Thursday, April 23, 2009

High Speed Internet plans in Japan and white cranes (Weekend 4)

So last week we lost our internet connection at our apartment. That's why things have been so quiet here on the blog lately. We were using the final days of the previous teachers' internet connection and that plan finally ended last Tuesday at around noon.

That plan was supposedly a 100mbps (download) ADSL plan through Yahoo BB! for around 6500円 (Yen, or ¥6500) per month. That's about $65 USD. But we were only getting download speeds of about 1.5mbps, so we figured it was a bad deal and decided to sign up for cable internet instead.

The "C-able" building here is where I'm at right now typing this blog. They have a free community computer center available with public computers and with LAN wires, which I'm using with my laptop (noto) since typing on Japanese keyboards presents many difficulties and slows me down a lot.

Our "C-able" internet plan should be closer to 26mbps download and costs only 3500円 per month. Based on another teacher's experience, our actual connection speeds should be much higher than what we were getting with Yahoo ADSL. We'll see in about 2 or 3 weeks. [27/04/2009 Update - Internet was installed in the morning without any difficulties, cable guy was friendly even though he spoke very little English. As we had hoped, our actual internet speeds are much, much faster... around 16mbps download!)

So, last week (2 weekends ago) I snapped some photos of our first homemade Udon lunch, and several pictures of some baby cranes that were learning to fly in a copse of trees near one of my classrooms. Here's the link.

I'd post more, but I'm out of time at the computer center. Hope you enjoy these pics. We have a lot more to share, but no time!!!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Weekends and Sushi

Mmm..... what a weekend! We finished work Saturday night at around 7 PM, got sushi (this post is mostly about sushi), went to the free foot spa, ashiyu, got dessert and came home. Sunday we biked all around town and discovered a really beautiful park on top of the mountain at another really beautiful park. Today we drove to Seshutei, or Seshu Gardens. Seshu is the painter/priest who designed the beautiful 5-story pagoda, Rurikoji, from other pictures. There will be a whole post on him and this garden later.

The big news here is that BRIAN LIKES SUSHI! Additionally, BRIAN LIKES EEL AND RAW SCALLOPS! I have photo evidence. (I know it's really annoying to type in all caps, but this is really really big.)

Ain't he handsome?

The sushi place by our house, Nonta Sushi, is a three minute walk. You can sit either at tables or around the sushi bar, which has a conveyor belt with freshly prepared sushi. It's called kaiten-zushi. This is great for us because we don't have to mumble broken Japanese to anyone, just grab stuff off the belt as it comes by. There's also a really long menu (that has some pictures! yeah!) from which you can order other items and they will promptly be prepared by any of the three sushi chefs in front of you.

Note the revolving tea cups on the lower level for macha, green tea.

The prices are determined by the color of the plate, and your total is calculated simply by counting up your plates! We gorged ourselves (maguro, hamachi, lots of ebi and scallops, crab, cooked tuna, shiitake, tekka maki, and more) and even got a dessert, and still only spent about $33 total. There's no tipping here, and tax is pre-factored into the cost.

Our Japanese is starting to exist (barely) so we were at least able to convey what we wanted to our chefs. The discovery of the night was definitely the scallops. They sear them for a few seconds on one side, butterfly them open and set them on small beds of rice with a lemon wedge. Honestly the most delicious thing I've ever had in my life. We got three orders of that... *sigh* and would have had more if we had discovered them earlier in the dinner. Glad we got over our fears on that one.

Two of these beauties (one was already eaten) cost only ¥250, or $2.50.

I grabbed a large futomaki roll off the belt, and tucked inside was a small piece of uni, sea urchin. I've been trying to find uni for years and finally got to taste it. It was soft like peanut butter and had a salty taste that went fruity sweet at the end. Yum.

We also discovered the difference between unagi and anago (eel and sea eel). The former is darker, more expensive and fattier. The latter is a light tan, still covered in the same good sauce, and in our opinion, much tastier.

Something that looked like canned tuna with cucumbers was "quite unimpressive," according to Brian. There was also some crab meat covered with a thin squirt of what looked like cat food that was strange. The crab was ok, but the green stuff was gross.

Icky. And it cost ¥400. :(

The biggest difference between American sushi and Japanese sushi is that there's a much much bigger variety of sushi here. For example, a regular bento box at the convenience store here is likely to have uni, squid, octopus, shrimp, tuna, mackerel, egg, flying fish roe and more. I think we mostly have california rolls back home. Avocados are small and expensive here so cali rolls are out of the question. Another difference is that the wasabi is placed under the piece of fish, directly on top of the rice, so you don't have to add any. The sizes seem to be the same in both countries, though I always thought Japanese sushi was smaller. Guess it isn't anymore.

I hate to be cheesy, but this just keeps getting better and better.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

More than you ever wanted to know about toilets in Japan

In my ongoing descriptions of things that are different between Japan and America, it was inevitable (and requested by my Mom!) that I devote an entire blog post to toilets.

Toilets in America really don't warrant much discussion. There's a tank, a bowl, and a flush lever. You push the lever and the toilet flushes. Recently, the law changed so that all new toilets use less water per flush, but that's about it. Anyway, this post isn't really about American toilets, this is about Japanese toilets... or at least the ones that I've encountered.

In Japan, the toilets are usually one of two types: Japanese squat or Western style.

Japanese squat is what it sounds like, you squat to use it (facing the flush lever).
I have been able to avoid using one by careful planning and by having the good fortune of teaching classes in buildings that have western facilities.

Western style is pretty much the same as an American toilet, with one consistent difference and several optional "features" designed for efficiency and comfort.

The one big difference is that all Western-style Japanese toilets have 2 different flushes to conserve water.
  1. A weak, dilution flush for #1 (you pull the lever up to the flush position for as long as you want it to flush)
  2. A strong, full flush for #2 (you just push the lever and it does the rest, like America). Also, some toilets even sense when you sit on the seat and automatically add a bit more water to the bowl.
(this is the flush lever in our apartment)

  1. 'The faucet' - usually not found in public bathrooms since they have sinks, I've found the built-in faucet in most home and hotel bathrooms. The reserve tank has a hand-washing faucet attached to it so that you can wash your hands with the same (clean) water that goes on to fill the reserve tank. In public bathrooms, it's been pretty safe to assume that sinks are provided but not soap or towels. I bring a hand towel with me everywhere. Some places have a high-pressure-air automatic hand dryer.
  2. 'The heated seat' - (my favorite) it's also pretty safe to assume that any toilet that is plugged into an electrical outlet has a heat-able seat. The controls vary from turn knobs, to push-buttons, to those that sense when you sit on the seat, but it's not difficult to figure out. (notice the plug to the bottom left of the above photo, and the small turn knob to control the level of heating of your bum... from 'off' to 'max')
  3. "The bidet" - rather than installing a completely separate bidet, the bidet is built in to many of the fancier toilets. I've typically seen around three buttons: one for female purposes, one for #2 purposes, and one to turn it off (red). If you ignore the Japanese Kanjii and just look at the pictures and colors, you can safely assume what the different knobs and buttons do...
(this is our friend's toilet, with all options - faucet, heated seat, sitting sensor, bidet control panel, you know, the works. Since this is at her home, there is a bottle of soap and a towel available in the toilet room. Yes, I said toilet room. That's an important distinction in Japan... In many homes, the toilet gets its own room, the shower/bath get their own room, and the sink gets its own room. This reminds me that we haven't posted a tour of our apartment. We'll devote a post to a tour of our apartment in due time, but we're still making some minor modifications to the place and want to show it to you in all its final glory so please remain patient.)

If this post wasn't enough for you, Wikipedia has a nice page devoted to the topic as well (

Thursday, April 9, 2009

EastWest chirp

Simple List:

  • I thought bowing might seem silly here, but after only a couple days, it felt totally natural to do constantly throughout the day. And pretty nice too. People actually acknowledge others here!
  • The crosswalks chirp East/West and beep North/South.
  • Going to restaurants is becoming less frustrating because we can read and understand numbers now! And plastic food in the windows with signs helps too.
  • Grocery shopping is done several times a week here. You only buy a basketful (little more or little less) each time. Shopping carts are very small and simply hold one basket on top and one basket on the bottom. And they roll in every direction (B loves this)! [Something about spinning the grocery "cart" around in circles is really childishly amusing. In America this is impossible because the rear 2 wheels are fixed. - Brian]
  • Finding cheap fabric is seemingly impossible.
  • Soccer really is the universal language.
  • Our hours start anywhere from 1 to 4:30 PM each day, and end at 9:30 PM at the latest. We work Tuesday-Saturday and love it.
  • My biggest class is 4 students. Brian's is 10 I think [Yep, 10 adults in my biggest adult class. 5 kids in my biggest kids class. - Brian]
  • They're as young as 6 and as old as, well, sky's the limit on that one. All our students rock pretty hard. We love them.
  • GOMI. There will be an entire post on this later.
  • We sleep on tatami mat floors with futon mattresses. And like it.
  • I'm a little larger than average here, which is weird.
  • Rice paddies, gardens, houses and highways can all be found within a 1 mile radius in Yamaguchi. It's awesome. I love all the green and space here. We picked a good town.
  • There are water trenches on the sides of some roads here, most likely for irrigating the fields. Unlike Ghana, they are SUPER clean, very pretty, and bubble sweetly. No goats or chickens in these trenches.
  • Traffic can get congested in the middle of the day for no reason, but no one ever honks. People even look calm all the time in their cars. My road rage is pretty non-existent.
  • Japanese writing uses three styles, all in the same sentences sometimes. Hiregana is letter based (a, e, i, o, u, ka, ke, ki, ko, ku, etc), swoopy, and most commonly seen in America. Katekana is blockier, but still letter based. It's used mostly to write English words in Japanese. Kanji is the Chinese writing system of characters, each with a meaning you must memorize, no letters, though you can combine kanji to makes new ones. It's going to take us a long time to learn how to read.
  • Met the Baha'is in Yamaguchi and they're absolutely wonderful and have already adopted us into the community whole-heartedly.
  • Yes, sushi is popular here.
That's it for now. Sorry it's so short, but here are a couple pictures at least!

The white crane we see in every river. So beautiful. There's a blue-grey one too that usually is with the white one.

Us with friends at the Yudaonsen White Fox Festival. People were throwing mochi (rice cakes) into the crowd from an elevated platform and we all got one! Victorious!
[I'm taller than most people here, so it wasn't too hard to grab one for all of us, and give the extras to kids who didn't get one. - Brian]

Saturday, April 4, 2009

First Week

Today (Saturday, April 4) marks two full weeks in Japan, and the end of our first week of teaching. Our first week here was spent observing our previous teachers, taking notes and getting familiar with the teaching materials, students and class schedule. The second week, Joe and Liz were packing, paying their last bills and getting ready to head back home to Philly. On Wednesday morning of last week, we bid them farewell, asked a few last minute questions and then the taxi whisked them away to the airport to begin their journey home.

We feel very grateful that we were able to have the overlap week with Liz and Joe since they introduced us to a lot of places (Rurikoji, Ichi No Saka Gawa, shops, etc.) and people (other English teachers, students, Japanese teacher, etc.) in Yamaguchi. We feel like we are making a much smoother transition into teaching and living in Yamaguchi because of their wonderful assistance.

As I explained to most of my adult students this week (hopefully some of you are reading this!), our transition to living in Yamaguchi required us to get accustomed to many things that are different from living in Chicago:
(1) Geographically, Chicago is very flat land, but Yamaguchi has many mountains.
(2) Chicago is a very big city with many skyscrapers, such as the Sears Tower, but Yamaguchi is a much smaller city with no skyscrapers. Chicago is the 3rd largest city by population in America according to Wikipedia, I'm not sure where Yamaguchi ranks in Japan, but I'm guessing it is not in the top 5.

(3a) Driving in Japan is the opposite from driving in America in many ways: In Japan, you drive on the left side of the road, but in America you drive on the right side of the road. In Japan, the driver is on the right side of the car, but in America the driver is on the left side of the car. Fortunately, we have an automatic transmission car so we don't have to learn how to drive manual with our left hands!

(3b) Most cars in Yamaguchi are much smaller than cars in America. Our car in Yamaguchi is a Mistubishi Minica... as you can see by the picture below, it's an appropriate name.

Our car in America was a 4-door Honda Accord sedan, which is a mid-size car by American standards, but a pretty large car by Yamaguchi standards. The largest car I've seen here is one Hummer H3, but that was only once, and the rest of the time I've seen mostly 2-seat hatchbacks, SMART car type vehicles, or Honda Civic sized 4-door cars.

(3c) On the roads, the speed limits here are all in Kilometers per Hour, there isn't even a Miles Per Hour printed on our car's speedometer.

(3d) Driving etiquette is much more polite and subdued in Yamaguchi than it is in Chicago. In Yamaguchi, people don't really speed much, but in America people speed all the time, especially taxi drivers. In Chicago, people tailgate, honk their horns a lot, drive aggressively, and are very impatient with pedestrians and bicyclists. In Yamaguchi, you seldom hear a car horn, drivers are very passive, and mostly very patient with pedestrians and bicyclists.

(3e) The bicycle to car ratio here is much higher (more bicycles per car) than in Chicago, and bicyclists respect the right-of-way rules fairly religiously: no crossing at a red light until you get a walk signal, even if you can't see any cars coming from either direction; drivers don't make left on red turns, and all drivers must make a full stop before railroad crossings (if you don't and you get caught, you will probably get a ticket).

There are many more things that we've had to get accustomed to here in Japan, but I have already written too much for one blog post, so I will save it for the next post. This weekend is the White Fox Festival in Yuda (bicycle distance for us), so be sure to check back for pictures and descriptions from this weekend!

to my family and friends in America - we love you all and hope to hear from you soon!
to my students - were you able to understand this post? what questions do you have?