moves that might dramatically strengthen or weaken the Yen it has taken very small steps in a negative or weakening direction. Japan’s economy has gotten weaker, but compared to the US the progression hasn’t been nearly as fast. However the outlook is bearish and no one expects quick recovery on either side of the ocean.
On a side note I wanted to say something else. The Federal Reserve in America, that institution that prints our money and raises and lowers interest rates, they are not government owned. It is quasi public, meaning that while it is a government institution it is not government owned. Personally I see this as creating a conflict of interest between the public and private investors.

Now on to public healthcare and welfare in Japan. Japan does have social welfare. Japan also has public assistance programs benefiting about 1% of the population. About 33% of recipients are elderly people, 45% were households with sick or disabled members, and 14% are fatherless families, and 8% are in other categories.
For instance, fatherless mothers get about 40,000 yen a month per child and depending on where they live might receive other assistance like housing. From what I have seen there aren’t too many people who abuse this, like in other countries, and end up with many children and no job. Japan’s population is actually on a sharp decline, which brings up a whole host of other social security problems.
An elderly person’s pension is dependable one where or how long they or their relative/spouse worked. A retired person’s main pension usually comes from the company they worked for. The Japanese government pension system provides benefits to insured persons or their survivors, when they retire from their working-lives, become handicapped, or die. A character of Japanese public pension system is the universal coverage of Japanese population by social insurance pay-as-you-go scheme. The pension from the government is about 50,000 yen per month. Which is not a lot, my rent is about 55,000 yen a month. I have seen some TV programs about this, but couldn’t get anymore than that some people were upset that the payment was so low.
As for people who “just don’t want to work” there are a few categories that they may fit into. In Japan there are people called NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training). As far as I can gather there is no government support for these people in the form of payment, but the government does provide counseling and training to them if requested.

As I see it the system here works pretty well. Like everywhere else there are people who abuse it, but it seems to me that in Japan that happens less. Japanese society has giri, a sense of social obligations and amae, the concept of dependance. Both of these largely influence how people view themselves and the society they live in, but to explain these concepts further I will write another blog later.

Saturday, December 27, 2008


We are so small. There is something that I thought about as I crossed the Sea of Japan to Korea. In recent years there has been much talk of global warming. While global warming is a real threat I want people to think of this too. We are fragile. We ride around in our planes trains and automobiles. We make our own little bubbles in which we exist and matter. Often we believe that we are strong, but we are not. Our planet is strong. It will kill us. Our planet is so much larger than us. If we continues to abuse it as we have been, continue to grow and consume, our world will destroy us as only nature can.


There were two things on my agenda for South Korea. First, see the liger at Everland Amusement park. Second, go to the DMZ. The DMZ is quite an interesting place. Its one of the most heavily fortified places on earth. Not to mention that North Korea has the 5th largest standing army on earth at over one million soldiers. This line, or area rather, was created in 1953 after what is known in America as the Korean War. This line runs approximately 155 miles and 2.5 miles wide, across the Korean Peninsula at roughly the 38th parallel, which was the boundary between North and South Korea before the war. This split the country, and many families, in two.
Numerous incursions have occurred over the years as North Korean soldiers have infiltrated the southern side. In fact since the boundary was made in 1953 about 500 soldiers have been killed at this line, including 50 Americans.
Another very interesting thing was four tunnels that the north had built going under the DMZ. These were first discovered in the early seventies and one by one more were found. There are now 4 known tunnels. I visited tunnel number three and got to walk through a part of it. It’s small. I had to wear a helmet and walk in a crouch the whole time. Of course Aya and our guide had no trouble. As our guide explained, most North Korean men would be 150cm tall or less and there was no need to make the tunnel bigger.
Although the line itself isn’t funny, the bravado shown here is. The North Koreans set up fake towns to make the north look populated. In one place, when the south put up a flag pole they put up a bigger one directly across the line. I’m not sure about the South Korean side, but I am sure there have been some taunts.

Although relations between the two has seemed to get better in recent years. The North has even opened up for some trade with the south and allowed tours to be conducted in the North.


One of the most exciting things in going to South Korea was getting to see a real Liger. I was unaware that this animal existed until the movie Napoleon Dynamite came out a few years ago. When reading up on South Korea I found a small note that there was a liger at the Everland amusement park. So of course Aya and I went.
Ligers have been around since the 19th century. The breed between a male lion and a female tiger produces this beautiful creature. There is also a tigon, which is the breed between a male tiger and a female lion. Both of these unions have occurred in the wild, but they are extremely rare in that setting. Although fertility goes down, but ligers are fertile and can produce offspring. There are cubs at Noah’s Ark Zoo in Germany.
But the coolest fact about Ligers is that they are some of the biggest cats on earth. In fact the largest cat in the world is a liger named Hercules who lives at a zoo in Miami. He is 10 feet long and over 1100 pounds. There is another Liger called Sinbad that is reported to now be the same size and weight, although Hercules is the official record holder. Here is a video from National Geographic on Sinbad and Ligers. Please note that in this video Sinbad is only 900 pounds and is now larger.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Fun Fact

Japan’s fish consumption per capita per year is 152lbs; which means a little less than a half pound of fish per day per person. To put that in perspective, the US consumes about 46lbs per person a year!

The Mountains that Surround Me

The snows in the mountains started about a month ago now and it is a reminder to me of how beautiful they can be. The picture with the apples trees in the foreground is three steps out my front door. Where I live is in a basin surrounded on all sides by mountains. In the southern end of the basin, where I am located, the mountains are high, but the northern end has the highest mountains of the area as you can see from the pictures above of snow capped mountains. Green rolling “hills” surround where I live while Mt. Iide and Mt Bandai punctuate the northern boundary of the Aizu Basin.
Japan has a very extensive range of mountains as it should being the work of millions of years of volcanic activity and plate shifting. Almost everywhere in Japan is mountainous and Japan’s most famous Mountain, Fuji, is in fact a volcano. It is also the highest peak in Japan at 3776m. While the mountains near me are lower, Iide at 2105m and Bandai at 1819m, most of the mountains in the Japanese Alps are near the 3000m mark. To give some perspective to this lets look at some of the other more famous mountains in the United States. The highest mountain in the Appalachians is Mount Mitchell at 2037m. On the west coast the tallest is Mt. Hood standing at 3429m. Timms Hill, 595m is the highest point in Wisconsin.
I love these mountains because it made Aizu a special place by cutting it off from the rest of japan so thoroughly and it has developed a lot of its own culture because of that.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


As a teacher of United States history I have taught about this event a few times and have read literature on the subject. Hiroshima is seared into the memory of the world for the terrible event that occurred there at 8:15 on August 6th, 1945. On that day the single largest instantaneous loss of human life occurred killing over 100,000 people in the blink of an eye. Undiscriminating instant death, not to mention the tens of thousands who died in the 24hrs after the blast along with those who suffer latent death and deformity, even today.

There are some very interesting things that occurred because of the bomb, namely human shadows being burned into stone, glass imbedded in rock from the force of the blast, concrete pillars hammer full length into the ground. What followed was unprecedented medical conditions and deaths; hair loss, bleeding of gums, bleeding from all orifices, and numerous arrays of cancer are just a start to the awful power of man. Terrible power demonstrated in an entire city razed.

The Peace Memorial Park, along with the museum that is one the grounds, demonstrates in great detail the power of the bomb and the moral need not to use it. Pictures of victims, burns, flesh hanging, limbs missing, all of this is on full display. Stories of children who suffered latent affects. Normal everyday people who had very little to do with the war that destroyed them. Living here in Japan I have gotten very close to some of the Japanese people around me and like most people I can no longer fathom the enemy that was now that I am in close proximity. Japanese people, then and now, are just like everyone else. They have hopes and dreams, they love their children; they live happy quiet lives. Like most wars those who suffered were those who were ordinary citizens with little reason to fight and die except for the honor or their country.

The point of all this? Well, the bomb was incredibly destructive and has gotten ever more destructive to the point where now nuclear warheads are many times the power of that dropped on Hiroshima. The United States alone has thousands of these warheads. Along with many other countries who have acquired nuclear capabilities. Death waits at any moment for every person within the greater radius of a city (over 75% of the world).
I can’t help but to feel cynical. While a nuclear war has so far been averted, war itself continues. We still kill each other, we still kill innocents, and we still inflict terrible suffering. One has to ask themselves, upon entering Hiroshima, if we have learned a lesson or not. In my mind the answer is no, we have not.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Sendai Jazz Festival

The Sendai Jazz festival is a great place for people to come and feel the life of a city. This is my second year going and it was just as good as the first. I went with Aya, her parents, and two of my friends. Sendai is a pretty nice city as it is, but when 714 bands converge on the city performing on 96 stages it gets pretty lively. There are many small stages set through a roughly ten block radius of the city. However, there are three “main spots” at the grounds. The biggest one, located in Enkei and Koutoudai Park, is where the main action is. There are 3 large stages, three small stages, and about20 various food booths at this location. There are also two smaller locations. One about a 5 minute walk to the East of Koutoudai Park, in Nishikicho Park, which has a couple of small stages and a handful of food and beverage tents. The other one is to the west and slightly south of Enkei Park. This place has a few stages, The World Food Market, and a flea market. It’s about a ten minute walk west of Enkei Park. I recommend taking Johzenji Dori as it has a wide boulevard with a center walk that is covered by large leafy trees and on the way is the Sendai Mediatheque, which is a great stopping point for art, food, and beer. For complete information visit this site,

Nishi Park was my favorite. The World Food Market had German meats, Mexican, Indian, and others. It was nice to have a little bit of multi-cultural flavor being as where I live there is little of it. I was also surprised by the flea market. I love flea markets. I love other peoples old junk. It was really surprising to me, in the land of everything new/nothing used, to find a flea market.

It was a really great way to spend the weekend and a good reminder that there really is a lot of expressive culture in Japan. Japan is not all temples and kimonos. It’s not just technology and sumo. It’s a lot of young (and not so young) people wanting to express themselves through music, art, and fashion. Much of the time Japanese society is very stifling when it comes to individuality. People are pressured to conform to group ideas and group image in order to ensure harmony. Many times this is a good thing as the wheels get more grease, but in some ways this is can be very depressing, especially for the young and artistic. Sendai Jazz Festival is a great outlet for everyone to let loose with sound and color. To kind of let it all out and paint, dance, sing, and be different!. I highly recommend going if you are in a 4 hour radius of Sendai! Let your freak flag fly!

Thursday, September 18, 2008


If you are not familiar with it, Gundam is about giant mechanical humanoid robot like things. Think transformers that don’t transform, have human pilots inside of them, and carry guns, swords, and grenades. The idea of Gundams themselves is not new, there have been a number of comics, toys, movies, etc. made about Gundams. They’re these vehicles that you climb inside of and battle with against other people who have climbed inside of their giant robots. In a way it is very reflective of Japanese society. Climb into something you are not to take on the hard tasks.
Fairly recently a Gundam arcade game involving pods has emerged. These pods seem like they'd do a great job of simulating sitting in a giant robot. They have headphones with microphone for voice chat with players on your team as well as being able to play on teams with people in other arcades. The pods are networked not only at the local arcade but across the net to other arcades all throughout Japan.

Outside the pods there is a battle status display so people outside can see how the battle is going. There are two sides each consisting of anywhere from 4 to 8 people playing against each other each game. The inside of the pod move like a tank with pedals and opposing hand operated joysticks equipped with a series of buttons.
Apparently the game is designed so it's important to co-operate with your teammates in order to do well. My friend Richard and I often go together and stick together on the battle field so we can help each other out, which is usually affective and a lot more fun. We have also played with his teacher and some other friends. Most people love the game, but are turned off by the price, which may be smart as the game becomes addictive. Like most games it has upgrades and things to unlock as you go along. Therefore to get that next stage Gundam or weapon, well you have plunk another 2000 yen down and play some more games. I have certainly become addicted and added this to my list of things I should do less of. I would guess that in the past 6 months or so of playing I have spent about 3 man, or the equivilant of 250 dollars. It has also led to me being in class A, which is the highest bracket. I hope that when I do finally stop playing that I can sell my player card and recoup some of the cost.

The game is expensive, it costs 300 yen for a initial pilot card (2.25 US) which is like a credit card that stores all your information and 500 yen (about 4.25) every game you play. The games consist of two battle phases that last for 250 seconds a piece. Meaning you pay one yen per second. Time entering the pod, battling and receiving information is usually about 15 minutes.
I found a bunch of videos on YouTube, but none of them really do it justice because of the way the screen looks. It’s hard to capture that 180 degree field with a camera the same way the human eye does. This guy’s video was pretty good because he explained things as he went. You can check it out here

Monday, August 18, 2008

I Would Like to Buy a Life Please

Cars here in Japan have some very interesting names. My own has a pretty meager and descriptive name; Wagon (suzuki), but there are some out there with more interesting names such as the Life (Honda), Wish (Toyota?), AZWagon (Suzuki), Saloon (Toyota?), March (Nissan), Joy (Nissan?), and Fit(Honda?). All of these are fun names and when a foreigner sees these they might snicker a little bit, but when you think about it they aren't all that bad. Some of them are even very descriptive of the car and its function like the Cube(Honda) and the Move(Toyota?) Just another interesting thing about Japan.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Whats With The What?

It’s been almost one year on exactly. Here I am, still in Japan. In the same apartment, in the same town, at the same school, but this year it’s different. I feel like I have just gotten to adjust to this country, not like I will ever completely, but at least to the point where I am not always surprised or confused. It’s awfully hard to tell how much I have changed since being here, but I got a good idea when I went back to the U.S. for two weeks.

A few of the expatriates that I have talked to in the past have told me that there isn’t reverse culture shock, it doesn’t exist. They are wrong. There is reverse culture shock, it does exist, but its only allowed to exist if you have changed in the other culture. If you haven’t allowed yourself to change, of course, returning home will bring no stress. If you have, however, the old world will not be the same.

Coming home was truly a measure for me of how things had changed, how I had changed, and of course a testament of how life moves on while I am absent from my former role. My nephews have grown older and started talking to some degree and of course my grandfather has grown a little older and my grandmother is gone. Those people are clear indicators of the passage of time, but only because they are on the periphery of age, hence showing the most change. My friends and family had grown as well but in different ways. Ways that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Maybe because it wasn’t them so much as my perception of them and the world in which their lives existed that had changed.

One of my friends and I had a very genuine talk in which they really questioned the core of their life and whether or not they had made the right choices. They said that they were envious that I had not chosen a normal path, that I set out over that far hill to see what was out there and got what I wanted. I have heard this before and in a corner of my heart I know it to be true and something that I take pleasure from. I chose a different path and from that I have gained a vast amount of wisdom. However living abroad has not brought about fields of daisy and days of leisure. Traveling has been hard work. Learning new customs and a new language is stressful and often lonely. It’s beset with frustrations and defeats day after day in what can appear to be a never improving situation. You are awash in another culture, so it’s up to you to find ways to adjust.

I got a big dose of this by bringing Aya home with me to America. It was hard for her. Her English is good, not perfect, but good enough to communicate more than wants and needs. She has also spent some time around the foreigners here in Japan and in other countries. Yet, being in the U.S. was very stressful for her. She often made that known to me by complaining that I hadn’t brought her to the right store because they didn’t have the right peaches (true story) to telling me that I wasn’t helping her integrate into coversations (also true story, unfortunately).

Many people think that living in a foreign country is an adventure, which it is. Although they forget that it’s not an adventure you return home from in a week or two. You don’t get to sit on a beach, made for you, and learn just a few words to get by. It’s your life, not a break from it. It is the rare person that does it and that is mainly because of fear of the unknown, uncontrollable, or uncomfortable. Everyday presents some struggle whether its as simple as reading a label in the grocery store and guessing as to the contents or as difficult as explaining your cultural perspective in a tongue that is not your own to people who find your physical appearance enough reason to treat you differently, whether that be nicely or not.

I didn’t get here by backing away from what I was afraid of or what was difficult and I didn’t get here by one flawless victory over another. I’ve taken some big defeats getting where I am, Egypt being the most notable. Everyday there is a new struggle and everyday brings defeat in some way. You just have to take those in stride and focus on what you are accomplishing. One defeat or one victory doesn’t mean the struggle is over. One can’t expect to find much of anything in one moment. Anything worth doing takes persistence. So I persist here in Japan. Here as a senpai (elder person) to the new ALTs. Here as a teacher to my kids for a second year. Here as a foreigner. Here as myself.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Japanese drivers license, Fukushima

For those of you who have found this site in a preliminary search for Japanese drivers license information you have come to a good place. The site icanusechopsticks is a good one for information about the Fukushima drivers test, which is where I took my test, however I would like to add a few things to that. After the blog portion I will add a few numbered tips.
Getting a drivers license in Japan, for an American, is not an easy thing. There are a few reasons for this; namely that the US does not accept the licenses of other countries as transferable. Meaning, if you have a license in your home country, it probably won’t matter, you must take the driving test in America to get an American license. In some ways it’s understandable that Japan has merely reciprocated Americans treatment of its citizens, but in many ways this is just a silly game.
I have held a US drivers license for a decade, that’s 10 years if you don’t know. I feel like this is a good amount of time to learn how to drive. I have also had an international license in Japan for a year, which I used to drive my car on almost daily basis having incurred no traffic tickets and having no accidents. For me, these two things would be enough to prove my worthiness, but it was not so.

To even be considered I had to produce my US license, my passport, a letter from my town stating that I worked for them, a translation of my US license, a letter from my DMV stating when I first got my license, a 2.4x5 cm picture (not smiling), and my international drivers license. There was another foreigner there that day, a man from Taiwan who had an American license. Unfortunately he forgot the letter from his employer and could not proceed to the paper and driving test.
Along with all the paper work I also read icanusechopsticks a couple time, then went to driving school for an hour (5000 yen) then read icanusechopsticks another couple of times and studied the diagrams.
After that I had to get myself to the Fukushima Driving Center to take the test, which takes all day and thereby required me to take a day off and stay in a hotel the night before as the process starts early and Fukushima is over 2 hours away from me. Upon arriving I immediately had to buy a stamp for about 3000 yen. After which I had to wait, then fill out some forms, then wait, fill out forms, etc. After about 2 hours came a challenge. The tester wanted me to prove, by citing dates in my passport, that I had been in the US for at least three months since the issuance of my license in 1998. Well, the first 5 years or so I was in the US, and so had no proof that I was in the US since there was no stamp saying so. After that I had to piece together bits of half inked arrival and departure stamps, some in Arabic, to prove that I had indeed been in the US for at least 3 months.
After everything was fairly well in place I was given a paper test, consisting of 10 questions that you are given 5 minutes to complete. The questions were not hard. These questions were in English and had pictures to accompany them. However, the English was slightly confusing. I scored a 10/10 although to pass you only need 7/10.
Next was lunch time, one hour during which you can safely leave the premises and/or walk the course. I walked the course once, with my diagram, pretending to be driving. The man from Taiwan thought I was crazy for being so fixated on detail.

At one o’clock I reconvened with the instructor and two older women. My girlfriend tells me that they were both foreigners although they didn’t look like it and I didn’t pick up any accents in the rapid Japanese they were speaking. The three of us got into the car and the instructor drove the entire course beginning to end explaining along the way what he was doing (Yes! In rapid Japanese, of course). When we returned to the beginning he instructed me to get out and stand over on the curb. An additional instructor then got into the car with the two women and the first woman’s test began. I was pretty sure that she failed right off as the car lurched forward then back again. She had forgotten to release the parking break before starting. The woman did the course, got a good talking to by the instructors after and then went back into the building not knowing if she passed or not (it was her third try, she didn’t pass). The whole time the other woman had been in the back seat, observing the first. Now it was my turn to get into the back and for her to drive.
As I got into the back I said, “Konichiwa” to one of the instructors and gave him a smile. The woman I observed did pretty well, but I knew she had failed. At two separate points her right side crossed the center line thereby being in oncoming traffic. At the end of the course I was asked to stand outside the car and the two instructors then began to tell her what she did wrong. I was trying to listen for pointers when the woman burst into tears and raised her voice. This continued for a minute or two and then she exited the car and entered the building (it was her second try, she did not pass). Then it was my turn.

With just myself and the instructors in the car I proceeded to become a driving robot. Before I started the car I even threw in a “Yoroshiku oneigaishimasu” which is like saying, “please care for me” I proceeded through the test, which is pretty much like icanusechopsticks describes it. The instructor only made one red slash on his scoring sheet, but I was pretty sure that was enough to fail me; here is what happened. At one point I stopped at a flashing red light, about 50cm behind the white line, which is perfect. As I began to proceed, after my full, stop a woman taking her motorcycles test appeared on the left and I promptly hit the brake. Bugger. The instructor told me to wait a moment, then got out of the car to see how far I had gone over the line if at all. It was at this point that the infamous red mark appeared and he told me to proceed. The rest of the course was fine. I did everything perfectly. When I parked and he began to tell me what I did wrong I had to ask him to speak slowly as I only understood a little Japanese. As is the case with most people, this did not slow him down. I got the run down on the red slash, I had not crossed the white line, but come up to it and that was close enough for the possibility of a bicycle to hit me or me to hit them, even though the crosswalk is another 150cm in front of the white line. He then asked me how long I had held a license in the US to which I responded, “ju nen kan”, for ten years. He nodded, then told me to go to the third floor where my girlfriend was waiting. I told her I failed, because no one ever passes on the first try, and we waited. In the next ten minutes both of the ladies before me were called to the counter and told they did not pass and would have to come back. When my name was called we slowly got up and came to the window. The attendant held up and ok sign and said, “Ok des, Kebin san, ok” Wahoo! I passed, first time!
Fortunately the instructor’s whim did not sink me. A drivers starts with 100 points and you must get 70 to pass. There is a laundry list of things that you lose points for, but in reality the instructor can fail you for not turning your head far enough when making checks, or for turning it too far. It’s really up to them. I studied, I knew the course, I drove like a robot, I only made one mistake, I aced the paper test, but in the end it was just good luck that passed me.

Here are a couple things I want to add to the information on the chopsticks site.

1. If you call ahead and make an appointment you don’t have to show up between 830 and 9am, you can come in later, like 930 or 10
2. Release the parking break! My car did not have a lever in the center console, but a pull latch under the steering wheel, that is probably why the first woman forgot it.
3. Be overly polite and responsive to your instructors. (Hai, wakarimashita, arigato gozaimashita, yoroshiku oneigaishimasu)
4. Go to driving school before hand, it helped me on a couple little things.
5. Don’t sweat the paper test, its not hard.
6. Don’t worry about the crank and S turns, they are not hard, just go slow if you need to.
7. Walk the course, walk the course, walk the course.
8. If you can, bring a Japanese friend to help you, it was strides better because I had my girlfriend there.
9. Make sure you have all the proper documents before going, you don’t want to waste a vacation day getting rejected before you get on the course.
10. Cross your fingers, a lot of it is just luck.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Tokyo; Sumo and Kabuki

Last weekend a group of friends and I went to Tokyo to experience some things very unique to Japanese culture. We went to see sumo and kabuki! If you don’t know what Kabuki is, well neither did I when I got here. If you don’t know what sumo is,… where did you grow up? Everybody knows what it is right? However, even after going and watching it for myself, in Japan, in Tokyo, I am still not understanding everything that is involved. Two men enter a ring; usually they are very fat and also quite strong. These men rely not only on physical strength, but physics as well. Often a man is beaten because he will throw himself at his opponent attempting to knock them out of the ring and the opponent will dodge the blow and let moment carry his opponent to defeat. Being out of the ring, or putting a knee or hand down signals the end. The ring is actually a raised square of compacted sand with a circle on top of it. The wrestlers will mount the square and then they will proceed to go through a ritual of expelling evil spirits and purifying the ring. Apparently this involves slapping their chest, throwing salt into the ring, and stomping on the ground. The crowd cheers their favorites. Then the two men engage in combat for a few brief moments and the whole thing is over. I saw the number one wrestler in the world, needless to say, it was quite special and I can’t wait to go again. In fact, my school has a small team that I may try a practice with. I'm really pumped about sumo.

Kabuki was a different story. Kabuki is a traditional Japanese theater. When I told my Japanese teachers there response was something like, "oh, ... uh, no, havent seen it, uh... you might be bored?" When I heard this I thought to myself, it can’t be that bad, it’s an experience of culture, I can bear it. I fell asleep during the first act and at that point remembered that I do not really like theater. I also recounted how I fell asleep in Beijing while watching traditional theater there. However, my friends liked it and so my feelings were not shared by all. I have also since heard of a different troupe of Kabuki actors whose plays involve modern Japanese language, without drawn out dialogue, and more fight scenes. Perhaps I will give Kabuki one more try.

Check this link for my friend Brian’s video which of course has me in it. or just check Youtube and search for brianadler. This video is done by National Geographic and is of much better quality.
Or follow this link to footage of the champ in action

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Fun Facts (OOOOOO Hashi)

The Japanese use chopsticks for most meals, in Japanese the name is o hashi, or hashi, depending on the context. The thing about Japan is that you will quickly find yourself using a disposable pair of chopsticks, then another, then another, then another, and so forth until you ask your self where they are coming from and where they are going.
The truth is that they are probably coming from China (97%) and they end up in the trash, to be burned. This may not seem so bad, BUT Japan uses an estimated 25 BILLION disposable chopsticks each year. Thats about 200 pairs per person, in Japan, every year.
I'm certainly not the first person to harp on this, its been a long concern. I'm just another now aware person. How to combat this? Deny chopsticks that you will not use and better yet, carry your own. I bought a plastic pair with a travel case from the 100 Yen store (dollar store) and often take them to dinner with me. Its not hard and I estimate that my average yearly use goes down from 75 or so a year to less than 30. Now that is something to chew on.

Golden Week

Golden week has come and gone, but my memory remains. Here in Japan there is a 7 day period during which three public holidays fall. This is called Golden Week because of the mass amounts of time off in such a short period, its “Golden”! Most people go to Korea or China or somewhere far. I was broke, almost, so I didn’t travel very far. However, I did “get away”.
I decided that I would pack up the hiking pack, throw a futon in the back of my car, spend what money I had on gas, and hit the road. My aim was Mt. Iide. Unfortunately it took me about 5 minutes on the road to realize I would never make it, even though Iide is about 3 hours away by car. As you can see in the picture, it is covered in snow and currently not climbable and barely approachable.
Plans changed to B and I decided to aim for Oguni, which is near Iide and has a 5 story wooden pagoda in the middle of a big park with lots of hiking trails. Two hours later I was in Yamagata prefecture and knew I had been thwarted. I calculated that I did not have enough gas to make it to Oguni and back and I did not have anymore money. Therefore I went to plan C.
Plan C was to just hike around my area, Aizu. I did this taking care to visit places that I had never been to before and purposely get lost. I was on roads that I never had been on before. I often had to check the map and when I was hiking during the day I was on trails I had never been on before.
I spent just a few days hiking around and a couple of nights sleeping in the back of the car, but it really put my mind at ease. It was the perfect vacation. I was alone, trekking around, sleeping in my car, eating off a camp fire, reading a lot, and meeting the occasional interesting Japanese person.
I had a few conversations with Japanese hikers who also appeared to be on their own, but the kicker was on the second day when I saw hang-gliders at the top of “Flower Mountain” I couldn’t fathom why they were circling the mountain so I hiked up to find them. I saw the last two hang-gliders take off for the day and then talked to the instructor who had the job of packing up. He told me its quite fun, and not really scary at all. I only believe him a little.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008


There isn’t too much for me to say about Kyoto. Yes, I know, I know, it has a long and rich history, but that is not my story. Kyoto is the “old” capitol of Japan. Location was switched in around 1865 after to Boshin War to the present location of Tokyo, leaving much of the old life intact in Kyoto. If you go today you will find a beautiful city, full of temples and tradition. I saw geisha, sakura (cherry blossoms), and many, many temples and shrines.
I went with my friend and his friend from Puerto Rico. It was really nice to have their companionship. My friend and I took an overnight bus from Fukushima City, it took about 8 hours to get there, but the drive was fairly comfortable and I got some sleep during the night. Upon arriving there we walked around a bit and eventually got a bento lunch, a beer, and a comfortable spot in the park where we ate and then napped. It was really rather lovely with the newly bloomed cherry trees around us. Later we met up with his friend who had been touring other parts of Japan. Over the next few days we bumped around the city, exploring and doing fun things like renting bikes, going to a jazz club (where Richard played with the band!), and of course going to many historical spots. My main impression of Kyoto was temple/shrine – temple/shrine. I plan to revisit some day as I had only about 48 hours and I am sure it will be much more temple/shrine, but I hope to find something else, something deeper. Perhaps the next time around will be more meaningful.

Friday, May 02, 2008

The Price We Pay

There are many drink vending machines in Japan. At first I thought, I don’t care, I rarely used these in America so I won’t use them here. Over time I have come to use these, they are everywhere! For instance, about a block and a half from my apartment complex there are three such vending machines. In America we put our vending machines in social areas such as offices, ballparks, or road side stops. In Japan they put them just about anywhere. This particular grouping of vending machine is in the middle of a neighborhood, about 7 blocks from the nearest thing that Americans might consider a social gathering point. Strange, but even more strange are the prices!

As an American who tends to think in terms of monetary value when I first saw this machine I was a little confused and amused. If you look closely at the small can of CC Lemon you will see that it is 120 Yen, if you look at the large can of CC Lemon you will see that it is 120 Yen. The same price! The Mountain Dew and Pepsi follow the same fashion. I pondered why this was and got a simple explanation in a story from one of the books I have. Japanese tend to think in terms of efficiency, so, even if the colas are priced the same they will purchase the drink that they are able to consume, not the one that is a better monetary value. That is the price we pay.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Pod People

Before coming to Japan there were only a handful of things that I knew about Japan. They ate raw fish, they made really good tech stuff, the people were small, and there were pod hotels. While I adjusted to life here in the past 8 months I have come to learn much more about this culture. However, one thing I still get excited about is the pod. I've slept in a pod and its not that bad. The novelty is a great kicker, but its just darn efficient. You have a row of pods, maybe 10 long by 2 high, in which about 20 people can fit into the space that maybe 4 or 5 people would fit in a normal hotel. Genius I tell you! I had my friend Katie do a short descriptive overview of the pod and how it works. If you want to see that please visit Oh, and by the way, they aren't called pods, they are capsules.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Hokkaido Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival)

This past weekend my friends Alison, Brian, Cindy and I drove to Hokkaido for the Sapporo snow festival and I spent two out of the three nights propped up in the front seat of a car, or face down on the floor of the ferry. Not the best sleep I've ever had, but I really enjoyed the trip and the festival.
If you don’t know, Hokkaido is the northern most and least densely populated of Japan’s Islands. It has a harsh winter climate, something I think is comparable to a Wisconsin winter. Hokkaido is also famous for its cheese and beef, kind of like Wisconsin. It felt a little bit like home getting to freeze my butt off and eat good cheese for a couple of days.

Driving to Hokkaido was surprisingly easy, too. A little more expensive than driving in the states, but it was cheaper than taking the train or flying. We took the expressway north to Aomori Prefecture where we caught a ferry in Hachinohei; a very industrial town littered with cranes. The ferry ride lasted about 7 hours and put us in Tomakomai, which was littered with oil depots. From there we had to get to Tomamu, a few hours east of Sapporo where we were to meet Brian and Kiyoe who had flown up to Hokkaido a day earlier, only we found ourselves driving around for hours desperately searching for a gas station in a town not far from Tomamu instead. Apparently gas stations are either non-existent or closed after 8:00pm in Hokkaido because we ended up purchasing 20 liters of gas as well as a JAF membership card (the Japanese equivalent to AAA) from a JAF station. We made it to Tomamu around 11:00pm, too late to visit the ice village and ice hotel where Brian and Kiyoe were staying, but our hotel was quite nice. The next day we crammed Brian and Kiyoe in Alison's car and drove to Sapporo to see the snow festival. It was quite impressive. I especially liked Inuyama Castle. That night we met up with some of my friends who lived in Hokkaido and we all sang karaoke together. We had to leave Sapporo around midnight and head back down to Tomakomai in time to catch the ferry home at 5:00am. Once back at the car, however, we discovered it had been chained to a fence. We had accidentally parked in the lot of a pornography store and they demanded we pay 8000 yen (about $75) for the eight hours we had been parked there. Our own fault I suppose, but what a rip off. We made it to the ferry on time and fell asleep for the duration of the trip. Once back on Honshu Alison and I took turns at the wheel and we got home to Aizu around 9:30pm. Overall, I think it was a very successful road trip. To see Brian’s awesome video of the trip please visit this page.
Brian usually does a good job with his videos and if famous among all the JETs here for his tagline, “Where are we know?” My tagline in all the videos I am in is Brian saying, “AND Kevin was there!” and I say, “And I was there” There are now five videos of his in which I appear with my famous line; Sendai Jazz Festival, Sukagawa Fire Festival, Tokyo Disney, Hokkaido Snow Festival and Thailand.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


We arrived in Taiwan around noon and of course we were greasy and ready to lay down somewhere for a very long time. David Jinkins, staunch and starched was there waiting for us. Thankfully he was there so we didn't have to deal with much. He made sure we had the right bus and the right tickets and then took us into the city the whole way chatting with us about what we had been up to Economics. When we finally jumped off the bus in Taipei David insisted that we go to a certain restaurant to have his favorite dish, unfortunately it was closed and we wouldn't get to taste it til the next day. We had set ourselves up in a hostel not far from David who was, we would find out, run by one of the strangest men. He was really nice, but so strange and always wanting you to do something. Sign this ping pong ball, write in this journal, or join my international group, he just wouldn't quit. Thankfully Dave got us around the city a bit and we saw some nice neighborhoods as well as had some good food. What were those cold balls called Dave? J Later that night we again went out for some beer and strange food. We ate at a Tibetian food and had a nice tea called butter tea. I thought it smelled reminiscent of something foul, but was soon taken with its creamy flavor.

The next day we were up late and ready to go by noon. It was our objective to see the National Museum and to go to Taipei 101. While the national museum was neat I would not recommend more than half a day there if you are not going for a particular reason. There many old aritifacts and even some more modern displays, but nothing to hold my attention for more than a few hours. Moving on to Taipei 101.
101 is, but will soon not be, the tallest building in the world. We took the elevator to the 88th floor which is close to as high as you can get. This floor was an observation floor and although no one else seemed to notice or care I could feel the building sway! It was really cool. Something very unique about Taipei 101 is that there is a giant metal ball suspended by cables in the center of the building on the 84 floor. This is supposed to keep the building balanced as it sways back and forth and particularly in the case of an earthquake. I have been up a lot of tall things, London Eye, Eiffel Tower, Prudential Center, Empire State building, Sears tower, top of St Paul's, top of St. Peter's, but I was very taken with Taipei 101. It was very unique. That night we went out with one of Dave's roommates for a couple of beers and some authentic hole in the wall food. Good stuff.

The next day we did not do much at all. After waking late we took a couple of trains to the eastern side of Taipei where there is an extension network of cables hosting a gondolas that go up and down the surrounding hillside. If you want to see a video please visit it was really quite cool. We stopped at the top of the mountain to take in a Buddhist and a Shinto temple and then went a little further to have some tea.
All in all a good night, we headed back to the hostel where a birthday party awaited.
Our eccentric hostel keeper had found out that it was my birthday in January and so decided to throw a party for me and the two other guys who were staying there that had January birthdays. About 15 people came together to have some cake and beer. It was a good time made even more fun by the sheer silliness of it all.
The next morning we were up late, again, and out of the hostel by around 11 to get our early afternoon flight back to Japan. In a way it was a sigh of relief as we were all ready to be "home" again. For me though it was a bit sad as I had to leave my friend Dave again. I have seen him in 4 countries now and in each he has played tour guide to me with no complaints. I am certainly lucky to have a friend like him.

The Island

The Island. The island was beautiful and full of tourists. Our bus ride from Koh San road was fine, but a bit long, about 10 hours. They played Die Hard 4 on the bus and turned off the lights, so reading was impossible- so we watched Die Hard, even though we had already seen it. We arrived at the ferry port at 7 am and boarded a ferry, which was fine. The ride to the island was beautiful. As the sun came up we could see many islands around us and the nice blue water below us. Having traveled for about 12 hours by that point we were about ready for a shower and a good nap.
When we arrived on the island our hotel was not ready yet, so we chilled and got something to eat across the road at the Safety Stop bar. This became headquarters for rendevous and the like; also they served good hamburgers for when we were tired of Thai food. Once we could we all went to our hotel, showered, and then lounged for a couple of hours to regain our footing. That afternoon we trekked it to a beach not far from us and went snorkeling. It was really fun, but I thought it to be unusually hard to do. I guess I just figured it would be easier than it was. I kept getting water in my tube and had trouble keeping up with my partner, but it was still pretty fun and there were a few fish and such to see. At one point Rich was snorkeling out near a large rock and ran into some divers- they mustve been doing a practice run, because it wasnt that deep. In fact, he went down there and gave em the thumbs up a few times- I don't think they liked seeing a snorkeler keeping up with them, must've made them feel kinda silly diving there of all places with all that gear and such.
While Rich and I were out snorkeling Katie found a new friend and by the time I got back to the beach they were chatting it up like a couple of school girls. Her name was Ursula and she was there with her boyfriend Mike. They were both from England, nice couple of people. When Richard got back to the beach we all chilled at the bar and decided to meet up later for eats and drinks, which we did. It was a really nice day, and a great start to our time on the island.

The next day we went to a beach where we heard we could find black-tip reef sharks. So Rich, Mike, and I went out for at least a two hour snorkeling session. We did eventually see some sharks, and one giant turtle. Neither species mided us swimming around with them, though they did keep their distance. After we returned to the beach, Rich decided he wanted to swim to an island that was a little ways of out the bay. He neglected to check a map for the actual distance. The rest of us decided to hang out on the beach and bit more, head back to the hotel, shower and get ready for dinner. A few hours later we all met up for dinner minus Rich. By this time it was dark and we were all stumped as to where he was. He finally came sloggin up 4 hours after we last saw him and told us the story.
The island ended up being a little less than 2 kilometers away from our beach. I'm not sure how long it took him to get there, but it must've been around an hour of swimming- also, once he had gotten out of the bay, the current kept pushing him, making the swim that much more difficult. The island was more like a mountain tip sticking out of the sea, so he decided that while he was here he would climb the thing. That took him about another half an hour, and not having shoes made it more painful than expected.
He didn't have a watch, but he kind of knew that if I didn't start heading back soon it would be dark. So back into the sea. This time he decided to swim to a closer beach and walk the rest of the way. Made it to that beach, which was a resort beach, and started walking down the road that led away from it. This was a terrible mistake. The road in no way led me the direction he wanted to go, it got dark quickly, and he had no shoes. Also the first 30 minutes of it was extremely steep. His motorcycle was parked at the entrance to the other beach, so after he climbed/walked to what must've been one of the higher points on the island, he started to look around for some way to get back down to the shark beach. He failed. At one point He was walking through jungle. 2-3 hours later he got to his bike, and headed back into town to meet for dinner. He was exhausted, and had little cuts all over his feet.

Our days pretty much ebbed and flowed like that for the next couple. Late to rise, down to the beach, beers around 4, nap and shower around 7 and then out to eat and drink a little more before bed. I found it quite enjoyable. New Year's Eve was something quite different and fun. If I told you that I spent New Year's on a beach in Thailand you could probably imagine what it was like. There were fire dancers, lots of music, lots of people drunk and dancing, people in the water, floating lanterns being sent into the air, and of course the general good cheer that goes with being in an island paradise full of drunken young travelers. All in all a good choice and something very unique and interesting.

Around the last day bad weather arrived and as the sky darkened the sea became a bit rougher. By the last day I did not want to stay on the island anymore, just getting a bit bored, and I did not want to leave, the waves were huge! As we boarded our ferry a ragged bunch of people got off the boat from one of the other islands. (two guys had trunks, scratches all over, and plastic bags on their feet...nothing else) People looked sick and frightened. One guy said, "Don't get on this boat; they are going to use another one because it's not safe." I wasn't really sure what he meant and they did not switch the boat, but I figured all was well because of the crew. They looked cheerful and were not reluctant to get on the boat. If trouble was up, they would know, so I just followed their lead.
I can't say that the ride was easy, in fact it was one of the worst I have ever had. For the first 15 minutes or so I was terribly sick from the rocking of the waves. They were so bad that to walk to the deck you had to stutter step and keep your legs in ready stance the whole time. I could have sworn we were going to tip and I wasn't alone. About half of the other people on the boat were the same as I was and the rest weren't much better. Around an hour in I started to feel better, but at the same time Katie started to feel sick. It was almost as if we switched positions and now she was going for the worse. Richard slept almost the whole time, I don't know how he did it, but I certainly was jealous.
By the time we got to the other shore about half the people on the boat had puked (some on themselves mind you!) and all were glad to get off that boat. Unfortunately the traveling wasn't done for us and we boarded another 12 hour bus to take us back to Koh San road where we got a cab to the airport and jumped our flight to Taiwan at 8 in the morning.