Afternoon Snack 

Convenience stores equal convenience food. Hence, grilled-ham-on-a-stick:

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Traditional Clothes 

Earlier today, I had lunch with my koto teacher and her other students. After the lunch, the Japanese students showed the three foreign students how to wear kimono, the traditional Japanese robe. Getting into full kimono is an elaborate process, so they only did simple kimono for us.

Here, the women are working together to tie another student's obi:

And here's an example of the finished product:

I'm told that the clouds-and-flowers pattern on this kimono is a classic one. The colors are beautiful, aren't they?
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One Year Later 

It was one year ago today that I woke up for the first time in Kitakami. I'd arrived the afternoon before, met some co-workers, and gone shopping for a handful of essentials — a futon to sleep in, a towel so I could take a bath. I had a busy day ahead (orientation at work and more shopping), but I was excited, so I had no trouble getting up and getting ready. Then I stepped outside into this:

Welcome to Kitakami! Here's your first snow.

That kicked off what has surely been one of the most exciting and educational years of my life. A year ago, this adventure had just begun. A year before that, it had not yet been conceived — we were still planning our vacation in Japan. I can't help but wonder what will happen in the next year, and I can hardly wait to find out.
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A couple of months into our stay here, a friend from America called to chat. I answered the phone: "Moshi-moshi?" The line was silent for a minute, then our friend started laughing. "You answer the phone like a Japanese person!"

No one would mistake us for native speakers, but it seems that our voices change when we speak Japanese. We don't sound like "Matthew and Stefanie using their normal voices to speak a foreign language," like we do when we're speaking French or Spanish. Matthew speaks in a lower tone and more quickly than he does in English. My voice gets a bit higher and more nasal, and quite singsongy. The changes are more noticeable when we're very comfortable with whatever we're saying, like basic pleasantries or talking about the dogs. It's even true when we're stumbling through less familiar topics, though. We use Tohoku-ben with some frequency, and our speech is littered with the vocalized pauses more common to Japanese than English.

A lot of the change is probably due to being immersed in the language. When you're studying a foreign language in isolation, you don't have a chance to pick up the little things from everyday speech — the shortcuts and attention-indicators that native speakers do. If you don't hear the language every day, you can't get the natural rhythm and intonation that native speakers use. Also, you don't get many of the gestures that accompany certain types of speech (like shaking our heads while waving one hand, palm facing out, when we answer a question in the negative). After months of repeated exposure, you naturally start to incorporate these things into your everyday speech.

We didn't expect to pick up second voices when we moved here. We wonder whether they'll return to America with us, or somehow influence our native tongue. Heck, we even wonder what mannerism we'll pick up next.
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It's Rice! 

Because we eat rice for breakfast most mornings, we like some variety in our toppings. Matthew usually eats some combination of nattou, soy sauce, and aonori (finely ground seaweed that comes in a shaker), maybe with an egg, while I have umeboshi or milk and honey. Now, thanks to one of his students, we have a brand new bag:

It's Gohan Desu Yo!, literally "It's Cooked Rice!" Gohan Desu Yo! is a seaweed-based condiment, lightly sweetened and flavored with small amounts of fruit and other stuff. You scoop it out of the jar with your chopsticks and mix little bits of it in with your rice for a nice, savory, seaweedy flavor. It's pretty addictive; I was actually glad to get off my milk-and-honey kick so that I could eat it. It's also a lot of fun to go around saying Gohan Desu Yo!

We both already wear glasses, so we don't need to worry about this happening.
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Taboo or Not Taboo? 

According to a common stereotype, the Japanese are a reserved, unfailingly polite people. They are loath to disrupt harmony, and consequently refrain from saying things that could offend someone, even to the point of talking completely around a possible point of contention. So it's always surprising to me when we're showing our small photo album from America to people we meet, and one of their first comments is some variation of: "Wow, you guys used to be kind of chunky, didn't you?"

In America, such a comment generally would be regarded as clueless at best and completely boorish at worst. Here, those topics seem to be rather common bits of small talk, along with your apparent state of health. "Hey, you're not looking so good these days. How's the family?" Then again, I'm sure there are things Americans talk about openly that would take a Japanese person aback.

We're not offended by the questions, and are in fact kind of happy that people ask them it makes us feel more like part of the community and less like outsiders. Although I'm not sure what to make of the door-to-door solicitors who exhorted me to hang in there (Ganbatte ne!) after learning that we have no children. I suppose it's a step up from the usual condolences about about our presumed infertility.
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Make It Stop! 

Hey, remember this bit of bloggery from way back?

One particular type, however, strikes fear in me as an American: loudspeaker trucks advertising candidates in upcoming elections.

Well, the campaign trucks started making their rounds yesterday morning, driving back and forth across the bridges spanning the Waga River. They are manned by multiple people: one drives, the others take turns announcing the candidates' names and requesting votes in the most formal of Japanese registers. And the non-drivers wave to passersby, their fluorescent-jacket-clad arms sticking out of the windows. All day long, and into the evening. The past two days, multiple candidates' cars have been out at the same time, resulting in a cacophonous mingling of messages. At one point late yesterday, they were competing with the ishiyakiimo (stone-grilled sweet potato) truck.

Campaign laws in Japan apparently limit rather strictly the number of printed materials and television and radio ads that candidates can have. As a result, they focus more on building local support by direct interaction. And using the loudspeaker trucks. Fortunately, the campaigning only lasts about twelve days, so we'll soon be back to the normal sounds of Kitakami.

If I could vote, I'd vote for the ishiyakiimo guy.
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Day and Night 

Here is Geto Ski Area as seen from our house, day and night. (They offer night skiing and snowboarding on some of the slopes.)

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White Day 

Matthew went off to work the past two days bearing cookies for girls. Why? Today is White Day in Japan, the day when men reciprocate for gifts women gave them on Valentine's Day. Women don't have to be involved with someone to give him a gift; they can give gifts, frequently of homemade chocolates, to boyfriends, co-workers, or just friends. Or teachers. Or crushes, which can lead to disappointment.

Men have two categories of gifts to choose from: honmei gifts, or the main gifts like jewelry, and giri gifts, or the "runner-up gifts." As you might expect, the honmei gift goes to a guy's significant other. The giri gifts go to those women whose Valentine's gifts he feels obligated to reciprocate. According to the Japan Times, it is customary for men to spend three times the value of the Valentine's Day gift on each White Day gift. (Which makes me wonder how they figure that out. Isn't it kind of gauche to leave the price tag hanging around?) Wouldn't it feel weird to give a guy you really liked some homemade chocolates, only to get a thousand yen confection in return?

So, the two of Matthew's students and the neighbor who gave him gifts got cookies today, while his loving wife . . . did not. I didn't really understand how the holiday worked, so I didn't get him anything on V-Day, thereby acing myself out of cookies. Apparently, sharing my beer didn't count as a gift. Damn.
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Santa Claus's Regular Job 

Contrary to what you might have heard, Santa Claus runs a perfectly respectable cleaning business in Oshu City, Japan, during the offseason:

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