Archive for category Life in Japan

October 23, 2006 – Fuji 5 Lakes

Satellite pic of the Fuji 5 Lakes (thanks Google Maps)

With only a few weeks left before I move back to Canada, I spent the whole day with The Penpal and her parents. Our agenda for the day was a drive around Mt. Fuji with stops at all of the Fuji Five Lakes.

The Fuji Five Lakes are, as you might expect, five lakes near Mt. Fuji. All of the lakes are around the north side of the mountain and all were created by previous eruptions when Fuji was an active volcano.

Our first stop was Lake Yamanaka, which is the 3rd highest lake in Japan. The lake was surrounded by boat rentals and all kinds of watersport activities. We fed ducks and giant koi from the docks.

Before our next lake, we took a detour to the Fuji Radar Dome Museum. In the days before the sky was filled with orbiting satellites, the government of Japan wanted to find a way to get better warning of large storms heading towards Japan. The best way to do this was to put a radar station on top of the highest mountain in the country. The museum explained about the challenging construction and the benefits after the radar station came online. I found it really interesting, although I wish there was a little more English explanation. My personal highlight was a room where you could experience -15 degree temperatures (5 degrees F for my American readers). The museum provided warm jackets and mittens to wear in the room. As a proud Winnipegger I went in unjacketed and laughed off the -15 while the rest of the people in the room suffered.

After a delicious curry lunch at Coco Ichibanya, we continued to Lake Kawaguchi, which is by far the most popular of the Fuji 5 Lakes. The surrounding area was built up with docks, hotels, restaurants, and tourist shops. Someday I will need to come back and spend a few days here.

The remaining 3 lakes were further away from cities and much less touristy. For the first time in my 3 years in Japan I saw campgrounds, which combined with trees, rocks, and lakes, reminded me a lot of Canada. Lakes Sai, Motosu, and Shoji are all connected by underground waterways. Shoji is so small that you could probably walk around the entire lake in a couple hours.

During our drive I noticed an interesting difference between English and Japanese. In English, to refer to a lake by name you would say “lake” followed by the name, for example “Lake Blabla”. In Japanese the name comes first, followed by “ko”, for example “Blabla-ko”. I found the sign for Lake Sai funny because it was written in English as “Lake-Saiko”, which would translate as “Lake Sai Lake”. I also had a laugh at the idea of Saiko Lake, which sounds like the setting for an 80’s slasher movie. I was unsuccessful in explaining to The Penpal why I found either of these things amusing.

Our trip back to Numazu took us through Fujinomiya, which I had only been to by train before. We also drove by dairy farms, which again reminded me of Canada. We finished our long day with Chinese food at one of the Penpal’s family’s favourite restaurants. Chinese food in Japan is very different from “Canadian Chinese” food – it’s a lot more authentic, and in my humble opinion, a lot more delicious. We stuffed ourselves silly.

I lived close to Mt. Fuji for a few years, but without a car it would have been difficult to see all of the Fuji 5 Lakes in a day. I’m fortunate that I am marrying into a family that both likes me and wants to take me to interesting places. I’m going to do my best not to screw this up!

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My first time using a Japanese Toilet

Japanese style squat toilet.

Japanese style squat toilet.

Note: as you may have guessed from the title, this post is about using the toilet. You have been warned!

The background:
Above is a picture of a Japanese style squat toilet. These toilets were the standard in Japan before the “western toilet” came along. Despite virtually everything else in the country being modern and new, you can still find squat toilets in older houses, older buildings, and most train stations. Squat toilets can even be found on the shinkansen for those brave souls who want a little more excitement on their voyage.

The Japanese style toilet was the single most intimidating thing about living in Japan. I was so scared of squat toilets that I went out of my way to avoid using them during my 3 years living in Japan. I had great success for about a year and a half until an emergency situation arose leaving me with no other choice. Here is the story of the most terrifying toilet experience of my life (so far).

The incident:
The NOVA school in Mishima, Japan was located in an old building across from the train station. The men’s room had a urinal and a squat toilet. On work days I would either be sure to take the kids to the pool before leaving the house, or hold on until I returned home.

On one fateful day my stomach was unhappy with me, likely due to a previous evening of beer and greasy izakaya food. During my first two lessons I tried to ignore the warning signals and hope for the best. By the third lesson, my digestive system was making some very unpleasant noises and sweat was breaking out on my forehead. I started to realize that there was no way I was going to be able to hold out until the end of my shift; I was going to have to clear out some inventory in a hurry.

One of the interesting and charming things about Mishima is that it largely survived the bombings of World War 2 in tact, leaving an impressive collection of narrow streets and old buildings. I appreciated the character of the older buildings, but not their restroom facilities.

When considering my options, I realized that the building that was home to Mishima NOVA, as well as most nearby buildings were going to be lacking proper sitting toilets. My only viable option was the nearby Lawson convenience store, but I wasn’t confident that I could make it there and back in time for my next lesson. There was also the terrifying possibility that the one toilet available at Lawson’s would be in use. With the urgency increasing and time running out I only had one option left: I would need to make a deposit in the porcelain bank at the only branch available – the squat toilet.

I rushed into the stall, locked the door, and straddled the bowl, making sure I was facing in the right direction. I carefully lowered my pants and squatted down, doing my best to make sure that my pants stayed off the floor and out of the bowl. When I got into a full squat position, I started to realize that I was not very stable. Losing my balance and falling over in the middle of releasing the Kraken would be disasterous! I used my right hand to hold the water pipe for balance.

Now that I had my balance, I became aware that my tie was dangling dangerously into the line of fire. With my free left hand I wrapped my tie around my neck and tucked the loose end between two buttons on my shirt. Now that I was (mostly) balanced and not going to soil my tie, my attention turned to aiming.

For a first time squatter, aiming is not intuitive. Not being able to see exactly where my butt was pointing, I had to guess how things were lined up. This also led to an unpleasant thought: what if my pants got in the way? My nearest clean pair of pants would require a 6 minute train ride and 5 minute bike ride, so failure was simply not an option. While continuing to hold the pipe with my right hand for balance, I used my left hand to hold my pants as far forward as possible. If I had more time I would have taken my pants off completely and hung them over the top of the stall, but time was not on my side. Things were about to happen.

As I stayed there, squatting precariously, right hand gripping the pipe for balance, tie wrapped around my neck, left hand trying to keep my pants safe, my mind rushed through nightmare scenarios where everything went wrong: how would I possible explain to the staff my reason for leaving in the middle of a shift to rush home? What would they tell the students? How would I hide my shame on the train ride home? How long would my coworkers make fun of me? Just as my brain was reaching full panic mode, IT HAPPENED: bombs away, right on target. Pants, shirt, and tie were all safe and clean! I made it!! My mission was accomplished with no casualties! I returned to complete my workday in comfort with a sense of relief and accomplishment.

I have had some unpleasant experiences in bathrooms before, usually after too much spicy or greasy food, but my first Japanese squat toilet experinece holds a special place in my memory as the absolute most terrifying and least relaxing toilet experience of my life! I can’t imagine trying to use one while sick or drunk, and I feel bad for Japan’s aging population trying operate this horrible device with arthritis or bad knees.

The world is full of exciting and stressful experiences: using the toilet should not be either of these things. It should be relaxing and predictable, allowing a few minutes of peace and solitude. Using the toilet should NEVER be struggle for balance with your very dignity on the line!

Country of Japan, I implore you: as a favour to your aging population and legions of visiting foreigners, PLEASE rid your country of the menace of squat toilets once and for all! Make pooping relaxing again!

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October 11, 2006 – Married with Children

Working during my overtime day with a cold killed my voice, meaning I couldn’t teach today. Sorry NOVA!

I did my best to recover – lots of sleep, lots of tea and vitamin C drinks, and I binge watched Married With Children.

MWC was one of my favourite shows as a teenager: in addition to laughing at the continuous failures of Al Bundy, I had a huge crush on Kelly. The show is still funny now, although I found myself getting really annoyed by the excessive laugh track. My only other complaint was that they couldn’t get the rights to the song “Love and Marriage” to open the episode on the DVD release, so they simply dubbed in some generic music over the title cards which is pretty weak.


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October 9, 2006 – Shinto shrine Bingo!

There are around 100,000 Shinto shrines in Japan ranging in size from massive structures like Mishima Taisha down to tiny miniature shrines on the side of the road. The Penpal has a neighbourhood shrine near her house, and today I was invited to the annual festival where her father volunteers.

The neighbourhood shrine was small, but was surrounded by a large courtyard where I found the usual stalls that are found at festivals around the country: yakisoba, yakitori, takoyaki, and some treats for the kids. As I was filling myself full of delicious yakitori, I started to notice that I was the ONLY person at the festival who wasn’t Japanese. Many of the people seemed surprised to see a gaijin at the neighbourhood festival. Even after 3 years in Japan, it’s still fun to surprise people by eating with chopsticks or speaking Japanese, both things that aren’t normally expected from a foreigner.

In addition to the food, there was also a free bingo game with lots of prizes. As people got bingo, they got to choose a prize from the prize table. Eventually it was my turn to get a bingo, and I proudly walked to the prize table at the front of the crowd, smiling as people stared at me. I chose a badminton set, which was probably not ideal considering that I’m moving back to Canada in about a month.

In the evening I got to enjoy a wonderful home cooked meal at The Penpal’s house, a treat for someone who eats convenience store and pub food far too often. After dinner, I was shown the family photo album including pictures of The Penpal as a kid. Japanese people as a rule don’t smile for pictures, but The Penpal took that a step further looking positively annoyed at having her picture taken.

When we had embarrassed my fiancee thoroughly, the Penpal and her mother went to wash the dishes. What came next was the highlight of the evening: I was watching TV with The Penpal’s father, my future father-in-law, when he handed me the remote control for the TV. I think this means that I am now officially accepted into the family! Hooray!

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October 3, 2006 – Sad Cows Song

After work I had plans with a few teachers to go for a beer at Wara Wara. Our outing started small, but as word got around more people kept showing up. Our table started to get cramped, so we asked to upgrade to a larger table. Wara Ware was already hosting a large party, so they couldn’t give us anything bigger.

Since we didn’t want to remain stacked like sardines, we relocated to Uotami, where we were joined by even more teachers and friends. I’m not sure if everyone really needed a drink, or if people were afraid of missing out: whatever the reason our small group going for a few beers had turned into an event. We eventually outgrew our table at Uotami, so the staff moved us into an available party room.

The good news is that our spacious party room contained a karaoke machine. The bad news was that the karaoke machine did not have the usual selection of English songs that we could find at our usual karaoke places. The thought of staring at an unused karaoke machine was too much for me to bear, so I started searching through the song book for anything that might have more English than Japanese.

Many of the printed songbooks for karaoke rooms show the first line of the song next to the name and artist. I scanned through the list and stopped at something that looked amazing: Sad Cows Song by Japanese ska / punk bank Shakalabbits.

The song was 98 seconds of pure awesome. With lyrics including “Let us drink to much milk hey, because we feel sorry for the cows around the world” it quickly because a highlight of our evening. Hooray for Shakalabbits!

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October 1, 2006 – Speech contest

Today I attended the annual English / Japanese speech contest at Numazu library. The event was hosted by NICE – Numazu Association for International Communication and Exchanges. The Penpal is a member of NICE, so I went along to check it out.

When I learned about the contest a few months ago, I had given some thought to entering. The demand was much greater than the supply – 24 people tried to enter but only 10 Japanese speeches were presented. There were also 10 English speeches by Japanese residents. My favourite speeches were about the differences in communication styles between Japanese and American housewives, and an elderly Japanese man’s scorching rant about those annoying teens in sweatpants who hang out in front of convenience stores.

I really admire the courage shown by everyone who made a speech: public speaking makes a lot of people nervous, nevermind public speaking in your second language.

I overslept before the contest and didn’t have any time to eat before I got there. By the end of 20 speeches I was STARVING. On my way home I stopped at the new donair food truck in front of Don Kihote. If you’ve never eaten a donair, you are truly missing out on one of life’s great pleasures.

When I got home I received an invite from the Penpal to come over for dinner. I was still full from my late lunch, but I never, EVER refuse homemade curry. Yum!

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September 17, 2006 – Piano Recital year 3

For the 3rd year in a row I went to The Penpal’s piano recital. As usual, she was fantastic, making difficult pieces look easy.

The star of the show was the 3 year old boy who played first. When he got to the middle of the stage and saw the crowd his expression was hilarious! He needed a special chair and booster pedals, but he played a simple song well.

Yes, 3 year olds play piano better than I do.

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