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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We're outsiders here, there's no getting around that. The word for foreigner — gaijin — literally means "outside person". Even people who have obtained Japanese citizenship find that they can't be fully accepted.

On the other hand, it's possible to be a part of the community, even if you aren't fully accepted. In that spirit, we eagerly participate in community activities from undoukai to yakudoshi. We always check the kairan-ban (traveling bulletin board) for new events, and ask questions when we need to.

After we'd been here a year and a half, one day our neighborhood leader approached me at the recycling collection point. Surrounded by stacks of newspaper and bags of plastic, he produced the neighborhood's address book. He explained that we weren't in it because we were foreigners, but he'd been thinking we should be in it. It meant joining the neighborhood association, which is 300 yen a month.

I politely said yes, then went home feeling like we'd been accepted to some extent. It was a small gesture (and it would cost us money), but we were now officially part of the community. A few days later someone dropped by to collect our membership fee and recorded our payment under our names, newly written in the book.

Then, about two weeks later, someone else came by and left us the address book and the kairan-ban, declaring that it was our "duty month". "Our what?" Each household is responsible for distributing neighborhood information and collecting association dues for a month. "Oh."

So it wasn't just a small fee and our names in a book. We were no longer guests in our community, and we were expected to help out. With no idea what to do, we imposed on our most helpful neighbor to explain things to us, then got to work — hearts lightened with the knowledge that, if only a little bit, we were being accepted.
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Snow Day 

Today's our first day of serious winter weather in Kitakami. It's the kind of day where snow either falls peacefully or blows madly throughout the day. It's the kind of day when the temperature flirts with zero, but decides thawing isn't worth it and backs off a few degrees. It's the kind of day where you regret not picking up the wipers the last time you used the car. It's the kind of day that makes you wonder whether driving, walking, or bicycling is the best option for getting around.

It was in that frame of mind that I swept the stack of accumulated snow off the seat of my bike before setting off for work this evening. It was pretty slow going, since there were limits to how fast I could ride on streets and sidewalks thick with new snow while the wind blew sharp needles into my eyes. The slowness was fortuitous, given that my brake handles were frozen solid and therefore unusable. Thank goodness for Flintstones brakes.

I didn't have much company as I navigated through shallow snowdrifts and across expanses of solid white road. The ride was actually quite serene, the normal noises of the city having been hushed by the falling snow. Whatever reservations I might have had about riding my bike in the driving snow had been replaced by the contentment of exertion and solidarity with nature — a contentment no warm, but slippery, drive could ever give.
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The Benefits of Being Late 

Much like last year, we joined our neighbors at the local shrine for hatsumoude early on New Year's morning. During the course of our visit, some of them invited us to go over to the ward's community center for mahjong later in the day. We'd played mahjong once before at the ward's monthly game night, so we were happy to join in. The games didn't begin for a couple of hours after the shrine visits were over, which gave us time to go home to hang out with the dogs and read our nengajou.

We ended up getting to the ward hall about half an hour after the start time, only to see that all of the tables were occupied. Then we noticed that the blackboard was open and had a serious-looking chart on it, the kind that would later show rankings. This was no just-for-kicks holiday mahjong gathering it was the annual New Year's mahjong tournament. At the end of the day, the winner would walk away with actual money. Well, only two yen per point, but still: money. Not the place for beginner mahjong players.

The scorekeeper invited us to park with him, offered us beer, and explained the proceedings to us. We spent the rest of the afternoon drinking beer and watching the more experienced players go at it, cheering at the end for the victor. They invited us to stay for snacks, speeches, and awards, during which one of the organizers apologized for not having room for us to play. We in turn apologized for not being good enough to play, which they all seemed to find amusing.

Next year, they said.

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108 Bells 

In Japan, New Year's Eve is full of rituals to prepare for the passing of the old year and the crossing into a new one. One of these rituals, joya no kane, occurs at Buddhist temples. Joya no kane is the ringing of the temple bell 108 times on New Year's Eve. As we understand it, each of the 108 tolls represents a sin or a defilement of a person's mind. If a person hears all the tolls, he can repent for 108 of those defilements. The tolling begins before midnight and continues until the tolls are complete, straddling the changing of the year.

We went to Zenmyouji, a small temple rising above rice fields west of Kitakami to experience joya no kane. The tolling was underway when we arrived, as local people had already come to pray and make offerings at the bell. We were greeted by a very friendly woman who directed us up to the bell. She instructed us to approach the bell with our hands folded, make our offering, and ring the bell before returning to the greeters, who would give us a mikan (clementine). She then invited us to enter the temple for a prayer ceremony that would begin at midnight.

Incense greeted us when we entered the temple, as did a number of other attendees. At midnight, the ceremony began with the ringing of a smaller bell inside and the beating of a drum. The monk offered his prayers, then invited the attendees to approach and offer theirs. All the while, the larger bell outside tolled, as people continued to arrive and ring it, asking forgiveness of the old year's wrongs and praying for a better year ahead.
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Shameless Commercialism, 2009 Edition 

Another year, another calendar. Check it out at Cafepress: thirteen of our photos from around Kitakami, Iwate, and other nearby places in Tohoku! Just click the calendar to take a closer look.
related link
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Safety Driver 

Late at night, especially on weekends, there's a common sight on the streets of Kitakami: pairs of cars, one with a taxi-style light on the roof. But if you look closely, the printing on the taxi light doesn't say "taxi". It says "daikou".

Daikou is a service for people who drive to a bar, pub, party, karaoke, or whatever, then drink. Drinking and driving laws here are draconian, so even if you've only had one drink all evening, you can't drive home. Instead, you call a daikou company. They arrive with a car (the one with the light on it) and two drivers. One of them drives you home (or to the next party) in your car, and the other car follows to take the driver to the next fare.

Amazingly, this service is cheaper than taking a taxi, so it's very popular.

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Old Non-Habits Die Hard 

The genkan, or entryway, serves an important purpose in Japanese buildings. It is much more of a transition zone between inside and outside than in most American homes. When we enter someone's home or an office building, we remove our shoes and coats in the genkan before we enter; similarly, when we leave we put our outerwear back on in the genkan. Except that putting my coat on in the entryway is the one custom I just can't get after a year and a half.

We've put a lot of effort into learning many of the niceties of daily Japanese life and do a reasonable job of being polite members of society. So it's especially frustrating that something as basic as not wearing my coat all the way inside won't stick with me. Actually, it's more embarrassing than that: it wasn't until last week that it really sank in that wearing my coat inside was not daijoubu. And I had that unfortunate revelation as I was leaving a classroom at one of the companies where we teach, coat on. After that, it was like the Japanese etiquette mistake version of the walk of shame — walking quickly, kind of slinking, looking at absolutely no one as I went.

Mortification still fresh in my mind, I returned to the company today for my regular class, firmly reminding myself that I would not put my coat on until I reached the genkan. Which I successfully managed to do, but only after wearing my coat most of the way to the classroom when I got there.

Maybe I need to tie my coat to my shoes with string.
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Going Dark 

Just a quick note to let our readers know we won't be updating much for the next week or so; we should be back in full swing by mid-December, though!
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Studying the Karaoke Way 

That Japanese people love karaoke is a stereotype, but it's a well-grounded one. Allowing that there are some who dislike karaoke, the vast majority of our friends enjoy it. Any group of people out having a good time is likely to end up in a karaoke bar or "box" (where you can rent a room for a private party with your friends).

It's hard not to get into the spirit when you're with a bunch of people unironically having fun singing shmoopy love ballads, TV show theme songs, and classic American or British rock songs. At first we chose songs from the (rather limited) selection available in English, but as we've been exposed to more and more Japanese music, we've branched out to sing our favorite Japanese songs, too.

It takes a lot of practice, but it's great fun. As an added bonus, it's not unusual to find examples of grammar we've recently studied. Of course, we learn new vocabulary, too, and get lots of reinforcement for the vocabulary of drama: tears, rain, new love, broken hearts, and fiery passion. Natural exposure is really important for gaining fluency, so karaoke is great for improving our language skills.

That's why we spent the afternoon studying The Blue Hearts, The Cro-magnons, Shonen Knife, Color Bottle, Thelma Aoyama, Kyu Sakamoto, and others.
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