Saturday, March 04, 2006

Long time gone...But back for now

Yeah, yeah...I know... "It's about time you got back to writing...Where the heck have you been?" Well, it's been a really busy month and a half, with lots of traveling (I've literally been from one end of Japan to the other, and from 3 feet of snow to the beach), and a lot going on. But, I'm back now, and will try to get better about posting.

For my job, January was the culmination of a lot of work and attention in the conduct of Yama Sakura. It's pretty much the big thing that we do, and most of the year is spent in some sort of preparation for the big event, a bilateral command post exercise. I've already elaborated on that in previous posts, so I won't rehash it. But, suffice to say, it was a good exercise, and everyone learned a lot about interacting and working with our counterparts in the Japanese military.

The best part by far was the interaction with the Japanese officers and soldiers that I spent every day with. We really had a good time, and for me, it was almost like an intensive Japanese immersion course. I learned a lot, not the least of which is how to call someone a "pepper head." You never know when you might need such a phrase. I think one of the best ways to learn a language is to learn a few choice, strange phrases that you can whip helps break the ice, can generate a few laughs, and opens the way to more learning. The first one I learned was, "Niwatori wa soto ni imasu," which means, "The chicken is outside." The benefit is more than just humorous, though, as you can take out "niwatori" and substitute "inu" (dog), "tako" (octopus), "neko" (cat), "zoo" (elephant), "gojira" (Godzilla) get the idea. Also, Japanese is very much a sentence based language. Like much in Japan, there's a formula to speaking...Learn the formula, and you can make yourself understood fairly easily. It's like that game Mad Libs where you fill in the blanks with words to make funny stories.

My other favorite phrases...
"Dare wa watashi no suteki o tabemashita!" (Someone has eaten my steak!)
"ika no ashi wa oi" (The squid has many legs)
"Piman atama wa doko desu ka?" (Where is Pepper Head?)
"Kore wa supah ii desu." (That's super good.)

Oh yeah...we did actually work while there too. It's just that it's not anything interesting to blog about. We did have a home visit one night though, with one of the nurses who worked at the clinic there. It was an official morale activity and designed to give people a taste of life in Japan with a family. There were four of us who spent the evening which was filled with examples of the traditional Japanese culture. We showed up, took off our shoes (Always make sure that you wear socks that are in good shape...), and participated in a traditional tea ceremony, listened to the grandmother of the family (3 generations lived all next door to one another), and attempted to write kanji characters. My sergeant, originally from Korea, had no problem with this, and actually knows quite a few. One of the girls that was in our group was Chinese, and also had no problem. The rest of us, however...let's say that we need lots of practice.

Afterward, we went across to the other house next door and played some traditional Japanese kids games with the children of the family, tossing around bean bags, playing a hirigana (one of the Japanese alphabets) recognition game that was sort of like Go Fish, and bingo (the family made sure that all of us gaijin won something...). After a while, we went downstairs for supper. It was a huge spread of chow that had a little bit of everything from Japan and Kyushu in particular. Sushi and sashimi (of course), sea cucumber (strange...very strange), tempura, noodles, basashi (raw horse) and karashi renkan (hot mustard stuffed lotus root), soup, veggies, and even pizza that they whipped up to satisfy the less adventurous eaters. We washed it down with beer and sake, of course, and everyone had a lot of fun. It was a great evening with a lot of laughs, and pictures, and at the end, a request for us Americans to sing the Star Spangled Banner. We all sang with gusto, and didn't even forget any of the words. Whew...

The night before I left, we had one more chance to hang out with the folks that we'd been working with the whole time. By now, after almost a month of cumulative time together, we'd gotten to be good friends. We went to an izakaya, a traditional sort of restuarant where you order small plates of food to share and drink beer. Hiroko, our interpreter was with us for an hour or so, but had to leave to go pack, so it was just me, Tom (my Sergeant), and our Japanese friends. It's amazing how much more of a foreign language you can learn when you allow brain to get a bit lubricated with beer. There were 5 of us, each with differing levels of ability in each other's language, yet we had no problem communicating. It was a blast.

The next day was a long one, though...not because of a headache or anything (I'd not been feeling real well the day before, so I didn't have all that much beer), but rather because I was up early, and it was, as we say down south, "heinie-butt freezing cold." It turned out to be a long, cold day overall, as we went from Kumamoto on the southern island of Kyushu up to Morioko, on northern Honshu. While it was cold in Kumamoto, it was frigid in Morioka. With about 2 feet of snow on the ground when we got there.

We flew out of Kumamoto at about noon, but since we were part of a much larger group, we had to get to the airport at about 9. That meant a lot of time standing in line and waiting around. Finally, though, we boarded, and flew to Tokyo. Once there, we took a bus to Tokyo Station where I wrestled a large, military "kit bag" through the station. Not a fun experience, as it was rush hour by the time we got there, and the only good thing about dragging a 50 pound bag along the floor was the exercise. But, it was worth it, because we were riding the Shinkansen bullet train...I've done it 2 times now, and it's just really cool. Our train left at about 6 PM, and it took about 2 1/2 hours to get up to Morioka. Along the trip, you could see the snowline start and get progressively deeper as we went farther north. By the time we got to Morioka, we could have been in Buffalo NY (except for the Japanese street signs). We then rode another 40 minutes to the camp, got settled into our barracks rooms, and crashed.

We spent the next couple of days unloading equipment and getting ready for the cold weather training that would occur over the next 3 weeks. Most of the time, it was snowy and cold. About 15 degrees F at night, and mid 20s during the day. Only one day of the 6 I was there did it not snow. But, if it was cold, it was beautiful. I had to do some coordination with the local medical folks to ensure that our guys who were training would be taken care of. Later on, after I left, one of the support personnel had a minor stroke, so the coordination was absolutely vital. Everything worked out, and he was held for some tests initially in one of the hospitals there, and released to travel to a military hospital near Tokyo. He's home now, and expected to make a full recovery.

I only spent about 6 days there before I had to leave so I could go to Okinawa for another trip. I was home for less than 48 hours before we went back up to Zama to spend the night before I left. It was easier, and meant that Melody and I would have a short time together. We decided to stop at Atsugi Naval Base to go to Mass the night before, but unfortunately, it was a Japanese holiday which meant TRAFFIC. It took 3 hours to drive less than 30 km. That's REALLY slow...But, traffic is inevitable in Japan. And, it's made much more bearable by my subscription to Rush 24/7 and the daily Rush Limbaugh show podcasts that I download to my MP3 player. But I digress...

Okinawa was interesting. Apparently, almost 20% of the island is covered with US military bases. The relationship there between the US and Japanese governments is a delicate balancing act and unfortunately is often upset by the stupid things that some people do. The US is moving a bunch of the Marines out, which may ease some of the tension, but it only takes one small problem to get blown up into full demonstrations and other bad things.

We didn't get to see much of the island, because we were working the whole time, but it was a nice chance to warm up again after a very cold few weeks. I will complain a little about the lodging arrangements that the Air Force had for us. Usually, Air Force lodging is far and away the best of the services. When they go on deployments, they stay in hotels, we stay in tents...or at least that's the common joke. The billeting that we had was less than the standard we expected from our bretheren in blue. Old rooms, leaky faucets (the shower faucet handle came off in my hand), musty wasn't quite up to par. But, being Army, we just toughed it out. Sure beat the tents and 100 m walk to the port-a-potties that we had in Kyushu. So, everything's relative.

While hanging out in the O'club one night watching curling in the Olympics, we found out that one of our party, Jeff from Wisconson, actually had been on his high school curling team. So, apparently, it actually is a sport. We ragged him about it for a while, but for some reason, it's (at least for me) compellingly interesting to watch.

Anyhow, upon getting back, we had the long weekend which was a very welcome break. Until Hiroko called me and told me that one of the Japanese officers at Yama Sakura had an active case of tuberculosis going while he was there. So, working on a response plan for that, and another command post exercise that was much less publicized and for which I was tasked to participate at the last minute, and another soldier in hospital at Yokosuka has kept me as busy as I've been since coming here. But, in a good way.

Gotta go...Melody's on her way home, and she wants curry. So, I'm off to our curry place. More soon. I promise.

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