Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Things I Miss Already

Being back in the US has been a bit of an adjustment. We spend a lot of time reminiscing on all the good things about Japan that we miss. Now it’s time to get it out of our system by telling you what we miss most now that we’re home. In no particular order, here they are. And check back again, as I will probably add to this list the longer we're here.

1. Public Transportation. It goes everywhere you want to be. Not like here where generally it mostly goes where you don’t want to be.

2. Vending machines that do everything but walk over to your house to bring you your drink. The humble vending machine has been perfected in Japan. They serve hot and cold drinks (until May when it all goes cold), will take all bills, no matter how ripped, crumpled or crinkled, and some of them even talk. Not only drinks are served, but I’ve seen vending machines for hot food, batteries, and even clothing in the capsule hotel (see the entry in Sand and Tsunamis v1.0). Need a new shirt? No problem! Just drop in a few coins, and select the right size, and press the button! There it is!

3. Tofu Man: In our neighborhood, every Saturday morning, the Tofu Man would drive down the street in his truck singing his tofu song. One morning, Melody was awakened from sleep by his song coming through the neighborhood, and was quite insistent that I get up and go out and get some. Don’t worry about the fact that it usually doesn’t get eaten before it expires, she had to have it. So, I got up, threw on some pants and a shirt, and tried to catch him. When I finally chased him down, running down the street past our neighbors (who stared at me with looks of “Crazy Gaijin…”), it turns out that it was the laundry pole guy. Not Tofu Man. I was a bit peeved.

4. Speaker Trucks: As alluded to above, there are a lot of speaker trucks that drive around pitching any number of things. Laundry Poles, the aforementioned tofu, sweet potatoes (“Yakimo! Yakitate!”), and political candidates during election season.

5. “Night Knockers.” In our neighborhood, shortly after the sun went down, a team of a 2 or 3 people would walk through the neighborhood with flashlights with orange cones and wooden sticks that they knock together. As we understood, this was to remind people to put out candles before going to bed, sort of a safety patrol.

6. Koto Woman. Sometimes, on summer evenings, as I walked back from the parking lot where I kept my car, I would hear haunting strains of the song Sakura floating through the street, played on the koto, sort of a Japanese harp instrument. That, almost more than anything, really brought home the fact that I was living in Japan.

7. Heated Toilet Seats. You don’t know what you’re missing if you don’t have one of these. Especially in a poorly insulated Japanese home (it would get down to about 40degrees Fahrenheit in our genkan/foyer area in the winter).

8. Politeness and Customer Service. These are areas that Japanese culture has a distinct advantage over that in the US. People who are in customer service roles take their jobs very seriously and strive for excellence. There is no risk of getting your hamburger spat upon as there is in other places. Not that I begrudge the service industry at all. We couldn’t live without folks who do those jobs, and they are many times overworked and underloved. Still, sometimes customer service suffers. Especially in bureaucratic organizations like the DMV, etc. Not so in Japan. Everyone does their job well and to the best of their ability, whether they are swinging an orange stick waving you through a road construction area, or the kimono clad waitress at a high class Japanese restaurant. Excellence is the standard.

Safe and Sound in San Antonio

Well, despite our best efforts to stay in Japan, we are now here in San Antonio. I do say that jokingly, as we are enjoying ourselves so far. Mostly, that revolves around hitting all the restaurants that we've missed over the past few years.

We're getting settled in to the new house, slowly but surely. We still have no furniture other than a puff up bed and a couple of trunks that we can sit on, but over the next few weeks will get some more of the essentials, including the household we put into storage before we left the country four years ago. That will be like Christmas, since we have most of our wedding gifts in there. The best part will be the reclamation of my big, brown leather chair. Oh, how I've missed that chair. It's like sitting in a baseball mitt, but doesn't smell like sweat.

We have a small house in the back dubbed the "Cat House" after the cat playground the previous occupants erected inside. That is coming out, as in addition to it being an eyesore, it's a nostril plugging, explosively allergenic experience to go inside. I've been airing the place out for the past few days.

Yesterday was the annual "Pooch Parade" and our neighborhood was briefly infested with dogs of all shapes and sizes. We headed over to watch a bit and then joined it down the street at Mr. Smith's house. Who's Mr. Smith, you ask? Mr. Smith is the world famous toilet seat artist, as featured on Montel Williams and The View. He's a retired master plumber, and a really interesting guy. His garage is lined with thousands of toilet seat lids, each individually decorated with a different theme. And yes, he does have one with a Japan theme, and he's asked us to contribute to it which we'll gladly do.

Hopefully within a month or so, all will settle into some semblance of a routine. We went dog browsing after the parade and found a sweet mutt at the shelter; we're going to wait until we're more established before jumping into pet ownership, and hope she'll still be available. If not, though, there are certainly hundreds of other pets that need adoption. We'll find our perfect pet.

Anyway, as we get more acclimated to our lives here, we'll add more. I've got a couple of posts in the works,

Monday, April 14, 2008

I’m Leaving On a Jet Plane

Well, I’m sitting on Flight 176 right now somewhere over the Pacific Ocean. The in flight map has us approaching the Canadian coast, and another 5000 or so kilometers to get there.

It has been an emotional week to say the least. Most of the time at work was spent getting all the last minute kinks out of the preparations to leave, but there was a considerable amount of time spent trying to catch up one last time with good friends.

On Wednesday, I finally joined the Family Time Karaoke Club that has developed, taking advantage of the early let out from work to go to Shidax or another karaoke box place for some supper, beer, and songs. As a karaoke connoisseur, it was probably the best songfests I’ve been to yet. We initially signed up for the room for 3 hours, but extended for another two since we were having so much fun. Five hours of belting out tunes in varying degrees of proficiency was such a good time that I went back again on Friday night by myself. It wasn’t quite as much fun, but a good experience nonetheless.

On Saturday, Toshi set up an outing to Tokyo, and Ed, Kersten, Mike and I hopped on the train up to Tokyo Station to link up with him. After finding him, we headed first for the Tsukiji market area for some fresh sushi. After the best maguro don I’d had since being here, we spent a little while walking around the market before driving over to LaLaPort, a big mall constructed around an old ship berth. As I was looking at the map of the mall, I noticed that the main part of the mall was formed like a boat slip, with flanking sections shaped like ships containing more stores. Quite an interesting and unique design.

We took one of the tourist boats for a 45 minute ride around Tokyo Bay, passing several Maritime Self Defense Force ships including the main icebreaker used when the ships head toward Antarctica as part of the cetacean research program. That’s the one where they research whales by harvesting them. Interestingly enough, whale is still served in some places, usually farther north, and was at one time a staple of the school lunch program. I regret that I never had the chance to try it, but that’s a good reason to come back sometime.

Following the boat ride, we headed down to Kawasaki to Toshi’s house for supper. Toshi and his daughter Akane surprised me with two incredibly thoughtful gifts. Both of them are artists. We learned this at lunch one day when Akane was drawing cute anime type figures. She drew a portrait of Melody and me that is incredibly realistic. I don’t know if she did it freehand or had a photo to work from, but it was so sweet that it literally brought tears to my eyes.

Then Toshi brought out another small box. Opening it, I looked at a framed oil painting of the railway crossing down the street from our home in Kamakura. He captured the moment that the Enoden Line train crosses the street, framed by hanami or cherry blossoms. Several of the tears that had drifted up while looking at the previous drawing made their way down my cheeks at this point. It was one of the most special gifts we’ve ever received.

We enjoyed a great supper of meatballs, fried shrimp, onigiri, potato salad, and after a brief respite, Toshi ducked into the kitchen and sizzled up some Kobe beef and lamb chops. It was a great meal, topped off with some fine sake and wine. We eventually had to catch a train, so headed out about 10:00 PM. Toshi walked us to the train station, and it was an emotional parting. He’s been a great friend and professional colleague, and took such good care of Melody and me during our time in Japan. It gave us a glimpse of life in a typical Japanese family that we never would have gotten otherwise. Toshi, if you’re reading this, from the bottom of my and Melody’s heart, thank you. You, Masai, Akane, Yutaro, and Miri will be in our thoughts and prayers until we meet again (hopefully soon).

Sunday came and I spent the day organizing things and getting ready for the final packup. That evening, I took the train down to Fujisawa to meet Ginny and David at Jammin’ for one last meal together. We sat at the bar in the “new” Jammin’ (the one in our old neighborhood closed back in Janurary, we were there for the party), and ate a leisurely meal together while catching up on the latest news and gossip. They’ve been a great couple to hang out with, and fortunately have some ties to San Antonio, so we’ll get to see them somewhat regularly.

I got back at about 10:30 or so, puttered around a little bit and then went to bed to get some rest for my last full day in Japan.

Monday was my last day and was the busiest of the week. I spent the day cleaning out my email (Select all. Delete.), running around doing the final paperwork, and had lunch with my former co-workers Mike, Hiroko, and Ria. We went over to the Golf Course for a mediocre meal, and a fun last time to all hang out together. That afternoon, I took a couple of boxes down to the post office, and had to run out to cancel our mobile phones. That turned out to be the easiest part of the day, with filling out a couple of forms, and plugging in the phones to the computer to kill the numbers. After that and a quick trip to the mall to pick up a couple of things for Melody, I met up with Ed and Kersten, and Dennis, Hozumi and their daughters for ramen and gyoza. It was a great meal, and a fitting one to end my time here in Japan.

I woke up about 4 AM to finalize my packing and get ready for my 6 O’clock pickup. As it turns out, I went up to the airport with our friends the Felicianos who unfortunately are heading back to Puerto Rico due to a death in the family. We breezed through check-in pretty quickly and headed up to a cafĂ© for some breakfast. After some coffee and a pastrami sandwich, we headed through security and immigration.

I’ve now been on the plane for about seven hours. Looks like we have about three or so more before we get to Dallas, and we should be getting there slightly early. Good thing as I’ve got to catch a connection with only an hour or so to get through the reception formalities.

I’ve spent the past few hours ruminating on some of the experiences of the past four years. I’ve met lots of interesting people, and have had the chance to catch up with friends from long ago in far off places. I had the chance to travel from Saudi Arabia to Japan, hitting Bahrain, Oman, Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Guam and Korea in between. It’s been an incredible experience, one that won’t ever be forgotten, and one that has affected my life forever.

It’s hard to believe that we’ve been away for that long. It’s almost like time in the states has stood still, at least from my perspective. It will be an adjustment getting back into life in the US. But we’re up to it. After so long away, spending so much time in countries not our own, the United States will now be the place that feels foreign.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Wrapping Things Up

Well, it's come down to the wire...I'm almost out of here.

I took Melody to the airport about 2 weeks ago, and have been living in the lodge since then. It's been much slower now, as work is done, most of the running around from place to place getting paperwork signed is complete, I sold my car (so I really have been running around on foot), and I've got just one weekend left before I leave. Frankly, it's kind of depressing. But, just another phase of life.

We're going to miss Japan a lot, but we're confident that Texas will be a great opportunity for us. And, since Texas considers itself as its own country, it will be like we're living overseas even still.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Karaoke night phase 2

Went out for some more karaoke on Wednesday night with Dennis and his wife Hozumi, Ed, John and Ria. As it turns out, John and I actually met about 10 years ago when I was his observer / controller at the Joint Readiness Training Center and he came through with the fabled 100th Battalion 442nd Infantry, the "Go For Broke" battalion. This was one of the most decorated units of the Second World War, and was a lot of fun to be associated with. He also had the cutest battalion aid station I'd ever seen, as about half of his platoon were these cute little Filipina and Hawaiian girls. It was funny to see them trying to lift up big Samoan guys into the back of the ambulances. But I digress...

Karaoke Wednesdays has become a tradition for the group, and this was the first and last time I could join them. We really had a good time. We got there right at about 5 PM, and sang for 5 hours straight. The movie above is the group singing Hotel California. And, once again, apologies for the crappy cell phone video.

Anyhow, that's one of the many things that I'll miss about Japan...karaoke box places. America just has karaoke nights at bars. Here, you rent a small room with a low table and couch and the system. And then you sing. You pay up front for a certain time, and all the food and drinks are covered. It's a great system.