Mon Aug 07 18:06:16 2000
To: chris, dad, yoko
From: "Peter M. Rivard"
Subject: Hello from Japan
Cc: many

Hello from Japan,


This is a bit longish, but I haven't written yet, so this a couple of weeks worth of my new adventure. If you get this, I've successfully accessed my mail, but I'm still not hooked up in Japan yet, so I'll only be checking once a week or so until I can get some help with the forms.


7/27/2000 (or Heisei 12 07 27, as they say around here)

Well, I made it to Japan almost two weeks ago. Packing and getting ready to go was hell, but I have to say the trip over was quite cushy-I was in the first row of the top deck (business class) on a late-model JAL 747-a very nice way to travel. Things went downhill from there. After about two hours in the very hot passport line at Narita, I actually physically struck (well, shoved forcefully about three feet into her completely terrified husband, with a full-throated shout two inches from her face for good measure) an Indian woman in her 50s. For future reference, a series of kidney punches followed by what was about to be a blow to the groin (this is not an exaggeration) is NOT the recommended way to cut in front of me in a line. I was completely stunned to see a grown person behaving that way. I don’t think I’d actually used violence against another human being since I was 13. The other people around me in line, especially the nearest of the few hundred she’d cut in front of by taking down one of the velvet ropes and skipping an entire loop of the line, were very supportive. Other than that, it’s been a very civilized, well-organized experience. Too much pointless orientation in Chicago, Tokyo (didn't have much time to get out, unfortunately, but see below), and Fukui. I was glad to get to my shoebox in Fukui.

What little I saw of Tokyo was fun-they put us up in a five-star hotel in the fun Shinjuku area. It's quite lively and interesting, but grungier around the edges than I'd expected Tokyo to be: a lot of men were sleeping in the gutter within a few blocks of the hotel, and I was propositioned near the train station: "Hey! You like Japanese girls?" The first night, I went out with three people I met in the lobby-it took all four of us to figure out how to get food at a ramen shop a few blocks away from the hotel. The next night I slept through the free banquet and went out on my own, asked (in Japanese) a hawker outside a restaurant with no pictures or English in the window if they had an English menu, and had my first completely Japanese-speaking dining experience (and my first raw octopus in Japan)-thank you, Yoko.

Tuesday night (7/18, the last night in Tokyo), I went out with the people going to my prefecture to a restaurant called "Sedomon" (spelling?)--"Heaven and Hell"--on the other side of Shinjuku station. We ate in hell (heaven is on the floor above). One of the urinals in the men's room actually starts moving back and forth, swinging on a pendulum, when you stand in front of it. The urinal part is shaped like a giant mouth with brightly painted lips, and a kabuki head above it sings something demonic sounding--first in a male voice, then the head spins to show a more female-looking face, and the voice is a kabuki male-as-female falsetto. All the while, a fake camera in one of its hands periodically flashes, as if photographing you in the act. When you move away, it says "mata de kite kudasai" ("please come again") and flushes. In the right stall of the women's room (I am told--every time I tried to get in to look, there were Japanese women lined up to get in), a giant singing kabuki face comes out of the door, approaches the sitter, and gently kisses her knees. Pitchers of beer come in four or five foot tall cylinders that sit on a tap at the table. I got a lot more out of that place than I did at the day's speeches and workshops.

The bus ride to Fukui was too long and cramped, and the orientation there was another pointless day and a half, but giving speeches seems to be very important hereabouts. On Friday, I met my supervisor, Yamada-sensei ("sensei" is an honorific meaning "teacher"-I will be "Petah-sensei" or "Ribahdo-sensei" to my students), upon whom I will be completely dependent for some time: I am just discovering how serious it is to be completely illiterate. She helped me set up my bank account, arrange utility payments, deal with apartment paperwork, and she found and set up the car purchase (she absolutely insisted that it is necessary to have a car, and I'm sure she's right). She is very helpful, and she seems to think I'll get along OK here-"Peter-sensei likes to drink," she tells our coworkers approvingly when I meet them. She has told me several times how important "nommunication" ("nom" is from "nomu," "to drink," and "munication" is borrowed from the obvious English word) is in Japan. Taking me to my welcome party at my secondary (twice a week) junior high school my first night here and later preparing me for my main school's party a week from now, she (my boss) keeps telling me to be sure to "drink much osake" (the term means sake, but is also a general term for anything alcoholic). My main school's (Manyo's) party will be in the prefectural capital, and Yamada-sensei has asked me to arrange to stay with another JET there that night, as we're all supposed to be drinking and thus shouldn't be driving. Watch out, Fukui City, here come the junior high school teachers!

Some Brit PM a few years back (Maggie?) made a stink over here by saying that all the Japanese live in rabbit hutches. Ironically enough, the Japanese who put up my building gave it a Spanish name, "Casa La Vita," that comes off the Japanese tongue as "Casa Rabbita." 225 square feet, including a bathroom that, but for the shower stall, might actually be smaller than what you'd find in a 727-but it's OK, and I don't suppose I need any more. I've also acquired a mini something that claims to be a car (660 cc's of raging Suzuki excitement!). I'm on the edge of town, in a block of three small three-story apartment buildings, in a neighborhood of post-war but traditional-looking Japanese homes. Directly behind Casa Rabbita are rice fields extending about a mile back in a half-mile wide valley between two small mountains; beyond the fields are a very old neighborhood-many houses must be 19th century or earlier-with a very old Shinto shrine. It's quite beautiful, both elaborate and simple at the same time somehow, but old enough that the eaves have to be supported by a metal framework all around. There are also smaller rice paddies all around me (the fields are flooded now, and the frogs in them can be really loud), and irrigation channels run next to all the roads. If I go two or three years without falling (or, god forbid, riding my bike) into one of these, I'll have done well. I think a lot of nonfarming families still keep a small plot of rice mainly to give the retired in-laws living with them something to do to feel useful. Just down the street from me is one of the nicest views in the area, a small paddy with a very nice Buddhist temple on two sides of it and the mountains in the background. Temples and shrines everywhere-I think over 300 just in Takefu. I've been walking a lot (just picked up the car tonight), and I'll do some real hiking in the mountains that ring the city when it cools down in the fall. Right now, most days are brutal-temperatures in the 90s and crushing humidity. Everyone carries handkerchiefs (often towels!) to mop their brows, even elegant-looking old ladies. There are plenty of bars and restaurants and a few clubs (MUCH cheaper than in big-city Japan, but I'm sure less chic) in Takefu, but so far my favorite form of entertainment is getting gas (for the car). Two attendants (often a man, old or young, and a young woman) run out to your car and sing the greeting. You only deal with the woman, asking for a certain amount of gas. She shouts to the guy, who then snaps to attention ("HAI!"), pumps the gas, cleans your windshield, and checks to see if there's anything else (a dirty headlight, a gunked up wiper blade) he can clean and takes a quick look at your tires. Then you pay the woman, they bow and sing thank you, please come again, etc., and the guy runs out to the street (at a very enthusiastic trot) and guides you into the road as both of them bow to you. Downtown Takefu is still very quaint and traditional looking; I'm told it's the only town center for quite some distance to survive the war, and its layout clearly predates the automobile. One unexpected thing is that there are a lot of bilingual signs and official forms around Takefu-in Japanese and Portuguese! Takefu has a very big Brazilian community (some of the young and/or mixed people are assimilated enough that they speak only Japanese). Miguel, I think you'd have a ball exploring the positioning of this community within the larger society.

What else? People. The JET community (11 of us) in Takefu seems to be pretty good. There are only two continuing JETs (one of those is moving in from another town); the rest of us are new. Other than my supervisors and colleagues, I've only really met a few Japanese people so far. For the most part, it seems to be a shy crowd out here in the country. I have to ask for directions a lot, and you should the look of terror that crosses the face of the average old lady when she realizes that, holy Jesus (or Buddha or revered ancestors, whatever), this enormous foreigner is going to talk at me. Once I get a whole sentence out, though, they usually relax and reply in a torrent I can't follow (nothing in Japan is simply "over there"). The people I've met, though, have been wonderful. I'm going to get active with the community and cultural centers in town and I'm going to study Japanese with a woman who teaches a lot of the JETs, so I should start to meet more local people. There does seem to be a small group of locals who are interested in the world outside of Japan and hang around a lot with the JETs.

On Saturday, July 29, I drove up with three women JETs from Takefu, met up with a couple of carloads of people in Fukui City, and went to a beach on the Sea of Japan north of the city. It was a lot of fun, even if I was the only guy among the 11 of us. The big crowd of foreign women got a lot of attention on the beach-we met some very funny drunk salarymen, and got into a diving contest of sorts with a bunch of teenage boys (I can now do a really awful back flip). Communication was minimal, of course, but I got to do some (VERY simple) translating. We then drove off to watch the sunset at some cliffs that are quite famous hereabouts as a place to toss yourself into the sea (apparently every coastal prefecture has a famous place to toss oneself into the sea; other forms of suicide end up being much more expensive for your family) and where they serve up a very good green tea-flavored soft-serve ice cream.

Even since I’ve gotten the car, I’ve gone out walking for an hour or two each night—it’s much cooler at night, there’s often a wonderful breeze (especially in the more rural parts), and the sky here is amazingly black—I can see the Milky Way even from downtown Takefu, and it’s dazzling out where I am.
I’m going to two overnight high school English language retreats/summer camps in August, one up in the mountains, one down at the beach near several nuclear plants. The other upcoming adventure is an invitation to my teacher’s house for dinner. The first time she invited me, I took it as strictly pro-forma—she asked, I said yes, no date was set, and I assumed it would never happen, largely because she informed me immediately afterward that she and her husband lived with her in-laws, and her father-in-law is suffering from Alzheimer’s and, having had a hard time as a soldier in the war, still hates Americans. She’s invited me again, and asked me to keep a certain date open, and her husband (the vice superintendent of education for the entire prefecture) came up to me at my contract signing ceremony (everything is occasion for an insanely formal ceremony and at least three speeches in Japan) and very formally invited me again. Apparently, it’s really going to happen. I know that many Japanese are very self-conscious about the smallness and simplicity of their homes and so are very reluctant to entertain foreigners, so it is an honor to be invited, and I’ll certainly treat it as such. (Note to self: "Don’t mention the war.")

I'm going to two overnight high school English language retreats/summer camps in August, one up in the mountains, one down at the beach near several nuclear plants.

Well, it's August 5 now; the enkai (office dinner and drinking party) last night was at a much fancier place than my first one, but it wasn’t strictly a welcome party for me, so I will have to pay my share when the bills are totaled up. The tab will be quite impressive. (note added later: I misunderstood--it was a welcome party, and I don't have to pay. My fellow teachers were very generous.) I think I ate raw sea snake ("hamo"-is that sea snake, Yoko?) and several other things that either my supervisor told me were "very rare, very special" or that none of my Japanese colleagues could recognize. There must have been more than ten courses. The place made its own sake, which was sweeter than I'm used to, but very good. The day before that, I climbed-on an especially hot day, mind you-the mountain behind my building. It's so normal to be completely drenched in sweat here that you get used to it and stop minding the heat so much. It's about a 600' (vertical) climb, along a steep, minimal path watched over by ancient little Buddhas every 20' (horizontal) or so. There's a very small weathered temple at the top, and an even smaller one along the way, and the view over the city is great. They have some very impressive spiders in the woods here.

Well, that's my adventure so far. Sorry if it's a bit heavy on detail. I hope you're all having your own adventures, too (and congrats on finishing the AIDS ride, Rho--your postcard was the first piece of mail I got in Japan).

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