School's Out! 

Like all kids, young oni are happiest when school is out for the day.

Actually, these boys are preparing to dance Onikenbai as part of a local junior high school's sports day.
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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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Races with Trains 

Every week, I ride my bike to the other side of town a few times. The route runs under the shinkansen tracks, then turns to run parallel to them for a while. Often, a train will come along while I'm riding, preceded by its magnificent roar. It's a race I never win, but for those few seconds that we run along together, it's pretty cool to feel like its companion.

Bullet trains are at the same time common and exotic. Tens of them pass through Kitakami, and thus right by our house, daily. We see many of them while walking the dogs or just looking out the window. They're as much a part of daily life as the commuter and freight trains, prefectural and city buses, and other road traffic. On the other hand hello! They're bullet trains! They set the air abuzz as they approach at hundreds of kilometers per hour, and are audible before they're visible. They roar overhead on elevated track, filling the space beneath with sound. They're sleek, beautiful, and they nearly blow you over as they pass through a station without stopping.

The shinkansen will always win the race against the girl on the mountain bike. Frankly, I'm just happy to be there, sharing space with these gorgeous machines.
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Rainy Season, Part Two 

Summer gives us one more reason to be skeptical of the weathermen. They are the ones who declare the opening and close of rainy season. The rainy season, tsuyu, is supposed to last from early-to-mid-June until mid-July throughout Japan (except Hokkaido). This year, the Japan Meteorological Agency declared tsuyu over in Tohoku on July 19.

Over, huh? Then why are we sitting inside, huddled in our warm dotera, on the third day of constant rain that we've had in the last two weeks? If the last two years are any measure, we get more rain after the rainy season than we do during. Both years, there have been smatterings of rain throughout tsuyu, usually in the form of brisk afternoon showers reminiscent of New Mexico's desert storms. It's only after the end of the rainy season is declared, however, that we get strong daylong downpours, sometimes two or three times a week. Sometimes, they last for twenty-four hours or longer.

Tomorrow's forecast is for rain; the day after is for rain "at times." We don't trust the weathermen to tell the truth about such things, but relying on our own experience, it seems that we're in for a damp couple of days.
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The New Yardstick 

Here's an interesting test of your language skills: how quickly, and through what means, can you deflect the solicitors?

Last year at this time, I had a very limited arsenal. Someone would come to the door wanting to talk me into something. All I could do was look uncomprehending and say, "I'm sorry, I don't understand." Again. And again. Sometimes, the solicitors would ask a few basic questions about where I was from and how long I'd been in Japan (testing?) before trying again to push their agenda, but we always ended up back at the Blank Look of Incomprehension and Gomennasai, wakarimasen. Inartful and more than a little embarrassing, but so it goes. I was new.

Now, I can tell them something that will get them to go away. Sometimes it's true, sometimes it's only almost true because I can't quite pull the proper word to mind. I'm also confident enough to be a little more forceful about it, which is not to say that I'm rude. Or that I can't have a laugh with a solicitor about it. A couple of weeks ago, a newspaper salesman came by with the the following spiel:

Newspaper Guy: Hi, I'm from Newspaper. You can't read the newspaper, can you?
SKD: That's true. I can't read the newspaper. I'm sorry.
NG: Where are you from?
SKD: America.
NG: How long have you been in Japan?
SKD: Oh, about a year.
NG: Your Japanese is very good.
SKD: Oh, it's really not so good. And I still can't read the newspaper.

I had a harder time convincing him that a subscription would be lost on us than I would have at the same time last year. It's a nice measure of how far I've come, though, to know that the Blank Look of Incomprehension is there as a fallback, rather than a default when communicating.
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Bitter, Lumpy Goodness 

A friend gave us a couple of goya this weekend, one green and one white.

Goya, or bitter melon, is a staple of Okinawan cuisine. It's very bitter but refreshing, and tastes of quinine and grass. Its juice is refreshing when mixed with shochu and soda in goya sours, and its flesh can often be found in chanpuru, Okinawan stir-fries.

I made goya chanpuru for lunch today. Besides goya, the chanpuru involved eggs, tofu, thinly sliced pork, ginger, and bean sprouts.

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Bon Odori 

Last Friday night, our ward held its Bon Odori. Bon Odori, or the Bon Dance, is a community event associated with Obon. According to Buddhist custom, Obon is the time when the spirits of the deceased return to visit their families' household altars. Bon Odori is a joyful dance that commemorates the ancestors' sacrifices, and traditionally involves people dressing in yukata and dancing around a stand built especially for the festival musicians. This was our first time to participate in the event, so we dressed up in yukata and went out to join the dancing.

As it turned out, only a few adults wore traditional clothing mostly, children wore them (so cute!). The children seemed pretty excited by us, cheering us on as we circled the drummers with the rest of the dancers. We'd strategically positioned ourselves behind a woman who'd clearly been dancing these dances for decades, so we were able to catch on reasonably quickly. Some of the dances were easier than others, with the Kitakami dance being one of the easy ones. As we understand it, the music and movements of each community's dance tend to represent the activities and traditions for which it is known. We can only deduce that whatever goes on in Morioka is really hard, because the dance that originated there was the most difficult.

Early in the evening, one of the ward leaders came over to chat with us, ending with a request that we stay until the end. We had already intended to, but his request made us feel a little suspicious, possibly because he was one of the guys who sprang the yakudoshi speech on me. We learned the reason when, at the end of the evening, we won the prize for "Naisu Fuufu" ("Nice Couple"). Even more than the dancing, the announcement caused the children to cheer wildly. As they waved and shouted congratulations at us, we were touched by their infectious joy. The celebration reminded us how grateful we are to be part of this community.

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The Name Game 

We received new checks from our bank in America today. Much to my dismay, after numerous communications in writing with the bank, my name is misspelled on them. I'm used to this sort of thing, after thirty-three years of it. I'm certainly not used to having my name be the easy one to spell, but in Japan, it is.

Like Spanish, Japanese has only five vowel sounds and no 'th' sound (setting aside Castilian pronunciations of the /s/ sound). Unlike Spanish, Japanese also has no /v/ sound. They've tried to create one in the katakana syllabary, but it's quite inelegant: vocalize the 'u' sound as 'vu,' and stick whatever vowel you need onto it to make the correct sound. As a result, our last name of Davis, so easy and common in English, has no 'standard' construction in Japanese. Depending on which document you look at, our surname could be pronounced Dehvuisu, Devuisu, or Deibisu. The latter is most in keeping with Japanese pronunciation.

Likewise, Matthew's given name has been up for debate. He prefers Masshu, but almost no one does it that way. He usually ends up being Mashuu.

As for me, there's really only one construction to use: Sutefuanii. Lucky for me, like Spanish, Japanese doesn't have that pesky 'ph' combination to muck things up. Sure, there are more u's involved than in English, and an extra syllable or two, but I'll take the extra stuff in my name over the 'ph' any day.
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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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Tanabata, Part Two 

Tanabata really is the festival that keeps on festing. As we mentioned in last month's post, some communities in Japan celebrate the "Night of Sevens" on July seventh, while others celebrate on or around August seventh, the date of Tanabata on the traditional Japanese calendar. Judging by the prominence and elaborate nature of the decorations that are out now, it seems that the bigger celebrations occur on the traditional date.

Here in Kitakami, Kaminari-jinja is all dressed up for the festivities.

In Esashi, bamboo branches festooned with prayers and big, colorful streamers line the streets.

The streamers are quite beautiful when the wind catches them.

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