Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Return of J Power: J Power Educates

In August I introduced “The House that J Power Built” and described how J Power contributed to the cultural edification of our junior high school’s first year students. Today their agents returned to facilitate a geology field trip. Nice guys, and I chatted quite a bit in English with the senior member of the team of J Power geologists. Really nice guys, but . . . they’re a part of the public relations campaign to pacify the local population in the face of nuclear development on the peninsula. Part of our conversation ran:
J Power Geologist (with slightly worried, slightly suspicious look in his eyes): “Are you interested in the environment.”
Me: “I’m interested in a lot of things—holistic health, real food, self-sufficiency, the environment . . . .”
J Power Geologist: “That’s good! I think that carbon dioxide emissions are very dangerous for the environment. Nuclear Power doesn’t cause emissions. You can control nuclear by-products, but you can’t control emissions from burning fossil fuel."
Me: “Yes, all the technologies for power generation have their own unique problems. The most important thing is for all people to consume less energy.”
Silence . . . change of subject.

Really nice guy, though, and it would have been a great little expedition IF IT WASN’T SO COLD!!!

The J Power prophet proclaims his message on the mountaintop—“earthquakes, fault lines, and volcanic activity are not immediate dangers in these parts and will not pose a danger to our nuclear power stations!” Oh yes, “ . . . and let’s look briefly at how the geological layers have formed along this coast under the influence of plate tectonics and volcanic activity.”

Young acolytes take away mineralogical relics to study in the science lab later.


水 [Wednesday], January 27, [1988]
To day at jim we played basketball. My team was beat by every other team in my class but we beat a team in the other class. Kids in the other class aren’t used to being beat in anything so they screamed and cried like babys. Evrey body in the other class told on people in my class to Gin. Gin is a big bolly and even if he is only 5th grade every body trys to please him. Hunamizu is our classes caward. Even if he does have a lot of mucyles. He is all ways falloing Gin with some other boys. Hunamizu and some other boys are like servents of Gins. Gin and his useless servents are alwas walking around boasting and pushing people around.

Gin, on the day most of my school came to see my family off as we set out on our journey across Asia and Europe to New York.

Close up of Gin and Some of His Cawards
(No hard feelings anymore.)

Monday, November 29, 2004

Thanksgiving in Ajigasawa and My Limitations as a Photographer

Sunday night was the annual Tsugaru Chapel English Service’s Thanksgiving dinner. With the Ghent’s still away in North America, the hosting of the feast fell to the Elliot’s in far away Ajigasawa. In this task they were blessed with the able assistance of their short-term missionaries from Australia, and by the regular English chapel crew. The evening’s message was from Micah chapter six (“What does the LORD require of thee?”) and concluded with the response of ultimate gratitude required for the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

It was a merry time indeed, with many new and many familiar faces to share the evening with. Unfortunately I never seem to be able to take quality photos of social events—too shy to get people to pose, I suppose.

The main course was the usual Thanksgiving fare . . .

. . . with pie (many pies) and ice cream for dessert.

Against all odds, Tutankhamen, the latest addition to the feline branch of Elliot’s, managed to get his pound of Thanksgiving flesh from someone, somewhere, somehow . . .

And now, to clear your palate after the sub-quality photography—

火 [Tuesday], January 26, [1988]
Today my teacher got out on the right side of the bed. I am painting a picture of my friends and I going on a voyage to south America. We are travling in a ship taken away from pirates. We are escaping from the imagennary wieral pool. We are watching a pirate being sucked into it in the painting.

I got home late so I couldn’t read the encyclopidea. After I walked the dog I went to a nearby store to get supper and I got ten¥. Then I went to Pal to get wip cream and I got 100¥ for that. Since I got home late I couldn’t do my home work untill 8:00.

I am saving my money for my invention. I think it is a good one.

Some of My Classmates Who Used to Attend My Mom’s English Lessons

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Introducing 小学生 (Shougakkusei) Diary: Genuine Documentation from the 1980s

Sitting in Living Room with My Dog Maria: c. 1988

Pronouncing judgment yesterday on my elementary school experience moved me to revisit my 5th grade diary this evening. It was so weird to hear what the guy in the above photograph had to say about being a gaijin kid in a Japanese elementary school that I have decided to include entries from it from time to time. It has been a real challenge to type it out as is without Word autocorrecting it, but . . .

“You Know You’re an MK When . . . ‘5. You speak two languages, but can’t spell in either’.” —by Andy and Deborah Kerr

月 [Monday] January, 25 [1988]
To day my teacher got out on the rong side of her bed. I whish she didn’t because she screamed and hollard all day. But after lunch she was in a better mood. May be she didn’t have a proper breakfast.

I didn’t get home until 4:30. I walked my dog right away and did my home work. Mommy gave me a money making chart. All I have to do is look up about 50 things in the Encyclopedia and read them and I’ll get 3300¥. I am going to use it on my invention. My invention is a pair of shoes that if I push a button springs will pop out of the bottem so I can jump around. I am going to add more things to it. (I was born in 1977)

Friday, November 26, 2004

Why I Love Elementary School

It is one of life’s ironies that I would ever title a blog entry with those words. I hated elementary school as a student. If there is one word I would use to sum up my elementary school experience it would be “oppressed.” If there is one movie quote I would use to summarize it, it would be the peasants’ complaint in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “We are repressed!” If I were Norman Rockwell and capable of painting iconic works of popular art, I would do The Four Fears (of Compulsory Education): “Fear of Homework,” “Fear of Insane and Disillusioned Teachers,” “Fear of Being Forced to Eat Seaweed Rolls” (not applicable in North American school districts), and “Fear that the End of Sixth Grade Will Never, Ever Come.” Perhaps my elementary students harbour some of these sentiments in their bosoms, but if they do they don’t really show it. Compared to the sullen and awkward bodies that populate the junior high school classrooms, these little fellas seem pretty light hearted and enthusiastic.

Here are some of the reasons I now love elementary school:
1. I can actually compete with the students in sports

. . . although as goal keeper the site of that ball coming still strikes terror in my heart.
2. There are fewer students per a class (only 4 to 17 of them).
3. They actually think English class is cool.

The Traditional Floor Wiping Race (水ぶき競争)

One of the great things about my elementary school visits is that I am able to build relationships with the older students and influence their attitude towards English before I start seeing them regularly at the junior high school over the next couple of years. I anticipate much better times for me at the junior high school two years from now, because by that time all of the students will be veterans of my elementary school visits, and the classes will be much smaller.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The Week in Perspective: Hachinohe (八戸) and Sapporo (札幌)

Rather than attempt to deliver full narratives on the past week I will simply post a photo story with minimal details.

JET ALTs (Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme Assistant Language Teachers) and JTEs (Japanese Teachers of English) Enjoy Demo Games at the Aomori Prefecture ALT Mid-year Seminar in Hachinohe

The Males of the Specie Demonstrate their Powers of Non-oral Communication

I Wish My Junior High Classes Were This Obedient; but Then, They’ve Never Been under the Pressure of Being Observed by 60 JETs and JTEs (This is a Game. They are Supposed to Have Their Heads Down.)

Something I’ve never seen before . . . .

This past weekend I made one of my monthly visits to Sapporo to see my fiancée. Yuko’s parents weren’t home, but my mother happened to be in town for a Japanese language test in the language school run by our mission, so she joined us for the night.

Sunday, we all went to Lighthouse Church where my sister Anna (pictured above), my brother-in-law, and Yuko are all members.

After church, Yuko and I celebrated one year of being engaged with a five course meal at a twenty-second floor restaurant. The beautiful view of Sapporo with it’s backdrop of mountains was obscured by the blinding afternoon sun but naturally I was content with the view across the table from me.

We followed up dinner with a walk to the old capital building of Hokkaido . . .

. . . and the Munich Christmas Market. Apparently Munich, Milwaukee, and Sapporo are all sister cities by virtue of a shared love of brewing beer. I’m curious as to whether the foreign staff in the booths were genuine Germans or just random Sapporo gaijin.

Since my mother left on Sunday leaving Yuko and me alone at her parents’ house, I spent Sunday and Monday night three minutes walk away at Futomi Spa (ふとみ銘泉) for the sake of social propriety and to publicly affirm our mutual commitment to pre-marital chastity. Hardly a hardship.

Yuko had work on Monday, so I spent the day in Sapporo proper with Anna and Jun. I was a little confused in transit, but I asked a station employee about a trouble. More Sapporo photos to follow when I take my Japanese Language Proficiency Test there the weekend after next.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Greeting from the Village Mayor: English is Polite

Portrait of the Mayor at Work: Click on the Photo to Access the Kazamaura Homepage


Thank you very much for having the homepage of this village accessed today. Since Kazamaura-mura enforced the village system in April, Meiji 22, it has seen 115 years by the end of this year. It is the intention which saw the 21st century, and whole-village people concentrated power and was wrapped in beautiful natural environment of being rich, living and trying hard further for the purpose of "the production of good vitality ある Village" taking advantage of the characteristic of this area. Now, widely, in order for you to understand the present figure of a village in this homepage, it established it. I am pleased if you experience and enjoy fully the nature, culture, history, etc. which surely ご来村, taking advantage of this opportunity, and is full of the charm of Kazamaura-mura.

It is easy to understand from the above sample why computers will not be displacing their human rivals in the translation business anytime soon. When I approach the Japanese paragraph above, I do so with human intuition—a marked advantage over the computer program embedded in “excite.” However, I must then make a seemingly unending series of decisions; choices in style, vocabulary, and the interpretation of obscure meanings. All these choices are shaped by my mood, experience, attitude towards the source material, and an infinite number of other variables unique to my own person. There are, of course, professional standards, but in the end these are merely artistic guidelines. In the following version I have focused on simplicity and clarity of meaning.

Thank you for visiting our village homepage today. Kazamaura Village was incorporated in April, 1889 and celebrated its 115th anniversary this year. As we enter the 21st century it is our intention to endeavour all the more to attain our goal of a prosperous and pleasant to live in community through the practice of “village-building with vitality.” This will be accomplished by mustering the strength of the entire population and by capitalizing on the characteristic beauty of the natural environment enveloping the region. We have commissioned this homepage in order that the present-day character of this village might be more widely understood by everyone. We would be delighted if you would take this opportunity to come and experience to the full the overflowing charm of Kazamaura Village's nature, culture and history.

While I am sure that the above paragraph appears sufficiently formal to the average Western eye, the seeming lack of styalized stock phrases in English for expressing courtesy often provokes an attitude in some Japanese people that the English language is an inadequate vehicle for good manners. There are few things that irritate me more in my life here—except maybe the fact that many ex-pats residing in Japan lend substance to this stereotype on a regular basis. The most extensive roots of Canadian culture reach back to nineteenth century Britain which was a society very similar in some respects to the archetype “good old” Japan invoked so often. It, too, was a highly regimented society with numerous hierarchical levels of speech and the corresponding linguistic expressions of pomp and ceremony. We would do well to examine our own heritage if only to counter the disempowering claims made on behalf of what I would term the Japanese myth. Why should we give it anymore credence than the American myth of “manifest destiny,” the imperial myth of Britannia or the myth of medieval chivalry when it is equally guilty of “colonizing” marginal persons domestically as well as abroad? Out of the many available resources addressing the subject of understanding and teaching polite English, I would like to share a link to an article by Professor Anne McLellan Howard of the Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine (in Hokkaido) entitled “Politeness Is More Than ‘Please’.” Another valuable link is 4nb.com’s "Sample Business Letters."

I had initially intended to deliver here an extremely formal translation of the mayor's greeting in the old English style. I have determined, however, that this is unfortunately beyond my ability in the context of an evening’s labour and I have therefore substituted a sample portion of a genuine sixteenth century letter (reference, Britannia: Britain’s Historical Documents).

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, to Mr. Hawkyns the Ambassador at the Emperor's Court; upon the Divorce of Queen Catherine, and the Coronation of Queen Anne Boleyn. 1533.

In my most heartie wise I commend me unto you and even so, would be right glad to hear of your welfare, etc. This is to advertise you that inasmuch as you now and then take some pains in writing unto me, I would be loathe you should think your labor utterly lost and forgotten for lack of writing again; therefore and because I reckon you to be some deal desirous of such news as hath been here with us of late in the King's Graces matters, I intend to inform you a parte thereof, according to the tenure and purport used in that behalf.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Kazamaura-mura 風間浦村, Shimokita-gun 下北郡, Aomori-ken 青森県: The Glocal Village


The first time I ever viewed the Kazamaura homepage I determined in my mind to translate it into English as an intellectual exercise in village partisanship. I have been sadly remiss in actualizing this commitment, and the village profile below is my very first instalment. Those who have attempted similar projects in the past will understand the challenges involved, and I invite you to compare my English version with the original homepage and consider what you might have done differently. I have attempted a fairly literal translation, with a special focus on keeping the original Japanese sentences intact while adapting their internal structure to English grammar. This means that some sentences are awkwardly long. As in any translation, there are instances in which I have resorted to approximations.

Kazamaura Village, which relies on fishing and tourism as its mainstays, is situated on the north coast of Aomori Prefecture’s Shimokita Peninsula at the northern extremity of Honshu and affords a view of Hokkaido’s Esanmisaki [恵山岬] and Hakodate Mountain [函館山] across the Tsugaru Strait. Long and narrow, measuring 20km east to west and 8km south to north, with 96% of its area taken up by mountain forests, it is a village blessed with the natural beauty of a wilderness terrain.

When it was established in 1889 through the amalgamation of the three former municipalities of Shimofuro Village [下呂村], Ikokuma Village [易国村], and Hebiura Village [蛇村], one kanji character was taken from each of these to give birth to the name of “Kazamaura” Village [風間浦村], and it is thriving to this day.

LOCATION: 141 degrees east longitude, 41 degrees and 29 minutes north latitude
LAND AREA: 69.60km2
POPULATION—Current figures taken from the March, 2004 census
Male: 1,427
Female: 1,449
Total: 2,876

VILLAGE EMBLEM (Adopted in May, 1971): The circles represent not only the three kanji characters in the name “Kazamaura,” but also the three industries of tourism, fishing and forestry, and the emblem is designed to evoke an image of these resources spearheading village development.

VILLAGE FLOWER: HAMANASU (Japanese Rose, Similar to Sweetbrier)
• Resistant to salt breezes, it is well suited to Kazamaura’s clime
• A long time ago, Hamanasu used to bloom in abundance along the Kazamaura coast

• Popularly referred to as “konpe,” these birds can be seen anywhere in the village
• Seagulls symbolize the fishing industry

• As a basis for industry in Kazamaura from of old, the Hiba tree has benefited many villagers
• Numerous Hiba trees grow in the mountains of Kazamaura, so all villagers are intimately familiar with them

We are the villagers of Kazamaura, blessed with green mountains, a bountiful sea, and beautiful rivers, who greatly value our history and our culture. We shall love our native Kazamaura forever, desiring its good fortune, and in order to build a bright, wholesome and pleasant to live in village we hereby establish this charter.

Resolved, that we shall obey rules and build a kind and cheerful village.
Resolved, that we shall take joy in our work and build a prosperous village.
Resolved, that we shall give hope to the young and purpose to the old, and that we shall build a warm-hearted village.
Resolved, that we shall love nature and build a beautiful village of flowers and greenery.
Resolved, that we shall always seek knowledge, familiarize ourselves with sports, and build an enjoyable village.

The first time I read this charter, I did so in the company of my Japanese housemate in Toronto. I have to confess that we barely got through it for laughter. Even now, every time I read “Resolved, that we shall obey rules . . .” I shake my head. Welcome to Pleasantville.

Monday, November 15, 2004

How I Walked 35 Kilometres to Take a Bath Part the First: Map and Compass

Crossing Ikokuma Forest Road’s Bridge #2 (小川目橋: kogawame-bashi

Kazamaura is generally thought of as a one-road village. You can enter or exit Kazamaura on National Road #279 along the coast either from the southeast or from the northwest. To the northeast is the sea and, beyond, Hokkaido. To the southwest lie the wild mountains of Yagen Forest and the Shimokita interior.

However, there is another road—a back door to Kazamaura and a gateway to the interior. It is the Ikokuma Forest Road (易国間林道). This past Saturday, after my morning slice of toast and cup of coffee, I walked the full length of this road to its termination at Deep Yagen (Oku-Yagen) and the Water Sprite’s hot springs (かっぱの湯)—distance: 17.3 kilometres (new link).

Kit-List: an umbrella, a map, a compass, a chocolate bar, a bag of throat candies, three rice balls (onigiri), and my onsen kit

I recently acquired a 1:25,000 map of Kazamaura (4 cm = 1 km). This, together with my old army compass, is the tool with which I intend to master the uninhabited interior of my village—peak by peak and river by river. The first step was to set the declination on my compass. Local variations in magnetic declination for Japan can be found using this declination calculation tool (just enter the latitude and longitude, in that order). During my years with the Royal Regiment of Canada I was competent enough with the map and compass but shamefully pathetic at interpreting real features on the ground in relation to the map. Most importantly, I never developed the critical skill of gauging distance and elevation with the eye. It is this deficiency which I hope to rectify over the course of the next year or so. By traversing the Ikokuma Forest Road frequently, I will be able to train my eye by studying known distances using landmarks such as the eight bridges and numerous hill tops.

How I Walked 35 Kilometres to Take a Bath Part the Second: Nature and Number Two

One of the most intimate moments one can have with nature and the forest comes with being caught short far away from any of civilization’s logistical supports for the performance of #2. I was caught short.

Fortunately this big dam was just waiting for me to hide behind it, so I went over the top and started clawing at the ground with a sharp rock. During my platoon commanders’ course I broke the Queen’s Regulations and Orders (QR&O) and skipped the hole digging, but being a civilian now I was determined to take the requisite civilized steps. The rock proved clumsy, so I replaced it with a dead branch and soon had a respectable hole hacked out of the wet earth. During my course I sometimes went a week in the field without washing my hands—at least not in the traditional sense of washing. But, again . . . . This time I was able to thoroughly scrub myself with sand, clay and gravel before rinsing off in the stream for which the dam was made. A job well done is so satisfying!

Bears are crass and vulgar. They just do it out in the middle of the road. I know bear poop when I see it, because I used to encounter it all the time on course. In fact, the bears were probably the ones who had a bad influence on me in the first place.

How I Walked 35 Kilometres to Take a Bath Part the Third: In the Forest of the Night

Tiger, tiger, burning bright,
In the forest of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

—by William Blake

Once at the hot spring I stayed in for two hours, chatting with various people, including a Japanese ex-backpacker and a couple of civilian salesmen from the American airbase. By the time I set out for home it was dark, and getting pretty cold to boot. For those of you who have often felt overwhelmed by a thirty-minute drive home from an onsen imagine, if you will, replacing that thirty-minute drive with a three-and-a-half hour, 17.3 kilometre hike over the hills and through the woods in the dark.

. . . with a blister. To make matters worse, I wasn’t able to fill my water bottle because the only restaurant had just closed. An hour into my return journey over the pass the dehydrating effect of sitting in hot water for two hours began to take its toll and I started to stagger a little. Then, the blessed tinkling of running water! I followed the sound to the embankment on the side of the road and tore away the dead leaves. Sure enough, it was cold, pure runoff from the overshadowing peak and I thankfully pressed my lips against the rock. No lions, no tigers, nor even the actually plausible bears came out to maul me, but I had the doohickey scared out of me a number of times by Japanese antelope (kamoshika) bounding out of my way at the last moment.

Imagine running into these little devils at night when you’re worried about bears. Plus, their eyes glow in the dark like cats’ eyes. Apparently kamoshika are considered to be "living fossils."

Home at last! I felt like Esau returned from the hill country, and barely had enough energy to heat this can of Indonesian “red curry” that the ex-backpacker had given me before crashing into bed.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Report from the Desk of Comrade Elliot

Click Here for One of the Best Collections of Chinese Propaganda Posters on the Web

There are a number of standard greetings and rituals in a Japanese public school for which I can offer the students no Western equivalent. This makes it difficult for me to carry out my duty of convincing the local youth that the West is not a social anarchy devoid of standards of etiquette or of cultural symbols of healthy hierarchical respect. Here are a few sample expressions:

gokurousamaWhen encountering staff, teachers, or visitors in the hall, students do not use the Japanese equivalent of “hi.” They say “gokurousama,” which is often translated “Thank you for your work,” but which literally means something like “O thou who hast endured hardship.” It may be true that we are all suffering at school, but the expression is one used by superiors commending subordinates for their work or, at best, by workers of equal rank greeting one another. With students thus accosting adults in the hallways it makes me feel like we are all going around saying: “Carry on, comrade!” I have tried to think of appropriate English responses for when I am hailed in this manner (besides “hi,” which seems to fall short of people’s expectations), but “good work” rings hollow in my own ears. Ideally, I should be able to teach them to say “Hello, Mr. Elliot,” and thus reply to them with a smile, “Hello.” This is an unlikely dream. I have a feeling that my attempted move towards an international style English greeting is going to remain stuck somewhere around: “gokurousama!” (students stick to Japanese)/“Carry on!” (I insist on responding in wierd English).

“onegaishimasu”/”gokurousamadeshita”—When I was in elementary school, classes would begin thus:
Enter the teacher.
Class president says “Kiritsu!” (all rise in obedience) “We will now begin ______________________!”
Students bow as they respond “We will begin!”
Class president says “chakuseki!" (all seat themselves in obedience).
My junior high school performs the abridged, “comrade worker/sportsman” version. All rise on there own time when the teacher(s) enter(s), the duty-student says “onegaishimasu!” and bows. All the students echo “onegaishimasu!” and bow. The teacher(s) respond(s) “onegaishimasu!” and reciprocate(s) the bow. “Onegaishimasu” basically means “Please” or “Thank you for your consideration.” Class ends in a similar exchange, but with the “onegaishimasu” replaced by “gokurousamadeshita!” (a variation of “gokuraousama”). However, I am only involved in English classes, and my Japanese teaching partner has a system in English where she speaks first, saying “Good morning/afternoon everyone!” The students respond “Good morning Miss ____________.” Then I am expected to say “Good morning everyone!” and they respond “Good morning Mr. Luke” (I’ve finally trained the first years to say “Mr. Elliot,” but the older students are still resisting this recognition of my “adultivity” due to my gaijin ALT status). Then I am supposed to carry on with a little small talk in English before the majority of them get bored and sit down without permission. The students have no respect for this lame format and I want to end it. But what shall I replace it with? I am considering some sort of James Bond villain-style initiation sequence.
Teacher: “Activate primary brain cells!”
Students (repeat): “Activate primary brain cells!”
Teacher: “Launch English language lesson!”
Students (repeat): “Launch English language lesson!”
And then at the end . . .
Teacher: “Disengage main learning unit!”
Students (Repeat): “Disengage main learning unit!”

International understanding (国際理解) on terms of mutual respect is difficult to achieve, and when I feel overwhelmed I click on “My Photos” and open my North Korea album.

If I am equipped with a duty oriented military thought and method of rule, I will be able to win back the sovereignty of the classroom and be like Kim Il Sung. Click on My Poster for more Patriotic Paintings of The Great Leader and The Great Mother

Click on Patriotic Poster for the Homepage of The Three Generals of Mt. Paektu: Enjoy Patriotic Videos of Patriotic Parade

Today’s Patriotic Prayer:
“Please don’t let Luke-sensei be arrested by the FBI or the Japanese National Police Agency for visiting all those websites—or for having a beard when everybody knows that terrorists have beards . . . .”

Monday, November 08, 2004

Haiku To a Dead Cat

J-Cat image 1—Beckoning Cat of Fortune (招き猫 maneki neko—more properly understood as “Sinister Mercantile Cat Beckoning to Your Material Lusts”)

Alas, today’s post concerns a cat of misfortune. Twelve years ago, at the age of fifteen, I wrote thus in my Russian workbook (in no connection to what I was supposed to be writing in my Russian workbook):

A flurry, fury
Under wheels; a cat writhing,
The end of a life.
—15 December, 1992

At the time I was being facetious, but this long lost scrap of memory came back to me last night when I ran over my first cat. I love cats, I hate killing animals that I don’t eat, and I did everything I could think of in the five-second time frame afforded me to make it end differently. The cat started to dash across the road, I dropped down to half-speed, the cat stopped in the other lane, I coasted on, the cat ran under my front wheels at the last second. . . . My gut reaction is to revile the cat for bringing its blood guilt upon me (and Thumper’s tires) through its own stupidity. But who are we to build big metal machines that tear across the once quiet night, beaming confusion into inarticulate eyes with the two fraudulent suns lighting our selfish way. Since when has it become so imperative that we always be somewhere else, so far away, so fast. . . . The cat just wanted to walk across the twenty feet of road and enjoy something interesting in its own neighbourhood.

J-Cat image 2—Cat Least-Likely to be Run Over in 2005
Happy Belated Birthday, Kitty-chan!
(November 1, 1974 if you were wondering)

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Meet Thumper: マイカー (My-Car [sic])

Thumper is the fourth in succession of an unfortunate series of cars assigned to grunt out their final kilometres under my ill qualified stewardship. There was Behemoth (Reference Job 40:15), who thundered off the side of I-87 on cruise control one early, early morning with Kazu Kato and myself in her belly. We all survived that one, but a couple of months later I lent the old beast to Kazu for one of his shopping expeditions and she self-destructed, leaving Kazu stranded on I-276. Then there was Cheesebox, officially christened Bucephalus Squirrel (Bucephalus in honour of Alexander the Great’s horse, and squirrel because that crazy little yellow Dodge was . . . well, just squirelly. Cheesebox turned out to have a weak spine, and one day his sub-frame suddenly snapped as I was pulling out of a gas station. Then there was Onesimus, a black five-speed stick shift with a sun roof. A very, very snazzy car for a fourteen-year-old, but when his breaks gave out I just let him sit in my Toronto driveway for a year. Onesimus was towed away for free the month I came to Japan, and by that time his wheels wouldn’t even turn in neutral. His tires left a long black trail as he was dragged off to recycle heaven. Now, thanks to the generosity (or possibly cruelty, from Thumper’s perspective) of Jacob and Autumn Witt, Thumper’s soul (which exists on a little piece of paper) has passed into my hands without even the dignity of a pecuniary exchange. Tonight, as his unworthy master, I brutally forced him to carry me over the harrowing fifteen kilometres of gravel, mountainous road to the kappa’s hot spring, and he certainly thumped around pretty hard all the way up there.

And now to our real point: are Japan’s roads safe for civilians, or do you need to be a Gundam pilot to survive them? Here are some daily events that used to shock me, but to which I have quickly grown accustomed:
1) senior citizens dodging out of nowhere onto shoulder-less roads
2) people passing me on a solid orange line when I am already well over the speed limit
3) the three cars ahead of me going through a red (definitely not yellow) light
4) a car behind me passing me and three other stopped cars on a solid orange line in order to go through a red light—presumably because it didn’t look like anyone was coming anyway . . .

Now I am Canadian, and I pride myself on knowing how to speed. I am not foreign to the concept of ethically modified defacto speed limits. But lately I’ve seen a lot of police cars hanging out on the side of the road, the Noheji police almost pulled me over, and all this is making me a little edgy. So the other day I was very carefully trying to keep around the 60 mark in a 50 zone. Oddly, I began to feel very dirty inside, as if I were committing a social crime against the local humanity. As ten, then twenty cars began to pile up behind me I was faced with a choice: live in harmony with all people and go back to driving 70~80 klicks, or really screw up everyone else’s afternoon in order to save my own metaphorical buttocks from the possibility of police interference. I chose the latter out of sheer meanness.

Monday, November 01, 2004

A Typical Weekend of an Aomori JET Part the First: A Party in the Halls of Valhalla

It turns out that J-Santa’s manager used to manage pigs. This lumber mill was once a pig farm, and apparently up until fifteen years ago there was one pig for every human in my village. Then Mr. Yotaro Muraguchi’s father passed away. He sold the pigs and pursued his dream of becoming one with Aomori’s hiba tree.

He earns his basic living selling regular hiba lumber, but what he really lives for is a dream—a fellowship of the Hiba where no part of the tree is nullified through waste. Stumps, rotten trunks, and twigs all receive a second life in Yotaro’s workshop. His Wooden Craft Centre now includes, in addition to the old pig barns, two beautiful houses of hiba in which he entertains his many and varied guests. On Friday night, these guests included my parents and me.

The Nordic Valhalla aura of this wooden sanctuary was enhanced by a roaring fire, the free-flowing kandachime rice wine, and the boisterously drunken navy types among that evening’s company. Other guest’s included the ex-mayor of Kazamaura (far left), an ex-submariner (centre) entertaining some navy contractors (not pictured), and a navy surgeon (not pictured) who once operated on the emperor Hirohito. Table conversation ranged all over the universe but dwelt unnaturally long on the sexual habits of octopi. All feasted on sashimi and squid. Under the right circumstances one can stay overnight in The House of Hiba for a rate of 3,000 yen per person per night.

A disclaimor is in order here, namely to state that in the hiba Halls of Valhalla the Elliot's drank no kandachime but only pineapple juice, nor did they contribute any useful knowledge on the sexual practices of octopi.