Thursday, March 13, 2008

Going home

Unless it's gotten a lot warmer this week, this is the scene that awaits us when we return home to Ohio on Friday for a one-week visit. A blizzard completely buried Ohio in snow last weekend. My hometown of Springfield got a foot of snow, but just one hour east, the capital city of Columbus got more than 20 inches. The Dayton Daily News included this igloo picture in a photo gallery of weather snapshots from around the Miami Valley region, the area of southwest Ohio where I'm from.

The storm was so bad that all streets were closed and everyone was ordered off the roads. This is a shot of High Street, one of the major thoroughfares through Springfield's downtown.

Here are a few more shots from the gallery.

You knew I couldn't resist the ugly dog photo.

So while it was snowing like the dickins back home, spring was making her debut in Hiroshima. Plum blossoms popped up in the front yard of my neighbor's house.

I also noticed a lemon tree growing along the path I take to school.

And today I saw a patch of daffodils.

It's been in the 60s the past few days. Gotta say, it's pretty nice to see that the official first day of spring is approaching and gee, guess what, we're actually getting spring-like weather! That's a foreign concept in Ohio, where the temperature has been known to fluctuate 60 degrees in the course of one day. Something tells me that, while there will be a lot of reminders of what I'm missing while I'm home, there'll also be a few reminders of why going back ain't half bad.

Monday, March 10, 2008

And the sign says... what??

One of the things I appreciate about living in Japan is that so many stores have signs posted in English. It seems to be a trendy thing here, kind of the way tattoos of Japanese symbols are popular back home. So a lot of signs are printed in English, or in Japanese spelled out in the roman alphabet (romaji), or some combination of the two.

The result is often good for a chuckle. And sometimes, the result is just downright unfortunate.

Take this sign on a grocery store downtown, for instance.

"Yours" is a chain grocery store in this area. "Asse" is a department store. But I'm not so sure I want to buy anything edible from the Yours in the Asse.

Across the street from our apartment is a cute little hair salon with this sign:

That's right, it's not the salon, it's the "saloon." With a picture of a busty, naked young lass. With the slogan "The simplicity of their dressing is gratifying." Very classy.

Here's a large sign that was hanging in our neighborhood a while back.

I guess this is for a real estate office, but what's this supposed to be saying? "If you want to launch your house into space, call us!"

I always enjoy the advertisements for the private English schools, too. One of the major chain schools is called AEON. But it doesn't give me much confidence when their advertisement says stuff like this:

Perhaps it will make me very "happyful!"

When my cousin came to visit a few months ago, we came across this "Neo Oriental Fooding Bar" while we were walking toward Hiroshima Station.

As he pointed out, "Well, I guess you have a drinking bar, so why not a "fooding" bar?

Next is one of my favorite signs on Miyajima. No English on this one, but I was quite tickled by the illustration. The red symbols above the deer say "abunai," which means "danger." So I'm guessing the sign is warning you not to feed the deer... or chase them around catching their poo. One or the other.

Here's a sign I glimpsed while riding the street car with Joe to the Ujina ferry port in Hiroshima. Seems to be a clothing store selling, uh, "Anti-mainstream Bitch But Striking" brand apparel.

When we went to Iwakuni, there were several of these signs posted along the walking trail up to the castle. Don't ask me why rats are dressed up as firemen.

And last, this is the sign for a chain convenience store with numerous locations.

I actually saw it in there in a jar, beating slowly. Only 300 yen.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Slippers: God's gift to me.

One of the Japanese customs you are probably familiar with is wearing slippers (surippa) indoors. It's become second nature for Joe and I to automatically remove our shoes when we get to school or come home. I have a special pair of shoes that I wear only at school. I'm also supposed to have a separate pair of shoes to wear only in the school's gym (but I don't because I go there so infrequently). And I also have a separate pair of sneakers that I wear only in the fitness center I joined.

So at places you go to regularly, you either bring your own indoor shoes or keep them in a cubby by the entrance. And when you visit someone's home or certain other places, guest slippers are provided for you.

All homes and schools have an area just inside the door called the "genkan." This is the genkan in my school's front entrance. You're supposed to take your shoes off there and step directly into a pair of slippers on the regular floor. This is all so that you don't track dirt into clean areas. In a way, this sort of makes sense in places where you might sit on the floor. No one wants to sit in a muddy or dirty area.

Some places provide another pair of plastic guest slippers you're supposed to wear only in the bathroom. It is a major faux paus to wear the bathroom slippers out of the bathroom, just as it is to wear any sort of footwear at all into rooms with tatami mats on the floor.

Students wear black penny loafers to school but then store them in their shoe cubbies by the entrance and change into Birkenstocks. It's kind of strange to see girls in a nice navy blue uniform with a skirt, white socks and... Birkenstocks. They even wore Birkenstocks at graduation. Actually, the gym floor was covered with protective plastic during the graduation ceremony. Otherwise, I think they would've had to wear their special gym shoes with their skirts.

Being an absent minded person, the slippers thing can be a little irritating at times. It seems like I always get my outside shoes on to head out the door at the end of the work day before I realize I forgot something back in the office. Then I have to take my shoes back off and put slippers back on, go up and grab the thing and then put my outside shoes on all over again.

But, it turns out this is a small inconvenience to tolerate for the ability to essentially wear house slippers around all day, if I choose.

At first, I wasn't sure what to expect when it came to having footwear at school. Was I supposed to buy two pairs of dress shoes for everything — one pair of dress shoes to wear on my way to work and a second pair to wear once I actually arrived at work? It wasn't long before I discovered no one really cares what's on my feet at school, and besides that, it's better to wear comfortable shoes when I'm walking a couple miles to get there. So now I walk to work wearing business clothes and a pair of old sneakers. And when I get to school, I wear the same black pair of comfy shoes whether or not they match what I'm wearing. I kind of like the idea of slippers at work now. I have an excuse to wear comfortable and mismatched footwear, even when I'm in a suit! No heels expected. Proof that there is a God!

If that's not enough proof, it turns out this is one time when shoes are actually a big pain in the ass for men instead of women. And by that, I mean a big pain for Joe and not me.

I'm a size 8.5 in America (25.5 centimeters here), which is on the big side here, but still widely available. Joe, on the other hand, is utterly unable to find shoes anywhere to fit his size 13 feet (31 centimeters). So you can imagine that needing multiple pairs for different purposes has posed a bit of a problem. He ended up having his parents ship him a few pairs of shoes from home.

It always makes for a good laugh when Joe has to try to squeeze his giant feet into some place's guest slippers. This picture was taken at the community center where we celebrated Setsubun. Inevitably, the guest slippers are always too small for him and he ends up prancing around on his tiptoes like a giant, hairy ballerina. But he has to wear them — after all, it would be rude not to... And then I wouldn't be able to point at him and laugh, either.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Casting my ballot

Today I mailed my absentee ballot for the presidential primary election, the same day everyone else back home in Ohio is casting their votes. This is the first time I've voted by absentee ballot. Originally, I figured I would just blow off voting in March, but with the race so close I decided it would be too important to miss.

So about a month ago I used Skype to call the board of elections back home through the internet to confirm that I am, indeed, now registered at my parents' address. Then I had to print and fill out a form from the internet and mail it in to request an absentee ballot. A few weeks later, it arrived in my hot little hands. Clark County even picked up the $1.14 postage to mail it to me, although I had to pay the $2.60 postage to send it back.

Absentee ballots have to arrive no later than 20 days after voting day. No doubt the unofficial results will be reported well before my vote ever hits the Board of Elections' mail box, but still. Now there's a 1 in 500 gazillion chance I can be a tie-breaker! Whoopee! That would actually make up for all the other times that my ultra-informed opinion amounted to a pile of steaming horse crap back when I was a real journalist.

Seriously though. I'm kind of proud to say that I took the necessary steps to be responsible citizens and vote. It really wasn't that much of a hassle, actually.

I've been a little surprised at how much attention the election has been receiving here in Japan. I'm told that the Japanese are concerned with the election in part because the health of the U.S. economy has such a direct effect on Japan. TV news reports on the campaign everyday. The Columbus Dispatch recently published an excellent article explaining why the Japanese are so interested.

Several of my co-workers have asked me which candidate I favor. Consistently, they always tell me they like Barack Obama. My boss says she likes him because he's an eloquent speaker. One of my English Club students seems to support Obama out of a dislike for Hillary. When I asked why, she brought up Hillary's crying episode in New Hampshire. She was worried about the insidious and manipulative implications of such behavior, saying something along the lines of "When a woman cries, all is forgiven."

Obama also has his share of cheerleaders in the little town of Obama, Japan, which is on Honshu's west coast halfway between Hiroshima and Tokyo. Obama, by the way, means "small shore" in Japanese. This Yahoo! News article talked about how the tourism board there is giddy about its luck, printing up T-shirts reading "I love Obama."

Check out this video I found about Obama-mania in Obama town.

Really, I won't be surprised if, before November, I see memorabilia turn up with Hello Kitty in an Obama T-shirt.

Monday, March 3, 2008


March 1 was graduation day at all the high schools across Hiroshima prefecture. So all the teachers attended the graduation Saturday morning before returning to our desks to (pretend to) work for the rest of the afternoon. To compensate us for working Saturday, we got today (Monday) off.

In Japan, the school year begins in April and ends in mid-March. Summer vacation actually falls in the middle of the school year, running for six weeks between mid-July and the end of August. The old school year and the new school year are separated by a two-week spring vacation at the end of March.

The seniors have actually been finished with classes for a month. Their classes were canceled so they could study for university entrance exams, but a lot of them came to school anyway to spend the days studying in the library. Now that's some dedication I know I wouldn't see in America.

The graduation ceremony at my school took place in the unheated gymnasium. 320 kids in navy blue school uniforms, parents, teachers, and the school band and choir. There were a few speeches. Everyone sang the national anthem. Each kid stood and bowed when his name was called, and then one designated student from each homeroom class went up on stage to receive all the diplomas for his class. Throughout the ceremony, the kids periodically shot to their feet, bowed and simultaneously dropped back into their seats with military precision. It kind of reminded me of Sunday mass in a strange sort of way. After a couple more songs, it was over.

At the end, the teachers lined up by the door and began clapping for the new graduates as they exited. Like souls lining up on Judgement Day, the seniors solemnly filed out wearing long faces. Some swiped tears from their eyes; a few stifled small smiles. But most just looked like their favorite pet just died, trodding along with a distant look in their eyes and a burdened expression on their face.

It was, undoubtedly, a very strange mood to witness compared to the typical American commencement ceremony, when no one bothers containing their joy about never again having to write another B.S. term paper or stay up until 3 a.m. temporarily memorizing worthless facts. I still am not sure if the kids honestly were bummed about leaving behind their high school days, or if they were just following social protocol by not appearing to be so ecstatic to get the hell out of there.

All in all, the whole thing took around an hour and a half. Not bad at all for a graduation for 320 kids, I thought.

I'm excited about the new school year. It was the middle of the school year when we got to Japan, so I wasn't able to really establish my own way of doing things in the classroom. But now I'll have the chance to set up my own rules and try some new things with a fresh set of kids.