Mrs. Kramer's Class Has Some Questions

(note: Sure it's been nearly 8 months since I returned from Japan, but this piece just seemed to trickle together very slowly.)

Being that my mother has been an elementary school teacher for over thirty years, my teaching in elementary and middle schools in Japan was ripe for experimental exchange between our students. My mother curated a set of questions from her students for me to ask mine. Some of these questions I was simply able to answer myself, while others are the result of my polling various different students and getting a feel for the best answer. My students really enjoyed knowing they were getting questions from Miami. After I returned to Miami from Fuji City, I came into my mother's class room and spent time with her students, presenting them with the answers from the Japanese students as well as fielding any new questions they may have had. It was great experience for both the students and myself.

1.  "How do you say Good morning in Japanese?" Ohayou gozaimasu, pronounced phonetically as “Ohio go-zai-mas” 2.  "What are the most important things that Mr. Kramer has taught you?" My students felt that "Hello" and "Thank you" were the most helpful. 3.  "What important celebrations are part of Japanese culture?  How do you celebrate them?" The most important holiday on the Japanese calendar is Shogatsu, which are New Years Day celebrations. New Years Eve is not a big party day as it is in much of the western world. Not long after the clock strikes midnight, the people of Japan go to sleep so they can rise early to go to the Shinto temple the next morning. Some of the more clever students responded with “My birthday!” 4.  How much time do you spend on homework after school, and on weekends? Japanese school usually runs from 7:30 AM until 3:20 PM, but more often than not, students come to school early and leave late to participate in club activities (sports, academics, competition practices) often not leaving until 6:00 PM. After that, most all students attend juku, which are cram schools tutoring students in various subjects such as English and math. Juku often goes on until 9:00 PM or even later. Some students will usually study or do homework upon returning home. So the answer to the question is “quite a lot.” 5.  How much do you read after school? Reading is hugely popular in Japan, in my junior high school there were always lines out the library door during recess of kids returning and checking out stacks of books, often 10 or 20 high. Many students will read recreationally between classes, comic books being especially popular, but novels of a wide range of genres are also read. So the answer to the question is, again, “quite a lot.” 6.  What do you like the most about your country? “Peace!” and “sushi” were  easily the most popular answers. 7.  Do you know enough English that you can flaunt it to other people? As an indication of the answer, only a select few of my students would even understand what this question means. 8.  If you could go anywhere in Japan, where would you go?  and why? Hokkaido and Okinawa are by far the most common answers to this question. These locations are much like Alaska and Hawaii of the US. Hokkaido is the northern most island of Japan, with abundant snowfall and distinct cuisine. The Sapporo Winter Festival is by far the most popular festival in Japan. Okinawa is the southernmost island group in Japan, actually being closer to Taiwan than to main land Japan, and is seen as a tropical paradise. 9.  How fast does the bullet train go? 240-300 km/h (149-186 mph)! 10.  What kind of sports do you like to play? Basketball and soccer are by far the most popular sports in my junior high school, with baseball close behind in third. We actually had the number one boys basketball team, number one softball team and number one boys soccer team in Fuji City for the 2010/2011 school year. 11.  What is the favorite food in Japan? As far as Japanese food goes, sushi and various types of fish were popular answers, but the winner, by far, was ramen noodles. Ramen is basically Japanese fast food; cheap, delicious and leagues better than the Cup Noodle we associate ramen with in the States. Outside of Japanese food, McDonald’s is also a big favorite. Some of my students have such an affinity for the Golden Arches that they thought it to be Japanese and called me a liar when I told them it was from America. 12.  What is the most popular sport that people like? Baseball is by far the most popular sport in Japan. Some of my students are under delusions that soccer or basketball are number one, but that’s usually because they play those sports for the school team. Soccer has definitely been gaining popularity in the nation and grows larger with each passing FIFA World Cup. 13.  What is the best part of living in Fuji City? I exclusively received two answers, “views of Mt. Fuji” and “my house.” A testament of the exciting metropolis that Fuji City is. 14.  Does Mr. Kramer speak Japanese very well? “Oh yes, very well, very good.” They are liars.

A Kamakura Day-trip

Saturday, I went for another little day-trip over to Kamakura.

Kamakura is a small (pop. ~170,000) town about 60 kilometers/40 miles from Tokyo, or an hour by train.

It absolutely has a beach town feel, with plenty of surfboards, faux-VW vans and a slight obsession with Hawaii.

Soon after getting off my train, I stopped into Kua-Aina, a Hawaiian based sandwich chain.  I ate a Mahi-Mahi sandwich with American cheese on a Kaiser roll.  It was heavenly.  ¥1,100 ($13) of heavenly.

But by far the biggest draw that Kamakura has is its Great Buddha.

Built in the 1200s, it's withstood a tsunami and one of Japan's biggest earthquakes.  It truly is beautiful.

A 360-degree view of the famous statue.

Another popular spot in Kamakura is the Buddhist temple Haser-dera.

Kamakura was a great, short little day-trip; made home in time for dinner.

Bicycle Life in Japan

Riding bike to work in the rain or severe cold will always be the worst day of your life. Bike riding is an essential way of getting around in Japan, and it's no different for me.  Since I don't have a car here, I have to bike anywhere I need to go; for work, shopping, going to a friends house, going to the post office, etc.  It's something I probably wasn't really prepared, I never so much as got out of the neighborhood back in elementary school.  I'm sure that by year's end, I'll have ridden further than I had in all my prior years combined.

Let's do the math.  I teach at two elementary schools and a junior high, the elementary schools I work at are 4.6 and 2.8 kilometer bike rides away from my apartment, while my junior high is 3.2.  Combining all of the roundtrip distances for the school year, I will travel 1,312km, or 815.24 miles, by March 2011.  That's more than the distance from Atlanta, Georgia to Dallas, Texas, and this is just to go to work, not including when I got anywhere else.

And I'm not the exception.  If you go to any train station in town, there are little to no parking spaces for cars, but ample space for bikes.  At the big one in town, Fuji Station, there's two-level bicycle parking as well as underground parking with an automatic conveyer belt for taking your bike up the stairs and 24 hour security, it's spectacular.

I'm sure that my commute is far huge compared to a lot of peoples' around the world, but it's part of good evidence on the differences between Miami's huge reliance on driving and Japan's on bicycles and public transportation.

20 More Differences and 3 Similarities Between Japan and the USA

It's becoming harder and harder to discover subtle differences between Japan and America, both because I've likely found almost all of them and I've been here long enough that everything Japan throws at me now seems normal.  But this time I've found 20 more!  So let's get to it:
  1. There is zero tipping in Japan and it can even be considered rude to attempt to.  I'm told that in certain circumstances you can tip taxi drivers, but I haven't paid tip since the moment I stepped foot here.
  2. Soda just is not popular.  Yes,  there is Coca-Cola and some of the other big names, but it just isn't nearly as popular.  In the States there are entire aisles devoted to all the different flavors, but here attention is shifted towards teas, coffees and juices.
  3. Shoe sizes rarely go larger than 28cm, that's a size 10/10.5 in American at stores, they just don't carry things larger.  Unfortunately for me, I'm a size 11, 29 cm.  When I went looking for shoes, it took me a good month or two of looking before I found a single pair of red Converse Chuck Taylor's, the only pair of size 29cm shoes I found anywhere in Fuji City.
  4. The drinking, smoking and voting age in Japan is 20.  The driving age for a standard car is 18, but for a motorcycle, moped and "small special car" it's 16.
  5. The U.S.A. is always called simply "America" (or "Amerika" in the proper Japanese spelling), not a translation of "The United States of America."
  6. Gas stations are called gas stands.
  7. Denny's is just not the same.  The breakfast menu you may know and love is only a single page, with more Japanese style dishes involving rice are more prevalent.
  8. In school, notebooks have two rings.
  9. The major expressway in Japan, the Tomei, is damn expensive.  To go from Tokyo to Nagoya (358km/223 miles), it costs ¥10,000, roughly $100.  As where a similar journey on the Florida Turnpike would cost you less than $20.  However, on weekends, if you have an ETC card, an electronic device installed in your car to automatically pay tolls, you can drive unlimited on the Tomei for only ¥1,000, about $10.
  10. Facebook is not nearly as popular.  Mixi is Japan's leading social networking service with 80% market share and over 17 million users.
  11. Lost hasn't finished yet.
  12. Students often go to school on Saturdays mornings.
  13. Your familiar tally marks are not used in Japan.

    Western vs Japanese tallies

    The process goes like this: Japanese tallies

  14. The emergency telephone number is 1-1-o for the police and 1-1-9 medical or fire, rather than 9-1-1.
  15. Comb-overs are referred to as barcodes
  16. Snow-men are done with 2 snow balls instead of 3.  This fact especially boggles my students.

  17. I'm told most everyone peels their grapes before eating them.
  18. As with a lot of other Asian countries, almost all cars are parked rear-end in first.
  19. Baseball games and most concerts don't run too late so that the audience members are still able to catch their last trains home.
  20. Maps typically show Japan as being in the center, instead of the Prime Meridian.

To mix things up I've also come up with some interesting similarities, unfortunately I could only think of:

  1. Starbucks is exactly the same, from the music to the interior decoration.
  2. Converse Chuck Taylor shoes are popular.
  3. Teenage girls still love Justin Beiber and they often try to talk to me about him during lunch for whatever reason.

If you'd like to check out my prior lists of differences between the USA and Japan you can find them here and here.

Autumn Has Arrived in Tokyo

Today, Tuesday November 23rd, was a public holiday in Japan (Labor Day according to my work calendar), so I took the day off to go to a flea market in Yoyogi Park in Tokyo.  While the flea market was big, neat and had tons of great stuff, I actually spent a lot more of my time walking around the park and enjoying the changing leaves.  So without anymore exposition, here are the pictures I took during that walk.

Tree tops, a green sandwich.

Through the trees

The ground through a lot of areas of the park was covered in a blanket of gold leaves.

A little girl exploring the park.

Saving some for later.

Christmas Colonel

In Japan you don't have to wait until after Thanksgiving to put up the Christmas decorations, mostly because there is no Thanksgiving.  Japanese people actually don't even celebrate Christmas, being at least 84% Shinto or Buddhist.  But despite this, and in no small part due to globalization, Christmas decorations are still fairly present in Japan.  The same can be said for Halloween decorations, despite no trick or treating taking place.

There is one Japanese tradition that has recently sprung up for Christmas here in Japan.  Every Christmas Eve tons of people flock to KFC for its "Christmas Eve Dinner."  It's become the thing to do on Christmas Eve.

I should also note that Colonel Sanders is in front of virtually every KFC in the country, and is dressed up from time to time for various reasons.

Pizza in Japan

The other day I got a pizza delivery menu through my mailbox, watch the video to see some details:

You can check out the menu online, in English, here.

Pizza is not nearly as common as it is back home here in Japan, but it's by not a huge rarity, just expensive.  I see Pizza-La delivery scooters out on the roads every once in a while, and there are even smaller independent pizzerias around town.  You can even get single slices at my grocery store for around $3, but aren't so great since they've been sitting out all day.  But they are just as ridiculous as the ones on the Pizza-La menu.