Thursday, July 28, 2005

Bye Bye Continued . . .

Shared Spaces One: The Misawa U.S. Air Force-Japan Self Defence Force-Civilian Cooperative Airport (where Japan Airlines must wait its turn with fighter aircraft on a shared runway)

Shared Spaces Two: Japan Airlines’s “Luke and Yuko Side by Side” Seating Plan

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Bye Bye, and Have a Great Summer!


Gaijin and wife are going away for the summer. That's right, it's time for a rest from all the hard work of receiving flowers from rosy cheeked school children and whatnot, so we're running away to Canada and America where we will drive thousands of kilometres to meet friends and relatives. Operation Bear Watch is temporarily on hold in Shimokita (no cheating, Mr. Patterson), but we'll have all that and more in the next season of Gaijin for Life. Moreover, the cool new Gaijin for Life homepage I promised everyone some time ago is being mysteriously put together by my agents in Toronto so . . . no, really, I promise.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

The Cause of—and Solution to?—most of JETs’ Problems in Japan

“Here's to alcohol, the cause of—and solution to—all life's problems”
——North America’s most original moral thinker (a.k.a. Homer Simpson)——

Clockwise, from top left: 1) pet bottles of whiskey, 2) four litre (one gallon) jugs of cheap spirits for about twenty dollars, 3) the alcohol section of a small super market in Hakodate, 4) four litre jugs of whiskey for a little over thirty dollars

Meditation I on Alcohol: A week before our wedding my wife and I were taking a stroll through downtown Sapporo when we encountered a marketing flunky handing out free cans of Asahi beer. I once got a free can of Pringles in Toronto from the Pringles Girls who were driving down Queen Street in their Pringles Wagon, but I have never seen anyone handing out free cans of beer on the street before. I can only imagine what would happen were the same phenomenon to occur on Yonge Street in Toronto.

Meditation II on Alcohol: The first JET video I ever watched was the classic My Slow Descent Into Alcoholism. As in the case of Springfield’s classic short movie Football in the Groin, “it’s funny because it’s true” . . . but also kind of scary. The statistics seem to indicate that the majority of JETs are not necessarily alcoholics per se when they arrive in Japan . . . . The same cannot automatically be assumed of JETs who have “assimilated.” (The actors performing in the short film sited in this meditation do not themselves suffer from this JET fate but they bravely sacrificed their bodies on a temporary basis for the purpose of illustrating the dangers face by other JETs in other places).

Meditation III on Alcohol: I have no more meditations for today. I have exhausted my summer vacation levels of meditative power.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Rusuban . . . two days to go . . .

Rusuban (留守番) means "home alone," "minding the house," "holding down the fort." My wife's week-long absence is slowly resulting in my regression to my former primitive state as portrayed in Keitai Cinema #1: "Feral JET." Hurry home, Yuko! I've been drinking waaay too much . . . mugicha (that's "wheat tea" for all you worried Anglophones out there).

Thursday, July 21, 2005

In Which I Acquire a Japanese Driver’s License In Spite of My Dubious ID

For some of you this is old news. For others, you are hearing it for the first time. In order to get a Japanese driver’s license an American citizen must take a Japanese driving test. In fact, it is not considered proper in Japan for a foreign national with no Japanese driving school experience to pass the said driving test on a first attempt, so it is more likely to be two or three driving tests. On the other hand, subjects of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II who have earned their driver’s licenses in one of her more affluent kingdoms or dominions need only submit their driver’s licenses from their home countries together with certified JAF (Japanese Automobile Federation) translations, their passports, their certificates of alien registration, and ¥4,850. I personally question whether Canada should be considered an authentically “affluent” dominion, but we do have an annoying graduated license system with a tedious three step process for acquiring a full driver’s license. I guess that is enough to satisfy the local Public Safety Committees (which seem to be the issuing authorities for driver’s licenses here).

The process went without a hitch for me, except for the fact that the bureaucrat processing my license expressed his concern that he could not reasonably conclude that all of the photos above are of the same individual. It is a common phenomenon that many sheltered people find it difficult to distinguish individuals of an unfamiliar race from one another, so it seems a little ironic that this particular official managed to distinguish several identities in my single person. Fortunately, after a brief discourse on weight loss, inconsistent hairstyles, facial hair and the aging process, the issue was allowed to slide.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Wedding Photos are Now Available at a URL Near You

This Is How We Remember Tom Gallione from Our Wedding
Thanks Again, Tom and Tadako!!

The gallery of wedding photos taken by Tom Gallione can be accessed via this gateway.

Monday, July 18, 2005

On the Importance of Barbeques in the Celebration of Family

Oma-zaki: Sliding Past the Tip of Honshu on the Way to Hokkaido to Visit Yuko’s Family

Fire and flesh have long played an important role in human society for the consolidation of familial ties. Fire sheds its warmth and light upon a gathering, uniting everyone in shared comfort, and the flesh of beasts injects the abdomen with its vital essence and a lusty sense of fulness and satisfaction (there being, of course, significant exceptions and exception taken to this sentiment). To this end my father-in-law began speaking a couple of months ago of making a brick barbeque grill in his back yard. Originally it was supposed to be built by Brother-in-law α (alpha, Yuko’s brother, Yoshiyuki) and me but I ended up being supplanted by Brother-in-law #1 (my sister Anna’s husband, Jun) while away on shopping duty. Between them they managed to put together a respectable and very functional structure with supplies they purchased for just under ¥10,000 ($100 give for Canadians, or take for Americans). My father-in-law did report a couple of missing bricks from the borders of his flower beds, though, so we suspect these may have been commandeered to compensate for a slight deficit in building materials. The genius of their design was in their choosing not to apply mortar to the bricks. The whole outfit is like a Lego set that can be taken apart, stored for winter, rebuilt, reconfigured, and added onto at will. All we need to do to accomodate future increases in the family population is to keep filching bricks from Mrs. Takahashi’s flower beds to make the grill longer.

Left to right: Brother-in-law #1, Brother-in-law α (alpha) and My Father-in-law

My father-in-law, Mr. Takahashi, is a civil servant working for the Hokkaido government’s agricultural department and his current position is at an agricultural school in the mid-eastern region of the island. This position gives him access to cheap farm produce, including meat. Beef is ranked on a five level scale in Japan, five being the highest, and Mr. Takahashi was able to bring home a large quantity of level 5 Japanese beef for the long weekend. It is unlikely that I will ever be able to eat beef of this quality again since it is in the same category as the majestically expensive Kobe beef.

There is a popular picnic game in Japan called Split the Watermelon, and since it is such a complex game Brother-in-law #1 and I felt it necessary to practice on something less valuable than a watermelon before attempting the real thing.

Jun Teaches Me the Ancient Martial Art of Roasting Flesh

Brother-in-law #1 and Sister #1 Enjoy the BBQ

Brother-in-law α and Sister-in-law α with Nephew α1 a.k.a. Souki

Yuko and I Contemplate the Splendour of Grade 5 Japanese Beef Sizzling

The Girls (Including Ai-chan Who Is Often at Our Family Gatherings Even Though There Are No More Sons in the Family Left for Her to Marry, Souki Being, I Think, too Young)

Even the best barbeques must come to an end, and Monday found me sailing home alone since Yuko had to remain in Sapporo to teach some final classes at Hokusei Gakuen University and to wrap up some other loose ends.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Let's Kazachu

On Tuesday Kazamaura's one and only JTE called in sick again. Although technically JET Programme participants are not permitted to be left in charge of classrooms, this policy is extremely inconvenient to understaffed school administrations so it is widely ignored. Moreover, from what I can tell, most JETs are quite happy to have this rule broken—it’s nice to be in command for a change. I have to admit though, that suddenly finding myself in command of four consecutive classes about half an hour before the first one is scheduled to begin is a little stressful for me—at least in junior high school. Since my JTE does not wish me to interfere with the core curriculum my options are limited to supervising workbooks or entertaining with activities. I am not a super JET, and I am a dismal failure as an entertainer. Moreover, my students are not super students, and they refuse to be entertained. Fortunately, this time I had a secret weapon stashed away at home—across the street from the junior high school. After receiving permission from the vice principle (the one seen to be dancing so serenely a couple of blog posts ago) I called my wife and asked her to bring over our house guests for some “Let’s Conversation.”

It worked out great because my students have been dying to find out more about my wife, Yuko Elliot . . .

. . . and my mom has decades of experience baiting junior high students (she is “kowai”).

Mabel Chow, the short term missionary working with my parents, gave the students a chance to talk to a genuine Australian from Sydney.

And then of course there were my second cousins Allison Barlow,

Michelle Barlow (barely older than the third year students),

. . . and Kristen Barlow representing young America Connecticut style.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Gankake-iwa: The Lover’s Wishing Rock in Sai Village

Some weeks ago I introduced my new favourite reading spot for lazing on a Sunday afternoon. That spot was the peak of Gankake-iwa in Sai Village, about a half hour’s drive from our home in Kazamaura. Gankake (願掛け) is the Japanese word for either a Shinto or Buddhist prayer or invocation. Iwa (岩), of course, means “cliff” or “rock.” There seems to be no official translation of the proper noun “Gankake-iwa” but it could conceivably be rendered as “The Wishing Rock” or “Prayer Rock” or something along those lines. It rises roughly 100 metres over the Tairadate Strait connecting Mutsu Bay to the Tsugaru straight and affords a fantastic view of both Aomori’s Tsugaru Peninsula and Hokkaido’s Oshima Peninsula. The first literary reference to Gankake-iwa was made in 1792 by some person of consequence passing by on his way to Hokkaido. Apparently it was home to two shrines (one to Inari the fox god and one to Hachiman the god of war) and locals were already using the spot to hang up their love gankakes (prayer tags) together with cherry blossom “keys” in the hopes that their prayers would reach across the miles and unlock the hearts of their beloveds far away. Nowadays people attach padlocks to a wire mesh frame set up for that purpose between the two ciffs. Apparently the love connection stems from the popular opinion that from certain angles the two prongs of the rock look like a man and a woman embracing.

The photos I took with Mobile Man during my last visit to The Wishing Rock were of a dubious quality so on Monday while I was showing my Barlow cousins the local sites I took the opportunity to recreate those shots with Bear Runner.

I then proceeded to the highest peak and photographed my cousins exploring the official viewing area. Hopefully these photos adequately capture the dizzying sense of height one is rewarded with after the steep hike up from the coastal road.

Front row standing in the official viewing area, from left to right: Kristen Barlow (second cousin), Mabel Chow (short term missionary working with my parents in Ajigasawa), and Michelle Barlow (second cousin). Back row, standing on the forbidden peak: Luke Elliot a.k.a. me). Not pictured: camera woman Allison Barlow (second cousin).

Don’t jump!! Of course not, sillies, I’m not in high school anymore. But apparently some people do—100 metres down.

These cabins are called the Gankake Park Cabins on some of the official English language websites, but in Japanese they are called ケビンハウス (kebin hausu). Does that mean Kevin House? Cabin House? I guess the translators were wise to just call them the Gankake Park Cabins. Incidentally, the usual “Don’t feed the monkeys” signs are replaced by “Beware of monkeys” signs at Gankake Park. Whether there is a significant reason for this or not I have yet to find out.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Simian Wars in the Wakinosawa System

The Official Launch of Gaijin for Life’s Operation Bear Watch

Gaijin and Wife celebrated their two-week anniversary on Saturday by officially launching the Shimokita-wide Operation Bear Watch. The first day of the Find a Bear campaign was spent circumnavigating the entire western portion of the Shimokita peninsula beginning in Kazamaura, passing through Ohata, stopping long enough in Mutsu to buy a laundry rack and a composter, then continuing through Kawauchi, Wakinosawa, Sai, Oma, and back through Kazamaura. The search was primarily focused on the wild roads of Wakinosawa and Sai in what is possibly the remotest corner of the island of Honshu.

Let the reader know and understand that entering the village of Wakinosawa is something akin to waking up in the movie Congo. The village border is guarded by a lone monkey totem silently watching the worn out pavement of Route 338’s overgrown and underused western extreme.

Those who venture further into Wakinosawa are troubled at every turn by disturbing signs like this one.

Yuko and I decided not to pay ¥200 to see the monkeys in the Wakinosawa monkey prison. After all, our mission was to find a bear in the wild, not monkeys in a concentration camp. We drove on, but came to an abrupt halt a couple of hundred metres down the road.

It is Gaijin for Life policy never to pass by a photo opportunity of this nature. Were we still in Japan? Or did we accidentally apparate to Cambodia?

Gaijin and Wife quickly transmogrified into war correspondents to find out.

A casual glance revealed nothing amiss on the Wakinosawa frontier . . .

. . . but my Minolta DiMage X31’s (a.k.a. Bear Runner’s) keen lens soon picked up on some disturbing anomalies like this second gunman in the forest (Yuko says he had a knife) and these . . .

. . . butt-scratching monkeys.

We realized that we had inadvertently walked into a pitched battle between Wakinosawa’s human security forces and a tribe of monkeys trying to reach their brethren in the Wakinosawa monkey detention centre. The humans looked grim as they took their stand on the bridge, determined to prevent the monkeys from crossing the river. Every now and then they would shout “kora!!” and let off a “puff puff puff puff” of full automatic fire into the wooded hillside (did I mention that they were just armed with Air Soft guns?). Meanwhile, the monkeys casually scratched their butts or noisily jumped from tree to tree, mocking, waiting. Perhaps it is time for someone to write a letter to Prime Minister Koizumi and beg him to redirect some resources from his country’s less than stellar space program towards the simian wars in Shimokita. I would also recommend some revisions to Japan’s firearms laws, particularly as they relate to the right of villagers to arm themselves, or those monkeys are going to win. I hate to think of what would happen to my job if the Wakinosawa monkey detention centre is ever liberated and Shimokita returns to the rule of apes.

Eventually we left Wakinosawa’s human security forces to their fate and drove on to Sai. As we were rounding a particularly steep bend in the road a little fox jumped out of nowhere and motioned for me to stop the vehicle. Well, at least he jumped into the middle of the road and ran towards our car. Yuko and I scrambled to bring Bear Runner online only to discover the fox sitting patiently by the driver-side door. I was a little reluctant to open the window since I was sure the thing would jump in and do something supernatural to us, but for the sake of getting this shot I took that risk.

As we attempted to drive away we discovered just how anxious this particular fox was for human company or, more likely, human food. Judging from its puppy dog eyes, this little fellow had been permanently wimpified through human contact. As we sped up to forty Yuko sadly said “he’s using up all the energy he needs to live trying to catch us” and I have to admit that I felt a little sick to my stomach.

After an hour or so of winding through the mountains overlooking the opening to Mutsu Bay it was time for a pit stop at the toilet in the clouds. Yuko did a recce of the facilities before venturing in . . .

. . . but she was still ambushed by the toilet monster.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Kazamaura Welcomes the Bride

Kazamaura’s Educational Elite Welcome the Newlyweds in Song

On July 5 Kazamaura’s board of education in conjunction with Kazamaura’s public schools threw an (expensive) party at the New Shimofuro Hotel to congratulate Yuko and me on our nuptials. With a very few exceptions, every member of the board of education and every employee of the village's four public schools was present—everyone from cleaning ladies to principles. At first I was a little nervous, but soon the vast majority were so drunk as to render that state of mind unnecessary.

A Close-up from the Previous Image Depicting in Greater Detail the Dance of the Junior High VP

Likewise, a Close-up of Kazamaura’s Mayor a.k.a. the Owner of the New Shimofuro Hotel Jamming on the Shamisen

The Mayor and an Elementary School Teacher Serenading Us

I Introduce Yuko to the Masses

Yuko Addresses the Crowd and Lays Down the Law

*All photos in this post were taken by Kazamaura’s official village photographer and presented to me on a memory stick by board of education staff.