Return to Shakotan

After a far too brief visit to Seattle, I returned to Bikuni by April 9th, 2012, ready to start my second year as Shakotan’s ALT. The moment I entered my apartment, I was struck with an eerie sense of déjà vu. Unlived in for two weeks or so, the apartment had grown just as cold as the sea air outside. In my absence, the normally omnipresent curry aroma has dissipated, giving way to the bland, nondescript fragrance of nothing in particular. Walking in and dropping my suitcase on the floor, I was overcome with the sense that my dwelling had reverted back to its original state, like I had somehow come back not just in space – but in time – to my first day here, one year ago. This was an unnerving sensation.

Perhaps I had more doubts about my decision to stay than I had originally thought. Perhaps being able to visit Seattle and briefly see the people I love was a good way to trigger intense homesickness. Perhaps my apartment in Shakotan is a fortress of solitude, an ever-lonely place. It’s likely that all of the above of are true. In any case, there I was; voluntarily starting another full year in a relatively isolated Hokkaido fishing village, with only my laptop and guitar as companions. Was this really the right decision? Is there ever a right decision? Perhaps all choices are half chance.

I was in for a new experience by carrying on here; I got to see my students progress through school. In my first year at Shakotan, I had taught at the junior high school and two elementary schools. At the junior high, this meant that my Second Year students had become Third Years, and my First Years were promoted to Second Year students. Perhaps the most interesting to see, the students that I had taught as 6th graders were now the new freshmen at the junior high. No longer dressed casually as elementary school kids, these young students were sporting their new junior high seifuku (制服), the military-esque school uniforms that look like sailor outfits. And apparently more formal dress lends itself to more serious studiousness, as these kids seemed to have matured considerably in the span of three weeks.

Despite the small size of the elementary schools in Shakotan, this year all four of them have at least one 5th grader. Since English instruction officially begins in fifth grade, this means that my time teaching in elementary schools has doubled. I now teach at Bikuni, Hizuka, Nozuka, and Yobetsu elementary schools. Those last two have only one 5th grade student – and only five students in the entire school – meaning that our classes are one-on-one. Actually, there is also a Japanese teacher present, so technically these students get two teachers completely to themselves. How’s that for small class sizes?

Nozuka Elementary School has five students, total.

Unfortunately for me, some of my favorite teachers had been transferred to other schools. Apparently it’s common practice to move teachers about the region, typically at least once every six years. I’m not sure what the purpose of this is, but it seems that an individual would have to be pretty one devoted to teaching to pursue a career as a semi-nomadic educator. At the junior high, the vice principal, school manager, social studies teacher, and second PE teacher had all been transferred. At Hizuka, the French-speaking Kazama-sensei and his wife, along with the principal and vice principal, had departed for greener pastures. And at Bikuni Elementary, the lineup remained largely the same, but the teachers had swapped positions, meaning that I was working with different teachers for the 5th and 6th grades than I had been previously.

The loss of Kazama-sensei was a bit of a downer for me, as we had had some memorable conversations in a comical mix of broken English, French, and Japanese. At the junior high, I had come to really enjoy the way Vice Principal Tanaka would teach me new phrases and Japanese puns, and I knew that I would miss his comic presence. I was also sure to miss the social studies teacher, Yoshimura-sensei. In fact, I missed the whole Yoshimura family. The Yoshimuras had welcomed me into their home for dinner on a couple separate occasions, the most notable time being when Marissa was visiting and they had invited us over for yakiniku. I always felt like Shingo and I were pretty good friends (although I never actually called him by his first name like that). And the two Yoshimura daughters were the brightest students in their respective classes, so their absence was quite noticeable.

And yet the effect that all of these personnel changes had on me really paled in comparison to the big shocker: Yamazaki-san was also being transferred! The news of Yamazaki’s two-year transfer to the main Hokkaido office in Sapporo hit me like a ton of bricks. In my first year in Shakotan, Yamazaki had become my closest, most trusted, most helpful friend in town. We had worked together at the education board’s office every week, and he was always there to support me when I needed help. It probably goes without saying, but I needed help quite often. He was my pillar, my rock, the wind beneath my wings, and honestly, the only person in town whom I felt that I could communicate with perfectly, despite the language barrier. He had helped me get set up in my apartment when I arrived, guided me through many adventures (local festivals, sports days, trips with his family), introduced me to interesting aspects of Japanese culture (onsen, baseball games, yakiniku, “nominiucation”, etc), and also enabled me to go on some adventures without him (like hiking Mt. Shakotan and Hashigozake). We had even traveled down to Kōchi together for Kami-shi’s local Yosakoi Sōran festival. In my second year in Shakotan, Yamazaki wasn’t going to be there, and I was certain to miss him most of all.

Solar eclipse

My frustration in the matter of Yamazaki’s transfer is admittedly self-serving, but the reasoning of why he was being temporarily moved was genuinely perplexing. At first it seemed like a promotion for him, getting a chance to work in the bigger pond of the Hokkaido office. But that fact that his transfer was temporary made it seem almost intentionally awkward. You see, both Yamazaki and his wife had been working in Shakotan’s town office. They have a nice little house in the village where they lived with their two children (one in junior high, one in elementary school) and Yamazaki’s mother. Shakotan is two hours away from Sapporo by car and not accessible by train. By moving his position to Sapporo temporarily, the powers that be had forced Yamazaki to rent an apartment in the city, live there throughout the work week, and only see his family on weekends; the only time it was feasible for him to make the drive home, or his family to make the trip there. The fact that the transfer was temporary and his wife still had her career in Shakotan makes moving the whole family to the big city completely impractical. So why do it?

Cherry blossoms on the hillside

Apparently this kind of intra-company transfer, called tenkin (転勤 – job relocation), is a very common practice in Japan. I’ve been told that the idea of shifting people around is to avoid workers in bureaucratic positions from getting too comfortable. This is quite literally in an effort to avoid corruption and cronyism in the workplace. Having the same people working together in the same office for too long might potentially lead to minor corruption, like folks breaking the rules to do favors for their friends, or more serious unethical behavior, like embezzling money. The idea that anybody would suspect Yamazaki of ever doing anything unethical strikes me as preposterous. Although, I suppose I do have a TV from the Shakotan town office in my apartment, which is technically a no-no… Man, I love that guy.

While the loss of Yamazaki was a blow, I’m still bound to enjoy teaching in Shakotan. After all, Yusuke, the junior high English teacher, is still here, and we make an exemplary excellent educational team. He does all the lesson plans, worksheets, tests, quizzes, and grading; is responsible for students’ performance, discipline, and classroom morale; and basically deals with all the stressful aspects of the job. While I handle a fun ten-minute game at the beginning of class, provide pronunciation expertise (which I have simply by virtue of having grown up in an English-speaking country), and generally soak up all the glory and admiration the kids have to offer – just because I’m exotic and interesting to them. It’s a good system. Plus, Yusuke and I are avid soccer fans, both watching and playing the beautiful game. This year, the new school manager is also a young soccer enthusiast, so the post-lunch soccer scrimmages with the kids are looking to be better than ever.

After having eaten school lunch with the kids for over a year now, one student finally pointed out to me the proper dish arrangement for eating. Rice goes on the left, the bowl of soup on the right, and the plate for miscellaneous items (like vegetables and fish) is placed behind them. I had been taught to “triangle eat” – eating a little bit of each item without finishing any food faster than the others – but no one ever pointed out how to arrange the plates until now. No matter how much you know, there’s always more to learn.

What it’s all about.

 

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Speaking Japanese Like a Badass

When coming to Japan, people usually learn basic phrases to be polite and generally get by. Pretty much everyone in the world knows konnichiwa (こんにちは – Good day) and dōmo arigatō (どうもありがとう – Thank you), and almost as many are familiar with the absolutely crucial sumimasen (すみません), which can mean “excuse me”, “I’m sorry”, or even “thank you”, depending on the precise context.  The overachieving otaku have probably mastered sugoi (すごい – amazing, cool) and daijōbu (大丈夫 – OK, alright) from their hours of anime research. But if you plan on being in Japan for longer than a few weeks, you going to want more tools in your verbal arsenal than the barebones basics.

That’s where I come in. Here are some useful expressions for you to use when you really want to sound like you know some Japanese. This is the good stuff that I wish I would have had down on day one. Let’s start with a general tip to assist you in your linguistic journey.

Ano~/Eto~ (あの, ええと、えっと) – The Verbal Pause

If you’re just starting out learning Japanese, or having trouble actually using the stuff you’ve learned in class, I recommend training yourself to use the Japanese verbal pause. Saying ano~ or eto~ is the Japanese equivalent of saying “Um…”, “Ah…” or “Let me see…”, and buys you time to search your brain for that missing vocabulary word when you’re trying to hold a conversation. This was recommended to me way back in the day and I made a half-assed attempt at using it, but never really took it seriously until I was speaking Japanese every day. Basically, when you start conversing in a second language, it’s like your brain changes gears. Stammering with your native ums and ahs will pull you back into English mode and break your rhythm. So remember to falter the way the native speakers do it, it honestly makes carrying on that much easier.

Similarly, when something catches you off guard, you’ll probably want to say, “Huh?” or “What’s that?” But resist this slide back into English. Train your Japanese speaking instincts to respond with are (あれ), the Japanese equivalent. It’s the perfect way to express that you didn’t quite hear the question or didn’t quite understand it.

Iranai de (いらないで) – “I don’t want/need it.”

If there is only one certainty in life, it’s that when you buy something in Japan, they will put it in a bag. Even when you buy a bottle of water at the conbini (コンビに – convenience store), they will bag it. You probably won’t even be asked if you want a fukuro (袋– bag), they’ll just assume you know how this process works. So when you see the salesperson reaching for the bag – and they move with speed and precision – you’ll need to quickly express that you don’t need it. In proper Japanese, you’d say iranai desu, but since you’re a badass, just shorten it to iranai de.

Another important phrase to use at the register is the convenient compound word mochi-kaeri (持ち帰り), meaning “to go”, takeout, takeaway. When buying a coffee at Mr. Donut, you will surely be asked if you want to drink it in the store – they do have free refills on coffee, by the way – or if you’ll take it “to go”. In case of the latter, just drop mochi-kaeri with a cocky smirk.

Chidoriashi (千鳥足) – The Thousand Bird Step

Drinking is pretty popular in Japan in general, and getting sloppy drunk at social outings is not uncommon. Therefore knowing the vocabulary of the yopparai (酔っ払う – drunken person) can be quite handy. For example, how can you express that you – or your friend, yeah sure, we’ll say your friend – is too drunk to walk properly? Use chidoriashi, the Japanese term for a drunken stagger. The term quite literally translates to “thousand bird step”, which I assume must be what a drunkard’s footprints are supposed to look like. It’s really all you need to say to express that you’re not currently able to ride your bike home, operate heavy machinery, or send an ill-advised text message to your ex.

A related term that’s also worth knowing is futsukayoi (二日酔い), Japanese for hangover. It literally means “two days drunk” and is the perfect term to explain why you were late for work this morning.

Otsukaresama deshita (お疲れ様でした) – “Thanks for the hard work”

Speaking of work, if you are employed in Japan, you are certain to hear the phrase otsukaresama deshita, meaning “Thank you for your hard work”. Translated too literally, otsukaresama means “the honorable tired one”, but your colleague is not insinuating that you look tired. This is an old-fashioned expression of appreciation for your efforts. You’ll also hear this said among sports teams, yōsakoi dance groups, when helping a friend move, and from people at the gym. It’s usually said at the completion of something, or when people are parting ways, like a special exercise goodbye.

Also, if you’re asked to do something and you’d like to express that you’re happy to do it, I recommend saying yorokonde (喜んで). Literally meaning “with pleasure”, this phrase is perfect for when your Yakuza boss has just ordered you to rough up that guy, who conveniently, you already had a beef with.

Ryu ga Gotoku

Omatase shimashita (お待たせしました) – “Thank you for waiting”

Another one that you’re sure to hear at a restaurant or at the airport, omatase shimashita is a convenient phrase that you’ll probably want to use yourself. Literally meaning “I made you wait” in polite Japanese, this one is pretty straight forward. In fact, it’s so ubiquitous that you probably didn’t need to have me introduce it to you. When speaking among your peers, feel free to abbreviate it to simply omatase; because you’re too badass to be bothered with the long version anyway.

Speaking of restaurants and being in a hurry, kuinige (食い逃げ) is the Japanese phrase for “dine and dash”, to run away without paying for your food. It’s a combination of the words for eat and escape, but you didn’t hear that from me…

Osewa ni narimashita (お世話になりました) – “Thank you for helping me”

People in Japan are extremely generous, and you’re certain to feel like you owe a debt of gratitude to someone along the way. While you can say dōmo arigatō gozaimasu – and you will, a lot – you might find yourself wishing that you had another way to express your appreciation, something special to convey to this person in particular that they really saved your ass. In that situation, say osewa ni narimashita. This is like saying “Thank you for helping me”, but with gratitude to the point of being indebted. In that sense, it’s a bit more like saying “I am obliged to you” or “Thank you for taking care of me.”

Ojama shimasu (おじゃまします) –Entering someone’s home

Since we want to be refined, classy badasses, and not chavy thugs, it’s best to say ojama shimasu when entering someone’s home. You’d usually say this when you’re talking off your shoes at the genkan (玄関 – entryway), so it’s kind of like saying “excuse me for intruding.” Remember this pleasantry so that you don’t look uncouth. And remember to say it again when leaving, except use the past tense version, ojama shimashita.

Kotowaza (諺) – Japanese Proverbs

You might find that’s helpful to know a few classic Japanese idioms, just in case someone uses one in conversation with you, or you find yourself in the perfect opportunity to reference one and sound like a badass. There are tons of these to potentially learn, but I’ll just give you a couple examples.

The first is my absolute favorite, Saru mo ki kara ochiru (猿も木から落ちる). Literally meaning “even monkeys fall out of trees”, it’s the Japanese way of saying that everyone makes mistakes. While I don’t know of an equivalently poetic phrase in English, the closest one by meaning would probably be “that’s why pencils have erasers.”

Next is a phrase that’s rather famously Japanese, Derukui wa utareru (出る杭は打たれる). It literally means, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” A profound commentary on conformity in Japan, this old adage is saying that the best policy is to keep you head down and never stand out, lest society has to put you in your place.

And lastly, another cool saying is Uso wa nusubito no hajimari (うそは盗人の始まり). This translates as “lies are the beginnings of thieves”, which is fairly self-explanatory.

Okagesama de (お蔭様で) – Under the Gods’ Shadow

Anyone who’s spent any time in Japan has experienced the Genki Conversation, the common pleasantry of inquiring about someone’s wellbeing. This is the How are you? Conversation in English, the Ça va Conversation in French, and it usually goes something like this:

A) Konnichiwa. Genki desu ka? (こんにちは。元気ですか?)

B) Hai, genki desu. Anata wa? (はい、元気です。あなたは?)

A) Hai, genki desu. (はい、元気です。)

Not that there’s anything wrong with always repeating this basic conversation, but a badass doesn’t stick to generic pleasantries. To shock native speakers with your comprehension of Japanese language and culture, when they ask if you’re genki, reply with this: Okagesama de genki desu (お蔭様で元気です). I guarantee that they’ll be impressed.

What you just said was very humble. You see, Okagesama de generally means “by assistance”, and potentially “by your backing”, indicating that while you are well, you’re not taking any credit for it. In fact, depending on the context, you might be crediting the person you’re talking to for your position, like saying, “Thanks to you, I’m fine.” By itself, kage (蔭) means shade, shadow, or “the other side”, while the ‘o’ prefix and ‘sama’ suffix are both honorific. Since westerners sometimes have a hard time not taking absolute credit for the circumstances in which they’ve found themselves, and an even harder time giving this credit to other people, this humble phrase is sometimes translated as “by the grace of God” or “under the Gods’ shadow”.

In a related tip, if you get tired of asking people if they are genki, I recommend using the phrase Choushi wa dou desu ka? (調子はどうですか?) This is like saying, “How’s it going?”

Kyoushuku desu (恐縮です) – The Ultimate Japanese Phrase

No matter where you go in Japan, you are sure to encounter compliments. Japan is a famously polite nation and the people generally like to make you feel comfortable. They will compliment your Japanese language skills, even if you can only say one word…badly. They will compliment your looks, prepare to be told that you have a tall nose and a small face – they’re apparently good things. They will compliment your physique; you’d never guess that you were so tall and muscular until several Japanese grandmothers tell you so.

But Japan is also a famously humble nation. Try and return a compliment to a Japanese person and you will be brushed off. To give is better than to receive, and Japanese people do not accept praise. Seriously, you can’t even compliment someone’s family without them waving it off, lest a part of the praise reflect positively on them. (“Your wife is very attractive.” – “Oh, her? No! She’s actually quite ugly without all the makeup.”) Well now, I bet you feel a little embarrassed for agreeing with all the nice things they said about you. Clearly, no one here ever accepts a compliment.

So what’s a foreigner to do when you’re complimented on your ability to use chopsticks for the millionth time? Use this phrase to surprise and delight any unsuspecting Japanese person: Kyoushuku desu (恐縮です).

While it literally means to shrink (縮) with fear (恐), kyoushuku desu would best be translated as “that is too kind of you” or “stop, you’re embarrassing me”. This, my friends, is the ultimate tool in your Japanese arsenal. With so many compliments to brush off, you’ll never run out of opportunities to bust it out. And the best part is that no other foreigners ever seem to use it. You’ll look like a Japan Studies scholar and the reactions you’ll get will be priceless. Just be careful not to switch the vowels and say, Kyūshoku desu (給食です) – that means “school lunch”.

You can even use the same words at the beginning of sentence to politely ask a favor, just add the particle ‘ga’: Kyoushuku desu ga… This is like starting off your request with “I’m sorry to trouble you” or “I’m embarrassed to say this”.

And if you end up using kyoushuku desu to death – remember, with great power comes great responsibility – you can always shake things up with osore irimasu (恐れいります). Using the same “fear” kanji as kyoushuku, this phrase has almost the exact same meaning in conversation. Now go turn down those compliments like a true badass.

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Sapporo Snow Festival 2012

I awoke early on Sunday, February 12th because my friend was picking me up at 7:30 and then we were driving to Sapporo. Natsumi, an elementary school teacher in Shakotan, had gotten two tickets to the Toyota Big Air snowboard jump competition at the Sapporo Dome and invited me to come along. We hit the road early so that we’d have time to see some of Sapporo’s world famous Yuki Matsuri (雪祭り – Snow Festival).

The Sapporo Snow Festival was simply magnificent. I expected to see some giant snow sculptures, but my concept of “giant” was far too diminutive. Natsumi and I first checked out an array of intricate ice carvings, lined up on one of Susukino’s thoroughfares, right in the middle of the road. (Apparently, starting from 10:30am, the street became pedestrian traffic only.) The ice carvings, partially crystal clear, partially cloudy translucent, were beautiful in the morning sun. I can only assume that when lit up at night, they would be even more breathtaking. The sizes varied from your antique vase-sized smaller sculptures, to the more common 2 – 3 meter tall masterpieces. There was also a whiskey bar made completely of ice and apparently actually fully functional. The sculptures were all so impressive that I barely noticed how bitterly cold it felt outside, especially in the shade.

Then we made our way into Odori Park for the Snow Festival proper. And WOW, it was even bigger than I had imagined. I had known that there would be snow sculptures carved out of large (probably 3x3m) cubes, but I didn’t realize that they would be the smaller pieces on display. To my surprise, there were several massive snow sculptures the size of houses. Sure, the snow Taj Mahal and snow Osaka Castle weren’t made to actual size, but they were pretty large-scale models, still bigger my apartment building.

Rice-stuffed squid on a stick. This is the life.

Odori Park was busier than I had ever seen it, and it wasn’t even noon yet. Clearly the festival had brought in lots of tourists, because there were many, many foreign faces in the crowd. Signs posted around the park sought to guide foot traffic in a counterclockwise path through the festival’s myriad of displays and vendors. It was crazy cold out, but no one seemed to care too much as this was a spectacle that could not be missed. Plus, there was hot tea, hot coco, hot coffee, hot amazake, and lots of hot festival food around every corner.

The first monumental snow sculpture we saw was a massive, impressively detailed, aquatic life scene. The huge piece had dolphins, seals, a sea turtle, and a walrus, all made in a larger-than-life-size scale. At the high horizon point in the background, a whale was breaking out of the surface of the water. Plenty of fish and coral and such livened up the background and the amount of detail was staggering. The artists had even used clear rubber tubing to form the walrus’s whiskers. (While this was the only part of any of the pieces I saw that wasn’t made of snow, it was actually a pretty nice touch.) Speakers pumped out an instrumental version of The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea”, repeating forever on an endless loop. At night, custom-made lighting of undulating blues and greens made the underwater impression even more palpable.

Most of the other monumental snow sculptures were scale models of world-famous buildings, but there were a couple character pieces, like the giant Fantasia version of Mickey Mouse. This Disney-themed sculpture seemed to be commemorating the 10 year anniversary of a Japanese Disney Resort. Near the end of the park there was a giant anime-themed sculpture, a combination of Toriko and uber popular One Piece. It was fairly plain in comparison with the other pieces, as it simply featured each anime’s lead character (the titular Toriko and One Piece captain Monkey D. Luffy) along with one animal character from each show. Fans of either series were sure to be thrilled with it and the cuteness of a three-meter tall Tony Chopper was difficult to top.

Just past the anime sculpture was a collection of pieces by foreign artists, and these were some of the most interesting works of all. Starting with a 3x3m cube of snow, each artist had carved an original sculpture, usually something representative of where they hailed from. There was a sculpture representing India, Thailand, Hawaii, and even one for Portland, Sapporo’s sister city in the States. Most of these were either impossibly detailed, conceptually very cool, or both. As stunning as the monumental sculptures were, these particular pieces were the highlight of the show for me.

We took the subway down to its last stop and arrived at the Sapporo Dome around noon. Unlike my previous visits to the Dome, it was not warm inside. In fact, it was probably about the same temperature inside the dome as was outside, although the simple lack of wind made it feel a lot more comfortable. The show goers who came to see the Tokyo Big Air contest were all dressed in snowboarding apparel, as if they had been headed to the slopes but ended up here on accident. This turned out to be the most appropriate dress, as it was both warm enough for the chill and stylish enough to keep one looking good.

Instead of a baseball field or soccer pitch, a large snow-covered slope had been erected in the center of the dome. It was very steep coming down from the top, leveling off about halfway down. A ramp at the midpoint plateau would be used for jumping. After that, there was another slope for landings, eventually evening out on to flat ground at the base. An impressive construction of scaffolding, its skeleton resembled a huge Erector Set. The rest of the dome’s floor space was taken up with reserve seating and several cars on display, like the event was part auto show. The main sponsor of the event was Toyota, after all.

Starting a 1pm, and going until at least 9, the Toyota Big Air competition was pretty much an all day event. That didn’t mean that snowboarders dazzled the audience with big air tricks for eight hours straight, however. The event had multiple musical acts; including a popular Japanese rock band, called “One OK Rock”. (For the uninitiated, stemming from Japanese R-L confusion, the band’s name is supposed to be pronounced like “one o’clock”. Seriously.) In addition to the bands, local TV personalities provided plenty of nonsensical filler “entertainment” and giant projector screens flanking the slope on each side played advertisements during any and all down time. While it had its dull moments, when the international collection of professional snowboarders did actually tackle the jumps, it was quite entertaining.

I was genuinely surprised to recognize one of the competitors, Eero Ettala of Finland. Just a couple weeks prior, when I had been invited to Yoshimura-sensei’s house for dinner, we had ended up watching a couple episodes of this Eero fellow’s TV show. Apparently he had actually won the Big Air competition the previous year (as well as in 2005), so his participation wasn’t too surprising to anyone who followed this stuff, but I don’t. There were also two American snowboarders, two Canadians, one from Iceland, another from Slovenia, and at the onset, at least 12 Japanese competitors.

For some reason, no one wore helmets at the beginning of the competition. Even by the end of it, only a handful of competitors opted to wear a helmet, and only once or twice. The youthful Mark McMorris of Canada abstained from protecting his skull and instead wore just a baseball cap, which in hindsight seemed ill-advised, since he ended up smashing his head into the snow fairly hard. Public Health says no.

A little bit after 7pm, Natsumi and I decided to slip out and head home. The competition was still going on – now down to its final four riders – but with a two-hour drive ahead of us, it wasn’t worth battling the crowd at the exit after the show was over. On our way back to the car, we took a quick look at the Snow Festival at night. With its impressive colorful lighting, it was even more beautiful in the dark. However, thanks to a heavy snowfall in progress and high winds picking up, the frigid weather had gone from uncomfortable to a full on blizzard. We looked around for about 10 minutes before calling it a day and trudging back to the car park.

All in all, the Sapporo Snow Festival really was amazing, just as majestic as advertised. It was definitely cold – bitterly cold – but it’s called a “snow festival” after all, so that was probably to be expected. Like Japan’s famous sakura (桜 – cherry blossoms) in the springtime, Odori Park’s snow sculptures are another example of impermanent beauty, their allure increased by their short lifespan. While stunning in their scope, the frosty masterpieces are only destined to stand for one week. After this, they are bulldozed into oblivion. Catching a glance of their artistry was well worth enduring urban Hokkaido’s winter wrath at its most vicious.

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Bikuni’s Yume Akari

The second week in February is supposedly when Hokkaido’s snowfall reaches its apex. From that point on, the snow will gradually decline, until spring finally appears in all its flowery glory. It’s during this snow peak that many cities in Hokkaido plan their winter festivals, celebrations of snow, lights, and hot beverages. While the winter solstice events were quite beautiful, this week is Hokkaido’s true time to shine, and shine it does.

One of my students had talked up the winter festival in Bikuni town (美国町) quite a bit, so I had high expectations going into it. On Saturday February 11th, the day had arrived for the event called Yume Akari (夢明かり), meaning “Dream Lights” or “Dream Illumination”. My understanding was that everybody in town would be making snow and/or ice lanterns, turning our village into a twinkling, wintery fairyland for one evening.

The Board of Education had scheduled me to participate in an event with the elementary kids that morning, presumably constructing the lanterns and such. I woke up early, donned ski apparel like snow pants and a giant frumpy jacket, and trudged out to the community gym, called B&G. It was a cold and blustery walk, and the snow that blew into my face felt like a bad omen for a day of outdoor winter fun. Still, I enthusiastically pressed on. At B&G, I was directed inside to a meeting a room, where several kids were assembled around tables, like a tiny, warmly-dressed board of directors. Kazama-sensei and Suzuki Harumi-sensei from Hizuka ES were there for adult supervision, as well as Kaneko-sensei from Nozuka ES.  The B&G staff, led by Kawai-sensei, facilitated the event, and my friend Yamazaki-san from the BoE was also assisting.

At 9:30am, the day got started with the students decorating clear plastic bottles. Using markers and colored transparency sheets, each student turned a few plastic bottles into beautiful, modern art candle holders. The multicolored tealight vessels would be used in the center of the snow lanterns, each forming a luminescent core. I walked around the room and enjoyed the out pouring of youthful creativity until the fumes from the giant makers started to make me a little dizzy.

Outside, Yamazaki and the B&G crew were hard at work, turning a mountainous pile of collected snow into a mini sledding slope. I came outside to assist with this effort, but just too late to really contribute. The slope appeared to be smoothed out and Yamazaki had dug some very respectful, architecturally sound snow stairs, right into the hillside. At that point, they really only had use for a test run of their creation, and this honor fell to me. They handed me an inner tube—which was referred to as a “tire tube” (タイヤチューブ)—and slide down the hill, head-first, like a penguin. Not bad at all.

When the kids came outside, we all climbed onto the snow started making lanterns. (I say “climbed onto the snow” because the height difference from the parking lot to the snow covered yard was about five feet.) Kazama-sensei showed me how to make snow lanterns using only a bucket and a gardening trowel. First, you stuff the bucket with snow, packing down into a dense frozen block. Next, you use the trowel to hollow out the center of the bucket, creating a cylinder shape that can house a candle. Then use the trowel to carve a little opening out of one side of the snow cylinder. This will become the viewing window. Finally, you tip the bucket upside-down, give it a few gentle taps to loosen the contents, and carefully place your snow lantern in the desired position. Done.

The school children and I made tons of these snow lanterns. Some ambitious kids even stacked lanterns atop other lanterns for a totem pole effect. Snow was packed down on the edges to form a ledge for display our frosty masterpieces. Additionally, recesses were carved out of the snow wall to create niches from which more lanterns could be displayed. Once the ornately colored plastic bottles were placed inside the snow lanterns, everything started looking quite festive.

After the work was done, and some of the kids had destroyed me in an impromptu snowball fight, it was time to rock the mini sledding slope. The kids took turns flying down the slope on inner tubes and sleds, and a good time was had by all. Eventually went back inside B&G for refreshments. A kind, grandmotherly lady had made lots of handmade doughnuts, as well as a giant cauldron of atsui cocoa (熱いココア – hot coco). Both were excellent and I end up drinking three cups of the chocolaty rich coco.

After the winter fun at B&G, Yamazaki invited me over to his house for lunch. Grandma Yamazaki made soba, which was excellent, and we sat around talking while I drank far too much coffee.  Since it was so close to Valentine’s Day, Saya gave me a box of chocolates. Handmade and delivered in cute pink and red polka dot bag, the chocolates were so incredibly nice that I felt unworthy of receiving them. That day I started a Choco-list, keeping track of who gave me chocolates, for I would need to repay the favor come White Day in March.

Eventually, Yamazaki, Saya, and I ventured outside to get the house all festive for Yume Akari. Using the same technique I had just learned at B&G, we made some snow lanterns using a bucket and trowel. Next, we carved several small hollows out of the snow wall, cave-like recesses just big enough for a tea candle to illuminate. The snow lanterns would crown the top of the snow wall, while the candle hollows would dot the broad side. While Saya and I worked on this wall, Yamazaki-san carved a big heart shape out of another. To keep things interesting, we perforated the heart with candle niches as well. Throughout the process of making snow-candle decorations outside, my hands became more and more cold. I think my hands are generally pretty weak at handling subzero temperatures, but repeatedly packing down snow while wearing subpar gloves led to painful aching. I persevered through the frozen hands though, especially since the snow sculpting was rather fun.

After we had completed our work and returned to the warm house, Grandma Yamazaki had rewarded us with amazake (甘酒). Made from fermented rice, amazake is a sweet white drink, served hot in the wintertime, much like hot coco. The name literally means “sweet sake”, but the drink usually has little to no alcohol left in it – although recipes vary. (I’d assume this is because ethyl alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, so boiling your alcohol tends to make it less alcoholic.) The drink is given to kids all the time and is even considered a heath food of sorts.

At four o’clock sharp, fireworks went off to signal the beginning of the Yume Akari festival. I couldn’t see them; only hear their bomb-like blasts. At this point, Yamazaki, Saya, and I headed off to the Yamashime House which has having a kodomo no ennichi (子どもの縁日), or “kid’s fair”. Much like other festival events I have seen, they had lottery games, a popgun shooting gallery, and a candy carving game called katanuki (カタヌキ). In katanuki, you are given a flat, brittle, pretty much tasteless sugar candy with an image imprinted on it. Using only a toothpick, you try to carve out the image following the mold imprint. You have to be very careful to scrape out your shape without breaking the candy, and if you are patient and skillful enough to succeed, you receive a prize. (It’s actually harder than it looks. I’ve tried the game on a couple separate occasions and never succeeded.)

The fair had a very cozy feeling about it, seeing as how outside of the historic Yamashime house was a frosty white blizzard of death – or a winter wonderland, depending on how you look at it – while inside was a safe and joyous occasion. The fiery blaze inside the space heaters kept the chilly old building warm enough, and Yasuda-san used a microwave to prepare takoyaki for anyone peckish.  The power would go out relatively frequently and the lights would go dark, with the crowd of people always producing a sigh in union. Everyone was fairly certain that the building’s electrical system couldn’t handle Yasuda-san’s microwave after all.

Later on, we walked to the center of town to check out the snow lantern displays. The snow had starting falling and whirlwinds were blowing it around everywhere. With the sun long gone it was quite cold. Still, the blizzard conditions made the festival of lights even more magical. Many people had created some sort of wintery decoration outside their houses. Some folks had made snow lanterns, but others had somehow made crystal clear ice lanterns. Many homes – I’m assuming homes with kids – had carved their own elaborate snow sculptures. I saw a couple different One Piece sculptures, including a giant Toni Chopper head complete with colored surfaces reminiscent of a snow cone. One family had done a huge Super Mario head, while their neighbor around the corner had made a near life-sized Mario and Yoshi sculpture that I found incredibly impressive.  Even the Seicomart had a modest display, an old school snowman carrying a broom and a small bottle of sake.

The town’s main intersection was the epicenter of snow lanterns. One corner had a giant heart-shaped sculpture displaying the text Yume Akari (夢あかり), with descending levels of lights underneath it. On the other side of the street, a great dome of snow had been covered with candle niches, now illuminated. A small wall, similarly dotted with fiery hollows and crowned with more snow lanterns, formed a fence-like border.  As the bitter wind picked up, the contrast of warm festival lighting against the dark winter bleakness became more apparent.

While the lights were truly beautiful, the wind wasn’t letting up and eventually I felt good and frozen. When Yamazaki’s son Chikaru met up with us, we took refuge in the white food tent that was set up for the event. Like an igloo, the tent felt quite warm on the inside. The ground was still packed snow, but the tent’s canopy captured all the steam and warmth of the food preparation going on in the corner.(Also, by simply eliminating the wind chill, the interior of the tent felt infinitely warmer.) The festival staff was busy making large cauldrons of oden (おでん – a popular soup dish consisting of multiple disparate ingredients floating in a clear-ish, soy-dashi broth), as well as ika-age (いか揚げ – fried squid) and zangi (ザンギ – fried chicken, as spoken in Hokkaido dialect). Oden can be found at most festivals, especially in the wintertime, and many convenience stores sell it as well. While the individual ingredients can vary greatly, I’ve almost always seen hardboiled egg, daikon, chikuwa (竹輪), and konnyaku (こんにゃく) included. Everyone has their own favorite oden ingredient, but if you prefer something over the daikon, you are wrong. (It’s clearly the best part.)

Yamazaki had purchased meal tickets ahead of time, so after a surprisingly long wait in line, we got our hands on the food. Maybe I was super hungry by that point, or maybe there’s simply nothing better than a hot soup on a cold night, but the food was unbelievably delicious. With each slurp of soup, each bite of fried chicken, I felt like my body was coming back to life, reanimating after cryostasis. After dinner, the Yamazakis returned home for the evening.  Although it was only 7:30pm, with the blizzard conditions out, I too decided to head home. I needed to get up early the next day anyway, for a Sunday trip to Sapporo.

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Getting a Japanese Driver’s License

In late November, I received an email from the company about the process of getting a Japanese driver’s license. It contained a list of documents to procure that was dauntingly long, and also informed me that Americans rarely pass the test on their first attempt. At that time, I was really indecisive about whether or not to renew my contract; in fact, I was thinking that I probably wouldn’t do it. Since I wasn’t planning on staying in Japan for a second year, I certainly wasn’t motivated to jump through the hoops of getting a Japanese license, so I promptly forgot all about it.

Fast-forward to February and I received another email from the company labeled “URGENT”. The rep asked if I had gotten any of those documents ready and reminded me that time was running out. By this time I had decided that one year wasn’t long enough and was now planning to stay in Japan after all. But I had done myself no favors by dragging my feet. Now I needed to act fast and get my documents in order so that they could schedule a test for me, and in the meantime, I was strongly advised to take some driving lessons. The urgency, combined with the looming difficulty that Americans usually have passing the test, freaked me out a bit.

Here’s what it looked like:

  1. A valid foreign driver’s license (US license)
  2. A Japanese translation of the US driver’s license from JAF (Japan Automobile Federation)
  3. An official document identifying the date that the license was first issued (such as a driving record or official state verification of status)
  4. An old Japanese driver’s license (if I had one)
  5. Tōroku Genpyou Kisai Jikou Shōmei-sho (外国人登録原票記載事項証明 – Certificate of Information Recorded on a Foreign Resident) a registration file from city hall
  6. Gaijin Card
  7. Passport
  8. Any additional documents confirming residence of 3 months or more in the country from which the license was obtained (such as school transcripts, old passports, etc). If necessary, apparently the US embassy could issue an entry and departure record.
  9. A photograph (3cm long x 2.4cm wide) taken within the past 6 months, no hat, front-face, no background, and from the shoulder up

Scrambling to collect the documents, I discovered that the seemingly complicated process was actually just as complicated as it had first appeared. Not only were some of the documents difficult track down – A document identifying the date that my license was first issued? Like from when I turned 16…in Iowa? – but some of them were even rather expensive. The JAF issued translation of my Washington State driver’s license cost ¥3000 (plus an additional ¥380 in postage for them to mail it back to me). Once I received this pricy piece of paper, I discovered that it actually had an expiration date. Why would a translation of a driver license have an expiration date, you ask? Beats the hell out of me.

It took me two weeks or so to get everything in order. By my count, the costs for the documents alone totaled ¥4480. (Additionally, I ended up spending $10 on an official Washington State driving record that I didn’t actually need. The Washington State DOL website’s FAQ section was quite clear that I just needed to email them to receive a “verification of status” document, but in my haste, I had already paid for the driving record before I read that bit. And by the way, Iowa’s DOT website, along with its lack of services, was utterly useless and unhelpful.) I was ready to face this test and see just how bad it really was.

On Thursday, March 1st, I was given the day off work so that I could go take a driving test in Sapporo. Since Americans are required to do a paper test and a practical driving exam, I had thought that I was doing both of these on the same day, but it turned out the written portion needed to be done first and actual driving part of the test would have to wait. Hiroko and Shun were kind enough to take me to the Driving Test Center (運転免許試験場) in Teine, and guide me through the process. As it turns out, I certainly could not have managed without their help.

We arrived at the Driving Test Center at 1pm. Documents in hand, we proceeded to window six, the one for foreigners. Hiroko noted that within the Driving Center, the signs were written almost entirely in kanji, making it difficult for a person of novice Japanese skill to read what’s what. The lady at the window took my documents and gave me a short paper to complete; it was basically asking if I have ever had any problems with problems with loss of consciousness, or other medical conditions which would impair my ability to drive.  I quickly read through it, circled “none of the above”, and signed. Then, before giving it back, I quickly corrected a small typo and handed it across the counter. This startled the lady, as she thought I was going to circle one of the other options, but when she saw that I was just correcting the form’s English, she seemed rather pleased.

They took my various documents, as well as my Washington driver license, passport, and alien registration card to be copied. Then they asked us to wait and return to the window in about one hour.  Hiroko, Shun, and I bought some refreshments from the vending machine corner and sat down to wait. An hour later, they called me up to the window again and I got my passport, alien registration card, and Washington license back. Apparently all my documents had checked out. I was given a new form and directed towards the vision screening area. But before I got my eyes checked out, I need to purchase ¥2400 in payment stamps to cover the process. The guy who did my vision test was probably the most cheerful guy I saw all day. He seemed to really enjoy listening to answers of “left”, “right”, “up”, and “down” in English, and his huge smile never faded.

After the vision test, I needed a wait for a little while longer while the staff prepared an English version written test for me. I was a bit worried about this written exam, even though I had actually read the book; I just had bad memories of my written driving test back in Iowa. It turned out that the exam was only ten questions, and it was a maru-batsu test (まるばつテスト – true-false test).  This should have been simple, but I still stressed over the prospect of making too many mistakes and failing. Luckily, I passed just fine.

With the written test passed, we then had to schedule practical driving exam for another day. Hiroko again stepped up and took care of me, speaking with staff and calling Nozomi-san to make sure the times worked for everyone. We scheduled the driving test for the following Monday afternoon, at 1pm. Following my company’s advice, we also scheduled a one-hour driving lesson for that same day, in the morning. This way I got some practice on the driving course, as well as insider info from a professional driving instructor. Use of the driving course costs ¥700 per half hour, so I had to buy ¥1400 worth of payment stamps ahead of time to be able to pay for my lesson’s hour on the course Monday morning.

On Monday March 5th, I got up at 5:30am. I had a driving lesson scheduled at the Teine Driving Test Center, with a driving course reservation at 7am. Hiroko was happy to drive me to the Driving Test Center in Teine again, even though it was very early. My driving instructor turned out to be a slender, athletic-looking gentleman with a military haircut. He seemed quite fit and youthful, so I assumed he was young, but the creases around his eyes indicated he had more years than I had guessed. We would be driving the course in his car, which looked like a taxi cab. The course was smaller than I had expected after looking at its map. Still, it was probably the size of two football fields placed side by side. There was a traffic signal intersection in the center, a couple of tight and narrow side streets, and enough room to accelerate to 50kph on the outside track.

The lesson itself was done completely in Japanese and proved invaluable for passing the practical driving exam. This isn’t because the lesson teaches you the necessary skills for safe driving, but because the driving exam has very specific and rigid expectations for what you are to do. Without a briefing on the esoteric actions one needs to perform during the test, the safest drivers in the world couldn’t pass. There are a lot of little touches, simple things to perform, but if you don’t know what they’re looking for, you’re screwed.

For example, right from the outset of driving, you should look 1) back at the left blind spot, 2) forward towards the front-left corner of the car, 3) at the rearview mirror, 4) towards the front-right corner, and then 5) back at the right blind spot. That’s a 5-point look combo that you’re obligated to do or you’re docked points. Of course during the test, you might not have been aware that you were being judged on few things even before this “initial” step. Did you adjust your seat, adjust the rearview mirror, buckle your seatbelt, and lock the door? Did you physically crouch down and check the ground in front of the car before even getting in? You probably missed points if you didn’t.

After the 5-point look combo, you still have to perform another step before starting to actually drive. Hit the right blinker to indicate you’re going to pull out, and look 1) at the rearview mirror, 2) towards the front-right corner, and 3) back over your shoulder at the right blind spot before starting to drive. In fact, anytime you turn or changes lanes, you are expected to perform this 3-point look.  From there on out the instructor gave me little tips to fine-tune driving. For example, what side of the lane to lean towards and when, when to drive slower or faster, and remembering to look right –then left – at an intersection (not left then right, like I’m used to). With his tutelage, I became more confident that I could pass the test. I paid ¥7000 for the hour lesson and hoped that it was enough.

Hiroko and Shun again accompanied to the driving center to help with any communication issues and to generally root me on. The time sensitive nature of the whole thing had made me anxious and I genuinely appreciated their support. As instructed, we were there at the window, five minutes before 1pm, ready for the physical driving test. However, we ended up having to wait because I was testing with two other foreigners and they hadn’t showed up yet. I joked to Shun that my fellow foreigners were probably Russian mafia and so they didn’t show up on time for anything. To my surprise, twenty minutes later, five or six young Russian men appeared.

The Russian guys lazily strutted up to the counter, standing out more from their swagger than from their height or whiteness. Since we had to wait for them to show up late, Shun was a bit offended by their lack of decorum. He quite audibly talked about how they were idiots in Japanese. I too was a little put off by them at first, as groups of rowdy young dudes generally make my spider-sense tingle, and I didn’t particularly want to attract their attention. Luckily, these guys could barely understand a word of Japanese so they probably didn’t catch the cracks Shun made about them.

My two fellow test participants and I were led into a little room where they explained how the test was going to go – in Japanese. Most of this time was spent trying to clarify if the Russian guys understood the directions, which they quite clearly did not. I tried to help translate a little, but one guy understood only a bit of Japanese and a bit of English and not much of either.  The other guy knew only migi (右) and hidari (左), right and left. During this briefing, I discovered that Japan has separate licenses for manual and automatic transmission vehicles. I was getting an automatic transmission license, so I would only be legally allowed to drive automatics and any car with a stick was off-limits.  My new Russian friends were doing the manual transmission test, and I had a feeling that their chances of passing that day were really slim. It was too bad too; they actually seemed quite friendly after I got a chance to talk to them.

To start our test, the three of us jumped in the car with an older gentleman, and he drove the course to demonstrate what we were going to do. After the run through, I got to drive in that same car – an automatic transmission – with the man, while the Russian guys got into a second car – a manual transmission – with a female test administrator. Since I was in the lead car, I couldn’t see how my Russian friends were doing, but I needed to focus on my own test anyway. The fate of the whole endeavor came down to my performance of the rehearsed, arbitrary, esoteric, superfluous driving actions to I had learned that morning.

Throughout my driving test, the test administrator made little ticks on his clipboard; I assumed he was checking the boxes of all the things I was doing right. I felt pretty confident during my drive. I followed all the tips I had received, made it painfully obvious that I was looking at all the right places, and never hit anything. The actually driving took less than five minutes. Finishing up back at the starting point, the man casually asked me a couple questions; what kind of work I did, where I lived, if I had taken driving lessons. His friendly demeanor gave me the impression that I had passed. Ten or 15 minutes later I got the official word: I did indeed pass. No problems. The Russian guys both failed. There was one more fee to pay via the payment stamps, another ¥2100, and then I had my photograph taken. It was about 2:15pm, and they told me that I could pick up my brand new license at 4:00.

Since we had some time to kill, Hiroko, Shun, and I drove to a nearby used book store to do some shopping. Like many bookstores in Japan, this store sold all kinds of media; books, manga (漫画 – Japanese comic books, which are produced in a variety genres for pretty much all possible audiences), music, movies, and even a variety of video games. I entertained myself for an embarrassing long time simply perusing the Famicom, Super Famicom, and Nintendo64 titles. Eventually (and with Hiroko’s help) I located the store’s inventory of a boxing manga called Hajime no Ippo (はじめの一歩); I’m a fan of the anime. I purchase book #4 and decided to challenge myself to read it.

At 4pm, we returned to the driving test center and picked up my new license. I had succeeded, and just in time too. To have the card in my hand was a great relief. It was also a further endorsement from the Japanese government that I was welcome to live and work in Japan.

In the end, the cumulative expenses to get my license totaled ¥17380 (that’s about $208 USD). The process of converting a foreign driver’s license to a Japanese one did honestly seem to be intentionally complicated. While one might guess that this is in an effort to keep foreigners excluded, I don’t think that’s the case. I believe the process is actually made difficult to prevent Japanese citizens from getting a driver’s licenses in foreign countries and converting them over at home. A Japanese citizen could easily get a driver’s license while on vacation, in say Hawaii, and then return to Japan and convert this license to the Japanese equivalent. If successful, you would circumvent the normal driving school method of obtaining a license and save yourself a lot of money.

You see, Japanese driving schools are quite expensive. Enrolling in a driving school in Japan can run you somewhere between ¥300,000 and ¥400,000 (approximately $3,600 to $4,400). Clearly, it’s big business. The boatload of documents, the esoteric driving test rituals, and even the driving course itself, are all designed to maintain the necessity for driving schools. From the outside this looks like quite a scam. But then again, I’m just an American, so what do I know?

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Filed under Educational, Sapporo, Teine

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

Elementary School Chaos

The elementary kids are generally more rowdy than the junior high students. Although to be fair, the second year junior high kids tend to mix up it more than their first or third year counterparts. Still, the elementary kids maintain a constant buzz of playful excitement that the older students can’t match. Generally the fifth and sixth graders are quite open to English instruction, and while they can be wilder, the classes are very rewarding for a teacher like me.

Near the end of the school year the fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Seo, got quite sick, and ended up missing about a month of classes. During this time, the Principal and Vice Principal had to step in and teach the fifth grade as substitutes. This meant that when I came in to teach English on Tuesday, it all me, a one-man show. This wasn’t a problem at first, but without their regular teacher there to provide stability and discipline, the students began to unravel.

By the third week of Mrs. Seo’s absence, the classroom’s demeanor had changed. Even though the Vice Principal was right there in the room with us, a few of the boys started acting up. They’d randomly get out their seats and walk around the classroom, sometimes leaving the room completely. One of the louder troublemakers would try purposely shouting Japanese obscenities that had the slightly phonetic resemblance to the English vocabulary. (For example, instead of saying “Monday” one student yelled “manko”, a vulgar term for vagina.) One of the quieter troublemakers opted to ignore the whole lesson, simply cutting papers into little pieces with scissors and scattering the pieces all over the floor. The Vice Principal did his best to corral the hooligans, but the students had apparently learned to ignore the sense of groupism and shame that normally guides personal behavior in Japanese society. Besides asking the kids not to act up, there was little the VP could do.

Feeling that the class was losing interest in my lesson, I jumped right into the day’s game. The kids really only enjoy the game bits anyway, so why not, right? The vocabulary we were learning was the names of school subjects (like math, science, social studies, English, etc.), and I had prepared cards for each subject. The game we played was essentially just janken (じゃん拳 – Rock-paper-scissors), with an additional card collection element. Two students have a quick match of janken, and the losing student then asks the winner, “What subject do you like?” in English. The winner responds, “I like music”, for example, and if the losing student has a “Music” card, they have to give it to the winner. Once a student collects five cards of the same kind, they win the game.

I thought the game had a good blend of strategy and random chance, while providing a good platform for using the key phrases in context. Plus, my cards were pure gold – laminated gold – if I do say so myself. But to jump into the game portion of class when your kids aren’t behaving can be a risky move. If you succeed in engaging their interest than you can get them positively involved, sure. But kids (and adults too) can become so fixated on winning a meaningless game that they lose all sense of decorum. And when self-control is already in question, the game can make things worse. Things got off to great start and my gamble seemed to be paying off, but when a girl and boy started physically fighting over the school subject cards, everything fell apart.

The VP separated the children, who had ended up wrestling on the floor. The girl (let’s called her Kinno) laughed it off, while the boy (let’s called him Aki) seemed particularly crazed. (These aren’t their real names, by the way.) Perhaps Kinno had gotten in more hits than Aki had.

The VP physically held Aki back as he tried to push his way through to the girl and continue their fisticuffs. His eyes were intense and teary, and they shot daggers at his target. At some point, the VP left the Aki’s side for just a moment and he promptly decimated Kinno’s desk, throwing her books and papers on the floor, and pitching her pencil case across the room. Upon hitting the wall, the pencil case exploded its contents all over; writing utensils, rulers, erasers, and the like, spilt forth like candy from a piñata. The VP quickly took hold of the boy again, but the class went into total bedlam, as all the girls scurried about, helping pick up Kinno’s belongings. Amidst this chaos, one of the quiet young ruffians took the opportunity to stealthily grab a chalkboard eraser and hurl it across the room as well. Its wall impact was accompanied by a plume of chalky white powder, dissipating into the air like smoke after a bomb blast. Preoccupied with frenzied desk vandal, the VP didn’t even notice this.

It took quite awhile for the melee to calm down, and the all of the girls ignored the VP’s commands to sit down as they were desperate to find a missing lip balm cap. Unsure of how I could help the situation – not to mention what I was and wasn’t allowed to do – I simply stood at the front of the class, silent, arms crossed, and probably with a “you’ve gotta be kidding me” expression on my face. I think we almost regained control of the class by the time the bell rang, but not quite. The VP was extremely apologetic to me but I waved off the concern. It was really him who had it rough, and I felt I should have been the one apologizing.

The next week, Tuesday March 6th, Mrs. Seo was still absent. Again it would just be me teaching, with the Vice Principal there to help. While the previous week had gotten a bit nuts, I was confident that as long as the kids weren’t fighting each other, the class should go pretty smoothly. These hopes were dashed promptly, before I even got to the classroom. From down the hallway, about 50 meters from the room, the VP and I spotted the fifth grade boys playing outside of the classroom. One kid had a watering can and instead of garden plants, he was sprinkling the linoleum floor. Another kid was wielding a mop, and I wasn’t sure about it, but he may have been trying to clear up the mess. Last week’s most crazy student, Aki, took off his t-shirt, crouched down, and let the first kid shower his back with water. It was sure to be one of those days.

Inside the classroom, the at least three of the boys had damp clothes or were soaking wet. When I asked them how they were, a few responded, “I’m cold” in Japanese, not even trying to speak English with me. I said to Aki, “That’s probably because you’re not wearing a shirt and you’re all wet.” (If he wasn’t going to work with me, I wasn’t about to speak his language.) Initially, the students – the girls and boys both – refused to begin class with a simple “Hello Mr. Lucas”.

Even after he had his shirt back on, Aki was clearly determined to be as disruptive as possible. He didn’t even have the decency to try and make much vulgar word-based humor by mispronouncing the vocabulary, although he occasionally would still shout some. Instead, he repeated yelled in my direction, asking me who I was in overly casual Japanese. While this stuck as a tad disrespectful and unnecessary, his repeated use of the word temee (てめえ – a coarse, vulgar word for “you”) to refer to the Vice Principal was far worse.

To my surprise, Aki and Kinno were no longer fighting. In fact, the pair must have made up because Kinno was now supporting everything that Aki did. All of Aki’s angst was now directed at faculty and the two of them were both having a grand old time. In the class’s state of disorganization, it was like a Japanese Lord of the Flies (“Rold of the Fries”, if you will), and it was clear to me that we were going to get little to nothing done.

The lesson plan for the day was to wrap up our lessons covering the days of the week and school subjects by giving the kids the chance to make their own ideal schedules and present them to the class. I’m sure you can imagine exactly how excited the kids were to do this. The closest Aki came to participating was to again take off his shirt and tape school subject cards to his nipples. Kinno, who acts as something of a ringleader for the class’s girls, actually filled out her ideal schedule and the other girls followed her lead. As soon as she was done, she started spreading glue on the palm of her hand, and again, most of the girls followed suit. There was only one student who wasn’t taken in by the mob mentality and behaved perfectly amidst all this chaos. This girl’s father was also a teacher, so maybe she took pity on us. I’d occasionally walk over to her desk to check on her work and give quiet praise.

Aki ramped up his rebellion. A couple other boys began acting out a bit too, but their antics were merely mild imitations of Aki. At one point he left the classroom and returned with a camcorder. Where this kid found a video camera is beyond me, but he plugged the adapter into the wall socket and began recording the class. It took the VP quite a while to get the camcorder out of his hands, and after taking it away once, he grabbed it again and again. I almost wished the VP had just let him tape away, because the kid was at his least disruptive whilst distracted by the electronic device. After Aki had moved on from the camera, one of the other students (the erase thrower from the last act) picked it up too. The VP quickly took it from him and he seemed to lose interest immediately.

Still not satisfied, Aki eventually grabbed a wooden dowel from the corner of the room. The staff had probably been part of a large rollout map, but now was just a long wooden stick. Since you obviously don’t want your out-of-control student armed like Donatello, the VP immediately had his hands on the potential weapon as well. The two grappled for control of the stick, the VP trying to be gentle but firm. Clutching the rod the whole way, Aki walked over to his desk and sat down. Still grasping the other end, the VP followed along. Once Aki was in his seat, the VP pulled the stick with more force, yanking out of Aki’s talons with two tugs. This clearly angered the boy and he reacted by throwing a pair of scissors in the VP’s general direction. The scissors didn’t hit anyone, but that was definitely crossing a line. Still, class carried on just like normal – awkwardly.

We didn’t get to introducing the next chapter’s vocabulary like I had intended. I’d say we barely completed that schedule-making activity. There was never enough class cohesion for the students to present their schedules to the class, which was really the only important part of it. By the time the chime sounded, I was more than ready to leave. And I still had the sixth graders to teach!

I left that class feeling bad for the poor Vice Principal, as well as for the one student who behaved perfectly. That girl’s father is a teacher at the junior high, so I know the family pretty well. Sure enough, he asked me about the class the next day. Apparently things were so unpleasant for his daughter that she hadn’t wanted to go back to school the next day.

The following week, Mrs. Seo had still not recovered from her illness. This was my last class with the 5th graders for the year, and I’m proud to say that they probably learned a couple new words, like “iced tea” and “dessert”. (We were learning vocabulary for ordering food.) There was still plenty of craziness, but we got through the lot of new food terms. Even Aki halfheartedly participated, though mostly just to mispronounce “hotdog” as “hot chinpo” (ホットちんぽ – hot penis). I have a feeling that getting Mrs. Seo back in the classroom would have been the only way to restore order. Oh well.

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