Tag Archives: Japanese pun

New Year’s in Japan

While the big, heartwarming, family holiday in the States is Christmas, in Japan it’s Shōgatsu (正月), New Year’s. In fact, ritually speaking, New Year’s Day is probably most important day of year in Japan, and the party extends from New Year’s Eve to January 3rd. Since I was spending my winter break at the Fukui house in Sapporo, I had a chance to legitimately experience New Year’s the Japanese way, with family.

Ōmisoka (大晦日 – New Year’s Eve)

Ōsouji (大掃除) super cleaning in progress.

Hiroko-chan explained to me that in preparation for the New Year, the whole house needed to be cleaned, room by room. This major cleaning, which she called “ōsouji”(大掃除), takes place over the last few days of the year. Since I was staying in the guest room, I was responsible to clean my room just like everyone else. Luckily, since the room was sparsely furnished (just a bed, lamp, mirror, and chair), the dusting and vacuuming were easy to do. However, Yujiro was responsible not only for his own room, but cleaning the bath as well.

When I woke up on New Year’s Eve, Ukai-san was in the kitchen turning huge pieces of raw fish into a beautiful tray of sashimi. His four year old son, Taichi, was running around the house, playing sneaking games with Shun. At some point, Shun took a break and I stepped in to sneak about the house, ninja-style, with little Taichi. Eventually, Ukai-san’s sushi masterpiece was finished, and he and Taichi departed. That was time for me to clean my room.

That evening there was a small dinner party where the sushi was eaten. Some of Hiroko and Hiroshi’s friends came over to share in the merriment. Along with the feast of exquisite sea food, there was much sake to be drank. I had started a Skype video call with my brother in Seattle just as dinner started, so I missed the beginning of the meal, but luckily there was plenty of sushi still waiting for me. The older folks had also had plenty sake by this point.

Kouhei, a young man who lives next door, came over with his girlfriend. There had been much anticipation about this because no one had met the girl before, and everyone was curious about what kind of person she was…as well as how she looked. I’m happy to report that young lady exceeded everyone’s exceptions. While this was a rather crucial moment for new couple, for some reason people insisted that Kouhei drink sake, and they aggressively refilled his glass. I don’t understand why getting him drunk would be considered a good idea, but perhaps the fact that everyone else was several glasses into the night had something to do with it. At some point, Kouhei left to take his girlfriend home, but he returned later on. For a thin guy, I saw him drink a ton of sake, and he ended the night by passing out on the floor. (An older couple also fell asleep in the living room, so it was a natural move.)

If I had so desired, I could have walked down to Odori Park for a Times Square-style countdown.  But that would have involved braving the cold and I was enjoying chilling out at the house. We probably could have at least tuned into a channel that was doing a countdown, but instead the TV was set to a bizarre program with a panel of comedians trying not to a laugh as other comedians were humiliated in various ways. I wasn’t really watching it, but I did catch a part where guys wearing next to nothing had to pour buckets of hot candle wax on themselves. It looked quite unpleasant. While everyone drank and hung out, I watched the time on my laptop.

Toshikoshi soba. Mm-mm-good...

When midnight finally came, I played the Barenaked Ladies rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” from my computer and everyone who was still awake had a New Year’s toast. Just a moment later, Hiroko-chan reappeared—I had thought she had gone to bed for the night. She seemed surprised that it was already 2012 and began feverishly working on toshikoshi soba (年越し そば), literally “end of the year” noodles. Apparently eating long noodles is symbolic of crossing over from the old year to the next. We ate the buckwheat noodles zaru-style; plain noodles from a drying basket that you dip in men-tsuyu sauce (麺汁) before slurping up.  Hiroko also whipped up some shrimp tempura to go along with the soba. It was one hell of a midnight snack.

Since I didn’t venture out for the countdown, I also didn’t have an opportunity to hear the bells tolling out the old year. I’ve been told that with the New Year, each Buddhist temple rings their giant bell 108 times. It’s called joya no kane (除夜の鐘), meaning “New Year’s Eve bell”. According to Buddhist tradition, 108 is the number of earthly desires of man that lead to suffering, so that’s where the seeming random number originates.

Shōgatsu (正月 – New Year’s Day)

Having been told that there was a holiday meal planned for the morning, I made sure to be up and out of bed by 9am. Coming down stairs, Hiroko and Hiroshi greeted me in proper New Year’s fashion. In fact, Hiroko-chan had me repeat the words back to her until I had learned it well enough to properly greet the others. It sounds like this, “Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu. Kotoshimo yoroshiku onegaishimasu” (明けましておめでとうごうざいます。今年もよろしくおねがします。) Pretty long, right? Essentially, the first sentence means, “Happy New Year,” while the second bit roughly translates to, “Please treat me well again this year.”

Around 10am or so, the family assembled for a big meal of osechi (お節 – traditional New Year foods). Hiroko-chan gave me the honor of opening the elaborate box in which the food had been delivered.  Inside the cardboard box was another box, carefully wrapped in ornate red and white cloth. Unwrapping the cloth, I discovered that the square structure was actually three separate bento-style boxes stacked atop one another. When the boxes were opened and spread out on the table, a veritable holiday feast was revealed. We opened a big bottle of sake, and poured little cups for everyone. Then with a “kanpai”, we commenced eating.

The osechi foods were simply amazing; in taste, but even more so in extravagance. The magical box contained lobster, shrimp, goose, foie gras, and shark fin, just to name a few. There was even fugu (河豚), the distinctly Japanese delicacy of blow fish. Fugu is poisonous, and if not properly prepared, eating a toxic bit can be lethal. Hiroko-chan invited me to try the fugu since it was normally extremely expensive, but I had actually just promised my brother—not 24 hours beforehand—that I wouldn’t eat the potentially deadly fish. So I sampled most of the dishes, but passed on the fugu.

Many of the osechi foods had special meanings, derived from a play on words with their name. For instance, Hiroko-chan tried to explain to me the significance of konbu in New Year’s dishes. As I understand it, konbu (昆布) is the word for seaweed, but it’s associated as a sort of pun with yorokobu (喜ぶ), meaning “to be pleased.” So konbu is eaten as a part of osechi for good luck in the New Year. Many of the New Year foods were also very sweet. For example, there was a sweet black bean dish, and a sweet rolled omelet called datemaki (伊達巻). I’m not usually into the sweet stuff, but both with incredibly delicious.

As we ate the New Year meal and reflected on the past and upcoming year, we talked a bit about my plans. While I hadn’t officially declared any plans for the future year, Hiroko-chan was fairly certain that I would return to the US in April to be with my girlfriend. When she began talking about my leaving she actually shed tears, momentarily overcome with emotion. It was a bittersweet moment.

After everyone had their fill from the osechi box, we also ate a traditional mochi soup that Hiroko-chan had prepared, called ozouni (お雑煮). In the States, the only experience most people have with mochi is as an occasional glutinous covering for balls of ice cream. However, in Japan this pounded rice cake is rather prevalent, especially in festive dishes.

After we concluded the most epic brunch I have ever experienced, Hiroko-chan told me that more food was on its way. “Today is endless eating and drinking,” she said. “It will make you tired.”

In the afternoon, five of us guys braved the winter cold to walk to a Shito shrine, as is customary on New Year’s Day. This tradition is called hatsumoude (初詣); hatsu means “first”, while moude means “pilgrimage”. There was a building within a few blocks of the house that I had thought was a shrine, but apparently it was actually a Buddhist temple, because we walked past it, on to another location. We ended up walking for about 20 minutes, going almost all the way Susukino. The weather chill felt stronger with every block.

Eventually we reached our destination, Miyoshi Shrine (三吉神社). Right in the middle of an urban area, Miyoshi Shrine and its pine trees stand out as pleasantly old-fashioned scene; a spiritually charged anachronism. With everyone flocking to shrines for the ritualistic New Year visit, the place was pretty busy, and a long line extended out from the main building.

First we took part in omikuji (おみくじ), a kind of fortune-telling lottery. I put a coin into a collection box and drew out a folded piece of paper. Unrolled, the paper gives you a random fortune for the year, ranging from super great, to not very good at all. My particular fortune was called sue-kichi (末吉), which was first translated to me as “future blessing”. I thought this sounded pretty good, but they explained to me that it was a low blessing, the sixth best out of seven possible “good” fortunes. In fact, a better translation is “uncertain luck”, as in luck that might become apparent as time passes. In other words, it’s the equivalent of a magic 8-ball telling you to try again. (Sounds like the most honest fortune ever, actually.) When the fortune is bad, one can fold up the paper and tie it to a rack on near the entrance of the shrine grounds. Kouhei must not have liked his results, because he did this.

Next, we got in line for the osaisen (お賽銭 – monetary offering), which I consider the main activity of a shrine visit. When you get to the entrance of the main shrine building, there’s a large box for monetary offerings. You pitch your coin in the box, much like making a wish at a fountain, and then perform the following actions to appease the kami (神):

1) Bow. Of course.

2) Bow again. You’re greeting a god, show goddamn some reverence.

3) Clap twice. This alerts the spirits to your presence while simultaneously showing appreciation. Apparently it’s also thought to ward off evil spirits, who—contrary to heavy metal philosophy—don’t like loud noises.

4) With your hands together in front of your heart (namaste-style), bow once more. You didn’t really think you could walk away without another bow, did you?

Before we left, Kouhei decided to buy a lucky charm amulet called omamori (お守り). The word omamori actually means “protection” and the amulets are thought to provide you with some form of protection or luck. They might be dedicated to a particular kami or Buddhist figure, and can dangle from your cell phone, bag, or even rearview mirror. All of the omamori I spotted were on sale for either 500 or 600 yen.

As we were leaving the shrine grounds, I noticed the hand washing basin and realized that we hadn’t done the ritual purification when we entered. Considering how cold it was, getting my hands wet sounded unpleasant, but I realized that I just performed my Shinto rituals in an impure state. Visit ruined!

That night, we had kimchi nabe (キムチ鍋) for dinner. Nabe means “pot” and it’s a Japanese style of dining that basically involving stewing everything in one big pot. While I already liked nabe, doing it with a spicy kimchi soup base was spectacular. I was so satisfied after dinner that I drifted off into a little nap. I think I’ve found a new favorite dish.

In the late evening, Shun, Yujiro, Kouhei, and I walked out into the falling snow to make a 7/11 run. Our timing was very good as we ran into Ken, who was on his way to the house on foot. The five of us ended up throwing a lot of snowballs, trying to peg a stop sign from about 25 or 30 meters. Shun had declared that no one could enter the house until all five of us had hit the sign, but it soon became evident that the feat was harder than expected. Everyone’s hands were freezing by the time we succeeded.

Once back inside the warm house, we ended up playing some video games, starting with the always festive Smash Bros. Brawl. Next the Nintendo64 was dusted off for some old-school gaming. Diddy Kong Racing, Mario Kart64, and Mario Party were fun, although they hadn’t aged well. Eventually, my eyelids were too heavy to continue and I called it a night.

Tuesday January 3rd, a woman visited the house right around noon. At that time, Hiroko and Nozomi had gone to the nearby onsen, and Aika and I (two Americans) were the only people home and awake. So when she arrived, we greeted her at the door and she explained that she was there to change the house’s kami-sama (神様 – Shinto spirit, god) for the family.

Household Shinto shrine, kamidana (神棚)

We let her in and she proceeded into the butsuma (仏間). This is the room in every Japanese home that contains the 

, the household Buddhist alter; sometimes called the “ancestor box”.  Also contained in this room was the kamidana (神棚 – household Shinto shrine), which was a decorative wooden shelf with what looked like a model of the front of a Shinto shrine building. The lady stood on a chair to reach the kamidana and proceeded to replace one thin envelope with a new thin envelope. My understanding is that the envelopes were meant to contain the kami.

The ancestor box, butsudan (仏壇).

After making the switch, the lady knelt on the floor seiza-style and performed the kami greeting that I described earlier (bow-bow-clap twice-bow again). Aika and I just stood there awkwardly with are hands in the namaste gesture; complete foreigners to the ritual. Next, perhaps to be extra respectful, the lady also knelt in front of the ancestor box, rang the bell, and appeared to say a quick prayer. She gave us a couple proselytistic pamphlets and was on her way. Aika wasn’t impressed, but I was rather fascinated with the custom.

There are three days of celebration for Shōgatsu. Most people have January 1st, 2nd, and 3rd off work and they often spend a lot of money, living it up. For example, we ate sashimi everyday during the holiday period. As Hiroshi-san explained to me, after the excessive extravagance of these three days, when you have no more money, you can’t let on that you are now poor. Even if you are doing without, you put on airs (見栄を張る – みえをはる). Nozomi-san added, “If you’re hungry, you act like you’re not hungry.”

As easy as it would be to judge these customs as unnecessary, or fiscally irresponsible, I can’t help but be reminded of the Christmas tradition in the US. There people feel obligated to unnecessarily spend tons of money on gifts for their family and friends, often buying their loved ones random, unwanted gifts just so that can give them something, anything. And why? To honor the incorrectly dated birthday of an ascetic minimalist, who preached the forsaking of all possessions. While living beyond your means for three days might be a little silly, I think America still has the prize for stupid holiday customs.

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Flight Complications: Quick Trip, Long Story

Sunday September 4, 2011 – My big brother Mike was getting married, and I love wedding receptions. However, I was still in the middle of my self-imposed exile from the States, it was expected that I would have to miss it. My friends in Japan were downright appalled that I miss my own brother’s kekkonshiki (結婚式 – wedding). Both Yamazaki-san and Nozomi-san preached the importance of family. Even if it meant using all of my vacation time and buying an unbelievably expensive ticket (and it did), it was probably worth it. Having already missed the weddings of some very important friends this year, I decided that missing Mike’s would be unforgivable. I had to go.

Even though the company was pretty clear about wanting us to save our vacation days to use at times when we were sick, I went ahead and asked for all five of my days off for the trip. Next, I had to make a trip to an immigration office in Otaru to procure a Re-entry Visa. (Little Shakotan doesn’t have such an office, so it was either Otaru or Sapporo.) For any other foreigners living in Japan, if you’re planning on leaving the country, even just a short vacation in Korea or a weekend sex tour in Thailand (I’m on to you, sicko), you need to get a Re-entry Visa before you leave Japan. Without it, your work visa becomes invalidated when you exit the country. On a Friday morning during my summer break, I made the trip to Otaru and got my “permission to come back” documentation pretty easily.

My parents helped me get my ticket, both with the booking process and with paying for it. (It really was a really expensive ticket.) The best part was that we kept the plan a secret so Mike wouldn’t see me coming. True ninja style.

The day before I was to fly out, a typhoon made its presence felt in Hokkaido. Once it started raining, it didn’t let up. On Friday September 9th, during my 5:00am drive from Sapporo to New Chitose Airport, the strong winds nearly blow my boxy little car off the road. Once I got to the airport and parked my car, I made the mistake of thinking that I needed the International Terminal, since I was flying internationally. Oddly, that terminal wasn’t open when I arrived, and I sat around and waited for 20 minutes or so for it to open up.

When the raised the metal gates and I entered the International Terminal, I didn’t recognize a goddamn thing. Realizing that I wasn’t in the right place, I double-checked the airport map. The International Terminal in the Sapporo airport only flies to Asian destinations, the most obvious one being Korea. Because the first leg of my flight was to Tokyo-Narita, I needed the Domestic Terminal.

I literally ran to the Domestic Terminal, passing through the shopping mall-like area that was familiar to me, and waited in line to check in for my flight. By this point I knew that I was getting dangerously close to missing my check-in time. Standing there holding my bags, the airport seemed uncomfortably hot, and sweat trickled down my lower back. When I got up to the counter, the conversation I had with the JAL airline lady went like this:

“Good morning, sir. Do you have an e-ticket?”

“Good morning. I have this. I think I’m running a little late.”

“Pardon?”

“I’m late? I think I’m a little late.” I desperately searched my brain’s data bank for the Japanese word for “late” and came up with nothing.

“I’m sorry, what was that?” She leaned forward with a quizzical look on her face, clearly attempting to decipher my English.

“Never mind,” I said with what I hope was a smile.

After printing some boarding passes and clarifying that I would need to recheck my bags in Chicago, I made to my gate just in the nick of time. Surprisingly, I received a phone call in the airport, Yamazaki-san checking up on me. He said he had been a little worried about me making my flight, but I assured him all was well. He told me to be careful and wished me luck.

While the first leg of the journey went just fine, there was baggage related troubles in Tokyo-Narita. Apparently the baggage sorting system failed somehow. After boarding late, we waited motionless while the staff apparently tracked down and loaded all the bags by hand. By the time we took off, we had been delayed by two hours. Once in the air, the flight was 11.5 hours long.

When I arrived in Chicago, I was really surprised by how much “Welcome to the United States” crap they had all over the place. Immigration at O’Hare International Airport was overflowing with people, at 11:00am on a Saturday. Waiting in the line for US Passport holders, I was surprised to see many different people bumping into old friends or colleagues, and striking up conversations about business and/or mutual friends. I really don’t understand how so many of these random travelers knew each other.

Due to the baggage delay leaving Tokyo, I just missed my next flight, from Chicago to Des Moines, Iowa. The airline automatically moved me to the next one, leaving around 2:00pm. I wanted to call my mom and let her know about the change in plans, but I only had my Japanese cell phone, which doesn’t work in the states. Also, the only payphones I could find seemed to only accept credit cards or phone cards. It then dawned on me that I hadn’t brought any phones numbers with me, whatsoever. I thought back to my childhood and actually managed to recall my mom’s home phone number and—quite oddly—my Aunt Mary Ann’s phone number. I dialed both, calling collect, and hoped that I didn’t ruin the surprise.

After a few tries, I managed to reach my little brother Patrick, who as it turns out, already knew about my secret visit. He texted Mom for me and still managed to keep things hush-hush from Mike and Kevin. Everything, it seemed, was alright. Then, just before boarding, my next flight was abruptly canceled due to weather.

While my long journey seemed to getting longer and longer, I still was in good spirits. A fellow traveler and I talked about how were being inconvenienced by flight cancellation as we rebooked for later flights. Her name was Melinda and she was traveling from Michigan to Des Moines to visit her boyfriend. When I told her about my brother’s wedding and my surprise visit plans, she was quite entertained. The next flight to Des Moines left at 4:30, but we could only get stand-by for that one, and we were booked for a 7:00 flight instead.

While waiting for the chance to possibly board the 4:30 flight, Melinda kindly let me use her cell phone to call my mom and explain the situation. (Patrick had given me Mom’s cell number.) We sat at the gate and chatted until the flight started to board. It looked like the plane would be full and we would have to wait until our 7:00 flight. A few passengers walked down the jet way and presumably were sitting down on the plane when the announcement was made—the 4:30 flight was also being canceled due to weather! Everyone with tickets to the 4:30 flight scrabbled to the counter to get on stand-by for the next and final Des Moines flight of the evening, the 7:00pm flight for which Melinda and I already had tickets. It was a shocking reverse of fates.

Melinda and I killed time before our (hopeful) flight by grabbing dinner together. We talked about family and travel and had a grand old time. Eventually when 7:00 rolled around, our flight was on time, and thankfully, not canceled. The small Bombardier puddle-jumper we boarded was definitely not going to accommodate any of the folks waiting on stand-by. By 8:15pm, I had landed in my homeland, Iowa.

My mom, patient as can be, greeted me at the Des Moines airport and we drove straight to Fort Dodge, where most of my family was still having a rehearsal dinner. Those in the know had made up stories as to why my mom wasn’t present at dinner, using the unnecessarily embarrassing alibi of a digestive illness as cover. When we made it to the hotel where everyone was celebrating, my mom’s husband got everyone’s attention.

“Kathleen has made a miraculous recovery,” he said. “And she even brought the doctor that helped her.” Then I walked in the room and watched the jaws hit the floor. I raised my wedding invitation, which Mike had mailed to me in Japan and said, “Yeah, I’ll take the beef, if that’s okay.” There were hugs and smiles all around, a happy moment that made the whole trip worth it.

The next day was the wedding, and it was beautiful. Mike sang not one, but two original songs during the ceremony. One song he had written specifically for Samantha in secret, and surprised her. Surprises became a recurring theme of the event. When the newlyweds walked down the aisle to the closing tune of the theme from Love Actually, even I was moved to tears. The reception was also fantastic; good food, good wine (and beer), a photo booth, dancing… I delivered a speech at reception, which I had been looking forward to for quite some time. I was especially pleased to see not only family, but also a couple of my Seattle soccer friends, who I think of as family. A good time was had by all. Now back to the travel stories…

I woke up at 5:30am (CTS) on Thursday, September 8th, feeling congested and rundown, like I was coming down with a cold. I was flying halfway around the world, so it wasn’t the optimal condition to be in, but it would have to do.

My mother was driving me back to the Des Moines Airport and my dad had expressed concern that we were leaving Fort Dodge too late to make my 8:50 flight on time. In theory, if we left the house right at 6:00am, we would have just enough time to get to the airport and get me checked in. (Des Moines is pretty small potatoes as far as airports go, so once checked in, I could be through security and at my gate in like five minutes.) However, he hit some random construction on the way, and then—the killer—Des Moines rush hour traffic. When we made it to the airport, I was 10 or 15 minutes late to board within the minimum 30 minutes early that they ask you to be there. Mom even got a $20 parking ticket because, in our rush, we had just parked the car at the terminal’s arrival gate and left it unattended. It was only there for a couple minutes, but as we all know, that zone is for “loading and unloading only”.

So I missed my flight and needed to rebook. However, because we had purchased through Travelocity, we had to call them to do it. Travelocity informed us that since I had missed the first leg of my flight by my own fault, not the airlines, it counted at as no-show. Even though it was a return trip of an already wildly expensive international flight, we had to buy a whole new ticket! We talked to the people at the American Airlines counter (JAL’s “Sky Alliance” partner) but they couldn’t do anything to help. We talked to an amazingly helpful guy at the United Airlines counter (Steven Something), and he made some calls and talked to the folks at the AA counter on our behalf. To his surprise and our dread, Japan Airlines policy dictated that we were totally screwed and had to buy a brand-new, one-way ticket to Sapporo.

Long story short(er), we bought a new ticket with United Airlines, which was damn expensive, but half the price of the JAL ticket we were offered.  And my new itinerary was longer (Des Moines to Denver, Denver to San Francisco, San Francisco to Tokyo-Narita, and finally Narita to Sapporo), but it was the layovers that would make it a total beast. For example, I was looking at a 12 hour, overnight layover in San Francisco, followed immediately by a transcontinental flight over the Pacific Ocean. With this new itinerary, I was supposed to arrive almost exactly one day later than my original plan.

Since my new flight plans weren’t getting started until 7:15pm, Mom and I spent most of the day killing time in Des Moines. We first went to breakfast and sat around the restaurant talking for about four hours. Then we hit the used bookstore and got some frozen yogurt, before returning the airport SUPER early to check-in for my flight. By the time I was boarding the first leg of my flight, I had already been in travel mode for over 12 hours.

The flight to Denver was about two hours. Once there, I bought a vegetarian sandwich at the food court, and a 16oz Americano from Caribou Coffee. I had about two hours there, and then another two hour flight to San Francisco. I arrived at the San Francisco Airport around 11:35pm, and wandered a bit to begin my 12 hour, overnight layover. The place was super quiet, almost deserted, and a bit chilly. I thought the atmosphere was borderline creepy, but fine.

I found that I could actually access the airport’s Wi-Fi; I just had to watch an advertisement video to get it going, and then re-watch it sometime later to stay connected.  After walking around, surfing the internet, and walking around some more, I decided to try and sleep.

By this point I’m feeling pretty cold and I’m kicking myself for wearing shorts on such a long trip. If I had long pants, I probably would have been fairly comfortable, but my leg hair wasn’t proving to be very good at insulating my body heat. To make matters worse, I didn’t have anything to cover my legs with, expect maybe my track jacket, but that was busy keeping my torso warm. Remembering a scene in Back to the Future where Marty wakes up a homeless guy, I recalled that the homeless guy used a bunch of newspapers for a blanket, and scoured the area for a newspaper. The cleaning staff was actually hard at work, doing a great job of tidying the place, so it took me forever to find a discarded newspaper. Once I had one, I used my messenger bag as a pillow, covered my legs with newspaper, and drifted off to sleep, probably around 2:30am or so.

When I awoke around 5:00am, the airport was abuzz with people. The gate at which I had crashed was now filled with travelers waiting for a flight to Salt Lake City and I was surrounded. Groggily I sat up, looking truly homeless with my newspaper blanket still covering my legs.  I collected my things and got up for a walk, freeing up three more seats for the folks there. The rest must have done my brain good because it was at that point that I realized I wasn’t at the International Terminal. A short jaunt later, I found myself in the right terminal, a much bigger space with better chairs for sleeping.

A bit hungry, I bought a decent breakfast sandwich that came with terrible breakfast potatoes, and found a new spot to settle down. I connected to Wi-Fi again (watching the same advertisement video to get it going), and check my email and such. This time I actually caught my girlfriend, Marissa, online in Africa. We had a Skype conversation; it was the highlight of my travels.

Fast-forward to 11:15am and I takeoff in a Boeing 747 bound for Tokyo-Narita. The flight only took 9.5 hours, but unlike the cushy JAL flight, this plane didn’t have individual screens for each seat. This meant that instead of having access to a ton of movies, I could only watch the utterly forgettable romantic comedy Something Borrowed, followed by episodes of House, M.D. This was probably a good thing, since I needed to sleep. Plus I had a real blanket for my legs, so I was happy.

Arriving in Tokyo-Narita Airport, I went through customs, which was very busy. Luckily, the line for people with Re-Entry Permits was only four people long, so I bypassed a line of like two hundred people. I picked up and re-checked my big bag, and started looking for my next gate. As it turned out, I still had six hours to wait and my gate’s security checkpoint wasn’t even open yet. I would need to kill some time.

At this point, the strap of my messenger bag tore off. Apparently I had overburdened my bag with the weight of my laptop. I very nearly caught it before it hit the floor, but the corner of my computer surely felt the impact. Summoning my inner MacGyver, I managed to attach the end of the strap to another part of the bag by hand, essentially fixing it, at least for the time being.

I discovered that the Tokyo-Narita Airport has a huge shopping area and food court. It’s like there’s a mall inside the airport, with lots of food and omiyage (お土産   – souvenir) options. I bought a bottle of green tea, a delicious nikuman (肉饅 - meat filled bun), and a matcha bagel. It was already good to be back in Japan.

In a room containing comfy chairs and a TV inexplicably playing CNN, I found an outlet to power my laptop. Luckily, my battered Toshiba powered up without any problems, apparently not damage by the drop it endured earlier. Using my Docomo USB internet key, I accessed the internet on my own, and checked my email and such. Then the TV actually caught my attention with “Breaking News” of a ferry that had sunk off the coast of Zanzibar. It had been carrying somewhere between 800 and 1,000 people. They zoomed in the map and I saw that the boat’s destination was actually the island of Pemba, where Marissa was! I found this more than a little unsettling, and shot off an email of grandmotherly-like concern.

When I finally was able to go through security, I found myself relieved to be out of the United States. Airport security is so much more reasonable and respectful of individuals in Japan than in the perpetually terrified United States. I was momentarily embarrassed by my country, but the feeling comes and goes fairly often. Looking around a little shop near the gate, I accidentally knocked down a shelf of ANA toy airplanes. A store employee rushed out, apologized to me repeatedly, and picked up the mess that I had created. Even when I bought a bottle of water after the incident, the staff was exceedingly nice to me.

The flight to Sapporo-Chitose was just 1.5 hours. I was home…almost. I picked up my bag, walked down to the parking garage, and by watching other returning passengers, figured out how to pay for parking. The bill for parking my car at the airport for one week:  8600 yen (about $112)! Since the airport is all the way in Chitose, I still had an hour and a half drive. I arrived at my friend’s apartment in Sapporo around 9:30 or 10:00pm, Japan time. After a much-needed shower, I finally passed out. With the rescheduling and all the delays, I estimate that my total travel time, door-to-door, was around 50 hours.

The following week, back in Shakotan, I had dinner with some of my fellow JHS teachers. Everyone had questions about my trip and the wedding. Yoshimura-sensei asked me what my brother did for work, and this is where hilarity ensued. First I said that he worked for Boeing, which was met with raucous laughter. Then I tried to clarify, explaining that he was an aerospace engineer. This only cracked them up further.

Yusuke later explained to me that Boeing sounds like “boin” (ぼいん), meaning “big breasts.” And aerospace contains the word “ero” (エロ), which in Japanese means “erotic” or “eroticism”, so I had only made the misunderstanding worse. If only engineers’ jobs were so interesting.

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Surprise Root Canal in Japan

Tuesday August 23, 2011 – The evening of my birthday, August 22nd, a dull pain began to emanate from my tooth. One of my upper right molars started to ache. The pain first surfaced as a stinging sensitivity to cold, something that I had gotten used to since I had a filling replaced on that tooth a while back. This time a twinge continued to linger. It was so light that I wasn’t sure it was really hurting, or if I was imagining that it was hurting; either way it was all in my head. Gradually the pain increased, pressure building more and more, until I was in real agony. Eventually the pain became unbearable, so much so that I couldn’t sleep.

The throbbing even started to spread and the whole right side of face hurt. I generally don’t keep any medication on hand and I suddenly thought this was probably unwise, as I would have killed for something to lessen the aching, just enough so that I could sleep. Since it was the middle of the night, even the Seicomart was closed and there was nowhere I could go to even buy something. “If I was in Seattle, I could buy something at the 24-hour QFC,” I told myself. “Shut the hell up,” I replied.

I went through my shaving bag, which I always take traveling, hoping to find something that I could take. I found only generic Claritin and a pair of NyQuil liquid-gels, which were most likely expired. In desperation, I took the NyQuil. Sometime later, I managed to achieve intermittent, restless sleep.

When I awoke the next day, the pain wasn’t troubling me, and for a moment I wondered if I had just imagined the whole thing. It didn’t take long before the agonizing aching resurfaced. It seemed to fade in and out at random throughout the day. I went to work at the junior high, dreadfully tired.

As my tooth began to throb in the teachers’ room, I turned to Yusuke and casually asked about what dentist he goes to. He told me that he last visited the dentist in his previous town. Since he was new to Shakotan as well, he didn’t know about the area.  Other teachers overheard the conversation and they jumped in, offering their opinions. I was told that the local dentist was very good and that the clinic was conveniently close. As I described the sudden pain I was experiencing, everyone adamantly agreed that I needed to see the dentist today, as soon as possible.

The Vice Principal made a phone call to the Board of Education for me, as my schedule was to work there in the afternoon. He told them about my toothache, and got the OK for me duck out of my responsibilities and go to the dentist. He even gave me directions to the dental clinic, and informed me that they opened for the afternoon at 2pm. What a great guy!

Throughout the teaching day, the pain would return occasionally, putting me in agony for a time. It would eventually fade again for a time, giving me some respite. Some of the students were expecting me to play soccer with them during the lunch break, but at that time I was suffering another period of tooth pain, and simply packed up my stuff and exited the school. On the way out, the Vice Principal came over to the doorway to tell me a joke.

“Do you know what place has people with the best teeth?” he asked. “Hawaii.” When I was slow to pick up the punch line he said it again, slowly. “Ha… wa… ii.” Then it clicked and I understood his bilingual pun: 「歯はいい。」 ‘Ha’ means tooth or teeth; ‘wa’ is the subject-denoting particle; ‘ii’ literally means good. If ‘Hawaii’ was a Japanese sentence, it definitely would sound like “the teeth are good”. I genuinely laughed so hard that I forgot I was in pain. You’ve got to appreciate a good pun.

Shakotan’s Dental Clinic is a relatively small, one story building, across the street from the nursery school. Entering through the sliding glass door in front, I removed my shoes at the entrance and put on slippers that they had provided. I walked up to the window and was greeted by a familiar face, one of the mothers I had met at the Fire Festival. She looked surprised to see me.

I explained that I had come because my tooth was hurting, which was maybe the only thing I managed to say in proper Japanese. They asked for my health insurance card (保険証 – ほけんしょう), which I gave them, and then they had me take a seat in the lobby. In no time at all, the woman came out to help me with paperwork.

She asked me a few questions in Japanese, or in as much English as she could manage, and with my answers she filled out a single sheet of paperwork for me. Immediately, I was led inside and directed to sit in the dentist’s chair.

The dentist was nice fellow, and seemed very confident, which was comforting. He and I struggled to communicate with the language barrier, but I manage to describe the pain and where it was located. Laying me back in the chair, the dentist searched for sensitivity by blowing cold air on my back teeth and tapping them with something hard. Next, I was led to the corner of the room to do a quick x-ray of the troubled area. Within a minute or so, there was a photo-booth-sized x-ray photo of my teeth for me to see.

The Dentist tried to explain something about the procedure and options, even using laminated visual aids, but I wasn’t quite clear on the details, except that there was potentially a problem with my tooth’s roots. I was also asked is I was fine with needles and shots, which of course I was.

The dentist gave me an injection of Novocain, and walked away for a moment. The dental assistant must have thought that I looked confused because she then told me that we were going to do some drilling today, presumably as soon as the numbing kicks in. Considering the pain I had been in for last 18 hours or so, I was totally down for whatever they wanted to do.

The dentist got rolling, and just I sat back and Zen’ed out. I’ve had my fair share of dental work over the years—thanks to my English teeth—and I feel like a dental work veteran. Interestingly, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anything as painful as the orthodontic work I had had for my braces; just thinking about it gives me chills. But other dental work, even stuff involving needles and drills, I’ve found to be pretty easy to tolerate. In fact, I’ve come damn close to falling asleep while getting fillings done, I was so relaxed.

As he drilled into the troubled tooth, the familiar chemical smell of composite resins (the natural-looking white fillings) hit my nostrils, and I was reminded of that fact that I just had a filling done on this same tooth only 10 months ago. I had gone to Advanced Dentistry at Century Square in Seattle last November and had a lot of dental work done in preparation for leaving the country. How could they have missed the fact that this particular tooth was rotting on the inside? That left a bad taste in my mouth.

After lot of drilling, my tooth was reduced to a hollow stump. The dentist gave me a hand mirror so that I could see the damage for myself. At the point, it was time to remove the nerves from the center of the tooth, all the way down to the roots. Interestingly, the nerves of a tooth aren’t really important to its functioning, so they can be completely removed. This makes me wonder why teeth even have nerves at all. Using an instrument that is essentially a wire covered in barbs (called an “endodontic file”, I’ve discovered), the dentist ground away the pulpy insides of the root canal. I assume the image of this instrument is where fear of the whole procedure originated, but I can assure you, after you’re suitably numb, it’s really not as bad as advertised.

After the infection was cleared away, the dentist capped the tooth with a temporary filling. I was given pain pills, complete with handwritten directions in English, and made an appointment for Friday to continue the procedure. I was out of the clinic within two hours and my bill for the day was only 2930 yen.

The following Friday, I appeared for a second appointment and actually had to wait a bit. The dentist was already working with another patient. When I did get in, the dentist said that it would take a few more appointments to work on my root canal. I told him anything was fine with me and he got to work on my tooth. I’m fairly sure he didn’t use any Novocain that time, yet there was not pain at all. Perhaps the nerves were already all gone.

One difference I have noticed between the Japanese dentist’s office and the ones I had visiting in the States is that Japan has convenient little spit sinks beside each chair. The sink has a clever faucet that automatically fills up a Dixie cup with the proper amount of water, using a weight sensor underneath the cup.  After the dentist would do a little work on my teeth, he’d raise the chair and instruct me to rinse. I’d swig a little water and spit it into the basin. As soon as I placed the cup back, it would automatically refill with the amount of water I had just used. With frequent rise breaks, the procedures were easy to handle.

At the end of second session, he put another temporary filling in and I made an appointment for the next week. My bill for the second session was on 220 yen.

Wednesday August 31, I went into the dentist’s for appointment number three. My appointment times were kind of vague, just anytime in the afternoon, so I ended up arriving at 4pm. Like my first appointment, I was seen right away. Again, the dentist used no anesthetic, but again I felt absolutely no pain. He removed the temporary filling and cleaned out the inside of the tooth, with both a drill-like apparatus and pipe cleaner-like instruments. Afterward, we took another x-ray to review work he had done.

At that point, we talked about my options for the crown that would be needed to cap my tooth, and we had the conversation in a funny mix of English and Japanese. To prepare, the dentist had taken some Japanese sentences and translated them into English. When our conversation would get stuck, he’d reference his cheat sheet of translations to help me understand. Even though the translations weren’t perfect, I was easily able to understand what he wanted to say from a few key words.

Since I was American, the dentist assumed that I would prefer a ceramic crown that would blend in with the rest of my teeth. For most Japanese folks, a sliver crown works just fine. As the dentist explained, a ceramic cap would not be covered under the national health insurance and would cost me 60000 yen (around $780). The silver cap would be covered and would only cost 3000 yen (around $39). Considering the price for ceramic was 20 times that of the silver cap, and the fact that the tooth was an upper molar, hardly ever visible at all, I told him that silver would be just fine.  I added, 「日本人みたい。」(“like a Japanese person”).

The dentist filled in the hollow shell that was my molar to recreate the facsimile of a tooth. As yet it was still a bit stumpy, needing that cap to finish the job. However, that would have to wait for another appointment. The bill this time was 1060 yen.

Monday, September 12, back from my week-long, surprise visit to the US for my brother’s wedding, I showed up at the dentist office for more work. On this fourth appointment, we were making molds of my teeth that the dentist would use to forge my metal cap. This involved biting into a kind of plaster, something that reminded me of my braces days at the orthodontist. The plaster that the dentist used seemed more plastic and less goopy than the gross stuff I’ve had before. Perhaps the technology had improved.

My teeth made a good first impression on the dentist, and we made plans for one last appointment at the end of the week. My bill was 590 yen.

Friday, September 16, was my fifth and final visit dentist’s visit for my impromptu root canal treatment. We got right down to it, installing my new metal cap. To find the right fit, the dentist would put the cap in, have me bite down on this colored paper-like material, then take the cap out and grind down part of it a little. We went through this a few times before the dentist started asking me how it felt. Was it too high? Was it not quite right yet? He worked with me to make sure that it was comfortable and implanted properly.

Once we the metal crown was sized, the dentist glued that sucker in there. Eventually I was sitting on the dentist’s chair, biting down on a bit for four minutes waiting for the cap to set. After that, it was all done; root canal complete!

Leaving the office, I actually felt a little bummed by the fact they I didn’t have another appointment scheduled with these folks. They were so kind and welcoming, and had helped me out in a despite time when I had been in extreme pain. I told them, “Thank you for taking care of me” (お世話になりました), but it honestly didn’t feel like enough to express my genuine gratitude.

The bill for my last visit was 1720 yen. I thought that there would be another 3000 yen charge for the price of the cap, but I was given a final receipt saying everything was paid for. That means that my total bill after five appointments was 6520 yen, or approximately $84.77.

It’s worth noting that I’m enrolled in Japan’s National Healthcare. The cost of this insurance is only 2000 yen a month, which is equivalent to about $26 US—pretty damn affordable if you ask me. Plus, the treatment I received was painless. Overall, I have to say that my root canal was a surprisingly pleasant experience.

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