Category Archives: Yoichi

Driving in Japan

When I accepted my placement in the rural town of Shakotan, there was one aspect of the position that really bothered me. It wasn’t the relative isolation in the country, or the fact that almost no one spoke any English (or so I’d been told). Even the promise of an epic winter with massive snowfalls the likes of which I had never seen wasn’t a worry for me. It was the driving. You see, one simply cannot work outside of major cities without needing a car.

Well, that's informative.

Personally, I don’t have much love for automobiles. It may be un-American to say, but I think the way people fetishize cars is absurd. Some people may see owning a car as liberating, but I see the opposite. I hate being confided to a car seat, obligated to focus on the task of driving for long periods of time. (It’s boring and my legs start to cramp up after a while.) I hate being in – nay, a part of – traffic. I hate all the maintenance that owning a car entails. I hate all the trouble one has to go through with car registration and insurance. I hate the expense of gasoline and the social implications its use. In general, I just hate driving – but I hate parking even more.

One of things I had loved about Seattle was that I had been able to get around the city without needing a car. Sure, Seattle’s public transportation isn’t the best in the world, but it got the job done. Only on rare occasions did I need to borrow my brother’s car for something specific. I didn’t particularly mind riding the bus, and anytime I could get to a destination on foot, I felt especially gratified. But in rural Hokkaido, I needed a car, if for nothing else, just to drive to my more distant schools.

So the day before I left for Japan, I had made a trip to AAA and picked up an International Driving permit. This was a surprisingly quick and easy process, and only cost about $26. The International Driving permit was good for one year, and along with my valid Washington State driver’s license, officially allowed me to drive in something like 150 countries. This seemed far too easy…

The company leased a car for me. I was given a “location allowance” on my paycheck that made my net income look bigger, but it really just covered the cost of the car lease and a little gas. They handled the lease, insurance, registration and the like; they would even cover routine maintenance appointments for me at a nearby autoclub. This made the whole car thing rather foolproof on my end; just don’t get in an accident. (And I’ve been in my fair share of fender benders.) Once my car arrived, it was time to get the hang of driving again, this time on the left side of the road.

Driving on the left is, of course, the biggest difference between roads in the States and roads in Japan, and the one that’s hardest to acclimate to. The first time I drove my car, Yamazaki-san was in the passenger seat as we took a leisurely drive around Bikuni so that he could remind me where the schools were. I absentmindedly turned into the right lane twice with him in car, making him alternately laugh and freak out. While I was awfully careful driving on my own initially, I still ended up turning into oncoming traffic on at least five separate occasions. Parking lots are especially confusing when you’re used to using the wrong side of the road.

But eventually I got the hang of it. The 30-minute drive to Yoichi became routine. I even started making the long drive to Sapporo. This greatly impressed Nozomi-san, as I made the journey on my own, without dashboard navigation or even a map. (The road signs are in both Japanese and English, so I just followed them. It was really pretty easy.) When I had a free day and the weather was nice, I’d explore the coast and the mountain roadways of the Shiribeshi area, driving through Niki, Iwanai, Tomari, Kamoenai, and the like. During the summer break, I drove across central Hokkaido to the town of Obihiro for a massive fireworks display. I brought three passengers along who had naively put faith in my total lack of Japan driving experience.  With such practice, driving in Japan became second nature, and I got used to the little nuances that make Japan’s roadways unique. There were a few things that stood out for me.

For instance, at least in Hokkaido, people will quite often run a red light if it has just turned red. Occasionally, I’d fly through an intersection when the light was yellow – just barely making it legally, I thought – only to have three cars follow behind me. The first driver could maybe have facetiously claimed that the light was still yellow when he entered the intersection, but the second and third drivers definitely ran on red. At first, this slightly amused me as a blatant violation, but then I saw it happen over and over, and I started to wonder if maybe Japanese traffic laws were flexible on the whole “red means stop” thing. I eventually learned what is common knowledge in these parts, that when the traffic signal turns red, there are exactly three seconds before the cross traffic gets their green light. With this three-second gap in mind, drivers will often run red lights, slipping by without interfering with the flow of traffic. So when it comes down to it, green means ‘go’, red means ‘stop’, and yellow means ‘go really fast’. But for a fresh red, see yellow.

Another thing that startled me early on was that the police almost always drive around with their emergency lights flashing. The sirens aren’t on but the reds lights spin around, apparently without communicating any sense of emergency. I wasn’t sure if I should pull over when I first encountered this, but it turns out that the cops just generally cruise the highway like that. In fact, they often leave a squad car parked outside of the police station with its red lights flashing, as if just to remind you that they are there. If I ever do get pulled over in Japan, the cops will really have to use the siren or else I’ll have no idea that they want me to stop.

On the highway and especially in Sapporo, I learned quickly that the lanes are really just mere suggestions. Especially on four lane roads, drivers don’t really hesitate to swerve into the neighboring lane without so much as a turn signal, whether to avoid a park car on the left, or a car waiting to turn on the right. While this sounds dangerous, everyone is usually driving pretty defensively and looking out for what the other cars are doing, so it seems to work out pretty well.

Generally speaking, the speed limits in Japan are slow. REALLY freaking slow. Driving on the highway, I usually see 50kph as the posted speed limit. This is about 31 miles per hour. The fastest speed I’ve ever seen posted was 80kph on the expressway, which is almost – but not quite – 50mph. Yamazaki-san once told me that everyone gets speeding tickets, and with the snail’s pace regulations, I can see why. Still, I suppose it is safer that way.

Through observation and imitation I have learned that you’re supposed to stop and look both ways before proceeding through a train crossing. This is true when the barriers are up, no lights are flashing, and there’s not sign of activity whatsoever; you always have to stop at the train crossing. Also, you are supposed to turn on your headlights whenever you enter a tunnel. During the day, most drivers flip on their lights when they enter the tunnel and switch them off again when they come out the other end. Since there are tons of tunnels in my area (the road from Yoichi to Shakotan is probably more subterranean than open-air) I generally just leave my lights all the time. I hope that doesn’t make me look weird…

There is a lot of road construction in Hokkaido, year-round. Whether they are filling potholes, repairing the damage of the latest landslide, clearing away many tons of snow that necessitates the use of heavy equipment, or even boring huge new tunnels into the side of a mountain, the construction crews in Hokkaido never stop working. They are also incredibly polite. The kanji for construction work is read kouji (工事), not that you’ll ever need to know it, because you’re sure to recognize their symbol; a stick man in a hardhat and safety vest bowing. Their signal gestures to you, whether delivered with illuminated wands or hand flags, are intuitively clear and don’t require any explanation. Although, generally speaking, it helps to know that red means ‘stop’.

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Filed under Educational, Obihiro, Sapporo, Shakotan, Yoichi

International Exchange Event

The bus barreled down the expressway, chartering 12 college students from the bustling metropolis of Sapporo to the sleepy fishing village of Shakotan. Just after noon on Saturday, November 19th, the gray, rainy weather promised to spoil the day’s sightseeing plans. The bus’s windows fogged up with everyone’s breathing—conversation condensation—making it difficult to even enjoy the dreary version of the view. But despite the inclement weather, the student visitors already seemed to be enjoying themselves, awaiting a unique cultural experience ahead. This was the Shakotan Board of Education’s pride and joy, a special international exchange program called Kokusai Kouryuu Kai (国際交流会).

The 12 college students hailed from nine different foreign countries; China, Korea, Brazil, Paraguay, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Finland, Bulgaria, and Germany. Everyone was able to speak at least a little Japanese, but due to the varying levels of proficiency, the common language among everyone was actually English. (Thanks to the conquests of the British Empire and the rise of the Internet, English has solidified its position as the standard international language. Thanks chaps!) In the front of the bus, there was a representative from the Hokkaido prefectural office, Keiko-san.  Fluent in both Japanese and English, Keiko-san was able to act as translator for everyone. Yamazaki-san and I were also present, acting as tour guides and representatives of Shakotan.

The bus stopped made a brief pit stop at the Space Apple Yoichi (スペースアップルよいち), a science center/museum dedicated to space exploration. I found the Space Apple to be rather perplexing, both in its fruit-based name and its location in quiet Yoichi (余市). After a little research, I discovered that the Space Apple was built to honor Mōri Mamoru, a Japanese astronaut and scientist who was born in Yoichi. If I had to venture a guess, the “apple” name comes from the local agriculture, which is famous for producing delicious fruits, such as apples and grapes. (I have yet to check out the actual science center, but it looks like a cool family destination, reminiscent of the Science Center of Iowa that my dad used to take my brothers and me to.) Once we made it to Shakotan, Yamazaki-san tagged out, and Fujiki-san and Katsuo -san tagged in, and the bus proceeded on to some picturesque sights.

Our first destination was actually the same place that Yamazaki-san had first taken me when I was new to town, the Shimamui Coast (島武意海岸). The bus wound its way up the steep mountain road just outside of Hizuka town and stopped at the presently deserted parking lot at the top. The college students were already impressed by the view of the mountains and valleys facing the direction we had just come from, much like I had been when had first been here, but that was nothing compared to the coastal view. After everyone passed through the claustrophobic, dark and dripping tunnel to emerge on the seaside, the sense of awe really hit.

Everyone genuinely enjoyed the scenic vista. Aki, from Finland, and Daniel, from Bulgaria, seemed especially impressed. Aki went so far as to say that he loved it so much, he wanted to move and live at this very spot. We took some group photos, and the BoE personnel insisted that jump in for pictures, as if I too were a visitor.

After Shimamui, we went straight to Kamui Misaki (神威岬), the surreal, rocky cape that serves as Shakotan’s most renowned tourist attraction. Unfortunately, in addition to the rain, it was also very windy at the cape, so the trail to the point was closed. Everyone was still able to view some magnificent rock formations, but no one was allowed to make the walk out to the lighthouse and legendary Kamui Rock (神威岩). When I told Fujiki-san that the weather had been bad for four of my five visits to Kamui Misaki, she called me an ame-otoko (雨男 – literally “rain man”), a man who brings rain with him wherever he goes. I apologized, explaining that after living in Seattle for many years, that label was probably accurate.

After the cape, we stopped at my favorite onsen (温泉), Nozuka town’s Misaki no Yu Shakotan (岬の湯しゃこたん) for some soaking relaxation. Due to the potential social awkwardness of getting naked with a bunch of strangers, the invitation to actually go into the bathes was completely optional.  Apparently in the previous year, less than half of the participants chose to test the waters, while the others had drinks and kicked back in the facility’s commons area. This year the participants were more adventurous, and only three students opted to keep their clothes on.

As usual, Misaki no Yu proved to be a top-notch, relaxation experience. The view alone was worth the price of admission, but the BoE had provided free passes for everyone, so it was an even better deal. My new Finnish and Bulgarian friends seemed to be connoisseurs of saunas and bathhouses, and they agreed that this onsen was something special. Aki again expressed a desire to move here. After about an hour of leisurely soaking, everyone boarded the bus again to head back to Bikuni.

The college students were dropped off at the inn where they would be staying, a fancy place called Kasai (お宿かさい). While they started a fancy sushi dinner there, Katsuo-san, Fujiki-san, and I headed over to Fuji Sushi to eat. After the meal, the plan was to have a little party with the BoE staff. When the three of us met up with Ihira-san and Yamazaki-san at the inn, where they were preparing for a traditional Japanese dance performance. The dancer turned out to be none other than Yasuda-san’s mother-in-law, Kawasaki-sensei; the lady that I affectionately refer to as Baba-chan (祖母ちゃん – grandmother, “Granny”). It was great to see Baba-chan again, and especially interesting to see her in full geisha garb.

Baba-chan gracefully performed a traditional dance piece called “Wakamurasaki” (若紫). [Wakamurasaki means “light purple” but the title actually comes from a chapter of the ancient Japanese novel, Tale of the Genji (源氏物語).  In the novel, Murasaki is the name of a little girl, so in that context, Waka-Murasaki could be translated as “young Murasaki”.] After the dance, many drinks were poured and bags of okashi (お菓子 – sweets, candy, junk food) were opened. I convinced Baba-chan to stay for a quick drink with us (non-alcoholic beer, of course) before she headed home.

Ihira-san made a quick speech to toast the occasion and Keiko-san translated so everyone could understand. The gist was that the event was a very proud moment for Shakotan, and it made him very happy that everyone could come. It was the first time they had hosted people from the countries of Bulgaria, Bangladesh, Paraguay, or Kazakhstan. It was also the first time 11 different nations had been represented. (That’s 11 counting the US for me, and Japan as the hosts). It was a rousing speech and I think everyone was genuinely moved with a feeling camaraderie. We all raise our glasses and gave a “kanpai!”

Partying with the college students and other BoE staff was fantastic. Conversation—both in English and Japanese—was engaging, as everyone had a unique story. We all came from different places, grew up in different cultures with different perspectives. Yet our common similarities felt strong somehow. For instance, everyone present seemed to highly value education, and an insatiable curiosity seemed to be common amongst us all.

As some point, people were asking me the inevitable “why” question: Why did you want to come to Japan? And for these guys it was even more specific: Why did you want to come to Shakotan? I explained that I had studied a lot about Japan in college, and I had also been considering becoming a teacher, so teaching English in Japan was seemed like a good fit. Aki was also studying to work in education. He asked, “But why here? Why did you choose to teach in Japan instead of just teaching in the US?”

“Well, because the US sucks,” I said dryly, and paused for comedic effect.

No one laughed. Not even a smirk. The faces of genuinely interested people stared back at me, waiting for me to go on. While I had meant my disparaging comment in irony, the silence gave me the sobering realization that the sentiment wasn’t at all ironic. To an international crowd, the idea that the US was a broken country worth taking a break from was a legitimate opinion, perhaps even a sensible one.

I explained further that I thought it would a good experience to see how another country does education, to get a different perspective. The funniest thing about studying Japan is how much I’ve unintentionally learned about my home country. In order to see how Japan was different, I needed to compare it to the US, which in the case of things like international relations, involved a lot of research on both sides. However—as I clarified to cosmopolitan buddies—I’ve never bought into the ideology that people of different cultures think in a fundamentally different way. Society might shape our customs or philosophies in different ways, but at the end of the day, people are people.

The following day, Sunday November 20th, it was time for the International Exchange Event to take place in Shakotan’s schools. Zhaina from Kazakhstan, Rai from China, and Daniel from Bulgaria got truly unique experiences; they visited the rural elementary schools on the peninsula, Nozuka, Yobetsu, and Hizuka. These schools had only three students, four students, and nine students, respectively. The rest of the visitors were divided among Bikuni ES’s six grades and Bikuni JH’s three.

I also spent the day at Bikuni Junior High, so I got to see the presentations from three of the visiting college students. The morning started with the kids gathering in the gymnasium, and a projector being set up. Marie from Germany, Habiba from Bangladesh, and Lee from South Korea were brought in and introduced to the student body. Since English was still the common language, Yusuke, the English teacher, assumed the new responsibly of translating.

Each of the college students had prepared a PowerPoint presentation on their home country, highlighting facts like population and currency, cultural points of interest and particularities, popular traditional foods, and sometimes pop-culture trivia. In the case of Korea, for example, K-Pop music is extremely popular worldwide, especially in Japan. Korean TV dramas and movies are also making waves these days, even on Japan’s shores, so the kids were familiar with that.

Throughout the presentations of all the exciting and interesting content, poor Yusuke furiously scribbled down notes. Every couple minutes, the presenter would pause and Yusuke would deliver a rough translation of the specifics that the kids probably could not ascertain from spoken English. This is not something Yusuke usually has to do and I suspect that, even under ideal circumstances, it would be fairly difficult to manage. But things were definitely made even more challenging by exotic vocabulary words that couldn’t be translated, and instead needed to be explained. By the time the presentations were completed, Yusuke looked completely exhausted, like his brain had just run a marathon.

After the presentations were complete, the classes split up to spend quality time with one visiting college student. Lee and I were assigned to the 3rd Year class, and it turned out that we were going to play PE games in the gym.

This picture has been distorted to protect the identities of the children. Or maybe it's just blurry.

First we played “Hand Baseball”, a baseball variant akin to kickball, except that you “bat” by swinging your arm. As a big fan of kickball and soccer, I can’t imagine why anyone would ever choose to play this game, but we had fun nonetheless. Next we played basketball, which was also fairly enjoyable. Lastly, we played the Japanese version of dodgeball, which I can honestly say was awesome.

In Japanese-style dodgeball, there is only one ball. Two opposing sides must stay within the boundary of their own square courts. If a player is struck by the ball, they must leave their court, go to the other side of the area, and take a position outside the opposing team’s court. From there, out-players who get the ball can take shots at in-players of the opposing team, creating a situation where no one is ever knocked out of play. While I also appreciate the American version with several balls flying back and forth in a constant melee of projectile warfare, I found Japanese dodgeball’s egalitarian twist charming.

After the games, it was time for lunch. The visiting college students ate with the kids, much like I do every day. After lunch, everyone returned to the gymnasium for some music. The school band played, and then all the students sang as a choir. The music, as always, was quite impressive. While everyone was still in the gym, we took a group photo (the most Japanese of all activities) to commemorate the event.

By 3pm, the international event had concluded, and the college students boarded a bus back to Sapporo. While I didn’t witness any emotional goodbyes at the junior high, apparently there were some tears at the elementary schools. The kids truly enjoy the event every year, and sometimes they form a bond with the visiting college students rather quickly. Unlike me, these super interesting foreign nationals wouldn’t be in town tomorrow. In fact, the kids didn’t know if they would ever see them again. At the end of a day filled with excitement, wonder, and international intrigue, the young ones had to say goodbye to their new heroes. And it was, quite possibly, ‘goodbye’ forever.

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Filed under Sapporo, Shakotan, Yoichi

Canned: A Seattleite’s Quest for Coffee in Japan

I didn’t always like coffee. In fact, for the two and a half years that I worked for Starbucks in Seattle, I didn’t drink coffee at all. (We had to taste all the different coffee blends, but I never drank it of my own volition. I’ve always been more a tea guy.) It wasn’t until I visited Italy that I discovered the breakfast perfection of a good espresso and pastry. Still, while I could enjoy Italian style espresso, it wasn’t until I arrived in Tokyo that I came to really appreciate plain, black, drip coffee. And suddenly, I craved it daily.

Ironically, I have discovered that Seattle style coffee shops are not quite ubiquitous in Japan, especially in more rural areas. The typical kissaten (喫茶店 – café, teahouse) in rural Japan is a little too homey for my tastes. Many cafés are simply a bar countertop built right into the ground floor of a large house. The resulting feeling is akin to literally hanging out in someone’s living room—because you are essentially doing just that. It’s possible to find cafés more like what I’m used to in a big city, like Sapporo, but I think the standard Japanese café more resembles a jazz club built in the 1960’s than a Starbucks.

That’s not to say that Japan doesn’t love coffee, because it clearly does. In fact, Japan’s fondness for the beany brew has united with their passion for vending machines, to form a new invention: Canned Coffee (缶コーヒー). Canned Coffee is exactly what it sounds like, and this fusion of caffeine and convenience is extremely popular in Japan. You can find it in anywhere, in all vending machines and convenience stores. [In Japanese, the words for “vending machine” and “convenience store” are jidouhanbaiki (自動販売機) and conbini (コンビ二), respectively.]

There is cold canned coffee and hot; plain black coffee and coffee that has a desirable amount of milk and sugar already in it; a variety of flavors produced by a variety of competing beverage companies. For example, there’s Fire (made by Kirin), Boss Coffee (made by Suntory and advertised by Tommy Lee Jones), and Coca-Cola’s brand, Georgia. Even Tully’s Coffee has their own Japan can brand. The Ueshima Coffee Co. (UCC) apparently gets credit for introducing the original canned coffee way back in 1969. Coincidentally, I think that the UCC Black canned coffee is still best that I’ve tasted so far.

The Japanese coffee cans feel heavier, and more durable, than your typical can of soda. I had assumed that they were made of thicker aluminum; however my theory was a bit off. It turns out that these coffee cans are usually made of steel, not aluminum. For some reason, I think that’s kind of badass.

In addition to the canned coffee, there are other varieties of espresso drinks that you can find in convenience stores and supermarkets, like prepackaged café lattes and mochas. There are Starbucks brand drinks of course, and usually a conbini like Lawson’s or 7/11 will have their own generic versions as well. One brand that I found particularly interesting is called Mt. Rainier. Their circular green logo is clearly designed to look like Starbucks and the cups sport the slogan “The Mountain of Seattle”. Considering the aesthetic similarities, and the fact that Starbucks is a Seattle-based company, I almost thought that this was another brand owned by the coffee giant, but I haven’t been able to confirm it. If they aren’t owned by the Galactic Coffee Empire, then I have to commend them on their superb mimicry. It has been nostalgic to find a product sporting a Seattle landmark on its packaging.

So when you’re looking to enjoy a simple cup o’ joe and read a book in Japan, what’s a Seattleite to do? Well, I’ve done some café scouting for you and here are my recommendations:

¥480 for a cup of “blend coffee”. Another ¥100 for a refill.

First off, avoid any place selling “Blend Coffee”. This generally means that they consider their plain coffee to be really special (probably based on where the beans came from), so it will cost more. A cup of “Blend Coffee” generally costs between ¥350 and ¥500—often right around the ¥450 mark—and in my experience, it never tastes much better than drip coffee. In fact, the taste is almost always worse. Skip the blend and save your money.

Matcha Latte: Totoro not included

Next, if you’re looking for a latte, cappuccino, or—god forbid—a frappuccino, you could always patronize a Starbucks. [In Japan, Starbucks (スターバックス) is often abbreviated to “Staba” (スタバ) in conversation.] You can find multiple Starbucks stores in Sapporo. However, for plain coffee, Starbucks is a really expensive option. A tall-size drip will cost you ¥340. If it be coffee ye want, sailor, best look elsewhere.

The absolute cheapest cup of coffee I could find was at McDonalds. [It’s called Makudonarudo (マクドナルド) in Japan, or simply “Makku” (マック) for short.] Over the past five or so years, Micky-D’s has been vigorously stepping up their “McCafé” options to compete with coffee giant Starbucks. (Apparently they want to usurp Starbucks’ globally dominant position as “The McDonalds of Coffee”.) At ¥136, the small coffee at McDonalds was cheap as dirt, and it tasted like it too. Definitely, the most repulsive, disgusting coffee I have ever tasted. Don’t even bother.

In Japan, doughnut shops are almost as ubiquitous as Staba or Makku, so chances are you can easily sit down for a cup o’ joe at a doughnut joint, even in a more rural location. With that in mind, I’d recommend Mr. Donut. [The name is pronounced “Mister Donuts” (ミスタドナツ)—as if it was plural, due to Japanese pronunciation—or else it goes by “Mis-do” (ミスド), the abbreviated version.] Mr. Donut coffee is surprisingly tasty, and reasonably priced at ¥262. The kicker though, is that if you decide to drink your coffee there in the store, the staff will come by and pour you refills! [The term for refills or a second helping, in the context of a meal, is okawari (お代わり).] Good taste, good price, and refills to boot; Mr. Donut coffee is hard to beat.

Another place I have to recommend is Excelsior Caffé. I’ve seen them in Tokyo and Sapporo, and they consistently have a clean café atmosphere that most resembles the more standard café vibe I’ve been looking for. Their coffee is good, and not too expensive at ¥280. But where Excelsior really excels is their bagels. Bagels aren’t always even to find in Japan, theirs are delicious, topnotch. If you are looking for a coffee and a pastry, I’d head to Excelsior Caffé.

But the champion—the very best plain, black coffee that I’ve had in Japan—comes from a café/restaurant chain called Pronto Il Bar. I’ve only seen Pronto in major cities, but for regular coffee, they’re amazing. This coffee comes from a brewing machine at the press of a button, much like the super-automatic espresso machines that I used to work with at Starbucks. While such a machine usually makes inferior espresso shots, the high-pressure brewing style creates a cup coffee that’s actually a lot like espresso—with a delicious crema on top and everything. And since the small coffee at Pronto is only ¥200, it’s also one of the most affordable options around. Pronto è il vincitore.

Luca’s Coffee Review

Pronto Il Bar

Cost: ¥200           Taste: 5/5            Bonus: Legit sounding Italian name

Excelsior Caffé

Cost: ¥280           Taste: 3/5            Bonus: Bagels!

Mr. Donut

Cost: ¥262           Taste: 3/5            Bonus: Unlimited refills!


Cost: ¥340           Taste: 2/5            Bonus: Always the same, EVERYWHERE


Cost: ¥136           Taste: 0/5            Bonus: Type 2 diabetes, heart disease


Filed under Educational, Sapporo, Yoichi

Going to the Onsen with Makoto

Harima Makoto is one of the most colorful characters in Shakotan. A large man in both stature and girth, this firefighter would make for quite an imposing figure, if not for his cheerful temperament. When it comes to making an impression, his powerful body and bald head are no match for his constant, warm smile and jolly, giggling laugh. Constantly upbeat, and at times downright giddy, Makoto-san is a gentle giant if ever I met one.

I first met Makoto-san at the Yosakoi Sōran Festival in Sapporo. At some point, he began greeting me with a fist bump and saying, “Nice body!” which is still the most unique welcome I’ve ever encountered. Yamazaki-san, Yasuda-san, and Makoto-san are all classmates and close friends to this day, so there have been plenty of occasions where I’ve hung out with everyone together. Since everyone is so nice, they quickly made me feel like one of the gang.

Makoto-san is probably the most socially outgoing guy that I’ve come across in the area. He’s one of the few people that will call me up on the phone without hesitation, even though with my limited Japanese, the conversation is bound to be a bit awkward. One such time, he called me up and asked if I liked tomatoes. When I confirmed that I’m indeed found of the fruit often confused for a vegetable, he brought me a massive bag of baby tomatoes (ミニトマト) from his family’s farm. They were the sweetest tomatoes I’ve ever tasted, and when I used them to make pasta sauce from scratch, the results were incredibly delicious.

One day Makoto-san called me up and asked me if I’d like to checkout an onsen (温泉 – hot spring, spa) in Yoichi, a nearby town. Since the only onsen I had been to previously was Misaki no Yu (岬の湯) in Nozuka, I enthusiastically took him up on the offer. He also asked me if I wanted more tomatoes, since the season was almost over, which I also accepted.

On Wednesday, October 19th, Harima Makoto’s black Mercedes Benz pulled up to my apartment. After I deposited my new gift bag of tomatoes, we were off to Yoichi. The drive to Yoichi takes about half an hour, and we stopped for soft drinks along the way. Once in town, we ran a few errands, going to the video rental/media store, Tsutaya; and the many stores within a store, Aeon; and even driving through a carwash.

Before the osen, we stopped at this little shop above a grocery store for dinner. The place had very inexpensive dishes, and yet the quality of the food was amazing. Having driven right past the site many times, I had no idea that the gem of a restaurant was hidden just above the often crowded grocer. We had hokke (ホッケ – Atka mackerel) as a set with rice, miso soup, and tsukemono (漬物 – pickled vegetables). Makoto-san had ordered grated daikon (大根おろし) on the side, and following his lead, I mixed the radish with soy sauce the dumped all of it on top of my fish. While this proved to be quite delicious, later digestive complications led me to think that my body has trouble dealing with that much daikon at once.

With our bellies pleasantly full of fish, we made our way to the Yoichigawa Onsen (余市川温泉), which was located near Yoichi’s Space Apple museum. The onsen was a two-story building with a space shuttle on top. (No seriously, there’s a large-scale model of space shuttle Endeavor on the roof of the building.) Admission was very cheap and the onsen was small and cozy inside. The atmosphere seemed more like a bathhouse on a budget.

One point of interest was a tub that looked distinctly different from the rest; it was bubbling and the water was bright purple. Makoto-san explained that this particular tub had special fruit-infused water, like taking a bath in herbal tea. There was a menu on display, organized by color, of the various herbal infusions the tub had. The flavor du jour appeared to be blueberry. I made sure to hang out in the blueberry bath as long as possible, experimenting to see if my white skin would come out with a pale lilac tint. After a long, refreshing soak, I emerged unchanged and was plum disappointed.

On the way home from the onsen, we stopped at 7/11 for some ice cream. Makoto-san, who wasn’t letting me pay for anything, also insisted on paying for the conbini (コンビニ – “convenience store”, shortened from English) snacks. In fact, Makoto-san told me to pick out a couple onigiri (おにぎり – rice ball) to take home and have for breakfast the next morning. What a guy!

The next week, on Monday, October 24th, Makoto-san and I headed back to Yoichi for more onsen relaxation. This time the plan also involved meeting three women for dinner. What seemed unusual about this plan was that Makoto-san had never actually met these women in person before. Apparently he had met them online somewhere and they agreed to meet face to face. (A third guy was supposed to come with us, making for an even three-to-three ratio, but he had bailed on the plans.) Now, it wasn’t the part about meeting new people from the internet that seemed weird to me, it was the fact that Makoto-san was happily married. On face value, the setup sounded like a group blind date, except that apparently everyone was simply looking to make new friends. It was like the inverse of Facebook.

This time we went to the Tsurukame Onsen (鶴亀温泉), a much bigger place than the last. When I recognized one of the kanji in the name, Makoto-san explained that tsuru (鶴) means “crane” and kame (亀)—which I recognized—means “turtle” or “tortoise”. The crane and tortoise are both symbols of longevity in Japan. There’s even an old saying like, “The crane lives for 1,000 years, the tortoise lives for 10,000 years.” (鶴は千年亀は万年。) Apparently as symbolic figures of long life, the crane and tortoise appear quite often in traditional Japanese culture.

Not only was Tsurukame Onsen big, but the water in the baths was brown. Makoto-san san explained that it was a true hot spring, hence the dirty-looking water. I can report that I couldn’t feel any sediment or grit in the water, it was just brown. He said it was full of minerals, which I just assumed made it good.

To my surprise, and Makoto-san’s surprise as well, there happened to be three other gaijin (外人 – foreigner) visiting the onsen that night. It’s not every day that you see four white guys together in the Yoichi area—let alone four naked ones—as smaller towns usually have only one foreign resident or none at all. The mystery foreigners appeared to be a family, with one significantly older gentleman and two younger guys, probably in their early twenties.

Makoto-san and I headed to the outdoor tubs at the same time as the older gentlemen. He said ‘hi’ to me at door, speaking first in Japanese, which was kind of cool because it demonstrated that he wasn’t making any assumptions as to where I was from. I said ‘hi’ back, also in Japanese to be consistent. Outside, Makoto-san and I ended up in the same pool as the foreign gentleman, and there was a fourth Japanese guy relaxing there as well. The old man made some short small talk in Japanese, and after I told him I was from the States he starting speaking English.

His name was Hans and he was from Norway. One of the young men with him was his son; the other was his son’s friend. He explained that he was a born-again Christian and had come to Japan over 20 years ago as a missionary. His son had actually been born in Japan, but the family returned to Norway soon afterward, so his son didn’t remember any of the Japanese language. He was now revisiting Japan, seemingly on holiday, although a missionary is always working, or so it would seem from where the conversation headed.

He asked me if I was a believer, a follower of Christ. In hindsight, when a self-proclaimed born-again Christian missionary asks you if you believe, your automatic answer—if simply to avoid conflict—should probably be “yes”, regardless of the truth. I gave him an honest “no”. When his agape expression communicated shock and repulsion, I quickly backpedalled a bit, adding, “I was raised in a good Catholic family.” Luckily, he interpreted this statement to mean “I’m Catholic”, when I really meant the statement in the completely literal sense, i.e.; “my family is Catholic.” Hans started expounding on your typical fundamentalist bible nonsense. Sitting naked in an outdoor tub, I felt a bit more vulnerable than normal and this superstitious talk of God and hellfire wasn’t helping.

While I pretended to listen to Hans’ proselytizing, I contemplated why so many Christian missionaries continue to try and convert people in Japan. In Japan, a person could simultaneously subscribe to several different Asian religions/philosophies (Shinto, Confucianism, Taoism, countless different sects of Buddhism, for example) and each one would more or less be compatible with the next. Or they could choose Christianity, which by design excludes and negates all other religious views. Culturally it’s such a bum deal that I don’t know how anyone could ever sell a Japanese person on it. The aesthetic appeal of a Christian wedding, which is very popular, is about all that Christianity has to offer. Inexplicably, I’ve met plenty of missionaries and Christians in Hokkaido. At this point, Hans was speaking to me in English and I envied Makoto-san, who probably couldn’t follow a single word.

Then Missionary Hans said the unthinkable. “People need to have faith in God and He sends us signs to remind us. That’s why Japan has so many earthquakes and tsunamis. The recent disaster was a sign from God. Japan ignored the Lord’s word and he shook the earth to remind them.”  Makoto-san, seemingly interested in what the man had to say, asked for clarification. “The Lord shakes the earth,” Hans said in English, and then he translated it into Japanese!

My blood was boiling. How could anyone blame such a horrible, cataclysmic disaster—one easily explained through science—on the country’s lack of faith in Jesus? How could anyone try to blame the Japanese people for such a thing? Entire cities were destroyed, over 20,000 people died, and according to Hans, it was because Japan didn’t pick Jesus as their lord and savior. Such a statement would be outrageous enough if made in one’s home country, but to actually verbalize it here in Japan—right to the locals’ faces—that was unbelievable! Even if you are a believer, isn’t the Christian God supposed to be benevolent and loving? When did he go back to his Old Testament smiting ways?

The urge to punch Hans in the face was strong, but I resisted. I contemplated at least telling him off, verbally laying into him for being a disgraceful, opportunistic bastard, but ultimately decided it wasn’t the time. Instead I would just ignore his heresy and hopefully he wouldn’t draw much attention. Luckily, at that moment Makoto-san suggested we move on, so I had a very convenient escape. We bid Hans adieu and I avoided him for the rest of the time we were there.

After leaving the bath area of the onsen, Makoto-san and I hung out in the lobby. We drank some tea and enjoyed some salt gelato, a flavor I hadn’t tried before. It was good stuff. We proceeded to dinner at an izakaya called Tsubo Hachi (つぼ八), meaning “Eight Jars.”

At Tsubo Hachi, we met the three ladies from internet, already seated and waiting for us. When I sat down, I ordered a large beer. There were three sizes, so I figured “large” was your standard pint mug, but it was actually closer to one liter; gigantic! As the evening went on, I also had some plum sake (梅酒) and a Tori’s whiskey and ginger ale (トリジンジャ). The drinks were delicious, but since it was only Monday, I tried not to go overboard.

Everyone at the dinner was older than me, so at first I felt like a kid at the adult table. After some conversation and drinks, I felt more like part of the group. They ladies were very nice and they asked me questions about America and living in Shakotan. At one point, Makoto-san brought up how I disliked Nicholas Cage (something him and Yamazaki-san still laugh about), and one of the ladies asked me what I thought of Michael J. Fox. I was shocked, as Michael J. Fox starred in “Back to the Future”—my all-time favorite movie—and is one of my favorite actors. The shift of discussion from something you despise, to something that you love, is always a welcome change in conversation.

The food at Tsubo Hachi was served in small dishes, the typical style of an izakaya, and the food was quite excellent. Makoto-san made sure that we ordered a plate of yakisoba, and I also asked for some okonomiyaki (お好み焼き – savory vegetable pancake, with varying ingredients). Both were good, but it was the bulgolgi pizza (ブルコギピザ) that stole the show. Bulgolgi is Korean barbequed meat, and it’s quite spicy. This was the first time I had seen it used as a pizza topping and the results were spectacular. I think I’ll make it at home back in the States one day.

We said our goodbyes to the ladies at the restaurant and started our journey back to Shakotan. Much like last time, we stopped at a combini on the way home, this time a Lawson’s General Store. (While 7/11 is the biggest convenience store chain in Japan, Lawson’s is number two.) Again, Makoto-san insisted on buying me two onigiri for me to have for breakfast the next morning. He’s just a ridiculously nice guy.

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