Wednesday, February 23, 2011

People in Japan

I mentioned some things about how polite the Japanese people are in a few other blog postings. In this one I want expand on that and explain a little about just HOW polite they really are!

Before I came to Japan I did my best to read up on the culture, and I have really seen some of the things I read about validated in person. Japan is one of the safest countries in the developed world with very low rates of violent crime. This is even more pronounced in a rural/agricultural area like Misawa! This is the sort of town where people do not lock their doors or cars and kids walk around unaccompanied. That was one of the first things I noticed driving around town that was different about Japan; kids will be out walking around by themselves throughout the day and evening! I am talking about elementary age kids! From what I've seen it's more likely that random people would keep an eye on the kids then do anything to harm them.

The Japanese language is also set up for politeness and formality. There are several ways of saying most things that range from rude to extremely formal. Most people will use the very formal version of a phrase with everyone except for close friends. The Japanese equivalent of “thanks” is pronounced “domo” but you will rarely hear that being said because everyone uses the more formal “arigato gozaimasu.” The Japanese say please and thank you constantly, and will regularly affirm that they're listening by saying the equivalent of things like “yes,” “of course,” and “is that right” while talking to someone. It's almost a contest to see who can be the nicest and most humble.

Next up, bowing. I had read about bowing before I got here but seriously misunderstood how much people bow. There is a whole system of how low to bow depending on social status, but the standard is about 15 degrees for most bows and 45 degrees when talking to someone of much higher status or age.  You only ever bow lower than 45 degrees if the other person is extremely higher status to you, which is why Obama goofed when he bowed at 90 degrees to the Japanese Emperor.  The hands stay pinned to the side and you bow straight at the waist. A lot of Americans bring their hands together like they're praying but that's not the right way to do it. Bowing can be funny because if one person bows the other person returns it, and in some cases it can get into some sort of infinite awkward loop.  

People will literally keep bowing back and forth as they walk away from each other until one person is gone! When I had the workers at my house setting up my utilities we bowed and said thank you back and forth until they were out the door! Some people are in such a habit of bowing that they'll even do it while they're on the phone. The other day I let someone make a turn across my lane in traffic and they bowed at me while driving, and today I let a young girl cross the street (Japanese don't really stop at crosswalks despite their politeness) and after she got across she stopped and bowed! The culture really is amazing how everyone goes out of their way to show respect for each other.

The biggest thing I think that shows this mutual respect is the wearing of surgical masks. Most Japanese people will wear a hospital mask whenever they even THINK they're getting sick. Sore throat, cough, sniffles, anything that signals illness and they pop a mask on. They do it solely to help avoid spreading germs to other people! You'll see all sorts of people wearing masks all the time, from little kids to high-schoolers to business men. It's almost an affirmation of their willingness to contribute to the common cause! Some people will also where the masks to avoid breathing in other peoples germs, but the majority wear them to avoid spreading germs.  They have taken it so far here that they sell all sorts of special masks that are custom fitted and decorated. 

With everyone being so helpful and friendly wherever I have been so far I am sure that traveling around the nation for the next three years should be a blast! I already have some great plans for the spring/summer. One of them is hiking to the top of the mountain in my snowboarding pictures! That is actually a dormant volcano named Mt. Iwate and there is a trail that goes to the top of it!   

Sunday, February 20, 2011


I downloaded an app for my phone that lets me tether it to my laptop via USB and use the Internet from my phone on my MacBook!  It's actually surprisingly fast, but will not even compare to the fiber I'm getting next week!

It's been awhile since I posted a good blog so this one will be pretty long!

Yesterday (Saturday) I decided to just go explore around Misawa a little since I finally got my vehicle!  It's a 1998 Mitsubishi Pajero and although the gas prices might kill me over here it will be perfect for getting out into the mountains to snowboard and hike.  I left my house, headed east and quickly came across route 338.  Route 338 is a road that tracks the coast all the way north to the Shimokita Peninsula.  Someday soon I'm going to make a drive all the way up 338 to the town of Mutsu (about 2 hours) to check out the bay there because it has some shipwrecks and is full of seaglass.

On this excursion though I was just looking for the ocean!  Route 338 is a very small rural route that has a speed limit of 50 kph (30 mph, all the speed limits in Japan are LOW) and passes through some cool little towns.  It didn't take long for me to spot the ocean and I pulled over at a park to snap some pictures.

A lot of the beach around here is full of concrete to help stop erosion.  It's not safe to swim on most of it either because it has dangerous rip currents.  Down in Hachinohe there is supposed to be a nice public beach that everyone hits up in the summer though!

After checking out the beach I went to the Shimoda Mall which is right between Misawa and Hachinohe.  I did a little shopping but only bought my niece Addison some stuff from the 100 yen shop;  the Japanese equivalent of a dollar store.  Everything was at least 105 yen though and the exchange rate sucks so bad that comes out to about $1.30. The mall also has a movie theater, a bowling alley, and like most Asian malls, a grocery store!  They play Japanese movies and some American ones which have subtitles (or so I am told).

Next up was today's excursion where I got to go snowboarding for the first time ever.  Just driving down south of Misawa was an awesome sight because the mountains around here are breathtaking!

We went to Shimokura to go snowboarding, and there is not really a good place to learn as a beginner!  Good thing I took to it pretty fast! All those years skateboarding really paid off in the balance department.  That's not saying I didn't spend a lot of time on the ground at first, but once I got the hang of it I was doing pretty well.  I'm definitely going to be buying my own gear this summer for the rest of my tour.

Me, clearly.

Not the mountain we were on but still an awesome sight!

There were a lot of Japanese snowboarder girls there and I got to practice my Japanese a little.  I definitely need more practice...

As with everything in Japan they take it up a notch!  No normal snowmen here.  They're also mildly obsessed with all things cute and cartoony.

The guys from work I went snowboarding with.  The guy on the end is wearing a fox fur hat and scarf he bought when he was deployed to Manas, Kyrgyzstan.  The Japanese loved it!

I'm not going to be doing anything too exciting over the next week while I am working but I want to write some posts about the language and culture here.  More specifically I want to let everyone know about how mind-blowingly polite and friendly everyone is here!  

Thursday, February 17, 2011

All moved in but no Internet

Well I moved into my new house yesterday!  I still don't have my personal belongings, but I have some loaner furniture from the base for now.  I still had to go to the BX/Commisary last night to get a bunch of household stuff and food to make it livable.  I can't wait until I have everything set-up and don't have to spend so much money every day!

Getting everything (water, gas, electric) set-up yesterday was interesting because most of the guys who came by my place didn't speak very much English.  The landlords office actually sent someone out to give me an orientation on a lot of the equipment because EVERYTHING is in Kanji.  My heaters and air conditioners, faucets, toilets, everything has instructions in Kanji!  One day soon I'll do a blog to break down the difference between Kanji, Hiragana, Katakana, and Romaji.

The bad news is I won't have Internet installed at my house until March 1st.  I'll still be able to get online at work, on my phone, and at some hotspots around town.  It will just make posting with pictures and everything a little more difficult.  Also, no phone calls home for about two weeks.  The good news about that is that I'll have 1 gigabit fiber optic

I will be going to pick up my vehicle shortly and I will be putting it to good use this weekend!  I am going snowboarding for the first time ever with some guys grom my unit.  I live with an hour or two of some apparently world-famous ski-resorts so winter sports are a big deal around here.  I will definitely post some pics of me snowboarding!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Toilets in Japan

So one of the features of my new place that everyone is interested in seems to be the heated toilet seat!  Toilets are another one of those things that Japan took from the west and took to another level.  The traditional Japanese toilet is your typical squat toilet you'll find throughout Asia.  I got fairly accustomed to them from being in both Southwest Asia and Southeast Asia!  They still have the squat toilets all over around here, but when they do have western toilets they have all the bells and whistles you can imagine!

This is a toilet I recently used at the fish market in Hachinohe.

The first thing you'll probably notice is the water basin on the top.  When you flush the spigot releases water for you to wash your hands right there, and the water fills the tank to be used for the next flush!  Saves a lot of water if people use it properly! 

Next is of course the heated seat.  I will admit, they are pretty awesome!  I have even heard that some places have fans or A/C for hot days too!

Bidets/washlets (the one above has a washlet) are very common in Japan also.  Most of the washlets shoot a stream of water to clean your behind, and then some have an air dryer to finish the job and dry you off!  I haven't experimented with that yet.

During our in processing they told us that some of the toilets can have a control panel with as many as 40 buttons for all the features.  This toilet had a control panel with about 5.  The biggest problem is that they are all in Kanji so good luck guessing!

Probably one of the most interesting things they have in the bathroom is something called an otohime (directly translates as "sound (oto) princess (hime)).  Apparently many Japanese were shy about the noises they made in the bathroom so they would constantly flush the toilet so no one else would hear them.  To combat this huge waste of water the government created a public campaign to educate people not do it.  This apparently didn't work but the Gucci of toilets, Toto, created the otohime.  It's basically just a little box that either plays a recording of flushing, some music, or some other masking sound.

So now you know more about toilets in Japan then you might want to know! 

Monday, February 14, 2011

Mi Casa - My house - 私の家

Had my first day on the job today and it went well enough. Tomorrow I should start some of my work center orientation and really start getting down to business! The big news from today is that I payed my deposit for my new place and was able to go over and take some pictures!

My house is a 3 bedroom 2 bath 1 story and is a bit over 1,300 square feet!  It is WAY larger than what I had expected to be living in.

My new street. They don't plow at all

Entry way.  All the floors are wood and in the lease it actually says you're not allowed to wear shoes on the floors!  In Japanese houses its customary to take your shoes off before you enter and they'll usually have some sort of house slippers to wear.  Outside of the bathroom they'll have another set to wear in there because they think it's dirty!

Living room.  Only my living room and bedroom have AC, but NO one on base has AC!

Kitchen.  The base supplies a washer, dryer, range, and fridge for me. They'll be delivered Wednesday afternoon!

Master bedroom. You can't see it but I have a BIG walk-in closet.

Master bath, yes that is a heated seat.  I'll write a whole blog about the toilets in Japan sometime soon!

So that's the new place!  It's in an awesome neighborhood where I have lots of Japanese neighbors so hopefully they're cool and don't mind the new gaijin next door!  Feel free to leave me some comments or questions too!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Hachinohe City Tour

Well my plans of cruising around Misawa today got postponed because it snowed all night.  I'll have to wait until I get my vehicle and not this little Toyota to go exploring off-base since they don't really clear the roads around here!  Instead I'll just write a very long post about the Hachinohe city tour I went on yesterday!

Hachinohe is the closest large city to Misawa with about 250,000 residents.  It's about a 45 minute drive southeast of Misawa and is located right on the coast.  It's also the closest place from Misawa to catch the Shinkansen, or bullet train, to Tokyo.

The first stop on our tour was the local fish market.  Hachinohe is one of the busiest commercial fishing ports in Japan so the fish market has basically everything you could imagine, and lots of things you probably don't want to imagine!

The next stop on the tour was the train station to learn how to buy tickets to get around the local area.  There are local train lines that take you around Aomori prefecture, and also the bullet train to get around the rest of the main island of Japan (know as Honshu).  You can even take a train to the northern island of Hokkaido to go to Sapporo which goes under one of the longest and deepest tunnels in the world.

It helps to learn some Kanji to find your way on the map! The Kanji for Misawa is 三沢.

Next stop was a Shinto Shrine.  This shrine was originally build in 1222 and one of the original buildings is still there.  The rest of it has been been periodically rebuilt since, like many things in Japan, they had burned down before!  The shrine was surrounded by huge 150 ft tall Japanese cedar trees with one that was over 700 years old.

Shintoism and Buddhism actually coexist well in Japan and many people practice both (but many practice nothing at all, or do it just for the tradition).  Shintoism is the native religion of Japan and is more  an animist type religion where there are gods for things like mountains, rivers, forests, air, and most central to Shinto,  ancestors.  Most families will practice Buddhist funerals, but shinto births and weddings, and go to different shrines or temples based on the holiday.  Most people also keep a small Shinto shrine in their house!

I start working Monday so I won't get to go traveling around for a little while.  Soon I will get out into Misawa to explore and will post some pics of that!  Also next Wednesday I get my vehicle and my apartment so that should be pretty exciting! 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Blog Namesake - Shinto Shrine pics coming tomorrow

I'm heading out to meet up with some guys from work right now, but tomorrow I will be posting about my tour of Hachinohe with some cool pics of a Shinto shrine and some info about how Buddhism and Shintoism coexist in Japan.  In the meantime you can check out this song where I got the name for my blog from!

Tom Waits - Big in Japan

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Got a car and house!

I had my tour around Misawa today and it was short, but still cool since it was my first time to see things around town.

We started off going to a Buddhist temple which did not look all that different than the ones I visited in Thailand/Cambodia/Malaysia.  Some of the traditions were a little different though.  In the back of the temple there were shrines that people bought for their families and they can cost around $7,000!

Outside of the temple was a Japanese cemetery.  They cremate all the bodies and the entire family uses the same memorial.  These apparently can get up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Next we went to a reconstructed Samurai house and got to learn a little bit about the history of Misawa.  I can understand why no one lives in traditional houses anymore because it was FREEZING in there.  They took us to a local museum and the international center for some culture lessons and then off to one of the local malls.  I definitely see some Japanese Disney coloring books in Addisons future!  The 100 yen shops they have here are like US dollar stores and are pretty awesome - I should be able to get lots of stuff for my place in there!

Here is a picture of one of the streets right off base!  You can see how well they do with the roads around here.  Apparently they run out of money for street clearing pretty quick and then just let it ride!  Good thing I got a 4WD vehicle!

Also, I signed a lease and purchased a car today.  I'll get both of them Wedensday and will post some pics next week.  The funny thing about buying a car here is that since they had to inspect it for my 2 year JCI (Japanese Compulsory Insurance) I won't get it for a week, so the owner of the place gave me an old beat-up Toyota to drive around until then!  Just handed me the keys!

Tomorrow I get to tour Hachinohe and go to a larger mall and to a Japanese fish market.  I'll post some pics on here and some more on Facebook too!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Licensed to drive!

I haven't really gotten an chance to do anything fun out here yet except for in-processing on base!  Part of that in-processing included getting my license to drive in Japan.  The license is not the same as the Japanese Nationals use, but a military form to authorize me to drive under the Status Of Forces Agreement (SOFA) the US has with Japan.  We had to take a test, but it was so easy since it was open note and you could help each other!  ALL of the signs are different (and in Japanese), and you drive on the left side of the road.  Driving here should definitely be interesting!  I think I should be able to go car shopping tomorrow afternoon.

One of the more interesting briefings today was from the vice commander of the installation.  He talked a lot about the mission of the base (we have two F-16 squadrons, one is deployed right now).  Misawa really is a strategic location since it is is nearby China, Russia, and the Koreas.  I know a lot of people back home always ask "why do we have so many troops overseas, just bring them home." It's not really that simple though.  Anyone who knows me knows I love Texas BBQ and at Rudy's BBQ they have a sign that says thanks to the troops for "defending our freedom and protecting our interests."  Sometimes the overseas mission is protecting economic interests.  The Colonel was talking about how approximately 1/3 of the US economy is tied to the Pacific region, and if there were a war here it would plunge the US into a worse depression than we just saw.  So the US keeps a presence here to make sure that doesn't happen.  Pretty cool stuff.

Enough patriotic military babble.  The other big thing I have going on right now is my housing situation. I put down a deposit today for a house and will go and get the contract drawn up tomorrow afternoon.  I picked out a little 3 bedroom 2 bath house with a 1 car garage and a little fenced in front yard.    The rent is 150,000 yen which works out to be about $1875 a month!  I'll definitely be posting pics as soon as I seal the deal on it!

Tomorrow, as part of my in-processing, we are going on a tour of Misawa and visiting some local attractions.  I will definitely be taking pics and will write all about it!  Then on Friday we're taking a tour down to Hachinohe which is the closest big city.  Should be pretty cool!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Finally made it!

After a rough start to my trip due to the San Antonio icepocalypse of 2011 I finally got out of Texas after 7 1/2 years!  My flights to Seattle were both smooth and as soon as I got to there I was able to hook up with my friend Daniel Moffett at the USO.  We had been at Lackland together our entire careers and he was taking the same rotator as I was, but to Osan, Korea!

If you're not familiar with the USO it is an organization of volunteers that provide service for the military at locations around the US and overseas.  One of the most visible and appreciated services are the USO at airports.  The usually offer food and drinks, a place to store luggage, stuff like TV and Internet, and some even have bunk beds for people to sleep.  They're all staffed by volunteers and the really help when you're stuck in an airport all day!  Definitely consider it if you're looking for a volunteer opportunity!

Anyway, Seattle seemed like a very cool city, and although I didn't get to see much I know I want to get a chance to get out that way sometime in my career if I can.  Moffett and I got to take the train downtown and check out Pike market and Pioneer Square to get some dinner and a few microbrews!

The rotator out of Seattle was definitely the shortest flight over the Pacific I have ever taken; the other times I went I flew from Atlanta or Los Angeles.  Total flight time to Misawa was about 9 1/2 hours.  My new flight NCOIC met me at the airport and we immediately started in-processing and showing me around.  It snowed on and off all day and apparently that's how the winters go around here!

The new job seems cool, although I don't know exactly what I'm going to be doing yet.  I got a quick tour around the base and the town, and even looked at some cars and housing.  Today I start the base Right Start in-processing so I can get all my records straight.  I did manage to get a cell phone yesterday so now I have facebook all the time again!  The damn form was all in Kanji so the girl had to fill it out for me.  Definite sticker shock - my bill is almost double what I was paying in the states and I only get 144 free minutes a month!

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