Tax Time 

Tax time in Japan doesn't seem to evoke the same image of oppressive bureaucracy that it does in the U.S. I wonder if it's because the forms are simple and colorful?

Or it may be because the instruction booklet includes a cute cartoon lady to guide you through the process.

Actually, it's probably because the tax system itself is fairly straightforward. In fact, it's so simple that most people don't even have to file. Instead, employers just withhold the correct amount. But what about deductions, you ask? You tell your employer about them in December, and they make an adjustment on your last paycheck.
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National Ear Health Day 

March 3 is National Ear Health Day. Why? Because some countries don't mind enshrining puns in official proclamations. "Ear" is mimi, and "three" is mi, so 3/3 is "ear".

It's a day to pay careful attention to ear health, and how better to do that than with a licensed Toy Story ear-shovel (mimi-kaki) to clean the wax out? I was raised to "never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear," but in Japan, ear-shovels are popular souvenir items. This one was a gift from one of my students who went to Tokyo Disneyland, and the alien is actually a bobble-head toy.

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Lost and Sold 

At our main grocery store, there are often vendors or special sales displays near the front of the store. Around the end of the year, for example, you'll see guys selling calendars and small statues of the next year's animal. Other times, there might be housewares or boxed gift sets of things like instant coffee or soy sauce. It's always new stuff, too, not like a flea market in the store.

Not today. Today, a large banner stood in the center of the display announcing the nature of the items for sale: JR Wasuremono. Literally "JR Forgotten Things," they were from Japan Rail's collection of belongings left behind on trains. It's an unusual, if very sensible, solution to the problem created by collecting lost items by selling them, JR makes money and gets them off of their hands. Perhaps it's an idea to take back to Washington and pitch to Metro.
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Serving Suggestion? 

Although we've been here about a year and a half, Japanese packaged foods continue to surprise us. Last night, we made a bowl of ramen that we'd received at a community event a few weeks ago (community events in Japan always involve giveaways of household items). The picture on the package showed some garnishes like scallions, dried bamboo, and a thin slice of cow tongue. Tongue isn't a common ramen accompaniment. We assumed that it represented a serving suggestion and thought the inclusion of tongue kind of odd. The picture made sense, however, when we opened the package and found noodles, soup base, sauce, and a small package of dried garnishes that included . . . a thin slice of cow tongue.
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Fair Warning 

If you ever need to buy soy sauce at the conbini, be sure to read the label first:

I love how emphatic the beverage is about not being soy sauce.
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Doctor Doctor 

Unlike last year, I haven't been getting sick on a monthly basis. Unfortunately, I have gotten sick enough to require my first visit to a doctor in Japan. As one does, I went to the doctor that came recommended by a student. This doctor had the added benefit of having the most entertaining office sign in Kitakami:

Unless you're presenting with a dire emergency, the medical intake process in Japan is very DIY. The nurse handed me a digital thermometer along with the patient information sheet so that I could take and record my temperature. Once that was done, she pointed me to the self-service automatic blood pressure cuff. Much like the photo booth at the drivers' license center, the machine exhorted me to relax before pressing the button to activate it.

Communicating with the doctor was not as hard as I feared it would be, save for a misunderstanding about why needles were going to be involved. After doing a blood test and determining that I did not have pneumonia, the doctor sent me off with a prescription and a directive to fill it at the pharmacy across the street. Which I did, and encountered one of the more curious things about Japanese medicine: powdered medicine. I also got a couple of different kinds of medication in addition to the powder (although not as many as the six pills plus powder Matthew got for his recent illness). They weren't difficult to take and they worked, but given the side effects (anyone who's ever taken corticosteroids would understand), I think I might just skip the doctor in the future.
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But... Is It Clean? 

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The Real (Tall) Thing 

Beverages that come in tall cans have a sketchy reputation in America, at least where I'm from. They're usually full of cheap malt liquor or beer. They can often be found lying in the gutter, surrounded by the brown paper bags used to conceal them from the eyes of people who might happen upon the people drinking them. Which is why these amuse me tremendously:

The all-American drink, now available in tallboys!
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Not What It Sounds Like 

I can't believe we've been here over a year and only mentioned our primary grocery store in passing.

Here's hoping the bar associations I belong to don't hold our frequent trips here against me!
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Traditional Arts? 

During our meandering around the festival areas last weekend, a friend and I caught the end of this performance:

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